Biden: Cheney “Rewriting History”

Vice President Joe Biden appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday to respond to some of his predecessor’s recent criticism of President Barack Obama. At least four times, Biden stressed that Dick Cheney was trying to “rewrite history”. “He either is misinformed or he is misinforming.”

Contesting President Obama’s alleged “softness” on terror, Biden claimed that the Christmas Day Bomber “was treated the exact way that [Dick Cheney] suggested that the Shoe Bomber was treated. Absolutely the same way.”

Granting a terrorist the “privilege” of the American criminal justice system is a much more effective way to get him behind bars, said Biden. “Under the Bush Administration there were three trials in military courts. Two of those people are now walking the streets.” Yet of the three hundred or so terrorists convicted in civilian courts — “Prosecuted under the last administration” — none has seen the light of day.

“What about the general proposition that the president according to former Vice President Cheney doesn’t consider America to be at war” with terrorists? Biden reminded host David Gregory that the president stated very explicitly in his State of the Union address that, “We’re at war with Al Qaeda” and that the administration is “pursuing that war with a vigor like it’s never been seen before.” Al Qaeda, according to Biden, is “on the run.”

“Dick Cheney’s a fine fellow,” said Biden. “He’s entitled to his own opinion. He’s not entitled to rewrite history. He’s not entitled to his own facts.” According to the vice president, “There has never been as much emphasis and resources brought against Al Qaeda” and “the success rate exceeds anything that occurred in the last administration.” While he didn’t mean to impugn their effort, “It’s simply not true that the president of the United States is not prosecuting the war against Al Qaeda with a vigor that’s never been seen before. It’s real. It’s deep. It’s successful.”

Paul Ryan’s Free-Market Crusade

As today’s Republican Party appears without direction, few among the opposition’s lawmakers remember the free-market principles once so staunchly defended by conservatives. It was a Republican president who gravely extended government’s interference with the housing market and it was a Republican administration that initiated the massive Wall Street bailouts which represented the single greatest distortion of American free enterprise since the New Deal.

There is however one GOP congressman who did what none of his colleagues dared — design a plan to control long-term government spending and deficits. Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin proposes to freeze domestic discretionary spending, privatize Social Security and turn Medicare into a voucher program that depreciates against medical costs.

Ryan, who serves as the ranking member on the House Budget Committee, found himself denounced by fellow Republicans. The reason? Ryan is an admirer of Ayn Rand’s free-market philosophy and reportedly requires staffers and interns to read her novel Atlas Shrugged (1957). In a speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference in February of last year, he even warned that some of the Democrats’ initiatives sound eerily similar to the collectivist measures enacted in Rand’s novel. “Citizens who had governed themselves will become mere subjects of the state,” he said, “more concerned about security than liberty. Once we reach this ‘tipping point,’ the friends of freedom will be reduced to silence.”

This sort of rhetoric is apparently considered controversial even by Republican standards. Before moving on to his critics however, a quick look at Ryan’s precise budget proposals is in order.

The Wisconsinite intends to largely privatize Social Security for those who are under the age of 55 by 2011. For citizens over that age, the program would remain unchanged. His alternative is to establish individual investment accounts, funded with part of peoples’ payroll taxes and protected against inflation by a government guarantee.

Medicare would be similarly dismantled if Ryan had his way. Current recipients and those enrolling over the next ten years could continue to enjoy today’s program whereas in 2021, the system would become voucher-based for new recipients. With their vouches, people could buy Medicare-certified, private insurance.

“Rather than depending on government for your retirement and health security, I propose to empower people to become much more self dependent for such things in life,” explained Ryan in a speech to the Hudson Institute last June.

His budget further involves a simplification of taxes, with people able to choose between either the existing system or his alternative which includes no deductions and virtually no special tax breaks. Above a taxfree amount ($39,000 for a family of four), taxpayers would know only two rates: 10 percent up to $100,000 for joint filers and 25 percent on incomes over that.

Critics are positively infuriated. While Republicans have been reluctant to admit support for Ryan’s proposals, economist Paul Krugman believes that his vision “does, in fact, represent what the GOP would try to do if it returns to power.” Ryan’s economic agenda, claims Krugman, “hasn’t changed one iota in response to the economic failures of the Bush years.” The opposite is true — Ryan is trying to steer his party toward the promotion of free-market capitalism once again after President George W. Bush not only expanded government but left the country in serious debt.

Krugman’s response to the proposed dismantling of Medicare is all the more revealing. Where on February 1, he complained that the Republican Party “literally has no ideas about how the nation should actually be governed,” in his bashing of Ryan, the New York Times columnist describes the one plan that is distinctly different from anything the Democrats offer as “deliberately confusing gobbledygook.”

Younger people wouldn’t be covered by Medicare as it now exists, cries Krugman. Instead, they “would receive vouchers and be told to buy their own insurance.” What could possibly be more gruesome? Surely, you can’t expect of people that they take care of their own insurance! That, apparently, is much too confusing.

Jonathan Chait, editor at The New Republic, closes ranks on the left by blaming both Rand and Ryan for their supposed “inability to grasp the enormous differences between American liberalism and socialism or communism, seeing them as variants on the same basic theme. The historical reality,” according to Chait, “is that the architects of American liberalism saw it as a bulwark against communism.” Of course, the “historical reality” is that communism didn’t exist at the time American liberalism was framed but this, perhaps, is just such another inability to grasp the obvious.

More significant is the consequence of this alleged confusion on the part of those who champion the free market however. “The result is a tendency to see even modest efforts to sand off the roughest edges of capitalism in order to make free markets work for all Americans as the opening salvo of a vast and endless assault upon the market system.” Chait leaves readers with the impression that this sort of thinking is nothing short of lunacy.

Ryan’s proposed reforms of Medicare and Social Security aren’t actually so radical as Krugman and Chait would have us believe. He still sees a role for government which is certainly not what Ayn Rand favored. What’s more, both entitlement programs are by no means “modest efforts” in response to alleged shortcomings of capitalism — they rank among the greatest expenses of government and are, in part, responsible for the high costs of health insurance in the United States.

Upon closer scrutiny, Chait’s argument falls apart entirely for it follows the familiar logic of those who vain to speak in favor of free-market capitalism but really forward its undoing. Chait defends the correction of just the “roughest edges” of capitalism; the “excesses” of laissez-faire so commonly persecuted these days. The charge rests on the premise that in order for the free market to work best, it needs to be less free. The inevitable result of “making it work” for everyone, is that everyone has to make do with less.

Paul Ryan’s plan deserves attention for it is without doubt the boldest and forward looking the GOP has offered since the Democrats most recently assumed power. Republicans hesitate however because Ayn Rand seems such an easy target for critics to shoot at. Indeed, Rand herself and blatant misrepresentations of her philosophy are often denounced yet her ideas are hardly ever specifically assessed, let alone undermined. Ryan has adopted just part of her thought to plan for America’s future. Legislators of both parties ought to pay attention.

Democrats to Push Republicans on Tough Votes

In spite of continued appeals to bipartisanship, the White House finally seems realize that congressional Republicans aren’t interested in compromise. Its new strategy: making a campaign issue of what the Democrats claim is Republic intransigence.

The opposition has attempted to block major policy initiatives in both houses of Congress throughout the past year while certain Republican senators long filibustered all administration nominees for high office. Indeed, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is blamed for failing to get anything done in the Senate. After a year of fierce public debate, a health-care reform bill was finally passed but climate change and energy are still on the drawing boards.

Having apparently given up hope that a mere majority will suffice to enact such ambitious legislation, Democrats now intend to make Republicans vote for a series of modest bills which they expect will be popular with the voters. Republican lawmakers who persist in their opposition against supposedly moderate policies will be left to explain themselves to their constituency.

Reid, for instance, is set to offer a pared-down jobs bill in response to rising unemployment. Rather than budgeting so much as $154 billion for job creation, as was originally intended, Reid’s bill focuses mostly on tax provisions and will cost about $15 billion. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has already expressed her enthusiasm for the plan, stating on Friday that her members “look forward to reviewing” the package.

Administration officials as well as congressional staff members indicate that during the following weeks, the House will vote to lift the antitrust exemption for health insurance companies; enact measures to assist small businesses; extend unemployment benefits; and levy a fee on previously bailed out banks.

A resolution introduced last week by Representatives John Larson and Linda Sánchez of Connecticut and California respectively to block Social Security privatization might also be brought to a vote. The resolution, which has found over twenty co-sponsors, is exactly the sort of tough political vote that Democrats have rarely pushed their opposite numbers on since they won back Congress four years ago.

The strategy is not without risk though. There are congressional Democrats who question some of the policies to be voted on, the proposed Wall Street fee among them. And if the Republicans ever decide to resort to principle rather than satisfying themselves with scaremongering populism, they could well make a strong case against these anti-business measures.

US Launches Offensive in Helmand Province

US Marines and Afghan forces launched an attack on the Taliban-held city of Marjah in Helmand, Afghanistan this Saturday morning. The operation is the largest of its kind since President Barack Obama announced 30,000 American reinforcements for the war last December.

Between 400 and 1,000 insurgents are estimated to have gathered in Marjah. The city, with a population of 80,000, is the largest under Taliban control in the south of Afghanistan and the hub of their logistical and opium-smuggling network.

Several hundred US Marines and some Afghan soldiers were among the first wave of troops, flown in by helicopter. The offensive involves close combat in difficult terrain. A close grid of wide canals dug by the United States as an aid project decades ago make the territory a rich agricultural prize, but complicate the advance of American forces.

On the eve of the attack Friday, cars and trucks jammed the main road out of the city as hundreds of civilians fled the area ahead of the assault. For weeks, American commanders have signaled their intention to attack Marjah, hoping that civilians would seek shelter.

The operation, codenamed “Moshtarak,” or Together, is described as the largest joint offensive of the Afghan war. 15,000 troops are involved, including some 7,500 fighting in Marjah and British forces to the north in the district of Nad Ali.

Once the town is secured, NATO hopes to rush in aid and restore public services in a bid to win support among the population. The Afghans’ ability to restore those services is crucial to the success of the operation and to the preventing of the return of the Taliban.

Lessons in Irregular Warfare

Colombia’s success in combating drug trafficking and the ongoing guerilla efforts of the FARC may provide lessons for the war in Afghanistan, said the country’s foreign minister, Jaime Bermudez, last month. “Colombia has learned a lot,” he said and so has the Pentagon which previously cited “Plan Colombia” as a model for its counterinsurgency efforts in the Middle East.

The FARC is typical of modern day “hybrid” combatants: organizations that mix conventional guerilla warfare with terrorist and criminal activities. Other examples include Hamas and Hezbollah in Gaza and Lebanon respectively as well as the Iraq insurgency and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both Israel and the Western forces in the Middle East struggle with how to fight this phenomena. The Pentagon’s interest in the Colombian experience is a smart move although at the Small Wars Journal, Niel Smith points out that Sri Lanka’s recent suppression of the Tamil rebellion provides an even better model for defeating a hybrid enemy. He lists the following requirements:

  • Unwavering political will;
  • Disregard for international opinion distracting from the goal;
  • No negotiations with the forces of terror;
  • Unidirectional floor of conflict information;
  • Absence of political intervention to pull away from complete defeat of the [enemy];
  • Complete operational freedom for the security forces — Let the best men do the task;
  • Accent on young commanders;
  • Keep your neighbors in the loop.

Smith admits that, “Most western readers will find the lack of concern for civilian casualties in this strategy disconcerting.” A more “ruthless” counterinsurgency strategy will, however, resolve a conflict more quickly and therefore produce less collateral damage whereas the “population centric” approach, “while humanistic, takes longer, with uncertain probabilities of success.” In the end, such a policy, which is now adopted in Afghanistan, is likely to leave more innocent civilians dead than a campaign ruthlessly focused on defeating the enemy.

Although, for now, Western troops are determined to incur as little damage on the Afghan population as possible, sometimes exposing themselves to greater risk in the process, the United States Defense Department under Robert Gates is anticipating to fight ever more irregular wars in the future. Over objections from legislators, the secretary called the production of the F-22 fighter plane to a halt while investing $700 million in research and development of unmanned craft which are currently flown over Pakistan to combat Taliban sanctuaries there. Plans have already been drawn up for the development of unmanned aircraft systems over the next forty years.

The Navy is also planning ahead, building to much as 55 Littoral Combat Ships which will allow the force, in the White House’s words, to “focus on increasing naval capabilities that support presence, stability and counterinsurgency operations in coastal regions.” The costs of acquiring the LCSs have trippled already and instead of opting for one design, the Navy wants both Lockheed Martin’s Freedom class and General Dynamics’ Independence.

Lastly, the administration is taking serious steps to protect the country from cyber attack.

General James N. Mattis, current Commander, US Joint Forces Command and former Supreme Allied Commander for Transformation of NATO nevertheless believes that the United States “are not superior in irregular warfare” as of yet. “And that’s what we’ve got to be.” He stresses improvisation as the military’s most powerful of tools. Gates can provide all the necessary equipment, but the men in uniform have to change their tactics in order to succeed at irregular warfare.

Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reiterated Kruzel’s position when he noted last year that, “Today’s challenges and threats are not strictly military in nature, solved or countered by military means alone. We owe future generations a longer term view of security.”

Punishing Google for Its Success

The Obama Administration’s Department of Justice recently announced that it will dramatically increase enforcement of antitrust laws against successful, dominant companies who allegedly harm competition by wielding too much “market power.” What sorts of companies? Experts agree that the first targets might include one of America’s most beloved. “This will be bad news for heavyweights in the tech industries,” a leading scholar told The New York Times, “companies like Google.”

But wait: Isn’t Google a company whose products and services, centered around its fabulously popular search engine, benefit millions of Americans and businesses? Shouldn’t Americans be celebrating Google, and shouldn’t the government be leaving it alone?

No, antitrust enforcers say. Google has become too “dominant” in the search engine market — that is, too many of us choose to type in http://www.google.com/ instead of http://www.yahoo.com/ or http://www.live.com/. This allegedly gives Google too much power over those who wish to buy its coveted, keyword-based advertising. In an influential article on leading technology blog TechCrunch, Wharton professor Eric Clemons argued that “Google enjoys monopoly power over corporations that participate in its keyword auctions” and “Google is abusing its monopoly position by overcharging corporations for access to consumers.”

But what does it even mean to have “abusive monopoly power?”  Well, consider what the “power” of Google — a company no one is forced to deal with and anyone is free to compete with — really amounts to.

Through incredible technical innovation and brilliant management and marketing, Google has created by far the most popular search engine on the planet, attracting hundreds of millions of users. Through additional innovation, it has created the AdSense program, which offers advertisers the ability to reach users whose searches contain keywords associated with the advertisers’ products. Millions of advertisers eager to reach that Google user-base are willing to pay substantially higher rates than less-popular search engines can charge. Google even holds expensive auctions for top keywords.

Google’s prices and terms, often denigrated as “overcharging” and “unfair,” are in fact earned. And Google’s power to attain them exists only as long as it continues to offer superior value to its advertising customers. The minute AdSense’s rates stop making financial sense to advertisers, Google will see its dominance disappear. Critics bemoan the difficulty faced by competitors trying to overtake Google in search and advertising revenue — but that just proves how much value Google brings to the table, relative to anyone else. This is grounds for admiration of a superior competitornot prosecution for being “anticompetitive.”

Google has no power to force consumers to use its products and no power to prevent competitors from offering products of their own. Consequently, it can pose no threat to anyone’s rights or to the competitive process. (If Google ever does use coercion, as is alleged in a copyright case against the company, it should be prosecuted — but this has nothing to do with antitrust.)

There is, however, one player in today’s market that can thwart competition: the government. By using the vast and arbitrary political power given to it by antitrust law, the government can forcibly control successful companies such as Google and Microsoft, telling them what products they cannot sell, what markets they cannot enter, what prices they cannot charge. Obama’s new push to “protect competition” is the real threat to competition. Under the reign of antitrust, any superior company can be stopped in its tracks because some bureaucrat, company, or academic decides that the prices in its voluntary contracts are too high, or its voluntary terms are too onerous, or evento take another common accusation against Google — that its stable of free products is too large! In other words, Google is to be shackled so that future competitors can catch up to Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Books.

Success earned in a free, competitive process is an achievement. Our Department of Justice regards it as a crime. Thus, we may well see Google undergo the fate of Microsoft, which has been tortured, drained, and shackled by more than a decade of antitrust persecution — for adding a web browser to its fabulously successful operating system. Google famously encourages employees to devote 20 percent of their time to creative projects of their own choosing. An antitrust case could effectively force much of that precious time and energy to be devoted to mollifying and obeying Washington’s economic little Caesars. Let’s challenge this travesty-in-the-making, along with its underlying theory that successful companies possess “monopoly power,” before America commits yet another sin against capitalism.

This story first appeared at the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights and was published in Investor’s Business Daily, June 4, 2009.

New START Delayed Again

Further delays in the signing of a new START between Russia and the United States cast doubt upon nuclear arms reduction once again.

The two nuclear powers proved unable to reach agreement in December of last year and again in January in spite of claims that 95 percent of the treaty had been prepared. On February 1, American and Russian negotiators convened in Geneva, Switzerland to work out their differences but so far, little progress appears to have been made.

The Russians are objecting to revised American plans to construct a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. Last year, American president Barack Obama agreed to withdraw his intent to built the system largely in the Czech Republic to appease Russian fears about further NATO entrenchment upon its former sphere of influence. With Iran’s nuclear enrichment program advancing however, current American planning is to operate the missile shield from Poland and Romania. Read more “New START Delayed Again”

Vague Pledge of Support for Greece

European Union leaders convened in Brussels Thursday to discuss the Greek debt crisis. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy promised that the eurozone would provide “determined and coordinated action if needed” to preserve the currency’s stability although Greece, according to Van Rompuy, “did not ask for any financial support.”

Europe’s southern member state has been struggling with grave fiscal deficits and a heavy debt burden, sparking fear that at some point, the country might actually have to declare bankruptcy. The summit is meant to assure financial markets that the EU won’t let that happen. Van Rompuy spoke of the eurozone’s “shared responsibility” but whether this vague pledge of support did the trick is doubtful. After the Council President read his statement, the euro slipped slightly to an eight-month low of $1.37. The currency traded at $1.51 last December.

Van Rompuy stated that Greece will adopt “additional measures” to gets its budget under control. “We call on the Greek government to implement all these measures in a rigorous and effective manner,” he said.

No concrete aid was announced though. European leaders are reluctant to actually bail out Greece. Especially Germany, which, as Europe’s largest economy, would be forced to take the brunt of such a rescue effort, doesn’t care much to help out the nation that for many years violated European rules against overspending.

At the same time, Europe is wary of letting the International Monetary Fund extend help for such interference would be seen a sign of weakness on the union’s part.

Get Rid of Reid

“The one personnel change Obama most urgently needs,” David Rothkopf call it. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid enjoyed a ten vote majority throughout the past year but couldn’t get anything done. It took nearly all of 2009 to pass a health-care reform bill while the Senate hasn’t gotten around to addressing climate chance, energy and financial reform yet.

He may be “a great guy with an inspiring personal story,” notes Rothkopf but the Democrats need stronger leadership in the Senate. If it hadn’t been for Reid, the administration might have accomplished many of its stated goals already.

If the Senate had passed every bill the House has already passed and the President had signed into law major health-care reform and major climate and energy legislation (to pick just two items caught in the Senate logjam), Obama and his team would be hailed for the best opening year since Roosevelt.

Although Illinois Senator Dick Durbin is the next in line, Rothkopf recommends Chuck Schumer, the senior Senator from New York. “He’s the only one with a shot at becoming a Lyndon Johnson-like, master of the Senate.” But he will only be able to pull it off with the active support of the White House. “That’s a one-two punch that might get something done,” writes Rothkopf, and really “the one personnel issue that should be getting the most attention in DC circles these days.”

Obama Doesn’t Begrudge Bonuses

Where President Obama was previously infuriated when large Wall Street firms once again distributed multimillion dollar rewards, he now says that he doesn’t “begrudge” the $17 and $9 million bonuses awarded to the CEOs of JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs respectively. “There are some baseball players who are making more than.”

In an interview with Bloomberg BusinessWeek, which will appear on newsstands next Friday, the president said that he, “like most of the American people,” doesn’t begrudge people success or wealth. “That is part of the free-market system.”

It is, although, as critics point out, these banks received many billions of dollars in government aid. Extraordinarily high bonuses don’t go well with the public right now and Obama, they argue, must consider that.

The president is, however. Read more “Obama Doesn’t Begrudge Bonuses”