Who Was Behind the Incompetent Venezuela “Invasion?”

On May 3, a group of around 60 mercenaries attempted an amphibious landing at Macuto, on Venezuela’s Caribbean coast. They were quickly defeated and 13 of them — including two Americans, Airan Berry and Luke Denman — captured.

US president Donald Trump has denied any association with, knowledge of, or involvement in the affair on the part of the US government.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on the other hand has pledged to use “every tool” to get Berry and Denman released and returned to the US — a curious position for a US diplomat, given that the two seem to have been taken while violating Venezuelan law on Venezuelan soil.

The details behind the slapstick “invasion” remain somewhat murky, but a few aspects are reasonably well documented:

First, that the planners of the operation were Jordan Goudreau —  former US soldier and owner of “security” firm Silvercorp — and former Venezuelan general Cliver Alcala Cordones.

Second, that the services of Silvercorp were retained by a “Strategic Command” answering to Juan Guaido, a Venezuelan opposition figure recognized by his country’s National Assembly, and by 59 other regimes, as the country’s “acting president.”

Third, that the goal of the landing, dubbed “Operation Gideon” seems to have been to abduct the other claimant to the country’s presidency, Nicolas Maduro, overthrow his regime, and deliver him to US authorities for trial on recent “drug kingpin” charges.

At first glance, it’s easy to believe Trump’s denials of involvement. The whole operation was a comedy of errors from conception through execution. There was never any chance that 60 mercenaries were going to make a successful landing, move inland, capture Maduro, and spirit him out of the country, even with the help of another 300 troops supposedly already in Venezuela.

But even a cursory look at US history says this kind of thing happens all the time.

The US military messes up. Think Little Big Horn, the downing of Francis Gary Powers over the Soviet Union, or the “Desert One” fiasco during the Iran hostage crisis.

The US intelligence community overestimates its ability to extort presidents into following up failed paramilitary actions with official military force. Remember the Bay of Pigs? Maduro does.

American politicians get caught in weird, officially unsanctioned, criminal schemes. Consider, for example, Richard Nixon’s “Plumbers” and the Watergate burglary.

Yes, “Operation Gideon” looks, in retrospect, like a Monty Python sketch. But so do a lot of government, or government-sponsored, or government-approved, projects.

Is it coincidence that between the time Guaido contracted with Silvercorp and the launch of the operation, the US government provided “law enforcement” cover in the form of drug charges and a $15 million bounty on Maduro’s head?

If you and I landed at Lyme Regis with a plan to abduct Boris Johnson, or at Santos Beach intending to capture Jair Bolsonaro, would Mike Pompeo be keen to get us repatriated, or would he leave us to the mercies of the British or Brazilian justice systems?

Was “Operation Gideon” a comedic interlude, or just the latest failed US intervention in Venezuela?

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The Other Great Shutdown

Here’s my opening statement for last night’s Soho Forum debate with Mark Krikorian.


I’ve debated Mark Krikorian on immigration many times before, but today’s crisis provides a new and gripping argument against immigration.  Almost anyone can see the force of it: Coronavirus originated in China, migration brought it here, and suddenly life is terrible.  Dogmatic libertarians can keep droning on about “liberty,” but everyone else now plainly sees that strict immigration controls could have stopped this plague – and only strict immigration controls can stop the plagues of the future.

This argument sounds so right.  What could possibly be wrong with it?

Let’s start by backing up.  Before the coronavirus, did we have anything close to open borders?  Of course not; Mark himself has conceded this point in prior debates.  Under open borders, the U.S. could easily have tens of millions of immigrants annually.  A conservative estimate says that our borders are normally 95% closed.  I say it’s more like 98% closed.

So what?  Even with our borders 98% closed, the virus had no trouble spreading here on a massive scale.  Once a few sick people enter your country, it spreads far and wide.  The same is true all over the world.  The United Kingdom is an island nation, but it has the second-highest body count on Earth.   So it seems like we couldn’t have solved our problem with moderate further restrictions; we’d need to virtually end immigration altogether.  But would that be enough?  No way.  You would also have to virtually end international tourism, too.  That doesn’t just mean keeping foreign tourists out; it also means keeping domestic tourists in.  Or at least tell your own citizens, “If you leave, you can’t come back.”

The upshot: Even cutting immigration down to Japanese levels would do very little about contagion.  Instead, it looks like you would have to approach North Korea’s policy of “no-one-gets-in-or-out-alive.”

At this point, you might be wondering, “Well, couldn’t we allow tourism, but simply require a strict supervised two-week quarantine for all international travelers?”  Indeed you could.  Sadly, this is so burdensome it would practically eliminate international tourism.  Perhaps people would take one or two international trips per lifetime, spending two weeks in quarantine on arrival and return.  But that’s about it.  The benefit of tourism is too modest to offset weeks of confinement.

Now we reach the trillion-dollar question: What would be enough to offset weeks of confinement?  The indubitable answer is: the opportunity to permanently immigrate!  If you’re already willing to leave your country of birth to build a new life for yourself, two weeks of quarantine only modestly increases the cost.  Even seasonal migrants would endure quarantine; they might lose a month of time on a round-trip, but U.S. agricultural wages are about five times as high as Mexico’s.  The punchline, then, is that if you are mortally afraid of contagion, what you need to stop is not immigration but tourism.

Which is, by the way, the opposite of what is likely to happen, because we have long been ruled by innumerate, hysterical demagogues.

An immigration policy of open borders combined with a two-week quarantine would, in my view, be an immense improvement over the status quo.  I’d say that would move the border from 98% closed to 95% open.  If contagion were your sole objection to immigration, this is the policy you should favor.

I know, of course, that people have a long list of other objections to immigration.  Indeed, as far as I recall, this is my first debate with Mark where he even mentioned contagion.  Instead, he’s primarily relied on cultural objections, while downplaying immigration’s economic benefits.

Which makes me wonder: Has the present crisis shed any new light on our earlier disagreements?  The answer: Yes on both counts.

Culturally, the crisis has shown that Americans have a lot to learn from other cultures.  Our way of handling contagion has been clumsy at best.  Maybe we should have learned from Singapore and South Korea, maybe we should have learned from Iceland and Sweden.  What Americans definitely shouldn’t do is look in the mirror and admire our wonderfully functional culture.  We’re not the worst on Earth, but now is a fine time to embrace a curious cosmopolitan perspective.

The economic lesson of the crisis is truly clear-cut.  Since mid-March, the greatest economy in human history has been in “shutdown” or “lockdown.”  Our standard of living has crashed, and unemployment is near the level of the Great Depression.  Why?  Because we have temporarily annulled the right of free migration within the United States. Let me repeat that: Our standard of living has crashed because we have temporarily annulled the right of free migration within the United States. Americans are no longer able to work and shop where they like.  The result is not a minor inconvenience, but disaster.  We are suddenly stuck in a post-apocalyptic movie.  I detest hyperbole.  But this, my friends, is no hyperbole.

What would we think, however, if this economic shutdown had existed for all of living memory?  We’d probably be content with the only life we’ve ever known.  We only know what we’re missing because – until very recently – we had it.  And we all look forward to a future where we can restore free migration within the United States and regain its immense benefits.

What does this have to do with immigration?  To quote Obi-Wan Kenobi, “More than you possibly can imagine.”  In normal times, current immigration law keeps the whole world on permanent lockdown.  While people can usually move freely within their countries of birth, governments strictly regulate international mobility.  This regulation traps billions of people in unproductive backwaters of the global economy.  Current policies don’t just needlessly impoverish all the would-be migrants eager to build better lives for themselves.  They also impoverish their billions of customers.  The secret of mass consumption is mass production.  This is most fundamental lesson of economics.  When you shut down the restaurant industry, you don’t just hurt waiters and chefs; you hurt diners.  When you shut down immigration, you don’t just hurt immigrants; you hurt all the natives who would have purchased the fruits of immigrant labor.

Is the harm of ongoing immigration restriction really comparable to the harm of the coronavirus lockdown?  Definitely.  The highest estimates of the fall in U.S. GDP are about 50%, and that combines the effects of the virus and the policy response.  Estimates of the total damage of immigration restrictions, in contrast, are typically around 50% of global GDP.   In both cases, draconian restrictions on freedom of movement strangle production.

Even the most ardent fans of the coronavirus lockdown do not deny how much their policies have depressed our standard of living and our quality of life.  Even the fans of immigration, in contrast, rarely realize how much the immigration lockdown deprives humanity year after year.  How come almost everyone sees the former cost yet almost no one sees the latter?  Because it’s much easier for human beings to miss wonderful things they used to have than it is to miss wonderful things they’ve yet to experience.

Can we really compare the coronavirus lockdown to the ongoing immigration lockdown?  We can and we should.

The coronavirus lockdown is only temporary and delivers a semi-plausible benefit.  I’m against this lockdown.  But maybe I’m wrong.

The ongoing immigration lockdown, in contrast, has gone on for about a century and delivers benefits so dubious even their fans struggle to articulate or quantify them.  And when we sympathetically examine economic, fiscal, cultural, and political objections to immigration, they turn out to be either flat wrong or greatly overstated.  If you want details, try my new Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration.  But here’s the quick version.

1. Economic objections to immigration are totally wrong-headed.  To repeat, the secret of mass consumption is mass production, and immigration restrictions strangle production by trapping human talent in low-productivity countries.  A Mexican farmer grows far more food here than he can grow back in Mexico.  Not convinced?  How productive would you be in Mexico?

2. Fiscal objections are flimsy.  Despite the existence of the welfare state, boring apolitical number-crunchers conclude that even low-skilled immigrants are a net fiscal positive for natives, as long as they arrive when they’re young.  You don’t have to take my word for it; if you like looking at numbers, try chapter 7 of the 2017 report from the National Academy of Sciences.

3. Cultural objections are weak, insofar as we can even measure them.  Almost all second-generation immigrants speak fluent English.  Immigrants’ crime rates are lower than natives’.  And advanced statistical work on the effects of nations’ ancestry and average IQ still imply massive gains of immigration.  In a previous debate, I asked Mark Krikorian why he chooses to live in the Capital area, one of the highest-immigration regions of America.  I kind of expected him to say something like, “It’s hell, but I’m sacrificing my well-being so the rest of America doesn’t have to endure the same fate.”  But if I recall correctly, he just shrugged, “It’s complicated.”  I suppose it is complicated, but I can’t understand why you would lead a political crusade against anything “complicated” when the world is still packed with stuff that’s blatantly bad.

4. Political objections, finally, look minor at best.  In the U.S., the foreign-born are, unfortunately, more socially conservative and economically liberal.  But the difference is modest, even immigrants eligible to vote have low turnout, and their descendants assimilate to mainstream American political culture.  It’s not a big deal.  Even if you disagree, why not welcome immigrants to live and work, but not to vote?

I know this is a lot of information in a short space.  I’m happy to expand on any of these topics in the Q&A.  But I predictably stand by the conclusion of Open Borders: Immigration restriction is a solution in search of a problem.  People don’t really know why they want to restrict immigration; they just know that they do.

Even if my book is thoroughly wrong, though, the current crisis provides no bonus argument in favor of immigration restriction.  Tourism – including American travel abroad – may be a problem, but we can safely admit all willing immigrants with a suitable quarantine.  And such a quarantine would do little to discourage immigration, because the gains are astronomical.

Last point: If you fear a world where American citizens, in the name of disease prevention, lose their basic freedom to travel abroad, I share your fear.  But when you cherish this freedom, please remember that the vast majority of the world’s population has lacked this freedom for about a century.  Even the world’s poorest people can scrape together the money to get here; what most will never get is the government paperwork that allows them to live and work in peace.  Our shutdown will end in the foreseeable future.  The world’s shutdown will endure until we see it for needless cruelty it is.

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Bubble-Wrapped Americans: How the U.S. Became Obsessed with Physical and Emotional Safety

“In America we say if anyone gets hurt, we will ban it for everyone everywhere for all time. And before we know it, everything is banned.”

It’s a common refrain: We have bubble-wrapped the world. Americans in particular are obsessed with “safety.” The simplest way to get any law passed in America, be it a zoning law or a sweeping reform of the intelligence community, is to invoke a simple sentence: “A kid might get hurt.”

Almost no one is opposed to reasonable efforts at making the world a safer place. But the operating word here is “reasonable.” Banning lawn darts, for example, rather than just telling people that they can be dangerous when used by unsupervised children, is a perfect example of a craving for safety gone too far.

Beyond the realm of legislation, this has begun to infect our very culture. Think of things like “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” These are part of broader cultural trends in search of a kind of “emotional safety” – a purported right to never be disturbed or offended by anything. This is by no means confined to the sphere of academia, but is also in our popular culture, both in “extremely online” and more mainstream variants.

Why are Americans so obsessed with safety? What is the endgame of those who would bubble wrap the world, both physically and emotionally? Perhaps most importantly, what can we do to turn back the tide and reclaim our culture of self-reliancemental toughness, and giving one another the benefit of the doubt so that we don’t “bankrupt ourselves in the vain search for absolute security,” as President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about?

Coddling and Splintering: The Transformation of the American Mind

Bubble-Wrapped Americans: How the U.S. Became Obsessed with Physical and Emotional SafetyTwo books published in 2018 provide parallel insights into the problems presented by the safety obsession of American culture: The Splintering of the American Mind by William Egginton, focused on the tendency of Americans to tunnel themselves off into self-selected bubbles, and The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, which deals more with the tendency to avoid any uncomfortable or unpleasant information.

There is an interesting phenomenon involved in coddling: Australian psychologist Nick Haskam first coined the term “concept creep.” Basically, this means that terms are often elastic and expand past the point of meaning. Take, for example, the concept of “trauma.” This used to have a very limited meaning. However, “trauma” quickly became expanded to mean even slight physical or emotional harm or discomfort. Thus the increasing belief among the far left that words can be “violence” – not “violent,” mind you, but actual, literal violence.

In the other direction, the definition of “hero” has been expanded to mean just about anything. Every teacher, firefighter and police officer is now considered a “hero.” This isn’t to downplay or minimize the importance of these roles in our society. It’s simply to point out that “hero” just doesn’t mean what it used to 100 or even 30 years ago.

Continue reading Bubble-Wrapped Americans: How the U.S. Became Obsessed with Physical and Emotional Safety at Ammo.com.

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No, the Politicians Didn’t Save Us From COVID-19

Writing at Reason magazine, Eric Boehm notes two trends revealed in data released by Apple and Foursquare.

Trend One: Americans began reducing their outings and social interactions before, not because of, “shelter in place” orders issued by grandstanding, opportunistic politicians.

Trend  Two: Americans started coming back out and resuming something like normal life before, not because, those politicians started lifting those orders.

In other words, with COVID-19 as with everything else, government policy is a trailing, rather than leading, indicator.

Politicians don’t start parades. They notice parades that we regular people have spontaneously organized, then run as fast as they can to the front of those parades, hoping to be seen “taking charge.”

And yet, for some reason, large numbers of Americans remain devout congregants of what Libertarians call the Cult of the Omnipotent State.

At the beginning of every perceived crisis or emergency, the priests and parishioners of the Cult of the Omnipotent State assert that the only way society will survive is if we all act in lockstep obedience to the commands of the politicians.

And after every perceived crisis or emergency, those same priests and parishioners assert that the only reason society survived is that we all DID act in lockstep obedience to the commands of the politicians.

They’re always wrong, of course. In fact, it invariably turns out that the politicians and their strutting authoritarian commands made the crisis or emergency worse rather than better — sometimes in a big way, sometimes just at the margins, but at least a little, always and every time.

For some reason, though, we always let the Cultists of the Omnipotent State re-write history with the politicians as the heroes. That’s a mistake that costs lives.

As America “re-opens,” we should put our minds to avoiding that mistake in the future.

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If Gas Prices Jump at the Pump, Thank Trump (and Other Politicians)

“Remember $2 gas?” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich asked in 2012 as he sought the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. Politicians love to remind us of low gas prices in the past and promise their return in the future.

But in early April, Reuters reports, US president Donald Trump threatened to severely curtail the US government’s military relationship with Saudi Arabia unless the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) reduced oil output to drive prices back UP.

Yes, that’s right: Trump wants you to pay more for gasoline, and he’s willing to use the threat of military action of a sort (withdrawing US troops and weapons systems from Saudi soil) to make that happen.

Here’s a dirty little secret of American politics that’s by no means unique to Trump:

American politicians know that regular people want low gas prices, and that we won’t vote for politicians who openly advocate for higher gas prices.

American politicians also know that the American oil industry, which pumps a lot of oil out of the ground and a lot of money into political campaigns, wants gigantic subsidies.

So American politicians talk low prices to the one group while using policy to achieve high prices for the other group.

From the “oil depletion allowance” and other special tax tricks, to taxpayer-funded roads into drilling areas, to much of  the US “defense” budget (why do you think US military policy for the last 40 years has been to keep the Middle East in turmoil and Iranian — and now Venezuelan — oil off the market?), petroleum is one of America’s most subsidized industries.

The American shale extraction processes of recent decades simply can’t compete with old-fashioned foreign drill-and-pump crude at market prices, so American oil lobbyists buy politicians and get them to goose the price back up whenever it falls below $50 a barrel or so.

And who knows? Absent the giant subsidies, oil might have been replaced by much more lightly subsidized “renewables” long ago.

There haven’t been many bright spots in the COVID-19 panic, but for many Americans the lowest gas prices in years were a welcome bit of good news. If you had anywhere to go, you could get there for a lot less.

And that’s how it would be most or all of the time if not for politics. The high gas prices you pay aren’t set by the market, they’re set by politicians on behalf of Big Oil.

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Commentary on State Capacity and State Priorities

Two EconLog readers’ comments on yesterday’s post struck me:

Phil H.:

Caplan’s point is a good and striking one. His conclusion is fairly extraordinary, though: He is apparently claiming that all (or a plurality) of the major decision makers in the American government are power-hungry demagogues who deliberately decided to channel money into stimulus rather than research because they are bad people.

I like a powerful contrarian claim, but this one is a little too far for me.

Fair question, Phil.  I doubt many politicians are explicitly thinking, “Research is better for society, but stimulus is better for  my career.  I don’t care what happens to human lives or the economy as long I can be king of the ashes.”  Instead, I doubt politicians are doing much thinking at all.  They go with the herd – and their own arrogance.

However, as I’ve previously argued, anything less than Vulcan rationality in a major leader is extremely morally wrong, because with great power comes great responsibility.  Normal backroom observers would probably say, “Well, these politicians are just playing the game.”  I puritanically reject such excuses.

The problem lies in the failure to acknowledge the importance of institutions and structures, and to assign everything to individual actions. Do we really believe that all of the leaders of China are “good” people, and that’s why they responded more effectively to the crisis? Is New Zealand’s good record a reflection of Ahern’s moral excellence?

I have an extremely overall negative view of the Chinese Communist Party’s behavior, and remain suspicious that they are hiding severe pandemic-related failures and crimes.  But if I knew nothing except the standard coronavirus narrative, I would consider them better people.  On the other hand, I suspect that the leaders of New Zealand are morally a cut above what Americans are used to, though of course as remote islands they have major advantages in disease containment.

My broader point, though, is that we should compare leaders to standards of common sense and common decency, and almost all fall woefully short.

There does seem to be a good case to make that the leadership of the USA has become paralysed by partisan infighting. The problem is that it’s now ingrained into the systems and institutions. Even if a Mr Smith went to Washington, that wouldn’t sort out the problem.

How does “partisan infighting” prevent such obvious measures as wide-scale voluntary paid human experimentation?  I just don’t see it.  If the parties can agree to fritter away trillions of dollars, they can agree to suspend pseudo-ethical rules that keep policymakers in the dark.

Rob:

Hey Bryan — I had always read state capacity to include the capacity to make intelligent decisions. So a state with a big military or lots of spending power, but without wise politicians or experienced bureaucrats to know how to sensibly use them, it still lacks capacity in some sense. It lacks the capacity to achieve its goals.

The whole point of distinguishing between achievements and capabilities is that achievements normally fall short of capabilities.  This is true for individuals and organizations alike.  My achievements fall short of my capabilities; don’t yours?

So you can imagine a government that has the capacity to shut down its entire economy, but not the research ability to figure out whether it should — or decide on the right specific actions that are needed in order to stop a pandemic spreading. Such a state lacks essential capacities.

This might be an unhelpfully broad concept, but I think that’s how others use the term too.

Once you define “state capacity” this broadly, blaming failure on  “lack of state capacity” is virtually meaningless.  You might as well declare that “good government causes success” and “bad government causes failure.”

The real story, I think, is that state capacity researchers are willfully equivocating – yet another case of the motte-and-bailey fallacy.

When the audience is sympathetic, “high state capacity” means collecting lots of taxes, building a strong military, constructing roads, having universal public education, and so on.

When the audience is skeptical, “high state capacity” simply means being a government that rules over a rich, modern civilization.

The trick is to use the latter definition to legitimize the concept, then use the former definition to justify more resources and power for the government.

Or so it seems to me.

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