Archives: June, 2009

Get Back to Me When They’ve Got Something to Launch

Over the past few days, it seems like every major state newspaper ran a story on the state’s governor signing onto the Common Core State Standards Initiative, an effort to establish national standards in mathematics and reading curricula. The only holdouts are Alaska, Texas, Missouri, and South Carolina.

I should probably be more worried, because national standards are a terrible idea.

First, there is nothing inherently better about having a single standard agreed to by numerous states than having individual states set standards for themselves. Either way, politicians – people inherently most responsive to mobilized, highly motivated public school employees who want as little meaningful accountability as possible – will be setting the standards, and the standards will therefore either start low or end up there pretty fast.

Second, the notion that national standards adopted by even just a few states will remain both voluntary for all states and non-federal is pure fantasy, like unicorns, or selfless bureaucrats. Once some version of national standards exist, Washington will tie money to adopting them, which is how the feds force states to “volunteer” for all kinds of odious stuff.

“Oh, sure, feel free to turn down the money, Mr. Arizona” Uncle Sam says. “But your citizens? Well, I don’t think we’ll be taking any volunteers on paying federal taxes…”

The Obama Administration has already got this in the works, suggesting that adopting some sort of national standard could make a state eligible for a piece of the Secretary of Education’s so-called “Race to the Top Fund,” a $5 billion “stimulus” pot of gold controlled by the secretary.

Of course, the ultimate threat is that once standards go federal they never go back, and we’ll be stuck with one-size-fits-all standards for every state, district, and child in America, standards controlled by the National Education Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, and every other card-carrying member of the self-serving education establishment. And even though we’ll finally live in a utopia in which “the child in Mississippi is held to the same standards as the child in New York,” we won’t suddenly see test scores skyrocket or heretofore untapped genius spring forth across the land. We’ll just see an even worse version of the hopelessly moribund, socialist education system we have today.

So why, in light of all these dreadful threats, am I not too worried? Because what governors have agreed to so far is just to draft national standards, not to adopt them, and as I wrote last month, while the national standards crowd seems unanimously exuberant about having a single set of standards for every kid in America, they can’t even come close to agreeing on what those standards should be. And if they can’t agree on what the national standards should be, what are the odds that millions of other people will simply assent to having someone else’s standards foisted upon them?

Not very high. Indeed, when establishing national standards was attempted in the 1990s the real fireworks didn’t begin until proposed standards were published. Then, it seemed that everyone had a different reason they were outraged – outraged! – by the standards.  At best, there was only one point of broad consensus: that the wannabe national standards simply had to go.

So are national standards a serious threat? They sure are: Were they to be enacted, the educationally deadly government-schooling monopoly would be complete, with even the ability to escape to better districts or states cut off. But the news of states agreeing to develop shared standards doesn’t raise the threat level to DEFCON 1. It’s only if they complete the task – if they can somehow agree on how many fins to put on their missile, what range to shoot for, what color to paint it, where to target it, whose names to put on it, what fuel to use, and so on – that we should really become concerned. And making those decisions is, of course, the really tough part.

Is Dr. Tiller’s Killer a Terrorist?

I’ve been intrigued to watch the foment about whether the man who killed Dr. Tiller is a terrorist.

At the ThinkProgress Wonk Room, Matt Duss says, emphatically, “Yes, Dr. Tiller’s Murderer is a Terrorist.” LifeNews.com, a nominal representative of the other “side,” is equally eager to report that abortion activists are calling pro-life advocates “terrorists.”

Mostly, it appears, the Tiller/terrorist question is emotional energy-drink for both sides of the abortion debate. We should let these ideologues be ideologues and move on. But it is worth thinking about the issue in terms of terrorism broadly and in terms of reducing violence prospectively.

Here’s an interesting statement of Duss’ about the killing: “It’s [sic] goal was to intimidate women against exercising their right to choose abortion, and to intimidate doctors who perform them.” Perhaps Duss has had an opportunity to interview Tiller’s killer, who has been highly forthcoming, but more likely Duss is imputing motives to the killer that fit his own worldview and that start an argument he wants to have.

Knowing nothing about the killer, I think it’s a possibility that he might have wanted to avenge what he sees as wrongful deaths that the doctor has brought about, with no contemplation of the prospective effect on women or doctors. The killer might have been trying to impress someone he knows who hated Dr. Tiller. Perhaps he suspected Dr. Tiller was sleeping with his wife (very unlikely, but possible). I don’t think that Duss is wrong, but ascribing motivations to people based on the results they cause is a fascinating habit. To match the hugely shocking results of the 9/11 attacks, President Bush supplied huge reasons that terrorists do what they do, and a deeply unproductive “war on terror” was on.

Now, if the goal is to reduce violence, calling Dr. Tiller’s killer a “terrorist” seems distinctly unhelpful. The criminal laws against homicide contain every penalty that the killer deserves, and he should get justice as the criminal law prescribes it. There is no criminal offense called “terrorism” - and there shouldn’t be, for reasons that follow.

The question in play with Tiller/terrorism goes to future violence - the actions of others. If Tiller’s killer has allies - direct allies or people who agree with what they think he was doing - calling him a “terrorist” will tend to exalt his actions to them. They will perceive it less as an ugly murder and more as political violence done for a cause - something righteous.

If Tiller’s killer were to become widely viewed as a “terrorist,” this would deepen the resolve of his “allies” because they would come to regard the political structure as arrayed against them and their cause. Tiller’s killer would look heroic to them, and his example is one they might seek to emulate in their ideological struggle.

The better approach is to methodically and calmly apply the criminal law to the killing - without rhetorical excess. Putting aside the “political” content will let the ugliness and sadness of the murder carry the day in terms of public attention. This will signal to abortion opponents who might be susceptible to “radicalization” that violence is something sad and pathetic people do. The criminal law accords criminals the justice they are due, families grieve, and the society moves on.

These messages will drain power from the idea of using violence to advance political aims. The best way to talk about the killing of Dr. Tiller is to deal with it only as a grisly and pathetic murder - if the goal is to protect doctors who perform abortion from future violence.

Haywood v. Drown

The Supreme Court ruling in Haywood v. Drown got lost in the news last week, but it was an important constitutional case involving the principle of federalism.  The issue concerned the  extent to which the central government can commandeer state judicial systems.  Unfortunately, by a narrow 5-4 vote, the Court gave the central government a green light.

Justice Clarence Thomas filed  another one of his sober, scholarly opinions in dissent and I think he makes the case rather well.  Excerpt:

The Court holds that New York Correction Law Annotated §24, which divests New York’s state courts of subject-matter jurisdiction over suits seeking money damages from correction officers, violates the Supremacy Clause ofthe Constitution, Art. VI, cl. 2, because it requires the dismissal of federal actions brought in state court under42 U. S. C. §1983. I disagree. Because neither the Constitution nor our precedent requires New York to open its courts to §1983 federal actions, I respectfully dissent.

Although the majority decides this case on the basis of the Supremacy Clause, see ante, at 5–13, the proper starting point is Article III of the Constitution. Article III, §1, provides that “[t]he judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” The history of the drafting and ratification of this Article establishes that it leaves untouched the States’ plenary authority to decide whether their local courts will have subject-matter jurisdiction over federal causes of action.

Until this setback, the Court’s conservatives were doing well in this corner of the law.  In New York v. United States (1992), the Court ruled that state legislatures were not subject to federal direction.  In Printz v. United States (1997), the Court ruled that state executive officers were not subject to federal direction.  This case stood for the proposition that state courts are not subject to federal direction.  Alas, Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the liberals to subordinate the states to federal control.

Here’s a practical example to illustrate the problem.  It’s bad enough when Congress wants to pass a law like the Americans with Disabilities Act (pdf)–a law that will create a flood of litigation.  But what if Congress goes a step further and writes the law in such as way as to say ”take all those time-consuming lawsuits to the state courts. Federal judges and personnel can’t be bothered with that stuff!”  So state courts get clogged or state lawmakers must raise taxes to alleviate the added burden, which blurs accountability.  That’s what is likely to happen. Or, to be precise, continue to happen with increasing frequency.  The feds have permission to foist costs on to the states.

But, to be clear, the main issue here is the proper division of federal and state authority.  Even if Congress were to get around the problem of unfunded mandates by throwing money at the states, each state should retain control over its judiciary.  As Justice Thomas notes, the issue of federal supremacy is too often distorted by liberals.  Within its proper sphere, the feds are supreme.  Liberals want supremacy and federal authority that is plenary.  Wrong.  Obama’s Supreme Court nominee should be asked about federalism and the doctrine of enumerated powers at the confirmation hearings.

McCarthy Does Petraeus a Disservice

General Petraeus recently gave an interview to Fox News. Petraeus speaks approvingly of the decision to close Guantanamo, limiting interrogation to the techniques in the Army Field Manual, and how adherence to the Geneva Conventions takes propaganda fodder out of the hands of our enemies.

Andy McCarthy attacks Petraeus over at National Review Online’s The Corner:

With due respect to Gen. Petraeus, this is just vapid. To begin with, he doesn’t identify any provision of the Geneva Conventions that we have actually violated - he just repeats the standard talking-point of his current commander-in-chief that we took “steps that have violated the Geneva Conventions” during those bad old Bush days. What steps is he talking about? How about naming one?

McCarthy then uses the brief reference to the Geneva Conventions to attack strawman arguments as if Petraeus wanted to give full Prisoner of War status to Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters and had just proposed ending military detention of combatants picked up on the battlefield.

I’m pretty sure that Petraeus is not squeamish about keeping detainees in custody. As CENTCOM Commander, he’s got over 600 of them in Bagram.

When you watch the video it’s pretty clear that Petraeus was referring to the treatment of detainees and the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” as violating the Geneva Conventions, a position consistent with his previous statements. Petraeus doesn’t supply a specific provision to satisfy McCarthy, but he is likely thinking about Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949.  This provision bans, even in a conflict of a non-international nature (read: counterinsurgency and counterterrorism), cruelty, torture, and humiliating and degrading treatment.

McCarthy is also broadly dismissive of the propaganda effect that Guantanamo has had in encouraging people to take up arms against US forces. This sentiment is counter to the doctrine that I learned in the Special Forces Detachment Commander’s Qualification Course. Low-level insurgencies and terrorism are driven by propaganda.

To build an insurgency, you don’t need to win battles. You need to take a few shots at your enemy and tell stories about how successful you were, even when you weren’t. Over time you get sympathetic parties to join your struggle and gain critical mass to move into outright guerrilla warfare.

To sustain a worldwide terrorist organization, you don’t need to actually pose an existential threat. You need to prod a superpower into deploying large troop formations into the Muslim world, where they can be entangled in local disputes over local grievances. Usama bin Laden is not the commander-in-chief of any significant armed force, but he can be the inciter-in-chief who makes broad claims about opposition to America. He tries to link local insurgencies to his global caliphate narrative even where they are not supportive of his broader goals. Check out David Kilcullen’s book, The Accidental Guerrilla, for a detailed discussion. Incidentally, Kilcullen worked for Petraeus as a senior counterinsurgency advisor in Iraq.

This is the propaganda war we are fighting, and most everyone agrees that we have not been doing it very well. Every time we drop a bomb in Afghanistan, the Taliban beat us to the punch with exaggerated (and mostly false) claims of civilian casualties. US forces are now reviving body count reports to counter Taliban propaganda. While I don’t think that body counts are a good metric for success in the long run, trying to be an honest broker of good and bad information blunts enemy propaganda.

McCarthy is wrong to mischaracterize Petraeus’ words and dismiss the propaganda war where we have largely been a punching bag. Cheerleading our military leaders who produce gains on the ground but dismissing the fundamental insights that produced their success is willful blindness.

Who’s Blogging about Cato

Here’s your weekly roundup of bloggers who are writing about Cato research and commentary:

  • Insider Online blogger Alex Adrianson covers Cato’s standoff with Hugo Chavez supporters and government agents during a pro-free market conference in Venezuela.
  • Writing for Real Clear World’s Compass blog,
  • At Red State, Ryan Ellis uses Michael Cannon’s research in a post about a market-based alternative to government-run health care.

Let us know if you’re blogging about Cato via cmoody [at] cato [dot] org (email )or Twitter.

Topics:

The Corporate Culture at Government Motors

David Brooks comes in for his share of criticism in these parts, but he has a very astute column today about the ways that government ownership will worsen an already problematic corporate culture at a once-great company:

Fifth, G.M.’s executives and unions now have an incentive to see Washington as a prime revenue center. Already, the union has successfully lobbied to move production centers back from overseas. Already, the company has successfully sought to restrict the import of cars that might compete with G.M. brands. In the years ahead, G.M.’s management will have a strong incentive to spend time in Washington, urging the company’s owner, the federal government, to issue laws to help it against Ford and Honda.

Sixth, the new plan will create an ever-thickening set of relationships between G.M.’s new owners — in government, management and unions. These thickening bonds between public and private bureaucrats will fundamentally alter the corporate culture, and not for the better. Members of Congress are also getting more involved in the company they own, and will have their own quaint impact.

The end result is that G.M. will not become more like successful car companies. It will become less like them.