Archives: May, 2009

DC Rally to Support School Choice For ALL, Not A Few

Today I witnessed hundreds of school children, parents and supporters rally in defense of the DC voucher program that Congress and the Obama administration recently put on death row.

They were there to tell these politicians and Mayor Fenty that the program is working for them.

Well, apparently President Obama has accepted the fact that the DC voucher program is working for these kids. The Washington Post reports, “President Obama will seek to extend the controversial D.C. school voucher program until all 1,716 participants have graduated from high school, although no new students will be accepted.”

But the parents and children demonstrating for the program weren’t just there for themselves. They were there to save this program for other children, like the 200 kids that were accepted into the voucher program and then summarily dismissed from it by Secretary of Education Duncan.

Last year during the presidential election, then-candidate Barack Obama responded to a question about support for vouchers with his classic “pragmatist” pose; “If there was any argument for vouchers, it was ‘Alright, let’s see if this experiment works.’ and if it does, then whatever my preconceptions, my attitude is you do what works for the kids.”

The Department of Education recently reported that the voucher program is already improving education, and it does so at a quarter of the cost.

If it’s working, why end it? Where is President Obama’s policy pragmatism now?

All I see from Obama is an attempt to kill a successful and popular program quietly instead of with screams, to leave no visible bodies on the ground for the press and voters to see.

That’s not pragmatism, that’s craven political expediency. And the scholarship families won’t stand for others being locked out of the chance they were able to seize for their children.

It’s time for President Obama to be honest, be a man, and support this program outright.

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  • In the Boston Herald, Jeffrey A. Miron argues that states should balance their budgets by cutting spending rather than raising taxes.
  • In the Detroit News, Doug Bandow argues that strengthening our economic ties with South Korea could increase American influence over the region even as China’s power grows.
  • Listen to Will Wilkinson comment on the Chrysler bankruptcy on American Public Media’s Marketplace.
  • Join the Cato Institute on June 1 for a conference on the lessons we can learn from the New Deal and the Great Depression.

The Cost of Flu Fears - and Our Ongoing Vulnerability

The ever-sensible Shaun Waterman has begun to tally the cost of overreaction to the fear outbreak inspired by the H1N1 flu strain. He reports in ISN Security Watch:

Even the precautions that you take against this kind of global flu pandemic could knock about 1.9 [or] 2 percent off global [economic production]. That’s about a trillion dollars,” according to journalist Martin Walker, who cited World Bank figures from a study last year.

The Economist reported last week that the crisis in Mexico was costing Mexico City’s service and retail industries $55m a day - not because of the handful of deaths but because of people’s reactions. And that was even before the national suspension of non-essential public activities called for this week by the authorities there, which was expected to double that cost.

Waterman also cites my joke about moving Vice President Biden to an undisclosed location in future crises - not for his protection or government continuity, but to keep him away from the media.

It’s comedic wrapping on a substantive point: As long as people look to government leaders in times of crises, leaders have a responsibility to communicate carefully, according to a plan, and with message discipline. If they don’t, the damage can be very high.

Even if all Americans knew to dismiss the words of the Vice President as if he’s a “Crazy Uncle Joe” - and they don’t - foreign tourists certainly don’t know that. Biden harmed the country simply by speaking off the cuff.

Here, an outbreak of flu appears to have caused billions of dollars in damage to the world economy. One billion lost to the U.S. economy is about 145 deaths (using the current $6.9 million valuation for a human life). When overreactions restrict economic activity, that reduces wealth and thus health and longevity.

Now, imagine what might happen if the United States encountered a novel, directed threat - some kind of attack that inspires widespread concern. Will Vice President Biden and officials from a half-dozen agencies rush forth with personal observations and speculation? The results could be devastating, especially to a country that is already suffering economically.

People die from poor situation management, and it makes Americans worse off. Political leaders should not get a free pass for failing to communicate well just because it’s hard to do.

The Obama Administration should learn from its many errors in handling the rather benign H1N1 flu situation. It should train up for communicating in the event of a real emergency. If the Obama Administration fails to soothe nerves in the event of some future terrorist attack, that will be a clear failure of leadership.

Mortgage ‘Safe Harbor’ Anything But Safe

After the Senate’s rejection last week of allowing bankruptcy judges to re-write mortgage contracts, the so called “cramdown” provisions, it was starting to look as if the Senate cared about respecting private contracts. Sadly, such concern has been short-lived.

Tucked away in the mortgage bill is a provision that gives servicers of mortgages, that is, the entities that collect payments and perform modifications on behalf of the actual investors in mortgages, a “safe harbor” from any litigation by investors if the servicer chooses to follow the interests of the borrower or the government, rather than fulfilling their fiduciary duty to the investors.

Supporters of the safe harbor claim that too many foreclosures have taken place due to contractual restrictions on the ability of servicers to modify mortgages in a manner that would allow borrowers to stay in their homes. Most pooling and servicing agreements allow mortgage modifications without the investors’ approval if the modification increases the net present value of the mortgage. However, if the mortgage modification resulted in a loss to the investor, over what they would recover in a foreclosure, then they are not allowed under current contracts. The safe harbor intends to fix this “problem” by allowing the servicer to impose additional losses on investors, as long as that servicer follows President Obama’s foreclosure plan.

Allowing parties to a contract to ignore their contractual obligations as long as they sign-on to presidential initiatives is a dangerous precedent, and one that will ultimately raise the cost of entering into and enforcing contracts.

As these costs will have to be borne by someone, it is likely in the future that these efforts at undermining contracts in our credit markets will result in higher interest rates for all borrowers.

An attempt was made by Senator Corker to modify this provision, restoring some protections for basic contract rights. Rather than taking the opportunity to reduce the damage done to contracts from this provision, the Senate rejected Senator Corker’s amendment by a rather large margin.

After the President’s recent attacks on minority debt-holders in Chrysler, the President’s support for mortgage cramdown, and now the Senate moving on the so-called “safe harbor” provisions, it is becoming increasing clear that investors themselves will soon be in need of a safe harbor from Washington.

Pakistan Troops Pour into Swat Valley

The Associated Press reports that Pakistani troops have taken the fight to militants in the Swat valley, ending a three month truce between the government and Taliban forces.

As I argued in the Washington Times almost a year ago, Pakistani government peace deals with militants have a tendency to collapse. Thus, we shouldn’t be too surprised to see the latest “Shariah for peace deal” in Swat already begin to fray.

With this in mind, U.S. policymakers and defense planners must keep in mind the constraints Pakistani leaders are operating under. After 9/11, Pakistan was caught in an unenviable and contradictory position: the need to ally openly with the United States and the desire to discreetly preserve their militant assets as a hedge to Indian influence.

For example, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, who heads Pakistan’s Islamist political party Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, led large anti-US, anti-Muaharraf, and pro-Taliban rallies in major Pakistani cities after the U.S. began bombing Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan. JUI and other influential Islamist organizations fiercely criticized Musharraf and the military for aligning with the United States and Pervez Musharraf himself was condemned within Pakistan for aligning with America in the war on terror. This dynamic has not gone away.

As I argue here, Pakistan’s six-decade rivalry with India is the biggest impediment to success in Afghanistan. It’s an open secret that elements of Pakistan’s military-dominated national intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), assist the powerful jihadist insurgency U.S. and NATO troops are fighting in Afghanistan; Pakistan’s objective is to blunt the rising influence of their rapidly growing nemesis, India, which strongly supports Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s regime. Thus far, the United States has been unable to encourage Pakistan to ignore its traditional rival and ultimately, Pakistan’s civilian leaders and defense planners must determine if insurgents or India poses a greater threat.

Unfortunately, aerial drone strikes and other stop-gap measures do little to address the strategic drift between Washington and Islamabad. Unless President Obama can reassure hawks within Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus that India no longer poses an existential threat to their country (a promise impossible to guarantee) then the U.S.-NATO stalemate in Afghanistan will persist.

Counterinsurgency or Counternarcotics?

This clip from NBC Nightly News shows a DEA raid in Afghanistan:

As I have said before, the quickest way to create an insurgent is to burn a man’s livelihood. This may be a competent counternarcotics tactic, but it is an epic failure as a counterinsurgency strategy. We can fight a war against the Taliban or we can fight the war on drugs, but we can’t do both in the same place at the same time.

Related thoughts from Doug Bandow here.