Indonesia Reform, Please

The Indonesian stock market has just hit a record high on the hope that the incoming President, Joko Widodo, will push through economic reforms. But, what path should he follow? My advice to President Widodo is the same as that I gave President Suharto, when I was his advisor in 1998: follow Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew.

When Singapore gained independence in 1965, Lee Kuan Yew developed a set of sound principles, which proved to be highly successful. Indeed, their implementation propelled Singapore to the top of the world’s competitiveness rankings. I have dubbed these principles the “Singapore Strategy.” It contains the following five elements:

  • First and foremost, stabilize the currency. Singapore achieved stability with a currency board system – a simple, transparent, rule-driven monetary regime.
  • Second, don’t pass the begging bowl. Singapore refused to accept foreign aid of any kind.
  • Third, foster first-world, competitive, private enterprises. Singapore accomplished this via light taxation, light regulation, and completely open and free trade.
  • Fourth, emphasize personal security, public order, and the protection of private property.
  • The final key to Lee Kuan Yew’s “Singapore Strategy” is the means to accomplish the previous four goals: a small, transparent government that avoids complexity and red tape. And one that is directed by first-class civil servants who are paid first-class wages.

Bennett Piece Exemplifies Core Problems

This morning, former Reagan administration education secretary Bill Bennett took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to make the “conservative” case for the Common Core. In that effort, he actually made a great case for Core opponents, illustrating the contradictions of the Core while furnishing several examples of all-too-frequent Core spin. And he did it, ironically, while implying that Core opponents have “badly and sometimes mischievously muddled” the Core story.

To lay all of this out I’ll provide some quotes, then either respond to them with my own information, or with another, largely contradictory, quote from Bennett’s piece. Let’s begin:

First, we can all agree that there is a need for common standards of assessment in K-12 education.

We can? What’s the evidence for that? Bennett offers none, and even loaded polling questions find that only about two-thirds of Americans support generic standards “that are the same across states.” And I, for one, think there need to be competing standards in order to see what works, what works better, and what works for different subsets of the unique individuals we call “children.”

When I was chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the 1980s, I asked 250 people across the political spectrum what 10 books every student should be familiar with by the time they finish high school. Almost every person agreed on five vital sources: the Bible, Shakespeare, America’s founding documents, the great American novel “Huckleberry Finn” and classical works of mythology and poetry, like the Iliad and the Odyssey….That’s the fundamental idea behind a core curriculum: preserving and emphasizing what’s essential, in fields like literature and math, to a worthwhile education.

Presumably, the Core includes these readings that almost everyone Bennett polled agreed students should tackle. Right? Um, no:

Why then is Common Core drawing such heavy fire? Some of the criticism is legitimate, but much of it is based on myths. For example, a myth persists that Common Core involves a required reading list. Not so.

Here we see a basic problem for Core supporters: they want the public to believe either that the Core is rich and rigorous, or that it is empty and just a floor, depending, is seems, on whom they are trying to convince to support it. So in one breath they’ll talk about the obvious need for core content, and in the next they’ll protest if anyone says the standards have, well, core content. This may be because there actually is no unanimous agreement on what students should read.

Governors, state education administrators and teachers used these principles as a guide when they developed a set of common standards that were later presented to the country as Common Core. Forty-five states signed up originally.

Let’s be clear: States adopted the Core, in the vast majority of cases, only after the federal government all but said they had to in order to compete for $4 billion in Race to the Top money. Federal force was further applied by the No Child Left Behind waiver program. And all this occurred in the context of federally driven standards and testing since at least 1994. So, would most states have adopted the Core on their own? We don’t know for sure, but the evidence is heavily stacked against it.

Critics accused President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan of dangling federal money to encourage states to adopt the Common Core. The administration never should have done this. It made a voluntary agreement among states look like a top-down directive from the federal government. But remember: The original Common Core standards were separate from the federal government, and they can be separated once again.

Five Absurd Overreactions to the Surge in Child Migrants

The surge of unaccompanied migrant children (UAC) that dominated the news cycle in June and July of this year has receded – so much so that many emergency shelters established to handle the inflow are shutting down.  At the height of the surge, many commentators and government officials expected 90,000 UAC to be apprehended by the end of the fiscal year (FY).  As the end of the FY approaches, the number of apprehended UAC stands at roughly 66,000 - far below the estimates.

Now that the surge has receded, here are some of the most absurd overreactions to it.  Never before have so many commentators been so angry over so few migrants.

1.  U.S. Representative Phil Gingrey (R-GA) quoted in “POLITIFACT: Deadly viruses part of border crisis?Tampa Bay Times (July 29).  

Rep. Gingrey said: “Reports of illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis are particularly concerning.” [Emphasis added]

Ebola is a terrifying virus and a recent outbreak in West Africa shared the headlines with the surge in UAC, but that doesn’t mean the two events are linked.  Rep. Gingrey’s office indicated that he heard about child migrants carrying Ebola from border agents.  The rest of us are still waiting to hear about it.

2.  Mackubin Thomas Owens, “Camp of the Saints, 2014 Style?” National Review Online (June 13).

Apparently the terrible consequences of an influx of child migrants, which was only equal to about 6 percent of the total number of legal immigrants admitted this year, was predicted by a controversial 1973 French novel entitled The Camp of the Saints – which described the end of Western Civilization due to an influx of third-world immigrants.

Owens’ comments reveal a Western tradition that should be abandoned – that every small issue signals the downfall of Western Civilization.            

3.  Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, “SOUTHCOM chief: Central America drug war a fire threat to U.S. national security,” Military Times (July 8).

“In comparison to other global threats, the near collapse of societies in the hemisphere with the associated drug and illegal alien flow are frequently viewed to be of low importance. Many argue these threats are not existential and do not challenge our national security. I disagree.” [Emphasis added]

There are certainly national security challenges that accompany America’s disastrous prosecution of the war on drugs and there is a security component to regulating immigration.  But it is quite a leap to go from pointing out problems that could potentially get worse to then stating they are “existential.”

Why Is Barack Obama Lecturing Scotland about Its Independence Vote?

Polls show a close vote over Scottish independence.  It is a momentous decision, but why is President Barack Obama bothering the Scots with his opinion?

Until recently virtually everyone outside of Scotland believed that the Scots would deliver a solid no vote.  But many in the UK’s north feel disenfranchised.  More fundamentally, many Scots reject the more vibrant market system which characterizes the UK as well as U.S. 

The tightening race has created panic in Westminster.  Now the three largest national parties are promising to pass along additional powers to the Scottish assembly—though they can’t agree on how much and which powers.

Britain’s government long has been overly centralized, but the rush to toss national authority overboard raises the question:  what is Westminster hoping to preserve?  If the Scots are so unhappy with the present system, why not accept the result with grace? 

Even a narrow win in which almost half of voters say they wanted to leave might prove Pyrrhic.  It would leave a barely united United Kingdom, one likely to face continuing Scottish dissatisfaction and future secession votes.

Yet a comical cavalcade of outsiders has been telling the Scottish what to do.

For instance, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said “it’s hard to see how the world would be helped by an independent Scotland.”  Russian President Vladimir Putin observed:  “one should not forget that being part of a single strong state has some advantages.”  Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang endorsed a “strong, prosperous and united United Kingdom.”

In June President Barack Obama declared:  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” meaning the UK, which he said appeared to have “worked pretty well.”  He worried about the impact on the U.S.:  “the United Kingdom has been an extraordinary partner for us.”  Moreover, “we obviously have a deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies that we will ever have remains strong, robust, united and an effective partner.” 

President Obama didn’t stop there.  He also told the United Kingdom that it should remain in the European Union.  Opined the president:  “With respect to the EU, we share a strategic vision with Great Britain on a whole range of international issues and so it’s always encouraging for us to know that Great Britain has a seat at the table in the larger European project.” 

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Ca.) argued:  “It’s clear from this side of the Atlantic that a United Kingdom, including Scotland, would be the strongest possible American ally.”  He was joined by 26 colleagues in introducing a resolution declaring “that a united, secure, and prosperous United Kingdom is important for U.S. national security priorities in Europe and around the world.” 

While Westminster, which apparently requested the president to intervene, might find these arguments convincing, not so the Scottish public.  Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, who is running the yes campaign, observed that “Being told what to do tends to instigate a position in Scotland where we will say we will choose our own way forward.”

The American experience inspires some.  One Scottish independence activist told NBC News:  “Americans went through their own struggle for independence 200 years ago and it turned out pretty well for them.  They were the pioneers of this process!  You would expect America to look out for what’s in its own best interests and there’s no reason why Scotland shouldn’t be exactly the same.”

Indeed.  As I wrote in my new American Spectator article:  “Whatever the Scots choose on September 18, Americans should wish them well.”

What the President Said about ISIS, and What I Heard

It seems particularly appropriate, on this 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, to ponder anew what counterterrorism steps are prudent and effective, and what measures are reckless and counterproductive.

With this in mind, I was moderately inclined to go along with President Obama’s plan to attack the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), provided that he defined a limited and achievable set of goals, and therefore established limits on the size and scope of the U.S. military mission.

But when the president says this:

“We will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are.” 

I hear this:

“All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note…”

Though they didn’t race there, a team of U.S. special forces eventually made their way to Pakistan and pumped a couple of bullets into bin Laden, so he’s not making these videos any more. That seems worthy. If we can repeat these sorts of operations elsewhere, and shut up a few more loudmouths, we should.

But the larger point stands. We shouldn’t terrorize ourselves. We shouldn’t exaggerate the threat posed by terrorism. And we shouldn’t react in ways that feed the terrorists’ narrative, or serve the terrorists’ goals.

The Naked Truth about TSA Spending

Governments tend to spend money on low-value activities because they do not have market signals or customer feedback to guide them. In this report, I examined the problem with respect to the Transportation Security Administration. As one example, TSA’s SPOT program for finding terrorists spends more than $200 million a year with few if any benefits.

Further confirmation of TSA’s misallocation problem comes from a new academic study looking at the full-body “nudie” scanners installed in U.S. airports at great expense between 2009 and 2013. A team of university researchers bought a Rapiscan Secure 1000 backscatter X-ray machine and began testing it on various types of weapons and explosives. It turns out that a terrorist could fool the machines pretty easily:

We find that the system provides weak protection against adaptive adversaries: It is possible to conceal knives, guns, and explosives from detection by exploiting properties of the device’s backscatter X-ray technology.

If you walked though the machines with a big block of C-4 plastic explosive in your hands, it would be detected. The problem, of course, is that terrorists are smarter than that:

We show that an adaptive adversary, with the ability to refine his techniques based on experiment, can confidently smuggle contraband past the scanner by carefully arranging it on his body, obscuring it with other materials, or properly shaping it. Using these techniques, we are able to hide firearms, knives, plastic explosive simulants, and detonators in our tests. These attacks are surprisingly robust, and they suggest a failure on the part of the Secure 1000’s designers and the TSA to adequately anticipate adaptive attackers.

The Rapiscan machines were pulled from U.S. airports due to concerns about civil liberties and the possible health effects of emitted radiation. But as one of the study authors observed to Bloomberg: “What does this say about how these scanners were tested and acquired in the first place? … It says there’s something wrong with the government’s process … [the process] is secret and not independent. Those are problems.” It’s also a problem that the government has a monopoly on aviation security, and that TSA is not accountable to anyone for its level of efficiency or performance. Well, it’s accountable to Congress I suppose, but that doesn’t really amount to much these days.

The good news is that airport security screening does not have to be a government monopoly. We should move to private contracting with federal oversight, which is the approach taken by Canada and numerous European countries. For more, see my report and check out the writings of Bob Poole at Reason.