“It is common to chalk up America’s failures in Afghanistan to incompetence, ignorance, or stupidity. Yet The Afghanistan Papers, by The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock, shows an American government that, although it had no idea what it was doing when it came to building a democracy in Afghanistan, did an excellent job manipulating the public, avoiding any consequences for its failures, and protecting its bureaucratic and financial interests. The problem was a broken system, not a generalized incompetence.
In 2016, Whitlock received a tip that the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR) had interviewed hundreds of participants in the war, including top American and Afghan officials, military leaders, and outside consultants. When the paper tried to get its hands on the results, SIGAR fought it every step of the way; it took a three-year legal battle to get the documents. The Post then published them on its website—along with some related items, such as memos from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld—and those formed the basis of this book.
Ultimate responsibility must start on top. No matter what he told himself, President George W. Bush acted as a man who simply didn’t much care what happened to Afghanistan beyond how it influenced his political fortunes. One of Rumsfeld’s memos notes that in October 2002, Bush was asked whether he’d like to meet with Gen. Dan McNeil. The president asked who that was, and Rumsfeld answered that he was the man leading the war in Afghanistan. Bush responded that he didn’t need to see him. The president was presumably preoccupied with the Iraq war he would launch five months later. (That is, he was preoccupied with selling the war. He didn’t really think much about what the U.S. would be doing in that country either.)
The bureaucracy beneath the president comes across as a big dumb machine that was unclear about what it ultimately wanted, and whose different limbs sometimes worked at cross purposes. Many parts of that machine were extremely aware of how hopeless the mission was. As Gen. McNeil said, “There was no campaign plan. It just wasn’t there.” The British general who headed NATO forces in the country from 2006 to 2007 similarly remarked that “there was no coherent long-term strategy.” American military personnel would be sent to Afghanistan on more than one occasion over the two decades of conflict and, in Whitlock’s words, “the war made less sense each time they went back.”
To fight the Taliban, the U.S. empowered brutal warlords, who would often rape and terrorize the local populations. One of the most prominent of these, Abdul Rashid Dostum, was such a destructive force that one American diplomat offered to make him the executive producer of a movie just to get him out of the country. At the same time, the CIA was paying him $70,000 a month. Whitlock’s account includes an endless number of similar stories, in which one part of the American government was doing things that completely negated the actions of others. Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living documented this on the ground, showing how the same individual might be an ally to the CIA and an enemy to the military, and how ultimately this hurt the Afghan people more than anyone else.
As of 2006, Afghanistan had one successful industry: growing up to 90 percent of the world’s opium. Under pressure from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and members of Congress, and over the objections of the military, the Bush administration decided to start destroying those crops. This only fueled the insurgency, even as opium production increased. When the U.S. tried paying farmers not to grow opium, more had an incentive to start planting the crop—and many of them still sold the harvest on the open market anyway after taking American money. According to one official, “urging Karzai to mount an effective counternarcotics campaign was like asking an American president to halt all U.S. economic activity west of the Mississippi.””
“Each part of the American war machine had its own mission, and was going to do what it did regardless of the facts on the ground. The DEA wanted to destroy opium, the human rights bureaucracy pushed women’s rights, and the military wanted to keep the war going. Nobody was there to force these disparate parts to work towards a common goal in a way that made sense. Theoretically, the president should have done so, but the American system clearly rewards political competence more than it does the ability to build stable democracies on the other side of the world. Often extremely self-aware, American officials were not as stupid or incompetent as they were self-interested cogs in a system filled with misaligned incentives.”
“The transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump shows how flexible the Pentagon could be to keep the war going. When working for the former law professor, the generals used more rhetoric about human rights and became experts at manipulating statistics to show how they supposedly were making people’s lives better. Under Trump, they realized that they could maintain his support for the war by talking of victory and killing bad guys. In both cases, the generals successfully resisted a president who was skeptical about their mission. The military seemed relatively indifferent to whether it was spending its time building girls’ schools or undertaking a more expansive bombing campaign, as long as it could keep the war going. Joe Biden watched the generals box in Obama, and he came into the White House determined not to be similarly manipulated.”
“Mexico’s controversial, year-old, mandatory, front-of-package food warning label law was supposed to help Mexicans make healthier food choices and slash sky-high obesity rates in the country.
The law, which took effect one year ago this week, “requires black informational octagons to be placed on packaged foods that are high in saturated fat, trans fat, sugar, sodium[,] or calories.” Other requirements include that any food which must bear the dreaded black octagon “cannot include children’s characters, animations, cartoons, or images of celebrities, athletes[,] or pets on their packaging.”
Many food producers inside and outside Mexico opposed the labeling law, arguing it’s misleading, burdensome, and paternalistic. The Mexican government, though, claimed the law would lead Mexicans to eat 37 fewer calories per day, which would theoretically result in an average Mexican losing nearly four pounds per year. Some outside Mexico supported the labeling scheme, too. Last year, for example, a World Health Organization (WHO) regional office gushed over the black octagons and gave the Mexican government an award, calling the labels a “public health innovation” that is the “most advanced and comprehensive regulation worldwide.”
But early returns suggest the law’s impact has been negligible at best.
“More than a year after Mexico’s food warning label law took effect, sales of junk food and sugary beverages have not declined significantly, according to a market research firm and a business group,” Mexico News Daily reported last week. “In fact, sales of unhealthy products have increased in some cases, data shows.”
That’s the conclusion of a Mexico-based market research group, Kantar México, which tracks food purchases made by thousands of Mexican households each week. Mexico News Daily also notes that a Mexican government agency says purchases of treats such as candy, chocolates, and soda were higher this past September than they were in September 2020—the same month the WHO rewarded the Mexican government for its purportedly innovative efforts.
Despite the fact the law’s not working as advocates hoped and claimed it would, last week’s Mexico News Daily report notes a Mexican government official praised the labeling scheme as a success because “[c]onsumers are now more informed and empowered to make better choices.””
“Electronic cigarettes, which deliver nicotine without tobacco or combustion, are the most important harm-reducing alternative to smoking ever developed, one that could prevent millions of premature deaths in the U.S. alone. Yet bureaucrats and politicians seem determined to negate that historic opportunity through regulations and taxes that threaten to cripple the industry.”
“Survey data indicate that the vast majority of teenagers who vape regularly are current or former smokers. That means the FDA’s fear that ENDS are causing an “epidemic” of adolescent nicotine addiction is overblown—especially since vaping by teenagers dropped substantially in 2019 and 2020, a development the agency prefers to ignore.”
” In an August American Journal of Public Health article, 15 prominent tobacco researchers warned that “policies intended to reduce adolescent vaping,” including flavor bans, “may also reduce adult smokers’ use of e-cigarettes in quit attempts.” They emphasized that “the potential lifesaving benefits of e-cigarettes for adult smokers deserve attention equal to the risks to youths.”
That article summarized “a growing body of evidence” that “vaping can foster smoking cessation.” Yet Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D–Ill.), who wrote a bill he called the END ENDS Act, insists “there’s simply no evidence that vapes help [smokers] quit.” He also claims to believe “adults can do what they want,” which is likewise demonstrably false given the severe restrictions he favors.”
“Airwars, an independent nonprofit that tracks strikes and casualties in conflict areas like Iraq, Syria, and Libya, provides regular assessments of civilian deaths. And in their latest data which spans the first year of Biden’s presidency, civilian deaths and strikes plunged in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.
The differences are striking, even keeping in mind we’re comparing just one year of Biden’s presidency with four years of President Donald Trump and eight years of President Barack Obama.
During the length of Trump’s four-year presidency, Airwars documented more than 16,000 air and artillery military strikes in Iraq and Syria, which itself was a decline of more than 1,500 strikes when compared to Obama’s second term. During Biden’s first year, there have been 39 total military strikes spread between both countries.
Alleged civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria skyrocketed under Trump’s four years in office to more than 13,000 compared to 5,600 during Obama’s second term. Thus far, Airwars reports only 10 under the Biden administration. There have been no reported civilian deaths in Somalia thus far during Biden’s term, compared to 134 under Trump and 42 under Obama over both of his terms. Strikes in Yemen, which had declined each year throughout Trump’s administration, have dropped to just four this year (Airwars did not provide civilian deaths for Yemen).
This follows reporting earlier this year that Biden had quietly imposed restrictions on the use of drone strikes outside of active war zones. Trump had eased restrictions and allowed the military and CIA to decide when to strike, thus explaining the dramatic increase in strikes and civilian deaths in Somalia during his term. Biden is now requiring the White House to vet and approve these strikes, for now, until the administration sets up new formal policies (about which we know very little, but observers hope will require more procedures to ensure that civilians aren’t killed).”
“There is ice skating, pingpong, juggling lessons, yoga lessons…all for free.
Two attendants clean the bathrooms 30 times a day, and the bathrooms are furnished with flowers and paintings. Speakers play classical music.
This is a huge difference from 37 years ago, when Bryant Park was filled with vagrants and trash. It was then that urban redeveloper Dan Biederman managed to persuade city politicians to let him try to run the park.
He got money from local businesses and tried innovative things, like playing music in the bathrooms.
“It’s just another element, along with flowers, recessed lighting, and artwork, that makes people think they’re going to be safe,” says Biederman in my new video.
Safety is important because crime is up.
But there’s little crime in Bryant Park because crime thrives in dark corners, and this park is filled with people.
Plus little businesses like Joe Coffee Co. and Le Pain Quotidien. They pay for the park. Some people object to that.
“A park isn’t supposed to be about business!” they say.
Biederman responds, “In the current state of things you can’t have ‘passive spaces.’ Too many people are circulating who are violent or emotionally disturbed.”
To discourage such people, he fills his park businesses and activities—like the juggling lessons. When lots of people are in a park, he says, vagrancy is less of a problem.
Still, he sometimes must deal with troubled people. The worst, he says, are people who take the drug K2 and suddenly get so hot that they take their clothes off.
Our guards “guide them out of the park,” says Biederman.
It all works. Twelve million people visit Bryant Park every year, and none of it costs taxpayers a penny. Actually, the city makes money, says Biederman, because “the increased real estate taxes paid by the surrounding buildings—it’s $33 million a year.””
“First, the legislation doesn’t address why child care is so expensive in the first place. More people seeking it will only collide with ill-advised government restrictions on the supply of such care—restrictions like the excessive occupational licensing and credential rules that prevent plenty of qualified people from offering their services. A bill that truly aims to reduce the cost of child care would remove these restrictions and allow parents to choose any capable provider.
BBB doesn’t lift any restrictions and adds more. As University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan explains, “the bill requires that child-care workers be paid a ‘living wage’ and that their earnings be ‘equivalent to wages for elementary educators with similar credentials and experience.'” As a result, child care will become even more expensive for all families that don’t qualify for “free” child care.”
“The money for the program was included in the American Rescue Plan—passed back in March—a massive $1.9 trillion spending bill that was sold as a COVID-19 response but contained very little that had to do with the epidemic. The bill set aside $4 billion for use for drug addiction programs and mental health treatment.”
“Data from the Kauffman Foundation indicate that the percent of new entrepreneurs who created a business by choice instead of necessity dropped from 86.86 percent in 2019 to 69.75 percent last year. Many people happy to work for somebody else were pushed into starting a business by pandemic-era chaos.
But a lot of those people seem to have discovered that they actually like working for themselves, and that may be causing a cultural shift. At the end of November, The Wall Street Journal reported that at least part of the “Great Resignation” phenomenon of Americans quitting jobs involved people starting businesses.”
“there is one thing Biden could do to immediately provide consumers with relief. He could eliminate the tariffs imposed by former President Donald Trump.
Those tariffs, which Biden has been stubbornly unwilling to reverse during his first year in office, are adding roughly 0.5 percent to annual inflation across the economy. That’s the conclusion drawn by Ed Gresser, a former assistant U.S. Trade Representative who is currently the vice president and director for trade and global markets at the Progressive Policy Institute, a center-left think tank. Trump’s tariffs on washing machines, solar panels, steel, aluminum, and a host of Chinese-made goods are a “secondary but noticeable contribution” to overall inflation right now, Gresser writes.”
“Biden could cut tariffs without having to wait for Congress or the Federal Reserve to act. Similarly, cutting tariffs would not come with some of the negative tradeoffs that other actions might. Raising interest rates will harm the economy in other ways (for example, by making it more expensive to borrow). Lifting tariffs will ease inflation and provide a tax cut to many American businesses. It is quite literally a win-win.”
“Politicians might want to deploy tariffs (to raise prices) for a number of reasons: to protect domestic industries, to influence where in the world individuals choose to invest, to retaliate against what they perceive as unfair trade practices from other countries, and so on. But all those goals—and tariffs are poor ways of accomplishing most of them—are second-order functions. To the extent that any of those things occur, they happen because tariffs raise prices.”
“Another housing development in St. Paul, Minnesota, is on hold after losing its financing partner this week.
On Monday, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that developer Alatus had a previously-committed equity partner renege on its commitment to invest $23 million in a proposed 304-unit project in the city’s Frogtown neighborhood. Two other investors who had proposed preliminary financing terms for the project—in which half the units would be rented out at below-market rates—have also walked away.
The reason? St. Paul’s newly-passed rent control ordinance, which Alatus’ principals say is making their once-eager investors skittish about doing business in the city.”
“It’s a near-universal consensus—held in common by progressive policy wonks, radical free marketeers, and the three most recent presidential administrations—that America’s highest-cost cities are so unaffordable because government zoning regulations prevent enough new housing from being built.
So why are a growing number of politicians, wonks, and pundits suddenly embracing a policy that’s been long maligned for further reducing the supply of housing?
The argument from rent control proponents boils down to the need to create short-term stability for renters. That will then, hopefully, give cities some breathing room to get to work on fixing their pressing supply issues.”
“That study looked at a 1994 San Francisco ballot initiative that expanded preexisting rent controls to cover four-unit apartment buildings constructed prior to 1980, but which exempts four-unit apartments built after 1980.
That created something of a natural experiment on the effects of rent control.
The Stanford study concluded that tenants living in the older, rent-controlled buildings were 10–20 percent more likely to stay at their same address than people living in newer, unregulated buildings. The study also concluded that the expansion of rent control caused a 15 percent decline in the availability of rental housing among affected units.
In short, there’s a clear tradeoff in rent control policies between creating stability for existing tenants and preserving and expanding rental housing supply for new tenants. The goal of politicians, according to some, should be to strike the right balance between the two.”
“We actually have a good, real example of what this balance striking in the real world looks like: San Francisco.
The rent stabilization ordinance that’s been in place in San Francisco since 1979, and which the Stanford study examined, has all the features Demsas would want in a well-designed rent control policy: post-1979 construction is exempt from price controls, landlords can raise rents by the lesser of 60 percent of yearly inflation or 7 percent, and there’s vacancy decontrol.
Some 40 percent of San Francisco’s housing stock is covered by these rules. Another 9 percent is deed-restricted affordable housing, meaning that rents can’t generally consume more than 30 percent of tenants’ pretax earnings.
That leaves only 16 percent of housing stock in the city where rents follow the ebb and flow of market forces. (That was at least the case prior to January 2020, when California’s statewide rent control law went into effect.)
The result is, again, San Francisco; a synonym for housing dysfunction and unaffordability. That obviously makes it a place that’s antagonistically expensive to newcomers. Copious amounts of rent control also haven’t stopped it from ranking first among American cities in some measurements for gentrification and displacement, either.”
“Rent control is always going to disincentivize housing construction, regardless of how tight or loose the zoning code is. Repealing zoning restrictions will allow for more housing. It will also make the supply-killing effects of rent control all the more apparent and relevant.”
“Rent control also could disincentivize renters—who should be natural proponents of new housing construction—from supporting zoning reforms.
If government price controls are keeping your rent stable, you have much less of an incentive to support new market-rate construction. At best, it would just be doing more of the same. At worst, it would be adding more construction noise, more traffic, and, God forbid, more shadows.
Indeed, rent-controlled tenants have an incentive to oppose any rezoning on the grounds that it might make their own rental unit a candidate for redevelopment. They’re at risk of losing the below-market rents they’re currently being charged.”
“if rent control isn’t the answer to short-term housing affordability issues and displacement, what is? I’d argue it’s zoning reform, and, failing that, federalism.
New housing units, even if they’re really expensive housing units, act almost immediately to lower the costs of rent for everyone. That addresses both affordability and displacement in the short-term thanks to the magic of the “moving chain.”
When a new “luxury” apartment comes online (and basically all new construction is high-cost “luxury” housing), it’s often filled by a high-income person who moves from his previous, older apartment building in the city. His now-vacant home is then snapped up by a middle-income person who leaves behind an even older unit that a third, lower-income person can now move into.
Follow this “moving chain” back far enough, and soon enough you see that each new unit of luxury housing is freeing up lots of housing in the lowest-cost, lowest-income neighborhoods in the city. That presumably puts downward pressure on prices and displacement.”
“An August 2021 paper from Finnish researchers looking at moving chains in Helsinki found that for every 100 new market-rate apartments built in the city center, “29 units get created through vacancy in bottom-quintile income zip codes and 60 units in bottom-half income zip codes” within two years.”
“Research by economist Evan Mast on the effects of luxury apartment construction in 12 American cities has also found that new, pricey units open up more housing options for middle- and lower-income neighborhoods.”
“relying on rent control to keep that renter in the same home comes at the expense of new housing supply, which in turn raises rents for everyone else in the city and prevents others from moving there entirely.”