Thursday Podcast: ‘Bureaucratic Inertia and Fighting Terrorism’

Regardless of whether the threat of terrorism is still real and eminent, bureaucratic inertia will keep the so-called war on terror on auto-pilot for years to come, says John Mueller, professor of political science at Ohio State University.

Author of the book, Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them, Mueller spoke at Cato’s January Counterterrorism conference. In Tuesday’s Cato Daily Podcast, he discusses why terrorism is no longer the prominent issue in the nation and how the government should react to the perceived threat:

My concern is that the threat that we’re trying to protect ourselves against has been massively exaggerated. Al Qaeda consists of about 150 people riding around in the hills in Pakistan…It’s not clear, in fact, that Al Qaeda has done anything really since 9/11 except put out a lot of videos…Mostly, Al Qaeda has not really done much of anything except do a lot of publicity for itself.

RAND: Charter Schools Raise Ed’l Attainment

I am not a particularly avid fan of charter schools. As I’ve previously written on this blog, I see reason to fear that their long term result will be the growth rather than the contraction of the state schooling bureaucracy. That said, RAND has just published a relatively positive new study about their short-term effects.

While the RAND study finds no significant difference in achievement gains in charters versus regular public schools, it finds that charter students for whom they have the necessary data are 7 to 15 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school and 8 to 10 percentage points more likely to enroll in college, after controlling for student characteristics.

While this is wonderful news, it will be a Pyrrhic victory if charter schools gradually succumb to regulatory encroachment and stultifying unionization, as seems likely.

Fortunately, as I blogged a couple of days ago, there is no need to run this risk. Truly market-like education systems show the same or better effects on students educational attainment, and show significant positive effects on academic achievement, school efficiency, parental satisfaction, eventual student earnings, and other outcomes. Access to such marketplaces can be made universal through tax credit programs that are significantly more apt to resist regulatory encroachment than are state-funded school choice policies, as I document in a forthcoming book chapter for Clemson University.

Stop Wasting $Billions; Expand School Choice

The Philadelphia school system will spend over $3 billion for the first time next year. That works out to $18,500 per student in a failing school system and most likely leaves out significant costs like teacher health and retirement funds. Maybe it has something to do with the 84 administrative departments burning through funds that should be used to educate children.

In 2007 I highlighted the growing spending insanity in Philadelphia schools and noted that tens millions of dollars could be saved every year through even a small school choice program.

Pennsylvania’s small, successful, and popular donation tax credits system for private scholarships is already saving money and children from failing schools.

In this economy, Pennsylvania can’t afford not to have more school choice.

Freedom for Yang Zili

Congratulations to Yang Zili, a Chinese advocate for political pluralism and human rights who has been set free after serving eight years in prison.

As I noted in the Fall 2007 edition of Cato’s Letter, Yang was an admirer of the libertarian thinker F. A. Hayek and described himself as a political liberal. A computer engineer by trade, Yang quickly recognized the power of the internet to spread ideas, founding a website, the “Garden of Ideas” (www.lib.126.com), where he forcefully condemned communism and argued for democratic reforms. “I am a liberal,” he wrote, “and what I care about are human rights, freedom and democracy.” Yang also participated in a discussion group called the New Youth Society, where he discussed the potential for political reform in China with young people who were similarly passionate. In 2001, Yang Zili and three of his colleagues were jailed for conspiring to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party.

As the Washington Post reported in 2004, the small group met for only a few months, and during that time one of its members was reporting to the Ministry of  State Security. Indeed, the Post reported:

What happened to the New Youth Study Group offers a glimpse into the methods the party uses to maintain its monopoly on power and the difficult moral choices faced by those caught in its grip. The fate of the study group also illustrates the thoroughness with which the party applies one of its most basic rules of survival: Consider any independent organization a potential threat and crush it.

The eight members of the New Youth Study Group never agreed on a political platform and had no real source of funds. They never set up branches in other cities or recruited any other members. They never even managed to hold another meeting with full attendance; someone was always too busy.

And yet they attracted the attention of China’s two main security ministries. Reports about their activities reached officials at the highest levels of the party, including Luo Gan, the Politburo member responsible for internal security. Even the president then, Jiang Zemin, referred to the investigation as one of the most important in the nation, according to people who have seen an internal memo summarizing the comments of senior officials about the case.

Such is life in a police state.

Yang Zili spent eight years in prison for being brave enough to speak out against an authoritarian regime, which is 8 years too many in my book. Still, we can take comfort that he got out, and that his colleagues are slated to be released from prison next year.
Unfortunately, many young internet activists brave enough to stand up for freedom still languish in jail.

Federal Enforcement Policy Is Up in Smoke

Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement that the federal government will end raids on medical marijuana distributors is terrific news.

The Bush administration’s scorched-earth approach to the enforcement of federal marijuana laws was a grotesque misallocation of law enforcement resources. The U.S. government has a limited number of law enforcement personnel, and when a unit is assigned to conduct surveillance on a California hospice, that unit is necessarily neglecting leads in other cases that possibly involve more violent criminal elements.

This shift in policy is also more mindful of the constitutional principle of federalism by allowing the states to try different policy approaches, and it is more respectful of the division of opinion within the medical community about the benefits of marijuana for certain patients. This de-escalation of the drug war is good policy and is long overdue.

More Cheap Money from the Fed

The Federal Reserve announced that it would create $1.2 trillion out of thin air and use it to buy mortgage-backed securities and Treasury bonds, even though

Some Fed leaders have resisted buying Treasurys in the past because they were unsure whether it would help reduce borrowing costs and because they feared that it would appear that the central bank was simply printing money to finance the government’s deficit, a hallmark of countries with poorly managed economies.

Obama’s First Signing Statement

obama-signs-billPresident Obama issued his first signing statement last week. While approving the $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill, he reserved the right to reinterpret, evade, or ignore a number of the bill’s provisions. To some conservatives, that smelled like vindication; and some liberals found it fishy. Who’s right? Both, to some extent.

During the Bush years, “signing statements” came to stand for a much broader set of issues than the practice itself. After President Bush used one to basically announce that, veto-proof majority or no, he didn’t have to follow the McCain Detainee Treatment Act, “signing statements” in the public mind became shorthand for the Bush theory that the president is sole constitutional “decider” on all matters related to national security—in much the same way that the PATRIOT Act became shorthand for overzealousness in homeland security. The obnoxiousness of each—open defiance in the signing statement case, the dopey Orwellianism of the acronym with PATRIOT—made them symbols, even though neither represented the worst abuses in the fight against terrorism.

But what really matters is the underlying constitutional theory, not the particular quasi-legislative device it’s reflected in. Which is worse: openly announcing that you’re not going to obey new congressional restrictions on torture—as Bush did with the 2006 McCain Amendment—or secretly violating the old ones for years? The latter, clearly. At least a signing statement puts you on notice.

On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama, unlike McCain, never promised to end the practice of signing statements entirely. Obama’s position was more nuanced. When it comes to signing statements, some nuance is appropriate. I don’t agree with the ABA’s blanket condemnation of the practice. As the Congressional Research Service has pointed out, despite the Supreme Court’s 1983 repudiation of the legislative veto, Congress continues to smuggle legislative vetoes into omnibus spending bills. One could argue that the president’s only recourse is to veto the bill–and more vetoes of spending bills would surely be welcome. But it seems to me that in such cases, issuing a signing statement is a venial sin at worst. There’s a vast difference between that sort of signing statement and one that asserts that the president cannot be bound by a law barring torture.

Most of the objections Obama lodged in his signing statement fall well short of the Bush-Cheney end of the spectrum. But there’s at least one that looks particularly dodgy:

United Nations Peacekeeping Missions. Section 7050 in Division H prohibits the use of certain funds for the use of the Armed Forces in United Nations peacekeeping missions under the command or operational control of a foreign national unless my military advisers have recommended to me that such involvement is in the national interests of the United States. This provision raises constitutional concerns by constraining my choice of particular persons to perform specific command functions in military missions, by conditioning the exercise of my authority as Commander in Chief on the recommendations of subordinates within the military chain of command, and by constraining my diplomatic negotiating authority. Accordingly, I will apply this provision consistent with my constitutional authority and responsibilities.

Here Obama echoes Bushian claims about the extent of the president’s authority under the commander-in-chief clause. But given the context, perhaps the better parallel is with Bill Clinton. President Clinton also asserted the power to ignore congressional restrictions on his ability to place U.S. troops under foreign command. That sort of executive unilateralism in the service of multilateralism was distinctly troubling. As one commentator noted in 2000:

Responding to congressional efforts to stop the new policy, the Clinton administration has claimed a broad constitutional power in the president to delegate military command authority to any person. According to the administration, the president’s commander in chief power allows him to select whomever he believes necessary for military success…. That position has serious constitutional and policy defects. First, the administration’s legal justification for its recent multilateral command policy fails to account for the Constitution’s limitation on the delegation of federal power outside of the national government….

You know who wrote that? John Yoo. My head hurts.