Archives: May, 2009

Tightening the Noose Around the Right to Travel

Ask anyone who has experienced life in a country where freedom of movement is not recognized, and you’ll come away impressed with the importance of having the right to travel. That right takes another step back in the United States today.

Today the federal government takes over from airlines the process of running passengers against its terrorist watch lists. This means that when you fly, the Transportation Security Administration now requires airlines to give the government your full name, your itinerary, your date of birth, your gender, and an optional “redress number.”

Running names against watch lists does not secure against even modestly sophisticated attackers — 17 of 19 9/11 hijackers were “clean skin” terrorists, without histories of activity that would get them on watch lists. And in 2002, an MIT study (the “Carnival Booth”) showed how passenger profiling failed as a security measure. Attackers could “step right up” and test the system on dry runs to see if it singles them out. The same applies to watch listing.

Transferring responsibility for checking watch lists is a small step, but it brings into sharp focus that the government is now pre-screening Americans’ travel and travel plans.

There is no telling which direction this mission will creep over time. In the event of an attack on some other mode of travel — even a small or failed attack — expect the government to extend pre-approval for travel in that direction. The government will soon discover that it can run names of travelers past other lists — first dangerous wanted criminals, then wanted criminals, then “deadbeat dads,” and on down the line to people with unpaid parking tickets.

With government officials pushing fear of disease to the level of mania, watch for medical records to be used in government pre-screening of travelers.

The current policy is to retain information about travelers for no more than seven days after each leg of a trip has been completed. If a person is a suspected match, TSA will retain the information concerning that potential match for seven years. If the potential match is confirmed, TSA will retain the confirmed match for 99 years.

Seven years is already a lot for people who just happen to have a name similar to a name on the burgeoning terror watch list. But the policy is likely to change too, and deep dossiers of Americans’ travel will grow.

Remember, again, that watch listing is security theater. It looks like it protects air travel, but it doesn’t. When you are prescreened for travel by the government — as this program saps your freedom to travel — you are giving up something for nothing.

A Dialogue on School Choice, Part 3

A tax credit bill was recently proposed in South Carolina to give parents an easier choice between public and private schools. It would do this by cutting taxes on parents who pay for their own children’s education, and by cutting taxes on anyone who donates to a non-profit Scholarship Granting Organization (SGO). The SGOs would subsidize tuition for low income families (who owe little in taxes and so couldn’t benefit substantially from the direct tax credit). Charleston minister Rev. Joseph Darby opposes such programs, and I support them. We’ve decided to have this dialogue to explain why. The previous installments are here and here. The final installment is here.


Rev. Darby Rev. Joe Darby

Second Response

We agree on something, Andrew – you don’t lock kids in a burning building while you try to put out the fire. Dangerous buildings can, however, be expeditiously made excellent and secure while occupied and before they catch fire, as was the case with the first church I pastored - all it took was will and commitment. The chronic inequities in public education can be expeditiously addressed with will and commitment. The most shameful thing about my state’s five year fight for scholarships and tax credits is that our legislators have spent time, energy and resources debating privatization, but haven’t taken a single step toward improving public education. They’ve simply chosen to argue over the merits of a new house while the old, still occupied house deteriorates.

I commend your zeal in gathering and noting studies, but like Biblical Scriptures, scholarly studies can be carefully chosen, subjectively interpreted and tactically presented to gain one’s desired result. At the end of the day, studies on the success of privatization and its impact on public schools are a “wash” – each of us can find support for our positions.

I remain convinced that privatization in South Carolina would not benefit low income families. Struggling parents who could claim tax credits would still have to pay tuition “up front,” and those tax credits would not cover the tuition for most quality private schools in South Carolina. Scholarships might help, but they aren’t guaranteed. I recently learned, however, of another troubling alternative beyond the proposed law from a parent in a state where privatization is a reality. She wrote me a letter telling how she received mailings touting private schools, noting that only bad parents leave their children in public schools, and offering to put her in touch with helpful tuition lenders. She took the bait, and is now in greater debt because of predatory lenders who preyed on a mother who simply wanted the best for her child.

You also said, based on expenditures in Charleston, that we’re already adequately funding our public schools – although Charleston is now facing a $10 million shortfall for the coming school year. Look beyond Charleston, Andrew, for South Carolina’s public schools are funded with a mix of state and local revenue. We have excellent schools along our state’s urban, businesses rich, predominately white and politically conservative I-85 corridor. The I-95 corridor, however, is rural, has a limited tax base, is predominately African-American, is politically progressive to liberal, and is bordered by some of the most underfunded and needy schools in our nation.

The I-95 corridor, however, was the site of a recent blessing. A mid-western businessman was so touched by the story of the J.V. Martin School in Dillon, SC, that he donated new desks and equipment to the school and paid for their installation and for campus painting. His voluntary and genuine generosity is a reminder that businesses with conscience and good motives don’t have to wait for statutory privatization to make a difference – they can make a difference in the public schools right now.

You also noted that resourceful parents have found ways to augment government funds for their children in private schools for things like providing transportation and buying uniforms. I’m not surprised by that, because good parents will go to great lengths for their children’s well being. They’ve been doing so for years – without public funds going to private schools. I can testify to that, because my wife and I did so when our sons were young and we were struggling parents, but I’ll save that story for my last installment in our dialogue.

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The Rev. Darby is senior pastor of the AME Morris Brown Church in Charleston, and First Vice President of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP.

Andrew Coulson Andrew Coulson

Second Response

You’ve cited two historical examples to suggest that school choice might hurt kids who remain in public schools. But as I noted last time, the evidence from actual choice programs shows that doesn’t happen.

Still, let’s take a closer look at the historical record. Public schools discriminated against and segregated black children for more than a century. Worse yet, an 1850 Massachusetts supreme court ruling upholding segregation in public schools was a key precedent cited by the U.S. Supreme Court to establish the “separate but equal” doctrine in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Jim Crow laws rested, in part, on a legacy of racist public schools.

It was common in the 19th century for public schools to require reading of the Protestant King James version of the Bible, and Catholic children who refused were sometimes whipped or beaten for the offense. Such punishments were upheld by the Maine supreme court.

And while it is true that some racist whites tried to use private schools to flee integration, their more common tactic was to move to areas where the public schools remained overwhelmingly white. As I wrote in Market Education, “during the height of white flight… total private school enrollment actually decreased by 17 percent (public enrollment also decreased, but only by 3 percent).”

Public schools today may be somewhat more racially integrated than private schools in the earliest grades, but private schools are more integrated at the end of high school – no doubt in part because public school dropout rates for black students are astronomical. Private schools have repeatedly been shown to significantly raise graduation rates over those found in public schools, even after controlling for other factors, especially for minority children. And when it comes to truly meaningful, voluntary integration – the peers kids choose to sit with in school lunchrooms – private schools are significantly more integrated than public schools.

A few years ago, a friend of mine was seeking support for school choice among community leaders in the rural south. At one home, the man asked my friend: “So, black kids would be able to attend private schools like the one my kids go to?” My friend answered yes. “And they’d be prepared for the same kinds of jobs as my kids?” Again, my friend said yes. “Well now, I don’t think I can support that,” was the man’s reply.

That was an uncommon reaction, but it offers a glimpse into the mind of the modern racist. They see the upward mobility offered by school choice as a threat.

And there’s no need to make dubious analogies to the banking industry to understand how markets work in education. We can simply look at real education markets in action. Consider the new book The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into How the World’s Poorest People are Educating Themselves. From the shanty towns and fishing villages of Africa, to the slums of India, to the rural farming villages of China, the poor are already abandoning public schools that have failed them and setting up their own private schools. These entrepreneurial schools outperform the local public schools at a tiny fraction of the cost, and the parents love them.

The higher labor costs in this country put private schooling out of reach of many poor families, but an education tax credit bill would change that.

You asked why we can’t fix the public schools before offering parents such a choice. The answer is simple: the way you “fix” a monopoly like public schooling is to inject consumer choice and competition. In other words, school choice IS the solution. We can’t fix public education without it.

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Andrew Coulson is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, and author of Market Education: The Unknown History.

Obama’s Military Commissions

President Obama is expected to announce how his administration is going to prosecute prisoners for war crimes and perhaps other terrorist offenses.  Instead of civilian court, courts-martial, or new “national security courts,” Obama has apparently decided to embrace George W. Bush’s system of special military tribunals, but with some “modifications.”

Glenn Greenwald slams Obama for seeking to create a “gentler” tribunal system and urges liberals to hold Obama to the same standards that were applied to Bush:

What makes military commissions so pernicious is that they signal that anytime the government wants to imprison people but can’t obtain convictions under our normal system of justice, we’ll just create a brand new system that diminishes due process just enough to ensure that the government wins.  It tells the world that we don’t trust our own justice system, that we’re willing to use sham trials to imprison people for life or even execute them, and that what Bush did in perverting American justice was not fundamentally or radically wrong, but just was in need of a little tweaking.  Along with warrantless eavesdropping, indefinite detention, extreme secrecy doctrines, concealment of torture evidence, rendition, and blocking judicial review of executive lawbreaking, one can now add Bush’s military commission system, albeit in modified form, to the growing list of despised Bush Terrorism policies that are now policies of Barack Obama.

Greenwald is right.  The primary issue is not due process.  The tribunals might ultimately be “fair” and “unbiased” in some broad sense, but where in the Constitution does it say that the president (or Congress) can create a newfangled court system to prosecute, incarcerate, and execute prisoners?

For more about how Bush’s prisoner policies ought to be ravamped, see my chapter “Civil Liberties and Terrorism” (pdf) in the Cato Handbook for Policymakers.

Will the Government Be the New King of All Media?

Howard Stern swore off free broadcast radio in 2004 in part because of federally mandated decency rules. The self-annointed “king of all media” may have stepped off the throne in doing so. Them’s the breaks in the competitive media marketplace, contorted as it is by government speech controls.

Some would argue that a new king of all media is seeking the mantle of power now that the Obama administration is ensconced and friendly majorities hold the House and Senate. The new pretender is the federal government.

And some would argue that the Free PressChanging Media Summit” held yesterday here in Washington laid the groundwork for a new federal takeover of media and communications.

That person is not me. But I am concerned by the enthusiasm of many groups in Washington to “improve” media (by their reckoning) with government intervention.

Free Press issued a report yesterday entitled Dismantling Digital Deregulation. Even the title is a lot to swallow; have communications and media been deregulated in any meaningful sense? (The title itself prioritizes alliteration over logic — evidence of what may come within.)

Opening the conference, Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, harkened to Thomas Jefferson — well and good — but public subsidies for printers, and a government-run postal system, model his hopes for U.S. government policies to come.

It’s helpful to note what policies found their way into Jefferson’s constitution as absolutes and what were merely permissive. The absolute is found in Amendment I: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”

Among the permissive is the Article I power “to establish Post Offices and post Roads.” There’s no mandate to do it and the scope and extent of any law is subject to Congress’ discretion, just like the power to create patents and copyrights, which immediately follows.

I won’t label Free Press and all their efforts a collectivist plot and dismiss it as such — there are some issues on which we probably have common cause — but a crisper expression of “dismantling deregulation” is “re-regulation.”

It’s a very friendly environment for a government takeover of modern-day printing presses: Internet service providers, cable companies, phone companies, broadcasters, and so on.

Telling and Fighting

There is a popular argument that, what with two wars underway, this is no time to rock the military by abolishing the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and letting homosexuals serve openly. That’s basically what the secretary of defense says.

This post by Stephen Walt reminded me that the opposite is true: that wars are an opportunity to change dumb personnel policies. The end of war in Iraq will deprive advocates of equality in military service of one of their best arguments: restrictions on who the military can employ undermine the effort to win. And the best advocates for the change are current and former service members making that point.

Rachel Maddow had a good segment the other day on the topic. Her guests were a gay, Arabic-speaking lieutenant who is being booted out of the Army National Guard for coming out, and former rear admiral and now Pennslyvania congressman Joe Sestak, who is co-sponsoring legislation to change the law.

I predict that allowing gays to serve openly will be like allowing women on navy ships or even gay marriage. Lots of people fight it. Then it happens, it’s no big deal, and everyone forgets what they were so upset about.

New at Cato: Nat Hentoff on Hate Crimes

With the support of President Obama, so-called “hate crime” legislation is on the move in Congress. According to Cato senior fellow Nat Hentoff, laws that punish one time for the crime and another time for the hate violate the First Amendment, the 14th Amendment and protections against Double Jeopardy.

In April, Hentoff spoke at the Cato Policy Perspectives seminar in New York City about the current expansion of hate crime legislation.

Former President Fox: “Legalize Drugs”

Mexico’s former President, Vicente Fox, joins the growing chorus of Latin American ex-presidents calling for an end on the war on drugs. He’s proposing an open debate on drug legalization.

It’s a shame, though, that these leaders wait until they are out of office to voice their opposition to Washington’s prohibitionist drug strategy. While it’s true, as Fox points out, that any step towards legalization in the region must be supported by the United States, Latin American presidents skeptical of the status quo could use the pulpits at the United Nations, Organization of American States, or the Summits of the Americas to denounce the war on drugs and call for different approaches.

Still, Fox’s opinion on the matter is welcome.