Archives: April, 2008

Neocon All-Star Team Unsuccessfully Gropes at Reality

In its infinite wisdom, C-SPAN chose to commit this Hudson Institute panel to celluloid. Of course, I can’t get the dang video to work right, but I had the fortune to catch most of the panel last night on the teevee. Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, Dan Senor, and Peter Rodman got the old gang back together in an effort to pretend-examine What Went Wrong in Iraq.

The line that Feith advances is that we shouldn’t have done a, y’know, occupation. Wolfowitz supports this position, expressing amazement that “the term ‘occupation’ sticks with us today, even though the occupation ended in June 2004.” These are cute semantic games, but they’re an affront to reality. So Wolfowitz turns to this move, as reported by Eli Lake:

And I do think a real failure — I assign responsibility all over the place — was not having enough reliable Iraqi troops early enough and fast enough, because I think a sensible counterinsurgency strategy would not be to flood the country with 300,000 Americans, but rather to build up Iraqi forces among the population.

This sends Abu Muqawama, the pseudonymous U.S. military veteran and proprietor of a popular counterinsurgency blog, into apoplexy. What’s a real shame is that Lake’s own question, which was excellent, didn’t elicit a serious response. Lake observed that even under close tutelage from the Americans, galling depredations had been committed by the ISF, such as torture conducted by the Ministry of Interior, etc. Why, then, if we had handed more control over sooner, wouldn’t we have expected much more of this kind of thing to have happened?

Feith’s response? I’m paraphrasing here, but it was along the lines of “I just don’t think it would have.” So presumably under the Feith-Wolfowitz plan, we invade, grab Saddam, and then just turn the reins over to “external” Iraqi leader/charlatan Ahmed Chalabi and his band of 700 supporters? Or perhaps Wolfowitz meant his remark as an “assume a can-opener” joke? Wolfowitz’s claim that “a real failure…was not having enough reliable Iraqi troops early enough and fast enough” begs the question How on Earth could we have just had enough committed Iraqi troops “early enough and fast enough”???

Wolfowitz then ups the ante with his claim that “nobody could have foreseen the insurgency,” an insurgency which he attributes almost entirely to Saddam Hussein. Reading from Feith’s new book, Wolfowitz agrees with Feith that neither of them saw “a CIA assessment stating that after their ouster, the Ba’athists would be able to organize, recruit for, finance, supply, and command and control an insurgency, let alone an alliance with foreign jihadists.” This is an absurd over-attribution of responsibility for the insurgency to that Most Unitary of Evils, Saddam Hussein. As for who could have predicted that the intractable confessional disputes may have caused problems, Feith and Wolfowitz may want to look up Paul Pillar.

These points represent just the tip of the iceberg. Of course, if Hudson had had somebody on the panel who did not fundamentally agree on the basic justice, prudence, and strategic genius behind the war, all of this could have been exposed as nonsense in front of the cameras. But that’s not how the game is played, I guess.

New Study: Public School Students Benefit from Vouchers

Jay Greene and Marcus Winters have just authored a new Manhattan Institute study on Florida’s McKay voucher program for disabled students. According to Greene and Winters, the academic performance of mildly disabled students (the vast majority of all special needs students) who remain in public schools was positively affected by the proximity of their schools to private schools participating in the McKay program.

Haven’t had a chance to read it all yet, but looks interesting.

Shiny, Happy SSA Employees

I recently had the opportunity to conduct a pair of briefings for congressional staff regarding electronic employment eligibility verification. A pair of bills are vying for the attention of Congress these days. I suggested in my recent paper, “Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification: Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration,” that Congress should ignore both. Indeed, it should eliminate “internal enforcement” of immigration law entirely.

One of my co-briefers provided staffers with some interesting information pertaining to the idea of building a regulatory contraption for automatic nationwide verification of workers’ identity and immigration status. He was a representative of SSA workers from the American Federation of Government Employees, National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals.

The programs slated to go national under these proposals would compare data about new workers (and in some cases, existing workers) with databases at the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security. When the data didn’t match, workers would receive what is called a “tentative nonconformation.” With the 4.1% error rate in SSA files (as found by its Inspector General), that’s a lot of tentative nonconfirmations going even to law-abiding American citizens. A higher percentage of the time, naturalized citizens would get them, too, as government data about them is even more error-prone. Bad government data is just one source of error.

Anyway, when a tentative nonconfirmation is issued, employers are supposed to communicate this to the employee (not all do) and the worker is supposed to report to a Social Security Administration office or the Department of Homeland Security to clear the problem up. This is where the interesting new information comes in.

What would the process be like? Well, try calling your local SSA field office to find out. The SSA worker rep reported that 50% of those calls aren’t answered because field offices are too busy. Calls to the SSA’s national 800-number don’t go through 25% of the time.

It’s not just a phone problem. The agency currently has a backlog of 752,000 on disability rulings. That’s three quarters of a million people who aren’t getting an answer from SSA. It takes 530 days – a little under a year and a half – to get a disability ruling out of SSA.

In my paper, I wrote about the experience American workers would get at the Social Security offices when they went to clear up their tentative nonconfirmations:

Disputes of tentative nonconfirmations would not happen in lushly carpeted offices with marble columns, hot coffee, and friendly, attentive staff. The experience of American workers when they sought permission to work would be much more like their trips to the nation’s departments of motor vehicles, post offices, and dentists—long lines, unfriendly service, and painful procedures.

The SSA union rep assures me that SSA workers are friendly. Any perception of unfriendliness is due to overwork. Fair enough; I may have been slapdash in my writing about SSA employees. But a national electronic employment eligibility verification system would result in 3.6 million new visits to these folks, overworking them and eroding their courtesy even more. These visits, and administering tentative nonconfirmations at SSA, would cost $1 billion, according to the union rep.

Of course, an SSA employee union rep would happily take the money and add workforce to do whatever Congress wants. My preference is to save the money. Enforcement of our abnormally restrictive immigration law causes us to spend taxpayer money on undermining the productive economy. That shouldn’t make sense to anyone.

A Checkered Present

The Fordham Foundation’s Checker Finn recently responded to Neal McCluskey’s review of his new book. Let’s compare what Finn has to say with reality:

Finn: “You gotta give it to purebred libertarians, they never let their vision of how the world ought to work be distorted by any realities about how it actually works.”

Reality: Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom publishes and summarizes an extensive body of empirical research from the U.S. and abroad (.pdf). We also eschew animal breeding terms when describing those with whom we disagree.

Finn: “the CATO crowd [is] indistinguishable nowadays from the ‘separation of school and state crowd’ ”

Reality: Cato’s Center for Educational freedom recently published the Public Education Tax Credit model legislation. The Alliance for Separation of School and State opposes all state involvement in education.

Finn: “the CATO crowd… basically doesn’t believe in any form of public education”

Reality: As explained in Adam Schaeffer’s Public Education Tax Credit paper, we distinguish between the institution of state-run public schooling and the ideals of public education (universal access to good schools, preparation for both participation in public life and success in private life, that schools should encourage harmonious relations among different ethnic and religious groups). We are ardent critics of “public schooling” precisely because it has proven itself so disastrously incapable of delivering public education.

Finn: “They believe in…”

Reality: We are not in the belief business. Our policy recommendations are grounded in domestic, international, and historical evidence regarding the best ways of meeting the public’s educational needs and aspirations.

Finn: “… private education, purchased in the marketplace by parents who want and can afford it for their kids from schools that are not accountable to anybody for anything except keeping those tuition payments rolling in the door.”

Reality: If Finn were familiar with the international evidence on the operation of education markets, he would know that fee-paying parents hold schools more effectively accountable for the quality of educational services than do government bureaucrats.

Finn: “They believe… [t]he heck with everybody else’s kids. The heck with an educated polity or transmitted common culture. Check out Neil [sic] McCluskey’s review of my book.”

Reality: Our model Public Education Tax Credit legislation would ensure universal access to the education marketplace while delivering a far higher quality and far more individually personalized education. And as I pointed out in my book Market Education, education markets have proven themselves perfectly capable of transmitting common culture. The classical Athenians, who not only transmitted but invented much of the Western culture Mr. Finn values, had no government education standards or government schools. Surely Mr. Finn’s alma mater, Phillips Exeter Academy, taught him something of classical Greece? And even if Mr. Finn was absent during such lessons, surely he has come across a few of the 120 million McGuffey’s Readers printed during the 19th century while browsing New England’s used bookstores? Long before the rise of vast state school bureaucracies, the private sector was busily transmitting common culture all by itself. More than that, we have documented how state-run schooling Balkanizes American communities by forcing everyone to support a single official education system – a problem that Finn’s national standards would worsen.

And, finally, it is precisely because we do care about everyone’s kids that we recommend real market reform in education, and urge Americans to move past the calcified school monopoly that has so cruelly shortchanged so many children.

Any time that Mr. Finn would care to publicly debate these issues, either in person or in print, we will be happy to dispel his misapprehensions more thoroughly. Given that he recently declined just such an invitation from us, his acceptance of this one would be a pleasant surprise.

Signs of Free Speech

George Will has another great column on threats to political speech in modern America. He reports the story of some people in Parker North, Colo., who didn’t want to be annexed to the larger town of Parker. When some residents proposed annexation, others

began trying to persuade the rest to oppose annexation. They printed lawn signs and fliers, started an online discussion group and canvassed neighbors, little knowing that they were provoking Colorado’s speech police.

One proponent of annexation sued them. This tactic – wielding campaign finance regulations to suppress opponents’ speech – is common in the America of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. The complaint did not just threaten the Parker Six for any “illegal activities.” It also said that anyone who had contacted them or received a lawn sign might be subjected to “investigation, scrutinization and sanctions for campaign finance violations.”

Quite a chilling effect on the speech of a few local residents. Fortunately, Will notes, the Parker Six (why not the Parker North Six? After all, Parker is what they don’t want to be part of. But who am I to question George Will?) are represented in their defense of their First Amendment rights by the Institute for Justice.

Meanwhile, in another section of the same Washington Post, a similar story is playing out in Virginia. A Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives began placing campaign signs in supporters’ yards a full year before the election. Botetourt County officials reminded people of a longstanding ordinance about how long political signs can be displayed. In this case it’s the ACLU of Virginia threatening to sue. But Botetourt (pronounced BAHT-uh-tott) officials are not deterred in their determination to protect law, order, and the Botetourt way:

“If we don’t have some semblance of order, we’d just have a libertarian society where anything goes,” said Jim Crosby, a longtime resident and former chairman of the Botetourt Republican Party.

Yep. First political signs in someone’s yard, then a bunch of competing churches, school choice, deregulation, women working outside the home, and pretty soon you’d have a libertarian society where anything goes.

Voter ID Case Decided

The Supreme Court has rendered its decision in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board. This is the case challenging Indiana’s voter ID requirement.

Briefly, the plaintiffs in the case did not establish sufficient proof of the burden on voting that the ID requirement would have. This was a facial challenge to the statute, and there was no plaintiff who had actually been dissuaded or prevented from voting. Sayeth the court:

[O]n the basis of the record that has been made in this litigation, we cannot conclude that the statute imposes “excessively burdensome requirements” on any class of voters.

There was also no evidence that Indiana has ever been victimized by impersonation at the polling place, which a voter ID requirement would help thwart, but in a facial challenge to a law like this, courts will defer to the state’s interests in deterring and detecting voter fraud, and in safeguarding voter confidence.

Advocates of voter ID will interpret this as a ringing endorsement, but it’s an unsurprising result. Hopefully, they won’t pursue a national voter identification requirement. In a recent TechKnowledge column inspired by the case, “Voter ID: A Tempest in a Teapot that Could Burn Us All,” I wrote:

A national registration system for voting would quickly be repurposed and used for many other kinds of regulatory control. There is no shortage of proposals for national registration and control of citizens. Should the voter ID tempest in a teapot boil over, the tiny specter of voter fraud could thrust a mandatory national ID into the hands of law-abiding citizens.

The Constitution gives Congress power to regulate the elections that select its members and, to a lesser degree, the president. But Congress does not have to use that power to its fullest extent. States recognize their own interests in fair elections, and they should experiment among themselves with ways to secure elections while making sure the vote is available to all qualified people.

Atlas Shrugged … the Movie … at Last?

Scott Holleran at Box Office Mojo is all over the Atlas Shrugged movie project. A few days ago he talked to Michael Burns, vice chairman of Lionsgate, the studio that is planning to make the film. He confirmed that Angelina Jolie will star as Dagny Taggart. Burns says John Galt should not be played by a movie star but by an actor with “an incredibly remarkable face, a face that just pops out at you,” to which his Randian interviewer responds, “A face with no fear, no pain, no guilt?”

Burns, who attended Ayn Rand’s memorial service as a young Wall Streeter in 1982, describes the movie’s theme this way:

Think about it: the world’s great minds and great contributors to society—which really are the entrepreneurs—are being taken advantage of—and they are; if you make money, you’re giving up pretty close to half of your income, though the United States is still the greatest country in the world, and Ayn Rand would have said that as well—so, what would happen if these great minds went on strike? Would society move forward? It’s a great [dramatic] scenario, like that P.D. James novel, Children of Men, which is about [what would happen] if, all of sudden, everyone is sterile. Atlas Shrugged is as pertinent today as it’s ever been.

A week earlier Holleran had interviewed director Vadim Perelman, best known for The House of Sand and Fog. Perelman, who was born in the Soviet Union and left in 1977 at the age of 14 when the government was letting some Jewish people leave, said the novel’s emphasis on “individualism and [the] entrepreneurial spirit” resonates with him. He cited a favorite Ayn Rand quotation: “If there’s a more tragic fool than the businessman that does not realize he’s an extension of man’s highest creative spirit—it’s the artist who thinks that the businessman is his enemy.” But he brushes off the uber-Randian question, “In making Atlas Shrugged, do you want the approval of Miss Rand’s heir, philosopher Leonard Peikoff?”

Perelman told Holleran that the budget would be about $70 million, that they’re still working on the script and the casting, that he hopes to start shooting later this year, and that the look of the movie would be the Forties.

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