September 21, 2012
In an effort to look beyond the 2012 U.S. election and promote "farsighted leadership in a shortsighted world," the latest edition of the RAND Corporation's magazine offers commentaries intended to transcend partisan rhetoric and foster policies that both presidential candidates could well accept.
The fall edition of RAND Review, published today, covers five domestic and four international topics prominent in the election campaign.
On the topic of immigration reform, RAND economist James Smith assesses the costs and benefits of immigration in dollar terms. "The economic argument favors high-skilled legal immigrants compared with low-skilled undocumented immigrants," Smith asserts. However, the policy dilemma is that "we in America are in the midst of a muddle, with 12 million or more undocumented immigrants already here, ... and, to be honest, we are complicit in their staying."
Smith offers a way out of the muddle: a pathway to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants now in the United States combined with a commitment to enforce the law without ambiguity in the future so that any additional undocumented migrants must leave immediately. "To unite us as Americans," says Smith, "we must agree to both parts of this bargain."
On the contentious issue of health care, RAND physician Arthur Kellermann laments the fact that "the United States has the least efficient health care system in the developed world." But he says the country can change that "by harnessing innovation." He cites some good prospects for innovation: "expanding the use of electronic medical records; reducing the use of costly but unnecessary medical testing and imaging procedures; reforming the way we pay doctors and hospitals so that the payment systems promote efficiency; and finding ways to expand consumer-directed, high-deductible health plans without reducing the use of recommended care."
Two recommendations for energy policy pertain to oil shale and oil taxes. "The problem of managing federal oil shale lands is much akin to the problem of managing a major port," writes Keith Crane, director of RAND's Environment, Energy and Economic Development program. "In both cases, there exists very high-value real estate that is geographically concentrated. Both cases require a large supporting infrastructure and a trained workforce. And in both cases, the public has a major stake." He proposes a governance system comparable to a port authority "to undertake the coordination, planning and sustained regulatory compliance that are essential to the development of a dynamic oil shale industry."
He also proposes levying a tax on crude oil—or a refinery tax—as an alternative to the existing federal gas tax used to pay for highways. A tax on crude oil "could be adjusted on a quarterly basis, as oil prices rise or fall, to maintain a targeted revenue stream that would be set to cover the annual transportation expenditures appropriated by the U.S. Congress."
On the issue of tax policy and the economy more broadly, RAND colleagues Charles Wolf, Jr., and John Godges argue that the U.S. debate over income inequality has focused mistakenly on the magnitude of inequality and the changes in it. "The crucial question is what accounts for the inequality?" they contend. "If the explanation lies in higher productivity and better management, then the income inequality warrants encouragement. If, instead, the inequality is due to nepotism and corruption, it should be combatted and reversed."
One of the most controversial topics in education policy is that of teacher evaluation systems that tie student performance on standardized tests to assessments of teacher quality. "RAND researchers and others have found that estimates of teacher effectiveness derived from student test scores, while important, are imprecise," writes Darleen Opfer, director of RAND Education. "Therefore, teacher evaluations should be based also on observations of classroom practices and other evidence of teacher contributions."
With regard to international policy, RAND political scientist Seth Jones warns of the global resurgence of al Qaeda. He implores both U.S. presidential candidates to remember the lessons learned over the past two decades of fighting al Qaeda and to keep applying those lessons.
"The historical evidence suggests that al Qaeda waves have tended to rise when the United States has deployed large numbers of conventional forces to Muslim countries, when al Qaeda has minimized civilian casualties and when the United States has weak or incompetent allies where al Qaeda has a support base. Conversely, these waves have ebbed when the United States has utilized a 'light footprint' strategy that focuses on intelligence and special operations forces, when al Qaeda has killed large numbers of civilians and thereby undermined its support and when local governments have developed competent police and other security agencies." In the future, Jones predicts, these lessons "will need to be applied in more places and more often."
The war in Iraq is over, but the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk remains a hotspot that could inflame tensions, drawing Iraq back into civil war. Larry Hanauer, a RAND international policy analyst, suggests three steps that the United States can take to help keep the peace: designating a special envoy for Kirkuk, supporting the formation of a multi-ethnic Kirkuk police force and promoting local civil society and political leaders as counterweights to divisive national politicians.
"U.S. diplomacy and targeted assistance could help simultaneously to broker agreements between Iraqi and Kurdish leaders and to mitigate local ethnic tensions in Kirkuk," writes Hanauer. "In this way, the U.S. president, regardless of political party, could make a meaningful contribution toward stabilizing Iraq without redeploying U.S. forces to the country."
Foreign aid, if directed at building democratic institutions, could also promote the consolidation of democracy in Arab countries, says RAND political scientist Laurel Miller. "Support for building government accountability mechanisms should be a high priority." These mechanisms include independent media outlets, anticorruption groups, human rights monitoring groups and civic education organizations.
According to Miller, there is no parallel in the Arab world to the role that the European Union and NATO played in the Southern and Eastern European transitions to democracy. Therefore, "the international community should encourage the creation of structures in the Arab world, such as a regional organization for democracies, which could facilitate the delivery of institution-building assistance."
With respect to China, RAND colleagues James Dobbins and Roger Cliff see extensive overlap between the positions of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Both candidates envision a larger U.S. military role in the Asia-Pacific region while advocating for economic cooperation with China as a means of reducing the likelihood of conflict.
Dobbins and Cliff suggest numerous ways to deter China's growing military capabilities. "At the same time, the United States should draw China into cooperative security endeavors, not only to avoid the appearance of an anti-China coalition but also to obtain greater contributions to international security from the world's second-strongest power."
In his introduction to these commentaries, RAND President Michael Rich outlines their motivation. "As the U.S. presidential election draws close, there is increasing demand for simple answers to complex questions, immediate solutions to entrenched challenges and ten-second sound bites to sum it all up." In contrast, "The ideas presented here do not favor one candidate over another. Rather, they favor the recognition and exploration of the full complexity of today's most pressing policy challenges. They ask leaders to take the long view."