Jim Webb and Criminal Justice

Senator Jim Webb (D-Va) is calling for a national commission to review the American criminal justice system from top to bottom.    Good for him.  With more than seven million people under criminal justice supervision (prison, parole, probation), a thorough review is desperately needed.  You can tell that Webb is new to the Congress because he is raising a subject that most of the long term incumbents would rather not discuss.  As Glenn Greenwald observes:

For a Senator like Webb to spend his time trumpeting the evils of excessive prison rates, racial disparities in sentencing, the unjust effects of the Drug War, and disgustingly harsh conditions inside prisons is precisely the opposite of what every single political consultant would recommend that he do.  There’s just no plausible explanation for what Webb’s actions other than the fact that he’s engaged in the noblest and rarest of conduct:  advocating a position and pursuing an outcome because he actually believes in it and believes that, with reasoned argument, he can convince his fellow citizens to see the validity of his cause.  And he is doing this despite the fact that it potentially poses substantial risks to his political self-interest and offers almost no prospect for political reward.  Webb is far from perfect – he’s cast some truly bad votes since being elected – but, in this instance, not only his conduct but also his motives are highly commendable.

Read the whole thing.

And speaking of Glenn Greenwald, he will be here at Cato this Friday to discuss his new study for Cato, Drug Decriminalization in Portugal.  Portugal is treating drug use as a health problem, not a crime problem, and it is working rather well.  When Senator Webb’s commission gets assembled, this report ought to be at the top of  its reading list.

To register for the Greenwald forum, go here.  For a discussion on mass incarceration, go here.  For more Cato work on crime and drugs, go here and here.

How Progressive Are You?

I’m two weeks late coming to this, but the “Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party” Obama Administration Farm Team Center for American Progress has developed a quiz aiming to answer the question, “How Progressive Are You?“  The quiz asks you to rank, on a 10-point scale, how much you agree with 40 different statements.  Now, I won’t quibble here with the misuse of the word “progressive” – having debased the term “liberal” (which in any other country pretty much means what Cato supports), the Left moves on to its next target – but the quiz highlights the false dichotomy between “progressive” and “conservative.” 

The fallacy of this linear political spectrum forces people to wring their hands and call themselves “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” – does anyone call themselves “fiscally liberal” even if they are? – or “moderate” (no firm views on anything, huh?) or anything else that adds no descriptive meaning to a political discussion.  Where do you put a Jim Webb?  A Reagan Democrat?  A Ross Perot voter?  A gay Republican?  A deficit hawk versus a supply-sider?  Let alone Crunchy Cons, Purple Americans, Wal-Mart Republicans, South Park Conservatives, NASCAR dads, soccer moms, and, oh yes, libertarians. 

And the statements the quiz asks you to evaluate are just weird.  I mean, yes, “Lower taxes are generally a good thing” (I paraphrase) gets you somewhere, but what does “Talking with rogue nations such as Iran or with state-sponsored terrorist groups is naive and only gives them legitimacy” get you?  Or “America has taken too large a role in solving the world’s problems and should focus more at home”?  What is the “progressive” response to these statements?  The “conservative” one?  I think I know what the Bush response and the Obama response would be to the first one, but how does either fit into any particular ideology? 

The Institute for Humane Studies at least gives you a two-dimensional quiz, so you can see how much government intervention you want in economic and social affairs (the “progressive” view presumably being lots of intervention in the economy, none on social issues).  And IHS poses classical debates in political philosophy rather than thinly veiled leading questions relating to current affairs.  

In any event, when you finish the quiz, it tells you your score and that the average score for Americans is 209.5.  How do they get this number?  A selectively biased survey of people who frequent the CAP website would surely score much higher on the progressive scale.  No, it’s based on a “National Study of Values and Beliefs.”  Well, ok, but, again, if those are the types of questions you ask people – or, even worse, the quiz designers code the survey responses – I’m not sure how much I care about the result.   (Incidentally, the survey reveals that “the potential for true progressive governance is greater than at any point in decades.”  Great, that’s either a banal formulation of the fact that Democrats have retaken the political branches or a self-serving conclusion.  Or both.)

In case anyone cares, I scored 100 out of 400, which makes me “very conservative.”  I suppose that won’t come as a surprise to my “progressive” friends, but then I’m always talking to them about how bad the bailouts/stimuli are for the economy, how we should actually follow the Constitution, etc.  All the folks who over the years have called me a libertine or hedonist, however, will not be amused to learn that I’m actually one of them…

The State of Play in the Bomb-Iran Debate

Via Philip Weiss, I see that last week Karim Sadjadpour and Martin Indyk debated Elliott “Get Down Out of Those Trees and Be Democrats” Abrams and Joshua Muravchik on the proposition: “America cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran and must go to any lengths to prevent it.”  It’s a topic that’s been of interest to me for some time now.

Indyk and Sadjadpour acquitted themselves rather well, but it made me chuckle to see Abrams and Muravchik throwing some very familiar-smelling handfuls of argument into the discussion.  I thought it might be worth passing a few of them along.

Muravchik responds to the argument that bombing would merely delay an Iranian nuclear capability by a period of years by saying that we’ll just keep bombing them, then:

muravchikif we bomb and do wholesale damage to its nuclear weapons program, then the clock starts running on the next round.

And I donʹt see any reason to assume that, technologically, Iran is going to beat us in the next round. That is, they will be trying to find new ways to fortify and hide and whathave‐you, their rebuilt nuclear weapons program, if, in fact, they do attempt to rebuild it.

And we, in turn, will move forward with developing better bunker‐busting bombs or whatever else we need, and with additional intelligence, to find out where those things are and to have the capability to hit them …

Note in that last paragraph that we’re supposed to accept, arguendo, perfect intelligence and military technology endowed with borderline-magical powers.  This is a variant of the “I don’t know, the military will have to figure that stuff out” argument.

Elliott Abrams, freshly minted as a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons and is poised to cause trouble in the Middle East, it’s possible that the countries in that region will lay down and decline to defend themselves:

if the Arab states look at Iran growing in power and see that what the United States has done, to prevent it from going nuclear, is nothing or something that failed, itʹs not at all clear that they will then further side with the United States against Iran, they may appease Iran.

Abrams then reaches for a 2003-vintage “greet us as liberators” selection, proposing that the Iranians might thank us for bombing their country by overthrowing their government for us:

abrams-cheneywe are not talking about the Americans killing civilians, bombing cities, destroying mosques, hospitals, schools. No, no, no – weʹre talking about nuclear facilities which most Iranians know very little about, have not seen, will not see, some quite well hidden.

So they wake up in the morning and find out that the United States if attacking those facilities and, presumably with some good messaging about why weʹre doing it and why we are not against the people of Iran.

Itʹs not clear to me that the reaction letʹs go to war with the Americans, but rather, perhaps, how did we get into this mess? Why did those guys, the very unpopular ayatollahs in a country 70 percent of whose population is under the age of 30, why did those old guys get us into this mess.

When Indyk protests that this reasoning didn’t pan out terribly well for the Israelis in Gaza recently, Abrams shrugs that he’s “not persuaded” that Gazans blame Israel for the IDF killing between a thousand and two thousand Palestinians during their incursion.

Then Muravchik reaches for the trump card: “our talks with North Korea have completely failed but if we bomb Iran they may well succeed the next day.”

It goes on and on like this.  If you’re interested in these type of arguments, I’d encourage you to pick up a copy of Jack Snyder’s Myths of Empire.  These sorts of arguments are literally straight from the pages of Myths, a book where Snyder attempts to generalize the “myths” that empires endorse as they overexpand.

Translation: “No”

On Fox News Sunday this week, Chris Wallace asked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about the capability of Al Qaeda to mount attacks on the United States:

The President said that Al Qaeda is actively planning attacks against the U.S. homeland. Does Al Qaeda still have that kind of operational capability to plan and pull off those kinds of attacks?

Gates: They certainly have the capability to plan … .

Gates went on to discuss how Al Qaeda has arguably “metastasized,” with elements appearing elsewhere in the world, uncontrolled by Al Qaeda in Western Pakistan, but trained and inspired from there. He told Wallace that he thought Al Qaeda is “a very serious threat.”

But, the “capability to plan”? Who in the world doesn’t have the “capability to plan”? The better answer to Wallace’s question would have been “No.”

What Gates described is an Al Qaeda very different from the one that attacked the United States on 9/11. It’s more an idea than an organization, an idea that America-haters the world over are drawn to when American leaders tout Al Qaeda as a top threat. Anyone around the world can declare themselves a part of “Al Qaeda” and most of our media and political leaders will believe it, becoming needlessly fearful just because of the label.

With the focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan this week, President Obama and Secretary Gates had to discuss Al Qaeda. But they could have done more to show world audiences that Al Qaeda is weakened, and that terrorism is a weaker tool against the United States and the West than it was.

While maintaining the vigilance necessary to prevent any attack, issuing these more moderate kinds of communications would reduce the attractiveness of terrorism to potential terrorists. Smarter, more subdued communications is as important a part of strategic counterterrorism as directly fighting today’s terrorists.

Later in the interview, Gates smartly deflected Wallace’s questions about how the new administration eschews “war on terror” rhetoric. Nicely done.

Who’s Blogging about Cato

A few bloggers who wrote about Cato this week:

  • New York Times blogger Andrew C. Revkin wrote about Cato’s forthcoming full-page ad on climate change that will run in newspapers around the country next week.
  • Wes Messamore helped set the record straight: Cato scholars have criticized the growth of government regardless of who’s in power.
  • Brandon Dutcher posted Cato’s Monday podcast with Adam Schaeffer on universal pre-school.

Friday Podcast: ‘Obama’s Afghanistan Strategy’

President Obama has unveiled his plan for the war in Afghanistan, taking a more regional approach than the U.S. has in the past.

In Friday’s Cato Daily Podcast, foreign policy analyst Malou Innocent says it’s a critical step in the right direction, but stabilizing Afghanistan and fighting an insurgency can’t be accomplished while killing the livelihoods of so many Afghan farmers by destroying opium poppy.

In the future we should take Afghanistan as it is, rather than what we want it to be. So not only does that mean having a decreased reliance on a central state government from Kabul, but also understanding that many of the farms from these rural areas rely on the opium poppy crop for their own livelihood. So we should focus our efforts to targeting those who are in cahoots with   insurgent groups and not simply those who are depending on it for their livelihood.

Her forthcoming paper, “Pakistan and the Future of U.S. Policy” will be released next month.

Federal Debt Per Household

This afternoon, a congressional office asked me what the estimated national debt in President Obama’s fiscal year 2010 budget submission would be on a per-U.S.-household basis.  I think the answer is worth sharing with C@L readers:

According to the president’s budget, the estimated national debt (debt held by the public) in fiscal year 2010 would equal approximately $81,000 per U.S. household. 

But no worries, “we owe it to ourselves”!