All You Ever Needed to Know About the Surge

A while back, I characterized the Bush administration’s approach to Iraq as “buy time and pray for a miracle.” Now White House politics-of-Iraq guru Peter Feaver has a piece in Commentary lifting the veil from the White House machinations of surge planning. In the piece, Feaver reveals that the planners’ objective was basically to toss the Iraqi hot potato into the lap of the next administration, dust off their hands, and declare victory:

The challenge…was to develop and implement a workable strategy that could be handed over to Bush’s successor. Although important progress could be made on that strategy during Bush’s watch, ultimately it would be carried through by the next President….

This new and different strategy, now called the “surge” but at one point called by insiders the “bridge,” emerged out of a growing recognition over 2006 that our critics were right about one thing: our Iraq policy was not working…

As a political matter, this has a pretty airtight logic to it. Rather than admitting that theirs was the first U.S. administration to start and lose a war of aggression on their watch (bad for the legacy!), this way it comes out heads-we-win-tails-you-lose. If, by the grace of God, some subsequent U.S. president can manage to extricate us from the Iraqi quagmire without a total meltdown, the Bushies will clap each other on the back, declaring themselves visionaries. If, on the other hand, Iraq flames out entirely on the watch of a subsequent administration, the Bushies can play the Dolchstoss card and explain how The Surge Was Working and would have continued working were it not for the fecklessness of the Obama/Clinton/McCain administration.

Don’t Do Something, Just Stand There

In the Washington Post Shankar Vedantam discusses “the action bias, or the desire to do something rather than nothing when you have just been through a terrible experience.” He cites evidence that both individuals and politicians often prefer to do something rather than nothing, even if “nothing” would be the wiser course.

When people suffer losses and confront the possibility of even greater reverses – it doesn’t matter if you are talking about a terrorist attack or a meltdown in retirement savings – it is psychologically difficult to do nothing, to hold course. This is true even when the action you contemplate produces an outcome that leaves you demonstrably worse than you were in the first place….

Economist Ofer Azar recently came up with a novel way to study the insidious nature of the action bias. He examined whether soccer goalies were more likely to stop penalty kicks when they dived to the left, dived to the right or stayed in the center of the goal. In a study of 286 penalty kicks faced by elite Israeli goalkeepers, Azar found that goalies had the best chance of stopping a kick when they remained in the center – partly because when they dived to one side, they left themselves with no chance of stopping a kick aimed at the other side or a kick aimed dead center. And even when they correctly guessed the direction of the kick, they still had only a 1-in-4 chance of stopping a goal.

Despite the clarity of the evidence, Azar found that goalies dived to one side or the other 93 percent of the time.

And of course it’s not just goalies. Vedantam suggests that “the Iraq war might be Exhibit A for the action bias”–noting Hillary Clinton’s statement in 2002: “In balancing the risks of action versus inaction, I think New Yorkers who have gone through the fires of hell may be more attuned to the risk of not acting. I know that I am.”

Good point. And he might go on to discuss the current rush to regulation in the wake of the subprime crisis and the Bear Stearns collapse. Voters expect politicians to “do something!” Regulators don’t want to look unresponsive. So everybody has a plan for more money, more regulation, or some sort of action. And of course it’s a recurring problem. Enron failed, and politicians panicked right into the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, whose costs will be with us long after we’ve forgotten what Enron was.

The bias toward action is one good reason for constitutional and procedural constraints on government actions. Constitutional limits on what government can legislate, bicameral legislatures, supermajorities, the filibuster, the presidential veto–all are designed to prevent hasty action, whether from popular delusions, demagogic campaigns, or the simple desire to be seen doing something rather than prudently refraining from misguided actions.

An Argentine Mess

The decision of Argentina’s president Cristina Fernández to raise the export taxes on grain producers has sparked protests all over the country, putting the country once again in international headlines. But punishing exporters is not the main story, it’s the economic mess that the last two administrations have created in that beautiful country.

The previous government of Nestor Kirchner–Fernandez’s husband–thought that he could devalue his way out of the crisis of 2001. Since that year, the Central Bank of Argentina has consistently applied a weak peso policy, which along with a massive increase in public spending, has resulted in runaway inflation. Last year, the Argentine peso was the only Latin American currency that didn’t appreciate against the U.S. dollar; in fact it depreciated slightly. The weak peso thus served as a subsidy to exporters, including the farmers now protesting the tax hike.

So we actually have the Argentine government subsidizing and confiscating agricultural exporters at the same time, while creating inflation (which has led to price controls, bans on exports, and other economic beauties). And now, in response to the protests, the Fernández administration has announced new subsidies to farmers.

Only in Argentina.

Will They Turn Themselves In?

British prime minister Gordon Brown has announced that he supports increasing the penalties for the use of marijuana, reversing the slight liberalization of the law under his predecessor, Tony Blair.

I touched on this topic about nine months ago in my posting “Hash Brownies and Harlots in the Halls of Power.” As the Brown government began a review of the marijuana laws, it was revealed that at least eight members of Brown’s cabinet –including the Home Secretary (or attorney general), who was charged with studying the idea of increased penalties, the police minister, and the Home Office minister in charge of drugs – had themselves used marijuana. They were dubbed the “Hash Brownies,” in honor of their service in Brown’s government. I wrote at the time:

In the United States many leading politicians including Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, Bill Bradley, and Barack Obama have admitted using drugs, while Bush and Bill Clinton tried to avoid answering the question.

In both Britain and the United States, all these politicians support drug prohibition. They support the laws that allow for the arrest and incarceration of people who use drugs. Yet they laugh off their own use as “a youthful indiscretion.”

These people should be asked: Do you think people should be arrested for using drugs? Do you think people should go to jail for using drugs? And if so, do you think you should turn yourself in? Do you think people who by the luck of the draw avoided the legal penalty for using drugs should now be serving in high office and sending off to jail other people who did what you did?

Those are still good questions. I noted at the time that they might also be asked of Sen. David Vitter, a patron of prostitutes who believes that prostitution should be illegal. And of course now they should be asked – if he were to reappear and take questions – of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who not only supported the laws he was breaking but aggressively enforced those very laws during the same period in which he was enthusastically violating them.

Hypocrisy may be the tribute that vice pays to virtue in matters of advice. But it’s entirely unbecoming when the coercive force of law is involved.

Dropouts. Starving for a Good Education

“Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings will require all states to use one federal formula to calculate graduation and dropout rates,” reports the New York Times, as part of a campaign to keep more kids in school.

The idea that we can reduce the public school dropout rate simply by measuring it better is misguided. It’s like believing that the North Koreans could improve their economy by more accurately measuring the number of people who are starving. As with the North Korean economy, the problem with U.S. public schooling is that it is a monopoly that takes choice away from families, takes professional autonomy away from educators, and takes normal economic incentives away from everyone.

Meanwhile, there is evidence from a sophisticated nationwide study that inner city minority kids – those most at risk of dropping out – are more likely to graduate, more likely to get into college, and more likely to graduate from college if they attend private instead of public schools – and that’s true after controlling for differences in student and family background. Other small scale studies of the Milwaukee school voucher program show similar results.

We already know how to reduce the dropout rate: ensure that all families can easily afford to choose the public or private schools best suited to their children. Until that happens, expect to see millions of American kids continuing to starve for a real education.

April Fools for Skilled Workers

Quite appropriately, today exposes another facet of the foolishness that is U.S. immigration policy. April 1st is the day each fiscal year when employers are allowed to begin filing petitions with the US Citizen and Immigration Services for highly skilled workers to be given what are known as H-1B visas. For the second consecutive year, the quota of these visas was reached on this first day of eligibility.

H-1Bs allow employers to hire foreign workers in certain professional occupations. They are good for three years and can be renewed for another three. Though an H-1B cannot lead to a green card, it’s still a pretty good deal.

The problem is that, even in this apparent economic downturn, there aren’t enough visas: Congress limits the number of annual H-1Bs grants, and that magic number has been set at 65,000 for five years now. Before that, and in response to the technology boom of the late ’90s, Congress temporarily raised the H-1B cap to 195,000. But that expansion expired in 2004, and the cap has been reached earlier and earlier each year since.

In 2005, that meant August. In 2006, May 26. Last year, by the afternoon of April 2, 2007 (April 1 was a Sunday), USCIS had received over 150,000 H-1B applications. Officials quickly announced that they would randomly select 65,000 petitions from all those the agency had received in the first two days of eligibility.

Last week, with demand for the prized work permits only increasing, the powers that be decreed that this year’s lottery would accept all entries received in the first five business days. USCIS simultaneously promulgated a rule prohibiting employers from trying to game the lottery by filing multiple petitions for the same employee.

As for the vast majority of employers and employees who will be out of luck, the immigration laws say, like so many “rebuilding” baseball teams this opening week, “wait till next year.” Except, in this case, next year means putting your business or career on hold until October 1, 2009—the day people who secure H-1Bs for fiscal year 2010 can start work.

If only this were all a bad April Fools’ joke.

Read more on this in the article I have up on National Review Online today.

No End in Sight

Sunday’s New York Times contains a review of Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight, the book version of his documentary film of the same name. The book is basically a 500 page compilation of the interviews Ferguson did for the film.

Like most of those who reviewed the film, the reviewer, Barry Gewen, has only good things to say about Ferguson’s project. For the most part, he’s right to praise. Ferguson made a fortune in software (after getting a PhD in Political Science from MIT!) and used a chunk of his wealth to travel to Iraq at great risk and make a first-rate documentary, even though he’d never before made a film. You have to give the guy credit.

On the other hand, both the film and book at least implicitly subscribe to the incompetence dodge: the idea that the problem in Iraq was the Bush Administration’s execution of the occupation, not the thing itself; means not ends. Ferguson, a liberal hawk who supported the war and, from what I can tell, still does, says in his preface that the purpose of the film was to answer the “big question of how and why all this had occurred.” “All this” means the disaster in Iraq. He answers by dissecting the management of the early occupation, particularly the decisions to disband the Iraqi Army and fire most Ba’athists from Iraq’s government. He demonstrates that these decisions were ill-considered, ill-advised and aided the insurgency. By stopping there, Ferguson implies that he has answered his question by looking at the tactics of occupation; that this incompetence is what went wrong in Iraq.

The Bush Administration was incompetent and then some in Iraq, but the occupation failed because it involved Americans trying to reorder the government of a far-off country with plenty of grievances and arms but no liberal ideology. It’s too much to say that success was impossible, but failure was likely, no matter who was President.

Gewen flags a quote Ambassador Barbara Bodine gives in the book: “There were 500 ways to do it wrong, and two or three ways to do it right,” Bodine tells Ferguson. “What we didn’t understand is that we were gonna go through all 500.”

What Gewen doesn’t say is that if she’s right and the odds of success are 1/250, the lesson is don’t chance it.

For an explanation of why civil war was likely in Iraq after an American invasion, no matter how well the President planned and whether they dissolved the Iraqi Army, read the essay, “Learning the Right Lessons from Iraq,” that I wrote for Cato with Harvey Sapolsky and Chris Preble.

On why getting this right matters, see Andrew Bacevich:

How Americans choose to incorporate Iraq into the nation’s historical narrative will either affirm our post-Cold War trajectory toward empire or create opportunities to set a saner course.

Banal maybe, but worth repeating.