How Do We Know the US’ Cuba Policy Failed?

Dan Drezner has a good post on the US-Cuba détente and how it is consistent with Obama’s foreign policy pattern of seeking to alter undesirable status quo situations. I agree with all of it but the ending:

…it’s hard to deny that America’s Cuba policy had failed.

It’s worth asking what objective motivated America’s Cuba policy before concluding that it failed. Several possibilities:

1. Limiting the expansion of global communism into the Western Hemisphere (c. 1960-1990).

It’s easy to forget that this actually was a thing once upon a time. Castro’s early Cuban government was not only brutal on the island but also actively sought to export revolution elsewhere, and provided material support to rebels pursuing that end. Castro encouraged Khrushchev to deploy nuclear weapons during the Missile Crisis and, at least for a time, sought those weapons for himself. The embargo did limit Castro’s material influence during the Cold War, and thereby cut off one of the main potential routes of activity for the USSR in the West. It meant that Castro would no longer be able to credibly promise to assist those seeking to overthrow US-friendly governments. And, among other things, this ensured that on the occasions where the Cold War hotted up it would not be near the US’s territory.

2. Limiting the influence of left populists in the Western Hemisphere (c. 1990-2010).

The post-Cold War era was greeted triumphantly in many parts of the West, but not so much in Latin America. The devastating effects of the debt crises of the 1980s and 1990s, along with IMF-mandated structural reforms, reinforced anti-American sentiment in the region. There remained a pervasive idea that Latin America was stuck in a dependent relationship with the US that would forever forestall development. Faced with this and rapid development elsewhere in the world, new leaders like Chavez, Morales, and Correa looked to the Cuban regime as a model of resistance and pushed for solidarity in opposition to the US-led international order. Discrediting this idea — using both carrots and sticks — has been a key objective of the US in the years since, and as regional alternatives to the US stagnate or collapse that goal looks closer to being achieved than it possibly ever has.

3. Winning elections in Florida (c. 1990-present).

Who says the embargo was about primarily about foreign policy objectives in the recent past? Successive presidential elections more or less came down to several thousand votes in Florida (or were expected to do so), and until quite recently the Cuban expat community has vociferously opposed normalization with Castro’s regime. There’s a pretty simple electoral math here: keep the anti-Castro Cuban-Americans happy, or you could lose to the person who does.  

4. The end of the Castro regime.

Was this a true foreign policy goal of the US after the Kennedy Administration? Maybe they would have liked to see it happen, but Castro was very much contained and the US foreign policy apparatus has traditionally been comfortable containing regimes it doesn’t like. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that the US was pursuing regime change per se at any point since the 1960s, and it certainly isn’t doing so today. Regime change is risky, and the US has had no compunction about isolating, but otherwise tolerating, distasteful governments.

So did the US’ Cuba policy fail? The answer depends on what is meant by the question, but it seems to have achieved much of what it wanted to achieve at very little cost. I’d call that a limited win or, at the very worst, a slightly aggravating stalemate. Given that it had achieved limited success, and that the course of history rendered other objectives moot, the Obama administration was quite right to change the policy. But that does not constitute an admission of failure.


Would You Rather Be Rich in the Past or ‘Comfortable’ Today?

Scott Sumner:

In a recent post I suggested that one could argue that the entire increase in per capita income over the past 50 years was pure inflation (and hence that real GDP per capita didn’t rise at all.) But also that one could equally well argue that there has been no inflation over the past 50 years. The official government figures show real GDP/person rising slightly more than 150% since 1964, whereas the PCE deflator is up about 6-fold. …

Here’s one thought experiment. Get a department store catalog from today, and compare it to a catalog from 1964. (I recently saw Don Boudreaux do something similar at a conference.) Almost any millennial would rather shop out of the modern catalog, even with the same nominal amount of money to spend. Of course that’s just goods; there is also services, which have risen much faster in price. OK, so ask a millennial whether they’d rather live today on $100,000/year, or back in 1964 with the same nominal income. Recall the rotary phones and bulky cameras. The cars that rusted out frequently. Cars that you couldn’t count on to start on a cold morning. I recall getting cavities filled in 1964, without Novocaine. Not fun. No internet. Crappy TVs, where you have to constantly move the rabbit ears on top to get a decent picture. Lame black and white sitcoms, with 3 channels to choose from. Shorter life expectancy, even for the affluent. No Thai restaurants, sushi places or Starbucks. It’s steak and potatoes. Now against all that is the fact that someone making $100,000/year in 1964 was pretty rich, so your social standing was much higher than that income today. So it’s a close call, maybe living standards have risen for people making $100,000/year, maybe not. Zero inflation in the past 50 years may not be right, but it’s a reasonable estimate for a millennial, grounded in utility theory. In which period does $100,000 buy more happiness? We don’t know.

I think if we really don’t know the answer to this question then it’s only because happiness is subjective. To me it’s obvious that a $100,000/year salary is worth more today than it used to be. For one thing, in 1964 tax rates in basically every Western economy were absurdly high, so that that $100,000 would really be somewhere from $10,000-30,000. George Harrison wasn’t exaggerating; how would you like to live in a country where your best artists and creators were forced into (or simply chose) tax exile?

But let’s leave that aside for now. In 1964 a $100,000 salary would make you an elite, but your real income would actually be much smaller than that because of all of the 2014 goods you could not purchase at any price. Sumner runs many of them down, but the point is that $100,000 is still enough to live quite well in this country — even in the expensive cities — but the range of choice has exploded, and many of the modern choices now come at very low cost.

Let’s not forget that politics was quite different in 1964 as well: segregation persisted, the Cold War was raging, and even in the U.S. the “elite” were defined as much by their pedigree as income. We weren’t far removed from McCarthy, and were in the midst of a succession of assassinations of American political leaders and overt revolutionary threats in many Western societies. No birth control, no abortion, few rights for women and homosexuals in general. Being an elite in that world would likely feel very uncomfortable, and of course this blog (and essentially all media I consume) wouldn’t exist. So for me 2014 is the obvious choice.

Tyler Cowen has a more interesting question:

But here’s the catch: would you rather have net nominal 20k today or in 1964? I would opt for 1964, where you would be quite prosperous and could track the career of Miles Davis and hear the Horowitz comeback concert at Carnegie Hall. (To push along the scale a bit, $5 nominal in 1964 is clearly worth much more than $5 today nominal. Back then you might eat the world’s best piece of fish for that much.)

I’m still not sure. $20k/year back then wouldn’t be enough to make you very well off, and the marginal cost of culture consumption today has sunk almost to zero. Was Miles Davis really so much better than anyone working today? For everyone in the world who does not live in NYC, is it better to be able to watch his concerts on YouTube now, and on demand, than not to have seen them at all? Lenny Bruce was still active in 1964 but almost no one ever saw him (for both technological and political reasons). I might still take the $20k today, and I’ve lived on less than that for my entire adult life until last year, so this is an informed choice. But I agree that it’s a much more difficult decision.

It is an interesting question, mostly because it reveals what people value most. It’s a mutation of the “veil of ignorance”. So what would you choose?

Aunt Flo Meets Uncle Sam: Menstruating While Incarcerated

The ACLU of Michigan filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of eight female inmates from the Muskegon County Jail who assert that “inhuman and degrading policies at the filthy, overcrowded lockup violate their constitutional rights.” Among the (many) degrading policies is the jail’s refusal to provide adequate feminine hygiene products to inmates.

Unfortunately, this is a common problem facing female inmates. According to Maya Schenwar, who has worked regularly with incarcerated women she has heard one recurring complaint from female prisoners: “There are never enough feminine hygiene products to go around.” Many facilities don’t provide feminine hygiene products at all, requiring women to buy pads or tampons from prison commissary. In these facilities women can wait weeks for their commissary to come in. Others have no external source of funds and are forced to go without or use makeshift hygiene products made of toilet paper. (more…)