Louisiana Conspiracy

The cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner are about extreme abuses of power, not just in the unnecessary use of deadly force by the police, but in prosecutors sealing the miscarriage of justice by failing to obtain indictments afterward, despite an abundance of damning evidence.

In Louisiana, an even more outrageous case has failed to get the attention it deserves. However it seems that justice has a good chance to prevail.

In front of the local courthouse, Douglas Dendinger served a subpoena on Chad Cassard, a one-time Louisiana police officer. Shortly after arriving home, Dendinger’s house was surrounded by police, and he was hauled away on felony charges for assaulting and intimidating Cassard. The charges were backed up by seven eyewitnesses, all policemen and attorneys, including a police chief and two local prosecutors, all of whom asserting in sworn statements that Dendinger violently struck Cassard as he served the subpoena.

A year passed, and District Attorney Walter Reed was set on pressing ahead with the case against Dendinger – when Dendinger produced a video of the entire transaction between him and Cassard. It was taken by his wife and nephew from a car, to document service of process for a civil suit his nephew was pursuing against Cassard for police brutality. The video shows Dendinger harmlessly handing something to Cassard and departing. The video leaves no room for the imagination. The accusations against Dendinger are, quite obviously, utter fabrications.

But when presented with this video evidence, Reed refused to drop the case. Dendinger’s attorney got the state Attorney General involved, and forced Reed to recuse his office from the prosecution. The Louisiana AG summarily dismissed all charges. New federal civil rights charges are now pending against Reed and several of Dendinger’s false witnesses, who may face felony prosecution as well.

The recitation of this story isnt meant to impugn police and prosecutors generally, but to observe that they are ordinary people, some better and some worse, and that their testimony is not necessarily worth more than anyone else’s. In the case of Michael Brown, there were a total of ten witnesses, nine of whom asserted that Brown did not charge Officer Wilson or reach for his weapon. The tenth witness, Wilson himself, told a different story to justify his shooting of Brown several times, including twice in the head.

Civil society requires a dependable police force – but the police have as much potential for bad as they have for good. Our takeaway is to remain ever vigilant about keeping the power of police and prosecutors in check – and to give equal weight to the testimony of our fellow civilian citizens.

 

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The Grand Old Hostage Party

The nation’s creditworthiness isnt a partisan issue. No one – save perhaps a few tea party crackpots – wants to see the US default on its statutory obligations to its creditors, most of whom are American citizens and corporations. But in 2011, and again in 2013, that didnt prevent the GOP from threatening to force a default if its demands werent met.

These were particularly bizarre episodes in American politics. The two major parties agree on many fundamental matters of governance, covering the vast majority of public spending: education, social security, defense, medicare, highways, agriculture, etc. Debate primarily occurs on smaller spending issues. And resolution usually involves compromise, where each party gets some of its desires met and concedes some to the other party.

The debt-ceiling crises of the recent past were different. Instead of the usual “give us this in exchange for that”, the GOP tried “give us this or else.” Specifically, the GOP threatened to force the US to default if its demands werent met. To be clear: default is not a GOP policy goal. It’s simply a threat to do gratuitous harm to the country. In fact, there’s nothing preventing Democrats from using exactly the same tactic: e.g., give us a public option for health insurance, or we’ll make the US default; raise taxes on investors, or we’ll refuse to fund the Pentagon. Easy-peazy.

Even though the debt-ceiling crises were resolved before the US defaulted, the GOP ploy imposed real harm on the US, which saw its creditworthiness downgraded for the first time in history. Estimates of the costs to the country as a consequence run into the billions.

Analogies to hostage-taking are apt. Hostage takers commonly have no desire to harm their hostages. Rather, they use the credible threat of harm to extort what they can from the people who do care. This leads us to the most remarkable insight to come out of the debt ceiling crises: The GOP would only use such tactics because they believe Democrats care more about the nation’s well-being than they do. Try imagining a disagreement between two parents, in which one parent threatens to drown a child in the bathtub if they dont get their way. It’s the same tactic in a different setting, and, again, it only makes sense if the parent making the threat believes the other parent to be more concerned about the child.

Today the GOP is trying the same ploy with a new hostage – threatening to shut down the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) unless their demands are met. Again, shutting down DHS is not a policy goal – it’s simply a threat to do gratuitous harm to the country. A shutdown would compromise the safety and security of ordinary Americans, impairing the Department’s ability to control the borders and prevent domestic terrorism. And of course any would-be terrorist can time their plans to exploit the situation.

The GOP’s venality cannot be overstated. Keeping in mind that Democrats are entirely able to use the same strategy – meet our demands, or else – the reason why one party has done it 3 times in 4 years, while the other party hasnt tried once, shows that the GOP itself believes Democrats to be more committed to the nation’s well-being than are they. Many of us have long suspected that conservatives had greater fealty to their empty, half-understood ideals than to the country those ideals were meant to serve. But now we know conservatives think so too.

 

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Invading Iran

It’s rarely appreciated that the Soviets were ideal Cold War dance partners. While mutual-assured-destruction isnt the ideal calculus to preserve western civilization, there is an advantage to playing any game with a nation whose national sport is chess. The Soviets could be trusted to (1) understand the game, (2) recognize their own self-interest, and (3) act accordingly. The onset of the Cuban Missile Crisis showed that the Soviets were playing to win – but its resolution demonstrated that were also keen on not losing.

It’s the West’s dealings with Iran that make us wax nostalgic about our last big adversary. To be clear, Iran, nuclear or otherwise, doesnt pose an existential threat to life on earth, as did a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. The big problem with Iran is that its leadership may be looking to the next world for its champagne and caviar (and-or virgins), and so they may not respond predictably to the threat of their own annihilation. When the US merely cuts off North Korea’s rulers from its supply of western goodies (e.g.), they get upset. People who arent expecting an afterlife take it badly when the present life doesnt meet expectations. Godless communists, with all their eggs in the material world, respond predictably to rewards and punishments in the here-and-now.

It isnt that Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon is unreasonable. On the contrary, such a weapon would confer a huge security benefit on Iran. Bush Duh, with unrivaled incompetence, made this exquisitely clear by invading the one country in his infamous “axis of evil” that did not have a nuclear weapons program! Iran took the obvious lesson: even if you abandon your WMD programs and open yourself up to UN weapons inspectors, the US may invade anyway. Having witnessed the respective cases of North Korea and Iraq, Iranian leadership no doubt appreciates that nuclear weapons are a far better guarantee against US aggression.

If the world could be certain that Iran would use nuclear weapons for defensive purposes only, there would be no reason to consider military action to forcibly end its nuclear program. The problem is that the objectives of Iran’s ruling mullahs arent at all clear. This is especially troublesome for Israel because it could be wiped out with a single bomb – and perhaps some in Teheran are crazy enough to think that their imaginary friend (AKA Allah) would generously reward such an act, even if they were annihilated themselves shortly thereafter. Simply put, Iran’s leaders cannot be trusted to recognize and act in their own material self-interest, and may use nuclear weapons even if doing so would result in their own destruction.

Israel’s military is to some extent a US proxy force, and as such it is worth protecting. However a US decision to take military action against Iran neednt concern Israel, because the US has many other assets within striking range of an Iranian nuclear weapon, from infantry and hardware to ships. Saudi oilfields could also be targeted. An Iranian nuclear weapon would have many potential regional targets whose destruction could alter world geopolitics, economics, and the military balance for decades. The US simply cannot allow that threat to materialize. Iran’s nuclear program will soon, hopefully, be ended via diplomacy. But it is the opinion of The Liberal Field Guide that it must in any event be ended, by any means necessary.

To be perfectly clear: air power alone will not do the job. Only a full-scale invasion will guarantee success of a mission whose purpose would be to (1) destroy Iran’s military apparatus and WMD programs, (2) overthrow its government and (3) hunt down and kill or capture its leadership. Iran, far more populous and mountainous than Iraq, cannot be occupied for any duration. Once all objectives are fulfilled, a complete withdrawal of all forces would follow immediately.

This would be a truly awful course of action, which is why we hope that a deal will be reached. Its government deposed and its military destroyed, Iran is likely to splinter along ethnic lines into several states, with the lives of tens of millions of people ruined in the war, and the chaos that would follow for a generation. But as bad as that scenario may be, a nuclear Iran could engender far worse. A nuclear exchange would kill many more people than a conventional war, and destabilize the entire world.

Founded as it is upon rationality, liberals are quick to realize that war is an ugly and inefficient means to achieve one’s ends; and thus the occasions when war should be advocated for are exceedingly rare. But liberalism is not pacifism – and events in Iran are fast approaching the point where war becomes the least undesirable of several unattractive options.

 

Euro on the Brink

The European Union is a sweet deal for Germany – and the Euro makes that deal even sweeter. Germany isnt like most rich western countries. Proportionately, it has a double-size manufacturing sector. German exports are double that of the UK, triple that of France, and equal to the US, though Germany is only one-quarter its size. And while Germany runs a huge trade surplus, it’s still by far the EU’s biggest importer too.

More than any other nation, Germany depends on the EU’s open borders. And the common currency is a great facilitator of trade, lowering transaction costs and eliminating exchange-rate risks for Eurozone transactions. Given that Germany has the most to gain from a common currency – and the most to lose from its collapse – you’d think Germans would be very careful about keeping their Eurozone partners happy. Think again.

Up until 2008, countries like Greece, Portugal and Spain benefited greatly from the common-currency zone too. The Euro made it easier for foreign banks to extend credit, and as Euros poured in, real estate boomed, building skyrocketed, incomes rose, and tax revenues soared. Spain ran a budget surplus in 2007. But when the music stopped, fannies far outstripped seats. The financial crisis rendered many banks insolvent, so they stopped lending. Given the small size of those countries relative to the enormity of capital flows, their economies crashed. Things were tough all over – but small, developing countries like Greece got it worse.

From the wreckage, two schools of economic policy emerged. One is typified by Ben Bernanke, a scholar of the Great Depression. He, along with Tim Geithner, and ultimately Barack Obama, believed that the government needed to maintain pre-crash spending levels, even if deficits soared. Since consumers were broke and investors were freaked out, the government was the last man standing – to keep the economy going, they reasoned, the government would have to step up as the spender of last resort. Conservatives at the time heavily criticized Bernanke, Geithner and Obama for super-low interest rates, quantitative easing and generous deficit spending, predicting the devaluation of the dollar, increasing unemployment and hyper-inflation.

The other school was made up of fiscal and monetary conservatives, like Angela Merkel. Fearing inflation, they preferred to reduce deficits by slashing government spending, in the hope that the economy would bottom out, and business would pick up again once the recession ran its course. Interest rates were held steady to reduce the risk of inflation and to safeguard the currency. Liberals at the time criticized Merkel and the European Central Bank (ECB) for these policies, predicting that recessions would deepen into depressions, inflation would turn into deflation, and economies would founder for lack of demand.

Countries like Greece werent even free to choose their own course – the realities of the Eurozone meant that Greece had to accept the dictates of the ECB, which is and has been dominated by conservative economists.

Who was right? Six years and seven trillion dollars of debt later, US employment markets are approaching pre-crash levels, budget deficits have shrunk to sustainability, the dollar is at its strongest in years, inflation is at its lowest in a half-century, and the US economy is growing at its fastest pace since before Bush Duh. Meanwhile in Europe austerity has returned the Continent to recession. Unemployment is high, deflation hovers as a constant threat, and the countries that got hid hardest slid into full-fledged depression, with unemployment exceeding 25%, while the Euro has depreciated to its lowest levels in a decade.

It took Greeks seven years of misery to elect a government that shares their disgust with the status quo, and the failed German approach to the crisis. If only Greece had credibly threatened to leave the Eurozone seven years ago, a lot of suffering might have been avoided – Germany might have been coerced to do what was in its own best interest to do: zero out interest rates, and pour money into struggling states to keep their governments spending and their economies afloat – i.e., do what the US did under Obama, Bernanke and Geithner.

Today, it’s less clear what will happen if Greece exits the common currency – the Euro may in fact survive. And that, unfortunately, has emboldened Germany into playing chicken with Greece’s new government, which seems intent either to end current fiscal policies or to resurrect the drachma and go their own way. Germany’s handling of the Great Recession could hardly have been worse – but Germans themselves still have a lot to lose. The demise of the Euro would be a painful blow to Germany and a weak Continental economy.

Conservatives in the past have demonstrated a fearsome inability to learn from experience. Let’s hope, for Europe’s sake, that the dramatic triumph of liberal economic policies will not be lost on European policymakers – and that they will seize on the US example to plot a better course going forward.

 

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My Vaccine is Your Vaccine

Teaching children medieval superstitions in place of evolution is bad. Failing to grasp the facts and theories of climate change, and thus electing politicians who pander to and-or share such ignorance is worse. But scientific illiteracy among our fellow citizens can be lethal. Opting children out of vaccinations endangers those children directly, as well as many millions who have no choice but to depend on herd immunity for protection because they are unable to get vaccinated themselves.

There are plenty of decisions people make every day that endanger their own health. You can smoke, drink to excess, skip your meds, drive without a seatbelt, skydive or scubadive – it’s a free country, and you’re not hurting anyone but yourself. But your vaccine is my vaccine, and vice-versa. And the aggregate effect of many people failing to get vaccinated is many other people getting sick.

People with weakened immune systems cannot get vaccinated, and depend on the rest of us to act as a firewall, so when a case crops up, it doesnt spread beyond the afflicted individual. The four million children born each year in the US are among the most at risk, because they cannot be vaccinated until their 1st birthday. And no vaccine is 100% effective – even for healthy people, other peoples’ vaccines are an important part of one’s own individual health.

People didnt evolve in the urban environment most of us find ourselves living in today. When our species lived in bands of 20 to 50 individuals, there was no place for an infectious disease to hide. You werent gonna catch the measles from squirrels – if the people around you were healthy, you were pretty safe.

Things are different now. We live in massive networks of millions of people interacting directly and indirectly, amidst a world of billions tied together via modern transport. Unless a disease is globally eradicated (like smallpox), it can pop up tomorrow in a neighborhood near you. Putting aside the fact that life expectancy was about 30 in our evolutionary environment, relying on our own unaided immune systems just doesnt work.

So-called childhood diseases continued to sicken and kill many people in the West deep into the 20th century. The difference today is vaccinations. It is the only thing between us and measles killing a thousand or so children in the US alone each year. (Measles kills about 1 or 2 people per 1000 cases.)

Measles is among the most contagious diseases ever identified. But measles has one serious weakness: it cannot survive outside a human host, and needs a constant source of fresh carriers. Nasty though it may be, it can be nullified, if not eliminated, through mass vaccination.

There’s a catch. Because it’s so contagious, you have to vaccinate a huge fraction of a community to obtain “herd immunity” – the point beyond which a disease will vanish after an individual infection, instead of spreading. Measles require a vaccination rate of about 90%.

Because measles remains quite common in the developed world, it’s almost impossible to eliminate it completely in the West. (Vaccination efforts continue worldwide.) Over the past 15 years, the US saw only 60 or so cases in a typical year. In 2014 there were 600.

The reason behind the spike is simple. Many Americans are ignorant to the science behind vaccinations, and so they’re opting their children out of shots at an increasing rate. The problem isnt specific to measles, or to the US. (The UK and Japan have also had outbreaks.) But measles, which is given to outbreaks because of its extreme contagiousness, should be taken as a warning of what’s to come unless these trends are reversed.

The reason people continue making bad decisions is that they do not bear the full cost of the consequences. For that to change, from an economic standpoint, the cost of failing to get a child immunized should be monetized, and parents should be required to submit proof of vaccination when they file their taxes, or pay a penalty approximating the expected value of their decision. A pair of studies found the average cost of a measles case to be about $1,000 – including cases involving hospitalizations, whose average cost is $10,000. Those studies are 20 years old – the cost of healthcare has since more than doubled, and that’s on top of ordinary inflation. When you factor in that a single measles case in an unvaccinated population causes between 12 and 18 additional cases, you’re talking big money.

Using these crude figures, it seems that $5,000 to $25,000 would be a fair price to pay for failing to get a child vaccinated. Hey, it’s a free country, so the police arent gonna drag kids out of homes and stick needles in their arms. But it is reasonable to ask people to take personal responsibility for their decisions, and pay their own way. That’s what conservatism is all about – or so they tell us….

 

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The Case for Making College Free

One hundred years ago, the US was in the early stages of its push to make high school universal and free. This policy was heavily criticized in Europe, where it was believed that high school was wasted on many – particularly on girls – and that most children should simply enter the workforce after 8th grade. The US did not relent, and high school graduation rates shot up from 5% in 1905 to reach 50% by 1940.

The experiment was a grand success. Economic historians attribute the superior expansion of the US economy in the 20th century to “the High School Movement,” which endowed the country with a far more educated labor force, allowing workers to learn new skills more easily, and thus move more readily between fields, as the US rapidly evolved into a complex, modern economy.

It took them awhile, but the rest of the world figured this out, and free, universal high school has become a commonplace. However many countries did not stop there, and now offer a free college education to qualifying students as well.

Following WW2, with the GI Bill, the US also started graduating many more young adults from college than any country in the world. But that competitive edge is rapidly disappearing. While the US is still at or near the top in college grads, a closer look at the data affords us a glance into the future. Among the older generation – men aged 55-65 – the US still has a far greater proportion of college grads than any country in the world. However among young people, particularly aged 25-35, the US has fallen behind many countries, and the trend lines are steep enough that the US may fall to the middle of the pack within a few decades.

The science of economics has improved much over the past 100 years. While the High School Movement required a giant leap of faith, economists today dont have to speculate on the value of a college education. It can be calculated by comparing the difference in wages between people with a college degree and people without one, controlling for as much as one can. The resulting value is the college wage premium. That premium is now higher in the US than in any developed country in the world, and the highest it’s been since the 1920s.

That enormous college wage premium is the voice of the labor market, shouting that it is so starved of highly-educated workers, that it is bidding their wages up to higher and higher levels. The message could not be any clearer: the US economy needs more college grads, needs them now, and will pay top dollar for them.

An excellent question to ask is why people arent responding to this signal and staying in school longer. The short answer is that education is one of those sectors that doesnt function very well within the free market system. That’s why governments, for centuries, have been in the education business. Public provision of pre-K and K-12 proceeds from the same logic as West Point and UCLA.

One can only wonder at how posterity will judge the US, which today has no federal public university system beyond its twenty-odd military schools. By comparison, many European countries have nationally-run and -funded public university systems. And so the Liberal Field Guide goes beyond President Obama’s call for free community colleges. The US Government should itself establish a system of Federal Universities, with a presence in all fifty states, and all major urban areas, and should offer a free four-year degree to any student meeting its admission standards.

 

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The Real Global Warming Issues

Global warming is for real. Even the most skeptical climatologists subscribe to the basic notion that man has pumped so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that the planet has and will continue to warm.  However they do not agree on how much the planet will warm as a function of atmospheric CO2 – and the range of values is as large as the chasm between best and worst case scenarios.

Some models assume the climate to be very sensitive to CO2 levels, while others assume much less sensitivity. A simple value that’s commonly used to compare sensitivities among models is the amount of warming that ensues from a doubling of atmospheric CO2. (Mankind has thus far jacked atmospheric CO2 by more than 40% over pre-industrial levels, to its highest concentration in several million years, since before our species existed. Doubling is expected to occur during the 2050s.)

At the low end are models predicting that doubling atmospheric CO2 will yield an increase in average planetary surface temperature of 1 to 1.5 C degrees. That kind of warming would be inconvenient, not disastrous – assuming, of course, that mankind succeeds only in doubling CO2, not trebling it, which is quite possible given current emissions. At the other end of the spectrum are climate models predicting a 6 to 7 C degree increase for the same doubling. This isnt merely a death sentence – it means we’re dead already: the CO2 we’ve already released will inexorably wreck our civilization-friendly biosphere no matter what we do.

How does one pick and choose among these different climate models? A clever answer to that question may win you a Nobel. While many models converge on a sensitivity of about 3 C degrees, it’s not at all clear that the true value should be near the mean or median. But lacking a better criterion for judgement (only climatologists can judge individual models on their merits), we would suggest that a sensitivity of 3 C degrees is a reasonable basis for making public policy prescriptions – leaving open the real chance that the actual value may be much higher or lower. That level of sensitivity should motivate us to act on global warming without delay. An increase in mean surface temperatures of just 2 C degrees may prove disastrous. A 3 degree increase will end life as we know it.

The catch is that cutting CO2 is not costless. Cheap energy has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in India and China, and stands to lift hundreds of millions more. The developed West has much less at stake in terms of human misery, and their economies are far less energy intensive. Thus it’s reasonable that the developed and developing worlds should approach global warming differently. Aggressively cutting back emissions is far more attractive to western countries on a simple cost-benefit analysis. The developing world, by comparison, can reasonably tolerate higher emissions in pursuit of faster growth.

This leads us to another strategy to approach global warming: do nothing, except grow the world economy with cheap energy, and hope that future generations, with their higher incomes and superior technology, will be better able to manage the mess we leave them. Consider how primitive technology from the year 1915 looks to us today. Given that the pace of innovation is increasing, 2015 will look even more primitive to the people of 2115. Problems that are incurable to us may not be so daunting to them. It may be that the best gift we can make to future generations is greater wealth, technology and productivity – not lower CO2 levels.

Of course wealth and climate change are not independent – a rapidly changing climate will impoverish future generations, as they are forced to divert resources to deal with crop failures and rising seas. Likewise, cutting emissions too aggressively will undermine economic growth, leaving millions in poverty, and robbing future generations of the means to cope with whatever problems they face.

Modeling climate is a tricky business. Guessing at what generations 50 and 100 years hence might be capable of is even harder. While global warming is a real problem, the best approach is not at all clear. We have options, and must pay careful attention as new facts arrive, to plot our best course for the future.

 

Editor’s note: Reluctantly, effective next week, the Field Guide is cutting back to one post weekly, to make time for other projects. Sincere thanks to the LFG faithful – we hope to return to twice or thrice weekly by the end of the year.

 

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Refs:

Views on climate sensitivity:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climate_sensitivity

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPCC_Fifth_Assessment_Report#Climate_change_2013:_report_overview

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ipcc-revises-climate-sensitivity/

http://www.skepticalscience.com/climate-sensitivity-advanced.htm

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/14/science/what-will-a-doubling-of-carbon-dioxide-mean-for-climate.html?_r=0

http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/what-catastrophe_773268.html?page=3

How hot is too hot:

http://www.newrepublic.com/article/119757/two-degrees-climate-change-no-longer-possible

http://www.livescience.com/17340-agu-climate-sensitivity-nasa-hansen.html

What a future cure may look like:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_dioxide_removal

http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/531346/can-sucking-co2-out-of-the-atmosphere-really-work/

or not:

http://www.technologyreview.com/view/516166/what-carbon-capture-cant-do/