Archives: 06/2009

A Tree Grows in Washington

The front-page of the Washington Post’s latest Outlook section features a review of James Tooley’s wonderful book The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves. From the review:

The officials Tooley encountered in his travels often denied the existence (much less the superiority) of private schools for low-income children. “There are no private schools for the poor,” a bureaucrat in China’s Gansu province told Tooley, “because the People’s Republic has provided all the poor with public schools. So what you propose to research does not only not exist, it is also a logical impossibility.”

Undeterred, Tooley spent years surveying private schools across the developing world. He found that, on average, they had smaller class sizes, higher test scores and more motivated teachers, all while spending less than public schools…. Tooley blasts development experts for recognizing the problems with public education and still insisting that more investment in public schools is the way to go. “Why wasn’t anyone else thinking that private schools might be part of a quicker, easier, more effective solution?” he asks.

… Tooley, meanwhile, with a Rough Guide in one pocket and an endless supply of exclamation points in the other, drowns readers in local color, detailing every “bright-eyed” school child and every “thin drifting smog” above a shantytown.

Still, Tooley’s passion comes off as genuine.

The UN and Human Rights: Never Shall the Twain Meet

The U.S. has rejoined the Human Rights Council, expressing hopes for positive cooperation in the future.  Reports the Associated Press:

The United States joined the U.N. Human Rights Council on Friday, a body widely criticized for failing to confront abuses around the world and for acting primarily to condemn Israel, one of Washington’s closest allies.

U.S. officials pledged to work constructively in the 47-member council, which has frequently been hampered by ideological differences between rich and poor countries.

“The United States assumes its seat on the council with gratitude, with humility, and in the spirit of cooperation,” said Mark C. Storella, who is for the moment the top diplomat at the U.S. Mission to U.N. organizations in Geneva.

The decision in May to seek a seat on the Geneva-based body after three years of giving it the cold shoulder represented a major shift in line with President Barack Obama’s aim of showing that “a new era of engagement has begun.”

Council members, U.N. officials and independent pressure groups applauded the move as a sign the only remaining superpower is prepared to debate human rights with the rest of the world.

Alas, it’s a forlorn hope.  The Council is dominated by human rights abusers and their enablers.  The recent case of Cuba, as Cato’s Juan Carlos Hidalgo pointed out,  is instructive.

I wrote up the story for American Spectator online.  The debate over Cuba’s record was particularly revealing:

Pakistan wished Cuba well in realizing “all human rights for all citizens.” Venezuela (you don’t have to be a member to comment) lauded “the iron will” of Cuba’s government. Russia said, “Cuba had taken a serious and responsible approach.” Uzbekistan “stressed Cuba’s work in the promotion of human rights.” China declared that “Cuba had made important contributions to the international human rights cause.” Egypt opined that “Cuba’s efforts were commendable.” And so it went.

Why should American taxpayers pay for such a farce?  Not only is it a waste of money, but it sets back the cause of human rights.  In general, the Obama administration’s emphasis on engagement is appropriate.  In this case, however, “engagement” is a mistake.

Bad News For North Korea’s Dear Leader?

It’s hard to know what to believe about the misnamed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  But reports are circulating that North Korean officials are attempting to purchase medical equipment for treating “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il.  That in turn suggests that his condition might be worsening.

Reports Agence France-Presse:

A South Korean newspaper has said the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il is rapidly worsening and Pyongyang is trying to import expensive medical equipment through China.

The North is also seeking to bring in an emergency helicopter, the South’s largest-selling daily Chosun Ilbo reported on Friday.

Kim is widely believed to have suffered a stroke last August but there was no confirmation of the latest report. The National Intelligence Service declined to comment.

Chosun said Pyongyang’s Ponghwa Hospital is treating the 67-year-old.

It said officials of the hospital who are based in Beijing are trying to buy medical equipment which has been banned under an embargo imposed in 2006 to punish the North’s first nuclear test.

The UN resolution does not ban the import of medical equipment, only items which could be related to weapons programmes.

“Kim’s illness appears to be serious,” a North Korean source in Beijing told the newspaper.

The 67-year-old had a stroke last year and both his rotund figure and bouffant hair have thinned of late.  The world, and especially North Korea, would be a better place without him, but no one knows what would follow.

Kim apparently has annointed his 26-year-old son to succeed him, but it will take years to switch the levers of power in favor of the “Cute Leader,” as he has been nicknamed by Westerners.  (In North Korea he apparently is being referred to as “Brilliant Comrade.”)

More likely would be a collective leadership, perhaps led by Kim’s brother-in-law, with increased influence for the military.  That would probably make a negotiated settlement eliminating the North’s nuclear program even less likely.  But no one really knows.

We can only look forward to the day when this humanitarian horror of a country  disappears and North Koreans are allowed to again live as normal human beings.

Exciting! But Not True …

The Center for a New American Security is hosting an event on cybersecurity next week. Some fear-mongering in the text of the invite caught my eye:

[A] cyberattack on the United States’ telecommunications, electrical grid, or banking system could pose as serious a threat to U.S. security as an attack carried out by conventional forces.

As a statement of theoretical extremes, it’s true: The inconvenience and modest harms posed by a successful crack of our communications or data infrastructure would be more serious than an invasion by the Duchy of Grand Fenwick. But as a serious assertion about real threats, an attack by conventional forces (however unlikely) would be entirely more serious than any “cyberattack.”

This is not meant to knock the Center for a New American Security specifically, or their event, but breathless overstatement has become boilerplate in the “cybersecurity” area, and it’s driving the United States toward imbalanced responses that are likely to sacrifice our wealth, progress, and privacy.

Who Said “No Comment”?

In this morning’s Washington Post, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz has some advice for the Obama administration regarding the protests in Iran:

[T]he reform the Iranian demonstrators seek is something that we should be supporting. In such a situation, the United States does not have a “no comment” option. Coming from America, silence is itself a comment — a comment in support of those holding power and against those protesting the status quo.

I just did a quick search on www.WhiteHouse.gov, and I did not find the words “no comment” as it pertains to the Iranian elections. I did, however, find two statements on the protests by President Obama:

  • Speaking to reporters following a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on June 15th, President Obama said:

I am deeply troubled by the violence that I’ve been seeing on television.  I think that the democratic process — free speech, the ability of people to peacefully dissent — all those are universal values and need to be respected.  And whenever I see violence perpetrated on people who are peacefully dissenting, and whenever the American people see that, I think they’re, rightfully, troubled.

and

I think it would be wrong for me to be silent about what we’ve seen on the television over the last few days. And what I would say to those people who put so much hope and energy and optimism into the political process, I would say to them that the world is watching and inspired by their participation…

and

[P]articularly to the youth of Iran, I want them to know that we in the United States do not want to make any decisions for the Iranians, but we do believe that the Iranian people and their voices should be heard and respected.

  • The following day, the president hosted South Korean President Lee  Myung-Bak. Despite the fact that they had a number of very urgent topics to discuss, President Obama took time to state that while it was “not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations,” for the U.S. president to be “meddling in Iranian elections,” he wished to repeat his remarks from the previous day:

[W]hen I see violence directed at peaceful protestors, when I see peaceful dissent being suppressed, wherever that takes place, it is of concern to me and it’s of concern to the American people. That is not how governments should interact with their people.

and

I do believe that something has happened in Iran where there is a questioning of the kinds of antagonistic postures towards the international community that have taken place in the past, and that there are people who want to see greater openness and greater debate and want to see greater democracy. How that plays out over the next several days and several weeks is something ultimately for the Iranian people to decide. But I stand strongly with the universal principle that people’s voices should be heard and not suppressed.

So, President Obama has not been silent, and he has never said “no comment.”

Judging from the text of his op-ed, Wolfowitz seems most frustrated that the Iranian election dispute might not prove a precursor to regime change in Iran on par with the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986 and the ascension of Boris Yeltsin in Russia in 1991.

Wolfowitz admits that no historical analogy is perfect, but he doesn’t dwell on what really differentiates the overthrow of Marcos in 1986 and the Yeltsin countercoup of 1991 from the situation today in Iran: a pattern of trust and amicable relations on the one hand, and an equally clear pattern of suspicion and hostility on the other.

In 1986, the United States had been supporting the Filipino government for roughly 40 years. No one could have painted Aquino and her spontaneous “people power” protests as the leading edge of a regime-change operation funded and choreographed by the CIA. When Ronald Reagan’s personal emissary, Sen. Paul Laxalt, communicated with Marcos privately, the message was crystal clear: time’s up.

In a similar vein, George H.W. Bush’s close ties to Mikhail Gorbachev, painstakingly cultivated for several years, built an atmosphere of trust that extended beyond Gorbachev’s personal circle of advisers. The United States had not been engaged during the Bush adminstration — and not even during the closing days of the Reagan administration, for that matter — in attempting to overthrow the Soviet government. The collapse came from within. When the counter-counter-revolutionaries attempted to take back power, Yeltsin never feared being tarred as an agent for the West. Instead, he sought out and embraced U.S. support. And yet, the most important communications between Washington and Moscow were conducted in private.

Contrast this conduct with what the neocons have done and would have us do. The Reagan and first Bush administrations engaged in “diplomacy”: back-channel communications, moral suasion, gentle pressure. The neocons have painstakingly sought to destroy the very concept, equating “diplomacy” with “appeasement.” Having succeeded in thwarting efforts to resolve the stand-off with Iraq by peaceful means, they got their war, and now they’ve moved on. They have since drifted off to the private sector and friendly think tanks from whence they can write op-eds on what to do next.

In truth, their efforts began years ago.

Mere weeks after the United States invaded Iraq, Richard Perle said publicly of neighboring Iran and any other country who would dare to oppose the United States: “You’re next.” Behind the scenes, the Iranians are reported to have approached the Bush administration in the spring of 2003 with an offer to negotiate an end to their nuclear program in exchange for normalized relations (Nicholas Kristof posted the docs on the NYT blog).

The Bush administration’s response? “No comment.” Instead, they effectively let Richard Perle do the talking for them. Within a few years, the small circle of reformers who had been willing to reach out to the United States were gone from power, replaced by Holocaust-denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Since then, pro-democracy advocates in Iran have had a simple message for the Americans who purport to be their saviors: butt out. Most notable among this group is Nobel-laureate Shirin Ebadi, who has been outspoken in calling the elections a fraud, but has been equally clear in urging American leaders not to anoint the Iranian reform movement as America’s choice. Ebadi has praised Obama’s approach. A more outspoken, or even hostile, posture by Washington would certainly evoke a counterreaction among fiercely nationalistic Iranians.

In short, the louder the neocons become in their braying for a free and fair counting of the election results, the less likely it is to occur. In their more candid moments, a few are willing to admit that they would prefer Ahmadinejad to Mousavi.

Before the election, Daniel Pipes told an audience at the Heritage Foundation (starting at 1:29:26 in the clip), “I’m sometimes asked who I would vote for if I were enfranchised in this election, and I think I would, with due hesitance, vote for Ahmadinejad.”

The reason, Pipes explained, is that he would “prefer to have an enemy who’s forthright and blatant and obvious, who wakes people up by his outlandish statements, than a slier version of that same policy as respresented by” Mousavi. “If you get someone…who is saying the nice things that people want to hear, then there’ll be a relaxation, which would be the wrong step for us.”

Max Boot sees things in a similar light. “In an odd sort of way,” wrote Boot on Commentary blog last Sunday:

[A] win for Ahmadinejad is also a win for those of us who are seriously alarmed about Iranian capabilities and intentions. With crazy Mahmoud in office — and his patron, Ayatollah Khameini, looming in the background — it will be harder for Iranian apologists to deny the reality of this terrorist regime.

This does make sense, “in an odd sort of way” — if that is all you care about. Mousavi, for example, was instrumental in restarting Iran’s nuclear program (it had been initiated by our ally the Shah in the 1970s). It would be logical to guess, therefore, that he won’t willingly give it up.

And given that he doesn’t carry Admadinejad’s baggage, he might be more capable of convincing outside powers to normalize relations with Iran, and to allow his country to continue with a peaceful uranium enrichment program in exchange for a pledge not to weaponize. This must frighten those who refuse to countenance an Iranian nuclear program on par with that of, for example, Japan.

Perhaps that is what this loud talk is really all about?

It is possible to view President Obama as a more credible messenger, given that he opposed the Iraq war from the outset and has shown a willingness to reach out to the Iranian people. Perhaps a full-throated, morally self-righteous, public address in support of Mousavi’s supporters might have tipped the scales in the right direction.

It seems more likely, however, that Obama’s patient, measured public response to recent events is well suited to the circumstances. As the president said earlier this week, Americans are right to feel sympathy for the Iranian protesters, and we should all be free to voice our sentiments openly. But it is incumbent upon policymakers to pursue strategies that don’t backfire, or whose unintended consequences don’t dwarf the gains that we are trying to achieve. In many cases, the quiet, private back channel works well. And if we discover that there is no credible back channel to Iran available, similar to those employed in 1986 and 1991, then we’ll all know whom to blame.

The Biggest Leeches Always Live

By proposing to eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan Program, President Obama has raised a pretty big ruckus in the relatively staid world of higher education policy. For the uninitiated, FFELP uses taxpayer dollars to essentially guarantee profits to participating financial institutions, and to keep student loans cheap and abundant. 

Since neither corporate welfare nor rampant tuition inflation are really good things, getting rid of this beast would be a welcome move. Unfortunately, the president wants to replace FFELP with direct-from-Washington lending and to plow the savings into Pell Grants, so there’ll be no savings for taxpayers and probably very little beneficial effect on college prices. 

As I wrote on NewMajority.com in May, no one should expect big lenders to get kicked off the federal gravy train:

[T]he Obama administration is saying they’d keep private companies as servicers of loans to maintain quality customer service. Of course, this could very well be worse than the status quo: It will likely keep at least the biggest current lenders (read: Sallie Mae) at the political trough, but Washington will be THE lender for all students.

Right I was! Or, at least, signs of my prescience keep getting brighter:  Despite Obama promising to go to war against an ”army” of lenders’ lobbyists, the U.S. Department of Education just awarded Sallie Mae and three other big lenders lucrative contracts to service federal loans. So while smaller leeches could very well be removed from their supply of taxpayer blood, the biggest will keep on sucking!

Turning Transportation Funding Upside-Down

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair James Oberstar (D-MN) has released more than 100 pages of documents describing how he wants to run federal transportation programs over the next six years. He proposes to spend $500 billion on highways and transit, which is a huge increase over the $338 billion authorized for the last six years.

Congress authorizes federal transportation spending in six-year cycles. In 1956, when Congress created the Interstate Highway System, it dedicated gas taxes and other highway user fees exclusively to highways. But in the 1982 reauthorization, it began diverting a small amount of gas taxes to transit.

Today, about 20 percent of the federal gas taxes you pay go to subsidize transit, while the other 80 percent supposedly go for highways — though much of that is wasted in planning and earmarks. Nationally, highway subsidies — mostly at the local level — average about a penny per passenger mile, while transit subsidies — much from your federal gas tax — average more than 60 cents per passenger mile.

Since 1982, transit has received hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies from highway users. Yet in 2008 — supposedly a boom year for transit because of high gas prices — per-capita transit ridership was lower than it was in 1990, though higher than in 2000.

Oberstar considers this to be a great success. Building on that “success,” he effectively wants to turn the formula around: 20 percent for highways and 80 percent for transit. The executive summary of his plan supposedly “provides $337.4 billion for highways.” But, in fact, only $100 billion of this is dedicated to highways; most of the rest is in “flexible funds” that states and cities can spend on either highways or transit. Nearly $100 billion goes for transit, and $50 billion goes for high-speed rail. The remaining $12.4 billion goes for safety programs.

Oberstar’s detailed plan proposes to burden the Federal Highway Administration with an “Office of Livability.” This office would oversee land-use plans that all major metropolitan areas would be required to write; these plans would attempt to coerce people out of their cars by increasing population densities, spending flexible funds on transit, and spending highway money on reducing, rather than increasing, road capacities.

Page 38 explains that this is because past transit investments have “paid off” so well: transit carried 10.7 billion trips in 2008. The fact that this represents less than 1 percent of passenger transport is discreetly overlooked, especially by transit advocates who think they should get at least half of all transportation dollars.

For those who truly care about mobility, the saving grace is that the government is running out of money and cannot possibly afford Oberstar’s program. Even the Highway Trust Fund has run dry because the last reauthorization allowed Congress to spend more money than the revenues produced from gas taxes. Considering that President Obama is opposed to increasing the gas tax, no one has any idea where Oberstar thinks he is going to find $500 billion.

As a result, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, on behalf of the Obama administration, wants to delay reauthorization for 18 months. Of course, Oberstar thinks this is a bad idea — it delays his moment in the sun, possibly until a time when he no longer chairs the committee.

The real problem, however, is that most people in Congress and the administration no longer see the value in funding transportation out of receipts or any connection at all between benefits and costs. Instead, it is just a big game of pork barrel and, for the slightly more idealistic, social engineering. All this lends credence to the idea that we should simply privatize our highways and transit systems.