All-Star Lineup in New York

Cato is planning a seminar in New York on April 30 with an all-star lineup of speakers: Nat Hentoff, our new senior fellow and perhaps the leading First Amendment advocate of the past generation. Top climate scientist Pat Michaels. Peter Schiff, the financial guru who spent 2006 and 2007 failing to persuade people that the U.S. housing and financial markets were on the verge of collapse. And Freeman Dyson, one of the world’s top scientists and the subject of a recent New York Times Magazine profile for his “heretical” views on global warming. Check out the program:

  • 11:05–11:35 a.m. Nat Hentoff —Keynote Address: An Endangered Native Species: The First Amendment
  • 11:35–11:55 a.m. Pat MichaelsClimate of Extremes: Global Warming Science They Don’t Want You to Know
  • 11:55 a.m.–12:15 p.m. Peter SchiffEconomic Crisis: A Government Failure
  • 12:30–2:00 p.m. Freeman Dyson —Luncheon Address: Climate Disaster, Safe Nukes, and Other Myths

Register for the event here ($100 per person).

Topics:

State Tax Increases on the Rise

The headline from Stateline.org’s top story today reads, “State budget gaps top $200 billion; fee, tax hikes in the works.” But as Chris Edwards noted back in February, these so-called “budget gaps” are mainly fiction.  Put simply, previous revenue forecasts overstated the amount of money that would be coming into state coffers.  Now that revenues are drying up because of the slow economy, state politicians can’t spend the amount of money they intended.

For individuals and businesses, the economic downturn and resulting financial crimp means less spending and more prudence.  For politicians and those living at the expense of taxpayers, it means raising taxes to keep the spending spigots turned on.  As the table below shows, total state spending has increased at an excessive pace this decade:

200904_blog_dehaven

Too often journalists report on the present plight of pro-tax and spend policymakers without considering decisions made in the past.  Readers should bear the above table in mind the next time they come across such amnesic reporting .

School Choice Movement in South Carolina

I was in South Carolina yesterday testifying before a state committee in support of a great piece of education tax credit legislation. The turnout and energy down there was impressive.

The fight for educational freedom has dragged on for years in SC, but the movement seems to have grown in strength considerably over that period. Parents are now more organized, homeschoolers and private school groups are more integrated and active, and the votes are a lot closer.

More than 200 supporters showed up to support the bill and testify, and their stories were compelling and sometimes heart-rending. Our public education system just doesn’t work for everyone.

And when I say “doesn’t work,” I mean that a child with severe learning disabilities ends up unable to function in society or a child from a troubled background ends up in jail or dead. There are schools that are serving these kids successfully, and want desperately to help more. A tax credit system would allow them to expand and diversify to help all children reach their potential.

For others, the system doesn’t work in ways less catastrophic, but it still isn’t what’s best for them. That’s why all families should be able to choose the best educational environment for their unique child. Educated children are not widgets manufactured in a factory.

The fight for school choice brings out similar issues in every state, so I’ll be blogging more on the hearing later on today…

Limiting the TSA’s Use of “Strip Search Machines”

I wrote here in February about the push and pull over “strip search machines,” also known as “whole-body imaging” and “millimeter wave scanning.”

The question is joined: How do you maintain privacy with a technology that’s fundamentally intrusive? Maybe by using it less. This week, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) introduced a bill to limit the use of whole-body imaging.

H.R. 2027, the Aircraft Passenger Whole-Body Imaging Limitations Act of 2009, would place several limits:

  • Whole-body imaging could not be the sole or primary method of screening a passenger, and it could only be used as a follow-up to other methods like metal detection.
  • Passengers would have the right to opt for a pat-down search instead of whole-body imaging.
  • Passengers subject to whole-body imaging would have to be provided information about the technology and the images it generates, on privacy policies, and the right to have the pat-down search instead.
  • Images of passengers generated by whole-body imaging technology could not be stored, transferred, shared, or copied in any form after the passenger has passed through the security system.

Most of these protections are already TSA policy, but agency policies are relatively easy to change compared to federal law. Without limitations like this, these machines are on the natural, mission-creepy path to becoming mandatory.

Rules, of course, were made to be broken, and it’s only a matter of time — federal law or not — before TSA agents without proper supervision find a way to capture images contrary to policy. (Agent in secure area guides Hollywood starlet to strip search machine, sends SMS message to image reviewer, who takes camera-phone snap. TMZ devotes a week to the story, and the ensuing investigation reveals that this has been happening at airports throughout the country to hundreds of women travelers.)

So this bill is a step forward, but from a very backwards position. Ultimately, as I wrote before, the solution is to return responsibility for security to the airlines and airports, who are most interested in and capable of balancing all the factors that go into safe travel, including passengers’ privacy, comfort, and peace of mind.

The Sunshine State Lives Up to Its Name

Just when I was getting so jaded by federal education politics that I could have been displayed as part of this exhibit, the Sunshine State comes along and brightens my day.

It’s not just that the Florida Assembly voted to strenghten its k-12 scholarship tax credit program yesterday, it’s that the vote was 94 to 23. In addition to almost universal Republican support, the bill garnered the votes of half the entire state Democratic caucus!

As I wrote on this blog last year, “the [school choice] times they are a changin’.”

Democrats in Washington don’t understand that yet. Perhaps they spend too much time with DC’s NEA lobbyiests. Whatever the reason, the long term health of the Democratic Party depends on its celebration  of its pro-school-choice state-level leaders. If the DNC embraces those state leaders and their policies, it will grow a heart, a brain, and a spine all at once, and secure its viability for the long term.

If they don’t, the national party’s current wretched treatment of poor families and cowtowing to education establishment special interests will drag it down to an ignominy from which it will not soon recover.

And as someone who prefers a balance of power between the two major political parties to the dominance of either, I really don’t want to see the DNC ride the NEA’s bandwagon off a cliff.

Withdrawing from Afghanistan

Oh, the war in Afghanistan. The more I learn, the more I’m convinced that we need to get out.

As I described the situation to my Cato colleague Chris Preble, for lack of a better analogy, the Afghanistan–Pakistan border is like a balloon: pushing down on one side forces elements to move to another — it doesn’t eliminate the threat.

The fate of Pakistan — a nuclear-armed Muslim-majority country plagued by a powerful jihadist insurgency — will matter more to regional and global stability than economic and political developments in Afghanistan. But if our attempts to stabilize Afghanistan destabilize Pakistan, where does that leave us? Like A.I.G., is Afghanistan too big to fail? No.

President Obama earlier this month issued a wide-ranging strategic review of the war and the region, and declared “the core goal of the U.S. must be to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan.” But al Qaeda, as we very well know, is a loosely connected and decentralized network with cells in over 60 countries. Amassing tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops in one country — or any country — is unnecessary.

Until Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, changes priorities, this is a stalemate and we are throwing soldiers into a conflict because policymakers fear that, if we leave, it will get worse. Sound familiar?

The only military role necessary in Afghanistan is trainers and assistance for the Afghan military, police, and special forces tasked with discrete operations against specific targets. The bulk of the combat forces can and should be withdrawn.

As for Pakistan’s impulsive act of gallantry in Buner this week, that’s certainly welcome news. But Mukhtar Khan, a Pakistani freelance journalist whom I’ve talked to on numerous occasions, records here that last year in Buner, a lashkar (tribal militia) successfully beat back the Taliban’s incursions.

Thanks to the Swat Valley peace deal between pro-Taliban TNSM founder Sufi Mohammad and the Pakistani government, militants have spilled back into Buner, killing policemen and terrorizing locals. What’s especially troubling this time around is that the spread from Swat into Buner brings militants closer to Mardan and Swabi, which leads directly to the four-lane motorway running from Peshawar to Islamabad. (I took the picture above when I was on the motorway to Peshawar last August.)

Overall, I’m not optimistic that the Pakistani government’s effort in Buner changes the grand scheme of things. Unless the intervention is coupled with a comprehensive shift in Pakistan’s strategic priorities, which means a move away from allowing its territory to act as a de facto sanctuary for militants undermining U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan, then these sporadic raids tell us nothing about their leaders’ overall commitment to tackling terrorism.

For instance, Pakistan’s Supreme Court recently ordered the release of hard-line cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz on bail. Aziz was a leading figure from the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) massacre of July 2007 and faces several charges, including aiding militants. For an idea of how pervasive militant sympathies go, when the Islamist political party Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islami was in power in North-West Frontier Province, a Pakistani territory adjacent to the ungoverned tribal areas, its leaders proselytized in mosques about the need for jihad in Afghanistan. In addition, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, was killed in Iraq, their parliament observed a two-minute moment of silence.

If leaders within Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishments are serious about combating extremism, it will take more than periodic military moves into restive areas. We will not know for the next several months whether they have abandoned their lackadaisical attitude toward extremism.

Obama the Planner

New Republic editor John Judis has a couple of insights about the Obama administration’s economic and social goals. He points out that, for more than a century, Progressive and free-market forces have gone through cycles of “reform and reaction.”

The Progressives — who my friend John Baden calls the “American counterrevolutionaries” — have repeatedly sought to increase the size and scope of government: railroad regulation, public land agencies, and the income tax in the 1900s; Social Security, low-interest home loans, and government ownership of power plants in the 1930s; Medicare, the war on poverty, and environmental laws in the 1960s.

In between, friends of free markets tried to roll back those reforms, but were never completely successful. Thus, each successive reform era has further increased government power and reduced free markets.

This reminds me of the basic strategy used by the wilderness movement (in which I was active from about 1975 through 1993). Wilderness activists basically considered land that had already been preserved as wilderness or some other classification to be “theirs,” while all remaining land was “potentially theirs.” Successive congressional land-use bills or presidential decrees would put more land in “their” category, but no matter how much they got, it was never enough.

At the time, I called this the “scorched earth policy,” meaning wilderness advocates embedded so many poison pills in the protected lands that no one would ever try to declassify them. This isn’t necessarily a deliberate strategy, just an effect of our political system.

Judis goes on to outline the ways in which Obama wants to build on past reforms. First, he wants to use “the budget to shift the locus of industrial production toward ‘green’ jobs and products.” He also wants to “make dramatic changes in transportation with [government’s] intervention in the auto industry and in its funding of high-speed rail.” Finally, he wants to institute a form of “national planning” in order to “reverse existing trends” towards “suburban housing [and shopping] malls.”

People who are attracted to such policies tend to judge them based on their intent rather than their results. In fact, these interventions have nearly all either backfired or had huge unintended consequences.

Railroad regulation was imposed just as trucks appeared on the scene in 1907, leaving railroads helpless against growing competition. “Progressive” income taxes ended up with so many loopholes that they weren’t really progressive. The federal loan companies, such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, played a key role in the current crisis when they succumbed to political pressure to buy increasingly risky loans.

Social Security is a giant Ponzi scheme that is also one of the most regressive taxes on the books, not to mention that it has provided billions of dollars of surpluses for Congress to borrow with little hope of ever paying it back. Medicare is an even bigger Ponzi scheme, while the war on poverty created a semi-permanent underclass that has been all but forgotten by the liberals who claim to care most about them.

Environmental laws produced many benefits when they focused on technical solutions, but they failed miserably when they attempted to change people’s behavior. As transportation expert Alan Pisarski recently told the Institute of Transportation Engineers, technical solutions to air pollution are responsible for 95 to 105 percent of the improvements in air quality in the past 40 years, while behavior solutions produced only minus 5 to 5 percent of the improvements — minus 5 meaning some behavioral solutions made pollution worse.

Unfortunately, Obama’s plans are all about changing behavior. This means two things: they will be expensive — especially when counting the unintended consequences — and they won’t work. High-speed rail and urban revitalization, for example, are all about redesigning the country for yuppy elites, not ordinary Americans. The question for free-market advocates is: how can we minimize the damage now and roll back the reforms later?