Archives: 12/2009

Arne Duncan’s Chicago Schools

The Washington Post reports on what new data reveal about the Chicago public schools run for the past seven years by Arne Duncan, now President Obama’s secretary of education:

This month, the mathematics report card was delivered: Chicago trailed several cities in performance and progress made over six years.

Miami, Houston and New York had higher scores than Chicago on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Boston, San Diego and Atlanta had bigger gains. Even fourth-graders in the much-maligned D.C. schools improved nearly twice as much since 2003.

As I’ve said before, what always struck me about Obama’s appointment of Duncan to run the nation’s schools – and he is actually moving to do just that, more so than any previous federal administration – is that Arne Duncan ran the Chicago schools for seven years, and in that time he didn’t manage to produce a single school that the Obamas chose to send their own children to. Valerie Schwartz of the Post reminds us that Duncan is not the first Cabinet secretary to be appointed on the basis of great results in a previous job, that then turned out to be not so great.

Of course, you could have read much of the data about Duncan’s results right here at Cato @ Liberty back in July.

Would-be Bomber’s Profile Rose Above ‘Noise’

The Obama administration’s response to the attempted bombing of the Christmas Day flight into the Detroit has been both weak and wrongheaded.

On the matter of first principles, I agree with my colleagues  Roger Pilon and Chris Edwards that among its limited and enumerated powers, the federal government has a duty to protect its citizens from people such as Umar Farouk Abdulmatullab. He’s the 23-year-old Nigerian Muslim who tried unsuccessfully to detonate a bomb sewn into his underwear with the help of al Qaeda operatives in Yemen. Thwarting attacks such as this is what should keep officials and lawmakers awake at night, not forcibly redesigning the private-sector health care system.

The government’s response has been weak in failing to acknowledge the real breakdown in the system: Abdulmatullab should never have been on that plane. His own father, one of the heroes in this story, reported his son’s radical beliefs and connections to the U.S. embassy in Nigeria. The report landed the son on a terrorist watch list but not on the no-fly list.

One news report characterized the information on Abdulmatullab as “noise” in the system. If this is noise, what does the government consider a signal? He posted his radical beliefs on his blog. He traveled twice to the terrorist hotbed of Yemen. His own family took the initiative and the risk to report him to U.S. authorities. Eight years after 9/11, what do the guardians of public safety require as a signal—arriving at the airport wearing an “I ♥ Osama Bin Laden” t-shirt?

This is no place for political correctness. The risk of denying entry to a twenty-something Muslim who is acting suspiciously but means us no harm is small compared to the human tragedy and economic cost of a plane loaded with innocent people being blown out of the sky.

The administration has, at the same time, overreacted by imposing new burdens on the traveling public. According to the New York Times, in the wake of the attempted bombing, “passengers at airports in the United States and around the world encountered stiff layers of extra security, with international travelers undergoing newly required bag inspections, body searches and questioning at security checkpoints and before they boarded planes.” Passenger visits to airplane restrooms will also be more closely monitored.

All this will needlessly inconvenience the flying the public, discourage tourists from visiting the United States, and create a false sense of security. The right response is not to give grandma an extra pat-down, but to lower the threshold for denying visas to the small but identifiable minority abroad who arouse any reasonable suspicions.

A Lump of Coal From Treasury

On Christmas Eve, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner decided that the nation’s taxpayers had been naughty, and accordingly left a big lump of coal in their stockings.  More specifically, after Congress had finally left town and health care filled the headlines, Treasury announced in a short press release, that the federal government would cover all of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac losses between now and 2012.

Previous to this announcement, Treasury had agreed to cover up to $400 billion in Fannie and Freddie losses.  Remember this isn’t an investment that will come back to the taxpayer, it is a loss.  And a loss that will exceed anything seen under the TARP.  As if $400 billion were not a sufficient hit to the taxpayer, Treasury has not decided that additional losses will also be covered.  All this without so much as even a press conference; much less a vote of Congress.  So much for accountability and transparency.

Of course, Treasury tells us this action is necessary to protect our mortgage markets.  Maybe at some point, we will actually decide that we’ve spent enough to protect our mortgage markets.  I have a home and a mortgage; yet didn’t feel any more protected by agreeing to cover losses that could run into the trillions.

What Geithner really should have admitted is that we aren’t taking these actions to protect the mortgage market, we are taking these actions to protect Fannie and Freddie’s largest debtholders, among them the Chinese Central Bank.  But then if we don’t make good on the Chinese investment in Fannie and Freddie, how can we expect them to continue lending us ever more money to live beyond our means?

Neocons, Progressives, and the Impulse to Bully

Bart Hinkle makes some interesting observations in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the unfortunate similarities between neoconservatives and progressives. Progressives, he says (and of course they’re not really for progress, so they might better be called left-liberals), spent the Bush years criticizing “bullying,” “heavy-handed meddling,” and even “neoconservative theories of social engineering.” They preferred “soft power.”

Yet turn the subject to domestic policy, and what happens? Progressives eagerly embrace the use of coercive hard power to achieve their aims. Force industry to adopt a cumbersome cap-and-trade policy to reduce carbon emissions? Check. Force the country to adopt a health care “public option”? Check. Threaten people with fines and even prison to impose an individual mandate? Check.

So much for the concern about “social engineering” and well-intentioned but “heavy-handed meddling.” When it comes to domestic policy, progressives are just as eager as neocons are to embrace “expansive dreams” and “gargantuan plans.” Just as hopelessly romantic about what the threat of force can achieve. And just as arrogant about the rightness of wielding it.

After some more critical analysis of the inconsistency of the left, Hinkle concludes:

Of course, everything that has just been said about progressives could be turned with equal validity against conservatives of the talk-radio right – many of whom think Americans should push the rest of the world around, but leave one another the heck alone.

If only there were an alternative to heavy-handed liberals and heavy-handed conservatives…

‘Search Neutrality’ Regulation?

For more technical audiences, I wrote recently on the Tech Liberation Front blog about Google’s claim to favor “openness” when, in fact, its crown jewels—search and ad serving—are closed systems.

Google is “free to be wrong about philosophy, of course,” I wrote. “It doesn’t matter at all—except when Google tries to impose its philosophy on others. And in the debate over ‘net neutrality’ regulation it has done exactly that.”

Now Google is in the sights of those proposing public utility regulation of Internet search. It would be entertaining ironic comeuppance for Google, but “search neutrality” regulation would ossify an innovative business and deprive consumers of the benefits of competition.

No Time for Basics

Roger Pilon touches on a crucial aspect of the most recent terrorist incident to strike the nation. Federal policymakers spend the vast majority of their time mucking around in properly state, local, and private activities, leaving them little time to spend on core federal issues such as defense and security.

There is little hard data to illustrate the point, but it needs much more public discussion. Do we want the president of the United States spending his time with briefings on Wall Street salaries and the advantages of windmill power, or on the growing Iranian nuclear threat?  

For members of Congress, each new federal program has stretched thinner their ability to deal with truly national problems because their attention is diverted trying to grab a share of spending from thousands of federal programs for their districts.

Federal expansion has created an “overload” on federal decision making capability. Before 9/11, most federal policymakers ignored the increasing threat of terrorism. Even after 9/11, investigations have revealed that most members of the House and Senate intelligence committees do not bother, or do not have time, to read crucial intelligence reports. Recent expansions in federal control over health care, energy, education, and financial industries will make these problems worse.

In 1925, President Calvin Coolidge argued that the growing system of federal subsidies needed to be cut because it was “encumbering the national government beyond its wisdom to comprehend, or its ability to administer” its proper roles.  Unfortunately, the problem has got much, much worse since then.

Attending to Business

Today, Politico Arena asks:

Flight 253: Do you agree with Janet Napolitano that “the system worked.”

My response:

But for a faulty detonator, NPR reports this morning, and the quick action of a Dutch passenger, nearly 300 people would have met a flaming death near Detroit on Christmas day.  And homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano assures us that “the system worked”?

More than eight years after 9/11, and we still don’t have measures in place to keep people with explosives from boarding planes.  Instead, we’re now told that we must sit in our seats during the final hour of a flight with not even a paperback book in our laps.  Had Ms. Napolitano said that “the system worked as expected,” she would have been right, ironically.  To be sure, there have been successes in the war on terror: The Wall Street Journal notes editorially this morning that there were 12 terror incidents, including thwarted plots, on U.S. soil this year.  But this latest incident, in the area (airline security) that affects most Americans, and the administration’s response to it, do not give confidence.

The one main reason we have government at all is to better protect us from domestic and foreign threats than we ourselves, acting alone, could do.  But as planes were flying to the twin towers, the Pentagon, and the Capitol, Mr. Bush was reading to elementary school children.  Perhaps Mr. Obama should turn his attention from taking responsibility for the nation’s health care – the market and private charity can handle that, if he’d just get out of the way – to taking his main responsibility more seriously.