Monday, April 24, 2017

Another Coward as President

Yet another reason why I detest the use of the word "leader" where a politician is concerned. Trump, Like His Predecessors, Refuses to Call Armenian Genocide a ‘Genocide’

Damn Near Fell Over

The Streak Is Over: Caterpillar Posts First Positive Retail Sales After 51 Months Of Declines.  Then again, the company was just raided by the SEC recently ...

Just About Covers It

This just about covers the war on drugs:




Today's WTF FYI

This is abhorrent:

"The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is currently considering new procedures to screen certain foreign travellers. Specifically, Secretary of Homeland Security John. F. Kelly said in a congressional hearing that the DHS is considering requiring certain foreign travelers to hand over their social media passwords in order to apply for a visa and enter the United States."

I care not about who classifies as "certain foreign travelers".  This is a disgrace, really.

Source: Tell the DHS: Social Media Passwords Should Not Be a Condition of Entry to the U.S.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Headlines I Hate To See

Hundreds of U.S. Marines Headed To Afghanistan

U.S. Putting Boots on the Ground in Somalia 

What Kind of Logic Is This? Mattis Says US Must Bomb Yemen with Saudi Arabia Because… Iran

What, You're Surprised to Learn ...

... that the National Hotel Lobbyists Backed the Local Wars on Airbnb, Documents Reveal?  Really? Crony-capitalism at its best worst:
Last summer, Chicago became the first major American city to declare war on short-term rental services like Airbnb.

The complicated ordinance passed by the city council and signed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel imposed new taxes on short-term rentals, required Airbnb users to open their homes to inspection even without any suspicion of wrongdoing, and gave landlords and condo associations the authority to ban Airbnb rentals by registering with the city.

Lobbyists from the hotel industry were behind it all.

Later in the year, when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law new rules that curtailed short-term rentals in multi-home dwellings and made it illegal to even advertise those rentals, the same lobbyists from the hotel industry were the driving force once again.

And when some states tried to go in the opposite direction—like Tennessee, which earlier this year attempted to pass a law prohibiting local governments from banning Airbnb within their jurisdictions—the hotel industry and their teams of lobbyists were there once again, putting a stop to pro-roomsharing rules that would undercut hotel profits and open up more competition in the lodging marketplace.

Even Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), famous among progressives for her skeptical view of capitalism and her critiques of the influence of big business in government, was co-opted into the anti-Airbnb campaign by those same hotel lobbyists.

At least that's what top trade association for the hotel industry, the American Hotel and Lodging Association, is telling its members behind closed doors, according to documents leaked from a November conference of the AHLA and first reported by The New York Times on Monday. Some of the same documents obtained by Reason show the trade group patting itself on the back for scoring "notable accomplishments" in local fights to limit or ban Airbnb in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and elsewhere during 2016.

In New York, where the Airbnb advertising ban was signed into law last year, the documents show that AHLA "provided resources and support to the Hotel Association of New York City and other parties advocating for this legislation." In Chicago, where the anti-Airbnb ordinance was championed by a city official with long ties to the hotel industry, the AHLA "played a pivotal role in the passage" of an ordinance that "heavily regulates" short-term rentals."

At the federal level, the hotel industry claims to have acquired a powerful ally by recruiting Warren to their side. The Democratic senator from Massachusetts wrote a letter (along with fellow Democratic Senators Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Dianne Feinstein of California) to the Federal Trade Commission last year asking for an investigation into the business practices of short-term rental platforms.

"Senator Warren's status as one of the more prominent lawmakers among progressive activists has helped mobilize additional grassroots and political support," the AHLA documents note.

Reason has previously reported on the alliance between the hotel industry and groups on the left, which seem to be a key element of the AHLA's anti-Airbnb strategy. Last year, the New York Motel and Hotel Trades Council, which represents some 35,000 hotel workers in the city, wrote a $100,000 check to the Hotel Association of New York City to support the organization's effort to pass the new short term rental restrictions.

Airbnb has grown quickly since its founding in 2008. By the end of last year, Airbnb had more than 3 million listing in more than 65,000 different cities around the globe, according to the company's website. It raised more than $1 billion in a recent round of funding, according to multiple media reports in March, and SEC filing from earlier this year say Airbnb is worth approximately $31 billion, which would make it the second most valuable start-up in the United States, trailing only fellow sharing economy wonderkind Uber.

As it has grown (along with other, smaller roomsharing services like HomeAway and VRBO), Airbnb has become a greater threat to the hotel industry that for decades has dominated the market for lodging.

Vijay Dandapani, chief executive of the Hotel Association of New York City, told The New York Times this week that Airbnb has brought hotel pricing down in many places during holidays, conventions and other big events when room rates should be at their highest and the industry generates a significant portion of its profits.

Since Airbnb has added to the supply of lodging, it's made it harder for hotels to jack-up prices when demand is high.

"The hotels that used to be able to gouge you by taking the price way up, because of limited supply, don't have that same ability anymore because of the additional inventory that Airbnb has brought online," Steve Hafner, CEO of travel booking website Kayak.com, told Bloomberg last year.

Data provided by Airbnb suggests hotels are right to be worried, according to data provided by Airbnb. The homesharing service claims to have helped lower lodging prices during major events like New Year's Eve and this year's Super Bowl.

That's good for travelers who get more options and potentially lower prices because of Airbnb's competition with hotels. The hotels, though, don't like it, and the AHLA documents show that the industry is fighting back by leveraging the power of government to drive Airbnb and other forms of roomsharing out of the market.

"This is rent-seeking at its worst. Rather than compete fairly, hotel lobbyists are scrambling for the chance to use government force to benefit themselves and outlaw their competition," says Christina Sandefur, vice president of the Goldwater Institute, the Arizona-based free market think tank that has teamed up with the Illinois-based Liberty Justice Center to challenge Chicago's Airbnb rules.

"These anti-home-sharing laws benefit the most politically well-connected at the expense of most hardworking or the most needy," she told Reason via email.

And the documents suggest the fight is only just beginning.

For 2017, the AHLA outlined a lengthy agenda, including plans to "actively coordinate with state and local hotel associations, along with affordable housing, neighborhood and tenant groups, consumer groups, labor, and others to drive common sense laws forward in key cities and states." The trade group also plans to push federal legislative efforts and to "work with attorneys general to encourage action and/or enforcement in their jurisdictions."

The federal legislative effort will lean rely on regulations like the Americans with Disability Act to subject "operators of short-term rentals to ADA requirements." The AHLA also wants to see Airbnb rentals held to the same fire safety standards as hotels and plans to pressure Congress to prohibit federal workers from staying in short-term rentals.

In other places, "primarily those with Republican legislative majorities," the AHLA is focused on stopping Airbnb's efforts to pass laws prohibiting local officials from banning Airbnb. Florida is currently engaged in a legislative fight over exactly such a bill, as Reason has previously reported.

At the local level, the trade group says it plans to focus on five cities—Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Miami—and other places where "the right political conditions exist for us to push legislation across the finish line."

Throughout the leaked documents, the AHLA maintains that their goal is to "level the playing field" to ensure that Airbnb and other roomsharing apps are abiding by the same rules hotels must follow.

Sandefur says that's not really true, in practice. In Chicago, for example, the anti-Airbnb ordinance requires homeowners to pay the city hotel tax and an extra 4 percent tax that does not apply to hotels.

"It's clear that these special interests aren't interested in 'leveling the playing field' so much as they are seeking to use the power of the government to crush their competition," she says. "This discrimination is not only unfair policy; it's unconstitutional."

Great Point Bruce, But ...

... do you really believe that government can and/or will do anything about it?  Surveillance and our Insecure Infrastructure from Bruce Schneier is a typical good piece from the technology guru, however, I have issue with one point he makes, which I've highlighted below:
Since Edward Snowden revealed to the world the extent of the NSA's global surveillance network, there has been a vigorous debate in the technological community about what its limits should be.

Less discussed is how many of these same surveillance techniques are used by other -- smaller and poorer -- more totalitarian countries to spy on political opponents, dissidents, human rights defenders; the press in Toronto has documented some of the many abuses, by countries like Ethiopia , the UAE, Iran, Syria, Kazakhstan , Sudan, Ecuador, Malaysia, and China.

That these countries can use network surveillance technologies to violate human rights is a shame on the world, and there's a lot of blame to go around.

We can point to the governments that are using surveillance against their own citizens.

We can certainly blame the cyberweapons arms manufacturers that are selling those systems, and the countries -- mostly European -- that allow those arms manufacturers to sell those systems.

There's a lot more the global Internet community could do to limit the availability of sophisticated Internet and telephony surveillance equipment to totalitarian governments. But I want to focus on another contributing cause to this problem: the fundamental insecurity of our digital systems that makes this a problem in the first place.

IMSI catchers are fake mobile phone towers. They allow someone to impersonate a cell network and collect information about phones in the vicinity of the device and they're used to create lists of people who were at a particular event or near a particular location.

Fundamentally, the technology works because the phone in your pocket automatically trusts any cell tower to which it connects. There's no security in the connection protocols between the phones and the towers.

IP intercept systems are used to eavesdrop on what people do on the Internet. Unlike the surveillance that happens at the sites you visit, by companies like Facebook and Google, this surveillance happens at the point where your computer connects to the Internet. Here, someone can eavesdrop on everything you do.

This system also exploits existing vulnerabilities in the underlying Internet communications protocols. Most of the traffic between your computer and the Internet is unencrypted, and what is encrypted is often vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks because of insecurities in both the Internet protocols and the encryption protocols that protect it.

There are many other examples. What they all have in common is that they are vulnerabilities in our underlying digital communications systems that allow someone -- whether it's a country's secret police, a rival national intelligence organization, or criminal group -- to break or bypass what security there is and spy on the users of these systems.

These insecurities exist for two reasons. First, they were designed in an era where computer hardware was expensive and inaccessibility was a reasonable proxy for security. When the mobile phone network was designed, faking a cell tower was an incredibly difficult technical exercise, and it was reasonable to assume that only legitimate cell providers would go to the effort of creating such towers.

At the same time, computers were less powerful and software was much slower, so adding security into the system seemed like a waste of resources. Fast forward to today: computers are cheap and software is fast, and what was impossible only a few decades ago is now easy.

The second reason is that governments use these surveillance capabilities for their own purposes. The FBI has used IMSI-catchers for years to investigate crimes. The NSA uses IP interception systems to collect foreign intelligence. Both of these agencies, as well as their counterparts in other countries, have put pressure on the standards bodies that create these systems to not implement strong security.

Of course, technology isn't static. With time, things become cheaper and easier. What was once a secret NSA interception program or a secret FBI investigative tool becomes usable by less-capable governments and cybercriminals.

Man-in-the-middle attacks against Internet connections are a common criminal tool to steal credentials from users and hack their accounts.

IMSI-catchers are used by criminals, too. Right now, you can go onto Alibaba.com and buy your own IMSI catcher for under $2,000.

Despite their uses by democratic governments for legitimate purposes, our security would be much better served by fixing these vulnerabilities in our infrastructures.

These systems are not only used by dissidents in totalitarian countries, they're also used by legislators, corporate executives, critical infrastructure providers, and many others in the US and elsewhere.

That we allow people to remain insecure and vulnerable is both wrongheaded and dangerous.

Earlier this month, two American legislators -- Senator Ron Wyden and Rep Ted Lieu -- sent a letter to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, demanding that he do something about the country's insecure telecommunications infrastructure.

They pointed out that not only are insecurities rampant in the underlying protocols and systems of the telecommunications infrastructure, but also that the FCC knows about these vulnerabilities and isn't doing anything to force the telcos to fix them.

Wyden and Lieu make the point that fixing these vulnerabilities is a matter of US national security, but it's also a matter of international human rights. All modern communications technologies are global, and anything the US does to improve its own security will also improve security worldwide.

Yes, it means that the FBI and the NSA will have a harder job spying, but it also means that the world will be a safer and more secure place.
The U.S. government as absolutely no interest in fixing vulnerabilities in the nation's telecom infrastructure.  None.

"Veil of Ignorance"

A worthy read indeed, Hey, Kids! Let's Take A Trip Behind The Veil of Ignorance!

George Carlin on Saving the Planet

Damn I miss this guy!


Johan Norberg on Protectionism

Two Worthy Reads on Economics

The Mystery Behind Economic Growth by Alasdair MacLeod.  Superb article, and here's one quote I absolutely love:
It is clear the economics profession is ill-informed about the one thing it is paid to know about, and the commentary that trickles down to the ordinary person is accordingly incorrect. State-educated and paid-for economists always assume the private sector is the problem, when it is the burden of the state, and the state’s futile attempts to manage the consequences of its actions through the corruption of money.
and here's Say's Law, simply and clearly explained:
Say’s law is central to understanding economics

Say’s law is very simple. It states that in a world where we divide our labour, we produce to consume. It therefore follows that if we are not able to produce so that we can consume, someone else must produce on our behalf. The disabled, the unemployed, the home-makers and children have their consumption paid for by someone else, a partner in marriage, family member, or parent. Welfare distributed by the state doesn’t change this iron law, because the state must tax someone else’s production or debase their earnings to cover welfare distribution.



The Consumer Price Index, a False Indicator of Our Individual Costs-of-Living by Richard Ebeling takes on one of me favorite topics to rant about, the CPI.

Must Have Guide To Carry When You're Traveling

EFF Border Search Pocket Guide is a must have when you travel.  Easy to print, fold and carry.  For more on your rights when you travel, read Digital Privacy at the U.S Border: A New How-To Guide from EFF.

I have heard and read about more and more people, Americans, who are leaving their PCs, tablets, even their phones home when they travel abroad.  Please, don't fall into that "I have nothing to hide" trap.

Part 1:  The Bill of Rights at The Border: The First Amendment and the Right to Anonymous Speech

Part 2:  The Bill of Rights at the Border: Fourth Amendment Limits on Searching Your Data and Devices

Part 3 (Final in Series):  The Bill of Rights at the Border: Fifth Amendment Protections for Account Passwords and Device Passcodes 


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

No They Cannot Indeed

Economic Analysis Cannot Justify Immoral State Actions from Robert Higgs
I am an economist. I am convinced of the power of basic economic analysis, and I believe that during the past fifty years or so my own work has demonstrated that power repeatedly. But economics is not the only aspect of a proper evaluation of the world’s workings, especially where government intrudes in economic and social affairs. 
A certain species of economist—often those who took to economic analysis in grad school as if it were the be all and end all of understanding the world—tends to dismiss all moral elements in an appraisal of government action, maintaining that because every situation is one of trade-offs in an uncertain situation in which the outcomes of counter-factuals cannot be known with confidence, one must not criticize government actions simply because they are plainly immoral. After all, they might be necessary to preserve life on earth or to attain some other end of transcendent significance. For example, one cannot simply criticize George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq on moral grounds because—who really knows?—Saddam’s government might have been only days away from developing and using nuclear weapons against a large city. 
This kind of who-knows-what-might-otherwise-have-happened appraisal often serves to exculpate even great evils, and to do so on very flimsy grounds. The main problem is that it disregards relatively firm information that is available and treats implausible relations as if they were as likely as anything else. It also fails to consider how often—which is to say, virtually always—the government seeks to justify its wasteful and destructive actions by spreading misinformation and propaganda. That is, such a priori dismissal lacks a realistic understanding of the nature and operation of the state as an institutional complex founded on violent force and ceaseless fraud. 
So, yes, economic analysis is necessary for a sound appraisal of government policy actions, but such analysis does not render moral appraisal irrelevant. Far from it. If it is wrong to launch a military attack against a country that has not attacked one’s own and lacks even a capacity for such an attack, no amount of yammering about unknown counter-factuals can make such an allegedly preemptive attack a justifiable action. Likewise for countless other government actions, from the so-called drug war to drone attacks on Yemeni villages populated mainly by innocent men, women, and children. Some things are wrong; they violate people’s natural rights; and they ought not to be done. And no amount of agonizing over economic uncertainties and implausible but-what-if trade-offs can excuse such wrongful acts.

Walter Williams on Racism

Another superb piece from Walter E. Williams, Worse Than Racists: [highlight in original]


As a group, black Americans have made the greatest gains — over some of the highest hurdles and in a very short span of time — of any racial group in mankind's history. What's the evidence? If one totaled up the earnings of black Americans and considered us as a separate nation with our own gross domestic product, we would rank among the 20 richest nations. It was a black American, Gen. Colin Powell, who once headed the world's mightiest military. Black Americans are among the world's most famous personalities, and a few are among the world's richest people.
The significance of these and other achievements is that at the end of the Civil War, neither a slave nor a slave owner would have believed such progress would be possible in a little over a century — if ever. As such, it speaks to the intestinal fortitude of a people. Just as importantly, it speaks to the greatness of a nation in which such gains were possible. Nowhere else on the face of the earth would such progress be possible except in the United States of America. The big and thorny issue that confronts our nation is how these gains can be extended to the one-third or more of the black population for whom they have proved elusive.
A major part of the solution should be the elimination of public and private policy that rewards inferiority and irresponsibility. Chief among the policies that reward inferiority and irresponsibility is the welfare state. When some people know that they can have children out of wedlock, drop out of school and refuse employment and suffer little consequence, one should not be surprised to see the growth of such behavior. The poverty rate among blacks is about 30 percent. It's seen as politically correct to blame today's poverty on racial discrimination, but that's nonsense. Why? The poverty rate among black intact husband-and-wife families has been in the single digits for more than two decades. Does one want to argue that racists discriminate against female-headed families but not husband-and-wife families?
Education is one of the ways out of poverty, but stupid political correctness stands in the way for many blacks. For example, a few years ago, a white Charleston, South Carolina, teacher frequently complained of black students calling her a white b——, white m——-f——-, white c—- and white ho. School officials told her that racially charged profanity was simply part of the students' culture and that if she couldn't handle it, she was in the wrong school. The teacher brought a harassment suit, and the school district settled out of court for $200,000.
To suggest that such disrespectful and violent behavior, though it's observed in many predominantly black schools, is part of black culture is an insulting lie. Worse than that is the fact that such destructive behavior and lack of respect for authority is rewarded. We can see some of the results by visiting some city public schools where violence, disorder and disrespect is the order of the day.
Many whites are ashamed and saddened by our history of slavery, Jim Crow and gross racial discrimination. As a result, they often hold blacks accountable to standards and conduct they would never accept from whites. A recent example is black students at colleges such as NYU, UC Berkeley, UCLA and Oberlin demanding racially segregated housing. Spineless college administrators have caved to their demands. These administrators would never even listen to a group of white students demanding white-only housing accommodations. These administrators and other guilt-ridden whites have one standard of conduct for whites and a lower standard for blacks.
Black people can be thankful that racist forms of double standards and public and private policies rewarding inferiority and irresponsibility were not broadly accepted during the 1920s, '30s, '40s and '50s. There would not have been the kind of intellectual excellence and spiritual courage that created the world's most successful civil rights movement.

Today's WTF Headline (and it could only be about government in action)

It would be hard to make this shit up, really - How Florida Entraps Pain Patients, Forces Them to Snitch, Then Locks Them Up for Decades.  Read this, please.  Out.of.Control

Monday, April 17, 2017

It Certainly Is!

All I can say is, we’ve got a hell of a political system on our hands when the surest way for a president to win the adoration of those who thought him a dangerous, ignorant, narcissistic, erratic, and bullshitting blowhard yesterday is to drop a bomb or fire a cruise missile today.

We already knew something like this was the case. War presidents tend to be remembered better than presidents who had the misfortune to reign during peacetime, sometimes despite their best efforts.

I guess it’s understandable that a president who “led the nation into war” would stand out in the memory more than one who did not, but it’s no less a matter of concern to those who actually hate war and love peace rather than just say it. It’s especially worrisome when you realize that many people – pundits and scholars in particular – believe that only in waging war does a president display his finest traits: leadership, courage, strength, resoluteness, and so on.

Since presidents are thought to come into their own only during state-sponsored butchery, we may find a parallel in what Randolph Bourne said of the state itself. Writing in 1918, after the evil evangelist Woodrow Wilson had taken the United States into the Great War, Bourne observed that a republican state in peacetime is boring. It “has almost no trappings to appeal to the common man’s emotions. What it has are of military origin, and in an unmilitary era such as we have passed through since the Civil War, even military trappings have been scarcely seen. In such an era the sense of the State almost fades out of the consciousness of men.

“With the shock of war, however, the State comes into its own again. The Government, with no mandate from the people, without consultation of the people, conducts all the negotiations, the backing and filling, the menaces and explanations, which slowly bring it into collision with some other Government, and gently and irresistibly slides the country into war….”

Then everything changes.

“The moment war is declared…,” Bourne continued, “the mass of the people, through some spiritual alchemy, become convinced that they have willed and executed the deed themselves. They then, with the exception of a few malcontents, proceed to allow themselves to be regimented, coerced, deranged in all the environments of their lives, and turned into a solid manufactory of destruction toward whatever other people may have, in the appointed scheme of things, come within the range of the Government’s disapprobation. The citizen throws off his contempt and indifference to Government, identifies himself with its purposes, revives all his military memories and symbols, and the State once more walks, an august presence, through the imaginations of men. Patriotism becomes the dominant feeling, and produces immediately that intense and hopeless confusion between the relations which the individual bears and should bear toward the society of which he is a part.”

In other words, war reminds the people that their real religion is the religion of State, i.e., nationalism. Their other religions place a distant second.

War of course has changed in many ways since Bourne’s day. We won’t see columns of men marching down joyously tearful crowd-lined American streets on their way to be dispatched to Syria or any of the other places in which “we are at war.” There will likely be no conscription with its patriotic appeals. (Am I too hasty in ruling this out?) America’s heroes do their killing largely though not entirely by remote control, from behind drone consoles or on ships safely in the Mediterranean. To be sure, special-ops “advisers” and “trainers” get to see some of the action up close, and sometimes one of them takes a hit, at which time we’ll be frequently assured that he or she really did die for our freedom. Anyone who suggests an American warrior died in vain or on behalf of imperial ambitions will be shunned – or worse.

So a president today may have to work a little harder than in the past to garner adoration – but not that hard, especially when it comes to our furrowed-brow pundits and solemn politicians.

The Trump case drives home the point. Here was a guy who until recently scared the bejeezus out of our weightiest thinkers. He was thought to combine three of the worst traits: conceit, ignorance, and impulsiveness, born of an exaggerated estimate of his own gut. Yet all he had to do to win over these critics was (illegally) to command the Navy to fire several dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles from some ships, and suddenly he’s just the right man in just the right place at just the right time. CNN’s and the Washington Post‘s Wise Pundit, Fareed Zakaria, declared him president just after the missiles launched. The New York Times‘s Nicholas Kristof said Trump’s action was of “dubious legality,” “hypocritical,” and “right.” Every major newspaper lauded him editorially and turned over its op-ed page exclusively to commentators who agreed. Such praise gushed forth even though Trump’s strike against Syria was rash, having been ordered before an inquiry into the origin of the chemical-weapons attack had been conducted. Dissent was as scarce as a hint of humility in the Trump household.

We can be sure that Trump did not misread the lesson. He’s a man who has craved the respect of the establishment all his adult life. When he could not win it in the business world, he said the equivalent of “screw you” and ran for president as an anti-establishment candidate. But that was never authentic; he was as transparent as a snake-oil hawker.

Yet Trump continued to crave the respect of those who, in his mind, really matter (unlike the forgotten working people he pretended to champion). It didn’t hurt that by going after Russia’s ally and suggesting that Vladimir Putin was complicit, he could show Those Who Matter that he really isn’t a Kremlin puppet. It also didn’t hurt that he chose to go after a guy (Assad) whom the American establishment has wanted to get off for a long time, although this will benefit the bin Ladenites and worse. (“If there was anything that [the strike on] Syria did, it was to validate the fact that there is no Russia tie,” Prince Eric said.) Neocons and humanitarian (sic) interventionists alike favor the destabilization of Syria long sought by Israel and Saudi Arabia, not to mention America’s Israel-firsters.

So as I said, we’ve got a hell of a political system on our hands.

Now, what about Trump and North Korea?

Tax Day - Reminder


Quote of the Day

"Syria is a human tragedy of extraordinary proportions. But normally the U.S. “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” proclaimed Secretary of State John Quincy Adams a century ago. Sometimes war is necessary. But only very rarely. Washington’s overriding duty is to safeguard America, not remake the world. That principle is only likely to grow more important over time." - Doug Bandow, Donald Trump Channels Hillary Clinton, Attacks Syria: From America First to America Last

Friday, April 7, 2017

Trump Does His Handlers Good

"Meet the new boss ... same as the old boss" - We Won't Get Fooled Again, The Who

U.S. Launches Missile Strikes on Syrian Airfield

So, I strongly suspect the Syrian chemical gas attack was a false flag.  The permanent warfare state continues, under a different president.  The military-industrial-congressional-security (MICS) prevails again.  The Deep State wins.

My fellow Americans: you've all been fooled again.

Left wing, right wing ... two wings of the same bird.

Trump has the gall to say the air strike was necessary to "protect the vital national interests" of the United States.

This will never end.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Media Bias

Simple and succinct.  What We Mean When We Talk about Media Bias by Kevin Williamson:
Issie Lapowsky at Wired has an interesting piece on Ro Khanna’s proposal to radically expand the earned-income tax credit. Lapowsky writes that this will be difficult to do, because “the Trump administration is gutting the federal budget.”
 
Setting aside the fact that tax laws are written by Congress and not by the White House, the Trump administration’s budget proposal contains a 1.2 percent spending cut to the discretionary budget, i.e. a 1.2 percent cut to a portion of the budget that amounts to less than one-third of federal spending. A 1.2 percent cut to 29 percent of federal spending is not “gutting the federal budget” under any plausible interpretation of those words by a reasonably literate English-speaking person.
 
The reason these kinds of erroneous — indeed, ridiculous — claims get published is that magazines such as Wired are full of people who suffer from similar biases and who therefore never think to challenge such claims. The same holds true for all sorts of things: guns and gun laws, for example, or questions involving religion, something that Dean Baquet at the New York Times has at least acknowledged is a problem.
 
That’s what we conservatives mean when we write about liberal bias in the media. Not an intentional plot to mislead the public, but true and genuine bias.

American Universities: Snowflake U

Donald Sensing's "The Coddling of the American Mind".  This is some truly scary sh*t, really.

They Do, But Not To American Presidents

President Donald Trump has demonstrated little interest in promoting human rights abroad. He was a deal-maker, focused on achieving concrete economic and security ends. Worrying about whether other peoples can, say, protest against their government doesn’t seem to concern him.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reinforced this point by skipping the release of Foggy Bottom’s annual human rights report. Past secretaries typically have appeared to at least claim to support the universal values which Americans say they hold dear. Not this time. Presumably Secretary Tillerson was “busy.”

Ultimately a foreign policy is sustainable only if it advances the interests of the people expected to pay and die for it. Protecting America—its population, territory, economic prosperity, and constitutional liberties—is the government’s most important foreign duty.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t bar Washington from attempting to advance human liberty in ways consistent with its larger responsibilities. Simply talking about the importance of governments respecting human life and dignity can help.

Moreover, ignoring human rights in the short-term often creates long-term trouble. For instance, Washington’s support for brutal, dictatorial regimes undermines American security policy in the Mideast. It is extremely hard to force recalcitrant governments to weaken their control over their people. But underwriting governments which maintain such powers frequently generates popular ill will.

For instance, there is much to criticize about the Iranian government, but Washington cannot escape responsibility for having contributed to the creation of the current Islamist regime. In 1953 the Eisenhower administration promoted the overthrow of the elected leftist government. The largely ceremonial Shah turned into a real monarch, oppressing anyone who opposed him and forcibly modernizing the traditional Islamic society. He was eventually overthrown by a disparate coalition, but the better organized and more ruthless clerical forces won control.

Today Tehran is a U.S. opponent, so foreign policy hawks routinely decry its human rights abuses. But Washington is far quieter when confronting the behavior of its regional allies. For instance, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey all play important roles in U.S. regional strategy today. (The other Gulf States also are active to varying degrees, but Riyadh is the dominant partner among them.) All have human rights issues which undermine their effectiveness today and could create new problems tomorrow.

In Bahrain, home of the U.S. 5th Fleet, a Sunni monarchy holds a Shia majority population in political bondage. The State Department noted that the most serious human rights issues involved “limitation on citizens’ ability to choose their government peacefully,” “restrictions on free expression, assembly, and association,” as well as “lack of due process in the legal system.” Unfortunately, added State, “Beginning in June government action against the political opposition and civil society worsened these problems.”

The authoritarian sectarian-minority government is a prescription for long-term instability. Manama blames Iran for interfering, but Saudi Arabia put troops into the country to enforce Bahrain’s undemocratic will. Tehran can claim to be on the side of the angels so long as the Sunni monarchy crushes dissent.

President Donald Trump appears to have a budding bromance with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. However, Cairo has been moving backwards on human rights. As State observed in its report: “The most significant human rights problems were excessive use of force by security forces, deficiencies in due process, and the suppression of civil liberties. Excessive use of force included unlawful killings and torture. Due process problems included the excessive use of preventative custody and pretrial detention, the use of military courts to try civilians, trials involving hundreds of defendants in which authorities did not present evidence on an individual basis, and arrests conducted without warrants or judicial orders.”

The al-Sisi government also has conducted a campaign against journalists and even NGOs, especially those backed with foreign money, seeking to cover the regime’s activities. One of the targets was the al-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, which combats torture. I visited the Center a couple years ago and was told the human rights situation was much worse than under Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in the peaceful 2011 revolution. Add to political repression economic problems and the al-Sisi regime looks vulnerable to internal if not popular challenge.

Iraq has been ravaged by the Islamic State, which has committed atrocities galore. However, Baghdad has its own serious human rights problems. The State Department noted that “Civilian authorities were not always able to maintain effective control of all security forces.” Moreover, “Sectarian hostility, widespread corruption, and lack of transparency at all levels of government and society weakened the government’s authority and worsened effective human rights protections.” The security forces “committed some human rights violations, and there continued to be reports of [government-allied Shia militias] killing, torturing, kidnapping, and extorting civilians.”

Of course, Daesh’s depredations are worse. However, official Iraqi abuses, concentrated on Sunnis, aided the rise of ISIS. And if the Shia-dominated national government doesn’t reform, its misbehavior is likely to generate more Sunni-led insurgents and terrorists in the future. Leaving Iraq permanently hobbled by violence and instability.

Washington’s closest ally, Israel, is not exempt. While it protects traditional democratic freedoms for its own citizens, albeit tolerating serious discrimination against Arab citizens, it does not recognize similar liberties for the millions of Palestinians under its occupation for a half century. Treating the subject population as something akin to ancient Helots has spurred violent resistance by Palestinians and significant antagonism throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds to Israel and its chief backer, America.

Occupation policies exacerbate these tensions. Detailed the State Department: “Significant human rights abuses also included excessive use of force or deadly force by Israeli Security Forces (ISF) in a number of their interactions with Palestinian civilians; arbitrary arrest and associated alleged torture and abuse, often with impunity by multiple actors in the region; restrictions on civil liberties, particularly by Hamas in Gaza; and Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes and related displacement.” Both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority engage in their own repressive practices. Unfortunately, Israel’s occupation makes creation of a serious, accountable Palestinian government far more difficult.

Jordan is another long-time aid recipient which has been involved in the fight against ISIS. However, reported State, “The most significant human rights problems were citizens’ inability to choose their ultimate governing authority; restrictions on the freedom of expression, including detention of journalists, which limited the ability of citizens and media to criticize government policies and officials; and mistreatment and allegations of torture by security and government officials.” To these State added “restrictions on freedom of association and assembly poor prison conditions, arbitrary arrest and denial of due process through administrative detention, prolonged detention, and allegations of nepotism and the influence of special interests on the judiciary.”

The fact that there are worse alternatives to Hashemite rule doesn’t immunize the monarchy from popular criticism and even opposition. As the reservoir of good will seeps away the system, under extraordinary pressure from mass refugee flows, will find it harder to withstand a crisis. Any political shift in Amman would unsettle Washington and Israel.

Libya is in the throes of civil conflict if not another formal civil war. The U.S. recognizes the Government of National Accord, though the latter does not control the entire country. The lack of effective governance has led to criminality, violence, and human rights abuses by a multitude of parties. Problems, noted State, include unlawful killing, torture, “degrading treatment or punishment,” life-threatening imprisonment, arbitrary arrest, restrictions on freedom of speech and press as well as religion. Unfortunately, the government sometimes looks little better than ISIS and other violent groups; chaos is more likely than stability to remain Libya’s reality for some time.

In the name of alliance solidarity Washington has made itself subservient to Saudi Arabia, backing Riyadh’s aggressive and brutal war in Yemen. The House of Saud is effectively a totalitarian state. Explained State: “The most important human rights problems reported included citizens’ lack of the ability and legal means to choose their government; restrictions on universal rights, such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and the freedoms of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and pervasive gender discrimination.” Added to these are arbitrary arrest, lack of due process, overcrowded prisons, and nonexistent judicial independence.

Any regime which relies on widespread repression to maintain control is at risk of upheaval. The Saudi monarchy is even more vulnerable since a particular bloodline can’t legitimize such kleptocratic and hypocritical rule. Washington loses credibility supporting this repressive regime, as well as the war in Yemen, in which Riyadh has been responsible for thousands of civilian deaths.

Turkey is another nominal ally which is complicating America’s foreign policy strategy. America’s strongest anti-ISIS surrogate in Syria is the Kurdish militia, which Ankara has targeted on the ground and from the air, out of fear of Kurdish separatism. Indeed, the Erdogan government also ended the ceasefire with Kurdish activists at home, restarting a brutal military campaign and killing hundreds of civilians. Ankara also reaped the violent whirlwind after initially accommodating the growth of ISIS in Syria.

Equally significant, in recent years Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been constructing an authoritarian state, destroying an independent media, arresting parliamentary opponents, and prosecuting critics, even school children. He began pressing to change the constitution to create a Putin-style authoritarian presidency.

Last year’s coup attempt was Turkey’s Reichstag Fire, giving Erdogan an excuse to punish all of his opponents, even those who opposed the attempted military takeover. The state of emergency, noted State, “allowed suspension of some due process protections for those accused of ties to terrorist groups,” which turned out to be almost anyone who had criticized Erdogan and his abusive behavior. Moreover, “The government restricted freedom of expression, media, and the internet, intensifying pressure on the media following the failed coup attempt.”

That was merely the start. Explained the State Department report: “Courts imprisoned tens of thousands of persons accused of supporting the coup or terrorist groups, in many cases with little clarity on the charges and evidence against them. Government decrees issued under the state of emergency restricted suspects’ access to legal assistance, allowed suspects to be held without charge for up to a month, and in some cases froze the assets of suspended or fired civil servants or their family members,” some of the latter who also were arrested. Moreover, “the government suspended and dismissed tens of thousands of civil servants, who generally had little access to legal recourse or appeal, and closed thousands of businesses, schools, and associations.”

As legal repression, political instability, and military conflict have expanded, the economy has slowed. Turkey has become an even less reliable partner for the U.S.

Washington obviously can do little to “fix” any of these nations. However, the persistent and sometimes pervasive abuse of human rights as detailed by the State Department has security consequences for the U.S.

Rather than ignore the issue, the Trump administration should take the side of liberty and democracy. While America cannot remake the world, it could at least affirm the principle that governments should protect their people’s lives and dignity. If Washington succeeded in pushing the needle even a little on human rights, the world ultimately would be safer for Americans.

Possibly

Today [Sunday] marks the one-hundredth anniversary of Woodrow Wilson’s message to Congress asking for a declaration of war against the Central Powers. Thus the Great War began – a conflict that destroyed European civilization and set the stage for the rise of Bolshevism, Nazism, and the death of millions in World War II.

Wilson was the embodiment of the dominant ideological theme of the twentieth century: State-worship. In both the foreign and domestic realms, the great “progressive” President represented the twin aspects of statist ideology: war and the centralization of political authority. And his presidency was emblematic of the key link between these two aspects of the progressive ideology, as Murray Rothbard explained in a 1973 interview with Reason magazine. Every war in American history has been the occasion for a great leap forward in the power of the State to interfere in and regulate every aspect of our lives, he said, and a “huge increase in [government] power came out of World War I,” one that set the pattern up to the present day:

“World War I set both the foreign and the domestic policies for the twentieth century. Woodrow Wilson set the entire pattern for foreign policy from 1917 to the present. There is a total continuity between Wilson, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson and Nixon – the same thing all the way down the line.

“Q: You’d include Kennedy in that?

“A: Yes Kennedy, right. I don’t want to miss anybody. Every president has been inspired by Woodrow Wilson. It was reported that Richard Nixon’s first act when he came into the White House was to hang a picture of Woodrow Wilson in front of his desk. The same influence has held on domestic affairs. As a matter of fact if I had to single out – this is one of my favorites pastimes – the biggest SOB in American history in the sense of evil impact – I think Woodrow Wilson is way, way at the head of the list for many reasons. The permanent direction which Woodrow Wilson set for foreign policy included the permanent collective security concept, which means America has some sort of God-given role to push everybody around everywhere and set up little democratic governments all over the world, and to suppress any kind of revolution against the status quo – that means any kind of change in the status quo either domestic or foreign. In the domestic sphere the corollary was the shift from a relatively laissez-faire economy – corrupted as it was by the Civil War subsidies it was still and all a relatively laissez-faire capitalism – a deliberate shift to in essence a so-called corporate state.”


For a comprehensive analysis of how the triumph of progressivism led to the death and destruction of the Great War, read Rothbard’s “World War I as Fulfillment: Power and the Intellectuals.” Rothbard’s point about the perniciousness of the “collective security” concept – the very basis of US foreign policy in the modern era – is more relevant today than ever. Because the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election has ignited a great debate in the foreign policy community, pitting a platoon of “experts” who uphold the “liberal international order” against the “America first” policy favored by the Trumpians.

Well before Trump arose, the geopolitical picture prefigured the conditions that led to the Great War. The Western victory in the cold war, far from occasioning the abandonment of NATO, motivated the Western powers to expand the alliance to include the former Warsaw Pact nations. The Russians reacted as George Kennan, the author of the anti-Soviet “containment” strategy, predicted they would: with open hostility and an effort to create a buffer zone – Belarus, Ukraine, Hungary, Moldova – between the aggressive West and the Russian heartland. The second cold war was upon us.

This system of rival alliances limns the rivalries that led to the Great War – and the similarities are geographical as well as abstractly geopolitical. The site of this rivalry is in the Balkans, where the Great War broke out when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian ultra-nationalist. Now with the admittance of tiny Montenegro to NATO, we are living in a world where the internal turmoil of that country with a population equal to Albuquerque’s could lead to a confrontation between two nuclear-armed adversaries. Neighboring Ukraine, where a US-sponsored “color revolution” overthrew a pro-Russian government by force, has long been a flashpoint.

The Trump administration came into office vowing to “get along with Russia” – and this is the real issue behind the “Russia-gate” “investigation.” The entire national security bureaucracy, which has a material interest in maintaining our Russophobic foreign policy, reacted like a snake confronted in its lair, lashing out at the President and leaking information from their clandestine surveillance of the President and his advisors.

The entire focus of Trump’s foreign policy – analyzing what is in America’s (alleged) interests, rather than privileging the collective interests of “the West” as if they were identical to our own – is a dire threat to the old Wilsonian internationalist legacy that has dominated US foreign policy in modern times. Trump’s contention that NATO is “obsolete” sent them into paroxysms of fury. And while the Trumpian foreign policy vision, such as it is, doesn’t reject NATO outright, its definition of the “liberal international order” is much narrower than both the progressive internationalists and their neoconservative brethren find acceptable.

Despite considerable opposition from both parties, the Trump administration has already made the first moves to defuse rising tensions with Russia and forestall a 1914-like conflict. Trump has instructed the US military to focus on defeating ISIS rather than overthrowing Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, reversing US policy under the Obama administration: both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley have made public statements affirming this new stance. Assad, backed by Russia, has been in Washington’s crosshairs since George W. Bush’s presidency: here is yet another flashpoint where conflict with Russia has been avoided.

Furthermore, Tillerson is scheduled to travel to Russia for meetings with Putin and other top officials in what could be the prelude to a comprehensive agreement with Moscow over such contentious issues as Ukraine, nuclear arms, and US sanctions. The meeting will take place some time this month.

Prior to Trump taking office, the US was headed straight for a conflict with Russia. The NATO alliance, moving steadily eastward to the very gates of Moscow, had been conducting a two-pronged war: conducting provocative military “exercises” mimicking a a frontal assault on Russian territory while also launching a propaganda war targeting Russia and its allies for “regime change.” The stage was set for another 1914, in which a single small spark somewhere in the Balkans or Eastern Europe could have set off a global conflagration. And America’s “progressives” were – and are – the main agitators for war.

Indeed, Hillary Clinton – assumed by many to be the next President – campaigned on an explicitly anti-Russian platform, calling for a “military response” to the Kremlin’s alleged “interference” in the 2016 election. In the wake of her defeat, her supporters have continued and escalated these hysterics, calling the unproven assertion that Russia intervened in the election in Trump’s favor an “act of war.”

While the US continues to be bogged down in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, the Trump administration’s greatest achievement may be avoiding a conflict that didn’t happen – a feat they are unlikely to get any credit for, but one that is, nevertheless, notable. The issue of our relations with Russia continues to dominate both the domestic and the international arenas, and there’s a good reason for that. The end of the cold war did not eliminate the prospect of a conflict between these two nuclear-armed powers – indeed, in retrospect, it may have increased the chances of a catastrophic collision. If the Trump administration succeeds in eliminating or lessening this possibility – over the loud protests of the War Party – then that is a cause for celebration.

The victory of the West in the cold war put an end to a world divided between two ideologically opposed superpowers – and inaugurated a new global reality, albeit not the one our ruling elites expected and hoped for. The neoconservatives and their liberal internationalist allies assumed we would inherit a unipolar world, in which the US would predominate, but that hasn’t come to pass. Instead, we live in a multi-polar world, where not only Russia but also China, India, Iran, and others yet to emerge are contending for the advancement of their own interests.

In order to defend our legitimate interests while avoiding unnecessary conflicts, America must return to the foreign policy of the Founders, rejecting entangling alliances, abjuring the export of “democracy,” and pursuing a policy of nonintervention in the internal affairs of other nations. This is the path to peace – all others lead to perpetual war.

This is the lesson of World War I – a war that dragged in multiple combatants due to the system of rival alliances. Let’s hope the Trump administration has learned it – because our warlike “progressives” clearly have not.

"D.C.'s Plan to Hurt Poor People"

Daniel Mitchell at his best in Child Care, Head Start, Early Childhood Education, and Washington, D.C.’s Plan to Hurt Poor People.  The cartoon at the end of his piece is a classic!

Monday, April 3, 2017

So Much Truth In So Few Words

“I reject the right of the government to choose my friends and enemies for me.” – Bill Kelsey

Indeed, Bill, it makes no sense to allow the government to do so.

But the situation is much worse than such nonsensical allowance by the people at large. From time immemorial, the reigning myth of rule has been that the rulers provide a quid pro quo: in exchange for the people’s submission and payment of tribute, the rulers protect the people from the enemies who lurk “out there.” The promise was often unfulfilled, however. The lord of the manor might well flee into his castle, leaving the peasants outside the walls to suffer whatever outrages an invader chose to wreak on them. Or the lord might haul them off to a distant war in which they had no real interest, merely to satisfy the lord’s feudal obligation to the baron or duke just above him in the feudal pecking order.

Most important, however, is the sheer fact that the ordinary people’s most dangerous enemy, the one by far the most likely to plunder and abuse them, was their own impudent lord, the selfsame “nobleman” who forbade them to leave their place of birth or to engage in a variety of tasks and pleasures they might prefer—that is, the man who held and exploited them in a condition of serfdom.

Today as always, the “bad guys” from whom the government purports to protect the people are as a rule not a particularly serious threat to the people’s enjoyment of their life, liberty, and property in their own country. And when the threat is real, it is usually the product of provocation by the presumptive protector who rules the people at home. That people allow this rapacious government to decide one’s friends and enemies abroad (or at home, for that matter) is indeed preposterous. The root cause, however, is now ideological; it is the people’s nationalism, which causes them to stand idly by—or, in many cases, to cheer wildly—as their true enemy, the one who plunders and oppresses them every hour of every day, goes on its merry way of creating and supposedly combating foreign devils in order to frighten the people into submission, loyalty, and continued payment of tribute to their de facto lord of the manor.

Trump Must Learn from the Chinese

Doug Bandow is spot on with 7 Chinese Statecraft Tips for the Trump Administration: [notes: emphasis is mine and I have NO hope for ANY American politician with respect to #3]
If there’s a moment that should give Americans pause, it is Donald Trump, real-estate mogul and international ingénue, meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping, son of Mao Zedong confidante and victim of the Cultural Revolution, who climbed atop the world’s biggest political heap. Xi knows as much about Middle America as the U.S. president, having once spent time with a typical Midwestern family.

President Trump does not appear to be a man who devotes much time to preparing. But much depends on him learning about both China and Xi, particularly what motivates them. Forget Russia for a few days. The most important bilateral relationship in the world is that between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China.

The starting point should be to hire a few people to staff the State Department and other agencies. No secretary of state, no matter how talented and knowledgeable, can manage U.S. foreign policy alone. And the U.S.-China relationship is particularly complex.

Washington needs a strategy to deal with Asia’s rising power. Priorities must be set, trade-offs need to be evaluated and deals should be offered. Chinese responses ought to be predicted and gamed. Appropriate means must be developed to advance serious ends.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson isn’t going to draft the relevant memos. President Trump certainly won’t do so. And no one should want Steve Bannon, who already predicts war with China, to do so. Someone who knows something about China and Asia needs to bridge the gap between the State Department’s permanent employees and the secretary.

If the administration knows that it won’t be ready, then it should postpone the summit. Xi will be prepared. And he will be backed by a bureaucratic phalanx. Beijing will have an agenda and a strategy to advance its interests—so must Trump and company.

First, the administration must recognize that it can’t “win” on every issue. What is most important to the president? Limiting Chinese exports, defenestrating North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, deterring Beijing’s truculent maritime practices, raising Taiwan’s profile, restricting the Xi government’s economic advance in Africa or something else? Treating everything as if it is essential means that nothing is essential. Talking about everything means nothing will be decided.

Second, confrontation and military threats are likely to end badly. The U.S. armed forces are far more powerful than the People’s Liberation Army, but China has far more at stake in its neighborhood and therefore is willing to spend and risk far more to protect its interests. Moreover, Xi and the rest of China’s leadership direct a rising, nationalistic power not inclined to be bullied. President Trump should review the experience of a president he admires, Andrew Jackson. Washington can—and should—communicate its willingness to back vital interests with force, but do so “diplomatically.”

Third, the president needs to learn the art of diplomacy, and quickly. China might moderate how it pursues its territorial claims in the Asia-Pacific region, but will require something in return. Beijing is irritated with Pyongyang’s behavior, but to be convinced to apply greater pressure requires the United States to address the China’s interests and concerns. Demanding, which the administration often does, is different than persuading, which is actually necessary when dealing with a great power like China.

Fourth, President Trump should separate the interests of the United States and its allies, as well as distinguish between essential and peripheral concerns. Allies should be a means to an end, the defense of the United States. Washington shouldn’t protect other nations as an act of charity, especially against a nuclear-armed power. Moreover, America’s principle interest in, say, Japan and the Philippines is preserving their independence, not their control of unimportant and contested islets. Not much should be treated as worth war with the Chinese.

Fifth, the president should adapt U.S. policy in expectation that friendly states will do far more on behalf of their own interests. If the Philippines wants to go ship-to-ship with the Chinese (as it has done in the past and likely will do in the post-Duterte era), then it needs an effective navy, rather than relying on America’s fleet. Japan needs to be willing to employ the navy that it has. Changed circumstances warrant changed policies.

Sixth, the president should recognize that cheap imports are as much a benefit as expensive exports. Average folks, at least those not living on New York City’s Fifth Avenue, benefit from a lower cost of living. Exporters also do better when they purchase intermediate goods for less. And unless the Chinese start burning the dollars they collect for their exports, which actually would be great from an American standpoint, the money will come back to the United States as purchases or investments. There are issues worth bilateral negotiation, such as Chinese barriers to U.S. investment, but attempting to “balance” trade is simultaneously quixotic and harmful.

Seventh, it is vital to develop a generally civil and cooperative U.S.-China relationship. Differences are inevitable but conflict is not. Nevertheless, established, status-quo states usually hate to yield to rising powers. Beijing does not threaten the territory, population, wealth, or liberty of the United States. Rather, China is contesting American dominance along its border. That may be advantageous for the United States, but is hardly a vital concern worth war. And there is no reason to believe the participants would stop at one fight. France and Germany fought three times between 1870 and 1945. It took two horrendous global wars to determine Berlin’s place in the international order. Washington and Beijing should not go down a similar road.

The first meeting of the presidents from the world’s two most important nations is a major diplomatic moment. The leaders may not forestall future disputes, but hopefully they will create a process and relationship which make future solutions possible. To succeed, President Trump needs to become something he’s never been—a knowledgeable statesman. Much depends on his ability to surprise the rest of us with his transformation.

AKA "Bullshit"

David Henderson introduces Pierre Lemieux' The Economics of Political Balderdash (With a Few Examples).

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Must Read: 10 Things Most Americans Don’t Know About America

I agree with every single point raised by Mark Manson in his post, 10 Things Most Americans Don’t Know About America.  The two people that read this blog know that I do my best not to use the pronoun "we" or use the verb "should".  I find myself so tempted to say "we all should read this piece".  Awareness.  It's all about awareness ... and compassion ... and empathy.  My son once told me that the best thing about living abroad (Shanghai to be exact) was to "see America from the outside-in" and to hear how "foreigners" felt about the United States.  So true. 

A Worthy Read on the EU

12 People, Things That Ruined the EU.  I would like to see the European Union dissolve and a continent of thriving nations, with free trade and open borders, rise up in its place.  Forced marriages do not work, and culture and identity matter. 

Good For Her

Baltimore Mayor Supported $15 Minimum Wage Until She Learned What It Would Do to City’s Economy

No, Not at All

When Iran storms the beaches of New Jersey, or drop from the sky over Philly, then yes, I'm ready to roll, otherwise, absolutely not.  Ready for War With Iran?:
General Joseph Votel, U.S. Centcom commander, testified to the House Armed Services Committee this week that the greatest destabilizing force in the Middle East is Iran, and that the US must be prepared to use “military means” to confront and defeat the Iranian threat to the region.

No doubt Iran is a pest to US designs in the Middle East. No doubt Iran has its own agenda. No doubt Iran is no friend to Israel. But the greatest destabilizing force in the Greater Middle East? That’s the USA. We’re the ones who toppled Iraq in 2003, along with the legitimate government of Iran 50 years earlier.

Iran/Persia has lived in, and sometimes dominated, the Greater Middle East for 2500 years. By comparison, the USA is a newcomer on the block. Yet it’s the Iranians who are the destabilizers, the ones operating in a nefarious “grey zone” between peace and war, at least according to US generals.

Besides the disastrous US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which accidentally helped Iran, the US continues to sell massive amounts of weaponry to Iran’s rivals, most especially Saudi Arabia. US military operations in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East have both destabilized the region and created marketplaces for US weaponry and opportunities for economic exploitation by multinational corporations.

I’m no fan of Iran and its leaders, but can one blame them for resisting US military and economic incursions into their sphere of influence? Recall how we reacted when the Russians put missiles into Cuba. Look at all the hostile rhetoric directed today against Mexico and its allegedly unfair trade practices vis-à-vis the US

Let’s not forget that for 25 years (1953-78), the Shah of Iran was an American ally. The US military loved to sell him our most advanced weaponry, which at that time included F-14 Tomcat fighters and HAWK missile systems. That cozy relationship died with the Iranian Revolution (1979); ally turned to enemy as the US supported Saddam Hussein and Iraq during the bloody Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.

Yet, despite all this history, despite all the U.S. meddling, all the weapons sales, all the invasions and sanctions, somehow it’s the Iranians who are the destabilizing force, the ones deserving of more “disruptive” US military action.

As America’s designs are frustrated in the Middle East, American generals never look in the mirror to see their own faults and failings. Instead, they cast about for new countries to blame — and to attack. Iran is seemingly next on the list, a country that General Mattis, America’s Secretary of Defense, said is “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.”

Anyone for war with Iran? US generals are ready.

George Orwell

Well worth the 14 minutes.


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Quote of the Day




HT: The Burning Platform

Notice the Trigger Discipline




Courtesy of Wirecutter

Worthy Reads from Charles Hugh Smith


The Overlapping Crises Are Coming, Regardless of Who's in Power

When the "Solutions" Become the Problems

Must Read: The Dangers of a "Universal Basic Income"

Another idea that sounds feasible, and one that only an intellectual or politician can actually believe would work, is that of the Universal Basic Income (UBI).  Even for those that discuss the idea as an improvement on, or as the replacement for the multitude of welfare programs in place today, rest assured that it would improve nothing and above all things, it would not reduce poverty.  Remember, nothing is free and so long as government (politicians) manages the program, it will not work.  This is simply another program crafted on the idea of "good intentions", i.e., it "sounds" so right, so good and so appealing to common sense.  These are the programs that especially fail!  Remember as well, the one trait that is not so common in the halls of government is common sense.  Here's Nathan Keeble's take on The Dangers of a "Universal Basic Income":

Finland has announced that it is conducting a social policy “experiment” which deserves closer examination. Through 2017 and 2018, Finland will provide a guaranteed basic income of 560 euros to 2,000 randomly selected welfare recipients. This benefit will be subtracted from other, currently existing welfare benefits that participants may be receiving, and, crucially, the payments will continue regardless of any other income that is earned. If a participant of this program finds a job, the government will continue to pay them the 560 euros in addition to any other income.

The Finnish government hopes — and many believe — that this program will help to alleviate poverty as well as make inroads in reducing the country’s current 8.1 percent unemployment rate. This test trial is supposed to prove it, potentially opening the door for a full implementation of a universal basic income (UBI).

Why People Support a Universal Basic Income

The universal basic income is being considered as a partial or complete replacement to the current means-tested system of welfare. Under the current system, welfare recipients’ benefits taper off and eventually stop, completely, based upon how much income individuals independently earn. Naturally, this creates a disincentive to rejoin the labor force, because people fear a reduction in total income as welfare benefits are removed or if they believe the added income from a job isn’t worth the labor. Demonstrated very simply, if someone is currently receiving a total income of $1,100 through a means-tested welfare program, many will be less likely to seek a job which will result in similar income levels, as most prefer leisure to labor.

Supposedly, the UBI’s main innovation is that it manages to largely avoid this long standing failure. Since everyone would receive the established basic income regardless of other income earned, proponents believe that people would still have strong income based incentives to work. Some have gone even further, suggesting that the program will be a positive for employment because the financial cushion provided by a UBI will help people in the transition from unemployment to employment. For instance, a struggling entrepreneur or artist could, in part, rely on it while building support.

For these reasons, the UBI has gained support from the entire political spectrum, including libertarian-leaning think tanks like the Niskanen Center.

Where UBI Proponents Go Wrong

A universal basic income is not the god-sent welfare policy that it initially seems to be. It does not create incentive to work. It won’t help solve unemployment, and it will not alleviate poverty. The truth is that a UBI will exaggerate all of these factors in comparison to what would exist in a more unhampered market. There is even reason to think that it would be worse in the long run than traditional, means-tested welfare systems.

First, UBI does not eliminate the disincentives to work that are inherent in welfare programs; it simply moves them around. This program must be financed after all, and any welfare system, including the UBI, is necessarily a wealth redistribution scheme. Wealth must be forced from those who have it to those who do not. This means that at some point on the income ladder, people must go from being net receivers of benefits to being net payers of benefits.

The progressive taxation that is necessary to finance a UBI means that the more a person earns, the higher percentage of their wealth will be taken from them. The work disincentives are therefore still very much present in the tax system. They’ve simply been transferred onto different, higher income groups of people.

UBI Diminishes the Power of Consumers in Directing the Marketplace

The universal basic income shares another problem with traditional welfare systems. Far from promoting the unemployed from searching for work the market rewards, it actually subsidizes non-productive activities. The struggling entrepreneurs and artists mentioned earlier are struggling for a reason. For whatever reason, the market has deemed the goods they are providing to be insufficiently valuable. Their work simply isn’t productive according to those who would potentially consume the goods or services in question. In a functioning marketplace, producers of goods the consumers don't want would quickly have to abandon such endeavors and focus their efforts into productive areas of the economy. The universal basic income, however, allows them to continue their less-valued endeavors with the money of those who have actually produced value, which gets to the ultimate problem of all government welfare programs.

In the marketplace, wealth is earned by generating value. When someone buys a good, they’ve earned the money they are spending by having produced something else. This is not so with welfare programs like a universal basic income. Money is forcibly taken from those who have produced enough to earn it, and given to those who haven’t. This allows for people who aren’t producing wealth to continue to consume scarce goods. Eventually, all government welfare leads to the consumption of wealth, or, at the very least, a reduction in the amount of wealth that would have been accumulated otherwise. When entrepreneurs have less need to respond to the needs and desires of their customers, consumers will find themselves with fewer choices and with lower-quality choices.This means that overall welfare makes everyone poorer than they would have been in a free market.

How Finland Really Can Reduce Poverty

If Finland (or anywhere else) wishes to help alleviate poverty and unemployment, the best steps to take are in the directions of reducing the cost of living and creating conditions favorable to plentiful employment.
Charles Hugh Smith recently outlined the basics:
This may seem obvious, but the conditions required for work to be abundant and the cost of living to be low are not so obvious. For work to be abundant:
  • It must be easy to start a business.
  • It must be easy to operate the new business.
  • It must be easy to make a profit so the business can survive the first few years and,
  • It must be easy to hire employees.
All these factors require an environment of low-cost compliance with regulations, low tax rates, low costs of transactions, reasonable transport costs, reasonable cost of money (but not near-zero), reasonable availability of capital for small enterprises, local and national governments that actively seek to smooth the path of new enterprises and existing enterprises seeking to expand, and a transparent marketplace that isn't dominated by politically dominant cartels and subservient-to-cartels government agencies.
This matters because the number one cause of the high cost of living is artificial scarcity created and maintained by monopolies, cartels, and the government that serves their interests. Artificial scarcity imposed by cartels and a servile state is the primary cause of soaring costs in a variety of sectors.
In Scandinavia, as in most countries, its is becoming increasingly difficult to open and sustain businesses. In Scandinavia especially, labor unions exercise immense power over private business, pushing up costs and raising barriers to entrepreneurship and creating new businesses.

As has always been the case, it is necessary to create wealth before it is possible to redistribute it, and policies that encourage movement toward less productive types of work will fail to produce the wealth that government planners would like to spread around.

(For a discussion of the ethical case against a UBI, see David Gordon’s article, A “Libertarian” Argument for the Welfare State.)

For more, listen to one of my favorite economists who actually supports the UBI, in this latest podcast from EconTalk, as Russ Roberts interviews Mike Munger.

1/27/2017:  Bryan Caplan weighs in on the topic in his latest, The Many Faces of Means-Testing

New 2/6/2017:   Edwin Dolan replies to Bryan Caplan (above) in Why Should a Libertarian Take Universal Basic Income Seriously?

2/7/2017:  Bryan Caplan's reply to Edwin Dolan, UBI: Reply to Dolan

2/8/2017:  Dolan replies to Caplan in the comments section in UBI: Ed Dolan Responds

2/9/2017:  Caplan's Rejoinder on UBI

2/13/2017:  Caplan's Final Reply to Dolan on the UBI, For Now

New:  3/29/2017:   UBI and Health Care: What's Wrong With Murray's Approach by Bryan Caplan

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Of Course He Does! What,You're Surprised?

U.S. military officials are investigating an airstrike in Mosul, Iraq's second largest city which has been mostly occupied by ISIS since June 2014. Iraqis have said up to 200 civilians could've been killed in the strike, and an initial review by the U.S. military found that "scores" of civilians were killed after a building hit by U.S. airstrikes collapsed a few days later, as The New York Times reports. U.S. investigators are now trying to find out whether the airstrike caused the building to collapse or whether ISIS may have detonated an explosive there instead.

The New York Times also reports that according to at least one Iraqi officer there had been "a noticeable relaxing of the coalition's rules of engagement" since President Trump took office. "Before, Iraqi officers were highly critical of the Obama administration's rules, saying that many requests for airstrikes were denied because of the risk that civilians would be hurt," The Times continued. "Now, the officer said, it has become much easier to call in airstrikes."

The Trump administration has rejected such suggestions. While Trump has asked commanders in January to look at relaxing restrictions on airstrikes, military officials say that has not happened yet. "We go out of our way to always do everything humanly possible to reduce the loss of life or injury among innocent people," Defense Secretary James Mattis said at a Pentagon press conference, according to The Washington Post. "The same cannot be said for our adversaries and that is up to you to sort out." The Post reports that according to Airwars, a monitoring group based in the United Kingdom, the frequency of alleged civilian deaths in U.S. strikes in Iraq and Syria has surpassed civilian deaths there linked to Russian strikes.

The Mosul strike comes as the U.S. is increasing troop levels in Iraq, and Syria, as part of the campaign against ISIS. The Military Times reports that an unknown number of U.S. combat troops have been ordered into northern Iraq, likely to participate in the ongoing effort to secure Mosul from ISIS. The U.S. is also sending more troops into Syria, with at least 500 being sent to take part in the attack on Raqqa, ISIS' de facto capital, something Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Ct.) wrote happened without any official notification. "President Trump has been busy dramatically expanding the American troop presence inside Syria," Murphy wrote in an op-ed for the Hartford Courant. "And virtually no one in Washington has noticed. Americans have a right to know what Trump is planning and whether this will lead to an Iraq-style occupation of Syria for years to come."

The Trump administration has already signaled it will keep U.S. troops in Iraq after the campaign against ISIS is over. "The military power of the coalition will remain where this fraudulent caliphate has existed in order to set the conditions for a full recovery from the tyranny of ISIS," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said even as there is no end in sight for the war against ISIS. ISIS, in any case, is a successor organization to Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which gained a foothold in that country only because of the 2003 U.S. invasion. The overall Al-Qaeda network traces its roots back to terrorist organizations around back in the 1990s. The September 11th attacks, which neither Al-Qaeda nor any other Islamist terrorist group has been able to come anywhere close to since, gave the group new life by dragging the U.S. and its allies into protracted conflicts around the Muslim world that have only served to increase the number of safe havens for such terrorist groups.

In Afghanistan, which was one of the only safe havens for Islamist terror groups before 9/11 but is now one of many, Gen. John Nicholson, is continuing to push for additional troops in Afghanistan, telling The Sunday Times that the U.S. and Europe need to send 5,000 more troops to Afghanistan. "Failure here would embolden terrorists globally," Nicholson said, ignoring that the last decade-plus of failures there has already done so. The U.S. would have been best off leaving Afghanistan after largely destroying the Al-Qaeda network there in the early 2000s. Nicholson's push for what essentially amounts to more nation-building cuts against Trump's campaign rhetoric against nation-building, but fits into Trump's campaign and presidential rhetoric about escalating the war on terror.

The Trump administration has its eyes on Yemen as well, where it has already conducted more airstrikes in the first third of the year than the U.S. had in all of 2016. Mattis has requested that the White House lift restrictions on U.S. military support for the Saud-led coalition in the Yemen civil war, writing to the national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, that "limited support" would help combat a "common threat." Yemen has been embroiled in a civil war that erupted two years ago when Houthi rebels alleged to be backed by Iran overthrew the U.S.-backed authoritarian government. Since then, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which the U.S. had previously spent years bombing, has benefited from Saudi Arabia's air campaign, filling the void created by Saudi bombing. The Trump administration has already ramped up its counterterrorism operations in Yemen—U.S. involvement in the actual civil war itself is no guarantee Al-Qaeda won't continue to be a benefactor of the now two-year-old war. The Trump administration is "reviewing" its overall Yemen policy, and that process is supposed to be completed next month.

A bipartisan effort to get Congress to vote on specific authorizations for the use of military force against ISIS as well as against Yemen, meanwhile, has gotten nowhere, despite Trump's openness on the campaign trail for just such an authorization. Congress' failure over the last decade to either specifically authorize ongoing U.S. military campaigns (let alone actually declaring a war as prescribed in the Constitution) or to defund them has accelerated the accumulation of military power in the executive branch at the expense of the legislative branch's constitutional role. That process, in turn, has made it easier for political inertia to lead to ever-more military quagmires. Like Obama, Trump will keep pushing the envelope on executive military power. Congress is running out of time to push back.