Archives: 05/2011

Flynn’s ‘Recalibrating Homeland Security’

The May/June issue of Foreign Affairs focuses on “The New Arab Revolt” (also the focus of an event at Cato a month ago). Some of the articles have a touch of datedness because they refer to the continuing pursuit of Osama bin Laden. But not so Stephen Flynn’s “Recalibrating Homeland Security,” ($) a terrific discussion of how the federal government’s post-9/11 policies have failed to meet the challenge of terrorism. Flynn throws a sentence at the living icon of al Qaeda, but the insights of his article are well worth taking in.

Most insightfully, Flynn theorizes just why it is that “nearly a decade after al Qaeda struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Washington still lacks a coherent strategy for harnessing the nation’s best assets for managing risks to the homeland—civil society and the private sector.”

During the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union required “a large, complex, and highly secretive national security establishment.”

To an extraordinary extent, this same self-contained Cold War-era national security apparatus is what Washington is using today to confront the far different challenge presented by terrorism. U.S. federal law enforcement agencies, the border agencies, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) are subsumed in a world of security clearances and classified documents. Prohibited from sharing information on threats and vulnerabilities with the general public, these departments’ officials have become increasingly isolated from the people that they serve.

This helps explain TSA’s effrontery with travelers, the “secrecy reflex,” and the ongoing risk of overreaction. Flynn stresses that focusing on resiliency will do our country much better than those brittle, fear-backed political demands for 100% protection.

“Read the whole thing” is a bloggic accolade that I use sparingly, recognizing the limits on readers’ time. At a brief 10 pages, despite the hurdle of having to log in/buy access to the article, Flynn’s “Recalibrating Homeland Security” gets my: Read the whole thing.

Monday Links

  • It is false to assume that GM’s earnings report means the auto bailout was a success.
  • It is false that, among other things, failing to raise the debt limit means defaulting on our obligations.
  • It is false that Osama bin Laden’s death means torture is a good idea.
  • It is false that international institutions can deliver what they say they can deliver.
  • It is false that oil speculators are to blame for fluctuating oil prices:


What Hyman Roth Would Say about Government Waste

We often criticize a focus on government waste here at Cato. We point out that the real spending problem is the big-ticket programs, not “waste, fraud, and abuse.” But a series of recent stories in the Washington Post, several of them in Sunday’s paper, led me to write about government waste in today’s Britannica column. I followed up on my previous post about the scandal of the Alaska Native Corporation (SBA 8(a)) preference program:

Not much, even though it was hardly the first time that the problems with the Alaska Native Corporations program had been noted. There was a Senate hearing, with the reassuring title of “Promise Fulfilled: The Role of the SBA 8(a) Program in Enhancing Economic Development in Indian Country,” where “Alaska Natives and a Small Business Administration official defended federal contracting preferences for Indian and Native firms.” No critics were invited to the hearing. After all, “The purpose of the hearing is to allow the SBA, ANCS, NHOs, Indian tribes, shareholders and other stakeholders the opportunity to demonstrate the importance and legitimacy of the program to Native communities in fulfilling self-determination and self-sufficiency,” as 49-year senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and Alaska’s own Sen. Mark Begich wrote in a letter to whippersnapper senator Daniel Akaka (D-HI), who has served in Congress for only 34 of his 86 years and chairs the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

And I noted:

And for those who like big government, I have to say: This is the business you have chosen. If you want the federal government to tax (and borrow) and transfer $3.6 trillion a year, if you want it to build housing for the poor and give special benefits to Alaska Natives, if you want it to supply Americans with health care and school lunches and retirement security and local bike paths, then you have to accept that such programs come with incentive problems, politicization, corruption, and waste. Maybe it’s worth the cost.

More details here.

Vouchers vs. Tax Credits in Pennsylvania

I blogged a few days ago about the school choice policy deadlock in Pennsylvania—between the House, which favors expanding the existing k-12 scholarship-donation tax credit program, and the Senate, which favors introducing a new voucher program. Today I have an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer elaborating on that blog post.

One thing I didn’t mention in the op-ed is that the Protestant George Washington helped pay for the construction of the Catholic church that was burned to the ground in the Bible Riots of 1844. It is telling that the Bible Riots were not over what was preached in St. Augustine’s church, but rather over what was taught in Philly’s public schools. America has seen comparatively little religious conflict surrounding our places of worship, but an endless series of battles over the religious (and other) content of our public schools. The reason is simple: no American has to pay to build another man’s temple, shrine, church, mosque, synagogue, or coffee-shop; but we all have to pay for the public schools.

Vouchers extend to private schooling the flaw that has precipitated our endless “public school wars”: compulsion. Under a voucher program, all taxpayers must pay for every type of schooling, including varieties that might violate their deeply held convictions.

As I explain in the op-ed, and also in this commentary on the recent ACSTO v. Winn Supreme Court decision, tax credits avoid that compulsion. Participation in them is truly voluntary, and donors get to choose the scholarship organizations that receive their funds. In the case of direct education tax credits, they simply get to keep more of their own money to spend on their own children. Credits are thus a way to secure both freedom of choice for parents and freedom of conscience for taxpayers.

Could Technical Default Today Save America from Greek-Style Fiscal Disaster in the Future?

There’s a lot of buzz about a Wall Street Journal interview with Stanley Druckenmiller, in which he argues that a temporary delay in making payments on U.S. government debt (which technically would be a default) would be a small price to pay if it resulted in the long-term spending reforms that are needed to save America from becoming another Greece.

One of the world’s most successful money managers, the lanky, sandy-haired Mr. Druckenmiller is so concerned about the government’s ability to pay for its future obligations that he’s willing to accept a temporary delay in the interest payments he’s owed on his U.S. Treasury bonds—if the result is a Washington deal to restrain runaway entitlement costs. “I think technical default would be horrible,” he says from the 24th floor of his midtown Manhattan office, “but I don’t think it’s going to be the end of the world. It’s not going to be catastrophic. What’s going to be catastrophic is if we don’t solve the real problem,” meaning Washington’s spending addiction. …Mr. Druckenmiller’s view on the debt limit bumps up against virtually the entire Wall Street-Washington financial establishment. A recent note on behalf of giant banks on the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee warned of a “severe and long-lasting impact” if the debt limit is not raised immediately. …This week more than 60 trade associations, representing virtually all of American big business, forecast “a massive spike in borrowing costs.” On Thursday Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke raised the specter of a market crisis similar to the one that followed the 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. As usual, the most aggressive predictor of doom in the absence of increased government spending has been Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. In a May 2 letter to House Speaker John Boehner, Mr. Geithner warned of “a catastrophic economic impact” and said, “Default would cause a financial crisis potentially more severe than the crisis from which we are only now starting to recover.”

Mr. Druckenmiller is not overly impressed by this hyperbole. The article continues with this key passage.

“Here are your two options: piece of paper number one—let’s just call it a 10-year Treasury. So I own this piece of paper. I get an income stream obviously over 10 years … and one of my interest payments is going to be delayed, I don’t know, six days, eight days, 15 days, but I know I’m going to get it. There’s not a doubt in my mind that it’s not going to pay, but it’s going to be delayed. But in exchange for that, let’s suppose I know I’m going to get massive cuts in entitlements and the government is going to get their house in order so my payments seven, eight, nine, 10 years out are much more assured,” he says. Then there’s “piece of paper number two,” he says, under a scenario in which the debt limit is quickly raised to avoid any possible disruption in payments. “I don’t have to wait six, eight, or 10 days for one of my many payments over 10 years. I get it on time. But we’re going to continue to pile up trillions of dollars of debt and I may have a Greek situation on my hands in six or seven years. Now as an owner, which piece of paper do I want to own? To me it’s a no-brainer. It’s piece of paper number one.” …”Russia had a real default and two or three years later they had all-time low interest rates,” says Mr. Druckenmiller. In the future, he says, “People aren’t going to wonder whether 20 years ago we delayed an interest payment for six days. They’re going to wonder whether we got our house in order.”

This is a very compelling argument, but it overlooks one major problem – the complete inability of Republicans to succeed in forcing fiscal reform using this approach.

Here’s a sure-fire prediction, assuming GOPers in the House actually are willing to engage in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Obama on the debt limit.

  • There will be lots of political drama.
  • We will get to a point where the federal government exhausts its borrowing authority.
  • At that point, either Geithner or Bernanke (or probably both) will make some completely dishonest statements designed to rattle financial markets.
  • The establishment media will echo those statements.
  • The stock market and/or bond market will have a negative reaction.
  • Republican resolve will evaporate like a drop of water in the Mojave Desert.
  • The debt limit will be increased without any meaningful fiscal reform.

For all intents and purposes, this is what happened with the TARP vote in 2008. There were basically two choices of how to deal with the financial crisis. The establishment wanted a blank-check bailout, while sensible people wanted the “FDIC-resolution” approach (similar to what was used during the savings & loan bailouts about 20 years ago, which bails out retail customers but wipes out shareholders, bondholders and senior management). Republicans initially held firm and defeated the first TARP vote, but then they folded when the Washington-Wall Street establishment scared markets.

I hope I’m wrong in my analysis, but I don’t see how Republicans could win a debt limit fight. At least not if they demand something like the Ryan budget. The best possible outcome would be budget process reform such as Senator Corker’s CAP Act, which would impose caps on future spending, enforced by automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. Because it postpones the fiscal discipline until after the vote, that legislation has a chance of attracting enough bipartisan support to overcome opposition from Obama and other statists.

Ayn Rand Sells Magazines

This article about donors who want to give colleges money with strings attached, published in Bloomberg Markets and splashed across a full page of the Sunday Washington Post, leads with the story of former BB&T chairman John Allison’s campaign to get the books and ideas of Ayn Rand into college classrooms and is lavishly decorated with big photographs of Rand.

Most of the story is actually about much less titillating demands – donors who variously want a say in hiring the next football coach, a change in the school’s tuition policy, a rejection of money from other donors. But apparently editors know that Ayn Rand’s name can bring in the readers. So they act in their rational self-interest and put her name on the cover and her picture at the top of the page.

At least the Post had the good sense to drop the dumb last line of the Bloomberg story: “As private donors gain more power on campuses, it’s just the kind of shift away from state control that Rand would applaud.” Actually, giving private money to state institutions is not the sort of privatization that libertarians seek. (And Ayn Rand was a libertarian, whether she liked to admit it or not.)

‘Anarchist’ Idiocy

The Washington Post splashes a story about “anarchists” in Greece across the front page today. The print headline is “Into the arms of anarchy,” and a photo-essay online is titled “In Greece, austerity kindles the flames of anarchy.” And what do these anarchists demand? Well, reporter Anthony Faiola doesn’t find out much about what they’re for, but they seem to be against, you know, what the establishment is doing, man:

The protests are an emblem of social discontent spreading across Europe in response to a new age of austerity. At a time when the United States is just beginning to consider deep spending cuts, countries such as Greece are coping with a fallout that has extended well beyond ordinary civil disobedience.

Perhaps most alarming, analysts here say, has been the resurgence of an anarchist movement, one with a long history in Europe. While militants have been disrupting life in Greece for years, authorities say that anger against the government has now given rise to dozens of new “amateur anarchist” groups.

Faiola does acknowledge that the term is used pretty loosely:

The anarchist movement in Europe has a long, storied past, embracing an anti-establishment universe influenced by a broad range of thinkers from French politician and philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon to Karl Marx to Oscar Wilde.

So that’s, let’s see, a self-styled anarchist who was anti-state and anti-private property, the father of totalitarianism, and a witty playwright jailed for his homosexuality.

Defined narrowly, the movement includes groups of urban guerillas, radical youths and militant unionists. More broadly, it encompasses everything from punk rock to WikiLeaks.

And what are these various disgruntled groups opposed to?

The rolling back of social safety nets in Europe began more than a year ago, as countries from Britain to France to Greece moved to cut social benefits and slash public payrolls, to address mounting public debt. At least in the short term, the cuts have held back economic growth and job creation, exacerbating the social pain.

And Greece is not the only place in which segments of society are pushing back.

So these “anarchists” object that the state might cut back on its income transfers and payrolls. That is, they object to the state reducing its size, scope, and power. Odd anarchists, as George Will told the crowd at the 2010 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty dinner:

It leads to the streets of Athens, where we had what the media described as “anti-government mobs.” Anti-government mobs composed almost entirely of government employees going berserk about threats to their entitlements!

Lots of talk in the Post article about anarchists:

“They are taking everything away from us,” [19-year-old law student Nikolas] Ganiaris said. “What will happen when I finish law school? Will I only find a job making copies in a shop? Will I then need to work until I’m 70 before I retire? Will I only get a few hundred euros as pension? What future have I got now?”

A radical minority is energizing the anarchist movement, a loose network of anti-establishment groups….

Since then, experts say, the economic crisis has helped the movement thrive, with anarchists positioning themselves as society’s new avengers. Long a den of anarchists, the graffiti-blanketed Exarchia neighborhood is alive anew with dissent. Nihilist youths are patrolling the local park, preventing police from entering and blocking authorities from building a parking lot on the site. On one evening at a local cafe, an anarchist group was broadcasting anti-government messages via a clandestine radio station using a laptop and a few young recruits.

The last vignette in the story is about 20-year-old Nikos Galanos, who has joined the anarchist movement in anger over his mother’s losing her government job and his father’s being the victim of a 15 percent salary cut in his own government job.

“I don’t support violence for violence’s sake, but violence is a response to the violence the government is committing against society,” Galanos said. He later added, “It is now hard for any of us to see a future here. I feel it’s my duty to fight against the system.”

In fact, the government has been committing violence against society for decades, by taxing people, overregulating business, and spending money it didn’t have. No wonder youth unemployment is 35 percent. And what is the actual “system” that Mr. Galanos wants to fight? Greek journalist Takis Michas described it at a Cato Forum:

In Greece, the fundamental principle that has been dictating economic and political development since the creation of the Greek state in the 19th century is political clientelism.

This is a system in which political support is provided in exchange for benefits.

In this situation, rent-seeking — the attempt by various groups and individuals to influence the location of political benefits — becomes paramount. The origins of political clientelism can be traced back to the origins of the Greek state in the 1830s. As a left-wing political historian puts it, “The fundamental structure of Greece has never been civil society. Ever since the middle of the 19th century, nothing could be done in Greece without its necessarily passing through the machinery of the state.”…

The largest part of public expenditure was directed, not to public works or infrastructure, but to the wages of public service workers and civil servants….

What makes the case of Greece interesting is that Greece can be said, in a certain sense, to provide the perfect realization of the left’s vision of putting people above markets.

Greek politicians have always placed people (their clients) above markets, with results we can all see today.

Real anarchists, of either the anarcho-capitalist or mutualist variety,  might have something useful to say to Greeks in their current predicament. But disgruntled young people, lashing out at the end of an unsustainable welfare state, are not anarchists in any serious sense. They’re just angry children not ready to deal with reality. But reality has a way of happening whether you’re ready to deal with it or not.