Questions and Observations

Free Markets, Free People


Your UN At Work …

Well, here’s one decision the Obama administration can be glad they made – boycotting this mess:

As Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for the eradication of Israel in his address to the United Nations anti-racism conference which opened it week long event in Geneva on Monday, delegates walked out, hecklers wearing clown-wigs shouted ‘racist’ towards him and were escorted out by security personnel and his speech was continually interrupted.

But hey, let’s sit down and talk with this fool – it’ll make all the difference in the world.

The UN – your third-world debating club at work.

~McQ

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Minimal Posting This Week

I’m headed out today on a week of vacation, combined with the Milbloggers Conference Friday and Saturday in DC. I’ll be hosting a panel on Veteran’s Affairs.

We’re going to wander up through Charlottesville VA and the Shenandoah Valley, hit a few Civil War battlefields, hang out in Annapolis for a day and then on to DC. I’ve picked up a new video camera – one that actually works – and am going to try to capture some short vids of what we do and see.

Question to Jason or Bryan – does QandO have a YouTube Channel? If not, could one of you tech savvy guys set it up for us and let us know how we can upload stuff to it? With this new camera I’m inspired to do some Vlogging – making sure to keep my face firmly out of the vids.

Anyway, I’ll be doing more traveling than posting but I’m sure my slacker buddies on the blog will pick up the pace and keep you up to date with the normal governmental atrocities we’ve come so accustomed too these last few years.

Toodles.

~McQ

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Doddering Old Fool Spouts Off

I just sat here, right this minute, and watched Andy Rooney suggest on 60 Minutes that we should make all income tax records public, and publish everyone’s tax records.  He doesn’t mind, he said, if ewveryone knows what he makes, and how much taxes he pays.

Well, guess what?  I do.  How much money I make, and what I do with it, is none of your goddam business.

Jebus Cripes, is there any freedom these morons are not willing to turn over to the government?

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Podcast for 19 Apr 09

In this podcast, Bruce, Michael, Bryan, and Dale discuss the use of torture on terror suspects, and the week’s Tea Parties.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

The intro and outro music is Vena Cava by 50 Foot Wave, and is available for free download here.

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2007, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.

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Let’s Close All The Service Academies

And while we’re at it, let’s close the War Colleges as well.

That’s the prescription the Washington Post’s Thomas Ricks puts out today as a great way to save federal funds.  Why is it the ideas these guy’s come up with to trim the federal budget are always aimed at the military and never at entitlements and the like.

Anyway, here’s what Ricks proposes:

Want to trim the federal budget and improve the military at the same time? Shut down West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy, and use some of the savings to expand ROTC scholarships.

After covering the U.S. military for nearly two decades, I’ve concluded that graduates of the service academies don’t stand out compared to other officers. Yet producing them is more than twice as expensive as taking in graduates of civilian schools ($300,000 per West Point product vs. $130,000 for ROTC student). On top of the economic advantage, I’ve been told by some commanders that they prefer officers who come out of ROTC programs, because they tend to be better educated and less cynical about the military.

Now, I’ll admit it’s been a while but I’m sure the dynamic is pretty much the same now as it was when I was in.

I was an ROTC grad. Anyone who believes I was as well prepared as a West Point grad to function at the same level as them doesn’t know what they’re talking about. In today’s parlance, the West Pointers were “shovel ready” while most of us ROTC grads hadn’t even begun the bid process yet.

Of course I’m talking about my initial entry into the Army as a 2LT (of course our NCOs thought none of us were worth a crap). I had a good idea of what to expect, what was expected of me and what I’d experience, but I was far behind my West Point peers in real actual experience.

In fact, as I observed it, at company grade (the ranks 2LT, 1LT and CPT are considered “company grade” ranks), the West Point grad and the OCS grad were usually the best officers (and with obvious exceptions, I felt most of the OCS grads were a touch better than the WP guys) while the ROTC guys were playing catch-up. Around the 5 year mark, at the rank of CPT, everyone was pretty much even.
west-point
Again, these are my observations, but as we moved into the field grade ranks (the ranks MAJ, LTC and COL are “field grade” ranks), the ROTC and West Pointers began to pull away from the OCS grads. However, at both levels, West Pointers were right there among the best because they’d been taught and taught pretty well to function at both levels.

So I don’t buy this fellow’s two-year informal study at all.

I mean think about it – I went to one drill a week, not a number off them daily. And, in advanced ROTC, I went to ROTC classes three times a week. If you believe that schedule can compete with 4 years of being steeped in the military culture, visiting various military posts and schools, lectures from leaders in your field and having real, actual leadership and command responsibility during that time, then I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn in which you’d be interested. Not even close.

Ricks’ tries the usual academic elitist argument as well:

They remind me of the best of the Ivy League, but too often they’re getting community-college educations. Although West Point’s history and social science departments provided much intellectual firepower in rethinking the U.S. approach to Iraq, most of West Point’s faculty lacks doctorates.

Of course, as regulars here have had the opportunity to discover, PhD’s aren’t all they’re cracked up to be as the one who roams the comment section here demonstrates almost daily. Obviously the “intellectual firepower” Ricks notes would seem to be a fairly important to a school of that type. I don’t remember any of the schools with ROTC adding to that process of rethinking our strategy in Iraq.

That’s because you’ll find some of our finest military minds teaching at West Point. They’re also immersed in a culture that inspires and promotes that sort of thinking. What they bring to those schools can’t be bestowed by any sheepskin. Many of them are serving officers who come from a stint in the field to the classroom where they bring a freshness to their teaching which is utterly unlike the stale academic atmosphere found in most traditional institutions of higher learning.

Lastly, the comparison to a community college education is pretty ignorant because it ignores the purpose of the service academies. They do what they are there to do and do it well. And I have never heard an academy grad complain about his or her education. Their ability to earn advanced degrees at elite civilian universities seems to argue that it is much more than the level of a community college (unless we now have community college grands routinely headed to Harvard, Yale and Princeton as WP grads do).

I’d apply the same arguments to the War colleges. They’re there to serve a part of a very important process – to provide the transition from field command to higher command and staff positions involving policy, strategy and international relations for the brightest and best. They’re very selective. They also provide the next generation of the nation’s senior leaders the opportunity to begin networking among those with whom they’ll most likely be serving as general officers.

So, as you might imagine, I find Ricks conclusions based in some fairly poor assumptions based in conversations instead of any real experience. Not that such conclusions are surprising anymore – we’re no longer strangers to journalists who think a couple of years and a couple of conversations somehow bestow a depth of knowledge about a subject which is simply irrefutable.

Personally, I’d much rather Ricks take a look at the massive waste to be found in most of the rest federal government’s spending and tell us why it’s involved in programs that build museums for Liberace, bailing out failing car companies, or paying to research the mating habit of wombats, or sea slugs, or whatever.

Who knows, he might actually know something about those subjects.  If we’ve got to get rid of something, I personally think this is a good idea.

~McQ

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A Recipe For Economic Disaster

A level of economic government intrusion is now being contemplated like none we’ve ever seen before.  If you didn’t understand the one of the main purposes of the tea parties, perhaps this will help.

But what Obama rarely says about ending the “cycle of bubble and bust” is this: he’s prepared to intervene to make sure that kind of red-hot growth doesn’t occur.

And he’s willing to do it with added government regulation if needed to prevent any one sector of the economy from getting out of balance – the way the dot-com boom did in the 1990s and the real-estate market did earlier this decade.

According to Austan Goolsbee, a key Obama economic adviser, the president plans to focus on stopping bubbles along with preventing busts. And in an interview with POLITICO, Goolsbee said the administration will be on the lookout for new bubbles, like the tech stocks or housing prices.

If new threats are spotted, he said Obama would use “regulatory oversight to prevent guys who want to make a quick buck from doing real harm to the economy. . .That is what it means to get out of the bubble and bust cycle.”

In other words, government would decide what is or isn’t a “bubble” and move to stop what it determines is a bubble. As CATO points out, one man’s expansion might be another’s “bubble”. Are you comfortable with government calling that shot?

And government would also arbitrarily decide who was or wasn’t entitled to profit from that market – it would be the final determiner of who was or wasn’t making a “quick buck” from the growth.

Any idea what that would do to any market in which the government stepped in to slow down?

Yeah, nothing could go wrong that that idea, could it?

Bottom line: you have a governing elite picking winners and losers.

Thankfully, it isn’t quite as easy as you might imagine to do what Goolsbee and Obama would like to do.

…[T]here’s not much an administration can do in practical terms to burst a developing bubble. The best way to cool things down is raising interest rates, which is the purview of the Federal Reserve. Another option would be for regulators to order banks to curtail lending to buyers of certain kinds of assets.

The lesson here, of course isn’t necessary the plan itself, but the fact that those in a position of power are contemplating this seriously. Those aren’t the plans of a moderate, and certainly not those of a capitalist. They’re the plans of a group who apparently believes that complex economies can indeed be controlled and manipulated successfully from above.

Amazing hubris. Even more amazing arrogance. Most importantly, incredibly dangerous economic thinking.

~McQ

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Torture…Again

I have to admit to some surprise in seeing Michael’s post on torture below.  QandO has been pretty much opposed to the use of torture, and we’ve taken some heat for it every time the subject has come up.  But, once you open up a libertarian blog to others to write for it, and tell them to feel free to write their own opinions without prejudice or favor, then,  before you know it, they go off getting ideas of their own, disagreeing with you, and generally acting with an outrageous sense of independence.

What’re you gonna do?

I understand the attraction of torture, both on utilitarian grounds, and in terms of what I will call “emotional reciprocity”, so I won’t re-cover Michael’s arguments, tendered, as they are, more inquisitively than asseveratively.

When I speak of “torture”, I want to be sure that we all have the same thing in mind when I use the word.  So I will define it here as the intentional application of physical pain, accompanied by the possibility of permanent injury, scarring, derangement, or death.  This will, I think, encompass the entire spectrum pf physical discomfort comfort from beatings to anything else more severe.  I specifically reject a definition of torture that includes psychological pressure, such as putting a particularly nasty-looking beetle in the cell of a prisoner who’s afraid of bugs.  I also reject questioning methods as sleep deprivation for a couple of days, or discomfort from keeping the air conditioning too low as torture.  These things might be unpleasant, but they are not physically or mentally harmful in any significant sense.

It’s possible to construct any number of scenarios in which torture is acceptable–perhaps even moral.  But that doesn’t negate the general rule that torture is, in fact, wrong.To continue, I would then proceed to the question, “Is torture always wrong?”  Well, that’s a silly formulation of the question.  In every human action, context matters.  I think there is general agreement that lying is generally wrong, yet if a terrified woman approaches us and pleads for us to hide her from a crazed stalker who intends to kill her, I think there is also general agreement that if the stalker subsequently approaches us, we would have a positive moral duty to lie to the stalker and deny any knowledge of her whereabouts.  There might also be general agreement that lying has a social purpose at times, in the sense that the answer to the question “Does this dress make me look fat?” is pretty much always, “No.”

In light of the above, it’s possible, then, to construct any number of scenarios in which torture is acceptable–perhaps even moral.  But that doesn’t negate the general rule that torture is, in fact, wrong, in the widest range of circumstances.  If we actually believe in all that stuff about “inalienable rights”, then certainly the right not to have hot needles shoved under our nails is one of them.

Beyond that, however, we enter a terrifically complicated area, when we begin to discuss giving the government the power to have recourse to torture as a matter of policy.  As a practical matter, it is nearly impossible to construct a system in which any official sanction to torture will not inevitably spiral out of control.  Once a set of rules is in place–any set of rules–there will inevitably be torture imposed on anyone on whom an official wishes to impose it.  Officials will ensure that the rules will apply to the persons they wish to torture.  Sure, the guy may look like an innocent Kabul taxi driver, but there will always be an official who “knows” better, and who will ensure that all the proper boxes are checked before the flensing knives are brought out.

We have elaborate rules, for instance, covering the issuance of search warrants, and severe criminal and civil sanctions for their abuse, yet, oddly enough, police agencies fairly routinely deliver no-knock drug warrants on innocent homeowners, which, not infrequently, result in homeowners or policemen getting shot.  Or in the case of 90 year-old Kathryn Johnson in Atlanta several months ago, police just ignore those rules, and seek to provide creative ex post facto justifications.  In that case, of course, we learned that such actions were not at all uncommon in portions of the Atlanta PD.

It is nearly impossible to construct a system in which any official sanction to torture will not inevitably spiral out of control.Providing legal sanction to use torture invites similar overzealousness on the part of officials.  Moreover, if the government can point to some cases of torture’s utility, the pressure to increase the range of acceptable subjects will inevitably increase–just as the drug war has increased the incidence of no-knock warrants being issued to “take down” non-violent drug offenders.  And, frankly, we haven’t done a very good job of guarding the slippery slope in these and similar areas of government activity.

That doesn’t make me sanguine about giving the government the legal sanction to engage in torture, especially in an environment where heathen foreigners will be on the receiving end of it, and their redress in case of mistakes are…limited.  That seems to me to have all the element necessary for an unconscionable abuse of power.

Now, let’s look at the question of whether torture works.  That answer to that is, yes, but not reliably.  There are a number of celebrated cases in World War II where French or Yugoslav partisans were captured by the Germans, turned over to the Gestapo, and essentially tortured to death without telling the Germans anything.  We also have, conversely, literally thousands of “confessions” of witchcraft during the Inquisition, extracted under torture.

What does that tell us?  Well, nothing really that we didn’t already know, which is that if you wish to get a suspect to talk, 220 volts to the genitals will probably work better than a medium-rare steak au poivre with shallots, and a robust glass of Côte de Nuits.

Whether the subject can be relied upon to tell you the truth, or just what he thinks you want to hear, is more problematic.  Torture can work–by which I mean you can receive reliable information from it– through the following iterative process:

1) The subject can be induced to talk through physical pain.  You can eventually get someone to tell you something, if enough torture is applied.  To ensure that something is useful,

2) You must be able to verify the subject’s information in whole, and provide…correction if any part of the subject’s statement appears to be untrue.

You must be able to repeat the above steps until the subject is convinced of your ability to verify his statements and punish evasions or subterfuges.  This can, needless to say, become an elaborate process.  If you can’t go through the process, then you don’t really know if you’re getting reliable information from it, or if the subject is shining you on to obtain relief.  Perhaps he’s telling you the truth.  Perhaps he’s just getting you to look askance at an innocent taxi driver in Kabul.

Michael asked:

Moreover, if it really is ineffectual, why does it continue to happen? Clearly, somebody somewhere is getting results.

Two things come to mind.

First, the vast majority of torture use, both historically, and in the modern world among those regimes that use it, is directed to obtaining confessions of guilt from criminal suspects.  It comes as no surprise that it’s highly effective at obtaining them.  Again, I refer to the Inquisition, where the possibility of death at some unspecified future date became more attractive than than the prospect of a continuance on the rack in the present case.

Second, as I wrote previously, torture does provide more information than would be obtained by abstaining from it.  One wonders, however, how much of that information is actually reliable, as opposed to how much of that information is beleived to be reliable by officials. Or simply politically convenient.  Those two latter  things may not, in fact, be the same as the former.

Finally, the question arises, “who do we torture?”  Certainly, every real terror suspect has some knowledge that can be useful.  Do we get to torture all of them?   Most of the justifications I’ve seen would give us the option to torture someone in a ticking bomb scenario.  Which sounds nice…if you actually know there’s a ticking bomb.  In the normal scheme of things, though, you really need to torture people to find out if a ticking bomb exists, not to figure out where it is.

The vast majority of torture use among those regimes that use it, is directed to obtaining confessions of guilt from criminal suspects.  It comes as no surprise that it’s highly effective at obtaining them.Or do we just torture the higher-ups in the terrorist movement, as a sort of fishing expedition?  This is, I gather, the justification for the interrogation techniques used on some of the al Qaeda biggies.  We thought they were up to something, and we used harsh interrogation to find out what they knew.

The most interesting thing about that is that we didn’t have to brand these guys with hot pokers to get them to give it up.  These guys apparently have little resistance.  Threaten to open a box of StayFree® Maxi-Pads in front of them, and they sing like superstars.  So maybe we got lucky in that some of these guys were easy marks.

But, as the Gestapo experience of WWII shows, sometimes, people will let you torture them to death without telling you anything.  Even in Vietnam, our POWs in Hanoi would resist real, actual torture for extended periods before giving up a “confession” to their captors.

But I digress.

Either you are going to define the torture-liable population so broadly, that officials will pretty much have a license to torture, or so narrowly that, as a practical matter, you’ll never use it.  If the former, you’ve got a slippery slope problem, if the latter, it’s not useful enough to even worry about sanctioning it, rather than just worrying about it on an ad hoc basis.

What would this guy do?

What would this guy do?

Jonah Goldberg has written often about the unwritten law, vs. the written law. Fifty years ago, it was against the law for the police to dispense street justice.  In practice, the beat cop, who walked the same neighborhood day after day and who knew the residents, would occasionally rough up some troublemakers pour encourager les autres, and in so doing, kept the peace on his block.  It wasn’t legally sanctioned, but it worked–and the cop knew that when he did it, he was risking at least his career, if it became a problem.

For a variety of reasons discussed above, as well as other, more prudential reasons in terms of the country’s image, and diplomatic reputation, I’d prefer never to see torture be enshrined in the written law.

I’ve noted before that, when I was on active duty, if I’d ever been faced with getting caught behind enemy lines in a Soviet attack in Europe, I would like to have the option of capturing a Russian officer, and finding out how to get back to our lines.  And, if I had to hook up a field telephone, and make a collect call to his genitals, I’d do it without blinking, if that’s what it took to get my guys back home alive.

I wouldn’t brag about it, or mention it to anyone in responsible authority later, but if I got found out, I’d expect to take the Court-Martial.  And, as long as I’d gotten my guys out, I’d have been happy to do it.

Necessity, it’s often said, knows no law.  But the law shouldn’t explicitly bow to necessity. I would rather have it understood that any torture inflicted is done without sanction, and the official authorizing the torture may be in danger of serious sanctions if he uses it.

It’s probably not the best solution.  But, on balance, I think it’s a better solution than giving the government explicit permission to conduct torture however they see fit.  Torture is problematic for a number of reasons, and the ethics of engaging in it are, at the very least, difficult to parse.  And, as Michael should well know, “hard cases make bad law”.

UPDATE [McQ]: What Dale said.

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They’ll Be Workin’ On The Railroad

Well here we go – the government apparently plans on getting further into a business in which it has no track record of success. Yes friends, if “Amtrak” doesn’t remind you of why this isn’t a good idea, how about doubling down on it?

You remember Amtrak:

In FY 2007, Amtrak earned approximately $2.15 billion in total revenue and incurred about $3.18 billion in expenses. Amtrak relies on an annual federal appropriation, which in FY 2007 totaled $1.294 billion, including $521 million in operating funds, $495 million in capital and $277 million for debt service. While Amtrak relies on federal appropriations to support its operating and capital needs, the federal government’s investment in Amtrak was less than 2 percent of the entire federal transportation budget for FY 2007.

Only 2%? Well, we’ll take care of that:

The president’s plan identifies 10 potential high-speed intercity corridors for federal funding, including California, the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, the Southeast, the Gulf Coast, Pennsylvania, Florida, New York and New England.

It also highlights potential improvements in the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor running from Washington to Boston, Massachusetts.

Of course Amtrak runs service in all of those places.

The president cited the success of high-speed rail in European countries such as France and Spain as a positive example for the United States.

And, of course, Spain and France are physically so much like the US it is frighting:

US -  9,161,923 sq km

Spain – 499,542 sq km

France – 545,630 sq km

For comparison:

Texas – 691,030 sq km

Travel by train has been a part of the culture of both France and Spain for literally centuries. Not so in the US. This is not an “if you build it they will come” moment.

“My high-speed rail proposal will lead to innovations that change the way we travel in America. We must start developing clean, energy-efficient transportation that will define our regions for centuries to come,” Obama said at an event near the White House.

You can read the plan here. It can pretty much can be summed up by Obama’s statement. Not a single bit of analysis about whether there is a demand, whether or not it will be profitable, and, frankly whether it’s economically viable at all.  It’s all about social concerns, not how much it costs.

This is government betting your money that it can change your habits. It isn’t a business plan that’s been produced, it’s a social engineering plan.

Is this the role you’ve imagined for government? As most who understand economics would tell you, if there is a market and it is a profitable market, some entrepreneur or entrepreneurs will enter that market. But you can be assured that won’t enter a market unless there is a profit to be made – which should tell you all you need to know about this boondoggle.

And whether or not you ever board a single one of these trains in your lifetime, you will pay for it.

~McQ

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