Saturday, October 31, 2015

Recently published op-eds, since August

Once again I have been so busy writing columns that I have neglected to post them here.  So here are pieces that have been published one place or another since August.

The U.S. Should Stop Trying To Overthrow Assad

General David Petraeus recently told Congress that the United States is not doing enough in Syria.  On the contrary,  we have been doing too much.
There is no such thing as an ideal foreign policy. An ideal world would have a universal government with no need to conduct foreign relations. Unfortunately,  recent American foreign policy fails to achieve even the lesser evils allowed by an imperfect world.

Much of the problem results from Americans’ failure to understand that moral standards appropriate at the personal (or “micro”) level cannot be applied uncritically at the “macro” level in which governments operate.

America’s approach to Syria is a clear example of the problems caused by failure to understand this distinction.  Syrian president Bashar al-Assad presides over a civil war which has killed hundreds of thousands and driven crowds to flee.  American policy is that Assad is an evil man and has to go.  Russian and Iranian support for his regime is considered outrageous.   

We need to reconsider.  Assad’s forces face several rebel groups and the Islamic State.  Wholesale atrocities, committed by all sides, will end only when the civil war ends. If  rebel forces destroy Assad, war will continue while the various groups fight to see who would rule.  So the fastest way to end the war would be victory by Assad’s loyalists

Whatever their reasons for supporting Assad,  therefore,  Russia and Iran are promoting more humane results than is the U.S. Our support for rebels prolongs the misery.

Assad,  like Saddam Hussein,  has done terrible things , so evaluated at the micro level he is indeed despicable.  But remember the actual consequences of removing Hussein:  chaos,  large scale killings,   the Islamic State. The average Iraqi would be better off today if Hussein remained in power. 

When evaluating leaders remember,  as Charles A. Beard noted, that “The bee fertilizes the flower it robs.”  Even terrible leaders provide a valuable service if they can keep their people from beating each other’s brains out.

As the U.S. learned (or did we?) in Iraq, it is much easier to destroy bad governments than to replace them with better ones.  Unless our national security absolutely requires it we should therefore refrain from overthrowing even terrible foreign leaders since the one thing worse for the people of a country than a bad government is no government at all.

Thomas Friedman argues that our planet is divided into areas of order and areas of disorder.  Noting refugees pouring into Europe, he says “we have only two ways to halt this refugee flood, and we don’t want to choose either: build a wall and isolate these regions of disorder, or occupy them with boots on the ground, crush the bad guys and build a new order based on real citizenship, a vast project that would take two generations.” 

We do have a third choice that could minimize expanding the world of disorder:  stop military interventions to overthrow bad regimes, and stop supporting domestic insurrections.. 

When he met with Vladimir Putin,  President Obama was unable to endorse Russia’s support for the Assad regime.  Complete reversals of policy are politically embarrassing.  But at least we could stop our current expensive and ineffective support for rebel groups. There are signs that we are doing this in fact,  despite continuing rhetoric to the contrary.    

Many recent commentaries about Syria have lamented the high price of our foreign inaction.  But Syria is just one of many places where American  inaction is the best possible action. 

Unions' Obsession With Wages Deflects Attention From Opportunities

I always enjoy reading columns by Tim Nesbitt, former president of the Oregon AFL-CIO.  He deals intelligently and honestly with the problems facing today’s working people:  unemployment,  low wages, and increasing economic inequality.

This said,  I fear that Nesbitt’s focus on raising wages and fringe benefits has blinded him to a more promising way to reduce economic inequality. 

Forcing low wages up is a poor strategy since increasing the price of anything (including labor) is hardly likely to increase demand for it.  As Nesbitt is well aware,  increasing the cost  of labor encourages  employers to outsource work to low wage  countries and replace workers with machines. 

Nesbitt correctly thinks unions need to do “more legislating than bargaining and … more political campaigning than workplace organizing.”   But for what legislation should unions be campaigning?  He gives mandated sick leave as an example.  But Oregon’s recent sick leave mandate does not necessarily increase a worker’s annual income,  and to the extent that it does it increases the cost of  labor with all of the usual bad side effects.   It does not reduce unemployment. 

Alaska's oil dividend suggests a better way to reduce income inequality. Every Alaska resident receives a substantial and equal annual dividend from the oil-based trust fund.  When the equal dividend is added to people’s unequal wages (or no wages at all for the unemployed) the net result is less inequality in total personal income.

Imagine a trust fund for the entire United States that could capture royalties from public assets such as oil and other minerals extracted from public lands,  from leasing of rights to graze cattle on public lands, and  from leasing rights to use radio and TV spectrum.  When federal policy requires creation of new money,  the new money should be created in the trust fund instead of being captured by private bankers or spent by the government.  The trust fund might also include estate tax receipts.  

The annual dividend from a federal trust fund would be much larger than the Alaskan dividend.  And remember, it would be distributed equally to every man, woman,  and child subject to the jurisdiction of  our federal government.  When added to unequal wages this would substantially reduce economic inequality between families, especially since each family would receive the dividend for each of its children.   This reduction in inequality would come without the bad side effects of  forcing wages above their natural level----the level at which we have no unemployment because the demand for labor equals its supply.

If the federal dividend were big enough, rather than working some people might choose to live simply and engage in other useful pursuits:  caring for small children,  volunteering with worthwhile causes as many retired people do now. The dividend would also provide security for people who lose their jobs.   

I commend Tim Nesbitt for his concern for working people,  for his insights into the problems facing labor unions, and for his conclusion that legislation is a more promising approach to reducing inequality than is collective bargaining with employers.   But he needs to broaden his vision of the legislation which unions should be promoting and rise above an inhibiting obsession with increasing wages. 

Taxi License Problem Reveals Grossly Inadequate Laws

Disruptive new technologies are so …. disruptive!  A recent example in New York City evokes well-deserved sympathy for  taxi drivers who invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy a license only to have the market value of their licenses cut in half by the arrival of Uber. 

Unfortunately for taxi operators,  it is hard to stop progress when it is embraced by millions of customers who appreciate prompt and inexpensive service and thousands of drivers who appreciate being able to make money while retaining flexibility in scheduling work.  Chalk up one more victory for smartphones!

It is important to note that the predicament of taxi drivers was caused, not just by opportunities created by smartphones, but also by grossly inadequate licensing laws that go back many decades. 

The basic problem is that the licenses were sold to drivers by the city instead of being leased to them.  This not only required drivers to put large amounts of money up front to buy licenses that were in effect capital assets,  but it subjected them to the risk that the market value of those assets would,  as capital assets not uncommonly do,  take a big hit.

Of course it was also possible that the market value of a license would increase, which also often happens with capital assets.  But there is no reason why such capital gains should be captured by private individuals who had nothing to do with creating them.

If, instead,  the city had rented out licenses for limited periods of time,  none of these problems would have developed.  Taxi drivers could have paid annual rents for their licenses out of current cash flow instead of having to sink huge amounts up front.  When the market value of licenses was halved by competition from Uber,  the annual license rent could have been adjusted downward the next time the lease came up for renewal.  If market value of licenses had increased,  the increase could have been captured by the city in the form of higher rents, again the next time leases came up for renewal.

There is one further dimension we need to think about.  Issuing a limited number of licenses in effect gives a monopoly over the taxi business to the people who have the licenses.  Such a monopoly may well be in the general interest.  But if we want to create the monopoly by means of genuine law (as distinguished from arbitrarily) the only possible legitimate owner of the monopoly would be the public,  which consists of every man,  woman, and child subject to the jurisdiction of the government.   Although the government creates the monopoly it does not own the monopoly but only acts as a trustee for the public when it leases out the licenses.

The rents received by government as trustee should therefore not be spent by the government, which would be an abuse of its fiduciary duties as trustee for the public.   Instead the money should be distributed in equal amounts to all members of the public as an annual social dividend.  Such a system would resemble the oil dividend which goes to all Alaska residents. 

Of course this is not how taxi licenses were handled in New York City,  and sorting out the current mess in a way which does justice to taxi operators,   people who travel around town,  and the public will be difficult, if not impossible.  That is what happens when you do something the wrong way to begin with.   But maybe we can learn something from this experience and do things the right way the next time.


Electing Presidents" A Proposal and a Challenge

With a year and a half until the next presidential inauguration,  Americans have already endured months of maneuvering by contenders to raise money,  to get public attention, and to capture the nomination of one of the major political parties.   There must be a better way to select presidents:  more dignified,  briefer,  less dependent on big money,  and more likely to produce competent chief executives for  the world’s most powerful country.

Here is an example of a possible reform in pursuit of these goals,  which I offer for your consideration and as a challenge for you to figure out a better reform: 

First,  only governors or ex-governors would be eligible to run for president.  This would guarantee that presidents would come into office with chief executive experience.  It would narrow the eligibility down to more manageable numbers and encourage people with presidential ambitions to seek to become governors and get some experience.   

Second, presidential candidates would be picked by the respective party members in Congress.  The Republican candidate would be chosen by the Republican senators and representatives meeting jointly, and the Democratic candidate by the Democratic senators and representatives.

Third,  the presidential election would take place one month after the candidates have been selected.  Election would be by popular plurality, and the Electoral College would be abolished. 

Fourth,  only current members of the U.S. Senate could become vice president,   and the vice president would be elected by the House of Representatives.  If the presidency is vacated,  the vice president would not become president but would be acting president for a month or two while a new president is elected. 

This reform, which would require amending the Constitution,   would have important benefits.  Campaigns would be short, reducing candidates’ need to raise huge amounts of money.  Eliminating presidential primary elections would reduce still further the need to raise money while reducing the leverage of extremists in both parties. It would eliminate presidential nominating conventions,   which have become boring and irritating spectacles.  It would eliminate electing president and vice president in sometimes incongruous package deals.

Some people might object that this proposal prevents “third” party candidates from seeking the presidency.  However third party candidates never win and sometimes help elect a major party nominee who is anathema to the very people who supported the minor party.  One thinks of Ralph Nader’s role in the 2000 contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore.  And of course if a third party gets some representation in Congress and among governors,  it could nominate a presidential candidate. 

Another obvious objection which might be raised is that this reform would be “undemocratic.”  Eliminating presidential primaries and narrowing candidate eligibility would certainly reduce voter choices. But the true test of democracy is whether it maximizes public control over government actions. 

The most important function of elections is to force leaders to consider public opinion and the electoral side effects of every decision they make. Incumbents are most likely to lose if votes against them are not divided among many candidates.  Since the president will still be chosen by an election, public influence on his or her behavior will not be reduced and,  with fewer candidates,  may well be enhanced.

Again,   readers who do not like my proposal should try to find a better one and present it for public discussion.  My proposal is a “first word,”  intended to promote public thought and discussion,  not a last word.  There must be a better way of selecting presidents.  The question to be answered is:  what is that better way?  

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Recent writings not posted, now posted.

No,  I have not been on a writing binge the last two days.  But I have put a lot of mostly published op-ed columns written in the last year and a half here on this blog.  For the published ones,  you can google to get the published versions.  Enjoy!

Same-Sex Wedding Cakes and Due Process of Law

I recently wrote a column maintaining that the recommended fine against a small bakery for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding is grossly and unjustly excessive.  A number of letters and comments in the Oregonian, where my article appeared,   have defended the fine.  Some indignant readers even think the fine should be larger.

Something that seems to have been overlooked in recent discussions is the constitutional requirement that people not be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.   A fundamental part of due process of law requires  “notice,”  namely that people be clearly warned about what actions are illegal and what the maximum possible punishment will be. For example,  signs limiting parking to people who have handicap permits state the maximum fine---so many hundred dollars--- that may be imposed on violators. 

Clearly the owners of the Sweet Cakes  bakery could not have known that their refusal to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple could be punished with a $150,000 fine (now reduced to  “only” $135,000).  A somewhat similar case in the state of Washington recently drew a $1,000 fine,  and I am not sure that case had been decided yet when the Sweet Cakes incident occurred.  I would bet that Sweet Cakes would have made the cake if they had known they might be fined even $1,000 for refusing.

And this brings up a related point.   The deterrent effect of a fine is a function both of the magnitude of that fine and of the likelihood that it will be imposed.  It may well be, for example,  that a 90% chance of a $5 fine would deter far more littering than a 1% chance of a $1,000 fine.  And the owners of Sweet Cakes already incurred a “fine” for refusing to sell the cake:  the loss of the profit they would have made on the cake.  This “fine” was automatically levied on them without any need for the government to do anything.  It was 100% certain.

It is not as if government has nothing else to do than to prosecute this kind of case.  St. Thomas Aquinas, a Christian theologian,   noted many centuries ago that it is impossible for government to outlaw all sins.  He pointed out that government has limited enforcement capabilities and should not spread them too thin,  neglecting to enforce more important laws which prosecuting less important ones.  In cases like Sweet Cakes,  where a small but 100% certain “fine” is automatically imposed on businesses which refuse to serve someone,  it is particularly hard to justify an expensive tax-payer funded bureaucratic apparatus, particularly one which is free to impose huge additional fines without giving people the notice required by due process of law. 

The problems facing members of racial minorities vastly outweigh those facing people trying to buy a cake for a same-sex marriage.  Perhaps the state should concentrate its limited enforcement resources on enforcing duty-to-serve laws in the racial context and rely on the enlightened self-interest of bakeries to take care of the wedding cakes issue.