Archives: March, 2008

No End in Sight

Sunday’s New York Times contains a review of Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight, the book version of his documentary film of the same name. The book is basically a 500 page compilation of the interviews Ferguson did for the film.

Like most of those who reviewed the film, the reviewer, Barry Gewen, has only good things to say about Ferguson’s project. For the most part, he’s right to praise. Ferguson made a fortune in software (after getting a PhD in Political Science from MIT!) and used a chunk of his wealth to travel to Iraq at great risk and make a first-rate documentary, even though he’d never before made a film. You have to give the guy credit.

On the other hand, both the film and book at least implicitly subscribe to the incompetence dodge: the idea that the problem in Iraq was the Bush Administration’s execution of the occupation, not the thing itself; means not ends. Ferguson, a liberal hawk who supported the war and, from what I can tell, still does, says in his preface that the purpose of the film was to answer the “big question of how and why all this had occurred.” “All this” means the disaster in Iraq. He answers by dissecting the management of the early occupation, particularly the decisions to disband the Iraqi Army and fire most Ba’athists from Iraq’s government. He demonstrates that these decisions were ill-considered, ill-advised and aided the insurgency. By stopping there, Ferguson implies that he has answered his question by looking at the tactics of occupation; that this incompetence is what went wrong in Iraq.

The Bush Administration was incompetent and then some in Iraq, but the occupation failed because it involved Americans trying to reorder the government of a far-off country with plenty of grievances and arms but no liberal ideology. It’s too much to say that success was impossible, but failure was likely, no matter who was President.

Gewen flags a quote Ambassador Barbara Bodine gives in the book: “There were 500 ways to do it wrong, and two or three ways to do it right,” Bodine tells Ferguson. “What we didn’t understand is that we were gonna go through all 500.”

What Gewen doesn’t say is that if she’s right and the odds of success are 1/250, the lesson is don’t chance it.

For an explanation of why civil war was likely in Iraq after an American invasion, no matter how well the President planned and whether they dissolved the Iraqi Army, read the essay, “Learning the Right Lessons from Iraq,” that I wrote for Cato with Harvey Sapolsky and Chris Preble.

On why getting this right matters, see Andrew Bacevich:

How Americans choose to incorporate Iraq into the nation’s historical narrative will either affirm our post-Cold War trajectory toward empire or create opportunities to set a saner course.

Banal maybe, but worth repeating.

Myth Dodger

Every Sunday, the Washington Post lets someone bust five myths about some public-policy matter. Most recently, the buster—or shall I say dodger—was Chester E. Finn Jr., President of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, who addressed five contentious accusations about the No Child Left Behind Act. Why “dodger”? Because rather than directly address the myths, in most cases Finn offered either tangential, deceptive, or just plain inaccurate responses. Let’s look at the five myths and Finn’s answers to them, but rather than go in the order that Finn listed the myths, let’s work from the smallest dodge to the largest.

Least-dodged myth: We begin at the end of Finn’s list, with Finn attacking the notion that “certified teachers are better than non-certified teachers.” Finn argues that “there’s no solid evidence that state teacher certification ensures classroom effectiveness,” and here he’s right on the money. In fact, I wrote the same thing just a few weeks ago.

Getting a little dodgier: In his second entry, Finn disputes the assertion that “No Child Left Behind is egregiously underfunded.” Here he rightly takes issue with constant complaints that NCLB is underfunded because Washington has never spent the full amount authorized under the law. 100 percent of an authorized amount is almost never spent under any law, and Finn correctly points out that “viewed that way, nearly everything born in Washington is underfunded.”

Where Finn runs into trouble is that he fails to directly address another common underfunding complaint: NCLB requires states and districts to do things—write and implement new tests, produce report cards, comply with lots of new rules and regulations—without supplying sufficient funds to pay for them. Finn logically points out that public schools in the U.S. spend nearly $10,000 per-pupil (though it’s more like $11,500 and counting), so they have plenty of money to implement new things, but to directly bust the myth it’s necessary to show that NCLB pays for what it requires.

Mid-way dodge: The third myth Finn addresses is that “setting academic standards will fix U.S. schools.” Finn is a proponent of national standards, so it’s no surprise that he finesses this myth by acknowledging that NCLB encourages states to set low standards while simultaneously suggesting that standards-based reforms can work if “good standards” are in place.

Finn is right about NCLB’s perverse incentives—if schools and states don’t make progress toward 100-percent “proficiency” they are punished, but states define proficiency for themselves—however, its a big leap to imply that government schools will ever put “good standards” in place. Teachers, school administrators, and education bureaucrats who have a strong interest in low, easy-to-meet standards control education politics, which might be why only three states—Massachusetts, California and South Carolina—have standards Finn considers good, and two of these three might soon have their high standards go away.

The runner-up dodge: In the penultimate dodge—and the fourth myth attacked on his list—Finn addresses the belief that “standardized testing required by No Child Left Behind gets in the way of real learning.” Instead of arguing that NCLB’s standardized testing requirements truly don’t get in the way of real learning, Finn argues that if testing is “an honest measure of a solid curriculum” it doesn’t have to get in the way. But based on the “setting academic standards” myth discussed above, we know that states aren’t honestly measuring solid curricula. And then there’s what Finn himself has written: Because NCLB puts all the carrots, sticks, and tests on math and reading, it has pushed other important subjects dangerously close to the margins, most definitely jeopardizing “real learning.”

The Big Dodge: Finn started with his big dodge, and I’ll end with it. Despite all logic and evidence screaming that it is absolutely not a myth that “No Child Left Behind is an unprecedented extension of federal control over schools,” Finn says it is. Why? Because states don’t have to follow the law if they’ll just turn down federal money, and NCLB is really just the latest incarnation of the decades-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

First off, while states do “volunteer” to take federal money, their taxpayers have no choice but to pony the funds up in the first place, which means by following NCLB states are really just getting back hundreds-of-millions of their taxpayers’ dollars. And the notion that because NCLB is the latest permutation of ESEA it isn’t an unprecedented intrusion? Well, the original ESEA was only about 50 pages long, while NCLB occupies more than 600 pages! And the additional 550 sheets aren’t just filled with meaningless doodles or love notes; they contain scads of directives and programs heaped onto the law over decades of reauthorizations, including brand-new NCLB requirements for testing, teacher qualifications, “scientifically-based” reading curricula, etc. In other words, NCLB is absolutely an unprecedented extension of federal power, and no amount of myth-dodging can change that.

Meet the Latin American Left

Last week I participated in a conference in the city of Rosario, Argentina, on the 20th anniversary of the local Fundación Libertad. The event gathered the most prestigious representatives of Latin America’s classical liberal movement and it was a unique experience sharing three days with such enlightened minds.

The only downside was the encounter we had with a group of leftist strikers on Friday afternoon, when the bus we were riding was intercepted in the Ché Guevara plaza (coincidence?) by at least 150 thugs, who stoned and destroyed the vehicle. Among the people in the bus were well-known writer Mario Vargas Llosa and my Cato colleague Gabriela Calderón. It was a very tense and unnecessary moment, given that the group attacked us without any sign of provocation.

Fortunately nobody was hurt during the incident. Nevertheless, this situation reflects the degree of intolerance and violence which characterizes the Latin American “carnivorous” left, to paraphrase the authors of El Regreso del Idiota Latinoamericano (The Return of the Latin-American Idiot), also participating in the event in Rosario. These people are willing to use force against those who think differently, and it gets much worse when they manage to attain power, as they have in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, where they can deploy the repressive apparatus of the government to their own ends.

This is a picture I took during the attack:

Topics:

New Zealand Cuts Corporate Tax Rate

The 39.3 percent corporate tax rate in the United States is very high by world standards, exceeded only by Japan. This is very damaging for job creation and prosperity – and it becomes an even bigger problem every time another nation lowers its corporate rate. The latest nation to move in the right direction is
New Zealand, which is dropping its rate to 30 percent, according to Tax-news.com:

An important initiative in the government’s ongoing programme to strengthen the economy takes effect on April 1st, 2008, when the company tax rate drops to 30%, Finance Minister Michael Cullen and Revenue Minister Peter Dunne announced on Monday. “Reducing the company tax rate will allow successful businesses to re-invest a greater share of their profits in new technologies and in further building-up the skill base of employees,” Dr Cullen stated. “We expect that lowering of the company tax rate will serve to strengthen the competitiveness of New Zealand-based companies, and that is good for the long-term interests of all New Zealanders,” Dunne added. The cut to the company tax rate to 30% (from 33% previously) represents the first time the company tax rate has been reduced in New Zealand since 1988.

Back to Somalia?

Buried in a story in Thursday’s Washington Post about the mess in Somalia is the following nugget:

In recent weeks, the State Department dispatched a team of contractors to Somaliland to explore the idea of establishing a military presence at an old airstrip there, according to members of the team interviewed in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Somaliland’s government, eager for recognition, welcomed the possibility.

“If the U.S. wishes to have a military presence in Somaliland territory, we will welcome them and accept them,” said Somaliland President Dahir Rayale Kahin. “There are discussions, and we agreed to work together toward mutual ends. But things have not materialized so far.”

This demands more reporting. What kind of military presence? Most likely we’re talking about a staging ground for special operations forces or UAV flights. But that would presumably be secret, begging the question of what contractors are doing talking about it.

The State Department just designated al-Shabaab, a wing of the Islamic Courts Group, as a terrorist organization. The Courts Group is the loose-knit Islamist alliance that briefly gained power in much of Somalia before being routed by the Ethiopians and reforming as an insurgency.

Beyond claiming that “al-Shabaab is a violent and brutal extremist group with a number of individuals affiliated with al Qaeda,” State’s designation does not explain itself. Reuters cites officials who claim that al-Shabaab’s leader trained with al Qaeda in Afghanistan and that it shelters al Qaeda operatives involved in the 1998 and 2002 bomb attacks in Kenya. The UN is less certain about an al Qaeda presence in Somalia.

That is thin gruel. Prior links and several al Qaeda guys in the mix, while worrying, do not mean that organization is going to attack Americans, and is therefore one we should target.

Mixing a “war on terrorism” with the promiscuous designation of Islamic insurgent organizations as terrorists is a recipe for spending the next century tied up in other people’s civil wars. There’s a self-fulfilling aspect to this policy. Declaring war on insurgents may cause them to attack Americans or ally with those who do. There’s evidence that this dynamic is already occurring in Somalia. And if you agree with Robert Pape that military occupations cause suicide terrorism, American boots on the ground could create terrorists, rather than denying them sanctuary.

If we can locate terrorists bent on attacking Americans in Somalia, we should target them if the local government cannot. Aside from that, we should keep our powder dry and wait and see what emerges. Sending even a small force (and it’s possible we already have covert operatives on the ground to target airstrikes) into Somalia – even Somaliland, a relatively calm area in the south – is a terrible idea under present circumstances.

Wouldn’t it be terrific if we had a system of divided war powers so that Congress could monitor what the Pentagon is doing in Somalia, inform the public, and prevent a slide into a small war?

Will Switzerland Defend Financial Privacy?

The New York Times reports that high-tax nations such as France and Germany are badgering Switzerland to weaken its privacy laws so that flight capital can be tracked – and taxed. Germany’s former finance minister even argues that this would be akin to Switzerland helping to return a stolen car. But this argument is morally and legally wrong. On a moral basis, the German government is the one guilty of taking something it shouldn’t have. Over-taxed Germans are putting their money in Swiss banks because they don’t want the German government to confiscate too much of their money – especially since Germany is guilty of both high tax rates and pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested. If Germany wants to reduce tax evasion, it should reform its tax code rather than harrass peaceful neighbors. On a legal basis, nations help each other enforce laws using the principle of “dual criminality,” which means that an action has to be against the law in both nations. Stealing cars is illegal in both Swtizerland and Germany, so cooperation in the battle against car theft is appropriate. Confidential bank accounts, by contrast, are not against the law in Switzerland, so there is no reason for Switzerland the violate its human rights policiy on privacy just to help Germany enforce bad tax law. This upsets the Germans, yet they do the same thing when refusing the extradite suspects who might face the death penalty to America. It’s not their job to enforce American criminal law, so they have every right to say no. But it does indicate that German priorities are a bit strange. They defend the principle of dual criminality when they want to provide refuge to American murderers, but they think the principle should be discarded when politicians think they can grab some money from Swiss banks:

This land of stunning Alpine vistas, which has chosen to remain outside the European Union, has always loomed large in the global imagination as the place where the wealthy stash their money beyond the tax man’s reach. The best estimates suggest that image is true, to the tune of $1 trillion to $2 trillion. The scandal that threatens that lucrative business began when German authorities obtained secret financial data from Liechtenstein, Switzerland’s tiny neighbor with similar banking laws. The information in hand, investigators fanned out across Germany to seize documents thought to be related to tax evasion by hundreds of wealthy Germans. Cases are now being prepared based on the information, a process likely to take years. The fallout has claimed the job of one top executive, Klaus Zumwinkel, who had headed the German postal service, and has given the German left a political boost. But Switzerland is the bigger prize. And its continuing refusal to help other countries catch tax cheats hiding their money there appears to have hardened Europe’s resolve to force change. “If a car is stolen in Germany and taken to Switzerland, the Swiss help find it,” said Hans Eichel, a member of the German Parliament and a former finance minister. “But when it’s about tax evasion — and much larger sums — they do nothing. No one outside Switzerland understands that.” …European officials believe they can seize this moment to rally public opinion against the Swiss, German officials said. France, which will take over the rotating presidency of the European Union in the second half of this year, has agreed to take up the issue. …The concept of bank secrecy is deeply rooted in Switzerland, akin to the confidentiality rules governing doctors and lawyers in other countries, and a 1934 law makes it a crime for bankers to disclose client information. For foreigners, this combination is an effective shield against authorities at home. …Hans-Rudolf Merz, the Swiss finance minister, has brushed aside notions that Switzerland will water down banking confidentiality, a cornerstone of the financial system. Jean-Michel Treyvaud, a spokesman for Mr. Merz, called the debate “a media phenomenon” and declined an interview request.

Failed, Self-Contradictory REAL ID Myth-Busting

Today finds another post on the DHS Leadership blog attempting to defend the REAL ID Act. Despite never having made the affirmative case for REAL ID, Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker is attempting to defeat the arguments against it.

The “myth” he purports to dispell this time is that REAL ID creates a national ID:

REAL ID is simple. The regulation requires that states meet minimum security standards when they issue driver’s licenses and identification cards necessary for “official purposes,” like getting on a plane or entering federal buildings. That’s it. The federal government’s role is to make sure that states meet minimum standards of security, so that banks and airports in one state can count on the quality of licenses issued in another.

Once again, I believe savvy Stewart Baker is playing at the role of ingenue. He’s pretending to lack the common knowledge that government programs grow in size and power.

It’s true that REAL ID allows states to issue driver’s licenses and identification cards that don’t meet the federal standards. They won’t be acceptable for “official purposes,” which are defined as follows in the statute:

The term “official purpose” includes but is not limited to accessing Federal facilities, boarding federally regulated commercial aircraft, entering nuclear power plants, and any other purposes that the Secretary shall determine.

(emphasis added)

Once REAL ID is in place, the secretary of homeland security has the power to require it for any purpose beyond the ones listed in the statute. What might those be? The immigration bill debated in Congress last summer would have required possession of a REAL ID–compliant card in order to work in the United States. If Congress doesn’t do it, perhaps the DHS secretary would do it on his own once REAL ID is at his disposal.

Baker himself recently proposed that REAL ID could be required for buying cold medicine. Wherever the federal government requires the use of identification, it could require possession of a REAL ID. In the very post where he seeks to debunk the fact that REAL ID is a national ID, he mentions the use of REAL ID by banks. The USA-PATRIOT Act extended “know your customer” regulations deep into the financial services sector. The DHS and Treasury could require possession of a REAL ID to access banking.

Strangely, Baker’s post says, “the federal government does not have the authority to regulate how or whether a bank, grocery store, retailer, or school requires REAL ID.” This directly contradicts a premise of his proposal to require REAL ID for cold medicine. It’s unfortunate that the federal government has this power — it shouldn’t — but Baker knows darn well that it does.

It’s technically true that you wouldn’t have to have a REAL ID–compliant national ID card under current law, but refusing one may not be too practical. You’d have to live in a state that gives you that option and then be willing to do without air travel, legal employment, financial services, medicine, and whatever else the Department of Homeland Security decides.

What looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, tends to be a duck. REAL ID is a national ID.

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