Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Nobel prize for an ignoble deal?

by Jeff Jacoby

MOMENTS AFTER it was announced that the United States and its allies had reached a nuclear deal with Iran, the drums began beating for a Nobel Peace Prize. Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, tweeted happily: "I think the work of the Nobel Committee ... this year just got much easier." On Wednesday, a director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, an influential think tank with ties to the Nobel organization, recommended that the 2016 prize be awarded to Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

The Vienna deal is a capitulation to one of the worst regimes on Earth. Far from requiring the Iranians to dismantle their illicit nuclear program, the accord leaves almost all of it intact. In exchange for little more than a promise to delay its development of nuclear warheads, Tehran is rewarded with $150 billion in sanctions relief and, within a few years, the lifting of the UN embargo on conventional weapons and missile sales. The Islamic Republic is the world's foremost state sponsor of terrorism, yet nothing in the agreement requires any change in its notorious behavior. And despite the regime's long record of treaty violations and deceit, the deal enables it to stall for almost a month before complying with a demand for access by inspectors — hardly the "anytime, anywhere, 24/7" inspections that the Obama administration had claimed it would insist on.

The White House wanted to sign a deal; Iran's rulers wanted to ensure their path to the bomb and nuclear legitimacy. Both got what they wanted. The consequences will be a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, more Iranian terrorism and subversion, and a greater likelihood of war.

A Nobel peace prize — for that?

It wouldn't be the first time.

The Obama/Kerry willingness to concede anything for a nuclear deal with Iran has been likened to Neville Chamberlain's infamous Munich agreement with Adolf Hitler in 1938. Then too shameless capitulation was hailed as a triumph of peacemaking and diplomacy. Chamberlain was cheered as a hero in the press and on the street, and he won a resounding vote of confidence in Parliament. He was widely nominated for the Nobel peace prize, including by a dozen members of the Swedish parliament. Who knows — he might have received it, had Hitler waited just a little longer before invading Czechoslovakia.

All too often the Nobel Committee has seen fit to bestow its prestigious honor on men who negotiated "peace" accords that ended up undermining peace. In 1973, the prize was awarded to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and North Vietnam's Le Duc Tho, lead negotiators of the Paris Peace Accords that purported to end the Vietnam War. In reality the Accords paved the way for US withdrawal, effectively abandoning South Vietnam to defeat and brutal occupation by the communist North.

The Locarno treaties of 1925, now largely forgotten, settled Germany's borders with Western Europe, and were extravagantly portrayed as guaranteeing that Germany would never again violate the peace. "France and Germany Ban War Forever," cheered The New York Times, and the Nobel Committee, intoxicated with the "spirit of Locarno," awarded peace prizes to the French, British, and German foreign ministers who negotiated the deal. Yet the treaties deliberately left Germany's eastern borders open to "revision." In essence, one Polish leader remarked bitterly, "Germany was officially asked to attack the east, in return for peace in the west." The promised peace was a mere bubble. The war Locarno facilitated would prove all too bloodily real.

The Nobel Peace Prize for the Oslo Accords — presented in 1994 to Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres — was another blunder that looks even worse in retrospect. A peace prize for Arafat, an arch-terrorist and hatemonger who devoted his life to the destruction of peace? It was as contemptible a choice as the Nobel Committee has ever made. Of course, there's always next year.



The Health Benefits of a Soda Tax Are Far Less Than Claimed

By William Shughart II

Imposing a tax on sugary drinks is bad policy. It doesn’t solve the health problems it purports to address, creates new problems and leads to waste in the public sector. Just because the idea has gained traction among voters does not make it defensible.

First and foremost, taxing sugary drinks does not reduce purchases enough to matter. Numerous studies find that consumption is persistent, despite higher taxes. That means health benefits will be vanishingly small. Proponents point to a recent soda tax in Mexico that supposedly reduced consumption, but that study has not been peer-reviewed—the finding was announced in a news conference, supported only by PowerPoint slides.

Taxes too low?

One important reason taxes don’t cut consumption much is that the taxes are often set too low to affect behavior. Why not set them higher? That introduces other problems. Set taxes high enough, and underground markets will arise, as they have for cigarettes in New York City.

Black markets aren’t the only way that people skirt high taxes. When a product becomes more expensive in one area, they simply go across the border and buy it in a neighboring spot where it’s cheaper. That’s likely why some retailers in Berkeley, Calif., which recently implemented a new soft-drink tax, did not initially pass the tax on to customers, and thus paid it out of their own pockets, according to some early reports. They feared losing business to stores in nearby cities if they charge customers the full price.

There are other reasons to reject soda taxes. Evidence is mounting that drinking diet soft drinks may be as bad as—or even worse than—sugary drinks. The human body apparently reacts the same way to artificial sweeteners as it does to “real” sugars. The pancreas pumps out insulin, but zero-calorie artificial sweeteners do not produce the energy rush that curbs appetites and satisfies cravings for sweetness. Yet these drinks aren’t subject to taxes on sugary beverages.

Squandered cash

Beyond that, there’s the matter of how these taxes are used. Selective taxes on sugary drinks and other modern “sins” (junk food, fast food) are revenue engines for the public sector. But the evidence suggests very little of the revenue ends up actually improving health outcomes. And the burden of paying for these measures falls most heavily on low-income households; budget constraints narrow the range of food choices open to them.

What’s more, wasteful rent seeking by advocates and adversaries of a selective tax can swamp its social benefits, if any. Suppose that a proposed tax is expected to raise $1 million in revenue over the medium term. Producers and retailers of soft drinks will be willing to spend up to $1 million to block the tax from being enacted; groups supporting programs financed by the revenue also will spend money to pass the tax. So, if $1 million (or more) is invested in lobbying, that sum is transformed into a social cost, which must be added to the already-heavy burden that every tax creates.

The argument that taxing sugary drinks helps to promote healthy lifestyles deflects attention from their actual effects. We don’t normally expect politicians to be truthful. But if they want to impose these taxes, they should be honest enough to admit that they will not end obesity or diabetes, but rather will generate more of other peoples’ money for profligate state governments to spend.



The CSA and Symbols: Learning from History

Since a crazed, hate-filled and cowardly gunman killed nine black Christians in Charleston, South Carolina, the PC police have been in attack mode on anything associated with the Confederate States of America. The South Carolina General Assembly quickly voted to removed the Battle Flag from a Confederate Soldiers’ Memorial on the State House grounds. Now, critics want to destroy a massive carving on Stone Mountain outside of Atlanta featuring Confederate heroes Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Some are even demanding the rethinking of events associated with Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and others because they were slave owners.

Ben Hallman at the Huffington Post tells us how we are supposed to think: “The Confederacy was the most vile and harmful political invention in United States history. It was founded on the explicit principle that slavery is the ‘natural and normal condition’ of black people, and that they should be ruthlessly exploited to the benefit of their white masters.” Hallman and others see Confederacy as synonymous with slavery and racism, and tell us to despise all things Confederate. His is a very simplistic view of history.

Slavery was a horrible institution that most of us, thankfully, cannot begin understand. But if we are going to remove symbols and emblems associated with it, we better look at the Stars and Stripes before hunting down anything with the initials CSA. Slavery, of course, existed in the United States from colonial times until ratification of the 13th Amendment. Twelve presidents owned slaves at one time or another, including George Washington and U.S. Grant. Actually, slavery existed longer in the Union than the CSA, since the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to slaveholding states remaining loyal to the Union. For a good study on the war, causes, and effects, see Robert Higgs, “The Bloody Hinge of American History.” For anyone interested in the growth of the federal government under Lincoln and the Republicans, see Joseph R. Stromberg, “Civil War and the American Political Economy.” For a scholarly argument that war was not necessary to gain emancipation, see Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Emancipating the Slaves, Enslaving Free Men. A review of the book can be found here.

Of course, the Stars and Stripes has also presided over many horrific acts and policies dealing with removal of American Indians, imprisonment of Japanese Americans in WWII, and the torturing of prisoners at Gitmo. Such examples are abundant.

If we want to hold the USA and CSA to our modern standards and sensibilities, both will be found lacking. But in both the CSA and the USA we can find men and ideas worth studying and considering. Libertarians have long realized this. For example, Professor Randall Holcombe points to many provisions of the Confederate Constitution that limited government power and that would serve us well today. Robert E. Lee rightly remains internationally respected as a brilliant tactician, a gentleman, and man of honor. The Independent Institute has long championed William Lloyd Garrison, his demands for the abolition of slavery, and his contributions to liberty.

Bottom line: We need to pause before we banish all symbols of our past that don’t comport with modern thinking. Our history has rough edges and embarrassments we don’t want to repeat. But there’s plenty to learn from great men of the North and the South, the Blue and the Gray.



Government’s Burden on Young Americans

The Independent Institute’s Love Gov videos offer an amusing look at the raw deal government policies give to America’s youth. In the videos, sometimes government tempts young people into bad deals, such as student loans, and other times it offers them little choice but to take bad deals, as with health insurance. But the videos understate the magnitude of forced transfers from younger Americans to elders.

Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid make up 60% of the federal budget, and those programs are transfers from the taxpayers who fund them to recipients. Social Security and Medicare are only for older Americans, and a major share of Medicaid also goes to older Americans. Younger Americans pay the taxes; older Americans get the benefits.

Things are getting worse for young Americans. As Jonathan Gruber noted, it is because of “the stupidity of the American voter” that Obamacare charges artificially higher premiums to younger people so that older people can have lower premiums.

So sure, government tempts young people to take out excessive student loans, to take on home mortgages beyond their abilities to afford them, and do other irresponsible things, but government also forces even the most responsible American youth to sacrifice some of their own well-being to support older Americans.

Government does many things. One is: it systematically plunders American youth for the benefit of older Americans. Is this fair? Ironically, programs that support the old at the expense of the young are more politically popular among the young than the old.



Obama Acts to Head Off Crime Spree of ... the Elderly?

If there’s a singular purpose for Barack Obama and his cadres its limiting access to guns in as many ways as possible. The latest attempt is a push to prohibit Social Security recipients from owning firearms if they are judged mentally incompetent.

First let’s stipulate that nobody wants people who are mentally incompetent owning or using guns without at least some restrictions. But the question is the standard used. The Social Security Administration has never before participated in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, but, if the SSA begins using the same standards as the Department of Veterans Affairs, at least four million beneficiaries could see their gun rights eliminated by a bureaucrat.

We don’t want the government defining or deciding mental competence with standards that have nothing to do with crime. And especially not this administration. Indeed, given the Obama administration’s track record of disdain for American veterans — both through the bureaucratic shenanigans at the VA and in targeting veterans in DHS reports about extremism — it won’t be long before veterans are barred from owning firearms, or, conversely, their benefits are restricted if they’re gun owners.  Indeed, many veterans have already been judged “incompetent” when that’s clearly not the case. Now prohibitions could extend to the average Social Security recipient.

We’re forced to ask what problem Obama thinks he’s trying to solve. Our nation has not been under assault by senior citizens or veterans. It has been under attack from Islamic jihadists, and that’s the one thing Obama seems most reticent to address.



For more blog postings from me, see  TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, GREENIE WATCH,  POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, and Paralipomena (Occasionally updated) and Coral reef compendium. (Updated as news items come in).  GUN WATCH is now mainly put together by Dean Weingarten. I also put up occasional updates on my Personal blog and each day I gather together my most substantial current writings on A WESTERN HEART.

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