Archives: 05/2009

It Is a Checkpoint, After All

The Philadelphia Inquirer asks why the TSA didn’t catch Bonnie Sweeten absconding to Orlando at the airport after faking her own and her daughter’s abduction.

The TSA and FBI are right: it’s not airport security’s job to look for people like Bonnie Sweeten. But they will quickly agree to make it part of their mission when newspapers and Members of Congress start to say they should. This is how a nominal airline security program transmogrifies into a general law enforcement checkpoint, and the noose tightens on your right to travel.

Cheney’s Worldview

Former vice president Richard Cheney gave his big address on national security (pdf) over at AEI last week.   He covered a lot of ground, but this passage, I think, tells us quite a bit about Cheney’s worldview:

If fine speech-making, appeals to reason, or pleas for compassion had the power to move [al-Qaeda], the terrorists would long ago have abandoned the field.  And when they see the American government caught up in arguments about interrogations, or whether foreign terrorists have constitutional rights, they don’t stand back in awe of our legal system and wonder whether they had misjudged us all along.  Instead the terrorists see just what they were hoping for — our unity gone, our resolve shaken, our leaders distracted.  In short, they see weakness and opportunity.

So we shouldn’t let the terrorists see us get “caught up in arguments” about  the wisdom of our foreign policy, about whether our country should go to war, about our country’s treaty obligations, about the parameters of government power under our Constitution?  What is this former vice president thinking?

Does it matter if Charles Manson appreciates the fact that he got a trial instead of a summary execution?  No.  It does not matter what’s in that twisted head of his.  Same thing with bin Laden.  The American military should make every effort to avoid civilian casualties  even if bin Laden targets civilians.  Similarly,  it does not matter if bin Laden scoffs at the Geneva Convention as a sign of  ”weakness.”  The former VP does not get it.  It is about us, not the terrorists.

An obsession with the mentality of the enemy (what they see; what they hope for, etc.) can distort  our military and counterterrorism strategy (pdf) as well.  Cheney wants to find out what bin Laden’s objective is and then thwart it.  I certainly agree that  gathering intelligence about the enemy is useful, but Cheney seems so obsessed that he wants to thwart al-Qaeda’s objectives — even if some pose no threat to the USA, and even if some of al-Qaeda’s  objectives are pure folly.  

If the CIA told Cheney that it intercepted a message and learned that bin Laden wanted some of his men to climb Mount Everest as a propaganda ploy to somehow show the world that they can lord over the globe, one gets the feeling that  Cheney wouldn’t shrug at the report.  Since that is what bin Laden hopes to achieve, the enemy objective must be thwarted!  Quick, dispatch American GIs to the top of Everest and establish a post.  Stay on the lookout for al-Qaeda and stop them no matter what!  That’ll show bin Laden who has the real power!  Farfetched, yes, but what about the costly nation-building exercise (pdf) in Iraq?  How long is that going to last?  Mr. Cheney did not want to address that part of the Bush-Cheney record for some reason.

In another passage, Cheney bristles at the notion that his “unpleasant” interrogation practices have been a recruitment tool for the enemy.  Cheney claims this theory ignores the fact that 9/11 happened before the torture memos were ever drafted and approved.  He observes that the terrorists have never “lacked for grievances against the United States.”  They’re evil, Cheney says, now let’s talk about something else.  The gist of Cheney’s argument — that no post 9/11 policy can ever be counterproductive — makes no sense.

Cheney’s controversial legacy will be debated for a long time.  And he’s smart enough to know that he may have very few defenders down the road, so he is wasting no time at all in making his own case.  The problem is that his case is weak and plenty of people can see it. 

For related Cato work, go here and here.

Cato Scholar Brings Administration to Heel

Last week, I complained loudly that the “Speeches” section of the Whitehouse.gov Web site had only four speeches on it, the most recent coming at the end of February.

And, voila, today the site is transformed. A new “speeches and remarks” page at that location has a 28-page list of official utterances from President Obama since he took office.

Does it matter a lot that people can now more easily find what President Obama has said? It kinda does. Americans will go a little more often right to the source rather than relying on media interpretations of what the president is saying. In the aggregate, we’ll have a better informed, slightly more skeptical, and more empowered populace.

Kudos to the folks at the White House for making the change. In retrospect, it appears that some arcane difference between “speeches” and “remarks” kept many important things the president says off the “Speeches” page. For my part, a 6,500-hundred word oration on national security delivered from behind a lectern is a speech, but the White House calls such a thing “remarks.”

California, Here We Come

Next week the Cato Institute will hold seminars in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. The program is the same both places.

Leda Cosmides, one of the world’s leading evolutionary psychologists, will kick things off at 11 a.m. with a talk on our intuitive ideas about fairness and justice. Then Cato’s Michael Tanner will warn about the horrors of Obamacare and Dan Mitchell will tell us that it doesn’t matter because the country’s going to be bankrupt anyway.  Former California congressman and Senate candidate, and potential governor, Tom Campbell will wrap things up after lunch with a  discussion of the state’s fiscal predicament.

A sobering program for sobering times. Sign up now!

Taxpayers and the Federal Diary

The Federal Diary column in the Washington Post is a curious piece of newspaper real estate. Most newspaper columns are aimed at the broad general public, but this column is aimed directly at the few hundred thousand government workers in the DC region. The result is that it takes a very government- and union-centric view of the world. The fact that the federal civilian workforce costs taxpayers an enormous $300 billion or so every year is beside the point for the column.

In a briefing with reporters yesterday, the head of the Office of Personnel Management complained about a Lou Dobbs television bit that featured this data that I assembled from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The Federal Diary columnist called me yesterday about the data, and I explained to him the shortcomings of the OPM claims that federal workers are underpaid.

Unfortunately, the Federal Diary today simply parrots the OPM’s claims, calling the Dobbs/Edwards/BEA data “misleading.” Yet this data clearly shows that federal compensation has taken off like a rocket this decade.

Today’s column, like many of the Federal Diary columns, is about how to improve the pay, benefits, and working conditions of federal workers. What about the taxpayers who foot the bill? To provide some balance, the Post ought to at least have a side-by-side column entitled “Federal Taxpayers’ Diary.”

Prop 13 and the California Fiscal Crisis

In the Washington Post today, columnist Harold Meyerson blames 1978’s Proposition 13 for today’s budget mess in California. That claim is not supported by the data.

First note that California’s current fiscal crisis is in its state budget. Prop 13 puts restraints on local property taxes.

Second, the most recent Census data show that total state and local general revenues in California were $293 billion in fiscal 2006. Of that, $37 billion was property tax revenue, or  just 13 percent of the total. Meyerson is arguing that that level of property taxes is too low, but it is hard to see how the recent crisis could have been caused by a three-decade old constraint on such a small fraction of overall state and local revenues.

Third, on a per-capita basis, California is in the middle of the pack on property tax collections, thus even though property taxes were cut three decades ago, California governments still get a decent pound of flesh from property owners in the state.

Fourth, Prop 13 placed a supermajority requirement on state tax increases, which Meyerson laments. But that restraint has certainly not led to undertaxation in California. After an initial dip in total state/local tax revenues as a share of income in the late-1970s, California’s tax take has been steady or rising. Estimates for 2008 put the state sixth highest with respect to state and local taxes as a percentage of state incomes.

Virginians’ Happiness Frustrates DMV

Showing off those pearly whites frustrates facial recognition software used by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, so DMV workers are instructing motorists not to smile for their driver license photos. It’s a story worthy of The Onion, but it’s apparently true.

Facial recognition is just another way that governments are looking to keep tabs on citizens and residents. The need for specific no-smiling instructions will recede over time as national ID systems facilitate government control and make life in America naturally unhappy.