Saturday, January 05, 2002

September 11: The Triumph of Resilience

When aircraft plunged into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, it was frighteningly clear that all the government agencies dedicated to preventing terrorism had utterly failed. Yet the work of other government agencies ensured that 99% of the inhabitants of the WTC fortunate enough to be under the areas struck by the planes escaped. Yet in the months following the attacks, government attention has focused almost exclusively on preventive measures like the USA Patriot Act, a grab-bag of governmental powers, none of which would have stopped the terrorists of September 11.

This is understandable; actually preventing terrorism is very difficult, whereas it's quite easy for Congress to pass a package of laws they claim will help. And as long as President Bush pursues the war on terror vigorously, bin Laden and al Qaeda will have difficulty mounting significant coordinated terror attacks on America, allowing Congress to claim their laws are what have prevented other terrorist attacks. But sooner or later the war on terror will end, and assuming the United States will be unable to wipe out every single terror group in the world, once the war is over it's likely some other terror group may look to America's shores once again.

Although it is certainly possible law enforcement will stop the next terrorist threat to America, it would be imprudent not to prepare for some terrorist attack to be successful eventually. In that case, the question must be how we can best prepare ourselves to react to another day like September 11. As noted in the above article, the authorities at the World Trade Center had done an excellent job preparing for a terrorist attack, even though they had no idea what form such an attack might take. There were no federal guidelines on how to prepare for such attacks before September 11, and as yet, it is still a question whether federal guidelines will be issued. But the work of the Port Authority demonstrates the ability local authorities have to prepare for and react to such incidents.

Nobody can know precisely where terrorists may next strike. Terrorists will seek a different avenue of vulnerability, one we probably will only realize was there in hindsight. While it is incumbent on the authorities to do what they can to prevent such attacks, it is also important for local authorities to work on the assumption the terrorists will be successful. It's important we note this lesson of September 11, then, that local authorities can do a great deal to minimize the effects of terrorism. There have already been some calls for the federal government to address these questions, and the calls will only get louder if there is another successful attack.

Instead, those calls should be directed at local authorities, both governmental and nongovernmental. Unlike the World Trade Center, most buildings are owned by private businesses. They have just as much responsibility, if not more so, to ensure they have planned appropriately for possible emergencies. Every local business that puts together its own emergency plan does two things; it takes pressure off local authorities, and it is far more likely to develop a plan that is optimized for that business' unique circumstances. Local authorities should then do the same for events it may have to address, since each city and town has its own unique mix of targets that may be struck and assets available to alleviate those problems.

It has been argued that part of the reason the United States was caught off guard on September 11 was that the federal government has taken too many tasks to itself, rather than leaving more to state and local governments. But it left disaster contingency plans alone, and the result was thousands of lives saved. Let's hope that lesson is not forgotten.

Thanks to Kathy Kinsley for the link to the original article.
National Primaries

The Democratic Party is planning to hold a national primary, rather than the long schedule of intermittent primaries held in the past. Although this will help candidates with big money, it will also require a national campaign by those seeking the nomination, and will help eliminate much of the foolish pandering candidates can make in individual states under the current system, as Steven Den Beste notes. The one question that remains is, what will candidates do between winning the nomination and the convention? As Bob Dole can attest, such a long hiatus can be very bad for your candidacy.

Thanks to Steven for the link.
More Loser News

Kathy Kinsley examines the question of legal payments as well. Although she limits her specific recommendations to having the government pay when a defendant is found innocent, she's got an interesting idea that she tosses off along with her observation more study is needed. She throws in the idea of having a jury make the call, which seems a reasonable concept. If someone brings a clearly frivolous tort, certainly it would be an effective deterrent to allow the jury to require to pay the defendant's legal fees. But it would be difficult to determine which lawsuits are really frivolous through any set of rules. The best method would be to allow the jury to make that call, because regardless of some of the poorer decisions juries make now and again, only the judge and jury have access to all the facts necessary to make the decision on which suits justify payment of legal fees.

This is a fascinating subject, and I'll wager there's quite a bit more out there in blog land. No doubt some of the blog collectors like Quasipundit and Tim Blair will have a large, if not comprehensive, list of bloggers involved with the topic by the end of the weekend.
Legal Payments

Alex Knapp at Heretical Ideas has taken up the challenge of identifying possible undesirable consequences of forcing the government to pay the legal fees for defendants found innocent. He points out that without some sort of cap, lawyers will simply jack up their fees, since more people will be willing to pay higher fees on the assumption they'll get the money from the government anyhow. Capping the amount at the cost of a public defender seems a reasonable compromise, as it allows people to at least recoup some of their expenses if found innocent, without giving the defense lawyers much incentive to raise their fees. Probably not the perfect solution, but it sounds like a very reasonable one to me.
Michael Kinsley Revisited

Brian Linse is suggesting that the lack of criticism of the President since September 11 has nothing to do with patriotism, but is based on the belief in the media that criticism of the president won't sell papers right now. I'm not so sure that's the case. Controversy is usually good for selling papers, after all, so the added attention of attacking a popular president during a war could well be good for business.

Brian thinks Michael Kinsley was courageous to call his fellow reporters to arms, but I think that's absolutely wrong. It will be courageous to stand up and go after the president; telling others to do it is, in fact, cowardly. If Mr. Kinsley wants to take with the President's actions, and certainly there are areas to complain about, then he should raise the questions himself.
Loser Pays

Glenn Reynolds threw out an interesting idea today: if the government tries you for a crime and you're found innocent, the government has to cover your legal bills. Although this would mean OJs lawyers would have been reimbursed by the government, it would also raise the stakes for the prosecutor's office, perhaps reducing the chances of wrongful prosecution. Most important would be the assurance an innocent person would have in retaining expensive counsel, with the expectation a successful defense wouldn't bankrupt you. Still, there may be some unwanted effects beyond the "OJ effect" I noted above. That leaves it up to the blog community to figure out what those might be, I'd argue.
New Address

Although I will continue to use Blogger for the time being, I've secured the web address andrewolmsted.com and I'm working to get it set up properly. I tried Moveable Type, the software Fredrik Norman and Andrew Hofer are using, but I've been unable to make it work as yet. In any case, this address will still work, but so will the new one, and I should have the new one ready shortly in case there are any future Blogger problems.
Electionwatch

The Democratic National Committee is vigorously denying a report they're planning to compare the Republican party to the Taliban in the November elections. No matter how much they deny it, however, there's no doubt Taliban comparisons will remain in the Democrats' arsenal. They'll hold it in reserve for the time being, because there will be a backlash if it's used, but they'll spend the spring looking for Republicans like John Ashcroft; strongly religious and strongly conservative. Then look for struggling Democrats to pull out the Taliban no later than August of this year.

Friday, January 04, 2002

It Can't Happen Here(?)

Charles Dodgson replies to my questions about the U.S. military's willingness to participate in a civilian or military coup by saying he's simply looking at the possibility in the future. In that, at least, he has a point. While the odds of tyranny taking root in America are very low right now, it's impossible to argue those conditions will continue indefinitely. He cites a rather disturbing military proposal from the 1960s, Operation Northwoods, as one example of how the military might be closer to a tyranny than we'd like to believe. Although I'm appalled at the documents, I'm also relieved by two things; the news has gotten out, although it took 40 years, and the operation was shut down by President Kennedy. So although the military was willing to create a plan to conduct terrorist operations within the United States to sway public opinion, they weren't willing to do it against the wishes of the civilian authorities. And the trend since then has been greater openness in government affairs, including covert operations like Northwoods. I would be quite surprised if many military officers of today would be willing to even consider creating such a plan, let alone enacting one. Nonetheless, issues like this raise the importance of the media, however much I tend to tear them down.
Inner Foolishness

Michael Kinsley offers his latest justification for Democratic tactics by explaining how he's not going to listen to his 'inner Ashcroft' any longer. Apparently, according to Michael, he's been censoring himself to support the President in the early going of the war, but he doesn't plan to do so any longer. Dissenting is an important part of the freedoms we enjoy, according to Michael, as he cues up the Star Spangled Banner in the background, and Kinsley is going to start standing up for all Americans' right to say what they think. It's almost enough to bring a tear to your eye.

But there's a problem with Michael's argument. He doesn't suggest any substantive issues have been suppressed by this self-censorship. He's just concerned that people aren't making fun of the President any more, that there's so little dissent on many subsidiary issues. If Michael honestly thinks these are so important, than why was he censoring himself? Cowardice? Is he simply unwilling to go against public opinion? No, Michael just knows there are elections fast approaching, and if he's going to do his part to throw the House to the Democrats, he'll need to start launching attacks on the President. His article is nothing more than flimsy justification for the attacks he's preparing, so he can position himself as 'defender of freedom' when his methods are questioned.

Thanks to Glenn Reynolds for spotting the article.

UPDATE: Will Vehrs and Anthony Adragna over at Quasipundit have their own take on Mr. Kinsley's opus.
Tribunal Troubles

Andrew Sullivan points out the mess President Bush has created by choosing not to try Zacarias Moussaoui in a military tribunal. Moussaoui is the perfect example of the type of person the tribunals were supposed to go after. With the administration choosing to go the route of a civil trial again, they've given every civil liberties group in the world ammo to defend any future suspects sent to military tribunals. What are the criteria for using a military tribunal rather than a civil trial; the strength of the evidence against the accused? Between the Moussaoui decision and the kid gloves treatment John Walker has received, the adminstration has done a very poor job handling this aspect of the war on terror.
Importance of the Second Amendment

Brian Linse at AintNoBadDude offers a good summation of the blog wars over gun control. I won't repeat everything he said, but I will note what is probably his most important point: protecting the Second Amendment is important because it demonstrates that the government is committed to protecting all of our rights. If our Second Amendment freedoms are taken from us by the government, how much longer until the government chooses to ignore some of the other freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights?

Thursday, January 03, 2002

Campus Foolishness

The Young America's Foundation has posted their list of the ten dumbest actions on school campuses in 2001. I think #9 may actually have been the dumbest: "The mascot at Jefferson Middle School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, was given a makeover. The mascot, a Minuteman, was disarmed of his musket after the arrival of a new principal. 'Violence and guns have no place in school,' the principal explained. 'The mural needed to be repainted anyway, and this sends a stronger, better message about patriotism.'" What the message was, I'd love to hear.

Thanks to Fredrik Norman for pointing this out.
The New Name

I decided "Reflections" sounded a little pretentious, and since I couldn't come up with anything clever (Deep Thoughts having already been used), I decided just to go with my name. Same commentary, now with 20% less pretension.
Guns and Government

Charles Dodgson at Through the Looking Glass has some interesting observations about guns and their utility in actually preserving civil rights. Charles' argument is rather long and detailed, but in essence he argues that guns do not protect civil rights because guns have not protected civil rights.

Citing Ruby Ridge, the Rampart scandal in Los Angeles, and Waco, Charles points out that despite what he considers abuses of power by law enforcement, the possession of guns by the defendants in both cases was insufficient to stop the government from abusing its powers, which is true as far as it goes.

However, by that same token, armed resistance by individuals against the British was not sufficient to stop their abuses (or perceived abuses, at least). Only when a critical mass of citizenry decided they were going to fight back at Lexington and Concord did the Revolution begin. And although Steven Den Beste is absolutely correct that it took more than irregulars to win the Revolutionary War, it was the possession of weapons by a large group of the citizenry that made the Revolution possible.

I don't know if Charles doesn't actually know much about the American armed forces, or if he's setting up a straw man with his next comments:
So here's the deal. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have gone nuts, thrown some Operation Northwoods style party, and declared martial law. (Tyranny ain't just a tweak to the capital gains tax). Samizdata stands for the proposition that civilian irregulars with souped-up hunting rifles, and maybe Jacques Littlefield's collection of museum quality armored vehicles, could hold them off for long enough to make a real difference.


Sure, if the armed forces en masse rose up against the citizenry, it would be difficult for citizens to hold out, regardless of how well armed they are. But that's not really an issue, and I should hope Charles realizes that. Every member of the armed forces swears an oath to uphold the Constitution, not to obey orders without question. That's why a soldier can be tried for war crimes if he kills civilians under orders: those are unlawful orders, and therefore he's not bound to uphold them. In a situation like the one Charles suggests, you would have a second civil war. While some members of the armed forces would stand with the new government, many others would stand for the Constitution and their fellow citizens. It would be the battle between these armies that would settle the issue, just as it was the professional American Army that defeated the British at Yorktown (with the French fleet playing a critical role, of course).

The real question is not whether or not armed citizens could, on their own, overthrow the government. They can't, but they don't have to. An armed citizenry creates a threat to government via a different axis. If the government were to begin imposing tyrannical restrictions on the American people, ownership of guns would allow them to initiate resistance to those government policies. At some point, in a true doomsday scenario, the government would turn to the armed forces to contain the citizenry. In all likelihood, this would result in the massacre of a number of citizens, as some armed forces unit could probably be found to execute such an atrocity. But this event would be a catalyst not unlike Lexington and Concord, or Fort Sumter, galvanizing the people both in and out of the armed forces, and initiating another civil war. It is this threat that makes an armed citizenry dangerous.

Charles might well ask, then, why didn't this happen at Ruby Ridge? Or Waco? Obviously, the general consensus in those incidents were that the government had not yet overstepped its bounds, and so the citizenry did not rise up. Further, the threat of a civil uprising against the American government is extremely remote because of how our government works; there are so many means of addressing government action you disagree with, from civil disobedience to PACs to running for office yourself.

Guns are a tool of last resort, and as long as the citizenry is armed, that fact almost ensures they won't need to be used. As was noted by several of the founders, an armed citizenry is an important check on government excess.
Vieques Justice

Although I often question the ability and the motives of much of America's judiciary, they do the right thing a good fraction of the time. Judge Gladys Kessler dismissed the Puerto Rican lawsuit attempting to block U.S. Navy training at Vieques, although President Bush's pledge to end the training next year is probably still in force. Perhaps the events of September 11 and the war on terror will help the President realize how important good training areas are.
Media Sloth

Glenn Reynolds has a good article exposing the media's tendency to simply reprint press releases from left-leaning interest groups. He uses the recent attempts of gun control groups to take advantage of the September 11 attacks as an example of how one small group of people can create the impression of a groundswell of support for a particular point of view, with the support of the media. Glenn suggests the public is catching on to these tactics, as evidenced by the declining reputation of the media, and I hope he's right. I wonder how long it will take for the mainstream media to catch on, though.

Wednesday, January 02, 2002

Out of Touch Award

Thomas Friedman continues his call for national energy independence today. He recommends President Bush set energy independence as a national goal, suggesting it would inspire young children like the Apollo Program once did. Now granted, I don't have kids, but I think Apollo inspired people because it represented something incredible: man actually going to another world. If President Bush set a goal of reaching Mars in this decade, that might inspire children. Set the goal of becoming independent of all foreign energy sources might be laudable, but it's not going to inspire anyone outside Mr. Friedman's unique circle of friends and the Sierra Club.
FoxNews and Bias

Andrew Sullivan points out a good editorial in the Wall Street Journal today discussing media bias and the reaction to Bernie Goldberg's book on that topic. Andrew correctly points out the one flaw in the Editorial's argument, however: Fox is probably about as biased as any of the other major news organizations. The difference with Fox is that their bias is to the right, and therefore stands out from the uniform leftish bias of ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC. Andrew makes a good argument, that news stations should stop pretending they don't have bias and simply admit where they exist. If Dan Rather would simply admit he's biased to the left, it would make him so much easier to watch, though I still wouldn't recommend doing so unless absolutely necessary.
More Awards

Brian Linse at AintNoBadDude has his own array of awards for 2001. Although I might take issue with his awarding the Wile E. Coyote Genius award to Jonah Goldberg, his awards are generally well thought out and always entertaining. Well worth a look.
Free Trade

The Wall Street Journal has an article describing the first effects of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act on African trade. Foreign investment is already climbing in twelve countries in Africa eligible for the act, as they have all made the requisite changes to their customs and child labor laws to come into compliance with the act. And formal employment has risen by ten percent in Madagascar, which the article uses as a test case. If Congress can continue to liberalize trade like this, particularly for Africa, the current global economic slowdown could end far more quickly than expected. More importantly, however, the improvements to local economies should help much of the Third World to begin the process of moving their societies into the global network.

Trade liberalization leads to economic improvements and stability. It's a cycle that helped define the 20th Century, and one the United States should be pushing for the 21st Century. The Third World is filled with people willing to work hard to improve their lives, but to do that requires a strong economy. The Left tends to complain that trade liberalization allows corporations to keep their costs down by shifting work to where labor is cheapest. This is true, but it's not the bad thing the Left suggests. Businesses that can keep costs low can keep prices low, ensuring more people can afford their products, which is good for consumers. People in the Third World work for less than people in the developed world, but the money they make is still a significant improvement to their standard of living. Building factories in the Third World creates even more jobs, and helps develop the infrastructure for further improvements to the economy. The people who are hurt by trade liberalization are from the First World, where a strong economy will ensure new jobs are available for them.

It doesn't work as simply as I've laid out, of course. There will always be bumps in the road, as changes to each country's economy will cause displacements and problems for workers. But these displacements are temporary, and the long-term benefits make them worthwhile. Not just the economic improvements, although those alone are massive for the Third World in particular, but the political improvements. Economic troubles lead to instability, and instability often leads to totalitarianism and war. Germany turned to Hitler because their economy had collapsed. Japan went to war with the United States to secure its economic security. While ethnic hatred certainly has roots deeper than mere economic instability, far more people look for a scapegoat during bad economic times.

For all these reasons, it is in the United States' best interests to push for as much economic liberalization as the market will bear, and this has to begin at home. The Africa Growth and Opportunity Act was a good first step, but it was only that. President Bush would do well to make worldwide free trade one of his administration's major goals for the rest of his presidency.

Tuesday, January 01, 2002

Happy New Year

Apologies for the lack of posts today. We stayed up all night, so I suspect anything I try to write today will not be able to meet even my minimal standards for coherence. I'm heading for bed, and I'll have a fresh batch of posts in the morning.

Monday, December 31, 2001

2001 in Review

Was it a good year or a bad year? For only the second time in history, the candidate who lost the popular vote was sworn in as president. We spent much of the year wondering about the relationship between a congressman and a missing intern or worrying about sharks. We lost more than 3,000 civilians in the span of a few hours and went to war with an enemy possibly more implacable than we've ever before faced. But we came together as a people, perhaps more so than at any time since the Second World War. We rediscovered something we had taken for granted: that our civilization and culture are special, and worth defending. And the Yankees didn't win the World Series. Although it certainly included a number of bad times, including one terrible day, I think we'll look back on 2001 as a good year, because it will mark the year we stepped up to take on terrorism.
Advice and Consent

The Senate managed to approve 28 of the 80 judicial nominations President Bush sent them in 2001. Naturally, Democrats maintain they pushed through as many as they could given the hectic events of the past few months, while Republicans are now claiming President Bush's nominees are being treated far more harshly than President Clinton's. I don't know if they're being treated any worse, but it doesn't appear they're being treated any better, and we're now to a point where more than eight percent of all federal judgeships are vacant after a decade of partisan squabbling, and the numbers will only get worse in 2002.

The Democrats want to make sure President Bush doesn't stack the courts with right wing ideologues, just as the Republicans worked to block Clinton nominees seen as left wing ideologues. And there's nothing wrong with voting against Presidential nominations. That's part of what senators are paid to do: assess nominations and make a decision on them. But the current insistence on simply not voting on nominees is unacceptable, and it's hurting the country. The Senate needs to bring nominees to a vote as quickly as possible, even if that means they vote down a large number of nominees. Once a nominee has been voted down, at least the President can then bring up a new nominee for consideration. And there's no reason for the Senate to take a long time on each nominee; most Senators have already decided how they'll vote as soon as the President names someone. Why go through the pretense of deliberation? The Senate should work with the President to fill every vacancy in the federal courts by the end of 2002.
Farewell to Rudy

As Rudy Giuliani prepares for his final official act as Mayor of New York City, I wish the man the best in whatever future career path he chooses. I haven't always agreed with the man, as I suspect very few have. But on September 11 and the horrible days that followed, he was clearly the right man for the job. The work he has put in over the past three months holding his city together has been very important not only to New York, but to the country, and he deserves the accolades he has received for it. Let's hope he finds something equally worthy to occupy his time after today.
Subsidies and the Senator

The New Republic points out Senator Daschle's pirouette on fiscal discipline and government handouts to big business when it comes to farm subsidies. It will be interesting to see if the Republicans are wise enough to take advantage of this, if they're truly planning to demonize Mr. Daschle.
Constitutional Protections

The BlogWars have calmed down somewhat, after heated exchanges between Perry de Havilland and Walter Uhlman at Samizdata, Brian Linse at AintNoBadDude, and Tony Adragna at Quasipundit. They appear to have reached some kind of mild consensus, that enforcement of the Second Amendment and minimal, but effective gun laws to address those who would abuse the right to bear arms.

One of the more interesting sidebars to come out of the discussion has been the role of the U.S. Constitution. Perry suggests the Constitution is irrelevant, simply a two hundred year old scrap of parchment that is incapable of protecting anything. He observes the Bill of Rights may protect certain rights in law, but it is powerless to actually defend those rights. And he's right, to an extent. Simply holding up a copy of the Constitution cannot protect any of our rights from the government. But the true purpose of government is to protect our rights, something Perry doesn't seem to recognize. He claims to be seeking "more spontaneous ways of deriving order," which seems to imply no government at all. I don't believe that's the case, but that statement does seem to suggest he'd prefer anarchy, allowing society to create order as it sees fit on a case-by-case basis. Society won't function that way, not for long. Without an established order, chaos takes over until the people become fed up with it and impose order.

In America, we created the Constitution. It's not a silver bullet, and by itself it won't do a thing to protect anyone's rights. But it does its job remarkably well nonetheless. It created the framework for a government that would protect the rights of its citizens, a government that has remained remarkably unchanged for more than two centuries. And that framework is critical to how the American government works. If the government attempts to impose an unconstitutional law, any citizen can challenge that law. And although the Supreme Court has certainly made its share of bad decisions, it has done a reasonably good job of keeping the executive and legislative branches in check. If nothing else, the recognition that the Court can nullify unconstitutional laws has frequently forced Congress to modify or withdraw laws.

What's most important about the Constitution is that it is the recognized final authority in the United States. In Europe, there exists no such document, and so governments are free to define themselves however they choose. The American government has to adhere to the Constitution; not because the Constitution holds some kind of mystic power, but because the American people wouldn't tolerate an attempt by a President to stay in power after two terms, for example. So the ultimate power of the Constitution flows from the people, but that doesn't make the Constitution irrelevant. When Tony says he takes comfort in the Bill of Rights ability to protect the right to bear arms, it's not because he expects a piece of parchment to stay the hands of legislators. It's because the American government can't move beyond the bounds of the Constitution because the people won't let it. Having the Constitution as a baseline ensures the people have a line in the sand to hold government back. It's not perfect, but it does a better job of restricting government than any other I'm aware of.
A General's Place

Richard Hart Sinnreich addresses the question of whether General Tommy Franks was right to fight the recent Afghanistan war from a command post in Tampa, rather than leading his troops from the front. Sinnreich's final conclusion is that, since we won, we're in no position to question Franks' decision. While it's true that the best test is combat, there is always room for improvement, and certainly fighting a war from the other side of the world is an interesting technique that probably deserves further questioning. Granted, with modern communications technology Franks was able to keep up with the war as effectively from Tampa as he could have from Afghanistan or Kuwait. And it can be dangerous for a general to spend too much time at the front, as it's easy to lose sight of the larger picture when you're watching something happen right in front of you.

But there are times when a general needs to be able to go forward to see what's happening as well. During the German blitz across France in 1940, Erwin Rommel's presence at the front was a critical factor in dragging the Wehrmacht forward. An effective general can be a critical asset at the point of attack. No matter how good the technology, what the general sees in his command post is always different from reality. Even in the computer simulations the Army often uses today to train, the command post's picture of the battle is often vastly different from reality. In the real world, the small errors that Clauswitz called friction will add up to an even more distorted view of the truth for a general the further he is from the battle. Battles can easily be lost because a general shifts troops based on a bad picture of the battlefield.

In Afghanistan, this wasn't really a factor, of course. The ground war was fought almost entirely by American proxies, eliminating the need or even the ability for a general to visit the front. And the Taliban wasn't likely to bring down American satellites, so General Franks' communications were almost perfectly secure regardless of where he was. These conditions probably are unlikely to apply in the future, but it seems logical for Franks to have taken advantage of them when they were in place. As long as his successor remembers to make his own decision on where to direct the next war, rather than simply following Franks' lead mindlessly.
Airline Security Quiz

William Raspberry provides a pop quiz for his readers about two airline security incidents last week. One was the refusal to allow an Arab-American Secret Service agent to fly, while the other involved the removal of a Japanese tourist who commented "If I was a terrorist, I'd blow up this airplane." Both were removed from planes, and the tourist is facing jail time and up to $15,000 in fines. As Raspberry wisely asks, how are we any safer prosecuting this man? While the removal of the Secret Service agent was unfortunate, he was at least carrying a gun. Words, as we were reminded as children, are unlikely to bring down a plane. Yet the airlines are once again substituting the illusion of security for the real thing, by vigorously going after people who say 'bomb' or accidentally bring a weapon onto a plane without being caught. It seems to me the airlines ought to be more concerned with finding out how a man can bring a gun through security checkpoints twice without being caught than with prosecuting the man for a stupid error on his part. Actions like this make it clear the airlines have no real interest in security; they simply want people to believe they're secure so they'll continue to fly. And the recent government decision to keep on current security personnel, like the ones who allowed the terrorists to board on September 11 and the ones who have continued to allow people with guns to board airplanes since, suggests airline security isn't going to get any better.
College and Race

Today's Wall Street Journal takes a look at Richard Atkinson's quest to eliminate the SAT from use in admitting students to the University of California. His reason for this is simple: after California passed Proposition 209, it became illegal to admit people using different standards just because of their race. Black and Hispanic admissions to Berkeley and UCLA, the two top California universities, dropped, although total minority admission throughout the UC system remained the same. Graduation rates are climbing, as student bodies are now more academically homogeneous.

This is unacceptable for Mr. Atkinson, so he's looking to eliminate the SAT in favor of a 'holistic' method of evaluating candidates. Atkinson would move the UC system to a comprehensive review system that weights subjective measures like background and experience more highly than grades and test scores. If Atkinson succeeds, California will return to admitting students to maintain a racially balanced student body. Graduation rates will drop, as minorities who don't really belong at schools like UCLA and Berkeley will find themselves unable to keep up with their peers. But the media doesn't pay much attention to graduation rates, only acceptance rates. So Atkinson and his ilk will be able to feel much better about themselves, because minorities are being accepted to good schools at high rates, and they'll be sure to sweep the question of graduation rates away as quickly and quietly as possible.

The problem that minorities really face in this country is that they're more likely to go to substandard schools before college. So they're unprepared for college when the time comes, and when admissions are strictly based on merit, minorities do poorly. People like Atkinson point to this as racism; racist admissions officers all over the country are ensuring minorities are kept down by not admitting them to college. So they look for programs like Affirmative Action, which create the illusion of solving the problem. After all, whenever Affirmative Action is used, outcomes are equalized, and that's the whole point for them. Of course, equality of outcome does not actually equate to equality, but it looks good and it keeps Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson off your back, so businesses and universities adopt it as the cheapest means to that end. So schools that serve minority communities don't have to improve, because colleges will accept some of their graduates anyhow just to maintain a floor level of minorities.

The only real solution to this is to solve our public education problem. Over the past century, American public education has been taken over by the teachers' unions, whose only goal is to improve conditions for teachers. So even as public spending per student has soared, the quality of schools has dropped dramatically. The public schools have a monopoly, and like all monopolies, they have no reason to improve the product they provide. The well off can afford to send their children to private schools. Public schools in well off areas are therefore not able to maintain their monopoly and are forced to provide higher quality education. But the poor are left to keep their children in the same old public schools, ensuring their children have little hope of getting a quality education.

So what is the solution? I don't know. I suspect breaking the public school monopoly would be a significant help, however. Or perhaps schools should be privatized, and forced to compete for children and the dollars that are meant to educate them. Charter schools could be the answer, as could vouchers. The best solution would be for the federal government to get its hands out of education and for states to begin experimenting with different methods of educating children. If all fifty states began experimenting, brilliant solutions nobody has yet thought of would likely emerge, and the most successful solutions would spread, as other states saw what worked and moved in that direction.

Imposing one solution from above, as President Bush's education plan does, is nothing more than a lottery. If the federal government hits on the right solution, everyone wins big. But the odds of that are very low, and if the federal solution is not the best available, everyone loses. Let's take advantage of the federal model the Founders gave us, and let a grand experiment begin. We have little to lose and a great deal to gain.

Sunday, December 30, 2001

The Times and Social Security

Andrew Hofer of More Than Zero has an excellent dissection of the Times' editorial on social security. Andrew works through the far denser than necessary to derive the Times' basic position: social security is only good as long as it involves the government transferring money from the young to the old. Read the whole piece, as Andrew's analysis is well worth the time.
Kyoto Violation Alert

Japan will almost certainly be unable to meet its target in greenhouse gas emissions after dropping mandatory restrictions on those emissions. CNN says this is due to industry pressure, which is probably true. Given that Japan's total emissions are already up 17% from 1990 levels, and Japan's continuing economic slump, there's little doubt such cuts would further hobble, if not cripple, Japan's economy as it works to get out of its decade-long slump.

Will any media outlets accuse Japan of unilateralism? Certainly not, even though Japan will violate the treaty even as it plans to ratify the protocols. Indeed, Japan will be lauded for ratifying the protocols, while their refusal to adhere to those same requirements will be politely ignored.

Thanks to Fredrik Norman for the link.