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Archive for the ‘Foreign Policy’ Category

Senator Rand Paul is being criticized and condemned by the Washington establishment.

That’s almost certainly a sign that he’s doing the right thing. And given the recent events in Russia and Ukraine, we should say he’s doing a great thing.

Rand PaulThis is because Senator Paul is waging a lonely battle to stop the unthinking and risky move to a world where governments – including corrupt and evil regimes – collect and share our private financial information.

I’ve written about this topic many times and warned about the risks of letting unsavory governments have access to personal information, but the Obama Administration – with the support of some Republicans who think government power is more important than individual rights – is actively pushing this agenda.

The White House has even endorsed the idea of the United States being part of a so-called Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters, even though that would require the sharing of large amounts of personal financial data with thuggish and corrupt regimes such as Argentina, Azerbaijan, China, Greece, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, and Saudi Arabia!

I’m sure Vladimir Putin very much appreciates this insider access so he can monitor dissidents and track political opponents. His government even signed onto a recent G-20 Communique that endorsed automatic information-sharing.

Heck, there’s even a Russian heading up the Financial Action Task Force, which is endlessly pushing to give governments untrammeled access to private information. FATF even wants banks and other financial institutions to spy on customers, regardless of whether there’s the slightest evidence of any wrongdoing.

The general mindset in Washington is that we should all bury our heads in the sand and blithely allow this massive accumulation of power and information by governments. After all, Putin and other thugs would never abuse this system, right?

Senator Paul battles the statists

Fortunately, at least one lawmaker is trying to throw sand in the gears. Like Horatius at the bridge, who single-handedly thwarted an invasion of Rome in 509 BC, Senator Paul is objecting to this massive invasion of privacy.

He has this old-fashioned appreciation for the Constitution and doesn’t think government should have carte blanche to access private financial data. He even – gasp! – thinks that government power should be restrained by the 4th Amendment and that there should be due process legal protections for individuals.

No wonder the DC establishment doesn’t like him.

One example of this phenomenon is that Senator Paul has placed a “hold” on some tax treaties. Here are some excerpts from a recent article in Politico.

Paul for years has single-handedly blocked an obscure U.S.-Swiss tax treaty that lawmakers, prosecutors, diplomats and banks say makes the difference between U.S. law enforcement rooting out the names of a few hundred fat-cat tax evaders — and many thousands more. …International tax experts for years have seethed over Paul’s block on the Swiss and several other tax treaties. These sorts of mundane tax protocols used to get approved by unanimous consent without anyone batting an eyelash — until Paul came to town.

These pacts are “mundane” to officials who think there shouldn’t be any restrictions on the power of governments.

Fortunately, Senator Paul has a different perspective.

Kentucky’s tea party darling says the treaty infringes on privacy rights. …Paul, a libertarian Republican widely believed to be eyeing a 2016 presidential run, says his hold stems from concerns about Fourth Amendment protections against “unreasonable search and seizure.” “These are people that are alleged, not convicted of doing anything wrong,” Paul said a few weeks ago. “I don’t think you should have everybody’s information from their bank. There should be some process: accusations and proof that you’ve committed a crime.”

The article also notes that Senator Paul is one of the few lawmakers to fight back against the egregious FATCA legislation.

Paul’s protest is also linked to his abhorrence of the soon-to-take-effect Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which will force foreign banks to disclose U.S. account information to the IRS, and domestic banks to reciprocate to other nations’ revenue departments. …the senator has legislation to repeal FATCA and hesitates to support a treaty that enables a law he views as U.S. government overreach.

I don’t know how long Senator Paul can withstand the pressure in his lonely fight for individual rights, but I’m glad he’s waging the battle.

Even the Swiss government and Swiss banks have thrown in the towel, having decided that they have no choice but to weaken their nation’s human rights laws on financial privacy because of threats of financial protectionism by the United States.

So let’s give three cheers to our modern-day Horatius, a very rare elected official who is doing the right thing for the right reason.

For more information on the importance of financial privacy, here’s my video on the moral case for tax havens.

P.S. I shared some good jokes about Keynesian economics a few weeks ago.

Now, via Cafe Hayek, I have a great cartoon showing the fancy equation that left-wing economists use when they tell us that the economy will grow faster if there’s a bigger burden of government spending.

Keynesian Miracle Cartoon

Now you can see how the Congressional Budget Office puts together its silly estimates.

Indeed, Chuck Asay even produced a cartoon on CBO’s fancy methodology.

The next step is to find the secret equation that CBO uses when it publishes nonsensical analysis implying that growth is maximized when tax rates are 100 percent.

But to be fair, the politicians who pay their salaries want them to justify bigger government, so should we expect anything else?

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With Crimea potentially breaking away from Ukraine and the ongoing risk of conflict, it’s time to revisit the topic.

I explained a few weeks ago that decentralization was one way of defusing the crisis.

Now Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute has a refreshing and important analysis explaining how bad economic policy has hindered Ukraine’s development.

He explains that Ukraine was one of the former Soviet Bloc nations that made the mistake of not copying the more market-oriented nations of Western Europe.

Prior to the breakup [of the Soviet Empire], Eastern Europe was underdeveloped relative to the West, mostly because of the failure created by central planning. When a market economy is unleashed in such a setting, “convergence” of the standard of living to that of the developed world can be quite rapid. …A large academic literature has emerged analyzing the impact of “going west.” The literature documents that those nations that assimilated into the EU saw dramatic economic growth. …The countries, like Ukraine, that failed to take that path have stagnated.

The impact is remarkable. Using EU membership as a proxy for nations that “went west,” Kevin put together a graph showing how the more market-oriented nations have dramatically out-performed the rest.

Hassett Putin Effect

He notes that per-capita income has climbed far faster in the western-oriented nations.

Income per capita has grown sharply since the mid 1990s, more than doubling for the former Soviet countries, and increasing about 50 percent for the Eastern Bloc countries (such as the Czech Republic) that have joined the EU. …The three lines on the bottom of the chart depict what has happened to those nations that have not joined the EU. Each of these countries has stagnated, seeing a standard of living that has barely budged since the fall of the USSR.

So what’s the moral of the story? Kevin bluntly writes that people who want to affiliate with Putin are traitors because they are condemning their fellow citizens to economic misery.

Vladimir Putin’s desire to maintain a zone of influence has had a dramatically negative effect on the economic well-being of citizens of the affected countries. It is hard to imagine how anyone could look at such data and not conclude that Putin supporters outside Russia are traitors, if not to their nations at the very least to their compatriots’ prospects of economic security and prosperity.

Now I want to build on what Kevin wrote by stating that “going west” is important because it is a proxy for more economic freedom.

Let’s take another look at his chart, but augment it with some numbers from Economic Freedom of the World.

I collected both the absolute ranking and relative economic freedom scores for the former Soviet Bloc nations, and then put together averages for each of the categories in Kevin’s chart. The first number is the average ranking and the second number is the average score. As you can see, the nations that have enjoyed more growth are the ones that have the most economic liberty.

EFW Putin Effect

Time for some caveats. Because of data limitations, the EFW Index does not have numbers for nations such as Kosovo. Moreover, Kevin didn’t include the former Soviet states that are in Asia, and I confess I don’t know for sure whether that means nations such as Armenia and Georgia are excluded.

But those issues only influence the green and red lines, and adding or subtracting those nations doesn’t change the look of the graph.

That having been said, the real moral of the story is that Ukraine needs economic liberty. It doesn’t have that now, and it almost surely won’t have that if it falls more under Putin’s influence.

Why? Because Ukraine already has been practicing Putinonomics (which is a sordid mix of cronyism, regulation, corruption, and weak rule of law), so more Russian control presumably will mean jumping from one frying pan to another.

Simply stated, if you want more prosperity, there’s no substitute for free markets and small government. The more nations move in that direction, the richer they will become.

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Ukraine is in the news and that’s not a good thing.

I’m not a foreign policy expert, to be sure, but it can’t be a positive sign when nations with nuclear weapons start squabbling with each other. And that’s what’s happening now that Russia is supposedly occupying Crimea and perhaps other parts of Ukraine and Western powers are complaining.

I’m going to add my two cents to this issue, but I’m going to approach it from an unusual angle.

Look at this linguistic map of Ukraine. The red parts of the country show where Russian is the primary language and most people presumably are ethnically Russian.

Russian in Ukraine

Now look at these maps (from here, here, here, and here) showing various election results in the country.

Ukraine Election Results

Like I said, I’m not overly literate on foreign policy, but isn’t it obvious that the Ukrainians and the Russians have fundamentally different preferences?

No wonder there’s conflict.

But is there a solution? And one that doesn’t involve Putin annexing – either de facto or de jure – the southern and eastern portions of the nation?

It seems there are two options.

1. Secession - The first possibility is to let the two parts of Ukraine have an amicable (or at least non-violent) divorce. That’s what happened to the former Soviet Union. It’s what happened with Czechoslovakia became Slovakia and the Czech Republic. And it’s what happened (albeit with lots of violence) when Yugoslavia broke up.

For what it’s worth, I’ve already suggested that Belgium should split into two nations because of linguistic and cultural differences. So why not the same in Ukraine?

Heck, Walter Williams has argued that the same thing should happen in America, with the pro-liberty parts of the nation seceding from the statist regions.

2. Decentralization - The second possibility is for Ukraine to copy the Swiss model of radical decentralization. In Switzerland, even though there are French cantons, German cantons, and an Italian canton, the various regions of the country don’t squabble with each other because the central government is relatively powerless.

This approach obviously is more attractive than secession for folks who think that existing national borders should be sacrosanct.

And since this post is motivated by the turmoil in Ukraine, it’s worth pointing out that this also seems to be a logical way of defusing tensions across regions.

I confess I have a policy reason for supporting weaker national governments. Simply stated, there’s very strong evidence that decentralization means more tax competition, and when governments are forced to compete for jobs and investment, the economy is less likely to be burdened with high tax rates and excessive redistribution.

Indeed, we also have very strong evidence that the western world became prosperous precisely because the proliferation of small nations and principalities restrained the natural tendencies of governments to oppress and restrain economic activity.

And since Ukraine (notwithstanding it’s flat tax) has a very statist economic system – ranking only 126th in the Economic Freedom of the World index, maybe a bit of internal competition would trigger some much-needed liberalization.

P.S. If you’re intrigued by the secession idea promoted by Walter Williams, you’ll definitely enjoy this bit of humor about a national divorce in the United States.

P.P.S. If you think decentralization and federalism is a better option than secession, the good news is that more and more Americans have unfavorable views of Washington.

P.P.P.S. The tiny nation of Liechtenstein is comprised of seven villages and they have an explicit right to secede if they become unhappy with the central government in Vaduz. And even the statist political crowd in the United Kingdom is considering a bit of federalism.

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Maybe it’s because I have a bit of a old-fashioned moralistic streak to me, but I viscerally object to the notion that good people should pay bad people not to do bad things.

That’s why, a few years ago, I didn’t react favorably when the former dictator of Libya asked for several billion dollars per year to stop illegals from crossing the Mediterranean to Europe.

And this also explains why I don’t think American taxpayers should cough up $1 billion to bribe Syria’s dictator into giving up his chemical weapons.

In this interview with Neil Cavuto on Fox News, I make the basic libertarian argument that we shouldn’t be involved in Syria’s civil war, but I also make a practical argument that – if you accept that American tax dollars should be spent – it would be much cheaper to bribe a few high-level people in Assad’s government.

Since I’m not a foreign policy expert, I don’t think I said anything particularly memorable in the above segment.

But one line apparently did resonate. Here’s Senator Rand Paul, speaking later that day.

I have to admit that made my day. Sort of like when Chairman Brady mentioned Mitchell’s Golden Rule in his opening statement when I testified last week to the Joint Economic Committee.

Of course, I’d like it even better if some of the ideas I support (like the flat tax or smaller government) actually wound up being implemented, but at least it’s nice to be noticed.

Fighting for freedom is often a thankless task in DC

Being a libertarian in Washington, after all, is not the easiest job. To quote former Senator Phil Gramm, it’s like trying to do the Lord’s work in the Devil’s city.

P.S. Any time I begin to get cocky and think I’m some sort of hot shot, something happens to pull me back down to earth. In my Syria interview, you may have noticed that my mouth looked a bit red. That’s because I made the mistake of eating some red candies that were in the car that took me to the interview.

As the old saying goes, you can dress me up, but you can’t take me out. That’s why I’m glad Senator Paul picked up on my line (which I stole from somebody, so I can’t really take credit) about threatening Syria with Obamacare. Otherwise, I probably would have been reluctant to even post the interview.

P.P.S. As I intimated in the interview, the best way to learn more about foreign policy is to read the scholarly writings of my colleagues from the Cato Institute. You also can’t go wrong by perusing these columns by Mark Steyn, George Will, and Steve Chapman.

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I’ve already shared some analysis of Mark Steyn’s libertarian-leaning views on foreign policy, so it’s very timely to see what he just wrote about Syria.

Here’s some of his new article in National Review. His humor is sharp, but he makes a very important point.

The administration’s ingenious plan is to lose this war in far less time than we usually take. In the unimprovable formulation of an unnamed official speaking to the Los Angeles Times, the White House is carefully calibrating a military action “just muscular enough not to get mocked.” That would make a great caption for a Vanity Fair photo shoot of Obama gamboling in the surf at Martha’s Vineyard, but as a military strategy it’s not exactly Alexander the Great or the Duke of Wellington.  …From the New York Times: “A wide range of officials characterize the action under consideration as ‘limited,’ perhaps lasting no more than a day or two.” Yeah, I know, that’s what Edward III said about the Hundred Years’ War. But Obama seems to mean it

Steyn notes that British voters already have said no to “ineffectual warmongering.”

This week, David Cameron recalled Parliament from its summer recess to permit the people’s representatives to express their support for the impending attack. Instead, for the first time since the British defeat at Yorktown in 1782, the House of Commons voted to deny Her Majesty’s Government the use of force. Under the Obama “reset,” even the Coalition of the Willing is unwilling. …“This House will not fight for king and country”? Not exactly. What the British people are sick of, quite reasonably enough, is ineffectual warmongering.

For what it’s worth, Obama doesn’t think he should be bound by that silly little clause in the Constitution about only Congress having the power to declare war. Which at least makes him consistent, since he doesn’t feel bound by the fact that Article I, Section 8, doesn’t authorize the federal government to be involved in health care.

But I’m digressing. Let’s look at what Steyn identifies as the real problem. We account for a huge share of the globe’s military spending, yet we don’t get much bang for the buck.

The problem with the American way of war is that, technologically, it can’t lose, but, in every other sense, it can’t win. No one in his right mind wants to get into a tank battle or a naval bombardment with the guys responsible for over 40 percent of the planet’s military expenditures. Which is why these days there aren’t a lot of tank battles. The consummate interventionist Robert Kagan wrote in his recent book that the American military “remains unmatched.” It’s unmatched in the sense that the only guy in town with a tennis racket isn’t going to be playing a lot of tennis matches. …America’s inability to win ought to be a burning national question, but it’s not even being asked.

Particularly since there are no real friends competing to rule Syria.

For a quarter-century, from Kuwait to Kosovo to Kandahar, the civilized world has gone to war only in order to save or liberate Muslims. The Pentagon is little more than central dispatch for the U.S. military’s Muslim Fast Squad. And what do we have to show for it? Liberating Syria isn’t like liberating the Netherlands: In the Middle East, the enemy of our enemy is also our enemy.  …So we’ll get rid of Assad and install the local branch of al-Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood or whatever plucky neophyte democrat makes it to the presidential palace first — and then, instead of napalmed schoolyards, there will be, as in Egypt, burning Christian churches and women raped for going uncovered.

Steyn then summarizes what’s at stake.

…the hyperpower is going to war because Obama wandered off prompter and accidentally made a threat. So he has to make good on it, or America will lose its credibility. But he only wants to make good on it in a perfunctory and ineffectual way. So America will lose its credibility anyway.

It’s unfortunate that politicians misallocate military spending for parochial reasons, but it’s equally worrisome that they risk blood and treasure in ways that don’t make sense.

Syrian intervention, however, would take foolishness to an entire new level.

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I’ve received several variations of this question since starting my “Question of the Week” series. Having never studied the terrorism issue, I’ve been ignoring those queries.

But I got several new emails on the topic after what happened in Boston, so I’m answering simply to make one point. There’s no way to create a perfectly safe, risk-free society.

That being said – and with the caveat that I have no expertise in this field, here are some random thoughts on the topic.

Libertarians want less interventionism around the world, and perhaps that will reduce hostility against the United States, but some of these nutjobs hate us because of our freedoms. So even a perfect foreign policy (whatever that even is) provides no guarantee we won’t get attacked. That being said, I think Ron Paul has screwed up big time in some of his criticisms of U.S. actions. Being against nation building does not mean you have to be against killing terrorists.

If you want to cause trouble, find a bunch of young men with no purpose in their lives and lots of time on their hands. Combine that with religious extremists who tell those men that they will get a bunch of virgins* in paradise if they die while killing Westerners, and you have a nontrivial supply of future terrorists. I suspect part of the answer will have to come from within the Islamic community, though I confess that I’m puzzled by the inaction on that front even though one imagines that 99 percent of Muslims don’t support terrorism.

Terrorists and would-be terrorists get information from the Internet that fuels their hate and provides knowledge on how to conduct attacks. I’m rather sympathetic to drone attacks on the scum in the Middle East who are directly seeking to instigate/plan terrorism, but I don’t see any feasible or desirable way to control and/or regulate the Internet (just like I don’t see a feasible or desirable way to regulate video games, even if it was shown that violent games somehow inspired Newtown-type killers).

Close monitoring of pro-terrorist websites and chat rooms is a very legitimate and proper function of law enforcement and the intelligence community. Being a Muslim shouldn’t be a cause for investigation and harassment by the government. Being a Muslim who uses the Internet to visit such sites is a cause for investigation and harassment (and the same is true for members of any other group with a history of violence).

Monitoring of Mosques also is a proper function of government, just as I also have no objection of law enforcement monitoring militia groups, environmental groups, etc, etc. Obviously, the monitoring of any group should be selectively focused on those strains that are believed to espouse violence. I don’t know where you draw the line between freedom of religion and incitement of violence, but I have zero sympathy for radical Imams preaching hate inside the United States and would like to see them shut down/imprisoned/deported if they cross that line.

Yes, I’m disgusted by the leftists in the press who obviously hope for a “right wing” link any time there’s an attack. These are the same journalists, by the way, who weren’t even slightly bothered by Barack Obama’s association with Bill Ayers, a real-life terrorist who bombed the NYC police department, the U.S. Capitol, and the Pentagon.

I favor immigration, but I want people who believe in tolerance and hard work. There should be some sort of test, however imperfect, designed to weed out those who do not believe in assimilation. I’m still flabbergasted that the U.S. government is so bloody incompetent that it gave a green card to the so-called Blind Sheik. Such people should never be let in the country and there should be mechanisms for quick deportation (perhaps halfway across the Atlantic) if they do slip through the net.

*I hope these are the virgins they meet.

P.S. Like anybody with common sense, I want’ our anti-terrorism policies to be based on cost-benefit analysis, which is why I’m generally critical of the Transportation Security Administration.

Addendum: I’m getting lots of comments and emails about this post. In retrospect, I can’t claim to be speaking for libertarians, so perhaps I should have used a title such as “What Are Your Thoughts about How to Deal with Terrorism?” Though I don’t think there’s anything in my views that is inconsistent with libertarianism. Assuming, of course, you’re not an anarcho-capitalist. But even if I was in that camp, I would want to voluntarily contract with a private firm that would hunt down terrorists and kill them. Sort of like the group in the new Tom Clancy novels. By the way, I also like the Vince Flynn novels, so I probably am more bloodthirsty than the average libertarian.

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This is probably the most difficult question that I’ve received. I’m not an expert on the legal issues, I’m not an expert on defense issues, and I don’t even have any strong gut instincts.

On the pro side, I suspect the world is a better place every time a drone wipes out a nest of terrorists. And that’s true even when the casualties include traitorous Americans.

I’m glad terrorists are nervously looking up, but…

On the anti side, every good libertarian worries about the slippery slope of government expansion. So even though I’m somewhat happy about terrorists getting zapped today, I don’t like to think about who might be targeted by politicians 30 years from now.

Remember, the income tax started as a relatively benign one-page form and it’s become a 72,000-page monstrosity with a thuggish IRS.

Part of the problem is that governments grab additional powers during wartime, and it’s very difficult to unwind those powers once hostilities cease.

And to make matters more challenging, we’re now fighting a war that presumably will never end.

Yes, we can probably ameliorate the problem by reducing American interventionism, but I strongly suspect that radical Islamists also hate us because of our tolerant values and secular system. So we’ll still face a serious threat of terrorist attacks even with a perfect libertarian foreign policy.

I guess the only answer I can provide is that I want plenty of independent judicial oversight. No, that’s not a panacea, but it’s at least some form of check and balance on the executive branch.

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More than four years ago, as part of my efforts to promote and protect tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy, I narrated this video explaining the economic benefits of so-called tax havens.

Pay close attention at the 1:07 mark.

Yes, you heard right. A former bureaucrat from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development actually called for the forcible annexation of low-tax jurisdictions, writing in the Financial Times that, “Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man should simply be absorbed lock, stock and barrel into the UK…Andorra, Monaco and Liechtenstein should be given the choice of ending bank secrecy or facing annexation.”

He wasn’t quite so belligerent about Switzerland, perhaps because all able-bodied male citizens have fully automatic assault weapons in their homes. But he did urge financial protectionism against the land of chocolate, yodeling, and watches.

What a bizarre attitude. It’s apparently okay for certain countries to persecute – or even kill – ethnic minorities, religious minorities, political dissidents, homosexuals, and other segments of their populations. Very rarely do people like Mr. Buiter call for annexation or sanctions against such loathsome regimes.

But if a nation has low taxes and  a strong human rights policy on financial privacy, then cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.

It turns out Buiter isn’t the only one to have strange militaristic impulses.

Here are excerpts from an article posted at The Street, written by a statist who says that “tax havens” don’t have enough military force to resist high-tax nations.

There is a relatively easy answer to the financial troubles of Europe, America and Asia. The answer lies in so-called “tax havens.” A consensus is emerging among the world’s major taxing powers that tax evasion may not be a good thing. …Jurisdictions specializing in the financial secrecy needed to avoid taxes exist in or near every major financial power. There’s Switzerland in Europe, the Cayman Islands off the U.S., Hong Kong in China, Bahrain in the Middle East and Jersey between the U.K. and France. But none has the military force to maintain secrecy against concerted outside pressure. The question has always been whether the pressure would be applied, and there is now some reason for hope.

The title is particularly revealing. She must be the fiscal version of a neo-con, urging that high-tax nations should “Invade the Cayman Islands!”

Not Iran. Not Syria. Not Cuba. Not North Korea.

You see, those nations are all guilty of causing misery and instability, but such behaviors apparently are far less important than the imagined dangers posed by a prosperous multi-racial society with a competitive tax regime.

I assume Ms. Blankenhorn doesn’t actually want to practice gunboat diplomacy against the Cayman Islands, but her attitude is quite revealing. Like other statists, I gather she despises low-tax jurisdictions because they attract jobs and investment from high-tax nations.

In the spirit of problem solving, here’s a suggestion for Blankenhorn, Buiter, and the rest of the fiscal chicken hawks. If you really want to undermine the so-called tax havens, propose a simple and fair flat tax.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen. The reason they want to squash tax havens is precisely because they want bad tax policy in America and other “onshore” nations.

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I agree with George Will that it’s okay to reduce Pentagon spending. After all, the United States accounts for almost one-half of the world’s military outlays, about twice as much as the combined total of possible enemies.

But I also agree that national defense is one of the few legitimate functions of the federal government, so I want to make sure we get the most bang for the buck (no pun intended) from every penny.

That’s why I get especially irritated when I read horror stories about Pentagon waste.

But in many cases, it’s not the fault of the Generals and Admirals. America’s military is forced to waste money because the politicians in Washington are motivated by cronyism, corruption, pork, and political correctness.

For example, let’s look at an excerpt from a column in the Washington Examiner.

Imagine you’re a legislator in a country with a bloated budget of almost $4 trillion and a record level of spending that requires massive deficits and could mean job-killing tax increases. Now imagine you’ve got a weapons program that is billions over budget, a decade behind schedule and unwanted even by those for whom it is intended. What would you do? If you said, “Earmark the program another $380 million,” you’re apparently qualified to serve on the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee. The weapons program is the Medium Extended Air Defense System, a joint venture with Germany and Italy that was zeroed out by three of four relevant congressional funding authorities. But the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense decided the program was worth a $380 million earmark, and the full committee passed the final bill along with a unanimous vote.

I’m not an expert on weapons systems. Heck, I know less about such matters than Obama’s cabinet knows about the economy. But it certainly seems foolish to throw good money after bad on a program that doesn’t work. Especially when the military doesn’t want it!

And here are a couple of sentences from a Forbes column about part of the military budget being diverted to subsidize solar power.

EPA regional headquarters?

The U.S. Army is looking for a few good renewable energy projects. Some $7 billion worth. On Tuesday the Army began accepting bids for green energy installations that will be deployed on military bases and facilities across the U.S. The Army will sign contracts to buy the electricity generated by solar, wind, geothermal and biomass projects for up to 30 years. …The program is part of a Department of Defense initiative to meet at least 25% of energy demand on its bases from renewable sources by 2025. The military is also aiming its bases to become “net zero” consumers of electricity – generating more power than they use by installing solar and other renewable energy systems.

Silly me. I thought the Pentagon was responsible for keeping the nation safe. I guess I missed the memo where it was tasked with being a tool for the green agenda.

These examples doubtlessly are just the tip of the iceberg. Politicians can’t resist turning anything they touch into a vehicle for graft, waste, and foolishness.

To be sure, there are also big picture issues of national security that have to be resolved. Is NATO now an anachronism, as Steve Chapman persuasively argues? Is overseas intervention a pointless exercise, as Mark Steyn explains?

But whatever the mission, the Pentagon’s ability to carry it out is compromised when politicians treat the military budget like a goodie bag.

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I realize that national defense is one of the few legitimate functions of the federal government, but that doesn’t mean the Pentagon budget isn’t riddled with waste, fraud, and abuse.

Here’s a jaw-dropping example reported by Bloomberg.

A U.S. contractor in Iraq overbilled the Pentagon by at least $4.4 million for spare parts and equipment, including $900 for an electronic control switch valued at $7.05, according to a new audit. Based on the questionable costs identified in a $300 million contract with Dubai-based Anham LLC, the U.S. should review all its contracts with the company in Iraq and Afghanistan, which total about $3.9 billion, said Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen. “The audit found weak oversight in multiple areas that left the government vulnerable to improper overcharges,” Bowen wrote in the forward to his 30th quarterly report, released today. The contract in question was funded with a combination of money earmarked for Iraqi Security Forces and Army operations and maintenance funds. Among the “egregious examples of overbilling” by Anham were $4,500 for a circuit breaker valued at $183.30, $3,000 for a $94.47 circuit breaker and $80 for a small segment of drain pipe valued at $1.41.

Those mark-ups are absurd, but I wonder whether this example from the story is even worse.

In other cases, Anham used subcontractors to purchase items that could have been bought directly from the manufacturer at lower prices, the report said. When Anham was asked to buy a loudspeaker system to alert warehouse employees of any danger, it chose not to buy the system directly from the manufacturer at the retail price of $44,615, the report said. Instead, Anham sought bids from subcontractors and paid a company called Knowlogy $90,908. That price included $20,000 for installation, even though the system setup meant little more than wheeling it into place and plugging it in.

I think I made a mistake becoming a policy wonk. I could have a great career as a loudspeaker installer.

On a more serious note, it would be nice if governments didn’t squander so much money. Maybe things wouldn’t be so bad if some people went to jail for these rip-offs of taxpayer money.

And let’s not forget that the bigger issue is whether the national security of the United States is advanced or undermined by nation building in the Middle East. Or remaining in alliances such as NATO that lost their raison d’être when the Warsaw Pact disappeared 20 years ago.

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That line is from a great column by Steve Chapman, who wonders why NATO still exists. If you read this column and Mark Steyn’s recent National Review article (which I blogged about here), you will have a good grasp of what makes libertarian foreign policy very compelling.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates went to Europe recently to announce that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization may have a “dismal future” and that before long, American leaders “may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.” Why does he make that sound like a bad thing? “Watch out! We may have to stop spending so much money protecting countries that can protect themselves!” …Its entire purpose was to protect Western Europe from the Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces in Eastern Europe, which were a plausible threat to invade and conquer. But at this point, maintaining NATO is like keeping forts in South Dakota to defend settlers against hostile Indians. The Western alliance won the Cold War, and in the absence of some major, general threat, Gates would do better to ask why it needs to be preserved. …Ever since the end of the Cold War, NATO has been an answer in search of a question. It validates what Ronald Reagan is credited with saying: “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.” Everyone understood why we kept huge forces in (West) Germany a generation ago. But today, it’s a puzzle. Who are they supposed to fight? The Finns? Missions like Libya are an attempt to justify an organization that has outlived the problem it was created to solve. …The defense secretary fumes that too many countries “enjoy the benefits of membership” but “don’t want to share the risks and costs.” Of course they do. If you let people join a nice club without paying dues, how many would turn it down? And if you later asked them to mop the floors, how many would grab a bucket? Our allies are behaving rationally, and we keep wondering why. Gates may enjoy continually pounding his head against a brick wall. But the rest of us might find it feels really good to stop.

I suppose it would be appropriate to acknowledge that the NATO example is very simple and straightforward. It’s much more challenging for libertarians (and everyone else) to figure out how to respond to something like Islamic terrorism. Ending the nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan would be a good start, to be sure, but I strongly doubt whether that would have any significant effect on the threat of attacks. I don’t pretend to know the answer, but perhaps the drone attacks are the least-worst approach. Simply stated, keep cutting the heads off the snakes.

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I don’t know if Mark Steyn would agree with my characterization, but his new National Review column presents a very powerful case for libertarian foreign policy.

As is so often the case with Steyn’s writing, it’s very clever and often funny, but it’s also a remarkable indictment of interventionism and international bureaucracies. It’s only available for subscribers, but here’s an excerpt.

Thanks to American defense welfare, NATO is a military alliance made up of allies that no longer have militaries. In the Cold War, that had a kind of logic: Europe was the designated battlefield, so, whether or not they had any tanks, they had, very literally, skin in the game. But the Cold War ended and NATO lingered on, evolving into a global Super Friends made up of folks who aren’t Super and don’t like each other terribly much. At the beginning of the Afghan campaign, Washington invested huge amounts of diplomatic effort trying to rouse its allies into the merest gestures of war-making: The 2004 NATO summit was hailed as a landmark success after the alliance’s 26 members agreed to commit an extra 600 troops and three helicopters. That averages out at 23.08 troops per country, plus almost a ninth of a helicopter apiece. Half a decade of quagmire later, Washington was investing even larger amounts of diplomatic effort failing to rouse its allies into the most perfunctory gestures of non-combat pantywaist transnationalism: We know that, under ever more refined rules of engagement, certain allies won’t go out at night, or in snow, or in provinces where there’s fighting going on, so, by the 2010 NATO confab, Robert Gates was reduced to complaining that the allies’ promised 450 “trainers” for the Afghan National Army had failed to materialize. Supposedly 46 nations are contributing to the allied effort in Afghanistan, so that would work out at ten “trainers” per country. Imagine if the energy expended in these ridiculous (and in some cases profoundly damaging) transnational fig leaves had been directed into more quaintly conventional channels — like, say, identifying America’s national interest and pursuing it. …Transnational do-gooding is political correctness on tour. It takes the relativist assumptions of the multiculti varsity and applies them geopolitically: The white man’s burden meets liberal guilt. No wealthy developed nation should have a national interest, because a national interest is a selfish interest. …in an era of Massively Applied Desultoriness, we spend a fortune going to war with one hand tied behind our back. The Forty-Three Percent Global Operating Industrial Military Complex isn’t too big to fail, but it is perhaps too big to win — as our enemies understand. So on we stagger, with Cold War institutions, transnational sensibilities, politically correct solicitousness, fraudulent preening pseudo–nation building, expensive gizmos, little will, and no war aims . . . but real American lives.

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