Topic: Government and Politics

Sen. Harry Reid’s Pork Park

When the weight of big government has me worn down at day’s end I occasionally look at a few politician photo-ops to keep me motivated.  A good source is the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA): (See here.)

The latest EDA photo-op shows Sen. Harry Reid presenting a goofy oversized check from the U.S. Treasury (i.e., taxpayers) to some of his Nevada constituents to help build a technology park to be named after (drum roll please)…Sen. Harry Reid.

The arrogance is breathtaking, until one remembers that we’re talking about a man who earns his living spending other people’s money (largely against their will).  The picture also illustrates why it is difficult to get rid of even the most obvious losers in the federal budget.

The EDA provides grants and loans to state and local governments, nonprofit groups, and private businesses in regions under “economic distress.”  It was born in the 1960s and has survived several attempts to kill it, including efforts by the Reagan administration and congressional Republicans in the 1990s.  The EDA’s wasteful spending is legendary and it is notorious for exaggerating its successes, which have often proved to be illusory.  (A perfect example of an EDA boondoggle can be viewed here.)

Unfortunately, the EDA survives for a common reason: the agency’s benefits are concentrated on special interests and its costs dispersed across millions of taxpayers. EDA administrators are aware of this reality and cultivate support from Congress by including politicians in the publicizing of money given to constituents. Press releases are coordinated with congressional offices to maximize political gain for both the EDA and the benefiting legislator.

It is little wonder that former EDA director Orson Swindle labeled the agency a “congressional cookie jar.” He realized that private actors in unfettered markets, not government bureaucrats, are better at fostering economic development. Swindle said, “The minute politics enters the equation, rational financial management and economic decision-making goes out the window.”

Getting back to Sen. Reid, yes, I know I’m singling him out for tawdry behavior routinely engaged in by most of his colleagues.  But don’t feel too sorry for him. In February, the Nevada Biotechnology & Bioscience Consortium gave its first ever “Harry Reid Award for Biotechnology and Bioscience Achievements” to (one more drum roll please)…Sen. Harry Reid!

A New Blog on Free Speech and the Media

This is the time of the season for being fed up with politics and not least, of course, with the presidential election. (Actually, I reached that point a while ago). Part of my frustration comes from the candidates who appear willing to say anything, no matter how unrealistic, to win the White House. But part of my frustration lies also with the media who don’t hold the candidates to any standards that might inform voters who care enough to read and listen. This is all the more so since we are experiencing a financial crisis that elicits nothing more from the candidates than a promise “to fix the economy,” whatever that might mean. Shouldn’t the media demand more on our behalf?

Writing for a new blog from The Media Institute, Patrick Maines helps makes sense of my frustration. He points out that the media are following their practice of covering the financial crisis (and the presidential election) like a horse race. Yes, the crisis is helping Obama, but is that the most important thing to know right now? Maines writes:

The stark fact is that the national news media have underreported and misreported virtually every important aspect of our national nightmare: how we got into it, how we can prevent it from happening again, and, most importantly, how we can escape its worst effects now – and how our national leaders can help us.

Maines’ criticism is apt and convincing. The Media Institute, the home of the blog, works on free speech issues and receives substantial support from media companies. Of course, free speech does not necessarily mean good or even useful speech. But the answer to such shortcomings is more speech as Maines proves in his post.

I am intrigued that Maines criticizes the media, a pretty independent stance when you think about it. This blog bears watching as we head into a new administration that seems likely to offer many challenges to freedom of speech.

Terrorism and Elections

With elections a week off, should we be especially worried about an Al Qaeda attack? Writing last week in Slate, Brookings’ Daniel Benjamin says yes, following in the footsteps of other terrorism experts. They could be right, but they have almost no evidence. Like the others, Benjamin supports his claim with a handful of past examples of Al Qaeda attacks that occurred around election time. But if Al Qaeda attacks occur when they are most convenient for the attackers, they will be randomly distributed throughout the year, meaning that a certain percentage, which will head toward 1/12 as years go by, will fall in the month before elections. Citing a few attacks that occured around election time is evidence of nothing.

What about specific attacks? Do they reveal qualitative evidence for the hypothesis that Al Qaeda tries to sway elections, such as attackers saying that this was their goal? Short answer: no. The only Al Qaeda attack that remotely fits this billing, and the one that all the experts cite, is the Madrid train bombings in 2004.

The attack came 72 hours before Spain’s general elections. When the Popular Party, led by José María Aznar, made a clumsy attempt to blame the ETA, a Basque separatist terrorist organization, the Spanish elected the Socialists, who then pulled troops from Iraq. Because the terrorists evidently influenced the election, pundits tend to assume that this was their aim.  But evidence for this assumption is almost nonexistent. The main data point is that some plotters may have read a tract on a website saying to attack around election time. That’s about it.

What’s more, the plot was only an Al Qaeda attack in spirit. So far as we know from public sources, there was not central planning from the remnants of Al Qaeda in Pakistan or elsewhere. The perpetrators organized locally. Even if they meant to swing the election, their tenuous connection to other groups makes it hard to form conclusions about the movement as a whole.

Some might say that what matters about the Madrid attack is the lesson that other terrorists drew from it. The apparent success in influencing the election might provoke imitation. Maybe so. But there is scant indication that imitation has occurred.

Terrorist plots, especially those that occur in countries foreign to the plotters, are tough to pull off. They require considerable organization. Police and intelligence agencies are hunting jihadist groups. They are likely to organize attacks to maximize the odds of success rather than to fit US election cycles.

In general, we should be wary of analysis that talks about Al Qaeda as a unified entity. Al Qaeda is a loosely connected network of small organizations and groups of guys. Assigning overarching preferences or goals to them can be analytically useful, just as talking about a country as a unified actor can be. But this kind of theorizing exaggerates terrorist unity. Psychology tells us that we tend to see patterns in random events – causality, order and centralization where none is. We overtheorize, experts in particular. They deserve skepticism.

Palin, Disabled Kids, and Federal Policy

Last Friday, Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin offered a federal policy prescription for disabled students: more choice for parents, tens of billions of new spending on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and some unspecified “reforming and refocusing.”

The Constitution affords the federal government no authority to determine how children are educated, apart from ensuring equal protection of the laws.  A political party that accepted the limited, enumerated powers accorded to the federal government by the Constitution would not have a legislative agenda on this subject, other than rolling back unconstitutional laws already on the books. But, given that no such party exists at present, let’s consider this proposal.

McCain/Palin want to tie existing federal IDEA funding to individual students rather than to the districts that currently serve them, so that parents could take the money to a private school of their choice. Ideally, according to Palin, they’d want the state funding to follow the children, too (as in Florida’s McKay voucher program for disabled students), but it seems they would leave that decision up to the states. This is a better idea than any alternative IDEA reform offered in the past few decades.

The idea of “fully funding” IDEA is, however, one of the worst ideas of the past few decades. There are two problems with IDEA. First, it is not clear how much it helps disabled children. Studies of student performance before and after they enter IDEA programs show little if any benefit. Second, the law has led to a wholesale labeling of perfectly healthy children as “disabled” simply because the public school system has failed to teach them how to read.

Today, just under 3 million American kids are classified as suffering from “Specific Learning Disabilities,” a condition defined in law as reading performance below the level expected for a child of the given age and intelligence.  An obvious deficiency in this definition is that it encompasses children who have not been properly taught to read, and have not managed to pick up the skill on their own. Many public school systems, thanks to their infatuation with ”whole language” instruction and their resistance to structured synthetic phonics, have difficulty teaching many non-disabled children to read. These 3 million “SLD” children represent more than 40 percent of the entire population of students classified as disabled under the IDEA.

Fully funding IDEA without first addressing its recipe for rampant overdiagnosis will likely make this problem much, much worse.

A real solution would be the spread of large-scale school choice programs at the state level, which would allow all families to easily choose a public or private school for their children. As more families migrated to the private sector, and all schools were forced to compete, ineffective reading instruction methods would be discarded as competitive liabilities, saving millions of children from being exposed to them.

Obama Said McCain Is Confused

According to the New York Times, Sen. John McCain

stepped up his criticism of the Bush administration by pounding the lectern and demanding that the government support his plan to buy troubled mortgages from homeowners. “And why isn’t the Treasury secretary ordering them to do that?” Mr. McCain asked.

And then he went on:

“We finally learned what Senator Obama’s economic goal is. As he told Joe the Plumber in Ohio, he wants to, quote, ‘spread the wealth around.’ He believes in redistributing the wealth, not in policies that grow our economy and create jobs and opportunities for all Americans. Senator Obama is more interested in controlling who gets your piece of the pie than he is in growing the pie.”

“Socialist!” someone in the crowd yelled.

Presumably the listener yelled “Socialist!” after McCain’s gibe at Obama’s “spread the wealth” plan, but it’s possible that the writing was a little sloppy and the charge actually came in response to McCain’s demand that the federal government buy up mortgages.

The Next President and the Use of Force

Robert G. Kaiser shows in today’s Washington Post what many of us have known for some time: notwithstanding their differences over the wisdom of going to war in Iraq, Barack Obama and John McCain may largely agree on the wisdom of going to war in general.

Neither man wants you to believe that, of course. It behooves them to highlight their differences, both to rally their core supporters, and to make an affirmative case for why they should be chosen by the voters to lead the country for the next four years. These differences are most pronounced in domestic matters: in fiscal policy and on taxes, on health care, and on the benefits of international trade.

But, Kaiser writes, the two candidates share many similar views on national security:

[B]oth have revealed a willingness to commit U.S. forces overseas for both strategic and humanitarian purposes. Both agree on a course of action in Afghanistan that could lead to a long-term commitment of American soldiers without a clear statement of how long they might remain or what conditions would lead to their withdrawal.

Both candidates favor expanding the armed forces, Obama by 92,000 and McCain by as many as 150,000. Both speak of situations when the United States might have to commit its troops for “moral” reasons, whether or not a vital American interest was at risk. Both accept what Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and professor at Boston University, calls the “unspoken consensus which commits the United States to permanent military primacy” – shared, Bacevich said, by leading figures in both parties.

Obama has worn his opposition to the Iraq War as a badge of honor. And rightly so. His principled stand, taken at a time when precious few politicians were willing to do the same, has allowed him to turn his opponents’ (first Clinton and now McCain) supposed advantage – their experience – into a liability, or at least a nullity. If experienced politicians could make such a colossal blunder as to support a war that now two thirds of all Americans believe to have been a mistake, then what is the value of experience?

But the great unknown remains the lessons that Obama has taken away from the Iraq experience. Was the forcible removal of Saddam Hussein from power a good idea, poorly executed? Or was it a bad idea at the outset, further complicated by bungling in the Executive Branch? Obama has signaled that he believes the latter, but some of his advisers seem to have more confidence in their ability to pull off similar missions in the future – say, for example, against the government in Sudan, as Obama advisers Susan Rice and Tony Lake suggested in late 2006.

Given the continuing influence within the Democratic Party of the so-called liberal hawks, there is even the disturbing possibility that a President Obama would be more prone to military intervention than his predecessor.

That said, John McCain’s continued strong support for the Iraq War is merely one of many examples of his enthusiasm for using our military to solve distant problems. He has adopted a similarly bellicose stance toward North Korea and Iran, and has hinted darkly at a confrontational posture toward Russia that could ultimately result in a ruinous military conflict. In that respect, I wholeheartedly agree with Justin Logan’s deliberate ambivalence in his most recent paper, “Two Kinds of Change: Comparing the Candidates on Foreign Policy”: “The best case that can be made for Senator Obama’s foreign policy is the fact that the alternative to his approach is Senator McCain’s.”

It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the lingering effects of the Iraq War will greatly limit the next president’s enthusiasm for foreign military intervention. But nothing that either candidate has said during this campaign gives me sufficient assurances that that is the case. Foreign policy has generally been pushed aside during this long campaign, an understandable shift given the current economic climate. But it is not too late for both men to clarify their views on the use of force, and to explain how they might differ from their opponent.