Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Week in Review: Successful Voucher Programs, Immigration Debates and a New Path for Africa

Federal Study Supports School Vouchers

arne_duncanLast week, a U.S. Department of Education study revealed that students participating in a Washington D.C. voucher pilot program outperformed peers attending public schools.

According to The Washington Post, the study found that “students who used the vouchers received reading scores that placed them nearly four months ahead of peers who remained in public school.” In a statement, education secretary Arne Duncan said that the Obama administration “does not want to pull participating students out of the program but does not support its continuation.”

Why then did the Obama administration “let Congress slash the jugular of DC’s school voucher program despite almost certainly having an evaluation in hand showing that students in the program did better than those who tried to get vouchers and failed?”

The answer, says Cato scholar Neal McCluskey, lies in special interests and an unwillingness to embrace change after decades of maintaining the status quo:

It is not just the awesome political power of special interests, however, that keeps the monopoly in place. As Terry Moe has found, many Americans have a deep, emotional attachment to public schooling, one likely rooted in a conviction that public schooling is essential to American unity and success. It is an inaccurate conviction — public schooling is all-too-often divisive where homogeneity does not already exist, and Americans successfully educated themselves long before “public schooling” became widespread or mandatory — but the conviction nonetheless is there. Indeed, most people acknowledge that public schooling is broken, but feel they still must love it.

Susan L. Aud and Leon Michos found the program saved the city nearly $8 million in education costs in a 2006 Cato study that examined the fiscal impact of the voucher program.

To learn more about the positive effect of school choice on poor communities around the world, join the Cato Institute on April 15 to discuss James Tooley’s new book, The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves.

Obama Announces New Direction on Immigration

The New York Times reports, “President Obama plans to begin addressing the country’s immigration system this year, including looking for a path for illegal immigrants to become legal, a senior administration official said on Wednesday.”

In the immigration chapter of the Cato Handbook for Policymakers, Cato trade analyst Daniel T. Griswold offered suggestions on immigration policy, which include:

  • Expanding current legal immigration quotas, especially for employment-based visas.
  • Creating a temporary worker program for lower-skilled workers to meet long-term labor demand and reduce incentives for illegal immigration.
  • Refocusing border-control resources to keep criminals and terrorists out of the country.

In a 2002 Cato Policy Analysis, Griswold made the case for allowing Mexican laborers into the United States to work.

For more on the argument for open borders, watch Jason L. Riley of The Wall Street Journal editorial board speak about his book, Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders.

In Case You Couldn’t Join Us
Cato hosted a number of fascinating guests recently to speak about new books, reports and projects.

  • Salon writer Glenn Greenwald discussed a new Cato study that exadead-aidmines the successful drug decriminalization program in Portugal.
  • Patri Friedman of the Seasteading Institute explained his project to build self-sufficient deep-sea platforms that would empower individuals to break free of national governments and start their own societies on the ocean.
  • Dambisa Moyo, author of the book Dead Aid, spoke about her research that shows how government-to-government aid fails. She proposed an “aid-free solution” to development, based on the experience of successful African countries.

Find full-length videos to all Cato events on Cato’s events archive page.

Also, don’t miss Friday’s Cato Daily Podcast with legal policy analyst David Rittgers on Obama’s surge strategy in Afghanistan.

Getting the Opponent to React in Foolish and Self-Defeating Ways Is One of the Primary Goals of Most Terror Campaigns

Stephen Walt has a great blog post up at ForeignPolicy.com.

I particularly appreciate how he recognizes that terrorists seek and profit from overreaction on the part of the victim state:

If our leaders react to every terrorist incident as if it’s a monumental disaster, and if they hype the terrorist threat for political advantage – as George Bush and Dick Cheney did – the public will surely respond by demanding that we throw more resources at the problem than is prudent. Getting the opponent to react in foolish and self-defeating ways is one of the primary goals of most terror campaigns, of course, because these blunders can help the terrorists win victories that they could not achieve otherwise. We did more damage to ourselves when we invaded Iraq than Osama bin Laden accomplished on 9/11, and an open-ended commitment in Central Asia could easily compound that error.

You don’t have to believe that the Bush Administration wrongly sought political advantage - they may have believed the hype or believed that hyping threats was good policy - to recognize that hyping terror threats advances terrorists’ goals and damages our own interests.

Will the Military Industrial Complex Save American Foreign Policy?

Missing from most of the commentary on the Secretary of Defense’s big defense spending speech yesterday is the fact that the program cuts he proposed are largely a result of freezing the topline – keeping defense spending level (once you adjust for inflation) for the next decade.

For nearly a decade the country has really had two defense budgets – one for imagined conventional wars against states like China, another from nation-building, peacekeeping and counterinsurgency. The first budget requires a small ground force and lots of big platforms operated by the Air Force and Navy. The latter requires much larger ground forces, a few niche capabilities like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, and less high technology wonders.

The current American love affair with counterinsurgency has resulted in a gradual shift of dollars from the conventional budget to the unconventional one. We are reversing the old idea that the American way of war is to replace labor with capital, or manpower with technology. We are becoming a land power first.  We have been increasing manpower in the Army and Marines – adding 90,000 new troops – and paying them way more (compensation per service member is up by almost half since 1998). Personnel costs are taking more of the budget.  And for more complex reasons, including health care costs, the operations and maintenance part of the budget – essentially the day to day cost of running the military – has also been growing fast when measured per service member.  (For details on these issues, read this testimony by Stephen Daggett of the Congressional Research Service.)

That was bound to squeeze the other big parts of the defense budget – research, development and procurement of new weapons systems. There is too much future cost in the budget for everything to fit without topline growth, so something had to give. Big weapons programs are where the most give is, if you don’t want to cut manpower.

That conflict was delayed while the budget topline grew, but now that it is flat, it erupts. The manpower intensive military that follows from our current policies is eating into the conventional military that delivers manufactoring jobs across the country and the high-technology dreams of our military leaders.

What will be interesting to see is whether this shift encourages those leaders and their friends on the Hill to take up the arguments that people like me have been making for years: that small wars are mostly dumb wars.  Preparation for these wars didn’t much hurt the military industrial complex before, now it does. 

An additional note: Gates’ criticism of the acquisition process was on the mark. Rather than blaming out of control weapons costs on the kind of contracts we write or crafty contractors, as the President seems to, Gates noted correctly that the trouble is the requirements process – what we want, not how we buy it.

National Defense, Keynesianism, or Just Pure Rent-Seeking?

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) is fighting hard to maintain production of the F-22 Raptor fighter jet, which happens to be made by Lockheed Martin in Marietta, Ga. But Isakson insists that he’s not fighting for the plane just because it’s made in Georgia. No, he tells NPR, it’s important to recognize that it’s actually made by 90,000 workers in 49 states, and you don’t want to lose those jobs at a time of high unemployment.

In a letter to President Obama, he spelled out his argument, albeit with slightly different numbers:

Over 25,000 Americans work for the 1,000+ suppliers in 44 states that manufacture the F-22. Moreover, it is estimated that another 70,000 additional Americans indirectly owe their jobs to this program. As we face one of the most trying economic times in recent history it is critical to preserve existing high paying, specialized jobs that are critical to our nation’s defense.

To be sure, Isakson does insist that the plane is vital to national security, an argument that Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Cato’s Chris Preble challenge. But it doesn’t say much for Republican arguments against President Obama’s wasteful spending when Republican senators argue that we should build a hugely expensive airplane as a jobs program.

David Axelrod Isn’t a Parrot

So why would he talk like one?

On Fox News Sunday this week, Obama Senior Advisor David Axelrod spoke with Chris Wallace about nuclear non-proliferation, saying, among other things:

[President Obama] wants in the next four years to lock up the loose nuclear weapons that are scattered around Eastern Europe, that could fall into the hands of terrorists. And, of course, that is the big threat. That’s why we have to step up the pace. This represents an existential threat and we need to meet it.

Controlling any loose nukes is important, but the chance of them being used by terrorists is exceedingly small, and it is not an existential threat.

For too long, U.S. national leaders have perpetrated the error of speaking about terrorist threats as “existential” when they are not. Talking this way needlessly riles the U.S. public and thrills would-be or wannabe terrorists the world over. When U.S. leaders donate awesomeness to terrorism, the disenfranchised simply have to join a terror group or make empty threats to impact our discourse, policy, and quality of life.

David Axelrod didn’t need the makeweight argument of terrorist access to justify controlling loose nukes.

(Axelrod’s error was made on the road, from a different time zone. To damn him with faint praise, he comes up looking pretty good compared to Newt Gingrich, who issued spectacularly inconsistent positions from the comfort of the Fox News studio: Gingrich first criticized the Obama Administration for avoiding “war on terror” rhetoric, then sought small-government credibility by criticizing Obama’s budget as the largest non-wartime increase in history. There is no such thing as a limited-government war-monger, and Gingrich should not modulate between treating the country as “at war” or “not at war” within a single television appearance.)

TSA Intimidates Political Activist Traveler

Thanks to ever-improving technology, we have a record of what can happen when Americans try to assert their rights against government officials.

The video is a bit ponderous, but when they play the tape of TSA agents interrogating a young political activist who wishes to exercise his right to remain silent, it’s riveting and offensive.

(HT RedState and @JonHenke)