Five Best Monday Columns

Israel's prisoner exchange, myths about drones, and the case for regulation.

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Robert Adler on maligning regulations  The House of Representatives recently passed a bill that establishes an independent committee to conduct cost-benefit analysis of EPA regulations, "ignoring the fact that the agency already does its own analyses. So, for that matter, do all executive agencies, under a directive issued by President Obama last January," writes Robert Adler, commissioner of the Consumer Product Safety Commission in The New York Times. Behind some of the calls for more analysis are attempts to "cut back 'oppressive' and 'job killing' regulations in order to 'jump-start' the nation's stalled economy," by forcing regulatory agencies to paralyze themselves with "analysis." Adler argues that "health and safety agencies rarely impose new costs on society when we issue safety regulations. We simply re-allocate who pays the costs." Safety rules eliminate death and injury, which cause harm to households, bump health care premium costs, and hurt consumers. Costs incurred through death and injury add up to at least as much as the costs of a safety rule, Adler says, so regulations are often just dictating who pay that cost. Adler notes that he doesn't "quarrel with the president's cost-benefit executive order, especially because it explicitly permits agencies to consider values that are difficult or impossible to quantify, including 'equity, human dignity, fairness, and distributive impacts'" but he does argue against calls for more analysis that are veiled attempts to shut down regulation altogether.

Robert Mnookin on Israel's prisoner exchange Israel last week "agreed to release about 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for a single life: that of Gilad Shalit," writes Robert Mnookin in The Wall Street Journal. Israel says it won't negotiate with terrorists, including Hamas, and they get around this by saying they exchanged offers through Egyptian intermediaries. Sometimes, negotiating with terrorists is "pragmatic," Mnookin says, "but in this case, Israel is only compounding the damage from previous deals," many of which have also been "lopsided." Israel justifies them because it requires Israeli citizens to serve, and in asking this, "the implicit bargain is that it will make every effort to recover anyone who falls into enemy hands." In the long run, though, the costs will outweigh the benefits. Many of the to-be-released Palestinian prisoners have been convicted of violent, specific terrorist attacks. "A more substantial cost is that of precedent," the idea that Hamas will be emboldened in its tactics. The third cost is the political bolstering it gives to Hamas over rival factions. Israel likely undertook the deal because Gilad Shalit is a "known individual" whereas the future victims of this exchange are mere statistics. "There is a long line of psychological research showing that, in making decisions, human beings will incur far greater costs to save one identifiable being from immediate peril than to enact safety measures that might save many more statistical lives," and this perhaps motivated the current deal.

Michael W. Lewis on drone myths Lately, critics have argued that America's use of drones will precipitate "a new international arms race," writes international law professor Michael W. Lewis in the Los Angeles Times. "Much of it rests on myths that are easily dispelled." First, critics say drones will threaten the United States. Drones, he says "are not effective weapons of conventional warfare. The unmanned aerial vehicles are slow and extremely vulnerable to even basic air defense systems." A drone sent into U.S. airspace could be easily found and destroyed. The second myth is that terrorists "could effectively use drones to strike targets that are otherwise safe." But beyond their technological challenges, drones require logistical support, so terrorists are more likely to continue depending on vehicles or suicide bombers. The third myth is that our use of drones to kill Awlaki and others justifies the use of drones by Russia and China against Chechnyans or Uighers. We had a strong legal case for targeting Awlaki, but Russia and China do not have one against those groups under international law. "It is important to recognize drones for what they are," Lewis concludes, "slow, relatively low-tech anti-terrorism tools that would be of limited use on most modern battlefields and are particularly unsuited to use by terrorist organizations."

Harold Ford on energy jobs waiting to be created The Philadelphia shipyard will soon begin construction on two oil-tanker transport ships, creating 1,000 jobs. The Obama administration announced it would "move forward with 500 oil-drilling leases off the coast," creating even more jobs.  New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to lift a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, which could create as many as 40,000 jobs, some estimate. "We spend so much time theorizing about new steps government can take to create jobs that we sometimes overlook the jobs that are right in front of us waiting for government approval," writes former Rep. Harold Ford in The Wall Street Journal. The Keystone XL oil pipeline running from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast, could create thousands of jobs, but "regulatory hurdles" stand in the way. "A study released last month by the Woods Mackenzie research firm found that 1.4 million jobs and $800 billion in new government revenue could be created over the next two decades by removing barriers to increased domestic oil and gas production." Democrats, unfortunately, have stood in Obama's way as he tries to promote energy jobs. "The government's fundamental responsibility here is simply enabling American business to succeed," he writes. "Americans are asking where the jobs are. The answer: They're all around us. We need to get out of their way, now."

Noah Feldman on legal arguments and war Legal arguments matter, writes Noah Feldman in Bloomberg, because they influence policy. "As it turns out, targeted killing, now the hallmark of the Barack Obama administration's war on terrorism, has its roots in rejection of the legal justifications once offered for waterboarding prisoners." The Bush administration's tactic was to capture, imprison, and aggressively interrogate suspected terrorists to stop future attacks. To do so, the administration's legal team, including John Yoo, wrote memos that argued water boarding was not torture, and furthermore, it didn't matter because the president had the power to do whatever necessary to protect the country. This was met with much outrage. "As a candidate, Obama joined the bandwagon, promising to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within a year of taking office." Though Guantanamo remains open, Obama shifted strategies, targeting and killing terrorists rather than detaining them, because of the calculated political costs of increasing detainees. People opposed Bush's policies not based on the Constitution, but because they didn't like that the president had the sole power to decide who our enemies were. Obama has maintained that same power, rejecting a suit from Awlaki's father to remove him from the target list. "Al-Awlaki might have maintained that he was merely a jihadi propagandist exercising his free speech rights as a U.S. citizen. Which might well have been a lie. Yet we have only the president's word that he was an active terrorist -- and that is all we will ever have."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.