201003

March 2, 2010 9:54AM

Civil Liberties Advocates, Not ‘Gun Advocates’

In this NPR story Nina Totenberg gives both sides their say.  But twice she refers to the people advocating Second Amendment rights as "gun advocates" (and once as "gun rights advocates"). That's not the language NPR uses in other such cases. In 415 NPR stories on abortion, I found only one reference to "abortion advocates," in 2005. There are far more references, hundreds more, to "abortion rights," "reproductive rights," and "women's rights." And certainly abortion-rights advocates would insist that they are not "abortion advocates," they are advocates for the right of women to choose whether or not to have an abortion. NPR grants them the respect of characterizing them the way they prefer.

Similarly, NPR has never used the phrase "pornography advocates," though it has run a number of stories on the First Amendment and how it applies to pornography. The lawyers who fight restrictions on pornography are First Amendment advocates, not pornography advocates.

And the lawyers who seek to guarantee our rights under the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution should be called Second Amendment advocates, or advocates of the right to self-defense, or civil liberties advocates. Or even "gun rights advocates," as they do advocate the right of individuals to choose whether or not to own a gun. But not "gun advocates."

March 2, 2010 9:39AM

Postal Service Continues to Implode

Today, the U.S. Postal Service warned that it could lose $238 billion over the next ten years if it doesn’t receive greater managerial flexibility from Congress.

The European Union and other countries around the world have long been moving toward competition and privatization for mail delivery services. Yet the United States remains way behind the global trend.  The rise of the internet and other advances in telecommunications have fostered an irreversible decline in the USPS’s mail volume. At the same time, it’s being weighed down by a predominantly unionized workforce whose compensation and benefits constitute 80 percent of USPS costs.

As President Obama himself said last August, “UPS and FedEx are doing just fine…It’s the Post Office that’s always having problems.”

In the short term, Congress should remove the USPS’s monopoly on the mail, and in the long term lay the foundation for its breakup and privatization. That is unlikely to happen, of course, because the politics of any issue will trump a sound business decision any day of the week.

One of the USPS’s requests is to eliminate Saturday service to cut back on costs. In a world where the government’s mail monopoly no longer existed, private mail delivery firms could compete to deliver mail on Saturday, or even Sunday. But no such competition exists because the government will not allow it. The federal government has wasted untold taxpayer dollars on anti-trust witch hunts against private companies like Microsoft, but apparently what’s good for the goose isn’t good for the gander.

March 2, 2010 7:34AM

Federal Aid to States Is Too Popular

The Economist’s Free Exchange blog asks: “[W]hy isn't federal aid to states more popular, and popular enough to get through Congress, given that nearly every American lives in one?”

I would ask the blog’s author: How much more popular would he like it to be? As the following charts show, federal aid to state and local governments has catapulted to record levels.

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As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Medicaid has been driving the growth in federal subsidies to state and local governments. But other areas, such as education, income security, and transportation, have also seen substantial increases.

Subsidizing state and local government is quite popular with federal, state, and local policymakers and associated special interests. It's doubtful the average citizen is aware that so much of their state’s spending is derived from their federal tax dollars. However, I suspect that most folks (who aren't on the take) would frown upon the concept of sending money to Washington only to have politicians send it back to the states via the federal bureaucracy. While there may be popular support for many of the state programs funded with federal dollars, citizens need to understand that federal subsidization of state and local government has fueled unhealthy government growth at all levels.

March 1, 2010 2:23PM

Andrew Exum and the Philosophy of Science

Andrew Exum suggests a "manifesto...for those using quantitative analysis to study war/Hippocratic Oath for Quantitative Analysis in Security Studies" here.  I think there are two different critiques lurking in there, but his presentation of his list muddles them together.  The first critique is mostly about the importance of modesty in social science, but the second seems quite like an assault on the very idea of social science.

First, let me put my cards on the table.  I am not a quant or a formal modeler.  (These two approaches are different, but Exum seems to lump them together.)  I have a rudimentary statistics background, and could identify supremely egregious errors in both quantitative and formal model papers if I were locked in a room and threatened with violence.  I am no partisan of either faction.  But I think Exum's views are probably common in DC, so this could work as a forum for discussing part of what I think is wrong with the DC policy debate.

Take, to start, Exum's suggested pledge that "War is a human endeavor. I recognize that it is a phenomenon that does not conform to neat mathematical equations," and set it in the context of another one: "I recognize that very few squad leaders in the 10th Mountain Division have ever taken a course in statistics yet probably know more about the conduct and realities of war than I do. "

The first claim is about modesty: social science is not the same as physical science.  It is harder to conduct controlled experiments in social science, for a variety of practical/political and moral/ethical reasons.  (The war in Iraq may be an exception.)  If what Exum is getting at here is a claim like "quantitative scholars can be arrogant and oversell their research," then Amen.  But his second claim lionizes squad leaders in the 10th Mountain Division as superior in knowledge to social science researchers.  I find this juxtaposition very odd, and I think it's basically a rejection of social scientific principles in general.  (It also seems to carry with it an implicit claim that military operations cannot be subject to scrutiny by non-military overseers.  As a helpful reviewer of this post wrote, "It's the equivalent of saying that we should just do whatever teacher's unions want in K-12 education policy, or that the guys who run meatpacking plants are qualified to offer opinions about food safety.")

It just isn't true that inducing inferences from anecdotal experience produces better explanations/predictions than do people who have larger universes of cases and can control for various factors.  Exum seems to support an approach to theory-building in which one directly observes facts and then induces theory based on those observed facts.  To put it mildly, this is a peculiar view of the philosophy of science.  So what starts as a lament about the arrogance of various factions of social scientists becomes a larger criticism of social science itself.

That is because while Exum is explicitly focusing on quantitative researchers or formal modelers or both, qualitative research is subject to the same criticism he is offering.  If first-hand observation of facts leads to sounder understandings of subject matter than does clear theorizing and fair-minded examination of larger samples of data, then social science itself is cast into doubt.  If that's not where he's going with this, I'd like to hear more about where he is going.

The practical problem with his call for theoretical and analytic modesty is that it cuts against the incentives researchers face.  Existing scholarship consists of very ambitious theories that are promised to hold lots of explanatory power.  Given that is the nature of the debate, a paper that says outright "my theory is pretty good, but I identify lots of important cases where it won't hold together and I don't know why" would have little chance of publication.  I think this is an important point, and many theorists will tell you over drinks the limits of their theories, but the incentive structure is such that one can't sell a theory in that way.

March 1, 2010 1:45PM

Wars, Crimes, and Underpants Bombers

I've been meaning to follow up on Gene Healy's post from last week on the interrogation and prosecution of terror suspects.  I share Gene's bemusement at the howls emanating from Republicans who have abruptly decided that George Bush's longstanding policy of dealing with terrorism cases through the criminal justice system is unacceptable with a Democrat in the White House.  But I also think it's worth stressing that the arguments being offered -- both in the specific case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and more generally -- aren't very persuasive even if we suppose that they're not politically motivated.

Two caveats.  First, folks on both sides would do well to take initial reports about the degree of cooperation terror suspects are providing with a grain of salt. For reasons too obvious to bother rehearsing, investigators won't always want to broadcast accurately or in detail the precise degree of cooperation a suspect is providing.   Second, as Gene noted, given that it seems unlikely we'll need to use Abdulmutallab's statements against him at trial, the question of whether the civilian or military system is to be preferred can be separated from the argument about the wisdom of Mirandizing him. That said, the facts we have just don't seem to provide a great deal of support for the conclusion that, warning or no, criminal investigators are somehow incapable of effectively questioning terrorists.

Certainly if you ask veteran FBI interrogators, they don't seem to share this concern that they won't be able to extract intelligence their military counterparts would obtain. You might put that assessment down to institutional pride, but it's consistent with the evidence, as the FBI has had impressive successes on this front already. And if you don't want to take their word for it, you can always ask Judge Michael Mukasey who, before becoming attorney general under George W. Bush, ruled that military detainees were entitled to "lawyer up" -- as critics of the Bush/Obama approach are wont to put it -- explicitly concluding that "the interference with interrogation would be minimal or nonexistent."

Nor, contra the popular narrative, does it appear to have interfered in the Abdulmutallab case.  Republicans leapt to construe sketchy early reports as implying that the failed bomber had been talking to investigators, then clammed up upon being read his Miranda rights and provided with counsel. But that turns out to have gotten the order of events wrong. In reality, Abdulmutallab was initially talkative -- perhaps the shock of having set off an incendiary device in his pants overrode his training -- but then ceased cooperating before being Mirandizied. Rather, it was the urging of his family members that appears to have been crucial in securing his full cooperation -- family members whose assistance would doubtless have been far more difficult to secure without assurances that he would be treated humanely and fairly within the criminal justice system. It's possible, one supposes, that the emo terrorist might have broken still more rapidly in military custody, but it seems odd to criticize the judgment of the intelligence professionals directly involved with the case, given that their approach has manifestly worked, on the basis of mere speculation about the superior effectiveness of an alternative approach.

Stepping back from this specific case, there seem to be strong reasons to favor recourse to the criminal systems in the absence of some extraordinarily compelling justification for departing from that rule in particular cases. Perhaps most obviously, few terror suspects are quite so self-evidently guilty as Abdulmutallab, and so framing the question of their treatment as one of the due process rights afforded "terrorists" begs the question. The mantra of those who prefer defaulting to military trial is that "we are at war" -- but this is an analytically unhelpful observation.  We're engaged in a series of loosely connected conflicts, some of which look pretty much like conventional wars, some of which don't. This blanket observation tells us nothing about which set of tools is likely to be most effective in a particular case or class of cases -- any more than it answers the question of which battlefield tactics will best achieve a strategic goal.

For the most part, the insistent invocation of the fact that "we're at war" seems to be a kind of shibboleth deployed by people who want to signal that they are Very, Very Serious about national security without engaging in serious thought about national security. If it came without costs, I would be loath to begrudge them this little self-esteem boosting ritual. But conflict with terrorists is, by definition, a symbolic conflict, because terrorism is first and foremost a symbolic act. As Fawaz Gerges documents in his important book The Far Enemy, jihadis had traditionally been primarily concerned with the fight to impose their rigid vision in the Muslim world, and to depose rulers perceived as corrupt or too secular.  The controversial -- and even among radical Islamists,quite unpopular -- decision to strike "the Far Enemy" in the United States was not motivated by some blind bloodlust, or a desire to kill Americans as an end in itself. Rather, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri hoped that a titanic conflict between Islam and the West could revive flagging jihadi movement, galvanize the ummah, and (crucially) enhance the prestige of Al Qaeda, perceived within jihadi circles as a fairly marginal organization.

This has largely backfired. But it's important to always bear in mind that attacks on the United States, especially by sensational methods like airplane bombings, are for terror groups essentially PR stunts whose value is ultimately instrumental. They don't do it for the sheer love of blowing up planes; they do it as a means of establishing their own domestic credibility vis a vis more locally-focused Islamist groups (violent and peaceful) with whom they are competing for recruits. While our response to these attempts will often necessarily have some military component, there is no reason to bolster their outreach efforts by making a big public show of treating Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as tantamount to a belligerent foreign state.  Better, when it's compatible with our intelligence gathering and security goals, to treat Abdulmutallab and his cohorts as just one more band of thugs.

March 1, 2010 11:50AM

The Fox Butterfield Effect and the Laffer Curve

A former reporter for the New York Times, Fox Butterfield, became a bit of a laughingstock in the 1990s for publishing a series of articles addressing the supposed quandary of how crime rates could be falling during periods when prison populations were expanding. A number of critics sarcastically explained that crimes rates were falling because bad guys were behind bars and invented the term "Butterfield Effect" to describe the failure of someone to put 2 + 2 together. We now have a version of the Butterfield Effect in tax policy.

Recent IRS data show that rich people earned a record amount of income in 2007 and also faced their lowest effective tax rate in almost two decades. Proponents of soak-the-rich tax policy complain about these developments, as seen in the Bloomberg excerpt below, but they seem oblivious to the Laffer Curve insight that rich people earned more income in part because tax rates were lower. So if they penalize the rich with higher tax rates, as President Obama is proposing, they will be disappointed to discover that they collect considerably less revenue than predicted for the simple reason that wealthy taxpayers will respond by earning less taxable income.

The 400 highest-earning U.S. households reported an average of $345 million in income in 2007, up 31 percent from a year earlier, IRS statistics show. The average tax rate for the households fell to the lowest in almost 20 years. ...The statistics underscore “two long-term trends: that income at the very top has exploded and their taxes have been cut dramatically,” said Chuck Marr, director of federal tax policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based research group that supports increasing taxes on high-income individuals.

As an aside, it's also worth noting that the IRS tax-rate numbers are very misleading. The tax burden on the rich has dropped largely because of lower tax rates on dividends and capital gains. But when the IRS says upper-income taxpayers had an average tax rate of 16.6 percent, this does not include the other layers of tax that are imposed. The corporate income tax is 35 percent (just counting the federal level), for instance, so the actual average tax rate on these forms of income is far higher. Double taxation is counterproductive to growth and competitiveness, though, which is why the correct tax rate on dividends and capital gains is zero. For more on the Laffer Curve, this three-part video series addresses theory, evidence, and the biased revenue-estimating process.

March 1, 2010 11:19AM

Higher Tuition and Two Subway Sandwich Shops!? Berkeley Students Declare War

A few months ago I highlighted a report about growing college-student "activism" focused not on lofty ideals like ending war or oppression, but on taking money out of taxpayers' wallets and putting it into students'.  Well today I apologize for doubting the high-minded idealism of at least some of our crusading college kids. Yes, recent student rioting in Berkeley, California was partially animated by outrage over moves to have students pay more for their massively subsidized educations, but the property destruction was about much, MUCH more than that:

Crowds outside the building continued to swell, and by about 1:30 a.m., people began to clash with police, throwing bottles, setting trash ablaze and breaking several windows on Telegraph, including the plate-glass front windows of a Subway sandwich shop, police said. Protesters lit a large garbage container on fire, then rolled it into the street...

A protest leader, UC Berkeley student Callie Maidhof, defended the vandalism and said rioters targeted the sandwich shop because a second Subway is scheduled to open on campus, just across Bancroft Way.

"There will be two Subways within 100 feet of each other," she said.

The Vietnam War. Crushing racial segregation. A glut of hoagie shops! The student battle for justice clearly goes on! And Californians have much more to look forward to: Thursday will be a statewide "Day of Action," and in addition to deafening demands for continued taking from taxpayers, students will no doubt also give Fuddruckers, or maybe even Starbucks, it's long-deserved comeuppance.

The day of liberation -- and really amped-up rent-seeking -- is finally at hand!