Things to Come

No doubt because he sees the hand writing on the wall, Dakota Wood warns of the consequences of reducing defense spending in a piece at RealClearDefense:

Does the U.S. spend too much on defense? Many believe that’s the case. They note that, in constant dollars, the Pentagon’s budget is now higher than it has been. And, they argue, much of that money is wasted through mismanagement and excessive overhead costs.

They also like to compare U.S. defense spending with that of the next 10 or 12 top-spending countries, claiming that this shows the U.S. is wildly overspending. They further argue that “de-militarizing” U.S. foreign policy–relying more on diplomacy and economic measures and less on global policing and “adventurism”—would allow for much smaller defense budgets without any loss of security.

But much, if not all, of this criticism, is deeply flawed. For example, the “U.S. v the next 10 countries” spending comparison assumes that our competitors are open and honest about what they’re spending. They aren’t. It also ignores the fact that defense dollars go much further into our adversaries’ economies. (For starters, just think about the pay scales in China and North Korea.)

But, they complain, many of those 10 countries are U.S. allies. If they can spend so little, surely the U.S. can spend less too. Again, this assumes that our allies’ investment levels in defense are all reasonable. And, again, they aren’t. Many of our allies in NATO and elsewhere are dramatically under-spending on defense, falling well shy of their commitments. Until they live up to their commitments, the U.S. has no choice but to compensate for their military weakness.

Since the end of World War II the U. S. has pursued a grand strategy of reducing potential threats by becoming the only military at the highest level of readiness. What if that strategy has always been unrealistic and unachievable? What if we’ve been too successful with our putative allies while being completely unsuccessful with our potential adversaries? What if the American people are tired of carrying that burden?

My concern is not that the Biden Administration will cut defense spending. My concern is that it will not be willing to spend at the levels necessary to allow our military to continue to carry the burdens it asks of it.


Push Forces and Pull Forces

Here’s another example of a piece that I dismissed initially but on reconsideration decided it wasn’t so bad. I thought the title of Vince Bielski’s post at RealClearInvestigations, “How the Biden-Harris Migration ‘Fix’ Would Throw Good Billions After Bad”, made it sound like a partisan hit piece but actually reading it revealed a more thoughtful piece. This, for example, explains some of the “push forces” that are prompting Hondurans to seek entry to the U. S.:

Many of the region’s 1 million small farmers still live in adobe huts with no running water and suffer acts of humans and nature. Corrupt Honduran officials have invested too little in stabilizing or modernizing the region, allowing violent gangs to extort families. Recent droughts and hurricanes have created widespread hunger.

“It’s been one crisis after another,” says Conor Walsh, the Honduras representative for Catholic Relief Services in Tegucigalpa, the capital. “Many people have already migrated and others are evaluating whether they can stay on their farms.”

These longstanding problems throughout Central America are driving the current crisis on the southern U.S. border, where more than 170,000 migrants arrived in March in search of jobs and asylum. As the Biden administration grapples with this mounting surge, it’s also proposing a $4 billion long-term plan to attack the root causes of migration – corruption, violence and poverty in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

and this touches on the key problem we have in trying to help poor people whether in Central America or in the Middle East:

The administration says fighting corruption is now the top priority since nothing will change until elected officials stop stealing and the governments become more accountable to citizens. Countries will have to meet stricter conditions, such as adopting governance reforms, before receiving aid, and officials face the threat of financial sanctions and revoked visas. The proposed $4 billion strategy, the biggest ever for the region, gives the administration some added leverage.


After five years, the Government Accounting Office was blunt in its assessment of the projects that were mostly run by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Those reviewed by GAO achieved only 40% to 70% of their own technical targets, such as the number of police officers trained. Officials didn’t even bother to evaluate most of the projects or whether they helped improve governance, security and economic opportunity.

However, hidden within the post are one possibility for finding success where we’ve only found failure in the past. There are not-for-profits that are actually ameliorating the situation. Specifically mentioned is Catholic Relief Services. What stops us from working through such organizations?

Power could start by changing the way her agency runs projects in places like Honduras, nonprofit veterans believe. Aid experts have criticized the agency for hiring U.S. and international contractors to administer most of the program funding. The setup marginalizes local organizations that better understand on-the-ground issues and misses an opportunity to develop local advocates to push for reforms, says Sarah Bermeo, who specializes in foreign aid in Central America at Duke University.

“U.S. contractors are certainly overused compared to their ability to deliver results,” Bermeo says. “There is certainly room to improve outcomes by increasing the involvement of local groups in the design and implementation of AID-financed efforts.”

Basically, ideology, politics, and lobbyists. As long as there’s a buck to be made from being a U. S. contractor whether they “deliver results” or not they will be an impediment.


What Should We Think of China?

When I first saw the title of this post by David Frum at The Atlantic, “China Is a Paper Dragon”, I dismissed it out of hand as posturing. When I went back and read it, I continued to think there were elements of posturing in it but I thought I’d pass it along nonetheless. Here’s a sample from it I found interesting:

In 2018, the Tufts University professor Michael Beckley published a richly detailed study of Chinese military and economic weaknesses. The book is titled Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World’s Sole Superpower.

The book argues that China’s economic, financial, technological, and military strength is hugely exaggerated by crude and inaccurate statistics. Meanwhile, U.S. advantages are persistently underestimated. The claim that China will “overtake” the U.S. in any meaningful way is polemical and wrong—and wrong in ways that may mislead Americans into serious self-harming mistakes. Above all, Beckley pleads with readers not to focus on the headline numbers of gross domestic product. China may well surpass the United States as the largest economy on Earth by the 2030s. China was also almost certainly the largest economy on Earth in the 1830s. A big GDP did not make China a superpower then—and it will not make China a superpower now, or so Beckley contends.

Beckley is a voracious reader of specialist Chinese military journals and economic reports. And, he argues, many of the advances cited as Chinese strengths don’t hold up to close scrutiny. American analysts often publish worries about China’s growing navy, and especially its two aircraft carriers. But, Beckley writes, “Chinese pilots fly 100 to 150 fewer hours than U.S. pilots and only began training on aircraft carriers in 2012,” and he adds that “Chinese troops spend 20 to 30 percent of their time studying communist ideology.”

When Chinese forces do train, Beckley argues, the exercises bear little resemblance to the challenges the People’s Liberation Army would face in a great-power conflict:

PLA exercises remain heavily scripted (the red team almost always wins) … Most exercises involve a single service or branch, so troops lack the ability to conduct joint operations, and assessments are often nothing more than “subjective judgments based on visual observation rather than on detailed quantitative data” and are scored “based simply on whether a training program has been implemented rather than on whether the goals of the program have been achieved.”

For my part I have what I believe is a realistic assessment of the threat posed by China. I’m less worried about the military threat posed by China than some but I can’t dismiss any country that devotes as much time, attention, and resources to state-supported industrial espionage as China does. My epiphany on China came when I was studying Chinese, learning to speak as well as read and write the language using the traditional writing system.

But I also think that China has weaknesses as do we. Our biggest weakness remains, as the Soviets knew, that all it takes to corrupt many Americans is money. IMO China’s biggest weakness is the weakness of all oligarchies: subordinates will do practically anything including lie, cheat, and steal to please their superiors. In practice that means that not even the Chinese authorities can trust the statistics emerging from China.


Where Did It Come From?

Nicholas Wade posts what is to my eye a pretty fair assessment of the two main theories of the origin of COVID-19&mash;natural emergence and accidental escape from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. I recommend you read the whole thing but here’s a snippet:

Natural emergence was the media’s preferred theory until around February 2021 and the visit by a World Health Organization commission to China. The commission’s composition and access were heavily controlled by the Chinese authorities. Its members, who included the ubiquitous Dr. Daszak, kept asserting before, during and after their visit that lab escape was extremely unlikely. But this was not quite the propaganda victory the Chinese authorities may have been hoping for. What became clear was that the Chinese had no evidence to offer the commission in support of the natural emergence theory.
This was surprising because both the SARS1 and MERS viruses had left copious traces in the environment. The intermediary host species of SARS1 was identified within four months of the epidemic’s outbreak, and the host of MERS within nine months. Yet some 15 months after the SARS2 pandemic began, and a presumably intensive search, Chinese researchers had failed to find either the original bat population, or the intermediate species to which SARS2 might have jumped, or any serological evidence that any Chinese population, including that of Wuhan, had ever been exposed to the virus prior to December 2019. Natural emergence remained a conjecture which, however plausible to begin with, had gained not a shred of supporting evidence in over a year.

As I said, read the whole thing.

I’m a bit surprised that a class action suit has yet to be filed suing the Chinese government, the U. S. government, and Peter Daszak and Anthony Fauci personally. Maybe there has. The standard of proof of such trials is “preponderance of the evidence” which would seem to support the plaintiffs. I would think that anyone who’s been harmed by the virus would have standing.


Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

Walter Russell Mead considers the successes in the U. S. Middle East policy over the last 20 years in his latest Wall Street Journal column:

As the Biden administration addresses the remaining issue that poses a major threat to U.S. regional interests—Iran’s quest for regional superpower status based on its nuclear program and support for militias and terrorists—it should reflect on what Washington and its allies have gotten right over the past 20 years.

The first achievement involves one of the great unheralded successes of our time: America’s prevention of major new international terrorist attacks on its soil. With help from key partners around the world, U.S. security institutions have kept Americans largely safe since 9/11. To appreciate the value of this achievement, think what the world and the U.S. would look like if 9/11 had been only the first of a succession of massive attacks.

The second decisive success is that fracking has dramatically reduced the Middle East’s ability to roil world energy markets. The days are long past when even minor crises in the region could send energy prices surging around the world. Middle East oil still matters, but emirs and ayatollahs can no longer cause global economic upheavals by manipulating prices through the oil cartel.

In the third place, as the raid that killed bin Laden demonstrated, America’s reach has grown very long. Stunning advances in drone technology and precision weapons targeting are part of the story. So too are the extraordinary capabilities of U.S. special operations forces. Add to that the ability of very small numbers of American forces to increase vastly the battle effectiveness of local allies by hooking them up to the information available through integrated communications and surveillance, and the U.S. ability to project a lot of power with a small presence is a game changer in the Middle East and beyond.

Finally, neighboring Arab states now consider Israel an ally to be cultivated, not a foe to be crushed. The leading Arab states and Israel aren’t exactly friends, but they are forming something at least equally valuable in international relations: a partnership that both sides consider essential to their continued security.

I’m still not convinced. I think #1 is an example of tiger repellent, i.e. post hoc propter hoc. I don’t disagree entirely with the second but I think that dwindling reserves of Middle East oil have something to do with it as well and I don’t know how to disaggregate the two. I remain unconvinced that the effects of #3 were entirely benign. Doesn’t that “long reach” also impel other countries to seek nuclear weapons? As to the fourth while I welcome it I also think it’s far too early to tell.


Should We Enforce Our Tax Code?

I really should have a department for “not knowing whether to laugh or to cry”. That was my reaction to this editorial at the Wall Street Journal on the Biden Administration’s plan to increase the budget of the Internal Revenue Service:

President Biden says he wants to “revitalize” IRS enforcement to target wealthy Americans who “aggressively plan to avoid the tax laws.” No doubt tax avoiders exist. But a lot less money is likely to be found under the sofa cushions than Mr. Biden and progressives think.

The White House is hoping to use this sleight-of-math to help finance its $2 trillion cradle-to-grave entitlement plan. It projects that giving the IRS an extra $80 billion to hunt down tax dodgers will generate $700 billion in revenue over 10 years, citing a National Bureau of Economic Research study that estimates the top 1% of earners fail to pay $175 billion a year in tax they owe.

It’s pretty much what you’d expect. They’re worried about it both because it might not be successful and because it might.

Here’s an example of why I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry:

All of this explains why the Congressional Budget Office last year projected that a $40 billion increase in the IRS budget over 10 years might only generate $103 billion in revenue.

That actually sounds like a pretty good ROI to me. You?

My own view is that as a matter of general principle we should enforce our laws or get them off the books and I include the tax code in that. How do you know if you’re spending enough on enforcement? When very, very few are cheating. Is that the case now or not? I’m open to argument either way. Two significant problems with our are code are 1) it’s so complicated that nobody really understands it; and 2) it changes to frequently that itself is an impediment to economic growth.

If you cast you mind back you may remember that practically nobody paid their income taxes until after payroll withholding tax was introduced as a revenue enhancement scheme in 1943 ostensibly to help in the war effort. I can testify to that based on my dad’s tax returns (all of which I have). He didn’t start filing until 1943.

I’ve said my piece on taxes any number of times. To summarize:

  • I think the corporate income tax should be abolished because it’s an inefficient tax.
  • I think that FICA should either be abolished (and Social Security retirement payment paid from general revenues rather than the byzantine trust fund) or the cap should be raised to include income right up to the top 1% of income earners (presently $538,926) and automatically adjusted by statute.
  • I think the definition of “capital gains” needs to be adjusted.
  • I think that the personal income tax is marginally better than the corporate income tax but still has some of the same problems.
  • I think we should replace income taxes with a prebated value-added tax levied on all goods and services (see here for how that might work—that’s just one example).

Why We Can’t Make Everybody Happy

Yesterday in comments I mentioned that black smokers were the primary market for menthol cigarettes and, sure enough, in his latest Washington Post column Eugene Robinson is unhappy about the Biden Administration’s announcement that it would ban menthol cigarettes. The source of his unhappiness? Disparate impact:

Smoking is bad for you, and any measure that helps people quit is theoretically good. But the federal government’s proposed ban on menthol cigarettes leaves a sour taste in my mouth — and not a nicotine-flavored one.

Making it illegal to make or sell Newports, Kools and other such brands will have a massively disparate impact on African American smokers, nearly 85 percent of whom smoke menthols. By contrast, only around 30 percent of White smokers and 35 percent of Hispanic smokers choose menthol-flavored varieties. Black smokers have every right to feel targeted by the planned prohibition.

Public health experts can reasonably argue that the pending rule targets African Americans in the best possible way. The real disparate impact, so this thinking goes, is in the way tobacco companies have aggressively marketed menthol cigarettes in Black communities over the decades. I understand all of that. But I can’t rush to cheer a new policy that puts a terribly unhealthy — but perfectly legal — practice enjoyed so disproportionately by African Americans on the wrong side of the law.

Despite the Biden Administration’s statements that the ban was not to be enforced against individual smokers but against the companies that manufacture menthol cigarettes, he’s still unhappy. There are some people who will never be satisfied and, sadly, some of them are black. One of the reasons they’re dissatisfied is that they’re suspicious of everything—the government, physicians, you name it.

It reminds me of one of Sam Clemens’s famous wisecracks: “Always do right. This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest.” Just don’t expect people to be happy about it, I suppose.

I’m a bit surprised that cigarettes are still being made and sold in the U. S. at all. My mom was a chain smoker by the time she was 14. Eventually, it killed her and it affected my health as well. I had classmates who were two pack a day men by the time they were 12. That’s both unhealthy and expensive. I suspect many of them are dead by now.

I guess it’s because there are so many different constituencies that insist on them. Not just the smokers and the tobacco companies but the tobacco growers, the people who work for them, and the people dependent on their trade.


You Can’t Go Home Again Leave Home Anymore

This column by Tunku Varadarajan in the Wall Street Journal corroborates many of the things I’ve been saying around here:

I’m an immigrant, happy and assimilated. I pay closer attention to America than I do to other parts of the world. This isn’t only because I live here. Settling in a country calls for integration that is meticulous, not just heartfelt. That doesn’t mean that I wall myself off from the world. Like many immigrants, I also pay near-obsessive attention to the land of my birth.

Previous immigrant generations needed to erase their old selves to become American. You were more American by being less Italian, or by letting the Greek or Serb in you dwindle. But America now demands less. I’ve never felt pressed to forget India, where I was born. Even if I’d wanted to, I wouldn’t be able, because of technology. An immigrant now can never let go of the country of his birth.

These days have been suffused with India. I’ve spent my waking hours reading and watching news, talking to people by telephone, taking in tweets and Facebook posts, all of which describe the enormity of India’s pandemic collapse. A decade ago, I spoke to Liberian immigrants who followed from afar that country’s battle with Ebola, and also to people from Haiti as they wrestled with the earthquake’s aftermath. They spoke to me of their impotence (at being unable to help), their guilt (being in America while relatives perished from precisely the sort of fate the immigrant moved here to avoid), and their gut-churning sense of distance from loved ones who’d been sickened or buried under rubble in Port-au-Prince.

I’m in close touch with my family. I speak daily to my mother, who is isolating at home in Delhi, and to my sister, who’s raising her Zoom-schooled sons in that city and doing her job as an elementary-school teacher. My brother works as an editor, putting out a publication whose reporters go out, masked and tireless, writing up the grim news they see. A part of that news was the death of his own wife’s father.

which to my mind supports the pressing need to limit immigration to people who want to integrate into American society in a way “that is meticulous” rather than just looking for a paycheck. More than ever before people are bringing their languages, customs, beliefs, and prejudices with them when they come to the U. S. Some of those will inevitably create problems we have never seen in this country. People need to be sincerely committed to leaving some of those things behind.


Power Density

I liked the graphic, part of this post at Bloomberg by Dave Merrill, enough that I thought I’d pass it along. Here’s the paragraph right after the graphic:

To be clear, Biden’s plan doesn’t need to entirely rest on wind and solar. Nuclear energy, which requires far less space, is also emission free. Same for hydroelectric power. Plus, wind farms can be installed at sea. Solar panels work wonderfully on rooftops. And plenty of companies are placing bets that fossil-fuel plants can be retrofitted to burn hydrogen or equipped with systems to capture their carbon dioxide emissions.

That’s a widespread misconception. Hydroelectric power can, indeed, produce carbon emissions:

Here we show how carbon intensities of proposed Amazon upland dams (median = 39 kg CO2eq MWh−1, 100-year horizon) are often comparable with solar and wind energy, whereas some lowland dams (median = 133 kg CO2eq MWh−1) may exceed carbon intensities of fossil-fuel power plants.

The standpools behind dams produce lots of methane. In addition the baseline power generation for solar and wind power is generally coal or natural gas which should be taken into account when doing your calculations.

As me auld mither used to say they aren’t making land any more. I would add that using prime farmland for wind or solar power generation is a crime.


Too Late Smart

If this observation by Daniel Davis at 1945 sounds familiar to you:

The terrorist’s death “marks the most significant achievement to date” in America’s quest to defeat al-Qaeda, Obama said. But a decade later, and almost 20 years since the 9/11 attacks, it is now clear that the killing had little more than symbolic meaning – and illustrates the importance of setting realistic objectives in the establishment of foreign policy.

President George W. Bush had tried for over seven years to hunt down and kill or capture the terror leader. When Obama finally succeeded, Bush congratulated him and said Bin Laden’s killing was a “momentous” accomplishment that marked “a victory for America.”

And yet, it marked nothing of the kind.

On the contrary, it had virtually no impact on either our strategic fight against al-Qaeda or on the tactical battles we were waging against violent extremists in numerous countries around the globe.

it might be because it’s what I was saying 10 years ago. I seem to recall that I was accused of racism for making the observation which is odd considering that I would have said the same thing had John McCain been president. I saw the observation as more like putting the black deuce on the red trey.

He expands on the statement:

In 2006 the Chairman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued the National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terrorism. The document detailed several objectives in its mission to win the GWOT. Key among these were:

  • a requirement to attack to disrupt terrorist networks “so as to cause the enemies to be incapable or unwilling to attack the U.S.,”
  • deny terrorist networks the possession or use of weapons of mass destruction,
  • establish conditions “that allow partner nations to govern their territory effectively,” and to
  • c

  • ontribute to the establishment of a global environment “inhospitable to violent extre3mists and all who support them.”

The problem with them all: the tasks were so vague as to be effectively impossible to define, much less accomplish. The list represented a set of policy aspirations and not a list of militarily achievable objectives.

I would go even farther. I think you weaken your own deterrence when you don’t have the mandate or the will to prevail militarily. Better by far not to use force at all.

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