Free the Scholars

Justin Logan discussed the “Travesty in Tehran” – the arrest and incarceration of Haleh Esfandiari — astutely yesterday. As he noted, these actions are a real provocation at a time when reduced tensions between Iran and the United States are devoutly to be hoped for. But more importantly, the unjust imprisonment of a peaceful scholar is a striking affront to human rights. The people of both Iran and the United States who want to see Iran as part of a peaceful and democratic world must deplore these actions.

And of course, to make matters worse, Esfandiari is not the only scholar currently being held by the Iranian government. The regime is also holding Kian Tajbakhsh of the Open Society Institute; journalist Parnaz Azima from the U.S.-funded Radio Farda; and Ali Shakeri, a peace activist and founding board member at the University of California, Irvine’s Center for Citizen Peacebuilding. There is no evidence that any of these people are engaged in espionage or threatening Iranian national security. Indeed, most or all of them have worked to improve relations between Iran and the United States and to turn both countries away from a collision course.

Leading human rights groups and activists have spoken out against these arrests. In a joint statement, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders, the International Federation for Human Rights, and 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi urged Iran to stop “harassment of dual nationals.”

To add insult to injury, Esfandiari’s husband was informed yesterday that Citibank had frozen his wife’s bank accounts ”in accordance with U.S. Sanctions regulations,” which stipulate that U.S. banks are prohibited from servicing accounts for residents of Iran. A resident She’s an involuntary resident of the notorious Evin Prison. Late in the evening, after many phone calls and the intercession of the State Department, Citibank relented and unfroze the accounts. As painful as that experience was, her husband no doubt wishes that a day’s worth of phone calls could persuade an Islamic government to admit its mistake.

Posted on May 31, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Civil Liberties,Foreign Policy,General

We’ll Have Fun, Fun, Fun till the Taxman Takes the Good Times Away

Rising property taxes may tear down a beach amusement park that has lasted 117 years at Ocean City, Md., where thousands of Washington and Baltimore families escape the summer heat. The Washington Post reports:

For 117 summers, generations of children have frolicked through Trimper’s Rides on this beach resort town’s signature boardwalk. But this Memorial Day weekend might begin the last summer they circle the antique wooden carousel, fling around the Tilt-a-Whirl and loop through the Tidal Wave roller coaster.

The Trimpers say they are considering closing the amusement park and arcade this year.

Trimper's Rides, an Ocean City mainstay since 1890, is owned by 14 family members, some of whom are seeking help from the state to keep the park open. Linda Davidson — The Washington Post

As Ocean City has exploded into a megaresort, property taxes have soared for Trimper’s, which operates on the last chunk of undeveloped land on the town’s three-mile boardwalk. In the past three years, family members said, their assessed property value has tripled, from $21 million to $65 million.

You couldn’t blame the Trimper family if they decided to cash in on the value of their land. But it would be a shame if the family wanted to continue operating the oldest continuously owned amusement park in the United States, and rising property taxes forced them to sell. After all, their income isn’t going up nearly as much as the assessed value of the land. So an owner being taxed on the theoretical value of land that he isn’t planning to sell is then forced by the burden of taxation to sell his land after all.

The power to tax is the power to destroy charming old amusement parks.

We might note that the same phenomenon can destroy environmental amenities. A landowner who prefers to leave his land undeveloped even as development happens around or near him can find the assessed value of his land rising, and thus faces a higher tax burden, and thus feels compelled to sell the land to a developer. I have nothing against development if it’s a market phenomenon, but I don’t like the idea of conservation-minded landowners being forced by the property tax into making a decision they wouldn’t otherwise choose.

Of course, one might object that the Trimpers and the conservation-minded landowners have just as much obligation to pay for the state of Maryland’s budget as any other landowner. And you can hardly expect a big modern state like Maryland to subsist on the taxes it can assess on a three-block area valued at $21 million. So that’s part of the problem–governments today do so much that they can’t be supported with modest levels of taxation.

And then–to bring it full circle–the very people who demand bountiful government services that require burdensome taxes then bemoan the loss of cultural and environmental amenities; so they propose that government subsidize amusement parks, or buy up land and keep it undeveloped, or forbid development in designated areas. Thus requiring more government spending, more taxes, more forced sales, and the cycle continues.

So kids, when you see Trimper’s being demolished to build some more oceanfront hotels and condominiums, remember that big government did it.

Posted on May 30, 2007  Posted to Budget & Tax Policy,Cato@Liberty

National Service Is Garbage

In Albania, anyway. NPR reports that garbage is piling up in the streets of Tirana, and “It’s something you could blame on the fall of communism.” As reporter Vicky O’Hara explained,

When communism collapsed here in the early 1900s so did the city’s system of garbage removal. Shpresa Rira, a teacher at the foreign language institute in Tirana, remembers that under communism families were ordered to spend part of their weekend picking up trash.

Ms. SHPRESA RIRA: It was called the communist Saturday because people were meant to come to come together and give their services to the community.

O’HARA: Rira says that people were not paid but they turned out anyway, because if they didn’t, the consequences could be dire.

So it was universal compulsory service, like Melvin Laird and John Edwards want for the United States. But it turns out it didn’t work so well in Albania.

The communist tactic, she says, destroyed community spirit in Albania.

Ms. RIRA: We thought that we were closely connected, but as soon as communism was over, you know, we understood that that community spirit didn’t exist at all. It was just a fake.

And like most collectivist systems, it did not “foster a culture of responsibility for our democracy.” Instead, it left people expecting that government would handle everything. So now, the government no longer threatens people with dire consequences for not picking up trash, and no one does. The city has been slow to create a normal garbage collection system. Maybe this forced community spirit stuff isn’t such a good idea after all.

Posted on May 30, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Civil Liberties,General,Int'l Economics & Development

The Search for the Libertarian Vote

An NPR report on independent voters in Nebraska included this comment from a hospital diversity director: “There’s a large group of people in this country that believe in smaller government, that believe in balanced budget. I think that’s a pretty popular concept. Where [the Republicans] run into trouble is strict adherence to a couple of social issues.” As we’ve been saying.

What does a diversity director do in Nebraska, anyway I’m thinking he tries to persuade people that “the farmer and the cowman should be friends.”

Posted on May 29, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Government & Politics

State to Young People: You Belong to Me

Under the benign headline “Turning Apathy Into Good Deeds,” former secretary of defense Melvin Laird endorses a strikingly authoritarian proposal: “a system of compulsory universal civil service for young people.” Laird recognizes that the military doesn’t need all the recruits a draft would produce and that today’s high-tech military needs longer-term training and commitment. But the drawn-out war in Iraq threatens to discourage future enlistments. So “universal service” might pressure just enough young people to join the army, while also producing a bumper crop of slave labor for schools, Head Start, Peace Corps, hospitals, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the State Department.

Laird thinks such a program would “foster a culture of responsibility for our democracy.” Not among free and responsible people, it wouldn’t. It may be no accident that Laird repeatedly mentions democracy, but the words freedom and liberty–the fundamental values of America, which our constitutional republic was created to protect–do not appear in his piece.

Laird does not address how you square compulsory service with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Laird’s proposed “service” is clearly involuntary.

For generations and centuries, old people have complained that today’s young people just don’t appreciate the sacrifices of their elders. They talk too loud and they don’t care about the community. They need, in the words of William James, “to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.”

And meanwhile, they can do a lot of useful things that we older taxpayers would like to have done but don’t want to pay for. After all, in a market economy, if you want more people working in hospitals or day-care centers, you can pay them to do so. And if you don’t think $2.9 trillion is enough to pay for all the useful services of the federal government, you can propose a tax increase. But how much easier it might seem just to commandeer four million free or cheap laborers.

Of course, they’re not really so cheap. You do have to pay them something. And you’ll need massive new layers of bureaucracy to manage four million people (the approximate number of Americans who turn 18 each year).

And then there are the opportunity costs. Workers will be allocated to government make-work jobs instead of the jobs where the market demand is strongest. The economy will be less efficient and less productive. As Doug Bandow writes, “paying young people to sweep floors entails the cost of forgoing whatever else we could do with that money and the cost of forgoing whatever else those young people could do with their time. An additional dollar spent on medical research might be a better investment than one used to add an extra hospital helper; an additional young person who finished school and entered the field of biogenetics might increase social welfare more than one more kid shelving books in a library.”

What kind of message does compulsory service send to young people It tells them that they are national resources, state property, that they do not own themselves. That’s not the message the Founders thought they were sending in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It’s not an attitude appropriate for citizens of a free society. It’s a collectivist, authoritarian concept. It says, with much less charm than the old song, “You belong to me.”

Melvin Laird should be ashamed. So should John Edwards.

Posted on May 28, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Civil Liberties,Defense & National Security,General,Libertarian Philosophy

Hot Stock Tip

“For the past four years, the Clintons have jetted around on Vinod Gupta’s corporate plane, to Switzerland, Hawaii, Jamaica, Mexico — $900,000 worth of travel. The former president secured a $3.3 million consulting deal with Gupta’s technology firm,” according to the Washington Post.

The hot tip Short the stock of any technology firm that values Bill Clinton’s advice at $3.3 million.

Posted on May 28, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Government & Politics

Sharks and the Tragedy of the Commons

The global shark population may be sharply declining, according to an article in the Washington Post. Actually, the article never quite gives a number for the global population, but it does warn that “something must be done to prevent sharks from disappearing from the planet.” And there are suggestive reports like this:

In March, a team of Canadian and U.S. scientists calculated that between 1970 and 2005, the number of scalloped hammerhead and tiger sharks may have declined by more than 97 percent along the East Coast, and that the population of bull, dusky and smooth hammerhead sharks dropped by more than 99 percent. Globally, 16 percent of 328 surveyed shark species are described by the World Conservation Union as threatened with extinction.

Post reporter Juliet Eilperin notes that shark attacks can be big news, but in reality sharks kill about 4 people a year worldwide, while people kill “26 million to 73 million sharks annually.”

Why kill sharks To make money, of course, mostly for the Asian delicacy shark-fin soup. Shark fins are much more valuable than shark meat. Mexican shark hunters say they get $100 a kilogram for shark fins but only $1.50 a kilo for meat.

Unlike fish that reproduce in large numbers starting at an early age, most sharks take years to reach sexual maturity and produce only a few offspring at a time. Shark fishermen also tend to target pregnant females, which are more profitable because they are larger. As a result, said Michael Sutton, director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Center for the Future of the Oceans, “there is no such thing as a sustainable shark fishery.”

So OK, here’s where Eilperin should have said, “Wait a minute . . . if there’s money to be made, why would greedy capitalists want to destroy the goose that lays the golden egg Shouldn’t they want to maximize their long-term profits ” And if she had, she might have run into a concept called “the tragedy of the commons.” Owners try to maximize the long-term value of their property. Timber owners don’t cut down all the trees and sell them this year; they cut and replant at a sustainable rate. But when people don’t own things, they have no incentive to maintain the long-term value. That’s why passenger pigeons went extinct, but chickens did not; why the buffalo was nearly exterminated but not the cow. (more…)

Posted on May 28, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Economics & Economic Philosophy,Environment & Climate,Int'l Economics & Development,Libertarian Philosophy

U Should’ve Known Better

Perhaps future presidents will decide that young women named Monica look good at the beginning but always end in disaster.

President Bush must have been tempted to bomb an aspirin factory yesterday.

Posted on May 24, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Government & Politics

Pet Rocks, Leisure Suits, and Oil Companies

The often sensible business columnist at the Washington Post, Steven Pearlstein, has a really bad idea today: “Put the government into the oil business.” He wants to create a federal oil company that would be required to “operate at only a modest profit, while doing everything in its power to expand supply, smooth prices and expose collusive behavior.”

I can only wonder if the maid cleaned his desk and accidentally left a 1970s folder on top. Back in the 70s Democrats kept talking about creating a national oil company to “use as a yardstick” to measure the performance of the oil companies. One wag noted at the time that Gulf Oil was going to buy Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus to use as a yardstick by which to measure the federal government.

Gas prices go up and down, as Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren have discussed. If prices are being held above market levels by some sort of collusion, then you wouldn’t need a tax-funded government company to offer lower prices; profit-seeking entrepreneurs could do it. Let’s leave the 70s be, and watch for high prices to stimulate conservation, exploration, and alternative sources of energy.

Posted on May 23, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Energy

A Brave Heart for Atlas Shrugged

Randall Wallace’s script for the movie Atlas Shrugged is 129 pages long, according to an interview in Script magazine. That seems pretty short for such a massive novel. According to one TV critic, “On a two-hour movie, the average screenplay runs 120 pages. Maybe 125. For ‘A Few Good Men,’ [the famously dialogue-heavy] Aaron Sorkin’s weighed in at 149. For ‘Schindler’s List,’ on which he did a final ‘dialogue polish’: 183 pages.” I don’t think they’re going to include John Galt’s Speech.

Wallace says he has finished the screenplay, and it’s been “greenlit” by the studio. Angelina Jolie has been signed to play Dagny Taggart, and the movie may be in theaters next summer.

Wallace was nominated for an Oscar for his script for Braveheart, another movie popular with many libertarians. He first read the novel when his son at Duke University recommended it. Wallace gave his son C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which suggests some interesting dinner-table conversations. (He’s also writing a screenplay for Lewis’s Screwtape Letters.)

Wallace found a familiar theme in Atlas Shrugged:

The assertion that change occurs when heroic individuals are willing to stand up–and further, that people in the herd want to be heroic individuals but aren’t encouraged to do so until they find a leader worth following–is very much in Braveheart, and it’s something thoroughly ingrained in the American psyche.

Wallace himself does not claim to be an Objectivist or a libertarian. He seems to be more enamored with the idea of great ideas than with the ideas themselves. And many fans of Atlas Shrugged are going to be skeptical that you can capture its essence in two hours. But I think Wallace is correct to say that a movie is not a book on screen. It has to be a creative work in its own medium. If it works well, it will introduce the ideas and the book to millions of new readers.

Wallace may direct the movie as well. The New York Times tells the story of the 35-year struggle to bring Atlas Shrugged to the big screen, with key roles played by Godfather producer Albert Ruddy and Objectivist businessman John Aglialaro. Script magazine is here, but the Wallace interview is not online.

Posted on May 23, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,General,Libertarian Philosophy

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