Archives: August, 2006

Striking While the Irony Is Hot

The New Jersey Courier-Post has come out in favor of parental choice in education, and was criticized for doing so on its own op-ed page today. The critic, one John R. Flynn, argues that the Courier-Post failed to provide enough support for its position. Ironically, he provides no support for his own opposition to school choice. Naturally, I felt it my civic duty to point that out in a letter to the editor:

School Choice Critic Uninformed

In his August 21st commentary, John Flynn criticized the Courier-Post for providing, in his view, insufficient evidence for its support of school vouchers. How ironic.

Mr. Flynn voices “serious questions” about the feasibility of public and private school choice programs, but seems not to have seriously looked for the answers. He is apparently unaware that such programs are well established and successfully operating in a host of countries. The Netherlands has had school choice since 1917. Nearly three quarters of its students are now enrolled in private schools and the Dutch outperform American children in every subject at every grade. School choice programs also exist, in various forms, in Chile, Australia, Sweden, and Denmark, among other nations.

If critics spent less time wringing their hands and more time informing themselves about the international success of school choice, they would do a great service to American families.

Spoke Too Soon

Last week in this space, I lamented a couple of the routine, tiny steps that carry us further down the path to bigger and more intrusive government.

By giving state food stamp programs greater access to personal information about Americans, Congress had masked the cost of rescuing Americans from Lebanon. The result was a bill that expanded the federal role in international rescue while spreading personal information about us a little further.

This weekend I discovered the rest of the story. In a separate bill, Congress made available yet more funds for rescuing Americans from Lebanon. Additional cost, 17 cents per U.S. family.

As Tom Palmer pointed out, Lebanon has been a dangerous place as a matter of common sense and announced U.S. policy for quite some time. I suspect that he, like I do, wants Americans to travel far and wide, experience the world, and make friends. But it’s not the federal government’s responsibility to subsidize that process by rescuing Americans when they encounter danger. Americans who need rescue should foot the bill.

Catching Terrorists with 1920s Technology

On August 18, the Washington Post ran a story on the post-9/11 technology investments at the FBI. The story concludes, “five years after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and more than $600 million later, agents still rely largely on the paper reports and file cabinets used since federal agents began chasing gangsters in the 1920s.”

As part of the agency’s enormous Trilogy project, a proposed Virtual Case File system designed to help agents share terrorist threat information was scrapped after $170 million and four years of development.

The Post story details the management lapses and lack of oversight at both the FBI and contractor SAIC that led to the breakdown and waste of taxpayer dollars (probably why companies like SAIC get the moniker “Beltway bandits”).

A few of the all-too-common government failings relayed in the article:

  • The contractor, SAIC, burned through federal taxpayer money at a furious clip, with little effort to control costs.
  • The scope and cost of the project continued to grow once it was underway.
  • The FBI conducted little oversight of the project, and failed to provide clear direction to the contractor, despite the project’s obvious importance to national security.
  • The FBI-VCF management disaster is one of many I discuss in my book Downsizing the Federal Government (see here [pdf] for a shorter summary).

    The federal government simply cannot manage large, complex tasks with any degree of efficiency. The list of multi-billion dollar failures of technology, highway, and weapons projects grows longer all the time.

    New at Cato Unbound: Douglas Massey on Seeing Mexican Immigration Clearly

    In today’s edition of Cato Unbound, Douglass S. Massey, the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs and co-director of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton University, writes

    Mexican immigrants are routinely portrayed as a tidal wave of human beings fleeing an impoverished, disorganized nation who are desperate to settle in the United States, where they will overwhelm our culture, displace our language, mooch our social services, and undermine our national security… This profile, however, bears no discernable relationship to the reality that I know as a social scientist.

    Massey, drawing on his decades of research on Mexican migration, argues each element of this picture is false, and has exacerbated the problems of Mexico-U.S. immigration.

    Last year Cato published Massey’s study, “Backfire at the Border: Why Enforcement without Legalization Cannot Stop Illegal Immigration.”

    Another Asset Forfeiture Outrage

    The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that police may keep the $124,700 they seized from Emiliano Gonzolez, an immigrant who by all appearances was attempting to use the money to start a legitimate business.

    This is an outrageous ruling. Consider:

  • Gonzolez was never charged with any crime in relation to the money, much less convicted.
  • Gonzolez has an explanation for the money that a lower court found both “plausible” and “consistent.” He brought several witnesses forward to corroborate his story (in the preposterous land of asset forfeiture, property can be guilty of a crime, and the burden is often on the person the police seized the property from to prove he obtained it legally).
  • The government offered no evidence to counter Gonzolez’s explanation.
  • Instead, the court ruled that the mere fact that Gonzolez was carrying a large sum of money, that he had difficulty understanding the officer’s questions, that he incorrectly answered some of those questions (due, Gonzolez says, to fears that if police knew he was carrying that much money, they might confiscate it — imagine that!), and that a drug dog alerted to the car Gonzolez was driving (which, as dissenting judge Donald Lay noted, was a rental, likely driven by dozens of people before Gonzolez), was enough to “convict” the money of having drug ties, even if there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Gonzolez.The court ruled that despite the fact that Gonzolez’s witnesses were credible enough to, in person, convince a lower court he was telling the truth, on appeal, it, the appellate court, reading those witnesses’ testimony on paper, simply didn’t believe them.

    So the police get to keep the lifelong savings Gonzolez, his friends, and relatives had pooled to start a business. No charge and no conviction were necessary.

    The opinion itself — like most asset forfeiture cases — reads like something from a third-rate military junta. Actual excerpts:

  • “Possession of a large sum of cash is ‘strong evidence’ of a connection to drug activity.”
  • “…while an innocent traveler might theoretically carry more than $100,000 in cash across country and seek to conceal funds from would-be thieves on the highway, we have adopted the common-sense view that bundling and concealment of large amounts of currency, combined with other suspicious circumstances, supports a connection between money and drug trafficking.”
  • “Gonzolez had flown on a one-way ticket, which we have previously acknowledged is evidence in favor of forfeiture.”
  • While the claimants’ explanation for these circumstances may be “plausible,” we think it is unlikely. We therefore conclude that the government proved by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant currency was substantially connected to a narcotics offense.”
  • My emphasis added on the last point. The absurdity of these cases never fails to amaze when you actually see them in print. The money, not Gonzolez, was found guilty of drug crimes.

    The Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 was supposed to rein in seizure outrages like this one. Critics of the bill at the time noted that it didn’t go nearly far enough.

    Looks like they may have been right.

    Check here for Cato’s research on asset forfeiture.

  • Educational Toleration

    NPR reports on a new Florida law that requires the teaching of American history in the schools and sets up some rules for how it should be taught. At the beginning of the report I was amused by the description of the impetus for the law:

    Mike Fasano was a state Senator from New Port Richey, Florida, just north of Tampa. After visiting some schools he learned that students often didn’t know the name of their town’s mayor, the name of the state’s lieutenant governor, or even the difference between the Florida legislature and the U.S. Congress.

    The name of the lieutenant governor? Let’s see … kids who can’t vote can’t name a public official who has no power. And that’s a problem? But OK, they should know the difference between the legislature and the Congress. And so:

    To help remedy that, Fasano proposed a bill recently signed into law that requires Florida schools to teach the history of the United States from the period of discovery to the present. Nothing controversial about that. The clause that alarmed historians was the one that seemed to suggest that any discussions of controversial events that were open to different interpretations would be off-limits.

    Indeed, the bill does say:

    American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.

    And that has stirred controversy. Teachers and educrats and a Washington lobbyist for historians (!) all complain that history is not just “facts,” that interpretation is essential for understanding what happened. And of course they’re right. The first problem is that millions of things happened every day in 400 years of American history (note that “400 years” assumes that American history began with the arrival of European settlers). You can’t tell kids every one of those things, so already you’re picking and choosing among facts, based on some theory or assumption about what’s important.

    And then of course history is full of controversies: Did the British treat the colonists unfairly? Did the colonists treat the Indians unfairly? Were the costs of the American Revolution worth it? Were the Founders hypocrites to proclaim their devotion to liberty while holding slaves? And so on and so on, right up to the dropping of the atomic bomb, the debacle of Vietnam, and the contemporary questions of whether either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush was the worst president in American history.

    But the mere listing of a few historical controversies illustrates the difficulty of deciding on a “right” answer. Whose interpretation should be taught to all students in government schools? Should we tell students that Jefferson was a hero or a hypocrite? That the 600,000 deaths in the Civil War were or were not worth it? That the bombing of Hiroshima was a war crime or a necessary measure to save even more lives? That FDR saved capitalism or transformed a federal republic into a centralized welfare state?

    There are no right answers to these questions. (Well, there are, but apparently not everyone sees them.) So the teaching of history becomes a political struggle: Which faction will get to impose its view on millions of children?

    The way to avoid political fights like these is to depoliticize them. Take away the power for anyone to impose his or her views on all the children. People used to expect the state to impose one religion on the whole society. When, nevertheless, people came to hold differing religious beliefs, Europe went through the Wars of Religion. And out of those conflicts came a new understanding: religious toleration and the separation of church and state. Let everyone worship as he chooses, and let no one impose religion on those with different beliefs.

    The separation of school and state would accomplish the same thing in education: No more political fights over school prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, gay teachers, evolution, dress codes, sex education, or historical interpretation. Let every family choose schools that reflect their own values or otherwise best meet their educational needs. And if we can’t achieve separation, we could at least adopt toleration: Let all parents send their children to schools they choose, without financial penalty.

    Yet More Government Waste

    Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Finance Committee, is asking Medicare/Medicaid administrator Mark McClellan why two senior Medicare investigators spend up to two months each year “on travel to popular vacation destinations.” Grassley wants to know, “What did American taxpayers and Medicare beneficiaries get for the travels of Rollow and Jencks?”

    Good for him. As I suggested in another recent item, it’s better for Grassley and the Finance Committee to be exercising their oversight of federal programs than to run amok through American society, investigating the Red Cross, American University, the Nature Conservancy, and other charities and nonprofits. A top Grassley aide has met 500 times with nonprofit officials as part of his investigations and hearing preparations.

    So better to remember that the role of the United States Senate Committee on Finance is not to regulate American society, but to oversee the finances of the federal government. In that light, the investigations into wasteful spending at Medicare and the Legal Services Corporation are to be welcomed.

    Still, you have to consider: The budget for Legal Services is about $326 million, and the allegedly wasteful spending probably amounts to a few million dollars. In the case of Medicare, Grassley is complaining about $75,000 in travel expenses. Total spending on Medicare will rise by $52 billion this year, to $382 billion. Medicaid will cost taxpayers another $200 billion in FY2007. The federal deficit is projected to total $1.76 trillion over the coming decade. And the government’s total fiscal imbalance, as calculated by Kent Smetters and Cato’s Jagadeesh Gokhale, is now $63 trillion.

    When the Senate Finance Committee investigates $75,000 in suspicious travel at Medicare or doubled meal expenses at Legal Services, it is engaging in sleight of hand. Like a magician who draws your attention to his right hand while he moves things around with his left, the committee is trying to divert our attention from the fact that it is ignoring these massive problems while it gets favorable headlines for penny-ante stunts.