Terrorism and Elections

With elections a week off, should we be especially worried about an Al Qaeda attack? Writing last week in Slate, Brookings’ Daniel Benjamin says yes, following in the footsteps of other terrorism experts. They could be right, but they have almost no evidence. Like the others, Benjamin supports his claim with a handful of past examples of Al Qaeda attacks that occurred around election time. But if Al Qaeda attacks occur when they are most convenient for the attackers, they will be randomly distributed throughout the year, meaning that a certain percentage, which will head toward 1/12 as years go by, will fall in the month before elections. Citing a few attacks that occured around election time is evidence of nothing.

What about specific attacks? Do they reveal qualitative evidence for the hypothesis that Al Qaeda tries to sway elections, such as attackers saying that this was their goal? Short answer: no. The only Al Qaeda attack that remotely fits this billing, and the one that all the experts cite, is the Madrid train bombings in 2004.

The attack came 72 hours before Spain’s general elections. When the Popular Party, led by José María Aznar, made a clumsy attempt to blame the ETA, a Basque separatist terrorist organization, the Spanish elected the Socialists, who then pulled troops from Iraq. Because the terrorists evidently influenced the election, pundits tend to assume that this was their aim.  But evidence for this assumption is almost nonexistent. The main data point is that some plotters may have read a tract on a website saying to attack around election time. That’s about it.

What’s more, the plot was only an Al Qaeda attack in spirit. So far as we know from public sources, there was not central planning from the remnants of Al Qaeda in Pakistan or elsewhere. The perpetrators organized locally. Even if they meant to swing the election, their tenuous connection to other groups makes it hard to form conclusions about the movement as a whole.

Some might say that what matters about the Madrid attack is the lesson that other terrorists drew from it. The apparent success in influencing the election might provoke imitation. Maybe so. But there is scant indication that imitation has occurred.

Terrorist plots, especially those that occur in countries foreign to the plotters, are tough to pull off. They require considerable organization. Police and intelligence agencies are hunting jihadist groups. They are likely to organize attacks to maximize the odds of success rather than to fit US election cycles.

In general, we should be wary of analysis that talks about Al Qaeda as a unified entity. Al Qaeda is a loosely connected network of small organizations and groups of guys. Assigning overarching preferences or goals to them can be analytically useful, just as talking about a country as a unified actor can be. But this kind of theorizing exaggerates terrorist unity. Psychology tells us that we tend to see patterns in random events – causality, order and centralization where none is. We overtheorize, experts in particular. They deserve skepticism.

Popular Syndrome

New York governor David Paterson’s top aide, Charles J. O’Byrne, has been forced to resign after revelations that he failed to pay his federal and state income taxes for five years. He owed some $300,000.

His attorney, Richard Kestenbaum, explained that O’Byrne suffered from “non-filer syndrome,” which “causes them not to be able to file their tax returns.” A spokesman for the governor, however, said he has not actually been diagnosed with what she called “late-filers syndrome.”

We often note that you could have read it in Cato Institute publications before it hit the mainstream media. In this case, we hate to think that O’Byrne and his lawyer might have gotten the idea from us. But in fact you can find it in law journals as far back as 1994.

If this syndrome ever gets listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it’s going to be more popular than ADD.

A Defense Cut?

Republicans are up in arms over signs that the Democratic leadership in the House may be considering cutting the defense budget.

Last week, Barney Frank told the editorial board of the SouthCoast Standard-Times – a local paper in Massachusetts – that the Pentagon’s budget should be cut by 25%. I didn’t believe this at first. The Democratic position on these matters has long been to support the Pentagon’s budget requests for fear of opening a line of attack for Republicans. But Congressman Frank’s office confirms that he did indeed say this.

You might say, so what? Frank is not on any defense committee and is probably just running his mouth for his liberal base in a reelection campaign. Maybe so. But Frank does not have a serious opponent and is close with the Democratic leadership in the House. It’s would be surprising if he got crosswise of Speaker Pelosi. Plus, you already have John Murtha, chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, telling reporters that, because of the bailouts, defense spending will need some trimming (Murtha, who has taken to calling his constituents names, might actually lose his seat). So it’s fair to guess that we’re seeing an emerging position or trial balloon. Frankly, it’s shocking that any Democrat would take this stance a week before elections where they stand to gain a couple dozen seats by standing still. The Republican reaction (danger! war! surrender!) is utterly predictable.

It is also wrong. The truth is that we should cut the defense budget by more than 25%. The non-war defense budget has grown by around 45% since Bush took office, once you adjust for inflation. The Pentagon accounts for half the world’s military spending, most of which is irrelevant to counter-terrorism, and more than half of U.S. discretionary spending. The threats we face from rival militaries are historically small. We can save plenty of money and still be safe – probably safer, in fact, since our profligate defense spending serves our instinct to intervene willy-nilly around the world, creating enemies.

What’s important to keep in mind is that cutting defense spending requires cutting defense commitments and force structure. Frank is quoted saying: “We don’t need all these fancy new weapons.” That’s true, but you don’t save 25% of the budget by going after weapons procurement alone. You need to cut force structure. If you do that while keeping troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea, the Philippines, and Japan, sending a peacekeeping force to Sudan, defending Taiwan, threatening Iran, rebuilding a failed state or two, and defending Georgia and Ukraine from Russia, the military will scream in justified agony. Saving on defense starts with doing less.

Palin, Disabled Kids, and Federal Policy

Last Friday, Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin offered a federal policy prescription for disabled students: more choice for parents, tens of billions of new spending on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and some unspecified “reforming and refocusing.”

The Constitution affords the federal government no authority to determine how children are educated, apart from ensuring equal protection of the laws.  A political party that accepted the limited, enumerated powers accorded to the federal government by the Constitution would not have a legislative agenda on this subject, other than rolling back unconstitutional laws already on the books. But, given that no such party exists at present, let’s consider this proposal.

McCain/Palin want to tie existing federal IDEA funding to individual students rather than to the districts that currently serve them, so that parents could take the money to a private school of their choice. Ideally, according to Palin, they’d want the state funding to follow the children, too (as in Florida’s McKay voucher program for disabled students), but it seems they would leave that decision up to the states. This is a better idea than any alternative IDEA reform offered in the past few decades.

The idea of “fully funding” IDEA is, however, one of the worst ideas of the past few decades. There are two problems with IDEA. First, it is not clear how much it helps disabled children. Studies of student performance before and after they enter IDEA programs show little if any benefit. Second, the law has led to a wholesale labeling of perfectly healthy children as “disabled” simply because the public school system has failed to teach them how to read.

Today, just under 3 million American kids are classified as suffering from “Specific Learning Disabilities,” a condition defined in law as reading performance below the level expected for a child of the given age and intelligence.  An obvious deficiency in this definition is that it encompasses children who have not been properly taught to read, and have not managed to pick up the skill on their own. Many public school systems, thanks to their infatuation with ”whole language” instruction and their resistance to structured synthetic phonics, have difficulty teaching many non-disabled children to read. These 3 million “SLD” children represent more than 40 percent of the entire population of students classified as disabled under the IDEA.

Fully funding IDEA without first addressing its recipe for rampant overdiagnosis will likely make this problem much, much worse.

A real solution would be the spread of large-scale school choice programs at the state level, which would allow all families to easily choose a public or private school for their children. As more families migrated to the private sector, and all schools were forced to compete, ineffective reading instruction methods would be discarded as competitive liabilities, saving millions of children from being exposed to them.

Obama Said McCain Is Confused

According to the New York Times, Sen. John McCain

stepped up his criticism of the Bush administration by pounding the lectern and demanding that the government support his plan to buy troubled mortgages from homeowners. “And why isn’t the Treasury secretary ordering them to do that?” Mr. McCain asked.

And then he went on:

“We finally learned what Senator Obama’s economic goal is. As he told Joe the Plumber in Ohio, he wants to, quote, ‘spread the wealth around.’ He believes in redistributing the wealth, not in policies that grow our economy and create jobs and opportunities for all Americans. Senator Obama is more interested in controlling who gets your piece of the pie than he is in growing the pie.”

“Socialist!” someone in the crowd yelled.

Presumably the listener yelled “Socialist!” after McCain’s gibe at Obama’s “spread the wealth” plan, but it’s possible that the writing was a little sloppy and the charge actually came in response to McCain’s demand that the federal government buy up mortgages.

Today at Cato

Article: “Mark-To-Model, Into The Twilight Zone,” by Steve H. Hanke and John A. Tatom in Investor’s Business Daily

Daily Podcast: “Rail Versus Gas,” featuring Randal O’Toole on Cato.org

Article: “Questionable Deals in a Volatile Region,” by Malou Innocent and Christopher Preble in The South China Morning Post

Radio Highlight: Robert A. Levy discusses the constitutionality of the bailout on WBAL’s “The Ron Smith Show” (Baltimore)