Tag: washington

Talking about Terrorism

Terrorists are named after an emotion for a reason. They use violence to produce widespread fear for a political purpose. The number of those they kill or injure will always be a small fraction of those they frighten. This creates problems for leaders, and even analysts, when they talk publicly about terrorism. On one hand, leaders need to convince the public that they are on the case in protecting them, or else they won’t be leaders for long. On the other hand, good leaders try to minimize unwarranted fear.

One reason is that we shouldn’t give terrorists what they want. Another is that fear is a real social harm, particularly when it is exaggerated. Stress from fear harms health. It causes bad decisions. For example, if people avoid flying and drive instead the number of added fatalities on the road will quickly surpass the dead from a typical terrorist attack. Most important, excessive fear causes policy responses that often damage the economy without much added safety. Measured in lives on dollars, reactions to terrorism often cost more than the attack themselves.

If leaders talk only about the danger of terrorism and everything they are doing to fight it, without putting danger in context, they may be on safe political ground, but they risk causing or prolonging groundless fear and encouraging all sorts of harmful overreactions. That is the Bush Administration’s counterterrorism record, in a nutshell. If leaders just say “calm down and worry about something more likely to harm you,” they will be butchered politically.

So a reasonable approach is to sound concerned but reassuring. You want to convince people that they are mostly safe without appearing complacent. I don’t like many of this administration’s counterterrorism policies, starting with Afghanistan, but thus far its communication about terrorism is far more sensible than the last administration’s. That includes the aftermath of this attempted Christmas Day attack.

The administration made it clear that it is unacceptable that a guy we just got warned about got onto a plane wearing explosives. But the President also said Americans should be generally confident in their safety from terrorism. He didn’t act as if this incident was the most important thing on his schedule this year or compare the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen to the Third Reich or what have you, exaggerating their capability and power. I wish he had gone further and said that detonating explosives smuggled on to a plane is tricky and that flying remains incredibly safe. (Jim Harper will soon have more to say here on the security failures and how to talk about them.)

In a different political universe, the President could describe the terrorist threat honestly. He would say that recent attempted terrorist attacks in the United States show more amateurism and failure than skill and success. He could add that we are fortunate that our greatest enemy, al Qaeda and its fellow-travelers, are scattered and weak compared the sorts of enemies we historically faced. He would sound more like Michael Bloomberg, who told New Yorkers that they had a better chance of being struck by lightening than killed by terrorists, after a particularly inept terrorist plot on JFK airport was uncovered. He could even quote Nate Silver, who calculates that in the last decade of US flights, there was one terrorist incident per 11,569,297,667 miles flown. It’s true, as Kip Viscusi demonstrates, that people don’t think like actuaries. They rightly value different sorts of deaths in different ways, and want more protection against terrorism than other dangers. But knowing the odds is still important in weighing the appropriate amount of concern and forming policy preferences. The president could also have treated voters like grown-ups and pointed out that whatever flaws in airline security that this attempted attack reveals, there is no such thing as perfect safety, and sooner or later even the finest security systems fail.

I also disagree with the argument that the trouble with our airline security or national security policy-making in general is insufficient presidential attention. Overall, we could do with a little more masterly inactivity in security policy, to use an old British phrase. Aviation security is another matter, but I struggle to see how presidential involvement would have fixed this problem. The 9-11 Commission did claim that September 11 occurred because leaders failed to pay sufficient attention to al Qaeda, but there, as in other matters, the Commission is wrong. At least in the executive branch, the attention paid to the threat in the 1990s was quite substantial, as you can see in this essay by Josh Rovner or in my contribution to this book. The historical record shows that the threat was well understood by security officials and the reading public. Time, for example, called Osama bin Laden the most wanted man in the world when they interviewed him in 1998. The trouble, in my opinion, was not misperception but our policies and the difficult and unprecedented nature of problem–a terrorist group ensconced in hostile country that refused to do anything about it.

Getting the line between confidence and vigilance right is not easy, but it starts with acknowledgment that there is such a thing as overreaction. That subject will be the on the agenda for our January 13 counterterrorism forum with James Fallows, State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator Daniel Benjamin, Paul Pillar and others.

*My attempts to explain this stuff to Politico yesterday resulted in some confused and inaccurate uses of my quotes in this story by Carol E. Lee, which unconvincingly compares the Obama’s response to this terrorist attempt to his silly involvement in the Henry Louis Gates arrest fiasco. First, Lee absurdly uses me as example of “predictable” attacks from the right on Obama, when I said I was glad that the President said Americans should feel confident but that I’d have preferred if he’d done it more forcefully by saying flying remains safe and al Qaeda weak. That is more or less the opposite of the predictable take on the right. Then, she says that my views on the President’s response to the attacks referred to his post-press conference golf outing. I was talking about his overall response, or lack thereof, over the last several days. I can’t decipher the meaning of presidential golf.

Thursday Links

  • Doug Bandow:  “Congress has spent the country blind, inflated a disastrous housing bubble, subsidized every special interest with a letterhead and lobbyist, and created a wasteful, incompetent bureaucracy that fills Washington. But now, legislators want to take a break from all their good work and save college football.”

National Standardizers Just Can’t Win

I’ve been fretting for some time over the growing push for national curricular standards, standards that would be de facto federal and, whether adopted voluntarily by states or imposed by Washington, end up being worthless mush with yet more billions of dollars sunk into them. The primary thing that has kept me optimistic is that, in the end, few people can ever agree on what standards should include, which has defeated national standards thrusts in the past.

So far, the Common Core State Standards Initiative – a joint National Governors Association/Council of Chief State School Officers venture that is all-but-officially backed by Washington – has avoided being ripped apart by educationists and plain ol’ citizens angry about who’s writing the standards and what they include. But that’s largely because the CCSSI hasn’t actually produced any standards yet. Other, that is, than general, end of K-12, “college and career readiness” standards that say very little.

Of course, standards that say next to nothing are still standards, and that is starting to draw fire to the CCSSI. Case in point, a new post on Jay P. Greene’s blog by former Bush II education officials–and tough standards guys–Williamson Evers and Ze’ev Wurman. They are heartily unimpressed by what CCSSI has produced, and think its already time to start assembling a new standards-setting consortium:

The new consortium would endeavor to create better and more rigorous academic standards than those of the CCSSI….

Drab and mediocre national standards will retard the efforts of advanced states like Massachusetts and reduce academic expectations for students in all states.

Yes, it is late in the game. But this should not be an excuse for us to accept the inferior standards that at present seem to be coming from the rushed effort of CCSSO and NGA.

Evers and Wurman’s piece is an encouraging sign that perhaps once more national standards efforts will be torn apart by fighting factions and spare us the ultimate centralization of an education system already hopelessly crippled by centralized, political control. Unfortunately, the post also gives cause for continuing concern, illustrating that the “standards and accountability” crowd still hasn’t learned a fundamental lesson: that democratically-controlled government schools are almost completely incapable of having rich, strict standards.

Evers and Wurman’s piece offers evidence aplenty for why this is. For instance, the authors theorize that a major reason the CCSSI standards appear doomed to shallowness is that the Obama administration has made adopting them a key component for states to qualify for federal “Race-to-the-Top” money, and states have to at least say they’ll adopt the standards in the next month or so to compete. In other words, as is constantly the case, what might be educationally beneficial is taking a distant back seat to what is politically important:  for the administration, to appear to be pushing “change,” and for state politicians to grab federal ducats. Political calculus is once again taking huge precedence over, well, the teaching of calculus, because the school system is controlled by politicians. We should expect nothing else.

Here’s another example of the kind of reality-challenged thinking that is all too common among standards-and-accountabilty crusaders:

CCSSI’s timeline calls for supplementing its “college and career readiness” standards with grade-by-grade K-12 standards, with the entire effort to be finished by “early 2010.” This schedule is supposed to include drafting, review, and public comment. As anyone who had to do such a task knows, such a process for a single state takes many months, and CCSSI’s timeline raises deep concerns about whether the public and the states can provide in-depth feedback on those standards–and, more important, whether standards that are of high quality can possibly emerge from the non-transparent process CCSSI is using.

Evers and Wurman assert that if standards are going to be of “high quality” the process of drafting them must be transparent. But the only hope for drafting rigorous, coherent standards is actually to keep the process totally opaque.

Phonics or whole language? Calculators or no calculators? Evolution or creationism? Great men or social movements? Transparent standardizers must either take a stand on these and countless other hugely divisive questions and watch support for standards crumble, or avoid them and render the standards worthless. Of course, don’t set standards transparently and every interest group excluded from the cabal will object mightily to whatever comes out, again likely destroying all your hard standards work.

In a democratically-controlled, government schooling system, it is almost always tails they win, heads we lose for the standards-and-accountability crowd. This is why these well-intentioned folks need to give up on government schooling and get fully behind the only education system that aligns all the incentives correctly: school choice.

Choice lets parents choose schools with curricula that they want, not what everyone in society can agree on, establishing the conditions for coherence and rigor. Choice pushes politicians, with their overriding political concerns, out of the education driver’s seat and replaces them with parents. Finally, choice lets real accountability reign by forcing educators to respond quickly and effectively to their customers  if they want to get paid. In other words, in stark contrast to government schooling , school choice is inherently designed to work, not fail.

Yglesias, Defending Klein’s Slander of Lieberman

Blogger Matthew Yglesias has a response to my post on Ezra Klein’s slander that Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) is okay with the mass murder (or the mass negligent homicide) of hundreds of thousands of uninsured Americans.

Yglesias claims that only one of the three studies I cited speaks to what he claims is the central point: the Institute of Medicine’s estimate of how many Americans die each year because they lack health insurance.  Yglesias is incorrect.  The central point/threshold question is whether giving the uninsured health insurance will save lives.  All three studies speak to that point, and all three all cast doubt on the intuitively appealing idea that giving uninsured people health insurance ipso facto saves lives.

To rebut the one study that Yglesias believes to be on point (Kronick), he offers two others.  Yet all studies are not created equal.  Kronick, Finkelstein/McKnight, and Levy/Meltzer represent the most reliable work that has been done on the relationship between health insurance and health.  If I am wrong about that, I hope that one of those authors or another expert in the field will correct me.

But if I am right, it means that Yglesias and Klein are slandering Joe Lieberman and millions of others based on their (Yglesias’ and Klein’s) limited and distorted understanding of the world.  (And even if I’m wrong, the Washington Post’s Charles Lane explains why Klein’s slander is still wrong.)

Then again, considering that Yglesias also has another post suggesting that Lieberman and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) are “dumb” Jews free-riding on the intelligence of other Jews, I’m not sure that the Church of Universal Coverage is open to persuasion right now.

Comparing Vietnam and Afghanistan

Reports have leaked out over the past week that President Obama will announce that he is sending additional troops into Afghanistan. The only question seems to be whether he will send 30,000, 40,000 or some number in between. That is, frankly, not a very important issue.

And for all of his talk about “off ramps” for the United States if the Afghan government does not meet certain policy targets or “benchmarks,” the reality is that he is escalating our commitment. Since Obama has repeatedly asserted that the war in Afghanistan is a war of necessity, not a war of choice, his talk of off ramps is largely a bluff—and the Afghans probably know it.

There are obvious hazards in equating one historical event with a development in a different setting and time period, but there are a couple of very disturbing similarities between Vietnam and Afghanistan. In both cases, U.S. leaders opted to try to rescue a failing war by sending in more troops. And in both cases, Washington found itself desperately searching for a “credible” leader who could serve as an effective partner in the war effort.

The United States never found such a leader in Vietnam, and was frustrated by a parade of repressive, corrupt, and ineffectual political figures. That experience sounds more than a little like the problem the Bush and Obama administrations have encountered with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his government. That fact alone suggests that our Afghanistan mission is not likely to turn out well.

Monday Links

  • The politics behind the health care overhaul.
  • Mass corruption in Afghanistan. Malou Innocent: “Washington has already surged into Afghanistan once this year. The United States should not spend more American blood and more of its ever-diminishing financial resources to prop up Karzai’s ineffectual regime.”
  • A government takeover of health care is not pro-choice – for anyone: “Whatever your views on abortion, the fight over abortion in the Obama health plan illustrates perfectly why government should stay out of health care. When the government subsidizes health care, anything you do with that money becomes the voters’ business. And rather than allow for choice between different ways of doing things, the government typically imposes the preferences of the majority — or sometimes, a vocal minority — on everybody.”