Donnelly on the Surge

AEI’s Thomas Donnelly writes for the Weekly Standard blog:

More moderate Democrats are increasingly adjusting to the reality that the Iraq surge has been a military success, and that it is starting to create conditions for workable political compromise in Baghdad as well as Iraq’s provinces–see, for example, the air of desperation that has seized the hard-core anti-war crowd. Yet today’s Washington Post carries an op-ed by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta clearly intended to intimidate Democratic candidates into sticking to their withdrawal pledges no matter what happens in Iraq. The article’s headline, “A War We Must End,” is a hint of the pay-no-attention-to-the-facts nature of the argument.

Donnelly’s readers might be interested in this shocking nugget buried in a smart op-ed by Andrew Bacevich a few weeks back:

In only one respect has the surge achieved undeniable success: It has ensured that U.S. troops won’t be coming home anytime soon. This was one of the main points of the exercise in the first place. As AEI military analyst Thomas Donnelly has acknowledged with admirable candor, “part of the purpose of the surge was to redefine the Washington narrative,” thereby deflecting calls for a complete withdrawal of U.S. combat forces. Hawks who had pooh-poohed the risks of invasion now portrayed the risks of withdrawal as too awful to contemplate. But a prerequisite to perpetuating the war – and leaving it to the next president – was to get Iraq off the front pages and out of the nightly news. At least in this context, the surge qualifies as a masterstroke. From his new perch as a New York Times columnist, William Kristol has worried that feckless politicians just might “snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.” Not to worry: The “victory” gained in recent months all but guarantees that the United States will remain caught in the jaws of Iraq for the foreseeable future.

Something to keep in mind when Donnelly and his fellow-travelers comment on the surge’s impact on the Washington narrative.

My boss Chris Preble was beating this drum weeks ago in the American Prospect.

What It Says, What It Will Say

Yesterday, the School Choice Demonstration Project (SCDP) released several reports kicking off their five-year longitudinal study of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), arguably the nation’s best-known school voucher initiative.

Throughout the most important of the reports—the one establishing achievement levels for voucher students and socio-economically similar Milwaukee public school kids—the authors warn readers not to use the scores to judge schools’ effectiveness. Because it is “snapshot,” baseline data, the scores alone say nothing about how much a school teaches over time, only where students sit at a single moment.

Sadly, some in the media didn’t listen, reporting that private and public schools perform equally poorly. As education reporter Alan Borsuk wrote in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “the first full-force examination since 1995 of Milwaukee’s groundbreaking school voucher program has found that students attending private schools through the program aren’t doing much better or worse than students in Milwaukee Public Schools.”

It seems some reporters just don’t read research, don’t understand it, or want to push their agenda regardless of what the research tells them.

Unfortunately, as bad as reporting on school choice is, in the end Milwaukee-style choice probably won’t have a huge effect. Sure, the voucher kids will probably learn more than comparable students in traditional public schools, as research has found over and over again, but the research has never found large advantages, and there’s nothing in current school choice programs to suggest that that will soon change. The simple fact is that even with slowly growing school choice the amount of market freedom in American education is far too small to foster real competition and innovation. The public schools are still the 800-pound guerilla and what choice we have is seriously hamstrung.

Just look at Milwaukee. It has more choice than almost any other district in the United States, but has only about 17,000 students in its voucher program and 16,000 in its charter schools, constituting just about 28 percent of the city’s roughly 120,000 school-aged kids. Making matters worse, within those systems freedom is heavily curtailed. Charter schools are only given their right to exist by public authorities, their enrollments must be racially balanced, and they can’t deny admission for academic reasons. Similarly, the MPCP forbids parents from supplementing vouchers with their own funds, is open only to low-income children, and requires participating schools to admit all choice students for whom they have seats.

School choice in Milwaukee is light-years from the free-market at work, and though it’s better than no choice at all, it will likely make some news stories today come close to fitting the facts tomorrow.

The Politics of Freedom: Libertarianism with Sizzle

Brian Doherty, the author of the magisterial Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, has some generous things to say about my new book The Politics of Freedom in Sunday’s New York Post. I especially like the subtitle in the reason.com version: “sells the libertarian message with sizzle.”

Brian discusses my claims about the extent of libertarianism among American voters and writes:

Whatever the near-term prospects for libertarian political victories, The Politics of Freedom reminds you of the service libertarians provide to public discourse: They can point out the hypocrisy, power grabs, hubris and counterproductive folly issuing from Washington under either political brand name since they are beholden to neither. …

No major political party has fully embraced the implications of the proper role of government that follow from Boaz’s simple limited-government vision. But when expressed that plainly, it’s a moral vision many Americans can cheer.

The Politics of Freedom is available at all fine bookstores, at Amazon, and from the Cato Institute.

The Laffer Curve: Reviewing the Evidence

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of views and the positive feedback for the free-market tax videos I’ve been narrating. Part I of the Laffer Curve video series already has been seen more that 14,000 times - and nearly 15,000 times if the Capital Hill Broadcast Network is added to the count.

Part II of the Laffer Curve video series is now available for your viewing pleasure. Building on the theoretical discussion in Part I, this new video reviews some of the real-world evidence on the Laffer Curve.

As always, I’m interested in feedback. And feel free to circulate any of these videos to friends and colleagues. It seems that success begets success on youtube. More people watch a video if they see other people have watched it. And since, as of this morning, the Part II video is #49 for today’s most-watched list in the News & Politics category, it’s encouraging that it is getting some attention.

Demander-in-Chief

Bill Kristol’s column in yesterday’s New York Times contained an interesting, if disconcerting, quote from Michelle Obama:

Barack Obama … is going to demand that you shed your cynicism… That you push yourselves to be better. And that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed.

The President of the United States is the employee of the American people. He is not there to make demands of people. If I want to sit on my couch for the rest of my life eating Doritos and watching trashy television – unengaged, uninformed and uninvolved – that’s my prerogative.

(Hat tip: our beloved founder, Ed Crane).

Reviving Interservice Competition

I recently complained that the US defense budget fails to adhere to a strategy; that it avoids choice between means. This lack of choice is manifest in the preservation of service shares. Each military service has gotten about the same relative share of the defense budget each year under Bush, despite the war on terror. In fact, the shares have basically held since the Kennedy administration.

In recent decades, the Navy got about 26 percent of the defense budget; 31 percent including the Marines. The Air Force also got around 31 percent, and the Army 25 percent. The rest went to defense-wide programs like missile defense. Annual deviations are rarely ever above two percent. This year brings a slight uptick in the Army share; the numbers are 29 percent Navy and Marines, 28 percent Air Force, and 27 percent Army. Current budget shares deviate more from the historical norm if you include the supplemental war appropriations, which favor the ground forces. But the point of a supplemental is that it does not affect the future baseline.

In today’s Christian Science Monitor, Gordon Lubold writes that a Congressional “Roles and Missions” panel, formed under the auspices of the House Armed Services Committee, is set to release a report that questions this arrangement. That’s good news.

Congressman Jim Cooper (D-Tennessee), who chaired the panel, calls the continuity of service shares “a statistical indictment” of the Pentagon planning process. The current US national security strategy – as seen in official documents, rhetoric, and our two wars – is counter-terrorism via counter-insurgency. That is, counter-terrorism is our primary security task, and to accomplish it we aim to deny terrorists haven with wars of occupation meant to resurrect government in anarchic states like Iraq and Afghanistan. We have other objectives – contain rising powers, stem weapons proliferation, etc, but these are secondary.

This strategy favors the Army. Ground forces take center-stage in counter-insurgency and state-building, with contributing performances from aircraft and other government agencies. It follows that our defense budget would flood money into the Army and Marines and cut the Air Force and Navy’s budget to pay for it. Instead, we have given each service the same bump in funds – roughly 35% percent under Bush.

Personally, I think this strategy is foolish. I’d prefer to stay out of other people’s civil wars and hunt terrorists via intelligence agencies and police. Ideally, Congress would push a more workable and cheaper strategy. But helping align forces with the politics that theoretically govern them is still worthwhile. Insofar as we have this flawed strategy, military posture ought to reflect it.

The Monitor quotes the Chairman of the Joint Chief’s of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, responding to Cooper’s critique by worrying that ending fixed service shares will unleash interservice competition. I say let them fight. Everyone assumes that because jointness is helpful on the battlefield, it must be great in defense planning. But service cooperation in the Pentagon has become collusion that prevents civilian control and therefore the implementation of national policy. And competition for resources between government entities can spark smarter public policy, including military innovation, as political scientists I know argue.

During the Eisenhower administration, the Air Force, which wielded the big stick – strategic airpower – in Ike’s massive retaliation strategy, got about half the defense budget. The Army and Navy fought over the remainder. Their scramble for relevance made them advocates of alternative strategies that relied less on nuclear weapons, or at least less on nuclear weapons delivered by bombers (the Navy responded by inventing submarine launched ballistic missiles). The strategic debate gave policy-makers both well-crafted alternatives and ready bureaucratic allies for their implementation.

Were the ground forces given half of the defense budget – or if that merely seemed politically possible – the other services’ self-interest might propel them to articulate opposing strategies. Even the Army’s slight gains have recently pushed the Navy and Air Force to rearticulate their relevance. The results so far are disappointing, but more open competition could be useful. The Navy might champion an off-shore balancing strategy and attack the current small war strategy. Civilians might develop a sharper sense of their alternatives.

The beneficiaries of fixed budget shares are the military services, who get budgetary security independent of their contribution to national security. The losers are the civilians trying to run the Pentagon and taxpayers. Cooper’s report won’t change anything alone, but it may help.

Blame German Tax Law, Not Liechtenstein Privacy Law

While European politicians are ganging up in an effort to bully Liechtenstein into surrendering its fiscal sovereignty, a couple of reporters for Bloomberg point out that Germany’s tax laws are the real problem. Tax rates are too high and the tax code is senselessly complicated. As a result, almost everyone in the country seeks to evade tax:

When Andreas bought a new hard drive at a Munich computer shop the clerk offered it for 127 euros with a receipt or 80 euros without. He took the lower price. Most Germans make similar deals to avoid high taxes, the film production manager said. …Chancellor Angela Merkel has failed to fulfill a campaign promise to simplify the tax code and reduce tax avoidance. Germans evade about 30 billion euros in taxes every year, estimated Dieter Ondracek, head of the German tax collectors’ union DStG. …”Unfortunately, tax evasion has become a popular sport in Germany,” Ondracek said Feb. 19 in an interview with Bloomberg Television in Berlin. Germany last year increased its top income tax rate to 45 percent, ranking it eighth among the 27 European Union nations. Capital gains taxes of as much as 50 percent are also among the highest in Europe. …People of more modest means can find loopholes in books such as “1,000 Legal Tax Tricks” by Franz Konz, who’s helped Germans cut their tax bills for 20 years. His book, published last year by Droener/Knaur, is the bestselling tax volume on Amazon.com’s German language site. Part of the issue is that German tax laws have become increasingly complicated as politicians added more and more exemptions. Since German reunification in 1990, the number of tax advisers in the country has jumped 60 percent to 72,669, according to the latest statistics from the BStBK tax advisers’ federation. …”People feel they don’t know all the loopholes so they’re constantly uneasy about paying too much tax, which prompts them to do things that are sometimes illegal,” [Andracek] said. “A tax burden that’s generally seen as too high and wasteful government spending” contribute to discontent. Andreas agrees. “It’s not about greed, it’s about getting by,” he said. “It’s not a crime if everybody does it.”

This story deserves a personal anecdote. On my first trip to Germany, for a tax reform conference in the mid-1990s, a couple of us decided to take a 30-minute cab ride from our conference center to downtown Cologne. We hailed a cab and the first thing the driver did was ask whether we needed a receipt. Not aware of Germany’s national pastime of tax evasion, we must have looked confused, so the driver helpfully explained that we could save 30 percent if he got his fare “off the books.” What did we decide? Well, I’ll leave that to your imagination.