Archives: 09/2010

‘Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.’

Earlier this year, both The New York Times and The Washington Post confirmed that the Obama administration authorized the CIA to kill American-born, Yemeni-based Islamic cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki.

Several people I admire and respect—and who are far more versed in the legal aspects of the “war on terror”—have already weighed in on whether the U.S. Government is authorized to kill U.S. terror suspects abroad, so I defer to those experts.

But what’s interesting is that the U.S. Government has killed “many Westerners, including some U.S. passport holders” in Pakistan’s tribal areas dating all the way back to the Bush administration, according to Bob Woodward’s new book.

Jeff Stein over at WaPo’s SpyTalk writes that according to Woodward, on November 12, 2008, then-CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden disclosed the killings to Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari during a meeting in New York. At the meeting, Zardari allegedly said, “Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.”

It now appears that two human rights groups are challenging the legality of the Obama Justice Department’s right to kill U.S. citizens abroad. Will these groups now do the same with former Bush officials, too?

‘Democrats Guess Wrong on Health Care’

That’s the headline of an article posted this week in Politico:

Rarely have so many political strategists been so wrong about something so big.

But when it comes to the health care bill, everyone from former President Bill Clinton on down whiffed on some of the more significant predictions.

Democrats would run aggressively on the legislation? Nope. Voters would forget about the sausage-making aspects of the legislative process? Doesn’t seem that way, as the process contributed to the sense that the bill was deeply flawed.

And Clinton’s own promise to jittery Democrats that their poll numbers would skyrocket after the bill finally passed also didn’t pan out, as the party is fighting for its life in the midterms.

What can explain the miscalculation?  Maybe religious fervor?

Why Public School Merit Pay Doesn’t Work

A sophisticated study released this week finds that merit pay for public school teachers doesn’t seem to improve student achievement. Why not?

Ask almost anyone—even Fidel Castro—and they’ll acknowledge that the free enterprise system results in higher quality and greater efficiency than government monopolies. As a result, it has long been argued that we should introduce this or that aspect of free markets into the public school system. And that’s the problem. The free enterprise system is a system. It is not a smorgasbord from which we can pick an isolated incentive here and a particular freedom there, and expect to get the same results we’ve come to expect from full-fledged markets.

Offering merit pay to teachers does nothing to liberate principals from the shackles of union contracts and state licensing requirements that determine whom they can hire and fire. Neither does it give principals the incentives enjoyed by private sector managers to hire and retain the most effective employees they can find. Nor does it break the government funding monopoly of public schooling, which pressures parents to stick with public schools even when there are better and more efficient private alternatives. It also fails to provide the freedoms and incentives to would-be education entrepreneurs that are responsible for the scale-up of top providers and effective new innovations in every other field.

In the end, public school merit pay lashes a few feathers to a brick. Why be surprised when it doesn’t fly?

Create a truly free education marketplace in which all families are active consumers and all schools have to compete to serve them, in which public schools no longer enjoy a monopoly on $600 billion in annual k-12 spending, and we will get the results we all seek. Short of that, expect continued stagnation or decline in quality coupled with rising spending.

The Funny Side of Protectionism

The Swiss finance minister Hans-Rudolf Merz lost his composure in the Swiss parliament earlier today and broke out in uncontrollable laughter. Merz was reading out a memorandum concerning foreign cured meat imports to Switzerland that was prepared for him by the Swiss customs office. The text, redolent with legalese, Merz acknowledged at the end of his speech, was incomprehensible. Unfortunately, there is no indication that the Swiss agricultural protectionism will be reformed as a result of this episode.

Venezuelans Vote on Sunday to Defend Their Moribund Democracy

Venezuelans go to the polls on Sunday for a legislative election that will test the extent to which democracy still exists in their country. It’ll be the 13th election since Hugo Chávez became president in 1998 (these include constitutional referenda, gubernatorial, legislative and presidential elections, as well as a recall vote).

Some would say that all these elections prove that Venezuela is a true democracy. I would argue that democracy means more than simply voting. It involves separation of powers, constitutional checks and balances, and freedom of the press. None of these exists in Venezuela anymore.

Even the electoral process is deeply flawed. Just as in previous elections, nobody expects the vote on Sunday to be fair: Independent international observers have again been barred from entering Venezuela. Most of the media are owned by the government, and the remaining private outlets must submit to the constant cadenas (presidential addresses) that the government requires private TV and radio stations to air. From 1998 to September 19th, broadcasters aired 2,072 cadenas for a total of 1,430 hours of transmission (almost two months of 24-hour broadcast).

Moreover, prominent opposition figures have been disqualified from running due to technicalities and dirty tricks. Others have been imprisoned or have fled the country. The electoral body is controlled by the Executive and the voters’ registry has not been independently audited in the recent past. It contains such anomalies as 32,000 people older than 100 years, persons registered multiple times, and 2,000 voters that share the same address.

Despite this daunting scenario, the opposition stands a good chance of making significant gains in the National Assembly. However, it remains to be seen if Chávez will allow even a modest voice of dissent in a country where he has long exerted total control over all government institutions. There will be a three-month period between the legislative election and the installment of the new National Assembly. It wouldn’t be a surprise if, after Sunday’s vote, Chávez moves to curtail the powers of Congress, just as he did with the powers of governors and the mayor of Caracas after the gubernatorial elections of 2008.

New Campaign Finance Horrors

In the Kentucky Senate race between Republican Rand Paul and Democrat Jack Conway, new revelations have appeared about the financing of the campaigns. Apparently something called “outside groups” — it’s not clear whether they are from outside Kentucky or outside the parties — have been spending money.

Listen to what one group is doing: “Groups that want lower taxes and less federal regulation are helping Paul … [and] pushing a message that federal spending and the size of government must be reined in.”

Shocking no? You have not heard the worst.

In Kentucky, “The health care law has been a key difference in the Senate race, with Conway supporting it and Paul, a Bowling Green eye doctor, strongly opposing it. Supporters say the law will bring insurance coverage for millions more Americans, but opponents have argued, among other things, that it will add costs to businesses.” And both supporters and opponents have the gaul to spend lots of money pushing their point of view!

For Paul, new troubles have appeared. A shadowy corporation has funded attack ads directed at the Republican, see here, here, and here. The corporation in question has not disclosed the source of its funding for the ads to the Federal Election Commission. It is possible that the money for the ads came from commercial transactions and thus has no relationship to the relative strength of public opinion in Kentucky. Prior to Citizens United such spending by corporations was illegal, right? It will be a great day for democracy when shadowy corporations like this one can no longer fund attack ads directed at American voters.

Except…

ObamaCare Leads Minnesota Insurers to Suspend Sales

From the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

Two of Minnesota’s biggest health plans said Thursday they have temporarily suspended sales of individual health insurance policies because of uncertainty related to the new federal health reform law.

The moves by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota and HealthPartners came on the same day some of the federal government’s most-heralded consumer protections came into effect…

The insurers that have suspended individual sales say they are awaiting guidance on new rules, including those around coverage of kids with pre-existing conditions…

Pam Lux, a spokeswoman for Eagan-based Blue Cross, said she expects the suspension of individual sales to be brief but could not say if it would be days or weeks.