Archives: 10/2009

We Are not Seeing the Bell Curve’s Toll

Ben ChavisLast week, I posted a chart on this blog showing the percent change in federal education spending and student achievement since 1970 (achievement has been flat while federal education spending has nearly tripled).

After laughing out loud when he saw it, IQ expert and Bell Curve author Charles Murray mused that “such a huge proportion of a child’s educational prospects are determined by things other than school (genes and the non-school environment) that reforms of the schools can never do more than produce score improvements at the margin.”

But consider the accomplishments of Ben Chavis, who spoke at Cato last Friday. When he took over the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland in 2001, it was the worst school in the district. Under his leadership (imagine a hybrid of Socrates and Dirty Harry), the school’s scores rose dramatically year after year. Within seven years, it had become the fifth highest-scoring middle school in the state – though continuing to enroll a student population that is overwhelmingly poor and minority.

It was not a freak occurrence. Chavis did it again, and again: creating a second AIPCS middle school as well as a high school, both of which are also among the top schools in the state, and both of which also enroll chiefly low income minority students.

Murray has made a compelling case over the years that IQ is real, strongly tied to academic achievement, and determined in significant measure by nature and home environment. But academic achievement is also powerfully determined by schooling. Typical U.S. test score data camouflage the significance of schooling because so many schools are so amazingly bad at maximizing academic achievement – especially for poor minority students.

But Chavis – and others before him and alongside him today – have shown how to do it: instill in the school environment those cultural characteristics necessary for academic success that are missing in the home.

In a free enterprise school system that would automatically disseminate and perpetuate great schools like Ben’s, average test scores would rise dramatically above their current levels. The Bell Curve would be shifted dramatically to the right.

Afghan War Stuff

  • Les Gelb has a point when he says that what Afghanistan needs in the near-term is not a bigger military but one that is independent and effective.  Even a bigger Afghan army is not going to independently pacify its country anytime soon. A more realistic plan might be to trade quantity for quality and aim in the next few years for Afghan forces that can keep Taliban militias from gaining ground when most U.S. forces leave, a primarily defensive mission. As Rory Stewart points out, the security forces we now plan for Afghanistan will cost about 500% of its annual government revenue, which means we will long fund it. A smaller military is one that Afghanistan might someday pay for itself. Charles Tilly argues that states developed because the need to fund armies for defense required a bureaucracy to extract taxes. What happens when foreign powers pay for the army in perpetuity?
  • The people complaining that the President doesn’t talk to Stan McChystal enough are confused, as military historian Mark Grimsley points out. McChrystal’s boss is Centcom commander David Petraeus. Obama talks to him, but even that isn’t really necessary; it would reasonable if he let Petraeus report to the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Washington seems infected by a cult of the commander, where the guy in charge of a war is a treated an oracle, possessed of special knowledge unavailable to other mortals, which can only be conveyed in person.
  • According to civil military relations 101, McChrystal was out of line the other day in London when he disparaged the utility of more narrowly tailored objectives in Afghanistan.  The traditional view of these matters, the idea of objective civilian control, says that this is a political decision that officers should not publicly consider, as doing so will politicize the military. But what exactly is the grave harm we fear here?  A coup? A collapse of command authority? These are impossible and far-fetched, respectively. I doubt politicized generals are going to poison debate, and they might even improve it. For example, it would have been helpful if more generals publicly knocked the light footprint Rumsfeld wanted for the invasion of Iraq. A bigger danger from comments like McChrystal’s is that they damage the Army’s apolitical reputation. But since that reputation is somewhat fictional – the top layers of the military are plenty political – I don’t know if that’s a bad thing. A realist’s view of this matter is that McChrystal can express his views and the President can always fire him, if he can bear the political cost.  It’s also worth noting that those attacking McChrystal tend to disagree with his substantive point while those supporting him are mostly counterinsurgency enthusiasts. The reaction to the (mostly retired) generals who attacked Rumsfeld in 2006 followed a similar pattern. The civil-military thing is a bit of a smokescreen. The real trouble with McChrystal’s comment is that he’s substantively wrong.
  • It’s good that James Traub wrote a piece for the New York Times’ Week in Review secton about realism and the war in Afghanistan. It would have been even better if he had cited or quoted a living realist. Maybe one of these people.

How Government Really Works

In a profile of Virginia Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Creigh Deeds, the Washington Post tells us about the grandfather from whom he got his unusual first name – and his interest in political power:

Creigh Tyree mattered. While serving as chairman of the Bath County Democrats, during the Depression, Tyree’s house was the first private home in the county to receive electricity from the federal Rural Electrification Act, proof of the power of government, he told his grandson.

Or at least proof of the practice of government. And that is in fact the lesson that young Creigh learned:

Watching the elderly man work the circuit of county shops and farms, the boy saw the power of political maneuvering, the influence it brought a man, the way it enabled the well-connected to pick up a phone and get something previously ungettable. Young Deeds started telling elementary school teachers that he wanted to be, would be, governor someday, and then president.

Using political connections to get things other people can’t get – that’s the lesson young Creigh Deeds learned from his granddad’s experience with the New Deal.

In a story earlier this week, the Post made it clear that that’s still the way politics works:

Sen. Thad Cochran’s most recent reelection campaign collected more than $10,000 from University of Southern Mississippi professors and staff members, including three who work at the school’s center for research on polymers. To a defense spending bill slated to be on the Senate floor Tuesday, the Mississippi Republican has added $10.8 million in military grants earmarked for the school’s polymer research.

Cochran, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations subcommittee on defense, also added $12 million in earmarked spending for Raytheon Corp., whose officials have contributed $10,000 to his campaign since 2007. He earmarked nearly $6 million in military funding for Circadence Corp., whose officers – including a former Cochran campaign aide – contributed $10,000 in the same period.

In total, the spending bill for 2010 includes $132 million for Cochran’s campaign donors, helping to make him the sponsor of more earmarked military spending than any other senator this year, according to an analysis by the nonprofit group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Cochran says his proposals are based only on “national security interests,” not campaign cash. But in providing money for projects that the Defense Department says it did not request and does not want, he has joined a host of other senators on both sides of the aisle. The proposed $636 billion Senate bill includes $2.65 billion in earmarks….

The bill, however, would add $1.7 billion for an extra destroyer the Defense Department did not request and $2.5 billion for 10 C-17 cargo planes it did not want, at the behest of lawmakers representing the states where those items would be built. Although the White House said the administration “strongly objects” to the extra C-17s and to the Senate’s proposed shift of more than $3 billion from operations and maintenance accounts to projects the Pentagon did not request, no veto was threatened over those provisions….

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, ran a close second to Cochran’s $212 million in earmarks this year, having added 37 earmarks of his own worth $208 million, according to the tally by Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Almost all of Inouye’s earmarks are for programs in his home state, and 18 of the provisions – totaling $68 million – are for entities that have donated $340,000 to his campaign since 2007. His earmarks included $24 million for a Hawaiian health-care network, $20 million for Boeing’s operation of the Maui Space Surveillance System and $20 million for a civic education center named after the late senator Edward M. Kennedy….

In Cochran’s case, the proposed earmarks would benefit at least two entities that hired his former aides.

Folks, this is the way government works. If you think the programs of the New Deal or the stimulus bill or federal highway programs are necessary, fine – and certainly a defense bill is necessary – but understand that all such government programs involve taking money by force from people who didn’t offer it up voluntarily and then distributing it to others, in many cases to people with more political clout. People in the reality-based community should recognize this reality.

For more on this, see chapter 9 of Libertarianism: A Primer, “What Big Government Is All About.”

The Misuse of “Reform”

When Samuel Johnson said that ”patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” he overlooked the value of the word “reform.” (I didn’t say this first, but I can’t discover who did.) Webster’s says that “reform” means “to put or change into an improved form or condition [or] to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses.” So in political terms, a reform is a change for the better. But whether a particular policy change would actually improve things is often controversial. Unfortunately, the mainstream media typically use the word “reform” to mean “change in a liberal direction.”

It’s bad enough that they constantly use the phrase “campaign finance reform” to refer to laws that restrict individuals’ ability to spend their money to advance their political ideas. And of course every day we hear and read the term “health care reform” used to mean new subsidies, mandates, regulations, taxes, and restrictions on how health care is provided. Needless to say, there’s heated debate in the country as to whether such laws would constitute reform.

And now the Washington Post gives us this prominent headline (page 3, upper right):

450 Mayors Petition Obama
To Adopt Broad Gun Reform

The story makes clear that what the mayors want is what used to be called “gun control” – more power for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the creation of an “Interstate Firearms Trafficking Unit,” more restrictions on gun shows, more data collection on individuals.  No doubt anti-gun strategists have discovered that “gun control” is an unpopular term, so they advise advocates to use terms like “gun reform”; and reporters, headline writers, and editors at the Post go along with it.

Now try to imagine this story in the Washington Post:

450 Mayors Petition Obama
To Adopt Broad Media Reform

A new report from a national coalition of mayors urges President Obama to adopt dozens of reforms to help curb media excesses, including steps to crack down on problems with unauthorized leaks, the creation of a federal interstate media monitoring unit, new rules on media concentration, a federal database of people who use hateful language in letters to the editor and online comments.

Hard to imagine the Post would blithely accept the term “reform” in that case, isn’t it? And I don’t think the Post and other mainstream media called President Reagan’s tax cuts “tax reform.” (They did use the term “tax reform” when the proposed policy involved eliminating loopholes and thus taxing more activities, along with a reduction of rates.) Nor, I think, did they call President Bush’s proposed Social Security private accounts “Social Security reform.” They should be equally careful when liberal activists dub their proposals “reform.”

Meanwhile, kudos to Mara Liasson of NPR, who in this story from Friday uses the terms “health care legislation” and “health care overhaul,” but never “health care reform.” I hope that was a conscious choice, in recognition of the fact that about half of Americans don’t think the current subsidy-regulation-mandate legislation is in fact reform.

Misleading on PATRIOT Reauthorization

It’s nice to see that some media outlets are starting to pay attention to deliberation in the Senate over the reauthorization of expiring PATRIOT Act provisions.  It’s less nice when, as in this FOX News report, “paying attention” means “peddling outrageous falsehoods.”  To be sure, the issue can be dauntingly complicated, but these are enormous howlers that the most elementary fact checking ought to catch. Many of the false claims appear to echo this Wall Street Journal op-ed by former attorney general Michael Mukasey, which is similarly misleading. Let’s review.

First, the report begins by suggesting that there’s some risk that the three sunsetting powers in question—roving wiretap authority, “lone wolf” targeting, and section 215 orders for “tangible things”—are in real jeopardy of expiring altogether. “Some Democrats,” we’re told, would like them to “go bye-bye.” This is false. About roving wiretaps and 215 orders, there is no disagreement whatever. As I outlined in a previous post, the most aggressive reform proposal was Russ Feingold’s, and he’d keep both of these with some added safeguards. The legislation that appears to be on its way to winning the support of the Judiciary Committee—including a majority of Democrats—would renew all three provisions. And that legislation would leave two of the three—the “lone wolf” and the roving wiretap authority—totally unchanged.

Second, the FOX report and the Mukasey op-ed both claim that it was because investigators lacked the ability to investigate “lone wolves” under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that the FBI was unable to target “20th hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui. This, too, is false. I’ll have a piece up at Reason early next week making the broader case against the lone wolf provision, but for the moment it’s worth noting that a bipartisan Senate report investigated this claim back in 2003 and found it to be without merit. The report concluded that the FBI could have obtained a FISA warrant under existing law, but failed to do so because supervisors failed to forward relevant information along to FBI lawyers, and because they misunderstood some of FISA’s key definitions and requirements. Furthermore, it notes that the FBI later obtained a criminal warrant to search Moussaoui’s laptop on the basis of the exact same evidence they already had, so even in the absence of FISA authority, the search could have been conducted earlier. The problem was not that they lacked sufficient surveillance authority, but that, as the report puts it, “FBI Headquarters personnel failed miserably” in a variety of ways. Of course, it’s always easier to say “we need more power” than “we screwed up.” But again, only Feingold’s proposal would allow this provision to expire, and it seems fairly clear that there’s no real support for doing so among legislators of either party.

Third, the FOX report claims explicitly, and Mukasey’s op-ed strongly implies, that “these provisions” were somehow instrumental in the investigation and arrest of suspected terror plotter Najibullah Zazi. We don’t actually know that yet: investigators have said they plan to use evidence obtained under FISA, but we don’t know which parts of FISA were involved, and we certainly don’t have any reason to think that the reforms proposed even in Feingold’s ambitious bill would have made any difference in the investigation. We know for certain that the “lone wolf” provision was not invoked—first, because the Justice Department has stated clearly that they have never used that provision, and second, because news reports suggest that Zazi is either a citizen or a permanent resident, and in either case the “lone wolf” provision would not have been available. It appears that Zazi was wiretapped, and if he was switching phones frequently to evade surveillance, investigators may have used a “roving” wiretap. The renewal legislation favored by most Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee would preserve that roving authority exactly as it exists now; under Feingold’s proposal they would have to have “identified” Zazi at the time they got the order in order to make it eligible for roving, which it seems extremely likely that they had.

As Marcy Wheeler points out in her summary of the evidence against Zazi, it’s possible that a section 215 order was used to obtain evidence that Zazi and his associates were purchasing chemicals that could be used to make a bomb. If these records were obtained after Zazi or his associates showed up on the FBI’s radar, then he would have been a target of a national security investigation, and his records would be subject to seizure under all of the reform proposals. The other possibility is that Zazi first came to the FBI’s attention because of these chemical purchases, because they were sending out broad requests for information about anyone who had purchased certain products. It’s a slightly closer call if that was the case, but even Feingold’s proposal permits orders to be issued for records that are relevant to “the activities” of suspected terrorists, if such records were needed to determine the identities of the persons involved.  Apparently these were chemicals known to have been purchased by other terror suspects plotting to make similar bombs, which sounds like it ought to provide a “reasonable basis” for believing purchases of the appropriate combination of chemicals in sufficient quantities “pertain to the activities” of a suspected terror group. In short, given what we currently know, there is no basis whatever to infer that even the most ambitious proposal to add civil liberties checks to the renewed PATRIOT powers would have created any serious obstacle to the acquisition of any of the evidence in this case.

Fourth, Mukasey’s op-ed claims that proposed safeguards “turn the concept of an investigation on its head, requiring the government to submit proof at the outset of an investigation while facts are still being sought,” and that they would require the government to “prove that the information sought in this record relates to a foreign power.” Now, this is a fairly sloppy deployment of the word “proof”: Mukasey conflates the “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” needed at the end of an investigation, when the time comes to prosecute someone, with the standard of “probable cause” that applies to search warrants. But even under the Feingold bill, “probable cause” is not the standard. A “reasonable basis” will do. Essentially, the government just needs to show some grounds for thinking that they’re not engaging in a pure fishing expedition: that either the particular suspect or the “activities” in question can be reasonably linked to a terror group.

Finally—and this is trivial, but indicative of the level of regard for accuracy in the piece as a whole—text that appears onscreen during the FOX report claims that the PATRIOT Act “may be renamed later this year as the JUSTICE Act.” I suppose the implication is that people who care about civil liberties are so hostile to patriotism that they can’t even abide having it in the name of a law. In fact, the JUSTICE Act is the name of Feingold’s proposed bill to reform PATRIOT. That bill has no real chance of passing wholesale at this point, but in any event, it would not “rename” anything.

I think it’s telling that opponents of common-sense civil liberties safeguards don’t seem to think they can make their case without wildly misrepresenting the facts about both investigations and the changes legislators have actually proposed. They have to make it sound as though people are trying to eliminate important investigatory powers altogether—which nobody is arguing for—because it’s awfully hard to argue against reasonable and carefully crafted privacy protections if you’re honest about what they actually entail. And isn’t it a little rich that a network that is forever warning us that we’re on the verge of descending into fascism should be so hostile to any suggestion that there ought to be some moderate limits on government surveillance? I’d have thought having a Democrat in the White House might make it acceptable to care about the scope of executive power to spy on Americans again.

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