Cuba Libre

No matter the noble intentions of the Cuban revolution, Cuba has been a repressive oligarchy for more than half a century. And no matter the dubious motives behind the US desire for regime change in Cuba, everyone, everywhere should like to see Cubans gain political freedom. And so the question fairly asked is: what should the US be doing to facilitate regime change in Cuba?

The transition from despotism to liberty and democracy has occurred so many times in human history that the formula should by now be common knowledge. Countries as diverse as England, France, the US, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan have all gone through roughly the same process to get from their illiberal, undemocratic beginnings to the modern states they have since become.

Once liberal policies toward private property and contracts emerge, along with institutions to enforce and maintain them, a country’s economic development accelerates – and within a few generations an ever-greater fraction of the population will rise out of poverty. And as people grow wealthier, they invariably seek a political voice commensurate with their economic power. This storyline was as readily observed in 18th century America as it was in 20th century Singapore.

The lesson learned is that despots can be traded into oblivion. This already is the tacit US policy toward China – that as Chinese industrialists grow more powerful, the oligarchic Communist Party will eventually be unable to contain them. Incidentally, US policy toward China is utterly irreconcilable with its policy toward Cuba. In the days of the Cold War, of course, it could have been argued that enriching a Soviet ally ninety miles off the coast of Florida was dangerous business. However since the demise of the USSR twenty-five years ago, Cuba no longer poses a security threat to the US. According to the same logic that has made China America’s largest trading partner, trade with Cuba today would pose a real threat to the Castro regime, and would be a boon to the cause of Cuban liberty.

No other approach works. Democracy and liberalism imposed from without – as in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan – collapse for lack of the necessary foundation. Isolation – as in the case of North Korea – leaves the regime in control of the economy, reinforcing their power. Trading despots into extinction takes time, but it works, yielding stable, liberal democracies.

Of course despots in Cuba and China have their own motives. In China, an increasingly affluent population is kept docile by rising incomes (and fanatical media censorship!). Cuba’s government would probably also be willing to give up some control over the economy in exchange for economic growth. And once living conditions start improving, and expectations change, despots find themselves locked onto a course that will all but surely drive them from power.

Unfortunately, US policy toward Cuba is driven by a vocal minority, which itself has been unable or unwilling to learn the most obvious lessons from history – including, above all, the extraordinary failure of those policies to alter the status quo in Cuba after more than fifty years. An about-face is long overdue. The Obama administration’s tentative first steps toward building diplomatic and economic ties between the US and Cuba are a step in the right direction.

 

Editor’s note: It’s spring break in LFG-land – we’ll be back with new material in two weeks. Until then, peruse our archives, share your favorites with friends, leave a few smarmy comments – we read them all, and, if inspired, we may even shoot a little back at ya.

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Case Closed in Ferguson

In the end, US Attorney General Eric Holder had to pass on Ferguson. Because of the way the law is written, it’s almost impossible to convict a cop who can reasonably assert that he feared for his safety. And so long as a victim isnt cuffed, a cop who claims he was afraid is going to get off.

However the public should be aware of the strength of the case against former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. While the Field Guide does not have access to the Department of Justice’s records for the investigation, we were able to find the informal testimony of 9 witnesses, one of whom says one thing, and the other 8 say something else. The odd man out, of course, is Wilson himself.

According to Dorian Johnson, Wilson exited the vehicle, and fired several rounds at the fleeing Brown, hitting him once in the back. Brown turned around with his hands raised and said, “I dont have a gun. Stop shooting!” Wilson then shot Brown several more times, killing him.

According to Michael Brady, Brown was “balled up” with his arms under his stomach and he was “halfway down” to the ground. As he was falling, Brown took one or two steps toward Wilson – presumably because he was hit and stumbling forward. Wilson then shot him three or four times.

Piaget Crenshaw said that Wilson chased Brown for about 20 feet before shooting him again. “I saw the police chase him down the street and shoot him down. When Brown then raised his arms, the officer shot him two more times, killing him.”

Tiffany Mitchell said that after the first shot was fired, Brown started to run away. “After the shot, the kid just breaks away. The cop follows him, kept shooting, the kid’s body jerked as if he was hit. After his body jerked he turns around, puts his hands up, and the cop continues to walk up on him and continues to shoot until he goes all the way down.”

James McKnight said that Brown held his hands in the air just after he turned to face Wilson. He stumbled toward the officer, but didnt rush him, and “the officer was about six or seven feet away” from Brown.

Phillip Walker said he saw Brown walking “at a steady pace” toward Wilson with his hands up and that he “did not rush the officer”, adding that Wilson’s final shot was from a distance of about four feet.

Emanuel Freeman stated that Wilson fired twice at Brown while he was running away, and five more times after he turned around to face Wilson.

A construction worker, whose reaction to the shooting was a youtube sensation, said that Brown began walking toward the officer with his hands up, at which point Wilson began firing at Brown and backing away. After the third shot, Brown’s hands started going down, and he moved about 25 feet toward Wilson, who kept backing away and firing. The worker was unable to discern if Brown’s movement toward the officer was “a stumble to the ground” or “okay, I’m going to get you, you’re already shooting me.” The worker disputed the claim that Brown rushed at the officer, “I dont know if he was going after him or if he was falling down to die. It wasnt a bull rush.”

There’s also a medical examiner’s report. While the ME says that her report is consistent with the scenario that Brown reached for Wilson’s gun, she added, “I’m not saying that Brown going for the gun is the only explanation.” In other words, her report is consistent with Wilson’s testimony, but also with that of the 8 witnesses above.

In the end, forensics could not resolve three key issues: (1) the range from which the head shots were fired, (2) whether Brown was approaching fast or slow, or (3) whether Brown had his hands up and extended from his body. Those issues can only be resolved by witness testimony – and not one witness, except Wilson, says that Brown was rushing. Not one says Brown was as close as Wilson claimed when he took the final shots. All say Brown was either approaching slowly, or stumbling. Most say his hands were out. Not one says that Brown reached for the gun.

The law is what it is, and we cannot complain if good laws sometimes produce undesirable results – all laws are imperfect in this way. But while the law has spoken, and the case is closed on Ferguson, let it not be suggested that justice has been done.

 

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How Liberals Saved the US – and Conservatives Killed Europe

The US frequently goes through regional recessions. One part of the country slumps because of the failure of some industry, or the fluctuation of commodity prices, or natural disaster. But since social insurance is largely federal – medicare, SNAP, TANF, social security – they continue despite the weak local economy, as do big-ticket federal spending items: highways, agriculture, student loans, etc. All told, these programs combine to guarantee a minimum of income to recession-hit areas, smoothing out some of the bumps along the road that every economy suffers from time to time.

Local economies in Las Vegas, Miami and Phoenix were ground zero for the worst financial crisis in 75 years – but they had a safety net to ensure that their recession had a bottom. Six years later, they are growing again, fast as ever. The US economy as a whole added more jobs in 2014 than in any year since 1999. The cost was significant – the US ran trillion-dollar deficits for several consecutive years, with President Obama and Treasury Secretary Geithner resisting pressure to reduce deficit spending too much too soon in the face of the worst economy since World War II.

The European Union operates very differently. While the currency is federalized – controlled by a single central bank, the ECB – social programs and government spending are almost entirely dependent on the finances of individual countries.

Ground zero for the financial crisis in the European Union was Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland. On the eve of the crisis, they were all up-and-coming economies, seeing fantastic year-over-year growth. That kind of growth lures investors – and banks made progressively riskier loans in the hope of cashing in on the boom. You could tell the same story about Vegas, South Florida and Arizona through 2007.

But when the recession hit, the European Union had a very different plan for its hardest-hit countries. Instead of increasing government spending, and allowing them to run deficits – as every liberal economist urged – the ECB called for the exact opposite. With many countries unable to raise the cash to meet their obligations to creditors, the ECB would only underwrite further lending if those countries practiced “austerity.” To avoid default, they were forced to cut government spending dramatically – at a time when people and businesses had no money to spend either. Government programs of every stripe were cut back or eliminated.

At the time, conservative economists theorized that countries who drastically cut government spending would find the bottom of their recession more rapidly, and would bounce back that much faster. For the US they predicted “debasement of the dollar,” “hyper-inflation” and a prolonged slump.

Liberals at the time warned that austerity would send weak European economies into full-fledged depressions, and be a drag on growth across the EU. They projected that deficit-spending would save the US from a much deeper recession, and while the US would come out on the other side with more debt, it would also have many more jobs. Liberal economists dismissed the threat of inflation entirely, warning instead of the threat of deflation in Europe.

Years later, liberals theories have been borne out, resoundingly. The US rebounded faster and stronger than Europe, and inflation remained near historic lows all along. In Europe, conservative policies have proved to be an abject failure – as liberals also foresaw. Time will tell whether the Euro itself will survive years of conservative mismanagement.

 

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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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