Deepak Blames America

The media look within to explain the sick delusions of the Mumbai killers.

If the Mumbai terror assault seemed exceptional, and shocking in its targets, it was clear from the Thanksgiving Day reports that we weren’t going to be deprived of the familiar, either. Namely, ruminations, hints, charges of American culpability that regularly accompany catastrophes of this kind.

[Commentary] AP

Soon enough, there was Deepak Chopra, healer, New Age philosopher and digestion guru, advocate of aromatherapy and regular enemas, holding forth on CNN on the meaning of the attacks.

How the ebullient Dr. Chopra had come to be chosen as an authority on terror remains something of a mystery, though the answer may have something to do with his emergence in the recent presidential campaign as a thinker of advanced political views. Also commending him, perhaps, is his well known capacity to cut through all sorts of complexities to make matters simple. No one can fail to grasp the wisdom of a man who has informed us that “If you have happy thoughts, then you make happy molecules.”

In his CNN interview, he was no less clear. What happened in Mumbai, he told the interviewer, was a product of the U.S. war on terrorism, that “our policies, our foreign policies” had alienated the Muslim population, that we had “gone after the wrong people” and inflamed moderates. And “that inflammation then gets organized and appears as this disaster in Bombay.”

All this was a bit too much, evidently, for CNN interviewer Jonathan Mann, who interrupted to note that there were other things going on — matters like the ongoing bitter Pakistan-India struggle over Kashmir — which had caused so much terror and so much violence. “That’s not Washington’s fault,” he pointed out.

Given an argument, the guest, ever a conciliator, agreed: The Mumbai catastrophe was not Washington’s fault, it was everybody’s fault. Which didn’t prevent Dr. Chopra from returning soon to his central theme — the grave offense posed to Muslims by the United States’ war on terror, a point accompanied by consistent emphatic reminders that Muslims are the world’s fastest growing population — 25% of the globe’s inhabitants — and that the U.S. had better heed that fact. In Dr. Chopra’s moral universe, numbers are apparently central. It’s tempting to imagine his view of offenses against a much smaller sliver of the world’s inhabitants — not so offensive, perhaps?

Two subsequent interviews with Larry King brought much of the same — a litany of suggestions about the role the U.S. had played in fueling assaults by Muslim terrorists, reminders of the numbers of Muslims in the world and their grievances. A faithful adherent of the root-causes theory of crime — mass murder, in the case at hand — Dr. Chopra pointed out, quite unnecessarily, that most of the terrorism in the world came from Muslims. It was mandatory, then, to address their grievances — “humiliation,” “poverty,” “lack of education.” The U.S., he recommended, should undertake a Marshall Plan for Muslims.

Nowhere in this citation of the root causes of Muslim terrorism was there any mention of Islamic fundamentalism — the religious fanaticism that has sent fevered mobs rioting, burning and killing over alleged slights to the Quran or the prophet. Not to mention the countless others enlisted to blow themselves and others up in the name of God.

Nor did we hear, in these media meditations, any particular expression of sorrow from the New Delhi-born Dr. Chopra for the anguish of Mumbai’s victims: a striking lack, no doubt unintentional, but not surprising, either. For advocates of the root-causes theory of crime, the central story is, ever, the sorrows and grievances of the perpetrators. For those prone to the belief that most eruptions of evil in the world can be traced to American influence and power there is only one subject of consequence.

Accustomed as we are by now to this view of the U.S., it’s impossible not to marvel at its varied guises — its capacity to emerge even in journalism ostensibly concerning the absurd beliefs about the 9/11 attacks held by so many Muslims. It’s conventional wisdom in the region — according to a New York Times dispatch from Cairo, Egypt, last fall by Michael Slackman — that the U.S. and Israel had to have been involved in the planning, if not the actual execution of the assaults. No news there. Neither was the information that there was virtually universal belief in the area that Jews, tipped off, didn’t go to work at the World Trade Center that day. Or that the U.S. had organized the plot in order to attack Arab Muslims and gain access to their oil.

The noteworthy point here was the writer’s conclusion that the U.S. itself was to blame for the power of these beliefs. “It is easy for Americans to dismiss such thinking as bizarre,” Mr. Slackman allowed. But that would miss the point that the persistence of these ideas represents the “first failure in the fight against terrorism.” A U.S. failure? Nowhere in the extended list of root causes here was there any mention of the fanaticism and sheer mindless gullibility that is the prerequisite for the holding of such beliefs.

Its very ordinariness speaks volumes about this report. A piece written with evident serenity, the perversity of its conclusions notwithstanding, it’s one emblem among many of the adversarial view of the nation that is today entrenched in the culture. So unworthy is the U.S. — an attitude solidly established in our media culture long before the war on terror — that only it can be held responsible for the deranged fantasies cherished in large quarters of the Arab world. So natural does it feel, now, to hold such views that their expression has become second nature.

Which is how it happens also that the U.S. is linked to the bloodletting in Mumbai, with scarcely anyone batting an eye, and Larry King — awash perhaps, in happy molecules — thanking guest Dr. Chopra for his extraordinary enlightenment.

Ms. Rabinowitz is a member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.

Mexico Has Made Big Strides on Economic Policy

Calderón was smart enough to hedge against falling oil prices.

Much has been written about the “cultural” divide between Norte Americanos and Latinos. But with the burst of the asset bubble, we’ve learned that politicians, north and south, react similarly in the face of economic crisis.

[The Americas] AP

Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón.

This commonality occurred to me over breakfast in New York last week with Mexico’s minister of finance, Agustin Carstens. The University of Chicago-trained economist was explaining the rationale behind President Felipe Calderón’s “stimulus” package. I kept thinking about President-elect Barack Obama’s promised further spending spree on this side of the border. The Mexican version is not nearly as ambitious but the concept is the same. “He’s taking my money in order to spend it better than I can,” a Mexican friend shot back sardonically when I asked him his views on Mr. Calderón’s plan. We’re all keynesianos now.

The Keynesian theory, calling for government spending as a way to boost aggregate demand during economic downturns, has repeatedly failed to deliver on its promises. But it endures because of its political expediency. It is the best excuse ever invented to expand government. It is both frightening and discouraging to hear politicians offering more Keynes at a time when what is most needed is a way of restoring the appetite of the private sector for risk.

Yet the news from Mexico is not all bad. As I listened to Mr. Carstens discuss his government’s economic options, what also came through is how different Mexico is from 15 years ago. These changes may keep the country from backsliding under the strain of the current financial panic.

The Americas in the News

Get the latest information in Spanish from The Wall Street Journal’s Americas page.

To be sure, Mr. Carstens believes in the state’s capacity to stimulate economic activity. “If you can get the economy going and you have the instruments to do it, it is important that you use them,” he told me. Then he added a historic footnote: “But we have limits to how much we can borrow and finance prudently.” He went on: “Thinking that we are going to run a fiscal deficit without thinking of how we will finance it? That would be irresponsible.”

For a country that has repeatedly gotten itself into fiscal and monetary trouble by running up big budget deficits, this is a tectonic shift in thinking. It is true that Mr. Carstens’s predecessor, Francisco Gil-Diaz, also kept a tight grip on the purse strings during the government of Vicente Fox. But for a Mexican finance minister to be worried about excessive borrowing during a global economic slump of the magnitude now expected is a meaningful departure from tradition.

It isn’t the only new-found prudence in Mexico. Twenty five years ago when oil prices skyrocketed, Latin oil producers spent the windfall as fast as it flowed in — and more besides. Now Mexico takes a different approach. Earlier this year when Maya crude — Mexico’s main blend for export — was topping $120 per barrel, Mr. Carstens instructed his team to begin using derivatives to lock in a floor price of $70 per barrel. “Prices had risen to such a high level that the only direction left was down,” he explained to reporters in Mexico City last month.

With this hedge, Mexico has covered its net oil exports for 2009 at $70 while Maya crude is now trading around $45. What is important here is not that Mr. Carstens’s hedge worked but that this time an oil boom didn’t turn into a government binge.

Yet another big change in Mexico is on the trade front. By now most economists recognize that closing domestic markets in hard times only makes things worse. But candidate Obama’s campaign vow to force protectionist changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement demonstrates the constant temptation for politicians to protect special interest groups from foreign competition.

Yet while Mr. Obama and Congress are talking up more trade barriers, Mr. Calderón’s government is going the other way. At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Lima, Peru, last month, the Mexican president warned that changes to Nafta would damage both sides of the border. Mexico has numerous free trade agreements but Mr. Carstens told me at breakfast that working to lower tariffs on imports from non-FTA countries is a Calderón priority.

With these advances Mexico may muddle through this recession. But there are also grave risks to its strategy. The much-touted reform of state-owned oil monopoly Pemex is too timid to boost output in the near term. Elsewhere Mr. Carstens says he is working toward eventual tax cuts and simplification of the tax code but adds that now is not the time to go there. The trouble is that as he waits for the right time, the private sector could decide that the cost of doing business in Mexico is just too high. That will leave Mexico more dependent on Mr. Carstens’s strategy of government spending out of the treasury and state-owned “development” banks. That would be a throwback to an unrewarding past.

Let’s Move Intelligence Out of the 1970s

[Information Age] AP

The Mumbai killers communicated by BlackBerry.

Despite some intelligence reforms after 9/11, those charged with preventing terrorism in the U.S. are still not confident they have the means to prevent another domestic attack. The Obama team, which credits technology for its electoral win, should focus on getting the executive branch the up-to-date tools it needs to prevent terrorism, while protecting reasonable levels of privacy.

In a spectacular example of how Washington’s political compromises on intelligence look better on paper than they work in practice, New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly recently accused the Bush Justice Department of “doing less than it is lawfully entitled to do to protect New York City, and the city is less safe as a result.”

Mr. Kelly complained in a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey about the arcane legal hoops of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. This law, passed in 1978, created a special court to approve domestic surveillance. He accused the Justice Department of deciding against seeking permission for needed wiretaps out of too much worry about being turned down. He said Justice Department lawyers want “higher than appropriate standards of probable cause” before sending requests to the FISA judges.

Mr. Mukasey’s response, in an exchange of letters in late October that were recently leaked to the media, is that it’s better to send only very strong cases to the judges. The attorney general said that although New York City’s preferred approach “may lead to additional collection in the short term from the small percentage of applications that might be approved,” over time the “government’s credibility would be substantially undermined.” Mr. Mukasey didn’t put it this way, but these judges need to all but rubberstamp Justice Department requests because FISA puts them way out of their league. The judicial skill set will never include weighing intelligence risks or leveraging new technologies.

Of some 2,300 requests to listen in on people within the U.S. last year, only three were denied. So tactically, Mr. Mukasey has a good argument. The broader question is whether there’s a privacy-protecting alternative to law-enforcement officials’ bickering over how to fit today’s technology needs into yesterday’s legal process.

It took Nixon to go to China and a Bush administration attorney general to deny New York City’s wiretap requests, so perhaps a Democratic administration can prompt a new national debate about privacy versus security: Can we get the most of both by encouraging the use of modern technology?

In the 1970s, when FISA first limited executive-branch discretion on surveillance, eavesdropping meant listening in on known people who used land-line telephones for point-to-point calls or sent telexes to known addresses. The wiretap laws thus focus on known terrorists when the real challenge is to discover them. FISA, as Judge Richard Posner says, “requires that surveillance be conducted pursuant to warrants based on probable cause to believe that the target of surveillance is a terrorist, when the desperate need is to find out who is a terrorist.”

The NYPD-Justice dispute included requests from New York City to monitor “numerous communications facilities.” These reportedly included telephones in high-risk public places such as subway and train stations. Technology can now glean insights from aggregated data such as phone conversations. The problem is that the FISA framework doesn’t allow such blanket surveillance, the technology for which didn’t exist when the law was enacted.

This means we’re blocking intelligence agencies and local police from aggregating information and keeping it anonymous at the individual level until the point where bad actors and their plans are identified. Some civil libertarians would object that automated data mining of email and mobile phones would mean computers listening in on all of us. They would be right. But it’s not just technology that has changed since the 1970s. So has our attitude toward information. We’re all Web users, which has made us increasingly blasé about privacy.

Consider how much anonymous information we happily yield to the computer algorithms of commercial data-mining sites such as Google and Amazon, not to mention online banks, travel sites and political campaigns. We’d want much greater privacy controls from the government, but for now marketers in charge of directing online advertising to the right consumers can keep closer tabs on us than we allow those charged with preventing terrorism to do.

Reasonable people in this libertarian-sympathizing but security-minded country will always disagree about how to strike the privacy-security balance. But as the NYPD-Justice Department dispute reminds us, we should all be able to agree it’s absurd that preventing domestic terrorism is still regulated as if technology had stood still for the past several decades.

Lessons From 40 Years of Education ‘Reform’

Let’s abolish local school districts and finally adopt national standards.

While the economic news has most Americans in a state of near depression, hope abounds today that the country may use the current economic crisis as leverage to address some longstanding problems. Nowhere is that prospect for progress more worthy than the crisis in our public education system.

[Commentary] Martin Kozlowski

So, from someone who realized rather glumly last week that he has been working at school reform for 40 years, here is a prescription for leadership from the Obama administration.

We must start with the recognition that, despite decade after decade of reform efforts, our public K-12 schools have not improved. We can point to individual schools and some entire districts that have advanced, but the system as a whole is still failing. High school and college graduation rates, test scores, the number of graduates majoring in science and engineering all are flat or down over the past two decades. Disappointingly, the relative performance of our students has suffered compared to those of other nations. As a former CEO, I am worried about what this will mean for our future workforce.

It is most crucial for our political leaders to ask why we are at this point — why after millions of pages, in thousands of reports, from hundreds of commissions and task forces, financed by billions of dollars, have we failed to achieve any significant progress?

Answering this question correctly is the key to finally remaking our public schools.

This is a complex problem, but countless experiments and analyses have clearly indicated we need to do four straightforward things to bring fundamental changes to K-12 education:

1) Set high academic standards for all of our kids, supported by a rigorous curriculum.

2) Greatly improve the quality of teaching in our classrooms, supported by substantially higher compensation for our best teachers.

3) Measure student and teacher performance on a systematic basis, supported by tests and assessments.

4) Increase “time on task” for all students; this means more time in school each day, and a longer school year.

Everything else either does not matter (e.g., smaller class sizes) or is supportive of these four steps (e.g., vastly improve schools of education).

Lack of effort is not the cause of our 30-year inability to solve our education problem. Not only have we had all those thousands of studies and task forces, but we have seen many courageous and talented individuals pushing hard to move the system. Leaders such as Joel Klein (New York City), Michelle Rhee (Washington, D.C.) and Paul Vallas (New Orleans) have challenged the system, and elected officials from both sides of the political spectrum have also fought valiantly for change.

So where does that leave us? If the problem isn’t “what to do,” nor is it a failure of commitment, what is stopping us?

I believe the problem lies with the structure and corporate governance of our public schools. We have over 15,000 school districts in America; each of them, in its own way, is involved in standards, curriculum, teacher selection, classroom rules and so on. This unbelievably unwieldy structure is incapable of executing a program of fundamental change. While we have islands of excellence as a result of great reform programs, we continually fail to scale up systemic change.

Therefore, I recommend that President-elect Barack Obama convene a meeting of our nation’s governors and seek agreement to the following:

Abolish all local school districts, save 70 (50 states; 20 largest cities). Some states may choose to leave some of the rest as community service organizations, but they would have no direct involvement in the critical task of establishing standards, selecting teachers, and developing curricula.

Establish a set of national standards for a core curriculum. I would suggest we start with four subjects: reading, math, science and social studies.

Establish a National Skills Day on which every third, sixth, ninth and 12th-grader would be tested against the national standards. Results would be published nationwide for every school in America.

Establish national standards for teacher certification and require regular re-evaluations of teacher skills. Increase teacher compensation to permit the best teachers (as measured by advances in student learning) to earn well in excess of $100,000 per year, and allow school leaders to remove underperforming teachers.

Extend the school day and the school year to effectively add 20 more days of schooling for all K-12 students.

I can predict that three questions will be raised about these measures:

First, how can we set national standards when we have a strong tradition of local school autonomy? The answer is that the American people are way ahead of our politicians here: Poll after poll shows they support national standards.

Second, won’t this take many years to implement? No, if we follow a focused, pragmatic approach. While ideally we want all 50 states to participate, we can get started with 30. The rest will be driven to abandon their “see no evil” blinders by their citizens as the original group achieves momentum and success. Moreover, we do not have to start from scratch on the national standards. Experts can quickly develop an initial set just by drawing on existing domestic and foreign programs.

Third, how do we pay for all of this? In three ways: We will save billions by consolidating the operations of 15,000 school districts. The U.S. Department of Education can direct all of its discretionary funds to this effort. And we need to drive into the consciousness of every American politician that education is not an expense. It is, rather, the most important investment we can make as a country.

H.G. Wells remarked that “history is a race between education and catastrophe.” For the first time in America’s history, we may be losing that race. We can win, but we have to act quickly and decisively.

Mr. Gerstner, a former CEO of IBM, was chairman of the Teaching Commission (2003-2006), which reported on ways to improve the quality of public school teaching.

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