Archives: 12/2017

Hayden, NSA and the Road to 9/11

This article originally appeared on Just Security on December 7, 2017
 

Retired Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA and CIA (and now, a national security analyst at CNN), has recently emerged as a leading critic of the Trump administration, but not so long ago, he was widely criticized for his role in the post-9/11 surveillance abuses. With the publication of his memoir, Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of TerrorHayden launched his reputational rehab campaign.

Like most such memoirs by high-level Washington insiders, Hayden’s tends to be heavy on self-justification and light on genuine introspection and accountability. Also, when a memoir is written by someone who spent their professional life in the classified world of the American Intelligence Community, an additional caveat is in order: The claims made by the author are often impossible for the lay reader to verify. This is certainly the case for Playing to The Edge, an account of Hayden’s time as director of the NSA, and subsequently, the CIA.

Fortunately, with respect to at least one episode Hayden describes, litigation I initiated under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has produced documentary evidence of Hayden’s role in the 9/11 intelligence failure and subsequent civil liberties violations. The consequences of Hayden’s misconduct during this time continue to be felt today. First, some background. 

Johnny Hallyday: Also Bucked Establishment on Taxes

French rocker Johnny Hallyday—the “French Elvis—has passed away at 74. I do not know his music, but it appears that he was an innovator. His sounds were apparently new to French ears, and his willingness to adopt rock styles from the English-speaking world upset the French establishment. But the people adored his music, and he sold 110 million records. So Hallyday and the market got the better of France’s cultural rules.

Hallyday didn’t like French tax rules either. Here is what I wrote in Global Tax Revolution:

The solidarity tax on wealth was imposed in the 1980s under President Francois Mitterrand. It is an annual assessment on net assets above a threshold of about $1 million, and it has graduated rates from 0.55 percent to 1.8 percent. It covers both financial assets and real estate, including principal homes.

One of those hit by the wealth tax was Johnny Hallyday, a famous French rock star and friend of French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Hallyday created a media sensation when he fled to Switzerland in 2006 to avoid the tax. He has said that he will come back to France if Sarkozy “reforms the wealth tax and inheritance law.” Hallyday stated: “I’m sick of paying, that’s all … I believe that after all the work I have done over nearly 50 years, my family should be able to live in some serenity. But 70 percent of everything I earn goes to taxes.” A poll in Le Monde found that two-thirds of the French public were sympathetic to Hallyday’s decision.

France still has its wealth tax, but numerous other countries have scrapped theirs as global tax competition has heated up. As for Hallyday, he spent his last decade avoiding the wealth tax in Switzerland and Los Angeles.

A Few PIRLS of Wisdom on New Reading Results

The latest international academic assessment results are out—this time focused on 4th grade reading—and the news isn’t great for the United States. But how bad is it? I offer a few thoughts—maybe not that wise, but I needed a super-clever title—that might be worth contemplating.

The exam is the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study—PIRLS—which was administered to roughly representative samples of children in their fourth year of formal schooling in 58 education systems. The systems are mainly national, but also some sub-national levels such as Hong Kong and the Flemish-speaking areas of Belgium. PIRLS seeks to assess various aspects of reading ability, including understanding plots, themes, and other aspects of literary works, and analyzing informational texts. Results are reported both in scale scores, which can range from 0 to 1000, with 500 being the fixed centerpoint, and benchmark levels of “advanced,” “high,” “intermediate,” and “low.” The 2016 results also include a first-time assessment called ePIRLS, which looks at online reading, but it includes only 16 systems and has no trend data so we’ll stick to plain ol’ PIRLS.

Keeping in mind that no test tells you even close to all you need to know to determine how effective an education system is, the first bit of troubling news is that the United States was outperformed by students in 12 systems. Among countries, we were outscored by the Russian Federation, Singapore, Ireland, Finland, Poland, Norway, and Latvia. Some other countries had higher scores, but the differences were not statistically significant, meaning there is a non-negligible possibility the differences were a function of random chance. Also, between 2011 and 2016 we were overtaken by Ireland, Poland, Nothern Ireland, Norway, Chinese Taipei, and England.

The Use of Euphemisms in Political Debate

Political debate in the modern world is impossible without memorizing a list of euphemisms, and there is no shortage of public opprobrium for those who talk about certain topics without using them.  In addition to the many euphemisms that are accepted by virtually everybody, the political left has its own set of euphemisms associated with political correctness, while the political right has its own set linked to patriotic correctness.  Euphemisms tend to serve as signals of political-tribal membership, but also as means to convince ambivalent voters to support one policy or the other.  Violating the other political tribe’s euphemisms can even help a candidate get elected President.  This post explores why people use euphemisms in political debate and whether that effort is worthwhile. 

Euphemisms change over time.  Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker termed this linguist evolution the “euphemism treadmill” and, over twenty years ago, argued that replacing old terms with new ones was likely inspired by the false theory that language influences thoughts, a notion that has been long discredited by cognitive scientists.  Pinker described how those who board the euphemism treadmill can never step off:

People invent new “polite” words to refer to emotionally laden or distasteful things, but the euphemism becomes tainted by association and the new one that must be found acquires its own negative connotations.

Few political debates are as riddled with euphemisms as immigration.  The accurate legal term “illegal alien,” which was once said without political bias and is now almost exclusively used by nativists, was replaced with “illegal immigrant” which was supplanted by “undocumented immigrant” and, in rarer cases, “unauthorized immigrant.”  Goofy terms like “border infiltrator” and “illegal invader” have not caught on yet.  Proponents of the new term “undocumented immigrant” argue that nobody can be illegal, so the term “illegal immigrant” is inaccurate as well as rude.  Of course, nobody is undocumented either, as they just lack the certain specific documents for legal residency and employment.  Many have drivers licenses, debit cards, library cards, and school identifications which are useful documents in specific contexts but not nearly so much for immigration.  “Misdocumented immigrant” would be better if the goal was accuracy, but the goal seems to be to change people’s opinions on emotional topics by changing the words they use.

In the immigration debate, the euphemism treadmill can sometimes run in reverse and actually make political language harsher.  This “cacophemism cliff” turned “birthright citizenship” into “anchor baby” and “liberalized immigration” into “open borders.” 

In the long run, stepping onto the euphemism treadmill can seem like a fool’s errand.  As Pinker explains, people’s feelings toward the replaced term are merely transferred to the euphemism because we all have concepts that we use words to describe but we don’t use words to invent new concepts.  The concept-to-word cognitive production process only affects the sound of the output, not its meaning.      

Hayek on the Creation of Moral Hazard by Central Banks

Some years ago I published a paper on the banking theory and policy views of the important twentieth-century economist Friedrich A. Hayek, entitled “Why Didn’t Hayek Favor Laissez Faire in Banking?[1] Very recently, working on a new paper on Hayek’s changing views of the gold standard, I discovered an important but previously overlooked passage on banking policy in a 1925 article by Hayek entitled “Monetary Policy in the United States After the Recovery from the Crisis of 1920.” I missed the passage earlier because the full text of Hayek’s article became available in English translation only in 1999, the same year my article appeared, in volume 5 of his Collected Works. Only an excerpt had appeared in translation in Money, Capital, and Fluctuations, the 1984 volume of Hayek’s early essays.[2]

Hayek wrote the article in December 1924, very early in his career. In May 1924 he had returned from a post-doctoral stay in New York City and had begun participating in the Vienna seminar run by Ludwig von Mises. It is safe to say that the passage I am about to quote reflects Mises’ influence, since the article cites him, and in many ways takes positions opposite to those Hayek had taken in an earlier article that he wrote while still in New York.

The main topic of the 1925 article is the Federal Reserve’s policies in the peculiar postwar situation in which, as Hayek put it, the US “emerged from the war … as the only country of importance to have retained the gold standard intact.” The US had received “immense amounts” of European gold during and since the war (Hayek documents this movement with pertinent statistical tables and charts), and now held a huge share of the world’s gold reserves — more gold reserves than the Fed knew what to do with. European currencies, having left the gold standard to use inflationary finance during the First World War, and not having yet resumed direct redeemability, were for the time being pegged to the gold-redeemable US dollar. This was a new and unsettled “gold exchange standard,” unlike the prewar classical gold standard in which major nations redeemed their liabilities directly for gold and held their own gold reserves. Rather than delve into what Hayek had to say about that topic, I want to convey what he said about banking.

Supreme Court Continues Its Gun-Shy Ways

Over a decade ago, James Hamilton was convicted of a felony in Virginia, for which he served no jail time. Since then, the state of Virginia has restored all of his civil rights, including the right to possess firearms. In the years since then, Hamilton has worked as an armed guard, firearms instructor, and protective officer for the Department of Homeland Security. Despite never exhibiting any violent tendencies and leading a stable family, the state of Maryland, where Hamilton now resides, forbids him from possessing firearms because of that decade-old Virginia conviction.

Hamilton challenged Maryland’s absolute prohibition on the possession of firearms by felons as applied to him, arguing that, while there may be reasons for forbidding some felons from owning firearms, the prohibition made no sense when applied to him, a person who committed a non-violent felony over a decade ago. The Fourth Circuit, however, decided that Hamilton was not eligible to bring an as-applied challenge to Maryland’s law, leaving states in the Fourth Circuit wide latitude to abuse the constitutional rights of a huge class of citizens and leaving those citizens with no way to vindicate their rights.

How to Deal with Honduras’ Quagmire

There are good reasons to believe that fraud took place in Honduras’ presidential election. The Economist did a statistical analysis of the election results and found “reasons to worry” about the integrity of the vote—although they were not conclusive. A report from the Organization of American States Observation Mission points out “irregularities, mistakes, and systemic problems plaguing this election [that] make it difficult… to be certain about the outcome.”

At the heart of the controversy is how the results of the presidential election shifted dramatically after a blackout in the release of information that lasted nearly 38 hours. A first report released by the Electoral Tribunal (TSE) on Monday 27 November at 1:30 am (ten hours after polls closed and after both leading contenders had declared themselves the winners) showed opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla leading incumbent president Juan Orlando Hernández 45.17% versus 40.21%, with 57.18% of tally sheets from polling stations counted.

Then came the blackout, during which officials from Hernandez’s National Party argued that the results would be reversed once the release of information resumed. Their claim was that the tally sheets initially reported came from polling stations in urban areas, whereas the National Party strongholds are in rural areas. Indeed, when the TSE began releasing information again on Tuesday afternoon, Nasralla’s five point lead steadily declined and then disappeared. With almost all votes counted, Hernández is now ahead by 1.6 points.

Other irregularities documented by the OAS include missing tally sheets, opened and incomplete containers with electoral material from polling stations, and undisclosed criteria for processing the ballots that arrived at the TSE collection center.