Thursday, September 13, 2007

What could Iraq look like if we all just left?

Oddly enough, the story of Somalia after the UN withdrew (but before it returned in recent years) shows that power vacuums aren't always to the detriment of society. Of course, the situation in Iraq has significant differences from Somalia- most importantly that a Shiite-dominated centralized government (backed by powerful militias) would at least nominally exist if everyone left. As a result, we would not be leaving behind a true power vacuum, meaning that the group with control of the government apparatus would hold an important advantage over the other groups. This advantage would be enough that the other groups, especially the Sunnis, would have a huge incentive to undermine the government as much as possible, effectively resulting in a civil war.

On the other hand, if we were to combine our withdrawal of forces with an end to most or all international aid to the Maliki government, we would minimize the initial advantage to the Shiites of maintaining a violent grasp on power - in other words, they'd be a government with no money other than what they could get from Iran. As Hamas found out, controlling a government with no money is about as worthwhile as being President of your middle school student council. Indeed, you can't even pay goons to go out and extract money for taxes since they would have no incentive to actually give the money they extract to you.

The only way to make holding on to power worthwhile would be to attract private investors. Even though private investors would love to tap into Iraq's oil, the instability created by a government with no ability to enforce property rights would make access to the oil worthless. Thus, the Shiite government would have no choice but to make peace with the Sunnis, who would find themselves with a surprising amount of leverage to work out a fair deal.

If the government and Sunnis failed to reach an agreement, you would have a state of anarchy - but one very similar to the Somalia example. Of course, the key to all this is that the withdrawal be combined with a complete end to international aid; unfortunately, this is something that most liberals would be completely opposed to on a false belief that the aid would be necessary to prevent a long-term humanitarian crisis.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"Green" Energy policy starves the poor

It seems I am about 3 months late on this topic, but it is one of the greatest ever examples of how government intervention has horrible unintended consequences. One of the more successful purportedly "Green" campaigns in recent years has been the campaign to mandate use of biofuels. As a result of this campaign, governments all over the world have begun to subsidize biofuel production and/or mandate the use of a specific percentage of biofuels in various energy products. Unfortunately, the laws of economics turn out to be more ironclad than the politicians expected.
Importantly, the agricultural products that form the basis for biofuels are all what we might call staples: sugar cane, corn, maize (used mostly for livestock feed), and wheat. What politicians seem to have forgotten (or maybe they just flunked Econ 101 in college) is that you can't artificially increase demand for a scarce resource without an inevitable price increase for that product. In this case, it's even worse, though, because you also have subsidies for particular varieties of agricultural products - but only to the extent the product is used for biofuels. So, farmers suddenly have an incentive to only sell their crops for biofuel uses, resulting in not only increased overall demand, but also a decreased supply in the food market.
Not surprisingly, the subsidies and mandates have resulted in increased global prices for these crops. The price of maize more than doubled between Jan. 2006 and May 2007. Maize is considered the world's most important staple crop since it is an essential ingredient in hundreds of foods, and is a primary source of livestock feed. The price doubling came despite the fact that the biofuel maize production amounted to only 15% of the US maize crop. In addition, the government subsidy not surprisingly resulted in less planting of other staple crops, resulting in higher prices for those crops.
A doubling of maize prices was directly responsible for a sizable increase in the overall price of US food in early 2007. But the effects on Second and Third World countries have been huge. For example, in 2006, according to Foreign Affairs, tortilla prices in Mexico more than doubled. Corn prices and wheat prices increased by at least 50% between June 2006 and 2007.
A 30% global increase in the price of wheat this year alone - due largely to biofuel production - has resulted in Italians going on strike today against eating pasta, which has seen its price rise accordingly.
Sugarcane, soybeans, and other staples have seen their prices rise accordingly- all as a direct result of biofuels production. Since these foods are all staple foods, the most affected by the price increase are the world's poorest countries. The problem has gotten so bad that within 20 years, some estimates suggest biofuel production will result in twice as many individuals who are "chronically hungry" worldwide as would otherwise be so classified. This increase amounts to 600 million additional starving people - but at least we'll be able to feel a little more smug that we helped the environment in a marginal way.