Archive for October, 2007

Liberty and Safety

Saturday, October 27th, 2007

Benjamin Franklin is often cited as the source of the observation, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Despite the fact that there is some dispute as to the origin of the quote, it remains a marvelously malleable remark, able to assume various meanings suitable for buttressing different political points.

Civil libertarians can call upon Franklin to support the argument that government should be hobbled in its intrusiveness even if by doing so may make the life of criminals a little easier. Those in favor a military force to fight forces of oppression can use Franklin to weigh on the side of liberty as opposed to the safety of acquiescence .

Nonetheless, there really is a balance between liberty and safety that must be struck. We are constantly told by our friends on the Left that the Patriot Act is poor trade off between safety and liberty. We put this argument off to another time, but point out here that there is another liberty and safety trade off that is at the heart of Conservative political philosophy: the balance between safety and economic liberty.

Civil liberties such as the freedom of speech, freedom of association, and privacy are defining elements of a free society, however, in terms of day-to-day activities, it is through economic freedom that we exercise control over our own lives. The economic resources at our disposal allow us to decide where to live, where to travel, what to eat, and what clothing to wear. Economic resources empower us to make the myriad of small choices that define how we live our lives. I may cherish my freedom of speech, but I enjoy economic freedom daily. To understand the importance of economic freedom just ask yourself if you had 10% greater or 10% fewer economic resources at your disposal how would the scope of your personal choices increase or decrease.

What Conservatives understand intuitively and what Liberals need to learn is that when people are taxed to provide resources for the state to ameliorate social problems, they are doing so at the cost of personal economic freedom. Just as some might exaggerate external threats to argue for reductions in civil liberties, others might exaggerate social problems to make the case for the reduction of economic liberty.

This is not to conclude that there ought not be any social programs or any government spending. Rather, it is to argue that we recognize that taxation entails a very real reduction of personal liberty. For Conservatives, the balance between taxation and the government modulation of the vagaries of a dynamic economy is tipped a little more to the side of economic freedom. We can steal from Franklin and assert “They that can give up economic freedom to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither freedom nor safety.”

Deadly Calculus

Sunday, October 21st, 2007

It always difficult to examine death statistics, particularly statistics associated with the Iraq War. Every death represents the loss of someone’s spouse, sibling, or child. Treating these lives as numbers does not quite seem appropriate. However, we can often learn things by examining phenomena mathematically that are difficult to observe otherwise, and we should not dispense with any tool at our disposal. Indeed, epidemiology is the medical study of diseases in populations. Its use can often help discover was of dealing with disease. We only hope that the ideas presented here serve the same purpose.

The web site Iraqi Coalition Casualty Count provides the useful public service of compiling a day-by-day tally of Iraq Coalition casualties as well as the death of Iraqi security personnel and Iraqi civilians. It is perhaps most instructive to examine the monthly statistics. Month statistics are more reliable and they roughly mirror the evolution of the Iraqi conflict.

In the first month of the war, Coalition casualties were at their highest, averaging 7.67 deaths per day over the month. Then the casualty rates eased over the first summer of 2003, mostly averaging less than 2 deaths per day. During February 2004, the Coalition casualty rate actually dropped below 1 per day. Then the insurgency began in earnest, partially exacerbated by the bombing of an important Shite Shrine that inflamed sectarian tensions.

Sometimes, the casualty rate dropped below 2 per day, but for far too many months the death rate was well over 2 per day, sometimes even reaching over 4 per day. It is this relatively constant death rate with little sign of change, that has been the source of American frustration with the military strategy in Iraq.

Finally this year, the Americans under General David Patraeus, over the objections of many in Congress initiated a bold new initiative: the surge. With 30,000 additional troops, the surge represents an attempt to aggressively change the dynamics on the ground. By most accounts, at least from a military perspective, the surge seems to be working. Violence is down. The number of civilian deaths has dropped from over 3,000 a month early in the year to less than 1,000 per month in recent months.

Is this impression consistent with the accurately counted Coalition casualties? In May of this year, when the surge was beginning in earnest, the casualty rate was a high 4.23 deaths per day. One might have expected with more soldiers in the field taking a more aggressive posture that the number of casualties would, at least at the beginning of the surge, actually increase. However, since May there has been a steady drop in coalition casualties. As of this writing, for the current month, the casualty rate is 1.45 per day.

This drop is most impressive because it does not appear to be just a random good month. The casualty rate has been dropping over an extended period of time. Moreover, in only 14% of the months of the war has the casualty rate been this low. Many of those months were in the early period of the war.

If the casualty rate can show the same steady decline over the next few months, even with some set backs, the surge strategy will be unequivocally successful. If the casualty rates drop below the 1 per day rate for an extended period of time, Americans will become optimistic about the prospects for victory. There will probably never be a clear moment of victory in Iraq, but if the violence continues to abate, the Iraqis and Americans will slowly slip into victory.

Calculating Global Warming Costs and Benefits

Sunday, October 14th, 2007

If asked how much is a human life, alleviating human suffering, or a child’s well-being is worth, most of us would rightly wince at the thought of placing any monetary value on these. We are instinctively moved to devote whatever resources are necessary to protect even a single human life, ease human suffering, or help a child. This natural and appropriate human response, however, does not alleviate us of the moral responsibility for proper stewardship of finite resources. Resources are always finite. If we spend too much to save a particular life, we may consume resources that if more judiciously applied could save many lives. While it may be distasteful to assert that a life is worth a specific number of dollars, we can say that protecting many lives deserves a higher priority than saving one life. Sometimes dollars provide a convenient mechanism for computing the number of lives that may be saved. Using such an approach we often find that it is more efficient to apply resources to preventative care than enormous resources at the end of life that may add only a few days of life. The scary part is that if we move to a socialized health care system, we find that it is government rather than individuals who balancing resources against lives. This, however, is another story.

Here we suggest the necessity of performing a similar cost-benefits analysis on dealing with the prospect of climate change. As much as we might wish to anything possible to alleviate the effects of climate change, This is an approach recently suggested by the “skeptical environmentalist” Bjorn Lomborg. While we may wish to do whatever we can to reduce climate change and its effects, since resources are finite, reason compels us to ask how best to use these resources.

What are the costs of proceeding along the same course we are currently pursuing versus the costs of attempting to abate climate change? Of course the specific answer depends on who you ask and what part of the world you are concerned about. In a recent paper, “The Distributional Impact of Climate Change on Rich and Poor Countries,” published in Environmental and Development Economics, Robert Mendelsohn, Ariel Dinar, and Larry Williams attempt to bound the problem. They use the predictions of three climate models spanning the range of conventional predictions. The models predict a global increase in temperatures by 2100 ranging from 2.5 degrees C to 5.2 degrees C. The predicted precipitation changes range from a 15.5 increase to a 5.6% decrease. The increases in sea level range from 0.3 to 0.9 m. Local changes in different continents, though less certain, show far more variability.

The authors then couple the local climate change predictions with the local economies to determine the effect of climate on global and regional gross national product. On balance, the tropical countries, that are already warm, suffer the most. As one might expect, poorer countries, both because they tend to be nearer the equator and have a larger fraction of their GDPs linked to agriculture, suffer typically experience the largest negative impact.

Globally the effect of climate change on GDP by 2100, depending on both the climate and economic model ranges from a positive 0.10% to a negative 0.13%. Since the world economy will be substantially larger than by 2100, a 0.13% reduction will be a lot of money but the per capita effect would seem to be small, perhaps even a net positive. This would suggest that only we should accept only tiny changes on GDP as a cost of climate change reduction. This conclusion is especially true if we cannot eliminate, but only modestly reduce the effects of climate change. Of course, this calculus would be different for certain areas that would be more severely impacted.

Resources devoted to climate change abatement should also be balanced against other uses of the same resources, including providing clean water and medical resources to impoverished areas.

The work by Mendelsohn et al. is by no means a conclusive assessment of the economic effects of climate change and there is always the small but non-negligible possibility that climate change could be dramatically greater than the current best estimates. Nonetheless, the balance of the costs and benefits of climate change abatement against other possible uses of finite resources constitutes the only rational terms defining the debate.

Party Infestation

Sunday, October 7th, 2007

Before the recent surge in troops designed to bring more stability to Iraq, many Americans were doubtful whether it would work. Given the frustration of the past few years in Iraq, perhaps a little incredulity was in order. Fortunately, at least in the near term, the military situation in Iraq has improved. In September. the number of civilians killed decreased by half and American troop casualties showed a steady four-month decline. These facts do not demonstrate conclusive victory in Iraq, but they do represent modest progress in the correct direction.

At the time the surge was under consideration, there was the disheartening poll from Fox News / Opinion Dynamics that, among Democrats, 51% wanted the surge to succeed (the loyal opposition), 34% did not, and 15% were not sure they wanted the plan to succeed. One could blame Fox News polling, but their poll results have compared favorably in the past in presidential election picks with other polls. The results of their polls are consistent with other major polling organizations. They are a reputable pollster. The only unique thing about Fox News polling is that they thought to ask this question, whereas other may not have.

A recent October 4, 2007 FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll confirms that this sad and angry minority still infest the Left of the Democratic party. When asked, “Do you personally think the world would be better off if the United States loses the war in Iraq?” 19% (nearly one-in-five) Democrats answered yes and 20% didn’t know. Only 62% of Democrats are completely convinced that the world would be better off the US succeeds in Iraq. Many Democrats and others may have critical questions as to the best route to victory or some measure of success, but there remains a core who want the US to lose.

It is important to remember that a majority of Democrats dearly love their country and wish for success in Iraq. Yet, there remains an ugly and significant minority that infest the party, who would like to see the US fail. Democrats would do well to isolate these radicals and distant themselves from this anti-American movement. They are responsible for cleaning up their own problems.