Topic: General

Bring Back the Baggage, Please

This is well past its purchase-by date, but Dafna Linzer had a Washington Post Outlook piece in March on the National Security Council’s “Sesame Street Generation.” Not as sneering as the title implies, the article describes the first generation of NSC officials to come of age in an era of American unipolarity. If the article is any indication, my exceedingly low expectations for my generation may have been a touch too optimistic.

In one particularly breathtaking passage, Meghan O’Sullivan, the president’s point person for Iraq on the NSC, describes her intellectual heritage and how that shapes her approach to policy:

For many of the generals with whom O’Sullivan consults in her current job, the painful experience of Vietnam permeates their thinking on Iraq. Not for O’Sullivan. “We are the first post-Vietnam generation, without the baggage of Vietnam, which doesn’t mean we don’t try to learn some of the lessons from there about counterinsurgency and so forth, but it’s not my first frame of reference and I think that’s a good thing,” said O’Sullivan.

Actually, having a pessimistic view of counterinsurgency would probably be a good thing. The new Army field manual on counterinsurgency is only the latest indication that the sunny optimism of the Bush administration was a mistake, and that counterinsurgency is much, much harder than administration officials thought it was before we went in to Iraq.

After the first Persian Gulf war, President George H.W. Bush famously exclaimed “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!” It appears his son, and the Sesame Street Generation at the NSC—the Best and the Brightest, if you will, of Generation X—are doing their level best to bring it back.

“Tyranny is defined as that which is legal for the government but illegal for the citizenry.”

That quote, commonly attributed to Thomas Jefferson, comes to mind when contemplating yesterday’s vote in Congress to ban Internet gambling.

It passed, 317-93. What’s interesting is that Rep. John Conyers introduced an amendment that would have removed the exemption the bill grants to allow states to put their lotteries online. That amendment overwhelmingly failed.

Which means that a good number of Congressmen, most of them Republican, voted to ban Internet gambling sites operated by private citizens, but voted to allow them when operated by the government.

Fake IDs Save Lives in Iraq

A fascinating AP report says that Iraqis are using fake IDs in light of the recent growth in sectarian killings.  The major groups in Iraq are not distinguishable by physical traits, but they are by name.  To avoid being killed, people are getting false identification cards:

Surnames refer to tribe and clan, while first names are often chosen to honor historical figures revered by one sect but sometimes despised by the other. 

For about $35, someone with a common Sunni name like Omar could become Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite name that might provide safe passage through dangerous areas.

This illustrates very well how genuinely complex security can be.  At any time, the relevant authorities in Iraq could have decreed that all people get (as near as possible) forgery-proof biometric ID cards and carry them at all times - a great way to batten down a country, right? 

Doing so would have fed directly into the strategy being used by the enemies of peace and security in Iraq today: setting up fake checkpoints and killing people who arrive there members of the wrong sect. Identity cards had a role in the Rwandan genocide just over 10 years ago, as well.

Those who believe that identity cards are a simple route to good security, well, they suffer what is so rightly known as the fatal conceit. Central planning that deprives people of control over their lives can be deadly–literally–in surprising and unpredictable ways.

Thank goodness for the fake ID outlets in Iraq today, and thank goodness the promoters of ”secure ID“ in the United States didn’t take their message to Iraq.

The tradeoffs involved in identification are discussed in my book, Identity Crisis.

Hey Doc, Does It Hurt When I Do This?

According to PoliticalMoneyLine.com:

Federal lobbying of the legislative and executive branches totaled $1.2 billion ($1,201,255,222) during the last six months of 2005. This is the first period lobbying expenditures have averaged over $200 million a month. For all of 2005 the total spent was $2,363,102,190.

Lobbying by health care interests led the pack ($183,324,757 spent in the last half of 2005), just as it has for the last 10 or so years.  That might have something to do with the fact that government purchases about half of all health care in the United States and controls the other half indirectly.

The American Medical Association was among the top five organizational spenders ($9,720,000 spent in the last half of 2005) in part because they successfully lobbied to block Medicare payment cuts, which had already been enacted into law and were scheduled to take effect this year.  That would be the third or fourth year in a row that providers have staved off those payment cuts.

Jagadeesh Gokhale and I have a theory.  It is that politicians have no intention of reducing how much Medicare pays providers, but instead use the threat of payment cuts to extract political contributions from doctors and hospitals.

Nanny State Roundup

While Congress debates what American citizens may and may not do in their private lives (I like the quote likening Internet poker to “crack cocaine”), elsewhere, the Nanny State marches on:

  • A proposed law in Massachusetts would require children to wear helmets while playing soccer.
  • New Mexico wants to hold bar owners criminally liable for any drinking their customers may do two hours after leaving the bar. At the moment, this is only a law under consideration. But the state already has a similar law on the books that puts the window at one hour. Should be interesting to see if this holds up in court.
  • In the U.K., swearing is now effectively a misdemeanor.
  • A little town in Wisconsin is forcing a man to get rid of his prized stock of homing pigeons. Not because they’re unsafe. Nor because they present any threat or nuisance. No, it’s simply because some people don’t like them. Kicker arrogance-of-power passage:

    Clintonville city administrator Lisa Kotter said they can create ordinances as they see fit.

    “We don’t have to have a reason. Cities do have the right to regulate licensing and zoning,” Kotter said. “Sometimes we change the rules.”

  • The state of Washington’s crackdown on speech related to Internet gambling continues. Meanwhile, you may patronize any number of the state’s bricks-and-mortar casinos (thanks to Andy Roth for the link).
  • Topics:

    The Incredible Shrinking Deficit

    The federal budget deficit projection for 2006 shrank to $296 billion (story here).  White House insiders are reporting that this is a good thing.

    Compared to what?  Well, compared to last year’s deficit, of course.  Or compared to where the deficit was expected to go.  But being proud of an accomplishment like that is a bit like congratulating yourself for successfully not driving your car into a brick wall. 

    Before anyone accuses me of being Eeyore incarnate, I’d like to note that the economy has been growing faster than many people expected, and surprises like that are always welcome.  That’s the main reason the federal government has collected so much revenue – and it’s unlikely that the Bush tax cuts didn’t have something to do with that.

    Yet it’s hard to find much solace in data that also show the federal budget has grown by a staggering 45 percent during the Bush presidency so far.  (The national economy as measured by GDP has only grown by 30 percent.)  And you just might realize the good news is also the bad news.  On the one hand, the government collected more tax money.  On the other hand, the government collected more tax money. 

    Government spending is still chewing on close to 21 percent of GDP.  That’s still bigger than the 18 percent it consumed when Bush took office.  In fact, that’s the biggest the budget has been in over 10 years – which is, conveniently, a point in history right before the Republican Revolution. 

    If the federal budget had grown from the day George W. Bush was inaugurated at the same annual rate it had for the six years before he came to office, the federal budget would swallow only 17 percent of GDP today.  Balanced or not, seems to me a budget of that size would be much better than what we’ve got now.  Maybe we should stop the bidding there next year. 

    In the meantime, the unfunded liabilities of federal entitlements have rocketed to over $85 trillion.  That’s obviously a much bigger number than the current year deficit.  And obviously a much bigger problem.  Yet you don’t seem to hear too much about that from policymakers anymore.

    Okay, enough of the gloom.  You may now return to your regularly-scheduled happiness.

    Geneva and Guantanamo

    The news wires are saying there has been a major policy development concerning Guantanamo Bay.  The Bush administration is now changing its stance with regard to the Geneva Convention, reports say.

    The White House says today’s announcement does not reflect a change in policy.  That is probably right.  That is, the Supreme Court ruling in Hamdan established some new law with respect to the application of Geneva to detainees and the Pentagon is now simply tinkering with some policies to comply with that ruling.

    Because Clintonian word games still pervade the capital, however, one must scrutinize these policy announcements very closely.  For example, whatever the Pentagon is saying about Guantanamo today may be limited to the Pentagon and to the men held at Guantanamo Bay.  I say that because in 2002, President Bush issued a directive that pledged humane treatment to all prisoners in U.S. custody.  Attorney General Alberto Gonzales later admitted in 2005 that that directive did not apply to officers of the CIA and other nonmilitary personnel.