Archives: 03/2009

Science: The Final (Budget) Frontier

There are many people who think that little or no “science” will get done – at least “basic” science that has no evident, immediate, practical applications – unless the federal government pays for it. That is a dubious proposition, but it’s not what really alarms me right now. What really troubles me is that scientists, apparently, can conceive of no end to research worthy of your hard-earned dollars, and see things in Washington looking a lot friendlier to their exploring the final, spending frontier. This quote from an article in Inside Higher Ed today says it all:

Pressed by [Rep. Alan] Mollohan and others for how much money the government ought to be spending on science research and education,  [National Academy of Sciences President Ralph J.] Cicerone was clearly reluctant to throw out figures; danger loomed that he would look either greedy or unambitious in appearing to speak for the science establishment.

But he made clear that he would welcome a way of ensuring growth for federal spending on science, perhaps, he said, through a mechanism that tied spending to “the number of highly competitive proposals” agencies receive, to ensure that there is enough money to cover all research proposals that scientific peer review processes grade above a certain level.

When Mollohan asked what was the appropriate “end point” for growth in federal science funds, Cicerone said that “we are so far away from that level that it’s hard to say.”

So science can tell us a lot, but not how far we are from adequate science funding. I, however, can put it in a little perspective: In 2006 the federal government spent more than $31 billion on research at ”educational institutions.” If the funding end point is, say, Saturn, then to at least some scientists it seems we haven’t even gotten to the moon.

Get ready for scientists to blast off with your wallets anytime now.

New Podcast: ‘Blood and Treasure and Costs of Foreign Policy’

President Obama has promised to make spending on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq more transparent during his term. That’s a step in the right direction, says Christopher A. Preble,  director of foreign policy studies, but have Americans looked at the true cost of the wars the nation is fighting?

In today’s Cato Daily Podcast, Preble examines the price the United States has paid for the past six years of war.

The costs of maintaining a US presence in Iraq through the end of 2011…will continue to be quite substantial. We’re spending on the order of $10 to $12 billion dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined each month.…The costs in terms of dollars will continue to be quite high.

Preble is the author of a forthcoming book, The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free, now available for pre-order.

Who’s Blogging about Cato

Here’s a new list of bloggers who are citing, discussing and writing about Cato commentary and analysis:

If you’re blogging about Cato, let us know on Twitter (@catoinstitute) or email cmoody [at] (.)

House Bans ‘Driving While Mexican’

Buried in the $410 billion catch-all appropriations bill now before the U.S. Senate is a provision that would end a program that has allowed Mexican truck drivers to deliver goods to destinations inside the United States.

A provision in the original North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994 was supposed to allow U.S. and Mexican trucking companies to deliver goods in each other’s country. But opposition from the Teamsters union and old-fashioned prejudice against Mexicans has derailed implementation of the provision.

Under current restrictions, goods coming into the United States from Mexico by truck must be unloaded inside the “commercial zone” within 20 miles or so of either side of the border and transferred to U.S.-owned trucks for final delivery. U.S. goods going to Mexico face the same inefficient and unnecessary restrictions.

The Bush administration established a pilot program that allows certain Mexican trucking companies that meet U.S. safety and other standards to deliver goods directly to U.S. destinations, while the Mexican government has agreed to allow reciprocal access to its market. But the Democratic Congress and the new Democratic president have vowed to finally kill the program, and the provision inside the appropriations bill will probably deliver the final blow.

As I argued in an article in 2007, the Mexican trucks that have been allowed to operate in the United States under the pilot program have actually had a better safety record than U.S. trucks.

As I noted in the article, and it still applies today: “The real objection they have to Mexican trucks making deliveries to U.S. cities is not that they are unsafe, but that those trucks are driven by Mexicans. In the eyes of congressional leaders, ‘driving while Mexican’ remains an unacceptable public hazard.”

Defense Cost Overruns

Wow, a bipartisan effort to actually do something about government waste. From the Washington Post today:

A bill to end cost overruns in major weapons systems would create a powerful new Pentagon position – director of independent cost assessments – to review cost analyses and estimates, separately from the military branch requesting the program.

Those reviews, unlike in the current process, would take place at key points in the acquisition process before a weapons program can proceed, according to legislation sponsored by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

This seems like a step forward, but cost overruns are a big problem across the entire federal government, not just at the Pentagon. Federal financial management of energy, highway, and computer projects has been appalling, for example. I’ve written about this here and elsewhere.

The government needs to buy weapons, and so we should try to improve the Pentagon process as best we can. However, the federal government does not need to buy highways, airports, air traffic control computers and many other things that have chronic cost overruns. Those items should be privatized.

Homeschool an Option for Tough Times

Spouse out of work? Can’t keep up private tuition for the kids? Try homeschooling:

Christopher Klicka of Warrenton, Va., senior counsel for the Home School Legal Defense Association and co-teacher along with his wife of seven homeschooled children, says hard times enhance homeschooling’s appeal as private school tuition becomes unaffordable and some public schools contemplate cutbacks.

“People are looking to homeschooling as an alternative more now in light of economic circumstances,” he said, citing its low cost and potential for strengthening family bonds.

At Allendale Academy in Clearwater, Fla., which provides resources for homeschoolers, enrollment has risen 50 percent over the past two years to about 900 students as families desert private schools, says academy director Patricia Carter.

“Often one parent has been laid off,” she said. “That makes private school tuition impossible, and they don’t want to send their kids back to public school.”

Her academy charges $65 per year to support students through 8th grade, $95 for high school students, compared to private school tuitions often running many thousands of dollars per year.

For frugal families, homeschooling can be a good fit. Used academic material is available at low cost; free research resources are on tap on the Internet and at libraries.

Will the ‘Rise of the Counterinsurgents’ Lead to Fewer Counterinsurgency Wars?

Matt Yglesias picks up on the Bacevich review I referenced below and points to a post from counterinsurgency (COIN) scholar Andrew Exum in which Exum argues that learning to do counterinsurgency better will lead to our doing less of it:

No one who really understands COIN wants to do it. Liberal interventionalists and neo-conservatives are likely to be much more enthusiastic than the practitioners themselves. Counter-insurgents, often knowing something of what they speak through practical and hard-won experience, realize all too well just how difficult and costly big schemes drawn up in Washington become when they have to be operationalized. Counter-insurgency is hard. Best to avoid it, actually.

This doesn’t make much sense.  Exum has previously excoriated COIN skeptic Gian Gentile for pursuing an “anti-COIN crusade.” But by Exum’s reasoning above, it is Exum who should be on an anti-COIN crusade.  Instead, Exum thinks that DOD needs to allocate more resources to doing COIN.

Academically, Exum is interested in insurgencies.  And indeed – they’re interesting.  But for the COIN clique to think that their realistic appreciation of the difficulties of COIN and their private reticence to do it is going to outweigh their technocratic advice and willingness to obey orders in the minds of policymakers, I think they’re gravely mistaken.  The work of the COIN crowd is going to create the impression in the minds of policymakers that the military knows how to win counterinsurgencies and therefore we don’t need an “Iraq syndrome.”  But we do need an Iraq syndrome.

Take, for one example of my argument, the thinking of Bush NSC official Peter Feaver.*  He thinks, as I do, that making COIN doctrine central to American foreign policy thought is going to create a future in which US foreign policy will continue to look like that of President Bush.  Except for Feaver, that’s a feature, not a bug:

The problem with Chris’s post on COIN is that it takes the existing debate at face value, as if it really were a debate about the best way to do COIN or its place in American national security. I don’t think it is.

Let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that all of the COIN critics Chris cites are sincere patriots who honestly believe what they have written and have no deeper agenda. Setting them aside, the larger debate seems driven by one of three deeper considerations. First, anti-COIN is a convenient way to argue against American military involvement in any fashion because the most urgent near-term threats requiring military operations involve COIN. So if your ideology tells you that the dominant problem in the world is American militarism; if you look at recent history and can only find cases where we did use military force and shouldn’t have and can find no cases where we did not use military force and should have; if you think that getting defeated in Iraq (or Afghanistan) would have a salutary chastening effect on American adventurism; if any or all of that applies, then it makes sense to argue against Gates’ emphasis on COIN now. If the U.S. military cannot or will not do COIN, then the U.S. military cannot and will not be operational.

Does Exum think this policymaker’s view is wrong?  Aberrant?  I think its descriptive content is exactly accurate and characteristic.  Orienting planning and resources more toward COIN is likely to lead to more counterinsurgency wars.  I’m pretty confident in this prediction.  If somebody disagrees, I’d like to hear a better fleshed out argument behind the idea that telling policymakers “we now know how to do COIN pretty well” will lead to those policymakers to decide we ought to do it less.

* One really ought to note how sad it is to see this sort of mendacious, straw-man writing coming from an academic, intimating as Feaver does that anti-COIN scholars aren’t “sincere patriots” and that they have some “deeper agenda.”  Both Bacevich and Gentile, to whom Feaver is referring in particular, are military veterans, and Bacevich’s son was killed in the sands of Iraq while Mr. Feaver was working at the Bush NSC, trying to come up with innovative ways to convince Americans that the war was going well.

UPDATE: Professor Feaver writes in to say that by “Let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that all of the COIN critics Chris cites are sincere patriots who honestly believe what they have written and have no deeper agenda” he meant to make the positive statement that these people are patriots with noble intentions and didn’t mean to intimate they could be insincere patriots of questionable honesty with deeper agendas. He also disputes the factual accuracy of the Times article linked above and points to this Commentary piece as the definitive account of his work at the Bush NSC.