Archives: 05/2010

The Insane Drug War

“Thousands of police and soldiers swarmed into slums in Jamaica’s capital Tuesday in search of an alleged drug kingpin wanted by the United States, trading gunfire with masked supporters of the fugitive,” the Washington Post reports. “At least 30 people, mostly civilians, have been reported killed since the battle erupted Sunday.” Later reports put the number of deaths at 44. And for what?

[Christopher] Coke, who allegedly assumed leadership of the “Shadow Posse” from his father, was accused in a U.S. indictment in August of heading an international trafficking ring that sells marijuana and crack cocaine in the New York area and elsewhere.

So he’s accused of selling pot and coke to willing buyers. I’m sure he and his colleagues have engaged in violence along the way, but that’s an inevitable part of illegal businesses. And to capture a drug dealer, we’ve spent nine months pressuring a friendly government, and “thousands of police and soldiers” have been dispatched, with 44 deaths and counting. This policy is insane.

And it seems to confirm the point of this Newsweek column by Conor Friedersdorf, which I read a few hours earlier:

Forced to name the “craziest” policy favored by American politicians, I’d say the multibillion-dollar war on drugs, which no one thinks is winnable. Asked about the most “extreme,” I’d cite the invasion of Iraq, a war of choice that has cost many billions of dollars and countless innocent lives. The “kookiest” policy is arguably farm subsidies for corn, sugar, and tobacco—products that people ought to consume less, not more.

These are contentious judgments. I hardly expect the news media to denigrate the policies I’ve named, nor do I expect their Republican and Democratic supporters to be labeled crazy, kooky, or extreme. These disparaging descriptors are never applied to America’s policy establishment, even when it is proved ruinously wrong, whereas politicians who don’t fit the mainstream Democratic or Republican mode, such as libertarians, are mocked almost reflexively in these terms, if they are covered at all.

Friedersdorf goes on to declare that Rand Paul’s views on the gold standard and his doubts about the Civil Rights Act are “wacky.” (Without refighting the civil rights argument, I’ll note that some economists would disagree with Friedersdorf about the gold standard.) But, he concludes, “crazy, kooky, extreme actions are perpetrated by establishment centrists far more often than by marginalized libertarians.” Look no further than Jamaica.

Public Favors Federal Wage Freeze

A wage freeze for federal workers is the vote winner in the House Republican YouCut poll this week. YouCut is designed to gather citizen input online regarding which federal programs to cut.

So far, the GOP’s proposed cuts aren’t very big, and I’ve suggested some larger ones. But a good sign is that the largest cut of those offered has won the most votes two weeks in a row, suggesting that the public is eager for spending reforms.

I understand that the House will vote today on the wage freeze idea. So we will see whether or not policymakers believe in restraint for the labor market’s elite workers during a time when many private-sector workers are struggling.

Vouchers, Tax Credits, and Social Conflict

Yesterday, I contended that education tax credits substantially avoid the compulsion inherent in school voucher programs – that vouchers compel all taxpayers to fund every kind of schooling (including ones they may strongly object to) whereas tax credits do not.

In his most recent response, NRO’s Robert VerBruggen disagrees. He writes

I don’t see how [tax credits do] anything whatsoever to change this, at least mathematically speaking. Whenever someone earmarks their tax dollars for a certain purpose — in this case, by “donating” to a voucher program and being reimbursed with a tax credit — the government has to devote a higher share of everyone else’s tax dollars to the rest of the budget. Non-”donating” taxpayers, therefore, subsidize the voucher program to the exact same degree they would have if the government funded it directly.

Let’s deal with the core of our disagreement by following the money. Under a voucher program, you pay your taxes as always, the money goes into a big government pot, and it pays for every type of schooling – including some that may violate your convictions. About this sort of thing, I agree with Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in the The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that:

to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical

(Well, I agree with the tyrannical part, anyway).

Tax credit programs like Arizona’s are different. From the start, taxpayers are given a choice. If they wish, they may donate to any of a wide range of k-12 scholarship organizations that subsidize private school tuition, and receive a dollar for dollar tax cut to offset the cost. That portion of their money – and only that portion of their money – is then used for scholarships for private schooling. So far, there is no conviction-violating compulsion.

Alternatively, taxpayers may choose not to donate to any scholarship organization, in which case they pay their taxes as always and the money goes into the state treasury. From there, the only k-12 educational uses to which it can be put are funding the secular public and public charter school systems. In this scenario, none of the taxpayer’s money goes to fund religious instruction of any kind.

There is no intermixing of funds between these separate options. There are two different pots of money, and each individual taxpayer decides which pot will receive his money.

It is not true that “the government has to devote a higher share of everyone else’s tax dollars to the rest of the budget,” because the government is no longer financially responsible for the education of children once they accept scholarships. To understand this, we again just have to follow the money.

For example, imagine that half of all taxpayers donate to the scholarship program, and half do not. Are the half that do not make donations “subsidiz[ing] the [scholarship students] to the exact same degree” as if it were a voucher? No. Under a voucher program, every taxpayer would be paying some portion of the cost of the program. With tax credits, the entire cost of the private school scholarships is being borne by those taxpayers who are making the donations. The taxes still being paid by non-donors do not go toward scholarships and they do not go up. On the contrary, if anything, the taxes paid by non-donors go down.

Educating students in private schools via scholarship programs costs less than placing them in government schools. The more students leave the government system for independent schools, the less it costs to operate the government schools. [And anyone out there who thinks that fixed costs are dominant in the public school sector should consult the relevant econometric literature. I and others have done marginal cost estimates of public schooling and found it to be in the 80 to 85 percent range – so when a child leaves the public school system, the system saves almost the entire average per-pupil cost.] And as the cost of the public school system goes down, the amount of revenue that needs to be appropriated for it goes down as well. In most states, state level public school appropriations are tied to enrollment, so appropriations will fall as students leave the government system.

The only scenario in which non-donating taxpayers could be said to have an “increased” tax burden due to an an education tax credit program is one in which there was never a tax-funded government school system in the first place. Then, there would be no savings from moving children out of public schools. But even in that fictional scenario, no taxpayer would be forced to pay for devotional religious instruction. They would always have the choice of donating to secular scholarship organizations, if they so wished.

So credits don’t suffer the same conviction-violating, conflict-generating, compulsion problem that afflicts vouchers.

I should add, of course, that public schools are much worse than vouchers in this regard. The conventional public school system not only forces all taxpayers to fund a single official government organ of education, sparking endless battles over what is taught, it puts huge financial pressure on all families to place their kids in that system, by virtue of its lavish funding monopoly. How a nation founded on liberty was ever lured into adopting such a compulsion-laden, Balkanizing system is a very interesting story of its own.

GAO’s Damning Report on ‘SPOT’

Via the Identity Project’s “Papers, Please” web site, and despite my colleague David Rittgers’ excellent post from yesterday, I note last week’s utterly damning Government Accountability Office report on the SPOT program. “SPOT” stands for “Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques.” In the program “BDO’s,” or “Behavior Detection Officers,” observe travelers in airports, pulling them out of line if a secret list of behaviors signal that they’re a likely threat.

The thing is:

TSA deployed SPOT nationwide before first determining whether there was a scientifically valid basis for using behavior and appearance indicators as a means for reliably identifying passengers as potential threats in airports. … TSA state[s] that no other large-scale U.S. or international screening program incorporating behavior- and appearance-based indicators has ever been rigorously scientifically validated. While TSA deployed SPOT on the basis of some risk-related factors, such as threat information and airport passenger volume, it did not use a comprehensive risk assessment to guide its strategy of selectively deploying SPOT to 161 of the nation’s 457 TSA-regulated airports. TSA also expanded the SPOT program over the last 3 years without the benefit of a cost-benefit analysis of SPOT.

The Israeli airline El Al uses behavior detection, counters the TSA—as did DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano when I asked her about this report at a meeting of the DHS Privacy Committee Tuesday.

The GAO report notes that El Al’s processes, which are different from the TSA’s, have not been scientifically validated. As of 2008, El Al had 34 aircraft, operating out of one hub airport, Ben-Gurion International. There are 457 TSA-regulated airports in the United States. In 2008, El Al had passenger boardings of about 3.6 million; one U.S. airline, Southwest, flew about 102 million passengers that year.

From late May 2004 through August 2008, BDOs referred 152,000 travelers to secondary inspection. Of those, TSA agents referred 14,000 people to law enforcement, which resulted in approximately 1,100 arrests. TSA officials did not identify any direct links to terrorism or any threat to aviation in these cases. GAO noted its inability to determine if this is a better arrest rate than would occur under random screenings.

GAO also determined that at least 16 individuals allegedly involved in terrorism plots have moved at least 23 different times through eight airports where the SPOT program has been implemented. SPOT caught none of them.

The Government Accountability Office is a master of understatement, leaving conclusions for readers to draw. Mine is that the $1.2 billion in planned spending on the program over the next five years will be a wasteful producer of civil liberties violations.

Militarizing the Border

President Obama is sending 1,200 National Guard troops to the border with Mexico. This should not be viewed as an innovative solution; Bush sent 1,600 troops to the border under parallel circumstances in 2002. As Ilya Shapiro recently wrote, sending some Guardsmen is no substitute for substantive immigration policy reform.

The National Guard, and the military generally, should not be seen as the go-to solution for domestic problems. Certainly the role they will play on the border will not be as offensive as policing the streets of an Alabama town after a mass shooting (which the Department of Defense found was a violation of the Posse Comitatus Act, but declined to pursue charges) or using a city in Iowa as a rehearsal site for cordon-and-search operations looking for weapons, but politicians from both major parties have at one point or another suggested using the military for domestic operations that range from the absurd to the frightening.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta wanted to put Delta Force commandos on airliners after the attacks on September 11, 2001. Air marshals and armed pilots can handle airline counterterrorism; tracking down Al Qaeda organizers in Afghanistan is a better use of Delta’s unique skill-set. Marines conducting counter-drug surveillance near the border shot and killed goat herder Esequiel Hernandez. Something to keep in mind when politicians call for an expanded the role of the military in border security.

Gene Healy’s excellent policy analysis Deployed in the U.S.A.: The Creeping Militarization of the Home Front provides more detail on sensible limits for domestic use of the military. Read the whole thing.

John Brennan on Countering Terrorism

Earlier today, I attended a lecture at CSIS by John Brennan, a leading counterterrorism and homeland security adviser to President Obama. His speech highlighted some of the key elements of the administration’s counterterrorism strategy, in advance of tomorrow’s release of the National Security Strategy (NSS).

I hope that many people will take the opportunity to read (.pdf) or listen to/watch Brennan’s speech, as opposed to merely reading what other people said that he said. Echoing key themes that Brennan put forward last year, also at CSIS, today’s talk reflected a level of sophistication that is required when addressing the difficult but eminently manageable problem of terrorism.

Brennan was most eloquent in talking about the nature of the struggle. He declared, with emphasis, that the United States is indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates, but not at war with the tactic of terrorism, nor with Islam, a misconception that is widely held both here in the United States and within the Muslim world. He stressed the positive role that Muslim clerics and other leaders within the Muslim community have played in criticizing the misuse of religion to advance a hateful ideology, and he lamented that such condemnations of bin Laden and others have not received enough exposure in the Western media. This inadequate coverage of the debate raging within the Muslim community contributes to the mistaken impression that this is chiefly a religious conflict. It isn’t; or, more accurately, it need not be, unless we make it so.

I also welcomed Brennan’s unabashed defense of a counterterrorism strategy that placed American values at the forefront. These values include a respect for the rule of law, transparency, individual liberty, tolerance, and diversity. And he candidly stated what any responsible policymaker must: no nation can possibly prevent every single attack. In those tragic instances where a determined person slips through the cracks, the goal must be to recover quickly, and to demonstrate a level of resilience that undermines the appeal of terrorism as a tactic in the future.

I had an opportunity to ask Brennan a question about the role of communication in the administration’s counterterrorism strategy. He assured me that there was such a communications strategy, that elements of the strategy would come through in the NSS, and that such elements have informed how the administration has addressed the problem of terrorism from the outset.

This was comforting to hear, and it is consistent with what I’ve observed over the past 16 months. Members of the Obama administration, from the president on down, seem to understand that how you talk about terrorism is as important as how you disrupt terrorist plots, kill or capture terrorist leaders, and otherwise enhance the nation’s physical security. On numerous occasions, the president has stressed that the United States cannot be brought down by a band of murderous thugs. Brennan reiterated that point today. This should be obvious, and yet such comments stand in stark contrast to the apolocalytpic warnings from a few years ago of an evil Islamic caliphate sweeping across the globe.

Talking about terrorism might seem an esoteric point. It isn’t. Indeed, it is a key theme in our just released book, Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing and How to Fix It. Because the object of terrorism is to terrorize, to elicit from a targeted state or people a response, and to (in the terrorists’s wildest dreams) cause the state to waste blood and treasure, or come loose from its ideological moorings, a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy should aim at building a psychologically resilient society. Such a society should possess an accurate understanding of the nature of the threat, a clear sense of what policies or measures are useful in mitigating that threat, and an awareness of how overreaction does the terrorists’s work for them. The true measure of a resilient society, one that isn’t in thrall to the specter of terrorism, is the degree to which it can conduct an adult conversation about the topic.

We aren’t there yet, but I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen so far, and by what I heard today.

Wednesday Links

  • Nat Hentoff on Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s record on free speech: “I know that a solicitor general is required to argue the legal positions of the administration that hired her — but to this extent?”
  • Mark Calabria explains Sen. Dodd’s financial overhaul bill in a nutshell: “Give the bureaucrats more power and discretion, without any accountability. Its main achievement is to set up a new agency that will largely determine who, what and how it will regulate.”
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