It’s Not My Fault They’re Kissing

My friend Blake Hounshell (he’s actually a friend, not “my friend” in the Washington sense) has a post up at FP Passport observing President Bush’s and Saudi dictator King Abdullah’s latest canoodling. In that post, Blake argues that

if you’re a gasoline-consuming American, you’re deeply complicit in this marriage, too. So laugh all you want at Bush, but he kisses Saudi cheek for thee—just as U.S. presidents have done for decades.

To which I would respond “baloney!” There’s nothing about the fact that we–or Europe, or China, or Japan–consume oil that mandates that we play kissy-poo with Abdullah or anybody else. There are a few theories why we would want to kiss up to the Saudis, and none of them hold water. The first is that the Saudis, who control 25% of the world’s proven oil reserves, make production decisions based on political relationships rather than economic considerations, and therefore when we kiss up to them, we increase the likelihood that they’ll make production decisions that are in our interests (and in contravention of their own). Like now, for example, the president is pleading that OPEC members increase production so as to tamp down the price of gasoline in the U.S.

As my colleague Jerry Taylor is wont to point out, however, “no amount of ‘get tough’ rhetoric or ‘pretty please’ diplomacy has ever affected OPEC production decisions, despite what American politicians would have you believe.” So that theory needs reworking.

There’s also the belief that we need to keep a close relationship with the Saudis to shore up our position in the region and resume the pursuit of our *ahem* traditional goal in the region of “promoting stability.” But this theory, too, leaves a lot to be desired. Our traditional posture in the Middle East has essentially amounted to a transfer payment from U.S. taxpayers to the Saudi Royal Family and the oil companies it runs. (Kuwait and the GCC countries, too.) Essentially we cover a substantial amount of the cost that it takes to defend these countries from prospective predators. But one has to ask “What would the Arabs do in the absence of an American security commitment?” 75% of the Saudi government’s revenue comes from oil. 45% of the country’s GDP comes from oil. Are we to assume that, absent a U.S. security commitment, the Saudi royal family is just going to cower in a defensive crouch and leave that money on the table for any rogue actor in the region to swoop in and take? Seems unlikely. The royal family seems much more interested in preserving itself and expanding its wealth than that.

To the contrary, it seems more likely that they would spend more, and get more serious about defending themselves from outside threats. Now, one could make the argument at this point that the Arabs in recent years have not proved themselves to be particularly formidable opponents on the battlefield, which is persuasive to a point. But even if, say, Iran made the remarkably rash move of launching a war against Saudi Arabia, Saudi’s defense budget dwarfs Iran’s and Saudi’s military technology is decades ahead of Iran’s. Even if they were to begin losing a conventional conflict against (hypothetically, again) Iran, standoff forces like long-range U.S. bombers could zoom in to restore the status quo ante without batting an eyelash.

So I’m left wondering why, exactly, it’s American gasoline consumers who are forcing U.S. presidents to suck up to Abdullah and the Saudi Royal Family. Any theories are hereby welcomed. In the meantime, please do give a read to Eugene Gholz’s and Daryl Press’s Policy Analysis titled “Energy Alarmism: The Myths that Make Americans Worry about Oil” for much more detail, and data that informed my arguments above.

Et Tu, City Journal? A Terrible Argument for Dismissing School Choice

In a forthcoming City Journal article, Manhattan Institute senior fellow Sol Stern suggests that school choice is failing to measure up, and that choice supporters need to find a “Plan B.” The New York Sun covers Stern’s essay here.

While Stern has done some excellent writing on education in the past, this particular piece is confused and at times factually incorrect. There are many other problems with Stern’s article, but it seems best to begin with the basic facts.

Before calling for a Plan B, one should be aware of the successes of Plan A.

Stern writes, “In 2002, after a decade of organizing by school choice activists, only two programs [for poor children] existed: one in Milwaukee, the other in Cleveland …” In fact, there were three programs that targeted disadvantaged students.

Florida’s voucher program was passed in 1999 and available to students in failing schools, which was used as a proxy or “poor children” (though it was later overturned by that state’s supreme court).

Stern then turns from this very specific accounting to a broad discussion of “proposals for voucher programs” and private school choice in general. But he fails to mention the other voucher programs passed and still in existence; special needs vouchers in Florida, Ohio, Utah, and Georgia and for foster-care children in Arizona.

And although Stern seems most interested in choice programs meant only for disadvantaged children, he fails to mention any of the many education tax credit programs passed in recent years. Five states – Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island – have donation tax credit programs. Nearly $150 million in scholarship funds support close to 100,000 low-income children. And that’s not counting the most recent business-donation programs in Arizona and Rhode Island, or Arizona’s personal-donation tax credit program which serves primarily low-income families.

Stern’s article is simply not an accurate reflection of the significant and accelerating legislative success school choice has seen in recent years.

Ethanol Program Milks Consumers Dry

Have you noticed how the price of milk has shot up in the past year? A big chunk of the blame lies with Congress and the ethanol program.

In its effort to promote the fantasy known as “energy independence,” the U.S. Congress favors the ethanol industry with a 51-cent-per-gallon exemption from the federal gasoline tax, and a 54-cent-per-gallon tariff on imported ethanol. By artificially stimulating the domestic ethanol industry, the program has created an insatiable demand for corn, driving up feed grain costs for dairy farmers, leading to higher prices for milk.

I’ve often disagreed with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on trade issues, especially his threat to slap tariffs on imports from China, but on this issue, the senator has positioned himself as the American consumer’s best friend. According to a story this week in the New York Daily News:

“Ethanol has increased the average American’s grocery bill $47 since July,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, citing figures from Iowa State University.

Schumer (D-N.Y.) is pushing for an immediate end to the 54-cent-per-gallon tariff on ethanol imports as a way to increase the supply of the federally mandated fuel additive, reduce pressure on the corn market and bring down milk prices.

“Bring the cheaper ethanol in, reduce the price of corn, and then reduce the price of milk,” he said.

The senator is on to something. While were at it, let’s eliminate remaining U.S. tariffs on imported shoes, clothing, sugar, rice, cheese and, yes, milk.

Irrational Voters

Analyzing exit polls from last week’s New Hampshire primary, E.J. Dionne observes in today’s Washington Post that “an astonishing 42 percent of McCain’s voters disapproved of the Iraq war”

Maybe Bryan Caplan is onto something?

On a related note, Sen. McCain boasts of his fiscal conservatism, and one of his most reliable applause lines on the campaign trail comes from his strident criticism of wasteful government spending. His favorite example is the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska, one of thousands of earmarks tucked into the 2006 transportation bill. As McCain tells it, the bridge would have cost $233 million to build and would have served about 50 people. (David Boaz spelled out the gory details here. There were actually going to be two bridges costing a total of $454 million. In September 2007, Alaska officials dropped plans to build the bridge, but kept the money.)

To take nothing away from that particularly egregious misuse of taxpayer funds, it is worth noting that the war in Iraq is costing at least $10 billion a month, with some estimates placing the total costs closer to $12 or $13 billion. In other words, in one month’s time, we are spending the equivalent of 42 $233 million bridges. I doubt that we need that many bridges, and I’d much prefer that they be paid for by user-fees, but presumably some of these would go to somewhere?

The voters who oppose the Iraq war but who support the leading advocate for the war seem to be saying that fiscal conservatism stops at the water’s edge. Then again, it could just be cognitive dissonance.

Data Security for Me But Not for Thee

At his press conference announcing the REAL ID Act last week, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said:

We are not going to have a national database. REAL ID does not require that states start to collect additional information from applicants that they have not already created. We are not going to wind up making this information available willy-nilly. In fact, the steps we are taking under REAL ID will enhance and protect privacy rather than degrade and impair privacy.

…[A]mong the things we’re doing under REAL ID is requiring that state motor vehicle agencies have in place background checks and security plans for their databases at – in terms of the motor vehicle information. Traditionally, again and again we have seen corruption at motor vehicle agencies leading to people improperly disseminating personal information. These security plans and these background checks will actually minimize the risk that employees will improperly take that information and disseminate it.

Meanwhile, Section 508 of the Court Security Improvement Act of 2007, signed into law by President Bush last week, allows federal judges and Supreme Court Justices to withhold their addresses from the REAL ID database system, giving the addresses of their courts instead.

The federal judiciary evidently doesn’t trust Secretary Chertoff’s assurances.

Robert S. McIntyre’s “Fuzzy Math”

Robert S. McIntyre, the tireless crusader for higher taxes, had a letter in Saturday’s Washington Post under the title “Fuzzy Math.” Usually McIntyre is directing his ire at the “fuzzy math” of supply-siders and other fiscal conservatives, such as this pdf about Senate Republicans. This time, however, he wrote in to point out an error in the Post’s political data. But was it an error? Here’s McIntyre’s letter:

Fuzzy Math

On Jan. 4, reporting the results of the Iowa caucuses, you said, “Sixty percent of Republican caucusgoers described themselves as evangelicals, according to entrance polls. Those voters went for Huckabee over Romney by more than 2 to 1.” [That article here.] Meanwhile, you also reported that Mike Huckabee received 34 percent of the total GOP vote. This seems impossible.

Even if Huckabee didn’t get a single non-evangelical vote, his two-thirds-plus share of 60 percent of the voters would give him more than 40 percent of the total vote.

Can you explain this?

– Robert S. McIntyre

McIntyre seems to be befuddled by a simple conceptual error. He’s assuming that Huckabee and Romney were the only two candidates, in which case two-thirds of 60 percent of the voters would indeed be 40 percent of the total vote. But in fact, Huckabee and Romney together got only 60 percent of the total vote. So let’s sort through the numbers. The entrance poll surveyed 1600 Republican voters. Of those, we’re told that 60 percent, or 960, were evangelicals. As this Los Angeles Times graphic of the entrance polls shows, Huckabee beat Romney 46-19 among those voters, which suggests he got about 442 evangelical votes among those polled. (And about 35 percent of evangelical voters voted for someone other than Huckabee or Romney.) That’s about 28 percent of the 1600 total voters. Huckabee got only 14 percent of the non-evangelical Republicans polled, or about 90 people. Add the 90 to the 442, and you get 532, or 33.25 percent of the voters surveyed. Which is pretty close to the 34.4 percent that Huckabee got in the actual caucuses.

McIntyre’s error should have been obvious to the Post’s editors. I don’t know why newspapers should publish letters to the editor that contain obvious errors. Would they publish a letter that said “You misspelled Reagan; it should be Raegan”? I doubt it.

Of course, what’s more interesting is that this simple conceptual error about elementary arithmetic comes from a leading “liberal” expert on tax policy, quoted regularly in major newspapers about the interpretation of complex income tax data. Let’s hope he understands those intricate and abstruse data better than he does simple political polls.

Did Bill Kristol Just Refute His Own Logical Fallacy?

Ah, the old Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc, the favorite logical fallacy of the dozen or so remaining Iraq War defenders in Washington. Presenting, for the prosecution, Bill Kristol:

The Democrats were wrong in their assessments of the surge. Attacks per week on American troops are now down about 60 percent from June. Civilian deaths are down approximately 75 percent from a year ago. December 2007 saw the second-lowest number of U.S. troops killed in action since March 2003. And according to Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of day-to-day military operations in Iraq, last month’s overall number of deaths, which includes Iraqi security forces and civilian casualties as well as U.S. and coalition losses, may well have been the lowest since the war began.

So far, so good. But then, our noble NYT columnist gets into trouble refuting Barack Obama’s equally asinine explanation that “much of that violence has been reduced because there was an agreement with tribes in Anbar Province, Sunni tribes, who started to see, after the Democrats were elected in 2006, you know what? — the Americans may be leaving soon.” Presenting, for the defense…Bill Kristol!

But Sunni tribes in Anbar announced in September 2006 that they would join to fight Al Qaeda. That was two months before the Democrats won control of Congress. The Sunni tribes turned not primarily because of fear of the Shiites, but because of their horror at Al Qaeda’s atrocities in Anbar. And the improvements in Anbar could never have been sustained without aggressive American military efforts — efforts that were more effective in 2007 than they had been in 2006, due in part to the addition of the surge forces.

Thus, we have learned that when the truth damages the Weekly Standard’s spin-line, it is to be swiftly discarded. When it damages Democratic Party spin, it is to be exalted. This sort of thing is pretty common in Washington, but to refute your own spin in the very same column in which you offer it is truly mastery of the form. Bravo!

On a related Monday-morning-snark note, much fuss has been made of the NYT’s decision to hire Kristol. From someone who bows to nobody in his strong distaste for the man, I’m forced to wonder whether anybody has considered that the NYT’s duty is not to inform the populace, or foster civic understanding, or even present truth to its readers. It’s to sell ads. And do we think that Kristol is going to provide the Times more or fewer links–and accordingly, more or less ad revenue–than it possessed previously?