Pomme Duterte.

The Philippines were plagued by problems under Spanish rule; those problems didn’t go away under American rule; and they continued to plague the archipelago after independence.  Most eye-catching for Americans was a Muslim insurgency in the southern islands: the Moro Rebellion.  (Purportedly, this led to the adoption of the Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol.)  Since 9/11, American Special Forces have been supporting operations against Islamists (Abu Sayaf) in the southern islands of the archipelago.

A second problem, much ignored by Americans, is that the Philippines are ruled by a corrupt oligarchy.[1] In the 1980s and 1990s, after the end of the Vietnam War and the Cold War in Asia, those leaders (and perhaps ordinary Filipinos as well) decided that they would prefer that the American military left its naval and air bases in the Philippines.  By 1992 this hope came true.

A third problem, more recent in appearance, is drugs and drug-dealers.  Methamphetamines, usually associated with rural America, appeared as a major problem for the Philippines.  Poor neighborhoods in Filipino cities showed all sorts of “disfunction.”  Moreover, evidence appeared that the Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel had invaded the Philippines.

Americans often talk about a “war on drugs,” without reaching the logical conclusion that a “war” is a war.[2]  Not so with Rodrigo Duterte (1945- ).  Duterte first came to public notice as the mayor of Davao, a city on the southern island of Mindanao.  He ran the city for better than 20 years.  Here, too, drugs and drug-dealers were a grave problem.  Filipino drug dealers, like those elsewhere, have flipped-off the law.  “Fine,” said Duterte.  During his tenure as mayor, “death squads” massacred drug dealers in Davao.  Curiously, the local police failed to solve most of the homicides.  All the same, the crime rate plummeted, what with there being fewer and fewer criminals still up and walking around.

Then Duterte and three other candidates then ran for president against Manuel Roxas, the pet candidate of oligarch Benigno Aquino.  In a five-way race, Dutere pulled 40 percent of the vote; Roxas pulled 23 percent of the vote, and the three other candidates pulled 37 percent of the vote between them.  Duterte became president.  Also, according to the displaced ruling elites in the Philippines, Duterte has shown “tyrannical” qualities by firing several thousand government employees.  He has replaced their clients with his own followers.

What happened in Davao is now happening elsewhere in the Philippines. Since Duterte’s election, 1,900 drug-dealers or “suspected” drug-dealers have been killed.  Some were killed by the police, some by vigilantes.  Half a million drug-users have surrendered to the police.  The massacres of meth dealers and users have been hard to swallow for humanitarians abroad.

Moreover, Duterte is anti-American at a moment when the United States is trying to shore up its position against a self-confident China.  The United States had hoped to patch up relations with the Philippines to help contain China and the Philippines had hoped to patch up relations with the United States to help contain China.  The United States has a defense agreement with the Philippines that is clearly directed against China.  As in the Middle East, the “client states” have their own agendas.  Hence, Duterte’s anti-Americanism has been even harder for American diplomats to swallow.  Duterte has brushed aside all American criticism by pointing out some of the many flaws in America society.  He has pursued contact with China.  Now the security relationship is endangered.   You can smell the coup coming.

[1] “The Philippines’ populist strongman,” The Week, 16 September 2016, p. 11.

[2] But see: Tom Clancy, Clear and Present Danger (1989 ).

Incarceration and decarceration.

In the 1970s crime sharply increased in the United States. In the 1980s there came an epidemic of “crack” cocaine use. Americans legislatures and courts responded by “getting tough on crime.” Sentences for all sorts of crimes were increased and about half the states adopted “three strikes and you’re out” laws that could put people in prison for a very long time for a series of comparatively minor crimes.[1]

In 1980, there were 320,000 people in local, county, state, and federal lock-ups. Today there are about 2.4 million in prisons. (About 40 percent of them are African-American.) As a result, while Americans represent only five percent of the world’s population, Americans represent twenty-five percent of the world’s imprisoned population. (See: “The Senator from San Quentin,” October 2014.)

In theory, the “War on Drugs” isn’t responsible for most of the prisoners. Only 17 percent of the prisoners are there for purely drug crimes.[2] However, the “War on Drugs” led to a “War for the Corners” in many American cities. The “War for the Corners” then had other violent effects. One came in the up-arming of many neighborhoods where the drug trade is carried out. A second came in multiplying personal feuds and quarrels. If you put those latter two together, violence and danger increased. If you step-to a man today, you’re likely to get more than a broken nose. Try explaining to a hospital that you walked into a door in the dark when they’re digging 9-mm rounds out of you.

At the same time, all sorts of violence increased to alarming levels from the 1970s to the 1990s. Drug-related violence hardly accounted for all of this. I don’t yet have an explanation for this spike in violence. However, half of the prison population is made up of burglars, armed robbers, rapists, and other violent or career criminals. Moreover, the majority (60 percent) of people released from prison are back inside within three years for parole violation or new crimes. This suggests that there are a lot of habitually violent people among the rest of us in America. (See: “Legacies of the Violent Decades,” January 2015.)

Prisoners cost a lot of money. The monthly average in California prisons is $2,600 per prisoner. The total cost for American taxpayers is $80 billion a year. Inevitably, the public has begun to demand a cut in the cost of government in this area as in other areas. States and the Federal government are beginning to respond.

People—me, for example–like to heap ridicule on Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas and a one-time clown in the Republican presidential primary. However, Perry also got the state legislature to devote $241 million to paying for drug treatment alternatives to prison and expanded probation programs. The Texas prison population has decreased by three percent since 2010, while the crime rate has dropped by 18 percent. This suggests that it matters who you release or spare from prison. This is but one of a number of experiments in trying to reduce the size of the prison population. A bipartisan Smart Sentencing Act is making its way through Congress to cut the mandatory minimum sentences imposed by federal courts.

If someone wants to look for the dark cloud around this silver lining, they could consider a previous reform movement. Once upon a time, lots of mentally ill people were warehoused in awful state mental hospitals. Liberals pushed for out-patient care. Conservatives saw a way to cut spending. We got de-institutionalization and street-people living over heating grates.

[1] “Opening the prison door,” The Week, 24 April 2015, p. 11.

[2] Thus, a recent decision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to release non-violent drug offenders in federal custody will reduce the prison population by 46,000 people or about 2 percent.

Runnin’ all ’round my brain.

Cocaine prices per gram in selected American cities, 1999 and 2005.

1999.             2005.               Change in base price.

Seattle.                       $80-100           $30-100          -62%

Denver.                       $100-125         $100-125         0%

Los Angeles.               $50-100           $30-100           -40%

Dallas.                        $90-125           $50-80             -44%

Chicago.                     $75-100           $75-100              0%

Detroit.                       $75-100           $50-120           -33%

Atlanta.                      $100                $80-100           -20%

Miami.                        $40-60             $20-110           -50%

New York.                 $21-40             $20-25             -0%


There are a bunch of ways of cutting up this data, so to speak.

First, in 1999, cocaine was a glut on the market in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles. These were major cities with a large over-all market, ports of entry, and centers of a counter-culture. In contrast, it was hard to come by in Atlanta, Denver, Dallas, and Seattle. These were chief cities of “the provinces,” as the Romans would have put it. Six years later Seattle had joined New York, Miami, and Los Angeles as the capital cities of cocaine. This probably has something to do with the explosion of the computer and software industries in Seattle. Maybe writing software allows for blow in a way that designing airplanes for Boeing does not. Still, the “cocaine revolution” hadn’t reached Denver, Atlanta, and Chicago. These cities remained the ones with the highest priced (and thus least available) cocaine.

Second, even in two of the original core cities of cocaine consumption, Miami and Los Angeles, prices fell sharply. New York began with the lowest price and pretty much stayed there. Perhaps $20 a gram was the rock-bottom price for cocaine. Lots of people hustling on a big, but limited, market, all of them competing to deliver the best product to the most people at the lowest price. Adam Smith take note. Labor costs driven down to the subsistence minimum. David Ricardo take note.

Third, prices fell while the Drug Enforcement Agency was spending billions of dollars to drive up the price (and thus reduce consumption) through interdiction and eradication. Why didn’t this effort produce better results?

One reason is that cocaine producers in Columbia dispersed their coca-growing operations into more remote areas and spread into Peru and Bolivia as well. These are outside the range of US-sponsored eradication efforts. Production went up, not down.

Another reason is that, since the signature of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, there has been a huge increase in trans-border truck and vehicle traffic between Mexico and the United States. This made it much easier to move cocaine into the United States. One government policy warred with another government policy. The thing is that people trying to make money won in both cases. What’s more American than that?

Final thing to think about: 88 percent of cocaine moved through Mexico. Eventually, the Mexican intermediaries for the Columbians wanted a better deal. Much violence followed. (See: Narcostate with a State.)


Ken Dermota, “The World in Numbers: Snow Fall,” Atlantic, July/August 2007, pp. 24-25.

Opium War.

Opium was a familiar plague in Asia before the 20th Century. Chinese efforts to ban the import of opium from British India led to the Opium Wars, which China lost. Conquering opium became associated with conquering sovereignty for the Chinese. When the Chinese Communists won the civil war in 1949, they launched a campaign against drug use and against opium production within China. Chinese producers fled to Laos and Burma (today’s Myanmar). Anti-drug campaigns in other Middle Eastern and Asian countries pushed the heart of production into increasingly remote areas: Burma, Laos, and most of all, Afghanistan. Once the long war against the Soviet Union and its Afghan puppets (1979-1989) wrecked traditional wheat and grape farming, Afghan peasants moved into growing opium poppies

Since the Iranian Revolution (1979) the government has tried to end drug abuse, production, and role as a transit corridor for Afghan production. Afghan producers shifted their routes to the successor states created by the collapse of the Soviet Union (1990). The hall-marks of these successor states were poverty, corruption, and badly secured nuclear stockpiles left over from the Soviet Union. For criminals—or for Islamists—conditions were perfect. (There’s a movie in this, if only Hollywood will listen.)

The Taliban, like the Iranian regime, tried hard to suppress the opium trade and opium use in Afghanistan after they came to power. In 2000 the Taliban ordered an end to poppy farming and to the opium trade. Partly, they wanted to end a social evil; partly they wanted to destroy the financial base of the regional warlords who opposed them. Whatever their motive, opium production came to a near halt. The American invasion in 2001 toppled the Taliban, freed the warlords to pursue their traditional actions, and caused the Taliban itself to turn to opium dealing as a way of financing its war to return to power. Within a few years of the American invasion, almost 90 percent of the world’s opium again came from Afghanistan. Myanmar and Laos came in distant second and third places.

Afghanistan is hardly the only weak state that is caught up in the international narcotics trade. In 1998 the Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il launched his government into the opium trade, producing it on collective farms and transporting the product through North Korea’s embassies. Nigerian drug dealers have set up business in Bangkok to buy Pakistani and Iranian heroin for re-sale everywhere there is a part of the Nigerian diaspora. (There’s a movie in this, if only Hollywood will listen.) The cocaine cartels fighting against the Columbian government broadened their own product-line to include opium poppies and then heroin.

In the eyes of American officials, putting a stop once again to the opium trade appeared to be essential to building a viable Afghan state by taming both the warlords and the Taliban. A viable state, in turn, formed a prerequisite to an American escape from Afghanistan. In early 2005 the Americans and the Afghan government launched “Plan Afghanistan,” which was modeled on the “Plan Columbia” anti-cocaine campaign begun in 1999.[1] The plan combined assistance to farmers to help them shift to other crops with efforts to eradicate opium poppies and interrupt the movement of opium out of the country. So far, neither “Plan” appears to have made a serious dent in the trade. Drugs give weak states a kind of strength, just not the kind we want.

Matthew Quirk, “The World in Numbers: The New Opium War,” Atlantic, March 2005, pp. 52-53.

[1] This offers an interesting example of analogical thinking as a guide to action. See: Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton UP, 1992); and Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, Thinking In Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers (Free Press, 1988).

Halloween on the Border.

Actions have unintended consequences. Even actions with a high moral purpose behind them can turn out to cause unforeseen problems far down the road.

The United States has waged war on drug gangs at home and drug cartels abroad. The two targets overlapped in Southern California. There, two big street gangs—MS-13 and MS-18—recruited large numbers of their members from Central American illegal immigrants. The gang members came from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.[1] In the late 1990s a US law allowed the deportation of non-citizens who committed a crime in the United States. Between 2000 and 2010, the US deported 100,000 gang-members back to their country of origin in “Con Air”[2] flights.

The deported gangsters just took up where they left off, only in countries with far less robust law enforcement. As has been the case in Mexico and Columbia, the drug gangs used violence and money to take over big sectors of the economies and societies of their new “homelands.” The homicide rate in San Pedro Sula, for example, is 187/100,000 people. (That’s bad: the over-all US rate is 5/100,000.) The violence terrified many people in these countries. It also terrified parents who had migrated illegally to the US while leaving their children behind in the care of relatives. Some of those people sought to get their children to safety.

Enter the unintended effects of other US government actions. For decades, high-minded people have been worried about human-trafficking. The possible sexual exploitation of children as part of this trafficking really sets off alarm bells. In 2008 a US law required that unaccompanied minors from Central America caught entering the US illegally be given a hearing before being returned to their homes. The Immigration courts are under-staffed, so this whole process can take a year. (Meanwhile, the children are released to relatives or volunteer host families and just disappear.) Then in 2012, President Obama ended the deportation of young illegals who had lived in the US for at least five years without blotting their copy-books.

In Central America, “coyotes”—human traffickers—saw a market need and rushed to fill it. They told worried parents that illegal immigrant minors could not be deported from the United States. The parents did what any parent would do in similar circumstances. They paid the “coyotes.” The “coyotes” did what any businessmen would do in similar circumstance. They provided the service for which they had been paid. In Spring and Summer 2014, almost 60,000 children of various ages illegally entered the United States. They came by way of Mexico, but they came from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Having already taken actions that unintentionally caused the problem in the first place, the US government is now dead-locked about what action to take to make it go away.   The Republicans want to change the 2008 law so that the Immigration Service can put the new immigrants on kiddy versions of “Con Air” flights as soon as they show up. The Democrats want to throw money at immigration judges to legally process the new immigrants under the existing law. Given how actions have unintended consequences, maybe inaction is the best thing. Although, philosophically speaking, inaction is a kind of action.

“The origins of the border crisis,” The Week, 15 August 2014, p. 9.

[1] Although, curiously, not from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, or Panama.

[2] The Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System, run by the US Marshal Service, inspired the movie “Con Air” (1997, dir. Simon West, prod. Jerry Bruckheimer), but bears no resemblance to it. If it did it would probably try to enter the Witness Protection Program and live as an insurance agent in Dubuque.