A Liberal View on Trade and Development

This is the pre-edited text of an article that will shortly be published in World Commerce Review (https://www.worldcommercereview.com)

The liberal tradition in political thought is by no means unified. The original ideas developed in the (Scottish) Enlightenment, most importantly by David Hume and Adam Smith, have been modified extensively. This has led to different definitions and practical applications of individual freedom, the core idea of liberalism, but also of most other ideas associated with the liberal tradition.[i] Regardless this proliferation, the wide liberal support for free trade and globalization as a means to alleviate poverty and foster human development more broadly has been rather constant, although the ideal of trade free from all government interference has never been within reach. With the World Trade Organization at shambles, the increase of bilateral and regional trade treaties which often hamper free trade more than fostering it, and a general anti-liberal sentiment across the globe, the liberal ideals may not be a very popular at present. However, this does not say anything about their empirical or moral validity. Liberal recipes to fight poverty and to foster development still work and need support, both through domestic and international policies. 

Global inequality

In international relations inequality is the norm, in many different fields. Often this is not problematic in liberal eyes, as long as individuals get the chance to use their talents in the way they see fit. Grave hindrances, for example caused by a lack of basic needs and insufficient protection of classical human rights should be removed, as they often make individual flourishing impossible.

In contrast to what is often thought, liberals are convinced it is possible for all countries to implement policies that foresee in these basic liberal preconditions. Most often, bad circumstances don’t just happen to countries, nor should they be seen as the inevitable result of regrettable historical events such as slavery, imperialism, let alone the alleged detrimental effects of capitalism. As Lomasky and Téson show, the fate of the inhabitants of developing countries lies not in the hand of failing rich countries, but are mainly due to poor domestic policies, lack of, or failing, domestic institutions and a no respect for classical human rights, such as freedom of opinion, right to property, or a free press.[ii] 

Evidence

Of course, this is a broad topic, which can be approached from many angles. In this short piece, the focus is on the above-mentioned classical liberal rights and measures, but also includes broader topics such as governance and the development of human capital, in Sub-Sahara Africa. This is made visible through an -admittedly- rough measure: the outcomes and ranking of countries in a number of well-known and internationally respected indexes. These indexes compare countries on domestic policies.

A presentation of this kind has to be treated with caution. Methodologically, the indexes are different and a comparison is not always easy or fully warranted. Definitions and operationalizations differ, just like the way results are aggregated into (final) scores.

Nevertheless, these indexes provide a useful indication of good policies from a liberal view. Especially for the countries of Sub-Sahara Africa, which mostly contain low income countries. Contrary to some assumptions that is no barrier for some governments to implement different policies. Being a low income country does not automatically lead to bad policies!

Indexes

Given space limitations, the five indexes are introduced by a broad outline. Please use the references for further information. For practical purposes 5 indexes are used, published in 2018 and 2019.     

  • Since the 1970s, Freedom House publishes the Freedom in the World Index, which determines how individual rights and liberties are applied and protected, on the basis of 25 indicators. It groups countries in ‘free’, ‘partly free’ and ‘not free’. The top 5 free countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are Ghana, Botswana, Namibia, Benin and Senegal.[iii]
  • The International Property Rights Index is published by the American Property Rights Alliance (PRI), expressing the degree of protection of property rights, both material and intellectual, per country. The PRI emphasizes that property rights are also human rights, and that they are essential for economic and social development. In 2019 Rwanda (42nd), South-Africa, Botswana, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Tanzania (73th) were the highest ranking Sub-Saharan countries.[iv]
  • Transparency International publishes The Corruption Perception Index, ranking countries to the degree there is corruption and fight corruption, surveyed among business people and experts. Corruption undermines the trust people have in the political and social-economic systems within societies. In the ranking, Sub-Saharan Africa is perceived as the region with the most corruption, still the countries that score best are Seychelles, Botswana, Cape Verde, Rwanda and Namibia.[v]
  • The Ibrahim Index measures the governance of African countries, defined as ‘the provision of political, social and economic public goods and services that every citizen has the right to expect from their government, and that a government has the responsibility to deliver to its citizens’. In the overall governance category, we find Namibia, Botswana, Ghana, South Africa and Rwanda.[vi] 
  • The World Bank publishes the Human Capital Index, which focuses on different indicators, such as infant mortality, life expectancy, and the chances on education for girls and boys. Countries that score best are: Zimbabwe, Gambia, Ghana, Namibia, Botswana and Senegal.[vii]          

This leads to the following summary:

IndexTop
Freedom in the WorldGhana, Botswana, Namibia, Benin, Senegal
International Property RightsRwanda, Zuid-Afrika, Botswana, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Tanzania
Transparency InternationalSeychellen, Botswana, Kaapverdië, Rwanda, Namibië
IbrahimNamibië, Botswana, Ghana, Zuid-Afrika, Rwanda
Human CapitalZimbabwe, Gambia, Ghana, Namibië, Botswana en Senegal

Especially Botswana, Namibia and Ghana succeed in implementing relative liberal policies, with South Africa, Senegal and Rwanda following their lead. It must be noted that a position on an index is always relative. None of the Sub-Saharan countries are in the absolute top, although some score surprisingly high. Also, this is not to claim these are countries without problems, or that they are liberal countries, let alone liberal-democratic ones. Their absolute rankings do not warrant such a suggestion. It does indicate that being a low-income country does not need to be a barrier to implement relatively liberal policies, which provide individual citizens more (social-economic) opportunities than is the case in other Sub-Saharan countries. Hence, the liberal emphasis on domestic policies is fully warranted.

Liberal international policies

Liberals believe domestic policy is most important to promote development. Still, the perennial practice in international relations also is: what can other countries do in support of this? The short liberal answer is one of restraint: stay clear, do not (militarily) interfere, be modest about the possible success of ‘helping’, while ensuring the best global economic conditions.

The latter is done through ensuring free trade, also the foreign economic policy liberals are most strongly associated with. The popularity of free trade has known its high and low tidings, ever since the Ancients.[viii] Therefore the current low esteem of free trade is nothing new. There have always been people who distrust trade, for economic, political or moral reasons.[ix] On the other hand, there are also too many liberals who have claimed way too much on behalf of free trade, especially its peace-enhancing effects, which are erroneous.[x] The lack of support for trade still deserves to be fought. Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, to name two great thinkers, have shown the importance of continuing to argue against the topical grain.

The evidence continually shows the superior results of even relatively free trade, which has real effects for the improvement of the life of (poor) people. Countries that are committed to free trade become richer and are able to create more possibilities for (economic and human) development. Columbia University’s Arvind Panagariya is just one of the many who found clear evidence for that. In his book Free Trade and Prosperity he shows that developing countries have enormously profited from the recent wave of increasingly free world trade.[xi] The World Bank is even clearer:

Trade is an engine of growth that creates better jobs, reduces poverty, and increases economic opportunity. Recent research shows that trade liberalization increases economic growth by an average by 1.0 to 1.5 percentage points, resulting in 10 to 20 percent higher income after a decade. Trade has increased incomes by 24 percent globally since 1990, and 50 percent for the poorest 40 percent of the population. As a result, since 1990, over one billion people have moved out of poverty because of economic growth underpinned by better trade practices.[xii]

Yet, in contrast to Richard Cobden’s famous argument, it must be acknowledged free trade is no panacea. Domestic policies are needed to see that trade benefits find their way to the wider population. Also, when some groups are out-competed at the world market, they (temporarily) need domestic support. Still, the less than perfect trade arrangements of the last decades have had enormous positive effects on development.

Foreign Aid

By way of a closing remark, in contrast to trade, governmental development aid is not supported by liberals. It still largely is, as Lord Peter Bauer had it, ‘bringing money from the poor in the rich countries, to the rich in the poor countries’. The research of his modern day successors, most notably William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo, largely confirm this.[xiii] The structural effects of governmental foreign aid are minimal and often detrimental, resulting in ‘aid addiction’ in the receiving countries. Liberal have the same doubts about the structural effects of aid by private donors such as NGO’s (positive local effects are possible, for example in health care or education). Yet as long as these private donors donot use public money, this remains a case between donor and recipient. However, in liberal eyes it fails as an international policy to foster development.

Conclusion

Inequality and poverty remain a global reality, which can have detrimental effects to the development of individuals. Liberals think this should change, but emphasize this is mainly done through improved domestic policy in low-income countries based on proven liberal principles. This is not just theory, it is a real possibility, as the some of the countries in Sub-Sahara Africa show. The best way the world can assist in this process is to provide truly free trade, while abandoning governmental foreign aid. Global development is too important to not make the effort.  

Dr Edwin van de Haar is an independent scholar specialized in liberal international political theory and political economy (see www.edwinvandehaar.com). This article is based on a chapter published in a Dutch volume entitled Difference There Must Be. Liberal Views on Inequality, published by the liberal think tank Prof. Mr. B.M. Telders Foundation (www.teldersstichting.nl) 


[i] Edwin R. Van de Haar, Degrees of Freedom. Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology (New York and London: Routledge, 2015).

[ii] Loren E. Lomasky and Fernando R. Tesón, Justice at a Distance. Extending Freedom Globally (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[iii] Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2019 (Washington DC).

[iv] Property Rights Alliance, Property Rights Index 2019 (Washington DC).

[v] Transparency International, Corruptions Perceptions Index 2019 (Berlin).

[vi] Mo Ibrahim Foundation. 2018 Ibrahim Index of African Governance (London and Dakar).

[vii] World Bank, Human Capital Index 2018 (Washington DC).

[viii] Ronald Findlay and Kevin O’Rourke, Power and Plenty. Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[ix] Douglas A. Irwin, Against the Tide. An Intellectual History of Free Trade (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); Jagdish Bhagwati, In Defense of Globalization (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); Razeen Sally, Trade Policy, New Century. The Wto, Ftas and Asia Rising (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 2008).

[x] Edwin R. Van de Haar, “The Liberal Divide over Trade, War and Peace,” International Relations 24, no. 2 (2010); “Free Trade Does Not Foster Peace,” Economic Affairs 40, no. 2 (2020).

[xi] Arvind Panagariya, Free Trade and Prosperity: How Openness Helps the Developing Countries Grow Richer and Combat Poverty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[xii] www.worldbank.org/en/topic/trade/overview#1 (accessed 19 November 2021)

Do we have the right to be wrong?

The pandemic, and the consequent decisions taken by our and other governments, have confronted us with the question of the extent of our autonomy. Although we are aware of the exceptional nature of the situation, the matter about the right that assists each individual to make decisions about their own life returns more strongly.

In this sense, we can wonder: How do we make decisions? Are we rational beings? Are thus our decision-making processes rational or we tend to act based on emotions, instincts, or heuristics? Even if we think in terms of choices rather than of actions, do we have enough evidence to think that we rationally choose between options? And if so, can we find the optimal solutions for our problems? Can we evaluate the optimality of our decisions?

The rationality of our actions and our decision-making processes have been widely discussed, not only in the field of economics but also in the legal, political, and sociological realms. Some authors have proposed that our decisions are not based on perfect information or precise though-processes, as Friedrich Hayek, who enlightened us about dispersed knowledge in society or Herbert Simon , who showed us how limited rationality works in real decision-making situations.

More recently, various theories such as behavioral economics and several experiments conducted by scholars from different disciplines, such as those conducted by Carl Sunstein, have showed that individuals act influenced by cognitive limitations and emotional biases. For example, some of these studies have shown how, influenced by these biases, we fail in our perception of the risk, miscalculating the odds we have of suffering certain diseases or how our choices are influenced by the way the relevant information is presented (framing). Thus, it has long been revealed that human actions and choices are not the result of a perfectly rational thought-process, and such discoveries were very useful in predicting certain patterns of behavior.

Personally, I have always found these theories fascinating, showing us that our mind does not work as the precise instrument that other visions have proposed. These “limitations” of our rationality and cognitive capacity have always led me to conclude that we must assume a humble position regarding what we can and cannot do in terms of public policies or the “construction” of social and political reality. Even this humility should be applied to scientific knowledge that manifests itself in constant change and revision. What is worrying is that, recently, this type of analysis has made a jump from the descriptive realm to the normative one, obtaining prescriptive conclusions from these experiments.

On the other hand, nowadays it is common to find that, from different perspectives and schools, subjective rights of all kinds are multiplied. It seems that individuals enjoy -at least theoretically- not only all the rights constitutionally recognized, the rights established by international human rights treatises and all the tacit or unwritten rights but also the collective rights (adding several generations). It is discussed from the right to elect and to be elected (i.e., lowering the age of vote) to the right to enjoy a healthy environment. In addition, from diverse political agendas, it is proposed the widening of all rights enjoyed by people, groups and even animals. We could discuss at length about these rights and obligations involving third parties – not only to respect them but also, in many cases, to take responsibility for the effective enjoyment of them.

But it would seem that, among all these rights that we enjoy or intend to enjoy, the right to be wrong does not appear. Everything is permitted (again, in theory) while individuals live according to the standards or goals to accepted by the community and the State at a given time. From different perspectives we are constantly offered advice and suggestions to achieve the ideal that is presented almost as indisputable: a long, healthy, and calm life (not without some ingredient of novelty or adventure). Not only from the philosophical and theological views -that indicate that human life seems to have happiness, virtue, personal flourishing, or any other transcendent purpose as its goal- but also from more scientific perspectives that provide us with details about what our limitations are in making the right decisions about how to lead a full life. They all seem to agree in proposing a “perfectionist” ideal of human life.

However, when combined these two tendencies of thought -that is, on the one hand, the perfectionist ideal of human life and, secondly, a clear vision about human limitations for making good decisions or planning courses of action, it appears this idea that it is necessary to “underpin”, help or direct the decisions of individuals with the intention to help them that they achieve such ideal ends.

Just to illustrate this point outside the case of the pandemic, we note that all political views coincide in “guiding” citizens when it comes to eating and healthy habits. In this regard, if directing citizens consumption is concerned, much of the political range (conservatism, social democracy, and even the left) seem to agree in wanting to provide healthy standards that everyone should enjoy. This is reflected in a variety of decisions made by governments from one “ideal individual” – which range from prohibiting table salt in restaurants, forcing stores to not sell alcohol at a certain time of the night (and not only limiting the sale to adults as might be expected), forcing food producers or distributors to include a lot of information about its components in packaging, etc. The question does not end here: smoking tobacco, for example, has been almost completely banned everywhere (and not only in closed public spaces but also in open spaces and even in many buildings or premises for exclusive private use).

Faced with this reality, we ask ourselves the question: Do we have the right or not to decide about our lives (our body, our health, etc.)? Can adults without serious cognitive problems -beyond those biases named above that we all “suffered”- with their legitimate autonomy, freedom, and responsibility and, if you like, access to public information about the possible consequences of their actions, choose to assume risks? Do them have the right to put salt to their food, although there are numerous studies that show a correlation between salt intake and high blood pressure? Don’t all those who choose to paraglide or drive a car on a high-speed avenue also take risks? Why are some elections forbidden or more “observed” than others?

So, from this perspective that combines perfectionism and observation of the cognitive limitations of individuals: Does this lead us directly to conclude that our decisions should be replaced or at least “influenced” or “improved” – as suggested by the nudge theory – by the decision of a public official or an expert scientist? Do we let a nutritionist tell us the ideal diet based on recent generic scientific studies? Do we allow an official or civil servant to indicate what activity / sport / food / drink / medical treatment / insurance should we carry out / practice / consume / submit to / hire considering the general statistics of the population for my age / sex / social condition? Would we allow this civil servant to “suggest” us the way of interacting with other individuals or habits to adopt?

To answer this question, it could help us to bring here the conceptual distinction proposed by Dr. Martín Diego Farrell in his essay on “Nino, democracy and utilitarianism”. There Farrell proposes two alternatives to justify democracy: The first one holds that all adults, free of physical or mental impairments, are the best judges of their interests and, in its turn, the second one points out that the same adults would be the best judges of their own preferences.

Farrell argues that the former is indefensible by the number of counterexamples we can find in which an adult seems not to know his best objective interest (perhaps knowable by an expert without his intervention) and, at the same time, other examples that show adults opting freely against their own interest. Instead, he openly defends the second argument: adults are the best experts and judges of their own (subjective) preferences. Although we will discuss in the next few paragraphs the assertion about the possibility that expert may have the objective knowledge of another person´s best interest, we will concede the point for now and agree with Farrell that each adult is the best judge of their own preferences.

This is how we could now answer the questions we posed before. I think that most of us would intuitively reject the proposal of experts/officials telling us what food to eat, what sports to practice, what form of social relationships to prefer and so. Of course, with the exceptions of exceptional situations of crisis in which we consciously seek help from experts in each subject, so that they can provide us with, in this case, personalized advice, considering our specific circumstances, beliefs and wishes. On the other hand, the pandemic has left us a clear image of the fallible, provisional, and changing nature of scientific knowledge.

I believe that the perfectionist and scientistic vision of individual life is based on a conception that responds and falls into the following errors:

a) Confusing correlation with causality: Studies on the influence of certain habit or the consumption of certain food or drink on individuals´ health show correlations and no causal links. That is, it cannot be reliably proven that this or that habit produces such a consequence but only that, given two variables, the values ​​of one vary systematically with the homonymous values ​​of the other. This coincidence may respond to an external cause to both (which produces or “causes ” both variables) or by multiple causes that are difficult to unravel at this level. This is obvious to any scientist or expert in each area, but it is forgotten when it is discussed in the public sphere, where not practicing sports “causes” obesity, salt “causes” high pressure and not wearing a face mask seems to “causes” the contagion of the coronavirus.

b) Studies always work with populations, that is, with a sample or group of individuals of a certain sex, age, physical characteristics, etc. that could have a probability of, for example, suffering certain disease. Let´s say- for the purpose of illustration- that certain group of individuals -men over 65 years have a 60% chance of having a heart attack. But this “class” or group probability does not tell us anything about each particular individual being part or not of that 60%. What if a public policy of restricting salt is being imposed on a man with low blood pressure and a very low probability of having a heart attack? Can’t this individual make the decision to consume more salt than recommended by public bodies or professional chambers at his own risk? Let´s remember all the atrocious examples that were experienced during the pandemic about relatives who have not been able to accompany terminally ill patients, penalties even of jail for people who circulated at prohibited hours and contradictory recommendations that prevented individuals from being able, with the public information available, to decide about their possibilities to work, circulate, see their relatives, etc. under threat of sanction.

c) Scientific studies and their practical conclusions are constantly changing. We have lived through this intensely in the last 20months or more of the pandemic, where what at first seemed irrefutable, months later seems shocking. Just as an example, the practically absolute prohibition -in countries as Argentina- for children to walk in the streets the first three months of quarantine. These major shifts in scientific criteria in one area can be observed (perhaps without the speed we see during the pandemic) in many other realms. Continuing with the nutritional example, we can say that the paradigms in this area seem to change drastically and quickly. Only in the last 20 or 30 years has it gone from suggesting that alcohol was bad to recommending a glass of wine a day to prevent heart disease; to try to eliminate meat in all its forms to currently attempt to eliminate all carbohydrates and sugars and to consume only proteins and fats and many more.

But, beyond all these characteristics of scientific knowledge that inform “perfectionist” public policies, we can also raise an even more fundamental point: Even if we could know, reliably and with certainty, -what science would never guarantee- how a certain habit can affect our health or what would happen if we do not met with the ideal, don´t we have any right to choose how to live our lives? When did we renounce to that right in favor of the experts of a group of professional councils or of the civil servants of a Ministry of Health? Should we forbid the individual who wants to dedicate his life to climbing the Himalayas to carry out such an endeavor because of the high risks of his life plan? And the one who practices hang gliding? Don’t these individuals know their own preferences better than anyone else?

And here are some more points added from a higher level of observation:

a) Levels of Abstraction: Why might we think that individuals choosing between options are “biased” and when individuals working as government agents in offices creating “nudges” are not biased as other individuals in their daily life? Individuals who work in the civil service or have some degree of professional or scientific specialty, don´t they suffer from the same biases and limitations described in the studies above mentioned, typical of every human being? For example, don´t they choose between theoretical or experimental options for those results presented in a more pleasant way (problem of the architecture of the election) or that confirmed more strongly their hypotheses (confirmation fallacy)?

b) Scientific theories are fallible. Also, some of the results of these experiments may turn out to be incorrect or incomplete in the future. Do we have the right to influence individual decisions based on studies that are, like any scientific theory or experiment, fallible and provisional? After all, isn’t it more worthy for the individual to pay the costs of his bad decision rather than paying the costs of a government agent’s bad decision?

c) Finally, a more philosophical point: How does chance or destiny influence on our daily decisions? Is there a case where the options are presented in a “neutral distribution” way? Let us suppose the case of an individual’s decision regarding the acquisition of medical or retirement insurances (issues that have also been very relevant during the pandemic). The individual must choose between “default options”. The options could be presented to consumers randomly or in a way decided by offerors – but without any central agent deciding-. In the latter case, the options are established by the offerors because they are trying to influence commercially on consumers´ choice and, therefore, it could be said that there is no neutral distribution even though it is not a “nudge” of the public sphere. But, on the other hand, there is a suggestion made by government agents, then the ” nudge ” is intervening in the market, albeit subtly. That is to say that private influence is being replaced by governmental influence, bringing an artificial “architecture” of the choice that did not exist before and, therefore, eliminating randomness. Here we are again facing “levels of abstraction” problem: Don´t “experts” -who propose the ” nudge”- have the same limitations as individuals that interact?

Recapitulating, during this long process we lived the last year and a half since pandemic, quarantine and all the -health, economic, political -measures taken by governments, the question about the scope of our autonomy reemerged. Standing on a platform where philosophical perfectionism and a misunderstood scientism are combined, it has gone from trying to discover patterns of behavior to prescribing ideal results and to opening the door to all kinds of measures, which establish from our right to move freely, if we can work, if we can trade, etc. And what has been more unusual, without explicit limits on the duration of such measures. I think this responds to a trend of thought that had started much earlier. But shouldn’t we take back the reins of our lives as adults? Don’t we know our interests better -or, at least, our preferences- by ourselves? If others believe they know our interests better than us, shouldn´t each of us, considering our preferences, be the best judges of how much risk we want to take? We could think that governments and expert organizations can, in good faith, publish all the information and studies produced and, likewise, could suggest, recommend, and even collaborate to follow the suggestions; but not to compel, prohibit and sanction those who are “wrong” at their own risk.

Of course, this implies taking responsibility for our actions and not demanding or claiming the governments to decide for us or to be accountable for our mistakes. If we decide to climb the Himalayas, we will have to train for many years, buy the appropriate equipment, take out the appropriate insurance, face possible injuries and if something goes wrong, even face death. Ultimately, in each election our desires, our beliefs, our projects, and our philosophical perspectives – that provides- meaning to our lives- come into play. So, we cannot ask the government or the experts to prohibit something from us (because it is risky) or, what is worse, to prohibit it from all citizens, so as not to face the dangers or costs of our eventual mistakes.

We find ourselves – by our decision – facing the paradox that we, given our limitations, cannot make personal and everyday decisions about our work, food or habits, but we can choose legitimately officials, experts or governmental agents that are going to lead us on such tasks. I propose, instead, to reassume our adulthood and start exercising our right to bring the life plan whose consequences we can assume. This, instead of taking it as natural that others decide for us in exchange of unloading on them the responsibility of our own life. Only then we will be able to claim, legitimately, the right to take our own decisions at the risk of being wrong.

Monday Links and unders – NOLite te bastardes

Also, armchair public policy analysis. Caveat emptor: may contain BS

Not posting here could be due to good reasons, or nasty reasons. Fortunately, it was a very good reason that kept me from posting for few weeks (hint: it was expected, and involves diapers). The (invisible to the naked eye) gap was covered via a spontaneous, à la WWE tag team display by Brandon (who, btw, restarted nightcapping, yay! And then got tarpitted again, nay).

Has the U.S. Supreme Court Effectively Overruled Roe v. Wade? (Verfassungsblog)

A take on the recent abortions slugfest. A decisive overturn of the post – 70s judicial status will probably spell similar changes elsewhere. The shadows have been stirring, the battlefront is wide, the divisions remain deep. Only recently, a proxy “skirmish” took place in Greece: A so-called “1st Panhellenic Conference on Fertility” or something got cancelled, after its anachronistic/ derogatory undertones provoked a digital uproar:

Ovaries and Outrage: How Social Media Took Down Greece’s Fertility Conference (MDI)

This metal feminist slogan came to mind:

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum

The Handmaid’s Tale

I have not read the book (nor watched the series), but this mock-Latin line rings timely and has an interesting history itself.

Lynn Parramore at INET argues that modern libertarians tend to overlook the subject, while the likes of Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard were assertive in defending the right to abortion as part of the self-determination of one’s body/ life in general:

Why Aren’t Libertarians Protesting the Freedom-Busting Texas Abortion Law? (Institute for New Economic Thinking)

INET is not particularly fond of the liberty creed, but still, the picture is disheartening. What’s worse, it fits my own troubling perception (incomplete as it is, based on limited observations) that this kind of intrusion into individual freedom ranks lower than others. The whole issue seems mostly relegated to a “feminist” or “gender” only thing, bogged down by religion and politics, an underdog among individual rights (Scott Lemieux over at Lawyers, Guns & Money also notes something along this lines. LGM has been consistently slamming the Texas law and the SCOTUS response). And that’s why I did not exactly lament the conference cancellation, even if it borderline breached freedom of speech. It rhymed with an underway underhand undoing of that underdog.

A post in RCL (picked by Brandon here) makes an interesting case regarding the feasibility of free choice for both parts of the equation, doctor and patient. However, it also reminded me of this haunting story, and the possibility of a gap between elegant theory and brutal reality:

Italian doctors on trial for manslaughter after refusing abortion (Financial Times)

The FT article also showcases the heavy information asymmetries that plague healthcare services-at-large, which serve as a foundation for state intervention, be it regulation, public supply or whatnot. At least in the realm of textbook econ as I remember it.

Dismantling government policy – source

The other day, I used the same apparatus – old reliable econ – peppered with some basic public choice insights to smite a couple of state initiatives (in my head, that is).

(1) The Greek government recently ramped-up the vaccination push through mandates, prohibitions and fines. More heavy – handed intervention will beget more bottom-up webs that game the system, I decreed (right, late Mancur Olson documented this in his Power and Prosperity book, especially if the public’s trust is lacking, just pushing open an already unbarred door here). As it turns out:

Ten vaccination centers scrutinized over suspected fake Covid certificates (eKathimerini)

(2) A law enacted in early 2020 awards a one-off allowance of EUR 2,000 (that would be like four times the Greek minimum wage) for every childbirth (there are some conditions to be met, income level, residence etc, but they are quite lax). So, a generous gesture, meant to incentivize people to have children, and also to offer support with child-rearing costs, according to the relevant explanatory memorandum. The law is seated in the state’s duty to protect “family…motherhood and childhood”, somewhere in the underbelly of our Constitution’s list of individual and social rights.

At the face of all these, the free-market credo in my econ grasp whispered:

I will not fail in my strike, warrior. I will not fail in my strike.

The Last Mythal

I unfolded my offensive in two lines. First, the smell test: Nudging a life-changing decision with just a hand-out seems overstretched (a scheme of consistent financial aid is a different beast). And second, the econ-kick-in: This subsidy (you can actually feel my contempt here) will have the fate of other transfers that mess with the price mechanism. Will not the maternity services providers just jack-up prices to take a slice? Presto! (I left the actual cost – organizing/ funding – of implementing the policy plus the arbitrariness of the sum out, as too easy targets).

Well, the jury is still out about the first part, since it’s mostly an issue of empirical analysis. It surely made a nice PR exercise (that could also have a positive effect, and maybe this was the main point from the start). My price call went out of the window, though. The relevant costs have barely budged from the last time we needed maternity services, few years ago. First-hand observation is not statistics, but it did the trick. Nice, neat and clean inferences can still be BS, obviously.

Afghanistan deserves attention, but don’t lose sight of Iran

Introduction

While global attention is understandably focused on the turmoil in Afghanistan, another major challenge for US President Joe Biden is likely to be the restoration of the Iran Nuclear Deal/JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Program of Action). While to begin with the negotiations between Iran and other signatories (the US was part of these indirect talks) to the 2015 JCPOA offered a ray of hope, since June there has been no progress.

Iran’s nuclear program, and its foreign policy in the Middle East (especially its support to proxies), have emerged as the contentious issues between Iran and other signatories to the 2015 JCPOA.

In an important statement, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently said that:

America’s current administration is no different from the previous one, because what it demands from Iran on the nuclear issue is different in words, but the same thing that Trump demanded

After facing flak for his handling of Afghanistan, Biden would not like to send out a message that his approach towards Iran is similar to his predecessor.

Here it would be pertinent to point out that senior officials in the Biden administration have hinted at their impatience with the lack of progress. The US President, after his meeting with Israeli PM Naftali Benett, said:

We’re putting diplomacy first and see where that takes us. But if diplomacy fails, we’re ready to turn to other options

The Israeli PM (whose stance on Iran is identical to that of his predecessor) is supposed to have praised Biden’s clarity with regard to curbing Iran’s nuclear program.

The attack on Mercer Street in July 2021 was criticised not just by Israel, but also the UK and US. The US Secretary of State had alluded to retaliatory action.

Raisi’s election

The election of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, in June 2021, was, according to analysts and commentators, likely to be a major stumbling block to the revival of the JCPOA. Ever since taking over, though, the Iranian President has moderated his stance considerably, and has spoken to French President Immanuel Macron, and also held an in-person meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, who visited Iran. During both meetings, Raisi put forward Iran’s views on the JCPOA saying that Tehran could not accept some of the conditionalities which other signatories to the deal are trying to impose. The Iranian President, during his conversation with Macron, criticised the US for imposing more sanctions.

CIA Chief William Burns, one of the architects of the 2015 JCPOA, also visited Israel, and is supposed to have discussed the Iran Nuclear deal with senior Israeli officials.

Challenges for Iran’s economy

It would be pertinent to point out that Iran’s currency, the Rial, has taken a significant beating in recent weeks as a result of the domestic uncertainty as well as the turmoil in Afghanistan. Even before Raisi had taken over as President, the country was afflicted with numerous economic challenges, including rising inflation (this was estimated at well over 30%). The covid19 situation as well as US sanctions had been held responsible for the economic crisis.

There were protests as a result of water shortages and power shortages as well. While there are high expectations from Raisi, there is a realization in Iran that unless the US removes sanctions Iran’s economy is unlikely to witness a recovery.

In conclusion, it is important for the Biden administration to give priority to negotiations related to the Iran deal, and to refrain from adopting a path similar to that of the Trump administration. Raisi’s hardline credentials, as well as his proximity to Khamenei, put him in a better position as far as negotiations pertaining to the Iran Nuclear deal are concerned. Time is running out, and Washington DC will need to give some elbow room to the new president. The US should also realize that reduction of tensions with Iran could be handy since Tehran has links with the Taliban.

While the outreach by France and Japan to Iran is encouraging, Washington DC itself needs to adopt a flexible approach vis-à-vis the JCPOA and should not lose patience. It is also important for Washington to not allow Israel to influence its Iran policy.

When liberal hegemons leave: Israel’s case for staying in the West Bank forever

The sight of the U.S.-trained and equipped Afghan army literally melting away over a matter of hours in the face of the Taliban assault would be bad enough; the scenes of Afghans falling hundreds of feet to their deaths as they tried to escape in the wheel wells of U.S. transport planes will endure for decades as a reminder of America’s shame.

[…] In the Israeli-Palestinian context, a number of unsurprising lines of argument have emerged. The most prevalent from the right is that this is the latest demonstration of the folly of withdrawing from territory, as it only leads to a security nightmare that will be exploited by fundamentalist terrorist groups. Afghanistan is seen as an incarnation of Israel’s experience in Gaza, where Israel withdrew and left the territory in the hands of the Palestinian Authority, only to have Hamas take over within two years and remain stubbornly resistant to being dislodged nearly fifteen years later. The Taliban’s success on the literal heels of departing American soldiers is viewed as a preview of coming attractions for Hamas’s allegedly inevitable takeover of the West Bank should Israel ever leave the territory.

There is much more from Michael Koplow at Ottomans & Zionists. Is the Israeli Right correct? The same type of disasters happened when the French and the British (and the Dutch) were forced out of their imperial possessions after World War II. The Americans, and their European predecessors, built “states: out of their colonies. These states helped locals who wanted to be helped, but these states were always weak and wholly dependent on the imperial capital for everything. Once imperial powers leave, the weaknesses of these “states” become apparent quickly. Thus, communists, Islamists, and other despotisms quickly arise in the wake of imperial exit. To make matters worse, these despotisms employ the weak “states” the imperial powers leave behind.

This is a pattern that has happened now for two centuries. This is a problem of modernity, of industrial humanity.

Here’s the thing. Here’s the libertarian alternative. It’s time to recognize that Western governance is pretty good, comparatively speaking, and helps people get out of poverty (intellectual as well as financial) if they want to. The “states” Western powers create are weak. I think the libertarian alternative should be to stop trying to make these “states” stronger, or give them more capacity as sovereigns, and instead incorporate these states into their own body politics via federation. This would address the areas where Western-created “states” are weak, such as in security/defense of sovereignty, or corruption, while also leaving open the effects that Western governance has had on these societies that have been experimented upon. All those Afghans wanting to flee has made an impression on me. I think federation is a good compromise between state sovereignty and individual freedom.

Biden’s newest foreign policy challenge: Iranian and Israeli hardliners

Introduction

After the triumph of Ebrahim Raisi in the June 2021 Iranian Presidential election, the US and other countries, especially the E3 (the UK, Germany, and France), which are party to the JCPOA/Iran Nuclear deal would have paid close attention to his statements, which had a clear anti-West slant. Raisi has made it unequivocally clear that while he is not opposed to the deal per se, he will not accept any diktats from the West with regard to Iran’s nuclear program or its foreign policy in the Middle East.

In addition to Raisi’s more stridently anti-US stance, at least in public, what is likely to make negotiations between Iran and the US tougher is the recent attack on an oil tanker, off Oman, operated by Zodiac Maritime, a London based company owned by an Israeli shipping magnate, Eyal Ofer. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid did not take long blame Iran for the attack, referring to this as an example of ‘Iranian terrorism’ (current Israeli PM Naftali Bennett’s policy vis-à-vis Iran is no different from that of his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu). After Raisi’s win in June, Israel had reiterated its opposition to negotiating with Iran, and the Israeli PM termed the election of hardliner Raisi as a ‘wake up call’ for the rest of the world. Two crew members — a Romanian and a Briton, were killed in the attack.

While the Vienna negotiations between Iran and other signatories to JCPOA (the US is participating indirectly) have made significant progress, Raisi could ask for them to start afresh, in which case the US has said that it may be compelled to take strong economic measures, such as imposing sanctions on companies facilitating China’s oil imports from Iran (ever since the Biden administration has taken over there has been a jump in China’s oil purchases from Iran).

It would be pertinent to point out that pressure from pro-Israel lobbies in the US, as well as apprehensions of Israelis themselves with regard to the JCPOA, were cited as one of the reasons for the Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy vis-à-vis Iran, as well as the Biden administration’s inability to clinch an agreement with the Hassan Rouhani administration. While at one stage the Biden administration seemed to be willing to get on board the JCPOA unconditionally, it is not just domestic pressures, but also the fervent opposition of Israel to the JCPOA which has acted as a major impediment. While GCC countries Saudi Arabia and UAE were fervently opposed to the JCPOA and also influenced the Trump administration’s aggressive Iran policy, in recent months they have been working towards improving ties with Iran, and have softened their stance.

Washington should refrain from taking any harsh economic steps

At a time when the Iranian economy is in doldrums (the currency has depreciated and inflation has risen as a result of the imposition of sanctions and of Covid-19), Washington would not want to take any steps which result in further exacerbating the anti-US feeling in Iran. While commenting on the attack on the Israeli managed tanker, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said:

We are working with our partners to consider our next steps and consulting with governments inside the region and beyond on an appropriate response, which will be forthcoming

There is no doubt that the maximum pressure policy of the Trump administration of imposing harsh sanctions on Iran did not really benefit the US, and Joe Biden during the presidential campaign had been critical of the same. Reduction of tensions with Iran is also important given the current situation in Afghanistan, and Tehran’s importance given its clout vis-à-vis the Taliban.

US allies and their role

US allies themselves are looking forward to the revival of the JCPOA, so that they can revive economic relations with Iran. This includes the E3 (Germany, the UK, and France) and India. As mentioned earlier, GCC countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE, which in recent years have had strained ties with Iran, are seeking to re-work their relations with Tehran as a result of the changing geopolitical environment in the Middle East.

The role of US allies who have a good relationship with both Israel and Iran is important in calming down tempers, and ensuring that negotiations for revival of JCPOA are not stalled.

Conclusion

It is important for Biden to draw lessons from Trump’s aggressive Iran policy. Biden should not allow Israel or any other country to dictate its policy vis-à-vis Iran, as this will not only have an impact on bilateral relations but have broader geopolitical ramifications. Any harsh economic measures vis-à-vis Iran will push Tehran closer to China, while a pragmatic policy vis-à-vis Tehran may open the space for back channel negotiations.

Raisi on his part needs to be flexible and realize that the most significant challenge for Tehran is the current state of its economy. Removal of US sanctions will benefit the Iranian economy in numerous ways but for this he will need to be pragmatic and not play to any gallery.

Police Killings and Race: Afterthoughts

The verdict on former officer Chauvin seems extreme to me. I think manslaughter would have been enough. Of course, it’s possible that I don’t understand the legal subtleties. Also, I did not receive all the information the jurors had access to. Also, I didn’t have to make up my mind under the pressure of fearing to trigger a riot in my own city.

As usual, I react to what did not happen. In the sad Floyd case, a bell weather for a new anti-racist movement in the US, the prosecution did not allege anything of a racial nature. Let me say this again: for some reason, the prosecutor did not claim that the victim’s race played a part in his death. Strange abstention because such a claim would have almost automatically brought to bear the enormous weight and power of the Federal Government. (The Feds are explicitly in charge of dealing with suspected violations of civil rights.)

Personally, I think we have a general problem of police brutality in this country. I mean that American cops are entirely too prompt to shoot. I also believe this is largely a result of permissive training on the matter. American police doctrine gives cops too much leeway about when to shoot a suspect. It does not do enough to support alternatives, including less than lethal means of incapacitation. Here is a small piece of supporting evidence: An American is about ten times more likely to be killed by the police than a French person. One can try to claim that French criminals and French suspects are ten times less dangerous than their American counterparts. Read this aloud and think it through. (Of course, there is always the possibility that your average French suspect, with his funny beret and a baguette tucked under his arm, is in a bad position to shoot at police at all.)

As for the widespread claim that American police killings of civilians are racially motivated, a proof of racism- systemic or otherwise – this case has simply not been made. Here are a handful of relevant numbers: In the USA, a black person interacting with the police has no greater chance of being killed than a white person. A black person interacting with a black police officer has the same chance of being killed as one interacting with a white officer. It’s true that a black person, on the average is more likely to be interacting with police than a white person. If racism plays a role in the killing of black people by police, that is where it is lodged. Police, white and black, are more likely to stop blacks than whites. Can you guess any reason why? Can the reason be other than racism? Below is a link to a wider essay on the topic:

Systemic Racism: a Rationalist Take

China and the Taliban

Introduction

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with a nine-member delegation of the Taliban on July 28, 2021. The delegation was led by Abdul Ghani Baradar, who heads the Taliban’s political office in Doha. In July 2021, the Taliban had visited Russia and the Kremlin envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, had met with the delegation. Kabulov said that the Taliban had assured him that the territory of Afghanistan will not be used against Russia or any of its allies in Central Asia.

The meeting between Yi and the Taliban delegation is the first high level public meeting after the Taliban has managed to gain control over a significant portion of Afghanistan’s territory, including Badakshan province, which shares a border with China’s western Xinjiang region (given the changing geopolitical dynamics, Beijing had of course opened its back channels earlier with the Taliban). It would be pertinent to point out that China has previously hosted Taliban delegations in 2015 (Urumqi, Xinjiang) and in 2019 (Beijing).

Significance of meeting

Wang Yi’s meeting with the Taliban delegation is significant for more than one reason; it comes days after Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi had undertaken a two-day visit to China (July 23-July 24, 2021) for a strategic dialogue. During this meeting, both sides had agreed to work jointly to address the security challenges posed by the situation in Afghanistan. Apart from supporting peace talks and reconciliation, China had also made it clear that action needed to be taken against terror groups, which pose a security threat to Beijing, and both Islamabad and Beijing need to work jointly in this direction. In a press release posted on the website of the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi said:

We will work together to combat terrorism and push all major forces in Afghanistan to draw a clear line against terrorism, firmly combat the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and other terrorist forces, and resolutely stop Afghanistan from becoming a hotbed of terrorism.

China believes that the recent terror attack in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK province), which had resulted in the killing of 13 individuals (including 9 Chinese nationals) in a bus explosion (engineers and staff working on the Dasu Project were in the bus), was a possible handiwork of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Beijing also sent a delegation to Pakistan to be part of an enquiry being conducted by Islamabad into the attack.

Finally, the meeting between Wang Yi and the Taliban delegation took place at a time when US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was in India, and during his discussions with the Indian side Afghanistan was high on the agenda. Blinken had expressed concern about the rise in atrocities committed by the Taliban, and also said that the Taliban could not gain legitimacy by such steps and ultimately:

There’s only one path. And that’s at the negotiating table to resolve the conflicts peacefully, and to have an Afghanistan emerge that is governed in a genuinely inclusive way, and that is representative of all its people.

Beijing’s recognition of Taliban’s importance

At the same time, Wang Yi was unequivocal in flagging the threat to China from ETIM, and asked the Taliban to ‘completely sever ties’ with the group. The Taliban, on its part, assured Wang Yi that Taliban will not allow anyone to use Afghan soil against China. Wang Yi’s meeting send outs a strong message that Beijing clearly recognizes the role of the Taliban in resolving the current situation. The Taliban had also assured China earlier that it would ensure the safety of Chinese investments. Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen had, in a media interview in July 2021, stated:

China is a friendly country and we welcome it for reconstruction and developing Afghanistan…if [the Chinese] have investments, of course we will ensure their safety.

Difference between China-Russia and the US

The US approach vis-à-vis Afghanistan has been different from that of Beijing. While flagging its concerns, Beijing, realizing the ground realities, has sent out a clear message that it is willing to do business with the Taliban; the statements of Blinken, on the other hand, indicate US hesitancy vis-à-vis the Taliban. What is extremely interesting, however, are Blinken’s remarks during his visit to India stating that China’s involvement in Afghanistan could be positive. Given the fact that numerous commentators have been arguing that China and the US need to find common ground and that a zero-sum approach will not benefit anyone, this is a very interesting remark and should be welcomed since all stakeholders will need to work jointly in order to find a solution.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the situation in Afghanistan is perpetually evolving and requires all stakeholders in the region and outside to adopt a nuanced approach. The priority in the short run is to navigate the turbulence. In the midst of strained ties between Washington and Beijing, the US Secretary of State’s remarks regarding Beijing’s role in Afghanistan need to be welcomed.

Awareness of Racism and Singing to the Choir

In the past few months, I have been exposed to more works by African Americans and to more documents about the black condition in America than usual. So far, I haven’t learned anything really new, perhaps because I am a sociologist by trade with an interest in slavery going back fifty years. All the same, I appreciate the refresher. This is a good point to warn that I am at odds with many of my fellow conservatives about the debt, if any the US, owes in connection with slavery and in connection with Jim Crow. (See: Systemic Racism: a Rationalist Take; and also, my shorter: The Great American Racial Awakening: A Conservative Approach (Part One).) I also insist that mine – insisting on the recognition of some sort of debt – is the true conservative position. This position in no way entails accepting passively everything the woke movement is telling us about current racism in America.

Recently, I watched almost all of the good PBS documentary “Driving while Black.” The first part illustrates well, with both many historical documents and the memories of older people, how African Americans used to travel with the help of special guidebooks designed to ensure they did not inadvertently find themselves in hostile territory. It was worse than traveling in a foreign country whose language you don’t know, it seems. (I did this myself in Croatia, in 1962, before mass tourism spread far and wide some knowledge of English.) It was a concerted collective effort to escape the consequences of explicit deliberate racist policies (as well as of widespread racist sentiment).

Then, the emphasis of the documentary shifts to the creation of the Interstate Freeway system. The narration comments on the fact that the development of the freeways involved the clearing out, the destruction of many local black communities, including their many Mom-and-Pop businesses. I am guessing there is no doubt it did. But the commentator keeps the topic closed as if the last had been said thus giving the impression that black communities were targeted for destruction out of racial prejudice (in thematic continuity with the first part of the documentary). Some may have been so targeted, or even all, but there is another explanation that makes racial prejudice a superfluous explanation.

One of the considerable, but variable costs of public way construction (roads and railways) is the expropriation of the land on which the public way is to stand. In many cases – that, I think, have rational technical explanations – the land to be expropriated is occupied by structures with commercial value. It’s common practice, and I would argue, good practice, to try as much as is possible to find a path that minimizes the cost of the relevant expropriations. (In the US, in the past 80 years, public pathways have been financed by the taxpayers. As a taxpayer, I wouldn’t want planners to deviate from this practice.) An unintended consequence of this rational practice is that black-owned and black-leased building are over-represented among those destroyed on the occasion of freeway building. No racism has to be involved though it may be.

This is just a prominent instance of a general, diffuse problem: Authors, journalists, politicians impute authoritatively a racist cause to inferior black outcomes where racism may or may not be involved. There is often not even a pretense of causal analysis, not even of merely mental analysis. The simply plausible magically becomes reality. Yet, it’s true that African Americans, more often than whites, often end up with the some of the worst jobs, some the worst commercial services, and as of lately (2021), even with some of the worst health outcomes.

It should be obvious that any of the above, and many other noxious outcomes, may be the pure products of mere poverty or of inferior education, or of both. African Americans are, in fact, poorer than average. So, before claiming that racism, or a systemically racist policy is at work, it would be logical to figure out if the bad outcomes may not be entirely explained by poverty. Saying the same thing in a different way: If whites in similar economic circumstances experience the same bad outcomes, or worse ones, the racial explanations are superfluous. Incidentally, racism could still be at work but it would appear much less self-evident to the general sympathetic public. It would happen like this: African Americans have the same high rate of diabetes as whites at the same education and economic level but, for the latter, diabetes is a product of poverty and ignorance, and for African Americans, it comes from poverty, ignorance, plus something else. See how credible such a statement would be. Or this: Poor whites lag in vaccinations because they also tend to be uneducated but equally poor and equally uneducated African Americans lag in vaccinations because of the racist treatment to which they are subjected.

Exploring this kind of issue, the relative weight of self evident factors in determining bad outcomes is comparatively easy. Such quest would rely on fairly available public data and on methods (multivariate analysis with econometric evaluation) that were already not new when I was pursuing a doctorate in the 1970s. There must be hundreds of sociologists and of economists equipped to conduct this kind of research in the USA. I am following multiple media in a haphazard manner, it’s true, though with a conservative bias, from the Wall Street Journal to internet trash. I do this every day for hours. Yet, I never bump into the fruits of such reasonably principled research. Of course, Stanford and Hoover Institution black economist Thomas Sowell has conducted just such analysis for many years but he is never cited by anyone to the left of dead center. Instead, his existence is sometimes acknowledged as that of beloved but slightly screwy old uncle who may even have passed on. In my book, the seeming absence in the public arena of reasoning guided or influenced by such obvious research should be enough to make one suspicious. I think this stream of public reasoning is being suppressed. (Please, go ahead and show me that it’s abundantly represented, via any media, contrary to my impression.)

Technical note: I hate to break the hearts of my possible liberal – and even progressive – readers but the following is correct: If proper analysis demonstrated that income level, level of wealth, and educational status together are not sufficient to account for inferior black outcomes, that would not be enough to pin the blame on racism, be it of a personal or systemic nature. This is another issue that’s being kept in the dark as far as I know.

The end of the documentary, “Driving While Black,” mentions briefly the possibility that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also destroyed thriving black communities. It did so by suddenly giving black shoppers attractive alternatives such as (then) Safeway. I am not sure how I would bet about this right now, as I write, but it’s possible to imagine that the Civil Rights Act was more destructive in this respect than the construction of the Interstate Freeway system. The documentary had the opportunity to raise the question. It did not. This good document would have gained immeasurably in intellectual credibility if it had. My impression is that currently, there are few critics of any race that would have the intestinal fortitude to do so. (Again, please, show me that my impression is wrong.)

I am concurrently reading a novel by a prolific African American author: The Son of Mr. Suleman, by Eric Jerome Dikey. First, it’s delightful novel and I enjoy every minute of it. The writing is effervescent even if it often verges on being in a language I don’t quite understand. (For me, it’s a bit like reading Portuguese, a language I have not studied but that is close enough to my own native French and to the Spanish that I have studied that I can usually make it out.) The reading is also a bit jarring for one strange, specific reason. The novel accomplishes with ease what good novels do: through action, dialogues, monologues, and disquisitions, they transport the reader into a world that he would otherwise likely not discover. In this case, the hero is a vigorous black man in his thirties plying his ill-defined trade in the second-rate academic venues of Memphis, Tennessee. Except for the academic setting, this is pretty far from this California old white man’s experience.

The jarring starts in the first few pages with a Trumpdetestation statement that appears utterly unrelated to anything beginning in the story. Thereafter, every so many pages, appears a politically, cliched affirmation about racism that ads nothing to the story. It’s as if the author felt like – or had been ordered to – assert with an imposed frequency, his membership in the mainstream of conventional African American struggle against racism. These interruptions are all the more ludicrous because, again, the normal course of the novel does a talented job of describing racism from the inside, so to speak. Bizarrely, the hero is being periodically sexually exploited by a rich, powerful, attractive, white, and, you guessed it, blonde woman. And, as one might almost expect, the hero blames his troubles mainly on racism. But the fact that he is an adjunct professor would be enough to explain his misery. Let me explain for my overseas readers: That’s a category of university faculty members who carry full course loads but are slated to never get tenure. (Yes, in American universities, tenure, “titularisation” is neither automatic nor a function of years taught. It’s competitive. It’s an “up-or-out” process. A teacher who does not win tenure has to find a job somewhere else.) In the last school were I taught, there were dozens of such adjunct personnel. They were all white. At any rate, in spite of all this, I warmly recommend this book.

At this point in the year, I am pleased to have been exposed to material on race relations that would normally not have been on my menu; nevertheless, I am struck by the many failures to take advantage of the situation to gain intellectual heft with other than whining and guilt-devoured white liberals. I suspect there is a convergent attempt, a cultural movement of the left, to remain vague in order to avoid revealing or admitting the obvious: that the past 60 years have seen enormous progress toward racial equality and justice in America. There was a chance to sing to other than the choir and it’s being largely wasted.

Social Care: Who should pay, other than those who benefit?

Guest post by Dr Wesley Key

Image source

When Boris Johnson became Prime Minister in July 2019, he promised from outside 10 Downing Street that “we will fix the crisis in social care once and for all.” With his premiership since being dominated by Brexit and then Covid-19, little has since been heard about how this may be achieved, but reports in July 2021 suggest that a rise in the basic rate of income tax or in National Insurance Contributions (NICs) is being considered in order to increase Social Care funding for England. Such a move would break a Conservative manifesto pledge and would also be highly contentious in terms of intergenerational fairness.

Other potential options put forward to help to fund Social Care (and other public services) in England have included: An extra tax on people aged 40-plus (similar to the system in Japan), levying NICs on private pension income, reducing tax relief on pension contributions (to a maximum of 20% for higher rate taxpayers), raising the Upper Earnings Limit (UEL) for NICs, and making workers over state retirement pension age liable to pay NICs at the same rate (or a reduced rate) as ‘working age’ employees. Work by the IFS in 2018 implied that NICs paid by workers over state pension age could potentially raise £1-1.5 billion annually, not accounting for the behavioural changes that such a policy would inevitably lead to. Regardless of the amount of revenue raised, such a system would be morally justifiable in terms of: Older workers losing their current privileged position within the personal taxation system; older people who are sufficiently healthy to carry on paid employment helping to fund the social care needs of others in their birth cohort who are in poorer health (perhaps due to working in more physically demanding job roles earlier in life).

Whilst this reform would see the national insurance system return closer to its Beveridgean roots (Beveridge did not intend that NICs were solely a way of accumulating state pension entitlement), it would be insufficient to properly fund a Social Care system that included a lifetime cap on care costs along the lines of that proposed in the Dilnot Report on Social Care: Commission on Funding of Care and Support, 2011. It is therefore also recommended that the UEL for National Insurance contributions is significantly increased, along with the NICs rate for earnings above the UEL, as it is iniquitous that, in 2021-22, earnings over £967 a week are liable to just 2% NICs, compared to 12% NICs paid on earnings of £184-967 a week.  

By reforming National Insurance in the above ways, this could help to better fund England’s creaking Social Care system, potentially enabling a lifetime care costs cap to be introduced, and without raising taxes on employees aged under 66 who earn less than £50,000 per year. Such an approach would be compatible with Boris Johnson’s 2019 pledge to ‘fix’ social care and with retaining his expanded support base among lower paid working age people across the Midlands and Northern England. It would also be justified in terms of intergenerational fairness in a period when government spending on pensioners has risen by more than spending on younger age groups.

Reassessing libertarian foreign policy: a special issue at Cosmos + Taxis

I am guest editing a special issue at the academic journal Cosmos + Taxis. It’s been challenging. The most challenging part has been finding reviewers, but the process is slowly coming along nicely. I have a longer update later this week, but for now, I hope all of you will think twice before arguing that non-intervention is the libertarian foreign policy position. It’s not. Federation is.

But it’s more complicated than that. More later. Ciao ciao

My Pick-Up Truck and the Quality of Global Warming Reports

The struggle against climate change is making fast policy progress in the civilized world. It’s got to the point where I can foresee the authorities confiscating my good Toyota pick-up truck that has given me good service for eight years and continues to act just right. In California, they make no mystery of their intent to force me to replace it with a small electric sedan I won’t be able to afford. In the meantime, the same California is not able to guarantee enough electric power to keep my light bulbs lit 24/7; another story, obviously, a good one.

My problem is that I have not changed my stance on the credibility of the climate change narrative since I bought the truck. So, I feel tyrannized.

Recently, there was a long lasting, intense heat wave in the western United States where several people died of heat stroke. As I write, severe flooding seems to be ending in Germany, in Belgium, and in France. In the first country, at least one hundred people drowned.

Being a retired old guy, I listen to the media, or watch it, or read from it a good portion of the day. I do this daily, in at least two languages, English and French. There isn’t a day in my life when I don’t hear heat waves, or floods, or this and that blamed on “climate change.” The media personalities and journalists who assert those links all have one thing in common: None possesses the credentials to judge whether such a link exists at all. Climate change ideology has spread so successfully that every Dick, Tom, and Harry with a B.A. in Communications (or less) feels free to pronounce on such causal relationships as if they were simply mentioning that the sun rises in the east. Well, it’s not like this at all, not by a long shot.

Before I go on, we need a reminder: I mean by “climate change”: the narrative that includes all three statements below:

1 the climate is changing significantly in ways that affect people adversely;

2 this change is due to human activity and specifically the release of so-called “greenhouse gases,” (Human activity includes such things as manufacturing, reliance internal combustion engines, including in cars, cattle raising);

3 the adverse effects are such that we, collectively, need to address them right now.

Baselines Climate Change Advocates endlessly publicize: hottest year in 37 years, or most hurricanes in a period of two years since 1920, or highest tide since 1882. All such announcements are worthless and therefore misleading. There is no evidence of change without a baseline and the baseline has to make sense. It cannot be picked opportunistically, of course (as was done on the occasion of the “hockey stick” scandal; look it up). It cannot be selected mindlessly. Let me give you areal example. It may well be that the Greenland glaciers are melting unusually fast. And, of course, it could be a result of human caused global warming (oops, climate change). But, we know – because a noted environmentalist told us (Jared Diamond) – that the Norse inhabitants of Greenland were raising cattle there around 1100. You can’t do this today in Greenland because it’s too cold. So, if it was warmer there a thousand years ago, what’s left of the inference that it’s what happened in only the past 150 years of Industrial Revolution, etc (make it 160, 200, no matter) that produces the heat that melts glaciers? My point here is that what you infer from change observed from a bad baseline is not only a little off; it’s simply wrong. Climate Change enthusiasts and passive believers alike do this all the time. They also don’t accept corrections based on a more reasonable baseline.

Measurements The Climate Change narrative is chronically plagued with measurement issues and downright falsehoods. If you want to tell me anything about the condition of my house and you begin with a statement to the effect that one wall has sunk by 240 inches without my noticing, you are done; I have no reason to listen to anything else you have to say. Be gone!

I don’t normally read scholarly research supporting the climate change narrative. I shouldn’t have to. I am just a citizen. If you want me to alter my life drastically, it’s up to you to give me good reasons in a language I can grasp without two or three doctorates (additional doctorates, in my case). I do read the reports made of it by non-scholarly sources that I think intellectually respectable. The Wall Street Journal is one. (More on this below.)

Here, there are two nested problems with ways to assess climate events commonly found in the media. People have a tendency to confirm what they hear by saying, Yes, it’s never been so hot, ever. The first problem is that when this is said, the reference is almost always to the person’s personal experience. That can seldom exceed 90 years, a period insufficient to cover anything blamed on the 150-plus years since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The second problem is that, obviously, almost everyone has bad memory and forgets events at random. Here is an example: When I was a small child, I remember distinctly newspaper photographs of the sea frozen in the English channel, together with one radio comment to the same effect. My siblings living at the same time in the same place, remember no such thing. They have forgotten or I have produced a fabricated memory. Either way….

This past weekend’s Wall Street Journal takes apart a more sophisticated kind of measurement fallacy, one committed by a fairly respected federal agency. (Roger Pielke Jr, WSJ; 7/17-18/21; p. C4.) The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that natural disasters causing one billion dollars of damage or more were seven times more numerous in 2020 than they were in 1980. The NOAA adjusted for inflation, of course. It did not compare 1980 dollars with 2020 dollar. Good enough, right? Not so. How much damage a given disaster causes depends on its severity but it also depends on how much is available to be damaged. There is incomparably more value to be obliterated today in America than there was in 1980. The same tornado occurring on the same day in the middle of the Sonora desert will cause much less damage than it would in Time Square, perhaps a million times less. That’s not a small error. The NOAA mistake is monumentally misleading. If you corrected for the amount available to be damaged, you might find that there was actually seven times more destruction in 1980 than in 2020. (I am not accusing anyone, except of gross incompetence. It’s not all bad faith.)

To aggravate again the severity of my judgment is the fact that real scientists with real credentials almost never step out of the ivory tower to condemn publicly the thousands of false statements made in their name every day.

Things have not changed much in eight years with respect to credibility. I don’t have any reason to change my mind and to consider the narrative favorably because it has not improved in rigor or in accuracy. They may be able to tear me off the seat of my pick-up truck but that will not alter my judgment that the repression is based on snake oil merchandising and on primitive superstitions. Yes, you can quote me.

Some Monday Links – Of bloody summer stains, busted hopes and laundries

Also lingo. And beards.

Why Cuba is having an economic crisis (Noahpinion)

The Language of Totalitarian Dehumanization (Quillette)

On the Cuba events. Governments and protests, now that’s a strained relationship. Talking about the so-called “Second World” countries, Nikita Khrushchev did not even know what booing is, until he encountered it in his visit to London in 1956.

Few years later, during a massive strike in the Russian city of Novocherkassk, a crowd stormed the central police station. Whether it was a genuine assault, or a naive display of defiance from a people inexperienced in protesting, the government’s fearful puzzlement turned to cold, brutal aggression. Unarmed protesters at the center of the city, mistakenly thinking that those days were over, remained steadfast at the face of warnings to disperse. That is, until security forces opened direct fire against them. The ensuing massacre was covered-up for three decades. Since this was an à la Orwell un-event, no high-ranking officials’ records were stained.

Khrushchev’s aloof ignorance strikes a nerve, contrasted with the people’s heartbreaking one. Both glimpses are captured in the brilliant (though somewhat uneven) Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford.

All things said, Karl Marx Loved Freedom (Jacobin). More beards.

The Greek government, like its French counterpart, is escalating the push for vaccinations. As constitutional scholars argue the limits of state power regarding personal freedom and the public good, historical precedents are brought forth (for the US, c. early 1900s), involving mandatory vaccinations, quarantines and discrimination. The discussion draws from equal protection of the laws jurisprudence and smoothly led me to Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886):

Yick Wo v. Hopkins established fair implementation of statutes (History Net)

The decision set a milestone and has been cited some 150 times.

The backdrop of the case is rich. As it turns out,

An 1880 ordinance of the city of San Francisco required all laundries in wooden buildings to hold a permit issued by the city’s Board of Supervisors. The board had total discretion over who would be issued a permit. Although workers of Chinese descent operated 89 percent of the city’s laundry businesses, not a single Chinese owner was granted a permit.

Oyez

The regulation was one in a series of many that reflected the anti-immigrant (especially anti-Chinese) sentiment, following the influx due to the Gold Rush (1849).

An illustration of the time, echoing the 3-day pogrom vs Chinese immigrants, San Francisco Jul. 1877 – Source

Yick Wo: How A Racist Laundry Law In Early San Francisco Helped Civil Rights (Hoodline)

A particularly badass line, from the unanimous opinion authored by Justice Stanley Matthews, shows that the Court did not hold back:

Though the law itself be fair on its face and impartial in appearance, yet, if it is applied and administered by public authority with an evil eye and an unequal hand, so as practically to make unjust and illegal discriminations between persons in similar circumstances, material to their rights, the denial of equal justice is still within the prohibition of the Constitution.

Will the US and Iran find common ground in Afghanistan?

Introduction

On July 7, 2021 Iran hosted talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban (the Taliban delegation was led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai). The same day, the Taliban attacked the Badghis provincial capital Qalat-i-Naw (Badghis is one of thirty-four provinces in Afghanistan). Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif emphatically stated that the Afghan people should decide their own future, while also stating that there was a major threat to security. As of Friday, the Taliban claimed to have captured 85% of Afghanistan’s territory (it is tough to verify such claims however).

Zarif also underscored the point that dialogue was the only option for finding a way out of the current imbroglio in Afghanistan:

…commitment to political solutions the best choice for Afghanistan’s leaders and political movements

Tehran, which shares a 945 kilometre border with Afghanistan, also hosts 3 million Afghan refugees and migrant workers, and has expressed its concern with regard to the growing turmoil in the country as a result of US withdrawal of troops.

Important symbolism

If one were to look beyond the Afghan-Iran bilateral relationship, as well as the fact that Tehran is likely to be impacted by events in Afghanistan, the meeting is an attempt by Iran to send out a message to Saudi Arabia (which for long has positioned itself as the key geopolitical player in the Middle East) and the US with regard to its geopolitical relevance.

Tehran’s ties with Riyadh have witnessed an upswing in recent months, with Saudi Arabia expressing its keenness to resolve bilateral issues. Senior officials from both countries met in Iraq in May. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in a media interview in April 2021, clearly batted in favour of better Saudi-Iran ties, while not denying that differences did exist between both sides. Talks were held between Saudi and Iranian officials in April and May in Baghdad and are likely to shift to Oman.

Iran-US ties

Iran’s ties with the US under the President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner in comparison to outgoing president Hassan Rouhani, are likely to face more challenges (at least in the short run). The Biden administration had made attempts to rejoin the Iran Nuclear deal/Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but it had limited time. (The US had signed in 2015, but the Trump Administration withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018.)

While the Iranian Presidential election was held in June, the Vienna negotiations (in which US participated indirectly) began only in April 2021. Some ice has been broken between Iran and the US, but no real outcome should be expected till August, when Raisi takes over. Iran’s announcement that it would begin producing enriched uranium metal has also drawn severe criticism from the E3 countries (France, Germany, and the UK) and could act as an impediment to the renewal of the JCPOA. It would also be pertinent to point out that, due to domestic pressures, it was very tough for both sides to move away from stated positions (while the US had said it would remove sanctions once Iran fully complies with the terms and conditions of the 2015 deal, Iran stated that it could only do so after US removed economic sanctions).

Need for US-Iran engagement on Afghanistan

Biden has shown pragmatism on a number of foreign policy issues. A strong example of this is how, in spite of his criticism of Russia, he has not refrained from engagement and finding common ground with Moscow. Similarly, realising Turkey’s importance in Afghanistan (Turkey had offered to safeguard Kabul Airport after the withdrawal of US troops), he has sought to improve ties with Istanbul. During a meeting between Biden and Turkish President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, on the sidelines of the NATO Summit, a number of issues were discussed and both sides agreed that the meeting was positive. During the Summit, Turkey — a NATO member — made a commitment that it would keep its troops in the country, to safeguard Kabul Airport.

It is important that the US engages with Iran in a more pro-active manner (albeit indirectly), and not just on JCPOA but also Afghanistan; so far Biden has publicly spoken about the role of Russia but given the tensions with Tehran he has not really made a mention – though there has been a growing chorus by US allies for a back channel with Iran on Afghanistan. Given the fact that the US is engaging with Iran indirectly on JCPOA and other changes taking place, some engagement would already be going on but this needs to be substantial and more effective. On the other hand, Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran have been working to find a common strategy to counter the likely security challenges in Afghanistan.

Neither Tehran nor Washington can engage publicly, but it is important for Biden to open an effective back channel to Iran via US allies in the GCC, such as Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Iran, in spite of moving closer to Beijing and Moscow in recent years as a result of Trump’s flawed Iran policy, would not like to send out a signal that it is blindly kowtowing to any external force, including China (the Iran-China 25 year agreement was viewed with suspicion in Iran by many including Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who called it a suspicious deal), and a working relationship with Washington on the Afghanistan quagmire would only produce benefits.

In conclusion, the Biden Administration should give priority to the relationship with Iran seeing the changing political landscape. While due to domestic pressures and lobbies within the US, progress with regard to Washington getting back on board the JCPOA has been impeded, it is important that the US does not miss out on pro-active back channel diplomacy and engagement with Iran on Afghanistan.

Somaliland’s elections

Somaliland just held elections recently. Political scientist Scott Pegg was there as an international observer. I reprint his report with his permission:

I was in Somaliland as an international election observer for their parliamentary and local council elections on May 31st. The blog I did with Michael Walls has lots of cool photos in it if you want to see low-tech democracy in action in an extremely poor country in the Horn of Africa: https://defactostates.ut.ee/blog/observing-somaliland%E2%80%99s-2021-parliamentary-and-local-council-elections.

So, the biggest problem by far with Somaliland elections is that there is almost no policy or ideological differences between the candidates (everyone wants them to be recognized, everyone wants to promote livestock exports, etc.). Candidates will loudly proclaim how they fundamentally differ from their opponents but then when you ask them something like “give me three key issues you disagree about,” they start mumbling and deflecting. Unfortunately, much of their politics is clan-based (and often sub-clan based). When I was there for the 2017 presidential elections, a seasoned political observer who is a friend of mine gave me this incredible breakdown of “we’ve got this clan, that sub-clan and the other sub-clan, they’ve got this clan, that sub-clan and the other sub-clan and the only unknown variables are this clan and that sub-clan.” It was exactly like John King pulling up different electoral maps on CNN, just without the maps and the technology. Based on his analysis, I asked if I could get posted to either Burco (where I was sent in both 2017 and 2021) or Boroma because they were what he correctly predicted were the equivalents of “swing states” in their election. So that’s the depressing part.

The inspiring part is that there are several minor issues or problems, but the elections themselves are incredibly peaceful, festive, free, fair and orderly. The single biggest problem I saw this time was an unsealed ballot box. The polling station staff knew it was a serious problem and had already called the regional electoral headquarters to ask for additional seals to be brought out. Yet, the box is sitting in the middle of the room in full view of all voters and all observers and no one is tampering with it in any way. I initially thought the polling station I saw close was closing early and leaving a few dozen voters in line locked out of the process. Then, I soon discover that it is a 20 minute break for evening prayer time, after which they resume voting and stay open 90 minutes late to accommodate everyone who was in line before the polls close. They weren’t supposed to do that, it was technically wrong, but it wasn’t anything that was done with any kind of fraud or malicious intent and all the voters were totally cool with it. The one area where they totally violate international norms is on the secrecy of the ballot. Voters can vote in secret but large numbers of them just don’t care if people know who they are voting for and walk into the polling station loudly proclaiming I want to vote for X or Y candidate. The election staff either shows them how to do this or does it for them and then shows the ballot to all observers so they can see the voter’s intent was carried out. Alternatively, some voters vote in secret but then go up to the political party observers and say something like can you verify that I actually voted for X and Y candidates, which they then do honestly and scrupulously. They have assorted small problems or mistakes, but absolutely zero fraud, systemic irregularities or malevolent intent. Watching the process on election day is truly inspiring and I wish more Americans who are so jaded and cynical about our democracy could see it.

For more on Somaliland at NOL, start here. You can check out Scott Pegg’s excellent scholarship here.