Update: Obama on Iran

In response to President Obama’s video message to the Iranian people this morning, Iranian presidential aide Aliakbar Javanfekr is quoted as saying, “The Obama administration so far has just talked. By words and talking the … problems between Iran and America cannot be solved.”

I wish we knew the reaction of Khamene’i, but I do find myself fearing that the CIA may continue its major covert operations to undermine Tehran’s clerical regime. The administration has yet to repudiate this official policy. If Obama decides to repeal it, and dialogue with Iran falls through, Bush administration officials will trumpet that their policy could have had a chance to succeed.

Obama may be in a tough spot, but history is on his side. As we witnessed in 1953 with the overthrow of Mossadegh, covert activities, at least in the long-term, hold no promise of achieving our desired objectives.

Republicans Rediscover Their Big-Government Principles

Sen. Chuck Grassley, who can always be counted on to stick the federal government’s nose where it doesn’t belong, is criticizing Attorney General Eric Holder’s teeny-tiny steps toward a less oppressive enforcement of drug prohibition. Holder said on Wednesday “that federal agents will target marijuana distributors only when they violate both federal and state law. This is a departure from policy under the Bush administration, which targeted dispensaries under federal law even if they complied with the state’s law allowing sales of medical marijuana.”

Grassley says that marijuana is a “gateway” drug to the use of harder drugs and that Holder “is not doing health care reform any good.”

As Tim Lynch and I wrote in the Cato Handbook for Policymakers:

President Bush … has spoken of the importance of the constitutional principle of federalism. Shortly after his inauguration, Bush said, “I’m going to make respect for federalism a priority in this administration.” Unfortunately, the president’s actions have not matched his words. Federal police agents and prosecutors continue to raid medical marijuana clubs in California and Arizona.

And as Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in dissenting from the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the power of the federal government to regulate medical marijuana:

If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything — and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers.

That’s the principle that Chuck Grassley defends. Republicans claim to be the small-government party — and President Obama’s policies on taxes, spending, and regulation certainly justify a view that the GOP is, if not a small-government party, at least the smaller-government party — but they forget those principles when it comes to imposing their social values through federal force.

A Far Cry from ‘Axis of Evil’

Hoping to derail the re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President Obama today gave an unprecedented appeal to the Iranian people in a special video message. In it, he offers a “new beginning” of engagement to end the nearly 30 years of hostile bilateral relations. 

This video comes less than a month after the administration wrote a letter to the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i, who, as opposed to Ahmadinejad, truly controls the apparatus of government and has the final say on the country’s nuclear ambitions. Khamene’i sent a congratulatory letter to Obama after he won the presidency. 

My colleague, Justin Logan, has written extensively on U.S. policy toward Iran, such as here and here, to name a few. He argues — and I agree — that U.S. policymakers must press for direct diplomacy with the Iranian leadership and have a plan “B” in case that diplomacy fails.

In response to those (usually neoconservatives) who fear Israel will be wiped off the map, Logan argues persuasively that attempting to deduce Iranian intentions from public statements is not helpful in ascertaining whether the clerical regime values self-preservation. Instead, we must evaluate what the regime has done when confronted with overwhelming force. For example, rather than wage the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) to the bitter end, Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, one of Iran’s most radical Ayatollahs, saved his country from more suffering by accepting a disadvantageous ceasefire with Saddam Hussein.

Overall, the track record of Iranian behavior shows pragmatism and calculating temperament when attempting to advance their interests in the region. As I’ve written here, occasionally the interests of Tehran and Washington have overlapped, most recently when Iran quietly supported America’s effort to oust the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Thus, it would be prudent for Washington to engage Tehran and allow it to produce uranium and plutonium if the regime agrees to IAEA safeguard regulations in compliance with United Nations resolutions.

National self-preservation has figured prominently in modern Iranian diplomacy. President Obama and his subordinates appear to understand that. Hopefully, this new strategy will work.

Selective Taxation Is Tyranny

The House of Representatives has passed a 90 percent tax on the bonuses paid to AIG employees, seemingly forgetting President Obama’s admonition “that in a time of crisis, we cannot afford to govern out of anger, or yield to the politics of the moment.”

Everybody’s angry. But anger doesn’t make good law. And there are real questions about both the wisdom and the legality of such legislation. Bloggers like Conor Clarke, Megan McArdle, and Eugene Volokh have asked if the bonus tax is legal or constitutional. And thank goodness for bloggers who ask the questions that members of Congress and print journalists seem to ignore!

The bloggers wonder if after-the-fact taxes on specific people violate the constitutional ban on bills of attainder and ex post facto laws. (Ex post facto = after the fact.) Good questions indeed. But they should go further and ask, Are laws like this tyrannical? Ex post facto legislation isn’t just bad because it’s unconstitutional. It’s unconstitutional because it’s bad. (Nate Silver did raise these broader questions, arguing that the bonus tax bill was like the congressional intervention into the Terri Schiavo case: quite possibly legal and constitutional, but “it represented a gross overreach of the chamber’s authority, and ultimately undermined, at least a little bit, the rule of law.”)

Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe tells Conor Clarke, “It would not be terribly difficult to structure a tax, even one that approached a rate of 100%, levied on some or all of the bonuses already handed out (or to be handed out in the future) by AIG and other recipients of federal bailout funds so that the tax would survive bill of attainder clause challenge. …The fact that the individuals subject to the tax in its retroactive application would in principle be readily identifiable would not suffice to doom the tax either from a bill of attainder perspective or from a due process perspective.”

Which led liberal blogger Kevin Drum to this conclusion:

it looks like the answer here is simple: even though the purpose of this tax would pretty clearly be punitive with extreme prejudice, we need to carefully pretend that it’s not.  And we need to make sure the legislative history shows that it’s not (it should be “manifestly regulatory and fiscal” Tribe says).

Considering that the rage of the anti-bonus army is being egged on by New York Post headlines such as “Not So Fast You Greedy Bastards” and “Tax the Damn Bonuses to Hell,” it might be tough to persuade a judge that this was “regulatory and fiscal,” not punitive, legislation.

The rule of law requires that like people be treated alike and that people know what the law is so that they can plan their lives in accord with the law. In this case, a law is being passed to impose taxes on a particular, politically unpopular group. That is a tyrannical abuse of Congress’s powers. And in addition, it is retroactive legislation, changing the law upon which AIG and its employees had relied. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 62, “It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws … undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow.”

Selective taxation is tyranny. Ex post facto legislation violates the spirit of the liberal order, even if a particular piece of legislation can be “structured” to pass constitutional muster.

NEA to Dems: HEY! We Paid Good Money for You!!!

Here’s an interesting letter penned by Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association – the largest union in the country (hat tip to Cato’s own Neal McCluskey). It reads, in part (boldface added, ALL CAPS “shouting” in the original):

Letter to the Democrats in the House and Senate on DC Vouchers

March 05, 2009
Dear Senator:

The National Education Association strongly opposes any extension of the District of Columbia private school voucher (“DC Opportunity Scholarship”) program.  We expect that Members of Congress who support public education, and whom we have supported, will stand firm against any proposal to extend the pilot program.  Actions associated with these issues WILL be included in the NEA Legislative Report Card for the 111th Congress. 

Vouchers are not real education reform.  Pulling 1,200 children out of a system that serves 65,000 doesn’t solve problems - it ignores them.  Real reform will put a qualified teacher in every classroom, keep their skills up to date with continuing education, and raise pay to attract and retain the best teachers.  Rather than offering a chance for a few, we should be ensuring that every child has access to a great public school.

Opposition to vouchers is a top priority for NEA.  Throughout its history, NEA has strongly opposed any diversion of limited public funds to private schools…. 

According to his bio, president Van Roekel used to teach high school math, so I assume he is an able number cruncher. But as someone who used to be a computer software engineer, I think an old comp. sci. adage is apropos: “Garbage-in, Garbage-out.” It doesn’t matter how good your number crunching is if the numbers you crunch are nonsense.

As I have previously pointed out, enrollment in DC this year is nearly 20,000 students lower than Van Roekel imagines. The “limited public funds” he seems to think are allocated to k-12 education in DC amount to $26,555 per pupil. The DC voucher program’s enabling legislation actually increases funding to DC public schools by $13 million per year, and the average tuition charged by voucher-accepting private schools was $5,928 last year.

So the DC voucher program is 4 times more efficient than DCPS, and gets far more positive reviews from parents in the bargain, according to the Dept. of Education’s own study of the program. If it were expanded to serve every student in the district, it would save on the order of half a billion dollars, even allowing for a higher average tuition.

Now let’s see… what other reasons might president Van Roekel have for wanting to kick 1,700 poor kids in DC out of schools they love?

New Era of Unlimited Federal Power

The House has passed a measure imposing a special punitive tax of 90% on certain employee compensation in response to the AIG scandal. As others have noted, this raises serious constitutional issues. Article I, Section 9, Clause 3 says simply and directly: “No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed.” The congressional bill being considered in response to the AIG bonuses seems to violate both those prohibitions at least in spirit.

The Constitution’s Framers apparently considered (page 154) this clause to be very important in guarding against legislative tyranny, and James Madison noted in Federalist 44:

Bills of attainder, ex post facto laws, and laws impairing the obligation of contracts, are contrary to the first principles of the social compact, and to every principle of sound legislation.

Aside from the dangers to liberty from overzealous members of Congress, there are issues of priorities here. While Congress has been busy with this particular inquisition, the Federal Reserve is moving ahead with a new plan to shower the economy with a massive $1.2 trillion cash infusion–an amount 7,200 times greater than the $165 million of AIG retention bonuses.

So members of Congress should be grabbing their pitchforks and heading down to the Fed building, not lynching AIG financial managers, most of whom were not the ones behind the company’s failures.

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.