Archives: March, 2008

Certifiably Wrong

Last week, a California appeals court dealt a tough blow to liberty in the oft-freedom-challenged Golden State, ruling that parents may not home-school their children without first obtaining a state teaching license.

This is a regrettable ruling for at least two reasons: First, it appears to violate U.S. Supreme Court precedent rooted in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), in which the Court struck down an Oregon law requiring all children to attend public schools. The California ruling doesn’t force a child to attend a public institution, but in requiring that the child be taught by a state-approved teacher, it appears to conflict with Pierce’s most basic principle:

The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.

The second major flaw in the decision is the underlying assumption that state certification somehow assures teacher quality. Research has found that certification promises nothing of the sort, and, in fact, often keeps people out of teaching who might be great at it but don’t want to spend a lot of time and money on education school. Indeed, an exhaustive review of teacher-quality research by the Abell Foundation determined:

There is a scientifically sound body of research, conducted primarily by economists and social scientists, revealing the attributes of an effective teacher, defined as a teacher who has a positive impact on student achievement. This research does not show that certified teachers are more effective teachers than uncertified teachers. In fact, the backgrounds and attributes characterizing effective teachers are more likely to be found outside the domain of schools of education.

Both basic freedom and educational quality are damaged by this anti-homeschooling ruling, and Californians can only hope that higher courts see this clearly.

Pentagon to China: Do What We Say, Not What We Do

This week brought the publication of the annual Pentagon report, “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China.” As James Fallows will tell you, this is an important document for China threat inflators, who use the report to make all sorts of lurid claims in their efforts to drag us into a Cold War with China. The report itself, while it tends to put a scary spin on things, is relatively sober.

What most irritates me about it (along with its contribution to the overheated cyberwar rhetoric so popular this year) is the implication that China is not allowed to behave like us. Here’s the final paragraph of the executive summary:

The international community has limited knowledge of the motivations, decision-making, and key capabilities supporting China’s military modernization. China’s leaders have yet to explain in detail the purposes and objectives of the PLA’s modernizing military capabilities. For example, China continues to promulgate incomplete defense expenditure figures, and engage in actions that appear inconsistent with its declaratory policies. The lack of transparency in China’s military and security affairs poses risks to stability by increasing the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation. This situation will naturally and understandably lead to hedging against the unknown.

The briefer who presented the report to the media Monday, David Sedney, echoed this bottom line:

The real story is the continuing development, the continuing modernization, the continuing acquisition of capabilities and the corresponding and unfortunate lack of understanding, lack of transparency about the intentions of those and how they are going to be employed. What is China going to do with all that?”

Expanding and modernizing the military for unclear reasons, huh? Are the authors of this stuff completely blind to hypocrisy? The United States spends over $75 billion a year on research and development alone to modernize the military, never mind procurement. The non-war defense budget has grown 37% since Bush took office. And we are far from transparent. Do we not hide about a tenth of our regular defense spending behind a veil of secrecy? I’m confident we’re not giving the international community thorough briefings on our full surveillance capabilities. What about intentions? We’re vaguer than the Chinese. We explicitly justify our defense capabilities based on uncertainty. The Pentagon’s slogan could be, “Hey, it’s expensive, but you never know.” Will we defend Taiwan if China attacks it? Will we bomb Iran? Join in Sudan’s civil war? I study the U.S. defense establishment for a living, and I don’t know our intentions. No one does.

Maybe we should cut back on the lectures and let the Chinese run their own affairs.

Welch on McCain

After his meeting yesterday with the Republican nominee, President Bush told the press that John McCain would be a “President who will bring determination to defeat an enemy, and a heart big enough to love those who hurt.” That sounds just swell, if your model for the president is Aslan, the mighty and compassionate lion king from C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. But perhaps a more grown-up approach to presidential character assessment is needed. If so, you could hardly do better than Matt Welch’s new book McCain: The Myth of a Maverick

Welch’s book provides plenty of reasons to worry about a McCain presidency, often using McCain’s own words to raise questions about the Arizona senator’s ideology and temperament. On the latter, Welch devotes a whole chapter to the issue of the McCain temper, beginning the chapter with a quote from McCain’s 1999 book Faith of My Fathers: “During an otherwise tranquil early childhood, I had quite unexpectedly developed an outsized temper that I expressed in an unusual way. At the smallest provocation, I would go off in a mad frenzy, and then, suddenly, crash to the floor unconscious.” In 1999 McCain told the LA Times: “I do everything I can to keep my anger under control. I wake up daily and tell myself, ‘You must do everything possible to stay cool, calm, and collected today.’” Arguably, a little temper is a good thing in a chief executive, but before handing over the keys to the world’s most powerful military, one would like to be sure that the CINC has his anger well in hand.     

As for the ideology that motivates McCain, in Welch’s telling, it’s 180-proof National Greatness Conservatism. After a McCain adviser handed the senator a stack of David Brooks essays in the late ’90s, Welch writes that “it became difficult to determine where the Weekly Standard’s imagination ended and McCain’s stump speech began.” Welch quotes a May 27, 1999 commencement address McCain gave at Johns Hopkins warning that America was threatened by a “pervasive public cynicism” toward government “as dangerous in its way as war and depression have been in the past.” In the same speech he mused, “With every new Dow Jones record, something gnaws at my conscience that we should not be lulled into unfeeling contentment.” No, God forbid. 

In the late 1990s, McCain looked out upon peace, prosperity, and American irreverence towards government, and he saw a country in crisis. We could only be saved with government activism — whether that took the form of speech-restricting campaign finance laws or “rogue state rollback.” After all, as Brooks put it in his 1997 “Manifesto” on National Greatness Conservatism: “It almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself, as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness.” If you think the country needs more of that approach, then McCain may be the man for you.     

Bush to Congress - Unhand that Candy!

Last week, the House passed an energy tax bill that would dole out some $18 billion worth of renewable energy tax breaks. To pay for it, they would increase taxes (advertised falsely as eliminating equivalent tax breaks) to the same degree on everyone’s favorite kicking-post, “Big Oil.” The bill is now in the Senate, and most observers doubt that the latter aspect of the bill will survive.

Okay, so what does the adminstration say about this? Andy Karsner, assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy at the DoE, sticks to the standard administration script - he wants the spending but not the taxing. At an energy conference hosted by the administration today, Greenwire (subscription required) reports that he said, “Stop holding the ‘candy’ hostage to political arguments and games and distractions!”

So this is what conservative Republicanism has come to. Corporate welfare (at least, some corporate welfare) is candy. Subsidies are, presumably, akin to chocolate. Well, if so, then it’s time for these guys to go on a diet. Better yet, it’s time for these guys to get out of town. Let’s take away everyone’s candy and call it a day.

Bloomberg Columnist Defends Tax Havens

Matthew Lynn of Bloomberg has an excellent column about the Germany-Liechtenstein tax controversy. Lynn explains that the fiscal sovereignty of low-tax jurisdictions should not be hindered just because politicians in other nations are greedy for more revenue. He also explains that competition between nations should be applauded, not persecuted, and he makes the key point that criminals and terrorists prefer to use “onshore” banks (even the United Nations has admitted bad guys avoid so-called tax havens). Key excerpts include:

Over the past few weeks, [Angela Merkel] has been leading an all-out assault on her tiny neighbor Liechtenstein. Its crime? Not cooperating in Germany’s investigation of alleged tax evaders. The tussle between Germany and Liechtenstein is just the overture to a wider battle between the big European nations and the tiny low-tax principalities. Next up: Monaco and Andorra. And yet, the attacks are completely unfair. Places such as Monaco and Liechtenstein have a right to keep banking secrecy and shouldn’t be forced to act as tax enforcers for other countries. Germany should spend more time worrying about why so much wealth is fleeing its borders – and less time picking on places a mere fraction of their size. … You can see why the tax havens are an irritation for the big European governments. In a world of increasing mobility, and better communication links, it has become easier for the wealthy to shift their base to a more tax-friendly environment. Half the British corporate establishment seems to be based in Monaco these days. Plenty of Germans appear to be storing money away in
Liechtenstein. … Germany has a right to set whatever laws it likes for people living in Germany. If it wants to ban its citizens from holding accounts – or setting up trusts and foundations – in other countries, it can do so (and deal with the flight of people and capital). But it can’t harass other countries into changing their practices. If people invest in low-tax countries or in legal structures such as foundations, their tax liability is their business, not the responsibility of the host nation. For most legitimate investors, low-tax principalities provide a useful alternative to the high-tax, big-government consensus that suffocates much of Europe. Lastly, it is ludicrous to say that this kind of tax “competition” is unfair. All competition is unfair. These are small nations entitled to make their living any way they want to. It is no more unfair than Germany’s proficiency at making cars, or the French aptitude at making wine. Should the Germans shut down their luxury-car industry because it makes life difficult for auto workers in the rest of Europe? Of course not. So why should Liechtenstein close its financial-services industry? Naturally, tax havens should make sure they aren’t harboring assets for criminals or terrorists. And yet, that is a red herring. Mounir el-Matassadeq, the only person to stand trial over the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the U.S., operated out of Hamburg, not Liechtenstein. One of the suspected hijackers used accounts in Florida, not Monaco. In reality, terrorists use everyday banks because they attract less suspicion.

New Paper on Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification

For all its wonders, technology is not something policymakers can sprinkle on deep-seated economic and social problems to make them go away. Electronic employment eligibility verification - the idea of automated immigration-background checks on all newly hired workers - illustrates this well.

A national EEV program would immerse America’s workers and businesses in Kafkaesque bureaucracy and erode the freedoms of American citizens, even as it failed to stem illegal immigration.

Ultimately, there is no alternative but for Congress to repair the broken immigration system by aligning legal immigration with our nation’s economic demand for labor.

Read about it in my new paper, “Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification: Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration.”

The Crazy Talk Express

… just keeps rolling along. The other day, the topic of conversation turned to autism and vaccines. “There is strong evidence,” John McCain said, “that indicates that it’s got to do with a preservative in vaccines.”

Strong evidence, eh? If so, that evidence has escaped the attention of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, which recently published a thorough review of the data available on this matter and, well, shot John McCain’s opinion to pieces. But what do they know? John McCain has been studying this issue for years - in between his investigation of human growth hormones in baseball, of course, and a panoply of other pressing medical and scientific matters.

Seriously, what the …? Is John McCain the political equivalent of Cliff Clavin? Or will he say just about anything to get a vote?

It’s one thing when Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. peddles this nonsense. He’s a Deep (very deep)-Green-Environmentalist, and environmentalists like him are at eternal war with the Periodic Table. This narrative of mercury-killing-kids-for-drug-company-profit comes naturally to him, so one makes allowances in his case. (Fun aside: the next time RFK Jr. talks about the moral and intellectual imperative to defer to the consensus of science when it comes to global warming, ask him [or his image on television] to square that instinct with the dangerous nonsense he’s spouting about vaccines. But I digress.) But for John McCain to offer the same tripe is something else entirely. How many kids have to die in Boulder, Colorado, to deliver John McCain to the White House?

Okay, perhaps that’s a little unfair (emphasis on “perhaps” and “little”), but the question remains. John McCain: cynical panderer or dangerous crackpot? We report, you decide.