DEBATES!

I wrote some debate responses on both sides of a few issues of interest to me for the volunteer-created magazine here. I thought I’d share them while I work on a really cool post, coming soon. I know there’s a lot here, but if you like this kind of thing and have any reactions/comments, please post them below! I’d love to continue the conversation.

Drones

Against: The use of unmanned drone aircraft to bomb suspected terrorists in other countries is a strategy that does more harm than good for both short-term and long-term national security. The nature of foreign intelligence makes it impossible to ensure that non-combatants are not being killed. Estimates range from 300-600 civilians killed by drone strikes since Obama took office. Not only is it morally unconscionable to kill innocent people, but it radicalizes the foreign citizens who witness or hear about such tactics. The Bush and Obama administrations have eschewed transparency about such issues, and the nature of military attacks outside of a declaration of war is a clear abuse of executive power. President Obama has taken the program even further than his predecessor in terms of scope and personal involvement by making the decisions himself on when to pull the trigger on a suspect. This is too much power for any single person to wield without checks or balances. It’s a winning strategy politically, however, which is clearly why it has increased of late. From the president’s perspective, it represents a relatively low-cost and low-profile way to achieve kills that can be trumpeted to the American people as successes in the struggle against terrorism. The question is whether we want our representatives acting on the basis of what’s politically most expedient or, instead, on what’s best for our country and the world.

For: In today’s complex international and domestic climate, those in charge of the defense of American people and others around the world are constrained in what they can do. We’ve seen how much large-scale military action can cost as we push past the decade mark of occupying countries in the Middle East. Terrorist organizations like the Taliban and Al Qaeda continue to plot and attempt to carry out suicide and other attacks, and the only realistic means of combating the particular modern terrorist network is through the coordinated use of on-the-ground intelligence and the surgical strike capabilities of drone aircraft. If we allowed the possibility of non-combatant deaths to prevent us from attacking high-level targets we would be validating their strategies of moving amid civilians and effectively allow them to act with impunity. We rarely have the opportunities like the raid on the Bin Laden compound and the reality is that drone attacks are often the only avenue we have to pursue enemy combatants. President Obama’s careful strategy of raising standards for the intelligence needed to launch these attacks and his taking personal responsibility for making the decision is another step in the direction of minimizing unintended deaths. The unmanned drone strikes carried out to date have allowed us to do the most damage while incurring the least costs, both material and human. To allow a few highly visible deaths to undermine efforts to prevent thousands of deaths due to a terrorist attack would be a terrible mistake.

Austerity vs. Stimulus

For Stimulus: We’re muddling through a period of weak economic growth caused by misguided financial exuberance and the resulting drop in consumer confidence. As John Maynard Keynes pointed out almost 80 years ago, when demand falls it can create a cycle of contraction that has no natural stopping point. When demand drops, producers lower their production and shed workers, which contributes to another round of dropping demand as unemployment rises and people become uncertain and start saving more. What’s needed is a break in the cycle and, fortunately for us, the current conditions are very good for the government to serve in this role. US borrowing costs are at historic lows, so stimulus spending would be relatively easy to do. It’s true that the long-term debt situation is unsustainable, but there are two points to be made here. First; the best way to stabilize the long-term debt situation is to prime our economic engine by utilizing our unused productive capacity. Second; the gloomy prognostications of the right all evaporate if the federal government does little in the next several years (something that is becoming second nature to Congress). Enough automatic taxes and cuts will go into effect to almost completely stabilize the debt in the medium term. It would be folly to pass up our best chance to stabilize the economy simply because some people have irrational fear that in the future we will be so irresponsible as to let our debt truly wreck the economy. Moreover, if the federal government doesn’t step up to the plate to fill the demand gap, who will? Europe is much more likely to drag us down with them, China and India’s growth are slowing, and if nobody is spending we may move into a global slowdown rather than just a US slowdown. The federal reserve should coordinate with the fiscal authorities to stimulate and create new demand in the short-term while making real progress to raise tax revenues and eliminate unnecessary and unhelpful spending. If not, we may follow Europe into a fiscal and monetary disaster.

Against stimulus: Austerity is an unfortunate word to use to describe fiscal responsibility. In fact, the whole narrative of the financial collapse that the left uses to frame the debate over the economy is misguided. History has shown us time and again that when the government gets more involved and tries to steer the economy it does more harm than good. The best example is the one that liberals trot out to demonstrate government intervention at work. Everyone knows that FDR’s New Deal ended the Great Depression, right? Except that it didn’t. Much of what the New Deal tried to do was struck down by the Supreme Court before it could be implemented and many on the left conveniently forget the fact that the nation was plunged into a second recession two years after much of the New Deal was passed. The idea that there could be an unstoppable cycle of contraction is patently silly for this reason: when prices fall below their actual value, there are many people scouring the market for deals and at some point they will begin to buy and this will turn the tide toward investment and consumption. The problem after the 2007 crash was that the government didn’t allow bad banks and businesses to fail. Instead, they promoted uncertainty by bailing out companies that had invested poorly in the past and picking winners and losers in the green tech and car industries. An activist government creates what economists call ‘regime uncertainty’ and ‘rent-seeking behavior.’ Both are destructive to innovation and production. Even aside from the historic levels of debt that threaten the viability of the entire economy, the best thing that the government can do is provide basic services and safety nets and maintain a consistent and minimalist approach to the economy so that businesses and workers can get back to producing and innovating again.

The Buffett Rule

For: Tax policy is not just about raising revenues for public goods. It’s also about fairness and, dare I say it, redistribution. Immediately, accusations of socialism are trumpeted in order to quash any discussion of the moral issues involved. The only moral premise that you need to accept in order to support progressive taxation is that the world is naturally unfair and human societies should work to remedy this as best we can. The argument against redistribution goes something like this: why should people who have not earned as much money be allowed to take from those who deserve what they have earned? The answer is actually embedded in the question because the notion of ‘deserving’ what one ‘earns’ is so fraught as to make it nearly meaningless. People work and live in environments that are shaped by forces far outside their control, not least of all by luck, so the idea that whatever income you generate should be yours just because it comes to you is absurd. Even apart from the moral argument, the practical implications of an increasingly regressive tax structure will be to diminish social and economic mobility (which has been happening for decades) and further entrench the power of a few to control and profit from the many. The simple truth is that concentrations of power and resources tend to be self-reinforcing and only through collective action and legislation can we ensure that every individual has a fair chance at achieving their dreams. On survey after survey, people overwhelmingly respond that they prefer a distribution of wealth more like that of Sweden than that of the United States. If we truly are a democracy committed to justice and equal opportunity, there should be no question that those who benefit disproportionately should be expected to contribute more to support the system by which they profited. The Buffett tax is just a small, mostly symbolic, gesture that indicates the need to recommit our nation to its founding principles of liberty, pursuit of happiness, and justice for all.

 Against: The Occupy movement was, simply put, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” This because the idea that inequality is inherently bad is mistaken. Only if inequality has been reached by unreasonable means, ie., cheating, can it be morally attacked, and only if it can be shown that inequality is bad for the country can it be discredited on practical grounds. First, the moral case. If inequality arises out of competition among free individuals for scarce resources and willing sales of labor and goods, then the principles of liberty are functioning as they should and it would be impossible to change the situation without violating someone’s freedom. So, has inequality arisen from unfair competition or natural causes? Many people seem to think that the undeniable rise in inequality in the US must be caused by people cheating, but they fail to realize that it is the natural byproduct of a globalized and interconnected world. Companies can scale their production much more, celebrities can reach more fans, sports are enjoyed across the entire globe instead of just in a small town, all of which make it easier to earn large amounts of money. This is not a bad thing, considering that every spectator or consumer is freely paying for it and it encourages people to innovate. Therefore, not only is inequality (achieved fairly) morally positive, it’s also the best way, practically, to improve the world and use the ‘invisible hand’ to promote the general welfare. Then there’s the problem of how people might go about ‘redistributing’ the money from people who have worked for it to those who have not. It’s politically popular in a democracy to take from those who have resources and give to those who do not because there are more poor and middle income voters than rich ones. This doesn’t make it right to do. If everyone shares equally in the benefits of public investment and safety nets, then they should share equally the cost. Everyone has an innate sense of fairness and so responds to surveys saying that they want a more equal distribution of wealth. This ignores the crucial question of how to do this without destroying the incentives to innovate and violating the rights people have to their property. Because these problems cannot be resolved, we must trust in people’s individual innovation and drive to keep our system working.

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