Topic: Cato Publications

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.

This Month’s Cato Unbound: Brain, Belief, and Politics with Michael Shermer

In recent years, brain science has converged on a surprising framework to explain how we believe the things we believe. It appears that the origin of belief is emotive, rooted in things like group allegiance or the affinities we may have for certain patterns of moral values. Only later does our rationality speak up. “Motivated reasoning” is the term psychology gives this process, although a cynic might possibly be forgiven for calling it “bias.”

Where does this leave our beliefs about politics? On the one hand, we may have some cause for despair, as our beliefs may not be as objectively justified as we like to imagine. On the other, the emerging science of mind may yield effective ways to correct our biases, or at least to understand their origins. If so, a new, more sophisticated political science may be in order, one rooted firmly in brain science.

This month’s Cato Unbound features libertarian science writer Michael Shermer , who leads things off with a taste from his new book The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. He will be answered by Artificial Intelligence expert Eliezer Yudkowsky, perhaps best known for his work at the group blog LessWrong.com; Christian blogger and cultural critic Joe Carter of First Things and Evangelical Outpost; and Reason magazine’s science columnist Ronald Bailey.

Discussion will continue through the month, so be sure to stop by often or subscribe to Cato Unbound via RSS.

Why Stop at $20 Billion, Senator?

Congressional Quarterly reported on Monday [subscription required] that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D, Calif.) has called for $20 billion worth of increased lending to U.S. manufacturers through a new targeted program of the Export-Import Bank of the United States (“the Ex-Im Bank”).

Sen. Dianne Feinstein called Monday for a new initiative to promote lending to U.S. manufacturers in an effort to spur job creation and shrink the U.S. trade deficit.

The California Democrat proposed authorizing the U.S. Export-Import Bank to use $20 billion of unobligated authority to lend directly to domestic manufacturing companies that are competing with foreign competitors subsidized by their own governments…

Feinstein said her proposal would not be costly because of the offsetting collections priced in to the structure of the bank’s transactions.

To be eligible for the lending program, companies would be required to demonstrate the number of jobs that would be created; that they are competing directly with subsidized, foreign firms; that the project would contribute to the expansion of the domestic workforce and manufacturing capability; and that it would have a net positive impact on the U.S.trade balance.

“In today’s global economy, the federal government must more actively partner with the business community,” Feinstein wrote. “Manufacturing is a proven source of well-paying jobs for those of all educational levels and we must have a thriving manufacturing sector in order to address our chronic trade imbalance and return our economy to sustainable growth.” [emphases added]

Where to begin? First, there is no earthly reason why “we must have a thriving manufacturing sector in order to address our chronic trade imbalance.” We could bring our trade account into balance through services or agricultural exports if “addressing our chronic trade imbalance” is what keeps you awake at night. (Here’s more on the trade deficit from my colleague Dan Griswold.)

But let me turn to Senator Feinstein’s rosy view of the Ex-Im Bank. My recent trade policy analysis, “Time to X Out the Ex-Im Bank,” addressed many of the rationalizations that the bank’s supporters routinely trot out to justify the use and redirection of resources toward corporate welfare. I question why taxpayer dollars should be put at risk supporting some of America’s most profitable countries (does Boeing really need your money?) and draw attention to the inefficiencies and distortions caused by export credit programs. Senator Feinstein shows a narrow understanding about the “cost” of things when she suggests that because Ex-Im is “self-financing” (i.e., its activities are funded out of fees and collections from its previous loans) it is not costly. In theory the government could take 100% of the economy’s production and give all of it away again at “no net cost to the taxpayer” (just like the sugar program!). Could one seriously argue that such an approach would not be enormously costly in terms of economic prosperity  (not to mention, you know, personal freedom and stuff)?

I should point out here that Senator Feinstein is not alone in wishing to direct the activities of the bank toward ends that she deems worthy: the bank operates under various congressional mandates that have little if anything to do with strict financial criteria — for example, requirements that a certain percentages of the bank’s resources go to small- and medium-sized businesses, or toward exports of renewable energy products. Even the bank’s supporters will occasionally argue that the conditions Congress attaches to the bank’s activities sometimes run counter to the bank’s core mission of promoting exports and jobs (now there’s a surprise). I’ll have more on the Ex-Im Bank soon.

Fed Up with Phony Federalism

My Washington Examiner column this week is on Rick Perry’s 2010 book Fed Up! Stylistically, if Conscience of a Conservative is Merle Haggard, Perry’s manifesto is Lee Greenwood. Still, like Goldwater’s book, it contains some fairly radical ideas, coming from a top-tier candidate. As Ezra Klein puts it, the book’s big idea is that “most everything the federal government does is unconstitutional.”

And, indeed, most of what it does is unconstitutional – no surprise to those familiar with Cato’s constitutional work. Still, it’s surprising to hear a major national candidate indict the New Deal, call Social Security “a Ponzi scheme,” and identify – correctly, I think – the combination of the 16th and 17th amendments as a death blow to robust federalism.

Interestingly, Perry all but promises that as president, he wouldn’t prosecute medical marijuana violations in states where it’s been legalized (which would be an improvement on Obama’s record).

“If you don’t like medicinal marijuana and gay marriage, don’t move to California,” Perry writes. He complains that the Raich case made clear that “the federal government has the full prerogative to intervene in your private home if you are engaged in any activity that has some minimal relationship to the exchange of goods.” He calls the medical marijuana movement “a movement I disagree with, while appreciating the desire of Californians to decide for themselves.”

Would he stick to that? I’d bet not – it took him all of a couple of days to perform a Romney-style double-axel backflip on gay marriage. As I note in my column, his campaign is already backing off of what the Governor wrote about Social Security.

What Perry says about federalism and enumerated powers sounds sincere. Of course, Obama made all the right noises about civil liberties before he was elected. Is this sort of thing just cultural signaling to constituent groups?

In any event, it’d be a better world if promises of constitutional fidelity were taken even half as seriously by the candidates as are no-new-taxes pledges.

End the Mortgage Interest Deduction

The mortgage interest income tax deduction is popular among homeowners (read: likely voters) despite its role in distorting housing and related markets, its contribution to the housing bubble and its enabling of additional household debt. Never mind that there isn’t much evidence that the deduction boosts home ownership in the United States. Consider also that the tax break largely benefits affluent homeowners living in expensive urban areas.

As Mark Calabria notes in today’s Cato Daily Podcast, it’s well past time for the mortgage interest deduction to be replaced by lower marginal tax rates for all earners.

Of Arms and the Guv

Former Catoite Chris Moody has a fun piece up on the Yahoo News site: “If elected president, Rick Perry could still jog with his gun.”

If you haven’t heard the famous anecdote about Perry shooting a coyote during a gubenatorial jog in Austin last year, you can read about it Chapter Two of his book Fed Up!

He praises federalism for giving the people of the several states the ability to elect leaders befitting the states’ respective characters: “in Massachusetts, they elect people like “Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Barney Frank repeatedly–even after actually knowing about them and what they believe!” He continues:

“Texans, on the other hand, elect folks like me. You know the type, the kind of guy who goes jogging in the morning packing a Ruger .380 with laser sights and loaded with hollow-point bullets, and shoots a coyote that is threatening his daughter’s dog.”

All right, it’s a cool story. But come on Governor: tough guys don’t preen.

I don’t have a serious legal opinion about the question explored in Moody’s piece–whether the next “decider” could decide to carry a gun, local laws notwithstanding.

But in the spirit of the goofy hypothetical, it strikes me that, despite their differing styles, Bush and Obama were both pretty good at avoiding laws they didn’t want to follow. Bush did it by telling people, openly, that the CINC could do virtually whatever he wanted in the name of national security. Obama prefers legalistic wordgames: Libya’s not a ‘war,’ it’s a ‘kinetic military action,’ and we’re not engaged in ‘hostilities’ because they can’t shoot back.

So, could Rick Perry gin up some legal cover for jogging strapped? Sure, why not? The president can pretty much always find at least one executive branch lawyer willing to ratify whatever he wants.

If Gov. Perry wanted to use the direct approach of his fellow ex-cheerleader and Texan, George W. Bush, Perry might insist he’s the commander-in-chief, and he has adequate national security reasons for being armed. If he went the Obama route, maybe he’d just insist he was following the law, and, despite all appearances, that the object he was carrying wasn’t actually a gun.

Cato Unbound: Are Men in Decline?

This month’s Cato Unbound looks at the intersection of education, work, and gender, and asks: Are men in decline? As women have advanced in education, the workplace, and even politics, some fear that the emerging new economy—or perhaps some other factors—are dragging men down. We’ve all heard talk of the Mancession, and it’s well known that men are in the minority now on many college campuses. How long will the trend continue?

Lead essayist Kay Hymowitz makes the case for male decline; Jessica Bennett, Amanda Hess, and Myriam Miedzian give reasons to be skeptical. Hymowitz replies to her critics. (Men, alas, were so far in decline that I couldn’t find a single one to write for this issue.)

The conversation is just getting started, so be sure to drop by again or subscribe to Cato Unbound so you’ll never miss a post.