Random thoughts, 15 April 2009

2009/04/15

Today being what it is, my first thought is in regard to taxes. A new Gallup poll indicates that 48% of Americans feel that their Federal income tax rates are appropriate. [1] Gallup itself comments that this is one of the highest positive rates it has seen on this type of poll since the organization began collecting information on this topic in 1956. Additionally, I just heard one of the President’s financial advisors using this information on MSNBC as proof that the administration’s policies are being well-received by the nation. Two thoughts occur to me here. First, given that approximately 30% of all tax filers had zero or negative tax liability, [2] I am not surprised by this response. Depending on how the President intends to change the tax code in the near future, I suspect that this sort of favorable inclination will remain as it is, or get stronger; after all, if one does not owe any taxes, would not one be expected to see their tax burden as appropriate? Secondly, I do think it is misleading to use this information to indicate support for the President’s policies at this time. Since the President has only been in office for just under four months, none of his policies could have had any effect on the tax filings that are taking place today; remember that the tax filings due today are for last year’s taxes, when the current President was, well, not the President yet. Perhaps his sycophants refer to the positive inclinations that the citizenry felt towards the President’s tax policies when he was a Senator. Oh right. The Senate does not set fiscal policy. [3]

There have been some new developments with the situation off the Horn of Africa. Pirates have attacked another U.S.-flagged vessel (which, thankfully, escaped with only minor damage), [4] and the Pentagon is apparently considering striking at the pirate bases on land. [5] I am not entirely sure that the latter is such a good idea; are we not already over-extended as it is with our land-based commitments elsewhere in the world? The Pentagon officials are correct in their assessment that the lawlessness of the region is a substantial contributing factor to the rise in pirate attacks in the area. Unfortunately, unless they are proposing that we send armies into the region to keep and enforce the peace, and to establish new governments in the region, we have little hope of staving off the support that the pirates currently enjoy. Airstrikes alone cannot make and enforce the peace, and without armed men on the ground, we cannot do more than delay the resurgence of pirate support. Given our recent track record in the regime-change business, I am not inclined to think that we would be successful in such an endeavor.

I previously suggested that we would probably be most successful at simply increasing our naval presence in the area, and I still think that this would be the best course of action. History buffs will note that we faced a similar situation very early in our Republic’s history in the form of the two Barbary Wars. Indeed, those wars, and the Quasi-War with France, showed the efficacy of even a small, heavily armed naval force in protecting our maritime interests; note that our Navy’s first six armed frigates (including the famous U.S.S. Constitution, i.e. “Old Ironsides”) were commissioned in response to the hostilities on the Barbary Coast. [6][7] At the time, we also engaged in land-based operations; indeed, the Battle of Tripoli Harbor was one of the seminal moments for the U.S. Marine Corps. Keep in mind, however, that the Barbary Wars are not directly analogous to our current situation; whereas the Barbary pirates operated with the support of the local governments of the Barbary Coast (nominally under the control of the Ottoman Empire), a similar situation does not exist in the Horn of Africa. The whole problem in the region is that there are no strong governments that could address the situation (or, for that matter, support the pirates). Overall, I think it would be far simpler for us to restrict our interdiction efforts in the region to policing specific corridors for our merchant vessels to use, and advise any ships that choose to go outside of those corridors that they do so at their own peril.

In other international news, there is new evidence suggesting that the President is willing to withdraw the demand for Iran to stop its uranium enrichment activities as an incentive to bring them to the negotiating table. [8] Granted, I am no expert at diplomatic affairs, but since when do we bow to another nation’s demands, just to get the latter to negotiate with us? Are we not, in so doing, putting ourselves in danger of giving the appearance of weakness prior to the actual negotiations? If another nation can dictate to us the terms under which they are willing to negotiate with us, do we not lose most (if not all) of our credibility in the process? Methinks we risk too much to achieve peace for our time. [9]

Finally, in a conceptually related move, Pakistan has accepted the Taliban-supported institution of sharia law in the largely lawless Swat Valley region near the Afghan border. [10] This reminds me of something that Rousseau mentions in The Social Contract: “Freedom is not a fruit of every climate, and it is not therefore within the capacity of every people.” [11] Much has been made of our efforts over the past decade to spread freedom and democracy throughout the world, but the hard truth is that not every nation is ready for such a burden of responsibility. While we take it for granted, our system of government resulted from centuries of political and philosophical inquiry, without which, we would not have been able to even give form to the ideas that our Constitution enshrines. While I applaud our desire to spread liberty and oppose oppresion in all its forms, I suspect that we will not be successful in many of these cases; I just don’t think that these nations are ready for such a form of government. Unfortunately, we are still engaged with many of these such nations, and unless we are able to extricate ourselves from these entanglements, I fear that we will continue to try our hand at regime change on the cheap. I would prefer that we minimize our entanglements with such nations to the greatest extent possible, but I suspect that with our current President in charge, we will likely expand, rather than contract, such engagements. After all, we should do our best to get along with the rest of the world, right?

Notes:

[1]: Gallup poll, 13 April 20o9.

[2]: Statistics from The Tax Foundation, available here. Report from 2006, so I don’t know if the information has changed in recent years, though I suspect that it is not so different now as it was then.

[3]: Article I, Section 7, Clause 1 of the U.S. Federal Constitution. Granted, the Senate may propose revenue bills for consideration by the House of Reprsentatives, but all bills for revenue purposes must officially originate in the House.

[4]: CNN article, 15 April 2009.

[5]: CNN article, 14 April 2009.

[6]: History of the Barbary Wars available here and here. (Wikipedia articles)

[7]: Original text of the Act to Provide a Naval Armament of 1794 (1 Stat. 350, 27 March 1794) available here (Library of Congress website); note that the Act specifically references “the depredations committed by the Algerine corsairs” as the primary justification for the act, though it was common at the time for naval vessels and privateers of foreign nations to prey on our merchant ships on the high seas.

[8]: CNN article, 15 April 2009.

[9]: “Peace for our time” is mostly remembered for its ironic value, as well as beinig the symbol of the failure of appeasement to satisfy the Nazi quest for lebensraum prior to the official start of hostilities in World War II. See here for the context within which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain spoke these words.

[10]: CNN article, 14 April 2009.

[11]: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book III, Chapter 8: That All Forms of Government Do Not Suit All Countries; Paragraph 1.

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