Fact-Checking Defense Spending

There’s been a great deal of what Stephen Colbert has called “truthiness” on the campaign trail this year, keeping fact-checkers working overtime.

One of the least challenged dubious claims has been President Obama’s repeated charge that Gov. Romney wants to spend $2 trillion on defense that the Pentagon itself doesn’t want.
Today’s Washington Post examined the charge both on the editorial page and in Glenn Kessler’s The Fact Checker column.
As The Post editorial notes, Obama’s accusation is deceptive insofar as what Romney is proposing is to reinstate spending that had been planned by the Defense Department, then cut from the budget.  These should be, by necessity, austere times, and the Pentagon is an obvious target to attain savings, even though military spending these days is quite modest by historical standards.  But candidates should engage in a serious conversation about the nation’s security needs, and the right level of investment in our defense, without engaging in hyperbolic accusations or dishonest accounting.   Let’s hope we get a more enlightening discussion of the subject at Monday’s foreign policy debate.

Beyond the Binders: What Romney and Obama Are Missing on Pay Equity

This post was written by Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow Liza Mundy. Listen to Mundy dissect the presidential debate and the women's vote on this week's edition of New America's news podcast, The Sidebar.

At first, the contrarian in me was willing to give Mitt Romney the benefit of the doubt on the binders comment. I’m referring, of course, to the GOP nominee’s statement during the second presidential debate on Tuesday:  He told the audience that when he became Massachusetts governor, he asked women’s groups to help him fill his cabinet with strong females. The groups presented him with “binders full of women” qualified for the post. Cue the angry feminist mob – and the hilarious Amazon binder reviews.

But then news surfaced that upon taking office as governor, he didn't ask for the binders. A women’s group that wanted to see more women in top government positions gave Romney the binders, beseeching him to consider female candidates. So the whole argument Romney made turned out to be self-serving and false - a reminder that you can never be too skeptical.

I was also willing to give him credit for at least hinting at the benefit of things like affirmative action, quotas, and workplace flexibility during the debate. But now I'm less inclined to do that. Too bad for him: When I was reporting a piece for Zócalo Public Square about Mormonism and women, some Boston women I talked to said he had a reputation for working well with women. Now he went and wrecked that by over-reaching.

What's frustrating about the conversation around women this election is that it's vague and scattered, and there are so many unanswered questions.

The debate around pay equity on Tuesday, for example, raised far more questions than it answered. The conversation was not enlightening because neither candidate acknowledged (or knows, probably) that the causes of the pay gap are many and varied. Nor was there any effort to set the record straight about what the pay gap is, exactly.

The young female teacher who asked the question about pay equity (“in what new ways to you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?”) used a figure, 72 percent, that I’ve not seen – and that over-states the gap.

The gap is real but it's not quite that high. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women currently working full time make 81 percent of what men make. That's all women, in all professions, working full-time, versus all men, in all professions, working full-time. It does not include part-time or self-employed workers.

 Economists have pored over the gap, which is hard to unpack, and they have found this: Part of the cause is that among older, higher-paid workers in senior positions, there are still more men. This is because more men entered the job market in the 1970s and 1980s, gradually rose to those high positions, and are still occupying them. The wage and other discrimination women suffered in the 1970s and 1980s is thus still having a lingering impact. But that could change, as this generation of super-empowered, ambitious young women rises through the ranks. (The pay gap is much smaller among younger workers, and there are studies showing that single childless young women in many American cities are now out-earning their male peers).

Another cause of the gap is that women are still clustering in lower-paid professions, though this is also changing as women infiltrate fields like law and medicine. Another cause is that men work a slightly longer workweek. Yet another cause may be what is called the maternal pay wall: Once women have children, their salaries grow more slowly than men's. Even taking all these factors into account, economists have concluded that there is a portion of the pay gap that is "unexplained," and likely due to discrimination.

Given this complex set of causes, there are lots of policy fixes necessary to correct the pay gap. The president cited the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which was the first bill he signed into law. The Act makes it easier for a person to bring a pay discrimination case to court by relaxing the old rules on the statute of limitations. (By the time Lilly Ledbetter found out she had been discriminated against, it was too late to sue under the existing law at the time). That's a valuable law but it won't fix everything. We need other anti-discrimination laws as well, and a government prepared to enforce them.

We also need measures in place to ensure women advance. If Romney really had gone out of his way to recruit women for top positions, that would be noteworthy; it does help when women are sought out and encouraged to put themselves forward.

We might want to talk about quotas and affirmative action. (Would a President Romney codify any of this binder business, or would he make it purely voluntary?) We also need policies that will keep women in the workforce after they become mothers. Critically, that means not only flextime but also child care. It's child care that enables women and men to keep working.

There’s a whole constellation of fixes that are necessary, but the conversation about the pay gap rarely gets that detailed.

Liberals and feminists tend to focus on the discrimination piece of it. Conservatives tend to argue that women "want" the pay gap because they don't work as long of hours as men, and sort themselves into lower-paying fields. They like to argue that it’s voluntary. Neither of these perspectives addresses the full picture.

Somewhat related to all this: I went to hear Gloria Steinem speak last week in honor of the 40th anniversary of Ms. Magazine. Addressing the question of why there aren't more women in politics, she argued that as long as women are the primary caregivers for children, people will  associate female authority with childhood. Thus, having women in positions of power will make many people feel uncomfortably child-like. She argued that encouraging more men to take a larger caregiving role  will dispel this feeling; people will become more comfortable with authoritative women.

So more stay at home dads (or simply more dads as involved parents) will ultimately equal more women in positions of power. I thought that was a fascinating psychological point. Too bad they didn't get into it during the debate.

Photo credit: Reuters/ Rick Wilking

Is Al-Qaeda Defeated?

Though we don't know exactly which questions moderator Bob Schieffer will pose at Monday night's foreign policy presidential debate, we can be sure that President Obama will bring up one accomplishment he's particularly proud of: killing Osama bin Laden. But any discussion of that feat often prompts another question about al-Qaeda's threat to our national security today: Has the killing of bin Laden - and subsequent strikes on other al-Qaeda officials - led to the terrorist organization's strategic defeat? This week, New America hosted a debate to find out. A highlight reel and a dispatch from the debate are below.

For the sake of his career, Peter Bergen would have good reason to argue that al-Qaeda still poses a serious threat to the United States. Bergen, the director of New America’s National Security Studies Program, produced the first television interview with Osama bin Laden in 1997, and has written four books on the terrorist organization since the first World Trade Center attack in 1993. “I’ve devoted 20 years of my life to [this problem],” he told the audience at a New America debate on whether al-Qaeda has been defeated. “I feel like a Sovietologist in 1989, and that’s a good feeling.”

Bergen teamed up with Thomas Lynch III, a retired U.S. Army Colonel and research fellow at the National Defense University to argue for the motion that al-Qaeda is defeated. They claimed that bin Laden’s al-Qaeda has failed to achieve its two central goals since 9/11: driving Westerners from the Middle East and launching catastrophic and debilitating attacks on the U.S. The group failed in its last five attempted attacks, and the U.S. has a stronger presence than ever in the region. Critically, it’s al-Qaeda specifically – and not all jihadism – that has suffered a strategic defeat. The group no longer has the power it once did to lure recruits and execute ruinous attacks.

Bill Roggio and Thomas Joscelyn, both senior fellows at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, battled Bergen and Lynch by arguing that al-Qaeda may have suffered some serious setbacks, but it’s a resilient and adaptive organization that still poses a lethal threat. Al Qaeda’s inability to successfully attack America doesn’t mean the threat has dissipated. In fact, the threat against the West – and Muslims in the Middle East - may be rising: al-Qaeda affiliates are taking advantage of a security void in countries weakened by Arab Spring protests – like Yemen and Syria.

Debate moderator Reuel Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, defined down what winning the debate meant at the outset: changing the most minds. The debate audience voted as they entered and exited the forum, so the team that reversed the most opinions on the motion “ al-Qaeda is defeated,” would be crowned.    

It was close. An overwhelming majority of the audience came in believing that al-Qaeda was not defeated. Still, the team for the motion pulled five supporters to its side by the end, while the ‘against’ team swayed four.

At the beginning of the debate, the participants touched on a semantic dilemma that they continued to wrestle throughout: What conditions constitute a threat – and how should we define defeat?

On the question of the al-Qaeda threat, Bergen offered these statistics: In the United States, an individual is 10 times more likely to be killed by a dog than a jihadi terrorist, and 300 people each year are killed by drowning in their bathtubs. We don’t have irrational fears of either drowning in bathtubs or death by dogs, Bergen noted, so we shouldn’t exaggerate the jihadi threat, either.

“Dogs and bathtubs, they don’t plot attacks to kill Americans and to kill Muslims the way al-Qaeda does,” Roggio fired back. “This may be a low point in al-Qaeda’s operations, but this doesn’t mean they’re defeated.”  

Bergen suggested that part of the reason the group has been unable to successfully attack us – and is thus strategically dead – is that we’re better prepared today to counter threats.  Since 9/11, we’ve built a strong National Counterterrorism Center and Department of Homeland Security. U.S. forces execute dozens of missions against al-Qaeda in the region each week.

Roggio saw the continued special operations missions (forces have launched more than 50 raids against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan so far this year, he said) as evidence of a still potent threat. And if the security situation in Afghanistan worsens after U.S. forces withdraw in 2014 under President Obama’s timeline, that could bolster al-Qaeda’s regional power, he suggested.    

The key there is regional power. Both sides seemed to agree that jihadism could thrive after America withdraws its forces. But al-Qaeda’s affiliates – like groups in Iraq and the Gulf -- don’t threaten the West in any shape or form, Bergen maintained.

Not so, argued Joscelyn.  Al-Qaeda can and will reach out through its affiliates to attack us. “There’s a clear pattern, where according to the National Counterterrorism Center, according to the Obama Administration, that’s exactly what they’re trying to do,” Joscelyn said.

“Trying, trying – but not succeeding,” stressed Bergen.

“But trying doesn’t mean that the threat is gone,” Joscelyn said.

“To win World War II, it wasn’t necessary to kill every Nazi,” Bergen said. “With jiahdis roaming the earth, the idea [ from the other side] is we haven’t won if they are still there.”

But that was a different situation, Joscelyn countered later. True, we didn’t have to kill every Nazi to win World War II, “however the German government and the Japanese government did cease attacks on us. That’s what victory and defeat looks like. [Al-Qaeda] may be hurt and they may have suffered strategic setbacks, but they’re adapting their operations to continue to achieve their goals.”

Later, the debaters took questions from the audience. A journalist from the Washington Times posed a question about the impact of the Arab Spring’s toppling of secular dictators on al-Qaeda.

“The reason that al-Qaeda and groups like it came to exist was because of authoritarian regimes,” Bergen said, referring to former leaders like Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The Arab Spring took “ the wind out of these groups” by carving out “ more political space for Islamist ideas that aren’t tied to violence…the tide is turning against these groups because conditions that created them are going away.”

Joscelyn agreed that the Arab Spring offered hope for the ultimate defeat of al-Qaeda and its affiliate organizations. “ But the problem is that in the short-term, they can exploit security vacuums that have been left behind. We can’t say, it’s all over, and pack our bags and go home today,” he said.

The exchange concluded on an ominous note from Roggio.  This debate, he said, has narrowly defined the meaning of defeat. “A setback is not a defeat. [Al-Qaeda] is still in the game, still in the fight, and intends to be in the fight for decades.“

Photo credit: Flickr/ Chris M.G.

An Energetic Debate

Arguments over gasoline prices, energy independence, coal and oil fueled the second presidential debate. For Schwartz Fellow Steve LeVine, three issues stood out. Watch the video for his take on the showdown between President Obama and Mitt Romney.

But is that Really Enough Time for the Middle East?

Next Monday's third and final debate will focus exclusively on foreign policy, and its moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS has announced that the evening will be organized around the following six thematic blocs:

* America’s role in the world* Our longest war – Afghanistan and Pakistan
* Red Lines – Israel and Iran
* The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism – I
* The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism – II
* The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World

Photo credit: Reuters.

About New America

The New America Foundation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy institute that invests in new thinkers, breakthrough research, and policy innovation to address the most important challenges facing the United States.

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