Archives: 10/2008

The Real Problem with the Debate

Arnold Kling offers a strange remark about last night’s presidential debate:

If the candidates were out to correct economic ignorance instead of pandering to it, the debate would not resemble last night’s in any way.

If the two candidates had corrected economic ignorance throughout their careers instead of pandering to it, they would not be the two major candidates for the presidency.  Two other politicians who affirmed economic ignorance and pandered to it would have participated in last night’s debate.

You could say that both Obama and McCain have let their ambition get the better of them, but they are politicians and that is like saying, as many now are, that investors should not seek profits. Both candidates believe spouting economic ignorance provides an apt means to winning the presidency.

Question for the class: what does all this tell us about American democracy?

How to Save E-Verify: Grow the Federal Government!

The Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector has written a careful defense of the “E-Verify” program, the federal immigration background check system. Unfortunately, his prescriptions for rescuing the program would grow the government in several directions - cost and intrusiveness, to name two. At root, E-Verify and “internal enforcement” of immigration law are incompatible with life in a free country under a federal government of limited scope and power.

The paper starts with an important admission that I failed to address with sufficient force in my paper on E-Verify: Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification: Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration.

“Of the millions of illegal immigrants in this country,” Rector says, noting a trio of studies, “the best evidence suggests that some 50 percent to 60 percent of this employment occurs ‘on the books.’”

This means, of course, that 40 to 50 percent of illegal immigrants working in the country are “off the books.” Even a flawless E-Verify system would have no effect on their ability to work in the country. The “magnet” of working and living the United States would not even be weakened for them. Spending a billion dollars over the next four years to continue E-Verify would do about half what people think it would do.

(The $1 billion figure is Rector’s number, combining private sector and government costs. Government estimates put the five-year government cost of E-Verify at $572 million, and lost federal revenue from a similar proposed program at $178 billion over ten years.)

To make E-Verify work there would have to be more. “Additional government expenditures might be required to meet the costs of prosecuting employers,” Rector says. “[H]ow­ever, fines on such employers could offset some or all of this enforcement cost.”

Though he doesn’t say so outright - it is “generally felt that fines are too modest” - a fair reading is that Rector would increase penalties on employers. Thankfully, he shies away from the idea of imprisoning them. We need the productive sector more than ever.

But the productive sector would be less productive under his eleven-point plan for E-Verify, which I will review and critique ever-so-briefly:

  • Require universal employment verification. Taking E-Verify national would increase yet again, in yet another way, the burden on productive U.S. employers. It’s the kind of bureaucratic accretion that Republican revolutionaries in 1994 came to town to stop.
  • Reauthorize E-Verify and provide adequate funding for implementation. Spend that billion dollars (and get rid of those revenues).
  • Improve government data to further reduce erroneous tentative non-confirmations and provide opportunities for individuals to review the accuracy of their personal data in government files. Among other things, this is the idea that there could be a system in which people could use government-licensed contractors to check whether the information about them in government databases was correct. Perhaps “government-licensed contractors” would do a better job than the government itself of preventing identity fraudsters from checking the information of other people, but it’s not likely. At its core, a national E-Verify system requires a national biometric database to work well.
  • Penalize employers who continue to employ workers who have failed verification. These are those fines - luckily, not jail - for employers.
  • Facilitate information sharing between DHS and SSA. That’s dataveillance. There will be a lot more of it in the future. Real-time or near-real-time monitoring of your behavior through your data.
  • Increase penalties, in law and in practice, for unlawful hiring. More fines on employers and more money spent on enforcement.
  • Issue clarifying letters to employers regard­ing Social Security mismatch notifications. This sounds innocuous, but “clarifying” in this case creates the legal predicate for fining employers when they have failed to be good deputies of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
  • Do not restrict state efforts to limit the em­ployment of illegal aliens. This doesn’t directly grow the federal bureaucracy. It suggests states should force employers to submit to federal bureaucracy.
  • Establish supplemental procedures to pre­vent employment by means of identity fraud. Again, a national ID is essentially required to implement a national system for adjudicating personal rights, but Rector proposes something less: a complex program where people would be notified if it appeared that their identities were being used by others in the employment sector. The logistical and data security issues with this are forbidding. It’s something like describing how to build the cathedral of Notre Dame by saying, “Well, you put up a church … .”
  • Establish supplemental procedures to reduce “off-the-books” employment by illegal aliens. More dataveillance and more penalizing of employers.
  • Incorporate the current new-hire data collec­tion for child support into E-Verify. Yet more dataveillance - rolling employment information about every American into federal government databases.

Last week at the Heartland Institute’s 24th Anniversary Dinner, Jacob Hornberger of the Future of Freedom Foundation debated immigration policy with Peter Brimelow of VDARE.com. Hornberger returned again and again to the theme that immigration law is a statist interference with the freedom of migrants and citizens alike.

He did not force the scales from the eyes of Brimelow or many of the other immigration opponents in the room, but people who appreciate freedom and limited government hope for the day when those scales do fall.

Join the Financial Bailout Debate

What if you could sit side by side with a Cato scholar at a debate forum and offer suggestions on topics like the financial bailout plan, health care, national security and education?

The Cato Institute is participating in a debate series hosted by a new interactive site, Google Knol. The debates on Knol are meant to offer a variety of in-depth opinions from experts, and afford visitors the opportunity to engage scholars on the ideas that are posted.

Cato Senior Fellow Daniel J. Mitchell is debating the aftermath of the financial bailout bill with John Irons, research and policy director for the Economic Policy Institute. Starting today, you can log into Google and offer suggestions, edits and comments to each side of the discussion.  Mitchell and Irons will both field your comments and may even add them to their arguments.

The debates will not end with the financial bailout plan. Over the next few weeks, Cato scholars will tackle a series of issues, and each time, you will have the chance to participate.

The discussion about the financial bailout is going on right now on Google Knol, so don’t miss out on your chance to join the conversation.

“Ponytail Guy” and the Presidency

Ah, the town-hall debate format: that wonderful Oprah-style arrangement in which a hand-picked audience of allegedly normal Americans gets to lob questions at the candidates, who perch awkwardly on directors’ chairs, trying to look warm and approachable. What could be phonier?

Well, maybe a town-hall debate with rules like the ones in force tonight (hat tip Matt Yglesias):

–The questions will be culled from a group of 100 to 150 uncommitted likely voters in the audience and another one-third to come via the Internet. Brokaw selects which questions to ask from written queries submitted prior to the debate.

–The Gallup Organization makes sure the questioners reflect the demographic makeup of the nation.

–An audience member isn’t allowed to switch questions and will not be allowed a follow-up either. His or her microphone will be turned off after the question is read and a camera shot will only be shown of the person asking — not reacting.

–The moderator may not ask followups or make comments.

–McCain and Obama will be provided with director’s chairs, but they’re also allowed to stand. They can’t roam past their “designated area” marked on the stage and are not supposed to ask each other direct questions.

Even so, these things occasionally give rise to memorable moments. My favorite, in terms of revealing how far we’ve drifted from the Framers’ modest, limited conception of the president’s role, was the “ponytail guy” incident from a 1992 town-hall-style debate. This chopped-up YouTube clip will give you a little sense of what that was like.

But to really do it justice, you’ll need the transcript (or, better yet, the book):

The demand for presidential salvation hit its rhetorical nadir in the 1992 presidential debates, when a ponytailed social worker named Denton Walthall rose to ask Ross Perot, Bill Clinton, and President Bush the following question:

“The focus of my work as a domestic mediator is meeting the needs of the children that I work with, by way of their parents, and not the wants of their parents. And I ask the three of you, how can we, as symbolically the children of the future president, expect the two of you, the three of you to meet our needs, the needs in housing and in crime and you name it….”

“You name it,” indeed. Walthall followed up by asking,

“Could we cross our hearts; it sounds silly here, but could we make a commitment? You know, we’re not under oath at this point, but could you make a commitment to the citizens of the United States to meet our needs, and we have many, and not yours. Again, I have to repeat that, it’s a real need, I think, that we all have.”

Denton Walthall came in for a fair amount of criticism on the op-ed pages and talk radio airwaves. Yet under the hot lights, none of the candidates risked chastising him, however gently, for having an overly capacious view of presidential responsibility. Instead, they accepted his premise. Ross Perot said he’d take Walthall’s pledge, “no hedges, no ifs, ands and buts.” Governor Clinton argued with Perot about who was more authentic and less dependent on “spin doctors,” and noted that as governor, he’d “worked 12 years very hard… on the real problems of real people.” “It depends on how you define it,” President George H.W. Bush stammered his reply to Walthall,

“… I mean I – I think, in general, let’s talk about these – let’s talk about these issues; let’s talk about the programs, but in the Presidency a lot goes into it. Caring is – goes into it; that’s not particularly specific; strength goes into it, that’s not specific; standing up against aggression, that’s not specific in terms of a program. So I, in principle, I’ll take your point and think we ought to discuss child care, or whatever else it is.”

It’s hard to blame H.W.’s stammering on the Bush family’s notorious difficulty with words. Sad as it is to contemplate, the Bush-Walthall colloquy accurately described what by then had long been the dominant conception of the president’s role in modern American life. That role contains multitudes: it’s “not specific”; it’s “strength” “caring” “housing” “crime” “standing up against aggression,” “child care—or, indeed, “whatever else it is.” It’s a conception that’s fundamentally incompatible with limited, constitutional government.

The Slow, Attritional Death of My Molar Enamel

Every public policy scholar has particular arguments in his or her field that seem so empty, or so obviously wrong, that seeing them causes the scholar to grind his or her molars down to the nub.  Seeing my friend Spencer Ackerman’s article on the Army’s new Stability Operations Field Manual gets at one of my policy pet peeves.  (My boss Chris Preble has more on the topic below.)

First, as an aside, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell claims that we need a stability ops manual because the United States exists in an “era of uncertainty and persistent conflict.”  What uncertainty, exactly?  What period in the past century would Caldwell argue has been characterized by “certainty”?  And how is “persistent conflict” measured?  More sharply, from the Army’s vantage point, hasn’t United States national security policy itself over the past 25 years amplified uncertainty and created conflict?

John Nagl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and now a scholar at the centrist Center for a New American Security also supports the shift toward emphasizing stability operations, arguing, as have dozens before him, that

The greatest threats we face, arguably, will no longer be from states that are too strong, but from states that are too weak.

In one sense, it is (I mean this sincerely) gracious of Nagl to allow that there is a chance that the greatest threats we face might not emerge from weak states.  It is such an article of faith among Beltway security analysts that weak states are the biggest threat that it demonstrates a broad-mindedness on Nagl’s part to consider that they may not be.

But Nagl’s statement on its face, it’s just occurred to me, doesn’t hold any particular analytic value, let alone policy implications.  We would need to know something about the nature of the second-greatest threat(s) we face in order to make any relative claims about the importance of the greatest threats.  If, on the one hand, the second-greatest threat we face is a combined nuclear first-strike from China and Russia, then it’s crystal clear that we ought to really emphasize stability ops.  If, on the other hand, the second-greatest threat we face comes from the Animal Liberation Front, saying that something is the “greatest threat we face” doesn’t tell us too terribly much.

Down with the B.A., and Long Live Education

That could be the rallying cry of Charles Murray in this month’s Cato Unbound. Suppose, he argues, we were to give the job of designing our higher education system to an expert, and that expert gives us the following proposal:

First, we will set up a single goal to represent educational success, which will take four years to achieve no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward to it that often has nothing to do with what has been learned. We will urge large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability to try to achieve the goal, wait until they have spent a lot of time and money, and then deny it to them. We will stigmatize everyone who doesn’t meet the goal. We will call the goal a “BA.”

Mad, says Murray. A terrible system.

Education should not be made to suffer under a system like this, and neither should those who want to achieve something with their lives. You can read his proposals for education reform in this month’s Cato Unbound. Education economist Pedro Carneiro will have a reply tomorrow, economist Bryan Caplan of George Mason University will reply on Friday, and education policy expert Kevin Carey will have a follow-up on Monday.

Washington Needs Its Own Tribal Awakening

Over the past month, U.S. forces have struck possible terrorist targets in the vast unpoliced region of western Pakistan known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA. Many of the attacks have been conducted with missiles fired from unmanned planes, and at least one with Special Forces ground troops. These strikes followed a string of operations the Pakistani military launched in August under increased U.S. pressure – attacks in FATA’s Bajaur Agency killed almost 70 militants, wounded 60 others, and displaced 200,000 refugees.

While its true that unilateral missile strikes and commando raids can successfully extinguish high-value targets, the collateral damage unleashed by such attacks may only be adding more fuel to violent religious extremism in this nuclear-armed Muslim-majority country.

FATA has long remained a mystery to the outside world. The region’s deep ravines and isolated valleys – much of which can support only foot traffic or pack animals – is inhabited by fiercely independent Pashtun tribes who adhere to the pre-Islamic tribal code of Pashtunwali. Social values include hospitality (melmastiya), loyalty (wafa), and honor (nang). But one other closely held tribal precept is badal, the Pashto word for taking revenge.

During a visit last month to the frontier region, I spoke with local tribesmen from the South Waziristan Agency. They noted that the collateral damage unleashed by U.S. and Pakistani missile strikes has ripple effects throughout tribal society, provoking a backlash that has inflamed local tribes and triggered collective armed action throughout the region.

U.S. policymakers point to the successful killing of top Al Qaeda militants, such as Abu Laith al-Libi last January and chemical weapons expert Abu Khabab al-Masri in July, as effectively vindicating the military approach. But the fallout from U.S. missile strikes proves strategically problematic for three reasons.

First, missile strikes undermine the authority of sitting Pakistani leaders and further strain already shaky U.S.-Pakistan relations. The August 19th resignation of Pervez Musharraf shows how Washington’s embrace can prove a political liability for “war on terror” allies. It’s also one reason why Pakistan’s new president, Asif Ali Zardari, is reviled by many Pakistanis—among other things—for his pro-American stance, while opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, has seen his popularity soar.

Second, military strikes encourage insurgents to lash out against the government of Pakistan, further eroding U.S. standing in the region. Militants routinely attack law enforcement officials, military outposts and political leaders. Suicide bombers were virtually unheard-of in Pakistan before 9/11, but now strike with increasing frequency and in large urban centers, such as Peshawar, Karachi and Islamabad. I spoke with over a dozen Pakistani government officials in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, and it is clear they take the insurgent threat seriously. And despite Washington’s repeated accusations of Islamabad’s duplicity in aiding terrorists, the Pakistani army has lost over a thousand soldiers in direct confrontation with insurgents. Further inflaming internal tensions, the South Waziri tribesmen I spoke to perceive that Pakistani action in the tribal areas are being conducted at the behest of Washington. Any plan to contain the spreading insurgency must originate with the civilian leadership in Islamabad.

The final, and most important, reason to be circumspect about escalating military force in the tribal areas is that it will almost certainly fail. The clans of Pashtun tribes straddling the Afghan-Pakistan border have endured thousands of years of foreign invasion. Time and again, Persian, Greek, Turk, Mughal, British and Soviet invaders have learned these peoples to be virtually unconquerable.

It’s clear that the insurgency cannot be eliminated militarily. But Islamabad’s recent course of cutting peace deals with militants has proved equally ineffective. The deals reduced the Pakistani army’s presence in some of the tribal areas, but such moves merely allowed radicals to make further territorial gains.

A better strategy would be to employ low-level “clear and hold” operations, in which small numbers of U.S. Special Forces and Pakistan’s Special Services Group (SSG) perform limited ground and air operations in and around FATA. Although such a limited presence is less than ideal for a region as expansive FATA, an area equivalent in size to Vermont, a heavier combat presence risks provoking a more hostile response. A limited presence with highly trained forces would be better positioned to root out militant safe havens and deny insurgents a base from which to attack U.S.-led NATO operations in neighboring Afghanistan.

Predator-drone attacks and major military campaigns ignore the history, character and ethos of the tribal regions. The struggle for Pakistan’s border is best waged through as light a military footprint as possible. Blunt force is an antidote that will prove worse than the disease.