Saturday, June 2, 2018

Donald J. Trump is neither Republican, nor Conservative, nor Capitalist.

I have previously posted about the value of free trade.  In summary, free trade benefits consumers by increasing sources of competition for consumer's dollars, resulting in better quality of goods at lower prices.  While protectionism, on the surface, seems like a plausible strategy to protect domestic industries or jobs from foreign competition, the reality is that this protection of the interests of a few comes at the price of the many: less competition and higher prices for the consumer and less overall economic growth.  Secondly, trade promotes peace.  When goods and services cross borders, armies don't.  No country goes to war with a country with whom it has a profitable trading relationship.  Lastly, markets are made of voluntary transactions.  Only an economic system based on freedom to choose what to buy and from whom is congruent with a free society.  Protectionism, by limiting those choices, is antagonistic to the goals of a free society.

For three decades, there has been bipartisan agreement in the United States on the value of free trade.  For Republicans, the policy promotes their ostensible core values of lower taxes and less intervention of government in the marketplace.  Even Democrats, however, largely acknowledge the value of trade as downward pressure on the prices of consumer goods, as promoter of economic growth, and as a promoter of international alliances and friendships.  President Reagan negotiated the first Free Trade Agreement with Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.  His successor, President George H.W. Bush completed negotiations with both Canada and Mexico on a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  NAFTA was not ratified by Congress before the end of President Bush's term, but President Clinton also championed the deal and challenged so-called, "progressive" elements in his own party to push for its passage.  Since then, administrations of both parties have participated in the World Trade Organization and have pushed for free trade agreements in the remainder of our hemisphere.

With such broad bipartisan support for free trade, one would think the idea of protective tariffs on imports is a thing of the past.  However, in 2016, Donald Trump ran for the nomination of the very party that had been trade and capitalism's loudest champion by decrying, "these trade deals."  As President, he made good on his anti-capitalist, anti-market, anti-trade rhetoric three months ago when he slapped a 25% tariff on steel imports and a 10% tariff on imported aluminum.  Initially, these tariffs excluded our closest allies of Canada, Mexico, and the European Union; but in an effort to win concessions in revisions he wants to NAFTA, the President allowed these exemptions to expire yesterday.

The historic partnership between the United States and Canada illustrates the value of free trade.  Even long before the initial Free Trade Agreement, the U.S. and Canada have been each other's largest trading partners for decades. The border between the U.S. and Canada is the longest undefended border in the world and has been peaceful for over two centuries.  Many companies employ people on both sides of the border and both nations have reaped profits and enjoyed economic growth from the free trade agreements that have made the U.S.-Canadian alliance the greatest strategic and economic alliance the world has ever known.

President Trump's actions threaten this historic relationship as Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau has vowed to retaliate.  In addition to alienating our allies, Mr. Trump is pursuing a harmful economic policy that might protect some manufacturing jobs but will do so at the expense of American consumers who will face higher costs for products made with these metals.  Mr. Trump's actions are a repudiation of the economic platform of the Republican Party for the last 40 years as it had been the party focused on tearing down trade restrictions and opening markets.  In November 1988, President Reagan devoted a weekly radio address to support for free trade and warning against protectionist demagogues like Donald Trump, "Our peaceful trading partners are not our enemies, they are our allies.  We should beware of the demagogues who are willing to declare a trade war with our friends, weakening our economy, our national security, and the entire free world; all the while cynically waving the American flag.  The expansion of the international economy is not a foreign invasion.  It is an American triumph, one which we worked hard to achieve, and something central to our vision of a peaceful and prosperous world of freedom." (quote begins 3:37 into the address).  Mr. Trump's tariff is more than just anti-conservative or anti-Republican, it is anti-capitalism.  Capitalism requires open and competitive markets but a protective tariff represents government closing of markets to competition or hindering competition in the market place and picking winners and losers in the marketplace by increasing the cost of competing in the market for some companies and not others.  The winners are the favoured domestic producers. The losers are the consumers who are deprived of the lower prices and higher quality that result from competition for their business.

To call Donald Trump and his supporters conservative, Republican, or capitalist when their economic view resembles that of self-described socialist Senator Bernie Sanders (although in fairness to the Senator, he apparently opposes tariffs on Canada while supporting them on everyone else - apparently capitalism is good for Canada but everyone else needs protection from competition and higher prices) more than that of Ronald Reagan, is laughable.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The President's Fuzzy Math

President Obama trumpeted new regulation spearheaded by the EPA that will require the nation's fossil fuel burning plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30% from 2005 levels (which were 10% higher than 2012 levels).  According to the Los Angeles Times, this represents, "one of the biggest steps any country has ever taken to confront climate change."

Of course critics predictably either question the consensus view of global warming, arguing that it is not primarily due to anthropogenic carbon emissions; or argue that such regulations will come with very high economic costs by intentionally restricting the use of the cheapest and most efficient fuels.  Whether or not there is any merit to those arguments is less relevant (although cost-benefit analysis is important) than the more fundamental question of whether or not this plan, assuming the consensus view of global warming is correct, will significantly effect or reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.

Currently, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are near 400 parts per million (ppm).  The United States accounts for 19% of the world's carbon emissions, or 76 ppm (0.19 x 400).  Fossil fuel burning plants account for 40% of U.S. carbon emissions, or 7.6% of the world's total (.19 x .40 x 100%), or 30.4 ppm (.4 x 76).   The regulation would require a 30% reduction from a time when U.S. emissions were 10% higher.  So, if the U.S. power plant contribution were currently 10% higher than it is (10% of 30.4 ppm is slightly more than 3 ppm), the total would be about 34 ppm and if that contribution were reduced by 30% (34 x .3) then the U.S. contribution to atmospheric CO2 concentration would be reduced by 10.2 ppm for an overall reduction in atmospheric CO2 concentration of 2.5% (10.2 ppm/400 ppm x 100%).  The calculations would be similar, by the way, for raw emissions rather than concentrations as, in 2008, were 35000 teragrams (corresponding to a 350 ppm concentration).

So, assuming every other nation on the planet completely froze atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions, the U.S. effort would decrease atmospheric CO2 concentrations by a whopping 2.5% to 390 ppm.  The effect of that on warming would probably be negligible and would certainly be obliterated by the continued CO2 emissions from U.S. sources not due to fossil fuel burning power plants (such as automobiles) and continued contributions from other countries, particularly developing countries such as China and India.  Both these sources could be expected to increase and China and India currently account for 30% of the world's carbon emissions.  Finally it is important to point out that the most abundant and important greenhouse gas is not carbon dioxide but rather it is water vapour.  Water vapour occurs in the atmosphere at concentrations of up to 4 parts per hundred, or 40,000 ppm, which is 100 times the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide.

Even assuming the consensus view of global warming is correct, the notion that this negligible reduction in the world's increase in emissions of a trace greenhouse gas will meaningfully impact global warming is absurd.  Therefore, if the program has any cost at all, no matter how trivial, it is not worth the zero benefit derived from it.

Friday, August 9, 2013


Relations between the United States and Russia are currently strained because of Russia's decision to grant political asylum to Edward Snowden.  Snowden is a computer specialist who has done contract work for both the CIA and the NSA.  Recently he has made public details about the NSA's domestic surveillence program on U.S. citizens.

Government officials on both sides of the aisle have labeled Snowden a criminal.  He has been called a spy and a traitor.  Yet, Snowden wasn't peddling his information to foreign governments, terrorist organizations, or enemies of the United States.  Rather, he was peddling his information to news organizations.  He wasn't sharing U.S. government secrets with the enemy, rather he was sharing them with the very American people that U.S. government ostensibly exists to protect.  Sharing information with the American people about their goverment spying on them is espionage and treason?

President Obama wants Snowden extradited to the United States to face trial.  Just today the President denied that Edward Snowden was a patriot and he called on Snowden to explain his actions in court.  But think back a few decades ago.  Suppose a Soviet dissident, who had revealed evidence of the communist regime in Moscow spying on Russian citizens and abusing their civil liberties, sought asylum in the United States.  Would the U.S. have granted asylum?  You betcha.  But how is the morality of Edward Snowden's situation different just because it is now the U.S. government spying on its citizens?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Police State

I have no idea what was going on this morning in my neighbourhood this morning, but police had and entire street blocked off and at least a dozen men that looked like a military unit, but were probably a S.W.A.T. team, in helmets and combat fatigue were present.   There was, perhaps, a serious situation brewing on that street, but I found their presence more scary than reassuring.  It reminded me of a trip to Prague my wife and I took a few years ago.  Prague is a lovely city and I would highly recommend it as a travel destination.  Immediately after checking in to our hotel, we went over the the Old Town Square, which is a delightful place just to hang out.  It is vibrant with people, picturesque with a beautiful centuries old astronomical clock, lined with cafes and restaurants and chock full of vendors of food and wonderful Czech beer.  That night there was a large group of Polish soccer fans, in Prague for a big game, shouting and waving Polish flags.  Not speaking a word of Polish (or Czech for that matter), I had no idea what they were chanting and perhaps it was obscene or over the line, but my impression was that they weren't particularly rowdy.  Nonetheless there was a police response to the soccer fans that consisted of helmeted police officers with clubs and shields forming a perimeter around them and helicopters with search lights overhead.  It certainly seemed like overreaction to us and served as a scary reminder that the Czech Republic had been, not so long ago, a communist bloc police state (we quickly returned to our hotel).

Observing a similar scene in my own neighbourhood this morning (even though there may be a perfectly legitimate reason for it) was chilling and reminded me of how little the country I live in resembles the country I grew up in.  While there is long way to go between the United States in 2013 and Czechoslovakia circa 1968, slowly and inexorably the United States is becoming a surveillance state and police state.  Cameras are everywhere keeping an eye on us, although most notably now at intersections and speed traps.  Police forces are increasingly relying on paramilitary S.W.A.T. teams and becoming increasingly well armed.  There is even talk about police forces using unmanned drones.  Courts have ruled that police can place a tracking device on your car (even while it is sitting in your driveway) without a warrant and I have discussed the increased federal surveillance in a previous post.

What has changed?  Has the United States become a more dangerous place since I was kid?  No, not really.  Despite all the furor over gun control sparked by the recent school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT, homicides by gun were the same or less in 2004 than in the 1970's, 1980's or 1990's, and therefore lower per capita.  Jihadist terrorism is nothing new as employees of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, Marines in Beirut in 1983, relatives of passengers on PanAm Flight 103 in 1988, or anyone who remembers Jim McKay's report from the 1972 Munich games can attest.  The challenges to an undeveloped nation developing a nuclear weapon remain steep and the dangers posed by radiological dirty bombs remain overestimated.  What has changed is technology and fear.  In the 1970's and 1980's we didn't have speed cameras, unmanned drones, or high tech scanners at airports and GPS devices weren't ubiquitous.  Nor did we voluntarily relinquish privacy by carrying GPS trackers in our pockets (smart phones) and putting every increasing amounts of data about ourselves into the public domain through blogs like this one or on social media sites.  However, we accept this ever increasing surveillance because, despite the fact that threats have not changed and the vast majority of us live full lives in relative safety, we have become more afraid.  9-11 has generated so much persistent fear for two reasons.  The first its simple audacity.  Khalid Sheik Mohammed is often described as the, "mastermind," of the attack, but this is gross overstatement.  It didn't take a genius to send 19 hijackers to the U.S. on student or work visas and have them hijack four planes armed with box cutters.  It wasn't brilliant, but it was tragically effective and seeing such death and destruction caused by such simple actions and planning is indeed scary.  Secondly, 9-11 represented a paradigm shift.  Previously, hijackings were more about taking hostages than using the plane itself as a weapon.  While this paradigm shift does require some alteration in how we respond to terrorism, our reaction to it which has included increasingly invasive airport searches and multiple foreign wars, some of which had nothing to do with the attackers, represents gross overreaction to what was, is, and always will be, a low frequency event.  Similarly the disturbing headlines about a school shooting may motivate us to action, but the fact of the matter remains that the vast majority of gun homicides are not mass shootings.

And so fear, largely irrational, has fueled the transformation of the United States into a country increasingly hard to recognize compared to the country of my youth.  But, what if  the greater threat to life and liberty is not external but internal?  What if the greater threat is the surveillance we've agreed to place ourselves under?  What if the greater threat is the greater concentration of power, power that can be abused, in the hands of fewer and fewer people who are those that are supposed to keep us safe?  Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Fiscal Lemmings

As of the time of this writing, Congress and the President have a little more than 36 hours to come to some sort of agreement or we will, "go over the fiscal cliff."  It is important to understand what is meant by the, "fiscal cliff."  In its failure to act on meaningful deficit reduction as outlined by the Simpson-Bowles commision and as part of a previous deal to raise the government's debt ceiling, Congress passed a law that mandated certain tax increases and spending cuts to kick in automatically unless a new law aimed at deficit reduction was passed.  The problem many have with the fiscal cliff is that it raises taxes and cuts spending across the board rather than in a targeted fashion.  While the silver-tongued persuasively argue that our deficit should be addressed with surgical precision, using a scalpel rather than a chainsaw, to target tax increases to those who can best afford them and cutting waste and redundancy rather than cutting programs that benefit real people; the realty is such arguments are usually a smokescreen to allow protection of favoured constituencies. 

If no agreement is reached, on January 1, 2013, the payroll tax cut will expire and everyone's income tax rates will revert to Clinton era rates.  Other than poverty assistance programs, all government spending will be cut across the board approximately 8%, including military spending.  Republicans don't want this to happen because they refuse to raise anyone's taxes and they don't want to cut one cent from military spending.  Democrats don't want this to happen because, although they spent years arguing that the Bush tax cuts were irresponsible and Clinton tax rates were appropriate, they only want to raise taxes back to Clinton rates on the wealthy and they don't want to cut entitlement spending.  Currently, both parties are focusing on the effects of the tax hikes on middle class families and on the economy and any "deal" that seems likely to emerge will probably entail skipping the hard spending cuts, making no cuts in military spending, and raising taxes on people making somewhere between $250,000 and $1,000,000 per year, depending on what kind of deal can be reached.  While this would avoid, "the cliff," it would be the worst possible outcome for our country.  We would avoid a short term impact on the economy from higher taxes, but make no progress to reducing our deficit or long term fiscal responsibility.  For twelve years now, Americans have been getting more and more government and paying less and less for it.  This has to stop.  As far as I can tell, the only way to get any meaningful cuts in federal spending from our two political parties is to go over the cliff and accept Clinton era tax rates for everyone (these rates didn't seem to stunt economic growth in the 1990's).

This morning on ABC's This Week, former Governor Howard Dean (D-VT) argued in favour of going over the cliff.  He pointed out that the most important problem facing our country today is our deficit, which desparately needs to be reduced and expressed the opinion that the only way to both increase revenue and decrease spending appears to be at this point to let the New Year roll in without a deal.  He also argued that doing so would cause short term losses in financial markets but that in six months they would rally because uncertainty would be removed:  everyone would know what tax rates would be, everyone would understand that finally there is going to some spending cuts, and everyone would know that the United States is at last curbing its deficit.  He's right and conservatives Marc Thiessen and Avik Roy made identical points in the Washington Post and the National Review on Friday (December 28, 2012). 

A deal that generates minimal increased revenue by raising taxes on only a small fraction of Americans, that does not subtantially reduce federal spending, and that does not cut military spending at all is not in the best interests of our country.  While there are valid concerns about the effects of higher taxation on the economy, continued borrowing and printing is more detrimental as it devalues the currency and must ultimately be paid back with interest, representing an even higher hidden tax on future generations.  If some phony eleventh hour deal is reached, Wall Street will rally and Americans will breathe a sigh of relief at avoiding the scary cliff.  But the reality is, Howard Dean, Marc Thiessen, and Avik Roy are right. We should be rushing like lemmings over this cliff.  Now is not the time for a deal.  Now is the time for Congress to engage in what John Randolph of Virginia called in 1828, "masterly inactivity."

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Happy New Year, 1984

As 2012 comes to a close it seems more and more likely that the new year will not be 2013, but rather George Orwell's 1984.  While it is still difficult to envision the oppressiveness of Mr. Orwell's Stalinist Oceania taking root in the United States, Sinclair Lewis was right to warn us in a similarly themed novel that simply believing, "It Can't Happen Here," will not secure our liberty.

I remember about a decade ago having a conversation with someone, who was likely a partisan Democrat, who asserted he couldn't support George W. Bush because of the PATRIOT Act.  While I didn't think quickly enough to ask whether or not he had voted for Bob Dole in 1996 because Bill Clinton proposed the same measures in his 1995 anti-terrorism bill, I do think he was right to be leary of the PATRIOT Act.  Its only saving grace was that provisions would sunset unless renewed, so that if it was an overreach it could be corrected later when cooler heads prevailed.  Unfortunately, the PATRIOT Act has been renewed in its entirety (most recently in 2011).  Its most controversial provisions include allowing the government to search your personal records, whether library, financial, medical, etc., without your knowledge or consent; allowing for secret searches of your home or property without your advanced knowledge; allowing the government to demand your records from a third party by subpoena (a security letter) that requires no probable cause or judicial oversight; broadening the definition of a domestic terrorist; making easier to deport legal aliens; and loosening the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillence Act) restrictions on eavesdropping.

As threatening as these measures are to civil liberty, what has happened since is absolutely chilling.  After discovering that the Bush administration had been ignoring the FISA law and not getting warrants for eavesdropping on calls made overseas, Congress, instead of impeaching the President, passed amendments to the FISA law essentially allowing warrantless eavesdropping.  More recently, the government has created the National Counterterrorism Center to sift through any and all government databases to look for evidence of possible criminal activity, even for individuals not currently under active investigation.  Although Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has, for now, dropped his bill that would allow the federal government to read all e-mail without a warrant, the Senate recently left provisions to require a warrant for all e-mail searches (regardless of how long it has been stored on a third party site) out of amendments to the Video Privacy Protection Act.  Federal courts have ruled that the government does not need a warrant to track your whereabouts via your GPS enabled cell phone.  On December 31, 2011, President Obama signed the 2012 renewal of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a provision of which labels the United States as one battlefield in the war on terrorism and therefore anyone apprehended on U.S. soil, suspected of terrorism, can be detained indefinitely without charges being filed and without access to counsel or the courts.  At the President's insistence, language that would have protected U.S. citizens from this treatment was removed from the bill before final passage.  Although an amendment sponsored by Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Diane Feinstein (D-CA) that would restore constitutional protections of due process to American citizens suspected of terrorism was passed last month, Congress seems poised to pass a 2013 renewal of the NDAA that strips American citizens of this protection (further proof that lawmakers don't read the bills as the Senate voted for the amendment restoring protection for U.S. citizens 67-29 and then voted for a 2013 NDAA stripped of those protections 81-14).  Finally, the government maintains a program of targeted assassinations of suspected terrorists and reserves the right to assassinate even American citizens suspected of terrorism without due process.  Actually the administration claims that internal review by White House officials constitutes "due process."  It is a strange concept of due process, indeed, that does not involve formal charges, confrontation by an accuser, access to counsel, review by an impartial judge and trial by a jury of peers.  As discussed in a previous post, the administration has already assassinated American citizens under this program.

So what does all this mean?  It means that it is currently considered legal for the government to sift through your personal records and information in government data bases, read your e-mails, eavesdrop on your overseas phone calls, monitor the books you check out from the library or videos you rent, and track your whereabouts via your mobile phone all without your knowledge and without a warrant.  If, after this massive invasion of your privacy, it then suspects you of terrorism or ties to terrorists it can apprehend you and hold you indefinitely without access to counsel or without a trial.  Or, alternatively, it could order your execution, again without leveling any charges or allowing access to counsel or trial by jury.  In other words, your fourth amendment protections against unlawful searches and seizures and your fifth amendment protection not to be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law have now become completely meaningless.  Since all this can be done in secret and without warrants or trials, the government need not produce publically or in court any evidence whatsoever that their suspicions about you are true and therefore there is actually nothing preventing the unscrupulous from misusing this authority arbitrarily.  In other words, your only real protection against having these powers used unjustly against you when you have done nothing wrong is the good intentions of those that wield this power.  Perhaps the current administration is scrupulous about who it spies on, who it detains, and who it assassinates; but even if that is true, what is to prevent subsequent administrations from being less scrupulous?  Doesn't this level of government surveillence, government detention, and government assassination sound like Big Brother's Oceania?  And it has already happened here.

In her novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe is quick to point out that owner's like Simon Legree are the exception rather than the rule.  Her point is that no matter how unlikely it is for an owner to treat slaves like Simon Legree treated Tom, a system under which such treatment is perfectly legal is immoral.  Likewise no matter how unlikely it is that the above powers could be turned on innocent American citizens, a system in which doing so could be construed as perfectly legal cannot be allowed to stand.  Benjamin Franklin warned us that, "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."  Yet this is route we, as a nation have taken.  And so we usher in a new year that is not really 2013, but rather Orwell's 1984.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Maryland Question 6

My apologies to readers outside the state of Maryland for this post on a Maryland ballot question for the 2012 election.  However, the issue of same-sex marriage is one that has been raised in virtually every state in the Union and will be debated in all fifty.  Therefore, I hope the general reader will also find this post of interest - Publius

The state of Maryland will have the following referendum (question 6) on the ballot on November 6, 2012.  A vote for question 6:

Establishes that Maryland’s civil marriage laws allow gay and lesbian couples to obtain a civil marriage license, provided they are not otherwise prohibited from marrying; protects clergy from having to perform any particular marriage ceremony in violation of their religious beliefs; affirms that each religious faith has exclusive control over its own theological doctrine regarding who may marry within that faith; and provides that religious organizations and certain related entities are not required to provide goods, services, or benefits to an individual related to the celebration or promotion of marriage in violation of their religious beliefs.

Although I intend to vote for question 6, I do not think this represents the best solution to the issue.  This issue ultimately revolves around differences of opinion between people of different orientations and different religious traditions about what constitutes a marriage.  Some see it as a sacred union, made holy by God, that is meant only to bind a man and woman together to become one, for the purpose of sharing a life together and raising a family.  Others see it as life-long commitment of fidelity between two people who love one another.  Others still see it as both.  The question is, why should the state be involved at all in this personal arrangement between two people?  While marriage means much more to the couples involved, to the state it merely represents a contract between two consenting adults.  The state's only role should be to mediate contract disputes (separations and divorces).  With any other contract, the state does not need to approve or give a license ahead of time, but the participants do have recourse to go to the state (the courts) if there is a dispute or breech of the contract.  Why does the state treat marriages differently?  If the state were out of the marriage business entirely then everyone would be free to marry whomever he or she chooses, provided both parties are adults and consent, within the dictates of his or her own conscience and religious tradition.  The ideal solution to this issue is not to expand state permission to marry to gay couples, but rather to get rid of state permission to marry altogether.

However, the preferable option is not on the table.  Therefore, I support question 6 as the next best alternative that would still treat everyone equally under the law.  This law would allow gay couples to enter in, and have legally recognized, the same type of life-long committed relationships as heterosexual couples.  Those who oppose gay marriage need not have one.  Churches that view homosexual behaviour as immoral need not perform them.  This is a pro-liberty law on every level.  It expands liberty for gay couples and protects the religious liberty of the traditionally married.

Recognizing the committed relationships of gay couples in no way threatens the time-honoured institution of traditional marriage, which remains a holy, loving, eternal commitment between a man and woman who, God willing, will start a family together.  In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods or no god.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."  Similarly, it does me no injury to me for my neighbour to have a same-sex spouse or no spouse.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.