Tag: Washington Post

Al Qaeda: Never an ‘Existential Threat’

My Washington Examiner column this week celebrates 10 years without a major follow-up attack on American soil, and argues that the main reason the United States has been terror-free for a decade isn’t the unparalleled competence of the federal government’s terror warriors—it’s the fact that al Qaeda was never an “existential threat.”

I’ve written a number of columns and blogposts making the same point over the years, and yet, every time I write something that says “al Qaeda’s not so terrifying,” I feel compelled to knock wood, genuflecting to the superstition that merely saying ”we’re pretty safe” out loud will jinx us, and the moment a piece is published, the terrorists will morph into villains worthy of TV’s 24, moving from ineffectual gas-can bombs to nukes.

So far, though, it seems there wasn’t much reason to worry.

Last week, the Washington Post ran a piece entitled, “Who got 9/11 right, and who got it wrong? A pundit score card.” The Post erred badly by not including the distinguished political scientist and friend of Cato, John Mueller, who started making the case that the al Qaeda threat was overblown back when duct tape alerts were the “new normal.” I can’t think of any other prominent figure who got it right as early and as often as Mueller did.

As long as we’re giving credit for prescience, though, I’d like to toot my own horn (sure, it’s graceless, but nobody else is volunteering for the job).

As a larval pundit pecking away in obscurity through the early aughties, I suspected, before I’d ever read Mueller, that the al Qaeda threat was overblown—and I made that case wherever I could.

In September 2002, I reviewed Peter Bergen’s Holy War, Inc. for Liberty magazine:  “Osama bin Laden: Not as Scary as You Think” (.pdf ). In it, I asked whether al Qaeda was “as dangerous as federal powergrabbers have led us to believe.”

After recounting what Bergen reported about Mohamed Odeh, an al Qaeda operative involved in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Tanzania—who botched his own escape by trying to convince Pakistani immigration officials that terrorism was “the right thing to do for Islam,”—I ventured that “a lot of these folks don’t sound all that bright.” (Since then, I’ve become even more convinced that these guys were never the sharpest scimitars in the shed.)

In December 2002, when my now-defunct blog was young and DC was waiting for the other shoe to drop after 9/11, I wondered “What if There Isn’t Another Shoe?”: “If the American Jihad/mullahs under the bed/the-country-is-riddled-with-sleeper-cells theory is correct, then why so quiet?” I suggested: “maybe there aren’t that many of them,” which turned out to be true. (Here’s a reference, and you can find the original if you go here and scroll down.)

Ten years later, it’s heartening to know that what was once a fringe position—and a marker of being “unserious” about terrorism—is fast becoming the conventional wisdom.

Washington Post Asks for Budget Plans

The Washington Post’s editorial board issued a challenge to the president and his Republican opponents: “show us your plans” for deficit reduction. In fact, the Post says it would be “delighted” to receive plans from its readers. However, the Post isn’t interested in “meaningless promises” to cut “waste, fraud, and abuse”—it wants specifics:

Here’s what we’re not looking for: pablum about eliminating unnecessary spending without identifying where. Gauzy rhetoric about making hard choices without making them. Meaningless promises about eliminating waste, fraud and abuse. Broad assertions about where to find the money — “Medicare savings,” “tax reform” — without specifics. Arbitrary spending caps without accompanying details about how those limits are to be met. If you believe, for example, that federal spending should be kept to a specific share of the economy — 18 percent? 20 percent? — show the plausible path to getting there.

Amen. Chris Edwards and I have been beating the drum for Republican policymakers in particular to get specific about what they would cut. Chris recently noted that with the exception of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and perhaps a few others, Republicans aren’t putting much effort into identifying programs to terminate. And I have noted that “It’s more common to hear Republicans blubber on about ‘reducing waste, fraud, and abuse’ in government programs and ‘saving’ the pillars of the welfare state (Social Security and Medicare) for ‘future generations.’”

As for deficit reduction ideas from Washington Post readers, we have a balanced budget plan on our Downsizing the Federal Government website. In fact, not only do we have a plan, we have over three dozen essays on numerous government agencies that provide details on what programs to cut and why.

Your Tax Dollars at Work

President Obama says that we are a  ”generous and compassionate” country and that “through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves.” And to fulfill that “progressive vision,” he’s going to work on “making government smarter, and leaner and more effective. “

Today, under the rubric “Breakaway Wealth/Reaping Riches from Federal Spending,” the Washington Post gives us a front-page picture of where a lot of those generous and compassionate federal dollars actually go:

Millions of dollars worth of federal contracts transformed Anita Talwar from a government accounting clerk into a wealthy woman—one who can afford a $2.8 million home in the Washington suburbs with its own elevator, wine cellar and Swarovski crystal chandeliers.

Talwar, a 59-year-old immigrant from India, had no idea that she and her husband would amass a small fortune when she launched a company providing tech support to the federal government in 1987. But she shrewdly took advantage of programs for minority-owned small businesses and rode a boom in federal contracting.

By the time Talwar sold Advanced Management Technology in 2004, it had grown from a one-woman shop to a company with more than 350 employees and $100 million in annual revenue—all of it from government contracts.

Talwar’s success—and that of hundreds of other contractors like her—is a key factor driving the explosion of the region’s wealth over the last two decades. It also has exacerbated the gap between high- and low-wage workers, which is wider in the D.C. area than almost anywhere else in the United States.

Washingtonians now enjoy the highest median household income of any metropolitan area in the country

More than $80 billion in federal contracting dollars will flow to the region this year, up from $4.2 billion in 1980.

That’s my kind of smart, lean, and effective government!

No Hope or Change When it Comes to Fannie Mae

The Washington Post is reporting that President Obama has assigned his staff with the task of designing a new set of government guarantees behind the U.S. mortgage market. Although as the Post also reports the “approach could even preserve Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.” That’s correct. Despite their role in driving the housing bubble and the already $160 billion in taxpayer losses, President Obama appears to be considering just putting the same failed system in place. Of course, we’ll be promised that it will all work better this time.

Perhaps most offensive is that the Post reports that Obama “officials don’t want to punish the thousands of Fannie and Freddie employees who have specialized knowledge about the mortgage market.” Seriously? What about the many blameless employees of AIG, Lehman Brothers, or Bear Stearns? Or New Century for that matter. Did the janitors and receptionists at those firms really cause the crisis? The truth is that the employees of Fannie and Freddie have been lining their pockets at the expense of the taxpayer for years. What the Administration is really saying is that they wouldn’t want all the political operatives at these favored firms to lose their perks. After all, Obama officials will need somewhere to land after 2012 and Goldman Sachs has only so many slots.

What’s most depressing is that you can’t say Obama hasn’t been given the facts. As the Post makes clear, his economic advisers spelled out the case against massive subsidies for the mortgage market. Austan Goolsbee, chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, points out: by subsidizing mortgage investments, the government drives capital away from other types of investments. If Obama truly wants to help the middle and working class, then he’d want capital to flow into investments that increase labor productivity, which is the ultimate source of wage growth.  Running up asset prices, like houses, does not make us wealthier in the long run.

But then what should I expect. The President has already entered campaign mode. It would be nice to see the economics win over the politics. But it looks like such a thing will have to wait for another administration.

The First in a Long Series

The Washington Post offers today a critical look at independent fundraising and spending in the 2012 campaign.

The article states independent groups are raising money “in response to court decisions that have tossed out many of the old rules governing federal elections, including a century-old ban on political spending by corporations.”

But the century-old ban is on campaign contributions by corporations, and it is intact. Spending on elections was not prohibited to some corporations until much later.

Other spending by corporations, like the money spent by The Washington Post Company to produce the linked story, has never been regulated or prohibited by the federal government.

The article mentions a “shadow campaign” and refers to Watergate. It states “independent groups are poised to spend more money than ever to sway federal elections.” Surely something is amiss here! Or at least the causal reader of the Post might conclude that.

But what is going on? A spokesman for one of the independent groups says they are trying to influence the debt ceiling debate and that as far 2012 goes: “We’re definitely working to shape how the president is perceived, because how he is perceived will have a huge impact on how this issue is resolved.”

It sounds like the group is engaging in political speech on an issue, speech that could have some effect on next year’s election. What is amiss about that? Isn’t the right to engage in such speech a core political right under our Constitution?

The article also argues that independent groups, being independent, may fund speech that may harm a candidate they are trying to help. Candidates, in a sense, have lost some control over their campaigns and their messages.

Of course, absent limits on contributions to candidates and parties, the money going to independent groups might go to…candidates and parties. Liberalizing speech, not suppressing independent groups, might be a good way to prevent groups from airing ads that harm or misrepresent candidates for office. Finally, candidates do have the power to repudiate independent ads.

Expect more news stories like this one over the next 18 months. The cause of campaign finance reform is in desperate straits. Reformers in the media are going to construct a narrative that says: money is destroying democracy in 2012, all because of Citizens United. They hope thereby to set the stage to restore restrictions on campaign finance.

Will the GOP Finally Cut Farm Subsidies?

With trillion dollar deficits and mounting federal debt, will Congress finally get serious about cutting farm subsidies? We’ve been disappointed before, but there are a few hopeful signs—like the front-page story in this morning’s Washington Post—that this Congress may be serious about cutting billions in payments to farmers. As the Post reports:

In their recent budget proposals, House Republicans and House Democrats targeted farm subsidies, a program long protected by members of both parties. The GOP plan includes a $30 billion cut to direct payments over 10 years, which would slash them by more than half. Those terms are being considered in the debt-reduction talks led by Vice President Biden, according to people familiar with the discussions.

The Post story profiles a freshman Republican from Kansas, Tim Huelskamp, a fifth-generation farmer himself, who has been traveling his sprawling district telling his farmer constituents that they can no longer be exempt from budget discipline. Many farmers in his district appear to agree.

It remains an open question whether the Republican freshman class will live up to Tea-Party principles of limited government when it comes to agricultural subsidies, as we have speculated ourselves (here, here, and here) at the trade center.

Farm subsidies have certainly been a weak spot of Republicans in the past. According to our online trade-vote feature, more than half of the GOP House caucus voted in May 2008 to override President Bush’s veto of the previous, subsidy laden farm bill. In July 2007, more than half the GOP caucus voted against any cuts in the sugar program, and more than two-thirds opposed any cuts in cotton subsidies. (Of course, Democrats were just as bad overall on farm subsidies.)

The next farm bill, due to be written by this Congress, will tell us a lot about whether the Republicans really believe what they’ve been saying about limiting government and reducing the debt.

President Obama and the Auto Industry

Back from vacation, I’m catching up on things I missed last week. Dan Ikenson did a fine job on President Obama’s boasting about how he saved the automobile industry. But a few days later Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker,” was more brutal:

We take no view on whether the administration’s efforts on behalf of the automobile industry were a good or bad thing; that’s a matter for the editorial pages and eventually the historians. But we are interested in the facts the president cited to make his case.

What we found is one of the most misleading collections of assertions we have seen in a short presidential speech. Virtually every claim by the president regarding the auto industry needs an asterisk, just like the fine print in that too-good-to-be-true car loan.

Here’s a sample of the specific analyses:

“GM plans to hire back all of the workers they had to lay off during the recession.”

This is another impressive-sounding but misleading figure. In the five years since 2006, General Motors announced that it would reduce its workforce by nearly 68,000 hourly and salary workers, creating a much smaller company. Those are the figures that generated the headlines.

Obama is only talking about a sliver of workers — the 9,600 workers who were laid off in the fourth quarter of 2008.

And that’s why President Obama’s speech was awarded Three Pinocchios.