Terrorism References in Obama’s Inaugural Address: Two Outta Three Ain’t Bad

With the Cato counterterrorism strategy conference recently concluded, I listened to President Obama’s speech with a keen ear for his treatment of terrorism. My early conclusion was that he communicated well two out of three times, which ain’t bad.

Communications about terrorism are important. Done badly, they can inspire fear and overreaction on the part of the U.S. populace and government - doing terrorists’ work for them. They can also aid in recruitment and support for terrorists by exalting terrorism and terrorist leaders to audiences that are physically and ideologically nearby to terrorists.

Done well, communications about terrorism can suppress fear and overreaction and render terrorism less attractive to potential supporters, would-be’s, and wannabe’s. Ultimately, smart communications and disciplined responses can dissipate the value of terrorism as a tool to use against us.

I was disappointed by a line very early in the speech: “Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.”

I don’t think there is any sensible way to interpret this other than as references to the “War on Terror” and Al-Qaeda. It’s a handy recruitment aid for Al-Qaeda to have the new U.S. President signal that it Al-Qaeda is in his head. People who don’t like the United States were drawn to Al-Qaeda by that line.

It is good to avoid the actual phrase “War on Terror,” of course, but the problem is not with the phrase alone. It is with the notion that war is the correct metaphor, and with the implication that military action or militarism is the best response to terrorism. In fact, military responses are almost always going to be overreaction.

Next quote: “… we have chosen hope over fear …”

It’s easy to disregard this small line, and it’s only an oblique reference to terrorism, but it’s an important one because it’s part of repeated pledge President Obama made in the campaign to put aside fear. He should follow up on the promise by avoiding terrorism fear-mongering himself and by policing his administration against it. Thumbs-up.

Final quote, and a big winner: “[F]or those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”

I regret that he raised terrorism again because of the benefit it gives terrorists (knowing that they are in his head). But if it is going to be raised, I can’t think of a better way to do so - no reference to any specific group, just a declaration to anyone considering terrorism: You will lose.

His statement of U.S. indomitability is powerful. While discouraging terrorists, he gave the domestic audience needed confidence. Come what may, terrorism cannot defeat us.

During the Q&A on the first panel of Cato’s conference (Real, MP3), Ambassador Robert Hutchings stated his wish that the Bush Administration had issued messages of “indomitability, not revenge” in the aftermath of 9/11. The Obama Administration has to “gradually and carefully walk us back” from the approach the Bush Administration took, said Hutchings, and this statement from President Obama seems like a very good start.

So a qualified “good job” on communications about terrorism in President Obama’s inaugural address. We’ll hope for better in the future, and we’ll look forward to the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy, including its terrorism communications strategy.

Humble Hegemony?

Obama’s inaugural address had a sprinkling of foreign policy realism:

[Earlier generations] knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

Sounds like John Quincy Adams or Reinhold Niebuhr. You’d almost think the President supports a strategy of restraint.

Unfortunately, that sentence came just after this:

And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

A nation tempered by humility and restraint would not presume to lead every person in the world.

Government’s Broken Promise

I don’t make it a habit of reading New York Times editorials, but I gave in to temptation when I saw the title of today’s words of wisdom from the Times: “Government’s Promise.”

The editorial leads off:

When he accepted his party’s nomination last year, Barack Obama repudiated the “you’re on your own” ethos that had come to define the government’s relationship to the people.

With total federal, state, and local government spending as a percentage of GDP trending toward 40%, up from 30% at the beginning of the decade, how can the Times possibly suggest that a “you’re on your own” ethos has defined the government’s relationship to the people?  Americans can’t even go to the bathroom without the government interfering with that most intimate of human activities.

The Times continues:

He [Obama] said government cannot do everything, but he promised one that would do what individuals cannot do for themselves: “protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools and new roads and new science and technology.”

I’ll leave it to Cato’s national security experts to decide whether the government does a good job of protecting us from harm, but as an individual I’d be much more capable of protecting myself and my family were it not for government  gun restrictions.

Provide every child a decent education?  Utopian dreaming is fine until reality forces one to recognize that every child will never receive a decent education so long as federal and state bureaucrats, in conjunction with government-protected unions, rule the education roost.  See Cato’s education experts for more.

Clean water?  A 2005 Government Accountability Office (GAO) counted 27 different federal agencies providing financial support for domestic freshwater activities.  Twenty-seven.

Safe toys?  Once again, sounds nice.  But parents who entrust the nanny-state with the protection of their children do so at their own risk.  China, not exactly an example of a minimalist state, offers a good lesson.  Poor Zheng Xiaoyu – if only you had been an American bureaucrat you’d probably now be making six-figures as a K-street lobbyist.

Individuals can’t invest in new roads and new science and technology without the guiding hand – and bottomless pockets – of Uncle Sam?  A couple weeks ago I provided an example of how politicians allocate capital (taxes, i.e., confiscated capital) when building roads.  And if it were not for the government I wouldn’t be able to create this post on a computer and broadcast it over the internet while listening to music on my iPod?  I will admit that one Donna Gamble probably wouldn’t have gotten a cool Waverunner and big-screen television were it not for the National Science Foundation.

OECD Admits High Personal and Corporate Tax Rates Hurt Prosperity

There’s additional evidence that the OECD is a two-headed entity. While the Committee on Fiscal Affairs persecutes low-tax jurisdictions as part of its anti-tax competition jihad, the economists at the Paris-based bureaucracy have published a new study showing that high tax rates on personal and corporate income reduce productivity and entrepreneurship:

Taxes can have an effect on countries’ material living standards by affecting the determinants of GDP per capita – labour, capital and productivity. For instance, by distorting factor prices and returns to market activities, they can alter households’ labour supply decisions and incentives to enrol in higher education, as well as firms’ incentives to invest and to hire employees, and thus, lead to an inefficient allocation of factor inputs and lower productivity. …The findings of this paper suggest that taxes have an adverse effect on industry-level investment. In particular, corporate taxes reduce investment by increasing the user cost of capital. …The paper finds new evidence that both personal and corporate income taxes have a negative effect on productivity. …High top marginal personal income tax rates are found to impede long-run productivity working through the channel of entrepreneurial activity and this effect is estimated to be stronger the higher the entrepreneurial activity is in an industry. …The results also support the assumption that social security contributions have a negative influence on TFP and that this effect is more pronounced in industries that are characterised by high labour intensity.

OECD Study Acknowledges Laffer Curve, Admits Progressivity Bad for Growth

The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is a schizophrenic organization. Its Committee on Fiscal Affairs pushed to thwart tax competition in order to enable high tax rates, yet the bureaucracy’s professional economists publish studies noting that high tax rates are damaging. The latest example is a fiscal survey of Japan, which explicitly notes that lower corporate tax rates lead to a Laffer Curve effect, while also warning that progressivity (penalizing people who contribute most to society with higher tax rates) is bad for growth:

…additional government revenue should be balanced against the risk that high corporate tax rates will reduce economic activity and Japan’s potential growth rate, in the context of growing international tax competition. Given the serious fiscal situation, the government has thus far resisted pressure from domestic business groups, such as Nippon Keidanren (2006), to reduce statutory corporate tax rates. However, the impact of lower tax rates on government revenues is likely to be limited by positive supply-side effects. Indeed, in some OECD countries, revenue was boosted by lower tax rates, thanks to higher profitability and the increased size of the corporate sector (2007 OECD Economic Survey of the United Kingdom). Indeed, the amount of taxable income in the corporate sector tends to be higher in countries with low corporate tax rates (Figure 12). Consequently, corporate income tax receipts show less variation across countries as the impact of higher tax rates is negated by the lower level of taxable income. As a result, there is almost no correlation between the statutory corporate tax rate and corporate tax receipts as a share of GDP (Panel B). …The weak degree of progressivity in the personal income tax system thus has a positive impact on both labour inputs and on human capital and labour productivity. Maintaining the relatively low degree of progressivity, or even reducing it further subject to the fiscal constraints, would be beneficial for Japan’s growth potential.

Dissident Notes on the Obama Coronation

It’s wall-to-wall Obama in the newspapers and on the airwaves, and I keep wondering, Was it quite so overwhelming in the run-up to previous inaugurations? I think not. Presumably the gushing media response is generated by some combination of Barack Obama’s being our first African-American president, his being the antidote to an epidemic of Bush Derangement Syndrome, and our growing cult of the presidency. I complained once about people who see the president as “a combination of Superman, Santa Claus, and Mother Teresa,” and this month journalists are leading the way. Even New York Times reporter Helene Cooper, writing the “pool report” for other journalists on Obama’s visit to the Washington Post, noted that “around 100 people–Post reporters perhaps?–awaited PEOTUS’s arrival, cheering and bobbing their coffee cups.” Post reporter Howard Kurtz assured readers that his fellow journalists did gawk, but they did not cheer or applaud.

The Washington Post banners Obama’s “centrist approach.” Even Blue Dog Democrat Jim Cooper says he’s showing “great centrism.” He’s promising to spend a trillion dollars more than the most spendthrift president in history. If he promised to spend two trillion dollars more, would the Post see his program as left-liberal?

For politicians everything is politics: “It has been more than three months since he sat through a Sunday church service and at least five years since he attended regularly, but during the transition, Obama has spoken to religious leaders almost daily. They said Obama calls to seek advice, but rarely is it spiritual. Instead, he asks how to mobilize faith-based communities behind his administration.”

Nation’s Hopes High for Obama,” says the Washington Post-ABC News poll. Those polled say that they have high expectations for his administration, they think he has a mandate for major new programs, and they like his promise to give virtually everyone some money. Indeed, according to a graphic in the paper but apparently not online, 79 percent of respondents have a favorable impression of Barack Obama, much higher than the numbers for Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, or Bush II as they prepared to take office. In fact, the only modern president whose favorable ratings on the eve of inauguration matched Obama’s was Jimmy Carter. Hmmmmm.

Bob Woodward offers 10 lessons Obama could learn from the mistakes of the Bush administration. One of them is “Righteous motives are not enough for effective policy.” Woodward directs all his lessons at foreign and defense policy, but that’s a good rule for domestic policy too. The fact that a policy sounds right-minded – create jobs, raise the minimum wage, ban sweatshop products, mandate energy efficiency – doesn’t mean that it will work. Economic processes are dynamic, not static. Benefits have costs. Another of Woodward’s rules is “A president must do the homework to master the fundamental ideas and concepts behind his policies.” Again, that applies to economic as well as to foreign policy. Has Obama read any thoughtful criticisms of Keynesian economics or of “job creation” schemes or of renewable-energy mandates? He met with conservative pundits, but has he sat down and listened to any of the many economists who oppose his stimulus plans?

On a lighter note, former “Saturday Night Live” writer and Will Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay discussed Ferrell’s Broadway show, “You’re Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush” with the Washington Post. Asked how he might make Obama-related comedy, McKay said it would be tough because “Obama’s an actual adult who knows how to work.” Let’s see … four years ago Obama was voting “present” in the state senate, and now he’s going to be president. His supporters range from journalists who compared him to “the New Testament” to actual voters who exult, “I won’t have to worry about putting gas in my car. I won’t have to worry about paying my mortgage. You know. If I help [Obama], he’s gonna help me.” He himself said that his capture of the Democratic nomination “was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow.” If humorists can’t find some humor there, we need better humorists.

And maybe it’s appropriate that a singer known as “The Boss” headlined the inaugural concert for a candidate whose wife promised, “Barack Obama will require you to work… . Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed.”

Bush’s Chutzpah Institute

The president who launched our longest war, arrogated more power to the executive than ever before, increased federal spending by a trillion dollars, pushed for the biggest expansion of entitlements since Lyndon Johnson, further nationalized education, tried to nationalize marriage, and held Americans in jail without access to a lawyer or a judge has found a theme for his presidential library: freedom.

The George W. Bush Presidential Center will include a “Freedom Institute” focused on a broad portfolio of topics, including the expansion of democracy abroad and education reforms of the kind Bush implemented during his presidency, according to organizers.

Coming next: The Clinton Center for Honesty and the Paris Hilton Center for Modesty.