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This week, Hillary Clinton unveiled her proposals to reform campaign finance laws. Unsurprisingly, Clinton’s proposals would make it much more difficult to criticize, you guessed it, Hillary Clinton.

Accompanying the announcement is her new campaign video, which acknowledges the elephant in the room: Citizens United was a case about censoring a movie that criticized Hillary Clinton. But rather than this biasing her opinion on the case, the video argues that her connection to the case gives her insight because “she knows firsthand what it’s done to our democracy.”

Clinton has pledged to use overturning Citizens United as a litmus test for Supreme Court justices, and she also supports a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision.

This wouldn’t be the first time a politician pushed to censor criticism as a public service. In 1798, President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made it a crime to “write, print, utter, or publish” anything that might bring “the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States into disrepute or to excite against them…the hatred of the good people of the United States.” Maybe we should just resuscitate that law and add the name “Hillary Clinton.”

According to her video, Citizens United was “a conservative organization that wanted to bring down Hillary Clinton’s candidacy because they didn’t like who she is, they don’t like what she stands for”–in other words, the quintessence of political speech protected by the First Amendment. Yet, because Hillary: The Movie was funded by a corporation–a nonprofit corporation founded to forward conservative causes–the movie and its accompanying advertisements ran afoul of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. In short, the government was explicitly censoring political speech.    

In Clinton’s words, according to the Associated Press: “I want to tell you, Citizens United was about me. Think how that makes me feel. A lot of people don’t know that, but the backstory is eye-opening.”

Eye-opening, indeed. A small nonprofit that sought to make movies criticizing politicians runs headlong into a law that was partially intended to silence speech critical of politicians and candidates. As Senator John Edwards (D-NC) said during the floor debates over the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act: “[people] turn on their televisions in the last 2 months before an election and see mostly hateful, negative, personal attack ads posing as issue ads… . Those are the ads we are trying to stop.”

Senator Jim Jeffords (I-VT) complained that he “had to face seeing ads on television which totally distort the facts and say terrible things. You watch a 20-percent lead keep going down[.]”

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) thought that the ads “are negative to the degree where all of our approval ratings sink to an all time low,” and that the ads “simply drive up an individual candidate’s negative polling numbers.” Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) grumbled that the ads “[do] not help our image.”

These quotes demonstrate that censoring critical and “negative” political speech is often a proximate goal of campaign finance “reformers.” They also show that giving elected representatives the power to censor campaign speech will unleash self-serving and grotesque motivations to protect “20-percent lead[s].”

When it comes to letting representatives alter the process by which they get elected, we should heed the words of Nobel laureate James Buchanan: “Don’t let the fox guard the chicken coup.”

In July, Georgetown law professor Michael Seidman had parallel op-eds in the Washington Times regarding religious objections to providing services to same-sex weddings. This wasn’t a point-counterpoint – neither of us saw the other’s writing before publication – but the Federalist Society invited us to respond to each other on its new blog. Seidman declined, but here’s my response. 

Professor Seidman fundamentally misunderstands the paradigm here. When people object to Obamacare Robertscare mandates or to facilitating same-sex weddings, they aren’t objecting to society’s basic laws or impeding government. Instead, they’re demonstrating the inherent social clashes that the government itself creates when it expands beyond legitimate bounds.

In other words, Seidman is correct to note that society couldn’t function if people decided they didn’t have to obey criminal laws—whether against murder or illegal left turns—but it can function very well indeed without forcing people to buy pay a “tax” for not buying health insurance. Seidman is likewise absolutely right that the government couldn’t fund itself if people could withhold tax dollars to the extent they object to federal programs, but nobody is hurt if a gay couple has a choice of 99 instead of 100 wedding photographers.

Yet Seidman sees no difference between regulations that ensure public safety and those that ensure politically correct attitudes, between generally applicable laws and those that redistribute income. It seems that in Seidman’s world, people have no rights or liberties other than those which the government deigns grant them.

From that worldview, a statist noblesse oblige could deign allow small deviations to placate eccentric superstitions, indulgences purchased for a token dhimmi tax. What’s a little freedom of conscience between friends?

Too many Americans have become so accustomed to government authority that resisting state action looks anomalous. The right to freely exercise religion—not just to worship—is thus an exception to the general rule of government power.

The cultural flashpoint surrounding wedding vendors’ pleas for toleration is evidence of a more insidious process whereby the government foments social conflict as it expands its control into areas of life that we used to consider public yet not governmental. These conflicts are exceptionally fierce because, as Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle put it, “the long compromise worked out between the state and religious groups—do what you want within very broad limits, but don’t expect the state to promote it—is breaking down in the face of a shift in the way we view rights and the role of government in public life.”

Indeed, it’s government’s relationship to public life that’s changing—in the places that are beyond the intimacies of the home but still far removed from the state, like churches, charities, social clubs, small businesses, and even “public” corporations that are nevertheless part of the private sector. Under the influence of the Obama administration, the Left is weaving government through these private institutions, using them to shape American life according to its vision.

Again, the key to this far-reaching agenda is the conceit that the government grants fundamental rights. In the Hobby Lobby case, the government and dissenting justices essentially argued that the rights that Hobby Lobby’s owners asserted weren’t inalienable or natural ones, but privileges bestowed by the grace of government.

Through an ever-growing list of mandates, rules, and “rights,” the government is regulating away the “little platoons” of our civil society. That civil society, so important to America’s character, is being smothered by the ever-growing administrative state that, in the name of fairness and equality, takes away rights in order to standardize life from cradle to grave.

No, Professor Seidman, what we have here isn’t merely “strong and sincere conscientious scruples against obeying generally applicable and democratically enacted laws.” And the solution isn’t “compromise” but vigilance to ensure that government doesn’t needlessly violate our most basic freedoms.

[cross-posted at the Federalist Society blog]

“As health concerns for former President Carter mount,” Caleb Brown noted recently in this space, “it’s nice to be able to look back on his time in the White House and see something remarkably positive.” Indeed, our 39th president doesn’t remotely merit the bad rap he gets from conservatives and libertarians. As I wrote a few years back, “at its best, the Carter legacy was one of workaday reforms that made significant improvements in American life: cheaper travel and cheaper goods for the middle class.” For loosening controls on oiltruckingrailroads, and airlines, he should, Daniel Bier suggests, be thought of as “the Great Deregulator.” It’s in no small part thanks to him that conservatives can cry in their microbrews over the sorry state of the 2016 Republican field.  

So the man from Plains has a lot to be proud of. In the coming months, I hope he’ll have the consolation of seeing the record corrected and his historical reputation start to rise. 

Judging by his recent press conference announcing his illness, however, Carter shares a widely held misconception about where his presidency went wrong. Asked about his regrets, he answered: “I wish I’d sent one more helicopter to get the hostages and we would have rescued them and I would have been re-elected.” Carter was referring to “Operation Eagle Claw,” the aborted Iranian hostage rescue attempt in April 1980. If you’re old enough, you probably remember: the operation never got past the initial “Desert One” rendezvous point, due to the mechanical failure of three helicopters, and eight US soldiers were killed during departure when a helicopter collided with a transport plane. 

The botched rescue attempt definitely contributed to Carter’s defeat. But the mission failed during the “easy” part; when you look at what was supposed to come next, it’s hard not to think the whole operation would have been the Bay of Pigs meets Black Hawk Down.

Writing in the Air & Space Power Journal in 2006, war gaming professor Charles Tustin Kamps observed that “the things which did cause the mission to abort were probably merciful compared to the greater catastrophe which might have taken place if the scenario had progressed further than the Desert One rendezvous.” “In the realm of military planning there are plans that might work and plans that won’t work,” Kamps writes, “In the cold light of history it is evident that the plan for Eagle Claw was in the second category.” It would have required “the proverbial seven simultaneous miracles” to succeed. 

Here’s what was supposed to happen, per the Eagle Claw factsheet at the Air Force Historical Support Division website: 

[Eagle Claw] called for three USAF MC-130s to carry a 118-man assault force from Masirah Island near Oman in the Persian Gulf to a remote spot 200 miles southeast of Tehran, code-named Desert One. Accompanying the MC-130s were three USAF EC-130s which served as fuel transports. The MC-130s planned to rendezvous with eight RH-53D helicopters from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. After refueling and loading the assault team, the helicopters would fly to a location 65 miles from Tehran, where the assault team would go into hiding. The next night, the team, dependent upon trusted agents, drivers, and translators [provided by the CIA], would be picked up and driven the rest of the way to the embassy compound.

Meanwhile, a separate 13-man team would peel off to attack the Foreign Ministry building and rescue three hostages being held there, as the main Delta group hit the embassy.  

After storming the embassy, the team and the freed hostages would rally at either the embassy compound or a nearby soccer stadium to be picked up by the helicopter force. The helicopters would then transport them to Manzariyeh, 35 miles to the south, by that time secured by a team of U.S. Army
Rangers. Once at Manzariyeh USAF C-141 transports would fly the assault team and hostages out of Iran while the Rangers destroyed the remaining equipment (including the helicopters) and prepared for their own aerial departure. An extremely complex operation, Eagle Claw depended on everything going according to plan. Any deviation could cause the entire operation to unravel with possibly tragic consequences. 

Just in case things didn’t go exactly according to plan, the Delta guys were issued this handy “Farsi Survival Guide” (one page of which is pictured below) to help them bargain and cajole their way out of the country without blowing their cover. For example, they could try something like: “You Iranians and Moslems are famous for hospitality. For the sake of God, I need your help.” 

In real life, things started going wrong almost instantly: “Soon after the first MC-130 arrived [at Desert One], … a passenger bus approached on a highway bisecting the landing zone. The advance party was forced to stop the vehicle and detain its 45 passengers. Soon, a fuel truck came down the highway. When it failed to stop, the Americans fired a light anti-tank weapon which set the tanker on fire and lit the surrounding area.” 

In a riveting 2006 Atlantic article, “The Desert One Debacle,” Black Hawk Down author Mark Bowden described the resulting chaos: “Suddenly the night desert flashed as bright as daylight and shook with an explosion. In the near distance, a giant ball of flame rose high into the darkness. One of the Rangers had fired an anti-tank weapon at the fleeing truck, which turned out to have been loaded with fuel. It burned like a miniature sun. So much for slipping quietly into Iran.” 

Eight copters left the Nimitz; two had to turn back on route due to mechanical problems. Of the remaining six that made it through the vicious sandstorms (or “haboobs”) on the way to Desert One, another arrived with irreparable hydraulic problems. The plan called for a minimum of six helicopters; down to five, on-scene commander Col. Charles Beckwith had little choice but to cancel the mission. As the force began to evacuate, “tragedy struck. One of the helicopters’ rotor blades inadvertently collided with a fuel-laden EC-130. Both aircraft exploded, killing five airmen on the EC-130 and three marines on the RH-53.”

Had Beckwith not hit “abort,” however, it’s easy to imagine that most if not all of the assault force would have been captured or killed and none of the hostages would have made it. Bowden quotes a Delta Force officer who summed it up well: “The only difference between this and the Alamo is that Davy Crockett didn’t have to fight his way in.”

This, to paraphrase Argo, was the worst bad idea we had.

Wait, scratch that: actually, the worst idea was the followup plan developed by the military after the Desert One debacle. According to Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski: “the second plan involved going into the airport at Tehran, taking the airport, shooting up anything in the way, bombing anything that starts interfering, storming the embassy, taking out anybody who’s alive after that process and then going back and taking off.” Except the hostages had been moved out of the embassy after the first failed attempt, and the commandos would have had to try to find them at remote locations. Everybody was supposed to reconvene at the Tehran soccer stadium where a C-130, jerry-rigged with rockets so it could take off and land like a V-22 Osprey, would whisk them to safety. You can watch the modified C-130 crash and burn in a test video here (luckily no one was hurt). 

The code name for this scheme? “Honey Badger.” Yes, the second rescue plan took its moniker from the “tenacious small carnivore” identified by the Guinness Book of World Records as “the most fearless animal in the world,” and later the subject of that inescapable 2011 YouTube video—to wit: 

“The honey badger don’t care! It’s getting stung like a thousand times. It doesn’t give a [expletive deleted]. It’s just hungry. It doesn’t care about being stung by bees. Nothing can stop the honey badger when it’s hungry. What a crazy [expletive deleted]!” 

(Trigger warning: expletives not deleted in viral video link.)

As Michael Crowley noted in a Time article reporting on the scheme, Honey Badger was likely “a last-resort contingency in case Iran began executing the hostages without provocation”–a desperate measure if all else failed. What’s really astounding is that the original plan, Eagle Claw, got the go-ahead in far less desperate circumstances.

Relentless public pressure to “do something!” often leads presidents to do something stupid. The hostage rescue mission was not Jimmy Carter’s finest hour. But it could have been much worse.

Earlier today, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a $15 per hour minimum wage for his state; Vice-President Joe Biden joined the press conference.

Cato and other scholars have long argued against any minimum wage; see here.  I will not re-hash those arguments today.

Instead, let’s ask the proponents of a minimum wage why, if a $15 per hour minimum is good, why isn’t a $150 per hour minimum better? 

The answer will presumably be, “Well, $150 per hour would kills job.”  


So why is not the same true of $15 per hour, just to a milder degree? How can proponents seriously claim that minimum wages do not affect employment? Existing evidence does show small effects from most minimum wage hikes; but that is because those hikes have been modest. Were they ever large (as with Cuomo’s proposal), substantial disemployment and other distortions are inevitable.  


Ocean acidification is the name given to describe the process by which, in response to rising carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, more and more CO2 is taken out of the atmosphere and dissolved into the surface waters of the world’s oceans, thus lowering their pH values. Such reductions are hypothesized by many scientists to harm marine life. Citing the review paper of Briffa et al. (2012), for example, Jutfelt and Hedgärde (2015) state that “a number of reports in recent years have suggested that the behavior of coral reef fish, including their activity level, boldness, behavioral asymmetry (lateralization), and responses to olfactory and auditory cues, may be affected by ocean acidification.” Such reports have promulgated widespread concern that ocean acidification may well become a major threat to marine fishes in the not-too-distant-future; and in light of this concern, the two Swedish scientists decided to conduct a study of their own to learn more about this important topic.

The subject of Jutfelt and Hedgärde’s analysis was Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua), which they describe as an “ecologically and economically important species that has a history of being exposed to overfishing (Rose, 2004) and cod populations may therefore be sensitive to the effects of additional stressors such as ocean acidification.” For their analysis, the two researchers reared juvenile Atlantic cod for 30 days in control water (~500 μatm) or water with elevated CO2 levels (~1,000 μatm), during which time the juveniles were subjected to three separate behavioral experiments: (1) swimming activity, measured by the number of lines crossed per minute (12-19 days after exposure), (2) emergence from shelter, assessed by how long it took the fish to exit a shelter after a disturbance (26 days post exposure), and (3) lateralization, measuring turning side preference and the strength of behavioral symmetry (29-30 days post exposure). The purpose of the experiments was to determine whether or not these specific behaviors were affected by exposure to elevated CO2, as they “were previously reported to be affected by CO2 exposure in tropical reef fish.”

When all was said and done, however, Jutfelt and Hedgärde report they found no effect of CO2 treatment on any of the behaviors tested, writing that “behavioral effects of CO2 are not universal in teleosts” and that “the behavior of Atlantic cod could be resilient to the impacts of near-future levels of water CO2.” Ruminating on why this may be the case, the authors note that Atlantic cod have been observed to forage in deep waters with low pH, and, therefore, may be “physiologically adapted to be tolerant to high environmental CO2 levels.”

Whatever the reason, one thing is clear. As stated by the two researchers in the final sentence of their paper, “the results obtained in this study complicate the prediction of future effects of ocean acidification on fish, suggesting that behavioral effects could be negligible in some species and that we might not be able to make good predictions until more species from representative geographical and phylogenetic groups are tested and published.” Ocean acidification alarmists—take note!


Briffa, M., de la Haye, K. and Munday, P.L. 2012. High CO2 and marine animal behaviour: potential mechanisms and ecological consequences. Marine Pollution Bulletin 64: 1519-1528.

Jutfelt, F. and Hedgärde, M. 2015. Juvenile Atlantic cod behavior appears robust to near-future CO2 levels. Frontiers in Zoology 12:11, DOI 10.1186/s12983-015-0104-2.

Rose, G.A. 2004. Reconciling overfishing and climate change with stock dynamics of Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) over 500 years. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 61: 1553-1557.


As delegations finally start tackling the trickiest issues left in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, we’re getting to see the ugly consequences of trade diversion, which happens when governments liberalize trade from some countries but not all of them.  I wrote last month about Canada and Mexico’s opposition to liberal rules of origin for automobiles in the TPP because it would reduce the advantages they enjoy under NAFTA.  Now a group representing sugar growers in countries outside the TPP is protesting a proposal that would give Australia more access to the U.S. sugar market.

The federal government helps U.S. sugar growers through a complex scheme of subsidies, restrictions, and import quotas that keep the price of sugar high in the United States.  Rather than reform this baldly protectionist system, a move that would benefit almost everyone, the United States is most likely just going to give Australia a larger share of the quota.  The hope is that such an offer will be adequate to satisfy Australia’s demands in the TPP negotiations without upsetting the politically powerful U.S. sugar industry.

But sugar growers from other countries are up in arms over the proposal.  The International Sugar Trade Coalition has written a letter to the U.S. Trade Representative claiming that the TPP proposal would violate existing U.S. and international law.  But why do they care?  The ISTC represents the sugar industries of 17 small countries who support the U.S. sugar program because the import quota guarantees them access to the U.S. market.  You see, the sugar program is supposed to protect U.S. sugar growers, but it also protects inefficient foreign producers who happen to have been granted a share of the quota. 

Fiddling with the quota numbers through the TPP won’t give us freer trade; it will merely shuffle the winners and losers of the current managed trade scheme.  Australia will win because it is at the table and these other countries will lose because they are not.  One thing that’s clear is that none of thise is going to benefit U.S. consumers.

Three weeks ago I wrote in the Guardian about Donald Trump’s years-long effort to use eminent domain to take Vera Coking’s Atlantic City house, along with two nearby small businesses, in order to build a limousine parking lot for his Trump Plaza hotel. Coking’s house may not have been paradise, but as Joni Mitchell would say, Trump wanted to pave it and put up a parking lot.

Today the Washington Post splashes the story of the billionaire and the widow across the front of its Style section. It’s a story that deserves further attention.

As I wrote:

For more than 30 years Vera Coking lived in a three-story house just off the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. Donald Trump built his 22-story Trump Plaza next door. In the mid-1990s Trump wanted to build a limousine parking lot for the hotel, so he bought several nearby properties. But three owners, including the by then elderly and widowed Ms Coking, refused to sell.

As his daughter Ivanka said in introducing him at his campaign announcement, Donald Trump doesn’t take no for an answer.

Trump turned to a government agency – the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) – to take Coking’s property. CRDA offered her $250,000 for the property – one-fourth of what another hotel builder had offered her a decade earlier. When she turned that down, the agency went into court to claim her property under eminent domain so that Trump could pave it and put up a parking lot.

Trump consistently defended his use of eminent domain. He told John Stossel, “Everybody coming into Atlantic City sees this terrible house instead of staring at beautiful fountains and beautiful other things that would be good.” Later, after the Supreme Court upheld the use of eminent domain to take property from one owner for the benefit of another private owner, he told Neil Cavuto, 

“I happen to agree with it 100%. if you have a person living in an area that’s not even necessarily a good area, and … government wants to build a tremendous economic development, where a lot of people are going to be put to work and … create thousands upon thousands of jobs and beautification and lots of other things, I think it happens to be good.”

Manuel Roig-Franzia of the Post adds lots of colorful detail to the story. He notes how the Institute for Justice represented Coking in court – and won. “In the long melodrama that is Trump’s business career, the house in Atlantic City is the place where all the billionaire’s money and all the billionaire’s men couldn’t keep a 5-foot-3 widow from whupping him”–with the government on his side and IJ on hers.

Earlier this year, the Library Freedom Project launched an initiative to test the use of Tor exit relays in local libraries as a means of helping library patrons browse the internet annonymously. As the LFP noted

To begin this new project, we needed a pilot, and we had just the library in mind – Kilton Library in Lebanon, New Hampshire, one of two Lebanon Libraries. Chuck McAndrew is the IT librarian there, and he’s done amazing things to the computers on his network, like running them all on GNU/Linux distributions. Why is this significant? Most library environments run Microsoft Windows, and we know that Microsoft participated in the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program. By choosing GNU/Linux operating systems and installing some privacy-protecting browser extensions too, Chuck’s helping his staff and patrons opt-out of pervasive government and corporate surveillance. Pretty awesome.

At least it was awesome until the Department of Homeland Security got wind of the project.

As Julia Angwin of ProPublica reports today

In July, the Kilton Public Library in Lebanon, New Hampshire, was the first library in the country to become part of the anonymous Web surfing service Tor. The library allowed Tor users around the world to bounce their Internet traffic through the library, thus masking users’ locations.

Soon after state authorities received an email about it from an agent at the Department of Homeland Security.

“The Department of Homeland Security got in touch with our Police Department,” said Sean Fleming, the library director of the Lebanon Public Libraries.

After a meeting at which local police and city officials discussed how Tor could be exploited by criminals, the library pulled the plug on the project.

“Right now we’re on pause,” said Fleming. “We really weren’t anticipating that there would be any controversy at all.”

He said that the library board of trustees will vote on whether to turn the service back on at its meeting on Sept. 15.

Nearly everything in our society has been or will be exploited by criminals: cars, cellphones, hatchets, cleaning solutions, tape, boats, aircraft–the list is virtually endless. It’s part of living with and in a free society, and the feds don’t come knocking on 3M’s door every time a criminal uses their tape to facilitate a break-in or other criminal act. But federal agencies like DHS and the FBI are literally on an anti-encryption, anti-privacy crusade with respect to consumer electronics and software–especially high-quality, publicly audited and effective anonymization technology like Tor. The Kilton Library’s internet freedom project has just become the federal government’s latest victim in that misguided campaign.

To recap: DHS used the Lebanon, New Hampshire police department to lean on–if not outright intimidate–a local library into at least temporarily abandoning a tool that reinforces Fourth Amendment privacy protections–and in doing so treated all of the Kilton Library’s patrons as potential criminals first, and as citizens with rights a very distant second.

The Inspector General (IG) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has released a report finding waste in the department’s vast warehousing of equipment and supplies. Here are a few examples of the problems found by the IG:

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) leases a 54,000 square foot warehouse in Northern Virginia to store mostly excess furniture leftover from projects in which CBP reduced office space. CBP also stockpiles reams of printer/copier paper at this location and will pay about $934,000 per year to lease this warehouse. Many of the items in the warehouse appeared to be obsolete or broken. The annual lease cost exceeds our estimated value of these items.

… CBP leases a 41,129-square-foot GSA warehouse also located in Northern Virginia to support its Data Center and store new computer equipment CBP distributes to its field offices. In addition, CBP stores old computer equipment. CBP will pay about $502,000 each year to lease this warehouse. The iTeam estimated that about half of the items stored in this warehouse were old computer systems and other obsolete technologies.

… CBP leases a 6,500-square-foot GSA warehouse in Northern California to store old computers, broken equipment, old office furniture, and some books. CBP will pay about $74,000 each year to lease this warehouse. The warehouse is mostly empty and CBP does not actively manage or conduct physical inventories of the stored items.

These examples exemplify points made in my study, Why the Federal Government Fails. Well-managed businesses would not be holding onto piles of obsolete and broken furniture and computers, and paying for expensive storage. They have a bottom line to worry about, and face constant pressure to reduce costs. By contrast, federal government managers have little or no incentive to reduce costs, and so they don’t.

The new report on DHS inventory mismanagement is a microcosm of the broader waste in the government’s vast holdings of real property. The federal government owns or leases more than 275,000 buildings, including offices, hospitals, and warehouses. There is huge excess in these holdings, which cost $22 billion a year to maintain. The government has long been a poor manager of it assets, and the GAO has had federal property holdings on its “high risk” list for years.

To the Obama administration’s credit, it is taking modest steps to reduce the waste in federal property management. But the more fundamental issue is that the government is a vastly bloated enterprise that does too much and has little incentive to do it efficiently.

Just when you thought that any further Obamacare lawsuits involved things like contraceptive mandates rather than anything at the law’s core, today a federal judge ruled that Speaker of the House John Boehner’s case against the HHS and Treasury secretaries can proceed. In a highly technical 43-page opinion, Judge Rosemary Collyer found that the House of Representatives has standing to sue these officials and their agencies for spending money on ACA implementation that Congress didn’t authorize.    That’s clearly the right call: only Congress can appropriate funds for federal programs and so Congress faces a unique institutional injury when the executive branch decides to take that particular prerogative upon itself.    Judge Collyer went on to deny standing on the additional claim that the executive amended the statute when it delayed and modified Obamacare’s employer mandate–but this is a much closer issue that will be hotly contested on appeal.    As Cato described in our King v Burwell brief, Obamacare implementation has been a seat-of-the-pants executive frolic from the get-go (and we didn’t even include the episode at the heart of the surviving claim here). It’s not surprising that a law written in haste behind closed doors and that was rammed through Congress via procedural shenanigans would have growing pains as it went online. In the normal course, that would mean technical amendments and orderly administrative rulemaking, but here, given the lack of popular support–and the loss of Congress by the enacting party as a direct result–that wasn’t possible. Accordingly, the Obama administration is (again) reaping what it has sown.    Keep an eye on U.S. House of Representatives v. Burwell – and note that one of the early sketches of this suit was presented at a Cato policy forum by my colleague Andrew Grossman. 

Over at Cato’s Police Misconduct web site, we have selected the worst case for the month of August.  This one goes to the City of Phoenix and its police agent, Kevin McGowan.

Here’s the background.  Patrick D’Labik, age 18, admits that he ran away from the police.  He ran because he said he had a bag of marijuana in his pocket and he didn’t want to go to jail.  Phoenix police officer Kevin McGowan caught up with D’Labik in a convenience store and the store had security cameras that captured the encounter.  Officer McGowan has his gun pointed at D’Labik, who was on his phone with his father, but who then quickly raises his hands in surrender.  As D’Labik is getting on the ground, Officer McGowan kicks him.  The force was so great that several teeth are knocked out.

In response to a complaint about excessive force, police commanders review the security camera footage and conclude the kick was unjustifiable.  McGowan loses his job with the police department.

But wait, Officer McGowan is now back on the force, patrolling the streets of Phoenix.  Turns out his termination was overturned by the Civil Service Board.

Here is security footage from the store:

POLICE BRUTALITY - Phoenix Cop Smashes Teen’s Teeth In & Now Begs For His Job Back

In my 2012 primer on fundamental tax reform, I highlighted the three biggest warts in the current system.

1. High tax rates that penalize productive behavior such as work and entrepreneurship.

2. Pervasive double taxation that undermines saving and investment.

3. Corrupt loopholes and cronyism that lure people into using resources inefficiently.

These problems all need to be addressed, along with additional problems with the internal revenue code, such as worldwide taxation and erosion of constitutional freedoms and civil liberties.

Based on these criteria, I’ve already reviewed the tax reform plan put forth by Marco Rubio. And I’ve analyzed the proposal introduced by Rand Paul.

Now let’s apply the same treatment to the “Reform and Growth Act of 2017” that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has unveiled in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Bush identifies three main goals, starting with lower tax rates.

First, I want to lower taxes and make the tax code simple, fair and clear. …We will cut individual rates from seven brackets to three: 28%, 25% and 10%. At 28%, the highest tax bracket would return to where it was when President Ronald Reagan signed into law his monumental and successful 1986 tax reform.

This is a positive step, effectively wiping out the tax-rate increases imposed by Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.

Then Governor Bush takes aim at tax loopholes.

Second, I want to eliminate the convoluted, lobbyist-created loopholes in the code. For years, wealthy individuals have deducted a much greater share of their income than everyone else. We will retain the deductibility of charitable contributions but cap the deductions used by the wealthy and Washington special interests, enabling tax-rate cuts across the board for everyone.

This also is a step in the right direction, though it’s unclear what Bush is proposing - if anything - for other big tax loopholes such as the mortgage interest deduction, the healthcare exclusion, the state and local tax deduction, and the municipal bond exemption.

The final big piece of Jeb’s plan deals with America’s punitive treatment of business income.

Third, I believe that the tax code should no longer be an impediment to the nation’s competitiveness with China, Europe and the rest of the world. …To stop American companies from moving out of the country, I will cut the corporate tax rate from 35%—the highest in the industrial world—to 20%, which is five percentage points below China’s. We will end the practice of world-wide taxation on U.S. businesses, which fosters the insidious tactic called corporate “inversions.” …We will also allow businesses to fully and immediately deduct new capital investments—a critical step to increase worker productivity and wages.

All of these reforms are very good for growth.

A lower corporate tax rate, particularly combined with territorial taxation and “expensing” of investment expenditures, will make American companies far more competitive.

More important, these reforms will fix flaws in the tax code that reduce capital formation. And that will mean more investment and higher wages for American workers.

There are other positive features mentioned in the column that are worth celebrating. Governor Bush’s plan eliminates the death tax, which is an especially punitive form of double taxation.

His proposal also gets rid of the alternative minimum tax (AMT), which is a convoluted part of the tax code seemingly designed to grab more money from taxpayers in a very complicated fashion.

Now let’s move to a part of Bush’s plan that seems bad, but arguably is good. He’s proposing to get rid of interest deductibility for companies, which will increase double taxation (remember, investors who buy corporate bonds pay tax on the interest payments they receive from firms).

…we will eliminate most corporate tax deductions—which is where favor-seeking and lobbying are most common—and remove the deduction for borrowing costs. That deduction encourages business models dependent on heavy debt.

So why is this feature arguably good when one of the key goals of tax reform is eliminating double taxation?

For two reasons. First, we already have double taxation of dividends (i.e., equity-financed investment), so imposing double taxation on borrowing (i.e., debt-financed investment) creates a level playing field and addresses the bias for debt in the tax code.

To be sure, it would be best to level the playing field by having no double taxation of any kind, but presumably the Bush team also was paying attention to revenue constraints.

And this is the second reason why this portion of the plan arguably is good. The revenue implications of this change are non-trivial, so one could argue that it is helping to finance pro-growth changes such as a lower corporate tax rate and immediate expensing of business investment.

Let’s close by highlighting some unambiguously worrisome features of the Bush plan.

According to his column, an additional 15 million Americans no longer will have any income tax liability, largely because the plan almost doubles the standard deduction. It’s good for people not to have to pay tax, of course, but we already have a system where almost half of all households are exempt from the income tax. So the concern is that we have a growing share of the population that perceives government as a no-cost dispenser of goodies.

And one of those goodies is the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is a form of income redistribution operated through the tax code. And Bush is proposing to expand the EITC, though there aren’t any details about this part of his plan.

Presumably Bush is including these provisions to somewhat fend off the class-warfare attack that his plan provides big tax cuts for the “rich” while not doing enough for the rest of the population. Yet upper-income taxpayers already pay the lion’s share of the income tax.

Even the IRS has acknowledged that the top 3 percent pay more than half the burden!

So a fair tax cut, by definition, will benefit the rich since they’re the ones who are carrying the load.

In any event, the purpose of good tax policy is to generate faster growth by improving incentives for work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship, and that’s where you get the big benefits for lower- and middle-income taxpayers.

Simply stated, the close you get to a Hong Kong-style flat tax, the closer you get to robust Hong Kong-type growth rates.

The bottom line is that Bush’s tax plan isn’t a touchdown. Like the Rubio plan and Paul plan, it’s not a Hall-Rabushka flat tax, which is the gold standard for tax reform. But it’s a big step in that direction. Bush takes the ball from the wrong side of the field and puts it on the right side of the field.

If implemented (and accompanied by the spending restraint needed to make the plan sustainable), Bush’s proposal would be a significant boost for the American economy and American taxpayers.

Despite bitter partisan controversies on foreign policy issues such as the Iran nuclear agreement and the normalization of relations with Cuba, there is one issue where liberals and conservatives share a common delusion.  That issue is policy toward Syria.  The Obama administration persists in wanting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and at the same time crush the ISIS insurgents.  Washington continues to flirt with establishing a no-fly zone in northern Syria to protect supposedly moderate rebels, and it is moving forward with its much- mocked scheme to train a moderate insurgent force that would oppose both Assad and ISIS.  The latter plan is hopelessly behind schedule and has thus far produced only a handful of graduates from the training program.

Conservatives are no more realistic than the Obama foreign policy team.  Presidential candidates and conservative pundits alike routinely talk of escalating the fight against ISIS, but then, in almost the same breath, stress the need to defeat Assad and his principal ally, Iran.  I had the “pleasure” of witnessing such illogic in two major broadcasts within the past week.  The first occurred in a September 5 segment on CNBC, in which Larry Kudlow, a prominent economist and possible candidate for the U.S. Senate, raged against the Obama administration’s alleged unwillingness to conduct a concerted campaign against the twin evils of ISIS and Iran.  On Labor Day, the Fox News program “The Five” featured a discussion in which nearly all of the participants adopted arguments that echoed Kudlow’s rant.

What is striking about all of these episodes—and many others like them—is that the advocates of decisive, simultaneous U.S. action against both ISIS and the Assad-Iran alliance are in denial that those two goals are hopelessly contradictory.  Like it or not, the principal forces arrayed against ISIS are Assad’s “coalition of religious minorities” in Syria together with Iran and its Shiite allies in Iraq. The Syrian Kurds have their own agenda, seeking to create a de facto independent Kurdish state in northeastern Syria akin to the self-governing Kurdish region next door in Iraq.  

Secular Syrians committed to a united, democratic Syria are few in number and badly factionalized to boot.  U.S. officials need to stop basing policy on the expectation that a mythical moderate Syrian insurgency will emerge. The reality is that there is no credible moderate alternative to Assad and ISIS.  If Washington moves to oppose one side in that bipolar struggle, it automatically strengthens the other.

Of course, the option always exists to drastically lower the U.S. profile in the Middle East and let the contending forces, which reflect a broad Sunni-Shiite regional struggle for power, fight it out.  But hawks of whatever ideological stripe are unwilling to adopt that strategy.  Therefore, their only option is to choose their poison.  Which outcome do they find less unpalatable: an ISIS victory and the triumph of Sunni extremism, or an Assad victory and the expansion of Iranian influence?  As much as they might wish to avoid that choice, the notion of a defeat of both Assad and ISIS is nothing more than wishful thinking.  And that is never a good basis for foreign policy.

Darren Chaker was under supervised release when he wrote on his personal blog that Ms. Leesa Fazek, an investigator with the Nevada Attorney General’s Office, was “forced out” of her previous post with the Las Vegas Police Department. That statement, according to the district court ultimately overseeing Chaker’s parole, was a violation of the requirement that he “not . . . disparage or defame others on the internet”—and so Chaker was returned to prison.

In so ruling, the court placed an unconstitutional prior restraint on Darren Chaker. But this country long ago moved past the notion of lèse majesté laws protecting public officials from harsh treatment by the press and the people. Indeed, the American people were so reviled by the enforcement of these statutes during the presidency of John Adams—particularly the Alien and Sedition Acts—that the people ousted the Federalist Party that proposed them. Since that time, Americans have given true meaning to their First Amendment rights against prior restraints on speech or on the terms by which public officials may be discussed.

Even prisoners and parolees receive constitutional protection; terms of supervised release must be narrowly drawn to avoid infringing substantive rights, like those of political expression. If the anti-disparagement provision of Chaker’s supervised release becomes widespread, it could easily stifle valuable speech by activists and others.

For instance, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remarked that “[w]e are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo.” Had King been subject to the same conditions as Chaker, he might have been resentenced for some of his most powerful writings. Worse still, he might never have published at all.

Imposing vague and broad restraints on speech leaves people like Darren Chaker guessing as to the limit of their rights and as to which leaders are “touchable” by the spoken and written word. The First Amendment needs appropriate “breathing space” to thrive, as the Supreme Court recognized in NAACP v. Button (1963). Much earlier, Sir William Blackstone noted, “The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state; but this consists in laying no previous restraints upon publications, and not in freedom from censure for criminal matter when published. Every freeman has an undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public; to forbid this, is to destroy the freedom of the press; but if he publishes what is improper, mischievous or illegal, he must take the consequence of his own temerity.”

Public officials are appropriate objects of criticism and the protection of their feelings is not the appropriate province of the courts. Chaker’s words don’t even rise to the standard that must be met to constitute defamation of a public figure. Chaker didn’t act with “actual malice” or reckless disregard for the truth when he published his blogpost, which is the mental requirement necessary to sustain such a charge. His speech was thus constitutionally protected political discourse.

Accordingly, Cato has joined the ACLU, the First Amendment Project, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the First Amendment Coalition on a brief supporting Darren Chaker before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which will hear the appeal this fall.

In late August, the North Dakota legislature approved a bill allowing police in the state to arm their drones with “less than lethal” weapons. Not surprisingly, “less than lethal” is defined nowhere in the bill. Thus, North Dakotans could see taser-armed drones in their police departments–even though police-used tasers have killed 42 people this year alone, according to the Guardian. And while current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations prohibit commerically operated drones from dropping objects, an FAA spokesperson told USA Today that

A government aircraft operation needs FAA authorization in the form of a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA). We can’t speculate if an operation involving a Taser-equipped unmanned aircraft would be approved.

Notice that the FAA did not rule out approving a taser-armed police drones.

What else might a law enforcement entity want to put on a drone? Tear gas dispensers? Rubber bullets or other “non-lethal” projectiles? Or in the case of the Department of Homeland Security, the potential employment of unspecified “non-lethal weapons designed to immobilize” their targets?

In May 2015, the International Association of Chiefs of Police issued a model policy that provided the best answer regarding small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) operations

The sUAS shall not be equipped with weapons of any kind (emphasis added)

When he testified before the House Homeland Security Committee in March 2015, IACP president Chief Richard Beary spent a lot of time talking about potential criminal uses of drones. He did not discuss the perils of law enforcement arming its own drones, or the privacy implications of police-operated drones. While the IACP model policy was not yet public when he testified, it’s a shame Beary didn’t use his appearance before the committee as a forum to discredit the idea of arming police drones, and to talk about the need for police departments to get a warrant for drone use if such use might “intrude on reasonable expectations of privacy.” Those were messages the North Dakota legislature clearly needed to hear before passing their armed drone bill.

“The godfather of inequality research,”  is how The Economist describes septuagenarian  British economist Anthony Atkinson. A frequent co-author with Thomas Piketty and Joe Stiglitz, Sir Atkinson has written a book about inequality which a  New York Times reviewer described as a “flurry of largely recycled policy proposals.”   Inequality: What can be done? is all about “unapologetic support for aggressive government intervention,” says The Economist, and “a throwback to the 1960s and 1970s.” 

There is no need to buy the book, because the following summary – “15 Proposals from Tony Atkinson’s book ‘Inequality: What can be done?’ – is more than enough.  Each Proposal is in the author’s own words, but followed by my own view of Problems with those plans.  [I skip Proposals 9-11, which are just inflated versions of policies similar to those in the U.S. – the earned income credit, estate & gift tax, and property tax.]

Proposal 1: The direction of technological change should be an explicit concern of policy-makers, encouraging innovation in a form that increases the employability of workers and emphasizes the human dimension of service provision.

Problem 1: To invite political officials to obstruct labor-saving technology or to encourage (subsidize) employment growth at the expense of output growth are plans to depress the growth of real output per worker (productivity) and therefore depress real income per worker.

Proposal 2: Public policy should aim at a proper balance of power among stakeholders, and to this end should

(a)   introduce an explicitly distributional dimension into competition policy;

(b)   ensure a legal framework that allows trade unions to represent workers on level terms;  and

(c)   establish, where it does not already exist, a Social and Economic Council involving the social partners and other nongovernmental bodies.

Problem 2: The first proposal (2a) hopes to turn antitrust lawsuits into a device for reducing profits, apparently based on a zero-sum notion that smaller profits ensure larger wages. The second proposal (2b) insinuates that current law is biased against unions in unspecified ways.  The third (2c) endorses a Social and Economic Council composed of private interest groups.  Such councils already exist at the Arab League and U.N., apparently as a pretext for conferences.

Proposal 3: The government should adopt an explicit target for preventing and reducing unemployment and underpin this ambition by offering guaranteed public employment at the minimum wage to those who seek it.

Problem 3:  Guaranteed public employment at the minimum wage would have to be financed by taxes, which reduce employment in the private sector. If the minimum wage were both high and binding, this could shift a large and growing share of employment away from production of marketable products into provision of “free” government services of unknown value to consumers.  By creating a growing constituency for large increases in the minimum wages, guaranteed tax-financed public jobs could displace or “crowd out” more and more private employment.  In the U.S., the legal minimum of $7.25 an hour is not binding; it applies only to certain formal and visible forms of employment. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2014 there were only 550,000 people over the age of 25 earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, but 999,000 earning less than that minimum wage.    

Proposal 4: There should be a national pay policy, consisting of two elements: a statutory minimum wage set at a living wage, and a code of practice for pay above the minimum, agreed as part of a “national conversation” involving the Social and Economic Council.

Problem 4: How could the proposed overturning of private labor contracts by an unelected “Council” be consistent with any concept of political or economic liberty?  This comes frighteningly close to saying governments (e.g., Nixon’s wage controls) and/or non-governmental interest groups (e.g., Medieval guilds) can and should dictate to workers how much they should charge for their work, and how much employers must offer.  Yet inequality is famously low in countries with no minimum wage, such as Sweden, Austria, Denmark and (until 2015) Germany.  And inequality is very high in U.S. cities with a high minimum wage, such as San Francisco. The concept of nationwide “living wage” is arbitrary gibberish, since such a goal cannot possibly be the same for an Alabama teen living with parents as it is for a single mother in Manhattan with four children.  

Proposal 5: The government should offer via national savings bonds a guaranteed positive real rate of interest on savings, with a maximum holding per person.

Problem 5:  U.S. Treasury inflation-protected securities (TIPS) guarantee a positive real rate if held to maturity, as do similar bonds in Europe. There could be no maximum holding of such bonds unless savers were somehow prohibited from selling their securities (which would make them illiquid and undesirable). If Atkinson means to offer a higher real return than the market provides then the proposal would misallocate capital and increase government (taxpayer) debt.

Proposal 6: There should be a capital endowment (minimum inheritance) paid to all at adulthood.

Problem 6: This proposal would everyone a check for about $15,000 upon reaching adulthood, described as “capital” yet likely used for consumption.  This indiscriminate transfer payment is to be financed by a 65% death tax. Higher tax rates on the capital accumulation of older savers to pay for large subsidies to the consumption of young consumers would, as Joe Stiglitz explained in 1978, reduce productivity and weal wages by reducing the ratio of capital to labor.

Proposal 7: A public Investment Authority should be created, operating a sovereign wealth fund with the aim of building up the net worth of the state by holding investments in companies and in property.

Problem 7: Atkinson is proposing to emulate Arabian princedoms, China and other autocratic states by investing taxpayer funds (like the U.S. Social Security trust fund) in private equites and real estate.  Malaysia’s wealth fund, for example, is the majority shareholder in Malaysian Airlines, whose stock recently fell 90%.  Governments with budget deficits would be investing borrowed funds in stock markets, which is as speculative as individuals buying stocks on margin.  The authority to allocate taxpayer capital by political favoritism could not safely be entrusted to even the most saintly and omniscient bureaucrats and politicians, and they would bear none of the losses from bad investments.

Proposal 8: We should return to a more progressive rate structure for the personal income tax, with marginal rates of tax increasing by ranges of taxable income, up to a top rate of 65 per cent, accompanied by a broadening of the tax base.

Problem 8: If a top tax rate of 65% would be harmless to the economy and raise more revenue, then why is no country in the world adopting this advice?  All of the fastest-growing economies in Asia and Eastern Europe have very low and sometimes flat marginal tax rates, particularly on capital. All countries with very high and/or rising marginal tax rates (France, Greece, Japan, etc.) have performed quite poorly.  U.S. tax revenues were a larger share of GDP when the top tax rate was 28% than when it was 70% or 91%.

Proposal 12: Child Benefit should be paid for all children at a substantial rate and should be taxed as income.

Problem 12: Atkinson views his “Child  Basic Income” (CBI) plan as an intermediate stepping stone toward his comprehensive Basic Income plan because he thinks it easier to peddle to intransigent voters than his actual Basic Income goal for everyone.  Basic Income is essentially the 1967 “credit income tax” plan designed by James Tobin of Yale and converted into a $1000 “demogrant” for Sen. McGovern’s 1972 Presidential campaign. What McGovern missed is that a flat tax was the other key element of Tobin’s plan, as was confirmed by later work by Atkinson and Stiglitz on optimum taxation.

Proposal 13: A participation income should be introduced at a national level, complementing existing social protection, with the prospect of an EU-wide child basic income.

Problem 13: Participation income  is another rhetorical device (like CBI) for moving toward a Basic Income on a piecemeal basis.  The pretense is to make guaranteed income conditional on “participation in the society” by residents (not just citizens). In addition to all children and seniors, checks go out to those participating in approved training, taking approved care of children; doing approved volunteer work, etc.  Caseworkers empowered to decide which activities get approved would have treacherous authority to promote politically-favored nonprofits and thwart others.  If he can’t sell this idea, Atkinson’s alternative Proposal 14 is to simply to spend more on “social insurance, raising the level of benefits and extending their coverage.”

Proposal 15: Rich countries should raise their target for Official Development Assistance to 1 per cent of Gross National Income.

Problem 15: Foreign aid has often been used to prop-up bad policies and authoritarian politicians, and has never helped those economies in Asia and elsewhere which lifted themselves from chronic poverty to rapid economic growth – after reducing tax rates, tariffs and regulations. Besides, no academic has any right to tell taxpayers of sovereign nations how their elected representatives “should” spend their money

After his 15 Proposals, Atkinson also mentions even stranger “Ideas to pursue.” The zaniest, borrowed from Thomas Piketty, is “a global tax regime for personal taxpayers, based on total wealth.” Try to imagine the size and power of the required global army of tax collectors attempting to assess every wealthy individual in every country and collect a tax based on such inevitably arbitrary assessments. If such a tax could be enforced on a global scale, there would clearly be no democracy anywhere.

Sir Atkinson’s old-fashioned “policy polemic,” as the New York Times’ reviewer described it, is surprisingly disappointing.  He wrote a much bolder and better book back in 1995: Public Economics in Action: The Basic Income/Flat Tax Proposal.  In it, he suggested replacing all means-tested and social insurance benefits (such as unemployment or disability benefits) with a guaranteed annual income (refundable tax credit).  This would, he wrote, “do away with the present complicated means-tested   benefits” and shrink unemployment.  A key second part of the plan required replacing the progressive income tax with an optimal flat tax of 16-31%.   The combination of a flat tax and basic income, he concluded, “should definitely be on the agenda for public discussion.”  What Atkinson now proposes, unfortunately, is the exact opposite – numerous lavish political gifts ostensibly financed with destructive tax rates on capital and entrepreneurship.  These proposals would soon leave any country that adopted them in ruins. 

The Bloomberg editorial board has a recent piece entitled “Free Trade Can Save the Rhino.”  I was already aware of how free trade could lead to more competition and lower prices for consumers, but tell me more about saving the rhino:

Trade in endangered species is already heavily restricted by the U.S. The [Trans Pacific Partnership] deal would make it far more difficult for other countries to trade in trafficked items such as elephant tusks and rhino horns. The pact would, for the first time, integrate species conservation with trade access by requiring the 12 countries that sign it to adopt conservation laws, or live up to commitments they’ve already made yet routinely ignore.

Much of the demand for poached wildlife comes from the same countries negotiating the TPP. Vietnam, for example, is the main source of demand for rhino horn. Malaysia is an important shipping port with a low rate of wildlife-trafficking detection. Under the trade deal, both would have to change their see-no-evil attitude or risk trade sanctions.  …

Ah, now I see.  It’s not that free trade would do anything to save rhinos.  Rather, it’s that the U.S. is a large and attractive market, and we can use our economic power to coerce our trading partners to adopt domestic policies that we like, including new conservation laws.  So actually, free trade has nothing to do with this.

The question of whether we should use our economic power to coerce our trading partners can be a difficult one.  I’m generally a skeptic on these sorts of things.  Here’s something I said a while back in a more general international law context:

if we are going to try to change the world to be “more like us,” we need to think about how we want to change it … If it is just more of the views of whichever party is currently in power, we may wear out our welcome with ever changing demands for how the world should behave.

But regardless of how we approach promoting our views around the world, we should not confuse this with free trade.

A recent article in Business Insider showing what the ancestors of modern fruits and vegetables looked like painted a bleak picture. A carrot was indistinguishable from any skinny brown root yanked up from the earth at random. Corn looked nearly as thin and insubstantial as a blade of grass. Peaches were once tiny berries with more pit than flesh. Bananas were the least recognizable of all, lacking the best features associated with their modern counterparts: the convenient peel and the seedless interior. How did these barely edible plants transform into the appetizing fruits and vegetables we know today? The answer is human ingenuity and millennia of genetic modification.

(Photo Credit: Genetic Literacy Project and Shutterstock via Business Insider).

Humanity is continuously innovating to produce more food with less land, less water, and fewer emissions. As a result, food is not only more plentiful, but it is also coming down in price.

The pace of technological advancement can be, if you will pardon the pun, difficult to digest. Lab-grown meat created without the need to kill an animal is already a reality. The first lab-grown burger debuted in 2013, costing over $300,000, but the price of a lab-grown burger patty has since plummeted, and the innovation’s creator “expects to be able to produce the patties on a large enough scale to sell them for under $10 a piece in a matter of five years.”

People who eschew meat are a growing demographic, and lab-grown meat is great news for those who avoid meat solely for ethical reasons. It currently takes more land, energy, and water to produce a pound of beef than it does to produce equivalent calories in the form of chickens, but also grains. So, cultured meat could also lead to huge gains in food production efficiency.

Another beautiful example of human progress in the realm of food is golden rice. The World Health Organization estimates that between 250,000 and 500,000 children become blind every year as a result of vitamin A deficiency, and about half of them die within a year of losing their sight. Golden rice, largely a brainchild of the private Rockefeller Foundation, is genetically engineered to produce beta carotene, which the human body can convert into vitamin A. Golden rice holds the potential to protect hundreds of thousands of children in the developing world from vitamin A deficiency, preserving their sight and, in many cases, saving their lives.

Humans have been modifying food for millennia, and today we’re modifying it in many exciting ways, from cultured meat to golden rice. Sadly, it has become fashionable to fear modern genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), even though scientists overwhelmingly agree that GMOs are safe.

Anti-GMO hysteria motivated the popular restaurant chain Chipotle to proclaim itself “GMO-free” earlier this year (a dubious claim), prompted a political movement calling for the labeling of GM foods (a needless regulation implying to consumers that GMOs are hazardous), and even fueled opposition to golden rice. advisory board member Matt Ridley summarized the problem in his recent Wall Street Journal op-ed:

After 20 years and billions of meals, there is still no evidence that [GMOs] harm human health, and ample evidence of their environmental and humanitarian benefits. Vitamin-enhanced GM “golden rice” has been ready to save lives for years, but opposed at every step by Greenpeace. Bangladeshi eggplant growers spray their crops with insecticides up to 140 times in a season, risking their own health, because the insect-resistant GMO version of the plant is fiercely opposed by environmentalists. Opposition to GMOs has certainly cost lives.

Besides, what did GMOs replace? Before transgenic crop improvement was invented, the main way to breed new varieties was “mutation breeding”: to scramble a plant’s DNA randomly, using gamma rays or chemical mutagens, in the hope that some of the monsters thus produced would have better yields or novel characteristics. Golden Promise barley, for example, a favorite of organic brewers, was produced this way. This method still faces no special regulation, whereas precise transfer of single well known genes, which could not possibly be less safe, does.

Fortunately, while regulations motivated by anti-GMO sentiment may slow down progress, they probably cannot do so indefinitely. For those who wish to avoid modern GM foods, the market will always provide more traditional alternatives, and for the rest of us, human ingenuity will likely continue to increase agricultural efficiency and improve food in ways we cannot even imagine. Learn more about the progress we have already made by visiting and selecting the “Food” category under “Browse Data.”

Last week’s Washington Post report of the CIA/Special Forces “secret” drone campaign provided fresh evidence that the United States is heading in the wrong direction on the Middle East. Supporters of increased military action abound in Washington, of course, and lacking any better idea, the Obama administration has decided to double down on drones, despite no evidence that such an effort will have any measurable effect on the situation in Syria or Iraq. Instead, the new drone campaign is likely to have (at least) five negative consequences.

First, it will inflame anti-American sentiment in the region. Sadly, as survey after survey shows, anti-Americanism is rampant through the Middle East, even in countries the U.S. counts on as allies in the fight against terrorism and the Islamic State. A recent study shows that the Arab Twitterverse is awash in negative sentiment toward the U.S., illustrating that  And even more relevant, a recent Pew study documents the unsurprising fact that U.S. drone strikes are incredibly unpopular almost everywhere, prompting majorities in several Arab countries to say strikes against the United States for its behavior are justified. More drone strikes will move the U.S. backwards, not forwards.

Second, it will aid Islamic State recruiting and spur more terrorism. After 9/11 the United States went on the offensive, looking to destroy Al Qaeda and kill terrorists abroad before they could visit America to do more harm. What happened, however, was that by killing large numbers of Al Qaeda members and supporters, but also a large number of civilians, and thereby causing immense chaos, strife, and uncertainty, the United States managed to give fresh air to first Al Qaeda’s recruiting efforts and now to the Islamic State’s. In 2001 there were 1878 terrorist attacks in addition to the 9/11 attacks. After 13 years of war on terror there were 16,818 terror attacks worldwide in 2014. In short, the U.S. counterterrorism strategy has been debunked. With every drone strike, the U.S. lends weight to jihadist claims that the U.S. is a malign presence in the Middle East.

Third, it will not change the facts on the ground in Syria. Hawkish critics of Obama’s ISIS campaign have correctly noted that the administration’s air campaign in Iraq falls far short of what would be necessary to make a decisive difference on the ground. Pentagon leaders have repeatedly made clear that U.S. troops on the ground would be required to provide a meaningful impact on the fight. Obama, who has clearly been trying to avoid reentering the ground war, may be looking at the drone strikes as a bit of national security theater – to look like he’s doing something without actually doing anything. At any rate, in a situation as complex as the one in Syria, targeted killings via drones won’t do much to swing the battle.

Fourth, it promotes the unhealthy involvement of CIA in military operations. Even though Joint Special Operations Command is reportedly doing all the actual drone strikes, this sort of mission goes against Obama’s previous efforts to pull the CIA back to its traditional mission of intelligence gathering and analysis. The CIA’s involvement may be expedient in the short term, but longer run risks warping the agency’s priorities and organizational culture. We need a CIA committed to independent analysis, not another agency that risks

Fifth, it will accelerate the slide towards greater entanglement in Syria and Iraq. If Obama had a clear strategy in Syria, we could argue about how much the drone campaign would help. In the absence of any strategy, however, the drone campaign represents merely another step down the slippery slope to greater entanglement. Every action the U.S. takes in Syria or Iraq raises the political stakes for the president, increasing the chances that he will take even more aggressive steps to ward off critics and ensure “success.” Unfortunately for the U.S. real success would start by recognizing that greater engagement in Syria is a bad idea.  

BEIJING—There are many obscure tourist sites in Beijing. One missed by many foreigners is the Chinese People’s Anti-Japanese War Memorial Hall.

The museum illustrates why China, America’s most fearsome potential competitor, and Japan, Washington’s most important Asian ally, often are at odds. The two are a conflict waiting to happen, which could draw the U.S. into war with a nuclear power.

Chinese President Xi Jinping presided over last week’s World War II victory parade in Beijing. However, the conflict with Japan continues in many people’s minds.

Following Washington’s lead, Tokyo did not recognize the PRC until 1972. Since reestablishing official ties the two countries’ relationship has gyrated up and down. More than talking is necessary to resolve four major disputes: history, trade, territory, and security.

Although the Chinese Communist Party manipulates history for its own benefit—young Chinese learn little about the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests—the CCP has been quick to criticize Tokyo for failing to take responsibility for Imperial Japan’s actions.

While China’s demand for remorse is understandable, the vast majority of Japanese are horrified by the prospect of conflict. Even more nationalistic Japanese, such as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, don’t contemplate a new round of military aggression—which would be impossible against nuclear-armed China.

Yet high Japanese officials continue to inflame Chinese sensibilities. Commemorating World War II’s end Prime Minister Abe offered official regret for the conflict, but his remarks were dismissed by the leaders of China and other nations as “evasive” and not “sincere.”

Beijing has its own historical agenda. The regime has been battling Western influences and recently unleashed a veritable tsunami of documentaries, concerts, exhibitions, movies, television shows, musicals, children’s programs, and more to promote nationalistic fervor. Criticism of Japan is central.

Two months ago the Xi government opened a new exhibit at the anti-Japanese memorial, or Museum of the War of Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression. The government quoted visitors as calling the museum “a very good place to experience and see atrocities the Japanese imperialists committed.”

Economics provides an area of both cooperation and tension. After the PRC’s founding commercial ties developed slowly and were vulnerable to political disruption. Since establishing diplomatic relations in 1972 both trade and investment expanded greatly.

Total bilateral trade ran about $344 billion in 2014. However, politics continues to undermine the relationship.

Territorial disputes have grown increasingly vitriolic, especially over the status of the unpopulated Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, claimed by both nations. The half dozen islets are controlled by Japan, but the PRC now conducts air and sea patrols around the contested lands. Tokyo has pressed the U.S. for explicit defense assurances for the islands.

Security remains a top Chinese priority. Japan recently proposed its largest defense budget yet, about $42 billion. The PRC is Tokyo’s primary target.

The Japan-U.S. alliance greatly magnifies Japanese military strength. Moreover, Washington not only has supported Tokyo in the controversy over the Senkakus/Diaoyus, but also has offered general backing for the Philippines and an ambiguous commitment to Taiwan’s independence.

While the U.S. and Japan have no aggressive designs on China, Beijing understandably looks uneasily at the alliance of its old enemy with the globe’s dominant power. Thus, China is developing a military capable of confronting American as well as Japanese military action, no easy task.

The anti-Japanese Museum illustrates the challenge to China-Japan relations. The memorial devotes 887 exhibits with 5000 documents and relics and 3800 photographs to sullying Japan’s reputation.

The animus between China and Japan should scare the rest of the world. While war between the PRC and Tokyo seems—and should be—unthinkable, it could be just one drunk ship captain or careless fighter pilot away.

As I wrote in Forbes online: “The people of China and Japan should work through their difficult histories. The future belongs to those now living. They must find reconciliation and create a better world for those yet born.”