Monday, May 30, 2011

Paying for College

May 30, 2011, 8:00 a.m.

Allocating Costs; Setting the Price

The Sunday Des Moines Register of May 22, 2011, had a major, page one spread about the rising costs of a college education. Except it wasn't about the cost of education. It was about the rising price of that education, comparing the increase in the share of those costs allocated to tuition with the rising price of peanut butter, milk and eggs. More on the Register's piece on down the blog.

First, here is my 300-word-limit response in the next week's Sunday Register, May 29:

Legislature shifted the cost of education
Nicholas Johnson
Des Moines Register
May 29, 2011, p. P20

"The Challenge for Students, Parents and Schools: Runaway Tuition" (May 22), helped focus attention on the rising price of a college education.

Unfortunately, it conflated the "price" (to the student and parents) with the "cost" (to the universities) of that education.

Can universities do more to reduce the costs of education? Can they increase the quality and utility of that education? Absolutely.

However, it's both unfair and inaccurate to suggest that the sole cause of rising tuition is the increase in costs resulting from poor management by the Iowa Board of Regents and administrators.

A major reason for the increase in tuition is not the cost of education, but the allocation of those costs between taxpayers (who receive a public benefit from a well educated workforce) and the private beneficiaries (the students who go on to better jobs and lives).

When California universities charged no tuition, that didn't mean they had no costs. It meant taxpayers paid those costs.

The most appropriate allocation? That's a debate worth having.

But for now, let's recognize that it is the Iowa Legislature that has chosen to allocate an ever-increasing share of the costs to students' tuition; not
the Iowa Board of Regents, universities' administrators or faculty members.
Here are some early excerpts from the Register story the week before, followed by some comments.

Iowa's two largest universities expect to pocket millions of dollars in extra tuition revenue next fiscal year, with the vast majority going to pay for
additional faculty, programs aimed at lowering dropout rates and other student services, officials said.

That decision comes as the cost of earning a four-year degree in Iowa at a public university continues a steep march upward and pushes students to take on more debt, which, at $26,066 per graduating student, is the fourth-highest average in the country.

In the past 30 years, the average cost of tuition and fees at an Iowa public university has jumped 707 percent, more than four times the rate of inflation. College costs have increased each of the past 30 years for students and their families.

Meanwhile, a new survey shows families and students saddled with rising tuition and debt, stagnant wages and an uncertain job market are questioning whether a traditional college education is their ticket to the American dream.

Some universities are trying to respond to the converging forces with innovative classroom approaches and three-year degree programs. . . .

Americans are reassessing what they get for their tuition dollars.

Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed by the Pew Research Center say the higher education system does not provide a good value for the money they spend, and 75 percent say college is too expensive for most Americans to afford, according to findings released last week.
Jens Manuel Krogstad, "Runaway tuition: A challenge for students, parents and schools," Des Moines Register, May 22, 2011, p. A1.

I acknowledge in the response to the Register's report, "Can universities do more to reduce the costs of education? . . . Absolutely." Frankly, I don't know enough to support that "absolutely" judgment. It's based simply on the intuition and experience that virtually every individual, business, government agency, and institution that is willing to address in detail its systems and processes, goals and operations, can probably come up with ways to reduce costs, at least a little -- often while improving quality and outputs.

It may well be that the salaries of universities' personnel, and the other costs of education (as distinguished from the price of education, tuition), have increased significantly further and faster than inflation in the costs of producing other goods and services. If so, that's a matter well worth investigating. If the increases represent necessary costs, held to the minimum, wise investments, and other consequences of skilled, creative and attentive management, that's one thing. If not, if alternative decisions could have produced greater quantity and quality of service at lower cost, that's another.

The point, for purposes of critiquing this Register story, is that it only addresses the increases in the price of education, not the costs of providing that education.

Beyond that, there was another opinion piece in the Sunday paper [May 29] of even greater relevance to America's future than my 300 words.

Robert Reich, the former U.S. secretary of labor, is now an author, columnist, blogger, and professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkley, testifies before Congress from time to time. The Register published as an essay an excerpt from his May 12 testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. It's vey much worth reading in its entirety; indeed it could be characterized as must reading for every American and public official.

To give you an idea of his subject, and thesis, here is is lead paragraph:

How did we go from the Great Depression to 30 years of Great Prosperity? And from there, to 30 years of stagnant incomes and widening inequality, culminating in the Great Recession? And from the Great Recession into such an anemic recovery?
Robert Reich, "How Our Prosperity Became Stagnation," Des Moines Register, May 29, 2011, p. OP1.

In the course of answering those questions, here's what he had to say about the role of higher education:

Government also widened access to higher education. The GI Bill paid college costs for those who returned from war. The expansion of public universities made higher education affordable to the American middle class. . . .

Starting more than three decades ago, trade and technology began driving a wedge between the earnings of people at the top and everyone else. The pay of well-connected graduates of prestigious colleges and MBA programs has soared. But the pay and benefits of most other workers has either flattened or dropped. And the ensuing division has also made most middle-class American families less economically secure.

Government could have enforced the basic bargain. But it did the opposite. It slashed public goods and investments -- whacking school budgets, increasing the cost of public higher education, reducing job training, cutting public transportation and allowing bridges, ports and highways to corrode. . . .

Coping mechanism No. 3: Draw down savings and borrow to the hilt. After exhausting the first two coping mechanisms, the only way Americans could keep consuming as before was to save less and go deeper into debt. During the Great Prosperity the American middle class saved about 9 percent of their after-tax incomes each year. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, that portion had been whittled down to about 7 percent. The savings rate then dropped to 6 percent in 1994, and on down to 3 percent in 1999. By 2008, Americans saved nothing. Meanwhile, household debt exploded. By 2007, the typical American owed 138 percent of their after-tax income.
He concludes:

The fundamental economic challenge ahead is to restore the vast American middle class. That requires resurrecting the basic bargain linking wages to overall gains, and providing the middle class a share of economic gains sufficient to allow them to purchase more of what the economy can produce. As we should have learned from the Great Prosperity -- the 30 years after World War II when America grew because most Americans shared in the nation's prosperity -- we cannot have a growing and vibrant economy without a growing and vibrant middle class.
"To restore the vast American middle class" is going to require, among many other things discussed by Reich, a restoration of affordable post-high school college education -- as well as a reduction in the price of community college education, and skills training in the trades.

Had we been hell-bent on deliberately evolving into a third world country's population, with a statistically insignificant percentage of super-wealthy at one extreme, and 90 percent or more struggling just to get by, we would have adopted almost precisely the policies we have. That's not to say that it was deliberate. Others can explore the conspiracy theories. But that is the result.

# # #

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The School Bored, Take Two

May 21, 2011, 11:45 a.m.

The Press-Citizen's Opinion Editor, Jeff Charis-Carlson, asked that I provide, in 300 words or less, a full analysis of what our local, departing, school board members should do between May and September, when their terms run out. Given how much they accomplished prior to this month, 300 words turned out to be plenty of space to itemize what they might do by September. Here is my reply to Jeff, as published in this morning's paper. [Old photo is illustrative only, and does not picture current Board members or Superintendent.]

Just What's a Board to Do?
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen
May 21, 2011, p. A17

As I used to say when I was a board member, "You may not get any pay, but at least you get a lot of grief."

The departing Iowa City School Board members have received their share.

Now their terms are coming to an end.

As Frank Sinatra used to remind us:

Oh, it's a long, long time from May to December
But the days grow short when you reach September
When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
One hasn't got time for the waiting game.

The current board, with its uncanny skill at "the waiting game," now finds its days growing short as they rush past on their way to September.

It would be nice if they could resolve the Hills Elementary issues before they left, but that's unlikely -- and possibly even unwise.

Come September we'll have a new board -- and unless more incumbents decide to run for re-election, a new board majority. It will, necessarily, find itself confronting more challenges than it can resolve in short order.

What that board would find helpful from each of those departing are at least three things:

» Their individual, personal assessments of where the district is, the major challenges and opportunities it confronts, and the possible solutions -- both those theoretically ideal and those politically possible.

» Their personal assessments regarding what the rest of the country and world are doing in K-12 education -- best practices, evaluations of innovations, what works and what doesn't, and what ought to be given serious consideration by the next school board.

» What would they recommend regarding the process of goal setting and reporting on progress, relationships between board members, and between the board and the superintendent -- in short, governance?

The present board members may not have identified and solved all the problems. But they do have insights and experience to share.
Nicholas Johnson -- who manages and teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law -- served on the local Iowa City School Board from 1998 to 2001.

Here are some of the readers' comments the column produced:


4:38 AM on May 21, 2011

I also think of a quote. It's by Mark Twain:

"God made the Idiot for practice, and then He made the School Board"


7:36 AM on May 21, 2011

This Board has turned dysfunctional and has not been able to pull together- for the good and bad of that. It was time for rubber stamping to stop, it still is. Many new and hard questions have been put on them, but it seems like they spend more time dodging topics than looking into them in constructive manners. Hopefully the new board will be more responsive to the public and its need for input and questions answered. Now the question is - who wants the job?


8:09 AM on May 21, 2011

"Their personal assessments regarding what the rest of the country and world are doing in K-12 education -- best practices, evaluations of innovations, what works and what doesn't and what ought to be given serious consideration by the next school board."

The majority of the current Board has never been interested in the actual issue of education....will they suddenly make up talking points about it?

Now issues like signs at meetings...that is something they do care about, or endless discussions of who should go to school where...that is something our Board should make a priority.


8:56 AM on May 21, 2011

The ICCSD has shown no interest in what the rest of the country is doing. The rest of the country is implementing expanded open enrollment, they are encouraging home schooling, they are stopping the social engineering, they are addressing the problems with union control/lenght of tenure pay increases, and tenure based retention, they are focusing on pay for performance.

Most of all there parents are demanding a new focus on teaching reading, writing, and math. Teaching study skills and accountability - of teachers, students, and parents.

There is no interest in Iowa City in discussing any of these issues. Only in playing with the boundaries and fretting about economic inequality issues. Not teaching the children.

# # #

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Bike to Work, Bike for Life

May 17, 2011, 6:45 a.m.

Bicycles as Problem Solvers

Iowa City is once again devoting a week to reflecting upon, and riding upon, bicycles as a preferred system of small town transportation. Emily Schlettler, "Bike to Work Week Celebrated," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 17, 2011, p. A3.

The conclusion from the bike, car, and bus race across town, from the Coralville Library to the Iowa City Library? "[T]he commute takes about the same amount of time, no matter what mode of transportation." As Schlettler quotes Coralville City Council member Tom Gill as saying, "'Why burn the gas? The commute by bike is more convenient and quicker.'"

Of course, there are many more reasons than efficiency and comparable speed for biking. Here are some of them:

Costs. Even without $4 or $5 gas, operating a car is extraordinarily expensive -- and even more in time than in money. Years ago, when the average mileage was 7500 miles a year, I calculated (a) the total costs of car ownership: amortization of the purchase price, gas and oil, repairs, insurance and license fees, parking fees, tolls, and so forth. (b) The amount of time it would take the average car owner to earn the money to pay these costs -- plus the time it takes to drive the car, take the car to the mechanic and pick it up, pump the gas, look for parking, and similar non-transportation, car-related time consumption. (c) The total time totaled 1500 hours a year. (d) To take 1500 hours to go 7500 miles is an average of 5 miles an hour -- something you can do without an automobile in a very brisk walk. (e) Can't get from Iowa City to Des Moines that way? Think again. You start working, I'll start walking. I'll be there before you. And that's walking! A biker who's in shape ought to be able to average 20 miles an hour and get there days before you do. This may not be a reason to never own, rent, or otherwise operate an automobile. But unless you are so wealthy that "money is no object," it is certainly something to think about for trips around town when a bike would do as well, or better than, a car. You can acquire, operate, maintain and insure a bicycle for roughly 1% of the cost of a car.

Time Saving, Convenience. Parking in an urban area can be a real hassle, as well as an added cost, whether navigating a parking garage or looking for street parking. My rule of thumb when looking for street parking in the Georgetown area of Washington was to pick the first parking space I could find within one mile of my destination. The 15-minute walk would take less time than driving around and around looking for a closer place to park. Iowa City's not that bad, but you can no longer pull up in front of your downtown destination (and not have to deal with parking meters!), as was the case when I was a boy. And don't talk to me about parking garages! The ticket often turns into nothing more than a hunting license, as you drive around and around, ever upward, until you end up parking on the roof. And allow plenty of time to exit, especially if you're coming from an event where numerous other attendees are in line ahead of you trying to get out.

You don't have to warm up your bike in the winter. You don't have to search for your car keys (if you have a combination lock for the bike). The odds are good there will be either a bike rack, or something else to lock your bike to, right outside the front door of your destination. And you will be taking up about 1/30th the space required for a car when you do so.

War for Oil. We send our brave soldiers off to war around the world in search of an answer to the perplexing question: "How did our oil get under their sand?" It costs us taxpayers trillions of dollars to provide this military protection for our oil companies -- not to mention tens of thousands of lives, and hundreds of thousands of wounded, Americans and others, military and civilian. Bicycles do require a little lubricant for the chain from time to time, but aside from that their only demands for energy involve peddling with your leg muscles.

And Speaking of Muscles -- and Obesity. You can bike outdoors all over town for a month for far less than what your favorite fitness center will charge you to bike in one place indoors. And if you're interested in firming up, and losing a little weight -- and who isn't -- biking just may be your answer. It's cheaper than Lipitor and better for your heart -- as well as a positive for prevention of diabetes and cancer. In fact, virtually every bit of advice about our health, regardless of the disease or injury in question, ends up coming back to "diet and exercise."

Multitasking. "Don't move your thumbs while I'm talking." Students sit in class with their laptops, managing their Facebook pages. Couples sit in restaurants, each on their cell phone. Kids think they can do their homework while watching TV, talking on the phone to one person, while texting another. Whatever you think about those kids of electronic multitasking, bicycling offers another that is in no way socially offensive. You have to go to work, or shop for groceries. If you drive, maybe you'll listen to the radio, music, or engage in the risky behavior of talking on a cell phone or texting. But if you hop on your bike, instead of hopping into the car, for those trips (or even portions of them; drive to cheap parking, with a bike rack and your bike; bike the rest of the way) you're multitasking: building exercise into your day in a way that takes no additional time (or money!) whatsoever. Bike baskets can carry many of the items you formerly drove to the store to get; and if you want to do more, the relatively cheap bike trailers will enable you to carry almost anything -- up to and including your small child.

Stress Reduction. Driving can be noisy, aggravating and stressful. Biking makes virtually no noise and is more calming and peaceful; the additional oxygen to the brain makes you more creative. You are closer to nature and know you're doing something that uses no fuel, is non-polluting, and healthier for both you and the Planet. And that's just for the commuting and shopping trips. With 80 miles of bike trails locally, there's also safe recreational riding -- such as the Clear Creek trail from Iowa City to the Coral Ridge Mall, or the Iowa River Corridor Trail from the City Park to the new Terry Trueblood Recreation Area and lake along Sand Road. That will really clear your mind.

The list could go on and on, but as a concession to the necessary shortness of a blog entry, and life itself, it will stop here.

Finally, for old time's sake, a republication of a column I wrote on the subject for the New York Times some 38 years ago. A little background: I was then working as an FCC Commissioner in downtown Washington, D.C., living in Maryland, and commuting by bicycle each day along the C&O Canal towpath. The facts it contains are from 1973, and the theme of the column is as much an anti-automobile and petroleum-based transportation system tirade as pro-bicycle -- as befits the early '70s. But many of the points are still valid. Chapter 7 ["Antidote for Automobiles"] in Test Pattern for Living, published by Bantam Books at about that time (and now available for free download), strikes a similar theme.

"Bicycles are Model Citizens"
The Bicycle -- It's Like Giving Up Smoking
New York Times
August 2, 1973, p. 35, col. 2

I ride a bicycle. Not because I hate General Motors but haven't the courage to bomb an auto plant. I don't do it as a gesture of great stoicism and personal sacrifice.

I am not even engaged, necessarily, in an act of political protest over that company's responsibility for most of the air pollution tonnage in the United States.

It's like finally giving up cigarettes. You just wake up one morning and realize you don't want to start the day with another automobile.

Cigarette smoking is not a pleasure, it's a business. In the same way, you finally come to realize that you don't need General Motors, they need you. They need you to drive their cars for them. You are working for Detroit and paying them to do it. Automobiles are just a part of your life that's over, that's all.

No hard feelings. You've just moved on to something else. From now on, you just use their buses, taxis, and rental cars when they suit your convenience. You don't keep one for them that you have to house, feed and water, insure and care for.

You ride a bicycle because it feels good. The air feels good on your body; even the rain feels good. The blood starts moving around your body, and pretty soon it gets to your head, and, glory be, your head feels good.

You start noticing things. You look until you really see. You hear things, and smell smells you never knew were there. You start whistling nice little original tunes to suit the moment. Words start getting caught in the web of poetry in your mind.

And there's a nice feeling, too, in knowing you're doing a fundamental life thing for yourself: transportation. You got a little bit of your life back! And the thing you use is simple, functional, and relatively cheap.

You want one that fits you and rides smoothly, but with proper care and a few parts, it should last almost forever.

Your satisfaction comes from within you, and not from the envy or jealousy of others. (Although you are entitled to feel a little smug during rush hours, knowing you are also making better time than most of the people in cars.)

On those occasions when I am not able to cycle through the parks or along the [C&O] canal -- because the paths are rough with ice or muddy from rain or melting snow -- bicycling enables me to keep closer to the street people, folks waiting for buses or to cross streets, street sweepers, policemen, school "patrol," men unloading trucks.

Needless to say, you cannot claim any depth of understanding as a result of such momentary and chance encounters but by the time I get to the office I do somehow have the sense that I have a much better feeling for the mood of the city that day than if I had come to my office in a chauffeur-driven government limousine.

Although I am willing to brave the traffic and exhaust, I am aware it is dangerous. I think bicycles ought to be accorded a preferred position in the city's transportation system. At the very least, they deserve an even break.

Notice that bicycle riding also has some significant social advantages over the automobile. Cars unnecessarily kill sixty thousand people every year, permanently maim another one hundred and seventy thousand, and injure three and a half million more.

The automobile accounts for at least 66 percent of the total air pollution in the United States by tonnage -- as high as 85 percent in some urban areas -- and 91 percent of all-carbon monoxide pollution; it creates about nine hundred pounds of pollution for every person every year.

One million acres of land are paved each years, there is now a mile of road for each square mile of land. The concrete used in our Interstate Highway System would build six sidewalks to the moon.

Even so, everyone is familiar with the clogged streets and parking problems -- not to mention the unconscionable rates charged by the parking garages.

Automobile transportation is the largest single consumer of the resources used in our nation's total annual output of energy. It is an economic drain on consumers -- in no way aided by auto companies that deliberately build bumpers weaker than they were fifty years ago in order to contribute to an unnecessary bumper repair bill in excess of one billion dollars annually.

The bicycle is a model citizen, by comparison.

Happy biking -- not just for "Bike to Work Week," but the other 51 weeks as well.

# # #

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Religious Indictment of Republicanism

May 14, 2011, 7:00 a.m.

[And see, "Spreading the Wealth Around -- By Giving it to the Rich,", May 14, 2011.]

Catholic University Professors Say Republican Budget
Violates Basic Catholic Moral Teachings

"For of those to whom much is given, much is required."
-- President John F. Kennedy, January 9, 1961
Funding tax cuts for the rich and corporations by cutting social programs for the poor not only violates "basic Catholic moral teachings," but the moral teachings of virtually all of the world's great religions. It's something all elected officials -- Democrats and Republicans -- need to reflect upon.

For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.
-- Luke, 12:48, Bible, King James Version.

"Tzedakah" is the Hebrew word for the acts that we call "charity" in English . . .. However, [where] "charity" suggests . . . a magnanimous act by the wealthy and powerful for the benefit of the poor and needy . . . "tzedakah" is derived from the Hebrew Tzadei-Dalet-Qof, meaning righteousness, justice or fairness. [It] is not viewed as a generous, magnanimous act; it is simply an act of justice and righteousness, the performance of a duty . . ..
-- "Tzedakah," Judaism 101.

"Zakāt" (Arabic: زكاة‎) is giving a fixed portion of accumulated wealth by those who can afford it to help the poor or needy, and also to assist the spread of Islam. It is considered a religious obligation (as opposed to voluntary charity) that the well-off owe to the needy because their wealth is seen as a "trust from God's bounty". The Qur'an and the hadith also suggest a Muslim give even more as an act of voluntary alms-giving (sadaqah).
-- "Islam,"
"More than 75 professors at Catholic University and other prominent Catholic colleges have written a pointed letter to [the Republican Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives] Mr. [John] Boehner saying that the Republican-supported budget he shepherded through the House will hurt the poor, the elderly and the vulnerable, and that he therefore has failed to uphold basic Catholic moral teachings.

“'Mr. Speaker, your voting record is at variance from one of the church’s most ancient moral teachings,' the letter says. 'From the apostles to the present, the magisterium of the church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor. Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress. This fundamental concern should have great urgency for Catholic policy makers. Yet, even now, you work in opposition to it.'

"The letter writers criticize Mr. Boehner’s support for a budget that cut financing for Medicare, Medicaid and the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, while granting tax cuts to the wealthy and corporations. They call such policies 'anti-life,' a particularly biting reference because the phrase is usually applied to politicians and others who support the right to abortion."

Laurie Goodstein, "Critical Letter By Catholics Cites Boehner On Policies," New York Times, May 12, 2011, p. A17.

Nor is this moral and religious failing limited to our politicians in Washington. It seems embedded in some state and local politicians as well (and thus, in fairness, to the extent they are our "representatives," in us as well).

Federal Government.

There are thousands of examples from our nation's capital, but here is a current one.

During a U.S. Senate hearing May 12, "At issue was a Democratic-sponsored bill to rescind roughly $2 billion of the $4 billion in tax incentives the oil industry now enjoys annually, with the money dedicated to deficit reduction." John M. Broder, "Oil Executives, Defending Tax Breaks, Say They’d Cede Them if Everyone Did," New York Times, May 13, 2011, p. B4.

It was regrettable, but expected, that the CEOs of the five largest oil companies would show little enthusiasm for the idea. What is far more disappointing is that all virtually conceded that it was little more than what Senator Hatch characterized as a "dog and pony show" (complete with poster-size illustration of horse and dog). All recognize it's dead on arrival (DOA) in the House, and the Democrats don't have enough votes to get it passed in the Senate. (In fact, although the Catholic University professors chose to focus on a Catholic in the leadership, who was a Republican, if they were to evaluate the voting records of all 535 House and Senate members they would have ended up with a truly discouraging number of Democrats on their list as well.)

And yet, based on sales so far this year, if the companies' continue this year's prices, they are on track to pull $140 billion of profit out of our pockets -- and gas prices look like they are continuing to go up, even when world oil prices decline. ("Collectively, the five companies reported more than $35 billion in first-quarter profits, and are on a pace to set record profits for the year." Ibid.)

The companies' tax burdens have not been great. For example, "Exxon Mobil, the most profitable corporation in the history of the world, not only paid nothing in federal income taxes in 2009, but received a $156 million tax refund from the IRS, according to their own shareholder report. Repealing tax breaks for big oil and gas companies as President Obama has recommended would raise more than $35 billion in revenue over the next decade." Bernie Sanders, "End Tax Breaks for Profitable Corporations," The Huffington Post, March 27, 2011.

Nor is this giveaway limited to oil companies. As Senator Sanders continued,
"At a time when we have a $14.2 trillion national debt and a $1.6 trillion federal deficit, it is unacceptable that Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Bank of America, Chevron, Boeing, and other large, profitable corporations are not only avoiding paying any federal income taxes at all but have actually received huge refund checks from the IRS.

Loopholes in the tax code, offshore tax havens, tax breaks to companies that export American jobs to China, and other tax breaks have allowed giant corporations in America to receive billions in refunds from the IRS. . ..

In 2005, one out of four large corporations paid no income taxes at all even though they collected $1.1 trillion in revenue over that one-year period. . . .

Bank of America received a $1.9 billion tax refund from the IRS last year, even though it made $4.4 billion in profits and received a bailout from the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department of nearly $1 trillion. . . . Ibid.
And see Doug Mataconis, "David Stockman’s Scathing Indictment Of GOP Fiscal Policy," Outside the Beltway, August 1, 2010.

State Government.

Now here are a couple of examples from Des Moines.

If truth in advertising were required of legislation, the property tax bill that just passed the Iowa House would have to be labeled "Homeowners: Pay More for Less."

The bill enacts complex and far-reaching changes in Iowa property taxes that over time would hamstring the ability of cities and counties to provide services, while shifting the responsibility for property taxes from business to residents. . . .

[T]he net effect is a sizable shift to residential homeowners. The commercial share of taxable property would drop by almost a third, from 29 percent to 20 percent, while the residential share would rise from 47 percent to 54 percent. . . .

Residential homeowners, many of whom also have received the short end of the deal in income-tax cuts to benefit the wealthy over the past 15 years, would again pay the tab for perks for the most well connected. . . .

Over time, the revenue limit [in the Bill] would force substantial cuts in local services because revenues would not be allowed to increase as fast as costs.
Peter Fisher, "Truth in labeling on property tax bill," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 12, 2011, p. A7.

Another outrageous example is the Iowa Legislature's willingness, notwithstanding all the problems with nuclear power, to have Iowa utility ratepayers not only have to accept MidAmerican's multi-billion-dollar nuclear power plant project over Iowans' objections, but to pay for it. And not only pay for it after it is built, but before. And not only pay for it before it is built, but let the company keep the money if it decides not to build it. To make matters worse, it's not only a brazen effort to give MidAmerican's shareholders the profits while giving unrepresented Iowa ratepayers the risks and possible losses, it also looks like it violates the Iowa Constitution:
One of the fundamental principles of government is that the power of taxation and expenditure of taxes shall not be exercised for private benefit. Iowa's founders recognized this principle [in the Iowa Constitution, Art. I, Sec. 18, and Art III, Sec. 31] when they required that for any payment or promise of public funds there had to be a defined public benefit.

Senate File 390 violates this fundamental principle by setting forth an unprecedented scheme for forcibly transferring private citizens' money and public taxpayer funds to MidAmerican Energy, a privately owned, for-profit utility corporation. The purpose for the legislation is subsidizing the possible construction of one or more nuclear power plants of indeterminate sizes, of undefined costs, at undisclosed locations and at some indefinite time in the future -- if at all.

The legislation further provides that if MidAmerican fails to get its plans approved or simply changes its mind, Iowa's ratepayers and taxpayers will have no recourse to get their money back. . . .

The proposed law's denial of citizens from getting their money back also is a prepaid profit scheme constituting an arbitrary deprivation of taxpayers' private property interests. State senators, facing overwhelming political pressures from Iowa's utility industry lobbyists, ought to take to heart the wisdom of our forefathers and reject MidAmerican's unconstitutional proposal to finance its private owners' risky scheme.
Jim Larew, "Unconstitutionality of SF390," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 11, 2011, p. A7.

Local Government.

At the local level, this takes the form of "TIFs" -- giving developers a tax break that results in either higher property taxes for local homeowners, a cut in services, or both. The local debate has raged between advocates of TIFs and the opponents -- but meanwhile the TIFs keep sprouting up like mushrooms notwithstanding the obvious objections.

Here are just a few of the problems with TIFs, excerpted from a blog entry five years ago:
There are, of course, many other problems with TIFs besides their irrational and unfair impact on the programs that take the cuts.

(a) They are unfair to the TIF beneficiary's competitors who do have to pay their fair share of the cost of public programs benefiting everyone. Those competitors are, thereby, subject to a competitive disadvantage.

(b) They [TIFs] are open to corruption and cronyism, paybacks for campaign contributions, bribes or other favors.

(c) TIFs are the public budgeting equivalent of violating the advice in "how to manage your money" columns and books: always go shopping with a shopping list. TIFs are, for a taxing authority, what impulse buying is for the rest of us. Budgeting is, if anything, more important for those who are managing public finance than for those of us managing our own personal finance. Approving a TIF is like our seeing something in a store, saying, "Gee, I've got to have that," and then finding out, come the end of the month, that we no longer have enough money in the bank to pay the rent. Public expenditures ought to be based on a zero-based budgeting process that looks at every past, present and potential future public program, its costs, wastes and efficiencies. There should be comparative benefit-cost analyses of potentially competing programs, and a kind of triage of those that pay back so much they should be expanded, those that should continue as they are, and those that should be cut (or eliminated). Taking up individual TIF requests as they are presented totally undercuts that process.

(d) They involve government intermeddling in what ought to be the decisions of owners and investors (such as, discussion about the number of apartments vs. condos, and floors devoted to a "hotel," in a proposed TIF-funded building). If "a camel is a horse built by committee," Iowa City's next TIF-ed project is going to be a building designed by committee -- some members of which want to optimize the developers' profits, others who want to optimize the taxing authority's tax revenues, and none of whom are solely focused on the public's welfare (e.g., in this context, "affordable housing").

(e) There is no sure fire way to know where the truth lies when a developer says, "Gee, we just couldn't think of going ahead with this project unless you'll increase the profits we will make from the venture as a result of the multi-million-dollar contribution of corporate welfare dollars from taxpayers." The odds that any given taxing authority will end up having paid out more via an individual TIF (or outright grant) than would have been necessary are very high indeed. (I.e., no public money ought to be going into for-profit ventures that the developer-owner, investors, venture capitalists, and bank loan officers combined don't think worth it without subsidy. But if public money is going to be handed over to private developers anyway, how much should it be? "Trust me, this is how much I'll need," isn't a very satisfactory analytical tool.)

(f) There are few, if any, guarantees the taxpayers will ever get a return on their dollars. If there are profits they go to the developer; if there are losses they are picked up by the taxpayers.

(g) Not only do TIFs involve the rankest ideological hypocrisy (state funding of "free private enterprise"?!), but they really distort the market forces at play, and what happens to a city's growth and development (compared with what happens when the system for making these decisions is left solely to the best judgment of entrepreneurs, investors, venture capitalists and loan officers -- restrained only by reasonable zoning restrictions).


Not only do I not object to rational and equitable economic development, I think it's essential to providing the American people with basic necessities -- including jobs -- as well as the more civilizing elements of life.

Nor do I object -- if it need be said -- to 100% public funding of such things as roads, schools, libraries, parks, and so forth (after subjecting these expenditures to the same kind of analysis suggested in (c), above). As we move along the continuum away from the more conventional public enterprises it may become more iffy; but even then -- say, if the City of Iowa City wanted to build a mixed-use tower as a 100% City-owned project -- I'm certainly willing to listen to, and evaluate, any proposal from a position of pragmatism rather than ideology.

What I object to are programs in the name of economic development that are not effective, or are unfair, or too expensive, or that have negatives outweighing any possible benefits, are difficult to administer, and return less benefit for the cost than alternatives might provide.

Put aside the costs, ethics and morality of subsidizing private enterprise; if all that doesn't bother you at least focus on the fact that such programs don't work. Our governor offered Maytag $100 million to stay. They left. In case after case, businesses given taxpayers' money have gone belly up, or never produced the promised jobs, economic growth, and increased tax revenues.

I would actually support economic growth programs that have been proven to work; programs that are fair, rational and benefit all businesses -- and citizens -- in the state of Iowa.

Those who've studied the matter say that business is attracted by a skilled workforce (which requires the unionization, liveable wage minimums, universal single-payer health care, and other economic supports to keep workers here); it also requires quality, and affordable, K-12, community college and university systems (which will require more funding); good transportation systems (buses, trains, roads and bridges, Mississippi and other rivers); communication (reasonably priced broadband, quality newspapers, television and radio); forests, parks and trails (for hiking, biking, camping, hunting, fishing and boating, which will require some restrictions on the hog lot and fertilizer runoff that pollutes rivers, streams and lakes); the support for the arts that Richard Florida talks about, and so forth.

Build that and we will have economic development -- rational, sound, free private enterprise economic development, grounded on solid fundamentals.

Build that and they will come.
"Understanding TIFs," October 5, 2006.

See also "Brother, Can You Spare A TIF?," April 25, 2011; "TIF-ing My Toolshed," September 2, 2006; and "Supervisor Sullivan Says 'TIF, TIF, Tsk, Tsk,'" September 16, 2006; and a series of Press-Citizen opinion pieces:

Nicholas Johnson, "TIF Helps the Rich Get Richer," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 25, 2011, p. A7 (embedded in "Brother, Can You Spare A TIF?", April 25, 2011)

Bob Elliott, "State Should Limit Use of TIF," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 6, 2011

Christopher Manthe, "Coralville Uses TIFs Far Too Much, Too Often," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 7, 2011

Bob Hoeft, "The Other Side of TIFs," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 11, 2011

Bob Elliott, "It Is Possible to Use TIFs Well," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 13, 2011


Politicians who hold public office take an oath to uphold the Constitution. But they have other obligations as well that are grounded in ethics, morality -- and the teachings of most of the world's great religions.

A variant is expressed by the phrase noblesse oblige. "'Noblesse oblige' is generally used to imply that with wealth, power and prestige come responsibilities. . . . In American English especially, the term has also been applied more broadly to those who are capable of simple acts to help another, usually one who is less fortunate." "Noblese oblige,"

President Kennedy once put it this way:
"For of those to whom much is given, much is required. And when at some future date the high court of history sits in judgment on . . . [whether] we fulfilled our responsibilities [we] will be measured by the answers to four questions: First, were we truly men of courage—with . . . the courage to resist public pressure, as well as private greed? . . . Finally, were we truly men of dedication—with an honor mortgaged to no single individual or group, and comprised of no private obligation or aim, but devoted solely to serving the public good and the national interest?"
John F. Kennedy, Speech to Massachusetts State Legislature (9 January 1961); Congressional Record, January 10, 1961, vol. 107, Appendix, p. A169 (quoted in "John F. Kennedy," Wikiquote).

It is a standard by which some of our elected officials will be judged harshly. It is, however, a standard to which we have every right, indeed the obligation, to measure their performance and judge their election.

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Monday, May 09, 2011

Justice Was Done

May 9, 2011, 4:45 p.m.
And see, "Bin Laden Killed -- Significance? The Two-Trilion-Dollar Assassination" May 1, 2011; and the additional points made in Gregory Johnson, "The Impact and Consequences of Osama Bin Laden's Assassination," May 1, 6, 7, 10, 2011.

Examining Heads
Justice was done. And I think that anyone who would question that [Osama Bin Laden] the perpetrator of mass murder on American soil didn't deserve what he got needs to have their head examined.

-- President Barack Obama, CBS "60 Minutes," May 8, 2011
Bin Laden is dead. Many Americans seem to believe that the only appropriate thing to say on such an occasion is "USA! USA!" or "We're Number One!" They may even be right about that. At a minimum, for anyone to sit back and reflect on what we did and how and why we did it risks an accusation of "un-American" at best. That makes this blog entry one of the most difficult to write.

No matter how precisely it is conditioned and qualified, given the emotional subject matter the odds are good that at least some readers will come away with the impression that I (a) do not fully and appropriately appreciate the accomplishment of the Navy SEALS who killed Ben Ladin, (b) the daring and skill of President Obama and his advisers, or, worst of all, (c) am somewhat ambivalent about the desirability of eliminating Bin Laden.

All those assertions would be false.

Clearly, the world -- not just the United States -- is better off without Bin Laden; and the intelligence gathering, planning, training, and professional execution of those plans by the Obama Team and Navy SEALS qualifies as one of America's greatest intelligence and special operations accomplishments ever.


Moreover, there are no claims here of either expertise, or the knowledge supported by research, regarding international law or criminal law. These are just some random thoughts about the events of a week ago.

1. Justice. What does the President mean by "Justice was done"? "Bringing someone to justice," or saying "He got justice," carries at least two possible meanings. (a) It can mean "revenge," or "retribution" -- "an eye for an eye." This was the meaning in America's "lawless" wild west -- where the advice to "shoot first, ask questions later" enabled anyone carrying a gun to play all the parts: legislature, complainant, investigator, arresting officer, county attorney, grand jury, judge, jury, warden and executioner, and to play all of them within a fraction of a second. It was what enabled the KKK to carry out lynchings without the bother of troublesome "legal technicalities." It's the mafia's approach to settling scores, the urban gangs' protection of their territory, and the cause of the tens of thousands of dead Mexicans who got in the way of the drug cartels.

(b) But bringing someone to justice can also mean that someone believed to be guilty is put through the judicial system, and process -- and provided its protections -- before they are killed or otherwise punished. Some of those involved in terrorist plots in the U.S., including that on 9/11, have been "brought to justice" in this sense. Clearly, had Bin Laden, like the others, been brought to justice in this sense, and a judge and jury concluded that Bin Laden was in fact, as Obama asserted, the "perpetrator of mass murder on American soil," the President could then accurately assert (if one accepts that a jury verdict is the definition of "legal truth") that Bin Laden did "deserve what he got." (Although, even then, were he given the death penalty, he would probably have died by lethal injection under medical supervision rather than a shot to the head in a bedroom in the middle of the night.)

Thus, we must conclude that our President was using the word "justice" in the American wild west sense.

2. Killing in Context. Not all killing is "murder." A reasonable apprehension that one is under attack and at risk of being killed may turn the killing of the attacker from "murder" into "self defense." Reckless, though sober, driving at excessive speed, with absolutely no intention of killing anyone, may turn a pedestrian's death from "murder" into "manslaughter." The insanity of the defendant may protect him. And, of course, the debate continues in state legislatures and elsewhere regarding the circumstances under which "assisted suicide," or the aborting of a fetus, should be punished as murder.

3. Examining Heads. President Obama says, "anyone who would question that the perpetrator of mass murder on American soil didn't deserve what he got needs to have their head examined."

(a) As mentioned above, such a statement totally ignores with a verbal leapfrog the matter of process. Of anyone found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of "mass murder" it can fairly be said that he did "deserve what he got," up to and including the death penalty. However, under our legal system of "justice" we make a distinction between a before-trial assertion and a post-conviction verdict.

(b) To say of someone that he "needs to have their head examined" is to close off any possibility of civil and rational discussion and exploration of issues.

This runs totally counter to what the President asserts is his approach to the exploration of issues and decision making:
[O]ne of the things that we've done here is to build a team . . . where everybody speaks their mind. . . . [W]hat I've tried to do is make sure that every time I sit down in the situation room, every one of my advisors around there knows I expect them to give me their best assessments.

And so the fact that there were some who voiced doubts about this approach was invaluable, because it meant the plan was sharper, it meant that we had thought through all of our options, it meant that when I finally did make the decision, I was making it based on the very best information.
(c) The fact is that not everyone agrees regarding the virtue of wild west assassinations. Of the 193 countries in the United Nations, 49% have abolished the death penalty. "Use of Capital Punishment by Nation," Sixteen U.S. states have banned the death penalty. Many of the world's great religions look askance at killing. When the U.S. military did its "recruiting" with a mandatory draft, even the military recognized the rights of "conscientious objectors" to refuse to serve in positions potentially requiring killing in war.

(d) Among those "some who voiced doubts about this approach" among the President's advisers, we cannot know the nature of their objections. But it does seem to me not totally unreasonable for someone to hold the view that we would have better served our national security by capturing and interrogating Bin Laden than by assassinating him.

For these and other reasons it does seem to me a bit out of line for the President to suggest that all who disagree with him do so as a result of mental deficiency or psychiatric disability.

4. War and Other International Law. Of course, a major exception to the prohibition of murder is "war." (a) For example, suppose it was the Pakistan Army rather than the Taliban that was running things in Afghanistan, and Bin Laden was the commanding general in charge inside the Pakistan Army Afghanistan headquarters, and, at the request of the Afghanistan government, the U.S. Congress had passed a declaration of war against Pakistan that included driving them out of Afghanistan (which they had invaded; as with Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War). Under these circumstances, I believe that killing Bin Laden -- whether by bombing the headquarters where he was, or by making it a special ops mission -- would be justified under the rules of war and not considered murder.

But an analysis of the rationale for Bin Laden's assassination a week ago is not this clear cut.

Whatever it is we are doing, it is not a nation vs. nation war in the old World War II, or Gulf War I, sense. The U.S. military are the only combatants wearing uniforms. We are not fighting a nation, we are fighting an "ism" -- terrorism, "the war on terrorism."

It is apparently our theory that it is a "war," subject to the rules of war, because we say it is a war, rather than, say, an international police crime-fighting effort.

Because this is not a war against any one nation, does this mean that we can, in the name of "war," enter any and all nations, without their invitation or permission, whenever we want to so long as we can offer a credible claim that there are "terrorists" in that country? Apparently so. We invaded Afghanistan and Iraq as "wars of choice," fly drones over Yemen (also on assassination missions) -- and now Pakistan.

President Obama acknowledged as much:
Obviously, we're going into the sovereign territory of another country [Pakistan] and landing helicopters and conducting a military operation. And so if it turns out that it's a wealthy, you know, prince from Dubai who's in this compound, and, you know, we've spent Special Forces in -- we've got problems. So there were risks involved geopolitically in making the decision.
Insofar as we were "conducting a military operation" in "the sovereign territory of another country," doesn't that raise the same issues whether it turns out to be Bin Laden or that Dubai prince?

The facts regarding the potential capture, but ultimate assassination, of Bin Laden remain unclear, at least to me. However, my understanding of international law (which may be wrong), is that those facts make a difference: If this were a conventional war, and our enemy wore uniforms, and we were in a position to kill one of them, but it was clear that they were off-guard, unarmed and wished to surrender, it is then not OK to assassinate them. Indeed, there have been instances in which American military have killed either enemy combatants, or what seem to have been innocent civilians, in such situations and been court martialed for doing so.

No, to be clear, I am in no way suggesting our brave SEALS should be court martialed. Of course not. It may very well be that, regardless of the circumstances, it was appropriate and legal to kill him. But it does seem to me the distinctions are worth noting and reflecting upon anyway.

This was not shooting at someone in a uniform, who was shooting at us, on a battlefield in a country to which we had been invited to conduct military operations. This was entering the territory of a sovereign nation with a military operation, not only without invitation or permission, but with advance notice of repeated objections to our conducting military operations there. Although located in a town with Pakistani military installations, the home in which Bin Laden was shot was in a suburban residential neighborhood. It was the middle of the night, in a private home with some 20 residents, in the bedroom where he was with his wife. Best as I can tell from newspaper reports, although he was "resisting" (after all, who wouldn't), he was unarmed and represented no physical danger to the SEALS.

Not incidentally, not only was there some question as to whether this operation was going to work, there was some question as to whether the man they found there was, in fact, Bin Laden.

President Obama:
This was a very difficult decision, in part because the evidence that we had was not absolutely conclusive. This was circumstantial evidence that he was gonna be there. . . . But we didn't have a photograph of bin Laden in that building. There was no direct evidence of his presence. . . . And there are a lot of things that could go wrong. I mean there're a lot of moving parts here. . . . as outstanding a job as our intelligence teams did -- and I cannot praise them enough they did an extraordinary job with just the slenderest of bits of information to piece this all together -- at the end of the day, this was still a 55/45 situation. I mean, we could not say definitively that bin Laden was there. Had he not been there, then there would have been significant consequences. . . .

KROFT: When did you start to feel comfortable that bin Laden had been killed?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: When they landed [presumably this is a reference to landing back in Afghanistan] we had very strong confirmation at that point that it was him. Photographs had been taken. Facial analysis indicated that in fact it was him. We hadn't yet done DNA testing, but at that point we were 95 percent sure. . . .
5. Concluding Comments.

The entire "60 Minutes" interview is available in video, below, followed by textual excerpts that I found relevant to the discussion above.

As this blog entry began, "Clearly, the world -- not just the United States -- is better off without Bin Laden; and the intelligence gathering, planning, training, and professional execution of those plans by the Obama Team and Navy SEALS qualifies as one of America's greatest intelligence and special operations accomplishments ever."

I'm as pleased as anyone that Bin Laden is no longer walking the earth. I do not think that anyone needs be prosecuted for war crimes. But the President is invoking "who we are":
But we don't need to spike the football. . . . [W]e don't trot out this stuff [photos of Bin Laden's wounds] as trophies. . . . [T]hat's not who we are. . . .

We thought it was important to think through ahead of time how we would dispose of the body . . . consulting with experts in Islamic law and ritual, to find something that was appropriate that was respectful of the body. . . . [T]hat, again, is somethin' that makes us different.
And so I ask, "who are we?" Because the answer to that question, our occupation of the world's moral high ground, is going to involve a little more than the sophistication of a Grade B Hollywood western in which we all cheer when the white hats kill off the black hats in the final scene.

"Obama on Bin Laden: The Full '60 Minutes' Interview," CBS, May 8, 2011 -- the video, followed by relevant textual excerpts:

This was a very difficult decision, in part because the evidence that we had was not absolutely conclusive. This was circumstantial evidence that he was gonna be there. . . . But we didn't have a photograph of bin Laden in that building. There was no direct evidence of his presence. . . . And there are a lot of things that could go wrong. I mean there're a lot of moving parts here. . . . as outstanding a job as our intelligence teams did -- and I cannot praise them enough they did an extraordinary job with just the slenderest of bits of information to piece this all together -- at the end of the day, this was still a 55/45 situation. I mean, we could not say definitively that bin Laden was there. Had he not been there, then there would have been significant consequences.

Obviously, we're going into the sovereign territory of another country and landing helicopters and conducting a military operation. And so if it turns out that it's a wealthy, you know, prince from Dubai who's in this compound, and, you know, we've spent Special Forces in -- we've got problems. So there were risks involved geopolitically in making the decision. . . .

[O]ne of the things that we've done here is to build a team that is collegial and where everybody speaks their mind. And there's not a lot of snipin' or back-biting after the fact. And what I've tried to do is make sure that every time I sit down in the situation room, every one of my advisors around there knows I expect them to give me their best assessments.

And so the fact that there were some who voiced doubts about this approach was invaluable, because it meant the plan was sharper, it meant that we had thought through all of our options, it meant that when I finally did make the decision, I was making it based on the very best information. . . . [T]here were sufficient risks involved where it wasn't as if any of the folks who were voicing doubts were voicing somethin' that I wasn't already runnin' through in my own head. You know, we understood that there were some significant risks involved in this. . . .

KROFT: When did you start to feel comfortable that bin Laden had been killed?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: When they landed we had very strong confirmation at that point that it was him. Photographs had been taken. Facial analysis indicated that in fact it was him. We hadn't yet done DNA testing, but at that point we were 95 percent sure. . . .

KROFT: Why haven't you released them [photos of Bin Laden]?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: . . . It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence. As a propaganda tool.

You know, that's not who we are. You know, we don't trot out this stuff as trophies. You know, the fact of the matter is this was somebody who was deserving of the justice that he received. And I think Americans and people around the world are glad that he's gone. But we don't need to spike the football. . . .

KROFT: Was it your decision to bury him at sea?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: It was a joint decision. We thought it was important to think through ahead of time how we would dispose of the body if he were killed in the compound. And I think that what we tried to do was, consulting with experts in Islamic law and ritual, to find something that was appropriate that was respectful of the body.

Frankly we took more care on this than, obviously, bin Laden took when he killed 3,000 people. He didn't have much regard for how they were treated and desecrated. But that, again, is somethin' that makes us different. And I think we handled it appropriately.

Justice was done. And I think that anyone who would question that the perpetrator of mass murder on American soil didn't deserve what he got needs to have their head examined.
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Sunday, May 01, 2011

Bin Laden Killed -- Significance?

May 1, 2011, 9:30 p.m.

The Two-Trillion-Dollar Assassination

[See Amy Belasco, The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11, Congressional Research Service, March 29, 2011.]

Media started reporting this evening [May 1] that American military have killed Bin Laden in Pakistan.

Of course, it's a big story, a major development in the "War on Terror," and clearly a courageous and competently executed major military accomplishment.

However, the remarkable thing, it seems to me, is not just that the American military, CIA and its allies have succeeded in killing him, it is that it has taken us nearly 10 years to track him down and do so.

Especially is this so when we discover that he was found, not on the run, moving from cave-to-cave in northwestern Pakistan, but inside a million-dollar compound with 12-18-foot walls, a few blocks from a military academy (the Pakistan version of West Point), 40 (or 75?) miles from the national capital. (Photo credit: T. Mughal/European Pressphoto Agency and New York Times.)

The White House, having learned its lessons regarding the limitations on the persuasive capacity of birth certificates, reports that our military apparently has not only the paperwork and photos, but is prepared to show the world Bin Laden's DNA and body.

Oh, they're not? They "buried" his body at sea? They're now saying, "Trust us. We've matched his DNA. Sorry about the body"? Oh, well, never mind. Maybe the White House didn't master the birth certificate lessons as well as first thought. Maybe they will soon be making public Bin Laden's long-form death certificate.

But the story is being hyped by the media I've been reading and watching as the virtual end of our "War on Terrorism" -- a "Mission Accomplished!" as it were, and a cause for jubilation.

That part is not clear to me, at least not at this point.

(1) Al Qaeda is not a hierarchical organization, like the U.S. Department of Defense, or a major corporation with a single CEO. Bin Laden has not been "running" the day-to-day operations of Al Qaeda. Nor will his replacements do so. Think a U.S. presidential campaign, or the "environmental movement" -- thousands of people sharing a belief, an ideology, a goal, who are otherwise pretty much on their own in coming up with activities they think will advance that end. Bin Laden has been a symbol, an icon, "the founder," a way to increase tee shirt sales by displaying his photo. This role was not buried at sea; it will, if anything, increase following his death. Think Elvis, and how much more money he earns in death than he did in life. ("The King's earnings after death topped what he made while alive by 1988." "Richest Dead Celebrities," Feb. 23, 2011.)

We need to pay attention to the statement by Ehsanullah Ehsan, spokesperson for the Pakistani Taliban: "If he [Bin Laden] has been martyred, we will avenge his death and launch attacks against American and Pakistani governments and their security forces. If he has become a martyr, it is a great victory for us because martyrdom is the aim of all of us." Issam Ahmed and Owais Tohid, Osama bin Laden killed near Pakistan's West Point. Was he really hidden?; The world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden, was not hiding in a cave along the lawless border with Afghanistan, as many believed. Instead, US forces killed him 75 miles north of Pakistan's capital, Islamabad," Christian Science Monitor, May 2, 2011.

So much for the blow we've struck against Al Qaeda; a loss, for sure, but one that provides advantages to Al Qaeda as well, and increased risks to us.

(2) To the extent the movement needs a leader, there lots of "second in command" to fill that role.

(3) Indeed, there is as great a likelihood -- if not more -- that his having been killed will increase terrorist recruitment and intensify terrorist attacks against America and its allies, rather than reduce them. To the extent there are both moderate and extremist elements in that part of the world who express objection to Americans' values, our military presence, their civilian deaths from our unmanned but well-armed drone planes, what they view as our offenses against Islam (e.g., the minister's burning of the Koran), there is no reason to believe their hostility toward us will change for the better.

That does not diminish the courage, extraordinary skill and accomplishment of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), including Navy Seals, or the congratulations, awe and appreciation they are owed.

But it may mean that we should moderate our celebration and postpone the jubilation until we get a firmer fix on what Bin Laden's death means for our future.

We're still awaiting the President's promised remarks at this point in time. Presumably he'll cover many of these points -- and possibly move me to have more to say.

[May 2, 2011, 9:25 a.m.: The text of his remarks is now available, "Remarks by the President on Osama Bin Laden," Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, May 2, 2011. Apparently he felt that was not the time or occasion to address some of the issues raised above.]

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