Do what we say and not what we do

In his meeting with President Putin, President Biden is thought to have proposed red lines against the use of cyber weapons such as ransomware. The idea of shutting down something like Colonial Pipeline with a computer hack is surely repugnant. I seem to remember that many of us cheered when the U.S. (and Israel?) damaged the Iranian uranium enrichment facility at Natanz with a malicious computer worm called Stuxnet. Nor were many of us much bothered when U.S. financed coups topped unfriendly governments, or when we attacked Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Haiti, Nigeria, Syria, to name but a few.

“The supreme international crime according to 2017 U.S. media reporting is interfering nonviolently in a democratic election — at least if Russia does it. William Blum, in his book Rogue State, lists over 30 times that the United States has done that. Another study, however, says 81 elections in 47 countries.”  https://davidswanson.org/warlist/

While this is hard to swallow, our bad behavior differs from that of Russia’s or of other autocrats. I will not go to jail for writing this. Most Americans (I like to believe) condemn such behavior contrary to our founding principles when they learn of it. Our press is happy to expose such breaches when they discover them. In short, while our government often violates our principles of individual rights and the rule of law and lies regularly about it, public scrutiny and outrage tend to check bad behavior and move us back toward conformity with our principles. We never get there but it is very important that we keep trying.  

What to do with Social Media?

Social media is changing how we get news and debate public issues. How should its contents be regulated and by whom? The answer should reflect the fundamental importance of free and open speech for forming broadly supported public policies and social attitudes.

The quality of public discussion in the United States today has deteriorated. There are even some who wish to end debate on some issues altogether (the cancel culture). Take two recent examples:

In reaction to Georgia’s new Voting Rights Act President Biden said: “Parts of our country are backsliding into the days of Jim Crow, passing laws that harken back to the era of poll taxes — when Black people were made to guess how many beans, how many jelly beans, in a jar or count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap before they could cast their ballot.” “Biden US backsliding-Jim Crow”

Representative Maxine Waters traveled to Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, to join crowds protesting the police shooting of Duante Wright. On that occasion, “A reporter then asked, if Chauvin isn’t convicted on all charges, “What should protesters do?”

“Well, we gotta stay on the street,” Waters said. “And we’ve got to get more active. We’ve got to get more confrontational. We’ve got to make sure that they know that we mean business.”

For her complete comments see: “In her own words-Maxine Waters”

In response to Water’s words Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted:

_________________________________  

@RepMaxineWaters you don’t live in Minnesota.

You crossed state lines and incited riots, violence against police, shootings at the MN NG, and threatened a jury as a sitting US Congresswoman.@SpeakerPelosi surely you will expel this criminal from Congress and uphold the law! pic.twitter.com/twH52VwFTP

— Marjorie Taylor Greene 🇺🇸 (@mtgreenee) April 19, 2021

_________________________________ 

“Marjorie Taylor Greene says Maxine Waters incited riots calls for her expulsion from congress”

‘Maxine Waters-Kevin McCarthy Minnesota police”

President Biden’s and Representative Greene’s comments both earn four Pinocchios. Senator Ted Cruz’s comments about Waters’ statement were just as bad. But then we are used to politicians lying to us, especially in the heat of campaigns. However, they do not contribute to the constructive dialog needed over these and other pressing public issues.  

With regard to Georgia’s new Voting Law, assessments are mixed. For example: “Rather than allowing voters to request ballots six months from Election Day, the new law says voters can start requesting ballots 78 days out; counties can begin sending ballots to voters just 29 days before Election Day, rather than the previous 49 days.” “Georgia voting law explained”

This hardly strikes me as voter suppression. I grew up in Bakersfield California and our voting precinct voted in our garage. As a kid I was fascinated by it all (though not thrilled with having to clean the garage for the occasion). There was no such thing as early voting except for absentee ballets by military service men and women. No drop boxes or any of that stuff. You came to our garage on election day or you didn’t vote. But there is surely a place for serious pros and cons of each provision of the law. As the press has been overwhelmingly (almost hysterically) negative (despite Georgia’s Governor and Secretary of State’s refusal to yield to Trump’s pressure to overturn his election defeat in Georgia) here is a more measured defense of the new law: “Exclusive 21 black leaders defend Georgia voting law as proper honest reform”

The real question is why were changes in Georgia’s voting law needed in the first place? What weaknesses were being addressed? Even with this new law, Georgia’s law is more permissive than those of Biden’s Delaware. In a negative, but more balanced assessment, Derek Thompson stated that:  “Georgia’s voting rights have long been more accommodating than those of deep-blue states including not only Delaware, but also Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York.” “Georgia voting rights fiasco”

Maxine Waters didn’t, and often doesn’t, use the best judgement in where, when and what she said, but she didn’t say anything that she should not be allowed to say whether you agree with her or not.  Referring to Reps. Waters and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich, Newt Gingrich wrote that:

“House Democrats have produced two radical demagogues whose policies would endanger the lives of innocent Americans, lead to the breakdown of society, and undermine the U.S. Constitution.”  “Repudiate Tlaib and Waters promote mob rule Newt Gingrich” This is precisely the sort of name calling that impedes the serious dialogue over concrete issues and proposals that we so badly need. Demonizing opponents–turning opponents into enemies–is a tactic of the weak (think Vladimir Putin).

Rep Waters’ charge that protesters should get more confrontational did not strike me as an incitement to violence anymore (and rather less) than former President Trump’s call for his assembled supporters on January 6 to march to the Capital and “fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” The brief submitted by Trump’s lawyers for his impeachment trail stated the “his call for the crowd to ‘fight like hell,’ was not meant to be taken literally.” OK, then perhaps he should keep it to himself. This reminds me of my favorite “apology” for lying about voter fraud that kept Trump from remaining in the White House. In response to a liable suit by the voting software company Dominion Voting Systems,  Sidney Powell stated in court that “’no reasonable person would conclude’ that her accusations of Dominion being part of an election-rigging scheme with ties to Venezuela ‘were truly statements of fact.’” “Sidney Powell-Dominion-No reasonable person”  Sadly I know some very fine people who did (or do) believe her nonsense.

But what if Biden’s, Trump’s, Waters’ and Greene’s comments were suppressed–erased–rather than challenged? These were opinions, however off the mark, rather than statements of fact. What if someone (named Trump) claims that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. and thus not eligible to run for President (despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary)? I will spare you the very long list of such lies. And, to finally get to my real topic, what should social media do about it?  

Unlike newspapers and magazines, which are responsible for the accuracy of their content, Facebook and Twitter and Tiktok (I am too old to be current with all of the other newer platforms) “merely” provide the vehicle by which its users (you and me) distribute our content. The government does have laws that limit speech.  “Categories of speech that are given lesser or no protection by the First Amendment (and therefore may be restricted) include obscenity, fraud, child pornography, speech integral to illegal conduct, speech that incites imminent lawless action, speech that violates intellectual property law, true threats….and defamation that causes harm to reputation….”  “United States free speech exceptions”. What is not legally allowed generally, should not be allowed on social media. But in my opinion, those are the only restrictions that should be allowed in the law.  The last thing we want is Nancy Pelosi or Ten Cruz deciding what is allowed and not allowed on Twitter.

In short, beyond speech that is already restricted by law, the government should leave social media free to set their own policies for what they permit on their platforms.  But what should those policies be? In my opinion, all opinions should be allowed, even those, and especially those, that the platform operators consider wrong or repugnant. Bad policy prescriptions should best be countered by counter arguments not by censorship. It is not possible to over emphasize the benefit to America of free and open debate. Bad ideas are best countered and refuted by good ideas.  You are not likely to find a better statement of these views and a better defense of free speech than in Jonathan Rauch’s Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.

But what about clearly fake news? Unfortunately, the distinction between fact and opinion is not always 100 percent clear. Tweeter should not have removed Donald Trump’s pages, though full of lies. Facebook should not have removed QAnon’s totally ridiculous conspiracy claims to take another extreme example. Many far less controversial posts have been removed as well for very unclear reasons. Facebook and other social media are working diligently to strike the right balance but are not there yet in my opinion. When Facebook or other social media platforms have good reason to doubt facts posted on their platforms, rather than remove (censure) them it would be better for Facebook to attach its warning and perhaps a link to more reliable information.

If Facebook (or any other platform) chooses to forbid hate speech, it would be better to rely on user complaints than its AI algorithm to determine what is hate speech. In an amusing, but not so amusing, example of the pitfalls of reliance on programmatic detection of disallowed speech, Facebook removed a post of a section of the Declaration of Independence because of its “nasty” reference to American Indians.  “Facebook censored a post for hate speech-it was the Declaration of Independence”

It is often argued that given the realities of network externalities (everyone wants to be where everyone else is), Facebook and Twitter are virtual monopolies and that this justifies more intrusive government regulation.  But the competition has expanded to include at the top of the list: YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter, and Pinterest. Even Trump plans to launch his own platform. Facebook and the other popular platforms must ultimately please their users or they will be replaced even if network externalities are hard to overcome. It has happened before and can happen again. Government intervention to regulate platform content beyond the restrictions already in the law would be contrary to our traditional freedom of speech and potentially dangerous.

There are measures that the government might take to make competition easier. When phone companies were required to give ownership of phone numbers to the subscriber, making them easily portable from one phone company to another, competition received an important boost. Something similar might be done with social media data of users (e.g., username, friends, pictures and posts).

A much more challenging area concerns social media algorithms for directing users to others with similar interests (or beliefs) in order to better target the advertising that pays for it all. If users only see or hear the views of the likeminded, unhealthy ego chambers can be created and promulgated. Agreeing on constructive approaches to dealing with this danger will require more public discussion.

Summary: Demonizing political opponents is bad for democracy. Opponents are not enemies. There needs to be enough common ground for most of us to stand on if we are to remain a viable country. Free speech has been a very important feature of America and its flourishing. It is best to protect free speech and counter misinformation and bad ideas with rebuttal and better ideas. No opinion should be censured. Social media should flag questionable information rather than remove.

A liberal dad complained about the one-sided liberal (in the American rather than classical sense) education his children had received in college because, he said, “they are completely unable to defend what they believe.”

Saving our free society

The vast majority of every new generation want to make society a better place. They support policies that they believe will contribute to making society fairer and “nicer.” As they age their altruism may tilt toward self-enrichment and self-protection at the expense of fairness (cronyism), but initially their motives are pure. The key issue is what policies they believe will help make society a better place. “The-search-of-purpose-nature-and-nurture-genes-and-culture”

We can be thankful that American voters in throwing out a dishonest, divisive, egomaniac didn’t endorse the socialist wing of the Democratic Party.  We seem to have moved back to the broad center.  “Dan Mitchell–a victory for Biden-a defeat for the left”  It is hard to know where to look for and find the truth today, and our society will suffer because of that.  But as we review and debate the policy proposals of a Biden administration, we must remember that we are all looking for the truth about what will make our society better (fairer, freer, and more virtuous).  We must listen to each other’s concerns and carefully evaluate each other’s proposals. But we have a duty to ourselves and our neighbors to study history for what has worked and what hasn’t and to do our best to understand why limited government and maximum reliance on our own decisions and the decisions of our neighbors is the best framework in which to help make society better.

The growing number of today’s youth who look favorably at socialism (whatever they understand that to be) is worrying because it reflects an incorrect assessment of what socialism has always delivered. To today’s youth: If you really care about making society better, take the time to study the history of socialism and learn why it failed and is bound to fail and why societies that are freer and law abiding are both more virtuous and more prosperous. “Socialism-as-seen-by-millennials”

To whom or to what am I loyal?

I am an American. I believe strongly and am loyal to the principles of individual freedom and limited government embedded in the American Constitution. I have also been a Republican all of my life because I judged that the Republican Party best reflected the above principles. But in 2016 I changed my party registration to Libertarian because I no longer believed that the Republican Party remained faithful to my political beliefs.

I have followed the testimony in the Impeachment hearings investigating high crimes and misdemeanors by President Trump. Generally, I have relied on press summaries but I watched the live full testimony of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, Jenniffer Williams, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, David Holmes and Fiona Hill.  Ambassador Sondland was a large contributor to the Trump campaign and was rewarded with the appointment as Ambassador to the European Union, an assignment that included Ukraine.  Amb. Sondland has no foreign policy experience. His testimony, however, set a high standard for frankness and openness. He came across as very bright and (now) well informed. In his testimony, however, he obviously wished to justify the role he played in attempting to persuade the Ukrainian President to agree to Trump’s request for a “favor.”

The testimony of Ambassador Sondland and the others (including Bill Taylor, George Kent, and Kurt Volker) left no doubt whatsoever that President Trump, operating through Rudy Giuliani, tried to bribe Ukraine’s new anticorruption President, Volodymyr Zelensky, to publicly announce an investigation of Ukraine’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and of the Biden’s involvement with the Ukrainian energy company Burisma.  Hunter Biden–former Vice President and current Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son–served on the board of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company, from 2014 to 2019.  “Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice President Pence and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney were among those whom Ambassador Gordon Sondland said were aware of the pressure on Ukraine for probes that could damage President Trump’s political opponents” Sondland said there was a quid-pro-quo

It is common for our foreign policy relations and aid to be based on quid pro quos. That is to say that we provide aid when conditions are met that we think service American interests.  What is involved here, however, is President Trump using American tax payers money and the powers and influence of his office for his personal political advantage.  In fact, his actions toward Ukraine are quite contrary to our American interests (which is a stronger, less corrupt Ukraine on the border of Russia).  In my opinion the now well known facts of Trump’s behavior visa vie Ukraine is impeachable.

For a while I still held out hope that there would be Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee who would honestly seek the truth of Trump’s behavior. I was sadly disappointed. Congressman Devin Nunes couldn’t get beyond repeating old discredited claims and his demand that the whistleblower testify. The idea that the secondhand claims by the whistleblower of impropriety by Trump would add anything to the firsthand testimony we have now heard doesn’t pass the laugh test. The council leading the questioning for the Republicans is pathetic–a real embarrassment. He seemed to only strengthen the case against Trump.

In my opinion many of the policies being advanced by many of the Democrat presidential candidates need to be effectively countered. I am losing hope that the Republican party is still capable of doing that.

 

 

 

The Sequester

Everyone agrees that the sequester, an $85 billion cut from the planned increase for this fiscal year, applied across the board within the broad categories of Defense ($42.5 billion) and non defense discretionary ($42.5 billion) is the worst way to allocate cuts. This is apparently why President Obama proposed it as a sort of poison pill. (See Bob Woodward: bob-woodward-obamas-sequester-deal-changer/).   Indeed it is. Little else is clear about the sequester. It is worth clarifying the facts and context of the size of the cuts and their distribution after a quick review of how we got here.

Background

Republicans want to bring federal government spending down to traditional levels, which can be fully financed with existing taxes, while Democrats want to raise taxes to finance a larger government (currently at 24.3 percent of GDP reflecting, in part, great recession related factors, and averaging 19.8 percent from 1960 to 2007).  Many efforts have been made to forge a compromise package that would be accepted by both the Republic majority House and the Democrat majority Senate. So far, none has succeeded.

Three years ago President Obama established a bipartisan budget reform commission—Bowles-Simpson commission, which in December 2010 recommended spending cuts and tax increases that would slow down the ballooning of debt over the next ten years by 4 trillion dollars, 3 trillion in spending cuts and 1 trillion in tax increases (largely from closing tax loopholes). As the base line projected increase over that period was $10 trillion, the Bowles-Simpson proposals would hold the increase in the debt to $6 trillion. Sorting out what Bowles-Simpson actually proposed became so complicated (e.g., they actually used an eight year period rather than ten and for incomes over $250,000 assumed a return to pre-Bush tax cuts rates) that even President Obama ignored the report. http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=3844

Soon thereafter (January 2011) three Republican and three Democrat Senators, the so-called gang of six, began discussions to find an acceptable compromise, eventually announcing failure in May of that year. Later that same year the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force co-chaired by Pete V. Domenici, former Republican U.S. Senator from New Mexico, and Alice M. Rivlin, founding director of CBO, former OMB director, and former Vice Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, made similar recommendations.

On several occasions President Obama and Speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner, were close to a “grand bargain” that included some tax revenue increase and entitlement cuts. Efforts failed when Boehner concluded that he could not obtain enough Republican votes in the House. The President may have had the same problem with his party in the Senate if he had tried to present it to them. Other efforts, such as one led by Vice President Biden, met similar fates.

To avoid the sharp curtailment of government spending that would result from hitting the debt ceiling, preventing any further government borrowing in late 2011, the Budget Control Act of 2011 increased the authorized debt ceiling by $2.3 trillion and cut $841 billion from the projected deficit increase over the next ten years by capping the annual increases in discretionary spending over that period. The caps do not constrain increases in war related expenditures (Afghanistan), natural disasters, or entitlements. It also established as special joint committee of Congress charged with agreeing on an additional $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over the next ten years with everything on the table (entitlements and defense cuts, tax increases, etc). If this so-called Super Committee was unable to reach an agreement or Congress did not approve it, the same amount would be cut according to the now infamous sequester. (Super Committee Sequestration) The sequester provision was deliberately meant by all sides to be so unpalatable that the Super Committee could not possibly fail to reach a compromise.

However, on November 20, 2011, the co-chairs of the Super Committee stated that “after months of hard work and intense deliberations, we have come to the conclusion today that it will not be possible to make any bipartisan agreement available to the public before the committee’s deadline.”

Two things were scheduled to happen if nothing changed. First, $1.2 trillion of automatic across-the-board spending cuts would kick-in on Oct 1, 2012. Second, the Bush tax cuts would expire for everyone at the end of that year. In addition, the temporary cuts in the payroll tax and the extension of unemployment benefits might not be continued. These three items constituted the infamous fiscal cliff, which was averted at the last-minute by making the Bush tax cuts permanent for everyone except those with incomes above $400,000, indexing the Alternative Minimum Tax and a few other things. The start of the sequester was delayed until January 1, 2013 and then again until March 1. This is a very simplified summary (trust me) of how we got to the sequester.

The Sequester

The sequester does not reduce total spending. Total Federal government’s spending in 2012 was $3,538 billion and planned spending (no actual budget has been approved for three years) for 2013 (which ends September 30) was (before the sequester) $3,796 billion. Reducing this amount by the $85 billion as required by the sequester still leaves an increase of $173 billion, which even after adjusting for inflation is a real increase. http://www.usfederalbudget.us/federal_budget_estimate_vs_actual

The often misleading practice in Washington of referring to reductions in increases as “cuts” is illustrated by the following statement by Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), a member of the Budget Committee: “Some of us believe very strongly that it would be absolutely wrong to cut Social Security benefits.” He was referring to the proposal offered by President Obama to John Boehner to shift the index used to increase Social Security benefits over time to one that would increase them more slowly (the chain CPI index, which would preserve the real value of benefits).  Senate-democrats-budget-challenges-obama-on-medicare-social-security-cuts

While the sequester does not cut total spending, the way in which it is allocated does cut spending in some areas. Half of the cut comes from Defense, which was already being cut (cuts that actually reduce spending below the previous year) before the sequester. The other half of the cut falls on discretionary spending (sparing the entitlements – social security, Medicaid, etc, and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs). As such non-military discretionary spending is only about 15% of total spending, taking half of the total cut from items that are only 15% of the total is about an 8% cut. These figures apply to this year only. Like this year’s “cuts,” the sequestered spending over the next ten years are to be taken from the ever-increasing base line amounts and thus just slows down the previously planned increases.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 also specified that within the categories identified above, the cuts must be applied across-the-board (i.e. proportionally) to each Budget Account (BA), of which there are 1200, and each of which consolidates a number of programs, projects and activities (PPA).  Within each Budget Account, the executive branch of government is responsible for prioritizing the cuts, i.e. for cutting those things least valuable (most wasteful). The government rarely spends money on things that have no value at all (some of my friends will challenge me on this statement), but that is not the correct standard of judgment. The correct standard (in part) is whether the money spent on a valuable project would have produced even more value if spent on something else (whether by the government or the taxpayer).

To review, the President proposed the cross the board cuts to defense and non-defense discretionary spending and Congress accepted the idea in the Budget Control Act of 2011 believing, with the President, that it would never need to be applied. However, we are now there and the cuts must be made. But within the cuts required for each Budget Account, it is the Administration that is responsible for what to cut. Like the CEO of any company faced with limited resources, Department heads are responsible for cutting those activities of least value and preserving those of greatest value.

Smoke

Any cut hurts someone even if it benefits the economy over all. Consider, for example, the loss of four air traffic controllers at the Garden City, Kansas airport. “THE $85 BILLION in across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration have begun to affect places like Garden City, the Kansas county seat (pop. 26,880) whose airport will lose $318,756 in Federal Aviation Administration funds that pay for four air traffic controllers. As The Post’s Stephanie McCrummen reported, Garden City Regional Airport’s control tower is one of 238 affected by sequestration, which will reduce total FAA spending in fiscal 2013 from about $16.7 billion to $16.1 billion. Small towns are lamenting the potential impact on air safety and local economies.” A Washington Post editorial on March 8 notes that of the two commercial flights that take off and land there each day one already does so when the control tower is closed (Small-town-airports-propped-up-with-200-million). The Post concludes that the $200 million a year the federal government spends to subsidize commercial flights to small lightly used airports is a waste that deserves to end.

A considerable fuss was raised about the Administration’s cutting the White house tours. Was this the least costly cut from the White House or Secret Service budget? I have no idea.  The Washington Post editorialized that: “THE DECISION to drop White House tours always had a whiff of what’s known as Washington Monument syndrome. The ham-handed tactic is employed when government is faced with budget cuts and officials go after the services that are most visible and appreciated by the public.” (Reopen-the-white-house-to-tourists) The government could not threaten to close the Washington Monument because it has already been closed for several years for repairs from earthquake damage.

On the other side of the ledger, the Administration’s release of non dangerous illegal immigrants held in federal prisons is more likely a case of doing what the Administration and many others consider the right thing to do anyway and using sequestration as an excuse (the release was weeks before the sequestration). Wasting-money-lives-through-the-detention-of-immigrants

The proposal to cut back on Congressional junkets abroad was made by a columnist, not the administration for obvious reasons. Everyone can find their own favorite wasteful spending. Budget decisions are never easy and resources are always limited so careful prioritization is a normal and essential part of the management of any organization.

Lies

Then there were the claims of cuts that never occurred. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s false claim of pink slips for teachers earned him 4 Pinocchios (big lie) from The Washington Post’s Fact Checker. And Duncan is one of the good guys:  4-pinocchios-for-arne-duncans-false-claim-of-pink-slips-for-teachers

On March 1 at his press conference President Obama stated: “Starting tomorrow everybody here, all the folks who are cleaning the floors at the Capitol. Now that Congress has left, somebody’s going to be vacuuming and cleaning those floors and throwing out the garbage. They’re going to have less pay. The janitors, the security guards, they just got a pay cut, and they’ve got to figure out how to manage that. That’s real.” But it wasn’t. It also received 4 Pinocchios from the Fact Checker.  sequester-spin-obamas-incorrect-claim-of-capitol-janitors-receiving-a-pay-cut

The Congressional janitors seemed to be a particular concern of the administration. Gene Sperling, director of the White House economic council, on ABC News’ “This Week,” March 3, 2013 observed: “You know, those Capitol janitors will not get as much overtime. I’m sure they think less pay, that they’re taking home, does hurt.”

On March 4, White House spokesman Jay Carney observed at his news briefing: “On the issue of the janitors, if you work for an hourly wage and you earn overtime, and you depend on that overtime to make ends meet, it is simply a fact that a reduction in overtime is a reduction in your pay.”  But none of this was true and drew 4 more Pinocchios from the Post Fact Checker. Capitol-janitors-making-ends-meet-with-overtime-nope

Though the President already has the responsibility of deciding where to cut within Budget Accounts, Republicans have offered to broaden the range of his discretion to determine what to cut and what to keep. Senator Toomey (R-Penn) reported this to us at the Heritage Foundation the day after his dinner with the President at the Jefferson Hotel. He and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla) have introduced a bill in the Senate to this effect. The President said no thanks. If you believe that the president has the best interests of the nation at heart, this is a shocking revelation. The President seems to prefer to blame the Republicans for forcing harmful cuts on the nation because after having accepted tax increases on the wealthy they refuse to raise taxes more without some cuts in entitlement programs. This was confirmed in a revealing article by Ezra Klein How-to-fix-sequestration-without-raising-taxes

The way forward

The Budget Act of 1974 requires the president to submit a budget request to Congress on the first Monday in February. He has yet to do so (written March 14th). His recent step into the leadership role normally played by Presidents on major budget matters is welcomed and will be essential if compromise is to be achieved.

White-house-delay-budget-proposal-infuriates-republicans. For the first time in three years the Senate is on the way to adopting a budget as well. Given the budget already passed by the House (the Ryan budget), for the first time in several years the two chambers will have written proposals to negotiate, and hopefully reconcile, with each other.

Most Republicans don’t want to raise taxes or cut defense. Most Democrats don’t want to touch entitlements. Most everyone accepts that the current path is not sustainable. “Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) argued — to the “consternation” of people “on my side,” he said — that Democrats will have to do more to prevent Social Security and Medicare from bankrupting the nation as the population ages. I share the belief of even my most progressive colleagues that Medicare and Social Security are among the greatest programs ever implemented. But I also believe that the basic math around them doesn’t work anymore,” Warner said. The longer we put off this inevitable math problem,” he said, “the longer we fail to come up with a way to make sure that the promise of Medicare and Social Security is not just there for current seniors but for those 30 years out.” (in the previously cited Post article). Demographics alone will dramatically increase Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare spending even if benefits for each person are not increased as the ratio of old and retire people to working people increases dramatically over the next thirty. Increasing immigration, reducing benefits and increasing tax revenue are the only things that can help. Both sides will need to compromise.

My preference is to cut the Defense department a bit more and “cut” entitlements a lot (which would have little to no effect for a number of years but is critical for the future), and modestly increase the State Department and infrastructure repair spending. Medicare and Medicaid will be more difficult because they require structural changes that actually reduce the cost of medical care, not just arbitrary cuts that must be made up by paying customers picking up other peoples’ bills. Social Security is much easer to fix: Saving Social Security

There are many reasons for reducing the size of our government. Keep-it-lean, How-to-measure-the-size-of-government.

Whether it increases tax revenue or not our tax system needs major overhaul: “US Federal Tax Policy”. At a minimum personal income tax loopholes (deductions) should all be closed and if the corporate income tax can’t be eliminated yet, its rate should be lowered to the levels found in Europe.

But Obama won the last election. I will not get what I want. Republicans will also have to compromise. The battle should be fought over spending. The question should be what government programs and at what level are we willing to pay for with our tax revenue. Some tax increases and spending cuts have already been adopted. More are needed.  It is time for Congress and the Executive to get back to their jobs of evaluating priorities and trade offs and develop and adopt a real budget. Hopefully this time they will succeed. Much depends on it.

Our Unsupportable Empire

Most of you are grudgingly aware that the U.S. government has promised us more than we want to or can easily pay for.  China is no longer willing to fill the gap knowing that we will not be capable of repaying it.  This is on top of the existing national debt from past borrowing to cover the government’s current and past spending in excess of its revenue of $16 trillion, about the same as the United States’ total annual output.  These numbers pale in comparison with the government’s unfunded commitments (those not covered by the revenue expected from existing tax laws and user charges) to future retirees and recipients of medical care (social security, medicare and Medicaid). The present value of the revenue short fall to pay for these future commitments (the government’s unfunded liabilities) is currently around $50 trillion for an astonishing total debt of around $66 trillion, which is larger than the total annual output of the world per year.

Naturally, these promises must be pared back because they can’t be paid for. To some extent a healthy, growing economy will also increase our capacity (lighten the burden) to pay for them but by itself growth will not be enough. This is one, but only one, of the reasons that we also need to reconsider our military promises around the world, while reducing and reorienting our military budget and modestly increasing our diplomatic (State Department) expenditures.

Our promise to provide security to most of the world suffers from the same moral hazard as does an overly generous welfare state.  Incentives matter. When access to welfare is easy and the level of support is generous, more people will choose it over taking a job that doesn’t interest them much.  When President Bill Clinton signed “The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996” (PRWORA) on August 22, 1996 (with strong Republican support), he fulfilled his campaign pledge to “end welfare as we have come to know it.” The law ended welfare as an entitlement by introducing tighter conditions for receiving it. Welfare costs dropped following adoption of the law. “A broad consensus now holds that welfare reform was certainly not a disaster–and that it may, in fact, have worked much as its designers had hoped.”[1] While some people remain skeptical, Sweden’s welfare reforms of the last two decades have demonstrated very similar results.[2]

The United States spends more on its military than the next 14 largest military spenders combined (China, Russia, UK, France, Japan, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Brazil, Italy, South Korea, Australia, Canada, and Turkey). We are policing/protecting most of the world. This has two negative effects. The first, similar to chronic welfare recipients, is that other nations spend less on their own defense, taking a free ride on the United States’ ability to keep the world safe for everyone else. The second is that by diverting so much of our productive resources into the military, we reduce the resources available for developing and strengthening our economy. It is our powerful economy that underlies our influence in the world as much, if not more, than our military power. Moreover, our military might is made possible by our economic power. So we need to get the balance right. I urge you to read David Ignatius’ recent discussion of this issue in The Washington Post, (“The foreign policy debate we should be having”, Oct 21, 2012, page A15)

But there are more reasons that our military adventurism and spending should be reduced and more resources given to diplomacy. Our national security and the freedoms America was founded to establish and protect will be strengthened as a result.

American hegemony rests largely on our economic and military power, but also on widespread respect for the American way of life (our respect for human freedom and dignity and our prosperity). Our efforts to promote democracy via military interventions have generally not gone well.  The talents and spirit of enterprise that have served us so well at home have not generally contributed to success in building new democratic nations where we have militarily intervened. Books like Joseph Heller’s, Catch 22 (about WWII) and movies like Robert Altman’s Mash (about Viet Nam) entertainingly introduced us to the bureaucratic problems of fighting and/or governing in foreign lands. We have the best trained and most well equipped military history has ever known, but it has failed for the last ten years to win in Afghanistan, which is now the longest war in American history. Our powerful military is not good at nation building, nor should we expect it to be. The military is not the right tool for promoting the values we believe in around the world. That is a job for diplomacy (with our powerful military well in the background).

We have been more successful at promoting our values and our economic interests through our promotion of and participation in international organizations like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization and a wide range of international agreements and cooperation that facilitate free trade, and capital movements, and that extend the protection of property and human rights internationally. These organizations and agreements have developed the international legal frameworks for telecommunications, patents, financial and product standards, etc. that underlie the explosion of globalization that has dramatically raised the standard of living for much of the world’s population.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, has written an excellent exposition of our military efforts in Afghanistan, which I urge you to read “Afghan security forces rapid expansion comes at a cost as readiness lags” (The Washington Post, Oct 21, 2012, page 1). Every few years America’s military strategy has changed: from counter terrorism, to counter insurgency, to building and training (and equipping) an Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. As each approach fails, the Joint Chief’s extract the lessons learned and try a new one until it fails. In recent years, our military commanders have correctly emphasized the fact that “success” cannot be achieved by the military alone (it amazes me that anyone could have thought so – no wonder they are so eager to start wars).

But those are far from the only reasons for reducing our military footprint and budget. I believe in keeping government relatively small and encumbered with the organizational and political checks and balances meant to replace the role of competition in the private sector in bending self-interest to the public good. People are influenced by their self-interest whether they are in government or the private sector. However, in the private sector success comes from serving the needs of others in the market. This exerts a strong incentive on individual behavior. (Dishonesty can exist in either sector and can only be addressed by embracing appropriate moral standards and consistent punishment of breaches of those standards) In place of market discipline (acceptance or rejection), government must rely more on checks and balances to ensure that government officials behave as intended and they can only go so far to keep government honest and impartial in serving the public. The power of the government to coerce, and the expenditure of large sums of money by the government create enormous temptations for personal gain by those in positions of power in the government. The bigger government gets the more difficult it is to prevent some in government from yielding to the temptations to direct its power and money to their own good rather than the general good.

The firms in our large and important military support industry (Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrup Grumman, General Dynamics, Raytheon, Halliburton, United Technologies, Computer Sciences, BAE Systems, General Electric, Bechtel, and Honeywell International, to name a few), do not have a disinterested view about the most appropriate and cost-effective military technology the defense budget should provide for. The millions of dollars they spend attempting to influence the choices of the services and congress are, in a sense, “honest” efforts to promote their self-interested view of what best serves our national security. The growing behemoth of the industrial military complex of which Eisenhower warned us over fifty years ago now both defends and threatens our liberties. See my earlier comments on Ike’s famous farewell address: http://dailycaller.com/2011/01/17/ikes-farewell-address-fifty-years-on/

The risks of the misallocation of our resources and waste are directly related to the size of our military (and government more generally). The boundary between honest differences of opinion over the best military equipment and systems and simple cronyism is fuzzy.  Consider, for example, the recent award of a large contract to build 100,000 homes in war-torn Iraq to HillStone International, a newcomer in the business of home building. When its president David Richter was asked how the newcomer swung such a big deal, he replied that it really helps to have “the brother of the vice president as a partner” (James Biden).[3] It would not be fair to disqualify bidders because they are friends or relatives of high government officials (As Afghan President Karzai’s brother Mahmoud said to us with regard to the shares of Kabul Bank given to him by its founders. The Bank is now in receivership as the result of the bank lending 95% of its deposits to its shareholders), but how can you tell what is merit and what is cronyism?

My point is that the defense budget needs to be on the table when our elected officials finally confront the cuts that must be made to the government’s expenditures to save the country. Defense spending needs to be cut not just because we can’t afford it, but also because our oversized military is weakening our economic base on which both our military and our political power in the world rest. And perhaps most important of all, over reliance on military power to the exclusion of diplomacy has actually weakened our security and standing in the world.


[1] The New Republic, editorial September 4, 2006, page 7.

[2] The Economist, “Sweden: The New Model” October 13, 2012.