Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman Tragedy Update

Over a year ago I expressed confidence that our judicial process and public good will would clarify the facts of the tragic shooting death of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman:  https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2012/04/01/the-trayvan-martin-tragedy/. Indeed, after carefully listening to and weighing the evidence presented to it the six women jury rendered its unanimous verdict a week ago that Zimmerman had lawfully, but no less tragically, shot and killed Martin in self-defense and was therefore not guilty of the charges against him. At the time a year ago, the failure of local Florida law enforcement officials to arrest Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, seemed to me and many others a potentially racially tinged judgment. I supported the call for his arrest. Once all of the obtainable facts had been presented and evaluated by the Jury that earlier decision turned out to be a sound professional judgment by the police. But I still think it was desirable to go through the process of this trial.

I did not follow the trial closely but have no reason to question the judgment of the jury. The utterly disgraceful misreporting and doctoring of the conversation between Zimmerman and the 911 dispatcher aired by NBC made it seem that Zimmerman might be racist in his reaction to Martin (a claim no one made during the trial because there is apparently no basis for it) tarnishing the professionalism of at least NBC. https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2012/04/03/the-trayvon-martin-tragedy-continues/.  Sadly the press has continued to reproduce the young, handsome picture of Martin and the thuggish picture of Zimmerman long after more neutral pictures became available.

The slanted reporting of the press is nothing, however, compared to the highly inappropriate statements from our increasingly discredited Attorney General, who suggested that the federal government was investigation the possibility of trying Zimmerman for civil rights violations for which no evidence was introduced in the just finished trail. But my heart stopped when President Obama chimed in that “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” How could the President of the United States join the cheap political babbling of Attorney General Holder? And thus I started this blog.

This is an example of how fragments out of context can be totally misleading. The President’s full statement yesterday, when he joined the White House press briefing unannounced, was quite the opposite of my impression from the news headline. President Obama has disappointed me on many things (promoting bigger government generally, higher taxes, expanding snooping on Americans, drone assassinations of Americans without trial, and poor leadership in general), but I have always found him an honest and thoughtful commenter on race issues. His statements yesterday were no exception. Zimmerman’s trial produced no evidence of racism in anything that happened that tragic night in Florida, but the President rightly noted that each of us carries impressions (“priors”), often from personal experience, that frame our views of the world and events and that it is better that we acknowledge them and open ourselves to an examination of the role they play in our everyday judgments. This was exactly the point I was trying to make a year ago, though Obama said it better. The President is right on this issue and an excessive political correctness has stifled this discussion for too long.

Government Surveillance and the Right to Privacy

We will be discussing Edward Snowden and his revelations for some time (I hope).  His observations are worth serious thought. As quoted in the Washington Post by Barton Gellman “Man who leaked NSA secrets steps forward” /2013/06/09  ‘“I believe that at this point in history, the greatest danger to our freedom and way of life comes from the reasonable fear of omniscient State powers kept in check by nothing more than policy documents.” The steady expansion of surveillance powers, he wrote, is “such a direct threat to democratic governance that I have risked my life and family for it….” “We managed to survive greater threats in our history . . . than a few disorganized terrorist groups and rogue states without resorting to these sorts of programs,” he wrote. “It is not that I do not value intelligence, but that I oppose . . . omniscient, automatic, mass surveillance. . . . That seems to me a greater threat to the institutions of free society than missed intelligence reports, and unworthy of the costs…”  “Analysts (and government in general) aren’t bad guys, and they don’t want to think of themselves as such,” he replied. But he said they labored under a false premise that “if a surveillance program produces information of value, it legitimizes it. . . . In one step, we’ve managed to justify the operation of the Panopticon” — an 18th-century design by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham for comprehensive surveillance of a prison population.”’

It is not generally acceptable for individuals to decide whether it is OK to violate a law we don’t like (though we all do it all the time), but there can be circumstances that are sufficiently serious that our conscience may dictate that we must.  Snowden made that determination and is prepared to accept the consequences. The courts will determine what those are. In my opinion his motives are above question.

I hope, however, as does Snowden, that the public discussion will focus on the issue of the proper balance between government’s desire to protect us from harm and invading our privacy, a favorite tool of totalitarian regimes, rather than on whether Snowden was justified in breaching his confidentiality commitment or not. The very nature of government is that of a slippery slope toward ever larger activities and powers. These risks, of course. were very well-known by our founding fathers who did their best to introduce limits and checks and balances on government power.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, called PRISM “deeply concerning,” stating that: “Unwarranted government surveillance is an intrusion on basic human rights that threatens the very foundations of a democratic society. I call on all Web users to demand better legal protection and due process safeguards for the privacy of their online communications, including their right to be informed when someone requests or stores their data. A store of this information about each person is a huge liability: Whom would you trust to decide when to access it, or even to keep it secure?”

Contrary to his promises, President Obama has not reversed the dangerous excesses of the eternal War on Terror and other political abuses promoted by Bush/Chaney. Examples are the IRS anti-tea party abuses, and the administration’s frightening attack on the press: “The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press.” govt-obtains-wide-ap-phone-records-probe. But these pale compared to Obama’s expansion of our secret, undeclared wars in Somalia and Yemen and elsewhere in the form of assassinations of “bad guys.”

The most deeply disturbing of these was the assassination of Anwar al Awlaki, an American citizen who had lost faith in the intentions behind the American government’s attacks on Muslims around the world. Anwar, an initially moderate Muslim Imam,frequently interviewed by the American press following 9/11, ultimately became sharply critical of U.S. behavior and moved from Falls Church Va. back to his native Yemen to rejoin his parents. U.S. authorities came to believe that his blogs and sermons were influencing others to take violent acts against Americans. President Obama authorized his death without formal charges and without any convincing evidence of crimes other than the exercise of his free speech, which had become embarrassingly critical (and is not yet a crime). Our government claimed that he had become an al Qaeda leader but presented no evidence of any connection at all.

The day Awlaki’s death was announced  (September 30, 2011) syndicated columnist Glenn Greenwald stated: “Remember that there was great controversy that George Bush asserted the power simply to detain American citizens without due process or simply to eavesdrop on their conversation without warrant. Here you have something much more severe. Not eavesdropping on American citizens, not detaining them without due process, but killing them without due process.” Former Bush CIA director Michael Hayden stated: “We needed a court order to eavesdrop on [Awlaki], but we didn’t need a court order to kill him. Isn’t that something?” (Both of these quotes are taken from Jeremy Scahill’s shocking book “Dirty Wars; The World is a Battlefield”)

If you are not alarmed by our President ordering the death of Americans without due process, you will surely be sicken that our secretive special forces killed Awlaki’s 16 year old son Abdulrahman two weeks later. The government has never explained whether his death was another of their many accidents or had been deliberate and if so why. He was also an American, born in Denver Colorado on August 26, 1995 (https://www.facebook.com/abdulrahman.14.10.2011). Soon thereafter Robert Gibbs, Obama’s former White House press secretary, was asked: ‘“It’s an American citizen that is being targeted without due process of law, without trial. And, he’s underage. He’s a minor,” reporter Sierra Adamson told Gibbs. Gibbs shot back: “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well-being of their children. I don’t think becoming an al Qaeda jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business.”’ (Dirty Wars)  Gibbs should be publicly whipped (if we did that sort of thing) or at least banished from polite society. How disgusting.

I am proud of the principles of individual dignity and rights upon which my country is based. I am proud of what many of my countrymen have accomplished and contributed to the world. I am tired of being ashamed of many of the self-destructive things my government has increasingly been doing in the misguided name of my security.  Why do you think Muslims in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere wish to attack the United States rather than (or in addition to) fighting each other for one reason or another? Because many of them have been killed or injured by our global campaign of assassinations and/or outright wars, which they see as an American attack on Islam. They are fighting to defend themselves just as we would (or say that we are). We need to leave them alone. They will have no interest in attacking us if we stay out of their homelands.

I am hoping the current revelations of some of our government’s abuses of its powers and our liberties will bring them to an end.  It is, as I have noted so many times before, the nature of government to want to grow in scope and power. As we all know, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. The pendulum of potentially coercive government power has swung too far in the false name of defending our safety against foreign (and now domestic) enemies. I hope that the current revelations will shock us into sending the pendulum back the other way.

Several weeks ago, on Memorial Day, my friend Lou Cordia sent the following from President Reagan’s Memorial Day Proclamation for May 25, 1981 as a reminder of what we properly aspire to:

Over one hundred years ago, Memorial Day was established to commemorate those who died in the defense of our national ideals. Our ideals of freedom, justice, and equal rights for all have been challenged many times since then, and thousands of Americans have given their lives in many parts of the world to secure those same ideals and insure for their children a lasting peace. Their sacrifice demands that we, the living, continue to promote the cause of peace and the ideals for which they so valiantly gave of themselves.

Today, the United States stands as a beacon of liberty and democratic strength before the community of nations. We are resolved to stand firm against those who would destroy the freedoms we cherish. We are determined to achieve an enduring peace — a peace with liberty and with honor. This determination, this resolve, is the highest tribute we can pay to the many who have fallen in the service of our Nation.

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 Government, or Lack There Of

Some of you thought my recent complaints against uncompromising Republicans toward the fiscal cliff were somewhat one sided. It takes two to tango in the compromise game, of course. I would like to suggest a structural change in the U.S. budgetary rules that I think will help reduce our deficits and our debt while at the same time making government more effective. It shifts the focus of the debt reduction discussion from taxation to expenditures, which is the side of the equation on which the Democrats have been irresponsible and uncompromising. The Democrat controlled Senate has not even passed our government’s budget for the last three years.

The subject of taxation divides into its structure (what is taxed and how the burden is shared among the population—these are issues of fairness and the economic consequences), and its level (how much revenue is raised). Getting the structure right is very important for economic growth and for public acceptance of and cooperation with paying the taxes chosen. My views on taxation were reviewed four years ago: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2008/09/06/how-to-measure-the-size-of-government/ and more extensively almost 40 years ago: http://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/29/.

My proposal, which is really a bit of left over unfinished business from the Reagan administration, is that the level of tax revenue should be set to pay for all of government’s expenditures over the business cycle. Deficits would be allowed during recessions (the so called automatic stabilizers), which would have to be paid for with surpluses during booms. I would like to see a constitutional amendment that imposes this requirement in place of legislated debt ceilings. If the public really wants more government spending, taxes will need to be raised to pay for it.

The focus on taxation, and the refusal of many Republicans to raise them, has been very counterproductive. The Republicans have done a terrible job of making the case for smaller government and I blame a lot of that on their emphasis on taxes rather than spending. If we insist that Obama’s spending programs must be financed by tax revenue rather than borrowing (except for automatic stabilizers during recessions – e.g., increases in unemployment insurance and the natural fall in tax revenue when incomes fall), people would start focusing on the fact that they will have to pay for these expenditures. It would make fighting for more restrained spending easier.

The government (federal, state and local) should be involved in some areas of our lives, but we should make the case for such involvements carefully because the nature of government, if not firmly and continuously resisted, is to keep growing. The defense industry in the United States is large and powerful. It has an obvious profit interest in seeing the government’s defense expenditures increase and it has the economic means to help influence such an outcome. The taxpayers’ representatives in government need the counter pressure those taxpayers can provide to evaluate defense spending and all other government programs carefully and to apply rigorous cost benefit analysis to every proposal.

Even then, it is well known in public choice literature that it is difficult for the diverse and defused public interest of taxpayers to dominate over the individual special interests of bankers, pharmaceuticals, farmers, teachers unions, etc. If these special interests are able to gain special favors from the government (e.g., farm subsidies) they benefit greatly but the cost is spread widely over all taxpayers. These forces push government to grow into activities that can harm the economic efficiency and growth that benefits us all. But they also invariably push and ultimately cross the boundaries of honest advocacy into blatant corruption. I expounded on this dangers in (at least) two earlier blogs:

https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2009/12/23/keep-it-lean/ and http://dailycaller.com/2011/01/17/ikes-farewell-address-fifty-years-on/

Liberal (in the classical meaning defined by John Stewart Mill) and democratic societies are the exception in history. They are not easily defended.

“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

Happy New Year.

Republicans and the Fiscal Cliff: What are they thinking?

Our government, whether headed by a Republican or a Democrat, governs for all of us. The Republicans lost this time around, though they still control the House of Representatives. They are in the minority. The Democrats, who control the Senate and the Executive branch, rightly expect to introduce and oversee policies that are more aligned with their view of what is best for the country than the views of the party that lost. But if they are wise and have the best interests of the country at heart they will take into account the views of the rest of the country as well. Compromise is part of the art of governing a diverse people successfully. Limiting the scope of government is another. See my comments on this theme over four years ago: “The Death of the Right?”

Many Republicans, however, are behaving as if they think they should force their views on the majority.  Not only is this unwillingness to compromise unacceptable in our democracy, it is producing worse outcomes for those of us who would like to keep government smaller. These republicans rejected a deal last year tentatively agreed between House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and President Obama that would have increased tax revenue by $800 billion over the next ten years in exchange for spending cuts three times that.  Without some sort of agreement by the end of this week, falling over the “fiscal cliff” will increase tax revenue by around $5,000 billion over the same period. That won’t happen, of course, as both parties want to restore the existing income tax rates for all but the wealthy. The Democrat controlled Senate has already passed such a bill, which would increase tax revenue by $700 billion over the next ten years. That would become the base line from which Obama would bargain for more tax revenue in exchange for budget cuts.

I assume that some minimalist agreement will be reached in the next week that will eliminate the worst tax effects from going over the cliff, but that will only perpetuate and prolong uncertainty over how our currently unsustainable future spending commitments will be rained in and/or financed. This uncertainty is a major factor contributing to the slow recovery of investment and the economy in general. The current impasse will continue to do great damage to the county.

According to Ezra Klein: “If Boehner had taken the White House’s deal in 2011, he could’ve stopped the tax increase at $800 billion. If he took their most recent deal, he could stop it at $1.2 trillion. But if he insists on adding another round to the negotiations — one that will likely come after the White House pockets $700 billion in tax increases — then any deal in which he gets the entitlement cuts he wants is going to mean a deal in which he accepts even more tax increases than the White House is currently demanding.

“Today, Boehner wishes he’d taken the deal the president offered him in 2011. A year from now, he might wish he’d taken the deal the president offered him in 2012.”[1] See also: “The GOPs worst cliff myth”[2]

For the sake of the country and for the sake of the principles in which many Republicans believe, they must recover (with the cooperation of Democrats) the art of governing.


[1] Ezra Klein, “Obamas small deal could lead to bigger tax increases” The Washington Post, Dec 22, 2012

[2] Ezra Klein, The Washington Post, Dec 24, 2012.

American Values and Foreign Policy

One of America’s values and traditions is standing together in the face of foreign attack or challenge. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has violated that tradition by attacking the statements of the American Embassy in Egypt’s condemnation of an anti-Muslim film made in California: “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”

Following news on September 11 of American casualties at an American consulate in Libya, Romney’s foreign policy advisers recommended that he speak out against the government’s apologies. He issued the following statement:

“I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”

The next day Romney pressed his attack further, saying that, “I think it’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values, that instead when our grounds are being attacked and being breached, that the first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation. An apology for America’s values is never the right course.”

Romney was apparently not aware that the American Embassy’s statement on September 11 had been issued before the tragic death of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans in Libya. Christopher Stevens was a fraternity brother of mine from the ATO house in Berkeley, though we were not there at the same time and I have never met him. President Obama in fact condemned the killings and according to the Washington Post: “unnamed White House officials told news outlets later Tuesday night that the [Egyptian] embassy statement did not reflect U.S. government views.” That is a pity because it does reflect American values and should reflect U.S. government policy.

Since neither Romney nor Obama seem to understand what American values are in this context, I am volunteering a refresher course.

We believe passionately in free speech and tolerance of the views of others. This is far from accepting anything someone might say. It is hardly the same thing as condoning insulting or ignorant things people sometimes say. Sam Bacile’s “The Muhammad Movie” is crude and disgusting. It deserves to be condemned and the Egyptian Embassy was quite right to apologize for it. Terry Jones, the hate mongering, Koran burning, so-called Christian minister in rural Florida has been promoting the film. Real Christians should condemn him, while at the same time acknowledge his right to state his twisted views.

Our values were reflected, for example, when many Christians complained that Andres Serrano had received $15,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts (a government agency) for his photograph of a crucifix submerged in a glass of urine without questioning the artists right (at his own expense) to do such things. Although the artwork was condemned by many as an affront to Christians, mobs did not storm the gallery that planned to show it nor the NEA. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is one of the few to get the balance about right: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/she-the-people/post/hillary-clinton-speaks-out-for-the-same-american-values-upheld-in-retracted-embassy-statement/2012/09/13/ccbf05f2-fdd6-11e1-b153-218509a954e1_blog.html

Standing together in the face of foreign attacks does not mean that we cannot or should not criticize foreign policies that we think do not service the best interests of our country.  But wise and thoughtful people know when the timing is right for such serious discussion. The present moment of grieving for our lost brothers and sisters is not a time for divisive political maneuvering. Romney’s foreign policy advisers have given him bad advise before (think Israel/Palestine. See my earlier blog: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2012/08/05/romney-on-culture/). Romney should fire them.

Leading from behind in Libya

The U.S does not own what happens next in Libya, and the prospects for a good outcome are better because of that.

President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have come out well with the limited role they gave to U.S. support of the now victorious Libyan insurgents. President Gaddafi was removed from power (and life) without the help of American boots on the ground. It was a victory by Libyans and the outcome, and they are just at the beginning of chapter two, will be theirs to celebrate or lament.

The American approach this time around has several advantages. The hit on our over taxed budget was small and is likely to remain small. But more importantly, the resentment that always follows eventually when our (or any ones) troops occupy a country will be missing. This will also contain long run costs and improve American security.

More important still is the almost certainty that the prospects for Libya to develop a liberal democracy that respects its citizens are larger if they must build it themselves. If they fail, that will be theirs as well.  A viable government that respects human rights cannot be simply stepped into no matter how good a model we might give them. It must be the product of give and take and negotiation amount competing Libya groups. Libya is now entering into such an internal struggle. We should take the side of proper principles of government and human respect, but not the side of a particular group. President Obama’s reserve in limiting American involvement makes such a process among Libyans possible. It will not be easy and I wish them well.

Libya: Part II

What will happen next in Libya and what should we do?

As we attempt to save the Republic by trimming government back to size (back to what we can afford and back to what only government can do), surely we can forego a few of wars the neocons would like to plunge us into. Actually my warning cries as we were sliding into another one in Libya had much more to do with the unlearned lessons of the past about how best to influence future event for the better than with the wasting of more precious treasure (lives and other resources). To his rather bumbling credit, President Obama gave in to the pressures of the warmongers reluctantly and only partially in Libya. Our involvement has been largely supportive of more direct, though also limited, NATO support for the rebels.

But here we are at the beginning of Part II of the Libya drama. The rebels seem to have finally toppled the truly crazed Gaddafi. We can all cheer his demise, but what will follow? Who are the rebels and where are they planning? We actually know more about them than when we first chose to support them (a collection of different tribes, political philosophies, and religious views, some good and some bad). Who will emerge on top and what will the struggle for dominance of the new regime be like? Will the average Libyan be better off or worse off? It is impossible to know at this point.

Craig Whitlock reports some interesting reactions to the Libyan civil war from the area in yesterday’s Washington Post, “Libyan rebels renew hopes of Arab Spring”

“If the shooting quickly subsides and the Libyan rebels are able to build a functioning central government, it would give further encouragement to protesters in the streets of Damascus and Sanaa. But if Libya descends into factionalism or tribal warfare — with scenes reminiscent of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein — then ardor for the Arab Spring could cool again.

“‘People are going to be looking at how this plays out very, very closely,’ said Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. ‘It’s easy to agree that the leader must go. It’s much harder to agree on what comes next.’

“Some Palestinian activists said that their aspirations, too, had been buoyed by the success of the Libyan rebels but that NATO’s involvement had taken the sheen off the results.

“‘It is getting a cautious welcome because it was achieved with foreign intervention rather than by the people themselves, as was the case in Egypt,’ said Hani al-Masri, a political analyst in Ramallah, West Bank. ‘Some people are calling it liberation through occupation. The Egyptian experience was inspiring. In Libya, we have to wait and see.’”

My pessimism about our ability to improve the world (and our safety) with armies does not mean that I think we should do nothing in Libya or elsewhere to promote a better world (rule of law, respect for human liberty and rights). We know a lot about the blessings of liberty and the institutions (not necessarily, or even very often, just like our own) that help promote and preserve it. We have an interest, both humanitarian and national self-interest, in doing our best to share our knowledge and to promote sound governance and free markets in Libya and elsewhere. This is often done best by international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. It cannot be successfully imposed from outside. It must to the form of support and encouragement to the indigenous forces for good (if we think we know who they are).

I commend to you the op-ed piece on this subject in the The Washington Post by Stephen Hadley on August 18th: “Our chance to shape change in North Africa and the Mideast”.