A Different Kind of Ownership Society

In the Christian Science Monitor today, Southern Illinois University professor William A. Babcock tries to make a case for mandatory national service – two years of forced toil in politically specified areas of “national need” that would be rewarded with two free years of college (and, presumably, no free years in jail). In addition, Babcock touts a bunch of valuable lessons that “youth corps” slav…er…members would learn, including how to be “more worldly wise,” whatever that means, and how to be “more fiscally self-sufficient.” Right…

I can really only see two lessons being taught by a national service program like the one Babcock proposes: (1) a college education is little more than a parting gift, not the way to gain truly advanced knowledge and skills, and (2) the state owns you. 

Unfortunately, Prof. Babcock is not alone in endorsing a bizarro ”ownership society.” In fact, some guy who just became president, while stopping short of calling for mandatory service (but not the taxation to pay for it) is almost right there with the professor. It’s radical change we should all hope we’re not forced to believe in.

Kirsten Gillibrand, a Not-Very-Blue-Dog Democrat

Journalists are calling the newly appointed senator from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand, a “fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrat.” Even some conservatives like Ed Morrissey have bought the line that she’s a fiscal conservative. It’s hard to find fiscally conservative Democrats. Have we indeed finally found one? Let’s go to the tape.

The National Taxpayers Union rates members of Congress on “all votes that could significantly affect the amounts of federal taxes, spending, debt, or regulatory impact” – 427 House votes in 2007.  In that session of Congress, the only one that Gillibrand served in for which scores have been calculated, Gillibrand voted with the taxpayers 7 percent of the time. That’s right, 7 percent. That makes her just as fiscally conservative as Rep. Barney Frank, Rep. Maxine Waters, and Rep. Henry Waxman. (Though, to be sure, it makes her just slightly more fiscally conservative than Rep. Rahm Emanuel, whom the newspapers have told us is a centrist.)

The ratings from Citizens Against Government Waste, on spending, earmark, and porkbarrel bills, tell the same story: Rep. Gillibrand voted against wasteful spending 8 percent of the time.

And similarly at the Club for Growth ratings: Gillibrand got a rating of 12. On the Club’s ratings, she never once voted in the interests of taxpayers, but she did vote for the U.S.-Peru free trade agreement. She also voted against reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine. Combined with her 90 percent rating from the ACLU and her A rating from the NRA, maybe she is indeed a free-trader and a civil libertarian.

But the search for a fiscally conservative Democrat goes on.

Saying Nothing Gives Obama the Upper Hand

A terrific Washington Post article on Al-Qaeda’s reaction to Barack Obama features Paul Pillar of Georgetown, who chaired one of the panels in our recent conference on counterterrorism strategy.

The article, titled “To Combat Obama, Al-Qaeda Hurls Insults” is a great window into the rhetorical battle that terrorists seek with their opponents.

Al-Qaeda’s leaders are desperately trying to paint the United States during an Obama Administration as equivalent to the United States during a Bush Administration. Among audiences close to them ideologically and physically, they must maintain the narrative that our country is a font of evil. If they don’t, they’ll lose people’s interest, they’ll lose recruits, and they’ll lose support.

At the conference (video and audio available here), Marc Sageman observed how confounded by Obama the conversations on jihadi Web sites have been. It just doesn’t square with their thesis about the United States to have the grandson of a Kenyan goatherd become president.

The right response to the epithets Al-Qaeda lobs is nothing. Al-Qaeda’s virulence toward Obama would be rewarded if it drew the U.S. president out, and comment from any high official would confirm the importance of that group to the audiences Al-Qaeda is trying to influence.

Feith: Bush Snookered Country into War

If, like me, you have a masochistic streak and aren’t yet tired of peeling back the layers of hubris, sophistry, stupidity and arrogance behind the war in Iraq, you might want to pick up the latest copy of Political Science Quarterly, with a review essay by Robert Jervis covering George Tenet’s and Douglas Feith’s books side-by-side. (Sorry, the essay isn’t online.)

In it, Jervis wades through a lot of the sorry history we already know, but makes some interesting observations and teases out some striking inferences, particularly from Feith’s book, of which he is more critical. Perhaps the most interesting argument Jervis makes in the piece is that, by any fair definition of the verb “to lie,” Feith makes clear that the administration lied in taking the country to war:

Feith’s central justification for the war is that even without active WMD programs or ties to al Qaeda, Saddam’s regime was by virtue of its tyrannical nature and previous behavior such a menace that it had to be removed. Inspections would fail not because Saddam might hide things, but because they were irrelevant to the real problem. This makes some sense, but renders the administration’s public position dishonest, since it insisted that its target was Saddam’s WMD programs, not his regime. In Feith’s telling, even if Saddam had cooperated with the inspectors, had shown that he was not actively pursuing WMD, and had dismantled some dubious equipment, he would have remained an intolerable threat because he could have resumed his dangerous activities at some time in the future. ”President Bush had already committed his Administration to changing the regime in Iraq” (p. 305), just as the critics claimed. The diplomacy and the insistence on inspections were a charade; only by going into exile or being replaced in a coup could Saddam have avoided an invasion, and not only were these possibilities slim, they risked leaving in place the Baathist regime, which is why Feith opposed such proposals when they emanated from the CIA (p. 200). Thus, although only in January 2003 did Bush tell his cabinet that “war is inevitable” (p. 342), in fact this was implicit much earlier. While Feith is correct to say that the administration did not lie about its mistaken beliefs that Saddam had active WMD programs and perhaps believed that [he] had ties to al Qaeda, if his account is correct, these were not the essential grounds for war.


Dean Acheson justified the extreme rhetoric in the early years of the Cold War by the need to make things “clearer than truth.” This is not unusual, although not immune from criticism.  But if Feith is correct, what Bush did was much more than exaggerate and present the world in excessively vivid colors. The misrepresentation was fundamental. Feith sees the administration’s failure to clearly present its reasoning as a missed opportunity to build support for the long-term war on terrorism. I doubt it, but it does mean that if Feith’s understanding of the administration’s policy is correct, it lied to the American people about why they needed to go to war.

Jervis has done a lot of work on this topic (see here, for example), and has a book coming out on intelligence and intelligence failures. He is also the author of a (the?) text on the psychology of international politics.

How Will Barack Obama Reform Social Security?

Barack Obama says he will make entitlement reform a central part of his attempt to control government spending. Just how serious is President Obama about entitlement reform? Are private accounts for Social Security on the table? In today’s Cato Daily Podcast, senior fellow Michael D. Tanner weighs in on Obama’s plan for the future of entitlement programs.

“The fact is, of course, private investment would still be a better deal than Social Security, but you have to face the fact that people are scared of the market right now,” Tanner says. “But I think you’ve got to give Barack Obama points for political courage. In addressing the need for entitlement reform he is taking on one of the mainstays of his party.”


Who’s Blogging about Cato

A round-up of bloggers who are using Cato research and commentary in their work:

  • John Hood, who writes for National Review’s blog, The Corner, links to Michael D. Tanner’s recent article on health care reform and cites Tony Leon and Marian L. Tupy’s research on Zimbabwe’s tyrannical ruler Robert Mugabe and Steve H. Hanke’s study of hyperinflation in the country.
  • Writing about Obama’s economic stimulus plan, radio host, financial advisor and author Roland Manarin cites David Boaz’s Cato@Liberty post about John Maynard Keynes.

Opportunities for Students

Calling all student writers, bloggers, and filmmakers! Cato on Campus has just launched three new student contests, offering monthly prizes and, later in the year, a top prize of a full scholarship to Cato University 2009 in San Diego.

We are accepting work from three categories: student op-eds, YouTube videos, and school papers.

The Cato on Campus Op-Ed Contest awards students for writing high quality op-eds on issues of liberty.

Our YouTube Contest seeks to support students who combine creativity with new technology to develop short videos that promote liberty and identify libertarian students with the passion and skills to take the message of liberty into the 21st century.

The Cato-in-the-Classroom contest encourages students to integrate Cato’s vast research materials into essays submitted for course credit.

For every contest, the best submissions each month are sent autographed copies of a Cato book related to their submission. The submission of the year will win a full scholarship to the 2009 Cato University at Rancho Bernardo Inn in San Diego.

Also, the 2009 International Students For Liberty Conference is less than a month away. On February 20-22, students from around the world will gather at George Washington University (Washington, D.C.) to discuss how to promote liberty on campus and hear from some of the greatest advocates of liberty today. Many Cato scholars will be in attendance, including Cato chairman Robert A. Levy and senior fellow Tom G. Palmer.

The conference has already accepted more than 150 students from 15 countries and today is the last day for the third round of applications. If you can’t submit an application today, the final application round ends on February 10th.