School Choice in D.C.: Does Obama Care as Much as Bartlet?

As the Washington Post sternly notes this morning, Democrats in Congress are trying to quietly force nearly 2,000 children back into the D.C. public schools. One parent whose children are using the federally funded D.C. voucher program to attend Sidwell Friends School along with the Obama daughters told the Post, “The mere thought of returning to public school frightens me.” But some people just can’t stand to think that kids might get educated outside the grasp of the government. 

The most honest, decent, and thoughtful Democratic president of modern times, Jed Bartlet, was surprised to find himself supporting vouchers on an episode of NBC’s “The West Wing.” Bartlet’s staff summoned the mayor of Washington, D.C., to the White House to plot strategy for his veto of a Republican-backed bill to provide vouchers for a few students in D.C. schools–and was stunned to discover that the mayor and the D.C. school board president both supported the program, as indeed Mayor Anthony Williams and School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz did in real life. Why? the president asked the mayor. “After six years of us promising to make schools better next year,” the mayor replied, “we’re ready to give vouchers a try….We spend over $13,000 per student – that’s more than anywhere else in the country – and we don’t have a lot to show for it.” (As Andrew Coulson wrote recently in the Washington Post, the real cost is actually much higher than that.)

Then the president summons his young personal aide to testify to the merits of D.C. public schools and gets another surprise:

Faced with the evidence, President Bartlet decided to do the right thing. He gave children a chance. Will Congress?

Disincentives to Work — Remember Those?

The president wants to increase taxes only on those earning above $250,000. Since most of us aren’t there — I keep waiting, but for some reason no one yet has offered me what I think I’m worth to express my opinions on current policy and events — who cares, right? 

Well, it turns out that raising taxes reduces the incentive to work. Which hits the rest of us too. Reports ABC News:

A 63-year-old attorney based in Lafayette, La., who asked not to be named, told ABCNews.com that she plans to cut back on her business to get her annual income under the quarter million mark.

“We have to find a way out where we can make just what we need to be just under the line so we can benefit from Obama’s tax plan,” she added. “Why kill yourself working if you’re going to give it all away to people who aren’t working as hard?”

Dr. Sharon Poczatek, who runs her own dental practice in Boulder, Colo., said that she too is trying to figure out ways to get out of paying the taxes proposed in Obama’s plan.

“I’ve put thought into how to get under $250,000,” said Poczatek. “It would mean working fewer days which means having fewer employees, seeing fewer patients and taking time off.”

“The motivation for a lot of people like me – dentists, entrepreneurs, lawyers – is that the more you work the more money you make,” said Poczatek. “But if I’m going to be working just to give it back to the government — it’s de-motivating and demoralizing.”

Now that’s going to help us get out of the recession! Punish hard-working professionals and convince them to cut back services for the rest of us. Great thinking Mr. President.

Or, to paraphrase George W. Bush:  Heck of a job, Barack!

Where Has “War on Terror” Gone? (Long Time Paaassing …)

Who cares? It’s just gone.

On Fox News Sunday this weekend, Chris Wallace pressed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, on why the new administration no longer uses the phrase “war on terror.”

Wallace: … a lot of people have noticed that both the president and top advisors very seldom talk about the “war on terror.” Why is that? From your conversations with him, does he see our fight against Islamic radicals differently than President Bush did?

Mullen: It’s very clear in my engagement with him that he is very focused on the terrorist extremist threat. And my guidance is to continue to pursue that in every possible way.

Wallace: Do you have any explanation as to why he doesn’t talk about the “war on terror”?

Mullen: No I don’t. I mean, I don’t. I just told you, what he’s told me to do is focus very specifically on this threat, lead by Al Qaeda. But certainly it’s a top priority to focus on terrorism and terrorists and the extremists that are out there who would do us harm.

Wallace: Last question: As the nation’s top military man, do you believe that you are still leading a “war” against terrorism.

Mullen: There are an awful lot of elements of terrorists and terrorism which threaten us, and we continue to very clearly pursue them. And we will until they’re no longer a threat.

Government officials can use elements of military power against terrorism selectively, appropriately, and in a balanced way if they avoid the “war on terror” metaphor.

Declining to use the needlessly frightening phrase, Admiral Mullen conveys the authority, competence, and confidence that will lead our country back from self-defeating overreaction, which is the terrorism strategy doing its work.

It’s fascinating to see this essential rhetorical shift. It’s benefits might be revelation to some. When will they ever learn?

A rich trove of strategic counterterrorism thinking was on display at our conference on the subject in January.

Don’t Mourn the Passing of Business Models

With newspaper closures making … (wait for it) … (wait for it) … headlines lately (rimshot!), it’s worth giving a second read to a TechKnowledge piece from last summer titled, “The Future of News: A Golden Age for Free Speech?” The news business as we know it today is just a historical contingency and in no way essential to democracy or an informed society.

In fact, there is an incredible media explosion underway. The new problems are sifting through all the different sources of news and information, and deciding which to credit. It’s a more complex information environment, but in no sense ill-suited to the maintenance of an informed and aware populus. As with so many things, more choice is better, and we’re up to the task of choosing.

Cato alumnus Adam Thierer has done extensive reporting on the state of the media marketplace, and has some current thinking and links up on the Tech Liberation Front blog. I don’t share his concern with the passing of the home-delivered daily newspaper, and have utter confidence that the future of news is very bright indeed.

Chait vs. Realism

Jon Chait makes a common mistake in an op-ed for Saturday’s Washington Post.* Joining various neoconservatives to attack Charles Freeman, just-appointed chairman of the National Intelligence Council, Chait writes that Freeman is a realist and therefore doesn’t care about morality in U.S. foreign policy. I don’t know enough about Freeman to know if the article is fair to his views (he seems like a great pick), but it shows a misunderstanding of realism.

Modifying a noun with “moral” does not make it so. Realists argue that idealism – ignoring realities that encourage tradeoffs among competing goods – is foolish, and there is nothing moral about doing foolish things in the name of morality. Realists believe that our foreign policy should be governed by an ethic of responsibility, where you do things that actually lead to good consequences, starting at home. They see the promiscuous use of power as destructive of it and therefore of all the goods it serves, including the ideological sort.

Those with even passing familiarity with leading realists like E.H. Carr, Hans Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr know that their goal was to create a moral foreign policy in an anarchic world. They saw idealists who thought they could escape realist concepts like the balance of power as a source of catastrophic wars. Given the nature of international relations, they saw idealism – seen in undo faith in international institutions and later military adventurism meant to spread liberalism – as wasteful, dangerous, and therefore immoral.

Realists are partially to blame for this misconception. They have been too reluctant in recent decades to state their moral case. They too often allow people to get the impression that phony beltway realists like Henry Kissinger are the real deal – as if thrashing around Southeast Asia and South America in service of confused ideas about the balance of power was consistent with realist thought.

A realist U.S. defense policy would be moral for at least three reasons. It would stop squandering wealth on futile missions and allow it be used for worthier ends. It would not offend our values by embracing militarism and empire (in fact if not in intent) and restore the United States to its position as a model of liberalism, not its vindicator. It would keep us out of unnecessary wars, which are bad for liberty at home and only rarely conducive to moral ends abroad.

*It is typical of the Post to publish a column like this. Their op-ed page is home to about 10 advocates of militarized liberalism in foreign policy. The distinction between the neoconservatives and the liberal internationalists is largely academic.

When the Goverment Robs Peter to Pay Paul, It Violates the Constitution

The Supreme Court’s 2005 decision that the government could use its eminent domain power to transfer private property to a different private actor – which promised to use it to generate more tax revenue – touched off a firestorm of criticism and created a movement to strengthen property rights.  (For the story behind that case, Kelo v. New London, I recommend Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage, for which Cato hosted a book forum in January.)   On Friday, Cato filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to review a decision ratifying a similar, even more blatant, government taking of private property for a non-public use.

In Empress Casino v. Giannoulias, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld a statute transferring money from private riverboat casinos – and at that only the certain politically disfavored ones located in and around Chicago – to private horseracing tracks.  The state high court found that the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause does not apply to exactions of money from private entities, which ruling the casinos are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review.

Cato’s brief argues that the Court should grant certiorari for yet another reason: The Illinois statute (which coincidentally appeared in the transcript of the Blagojevich sting) is in clear violation of the Takings Clause’s “public use” requirement, impermissibly eroding protections for private property even under Kelo’s (flawed) standard. The statute does nothing more than rob Peter to pay Paul, a result that cannot be squared with the Fifth Amendment, which permits government takings only for public use, and then only if just compensation is paid. This case instead involves a naked transfer of the casinos’ revenues to the racetracks, with no meaningful restriction on how the racetracks use those funds — and does not remotely resemble any public use approved by the Supreme Court.

Permitting such a statute to stand will only encourage federal, state, and local governments to exact funds from one private actor for the exclusive benefit of another, transgressing the very property rights and economic liberties that inspired the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

Defense of Bank Secrecy by Austria and Luxembourg Is Good News for Tax Competition

It is no exaggeration to say that destroying tax havens is probably the number one goal of the world’s statist politicians and international bureaucrats. The European Commission has a new assault against low-tax jurisdictions. The Paris-based OECD is preparing to renew its ant-tax competition project. And American politicians such as Barack Obama want to persecute tax havens as part of his assault on private capital. Switzerland is the top target of the statists, but other jurisdictions such as Singapore, Austria, and Luxembourg also are being persecuted. Switzerland is doing a good job defending its human rights policy of strong privacy, but it’s good news to read in the European Voice that Austria and Luxembourg just announced that bank secrecy is not a negotiable matter:

Austria and Luxembourg have declared that they will resist attempts to crack down on banking secrecy, despite calls from other EU states and the European Commission for stricter rules to tackle tax evasion. Germany is pushing for tougher action against tax havens, partly motivated by discontent that German citizens are putting their savings in bank accounts in Switzerland and Lichtenstein. … A statement issued by…Josef Pröll, Austria’s finance minister, and Luc Frieden, Luxembourg’s budget minister, said… “banking secrecy is not up for negotiation”. …The European Commission on 2 February proposed that member states should abolish banking secrecy in relations between national tax authorities.

Tax competion, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy limit the power of governments to act like monopolists. Tax havens play an especially important role since politicians know that these jurisdictions give taxpayers some ability to protect themselves from predation. To learn more about the economic benefits of tax havens, click here. To learn more about the moral case for tax havens, click here. And to see why anti-tax haven demagoguery is misguided, click here.