24 October 2007

Iraq War: Round #1

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
October 21, 2007

The Bush administration’s path to the Iraq War was twisted. It gave three main reasons for going to war: Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, there was a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and war would help establish a beachhead for democracy in the Middle East. On the first justification, Stephen Hadley, Bush’s National Security Advisor, eventually had to admit that "Turns out, we were wrong." On the second reason Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld eventually conceded about there was no strong evidence of the connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. The third goal has been largely forgotten.

The Bush administration’s conduct of the war has been amateurish. The administration vastly underestimated the cost of the war. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz claimed that Iraq would "finance its own reconstruction." In addition, the administration went in with inadequate troop levels, sub par protection for troops, and inadequate post-invasion plans.

However, in deciding what to do now, past incompetence is irrelevant. So is the fact that the U.S. has already dumped vast amounts of blood and treasure into the war. This is because sunk costs (costs that have already been paid for and that cannot be recovered) are irrelevant in deciding what will bring about the best results.

We should probably get out of Iraq as soon as possible. The costs of the war are mounting at an incredible pace. On one estimate, as of September 2007 the U.S. had already directly spent at least $454 billion on the war. According to the Guardian, the U.S. is spending about $10 billion a week on it and this number is going up. According to Joseph Stiglitz, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, and Linda Bilmes of Harvard University, if the troops are withdrawn by 2010 the total war costs will likely be at least $1 trillion and stand a good chance of being more than $2 trillion. The two researchers claim that a quarter of the $2 trillion could have put social security on firm ground for the next seventy-five years.

The human costs, which are part of the above costs, are also significant. There have been 3,834 U.S. military deaths in Iraq, 28,276 physically wounded, and almost 50,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars sought help for post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition, according to one controversial study by Johns Hopkins University researchers, by June 2006 over 600,000 Iraqis have been violently killed because of the war. While it is not clear whether this should be considered part of the U.S.’s cost-benefit analysis, the large amount of killing is troubling nonetheless.

The benefits of the war are less clear and stand a good chance of evaporating. Christopher Hitchens points out that the U.S. has had some success in defeating Al Qaeda. This was done in part in part by going on the offensive against them and in part politically isolating them from the Sunni tribes that might have otherwise supported them. However, the problem here is that the gains are temporary and can be reversed. Even General David Petraeus, the commander of the Multi-National Force in Iraq and proponent of continued U.S. effort there, in his report to Congress indicated that rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces would result in Al Qaeda-Iraq regaining lost ground.

Nor is it clear that Al Qaeda would continue to target the U.S. if we withdrew from the Middle East. Al Qaeda previously attacked the World Trade Center in 1993, a U.S. embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 1995, the U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, and a warship (the USS Cole) in 2000, but there is good reason to think that these attacks were in part motivated by the U.S. military presence in the Middle East following the previous war against Iraq.

On the other hand, the civil war between the Sunnis and Shiites will likely lead to the country dividing, with different regions falling under the influence of Saudi Arabia and Iran and the Kurds getting autonomy. It is not clear if this is bad because the former countries might not tolerate the presence of Al Qaeda and because this fits in with basic principles of self-determination. The United States Government Accountability Office also takes a dim view of the Iraqi government we are propping up. In its September 1, 2007 report on the government, the GAO reports that it failed eleven out of eighteen benchmarks of progress. Among the alarming failings was its inability to reduce the level of sectarian violence and eliminate militia control of local security forces. The GAO report also indicates that the violence level continues to skyrocket with 2007 being the most violent year yet (measured in terms of total average daily attacks).

There is a real question to whether preventing the looming civil war is a wise use of our resources. There is a real debate as to whether continuing the Iraq war weakens terrorism. War critics claim that it galvanized Al Qaeda, inspired insurgent violence, and provided terrorists with an opportunity for recruitment and training. For example, a 2006 National Intelligence Estimate (summarizing the findings of a number of intelligence agencies) stated that "The Iraq conflict has become the 'cause celebre' for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement." In addition, it is not clear that we have made long-term gains. General Petraeus admitted as much when he noted rapid withdrawal of American forces now would result in the disintegration of the Iraqi Security Forces and an increase in sectarian violence.

In addition, our presence in Iraq moves us closer to war with Iran. General Petraeus noted that Iran’s actions promote violence in Iraq. Members of the Bush administration and Congress have also stated that Iran is helping terrorists attack U.S. troops. The longer we are there, the more we ratchet up our anger at Iran and strengthen our claim to strike out against it in self-defense. Such a war would probably be more expensive and bloody than the one in Iraq.

In the end the costs of the war are clear and massive. The benefits are less clear because the gains against Al Qaeda are temporary and subject to reversal and because our presence might be galvanizing Islamic terrorists. In addition, Iraq stands a good chance of splitting apart and it is not clear if we want to get caught between warring neighbors. Our presence is also ratcheting up tension with Iran. Even if our presence in Iraq prevented a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, it is unclear whether an attack, especially if conventional, would be more expensive than the fortune we are spending there.

13 October 2007

Democratic Politicians and Black Children

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
October 7, 2007

America’s two foremost race-hustlers have in effect labeled Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) an Uncle Tom. Reverend Al Sharpton, in a thinly veiled reference, said of Obama “just because you’re our color doesn’t make you our kind.” Reverend Jesse Jackson said of Obama that he was "acting like he's white.” Now it’s hard to know what the hustlers mean, but their comments inadvertently point out an ugly truth which is that when it comes to education, the Democratic Party sells out blacks. Despite this fact, blacks continue to vote in droves for Democratic candidates. This is a case study in self-destruction.

While there are many talented black students, as a group they do poorly. A standard measure of academic performance is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which was created by Congress in 1969 in order to assess how well American students perform in the fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades. Performance is grouped under four categories: below basic, basic, proficient, and advanced. “Basic” means that the students lack “[even] partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work” at their grade level. “Proficient” means that students display “solid academic performance” and demonstrate “competency over challenging subject matter.”

In No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning (2003), Manhattan Institute member Abigail Thernstrom and her husband Stephan, a Harvard professor, point out that NAEP assessment of black performance (1998-2001) is alarming. Except for reading and writing, more than half of black students were below basic on every category: math, science, U.S. history, civics, and geography. This includes a painfully bad level of performance in math and science. Almost 70% are below basic in math and almost 80% in science. Even reading and writing are disappointing with more than a third below basic. On the high end of achievement, the results are also abysmal. Less than 5% of black students are proficient or advanced in math, science, and geography, and only slightly more than 5% are in history. White and Asian performance is not great, but nothing like this complete meltdown.

The race differences are stark. Using 1998-2001 NAEP data, the Thernstroms point out that the average black high school graduate performs a little worse than white eighth-graders in reading and U.S. history and a lot worse in math and geography. In those topics, they know no more than whites in the seventh grade. As a side note, Asian performance is roughly the same as whites.

When it comes to graduation rates, the pattern repeats itself. In a 2002 study, Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute argues that the 1998 national high-school graduation rate for white students was 78% and for black students was 56%. The numbers are controversial. The Economic Policy Institute reports that 74% of blacks get a regular diploma (for example, not a GED). However, even if the latter number is true, this is nothing to write home about.

These test results matter. The Thernstroms point out that in the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 eighth-graders an identical number of whites and blacks have gone on to some form of college (76.5%) and yet there was a significant difference in graduation rates. Roughly, 36% of whites and 16% of blacks end up with a four-year degree. In college, the poor level of public education wrecks havoc on what courses these students take. At the California State University system, which is designed for students who were in the top third of the state’s high school classes, more than 50% of black students had to take a remedial course in English and more than 78% had to do so in math.

The test results are also likely reflected in income. Whites at every level of education make more money on graduation and this is likely due to differences in ability rather than discrimination. This can be seen in that two researchers, George Farkas and Keven Vicknair, report that when incomes were adjusted for test scores in reading and mathematics, blacks earn more.

These K-12 differences might explain why at Fredonia State the black-white difference in graduation rates and grade-point average is significant. The yearly average of the six-year graduation rate from 1994-2000 is 38% for blacks and 61% for whites. There also was a significant difference in grade-point average. As of February 2006, the average undergraduate GPA for blacks at Fredonia was 2.3 (C-) and for white students 2.9 (C+).

The differences cannot be accounted for by the usual liberal bogeymen. The spending difference between those districts with more minority students and those without is small ($286 in 1989-1990 when adjustments were made for price-levels and students with special needs). Nor can they be accounted for by differences in class size or self-esteem. There is some debate as to whether having a same-race teacher affects performance, but even if there is such an effect it’s probably swamped by the fact that on average, black teachers have worse academic skills than do whites.

The Thernstroms argue that cultural effects and teacher quality make a significant difference. That there are strong cultural effects can be seen in that roughly two-thirds of the black-white performance gap remains even after researchers control for poverty, parental education, and urban residence. There seem to be cultural differences in factors such as low birth-weight, single-parent households, birth to a young mother, and differences in parenting practices (intellectual stimulation and emotional support). Teacher quality also has an effect. A number of studies on the other hand have found that teachers who attended more selective or prestigious colleges improve the scores of their students. The Thernstroms claim that a famous federal study (the 1966 Coleman report) and subsequent studies indicate that teachers with the strongest academic skills are better.

This is different from how teacher quality is ordinarily rewarded, which is on the basis of experience and having a graduate degree. In a 1990-1996 NAEP study, experience beyond the first two years and degrees beyond a bachelor’s showed no effect on teaching effectiveness. This is also interesting given that individuals and schools spend nearly $2 billion a year on master’s degrees in education.

The teachers’ unions own Democratic candidates. For example, a large percentage of Democratic delegates come from the teachers’ unions (for example, 11% in 1996) and the latter lavishes money on the party. The unions oppose reforms that will likely increase student performance, especially among black students. In particular, they can be counted on to oppose market-based competition such as vouchers, merit-based hiring and pay, standardized testing that spotlights problems, and a district’s ability to fire poor teachers. Not only do the Democratic candidates fail to back these reforms, they also are largely silent on the destructive aspects of black culture. Given the unions’ political clout, we know why Democratic candidates chose entrenched and well-funded educators over black children. Why blacks reward this choice is harder to explain.