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Vladimir Putin opened a new game of high stakes geopolitical poker, backing Syria’s President Bashir Assad. But Washington has no complaint. America has been meddling in Syria’s tragic civil war from the start.

Russia’s dramatic backing for Syria’s beleaguered Assad government formally buries any illusion that “what Washington says goes,” even in the Middle East. Moscow has begun bombing regime opponents. Sounding almost like the George W. Bush administration, the Putin government insisted that it was fighting terrorism and there really wasn’t a “moderate opposition.”

In contrast, Russia’s intervention has resulted in much wailing and gnashing of teeth in allied capitals. In a joint statement America, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Kingdom claimed that Moscow’s intervention would “only fuel more extremism and radicalization.” The Gulf States separately warned of more “violent extremism” and “terrorists” and increased refugee flows.

Alas, promiscuous American military intervention in the Middle East long has promoted the worst forms of violence and terrorism. Further, for years Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been important sources of finance for “extremism and radicalization.”

Nevertheless, President Barack Obama declared that Moscow risked a “quagmire.” Probably true. Of course, the U.S. understands quagmires, having spent 13 years unsuccessfully attempting to bring democracy to Afghanistan and being drawn back toward a combat role in Iraq.

Secretary of State John Kerry intoned that “Russia has made a catastrophic mistake because they will be siding … against the entire rest of the community in that part of the world,” which mostly means the dictatorial Gulf monarchies, highlighted by totalitarian Saudi Arabia. He also complained about the potential ill consequences—after Washington’s extraordinary record in destabilizing the region, destroying nations, spreading conflicts, creating refugees, and harming noncombatants.

“Any military support to the Assad regime for any purpose, whether it’s in the form of military personnel, aircraft, supplies weapons, or funding, is both destabilizing and counterproductive,” asserted White House spokesman Josh Earnest. Actually, U.S. support for Assad’s overthrow is both destabilizing and counterproductive. Just like invading Iraq and intervening in Libya.

There’s little the U.S. actually can do, at least at reasonable cost, to stop Russia. Washington could push for more sanctions, but the Europeans aren’t going to destroy what remains of their relationship with Moscow over Syria. Even the most war-happy neoconservative hasn’t called for blasting the Russian planes out of the sky.

Certainly U.S. officials have no credibility in claiming that their policy will yield a better result. Washington has intervened repeatedly in the Middle East with disastrous consequences.

America’s participation in the 1953 coup in Iran set that nation on a path toward violent Islamic revolution. Fear of the new Islamic republic caused Washington to back Saddam Hussein’s Iraq against Tehran, which encouraged Hussein to assume he could attack Kuwait with impunity, which in turn triggered America’s first war with Iraq.

To “drain the swamp” Washington invaded Iraq in 2003, wrecking that society, triggering violent sectarian conflict, generating millions of casualties and refugees, expanding Iranian influence, and empowering a new sectarian Shia government. The Sunni insurgency morphed into the Islamic State which, with the aid of former Baathist soldiers, grabbed control over much of Iraq and Syria.

As I point out on Forbes online: “The U.S. and its European allies also helped destroy Libya, resulting in more chaos and another fertile ground for the Islamic State. In Yemen Washington is backing Saudi aggression which has turned a long-term civil war into another horrid sectarian conflict. Weapons given to supposedly moderate Syrian insurgents have ended up with ISIL forces.”

Yet Washington is filled with voices demanding that America intervene more.

The Assad regime is blood drenched and Moscow’s efforts in Syria are likely to have ill effects. But Washington bears most of the blame for wrecking and destabilizing the Middle East.

Russia’s intervention is merely the latest unintended consequence of foolish, irresponsible U.S. behavior. Maybe Vladimir Putin can make Washington policymakers finally learn from their many mistakes.

Friday’s disappointing jobs report reminds us that we are still in a very slow recovery from the 2007 recession. Not only were far fewer jobs created in September than economists predicted, the estimates for July and August were revised downward. And the size of the total workforce slipped to 62.4 percent of the population, the lowest level since 1977.

The Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank has a handy tool for monitoring the depressing news, allowing you to compare this recovery to past recoveries since World War II. Output (GDP) is recovering more slowly than in past recoveries, along with employment:

Why is the recovery so slow? John Cochrane of the Hoover Institution examined that question in the Wall Street Journal a year ago. Here’s part of his answer:

Where, instead, are the problems? John Taylor, Stanford’s Nick Bloom and Chicago Booth’s Steve Davis see the uncertainty induced by seat-of-the-pants policy at fault. Who wants to hire, lend or invest when the next stroke of the presidential pen or Justice Department witch hunt can undo all the hard work? Ed Prescott emphasizes large distorting taxes and intrusive regulations. The University of Chicago’s Casey Mulligan deconstructs the unintended disincentives of social programs. And so forth. These problems did not cause the recession. But they are worse now, and they can impede recovery and retard growth.

If you put obstacles in the way of investment and employment, you’ll likely get less investment and employment.

A new e-book edited by Brink Lindsey, Reviving Economic Growth, presents ideas from 51 economists of widely varying perspectives on this crucial question.

It should surprise no one that Cato tends to be an outsider in Washington. At least on the domestic policy side we usually have some allies hiding somewhere along the ideological spectrum. Conservatives are more likely to support free markets; liberals are more likely to back civil liberties.

But on foreign policy Cato often stands pretty much alone. Almost everyone in the foreign policy field can be counted on to endorse every existing alliance and insist that it be “strengthened.” No matter that the Cold War is over, Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact are gone, Maoist China has disappeared, and most of America’s friends and allies have “grown up,” becoming democratic and prosperous. Whatever has been must always be is the seeming motto for liberals and conservatives alike on foreign policy.

Unfortunately, most of the debate in Washington occurs between opposing establishment advocates of the status quo. Everyone knows we should intervene. The only questions are how much more bombing is appropriate, what new tactics might prove to be more effective in imposing Washington’s will, and, most important, how to get a different result doing a lot more of the same?

But I recently had an opportunity to crash an establishment event. Actually, perhaps more surprising, I was invited to participate. The Council on Foreign Relations staged a discussion on NATO’s future in which I joined James Goldgeier, dean of the School of International Service at the American University. Thom Shanker of the New York Times served as moderator.

It was an eminently civil affair, as Council events almost inevitably are. Goldgeier enjoys disagreeing without being disagreeable; in fact, he has participated in Cato events at our invitation. Shanker, a long-time reporter before ascending to editor, has strong interest in the issues and knowledge of the facts. The audience joined in, asking good, serious questions.

Perhaps most striking was the fact that everyone appeared to acknowledge that the alliance was seriously dysfunctional, with European countries unwilling to spend much on their own behalf while expecting America to make up any gaps. Where Goldgeier and I disagreed was whether the organization was too important for Washington to abandon. He thought so, while I contended that the end of the Cold War and rise of Europe allows America to finally turn over defense duties to those being defended.

The audience also seemed greatly frustrated with the behavior of our “allies.” While I can’t say the majority were ready to join my “out of NATO” parade, they did not seem shocked by my criticism of Washington’s most important pact. Even on foreign policy Cato’s ideas increasingly have a place in serious policy discussions. That’s all to the good, given how dramatically status quo ideas have failed. Especially in the international arena.

We still have a long way to go to change policy. But events continue to affirm the warnings that Cato scholars have made since the Institute’s founding about the dangers of promiscuous intervention. I look forward to more events, like that held by the Council, to make the case for a foreign policy that more effectively protects America—its people, territory, market economy, constitutional order, and dedication to individual liberty.

Today the U.S. underwrites the defense of wealthy nations across the globe. Washington should stop using the Pentagon as a global welfare agency.

Uncle Sam at least should charge for his defense services, as Donald Trump has suggested. America shouldn’t be defending its rich friends for free.

Most Republican Party presidential candidates insist that Washington do more on behalf of its already subsidized, protected, coddled, and reassured allies. Why do U.S. politicians put the interests of other nations before those of America?

The Pentagon devotes much of its resources to defend other nations, mostly wealthy industrialized states. In most of these cases America has no important, let alone vital, interests at stake. Instead, Washington should allow allies and friends to protect themselves.

But if Washington policymakers are determined to remain in charge irrespective of Americans’ interests, a second best would be to make those being defended pay. As Trump observed: “I keep asking, how long will we go on defending South Korea from North Korea without payment?”

How much should Washington charge? Consider some rough numbers. For instance, Washington might charge one percent of GDP for providing a standard defense.

Defending countries with globe-spanning interests could result in greater complications for America. In such cases the U.S. should add another percent to its fee.

Some nations are enmeshed in military confrontations which threaten to draw in allies and friend. Add an extra percent to the price.

An American nuclear guarantee takes the risks for America to a new level. Providing a “nuclear umbrella” warrants another one percent. Finally, countries which don’t seem interested in their own defense, or at least interested enough to spend much on their own behalf, should pay a one percent surcharge.

Such an approach would generate significant revenues for the U.S.

European states would owe a base one percent, or $185 billion. For devoting so little to the military the EU, minus the four countries spending more than two percent of GDP on the military, would have to kick in another $147 billion.

The Baltic States and Poland would owe an extra $13 billion for being involved in a potential conflicts and receiving a nuclear guarantee. France, United Kingdom, and Germany would need to kick in an extra $96 billion for extras (global interests or nuclear umbrella).

Canada would owe $18 billion. Saudi Arabia should pay three percent, or $22.4 billion: basic fee plus add-ons for potential conflict and a combination of (reduced) charges for commercial global involvement and possible nuclear guarantee. The other Gulf States should pay $8.9 billion.

Japan would owe four percent—for standard defense, nuclear umbrella, minimal military outlays, and a combination of economic international involvement and limited potential conflict—or $184 billion. South Korea would owe the standard fee plus surcharges for potential conflict and nuclear guarantee, or $42 billion. Australia should pay one percent, or $15 billion. The Philippines would owe two percent, given the potential for conflict, yielding $5.7 billion.

The grand total comes to $737 billion, which would cover the roughly $570 billion likely to be spent on the military next year. The extra would go for defense-related expenses, such as veterans’ benefits and the interest on money borrowed to pay to defend other states.

Of course, some countries might refuse to pay. But Washington should indicate that if they don’t, they will be on their own. The easiest way for states to avoid paying America for its efforts would be to defend themselves.

As I explained on Forbes online: “With the U.S. functionally bankrupt, Washington should lay down the burden of acting as the globe’s combination policeman, social engineer, and welfare agent. But if policymakers can’t get over the idea of attempting to manage the affairs of every other nation, at least they should insist on charging for services provided at American citizens’ expense. That would allow Washington to cover its own defense costs, which would be a good start.”

SHANGHAI, CHINA—Shanghai, China’s financial capital, enjoys a double skyline. The city proper, or “old city,” sports a fascinating mix of colonial buildings and modern architecture. The “New Area” of Pudong hosts Shanghai’s four tallest structures, on the east bank of the Huangpu River.

In contrast, when I first visited Shanghai a couple decades ago there were few buildings, commercial or residential, racing skyward. Pudong was mostly empty, with more brush and trash blowing down the streets than buildings with people working in them.

But there is another China. More distant towns offer a vision into the past—more traditional, less advanced, more isolated. Shift to the nearby countryside and incomes drop substantially, averaging less than $2000 per capita. My traveling group stopped by the remains of an ancient fortress and the Great Wall, which required walking along dirt roads lined by homes constructed with bricks taken from the ruins. The primitive toilet had holes in the wooden floor, through which the ground was visible.

However, while poor, the residents, too, were increasingly better off. The main street sported two stores with modern food and sundries. I spotted a farmer leading two cows with one hand while speaking on his cellphone in the other. Now modernity meets tradition even in rural China.

Much depends on the People’s Republic of China’s future. Political and business leaders alike agree that economic development remains Beijing’s priority. And continued economic growth is the Chinese Communist Party’s principal claim to legitimacy.

National pride mixes with personal frustration over government restrictions on liberty. Virtually everyone, including CCP officials, publicly affirm the importance of democratic values and human rights. But they soon follow with warnings against threats of disunity and the sort of chaos evident in the Arab Spring.

Younger Chinese speak with horror of what their parents went through during the Cultural Revolution. Criticism of government policy is freely expressed in conversation. Censorship and repression usually appear only when such sentiments are magnified through social or traditional media.

No one outside of government seems happy with internet restrictions. However, some people noted that bans on sites such as Twitter, YouTube, and the New York Times were of interest mostly to elites who speak English. And these people are most able to circumvent such restrictions.

While there are American-style liberals in China, some intellectuals and others view freedom through a different, and they say Chinese, prism. Some reject U.S.-style democracy without exactly affirming CCP-led autocracy.

No one in the PRC wants conflict with America. Although China’s military power is growing, that of the U.S. is unmatched. Moreover, Beijing policymakers are aware of the close economic connection between the two nations which has proved to be so profitable for the PRC. Still, virtually everyone backs their government’s broad territorial claims in the Asia-Pacific.

Despite everything, it’s hard not to come away from visiting China with a sense of hope. The country is so much more prosperous than before, which increases Beijing’s stake in a stable international order.

The PRC also is freer, despite the recent crackdown on dissent. Religion is spreading despite attempts to reduce its visibility. Criticism is widespread, even though such views cannot be broadcast.

As I wrote in Forbes: “While Chinese international power undoubtedly is increasing, Beijing will remain constrained by poverty, demography, and geography. A more assertive foreign and military policy has encouraged the PRC’s neighbors to arm themselves, cooperate with their neighbors, and move toward the U.S., a dubious trifecta for China.”

Both sides need to work to maintain peace. In Shanghai the Chinese have built a modern, world-class city out of colonial humiliation. Yet citizens of the one-time oppressors are joining to create a prosperous city and nation.

Today Shanghai is a natural in its new financial role, just like London and New York. Hopefully its success, and that of the rest of China, will help keep the Chinese people focused on building a peaceful future.

In the federal government, employees are paid to faithfully execute the laws, but they often pursue self-serving goals counter to those of the general public. Unionized federal workers actively oppose legislators who support reforms. Agency leaders try to maximize their budgets by exaggerating problems in society. They leak biased information to the media to ward off budget cuts. They put forward the most sensitive spending cuts in response to proposed reductions, which is the “Washington Monument” strategy.

Federal officials signal to the public that they are solving problems without actually solving them. Security agencies, for example, use “security theater” techniques that are visible to the public but do not make us safer.

Officials often trumpet the supposedly great jobs they are doing, but hide agency failures from the public. And officials stonewall congressional requests for information that may shed a bad light on them.

I describe these and other bureaucratic failures in this new essay at Downsizing Government.

The Washington Post reports on other ways that bureaucrats serve themselves and not the public. In one story the other day, the paper reported:

An assistant director of the Secret Service urged that unflattering information the agency had in its files about a congressman critical of the service should be made public, according to a government watchdog report released Wednesday.

That effort to smear Rep. Jason Chaffetz is disgraceful, but it is topped by another one in the Post the same day:

Senior executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs manipulated the hiring system to coerce two managers to accept job transfers against their will — then stepped into the vacant positions themselves, keeping their pay while reducing their responsibilities.

The executives also gamed VA’s moving-expense system for a total of $400,000 in what a new report by the agency’s watchdog described as questionable reimbursements, with taxpayers paying $300,000 for one of them to relocate 140 miles, from Washington to Philadelphia, Pa.

Rubens and Graves kept their salaries of $181,497 and $173,949, respectively, even though the new positions they took as directors of the Philadelphia and St. Paul, Minn. regional offices had way less responsibility, overseeing a fraction of the employees at lower pay levels. Rubens had been deputy undersecretary for field operations.

By and large, the federal government is not full of people that help us. They tax us, regulate us, defend their bureaucracies, and some of them try to actively fleece us. So in structuring the government, a basic assumption should be that it will not be populated by “public servants,” but by people who are in it for themselves. That is one reason why all of us should want to keep the government’s power strictly limited.

For more of the workings of the bureaucracy, see “Bureaucratic Failure in the Federal Government.”

As expected, Chinese President Xi Jinping raised the issue of antidumping abuse during his recent visit to Washington.  Specifically, he called on the United States to stop using “nonmarket economy” methodology when imposing antidumping duties on imports from China.  The issue is going to become more and more pressing as a diplomatic problem over the next year, because the United States is required under WTO rules to end NME treatment by December 2016. 

NME methodology is one of many ways the United States inflates the protectionist impact of U.S. antidumping law.  My colleague Dan Ikenson has thoroughly documented the senselessness of NME treatment.  Last year, I wrote a Cato Policy Analysis looking at how U.S. officials and policymakers might respond to the December 2016 deadline.

That deadline coincides closely with the end of President Obama’s term in office.  The president can choose to leave his successor years of trade conflict and WTO litigation by refusing to act.  Or he can do the right thing for the American economy and U.S.–China relations by ending NME treatment as soon as possible. 

In today’s Cato Online Forum essay, Per Altenberg from the Swedish Board of Trade makes an interesting political economy argument and a compelling practical case for why the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership will be a tough slog. Altenberg argues that the old model for trade negotiations, premised as it is on mercantilist reciprocity, which leverages the interests of exporters against import-competing industries to secure domestic support for liberalization, is no longer functional in a world where trade is dominated by intermediate goods trade along global value chains. Today, openness to trade is seen as essential, and trade negotiations cover matters that probe deeply into domestic regulatory space. To sum up, Per writes:

Traditional 20th-century reciprocity in market access negotiations will thus not be an effective mechanism in the context of 21st-century deep integration negotiations such as TTIP. Instead, deep integration issues require new approaches to trade negotiations.

Per’s essay elaborates on those approaches.  Read it.  Provide feedback.  And please register for Cato’s TTIP conference on October 12. 

Is capitalism a coercive system that creates poverty, as a recent article in the Washington Post argued, or is it a system of voluntary exchange that has led to the greatest reduction in poverty the world has ever seen?

According to the article, “capitalism is a coercive economic system that creates persistent patterns of economic deprivation,” and should be altered through the introduction of a universal basic income. While a guaranteed income is an interesting policy proposal with pros and cons, the article’s claims that capitalism is coercive and creates economic deprivation are both unfounded.

First, let us consider whether capitalism is “coercive.” The author writes,

The only way to break the coercion at the core of the employment relationship is to give people the genuine ability to say no to their employers. And the only way to make that feasible is to guarantee that [they] have some way to support themselves whether they work or not.

Of course, people already possess the genuine ability to say no to their employers. In the United States alone, around 2 million people voluntarily leave their jobs every month—and that’s despite a lackluster economy. Employees in a capitalist system choose to engage in a relationship of mutually beneficial exchange. Employers recognize this and companies compete to become more attractive as workplaces. According to Gallup, the majority of Americans are satisfied with most aspects of their workplace—particularly with their job security, the flexibility of their schedules, and with their immediate supervisors.

Second, let us examine the article’s claim that capitalism creates economic deprivation. According to the author, capitalism harms both workers and those who cannot work. If that is so, can the author, or anyone else for that matter, point to a time in history when the vulnerable were better off? In many ways, today’s poor live better than the kings of yesteryear.

Over the last few decades, infant and child mortality have been drastically reduced, lifespans are at an all-time high, fewer people are undernourished, educational attainment is growing, gender inequality is decreasing, and access to technology is expanding.

Free enterprise and innovation have done more to uplift humanity from a state of universal poverty than any international aid program or welfare scheme. Capitalism, far from being a cause of poverty, is the reason that there is enough wealth today to even contemplate a proposal like a universal basic income.

The longest running show on Broadway is The Phantom of the Opera at 27 years. The longest running show on television is Meet the Press at 68 years. The longest running show of waste in Washington is cost overruns on Pentagon weapon systems. That show has been ongoing for more than 220 years.

As one of the first major procurements under the Constitution, the federal government bought six Navy frigates in 1794. The ships were projected to cost $688,889, but a myriad of problems pushed the ultimate cost up 70 percent to $1,176,721. Nicole Kaeding and I mention that project and many recent ones in our new study “Federal Government Cost Overruns.”

The Washington Post reports today on yet another troubled defense program:

As the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier enters the annals of troubled acquisition programs—billions over budget, years behind schedule—it follows a familiar script, becoming yet another example of how the Pentagon struggles with buying major weapons systems.

The Navy’s program has become “one of the most spectacular acquisition debacles in recent memory. And that is saying something,” McCain (R-Ariz.) said during a Senate hearing on the troubled program Thursday.

The program is now $6 billion over budget, according to a review by McCain’s staff. And while the lead ship is expected to be delivered next year, the second ship in the fleet is five years behind schedule and won’t be ready until 2024.

Like many other programs, the Ford-class carriers suffered from unrealistic cost estimates and overly optimistic timelines. And key Pentagon officials pushed the program forward even though key technologies hadn’t been fully tested, developed or designed, officials testified.

The problem with Pentagon procurement is not just that federal officials deceive taxpayers about the costs of projects, but also that many cancelled projects—which never should have been started—end up throwing billions of dollars down the drain.

A story yesterday in the Washington Post put a staggering number on that aspect of waste:

The Pentagon spent $46 billion on at least a dozen programs, including a new fleet of presidential helicopters, between 2001 and 2011 that never became operational, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

The Post reports that there are serious efforts to reform procurement currently moving forward. After 220 years of waste, military purchasing is long overdue for an overhaul.

As economists have understood for more than half a century, government agencies charged with regulating industries are often subject to regulatory capture. Rather than protect consumers from bad actors in the industries they were created to oversee, regulators too often develop cozy relationships with industry leaders and work at their behest to advance their interests. In Free to Choose, Milton and Rose Friedman detailed a particularly egregious example: the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC).

Established in 1887, the ICC’s mission was to regulate the powerful railroad industry, which critics accused of engaging in cartel-like price fixing and market sharing. Instead, the railroad industry took almost immediate control of the ICC. The ICC’s first commissioner, Thomas Cooley, was a lawyer who had long represented the railroads and, as the Friedmans explained, many of the agency’s the bureaucrats “were drawn from the railroad industry, their day-to-day business tended to be with railroad people, and their chief hope of a lucrative future was with railroads.” 

Rather than protect the consumers from the railroads, the ICC primarily protected the railroads. The ICC raised prices on consumers, shielded the railroads from state and local regulations, and even protected the railroads from outside competition. In the 1920s, the nascent trucking industry was emerging as the railroads’ most serious competitors. Like Uber against the taxi cartel, the lower-cost trucking industry benefited from the artificially high prices of the railroad cartel. And also like the taxi cartel, rather than seek deregulation, the railroad cartel turned to their friends in government to put the brakes on their “unregulated” competition. The bureaucrats all-too-happily complied. In 1933, the Motor Carrier Act gave the ICC authority over the trucking industry, which it used to limit the number of trucks that could operate on the roads and otherwise constrain the trucking industry. Fortunately, the railroad industry was significantly deregulated in the early 1980s and the ICC was abolished in 1995.

Milton Friedman - Do-Gooders And Special Interest

If regulatory capture is a common problem among the regulators of private industries, it can be even more acute when one government agency is overseeing other agencies. Bureaucrats at the various state departments of education tend to identify with the district schools they oversee and seek to protect them from outside competition. Lawmakers who support greater educational choice should keep this in mind when crafting choice policies. It is unwise to give an agency the power to regulate the primary competition to its core constituency.

Examples of state education agencies trying to undermine school choice initiatives abound. In Wisconsin, home to the nation’s first school voucher program, the Department of Public Instruction is currently subjecting private schools accepting vouchers to intrusive audits:

“I’ve been a CPA for 25 years and I’ve never seen anything like DPI’s approach to the audits of choice schools,” Noel Williams told Wisconsin Watchdog.

Williams, managing partner of Williams CPA in Milwaukee, has worked as an auditor for MPCP schools for 10 years. […]

“Although the law does allow DPI to follow-up with the auditor to clarify things that weren’t clear, in my opinion, DPI has grossly abused that power. Every one of the audit firms I’m acquainted with has gotten countless phone calls and emails on every audit report, requesting copies of data, clarification as to how they arrived at a conclusion.”

“It seems DPI’s intent has been to make it difficult and unpleasant to work with choice schools,” Williams said.

Indeed, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and EAG News issued a report in 2013 detailing the Wisconsin DPI’s history of abuses against choice schools, including the use of audits to “harass and intimidate” them, withholding funding intended for private schools, forcing applicants to jump through hoops and provide lots of information and documentation not required by law, and more.

This summer, the Mississippi Department of Education initially limited the application period for the state’s new education savings account program to just 10 days in a move choice supporters called “unworkable” and “inconsistent with the law” which not only imposed no such application window, but actually stated that applications must be accepted on a rolling basis. The department eventually relented due to public outcry, but it’s unlikely to be the last of the DOE’s shenanigans.

Meanwhile, the New Hampshire Department of Education is trying to eliminate the town tuitioning program created by the village of Croydon (population 764). The village is too small to maintain its own school system so after 4th grade, it contracts with neighboring towns to provide schooling. In 2007, as its contract neared expiration, the village school board decided to pay for students to attend the district or private school of their family’s choice, similar to arrangements in nearby Vermont and Maine. However, the state DOE demanded that they cease and desist last fall. The town’s attorney, former NH supreme court justice Charles Douglas, argues that the state’s attempt to terminate the program is on shaky legal grounds. After nearly a year of negotiations, the state issued an ultimatum: terminate the program or the state will withhold its funding. The village is now trying to crowdfund a legal defense fund.

There are exceptions to the rule. The Florida Department of Education has a strong track record of supporting the state’s school choice programs. However, that could change as the political pendulum swings, as Indiana has demonstrated. And even where the top official at a state education agency support educational choice, there is no guarantee that the bureaucrats who preceded him or her will share that view or competently manage choice programs. Under John Huppenthal, Arizona’s DOE was ostensibly pro-school choice yet the agency repeatedly botched implementation of the state’s education savings account program.

Where some regulation or state program implementation is necessary, wise lawmakers have invested that authority in the state department of revenue, where the green-eyeshade bureaucrats are less likely to have an axe to grind against school choice than the state education establishment. Several states have already taken this approach, particularly for scholarship tax credit laws. Likewise, Nevada’s new education savings account is administered by the State Treasurer.

In “Fiddler on the Roof,” someone asks the town’s rabbi if there is a proper blessing for the tsar. “Of course!” replies the rabbi, “May G-d bless and keep the tsar… far away from us!” Educational choice policies should be similarly blessed.

Remember George Carlin’s hilarious skit about plastics? Here is the transcript:

“The planet … is a self-correcting system. The air and the water will recover, the earth will be renewed. And if it’s true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic. The earth doesn’t share our prejudice toward plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place. It wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old egocentric philosophical question, ‘Why are we here?’”

Not so fast! According to a new study published in Environmental Science and Technology by co-authors Professor Jun Yang and Yu Yang of Beihang University, and Stanford University engineer Wei-Min Wu, plastic is biodegradable.

“Plastic, long considered nonbiodegradable and one of the biggest contributors to global pollution, might have met its match: the small, brownish, squirmy mealworm. Researchers have learned that the mealworm can live on a diet of Styrofoam and other types of plastic. Inside the mealworm’s gut are microorganisms that are able to biodegrade polyethylene, a common form of plastic.”

Good news for the planet and for humanity.

Most of the controversy over government surveillance programs in the last few years has focused on fears of what the NSA or FBI might do with the personal data they’ve collected on Americans guilty of no crime. But what if you’ve applied for a federal job? Surely that information would not be misused or improperly accessed, particularly since it is protected by the Privacy Act?

That’s probably what now-Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) thought when he applied for a job with the Secret Service in 2003. But as the chairman of the powerful House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Chaffetz earned the hatred of many in the Secret Service for his investigations into the agency’s many recent blunders and scandals. Thanks to a Department of Homeland Security Inspector General investigation into the leak of Chaffetz’ 2003 Secret Service application, we now have an idea of how extensive the leak of his personal information was throughout the agency. As the IG noted:

We were unable to determine with certainty how many of those individuals in turn disclosed this information to others who did not have a need to know, who may have then told others. However, the disclosure was widespread, and recipients of the information likely numbered in the hundreds. Those agents we interviewed acknowledged freely sharing it with others in the Secret Service, often contemporaneously with accessing the information. One agent reported that by the end of the second day, he was sent on a protection assignment in New York City for the visit of the President of Afghanistan, and many of the approximately 70 agents at the protection briefing were talking about the issue. 

With one exception, the IG also found that senior civil servants in the Secret Service did nothing to stop the propogation of Chaffetz’ personal data:

We identified 18 supervisors at the GS-15 or Senior Executive Service level who appeared to have known or should have known, prior to the publication of the fact, that Chairman Chaffetz’ MCI record was being accessed. Yet, with a single exception, we found no evidence that any of these senior Secret Service managers attempted to inform the Director or higher levels of the supervisory chain, or to stop or remediate the activity. Furthermore, we found no evidence that a manager at any level issued written guidance for employees to discontinue accessing MCI for anything but official use. 

Chaffetz’ file was accessed at 29 different Secret Service facilities. None of the federal employees who did so had a legitimate reason to look at Chaffetz’ file. Assistant Director for Training Ed Lowry emailed a colleague stating “Some information he might find embarrassing needs to get out. Just to be fair.” While the IG investigators could not link Lowry to the leak of the Chaffetz file to the media, someone within the Secret Service clearly did so.

The leak of Chairman Chaffetz’ employment application was a clear attempt to intimidate or punish him for doing his job: overseeing the conduct of a federal agency under his committee’s jurisdiction. This incident comes just a year after revelations about the hacking by CIA employees of computers used by Senate Intelligence Committee staff investigating the CIA’s torture program. To date, there have been no prosecutions in either case or any attempts by Congress to use the impeachment mechanism to remove implicated federal officials. The lack of accountability in these episodes only invites further assaults on Congress’ status as an independent, co-equal branch of government.

Today, Nicholas Kristof of the NYT wrote an op-ed entitled “The Most Important Thing, and It’s Almost a Secret.” According to Kristof, “The most important thing going on in the world today is something we almost never cover: a rapid decline in poverty, illiteracy and disease.”

Kristof makes a powerful case for the improving state of humanity and rightly bemoans the fact that the media all too often focus on war, hunger and despair. And that gives most readers the wrong impression that the world is falling apart.

But, where did all the progress that Kristof talks about come from?

The Homo sapiens has been on this earth for 200,000 years. For most of that time, we lived in ignorance, poverty and misery. What has changed? Reading the NYT, the reader is left with the impression that “good stuff,” like manna from heaven, suddenly was conjured up out of thin air.

Not so. The key to the improvements in the lives of ordinary people over the last 200 years were industrialization and trade, which generated historically unprecedented rates of growth. And the importance of growth cannot be overemphasized. There is not a single example of a country emerging from widespread poverty without sustained economic growth. As University of Oxford Professor Paul Collier writes, “Growth is not a cure-all, but lack of growth is a kill-all.”

Don’t let the headlines fool you. Explore the data for yourself.

In today’s Cato Online Forum essay, Judy Dempsey of Carnegie Europe argues that the geopolitical and security implications of TTIP are immense, and that the EU and its member states need to wake up, smell the coffee, and acknowledge reality. This is the third essay focused on the geopolitical implications of the TTIP published in conjunction with the Cato Institute conference taking place October 12.  Previous essays – to compare and contrast – were written by Phil Levy and Peter Rashish

Read them. Provide feedback.  And please register to attend the conference.

Eight years ago, I argued that San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority was the nation’s worst managed transit agency, a title endorsed by San Jose Mercury writer Mike Rosenberg and transit expert Tom Rubin.

However, since then it appears that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA or just Metro) has managed to capture this coveted title away from San Jose’s VTA. Here are just a few of Metro’s recent problems:

  1. Metro’s numerous service problems include a derailment in August that resulted from a flaw in the rails that Metro had detected weeks previously but failed to fix;
  2. Metro spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a new fare system that it now expects to scrap for lack of interest on the part of transit riders;
  3. One of Metro’s power transformers near the Stadium/Armory station recently caught fire and was damaged so badly that Metro expects to have most trains simply skip that station stop for the next several weeks to months;
  4. Metro’s fleet of serviceable cars has run so low that it rarely operates the eight-car trains for which the system was designed even during rush hours when all the cars are packed full;
  5. WMATA’s most recent general manager, Richard Sarles, retired last January and the agency still hasn’t found a replacement, largely due to its own ineptitude;
  6. Riders are so disgusted with the system that both bus and rail ridership declined in 2014 according to the American Public Transportation Association’s ridership report;
  7. Metro was so unsafe in 2012 that Congress gave the Federal Transit Administration extra authority to oversee its operations;
  8. That hasn’t fixed the problems, so now the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wants Congress to transfer oversight to the Federal Railroad Administration, which supposedly has stricter rules.

A complete listing of Metro’s problems could fill a book (and in fact have already done so). The “solutions” implemented so far have been ludicrous. That idea that giving FTA safety oversight over WMATA would solve any problems relies on the fantasy that top-down bureaucracy works better at the federal level than the regional level. Meanwhile, NTSB’s proposal to transfer authority to the Federal Railroad Administration is more rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship than providing any real fix.

WMATA’s fundamental problem is that it isn’t truly accountable to anyone, and particularly not to the people who ride its buses and trains. It gets away with a safety record that includes 18 deaths, mostly in the last six years, and a reliability record that includes numerous shut-downs and delays because it isn’t answerable to anyone. Most people think the only fix is to reward Metro for its failures by giving it more money. But that won’t solve the problem either because it doesn’t address the underlying cause, which is lack of accountability.

The best way to influence a bureaucracy is to influence its budget. WMATA knows that the worse it manages its system, the bigger the budget it will get to fix the problems. A system dependent on user fees works just the opposite: the better the system is managed, the more fees it collects.

WMATA’s user fees cover a higher share of its costs than most transit agencies, but still well under 50 percent. Local governments fill in the gap for operating costs while Congress funds capital improvements such as the system-draining Silver Line, but no one is funding all of the system’s maintenance needs, so it is slowly grinding to a halt. The best way to solve Metro’s problems, and those of the transit industry in general, is to fund transit out of user fees, not tax dollars.

While the hypothesis that tropical cyclones will become both more frequent and more intense as planetary temperatures rise has long been debated, real-world evidence has consistently refuted it (see, for example, the many reviews of this subject posted under the heading of Hurricanes at the CO2 Science website). The latest example is the work of Girishkumar et al. (2015), who examined over five decades of tropical cyclone (TC) data from the Bay of Bengal (BoB) in the Indian Ocean. Specifically, the authors “investigated how the relationship between ENSO and TCs activity in the BoB during October–December varies on decadal time scale with respect to PDO.”

Both ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation) and the PDO (Pacific Decadal Oscillation) are dominant modes of climate that operate on interannual and decadal time scales, respectively, and each has been shown to impact climate locally, remotely, and globally. The warm phase of ENSO (El Niño), in particular, has been shown to elevate global temperatures up to several tenths of a degree Celsius. Such warming provides a natural laboratory for evaluating model-based projections of CO2-induced global warming, which makes the work of Girishkumar et al. all the more intriguing, as the period of their analysis (1950-2006) allowed them to study the relationship between TCs across several ENSO cycles and one full iteration of the PDO, a cold phase between 1950 and 1974 and a warm phase between 1975 and 2006.

In discussing their findings, Girishkumar et al. report there was a statistically significant difference in both the total number of TCs (maximum wind speed of 34 knot or more) and intense TCs (maximum wind speed of 64 knot or more) between El Niño and La Niña years when the PDO was in the warm phase (see figure below). More specifically, the average number of total October-December TCs forming in the BoB during the eleven colder La Niña years of the PDO warm phase was 2.62 per season, whereas during the ten warmer El Niño years it was only 1.6. Similarly, but more strikingly, the number of intense TCs forming during La Niña amounted to 1.4 per season during the PDO warm phase, whereas it was a paltry 0.1 per season in El Niño years. In contrast, during the cold phase of the PDO, the authors report “the differences in the formation of total number of TCs and intense TCs between La Niña and El Niño years are not significant.” As for why these several differences occurred, Girishkumar et al. state it is due to a significant enhancement of both low level cyclonic spin and mid-troposphere humidity that occurs during La Niña years, as opposed to El Niño years, when the PDO is in the warm phase.

October–December total and intense tropical cyclones in the BoB during El Niño and La Niña years under the warm phase of the PDO.

In conclusion, the results of Girishkumar et al.’s do not support the hypothesis that warmer global temperatures will enhance TC activity. If anything, an opposite outcome is suggested, one in which global warming will lead to fewer total numbers of TCs and fewer intense TCs. That should be good news for the millions of inhabitants living within the hurricane-prone BoB.


Girishkumar, M.S., Thanga Prakash, V.P. and Ravichandran, M. 2015. Influence of Pacific Decadal Oscillation on the relationship between ENSO and tropical cyclone activity in the Bay of Bengal during October–December. Climate Dynamics 44: 3469-3479.

This week, the Obama administration and Congress continued their public duel over whether the U.S. government is doing enough to “counter violent extremism” (CVE). The White House press release on the “Leader’s Summit to Counter ISIL and Violent Extremism” lauded the administration’s efforts to prevent the radicalization of Muslim-American youth at the hands of ISIS. A 66-page report released by the House Homeland Security Committee (HSC) condemned the administration’s actions as inadequate on multiple levels. Both documents avoided a re-airing of unpleasant truths about why ISIS has managed to grow regionally and even find a tiny number of would-be fellow travelers here.

The first unpleasant truth is that by invading Iraq in 2003, the United States helped to give new life to Salafist-oriented groups like al Qaeda. Indeed, there was no AQ element in Iraq until after the U.S. invasion. The same was true in Libya until the ill-fated U.S.-sponsored toppling of the Qaddafi regime in 2011. Neither the administration’s press release nor the HSC report acknowledged those facts.

Mindless American interventionism has been one of the greatest recruiting tools for Salafist groups like ISIS.

Indeed, every Western hostage killed by ISIS was wearing an orange-colored prison jump suit-like garment, just like the ones worn by Iraqi prisoners tortured by U.S. forces at Abu Ghraib prison or those held still at Guantanamo. Neither President Obama nor the authors of the HSC report can bring themselves to admit that our own actions in the Middle East and Southwest Asia have helped to fuel the very terrorist violence and domestic recruiting efforts both decried this week.

The second unpleasant truth dodged by the White House and the HSC is that all the mass surveillance programs initiated in the post-9/11 era have failed to detect a string of real plots or actual attacks in advance. Yet the HSC report calls for a doubling-down on federal support for state-level intelligence “fusion centers,” none of which have uncovered actual terrorist plots while targeting civil liberties groups that question their utility and the constitutionality of their operational methods. 

A third unpleasant truth avoided by the HSC and the Obama administration is that CVE is not an “equal opportunity” program aimed at all kinds of violent extremists. The federal CVE focus is squarely on Arab- and Muslim-Americans, even though right-wing American political extremists have killed almost twice as many U.S. persons in the post-9/11 era as have American Salafist-oriented terrorists.

The taxpayer-funded CVE program is little more than a rhetorically dressed up race-and-religion-profiling counterterrorism campaign. That it is failing should surprise none of us.

Two grassroots groups opposed to existing U.S. government surveillance policies yesterday launched a new platform aimed at the legislative branch:

A project of Restore The Fourth and Fight for the Future, the website rates House and Senate members on the basis of their votes on surveillance-related legislation since 2012. Those who have voted against continuation of the PATRIOT Act or sponsored legislation to repeal it are deemed to be part of “Team Internet”; those who have championed a continuation of the status quo on surveillance are dubbed “Team Surveillance.” 

Restore The Fourth’s press release provides further details:

The scoreboard builds off a similar tool released last year by a coalition of privacy advocates, adding data from the current Congress, including the PATRIOT Act renewal fight, the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015 and other relevant legislation. 

“We wanted to develop something simple and easy that would allow users to quickly see which politicians oppose mass surveillance, and who’s working to expand the surveillance state” says Alex Marthews, national chair of Restore The Fourth.

At the moment, it is unclear whether those behind will expand the project to include ratings on presidential candidates. Thus far, government surveillance has not been a top-tier issue in any of the presidential debates and is rarely mentioned by the candidates on the campaign trail.

Cato Institute adjunct scholar Eugene Gholz has been awarded the 2015 Fiona McGillivray award for his paper, “Assessing the ‘Threat’ of International Tension to the U.S. Economy.” Chosen by the Political Economy section of the American Political Science Association, the award is given for the best paper in Political Economy presented at the previous year’s APSA Annual Meeting.

In the paper, which is featured in A Dangerous World? Threat Perception and U.S. National Security, a book that I co-edited with John Mueller, Gholz concludes that the conventional wisdom regarding the economic threat international tension poses to neutral states is “often exaggerated.”

President Obama (like other political leaders before him) is wrong about the economic consequences of foreign tension for the United States, as are most of the academics involved in grand strategy debates.

The bottom line is that it is rarely, if ever, worth spending American resources to prevent foreign instability in the hope of protecting American prosperity, even assuming that such spending effectively tamps down tension.

Gholz, an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, argues that neutral states can sometimes actually benefit economically from foreign tension and even war:

governments in wartime transfer resources from normal production into the war effort, which means that the belligerents’ domestic economy produces less of value for nonmilitary consumers, fewer capital goods to prepare for future domestic production, and fewer export products.

The result is a near-term gap between demand for goods and services and domestic supply—a gap that is typically filled by imports from international markets.

Not every foreign country is well positioned to take advantage of the mobilization-induced consumption binge, but, on net, because belligerent (or scared) economies increase their overall consumption, neutral countries enjoy an economic benefit.

The paper is not a brief for a U.S. policy of instigating foreign conflict, of course: we all recoil from the horrors of war, and any economic benefit that the United States might gain from foreign tension would be relatively small. But the current U.S. strategy’s emphasis on military activism and forward presence is built on the assumption that scaling back U.S. military commitments would hurt the American economy, and that assumption is not justified. There is no reason for the United States to pay direct costs – the costs of our forward military strategy – for a phantom economic benefit.

When presenting the award to Gholz, Professor Lloyd Gruber from the London School of Economics and Political Science, chair of the award committee, lauded the “well-argued, punchy, and provocative” paper:

Using historical examples and reasoning by analogy—the paper likens the effects of the consumption booms that accompany war-fighting to the effects of the peacetime demand shock that would occur if millions of Chinese consumers were to decide to purchase new automobiles at the same time—Gholz makes a compelling case. …His paper is a consumption boom for the reader.

The book in which Gholz’s paper appears can be found here.