Ashcroft: Closet Civil Libertarian?

A piece in yesterday’s Post points out that, contrary to John Ashcroft’s reputation as a lockstep defender of the administration’s war-on-terror policies, as attorney general, Ashcroft “at times resisted what he saw as radical overreaching”:

In addition to rejecting to the most expansive version of the warrantless eavesdropping program, the officials said, Ashcroft also opposed holding detainees indefinitely at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without some form of due process. He fought to guarantee some rights for those to be tried by newly created military commissions. And he insisted that Zacarias Moussaoui, accused of conspiring with the Sept. 11 hijackers, be prosecuted in a civilian court.

All true, but the article leaves out one of the most important occasions on which Ashcroft pushed back.  In 2002, the adminstration seriously contemplated extending the Jose Padilla treatment–that is, indefinite confinement at the will of the president, without charges or access to counsel–to all Americans suspected of terrorist activity.  As Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman reported in Newsweek three years ago, in addition to Padilla, “officials privately debated whether to name more Americans as enemy combatants—including a truck driver from Ohio and a group of men from Portland, Ore.,” as well as the Lackawanna Six

For Dick Cheney and his ally, Donald Rumsfeld, the answer was simple: the accused men should be locked up indefinitely as “enemy combatants,” and thrown into a military brig with no right to trial or even to see a lawyer. That’s what authorities had done with two other Americans, Yaser Hamdi and Jose Padilla. “They are the enemy, and they’re right here in the country,” Cheney argued, according to a participant. But others were hesitant to take the extraordinary step of stripping the men of their rights, especially because there was no evidence that they had actually carried out any terrorist acts. Instead, John Ashcroft insisted he could bring a tough criminal case against them for providing “material support” to Al Qaeda. 

Indeed, though Ashcroft seemed to have been on board with the transfer of Padilla out of civilian custody, he apparently helped prevent a much broader assault on the rule of law. 

Now I think calling John Ashcroft a civil libertarian for this would be setting the bar pretty low.  But after nearly six years of radical overreaching, it’s hard not to fall victim to the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” 

European Unions Want to Impoverish Workers

Even socialist and Marxist economists acknowledge that capital formation is the key to long-run growth and higher living standards. To be sure, they mistakenly think government should do the saving and investing, but at least they understand one of the prerequisites for future growth. Unfortunately, the same can be said for today’s European unions. According to a story in the EU Observer, trade unions are trying to discourage hedge funds and private equity from investing in Europe. This self-destructive effort – presumably motivated by a desire to prop up industries with inefficient union workforces – ensures that Europe will become even less competitive. In the long run, this means lower pay for workers:

Trade unions across the EU are preparing themselves to go on the offensive against the “big beasts” of private equity and hedge funds, believing their profit-oriented drive is undermining the bloc’s social fabric. “No one wants just a single market, they want something else out of Europe – some security against the big beasts that are in the single market like private equity and hedge funds,” the head of the European Trade Union Confederation John Monks (ETUC) told EU Observer.…Referring to “casino capitalism,” he said venture capitalists were only interested in buying a company, boosting the share price and selling, “leaving companies weakened by big debt.” …Critics say they often operate beyond normal regulations and are not transparent. The issue first generally entered the public consciousness in 2005 when Franz Muntefering, now German vice-chancellor, referred to hedge funds - which borrow large sums to bet in financial markets – as “locusts” waiting to swoop in and strip German companies of their assets, causing major job losses.

A Good Start on Immigration Reform

Today, the Senate begins debating a comprehensive immigration reform bill. The compromise bill announced last week is not perfect, but it offers a reasonable opportunity to reduce illegal immigration, secure our borders, and keep our economy growing.

The key to successful immigration reform, as I argued just last week in a new Free Trade Bulletin, is a workable temporary worker program. The compromise would allow 400,000 temporary workers to enter the country each year on “Y visas” to fill a multitude of jobs for which there simply are not enough native-born Americans available. We know from experience with the Bracero program in the 1950s that if we expand the legal opportunities for foreign-born workers to come to the United States, illegal immigration will drop.

The bill also legalizes most of the 12 million people currently in the country illegally by granting them temporary, renewable “Z visas.” Opponents will call any legalization an amnesty, but the compromise provisions would exact a $5,000 fine―not chump change for a low skilled worker―while requiring them to return to their home country before applying for permanent legal status. Permanent status would only be granted after the government clears the backlog of immigration petitions already outstanding, a process that will take about eight years. This is a far less generous legalization than what was offered in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which handed immediate green cards to about 2.7 million previously illegal immigrants.

The bill would also shift the emphasis on immigration from family relationships to a broader list of factors, including education, English proficiency, and work experience. The bill would still allow family visas for spouses and minor children, but being the parent, sibling and grown child of a naturalized U.S. citizen would not longer be sufficient qualification.

This provision is drawing flak from a number of immigration supporters, but the shift away from a family-dominated immigration system makes sense. It is easier today than it was a century ago to maintain ties to extended family because of international travel and international telecommunications. Although I believe fears of “chain migration” are over-blown, this compromise would help to alleviate some of those fears among people who would otherwise support immigration reform.

Any legalization would be put on hold until certain quantifiable “triggers” are met. The requirements include beefing up the border patrol to 18,000 agents, erecting a 370-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexican border, and expanding detention facilities to hold up to 27,500 illegal aliens per day.

My concern with the triggers is that they will needlessly delay the single most important remedy for illegal immigration―a temporary visa program for new workers. The problem of illegal immigration exists because our immigration system is out of step with the realities of the American labor market. As Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff testified before Congress in February, a legalization program would significantly reduce illegal traffic across the border, enhancing the ability of U.S. agents to capture people who would still be sneaking in to commit criminal or terrorist acts.

The bill also requires a nationwide employment verification program covering every U.S. worker, whether native or foreign-born. This is also troubling. An existing pilot program has exposed a disturbingly high error rate. U.S. citizens have been rejected by the system, requiring them to visit with immigration officials to prove their legal status. I doubt many native-born Americans will want to entrust their ability to earn a living to the reliability of a centrally controlled government data base.

These are kinks that can and should be worked out in the legislative process unfolding as we speak. Despite its shortcomings, the immigration reform plan unveiled last week and now before the Senate contains all the essential elements to finally address the growing problem of illegal immigration.

Europe’s Best and Brightest Flee the Welfare State

A Washington Post column on relations between Europe and the United States explains that ambitious and entrepreneurial Europeans are “voting with their feet” and moving to America:

Young Europeans are more eager than ever to work and study in the United States. A brain drain from France and Germany has sent some of their best and brightest to the United States. A top destination is Silicon Valley; an estimated 80,000 young French people, known for their math skills, have migrated there in pursuit of jobs with high-tech firms. When I spoke last year with about 50 Germans studying at MIT and Harvard, not one of them expressed a desire to return home. They all wanted to live and work in the United States, where, they said, opportunities are far more abundant. Many complained that the sclerotic welfare states in Europe punish those who work and reward those who don’t. So they’re fleeing the crushing tax burden at home for more lucrative challenges in the United States. Europe’s leaders are slowly waking up to the fact that, with shrinking birth rates and a diminished work force, the continent may no longer be able to afford lavish social benefits, such as universal health care, retirement on full pensions as early as age 50 and up to nine weeks of paid vacation per year. They are exploring best practices in the United States to see how to rekindle entrepreneurial spirit and push people off welfare rolls.

Germany Attacks Ireland

This is a bad news/good news story. The bad news is that Germany is attacking Ireland. The good news is that the Germans now attack with words and bureaucratic schemes rather than Panzers and Stukas. But the attack - based on German complaints that Ireland’s low tax rates are “unfair” - is nonetheless despicable. Instead of attacking Ireland, the Germans should learn from the Irish Miracle and cut tax rates and reduce the burden of government. Fortunately, as noted by an article in the Irish Examiner, the Irish are resisting Germany’s fiscal aggression:

The German finance minister has threatened to go after Ireland’s low corporation tax system that he says leads to unfair competition with Germany and other EU countries. …Ireland has the second-lowest corporation tax rate in the EU at 12.5%, which is credited for creating the celtic tiger, attracting massive foreign investment and jobs. Germany has the highest at 38.6%. In 2004 over €33 billion flooded into the country, almost the same as went to Germany. German minister Peer Steinbruck warned that Ireland and other low tax countries in Eastern Europe were involved in what he called cutthroat competition that was not sustainable in the long run. …The German government is adopting a two pronged attack — first in pushing the European Commission to develop an EU-wide harmonised tax base and secondly by reopening the EU’s Code of Conduct on unfair tax competition. …Politicians from all parties, Internal Markets Commissioner Charlie McCreevy and business interests have all warned that the plan to harmonise the corporate tax base must be killed. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has said that harmonizing the tax base across the EU could seriously affect the country’s ability to compete for investment and jobs in the global economy. …Mr McCreevy has said that those pushing for the Common Consolidated Corporation Tax Base (CCCTB) see this as the first step in having a single uniform corporate tax rate across the union.

Switzerland Officially Rejects Request from Brussels to Negotiate Surrender of Tax Sovereignty

Politicians from high-tax nations in the European Union are upset that companies - and tax revenues - are escaping to Switzerland to benefit from better tax law. But rather than fix their bad policies, they want the Swiss to raise the tax burden on economic activity in Switzerland. Not Surprisingly, as the Neue Zuricher Zeitung reports, Swiss leaders have said no:

The Swiss government has rejected formal negotiations with the European Union in a bid to resolve a controversy over the country’s corporate tax system. …Finance Minister Hans:Rudolf Merz and Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy:Rey said on Wednesday that Switzerland would not surrender its sovereignty on tax matters. The statement came in the wake of a decision earlier this week by EU ministers to open official negotiations with Switzerland. …Over the past few weeks several ministers have come out against holding formal negotiations with Brussels in the tax row. Merz said the cabinet and the cantons, which have wide:ranging autonomy in fiscal matters, wanted to ensure that Switzerland remains competitive.

Washington—the Anti-Economic Center

“Two West Coast senators are leading an effort to increase the number of cross-country flights out of [convenient but overcrowded] Reagan National Airport, a move that could lead to more noise over neighborhoods and jam already filled parking lots,” reports the Washington Post. 

Sens. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) have amended a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill to allow up to 20 additional takeoffs and landings a day.

“It’s about connecting West and East Coast economic centers,” said R.C. Hammond, spokesman for Smith, elaborating on the senator’s motivation for the amendment.

Actually, Washington isn’t really an economic center. It’s more like an anti-economic center. Washington doesn’t do business, it impedes business, and subsidizes business, and regulates business, and cripples business. New York, Baltimore, Atlanta – those are East Coast economic centers. Not Washington, the city of lobbyists and government contractors.

Just what is it that businesspeople from Seattle and Portland would come to Washington for? They’d go to New York and Atlanta to make business deals. But they’d come to Washington to lobby for subsidies, or for regulations on their competitors, or to try to get a piece of the $2.9 trillion federal budget. But not to do actual wealth-creating business in the marketplace.

Some people say that West Coast senators want direct flights from National Airport to their home towns to make travel more convenient for them. If so, they should say so. But don’t tell us that the country would benefit from more Lobby Express flights.