Archives: 09/2009

Lowry and Interrogation

Veronique de Rugy put up a post at The Corner referencing Rich Lowry’s defense of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and my response. Rich has since responded.

With regard to the apprehension of Uzair Paracha, an Al Qaeda facilitator in New York, it seems likely that the apprehension of Majid Khan in Pakistan four days after Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s (KSM) apprehension came from material picked up with KSM and not from interrogation. The key here is that when Majid Khan was in Pakistan, Paracha was pretending to be Majid Khan in communications with immigration officials. Detective work was probably what brought this guy under the microscope.

However, I’m willing to lay that aside because, as Rich points out, there is probably more to the story that shouldn’t be declassified. As I said on Bill O’Reilly’s show, we cannot end this argument until we have declassified all of the dead ends we pursued, which has some serious strategic drawbacks. The CIA recently asserted in court that it cannot reveal any more without compromising sources and methods.

Rich also says that my preferred method of interrogation is “dangling the promise of reduced sentences.”

This is not my preferred method, but it is one that ought to be available to interrogators. Under the Army Field Manual, an interrogator cannot promise anything in the court system. As Matthew Alexander points out in his book, the Iraqi Central Criminal Court has the death penalty attached to almost all of what we consider “material support of terrorism.” I am saying that the Prisoner’s Dilemma is an effective tool if a lesser included offense is on the table so that the first to squeal gets a few years and the others get the noose.

But let’s not discount the lawful interrogation techniques. When I attended SERE, the psychological techniques were far more compelling than the physical ones. We were all young and tough, but the mind tricks that turned brothers in arms against each other were downright disturbing.

Presidential Cults

Glenn Greenwald, author of Cato’s much-discussed paper on the success of drug decriminalization in Portugal, writes about cults of presidential personality. He notes that Jay Nordlinger of National Review and other conservatives – not to mention a few libertarians – have criticized the Obama administration’s plan to broadcast a presidential speech into American schools and push teachers to post Obama quotes in their classrooms and encourage students to talk about how President Obama inspires them.

Greenwald never actually defends the Obama plan. But he does argue that conservatives have short memories when they say that this is something unique. In particular, he reminds us of the notorious Monica Goodling’s questions to job candidates at the George W. Bush Department of Justice, such as “[W]hat is it about George W. Bush that makes you want to serve him?” And also of White House political aide Sara Taylor, who told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “I took an oath to the president, and I take that oath very seriously.” Committee chairman Patrick Leahy had to ask her, “Did you mean, perhaps, you took an oath to the Constitution?”

Greenwald has a good point. Both the red and blue teams have been far too quick to succumb to a cult of presidential personality. (And really, swooning over Reagan or Obama is sort of understandable. But George W. Bush? You have to wonder if they worked really hard at creating a Bush cult because there wasn’t really much there.)

But I do see one difference: The Obama administration is trying to push its president-worship onto 50 million captive schoolchildren (not to mention using the NEA to enlist the nation’s artists in promoting Obama and his agenda). Goodling was asking people looking for government jobs why they wanted to “serve George W. Bush.” Now, sure, they should want to serve the public interest – and she was asking these questions to people seeking career legal positions as well as to political appointees. Still, it seems a smaller bit of cultishness than going into every public school.

Gene Healy wrote about cultishness by both Bush and Obama supporters here.

Does the Government Need More Employees?

The Washington Post reports on the results of a survey of federal agencies on their hiring needs conducted by the Partnership for Public Service:

The federal government needs to hire more than 270,000 workers for ‘mission-critical’ jobs over the next three years… Mission-critical jobs are those positions identified by the agencies as being essential for carrying out their services. The study estimates that the federal government will need to hire nearly 600,000 people for all positions over President Obama’s four years – increasing the current workforce by nearly one-third.

Given the mind-set of most government managers I’ve encountered, I’m a little surprised they didn’t define all 600,000 as “mission critical.”  But 270,000 or 600,000, that’s a lot more folks living at the expense of the economically productive class of people in this country called taxpayers.

According to the Post:

The nation’s unsettled economy and high unemployment rate may ease the government’s task, as workers turn to the federal sector for job security and good benefits.

As my colleague Chris Edwards has been pointing out, the average federal employee is doing quite well in comparison to the average private sector employee when it comes to compensation.  See here, here, and here.

But here’s the line that made my skin crawl:

It [federal government] has to win the war for talent in order to win the multiple wars it’s fighting for the American people,’ said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, the think tank that conducted the survey of 35 federal agencies, representing nearly 99 percent of the federal workforce.

I could be wrong but I don’t think Stier is referring to Afghanistan and Iraq, so what are these “wars” for the American people?  Is he talking about the government’s counterproductive “war” on poverty?  Its failed “war” on drugs?  Its “war” on [insert societal ill here]?  There’s a war going on alright: it’s the federal government’s war against the productive men and women out there who have the fruits of their efforts gobbled up by that Leviathan on the Potomac.  The last thing the economy needs are the best and brightest this country has to offer wasting their abilities in some bureaucracy when they could be out starting businesses, creating new technologies, etc., etc.  As Chris Edwards likes to point out, would we rather Bill Gates had put his talents to work at the U.S. Department of Commerce?

Houston DA: Help Us Get Rid of Customers at Successful Schools!

The Houston District Attorney’s office has apparently sent out this notice:

Schools: If you have any information on someone who is attending a Houston County public school who either resides out of Houston County or out of their zone, please give us as much information as possible. Your contact information is not required; but, we will contact you if you desire. You may call 478.—.—- and leave a message or use our form below. All information provided is confidential.

Apple wants to sell more iPods. Facebook wants to sign up more members. In the free enterprise system, the incentives are aligned so that what’s good for consumers (access to things they want) is also good for producers. Not so in public schooling. Good public schools can’t get paid for serving kids outside their catchment area, so when folks try to escape lousy local schools by sneaking their kids into better ones, it actually hurts the better schools financially. So, rather than encouraging good schools to grow and take over bad ones, the status quo encourages good schools to stay as small as they can, and serve as few kids as they can. Great, huh?

Can we break up the monopoly now? Please?

‘Tax Cuts’ and Welfare Spending

A story in the Washington Post today is headlined: “Obama Would Keep $85 Billion in Tax Breaks for Working Poor.”

The “tax breaks” in question are expansions in the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit. The Post story repeatedly calls the expansions “tax breaks” and “tax cuts.” The budget expert quoted in the story calls them “tax cuts,” and so does a House staffer and a spokesperson for the president.

But these are not tax cuts. They are expansions in the refundability of provisions in the tax code. That means that households that pay no federal income tax will receive larger welfare checks from the government under these Obama proposals.

Obama has proposed a slew of “tax cuts” that are partly welfare payments. The chart below shows the share of the 2010-2019 dollar values of these proposals that are actually increased federal spending, and not reductions in taxes. (Calculated from OMB’s May summary tables).

200909_edwards_blog

The Post reporter and the budget analyst quoted in the story are both fiscal experts, and they know that these “tax cuts” are not really tax cuts. But there is a growing problem in fiscal discussions that words are getting flipped upside down to mean the opposite of what a layman would understand them to mean. A classic example is how the dollar value of true tax cuts is nearly always referred to in news articles as a “cost” rather than a “saving.”

Steny Hoyer’s use of the phrase “paid for” in the health debate is another example of how Washington-speak is confusing the heck out of people.