Federal Robbers

The Washington Post ran a short piece on October 26 that reported on $2.6 million flushed down the drain by the Department of Agriculture. Federal auditors looked at housing subsidies handed out after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and found: “Based on discussions with disaster victims, we concluded that much of the $2.6 million in emergency rental assistance that [the department] provided to disaster victims was unnecessary.” Apparently, officials overlooked basic accounting controls and most of the covered costs were already paid for by another federal agency. 

After reading such stories, I wonder: Will any official get fired? Shouldn’t officials at least apologize to us for wasting our hard-earned dollars? How is this sort of wasteful tax-and-transfer activity any different than bank robbery? 

Honest, Abe Wants School Vouchers

The Guardian reports today that Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe is in favor of school vouchers – and Japan has more experience with market education than most countries, due to its multi-billion-dollar for-profit tutoring industry.

A number of Japanese scholars have observed that their nation’s success on international tests would be unthinkable if it weren’t for the huge popularity of these “juku” tutoring schools. So it begs the question: if the market has worked so well in the tutoring sector, providing education that is so much more flexible, child-centered, and effective than the monopoly school sector, why not liberalize the entire education industry by eliminating the preferential tax funding status of the government schools?

Some will argue that Japan’s private juku schools are too narrowly focused on test preparation, but this is merely a symptom of the niche that juku currently fill in the marketplace. Japan also has numerous traditional private high-schools. Get rid of the financial discrimination currently practiced in favor of government-run k-12 schools, and a wealth of new educational options would arise.

And while the Japanese already trounce much of the world in math and science with only their tutoring schools organized along free market lines, just imagine how they would do with a fully liberalized education market from kindergarten through high-school!

Is It Possible to Embarrass Republicans?

Is it possible to embarrass Republicans? Apparently not. As they get more desperate about their prospects in the midterm election, Republicans have become ever more hysterical in their denunciations of the Democrats. The Republican National Committee’s ad depicting a scantily clad blond flirting with Rep. Harold Ford (D-TN) at a Playboy party has gotten the most attention. But it’s not the worst.

Take the latest charge that Sen. George Allen (R-VA) has leveled at his opponent, Vietnam veteran and novelist James Webb: Allen is shocked, shocked to find sex scenes in Webb’s novels. Or at least, since Allen doesn’t claim even to have read a novel about the Vietnam War, he’s shocked to have been told that there are sex scenes in realistic novels about men at war. His campaign “leaked” the text of Webb’s bestselling novels to the Drudge Report Thursday night, having failed to persuade any journalist that it was a real story. By noon Friday, Rush Limbaugh was in full-throated outrage: “Get the kids away from the radio,” he warned listeners. He was determined to read the sexually explicit bits of Webb’s writing. “I don’t think you understand the importance of this,” he declared. Having listened to him, and read Saturday’s Washington Post article on the topic, indeed I don’t.

And then there are the various ads Republicans are running around the country. Honestly, if you didn’t know better, you’d think that Republican politicians are obsessed with sex. In Wisconsin, an ad for challenger Paul Nelson declares, “Rep. Ron Kind pays for sex!” with XXX stamped across Kind’s face. As the Washington Post reports, ” It turns out that Kind – along with more than 200 of his fellow hedonists in the House – opposed an unsuccessful effort to stop the National Institutes of Health from pursuing peer-reviewed sex studies.” Meanwhile, in New York, the National Republican Congressional Committee “ran an ad accusing Democratic House candidate Michael A. Arcuri, a district attorney, of using taxpayer dollars for phone sex. ‘Hi, sexy,’ a dancing woman purrs. ‘You’ve reached the live, one-on-one fantasy line.’ It turns out that one of Arcuri’s aides had tried to call the state Division of Criminal Justice, which had a number that was almost identical to that of a porn line. The misdial cost taxpayers $1.25.” In North Carolina, challenger Vernon Robinson’s TV ads blare, “If Brad Miller had his way, America would be nothing but one big fiesta for illegal aliens and homosexuals.”

And let’s not forget Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), who is holding up President Bush’s appointment of a federal judge on the grounds that she attended a commitment ceremony for two lesbian friends. What’s the matter with Kansas, indeed? And what’s the matter with the Republican Party?

No End in Sight

The front page story in yesterday’s Washington Post by Tom Ricks and Peter Baker is a sobering must-read. (“Tipping Point for War’s Supporters?”)

Don’t be fooled by the headline or the first few paragraphs. While it is true that stalwart Republicans such as John Warner have become more outspoken about the lack of progress in Iraq, and some in the GOP have mused openly about the need for a new approach, the consensus that emerges from the article is toward “a new phase” of the conflict, not an end to it. That is how former Pentagon official Dov Zakheim describes the current state of play. Zakheim dismisses the notion that the United States will leave any time soon, and it is his words – not Warner’s – that close out this important article. (Ricks, by the way, will be at Cato on Thursday to discuss the U.S. experience in Iraq. Visit the Cato web site for more details.)

That a solid majority of Americans want a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq must now be seen as irrelevant. Public and so-called elite opinion has diverged almost from the moment that the Bush administration launched the war in Iraq. In other words, the tipping point, if you want to call it that, occurred long ago. This has had no impact on the size of the U.S. military presence in the country, nor on the mission as a whole.

If you think this assessment too pessimistic, consider the table that appears below the Ricks/Baker story in the Post’s print edition. The piece compiled by the Post’s Dita Smith, with research assistance by Robert Thompson, documents the sliding target date for when U.S. troops might begin to be withdrawn from Iraq. The graphic begins by noting that Pentagon planners expected that the 150,000 troops would be cut to about 30,000 by the fall of 2003. But this was only the first of many misjudgments as to the costs and risks of this war. A progression of statements by senior civilian and military personnel since January 2005 shows how projections for troop cuts have consistently missed their mark. According to Gen. George Casey, security in Iraq might improve in 12 months time, which would allow for some troops reductions in the fall of 2007, but for now more troops might be needed.

That doesn’t sound like a change of course to me; and to the extent that it is, it is a change in the wrong direction.

An Interrogation in the Middle East

I have just been informed by a university student who attended our conference in Cairo this August that he has been told to report tomorrow to the prosecutor’s office for interrogation. If I don’t hear back from him by tomorrow evening, I’ll be alerting people to contact his country’s embassies for information on his status.

The potential crimes about which he is being interrogated (and for which he was arrested and detained earlier) concern informing the public on his Arabic-blog about police misconduct. 

I hope that the authorities don’t further compound their misconduct by jailing this brave young man. But if they do, they should at the very least know that people are watching them. (Thank God for the Internet, which allowed him to alert people to police misconduct and now to alert his friends to the harassment he is facing for it.)

A Great End to the Conference on ‘Freedom, Commerce, and Peace’

I’m really happy with the conference on “Freedom, Commerce, and Peace: A Regional Agenda.” We had Georgians and Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians, Armenians and Azeris, Iranians and Iraqis, Romanians and Moldovans, and on and on…28 nations in all.

The first discussion of the last day of the conference was of a high order, with Robert Lawson speaking on the Economic Freedom of the World Report and Cato’s new Senior Fellow Andrei Illarionov offering a high-level critique of methodology and suggestions for improvements. The discussion was very scientific and really focused attention on the issues of explaining the relationship between liberty and well being. Ricardo Martinez Rico, former Deputy Minister for the Budget of Spain, gave a fascinating and practical guide to how Spain managed to get its state budget under control, along with concrete proposals for the assembled reformers from Eurasia.

The three workshops (organizing a think-tank, involving free media in public information campaigns, and using the economic freedom of the world data to promote reform) went well, as did Johan Norberg’s presentation on the environmental case for property rights, which moved participants to avoid environmental disasters by promoting transferrable rights in fisheries, forests, and other natural resources. Some other highlights were former Croatian Justice Minister Vesna Skare-Ozbolt’s presentation on “Improving the Rule of Law” and the presentation and discussion of Warren Coats’s paper on “Creating Monetary Stability and Financial Sector Freedom.” (Ok, the others were good, too, notably the energetic presentation by my friend from Belarus, Jaroslav Romanchuk, on how to convince the public of the benefits of liberty.) 

The papers will be collected and edited over the coming months; my plan is to publish them in English and in Russian editions.

Finally, the concluding banquet address by former Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar was outstanding — the perfect rousing and inspiring conclusion to the conference.

I’m confident that this conference will go a long way toward creating and strengthening a network of classical liberal reformers throughout Eurasia, all armed with practical information and advice on how to promote the rule of law, individual liberty, and peace. And I’m so, so, so happy about it — especially now that the work’s over.

I took the day off on Sunday and took a long trip with other foreign participants to Kakheti to visit ancient Georgian churches, see the countryside, and taste the local wines. The churches were remarkable, the countryside showed how important economic growth is and how much (it’s currently running about 11%) will be necessary to overcome the legacy of Soviet poverty (as shown by the ruined churches we visited). But the process is clearly underway, as evidenced by the rationalization of and improvements to the wine industry. In addition to the natural beauty and the remarkably hospitable people, the wine and food in Kakheti were excellent. (I’m a big fan of Georgian wines. They’re excellent. If you have a chance to try them, ask for the dry wines of Mukuzani or Sapaveri.)