Archives: April, 2009

Washington’s Government-Centric View of the World

Too many people in Washington look out upon the beauty and bounty of America and see a vast wasteland, enlivened only by government programs. If government isn’t doing it, they think, then it isn’t being done. When the Republicans threatened to nick the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton wailed that the proposal “not only threatens irrevocable damage to our cultural institutions but also to our sense of ourselves and what we stand for as a people.” Seriously, she thought that if the then-$167 million of the NEA were eliminated, the $37 billion that Americans spent on the arts that year would somehow disappear in a puff of smoke?

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was even more sweeping when he said  in 1992, “The ballot box is the place where all change begins in America” – conveniently forgetting the market process that has brought us such changes as the train, the skyscraper, the automobile, the personal computer, and charitable or self-help endeavors from settlement houses to Alcoholics Anonymous to Comic Relief.

And today the Washington Post weighs in with the chart below. It’s titled “Percent of GDP spent on social/family expenditures,” and it shows the United States at a shockingly low 0.7 percent, while Obama-esque countries like Sweden and France are above 3 percent. But could it really be true that America spends less than 1 percent of its wealth on families and children? Of course not. The proper title for the chart would be “Percent of GDP spent by government on social/family expenditures.” (Indeed, given the federal nature of the United States, it’s possible that the proper title would be “Percent of GDP spent by the central government on social/family expenditures.”) Every American family spends a large portion of its income on children’s needs, and a larger portion on the needs of children and parents.

The point of the article, as the caption above the chart indicates, is to argue that the Japanese government needs to spend more on programs that would encourage women to join the paid workforce. (If the government hired all the mothers in Japan and paid them to care for their neighbors’ children, would that be a better world? It certainly would raise Japan’s position on the Post’s chart!) If that’s what Post reporters believe, they’re certainly free to advocate that position. But they shouldn’t assume or imply that the government is the entire society. Families in Japan and the United States spend most of their income – or at least most of their after-tax income – on child and family needs. The chart ignores that reality and seeks to make Japanese and Americans embarrassed that government taxes and spends less in their countries than in the European welfare states.

 

Rare Duncan-Free Friday

As readers of this blog, and other fine blogs, have no doubt noticed over the last few weeks, Fridays have been kind of popular with the Obama administration for quietly doing questionable education stuff. Well somehow we’ve gotten through this Friday (as far as we know) without Obama and company trying to slip anything past us, leaving us with nothing new to add to recent posts like this one, and this one, and this one.

Look at this as a blessing, and a chance to catch up on all the recent federal edu-action by checking out today’s Cato Daily Podcast featuring yours truly. I give a quick summary of what the Obama administration has promised and done to date, and a prediction of what it will — and won’t — do when edu-push finally comes to edu-shove. It’s a perfect bit of listening for a surprisingly uneventful Friday afternoon.

People Are Discovering A Beautiful Read

I’m a bit ashamed to admit it: I just finished reading The Beautiful Tree, Professor James Tooley’s new book recounting his remarkable travels through some of the world’s poorest slums discovering for-profit private school after for-profit private school. I’m ashamed because The Beautiful Tree is a Cato book and I should have read it long before it became publicly available. Fortunately, it seems many people outside of Cato caught on to the importance of Tooley’s work the moment they heard about it.

Yesterday, the Atlantic’s Clive Crook blogged about Tooley’s book, calling Tooley “an unsung hero of development policy” for bringing to light — and refusing to let others blot that light out — how mutual self-interest between entrepreneurs and poor families brings education to the world’s poorest children. And there’s the companion story: How billions of government dollars have erected some relatively nice public school buildings but have created an utterly dilapidated public school system, one that enriches government employees while leaving children — sometimes literally — to fend for themselves.

In addition to the blogosphere, the national airwaves have begun carrying the uplifting story of Tooley’s findings. On Wednesday, ABC News NOW ran a lengthy interview with Prof. Tooley in which he laid out many of the book’s major themes. And the book was only released, for all intents and purposes, that same day; much more coverage is no doubt forthcoming.

It needs to be.

The Beautiful Tree, quite simply, contains lessons applicable not only to slums or developing nations, but to all people everywhere, and they need to be learned. In the United States, whether the subject is  government-driven academic standards or the desirability of for-profit education, this book offers essential insights. But many readers will find the overall lesson tough to take: The cure for what ails us is not more government schooling — providing education the way we think it’s always been done — but embracing freedom for both schools and parents.

Whether or not this lesson is tough to stomach, it must be acknowledged by all who honestly seek what is best for our children. For as Tooley’s work makes abundantly clear, denying reality — no matter how unexpected or politically inconvenient it may be — only ends up hurting the people we most want to help.

The Tea Parties

There hasn’t been much here on the Cato blog about the Tea Parties this week, so I thought I should write a bit about them.

A number of sources report around 750 individual events across the country, from small towns to big cities. Hundreds of thousands of people attended.

Many if not the vast majority of these people do not go to protests or even political rallies. My parents, who sent along the pictures below of the large rally in Cincinnati, do not do big crowds or political events. Neither do many of their friends. But they were there.

The general tenor and talk were non-partisan — people are angry at both political parties for many of the same reasons: spending, growth of government, and the ever-expanding reach of federal involvement in every aspect of our lives.

It’s not just the first months of the Obama presidency that produced this reaction among normal citizens who have never before come out for political protests. The frustration on display has been building for years under Republican control. The last sad gasp of the Bush administration bailouts and the explosion of previously inconceivable spending under a Democrat-controlled government have simply pushed many common citizens well past passivity.

It’s not about party. It’s about freedom and responsibility.

These Tea Parties won’t change anything, but they are an ominous sign for our political class and a heartening one for the future. Citizens are drawing strength and encouragement from the events that could translate into voting and political action that brings real change, not just a doubling-down on failed policy.

Hope springs eternal …

Use Your Career Deferment to Work for Liberty

Many law firms are asking their incoming first-year associates to defer their start dates (from a few months to a full year) and are offering stipends to these deferred associates to work at public interest organizations.

The Cato Institute invites third-year law students and others facing firm deferrals to apply to work at our Center for Constitutional Studies.  This is an opportunity to assist projects ranging from Supreme Court amicus briefs to policy papers to the Cato Supreme Court Review.

Interested students and graduates should email a cover letter, resume, transcript, and writing sample, along with any specific details of their deferment (timing, stipend, availability, etc.), to Jonathan Blanks at jblanks [at] cato [dot] org (jblanks [at] cato [dot] org.)

Please feel free to pass the above information to your friends and colleagues.  For information on Cato’s programs for non-graduating students, contact Joey Coon at jcoon [at] cato [dot] org (jcoon [at] cato [dot] org.)

Week in Review: Tax Day, Pirates and Cuba

Tax Day: The Nightmare from Which There’s No Waking Up

Cato scholars were busy exposing the burden of the American tax system on Wednesday, the deadline to file 2008 tax returns.

At CNSNews.com, tax analyst Chris Edwards argued that policymakers should give Americans the simple and low-rate tax code they deserve:

The outlook for American taxpayers is pretty grim. The federal tax code is getting more complex, the president is proposing tax hikes on high-earners, businesses, and energy consumers; and huge deficits may create pressure for further increases down the road…

The solution to all these problems is to rip out the income tax and replace it with a low-rate flat tax, as two dozen other nations have done.

At Townhall, Dan Mitchell excoriated the complexity of the current tax code:

Beginning as a simple two-page form in 1913, the Internal Revenue Code has morphed into a complex nightmare that simultaneously hinders compliance by honest people and rewards cheating by Washington insiders and other dishonest people.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg. The tax code also penalizes economic growth, distorts taxpayer behavior, undermines American competitiveness, invites corruption and promotes inefficiency.

Mitchell appeared on MSNBC, arguing that every American will soon see massive tax hikes, despite Washington rhetoric.

Don’t miss the new Cato video that highlights just how troubling the American tax code really is.

U.S. Navy Rescues Captain Held Hostage by Somali Pirates

gallery-somali-pirates-pi-003USA Today reports that the captain of a merchant vessel that was attacked by Somali pirates was freed Monday when Navy SEAL sharpshooters killed the pirates. The episode raises a larger question: How should the United States respond to the growing threat of piracy in the region?

Writing shortly after Capt. Richard Phillips was freed, foreign policy expert Benjamin Friedman explained the reasons behind the increase in piracy:

It’s worth noting the current level of American concern about piracy is overblown. As Peter Van Doren pointed out to me the other day, the right way to think about this problem is that pirates are imposing a tax on shipping in their area. They are a bit like a pseudo-government, as Alexander the Great apparently learned. The tax amounts to $20-40 million a year, which is, as Ken Menkhaus put it in this Washington Post online forum, a “nuisance tax for global shipping.”

The reason ships are being hijacked along the Somali coast is because there are still ships sailing down the Somali coast. Piracy is evidently not a big enough problem to encourage many shippers to use alternative shipping routes. In addition, shippers apparently find it cheaper to pay ransom than to pay insurance for armed guards and deal with the added legal hassle in port. The provision of naval vessels to the region is an attempted subsidy to the shippers, and ultimately consumers of their goods, albeit one governments have traditionally paid. Whether or not that subsidy is cheaper than letting the market actors sort it out remains unclear to me.

Appearing on Russia Today, Friedman discussed the implications of the increased threat and what ships can do to avoid future incidents with Somali pirates.

Since the problems at sea are related to problems on Somali land, what can Western nations do to decrease poverty and lawlessness on the African continent? Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid, argued at a Cato Policy Forum last week that the best way to combat these issues is to halt government-to-government aid, and proposed an “aid-free solution” to development based on the experience of successful African countries.

Obama Lifts Some Travel Bans on Cuba

The Washington Post reports:

President Obama is lifting some restrictions on Cuban Americans’ contact with Cuba and allowing U.S. telecom companies to operate there, opening up the communist island nation to more cellular and satellite service… The decision does not lift the trade embargo on Cuba but eases the prohibitions that have restricted Cuban Americans from visiting their relatives and has limited what they can send back home.

In the new Cato Handbook for Policymakers, Juan Carlos Hidalgo and Ian Vasquez recommend a number of policy initiatives for future relations with Cuba, including ending all trade sanctions on Cuba and allowing U.S. citizens and companies to visit and establish businesses as they see fit; and moving toward the normalization of diplomatic relations with the island nation.

While Obama’s plan is a small step in the right direction, Hidalgo argues in a Cato Daily Podcast that Obama should take further steps to lift the travel ban and open Cuba to all Americans.

Topics:

Fighting Piracy through Nation Building?

Even though I was on vacation last week, I followed the story of the Maersk-Alabama and Captain Richard Phillips with great interest. And I exulted when three of the four pirates met their end. The safe return of the Maersk-Alabama and her entire crew was a clear win for the cause of justice, and could serve as a model. Future efforts to protect ships from pirates are likely to include some combination of greater vigilance on the part of the shipping companies and crews, in collaboration with the navies of the many different nations who have an interest in keeping the sea lanes open and free. (This is one of the themes that I develop in my new book, and that I will discuss next Monday at Cato.)

We do not need to reorient our grand strategy to deal with pirates. We don’t need to reshape the U.S. Navy to fight a motley band of young men in leaky boats. As my colleague Ben Friedman has written, piracy is a problem, but decidedly minor relative to many other global security challenges.

But some are criticizing the approach taken to resolve last week’s standoff. They say that the only way to truly eliminate the piracy problem is to attack and ultimately clean out the pirates’ sanctuaries in lawless Somalia. This “solution” fits well with the broader push within the Washington foreign policy community that would deal with our security problems by fixing failed states.

I have gone on at length, usually with my colleagues Justin Logan and Ben Friedman, on the many reasons why an overarching strategy for fixing failed states is unwise and unnecessary. I won’t expand on that thesis here, other than to point out that of all failed states in the world, Somalia is arguably the most failed. “Fixing” it would require a massive investment of personnel, money, and time — resources that would be better spent elsewhere.

Mackubin Owens offers one of the more intriguing defenses of this approach in a just published e-note for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Owens likens a strategy of fixing Somalia to Gen. Andrew Jackson’s military operations in Florida, a story that features prominently in John Lewis Gaddis’s Surprise, Security and the American Experience. As Owens notes, when some members of President James Monroe’s cabinet wanted to punish Jackson for exceeding his mandate — in the course of his military campaign he captured and executed two British citizens accused of cavorting with the marauders who had attacked American citizens — Secretary of State John Quincy Adams jumped to Jackson’s defense and proposed a different tack. He demanded that Spain either take responsibility for cleaning up Florida or else give it up. And we all know what happened. Under the terms of Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819, Florida became a territory of the United States. Some 26 years later, it became our 27th state.

I’ve vacationed in Florida many times. Walt Disney World is wonderful for the kids; I’ve been there six times. I spent three memorable days watching March Madness in Miami a few years back. Spring training baseball is great fun. Adams couldn’t have imagined any of these things when he acquired a vast swampland; he cared only that Florida under Spanish control, or lack thereof, posed a threat.

Here is where the parallels to the present day get complicated. I’ll admit that I’ve never been to Somalia. Perhaps they have their own version of South Beach, or could have some day. But I’m frankly baffled by the mere intimation that our national security is so threatened by chaos there that we need to take ownership of the country’s — or the entire Horn of Africa’s — problems.

And yet, that is what many people believe. And this is not a new phenomenon. In many respects, we have chosen to treat all of the world’s ungoverned spaces as the modern-day equivalent of Spanish Florida.

Max Boot and Robert Kaplan compare U.S. military operations in the 21st century to the westward territorial expansion of the 19th century. In 1994, Kaplan authored one of the seminal works in this genre, “The Coming Anarchy,” in which he advised Western strategists to start concerning themselves with “what is occurring … throughout West Africa and much of the underdeveloped world: the withering away of central governments, the rise of tribal and regional domains, the unchecked spread of disease, and the growing pervasiveness of war.” Less than two years later, William Kristol and Robert Kagan wrote, “American hegemony is the only reliable defense against a breakdown of peace and international order.” Boot in 2003 advised Americans to unabashedly embrace imperialism. “Afghanistan and other troubled lands,” he wrote, “cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.”

Americans have resisted such advice, and with good reason. The world will not descend down the path to total ruin if the United States hews to a restrained foreign policy focused on preserving its national security and advancing its vital interests. That is because there are other governments in other countries, pursuing similar policies aimed at preserving their security, and regional — much less global — chaos is hardly in their interests. The primary obligation of any government is to defend its citizens from threats. Curiously, our conduct in recent years suggests that U.S. policymakers doubt that other governments see their responsibilities in this way. Indeed, we have constructed and maintained a vast military largely on the grounds that we, and we alone, must police the entire planet.

In The Power Problem, I quote Machiavelli, who noted in his discourses: “Men always commit the error of not knowing where to limit their hopes, and by trusting to these rather than to a just measure of their resources, they are generally ruined.” I continue:

As Machiavelli would have predicted, the notion of what Americans must do to preserve and advance our own security has steadily expanded over the years to encompass the defense of others. Seemingly unconstrained by the resources at our disposal, we are driven by our dreams of fashioning a new global order. But we are also driven by false fears. We believe that we can only be secure if others are secure, that insecurity anywhere poses a threat to Americans everywhere. If someone on the other side of the planet sneezes, the United States is supposedly in danger of catching pneumonia. The putative cure is preventive war. Such geostrategic “hypochondria” has gotten us all into much trouble over the years. We would be wise to take measure of our relative health and vitality, and not confuse a head cold with cancer.

[Cross-posted from PSA’s Across the Aisle]