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‘Should We Have Waged the Iraq War?’ Is Not a Gotcha Question

Justin Logan

A peculiar tic of contemporary American nationalism is the notion that the American state, particularly if helmed by a Republican president, makes no errors of commission in its conduct of military affairs. No American war was ill-founded, or aimed at a threat that didn’t exist or didn’t warrant the effort.

This logic never applies in the domestic sphere for Republicans, where government programs are at best naive and bound to make problems worse or at worst, venal and Machiavellian.

This tic is the only reason I can think of that we’re actually sustaining a debate in 2015 about whether, with the benefit of hindsight, it was a good idea to invade Iraq. Jim Fallows at the Atlantic argues that nobody should again ask a politician the question, since

To the extent voters—and donors—care about competent foreign policy, they deserve to know the answer.”

the only people who might say Yes on the Iraq question would be those with family ties (poor Jeb Bush); those who are inept or out of practice in handling potentially tricky questions (surprisingly, again poor Bush); or those who are such Cheney-Bolton-Wolfowitz-style bitter enders that they survey the landscape of “what we know now”—the cost and death and damage, the generation’s worth of chaos unleashed in the Middle East, and of course the absence of WMDs—and still say, Heck of a job.

I actually think this makes the case why the question should be—or at least should have been—asked, since at least one fortunate Republican son, Marco Rubio, belongs in Fallows’s bitter-ender camp. To the extent voters—and donors—care about competent foreign policy, they deserve to know that Rubio strongly opposes it, even with the benefit of hindsight.

But beyond the politics, a weird narrative has begun to emerge on the right that asking about the Iraq war is a “gotcha question.” Keep in mind: We are discussing a policy that was dreamed up by the Bush administration, marketedby the Bush administration and purchased by the vast majority of our legislators, including the likely Democratic nominee in 2016.

For example, conservative message man Rush Limbaugh whined on his radio show that this is nothing more than a “gotcha question” designed to tarnish Republicans. Iraq War monger Eliot Cohen would later echo this argument, lamenting “gotcha journalism” and calling the question a “silly hypothetical, and the people who ask it should know better.”

Pardon me. Nearly 5,000 Americans are dead, tens of thousands grievously wounded and more than a hundred thousand Iraqis were killed, two of whom were this little girl’s parents. We spent trillions of tax dollars. We destroyed the political order that existed in Iraq, and a new one has yet to emerge. (To the partisans: Yes! President Obama, too, has failed to produce order in Iraq.)

The conservative movement used to harp on personal responsibility (at least for poor single mothers in inner cities). Today’s conservative foreign policy elite seems to revile that same value. Fortunately for our purposes, Anatol Lieven had all the necessary words for the Eliot Cohens of the world back in 2007:

by contributing… to a hasty, poorly-planned military operation, it must be repeated that Dr. Cohen took on himself a measure of the moral, intellectual and political responsibility for precisely those U.S. administration mistakes in Iraq which he now denounces, and which have cost so many American lives. It is disappointing—though not surprising—that Dr. Cohen himself does not realize that this record demands from him, as an honorable man, a lengthy period of quiet, private reflection on his mistakes and the reasons for them.

If no personal price at all is to be paid in terms of careers for errors on this scale, which contributed to the deaths of thousands of Americans, then the long-term consequences for U.S. government and U.S. democracy could be dire. If being proved obviously, dreadfully wrong brings no long-term consequences, and being proved right brings no long-term rewards, then why in the future should any U.S. analyst, adviser, commentator or public figure ever take a public stand in favor of what he or she believes to be right and correct, if this is going to lead to short-term unpopularity and career damage?

He or she shouldn’t. He or she should go along, and get along … and maybe even run for president.

Justin Logan is the director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

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Memo to Congress: Don’t Do Something, Just Stand There

David Boaz

Congress has a golden opportunity over the next six weeks to significantly improve public policy and expand American freedom by doing nothing. In fact, a long vacation would be just the ticket.

The Export-Import Bank’s authorization expires on June 30, after being kicked down the road from last September. Let it expire.

And the Patriot Act’s most controversial provisions — bulk collection of Americans’ phone records stemming from Section 215 (already ruled illegal by a federal court), roving wiretap authority, and “lone wolf” provisions — will expire on June 1 unless they are reauthorized.

A six-week vacation would give a boost to economic growth and our Fourth Amendment privacy rights. It’s a win-win.”

This is a great opportunity for Congress to take a long vacation — go back to their districts and find out what’s on voters’ minds, take a fact-finding trip to Paris and Rome, or just relax at the beach — and let these misguided laws expire.

Members should stay on vacation through the Fourth of July and come back to Washington after listening to some speeches about our inalienable rights, free enterprise, and the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The Ex-Im Bank is the most visible example of cronyism and corporate welfare, which has lately come under fire from both Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street activists. It has an especially close relationship with Boeing, which receives about 40 percent of the bank’s subsidies.

Free enterprise means that people are free to start and build companies, seek customers, and make profits if they succeed. The system works well if there’s competition. But subsidy programs like Ex-Im put a thumb on the scale. They help some companies at the expense of others. The bank backs only about 2 percent of American exports, with 76 percent of its assistance going to a few big companies such as Boeing, General Electric, and Bechtel. Government shouldn’t be picking winners, it should set a few rules of the road and let companies go out and compete vigorously for customers.

Members of Congress committed to free enterprise and competition should let the Ex-Im Bank die, no matter what the Chamber of Commerce and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) say.

As for the Patriot Act provisions, we’ve heard plenty of dire warnings from advocates of the surveillance state. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says vacuuming up all Americans’ phone records is a “critical capability” in combating terrorism. Yet as my colleague Julian Sanchez notes, two groups of experts came to a different conclusion:

A Surveillance Review Group appointed by the president found that information from the NSA database “was not essential to preventing attacks,” and concluded that there was “no sufficient justification for allowing the government itself to collect and store bulk telephony meta-data.” Those findings were echoed by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which was unable to find “a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation.” Rather, the Board wrote, “the information supplied by the NSA through Section 215 offered no unique value, but simply mirrored or corroborated information that the FBI obtained independently using other means.”

What if the three provisions aren’t reauthorized? Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) says, “I see no reason why we couldn’t use the Constitution for a while.” And then Congress could spend the summer contemplating what sorts of surveillance authorization are really needed. Members can debate the USA Freedom Act, the Surveillance State Repeal Act, or other alternatives.

Congress gets a lot of criticism for “doing nothing.” Considering some of the things that Congresses actually do, doing nothing is often a better idea. In this case, a six-week vacation would give a boost to economic growth and our Fourth Amendment privacy rights. It’s a win-win.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of The Libertarian Mind, just published by Simon & Schuster.

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Sen. Paul’s Great Surveillance ‘Filibuster’ and What to Expect Next

Patrick G. Eddington and Jennifer Granick

Senator Rand Paul, joined by Senator Wyden and other surveillance reform advocates, as well as five members of the House of Representatives, spent much of last night on the Senate floor, making history. He used the platform of a de facto filibuster to name drop privacy and civil liberties advocates like EFF’s Mark Jaycox, former NSA whistleblowers like cryptographer William Binney, and of course America’s Founders, to make his case for surveillance reform. He was joined by Senator Mike Lee with a history lesson on The North Briton No. 45, and Senator Martin Heinrich giving a dramatic reading of the Fourth Amendment from the floor.

Paul filibustered a bill offered by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that would reauthorize section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act. Section 215 is the purported legal basis for the NSA’s dragnet collection of American’s phone records, and is scheduled to sunset, or expire, June 1.

Paul has all but assured that 215 will sunset — at least until Congress returns from its Memorial Day recess in early June.”

However, by filibustering yesterday, Paul all but ensured that section 215 will not be reauthorized. The reason why is the arcane legislative procedures of the Senate. In brief, Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell can’t bring his reauthorization bill to a vote without cloture, a procedural vote required to end debate and move to a vote on the underlying measure and any related amendments. After a cloture vote, the Senate gets 30 hours before the bill can be voted on up or down and to address any amendments offered. That brings us into, or even past, the weekend. But the House goes on recess after last votes today (expected to be completed by 3pm), and doesn’t come back until June 1, after section 215 sunsets.

So, by Paul filibustering up till midnight, and with time so tight, the Senate is left with a choice: either sunset 215 or pass USAFreedom as it is. But … and this is where Senator Paul diverges from some of his colleagues in the filibuster … Paul wants a robust discussion and amendment process for USA Freedom Act. Again, a variation on USA Freedom can’t be passed before the House leaves.

Through his filibuster, Paul has all but assured that 215 will sunset — at least until Congress returns from its Memorial Day recess in early June. At that point, some surveillance reform advocates fear that USA Freedom will be weakened further in a new negotiating round, or that McConnell and his allies will attempt again to extend 215 authorities unaltered.

But the political and legal landscape has shifted, particularly in light of the Second Circuit ruling that bulk collection under 215 is illegal and fresh polling that shows Americans are more supportive of ending bulk surveillance than ever before. Rand Paul realizes this, which is why he appears to be even more unwilling to accept what he clearly views as an uncertain and watered down reform that’s been on the table for months. He’s changing the conversation.

But what happens in June when Congress returns after these Sec. 215 authorities have expired?

A resumption of the fight over their efficacy, legality and political legitimacy seems the most likely outcome, with fresh attempts to reinstate some version of the telephone metadata program a virtual certainty.

And if that does happen, proponents should be forced to explain why the American people should continue to be subjected to the kind of indiscriminate mass surveillance our country denounces when authoritarian or totalitarian regimes like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea employ it against their own populations. Proponents of mass surveillance in America need to be forced to explain why they believe treating the American people as suspects first and citizens second is remotely a constitutionally or politically acceptable “mainstream” approach to upholding the Bill of Rights or defending the nation. We suspect their answers — and their proposed policy prescriptions — will be found wanting.

Patrick G. Eddington was senior policy advisor to Rep. Rush Holt for over 10 years. He is currently a Policy Analyst in Homeland Security and Civil Liberties at the Cato Institute. Jennifer Granick is the Director of Civil Liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society.

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The Glaring (Ir)Relevance of Ramadi

A. Trevor Thrall, Erik Goepner, and Maxwell Pappas

What does the fall of Ramadi mean? Even as the Obama administration acknowledged that Ramadi was a setback, spokesman Josh Earnest shrugged it off, declaring that the administration won’t “light our hair on fire” every time there is a setback in Iraq. Meanwhile, hawkish critics of U.S. policy have jumped on the defeat to justify their call for a more robust response. The Pentagon first said Ramadi would be a significant loss, but then argued that it wasn’t. Senator John McCain, on the other hand, labeled the defeat an “abysmal failure.”

Rhetorical positioning aside, the fall of Ramadi is essentially irrelevant to the final outcome in Iraq. Though a city of moderate strategic value considering its proximity to Fallujah and Baghdad, Ramadi does not spell victory for ISIS anymore than Iraq’s retaking of Tikrit from the insurgents spelled defeat for ISIS (despite suggestions to the contrary from the Obama administration). The battle for Iraq will depend on the ability of the Iraqi government to mobilize enough effective fighting power to stop the ISIS expansion. Unfortunately for Iraq, despite over a decade of U.S. investment in training and equipment, Iraq’s military appears incapable of mustering consistent fighting effectiveness to deal a decisive blow to ISIS on the battlefield. The only sure way Iraq can hope to defeat ISIS is by encouraging greater external intervention in the form of airstrikes, weapons, and most importantly of all—ground troops.

Second, Ramadi is irrelevant because, absent a dramatic change after the 2016 elections, it will not change U.S. policy. The fall of Ramadi makes clear that limited U.S. airstrikes are not enough to do the job, but even more clear that Obama has no intention of sending enough military force to change, however briefly, the momentum on the ground. As Susan Rice told USA Today, “We are not going to own this battle as Americans and put combat forces back on the ground again,” she said. “That is not what we are about.” Iraq will get more weapons, more equipment, and a higher tempo training program, but these will not be enough.

Ramadi does not spell victory for ISIS anymore than Iraq’s retaking of Tikrit from the insurgents spelled defeat for ISIS.”

If the U.S. military had managed to transform the Iraqi military into an effective fighting force during eight years of herculean efforts, Ramadi would not have happened. They could not, however, and there is no reason to think additional lesser efforts will work now. Even an expanded air campaign (for which there is little desire within the Obama administration) would be unlikely to make a difference. Given the risks of civilian casualties and the limits of airpower against irregular forces, airstrikes alone cannot roust ISIS from Ramadi or Fallujah. Without meaningful political reconciliation that invites the Sunnis to the table or an overwhelming ground force to compel them, Iraq’s civil war will continue in search of a victor.

Even more fundamentally, Ramadi is irrelevant because the underlying cause of the weak Iraqi military is, in fact, the Iraqi government, which has had years and ample incentive to field a competent military but has failed to do so. In turn, the Iraqi government lacks legitimacy thanks to the sectarian fissures rent open by the 2003 war and the intense trauma and challenges associated with rebuilding a nation after descending into civil war. This problem will not go away whether the Iraqis manage to retake Ramadi in a month or a year.

Ironically, the real relevance of Ramadi for the United States is that it will encourage America to keep ignoring the biggest threat to its strategy in Iraq: the Iraqi government. The Iraqi government helped lay the foundation for ISIS’s success by waging its own sectarian war against the Sunni population under the guise of nationalism for the past decade. Even at this desperate hour, Baghdad refuses to take in displaced Sunnis from nearby cities fleeing the ISIS advance. The Sunni-Shia “rift” has become a gaping chasm in Iraq. As a result, despite its status as an extreme and distinctly minority faction among the Sunnis in Iraq, ISIS has managed to play the Sunni-Shia hostility to its advantage, winning recruits while the Iraqi government’s ability and, perhaps, interest in rallying Sunnis to the flag decreases daily.

This sectarianism has consequences at all levels. On a military level, the use of Iranian-backed Shia militias to retake Sunni territory may succeed in the short-term, but there is very little chance these forces will gain the vital support of the wary Sunni public in expelling insurgent forces from the area. Thus, even if the Shia militias are able to retake Ramadi, the victory will be hollow and short-lived.

On the domestic political level, aside from absolutely shredding the already shaky credibility of the Iraqi Army, the continued reliance on Shia militias by the Iraqi government plays into the ISIS messaging that their cause is one of religious purity against the infidels and apostates—the Government of Iraq is sending an incredibly clear message to their Sunni populace that this is, in fact, a sectarian war. Very few Iraqis will forget the violence and atrocities committed during the last flare-up of sectarian violence following the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra. By making this is a Shia-Sunni fight instead of a government-insurgent fight, the government is making public cooperation incredibly unlikely—much less likely, in fact, than if the Iraqi Army, with its nationalist appeal, continued to muddle ineffectively through this conflict, as opposed to the Shia militias with their religious appeal.

On a geopolitical level, the failure of the U.S. trained, equipped, and supported Iraqi Army, and subsequent Iraqi reliance on Iranian-backed Shia militias damages U.S. credibility, fuels anti-Americanism, and makes future partnerships with both state and non-state actors in the Middle East more difficult.

Win or lose in Ramadi, the damage is already done and U.S. strategy continues to be undone by the very government it is intended to support. Calls for increased airstrikes, training, or direct military intervention in the region are foolish because they fail to address the root issues at stake. In short, the path to a peaceful solution does not run through Ramadi, Fallujah, or Mosul—it runs through Baghdad.

A. Trevor Thrall is associate professor at the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. Erik Goepner is retired from the Air Force, having commanded units in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is now a doctoral student in public policy at George Mason University. Maxwell Pappas is an Active Duty Army Officer. He led a Rifle Platoon in Anbar Province during the Iraq surge and commanded two companies in Afghanistan. He now is a graduate student in security studies at Georgetown University.

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An Open Letter to Governor Hogan: the New Metro Lines Are Too Expensive

Randal O’Toole

Dear Governor Hogan,

You have said you would approve the $2.5-billion Purple Line light-rail in suburban DC (along with Baltimore’s $3.0-billion Red Line) if the cost could be substantially reduced. Here is a way to accomplish this goal.

First, use buses instead of railcars. Order buses with wide doors for easy entry and exit and free WiFi to attract young riders, and paint them bright purple to distinguish them from existing transit buses.

Standard 40-seat buses cost under $400,000. Let’s be pessimistic and say that the WiFi, wide doors, purple paint, and a few other amenities raise the cost to $500,000 apiece.

Why should a few heavily subsidized transit riders get to avoid traffic when the auto users who are paying most of those subsidies have to endure the increased congestion caused by light rail?”

Second, operate the buses on existing roads between Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park, and New Carrollton. In moderate traffic, a vehicle can go from Bethesda to New Carrollton on streets approximating the Purple Line route in 50 minutes. With nineteen intermediate stops each lasting about 30 seconds, the total trip time would be just under 60 minutes, comparable to the projected 62.6 minutes for light rail.

Third, run buses every two minutes in each direction during the six busiest hours of each weekday, reducing service to every four minutes during twelve other hours and on weekends and holidays. A fleet of 72 buses costing $36 million should be sufficient to meet this schedule and provide a few spares.

Fourth, to speed service, build platforms level with bus floors at each of 21 stops along the route. Each platform would have ticket machines, turnstiles, a wheelchair ramp or lift, and shelter protecting passengers from harsh weather.

People would pay or use metro farecards to pass through the turnstiles. When buses arrived, people could quickly exit and enter the buses without having to climb stairs at the bus doors.

Some places have built platforms like these for under $100,000, but let’s be pessimistic and assume they cost $250,000 apiece. Larger platforms would be needed for the Bethesda and Silver Spring stops, which are expected to attract the most traffic, so let’s assume those two cost $500,000 each.

Two platforms each at 21 stops would cost $11.5 million, for a total cost of less than $48 million. The federal government’s Bus and Bus Facilities program could cover up to 80 percent of this cost.

On the schedule outlined above, these buses could carry 72,000 people per day, all of them comfortably seated. The light-rail line was optimistically projected to attract 69,000 daily riders.

Maryland Transit currently spends about $11.50 per bus mile operating its buses. Allowing for reduced schedules on weekends and holidays, buses would travel just under 4 million miles per year at a cost of $45.5 million, or $9 million less than the $54.5 million projected light-rail operating cost. Buses would also cost far less to maintain.

Rail advocates will object that buses can get stuck in traffic. But why should a few heavily subsidized transit riders get to avoid traffic when the auto users who are paying most of those subsidies have to endure the increased congestion caused by light rail? After all, Maryland’s traffic analysis found that light rail would reduce regional traffic speeds, adding thousands of hours of congestion to the region’s roads each day.

So the fifth part of this plan is to spend up to $50 million on things that will reduce congestion for everyone. Traffic signal coordination can save people thousands of hours and reduce fuel consumption and air pollution. Installing the latest signaling systems at 50 intersections between Bethesda and New Carrollton would cost around $5 million, leaving $45 million for other improvements.

This brings the total up-front cost to under $100 million, or 4 percent of the projected cost of light rail. Where light-rail construction would take years, this plan could be implemented in less than a year.

This plan won’t attract major new economic developments, but neither would light rail; no light-rail line in the country has stimulated development unless that development also received millions of dollars in additional subsidies.

What this plan would do is significantly improve transit for those who want it while reducing congestion for those who don’t, all at a far lower cost than light rail. I hope you find it worthwhile.

Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and a visiting scholar with the Maryland Public Policy Institute.

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Assessing the GOP Candidates’ Plans on Poverty

Michael D. Tanner

In the aftermath of the Baltimore riots, attention is once again being turned to questions of poverty, and inner-city poverty in particular. Democrats, unsurprisingly, took about 30 seconds to think about the issue before coming up with their favorite solution: spend more money. President Obama, for instance, wants “massive investments in urban communities.” Representative Elijah Cummings, who represents inner-city Baltimore in Congress says, “We have to invest in our cities and our children.” And according to Maryland representative Steny Hoyer, the House Democratic whip, “We’re going to have to as a country invest if we’re going to have the kinds of communities we want.”

Apparently the $22 trillion we’ve spent fighting poverty since 1965 — including just under $1 trillion last year — isn’t enough.

But if Democrats are predictably doubling down on the failed policies of the past, what do Republicans offer as an alternative? Interestingly, for a party with a reputation for indifference toward the poor, the major Republican presidential candidates have actually had quite a bit to say on the issue.

Democrats offer more of the same; Republicans have fresh ideas.”

Florida senator Marco Rubio offers perhaps the most detailed and well-thought-out set of policy proposals. Rubio would consolidate most of the more than 100 current federal anti-poverty programs and send the funding for them back to the states as block grants. Unlike a similar but much smaller plan put forward by Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Rubio’s block grants would come with few strings. States would be free to use the money in any way that they chose, as long as the spending is consistent with the broad purpose of the programs they are replacing. A state could not use the funds to reduce taxes on businesses, for instance. Within those limits, states would be free to be, in Justice Brandeis’s famous phrase, “laboratories of democracy,” experimenting with a wide variety of innovative approaches to fighting poverty. And successful states would be rewarded. If a state reduced its poverty rate, its allocation would not be reduced, and the state could use the money however it wished — for education or infrastructure, for example. Rubio would also revamp the earned-income tax credit (EITC) to make it a better wage enhancement.

Meanwhile, Kentucky senator Rand Paul has also spent a great deal of time talking about disadvantaged communities. While his proposals to fight over-criminalization and reduce incarceration for inner-city youth have garnered the most attention, Paul has also pushed proposals to attract more business and jobs to high-poverty areas. In particular, Paul has called for the creation of Economic Freedom Zones in cities with high unemployment or high poverty rates. Income taxes for both individuals and businesses in the zones would be reduced to a flat 5 percent, and the payroll tax would be cut by 2 percentage points for both the employer and the employee. Paul’s plan would also reduce the regulatory burdens on businesses in the freedom zones, fast-track visas for qualified immigrants wishing to start businesses there, and allow Department of Education Title I funding to flow to private schools in the zones.

Actually, the first prospective candidate out of the gate in discussing poverty was former Florida governor Jeb Bush. His Super PAC is called “Right to Rise,” and Bush himself has focused on such well-known antidotes to poverty as education, jobs, and family formation. On education, he has naturally tried to tie in his controversial support for Common Core, though in statements like “Low-income kids have the God-given ability to learn and to succeed just like anyone else does,” he can sound like a pale version of his brother denouncing the “soft bigotry of low expectations” while pushing No Child Left Behind. On the more positive side, Bush has aggressively pushed for school choice. To create more jobs in poor areas, Bush calls for “Reducing regulations, removing expensive licensing requirements for startups, and cutting occupational fees” — all good ideas, though more state issues than federal ones. And Bush correctly points out that the most “effective anti-poverty program is a strong family, led by two parents,” but he has made no specific proposals for reducing births to single mothers.

Ohio governor John Kasich, who plans to announce his candidacy early next month, has suggested that his concern about the poor sets him apart from other Republican candidates, whom he has criticized for waging “war on the poor.” Certainly Kasich has been more willing than most Republican governors to pump money into government anti-poverty programs. In addition to expanding Medicaid under Obamacare — something Kasich defended as his Christian duty — he recently announced a $310 million state program to provide additional casework resources to 23,000 participants in Ohio’s welfare-summer-work and federal-workforce programs.

In contrast, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has taken what might be seen as a tougher approach. He has championed drug testing for those seeking welfare and food stamps, and called for extending the idea to other government benefits, such as unemployment insurance. Speaking more broadly, he has denounced welfare as “a hammock” rather than a “safety net.” He has also criticized anti-poverty bureaucrats, calling them, in Walter Williams’s famous phrase, “poverty pimps.” He has not yet, however, suggested any alternatives or specific reforms to the current system.

Texas senator Ted Cruz also has not yet put forward much in the way of specific anti-poverty proposals, though he has taken what might be considered a mild shot at Paul’s plan for Economic Freedom Zones, saying, “All of America needs to be a real ‘Promise Zone’ — with reduced barriers to small businesses creating private-sector jobs.”

It’s early in the campaign, of course. We can expect candidates like Cruz and Walker to address poverty in much more detail in the months to come. But already we are seeing an intriguing Republican debate, one offering innovative proposals for creating opportunity and lifting people out of poverty. In fact, if you are looking for a clear contrast between a party locked into the tired and failed policies of yesterday, and one seeking new ideas and new directions, the debate over poverty provides an object lesson.

Michael Tanner is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Instititute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.

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Amtrak Is No Way to Run a Railroad

Richard W. Rahn

If taxpayers suddenly stopped subsidizing Amtrak, what do you think would happen? Before trying to answer that question, it is useful to review U.S. railroad history. The first railroads were built in the United States in the late 1820s, and by 1900, only 70 years later, almost every town in the country had rail access. Railroads were high tech, the Internet of their time. The system was built and profitably operated by private companies.

Amtrak and the modern freight railroad companies use the infrastructure that was built long ago. The 180-year-old privately built Canton Viaduct (a stone bridge) in Canton, Massachusetts and the 100-year-old Hells Gate Bridge over the East River in New York are still used by Amtrak. The investor-owned Pennsylvania Railroad built the hugely expensive railroad tunnels under the Hudson River in 1908, which were technological wonders of the time. They are still used by all of those who ride Amtrak from New Jersey to New York. (As an aside, I found it rather ironic when President Obama claimed that private business only succeeded by using government infrastructure — “you did not build that” — when, in fact, government mostly uses privately built infrastructure.)

Let’s get rid of Amtrak and its taxpayer subsidies, and see what magic free-market rail entrepreneurs might create.”

Once the railroads were built, state and local governments began heavily taxing every mile of track and other railroad facilities, and the federal government imposed endless regulations, including regulating fares. The predictable result was that expenses grew faster than revenues — causing deferred capital spending and maintenance. Eighty years ago, trucks, automobiles and airplanes began to lure away rail’s customers. As a result, the rail industry began a death march after World War II. Railroad companies ripped up thousands of miles of track to save on expenses and tax levies. Today, the United States has a fraction of the number of miles of railroad tracks compared to what it had 100 years ago. Route mileage peaked at 254,251 miles in 1916 and fell to 139,679 miles in 2011.

By the late 1960s, most of the nation’s railroads were in deep trouble as a result of new forms of competition, disastrous tax and regulatory policies, and inflexible unions. In 1971, the federal government created Amtrak as a government corporation to operate intercity passenger rail service. Freight rail was finally deregulated in 1980, now resulting in the most efficient and profitable freight railways in the world.

Amtrak has eaten through more than $45 billion in taxpayer subsidies in its 44-year history. The only line it has that it claims to be profitable is the Northeast corridor from Washington to Boston, which was shut down for six days following last week’s fatal train crash near Philadelphia. It is widely acknowledged that Amtrak is poorly managed — as are most government enterprises — but nothing is done about it by either the administration or Congress. Amtrak even manages to lose money on its food service, which is hard to do when one has a captive market and serves only mediocre food at high prices.

Studies show the government could save money by giving away airline tickets to everyone who rides some of the long-distance Amtrak routes because the subsidy per passenger exceeds the cost of an airline ticket over the same route. It is no surprise that many of those who call for more taxpayer spending on Amtrak are the affluent media and political folks who frequently travel between New York and Washington. (To pay for their subsidies, they seem to have no trouble taxing lower-income folks in much of America who have no access to Amtrak.)

The rail tunnels under the Hudson River are now more than a hundred years old and will need to be rebuilt or replaced. Many members of Congress are calling for billions of taxpayer dollars to be spent to rebuild these tunnels. Yet we have many examples of private companies that are willing to invest in transportation infrastructure, such as bridges, tunnels and roads, when they are allowed to charge market prices for use of the infrastructure. No taxpayer dollars need be spent.

Again, if the subsidies were eliminated, what would happen? All of the trains now operated by Amtrak, other than the Northeast corridor, would cease operation. But then many private entrepreneurs would buy up some of the rail cars, or buy new ones, and make contracts with the railroads to run trains over their tracks (Amtrak uses the private railroad companies’ tracks). Private passenger rail companies might well successfully compete with airplanes, buses and cars on some routes by providing luxury services with great dining cars as an alternative transportation experience, as they do in other parts of the world. We now know that a socialistic, government-regulated, -taxed and -operated passenger rail does not work. So let’s get rid of Amtrak and its taxpayer subsidies, and see what magic free-market rail entrepreneurs might create.

Richard W. Rahn is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and chairman of the Institute for Global Economic Growth.

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Five Things to Know about the Purple Line

Randal O’Toole

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is debating whether to approve or cancel Baltimore’s $3 billion Red Line light-rail line and suburban Washington’s $2.5 billion Purple Line. His administration has suggested he might approve these lines if the costs can be reduced. Here are five things he needs to know before he makes his decision.

1. No matter how much they say light rail will cost, it will always cost more. Department of Transportation reviews of projected and actual rail transit construction costs have found that almost all rail projects cost far more than projected, with average cost overruns of 50 percent and overruns on many recent projects of more than 75 percent. Rail planners also consistently overestimate ridership by an average of 70 percent.

2. Claims that light rail will pay for itself by generating new taxes from economic development are pure bunk. FTA-funded research has shown that “Urban rail transit investments rarely ‘create’ new growth, but more typically redistribute growth that would have taken place without the investment.”

Building these rail lines would have the same economic effect of digging two giant holes in the ground and filling them up again.”

Worse, the tax burden required to pay for rail transit can actually slow economic growth: on average, urban areas that spent more on transit improvements in the 1990s grew slower in the 2000s than ones that spent less. Not only will there be no new taxes to help pay for the rail lines, rail construction will pose an especially heavy burden on Baltimore, which doesn’t need another obstacle to urban recovery.

3. Maryland couldn’t afford to build new rail lines even if the construction cost were nothing. Existing transit lines in the Washington and Baltimore areas suffer from multi-billion-dollar unfunded maintenance backlogs. The problem is especially acute in Washington, where a 2009 crash that killed nine people and a 2015 incident of smoke in a tunnel killed one person can be directly traced to inadequate maintenance.

Instead of rehabilitating existing lines, northern Virginia is spending $6.8 billion on a rail line to Dulles International Airport; the District wants to spend $1 billion on clunky streetcar lines; and some people want to spend $2.5 billion on the Purple Line. It makes no sense to build more rail lines that taxpayers can’t afford to maintain when the existing lines are falling apart.

4. Transit riders care more about frequencies than whether their vehicle is a bus or railcar. Maryland can do a lot more for transit riders at not much added cost by simply running buses on existing streets on light-rail schedules — that is, more often and with fewer stops.

As Undersecretary of Transportation Peter Rogoff has discovered, “you can entice even diehard rail riders onto a bus, if you call it a ‘special’ bus and just paint it a different color than the rest of the fleet.” Such special buses, Rogoff adds, “can move a lot of people at very little cost compared to rail.”

5. Buses can move more people faster, safer and for far less money than light rail. The “light” in light rail refers not to weight but to capacity: light rail literally means low-capacity transit. Buses can move more people per hour on city streets than light rail, and because buses can go anywhere the streets go, more people can reach their destinations without having to transfer between buses and railcars.

The Baltimore Red Line is projected to have an average speed of less than 19 miles per hour, while the Purple Line will go less than 15.5 miles per hour. Both lines are expected to increase, not reduce, traffic congestion. On average, light rail accidents also kill almost three times as many people, per billion passenger miles carried, as buses.

Building these rail lines would have the same economic effect of digging two giant holes in the ground and filling them up again. A few people might be grateful for getting jobs digging holes, but everyone else would be burdened by the cost and would get nearly no benefits from the projects. Let’s hope Hogan understands these facts when he makes his decision.

Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and a visiting fellow with the Maryland Public Policy Institute.

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Rubio’s Strangely Stale Foreign Policies

Christopher A. Preble

Sen. Marco Rubio might fancy himself as a new type of leader for a new era, but his May 13 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations was trapped in the past.

Invoking John F. Kennedy’s final speech as president, more than 50 years ago, was bad enough. But Rubio’s overarching message—the Rubio Doctrine—amounts to warmed-over Cold War dogma, sprinkled with the language of benevolent global hegemony favored by so many Washington elites, but disdained by most Americans beyond the Beltway.

It is difficult to understand the depths of his political and strategic myopia.

Rubio misperceives the American public’s willingness to sustain the current model indefinitely, and therefore fails to appreciate the need for a genuinely new approach to U.S. global affairs. He minimizes the costs and risks of our current foreign policies, and oversells the benefits.

It is difficult to understand the depths of his political and strategic myopia.”

He ignores the way in which U.S. security assurances to a host of some-of-the-time allies have discouraged these countries from taking reasonable steps to defend themselves and their interests. And he fails to see any reasonable alternative to a world in which the United States acts—forever, it seems—as the sole guarantor of global security.

Specifically, Rubio pledged: “As president, I will use American power to oppose any violations of international waters, airspace, cyberspace, or outer space.” (Any? Whew!)

To be sure, many people around the world may be happy to allow U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to attempt such an ambitious undertaking, and to have American taxpayers pick up the tab. It is reasonable to guess that most foreign leaders are anxious to preserve the current order—so long as the U.S. government provides for their defense, they are free to spend their money on other things.

But the fact that foreigners like this arrangement doesn’t explain why most Americans would. When Rubio calls for huge increases in the Pentagon’s budget, he is telling Americans that they should be content to accept higher taxes, more debt and less money to spend here at home, so that U.S. allies elsewhere can neglect their defenses and feed their bloated welfare states.

Americans, unsurprisingly, and by a wide margin, favor something else. A poll taken last year by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, for example, found a mere 38 percent of Americans who considered “defending our allies’ security” to be a “very important” foreign goal, below “combating world hunger” and “limiting climate change.”

Several of Rubio’s other major foreign policy goals, including “promoting human rights abroad,” “protecting weaker nations against foreign aggression” or “helping to bring a democratic form of government to other nations” ranked even lower.

To be sure, Rubio is hardly alone in his embrace of the decades-old status quo. A parade of politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, routinely speak of the United States as the indispensable nation, and celebrate the U.S. military’s role as a global constabulary.

But it seriously undermines Rubio’s claim to represent the hopes and aspirations of a new generation when he invokes the policies of the same-ol’ generation, and the one before it. His relative youth and stirring personal narrative will appeal to some, including possibly younger voters turned off by a cast of familiar names and has-beens. But Rubio’s fresh face alone is unlikely to compensate for his strangely stale foreign policies.

Christopher Preble is the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

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Five Rules for an Age of Terrorism, Nuclear Weapons

David Boaz

In this 15th year of war in Afghanistan, as the United States is becoming further entangled in military conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, we need a serious debate about whether we want to be permanently at war.

We can start by noting a few simple rules about war and foreign policy. First, war kills people. Especially in the modern world, it often kills as many civilians as soldiers. War cannot be avoided at all costs, but it should be avoided wherever possible. Proposals to involve the United States — or any government — in foreign conflict should be treated with great skepticism.

Second, war creates big government. That’s one reason libertarians and other believers in limited government have tried to avoid war. Throughout history, war has provided an excuse for governments to arrogate money and power to themselves and to regiment society.

We need a serious debate about whether we want to be permanently at war.”

During World Wars I and II, the United States government assumed powers it could never have acquired in peacetime — powers such as the military draft, wage-and-price controls, rationing, close control of labor and production and astronomical tax rates. Constitutional restrictions on federal power were swiftly eroded.

That doesn’t tell us whether those wars should have been fought. It does mean that we should understand the consequences of war for our entire social order and thus go to war only when absolutely necessary.

Third, the United States can no more police and plan the whole world than it can plan a national economy. Without a superpower threat to rally against, the political establishment wants us to deploy our military resources on behalf of democracy and self-determination around the world and against such vague or decentralized threats as terrorism, drugs and environmental destruction. The military is designed to fight wars in defense of American liberty and sovereignty; even the world’s largest bureaucracy is not well-equipped to be policeman and social worker to the world.

Fourth, our Cold War allies have recovered from the destruction of World War II and are fully capable of defending themselves. The countries of the European Union have a collective population of more than 500 million, a gross domestic product of $18 trillion a year and nearly 2 million troops. They can defend Europe and deal with internal problems such as the conflict in Ukraine without U.S. assistance. South Korea has twice the population and 40 times the economic output of North Korea; it doesn’t need our 29,000 troops to protect itself.

Fifth, the communications explosion means that the information imbalance between political leaders and citizens is much reduced. For all our vast intelligence network, presidents often watch world events unfolding on satellite news networks, along with all the rest of us. That means that presidents will find it more difficult to expect public deference on matters of foreign policy, so they should proceed cautiously in undertaking foreign commitments without popular support.

Despite the constant warnings of war hawks, and the ongoing images of conflict on our screens, the world is safer than it’s ever been. And for the United States, the most secure power in world history, protected by two oceans and friendly neighbors, that’s especially true.

The first purpose of government is to protect the rights of citizens. We must maintain an adequate national defense, but we can defend the vital interests of the United States with a military budget about half the size of the one we have — if we reorient our foreign policy to one of self-defense and restraint, not global commitments to collective security agreements.

Libertarians who propose to bring U.S. troops home and concentrate on the defense of the United States are sometimes accused of being isolationist. That’s a misconception. Libertarians are, in fact, confident and cosmopolitan. We look forward to a world bound together by free trade, global communications and cultural exchange. We support maintaining the world’s largest and most powerful military, by a wide margin, although not as big as the foreign-policy establishment wants.

Military intervention around the world costs Americans substantial blood and treasure and benefits them little. Although the world is growing closer together in many ways, it is inappropriate to view the whole world as a village in which everyone must pitch in to stop every fight. In a world with terrorism and nuclear weapons, it is better to keep military conflicts limited and regional rather than to escalate them through superpower involvement.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of “The Libertarian Mind,” just published by Simon & Schuster.