Ephemerides (May 2003)
May 26, 2003
Having, very unusually, a long weekend with no social obligations, I am passing the time by pondering what are now called weapons-of-mass-destruction. I still think of them by the more descriptive nomenclature "nuclear, biological and chemical weapons", though the acronym "WMD" does have the virtue of not being easily confused with a television network. (A question for another time is whether TV is more deadly than tabun.)
The anti-warriors' persistent complaint that the U.S. and British forces have found no WMD's in Iraq is an impressive exercise in political jiu-jitsu. One of the principal Anglo-American arguments against relying on UN inspectors to monitor Saddam Hussein's weapons programs was that finding banned weapons through random searches was an all but impossible task. Iraq is the size of California. A devastating arsenal of nerve gas or toxins a would fit into a small room. Finding small, deliberately concealed caches in a vast area is a near-hopeless task. That is why the U.S. insisted on affirmative Iraqi cooperation. The White House set forth explicit criteria by which Iraq could demonstrate its compliance with UN disarmament resolutions (vide "What Does Disarmament Look Like?"). Since the Ba'athist regime refused to cooperate, UN inspections could accomplish nothing. Now that the Ba'athists are gone, finding their WMD's has not become any easier. We cannot expect to stumble on them quickly without either good luck or help from the people who know their locations (all of whom may well be dead). In short, our not finding WMD's leaves the debate over their existence exactly where it was before the campaign began. We said that mere searching was a futile tactic; we have been proven right; and the anti-war crowd claims to be vindicated.
The pre-war evidence was about as conclusive as one ever finds outside of a mystery novel. No one denies that Iraq had active WMD research programs and substantial stocks of chemical and biological weapons as late as October 1998, when, after years of hide-and-seek, its government expelled the UN inspection teams. If Saddam Hussein shut down those programs and eliminated those weapons over the next four years, he went to a great deal of trouble to keep his actions secret. And, when the inspectors returned in 2002, he did not do what an innocent man would have done: present documentation showing when and how the weapons were destroyed. Instead, he stuck to his 1998 story, that all the evidence was fabricated by the United States and the UN itself.
There are people who believe that O.J. was innocent, and the same level of gullibility is needed to disbelieve in Saddam Hussein's WMD's. Just as O.J.'s defenders concentrate on the supposedly undersized glove, Saddam's have fallen back on two feeble questions: Why haven't we found the WMD's? And, if Saddam had them, why didn't he use them?
The first question has already been answered in part. The second part of the answer is, are we sure that we haven't? In real life, evidence is rarely unambiguous. Consider a couple of data points:
On April 6th, Knight-Ridder carried this report:
ALBU MUHAWISH, Iraq - U.S. soldiers evacuated an Iraqi military compound early Monday after tests by a mobile laboratory detected the presence of sarin, a powerful nerve agent.
The testing came after more than a dozen soldiers from the Army's 101st Airborne Division who guarded the military compound on Saturday night came down with symptoms consistent with exposure to very low levels of nerve agent, including vomiting, dizziness and skin blotches. The soldiers, along with a Knight Ridder reporter, a CNN cameraman and two Iraqi prisoners of war, were sent for chemical weapons decontamination and hosed down with water and bleach.
* * * *
U.S. soldiers found suspect chemicals at two sites: an agricultural warehouse containing 55-gallon chemical drums, which was later sealed off, and the military compound, which soldiers had begun searching on Saturday. The soldiers also found hundreds of gas masks and chemical suits at the military complex, along with large numbers of mortar and artillery rounds.
According to the report, some, though not all, tests were positive for "G-Series nerve agents, which include tabun and sarin". "Sarin, an odorless, colorless and tasteless substance, can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin and is considered one of the most feared but also the most volatile of the nerve agents, chemical weapons experts have said. A cloud of sarin can dissipate after several minutes or hours depending on wind and temperature."
Subsequently, the drums in the warehouse were tested and were found to contain pesticide, whereupon the story vanished. (Albu Muhawish hasn't been mentioned by any publication in the Nexis database since April 13th.) Why? The soldiers got sick at the military compound, not while handling drums in the warehouse. There is no reason to doubt that their symptoms were real. A highly plausible scenario is that the Iraqi army, which abandoned the compound without a fight, left behind a "present" for the captors, one that fortunately dissipated before it could prove fatal. There is no way now to prove that suspicion conclusively, but innocent alternative explanations are hard to imagine.
Albu Muhawish was only one of many suspicious finds during the fighting. The invariable American response was extreme caution, with a tendency to accept any non-WMD explanation, however tenuous. As the Charlotte Observer's Peter Smolowitz reported, our military is afraid of being wrong. Premature accusations that were later disproven would be worse than silence, and it is easy to devise theories to account for any phenomenon:
Part of the problem is that Iraq is largely agricultural and has no pollution laws. Cyanide in water could be mining waste. Anthrax in soil could mean no more than that livestock, which sometimes have the disease, had been nearby. [emphasis added]
Always plenty of "could bes" and "could means", and deciding among conflicting hypotheses often won't be possible.
Post-war, American troops have seized two mobile laboratories that, according to our experts, have no discernible use except producing biological weapons. ABC News regards them as "Insufficient Evidence", because we have not "found a trace of biological agent on the trailers". As if any nonsuicidal technician concocting deadly diseases would be careless enough to leave spoors lying around!
On television, the detective always finds a "smoking gun", or the killer confesses. In the mundane world, cases are stitched together from fragments of fact and conjecture. No doubt the Bush Administration will within a few months publish a white paper laying out all of the reasons for concluding that the Ba'athist regime possessed WMD's. Regardless of what evidence the paper presents, it is nearly certain that the hard core skeptics will remain unconvinced. Their fallback position will be that Saddam did not actually use chemical or biological agents during the war. (The incident at Abul Mahawish will be long forgotten.) Therefore, he either didn't have them, or they were a mere deterrent that he never intended to deploy in attack.
It is worth recalling that during World War II the Wehrmacht had abundant supplies of poison gas and produced tabun and sarin, yet Hitler never ordered their use. The reasons for that restraint are uncertain. The factors that restrained Saddam are likewise unknowable, but there are several likely possibilities:
1. Although Iraq deployed chemicals against Iranians and Kurds, their most effective role is in terrorist attacks, because modern armies are well-prepared to counter them. Biological agents are even more purely terrorist weapons, as they are too slow-acting to have much immediate impact on the battlefield. Hence, assuming that Saddam's military planning was rational (not an assumption in which one can repose complete confidence), his WMD program probably veered in recent years away from anti-military to anti-civilian capabilities. A terrorist needs portable, concealable weapons packets, preferably with a delayed release mechanism. He doesn't need artillery shells or missile warheads. He also prefers biologicals, which will persist in the enemy population, to chemicals, which kill more people right away but then disperse. An arsenal configured to those terrorist needs has only limited military value but is, needless to say, a greater overall danger to the world.
2. To the extent that Iraq continued to produce effective military WMD's, employing them undoubtedly required high-level authorization. Saddam was not the kind of dictator who lets subordinates make decisions with far-reaching political implications.
What happened to Saddam, and when, are still uncertain, but it is clear that, after the "decapitation" strike that opened the campaign, he became a de facto, if not literal, ghost, giving no orders and providing no direction to the forces under his nominal command. Thus there was no one to tell Iraqi commanders that the time had come to unleash WMD's against the invaders.
3. Had an Iraqi general received WMD authorization from the high command (or felt the impulse to take action on his own), one further obstacle existed. For weeks prior to the opening of hostilities, the U.S. had been trumpeting the threat to punish anyone in the Iraqi armed forces who used chemical or biological weapons. Some warnings were reportedly made via calls to generals' private cell phone numbers - an unsettling experience that fostered the fear that American intelligence was omniscient. Knowing that the U.S. was highly likely to win the war, regardless of what weapons it faced, only a true fanatic would expose himself to the gallows by initiating the use of WMD's.
As many others have observed, Iraq and the rest of the world are better off without Saddam Hussein, whether or not his regime ever produced a scintilla of anthrax or sarin. As a supporter of his overthrow, I shall be unembarrassed if turns out, mirabile dictu, that George W. Bush and Colin Powell and Tony Blair were entirely mistaken about the WMD threat. At this point, however, I see no good reason to believe that they were. When the facts are known more fully, I trust that those who were so willing to give Saddam Hussein the benefit of the doubt will think seriously about what the world would be like if we had followed their counsel.
May 25, 2003
After rising for five straight weeks, the S&P 500 finished down last week. There are plenty of obvious reasons for a pause in the stock market's momentum, from traders locking in gains before a long weekend to disappointment with the final tax cut package, but most commentary has focused on the decline in value of the dollar against the euro. Europe's ersatz currency is now above $1.06, higher than when it was launched. In some folks' eyes, a weak dollar is a harbinger of impending doom. They blame Treasury Secretary Snow for expressing indifference to exchange rates and "talking the dollar down".
Under different circumstances, I would be worried, too. Right now, I'm not. That currency holders are bidding up euros reflects, I think, weaknesses in the Euro Zone economies, not shortcomings in U.S. monetary policy.
Exchange rates are simply prices, not, as journalists frequently seem to imagine, measurements of moral worth. A change in the dollar:euro price results from changes in supply or demand. Both appear to be at work here. On the demand side, Europe remains stalled somewhere between stagnation and recession. It is symptomatic that France's first quarter GDP growth, just over one percent annualized, is regarded as a great success for the Chirac government, while the U.S. was disappointed by a 1.6 percent annual growth rate during the same period. Because the European economy is contracting relative to America's, European demand for American goods is declining relative to American demand for European goods. Hence, Europeans need fewer dollars while Americans need more euros, and currency values adjust accordingly.
Meanwhile, on the supply side, the EU central bank continues to adhere to anti-inflationary policies, even as the continent's major economies - Germany's in particular - show symptoms of deflation. Over here, the Fed has hardly turned the high-powered money spigot to full blast, but it has removed inflation from its traditional position as Problem Number One. I haven't been energetic enough to peer closely at money supply statistics, but my impression is that the dollar monetary base is growing quite a bit faster than the euro base. The effect is that the relative supply of euros is being reduced even as the amount demanded is on the rise. The natural consequence is that it takes more dollars to buy a euro.
In brief, the dollar is weaker than the euro, because the economy behind the dollar is stronger. The whole world, including the U.S., would be better off, of course, if the Euro Zone were prospering, but it is determined not to prosper. A "weak" dollar is one of the inevitable results of the European mandarinate's love affair with dirigisme.
May 21, 2003
Having spent the past week as far out of reach of the news as one can get in modern America, I come back to see that our Congresscritters are living down to all of my expectations. Budget negotiations are in progress, and hopes for tax relief this year turn on the votes of two or three Senators, with just about exactly half of that august chamber basing their positions on economic theories that were barely tenable in the pre-physiocrat era.
At a moment when deflation is a real concern for the first time since 1929, the favored liberal remedy is the same as Herbert Hoover's and the 1929 Fed's: fiscal discipline and a balanced budget. Left-of-center economic thinking used to be dominated by the ghost of Keynes; would that it were today! Instead, liberals seem determined to emulate Japan's two decades of stagnation as they advocate the same combination of high taxes, high public spending and free-falling interest rates.
Meanwhile, receiving little attention from the press - and generating little controversy except among tax specialists - is a provision in the Senate bill, likely to be included in any final package, that sounds yawn-inducing on its face: codification of the economic substance doctrine. Supposedly a response to the Enron scandal (every bad idea in the universe is sold these days as a cure for Enron), it will, if taken seriously, be the greatest revolution in American tax law since the Sixteenth Amendment or maybe since the Constitution.
From the inception of the income tax through May 8, 2003 (currently slated to be the new doctrine's effective date), Americans were free to arrange their affairs so as to keep their tax liabilities as low as possible. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., memorably opined, there is not even a patriotic, much less a legal, duty to maximize one's taxes. That is now going to change. In the future, the IRS will have the authority to recast any transaction that cannot be proven to have been undertaken purely for non-tax reasons. It is only a slight oversimplification to say that every taxpayer's duty will be to take whatever steps are necessary to expose as much of his income as possible to the highest possible tax rates. If he does otherwise and guesses wrong about how the IRS and the courts react to his tax planning, he faces penalties that would have shamed Dracon.
The purpose of this exercise is not to end any awful abuse. While there certainly are tax-shelter schemes that amount to nothing more than shuffling papers and interposing meaningless intermediate points between "A" and "B", the government has a high rate of success in tracking down and eliminating that sort of artifice. The true effect of the new version of economic substance will be to make the IRS's job easier by loosening, if not completely severing, the tie between its interpretations and the words of the statute. Tax law will become, as it already is in many other parts of the world, a matter of fiscal qadis dispensing "justice" on a case-by-case basis.
Making taxes less predictable, more amenable to personal influence and administrative whim, less navigable without professional assistance: such is the current Congressional enthusiasm. At a deep, prerational level, the Rule of Law is a repellent concept, even for lawmakers.
Update, 5/22/03: I'm happy to report that the final deal between House and Senate negotiators knocked out all revenue raisers that had been in the tax package, including the revision of the economic substance doctrine. On the other hand, as one of my colleagues put it, "We haven't dodged the bullet; they've just moved it to a different gun." There will be at least one tax bill after this one, because Congress needs to do something by year-end to comply with the World Trade Organization's adverse decision on current tax breaks for exporters. That measure is a vehicle on which "economic substance" could well get a ticket to ride.
May 10, 2003
The German media seem to be suffering a collective case of adolescent jealousy. Like the school kids who sneer at the best student in class as "teacher's pet", the spokesmen for what was once Europe's preeminent power - and is today a disarmed welfare trough - mock Poland's contribution to the Iraqi campaign and its projected role as one of the post-war peacekeepers. (Vide Felix Steiner, "Gemany Jeers at Poland's Good Will Over Iraq".) In the German view, its neighbor did nothing important in the war, having sent only 200 more soldiers than Germany's zero, and is merely a subsidized toady of the Hitler-like Bush regime.
Such taunts do nothing to diminish the small, but not trivial, role played by Polish special forces, particularly in securing the port of Umm Qsar (vide Victorino Matus, "The GROM Factor"), but they tell us quite a lot about the mood of "Old Europe". For all the pro forma agreement that Iraq is better off without Saddam Hussein, the Old Europeans (meaning primarily the European Left, most of the French Right and the snootier club rooms of British Conservatism) resent American success and smolder with fury at the "New Europeans" who don't share their unhappiness.
Any honest German knows, too, that, had Germany offered troops to the anti-Saddam coalition, nothing useful could have been done with them. Like most continental armies, Germany's spends too little on weapons and too much on featherbedding. The 1.4 percent of GDP allocated to defense is smaller than it looks. The force that it buys is okay for warding off small bands of badly armed guerillas in Afghanistan but would have been hard pressed by so feeble an opponent as the Iraqi army.
It ought to have been a severe embarrassment to Germany that it and its European Union cohorts were unable on their own to expel the Serbian army from Kosovo. It's obvious in retrospect that an EU effort would have turned out disastrously, with the loss of thousands of military and tens of thousand civilian lives and, in all likelihood, continued Serbian occupation of the region. Instead, the U.S. took on the job and accomplished it in slightly over two months without losing a man.
The European performance in Kosovo was the equivalent of a pop quiz on which most of the class gets D's and F's. A few pupils, like Poland, have drawn the moral that it would be a good idea to take their studies seriously. The rest shrug off failure, withdraw into the fortress of their unmerited self-esteem and assure each other that school isn't important anyway. A decade from now, they will be hanging out on street corners cadging money to buy McDonald's burgers, and the former teacher's pets will occasionally deign to spare them a buck.
There probably won't ever be another German-Polish war, but, if there is, it won't be a repetition of 1939.
May 6, 2003
School vouchers, often pronounced dead by conventional wisdom, are proving hard to bury. Particularly galling to teachers' unions and other folks who think that "choice" is only for abortions was Washington, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams' endorsement of the concept last week, which led a Washington Post columnist to denounce him as a "closet Republican". If so, the closet is getting crowded, as the Mayor joins the president of the local board of education and the chairman of the City Council's education committee in the camp favorable to school choice.
Balancing such good news, though, is a so far small, but growing, restlessness among voucher supporters over the possibility that a big beneficiary would be Wahhabi-run madrassas whose curriculum is based on an extremist brand of Islam. When National Review columnist Andrew Stuttaford raised that concern on NRO's blog, most of his e-mail respondents expressed support for "a fairly strict licensing policy". Unfortunately, the development of licensing requirements beyond anodyne bans on racial segregation and the like is bound to create a morass. Facially neutral rules that exclude madrassas may also trap schools operated by chasidim, fundamentalist Protestants and other minority religious groups. At the very least, voucher foes, whose primary aim is to preserve the public school monopoly rather than to police the quality of private schools, would have new opportunities for obstruction.
Reports about what is taught in some madrassas are certainly troubling. (Vide Susan Katz Keating, "The Wahhabi Fifth Column".) But the idea that voucher programs would aggravate that problem is the opposite of the truth: Vouchers are part of the solution to extremist pedagogy.
Right now, there is only one significant source of funding for Moslem schools in the United States: Saudi-controlled Arabia. Moslem parents in this country have a choice of secular public or private schools, schools operated under the aegis of other religions, or Saudi-subsidized Islamic schools. Since the Saudis give their money only to Wahhabi institutions, moderate Moslems have no good choices. Of the bad ones available, the Wahhabi option may seem better than putting the education of their children in the hands of infidels.
Nothing can constitutionally be done to shut down Wahhabi schools; they will stay in business so long as the Saudi oligarchy remains in power and has oil money to spend. What can be done is to facilitate competition. Vouchers would make it economically feasible for mainstream American Moslems to set up schools that do not inculcate such doctrines as the biological affinity of Jews and pigs or the duty to Islamicize America. There is, I suspect, a considerable pent-up demand for such institutions. School choice proponents should start talking about how their proposals can help satisfy it, to the benefit of both young Moslems and an harmonious public square.
May 5, 2003
Having just spent a week in Las Vegas, I feel especially well qualified to comment on Bill Bennett's fondness for gambling, which many liberal and libertarian neo-moralists now grandiosely equate with Bill Clinton's adultery and perjury. A few conservatives, who at least have a record of regarding personal morality as other than optional, have also joined the attack. (A sensibly argued example is Hunter Baker's "Just Don't Call Him Lucky. . . .") The argument, succinctly summarized, is that, although Mr. Bennett's gambling was legal and well within his means, it is inconsistent with his public advocacy of personal responsibility. Of course, spending money that one has legitimately earned and doesn't need is not ordinarily considered "irresponsible", so the indictment must be stretched a bit to snare the accused: Gambling addiction is, we are reminded, a serious social problem. Potential addicts who learn that the author of The Book of Virtues indulges in slot machines and video poker (a fact that they learned only from Mr. Bennett's critics, but we'll let that pass) may be encouraged to follow his example, and their irresponsible behavior is therefore his fault.
In the interests of full disclosure, let me record that, during my Vegas junket, I dropped an average of almost four dollars a day on blackjack and roulette. It is conceivable that my sessions at the tables will weaken some less affluent fellow's inhibitions against blowing his family's rent money on lottery tickets. If so, my vice will be just as consequential as Mr. Bennett's supposedly is, leaving me open to the charge of defending him simply in order to cover up my own sin. Well, so be it.
I should also note that I am not one of Bill Bennett's big fans. While I approve in general of his campaign for virtue, I've never read any of his books and long ago dismissed him as a role model, when he failed, while Secretary of Education, to defend a pair of his aides against slanders by the risible Senator Lowell Weicker. His choice of the "easy way out" - he gave in to Weicker's demand that Larry Uzzell and Eileen Marie Gardner be fired for thought crimes - was a far more serious dereliction than any amount of wagering.
A couple of facts about casino gambling also deserve mention. Mr. Bennett reportedly spent his time and money on slots and video poker. If one is going to gamble at all, those are among the more rational choices. Slot machines at reputable establishments (I'm not talking about Joe's Package Liquors, Souvenirs & Slots) have about the lowest house percentage of any game in town. The casinos make money on them because they are high volume, low maintenance devices. Video poker, if played intelligently, also has extremely low house odds. It's a big money maker for Vegas only because most players have no concept of proper strategy and simply throw their bets away. I doubt that Bill Bennett falls into that category. When he says that he has come close to breaking even over the past decade, his claim is credible. If one adds in the free hotel rooms, meals, limousine rides, etc. that he has received as a high roller, he may well have made a substantial profit.
One could argue, then, that Mr. Bennett is a poster boy for responsible gambling: Select games in which the house has only a minimal margin. Employ such strategy as is possible to keep the odds narrow. Don't get in deeper than your balance sheet can stand. Harvest every freebie the casinos will provide.
Any condemnation of such conduct has to rest on the premise that there is no such thing as responsible gambling, except perhaps when the amounts wagered as too small to matter to anybody. That is not a principle espoused by any moral teacher outside of limited segments of American Protestantism. Gambling can lead to personal financial ruin, just like excessive spending on anything else. (I have met men whose irresistible compulsion to acquire books has doomed them to lives of penury.) Nonetheless, it is primarily a recreation - not as healthful as swimming, faster paced than fishing and intellectually superior to rock music. Some enjoy it a great deal, others not at all. Chacun à son goût.
What turns this harmless pastime into a social evil is government sponsorship. Casinos in this country are not ordinary private businesses. They are partnerships between the government and entrepreneurs, the former providing a favorable regulatory environment (restrictions on competition and no quibbles about false advertising) and the latter a flow of cash far in excess of normal taxes. It is in the interest of both parties to expand the pool of gamblers and to promote a get-rich-quick mentality that has nothing to do with recreation.
Official encouragement mattered little when the gaming business was legal only in isolated Nevada. The situation isn't the same when wagering machines proliferate. As columnist Rod Dreher observes,
When video poker machines came to my Louisiana hometown, it wasn't long before working-class families got into trouble. The mother of one of my schoolmates tried to kill herself after she bankrupted the family via video poker. A relative of mine got into serious trouble with video poker, and nearly lost her marriage. There was lots of that sort of thing.
There still is, but hardly any of Mr. Bennett's critics (except those on the Christian Right) ever noticed it. They are delighted when gaming industry money knocks off Republican governors in the South and have nary a harsh word for the sham of "Indian casinos" (mostly operated by very pale-faced Indians). If taking pot shots at a prominent conservative leads them to reconsider the merits of the steady expansion of legalized gambling, good will have come out of this silly controversy, but that is not a prospect on which I would lay even money.