Archives: August, 2010

Live from the Fancy Farm Picnic

I went back home to Kentucky to attend the Fancy Farm Picnic last Saturday. It may be the biggest political event in the state; it takes place every August, 10 miles from where I grew up, and somehow I’d never attended before. It was time. I got there just in time to hear Senate candidates Jack Conway and Rand Paul give their 7-minute speeches. (There are lots of speakers, and timekeepers are strict.) There were plenty of advocates for both candidates among the 2000 or so people watching. It’s an old Democratic area, but they’re conservative Democrats who now mostly vote Republican in federal races.

It was well over 90 degrees and humid, so both candidates handed out fans:

As I listened to the candidates, my main impression was this: Conway accused Rand Paul of being an extremist, and Paul accused Conway of being a Democrat. The question for November is which charge will stick.

Gov. Steve Beshear, introducing Conway, warmed up the attack: “[Paul] is going to balance the federal budget on the backs of our school children. He’s going to balance the federal budget on the backs of our coal miners. On the backs of our farmers. On the backs of our law enforcement officials,” he shouted. “The entire commonwealth of Kentucky — Republicans, Democrats and independents — ought to be scared to death about Rand Paul!” Referring to last year’s controversy over Conway’s calling himself a “tough son of a bitch” – it’s a church picnic, after all – and the “seven words you can’t say on television,” Paul said, “There are six more words you won’t hear Jack Conway say [on the campaign trail]: President Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.”

So which do Kentucky voters dislike more: the national Democratic party’s big-government agenda or the prospect that Rand Paul might actually try to cut the size of government? In a world where everyone gets something from government, it’s not obvious. But so far Paul is holding on to a lead in the polls. In Fancy Farm, I noticed that all the Conway supporters had the campaign’s official signs and buttons, plus hand-lettered signs that had clearly been produced in campaign offices, such as this “NeanderPaul” sign that I picked up after the shouting was over:

Paul’s supporters, on the other hand, brought a lot of their own homemade signs. Conway’s supporters were more disciplined. You didn’t see any Conway supporters showing up dressed as Abraham Lincoln or a colonial soldier (though news reports say there was a guy dressed as a “neanderthal” holding the above sign), or wearing T-shirts reading “Who is John Galt?” The greater grass-roots enthusiasm for Paul has both pluses and minuses. Clearly he’s appealing to stronger currents than mere partisan politics and generating more enthusiasm. But that means he’s more at risk of supporters doing things that might embarrass the campaign.

Both candidates accused the other of “flip-flopping.” Conway’s team erected a “Rand Paul’s Waffle House” in the familiar yellow-and-black design and claimed he was waffling and flip-flopping on a number of issues. (Are waffling and flip-flopping the same thing? Not really.) Paul’s campaign handed out flip-flops labeled “cap” and “trade” to draw attention to Conway’s alleged backing away from his previous support for the “cap and trade” energy legislation.

One thing you can say about the Fancy Farm Picnic, it’s the best $10 meal you’ll ever eat – Kentucky pork and mutton, fresh-picked tomatoes and corn, and homemade pies and cakes.

And one final thought: They estimate that 15,000 people attend the picnic but that only 2,000 listen to the political speeches, which is a good reminder of reality for us political junkies. And that estimate would seem to be confirmed by my reflection after the weekend that, except for the drive from Mayfield to Fancy Farm, I drove about 500 miles in Kentucky this weekend and I’m not sure I ever saw a campaign sign or bumper sticker. The election is still almost three months away, and politics just isn’t life for most people.

‘Border Enforcement’ Bill Driven by Election-Year Politics

A $600-million bill to enhance border enforcement has hit a temporary snag in the Senate, but it is almost inevitable, with an election only a few months away, that Congress and the president will spend yet more money trying to enforce our unworkable immigration laws.

“Getting control of the border” is the buzz phrase of the day for politicians in both parties, from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. Never mind that apprehensions are down sharply along our Southwest border with Mexico, mostly I suspect because of the lack of robust job creation in the unstimulated Obama economy.

Meanwhile, since the early 1990s, spending on border enforcement has increased more than 700 percent, and the number of agents along the border has increased five-fold, from 3,500 to more than 17.000. (See pages 3-4 of a January 2010 report from the Center for American Progress and the Immigration Policy Center.) Yet the population of illegal immigrants in America tripled during that period. If this were a federal education program, conservatives would rightly accuse the big spenders of merely throwing more money at a problem without result.

To pay for this politically driven expenditure, Congress plans to nearly double fees charged for H1-B and L visas used by foreign high-tech firms to staff their operations in the United States. The increased visa tax will fall especially hard on companies such as the Indian high-tech leaders Wipro, Infosys, and Tata.

This all has the ring of election-year populism. Congress pretends to move us closer to solving the problem of illegal immigrants entering from Latin America by raising barriers to skilled professionals coming to the United States from India and elsewhere to help us maintain our edge in competitive global technology markets.

Federal Government Is a Lucrative ‘Industry’

The Bureau of Economic Analysis latest release of industry compensation levels shows that the average federal worker ranks up at the top along with employees in the finance and energy industries. That’s not exactly popular company these days.

The BEA presents compensation data for 72 industries that span the U.S. economy. Figure 1 shows the 20 industries with the highest levels of average compensation, which includes wages and benefits. It also shows the average for all U.S. private industries and the average for the industry with the lowest compensation. (The names of the industries have been simplified in some cases).

Federal civilian workers have the sixth highest average compensation of the 72 industries:

As yesterday’s post showed, federal employee compensation has exploded over the course of the decade. Figure 2 shows that this federal employee compensation growth has been the fifth highest of the 72 industries measured by the BEA:

More Stephen Biddle on Afghanistan

In June I pointed to what I thought was an interesting article co-authored by CFR’s Stephen Biddle that took a rather dim view of the prospects of fighting a counterinsurgency war on Hamid Karzai’s behalf in Afghanistan.

CFR has posted a transcript of a media call from earlier today with Biddle, who’s just returned from Afghanistan, hosted by Gideon Rose, the new editor of Foreign Affairs.  There are some interesting tidbits in there.  Try this, where Biddle has been working to try to push out well into the future any prospective date by which we can judge progress or a lack thereof in the fight:

ROSE: So what I hear you saying is that you have a Potter-Stewart version of a definition of success, but not a Potter-Stewart definition of failure.

In other words, at some point if it’s working, you’ll see the levels of violence come down; you’ll see things start to stabilize and then you’ll know things are going well. But if that hasn’t happened yet, it’s hard to distinguish between “It may happen down the road”; and “It’s not going to happen.”

BIDDLE: Yeah. And eventually, there’s kind of a statute of limitations on this. I mean, you can’t reasonable expect after five or six years to keep saying, well, it’ll happen eventually.

So five or six more years would be too long.  (I should note that Biddle also suggests later in the interview that we need somehow to extend the U.S. presence in Iraq beyond the 2011 deadline in the existing Status of Forces Agreement in that country to prevent a meltdown from happening there.)  Next Biddle restates his argument that al Qaeda “safe havens” isn’t a particularly good argument for continuing the war, but the prospect, which he admits is very unlikely, of a Pakistani collapse and al Qaeda somehow acquiring a deliverable nuclear weapon is.  Rose pushes back:

ROSE: See, that actually scares me more than if you had given the reverse answer, because however sort of relatively minor the Afghan danger would seem to be, the idea of fighting a nasty, ongoing, unsatisfying war simply for a domino theory aspect of what might happen in a neighboring state if the war doesn’t go well, strikes me as so tenuous a connection that it really is going to be hard to justify. And I think over time, you might get into a political dynamic in which the – if the war doesn’t get – the prospects don’t seem to get any better, that the public might not find that convincing. Do you worry about that?

BIDDLE: Well, I mean, people use domino theory as pejorative wording when they oppose a war. The idea that states worry about the stability of their neighbors because they worry about the stability of their own country is ubiquitous in international politics. One of the central reasons why the United States got involved in the Balkans back in the 1990s was the fear that chaos in the Balkans could spread to our NATO neighbors and trading partners. You know, the United – the Soviet Union was continuously worried about instability on its borders. This is a normal concern in international affairs. It’s not like an imaginary ghost dreamed up by people who want to do Vietnam War revisionism.

ROSE: Understood entirely, although –

BIDDLE: I don’t think that this is an absolute transcendent be-all and end-all threat to U.S. national security that we should be willing to pay any price and bear any burden in order to deal with. I’ve argued in the past – and I continue to believe – that Afghanistan is close call on the merits because the stakes, while important, are indirect and are not unlimited. And obviously the cost of waging this war is, you know, clearly high.

So what it boils down to, I think, is neither a slam dunk in favor of waging the war in which any reasonable person must surely think this is worth it, nor a slam dunk in which this war is obviously crazy and any reasonable person should think that we should get out tomorrow morning. I think what you end up with is a situation where the costs and the benefits are pretty close on the analytics and it boils down to a value judgment that reasonable people will make differently about how much cost should you be willing to bear to reduce how much of a threat.

Now, the threat here if the worst case scenario unfolds, is pretty serious. I mean, you may or may not have worried about nuclear weapons in Soviet hands during the Cold War. Bin Laden would probably use the things if he got them. And an American decision by a presidential administration that could reasonably have waged this war with some respectable prospect of success, but decided instead to withdraw – if that scenario played itself out and Pakistan collapsed, bin Laden got a nuclear weapon and used it in the United States – that would be regarded by generations of historians as the single biggest foreign policy blunder in the history of the nation.

Now, a variety of bad things have to happen in sequence for that worst case to play itself out. That’s why I think this is a close call, rather than an obvious “do it” or an obvious “don’t”. But I think especially with respect to the guy in the Oval Office who has to bear the responsibility for this that I suspect that worst case looms fairly large, but I think all indications are that the president is pretty ambivalent about this, in part because I suspect he sees the costs and benefits as being closer on the margin than one would in some ways like.

But what really struck me about the interview was the fog-machine answer Biddle gave to a question from James Kitfield involving Karzai.  See if you do better with it than I did:

QUESTIONER: Hi, Stephen. You haven’t talked about Karzai and his government. The most recent reports were that he’s now pushing back against these anti-corruption task forces, raising the question once again of what kind of a partner he is. I’m just curious what kind of feedback you got while you were in the field about how cooperative his government was being, whether they were doing the things necessary to give people hope that they would fulfill their part of the bargain in counterinsurgency.

BIDDLE: Well – and, of course, it’s a mixed bag. His stated policy is strongly anti-corruption oriented. Lots of his actual behaviors are much less so. I think there’s a tendency in the U.S. debate, though, to want to set the relationship with Karzai up as either he’s a good guy and an adequate partner or he is hopeless and he’s an inadequate partner. We just can’t succeed unless this guy is changed or has some moment of transformation.

And that’s not normally the way counterinsurgencies go. I mean, you always have an inadequate partner in counterinsurgency. That’s why there’s an insurgency to counter. (Scattered laughter.) If the host government were good at this, we wouldn’t have to be involved in the first place. So you inevitably at least start with a partner that, by definition, has serious legitimacy problems often involving corruption.

If you’re going to succeed, that means changing the behavior of the host government and changing behaviors that the host government doesn’t want to change. I mean, normally the legitimacy problem that gave rise to the insurgency in the first place was some sort of unrepresentative distribution of power or wealth or resources in the country benefitting one subgroup to the exclusion of others who then turned to insurgents for succor and hope.

The people who are benefitting from this normally want to keep benefitting from this and they resist and they push back when the outside counterinsurgent tries to get them to reform because that reform means less benefits for their subgroup. So you normally get pushback, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing and it’s exactly what we should expect.

And if we’re going to succeed, the right metaphor for this, it seems to me, is a tug of war. We can expect Karzai to pull back on the other side of the rope all the time because he believes that his political self-interest requires him to rely on groups that are benefitting from corruption and abuse of power to keep himself in office.

When we tell him to get rid of these people and clean all this up, he thinks it’s a threat to his own tenure in office and he’ll resist. We have to pull him in the other direction.

And in principle, we have plenty of resources with which to do that. We do thousands of things in Afghanistan every day. The Karzai government’s survival is utterly dependent on this, and we can turn them on or turn them off singly or in combination as necessary to generate leverage to gradually win the tug of war. But we’re not going to win it all of a sudden one morning.

I mean, every day, we’re going to roll out of bed and we’re going to have to pull Karzai a little further in our direction and he’s going to pull back again. And so there are going to be periodic episodes where he tries to shut down some anti-corruption agency that we think is doing a great job, and we have to pull him back in the direction of being more forceful in reforming his government than he otherwise wants to be.

I think, in principle, we have the resources to do that effectively, given the enormous expenditure of resources we do in this country. But we have to be very careful with how we do it. We’ve tended to be on this kind of pendulum oscillation between extremes with Karzai.

The Bush administration was much too cozy with the guy. They tended to be something close to a policy of all carrots and no sticks because they thought Karzai was a hero and an ally and shouldn’t be coerced. The Obama administration came into office believing that that was a mistake and crashed down on him with lots and lots of sticks and not much in the way of carrots, and the sticks were delivered publicly in ways that were domestically humiliating to Karzai. That didn’t work so well, and so the administration has changed course again.

What I think we need is a tack toward the center and an avoidance of these extremes, where we don’t give up on sticks. We have to use leverage or we’re not going to succeed in this. If we do not get reform of the host government, this campaign will fail and that’s not going to happen without the use, of course, of sticks, but the sticks have to be private rather than public and they have to be done in a sequence that makes sense.

I mean, for example, let’s take the corruption problem. To fix – to get the corruption problem under control, let’s say, rather than fixed, because I don’t want to imply that the right level of corruption in Afghanistan is zero, but to get the corruption problem under control, eventually it’s going to require some big asks of Hamid Karzai. He’s going to have to accept the removal or prosecution of some senior people in the country, in all likelihood. That’s not the best way to start the process.

A lot of the money that flows into corrupt activity in Afghanistan comes from us. It comes from our own contracting, which goes to fuel malign actor networks in the country that at the end of the day are substantially hurting our prospects by making people in Afghanistan turn to the Taliban for protection. The right way to start the process is by reducing our own contribution to the problem, by reforming the way we do contracting, for example, in a way that causes us to provide less fuel and ammunition to the malign actor networks that are undermining our counter-insurgency prospects to the degree that we are.

As we do that, we in turn weaken the political power of malign actors within the country because we deny them funds. I mean, you can think of money as the hydraulic fluid that enables the political machines that are these malign actor networks in the country to do work. A lot of that money and hydraulic fluid is coming from us. If we shut off the flow into the system, we reduce the hydraulic pressure within the machine and we reduce its ability to do political work. And that in turn makes the eventual ask of Karzai easier.

So I – doing things in the right sequence, and doing things privately and not publicly are both important, it seems to me. And last but not least, doing things in ways that support Karzai’s political future in the country rather than damaging it is helpful. Part of that’s a matter of trying not to criticize him publicly by U.S. government officials, wherever it can be avoided. Part of it is a matter of supporting his own better instincts wherever we can.

Again, Karzai is on public record repeatedly as supporting anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan. Now, obviously, in a variety of ways, the Afghan government’s behavior has been inconsistent on this, but wherever possible, it seems to me, we ought to help Karzai carry out his own stated policies, which are substantially anti-corruption in nature.

Does that do it for you?

Not Just a ‘Special Interest,’ A Super Special Interest

In the gag-inducing tradition of National Education Association propaganda, President Obama’s “Organizing for America” has released the video below taking issue with House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) calling teachers a “special interest.” Watch…and wince.

Now, certainly many teachers want nothing more than to teach and do a good job. Some might even do it as much “for the kids” as their own personal satisfaction.  But teachers, at least as represented by the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, sure as heck are a special interest. Indeed, they might be called a super-special interest, with unparalled sway over Democrats especially, and an incredible ability to get money out of taxpayers.

But what about teachers’ saintliness?

Certainly many teachers work hard and spend some money out of their own pockets for the kids. But no public-school teacher is so poor that, unlike the no doubt intentionally bedgraggled-looking Jeff in the video, he or she can’t afford anything other than an undershirt to wear. Indeed, as I made clear in my PA Unbearable Burden? Living and Paying Student Loans as a First-Year Teacher, even the lowest-paid public school teachers can afford nice apartments, good food, and much beyond life’s essentials. And the average teacher, on an hourly basis, earns more than the average accountant, nurse, or insurance unerwriter.

Ah, but teachers work “twelve, thirteen hours” a day, right? I mean, isn’t that what destitute Jeff said?

Again, maybe some do, but the vast majority do not. Indeed, according to time-diary research done a few years ago, during the months when teachers are actually working as teachers – so not including lengthy summer and other vacations – the average teacher only does about 7.3 hours of education work inside or outside the school on weekdays, and about two hours on weekends. That’s 18 minutes less per day than the average person in a comparable, full-time professional job. And again, that doesn’t account for teachers’ long, built-in vacations.

So get off it, teacher unionists and apologists. Teacher unions are a gigantic special interest, and all the super-earnest-sounding, unkempt video subjects in the world aren’t going to change that.

The U.S.S. Trade Policy?

This capsizing container ship in the Port of Mumbai strikes me as the perfect metaphor for U.S. trade policy, with Skipper Pelosi at the helm.   Just imagine how many jobs we can create by sending imports to the bottom of the sea.  Heck, think of all the jobs we could create by sinking our own exports and making them all over again.

Senator Schumer, I’m just kidding.