Afghanistan and the free-rider problem

April 3, 2009

Before the election, we were told that President Obama’s new diplomatic approach would line up our erstwhile allies to help in Afghanistan.  Alas, it turns out that President Obama is good at attracting huge crowds of cheering supporters and fawning journalists, but no better than the previous administration at extracting substantive commitments from Europe:

Behind the display of revived transatlantic friendship, European leaders have proved reluctant to follow Obama in his first major foreign policy initiative, which in effect seeks to make Afghanistan NATO’s main mission of the moment. With a few exceptions, European analysts said, the leaders are ready to heed the U.S. call for more military help in Afghanistan only to the extent necessary to stay friendly with the new administration.

“The Europeans want to come back from the summit and say, ‘Look, we’re still tight with the Americans,’ ” said Daniel Korski, an Afghanistan specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The Americans want to come back from the summit and say, ‘Look, the Europeans are going to help with the new strategy in Afghanistan.’ ”

European officials said Obama is likely to come away from the summit Saturday with a broad endorsement of his idea that stabilizing Afghanistan is a strategic goal for NATO and support for his decision to devote more civilian as well as military resources to eliminating al-Qaeda havens there and in Pakistan. But they also said that summit pleasantries are unlikely to mask Europe’s refusal to commit to major new troop deployments.

(Via Hot Air.)

European leaders basically are saying, “stabilizing Afghanistan is a great idea; someone totally ought to do that.”

This is a classic instance of the free-rider problem.  Europe knows that we will do it if no one else does, so why should they put themselves out?  Military action abroad is expensive, complicated, and politically costly, so why do it when you know the United States will?  Whatever animus may or may not have existed with President Bush, this was the real reason why we couldn’t get substantive contributions for Afghanistan from much of Europe, and it hasn’t changed with the new administration.

ASIDE: NATO did assist with Bosnia and Kosovo, because those conflicts mattered a lot to Europe, much more than they mattered to America.  Even so, we did most of the heavy lifting.

Donald Rumsfeld recognized the free-rider problem when we created the ISAF to provide security for Kabul after Operation Enduring Freedom.  Douglas Feith writes in his book (p. 156):

[The ISAF] would receive help from the United States, though American troops would not become part of ISAF. This last restriction was important to Rumsfeld.  He reasoned that ISAF’s contributors would have less incentive to support the effort if they believed the Americans would join the force and the United States would therefore be likely to cover any shortfalls.

and (p. 157-158):

It soon became clear, however, that our critics wanted the United States to support the [ISAF] expansion by providing U.S. forces and funds to make it possible.  This reflected the very frame of mind that Rumsfeld warned against: the Yankee can-do, fill-every-vacuum hyperactivity that deprives other countries of incentives to pull their weight in multilateral projects. . .  One of ISAF’s key purposes was to allow others in the world to help the new Afghanistan. Rumsfeld did not favor reflagging U.S. operations — having our soldiers perform a mission and calling it an ISAF rather than a coalition effort — simply to make ISAF look robust.  He told me he wanted ISAF to be useful, look successful, and take on more responsibility if it could, but as a serious partner, not functioning on the cheap.

Unfortunately, the ISAF did not fully satisfy those aims.  The free-rider problem still existed because, although the ISAF was given responsibility for Kabul, the world still recognized that America was ultimately on the hook.  Although some countries did make substantial contributions, we failed to generate the robust international effort we wanted.

The ISAF was not a complete success, but at least Rumsfeld recognized the need for a strategy to overcome the free-rider problem. In contrast, President Obama is looking to overcome it by sheer force of personality.  It’s not impossible for that to work, I suppose, but it certainly never seemed likely.

Chavez: Venezuela will take Guantanamo detainees

April 3, 2009

AP reports.  I’ll bet he will.  Iran or Hamas would surely be happy to take them as well.

Chavez jails another opponent

April 3, 2009

The Wall Street Journal reports:

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez moved to jail a prominent opposition figure for the second time in recent weeks, an apparent bid to tighten his grip on power amid a sharp downturn in economic growth.

Raúl Baduel, a former defense minister-turned-Chávez-critic, was arrested on corruption charges Thursday, according to Mr. Baduel’s lawyer, Omar Mora Tosta, and government officials. Mr. Mora Tosta says the charges are unfounded. . .

Government officials say the actions against Messrs. Baduel and Rosales are the result of legitimate investigations into their financial dealings when they held public office.

Some observers, however, say the moves illustrate how Mr. Chávez is using government institutions to punish political opponents. “All available information suggests that this is selective prosecution motivated by political reasons,” says José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas program. Mr. Vivanco says he was expelled from Venezuela at gunpoint last year after releasing a report critical of Mr. Chávez. . .

The sudden economic slowdown has forced Mr. Chavez to curtail spending and raise taxes — two measures that will hurt the poor and could dent his popularity. Some economists say currency devaluation may be next.

Mr. Chávez appears to be striking at chief opponents before they can use the worsening economy against him, observers said.

Well, at least Chavez’s opponents aren’t turning up dead, like Putin’s.

Goose, gander

April 3, 2009

(Via Instapundit.)

Skype for iPhone

April 2, 2009

Finally available.

UPDATE: It’s buggy though, to the point where it doesn’t really work. Bringing up a particular contact (just one, oddly enough, but the only one I wanted to call) consistently crashes the app.  Even rebooting doesn’t help.  I hope they fix it soon.

UPDATE: For what it’s worth, Skype says they’re working on it:

Thank you for contacting Skype Support.

This error is known by our development team and will be resolved in a future release of Skype.

Stay tuned for updates in the Apple App Store and get the latest version of Skype for iPhone once it is available

We apologize for the inconvenience.

UPDATE (4/30): It’s fixed now.

Political risk

April 2, 2009

Tim Geithner’s plan to fix the toxic asset problem relies on the participation of the private sector.  Unfortunately for the plan, the private sector has been learning over the past weeks that it is dangerous to go into business with the government.  Promises that were made at the time were quickly discarded, but no one can hold the government to its promises.  Even promises that were enshrined in legislation are in the process of being revoked.

In today’s political climate, you would be crazy to enter a partnership with the government if you have any other choice.  Some firms may have no other choice, but Geithner’s plan relies on participation from solvent firms.  Those firms can afford to decline, and some, such as the Bridgewater hedge fund, are deciding to do just that.

Bridgewater’s manager, Ray Dalio, wrote to his investors:

Then there is the issue about the political risk, which we are more concerned about because there will be such a limited number of managers being allowed to participate in this program that it raises possibilities (or at least perceived possibilities) of them colluding because they all know each other. Either these investments will make a lot of money for their investors or the government will lose a lot of money — in either case, there will be reasons for politicians to complain and to focus on the five winners to see how they “abused” the system.

Dalio nails it here.  If the plan results in a profit, participants will make a lot of money.  They will be vilified for it, and perhaps face a 90% tax on their profits.  If the plan results in a loss, the government will lose a lot of money.  The participants will be vilified even more, and perhaps be charged with some trumped-up crime.  Either way, the small number of participants will set up charges of collusion, which will be key to the ensuing vilification and/or prosecution.  Dalio says to hell with it, he’s not going to play.

What we have here is a consequence of the congressional/presidential tantrum over the last few weeks.  There’s always political risk, but the behavior of our leadership has ratcheted it to extreme levels.  Quite simply, the government has shown that it cannot be trusted to abide by any agreement it makes right now, even if it’s written into law. Geithner’s plan had a lot stacked against it already, and this could be the final blow.

UPDATE: The Economist’s story on the Geithner plan also sees political risk as a problem:

This time, too, the sweet terms have piqued the interest of big fund managers, such as BlackRock and PIMCO. The biggest obstacle to their participation is no longer financial risk but the political sort, thanks to the bonus frenzy over American International Group (AIG). The Obama administration may have toned down its Wall Street-bashing, and Congress is rethinking its plan to tax bonuses at up to 90%. But many still worry that they could become a target if they reap big windfalls.

Gee, why would they worry about that?

New York Democrats oppose military voting

April 2, 2009

Democratic members of the New York Board of Elections voted against taking steps to make it possible for deployed military to vote.

Despite a general consensus that military absentee ballots need to be given at least 45 days because of mail delivery delays, New York allows only 25.  The Justice Department sued after New York refused to correct its procedures, but it ultimately let New York slide with a still-insufficient 30 days.

Something to keep in mind as they count absentee ballots in the NY-20 special election where the candidates are separated by just 25 votes.

Only 17% of Mexican crime guns come from the U.S.

April 2, 2009

If you read Glenn Reynolds, you probably know this already:

You’ve heard this shocking “fact” before — on TV and radio, in newspapers, on the Internet and from the highest politicians in the land: 90 percent of the weapons used to commit crimes in Mexico come from the United States.

— Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it to reporters on a flight to Mexico City.

— CBS newsman Bob Schieffer referred to it while interviewing President Obama.

— California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said at a Senate hearing: “It is unacceptable to have 90 percent of the guns that are picked up in Mexico and used to shoot judges, police officers and mayors … come from the United States.”

— William Hoover, assistant director for field operations at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, testified in the House of Representatives that “there is more than enough evidence to indicate that over 90 percent of the firearms that have either been recovered in, or interdicted in transport to Mexico, originated from various sources within the United States.”

There’s just one problem with the 90 percent “statistic” and it’s a big one:

It’s just not true.

In fact, it’s not even close. By all accounts, it’s probably around 17 percent.

What’s true, an ATF spokeswoman told, in a clarification of the statistic used by her own agency’s assistant director, “is that over 90 percent of the traced firearms originate from the U.S.”

68% of the guns used in Mexican crimes are never even submitted for tracing, because they do not have traceable markings.  (Such guns are almost certainly not from the U.S., which requires such markings.)   Of those, 45% cannot be traced.  Thus, just 17% of the guns used in Mexican crimes are successfully traced.  Of those, 90% came from the United States.

So all the 90% statistic means is that guns from the U.S. are traced much more easily than most Mexican crime guns.

UPDATE (4/18): Annenberg Political Fact Check estimates the number as 36%.  Either way, it’s nowhere near 90%.

Holder’s Justice

April 2, 2009

Attorney General Holder refuses to release the OLC opinion that concluded the DC voting act is unconstitutional.  I’m sure the Democratic leadership won’t issue a subpoena, but there are surely several Freedom of Information Act requests on their way.

Perhaps he should listen to Dawn Johnsen, the President Obama’s nominee to head the OLC, who wrote:

OLC should follow a presumption in favor of timely publication of its written legal opinions. Such disclosure helps to ensure executive branch adherence to the rule of law and guard against excessive claims of executive authority. Transparency also promotes confidence in the lawfulness of governmental action.

(Via the Corner.) (Previous post.)

War on charity

April 2, 2009

The Economist reports:

THE world of philanthropy faces a three-pronged attack. First, philanthropic institutions have been hit by the impact of recession on charitable giving. Next, last month, Barack Obama’s budget proposed to limit tax deductions on donations by individuals earning over $200,000. But America’s proud charitable foundations are also worried about another threat: political pressure to increase the “diversity” of their employees, with hints of racial and sexual quotas on employment and even on recipients.

In a paper released on March 12th the Philanthropy Roundtable, a group based in Washington, DC, described this diversity initiative, first instigated in 2007 by the Berkeley-based Greenlining Institute, as a shakedown for the benefit of the already privileged professional elite in the minority workforce (that is, blacks and Latinos). Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute thinks this “diversity police” will discourage personal giving by diverting charities from their true objectives and will transform foundations into job-creation schemes for minorities. . .

Partisan interest could allow lawmakers to “insert themselves into foundation governance and grant-making”, worries Sue Santa of the Philanthropy Roundtable. Philanthropists fear America may go down the British route, where charities must show clear public benefit to qualify for tax deductions; and that will open the door to politics.

That’s the major problem with private charities; they’re private.  What good is it to help people if you’re not answerable to the government?

DC voting rights

April 1, 2009

An article (pdf) by Jonathan Turley in the George Washington Law Review argues convincingly that the DC voting rights bill is unconstitutional (that’s easy), and further that DC cannot constitutionally be made into a state either.

The problem can be resolved legally only by moving the residents of the District of Columbia into a state (such as by retrocession), or by a constitutional amendment.  Retrocession seems preferable to me, as it would fix not only the problem of representation, but also the more general problem of which representation is an symptom: the bizarre special status of DC.

An obstacle to retrocession is the fact that years of mismanagement make Washington, D.C. an unattractive addition to any state.  That obstacle could possibly be resolved through a federal pledge to cover Maryland’s DC-related costs for several years to come.

Either way, retrocession or amendment, Democrats will have to lower their sights.  Retrocession would add one Democratic representative (in Maryland), but it would end the DC representation debate.  It would not set a precedent that would lead ultimately to two additional Democratic senators.  The same is true of any amendment that would be likely to pass.  For that reason, DC representation will not happen until all the other schemes (unconstitutional but more attractive to Democrats) have been conclusively eliminated by the Supreme Court.

Another promise broken

April 1, 2009

AP reports:

The largest increase in tobacco taxes took effect despite Obama’s promise not to raise taxes of any kind on families earning under $250,000 or individuals under $200,000. This is one tax that disproportionately affects the poor, who are more likely to smoke than the rich. . .

“I can make a firm pledge,” he said in Dover, N.H., on Sept. 12. “Under my plan, no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase. Not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital gains taxes, not any of your taxes.”

He repeatedly vowed “you will not see any of your taxes increase one single dime.”

Now in office, Obama, who stopped smoking but has admitted he slips now and then, signed a law raising the tobacco tax nearly 62 cents on a pack of cigarettes, to $1.01. Other tobacco products saw similarly steep increases.

(Via Instapundit.)

This is just the first tax increase.  There will be more.

Hope and change

April 1, 2009

The Union Leader finally admits it was wrong:

For months, this newspaper has opposed President Obama’s bold, forward-thinking agenda. What a colossal mistake.

We realize now that we were merely clinging to the discredited ideas of the past. Holding on to disposable relics like tradition, religion and the Constitution only delays the glorious new world that awaits us all. . .

President Obama has shown us all that to achieve the unrealized promise of this great nation, we must transcend outdated values such as public thrift, individual liberty and restrained government. All power must be shifted to Washington and deposited in the hands of a wise and benevolent ruler whose will is never questioned. . .

The road to prosperity, President Obama has shown, is traveled by high-speed rail and government-mandated hybrid automobiles, powered by wind, water and air, subsidized by gargantuan energy taxes and paid for by borrowing trillions that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will never be able to repay. It is a road that can be constructed only by an energetic national government unconstrained by law, tradition or actual cash reserves.

We know that questioning change is bad; stepping back and letting it happen no matter the consequences is good.  So let us all stand idly by, mouths shut in obedience to our new rulers, and watch the traditions that hold up our society, like pillars of a great temple, crumble and collapse from the force of great, howling winds that sing hauntingly of a future filled with consequences none of us understands.

(Via the Corner.)

The Moscow way

April 1, 2009

Another Kremlin opponent murdered abroad.  (Via Hit & Run, via Instapundit.)

Anti-Semitism in Venezuela

April 1, 2009

No socialist revolution is complete without identifying enemies of the people, and one group always serves particularly well in that role:

The Venezuelan Jewish community traces its roots back more than 200 years and has no history of tension with the local population. Before the rise of Hugo Chavez, the Jews were a welcome part of a society known for its warm temperament and amiable disposition, free from the discrimination and anti-Semitic violence in many other countries. Over the last 10 years conditions have worsened dramatically, and although 15,000 still remain, more than half the Jewish population has already fled.

CHAVEZ’S CAMPAIGN against the Jews has three principal components. The first is the systematic stigmatizing of Israel as a “bloodthirsty,” “oppressive,” “genocidal” and “monstrous” country (quoted from Chavez and his officials) that disregards basic human decency and arrogantly defies international law. The second is the objectification of Jews as Zionists, seamlessly tying the Jews to the imagined evils and horror of the Israeli state. Statements such as “Zionism is Nazism” abound, both on the streets and in parliament.

All of this takes place in the context of anti-capitalist class warfare, in which “enemies of the people” are labeled by the government-controlled media to provide both justification and an outlet for bitter frustration and anger. This strategy was used to great effect in the national socialist movements of the 20th century, where Jews were specifically targeted as “elitist” to subject them to the anger and resentment of collectivist masses.

With crime exploding to astonishing levels, and disastrous economic policies destroying the middle class, Chavez is applying this same model. He uses his charisma and populist appeal to instill hatred of Jews and capitalists in his supporters, who are mainly from the lower class, the military and those who profit from his power. . .

There is public documentation of more than 400 anti-Semitic and anti-Israel public statements made by government officials since the expulsion [of Israeli diplomats in January], including a call to action in a state-run newspaper urging Venezuelans to “challenge Jews” where they live and work. “Denounce publicly, with names and last names, the members of the powerful Jewish groups present in Venezuela, indicating the companies they own to establish a boycott.”

(Via the Corner.)

I wonder if this is a reason for Chavez’s new alliance with Iran, or a consequence of it.

Holder’s Justice

April 1, 2009

It doesn’t get more blatant than this:

Justice Department lawyers concluded in an unpublished opinion earlier this year that the historic D.C. voting rights bill pending in Congress is unconstitutional, according to sources briefed on the issue. But Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who supports the measure, ordered up a second opinion from other lawyers in his department and determined that the legislation would pass muster. . .

In deciding that the measure is unconstitutional, lawyers in the department’s Office of Legal Counsel matched a conclusion reached by their Bush administration counterparts nearly two years ago, when a lawyer there testified that a similar bill would not withstand legal attack.

Holder rejected the advice and sought the opinion of the solicitor general’s office, where lawyers told him that they could defend the legislation if it were challenged after its enactment.

Democratic and Republican Justice Department veterans said it is unusual, though not unprecedented, for the solicitor general, who backs the administration’s position before the Supreme Court, to be asked to weigh in before a case makes its way into a courtroom. 

(Via Instapundit.)

I thought it was bad to politicize the Justice Department, or to override the OLC.  What’s changed?

Anyway, Holder, bringing the chutzpah, actually claims this wasn’t political:

Through a spokesman, Holder portrayed the basis for his override of the OLC ruling as grounded in law, not politics.

Yeah, right.  With a bill less blatantly unconstitutional, you could make this argument fly.  This is not such a bill; it sets aside Article 1, Section 2 (the Constitution’s second sentence after the preamble) and creates a new House of Representatives in its place.  It’s not even close. There’s no way this decision had anything to do with the law.

This is also a misuse of the solicitor general’s office.  The solicitor general’s job is to argue the administration’s opinion in court, not to render judgements on the law.  Rendering judgements on the law is the job of the Office of Legal Counsel, which they did, twice, in two different administrations.

UPDATE: Jonah Goldberg notes that the solicitor general’s office recently argued before the Supreme Court that book banning is constitutional, which indicates that they are a particularly bad judge of what is constitutional.

UPDATE: Jonathan Adler expands on the inappropriateness of going to the solicitor general’s office for a second opinion when you don’t like the first.  Adler notes that Holder’s action violates a recent paper, Principles to Guide the Office of Legal Counsel, written by President Obama’s OLC nominee and nineteen other former OLC attorneys.

UPDATE: Andy McCarthy notes a double standard in Holder’s application of the defensibility standard:

When enforcement of a patently defensible statute would undermine the progressive agenda, the statute goes under the bus; when enforcement of a patently unconstitutional statute would further the progressive agenda, the presumption of validity lives and the statute need only pass the laugh-test (though I don’t think the D.C. voting-rights bill meets even that low bar). 

But other than that, Holder would never play politics with the law, nosiree.

Charges against Stevens dropped

April 1, 2009

Reuters reports:

The U.S. Justice Department asked a federal judge on Wednesday to throw out the corruption conviction of former Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens because prosecutors withheld helpful evidence from his lawyers.

Attorney General Eric Holder said he decided to abandon the case against Stevens, a Republican who narrowly lost his bid for re-election last year amid heavy publicity over the case, after a review showed prosecutors did not turn over to the defense information that might have helped Stevens’ case.

(Via Instapundit.)

Shall we re-do the election now?

“Ruler of the free world”

April 1, 2009

No one will ever accuse Debra Messing of trying to skate through life relying on her brain.

Sweden moves ahead

April 1, 2009

Clearly, Sweden is now the world leader in innovation.  (Via Instapundit.)

Tar and feathers

April 1, 2009

British cops keep neighbors from rescuing a dying family.  (Via Instapundit.)