No Veterans of Foreign Wars Need Apply

“As some of the leading presidential candidates trooped before the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City this week, there was one thing largely missing at the lectern — veterans of foreign wars,” writes Peter Baker in the Washington Post, contrasting this year’s campaign with past election years.

Baker grades both former presidents and current candidates on a steep curve. He writes, “Every president from Harry S. Truman to George H.W. Bush served.” But LBJ, already a congressman, went on investigative missions for FDR, admittedly flying around the South Pacific combat zone. And the nearsighted Ronald Reagan made propaganda films in Los Angeles. He even counts George W. Bush as a veteran on the basis of his Texas Air National Guard service.

As for the current candidates, 

“The torch is being passed to a new generation that’s never worn a uniform,” said Kenneth T. Jackson, a military historian at Columbia University. “It’s a significant change. It means people are now coming of age who are really the post-Vietnam generation.”

But is that really true? The leading Democratic candidates are a woman and a man born in 1961. But John Edwards, born in 1953, Bill Richardson (1947), and Joe Biden (1941) are not “the post-Vietnam generation.” They’re the non-Vietnam generation. A blogger has some more details about the Vietnam records of 2008 candidates here.

As for the Republicans, John McCain famously served, as Baker notes. But Mitt Romney (1947), Rudy Giuliani (1944), Fred Thompson (1942), and Newt Gingrich (1947) are, like their Democratic counterparts, within the age cohorts who went to Vietnam. They weren’t post-Vietnam, just nowhere-near-Vietnam. Mike Huckabee (1955) and Sam Brownback (1956), along with Barack Obama, would seem to the only candidates who are actually from the post-Vietnam generation.

Does this matter? It used to matter to voters. When I asked my parents in the 1960s, about 20 years after the end of World War II, why all the local candidates listed themselves as veterans on all their campaign literature, my mother told me that you’d wonder what was wrong with a man who hadn’t served in “the war.” Today, some worry that military veterans might be more eager to go to war. Historian Jackson sees it differently: “When you have leaders who haven’t gone [to war], I do think it changes the equation a little bit,” he told the Post. “It’s a little bit worrisome. People who have actually been to war … are actually a little less inclined to go to war. Generals know what war’s about, and they’re less enthusiastic to go rocketing off than civilians.”

That reminds me of Robert Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers, often denounced as militaristic or even fascist, especially by people who have only seen the movie. In the novel, only military veterans were citizens with voting rights. But the basis for that was classical republicanism: that only those who were willing to defend the society, and who by facing combat had come to understand the real meaning of power and war and violence, could be trusted to lead the society.

At the very least, candidates who have never served in a war should have some special humility in urging that other Americans be sent to war.

The Myth of Pre-K

From the Washington Post comes another shoddy mainstream media report on the magical benefits of pre-kindergarten. The only controversy reported in the piece is between those who want universal pre-K and those who just want the program to target the poor. I guess the reporter couldn’t imagine someone having a reasonable argument against government provision of pre-K.

Government pre-K supporters say that it saves money by preparing young children for later schooling. In truth, pre-K costs billions of dollars but returns little benefit. Supporters base their claims on reports that have been proven wrong; they make wild and ungrounded assumptions, elementary mistakes in calculations, and conflate the effects of preschool with other major interventions in the participants’ families that some programs have made.

When we look at actual universal pre-K programs in action in Quebec, Georgia, and Oklahoma, we see that pre-K costs far outweigh the benefits. Indeed, in Quebec researchers found that the program has had a negative effect on some students. And even the good effects fade out as the students move through grade school.

The government school lobby is trying to change the subject and grab some more money on top of the half a trillion dollars it already commands. Pre-K is no substitute for fixing our K-12 education system.

It’s ridiculous that pre-K supporters try to trick the public into a billion-dollar boondoggle based on myths. If they want to help poor kids and make good use of education dollars, there is one proven policy, and that’s school choice.

The small choice programs already operating have saved states at least $444 million and improved the lives of thousands of kids. And if you want pre-K, funding private provision of it through education tax credits makes a lot more sense than expanding government-run pre-K. Pennsylvania already has a corporate donation tax credit pre-K program for low-income kids that’s helping thousands of children with a relatively small amount of money.

Pre-K is just the latest money grab from a government education industry that desperately wants to change the subject from its failure to deliver in K-12.

What we really need is educational freedom through education tax credits.

Soak the Rich with Lower Tax Rates

Ever since the supply-side tax rate reductions of 2003, the economy has prospered and this has generated a windfall of tax revenue for the Treasury. The Wall Street Journal notes [$] that the lion’s share of this new revenue is from upper-income taxpayers.

There are many factors that influence the economy’s performance, so this does not necessarily prove that the 2003 tax cuts “paid for themselves.” But the windfall certainly bolsters the argument that the right types of tax cuts (lower marginal tax rates) have a positive impact on growth and that this means at least some revenue feedback.

Writes the WSJ:

Since the Bush tax cuts of 2003, the budget deficit has fallen by $217 billion mostly because of a continuing torrid pace of revenue growth. …For the Bush tax cuts to have been a give-away to the rich, people paying the higher marginal tax rates would have to be carrying a smaller share of the income tax load. But the IRS data indicate that they are not paying less. Instead, they are paying more — lots more. More surprisingly, the richest 1%, 5% and 10% of the taxpayers are shouldering a larger percentage of the income tax burden at the federal level than the tax estimators said they would had the Bush tax cuts never materialized. …The amount of tax paid by those earning more than $1 million a year increased to $236 billion in 2005, up from $132 billion in 2003, the year of the tax cut. This was a 78% increase in taxes paid by millionaire households.

…[L]ower tax rates on capital gains and dividends also caused a huge jump in reported income. The National Bureau of Economic Research found an “unprecedented surge in regular dividend payments after the 2003” Bush tax cut. Likewise, the lowering of the capital gains tax was followed by a 150% increase in the amount of capital gains unlocked by the 15% tax rate. Lower tax rates expanded the tax base.

…The supply-side revenue effects on the rich are remarkable: Tax rates on higher incomes have been halved, but the federal tax share of the top 1% has nearly doubled.

Romney Abandons RomneyCare

Mitt Romney unveils a new health care proposal today that completely abandons the plan he signed into law as governor of Massachusetts and has defended on the campaign trail. His new proposal is a vast improvement, focused on changing federal tax law in order to empower individuals to buy health insurance outside their employer, and incentives for states to deregulate their insurance industry. He is also expected to block grant both Medicaid and federal uncompensated care funds to encourage greater state innovation. There will be no provision for either an individual mandate or a managed-competition style “connector,” both central features of his Massachusetts plan.

Of course Romney runs the risk of this being seen as another flip-flop, but on health care it is much better to be John Kerry than Hillary Clinton.

The World Is Our Domino!

President Bush’s decision to talk about Iraq in the context of Vietnam has engendered some (predictably) contentious commentary on that conflict. Here’s Ross Douthat at The Atlantic responding to his colleague Matt Yglesias:

the Communist victory in Vietnam did lead to the rest of Indochina going Communist, as the domino theorists predicted, and it played a role in the Soviet advances across the Third World during the rest of the 1970s - from Ethiopia and Mozambique to Afghanistan and Nicaragua, with various other proxy wars thrown in for good measure.

This is factually inaccurate. First of all, what the domino theorists were arguing was not that “Laos and Cambodia would go Communist and therefore we couldn’t abandon our/the French position in Indochina.” Rather, it was that basically all of Asia, from India to Japan, was going to go Communist, which would indeed have been an incredibly bad development. George Kennan was warning in 1948 that we should be worried about Indonesia, since, if it fell, “it would only be a matter of time before the infection would sweep westward through the continent to Burma, India, and Pakistan.” John Foster Dulles in 1953 testified before the Senate foreign relations committee, telling them ominously that Japan was a likely domino. Kennan later came to his senses. Dulles never did.

Douthat continues:

our enemies in al-Qaeda, Iran and elsewhere probably won’t make the kind of gains that, say, Rick Santorum and other feverish voices anticipate if we pull out of Iraq, and they simply aren’t strong enough to pose an existential threat to the U.S. over the long run. But they will win a real victory, just as Soviet Communism won a real victory in the early 1970s, and that victory will have real repercussions around the globe. I think we were right to pull out of Vietnam when we did, and wrong to be there in the first place, but it’s too simplistic to say that the domino theory looks “completely wrong” or “crazy” in hindsight; there are an awful lot of dead people in Indochina, Latin America and Africa who would quibble with that assessment.

What does Douthat mean by “a real victory”? A propaganda victory? Iran and al Qaeda will hail it as a sign of our weakness? You bet. But no one’s arguing that. The fact that people in Indochina, Latin America and Africa died after we left Vietnam says little about the domino theory, just as the fact that millions died during our war in Vietnam says little about the strategic judgment of the war. The question is about who predicted the results, and whose theory was vindicated. I think we have a clear enough result here that “completely wrong” or “crazy,” while shrill, could apply. If we don’t, then I don’t know how clear it would have to be.

Finally, Some Not-So-Bad News on the Budget

The big surprise in the Congressional Budget Office mid-year budget estimates released today isn’t that the year-to-year deficit shrank again.  Or that the long-term liabilities in Medicare and Social Security continue to impend. 

The surprise is that federal spending will only grow about 3% in the current fiscal year that ends this October.  That’s a big improvement over the annual average 7% growth we’ve seen since the first day of the George W. Bush presidency.

How did that happen?  Those familiar with my previous research will probably not be surprised to hear that the new political reality – divided government – has something to do with it.

True, agriculture subsidies are lower this year as a result of higher crop prices.  And the run-up in spending on a variety of programs in 2006 – like the payouts on flood insurance policies after Hurricane Katrina – was temporary.  The most remarkable factor in the trends, however, is that non-defense discretionary spending has been frozen for the first time since the maiden budget of the “Republican Revolution” Congress.  (If the trends CBO estimates hold for the remainder of the year, such spending might actually decline by $1 billion.) 

Sure, part of this is also the result of a decline in spending on federal Katrina relief.  But there’s something else going on, too.  Earlier this year, the new Democratic Congress decided to put the federal budget on auto-pilot until October.  Instead of passing new appropriations bills to fund the government for the entire year, they passed what is called a “continuing resolution” to keep the government operating. 

This didn’t happen because the Democrats were all that interested in spending less money.  They just wanted to get the old budget work left to them by the outgoing Republican Congress off the table so they could get on with more ideological-base-friendly legislation, like the minimum wage increase.  And the Democrats knew that the president might finally start vetoing legislation, too.  A protracted battle over the budget wasn’t something they wanted to spend their energy on in the first half of the year.  Thus, the auto-pilot continuing resolution: a piece of legislation that keeps the government running at basically the inflation-adjusted level of the previous year. 

With the White House veto strategy finally a credible threat*, it looks like we might have a similar sort of outcome on spending this year, too.  Isn’t divided government wonderful? 


* As I told David Jackson of USA Today a few weeks ago, George W. Bush “dislikes Democrats more than he likes big government.”