Twitter Distractions

The U.S. military launched drone strikes on Libya on Friday, the first in Libya since January.  Trump has yet to mention these airstrikes as he’s been too busy fighting with professional athletes about how they protest.  If I’m counting correctly, there have been six Middle Eastern countries Trump has authorized military strikes in despite no authorization from Congress (and seven if you include Somalia): Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan. Not to mention Trump has praised Saudi Arabia, a state that directly funds Wahhabism and an oppressive war in Yemen that does nothing to reduce radicalization.

Important criticisms of Hillary Clinton last year included her foundation receiving millions of dollars of support from the human rights disaster Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But I’m not sure which is worse: taking bad people’s money or actively praising them. In fact, in what meaningful way is Trump’s Middle Eastern policy different from Clinton’s? Clinton was for a two state solution, while Trump didn’t seem to know what that meant–is that it?

Trump’s foreign policy has been pretty incompetent in other areas outside the Middle East. He’s failed to provide appointments for many ambassador positions, including South Korea. Speaking of which, Trump said he would control North Korea, but the DPRK has conducted more missile tests during his presidency (that’s 7 months) than any presidency in history. Even by using his own stated (terrible) goals of renegotiating NAFTA, tearing up the Iran nuclear deal, and reducing sanctions on Russia, he has failed to do what he said he would. In the case of Russia sanctions, this came at the hands of his own party overruling him in Congress.

Trump is a loud, robust failure in foreign policy. And rather than spend any energy actually trying to end military involvements like he said he would, or even do routine things like appoint ambassadors, he is igniting culture wars on Twitter. I think he prefers these to actual policy because there are no metrics to success when engaging in a cultural flame war online. It’s just “our tribe” vs “their tribe”, and no one can win because we’re not actually discussing anything. I think there are nuances to be had in this week’s particular flare up with the NFL and the national anthem, but they’re not worth teasing out because it’s so easy to get bogged down in an emotional fight.

So rather than engage with Trump’s culture war cage match this week, I think it’s more productive to point out that there are real issues he’s supposed to be dealing with, and he’s failing miserably. We’ve been at war for 16 years now. Soon, recruits will be traveling to battlefields that Americans have been fighting in since before these soldiers were born. But Trump would rather tweet about football players protesting.

 


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Against Hillary: Foreign Policy and Trade

This is the second post in my series opposing Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. See the introduction in Part 1 here. Read my opposition to Trump here. Read why you should mathematically vote for a third party here.

Foreign Policy

Media coverage might make you think that Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson’s weakest point in comparison to Hillary Clinton is foreign policy. On the contrary, foreign policy is by far the the most important policy reason voters should reject Hillary Clinton, especially in favor of Johnson. News stories might seem to indicate that Johnson knows nothing about foreign policy, but in fact he has an excellent nuanced approach to foreign affairs. Libertarians have a reputation for isolationism, and indeed an important part of Johnson’s policy is a reduction in American military involvement in the middle east. But he is still a proponent of American diplomacy and defending American obligations in NATO. He’s also the only proponent of free trade in this election, a policy which has systematically broken down geopolitical opponents by integrating their economies into global markets and intertwining their economic success with ours. Let’s contrast this with Hillary Clinton’s policies.

The American consensus on the 2003 Iraq War is certainly negative, and I’d go as far as to say that most agree it was a mistake, especially on the left. Hillary Clinton voted to support that war, but so did many politicians on both sides of the aisle (including 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry). Of course, even some blame for a war that had several hundred thousand deaths of civilians and combatants is pretty awful. 4,507 Americans died in the Iraq war. This is significantly higher than the amount of people who died in the September 11th attacks. These are real people that likely would be alive today if not for the actions of American politicians. Yes, Hillary Clinton was not the only person who voted for this war, so perhaps she is only responsible for a fraction of this mistake. But is it that great to be responsible for the deaths of only 100 Americans who died for a mistake? What about the thousands of Iraqi Security Forces who died in the insurgency? What about the estimated five million Iraqi orphans caused by the war, or the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who died?

In 2004, Hillary said she had no regrets her Iraq War vote. In 2008, she didn’t want to be flip-flopping and so did not apologize, but she nonetheless lost the nomination to Obama, with the Iraq War support being one of several factors. In her 2014 book, she finally admitted that she regrets her vote backing the Iraq War. Yet, as The Atlantic points out, she was quite sincere in her vote in 2002; this was not simply a political ploy to look strong on national security. And if indeed she has had a change of heart, one would think she would treat future policy decisions differently.

In 2011 as Secretary of State, she faced another policy decision in Libya…and again decided to push for intervention. During a Democratic primary debate a year ago when asked about the intervention, Hillary Clinton began her defense of American involvement in Libya by labeling it as “smart power at its best”. Connor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic harshly criticized Clinton’s full answer stating that her upbeat portrayal of Libya was:

…about as misleading as summarizing the Iraq War by saying that the Iraqis had a terrible leader; they had a free election after the war; and they voted for moderates. It elides massive suffering and security threats that have occurred in postwar Libya.

Also worth noting, as Friedersdorf points out, this war was not declared, and not only violated the War Powers Resolution, but went against the expressed opposition of a Libya intervention Congressional vote. Moreover, the New York Times discusses in-depth how Obama was hesitant to get involved in Libya until Clinton convinced him it was a worthwhile endeavor. This is her war, and it left Libya a failed state.

Clinton’s support of military interventions in the middle east should be very concerning to everyone. Essentially all military interventions she has supported in the middle east have been failures: Libya is most prominently hers; she voted to go to war in Iraq which was a foreign policy disaster; she also supported the Afghanistan surge in 2009 and drone bombing in Pakistan during the first Obama term. Seven years after the surge in Afghanistan, there are still thousands of American soldiers and several times that many contractors in Afghanistan today. The Pakistan drone strikes have been severely criticized, with estimates of civilian casualties varying between 250 to over 900 civilians killed.

Of course, the US hasn’t really had a successful military intervention in the middle east since the Gulf War. Yet Hillary Clinton has continued to favor aggressive hawkish interventions. Her widely touted “experience” during her husband’s administration, as a Senator, and as a member of the Obama administration seems to have created systemic bias towards intervention in her approach to foreign affairs. In the Times piece, Clinton adviser Anne-Marie Slaughter states:

“Mrs. Clinton repeatedly speaks of wanting to be ‘caught trying.’ In other words, she would rather be criticized for what she has done than for having done nothing at all.”

This may sound noble, but it should disturb anyone considering voting for Clinton. The implication that “trying” is always better than “not trying” ignores the possibility that American policy could ever accidentally cause bad outcomes. This isn’t just possible, it’s quite likely, as demonstrated specifically by Iraq and Libya. Now Clinton is proposing additional intervention in Syria, beyond what the Obama administration has pursued. This includes no-fly zones and troops on the ground to create safe zones for refugees.

You might say that Syria is different from Iraq in that the situation literally couldn’t be worse, so perhaps intervention only risks improving one of the bloodiest wars in the last decade. Yet no-fly zones would demand a confrontation with Russia (they are the ones flying the planes) and would require the US to shoot down Russian military aircraft. This is escalation, and thus it’s quite easy for imprecise or incorrect policy to actually make Syria become even worse under Clinton’s policy. A Johnson/libertarian hands-off approach has inherently less risk because there would be no soldiers involved and little to no risk of escalation with Russia. Johnson has specifically advocated working with Russia, which is also basically the policy the Obama administration is taking. Nonetheless, we should acknowledge this approach has done little to end the war in Syria.

But if anything, that’s another point to Johnson: if Clinton’s ideas are so great, it seems that the Obama administration would have already implemented them and succeeded. The implication then is that Clinton differs significantly from Obama in Syria policy. Specifically, she is willing to commit more than pure air support. This sounds suspiciously like a traditional middle eastern military intervention championed by neoconservatives/right-wing hawks. Johnson’s Syria policy is suspiciously similar to Obama’s. So the question is why would Democrats and progressives side with Clinton when the Clinton vs Johnson policies are really right-wing vs Obama Syria policies. It seems siding with Clinton over Johnson in this area means abandoning the left’s positions, including that of the sitting Democratic president.

Moreover, for Clinton’s policies to succeed, she would need to win a middle eastern conflict by building a coalition among international actors who are geopolitically opposed. This war would need to be won against both a strong dictator and a large insurgency, the latter being something the United States has failed at essentially every time in the middle east. These plans are unreasonable, unprecedented, and unlikely to work.

Voting to approve of Clinton’s continual push for war and intervention is to agree not to hold her responsible for her repeated foreign policy mistakes which have lost countless lives. It’s to agree that we can afford to spend another several hundred billion dollars on another middle east intervention. It’s to put faith in a person who has learned nothing, who is hoping her intentions in solving the Syrian conflict will overcome the reality of the middle eastern politics.

Free Trade

Trade is next due to its role in the dynamics of geopolitical relationships. Again, despite the consensus that foreign relations is Hillary’s strong point, this is the second foreign policy area where she is on the wrong side. When it comes to trade, economists are in astounding agreement that free trade is a good thing. The benefits of freer international markets are clear and the results are all around us; today we have global supply chains that reduce the cost and increase the availability of goods of all types. Integration of developing economies has raised the productivity of the global poor and allowed for sustainable, incentivized growth to pull literally billions out of poverty, a feat which government and charities have never come close. The burden is on free trade opponents to explain their position, and in this election, those opponents are Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Gary Johnson is the only candidate running this year who is on the right side of perhaps the most important issue when it comes to the degree and number of people helped.

Hillary Clinton may say in private that she supports free trade, but at best then we are hoping she is lying publicly. Unfortunately, whatever political calculations she is making may not necessarily change after election day. At the very least, it seems reasonable to suggest free trade will not be a top priority of the Clinton administration given she is running as far as possible from the TPP. As an aside, the TPP itself has many non-free trade components, including extensive increases in intellectual property protections. But our president should be someone who makes the case to the American people and the to the world of the benefits of trade, cooperation, and commercial interaction (I can’t believe I’m defending Obama). The current presidential administration has created many bad policies, but in foreign affairs, both in war and trade, Clinton is somehow huge steps backwards from where we are today.


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Picture Credit: Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA-2.0

Efficient Advocacy

It’s incredible how simple and yet revolutionary the principles are behind effective altruism as well as the ideas behind GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project; if you want to help people, don’t just donate to a charity that is looking to cure a rare disease, donate in a way that can do the maximum amount of “good” per dollar.  That often means donating to a problem that affects many people, that has known, measurable, positive solutions, and that has lots of room for additional resources to combat the problem.   If you don’t know about those organizations, you should definitely check them out.

Of course, there is an obvious elephant in the room when it comes to effective altruism: politics is complex, unscientific, and unpopular. In fact, GiveWell largely sidesteps the political sphere, ignoring a big swath of human activity which has tremendous impacts on society.  Of course, they have good reason to do this; it allows them to focus on doing good things without harming anyone’s tribal identities or alienating their donor base. Moreover, it’s hard to get good unbiased data on what political policies would actually provide benefits; if there was, politics wouldn’t be so divisive.

However, I don’t have a donor base, and I have slightly different feelings on which policies would be most effective than the average American or even the average effective altruist.  I wanted to see what would happen if we could assume away some of the unknowns about political policy.  Let’s assume that the postlibertarian philosophy this blog espouses is correct: markets are pretty good at allocating resources efficiently, government policy can help address some economic areas where markets might not work (inequality, externalities), giving the state power is generally a bad thing and must be justified, and individuals should have robust protections from their government. We aren’t assuming away the current political landscape of the US, we’re just assuming we’re right.

So what would a libertarian trying to maximize efficiency in advocacy do? Do you try and emulate the Koch brothers and create or fund political organizations that change policy outcomes? Do you focus on viable candidates? How much do you accept the political process as given? Do you focus on political reforms (proportional representation), education (IHS, Economics of Library and Liberty), or do you try to work on making your own rules (crypto, seasteading, space exploration)? Let’s leave those hard questions for another time, and focus on perhaps the most mainstream approach to politics: how should you prioritize the importance of various political issues? People usually have specific issues they care about that determine which candidate they’d like to back, and the Open Philanthropy Project even has a U.S. policies page.   But which issues are actually the most important? Continue reading Efficient Advocacy