July 26, 2006 11:35AM

What Does it Say When the Sensible Voices Are “Former” Administration Officials?

Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was typically brilliant on NPR this morning, discussing the limited options available in brokering a peace agreement in southern Lebanon. Here is a sampling:

I find a lot of chatter about this peacekeeping force, but I find very few people putting their hands in the air saying they’ve got troops who are willing to do it.


It all sounds like a great idea, but, sorry, each of us are busy with our own problems.

And what of the U.S. role?

If we had excess troops, which I don’t believe we have…, we would be seen as much more partial to Israel and hence would not be acceptable [to the other side].

Armitage served in the Pentagon when President Reagan dispatched U.S. troops to Lebanon in 1982, and he looks back on that period without a hint of sentimentality.

It was a very troubled time. Actually, sooner rather than later…we were seen as taking sides in someone else’s civil war. Ultimately we lost 241 naval and marine personnel.…in the October ’83 bombing.

His experience in 1982 and 1983 conditions his view of the present and future. He was asked, “Are there parallels between that peacekeeping force and now?”

I remember with stunning clarity one of our Israeli interlocutors sitting in my office telling me that ‘Don’t worry about this peace in Galilee operation. We understand our neighbors very well. We understand them better than anyone. We know all the dynamics of the situation in Lebanon.’ That turned out not quite to be the case. I suspect that people in government now are also hearing that from Israel.


Don’t get me wrong. If I thought that this air campaign would work and would eliminate Nasrullah and the leadership of Hezbollah, I think we’d all be fine. But I fear that you can’t do this from the sky, and that you’re going to end up empowering Hezbollah.

The full interview is about eight minutes long, but well worth the time.

July 26, 2006 11:15AM

The Same Problem Up North

A report on the state of Canadian higher education has our northern neighbors in a bit of an uproar. It seems that to accumulate political support, policymakers in Canada have been taking college aid originally intended for truly poor Canadians and giving it in gobs to the not‐​so‐​needy middle class.


“Governments must stop treating student aid as a cheap forum for buying middle‐​class votes and once again treat it as a way to help those without means,” declare authors Sean Junor and Alex Usher in the Educational Policy Institute’s Student Aid Time‐​Bomb.


Boy could we stand to learn that lesson down here! Look no further than the Democratic Leadership Council’s American Dream Initiative to see how American politicians barter for middle‐​class votes with promises of free‐​flowing aid. Who cares that huge government giveaways just keep driving up the price of college – we need votes, and we need them now!


Unfortunately, as much as we might like it to be different, such is the nature of the student aid game. You just can’t get aid for the poor without giving a lot more away to the “middle class,” a group that is always defined broadly enough that a critical political mass of Americans will get a piece of bribery pie, whether they need it or not.


Be warned, then, Americans (and Canadians) who intend to help the poor through government “charity” (like, say, the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education): You may honestly want to expand aid only for “the truly needy,” but politics will inevitably ruin your plans.

July 26, 2006 11:03AM

Presidential Finger‐​Crossing

Over at the Guardian blog I offer some thoughts about presidential “signing statements,” with this challenge to conservative defenders of the administration:

When the Bush administration claims some power and promises to use it wisely, conservatives should ask themselves: would you want Hillary Clinton to have this power?

July 26, 2006 9:43AM

Must Voucher Programs Include Religious Schools?

That’s the question that several Maine families and the Institute for Justice have put before the U.S. Supreme Court.


Maine has had a voucher‐​like “tuitioning” program for well over a century. During most of that period, it allowed participating famillies to choose either a secular or religious school. Then, in 1980, the state decided it had been acting unconstitutionally. Maine’s Attorney general told the legislature that its tuitioning program violated the First Amendment’s proscription against establishing religion. Quick to obey, the legislature passed a law ending the right of voucher‐​receiving parents to choose religious schools.


A number of court cases have since tried to undo the legislature’s actions. These efforts gained momentum in 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons‐​Harris that voucher programs do NOT violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause.


From that point on, it clearly has been legal for Maine to once again allow the participation of religious schools, but the state has elected not to do so. A group of Maine parents have thus joined with the Institute for Justice this week and petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to force the state to permit religious schools to participate.


Their legal argument is that, if a state operates a voucher program, the equal protection and free exercise clauses require it to treat religious and non‐​religious schools equally, allowing parents to choose either.


That argument has merit. It is discriminatory to exclude religious schools simply because of their religiosity.


But the plaintiff’s solution is not without problems of its own.


If they are successful, parents who object to funding religious schools will nevertheless be compelled to do so. While this sort of compulsion has not been ruled to constitute a federally unconstitutional infringement of taxpayers’ rights, it is nevertheless a bad idea. Compulsion to fund instruction that some taxpayers find objectionable is a recipe for social conflict — a conflict that can currently be seen in the Netherlands over the funding of some conservative Islamic voucher schools.


Fortunately, there is an alternative: The use of education tax credits instead of vouchers to ensure universal access to the public or private schools of parents’ choice. These programs can avoid virtually all of the compulsion that makes public schools a social battleground, and that remains a concern under government voucher programs. See the link above for a short explanation of the tax credit advantage, or this paper for a more substantial one.


Furthermore, even if the parents’ suit prevails, it does not mean that all will be rosy for state‐​level school voucher programs. All but three states (and Maine is one of those three) have their own constitutional provisions against government funding going to religious institutions. If the U.S. Supreme Court forces all voucher programs to include religious schools, some states may be obliged by their state constitutions to shut down or forego voucher programs rather than allow them to operate with the participation of religious schools.


This, in other words, is a messy, and unnecessary, road to travel. There is a better option: education tax credits.

July 25, 2006 4:51PM

Trust Me, It’s Just Not Fair

Apparently, if your subject is how you are being victimized by the nation’s higher education system, personal anecdotes and unsupported assertions are all it takes to get in the Washington Post. At least that’s what can be surmised from “Put Grad School Within My Grasp,” a one-woman pity party in which Sui Lang Panoke, an American University graduate student, grieves over having to pay too much of her own education bill, and declares that "a federal need-based grant program for graduate students must be created."

Ordinarily, when discussing such low-fact, high-emotion articles as Miss Panoke’s, I would put together one argument rather than tackling individual points. Unfortunately, there’s just too much worthy of comment in Miss Panoke’s piece to let any little bit slip by. I hope, therefore, you’ll pardon my dealing with her lament one piece at a time… 

Read the rest of this post »
July 25, 2006 3:39PM

Meanwhile, Back in Iraq…

…there’s this piece of bad news, courtesy of the Jamestown Foundation:

In the midst of rising tensions between the Turkish and Iraqi governments over the presence of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels in northern Iraq, the PKK has managed to expand to other parts of Iraq outside of their traditional strongholds in the northern mountains. It seems that the PKK has taken advantage of the lax security in the capital city of Baghdad and government distraction to open the “Ocalan Culture Center,” a PKK contact bureau, just steps away from the Turkish Embassy. Although Iraq has pledged that it will do what it can to crack down on the presence of PKK fighters in Iraq, the Ocalan Culture Center was opened with the approval of local government authorities, according to documents plastered on the walls of the center (Turkish Daily News, July 14). This comes despite the fact that the PKK is ostensibly an outlawed organization in Iraq.


The PKK is also designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and Turkey. Turkish intelligence estimates that there are between 4,000 to 5,000 PKK fighters in the mountainous border region in northern Iraq. The PKK began infiltrating back into Iraq from Turkey after it called off its unilateral cease‐​fire in the summer of 2004. The PKK already has a contact bureau in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.


[…]Turkish officials fear that [the Baghdad center] will also be used to plan and facilitate terrorist operations around the border area and in Turkey (Cihan News Agency, July 12). Turkish officials officially opposed the opening of the Ocalan Culture Center in Baghdad. Diplomatic sources stated that Turkey delivered a note via the Turkish Embassy to the Iraqi government demanding the closure of the contact office, citing Iraq’s pledges that it would not allow Iraq to be a sanctuary for terrorist organizations (Anatolia News Agency, July 20).

The Turks have absolutely no love for the PKK, and things have been heating up both diplomatically and militarily between the Turks and the Iraqis. In a country that doesn’t need any more flashpoints, this could easily become one.

July 25, 2006 2:07PM

Mercantilist Logic Flounders at Sea

The good news from the listing cargo ship near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands is that all 23 crew members were plucked safely from the ship by helicopter last night. (See news story.) The bad news is that the 5,000 cars aboard the ship bound from Japan to Canada may not survive the mishap.


Come to think of it, would it be such bad news if those 5,000 cars sank to the bottom of the ocean? According to the mercantilist mindset that seems to dominate Washington’s discussion of trade policy, the loss of merchandise in transit from one country to another may be the best of all possible worlds.


Mercantilism is a centuries‐​old approach to trade that believes that exports are the big payoff from trade and imports a burden. By definition, then, a trade surplus signals success for trade policy and a trade deficit failure.


From a mercantilist point of view, then, the loss of those 5,000 cars at sea should be a blessing to the global economy. The people of Japan would have occupied themselves producing those 5,000 cars for export, while the people of Canada would not have shoulder the “burden” of accepting them as imports. Japan can add to its trade surplus without Canada being forced to suffer a deficit.


The great French economist Frederic Bastiat exposed this fallacy more than 150 years ago in an essay, “The Balance of Trade” (Chapter 6 of his Economic Sophisms). If the mercantilists are right, we should all be praying for bad weather in the sea lanes carrying all those cars, shoes, shirts, and laptop computers to our showrooms and store shelves.