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A site dedicated to clear thinking—from Los Angeles,
home to fantasies of every variety


Important Site Update

Thanks again to all for your comments and support. All the building blocks are in place for No Illusions' new home. The database structure is working, but still needs refining and testing. However, it's ready for visitors.

So come on by and take a look. See what you think, and let me know via comments there.

Effective Saturday June 26, all new items are going to the new site, along with posts going back to the last week of May. This site will contain the archives, and all posts through Friday June 25. We'll put a notice here once the cutover is complete.

Dave S.
June 27, 2004




Current Items

June 26, 2004

What a difference a year makes, "Iraqi refugees"

Amih Taheri provides another update on the conditions in Iraq following a visit there. Amid assorted indicators that conditions are other than what our press would have us believe, this statistic caught my eye: "Over the past year Iraq has absorbed nearly 1m refugees, returning home often after decades of exile in Turkey and Iran." Now let's step back a little more than a year, and review what we were led to expect, prior to the war, about the likely Iraqi refugee situation:

A war in Iraq could trigger a wave of refugees that would affect the European Union and other regions, Greek Public Order Minister Michalis Chrysohoidis said on Friday...
The minister, whose country took over the rotating presidency of the European Union on January 1, said the ``wave of refugees'' would not be limited to Europe or the Middle East. ... It is a global issue, he said.

Deutsche Presse Agenteur, Jan 10 2003

This is from a confidential U.N. report:

In a report entitled "Likely Humanitarian Scenarios," recently made public, UN contingency planners also warned that "the outbreak of diseases in epidemic if not pandemic proportions is very likely." According to a draft of the report, the nutritional status of some 3 million people "will be dire," 3.6 million people will need emergency shelter, and 900,000 Iraqis would flee to neighboring countries - with another 2 million likely to become internal refugees.

as reported in the Christian Science Monitor
and the BBC: BBC, Jan.7 2003.

Many Iraqis will face starvation in the event of a US-led war in the country, a United Nations official has warned.
A widely-leaked UN report on the humanitarian consequences of a war has estimated that the conflict would create two million refugees.

BBC, Jan. 28, 2003.

Even academia entered the fray, with this December 2002 white paper by Gil Loescher of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London for the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies [ed.: Comparative??? ]:

Both past experience and current patterns of forced migration in the region suggest that the numbers of refugees resulting from any large-scale military attack against Iraq, and the upheaval that could follow Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, could be substantial.

How could these projections have been so wrong? The projections were likely based, as the Loescher paper was, on past conflicts and on the actual Irqi exodus during Saddam's rule. Using past data, one could forecast numbers like these easily, if one believed that the Coalition would be the moral equivalent of Saddam, and would be perceived as such by the Iraqi people. The evidence suggests that the forecasts were wrong because the authors' assumptions were wrong. The "refugee crisis" Iraq faces today is an indication of profound faith and hope. In digging up these quotes the BBC in particular stands out. I found no similarly prominent items from them analyzing why the crisis did not materialize as they had so widely projected it would.

June 25, 2004

Jonah Goldberg on Clinton: Character Matters

The former President prided himself on an ability to 'compartmentalize' his professional and personal lives. Even during the height of the Whitewater and Lewinsky proceedings his admireres were in awe of this apparent gift. There was always something highly implausible about the claim, and now Clinton himself tells us it was a lie. Jonah, in his essay (in today's National Review Online), wasn't surprised either.

All of this always struck many of us as nonsense. The notion that we can treat different parts of our own lives as if they existed in parallel dimensions with no contact with or impact on one another is simply an unsustainable fiction. Sure, you can do it for a while, but eventually something's got to give, especially in a media environment that doesn't respect such arbitrary divides in a president's life.

Actually, that's qualified good news for Clinton, because the trick is one only a sociopath can pull off. Jonah's assessment may sound a bit harsh, but in hindsight pretty much on point:

Conservatives ridiculed "compartmentalization." We said, "Character matters." Many liberals agreed with the conservative analysis, but drew different conclusions. For example, in 2001 Richard Cohen of the Washington Post wrote a column suggesting that the conservatives who "hounded" Clinton were at least partially to blame for Clinton's failure to nab bin Laden or achieve Middle East peace. The man was just too distracted by the Lewinsky business to do his job.

Here's the funny part: It turns out that Bill was too distracted by his job to not do Lewinsky.

We now know that not only does Bill Clinton agree that compartmentalization is a fiction, but that we all had the story backwards. Bill Clinton's "private" mistakes didn't get in the way of his presidency, his presidency got in the way of his private life.

Character matters because, among other things, it minimizes the diversion of our mental and emotional resources, which are needed to cope with bad behavior. In Bill Clinton's case, people like Richard Cohen would instead have us give him a pass on suffering any consequences for his character flaws. Even if such a dispensation were possible, it would be a bad bargain.

Oil-for-Food: Volcker sees 'lots of smoke'

I'm betting that the U.N. apparatchiks will regret choosing Paul Volcker to investigate this affair. He spoke with Fox News for the first time since accepting his appointment as head of the U.N.-sanctioned independent investigation. Mr. Volcker is a man of few words, a skill he honed in his tenure as Fed Chairman. If the subject interests you, this will give you a flavor of where things are going. The networks and major newspapers are still doing a poor to nonexistent job on this story, but Fox manages an occasional update. Expect fireworks the first time Volcker senses a whitewash.

Al Gore on Nazis, the internet and free speech

Fans of political psychodrama know that Al Gore delivered yesterday what was billed in advance as a "Major Foreign Policy Speech." What he delivered was more convincing evidence that he is under great stress. Don't miss Jim Taranto's short piece on the talk in today's OpinionJournal (second item.) In one way, the talk was epic: Mr. Gore introduces us to George Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Monroe, King George III, Caesar, the Rubicon River, and the whole Greek and Roman empires as extras. The modern era is also included. As Jim notes, eventually he gets around to Nazis:

It turns out that people who disagree with Gore's views are able to use the Internet to (horrors) express their opinions. And that means they're Nazis! So said the erstwhile veep yesterday, in his latest wild-eyed rant:
The [Bush] administration works closely with a network of "rapid response" digital brownshirts who work to pressure reporters and their editors for "undermining support for our troops." [Former Enron adviser] Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist, was one of the first journalists to regularly expose the President's consistent distortions of the facts. Krugman writes, "Let's not overlook the role of intimidation. After 9/11, if you were thinking of saying anything negative of the President . . . you had to expect right-wing pundits and publications to do all they could to ruin your reputation."
You have to love this. Just imagine Krugman, who espouses his views twice a week with the protection of the First Amendment and the support of the mighty New York Times Co., cowering in his Princeton mansion, so "intimidated" is he by a motley crew of Internetters. It's not clear if Gore is referring to bloggers and online columnists--that is, people like us--or, as Jonah Goldberg interprets it, to "GOP flacks who email rebuttals to journalists." But in any case, it's sheer lunacy to refer to people as "brownshirts"--i.e., Nazi storm troopers--merely for exercising their First Amendment rights in criticizing the likes of Krugman.

Jim goes on to point out that at one time Gore actually held different views about Saddam and Iraq. In 1992 he was rather emphatic about the Iraqi WMD threat, albeit in the context of criticizing the prior Bush administration for ignoring it. A final thing to note is Gore's calling Godwin's Law into play. Godwin's Law in effect says that once you've invoked the Nazis, you've already lost the argument. The cheap shot that has become a tawdry performance piece for Gore and others is the assertion that people who disagree with them are attacking their patriotism, or denying them their free speech rights. I, for example, would never question Mr Gore's patriotism. I will assert that his judgement is deeply flawed and his grasp of history is poor. The rest I'll leave to the mental health professionals.



Cheney gives needed, but anatomically impossible advice to Leahy

A good man can only take so much, and yesterday apparently, Dick Cheney finally had his fill of the honorable Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Drudge posted this item, which was first reported on CNN, that has Cheney, in a heated discussion with Leahy on the Senate floor but not while the body was in session, telling Leahy (under his breath, I'm sure) to go f___ himself, or some derivative of the phrase.

I report this only to express my wholehearted approval of the sentiment. Leahy is probably the least principled, most opportunistic and all-around slimiest member of the Senate. His conduct on and off the floor during the stalemated judiciary hearings have been a travesty of procedure and justice, just to give one example. I'm not ordinarily given to rants, but Leahy has had this coming for a very long time. I only hope that Cheney isn't forced to the ultimate indignity of apologizing to the little ferret.



June 24, 2004

Big win for free trade this week

I wrote recently about an upcoming South Carolina primary race shaping up to be a referendum on free trade. On Tuesday, pro-trade Jim DeMint won the GOP primary in a landslide, 58% to 42%, over a challenger who was recruited by the state's textile interests. The landslide was completely unexpected, and puts DeMint in a good position to win the seat in Movember.

I got the rundown from Steve Moore of the Club for Growth, a group who targets funds and expertise to individual races where pro-growth policies are at issue. We hear a lot about MoveOn and other organizations who do similar things for liberal and Leftist causes, but here is one organization backing the good guys. In this case, they may have been a key factor in turning the tide. When I last wrote, DeMint was second in a three-man race. A series of ads the Club produced and ran in the last week of the campaign was apparently effective, as measured in traditionally protectionist Charleston County. One political consultant told Moore that DeMint had been polling last there two weeks prior to the election, but won the county with 76% of the vote.

I'm not (directly) trying to plug the Club for Growth (although I am a member), but their success is important. First, they are not toting anyone's party line. They opposed Arlen Specter (and by inference the White House) in his bid to keep his Senate seat. They choose their issues, having no stance on noneconomic ones. Their criteria for support are that a candidate be a strong supporter of pro-growth policies, is a strong candidate to win his or her race, but who will likely not do so without significant help. They don't throw money at sure winners in hopes of getting favors later. No matter what your issue hot-buttons are, this strikes me as an extremely judicious way of maximizing the effect of contributions.

(note: in my earlier piece, I erred in noting that the election was earlier than it actually was.)



Media critic slams Moore film

Media maven Jeff Jarvis saw the film in Greenwich Village, and has quite a long piece on it today. He had hopes upon leaving the theater:

As I walked out of the theater on the opening day of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, I thought (read: hoped) that even here, in the East Village of Manhattan, true Moore country, where the flick was already sold out all night, surely even here they wouldn't fall for all his obvious, visual/rhetorical tricks, his propaganda too unsubtle for the cheapest tin-horn demagog.

Jarvis, by the way, says he isn't even voting for Bush. The article has links to others who have seen the film, as does Glenn Reynolds, who pointed me to Jeff's piece in the first place.



New site update: Posting will be light for next few days

Between work and some other time commitments, I've been getting the new site structure working. The project has been a real insight to the world of do-it-yourself high performance software, and you can expect some more on the subject once the site is launched. Unfortunately, the coding and testing requires some pretty serious uninterruped chunks of time. The project has been a real stretch for me, and to use a favorite analogy, be thankful that air traffic controllers aren't required to learn their trade in this "try it and hope nothing really bad happens" mode. Despite my best efforts, things are actually ahead of schedule. Without committing to a date, it looks like the mid-July timeframe is eminently doable.



June 22, 2004

Unfairenheit 9/11: The lies of Michael Moore.

Under that headline, Christopher Hitchens provides us an extraordinarily detailed parsing of Moore's film in today's Slate. Hitchens, former editor of The Nation, is no fan of George Bush, although he strongly supports the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's a long piece, but I'll leave you with his basic conclusion:

To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability. To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental. To describe it as an exercise in facile crowd-pleasing would be too obvious. Fahrenheit 9/11 is a sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness. It is also a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of "dissenting" bravery.


Two Views on the Press: When Worlds Collide

Both of the following items touch on journalism, but the similarity pretty much ends there. Taken together, it's apparent that controversies over journalistic objectivity, ethics and freedom cover a lot of ideological ground. Bear in mind that while we're free to engage in discussions of this kind, in Syria they're jailing private individuals for blogging.



No Journalist Left Behind

According to Rand Simberg's tremendously funny sendup of a new Bush administration initiative, journalists are really just another group of educationally deprived underachievers, in need of our help.

via Instapundit



Ralph Peters on Al Jazeera and press freedom

"IMAGINE if, on D-Day, the Nazis had been allowed to place camera teams on Omaha Beach – with our suffering soldiers forbidden to interfere. What if, on top of that, the Germans had invented American atrocities against French civilians – and our own officials defended their right to do so in the name of press freedom?"

This leads off Peters' piece in today's New York Post, highlighting the abuses Al Jazeera commits under the cover of journalism. No new allegations here, but some good background based on Peters' time in Iraq, including time spent at Al Jazeera's bureau there. He levels his worst criticism at those who apply a decidedly Western notion of press freedom to Al Jazeera's actions. The deeper point he raises is that press freedom in Europe and the U.S. evolved in conjunction with competition, responsibility and accountability. Addressing those who say we fought so that organizations like Al Jazeera could act without restriction in Iraq:

This is idiocy, a perverse political correctness based upon a rejection of common sense.

Press freedom is a treasure of our civilization, but it's also distinctly a product of our civilization — one that doesn't always export well. It works in our society for numerous reasons.

First, despite undeniable excesses, there's a fundamental respect for facts in our media. Second, our press is not rewarded for encouraging mass murder. Third, we have libel and hate-crime laws that work. Fourth, the great majority of journalists take pride in the standards of their profession — despite popular notions to the contrary.

We also have healthy, vigorous, combative competition. In the end, the members of our media keep each other honest. One should never underestimate the jealousy journalists feel toward one another as a factor in exposing fabrications. The glee with which reporters unmask the sins of more successful colleagues is an unappreciated virtue of the profession.

Al-Jazeera has no such controls. It's Pravda without the truth — in living color. As long as the network glorifies its host, the Emir of Qatar, and avoids anything beyond the most lightweight criticism of select Arab leaders, it's allowed to incite hatred, assassination and genocide.

Facts are never allowed to interfere.

Just how much license has a press pass entitled reporters to? Too much. This is, as Peters says, political correctness run amok, but for good or ill it's really the Iraqis' call from here on out. Perhaps they will be able to exercise a bit more discretion in linking freedoms to accountability.



June 20, 2004

Saudi and its terrorists: a mystery

I don't know if this is a unique observation, or even factually correct, but in reading about the Saudi responses to the brutal murder of Paul Johnson, and to the various bombing attacks, something seems odd. It appears that those with obvious direct involvement are either escaping or are dying in police shootouts. Are there any suspects in custody with blood on their hands (as opposed to those with only indirect involvement)? Have there been any executions for these crimes? If so,they've escaped my attention. Something odd seems to be happening—or rather not happening. A Google news search turns up no evidence that the Saudi government has tried and executed anyone for recent terror-related crimes in the Kingdom, despite a widely reported official antiterrorist crackdown. Reading Fareed Zakaria's piece, online today, for the June 28 edition of Newsweek, provided no direct clues, but hints at a likely explanation. Based on personal interviews, it seems that it took the May 12 bombing of three compounds housing foreign workers to provide their "9/11 Moment." Since then, the official response has been schizophrenic—strong public statements but little in the way of substantive results. From Zakaria's article:

But there are many who believe that the regime is not acting decisively enough. One of them is Saudi Arabia's own ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. In a surprisingly forceful article in the reformist Saudi newspaper Al-Watan, Bandar argued that neither Saudi society nor the state had fully mobilized itself for this struggle. "War means war," he wrote. "It does not mean Boy Scout camp." He urged that people stop calling the militants "good people who were careless" and call them instead "terrorists and aggressors with whom there can be no compromise."

Bandar made an analogy in his article to an event repeatedly cited to me by Saudis who want strong action: the battle of Al-Sabla in 1929. The founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abdel Aziz, faced a revolt from his religious allies, the Ikhwan, because he was introducing modern technologies like the telephone and, worst of all, allying with the infidel British. Abdel Aziz refused to compromise, so the story goes, and slaughtered the Ikhwan at Al-Sabla.

Why would the Saudis not act decisively now? When I pointed to Egypt's harsh but successful antiterror campaign of the 1990s, everyone immediately dismissed it. "We're not a brutal police state like Egypt," one young royal said to me. But a common response was to caution that such an approach would increase support for the radicals: "We have to act in a way that doesn't create a bigger problem than it solves."

This, then, is the paradox. Saudi officials claim that the militants have no support and yet constantly act as if they do. Officials cite a recent (secret) government poll that showed 49 percent support Osama bin Laden's ideas. They speak of the need to move "slowly and carefully." While still sensitive on this topic, educated Saudis will now admit that parts of their society have become dangerously extreme.

This would explain antiterror tactics that include killing terrorists, but not arresting them. Because law, government and religion are so intertwined in the Kingdom, the use of the judicial process, and not merely the police, against terrorists means that the government is taking an official stance vis-a-vis the terrorist cause. It is apparently not yet willing to do that. Zakaria believes that's because they lack moral authority, and they know it.

To reverse course, Saudi Arabia needs a real government. Crown Prince Abdullah is a decent man, honest by the standards of the family, and appears to want to modernize his country. And yet he cannot put a stop order on a 32-year-old prince's checks. The crown prince's brothers have power bases independent of him. Some of them support the very religious bigots Abdullah is now fighting. That does not spell civil war, as some have suggested. But it does make for ineffective, incompetent government. A succession of men in their late 70s simply cannot provide Saudi Arabia with the leadership it needs. And a governmental structure of fiefdoms, secret accounts and slush funds cannot win the support of its people. ...

To fight extremism, the regime will have to make space for the enemies of extremism. Every noxious version of Wahhabism has had free rein in Saudi Arabia, and yet all liberal ideas and debates have always been closed down. Even the baby steps the regime has allowed—in publications like Al-Watan and Al-Sharq-al-Awsat—have been followed by reversals. If preachers speak of infidels burning in hell, they are, at most, scolded. But when 116 brave Saudi liberals put forward a petition in March suggesting reforms that would lead to a constitutional monarchy, the regime arrested some of them and forced them to recant. It continues to imprison those who refuse to take part in this charade. With this kind of imbalance, is it any surprise that the public is more receptive to Islamic fundamentalism than reformist thought? Saudi Arabia is a conservative society. But it also has political and religious elites who have reinforced and perpetuated that conservatism for their own purposes.

The deep internal divisions within the royal family are going to be its undoing. Until the House of Saud is willing to wage the kind of war being waged on it, expect more carnage.



June 19, 2004

Germany edges out Arkansas in per capita GDP

"The growing split between the U.S. and Europe has been much in the news, mostly on foreign policy. But less well understood is the gap in economic growth and standards of living. Now comes a European report that puts the American advantage in surprisingly stark relief."

So reports the Wall Street Journal this morning (Opinion Journal, free access). Growth and employment problems have been in the news, but this short piece highlights the effect of decades where growth in Europe has lagged the U.S. Inherently, Europe's growth potential is on a par with ours, but we differ in the ways our governments involve themselves in the economy. GDP per capita is limited in how it describes lifestyle differences and life prospects, but consider how the poorest fare under each system.

In the U.S., we classify as 'low income' everyone with earning less than $25,000 per year. That definition classifies about 25% of Americans as poor. Without reference to whether that's a good defining number, by the same measure 40% of Sweden's citizens are poor.

They also have no immigrant population to speak of. Their immigration policies are extremely restrictive and are enforced. Even adjusting the numbers a bit for the value of health care and leisure time, the income gap is there. Sweden is clearly no paradise for the poor. Consider also:

In the U.S., 45.9% of the "poor" own their homes, 72.8% have a car and almost 77% have air conditioning, which remains a luxury in most of Western Europe. The average living space for poor American households is 1,200 square feet. In Europe, the average space for all households, not just the poor, is 1,000 square feet.

Europe is critically in need of some economic growth. Most countries are headed for a demographically induced crisis as baby boomers retire, while decades of low birth rates leave too few workers paying taxes to support them. Speaking of the authors' outlook for growth, and of the productivity gap between the U.S. and Europe:

It is so wide that if the U.S. economy had frozen in place at 2000 levels while Europe grew, the Continent would still require years to catch up. Ireland, which has lower tax burdens and fewer regulations than the rest of the EU, would be the first but only by 2005. Switzerland, not a member of the EU, and Britain would get there by 2010. But Germany and Spain would need until 2015, while Italy, Sweden and Portugal would have to wait until 2022.

European governments admittedly have painted themselves into a corner. They have allowed a huge gap to develop between the expectations of a rapidly aging population and the ability of the economy to deliver the growth necessary to pay for them. However, they don't appear to be drawing useful conclusions from their data. I write this having just read Joel Mowbray's item on the E.U.'s efforts (through the OECD) to strongarm foreign governments into becoming tax informants as capital and jobs leave Europe for more hospitable climates. The E.U. proper is also threatening various low-tax countries including Ireland, Poland and the Czech Republic over their low tax policies. The problem isn't that 'tax havens' like the U.S. have tax rates that are too low. In the words of the study's authors:

So what is Europe's problem? "The expansion of the public sector into overripe welfare states in large parts of Europe is and remains the best guess as to why our continent cannot measure up to our neighbor in the west," the authors write. In 1999, average EU tax revenues were more than 40% of GDP, and in some countries above 50%, compared with less than 30% for most of the U.S.

For decades, European parliaments met few tax, regulation or spending programs they didn't like. Now that the cumulative results of those policies are bearing bitter fruit, they expect the rest of the world to align itself with their view of how things should work.



Occupations then and now

In catching up on some reading, I found this by Rich Lowry, who just finished Niall Ferguson's new Colossus: The Price of America's Empire. The book's account of the tremendous problems in the rebuilding of Germany and Japan after WWII should put our efforts in Iraq into perspective. Some things to keep in mind:

As Rich says, "Rebuilding a foreign country in the wake of a war is necessarily untidy business, and can only succeed if a wide berth is given for surprises and mistakes." He goes on:

Patience, of course, is now in short supply. By the exquisite standards of today's media and the critics of the Iraq War, the men who rebuilt Japan and Germany were incompetents. They had to muddle their way to success through policy failures and bureaucratic infighting. Incompetence can achieve the same success in Iraq, if it's given the chance.

There is actually another comparison that bears on the modern Iraq situation, since it weighs so heavily on the minds of critics of rebuilding. Compare the progress of Germany and Japan from war's end to the mid-1970's, thirty years later, with that of Viet Nam from the fall of Saigon to present. Do American values and democratic institutions matter? I think the answer is clear.

June 18, 2004

Krauthammer: Israel's Intifada Victory

Interesting piece today, in light of the lack of any recent headline-grabbing events. Although he warns of more bloodshed to come, Krauthammer cites a 70% reduction in violence as evidence that the tide has turned in a major way. What has led to the current state of affairs? Israeli unilateralism:

First, Israel targeted terrorist leaders -- attacks so hypocritically denounced by Westerners who, at the same time, cheer the hunt for, and demand the head of, Osama bin Laden. The top echelon of Hamas and other terrorist groups has been either arrested, killed or driven underground...

Second, the fence. Only about a quarter of the separation fence has been built, but its effect is unmistakable. The northern part is already complete, and attacks in northern Israel have dwindled to almost nothing.

There is of course the third and probably most important weapon long a part of Israel's arsenal—their utter refusal to be beaten:

The past four years of terrorism have killed almost 1,000 Israelis and maimed thousands of others. But Israel has won strategically. The intent of the intifada was to demoralize Israel, destroy its economy, bring it to its knees, and thus force it to withdraw and surrender to Palestinian demands, just as Israel withdrew in defeat from southern Lebanon in May 2000.

That did not happen. Israel's economy was certainly wounded, but it is growing again. Tourism had dwindled to almost nothing at the height of the intifada, but tourists are returning. And the Israelis were never demoralized. They kept living their lives, the young people in particular returning to cafes and discos and buses just hours after a horrific bombing. Israelis turned out to be a lot tougher and braver than the Palestinians had imagined.

He also highlights an interesting lesson in wars of attrition. Ultimately when one side overreaches, it undermines its own institutions and its claims to legitimacy. The Palestinians are terrified of a West Bank without an Israeli presence, because they have not developed the means for governing, and because they have chosen to let Hamas and Hezbollah become laws unto themselves.



June 17, 2004

Worshipers at the Secular Altar

It's hard to argue the existence of a determined attack on the manifestations of religion in American culture. Are these attacks merely a defense of the rights of individuals with different beliefs, or are they in fact acts by adherents of one religion to suppress the symbols of competing religions? David Klinghoffer, in a piece in today's Los Angeles Times, argues that it's the latter.

Why is this important? After all, the major organizations promoting the suppression of religion in American life, such as the ACLU and the NEA, aren't claiming to act in the name of a new religion. They are, generally, promoting their actions as being in furtherance of the First Amendment establishment clause. That secularism might be in fact a religion matters, if in fact the agenda of secularist organizations is to promote a competing set of values and beliefs that established religions, in general, oppose.

Two interpretations of the establishment clause seem to be relevant to government action with respect to religion. A strict interpretation requires that government not actively favor or promote a particular religion over others. A competing interpretation holds that government may not act to favor religion in general, as opposed to non-participation in religion. Setting aside arguments as to which of these is in fact correct, neither of these interpretations countenances government action that seeks to suppress religion, while promulgating or supporting an alternative and decidedly non-religious belief system. A secular religion, like many more traditional faiths, might logically seek to promulgate its own set of values and beliefs in opposition to competing value and belief systems. Since such a religion would by its nature have no churches, congregations or pulpits, its forum might be the outlets of popular culture such as media and entertainment. It might also include the court system.

Klinghoffer outlines a case for Secularism as a religion, reminding us that a religion need not profess belief in a supreme being. Zen Buddhism, he points out has no concept of a god. Buddhist temples, of course, enjoy tax-exempt status as religious institutions, and Buddhists are rightly afforded the same protections against religious discrimination as are Episcopalians. As to other religions that worship no god, the U.S. Army has instruction for chaplains on Wiccan beliefs and religious practices (text not available online, but an excerpt cited here.)

On what basis should we evaluate secularism as a religion? Klinghoffer suggests things secularism shares with traditional religion, including sacred stories, rules of ethics and conduct, mysticism etc. In his words, "What is a religion, then? Simply, a system of beliefs based on stories that explain where life comes from, what life means, and what we, as living beings, are supposed to be doing with our few allotted years."

There is of course no single legal definition of what constitutes a religion. I am far from knowledgeable in this area, but Gerald Larue, Professor Emeritus of Biblical History and Archaeolgy at USC, provides a good survey of the issue. At minimum, a cohesive religion would seem to require some core belief set with which adherents identify, and which places them apart from those who do not share the same core beliefs. However, that belief set need not include traditional theological precepts. Ask any Unitarian. It need not be organized under Section 501 of the Internal Revenue code. It need not own property in its name.

Whatever definition of religion is used, one can discern an element of religious zeal in the selective nature of secular attacks on symbols of competing religions. In the recent Los Angeles County case, a minuscule cross in the background of the County seal was asserted to be a endorsement of religion, yet the seal's centerpiece is the likeness of Pomona, Roman goddess of fruits, vegetables and agriculture. That's an actual deity. Clearly, the ACLU, who demanded the removal of the cross, distinguishes one religion from another when it comes to the principle of separation of church and state. From a narrow legal point of view, this seems indefensible. It does make sense in the context of an effort to extinguish the symbols of competing faiths, given the limited threat to secularism posed by Angelenos worshipping the Roman pantheon. In making this distinction, the ACLU is clearly attacking the historical record, not religious intolerance. A similar and very troubling trend can be seen in our public schools, where children are taught about the religious beliefs of Native Americans but cannot recieve similar instruction on the religion of the Founding Fathers. Interestingly, a aspect of Native American religious belief, the deification of nature, has found its way into secular iconography. A secularism that had no defined belief set would have no hand in promoting any specific set of beliefs, yet evidence abounds that such promotion occurs.

Klinghoffer is raising important issues. It is deeply troubling that definitional issues cloud the purposes of clear attacks on traditional religious values and teachings. The assault is at the root of the current Senate stalemate on judicial nominations, where a litmus test is being applied to the religious beliefs of certain nominees. In holding the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade to be sacrosanct, the Senators holding up these nominations are requiring far more of nominees than recognition of the duty to respect judicial precedent. Had this intensity of belief with respect to other decisions been the standard for judicial confirmations in years past, Plessy v. Ferguson and Dred Scott would still be the law of the land.



If the Arab world ignores genocide, does it exist?

Given the lack of outrage from the Left, apparently not. Well, some Arabs are beginning to think it does. An editorial in today's Daily Star (Jordan, English language) strongly condemns Arab indifference to the ethnic cleansing occurring in Sudan, perpetrated by Muslims and tacitly abetted by Arab states. Here are a few choice paragraphs:

At least 200,000 people have fled to neighboring Chad, and around 30,000 have been killed in what amounts to an unofficial but systematic program of ethnic cleansing.

International neglect led to near-genocide a decade ago in Rwanda, while NATO went to war in Kosovo in 1999 for the sake of a few hundred thousand refugees. While the United States is considering formally labeling the Darfur crisis as a genocide in progress, the world - the world beyond the Arab world that is - is justified in asking the following question: "What are the Arabs doing about this atrocity in their own back yard?"

The answer, of course - as usual - is nothing. At the conclusion of this year's annual Arab League summit just a few short weeks ago, a statement was issued. On Sudan, the statement "reaffirm(ed) ... the Arab states' solidarity with the sisterly Republic of Sudan and their keenness to preserve its territorial integrity and sovereignty and reinforce all peace initiatives started by the Sudanese government with the international and regional parties." Many fine words on "human rights" were also committed to paper in the summit statement.

It is time for a word of advice for the Arab League: We are sick of vacuous statements - the time for action is now. In fact, the time for action was yesterday, last week, last month, last year, last decade.

These are harsher words than we hear from such groups as Amnesty International, the Red Cross, et. al. Arab states' turning a blind eye to Muslim atrocities is nothing new. Here, the Arab League seems to have taken a page from the U.N.'s art of nuance. Maybe after a few dozen resolutions of concern, there might still be a few Sudanese Christians and animists left to save.

via Instapundit



$100 MM cost to landowners — to protect a species that doesn't exist.

This story appeared last Friday, but it's timeless, pathetic and scary enough to warrant a late comment. According to CNN, Endangered Species Act restrictions have been in place for six years to protect the Preble's meadow jumping mouse. Turns out that this rarity is probably a fluke. Biologists have determined that it's genetically identical to another local mouse so plentiful it needs no protection. The alleged rarity was designated a species in 1954, on the basis of superficial analysis of three skulls and 11 pelts—a standard that would be laughed at in a freshman biology class today.

The restrictions have affected 11,000 acres in Colorado and Wyoming, and in addition to the $100 million dollar costs, have included such restrictions on land use as farmers not being allowed to clear irrigation ditches of weeds, and in one housing development, the requirement that cats be kept on leashes. Read the whole thing, as this is just a taste.

Predictably, since the govenment and environmentalists are involved, no one is rushing to admit culpability, nor to address the economic damages suffered by local landowners. In fact, some environmentalists are now pushing for the protections to be extended to the more common mouse. They are criticizing the DNA evidence (presumably being more comfortable with visual examination of some bones and fur.) The scary and tragic part is that, in a situation where today's science would not have made the apparently erroneous classification, the restrictions stay in place. The status quo must, after all, be defended at all costs.

Thanks to Protein Wisdom for the heads-up.

By the way, if you haven't discovered Protein Wisdom yet, do yourself a favor. This is one of the sharpest, wittiest and best-written blogs around.



June 16, 2004

U.N. integrity study proposes more study — what a surprise

The U.N. Secretariat has released the results of its Organizational Integrity Survey 2004. Claudia Rossett summarizes the findings in today's WSJ Opinion Journal (free). Among her observations of the report:

The results, summed up in a cover letter by Mr. Annan, suggest that the Secretariat's own employees believe they inhabit a snake pit. Highlights, as Mr. Annan cites them, include such failings as: "integrity and ethical behavior are not taken sufficiently into account in selection, promotion and assessment processes" and "staff believe that not enough action is taken to investigate and address instances of unethical behavior, and that those who expose such breaches may put themselves at risk of reprisal."
More directly to the point, the report itself, on page 11, notes that "staff members feel unprotected from reprisals for reporting violations of the codes of conduct. This is not a perception confined to a few staff in remote locales and/or dangerous circumstances. Forty-six percent (46%) gave unfavourable response to this item, while only 12% gave favourable responses."

Will these findings lead to real changes? Be serious. We're talking about the U.N. here.

...having gone so far as to discover that Secretariat staff don't trust the top management and are afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals, Mr. Annan's response will be to convene a group of top managers and invite staff members to speak out. At some point they'll probably issue another report, and then everyone can do it all again.

One might think that, amid the ongoing investigations of the massive Oil-for-Food scandal (for recent updates, among others, see this, this and this), one might at least expect a half-hearted effort on the part of Annan's office to acknowledge that the organization has some serious structural problems. Nah. Rossett concludes, in part (emphasis mine):

What's missing at the U.N. is not another survey by another consulting firm, or another 90-page report, or another investigation which serves chiefly to pre-empt criticism while fixing not much. The basic flaws are simple: Anytime you create a large institution, accord it great privileges of secrecy, give it a big budget, and have it run by someone immune from any sane standard of accountability, you are likely to get a corrupt organization. And unless the ground rules change, Mr. Annan's tactic of exhorting senior staff to be more accountable has about as much chance of success as Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts in the 1980s to fix the U.S.S.R. by telling Soviet citizens to stop drinking.

If memory serves, U.S. contributions make up something like 80% of the U.N. budget, and that doesn't count our direct expenditures on peacekeeping efforts. That constitutes leverage, although it would be considered terribly unilateral of us to apply it. Alternatively, as the Washington Post reported recently, a credible group such as an Alliance of Democracies may be a better focus for our reform efforts.



June 15, 2004

Calif. minimum wage debate: Legislators pit poor against poor

Dan Weintraub of the Sacramento Bee is proving to be the consistently best reporter on economic issues in the State. Today's discussion of the minimum wage debate in Sacramento is a case in point. Everyone favors jobs at good wages. and so minimum wage laws are a favorite feel-good cause of politicians nationwide. Neither politicians nor our popular press pay much attention to the mechanics of how artificially high minimum wages work out in practice. Weitraub takes us through the many pitfalls, and includes with my favorite discussion closer on the topic:

If raising the minimum wage were an effective poverty fighter, then there would be no reason to stop at $7.75 an hour. Raising the minimum to $20 or $30 an hour would surely be even more effective, putting everyone comfortably in the middle class. Of course, such a policy would cause huge economic disruptions and widespread unemployment. The same is true, on a much smaller scale, for the proposal now pending in the Legislature.

The reality is that artificially high wages are good for those lucky enough to keep their jobs after the hike, but they displace the poorest and least-skilled workers. Businesses can adjust to higher labor costs by raising prices, cutting costs, or a combination of the two. Higher prices result in a lower demand for the product or service being produced, and ultimately in a lower demand for labor. It's rare that employers can pass along the entire cost to their customers, and so incentives are increased to cut costs, including labor costs. This points to another, darker side to raising the costs of low-skilled labor. Many low-skill jobs can be eliminated through productivity-enhancing (read labor-saving) investments in technology. If wages are sufficiently low, a lot of investment in automation isn't cost effective -- the cost of implementing it is higher than the savings on the labor it displaces. However, raise any cost high enough, and suddenly a lot of alternatives become cost-effective.

Our legislators have proven to be masters of the symbolic gesture, and enemies of job creation. Weintraub concludes by identifying the real solution:

The best way to help the poor is to make it easier for employers to create more jobs. If there are more jobs than workers to fill them, the price of labor will climb naturally as employers bid against each other for scarce workers. Making the creation of each of those new jobs more expensive at the outset will only nip that process in the bud.


Time to end the Kerry rope-a-dope strategy

David Limbaugh reminds us that, with less than six months until the November election, the presumptive Democratic challenger has yet to provide us specific proposals, concrete policies, etc., on any number of issues. Given his history of contradiction over the years, it would seem that the challenger has much work to do in this area. It's become clear that his campaign has decided that concrete policy statements are just not nuanced enough. Actually, there's ample historican precedent for why tructing voters with specifics may not be such a good idea. Limbaugh refers to a Washington Post article critical of the candidate's evasiveness:

Well, the Post should know that there might be a good reason for Kerry's reluctance to share. The more liberal presidential candidates who were open about their liberalism, like Mondale and Dukakis, were trounced in their elections.

We already know that the activist base of the party doesn't care about specifics. They just want their White House back. Time for the Bush campaign to raise the issue with the voters who will make the difference in this election.



June 14, 2004

Is America Going Soft? What's at stake in November

Read Pete Du Pont's piece in today's WSJ Opinion Journal (free). It's an important summary of most of the major differences that underlie the country's current ideological divide, and that will in large part determine the outcome of the November election. Citing Michael Barone's recent best-seller, Hard America, Soft America, Du Pont highlights the stark differences between two competing philosophies of government. "Hard" policies value individual liberty more than equality of outcomes and the sheltering of the individual from all of life's risks. Ironically, until you think about it, a strong and independent defence policy is a "hard" policy. Liberals would protect us from all of life's evils except the ones that can actually kill us in great numbers. Here's the rundown:
Bush administration policies (mostly hard):

Democrats' agenda (all soft):

Du Pont reminds us of what happened under the "Great Society:"

In the late 1960s Lyndon Johnson began expanding welfare, so that "by 1970 the various welfare programs provided more economic benefits than a minimum wage job." Between 1965 and 1975, welfare rolls tripled, and welfare spending escalated from less than $100 billion in 1970 to more than $200 billion in 1980 and $300 billion in 1990.
In the soft '60s and '70s crime was believed to be the fault of society, not criminals. So the prison population fell from 212,000 to 196,000 from 1960 to 1970, and as a result the rates of violent and property crime rose 143%.
The soft economic establishment believed, in Mr. Barone's words, that the "private sector economy could be counted on to grow perpetually at any rate of taxation and any regime of controls." But it couldn't; the Carter years saw double-digit inflation, 20% interest rates, and an economy in decline.

With so much at stake, it's distressing to think that – views on the war on terror aside – many Americans may be undecided as to which future they want.



Who or what killed stagflation?

Good summary in today's National Review Online by Bruce Bartlett about the real heroes and villians behind the rise and fall of the stagflation that plagued the country in the 1970's through the first years of the 1980's. Important points:

Volcker's monetary medicine was harsh, but earned Reagan's whole-hearted support. The President was willing to endure the political firestorm that erupted as the new policies took their course. What made the Volcker policies work without causing a serious recession were the other elements of economic policy—all anathema to the then-prevalent (Keynesian) conventional wisdom—including tax cuts and the removal of several harmful vestiges of the old regulatory regime.

It amazes me that so many critics of Reaganomics forget just how bad things were in 1980, and how few 'experts' believed the country's economic fortunes could be reversed as rapidly as they were.



June 12, 2004

Stakeholder management: Still not a good idea

In 1994, United Airlines became the largest majority employee-owned company in the world. On July 12 of that year, the date of the change, UAL stock closed at $99.25. It filed for bankruptcy in 2002 as a penny stock, unable to sustain labor costs that had become the highest in the industry.

This summary of United's travails introduces a recent paper, When Labor Has A Voice in Corporate Governance, presented at the EFMA 2004 Basel Meetings. The authors, three economists, looked at how corporate performance differs for firms where employee-owners exercise a substantial amount of control. Both Professor Bainbridge and Megan McArdle commented on the findings this week. Prof. Bainbridge quotes the relevant summary:

Labor has a large contractual claim on a firm's cash flow. Labor equity ownership gives employees both a fractional stake in the firm's residual cash flows and a voice in corporate governance. Relative to otherwise similar firms, labor-controlled publicly traded firms invest less, take fewer risks, grow more slowly, create fewer new jobs, have worse free cash flow problems, and exhibit lower labor and total factor productivity. We therefore propose that labor uses its corporate governance voice to maximize the combined value of its contractual and residual claims, and that this often pushes corporate policies away from, rather than towards, shareholder value maximization.

What's interested to me is that the researchers' findings support what an economist, rather than a social scientist, would expect to find. Management/labor partnerships, and the whole notion of "stakeholder management" were all the rage in some circles for a time, and are enshrined in government policy in Germany. While there are, or can be, benefits to the firm when workers are effectively involved, it is not an unalloyed good thing. Problems arise because worker/owners seek to maximize the value of the pair of claims they have on the firm—labor income and the residual claim on firm value that all owners have. Interestingly, Germany's experience bears this out. Though the researchers point out that the socio-legal environment in Germany is different than it is here, surveys of German firms (cited in the paper) find lower productivity, profitability, risk taking and growth in firms subject to significant worker say-so in strategic business policies.

Here's my unique take on the results: One class that is clearly disadvantaged when workers share control is future workers. Firms that are biased against taking risk and against investing in projects whose payoffs are far in the future ultimately create far fewer new jobs than do firms who are able to take the long view.



June 11, 2004

Universal preschool: The California marketing campaign ramps up

I heard a well-produced radio ad today, pitching an idea that sounded so good, it's hard to believe anyone would oppose it. Its message was that, if taxpayers will foot the bill for preschool, starting at age four, for every child, then we will be rewarded with $7 in savings for every dollar we "invest" in the program. Also, it's for the children. Now, who would be spending an obviously large sum of money to convince me of the merits of something that's so obviously a good investment? I'll get to the merits of the issue later. First, I wanted to know who was trying to sell me on the idea. The spot was sponsored by an outfit called First 5 L.A., and they have a website. The organization is better at radio commercials than they are at clear written communication, because the site gives very little indication of who exactly they are. A link to their strategic plan indicates that "First 5" is actually the Los Angeles County Children and Families First Proposition 10 Commission, established by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors pursuant to the terms of Proposition 10, an initiative approved by the voters in December 1998.

The proposition stipulates that "revenue be utilized in accordance with a strategic plan..." I wanted to find out what part of the expenditure plan authorized spending money to produce issue advocacy advertisements. The plan document refers to "engaging the community," where 'engagement' seems to mean communication with respect to activities currently under the purview of the Commission. It also authorizes expenditures that help eligible programs "resolve fiscal, programmatic and administrative challenges..." Advertisements intended to publicize the availability of program grants, or to inform parents about programs they might be eligible for, would fall under this Strategic Plan mandate. Presumably one could construe the fact that taxpayers had neglected to authorize yet another multi-billion dollar expenditure as a "fiscal challenge," in need of redress, but trying to justify that logic makes my head hurt. The ad I heard was touting a new, controversial and tremendously expensive idea, not a currently-funded program. This is issue advocacy, pure and simple. So either the Commission is violating its own charter, or they know they can safely thumb their noses at the letter of the law, or someone else is footing the bill for these ads.

While you're mulling that over, here is some more food for thought. The stated cost justification for taxpayer funding for preschool—currently a parental decision and obligation—is that it will reduce other social costs otherwise borne by taxpayers. In fact, the claim I referred to is for a reduction on the order of seven to one. I may return to this topic in the future, but coincidentally the Cato Institute released an update on the issue today. It reads in part:

Advocates of universal preschool claim that preschool improves academic achievement and intelligence. This claim is made so often that one would expect it to rest on solid evidence, but it does not. Proponents exaggerate the benefits of preschool for young children, and fail to mention that the benefits fade after a few years. No widescale longitudinal study has found long-term positive effects from state-funded preschool.

The piece provides links to more in-depth research by Cato and others. Whatever the actual benefits to actual children might be, it's pretty easy to identify what groups of adults benefit, whether or not universal preschool achieves its stated goals. They include parents who benefit from the daycare component of the program, the teachers' unions (you didn't think just anyone would be allowed to provide this, now did you?), and politicians who, in Cato's words, "exploit struggling parents for political gain."

Given the questionable value of Head Start, currently the largest government-funded preschool program, and the difficulty public schools have in fulfilling even their current mandate, I'm highly suspicious of any cost effectiveness claims, particularly ones as ambitious as the one I heard stated as fact today.

Language for a voter initiative to fund this effort, which would also amend the State Constitution, has been approved. Backers, led most visibly by actor Rob Reiner, are collecting signatures. For obvious reasons they won't be proposing it for voter consideration this November. The measure would raise commercial propoerty taxes by 55%, of which a third would be earmarked for voluntary but universal preschool to be provided by the public schools. California taxpayers are in no mood for this kind of hit. Expect to see it on the first ballot of 2005.



Krauthammer: When Revisionists Attack

In his op-ed in today's Washington Post, Krauthammer notes the tendency of liberals this week to grit their teeth and credit President Reagan for his "optimism." As he says, they faced a real dilemma: "How to remember a man they anathematized for eight years but who enjoys both the overwhelming affection of the American people and decisive vindication by history?" I was treated to what passes for spirited discussion on the subject at a lunch today in Brentwood, one of L.A.'s tonier ideological ghettoes. Here, the 'Old Liberals,' whose polite but condescending nod to Reagan's cheery disposition and luck was nauseating enough, were being assailed by the 'New Liberals,' taking the 'stupid/evil' position now in fashion with respect to our current Commander-in-Chief. Life is short, and sometimes it's best to just walk away.

Back to Krauthammer. I can't do the piece justice, so I heartily urge you to read the whole article.



June 10, 2004

New site update

The die is cast. Encouraging comments suggest this venture has a niche in the blogosphere, so there will be a new public site to replace this one. Just registered a domain name, decided on a hosting home, and a few other things. Thanks especially for the encouragement and advice from the guys at Brothers Judd. Tough decision on software, with Movable Type, WordPress, pMachine and Expression Engine all having different pluses and minuses. New product vs. established user base; static vs. dynamic pages; ease of use vs. flexibility later on, etc. Am committed to deciding by the end of this weekend. Your thoughts are most welcome if you haven't already shared them. Given other commitments, it will probably take a month to get the thing built and up.

Meanwhile, posting will continue here, but may be on the light side.



Robert Lucas on the Industrial Revolution and sources of growth

Beginning in the post-World War II, post-colonial period of the 1950's, growth in some of the then-poorest economies in the world began to accelerate. Today those countries are solidly in the middle and upper tiers of per capita living standards. Other economies, no worse off at the start of this period, have remained poor. In a recent paper, Nobel economist Robert Lucas addresses the broad issues, and raises a few interesting points:

I'm just skimming the surface here. The article is an easy read, and worth the trip. Alex Tabarrok, and Arnold Kling also address the issues Lucas Raises. In another article Alex points to the current situation in Zimbabwe in the context of Lucas' thesis. Pretty clear that it's a current example of just about everything a government can do to destroy its own economy and starve its own people.

One can also look at the oil-rich Arab economies as a pretty good test of Lucas' thesis. Oil revenues are like manna from heaven, but not in a good sense. They are a source of wealth, but the economies are stagnant. Add to the mix the fact that oil wealth is controlled by a family or tribe. Benefits to citizens may include things like housing, education and health care, but in one way or another, everyone is on the dole.

In Saudi Arabia, the unemployment rate for men aged 18 to 34 approaches 30%. A society dependent on them has very little incentive to develop a broad-based economy, and hence unlikely to create the circumstances where educated citizens can profit from their skills. There is little incentive for educated Saudis to remain in the Kingdom, because there are few places where high levels of education are rewarded. They become part of the brain drain, taking their tremendous potential to create economic opportunities with them. This leaves the uneducated and unskilled behind, and with bleak economic prospects.



June 9, 2004

U.S. furniture makers cry 'dumping,' but is it, really?

Another dumping case, but read on before yawning. In this case, reported in today's WSJ (subscription section,) U.S. furniture makers are suing Chinese makers of bedroom furniture under U.S. anti-dumping rules. The goal of the rules, and the stated goal of the suits, is to save American jobs. As you might suspect, there's more here than meets the eye. It turns out that many of these companies already manufacture and/or import huge amounts of furniture from Asia:

U.S. furniture producers have been importing from China for at least a decade, using a combination of imported and U.S.-made furniture to complete their lines. The Cato Institute's Dan Ikenson cites the testimony of Jeffrey Seaman, CEO of Rooms to Go, before the International Trade Commission (ITC): U.S. furniture makers "knew after traveling to China and seeing the infrastructure there that they could make certain bedrooms in China, bring it here, mark it up 30% to 40% to a retailer and still sell it for less than they could have made it for."
The ITC's preliminary report on the case says that 20 of the 40 producers it surveyed "imported Chinese merchandise during the period and that the 12 largest domestic producers of wooden bedroom furniture all imported reasonably substantial and increasing volumes of merchandise from China." What happened then is that U.S. retailers caught on and began importing Chinese-made furniture themselves, cutting out the middleman U.S. producers and their markup. The dumping suit is about raising prices for those importers.

The ITC has already determined that the American companies may have been harmed by Chinese imports. It's yet to be determined, though, whether this harm is the result of unfair pricing. Remember, harm to a domestic company may result from either fair or unfair competition. Another wrinkle that the companies are relying on is the so-called Byrd Amendment, where any proceeds from antidumping tariffs go into the pockets of the companies bringing the lawsuit. The WTO has already ruled that to be an unfair trade practice, and is considering sanctions against other U.S. firms, since Congress has refused to repeal or alter the provision.

So, while unrelated U.S. firms are harmed, the furniture makers stand to pocket a huge windfall. According to the article, China sends about $1 billion in bedroom furniture to the U.S., and under our trade laws, tariffs could run as high as 440%. This is a good deal if you can get away with it:

If you can't beat a competitor, get the government to tax his goods for you. This is trade law as an income redistribution scheme. ...

If Commerce rules in favor of the petitioners, a final ruling would be due before the end of the year.

The economic harm would start immediately, however, as importers scramble to calculate catalog prices in an uncertain environment, insecurity rises among the 200,000 Americans who work in the furniture-retail industry, and consumers pay higher prices that pad the bottom lines of Stickley and friends.

In other words, all of this has nothing to do with bringing low-wage factory jobs back to the U.S. Those jobs are gone for good -- to Vietnam, if not to China. The furniture dumping suit is a classic Beltway game of greasing a squeaky wheel. Let's hope that between now and December the Bush Administration decides it doesn't want to play along.

Let's see how the ITC rules on the pricing issue. One thing to keep in mind about Chinese exporting in 2004, as compared to 1984: When the Chinese government was subsidizing substantial parts of the export economy, it was not uncommon for state firms to be able to sell below costs (the definition of dumping) for long periods of time. They could do this because their losses were cross-subsidized by the government, in furtherance of noneconomic goals. Those days are over. Even though industrial unemployment is currently high (above 10% in a lot of places,) the Chinese leadership has come to a basic understanding that, since capital is scarce, subsidizing firms that can't make their operating costs diverts capital from uses that stand to create more jobs. That's not to say it never happens, or that the government wouldn't cheat if there were benefits to doing it. It's just that there's ceased to be a payoff to it.



Tienanmen Square beset by...angry homeowners?
Mao spinning in grave

Today's WSJ (subscription section) reports on homeowners taking to the streets. Several homeowners' groups, angered at shoddy construction and unfufilled promises by developers, are taking direct action, including blocking construction sites and taking to Tienanmen Square to confront government officials.

The activism of a newly minted home-owning middle class is changing China's political and economic landscape. Members of Beijing's middle class typically earn $1,200 to $4,800 a month, according to government statistics. Many have savings accumulated over many years, money from parents and, these days, mortgages from banks. ...
Economically, the surge in homeownership is boosting industries like construction, durable goods and interior design. Politically, homeownership is giving people a new stake in society, emboldening them to make more demands of their local governments.

This will be an educational experience all around. Developers, used to dealing directly with government bureaucrats, aren't used to having to satisfy promises made to private citizens. Issues of shoddy construction, inadequate provision for parking, and failure to deliver promised amenities are going to introduce a lot of people–citizens, businesses, bureaucrats and eventually the Party and legislative apparatus–to some pretty rudimentary concepts of the rule of law.

The article details how one homeowners' group, through an escalating series of actions culminating with a march on Tienanmen Square, eventually forced Beijing city officials to require the developer to come to terms with the owners. This is an outcome that would have been unthinkable for tenants of, let's say, the Revolutionary People's Janitorial Cadre Housing Collective. One man reflected on his experience as a ringleader of the homeowners' efforts:

"One of my friends said to me, 'The more ordinary people in China buy apartments, the more it could improve democracy in China,'" says Mr. Zhi. "I think he may be right."

This is real people power. And it's not happening just because people have more money on the line. By choosing to become owners, they have cut a cord of dependency on government to provide for all their needs. Having made this decision, they are now insisting on a new relationship with their government – one that recognizes their new autonomy and their independent claim on equitable treatment under the law. True, this only affects a very small and (relatively ) prosperous minority. However, they are not rich, nor are they the traditional Party elite, whose needs have always been generously taken care of. These people are the new middle class that the Chinese leadership now understands is the backbone of broad-based economic development. Chairman Mao would be deeply disappointed by this breach in the solidarity of the class struggle. Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek, however, would understand it perfectly.

The Reagan legacy — Remember when...?

Here's another good historical perspective from Reason, including a link to some notes from the 1980 campaign written by Jude Wanniski, one of Reagan's chief economic advisors. It's hard to remember what the economic and political situation was at the end of the Carter years, but it was bleak. It was bleak, and conventional wisdom saw no way out. First, you can ignore today's New York Times revisionism. The consensus in 1980 was that the Soviet Union had the edge in the Cold War. On the economic front, then-current Keynesian theory had no solution for the combination of double-digit inflation and zero growth. Reason recounts:

Reading those speeches now cannot give us the context in which they were made, which is at least half of what is so amazing about Reagan's accomplishments. Particularly in domestic policy, Reagan was coming from a different world. Reagan's plan for unleashing the creative energies of the nation had, after all, been declared "voodoo economics" by his own vice president. Predecessor Jimmy Carter's chief domestic message was one of sacrifice and a dwindling of possibilities. Turn down your thermostats and put on a sweater, America, Carter told us. Your time has passed.
Indeed, the very idea that the executive branch could do much of anything about economic growth, even at the margins, was viewed as slightly loony back when Reagan took over. Everyone knew that it was up to monetary policy to roughly approximate the needed amount of liquidity for the economy. Too much and we got inflation -- too little, we suffered unemployment. It was the White House's job to come up with a fiscal policy that would soothe the pain caused by this seesaw of misery, the Phillips curve. Standard economic opinion saw wage-and-price controls, voluntary at first, but mandatory if needed, as necessary to deal with inflation, and lotsa social "safety-net" spending necessary to deal with unemployment. Only then did taxes enter into it, and they existed to fund whatever level of social programs the monetary missteps dictated.
Taxes just were not a primary matter of economic policy for the modern state. Only fossils like Reagan thought they mattered, thought that tax rates actually impacted the choices Americans made. That is how a 90 percent tax rate could exist: No one in Washington thought tax rates changed behavior. They believed that people would work as hard for 10 cents as they would for a dollar.

The Laffer curve was ridiculed. Tax policy didn't matter. Paul Volcker was going to make a bad situation worse. Reagan wasn't just stubborn. His policies were suicidal, or so went conventional wisdom. As the article sums up:

Reagan took the reins of power when every system was considered closed to change and to suggest otherwise was dangerous and reckless. For that reason the measure of Reagan's greatness lies not so much in how true he remained to free-market principles, but that he revived them when the status quo powers had effectively abandoned them.


The Reagan legacy — a matter of perspective

Couldn't help but comment on Craig Winneker's survey of the European press reaction to Reagan's passing. In his Tech Central Station article, he contrasts the condescension of Le Monde's reaction, "Ronald Reagan at the very least succeeded, during his two presidential terms, in fulfilling the essence of his contract with Americans: to give them back confidence in the 'spirit' of their country." with this from the Czech Republic's Mlada Fronta Dries:

"He defeated the Soviet Union, won the Cold War and helped restore freedom in Central Europe," its editors write. "Although he was a controversial president in many respects, the Czechs should not forget that Ronald Reagan is one reason that they are enjoying their present freedom."

Perspective is everything. It's a lot easier to understand the events of the Reagan presidency when viewed from a place that was under the thumb of Communist rule, than when passively observing it from the cafes and boardrooms of Paris.



June 8, 2004

Bush creating jobs faster than Kerry can promise them

This short employment summary appears in today's Wall Street Journal (subscription section.) It appears that all the laughter about Chief White House Economist Greg Manciw's jobs projections may be subsiding, particularly among Democrats:

Readers may recall that chief White House economist Greg Mankiw was widely ridiculed in February for predicting that the economy would create 2.6 million new jobs this year. John Kerry joined the political fun, noting at the time that "George Bush is saying he's going to create 2.6 million jobs this year alone -- and his advisers are saying, 'What, you didn't actually believe that, did you?'"
Well, who are we supposed to believe now? Friday's May job report shows that the U.S. economy has created 947,000 new jobs in the last three months, 1.2 million since the beginning of the year. Mr. Mankiw seems to have been muzzled by the White House, so we'll say what he can't: That's a faster rate than Senator Kerry's campaign promise to create 10 million jobs in his first term.

The article points out that Makiw was right on outsourcing, too. Remember, he was excoriated for saying that on the whole outsourcing actually increased American jobs.

Outsourcing of manufacturing work, otherwise known as trade, has been with us since time immemorial. As the nearby chart shows, over the past four decades U.S. imports as a percentage of GDP have risen to about 14% from 4%. But over the same period U.S. unemployment has remained at the same level, rising or falling somewhat with the economic cycle. The real change wrought by all of this expanding trade has been a rise in real incomes, which is something to cheer.

The chart below is reproduced from the article. Note the time scale on the x axis.

imports and employment

The chart shows a secular trend toward a more global economy, not a sudden tidal wave of imported goods. As noted in the article (and elsewhere), over the same period millions of jobs were created, and Americans of all income groups have enjoyed rising real incomes. Now ask yourself this: Would this have been possible if all of the jobs that made up the economy of the 1960's had been 'protected'?



Exit Strategy Succeeds: 12,000 Troops Leaving Korea

From Scrappleface:

Just 54 years after President Harry Truman sent U.S. forces to invade the Korean peninsula, his exit strategy is showing early signs of success with the announcement that the U.S. will withdraw 12,000 troops from South Korea by the end of this year.
The move will leave just 25,000 U.S. military personnel in a post-war situation which critics in the Senate have called "a quagmire."
Senate Democrats, however, hailed President Truman's foresight and contrasted his foreign policy triumph with the Bush administration's poor planning in the month's leading up to the Iraq war.
"You can't just go storming into a country without a plan to get out," said an unnamed Senate Democrat"Maybe now Bush will get a clue and learn some lessons from President Truman."

Sounds like a craven election year ploy to me. Next thing you know, we'll be abruptly abandoning our pivotal transitional role in Germany as well. No wonder everyone hates us.



June 7, 2004

South Carolina Senate race highlights trade

South Carolina textile manufacturing has been hard-hit by global competition. The state's unemployment rate sits at 6.8%, third highest in the country. It's no surprise that trade is a perennial issue here. The Senate seat being contested is the one being vacated by the retirement of Fritz Hollings, an icon of the Democrats and a perennial protectionist.

This profile  in the Atlanta Journal Constitution suggests that the race is not the usual pander-fest. The trade issue has brought to light a surprising rift among Republicans, usually reliable free-traders.

While DeMint defends free trade, one of his opponents for the Senate nomination, former Gov. David Beasley, is campaigning as a critic of "unfair trade" who will save what's left of the state's once-dominant textile industry by getting tough on trading partners such as China that are flooding the U.S. market with cheap imports.
"It's a battle for the "hearts and minds of the Republican Party," DeMint said.

DeMint, a current Congressman, was the odds-on favorite to win the Republican nomination, but protectionist interests, led by textile magnate Roger Milliken, recruited Beasley to run. Beasley is currently leading in the polls, in a three-way race.

The race is being followed by the Club for Growth, who targets key races where pro-growth issues are importantly at stake. Politicians like Beasley are horribly misusing the term "fair trade."  Low-skill jobs in textiles have gone overseas because it's natural for them to. Wages and working conditions that are perfectly "fair" by any reasonable definition of the term still give many countries an inherent cost advantage over comparable U.S. manufacturing. Based on the same data presented in my previous discussion, protecting textile jobs costs Americans over $33.5 billion per year, or almost $200,000 per job.

When a candidate like Jim DeMint have the courage to speak frankly on trade, even on campaign stops at textile firms, he pays American workers and voters a great compliment. Many of them may not like what he has to say, but he has a message that American firms can survive if they learn to compete on their strengths. In textiles, anyway, protection of low-skill jobs is a losing battle. The South Carolina primary is today.



Western environmentalists and Third World priorities—
When worlds collide

In today's Tech Central Station, Alan Oxley has another follow-up to the recently convened Copenhagen Consensus meeting I discussed here. He makes the point that developing countries have a completely different set of priorities than do Western environmentalists who presume to speak for them.

Developing countries have always seen the environment in a different light. Western Greens focus on climate change, toxic metals, chemical contamination, forests, dams, mining, protection of biodiversity and endangered species. Nearly 10 years ago, The World Bank's annual World Development Report reviewed the environmental priorities among developing countries. The first was making water potable, second was clean air, then removal of solid waste and after that urban planning.

He also points out that the environmental movement in the West is being played for a sucker. Developing countries are willing to sign on to their agenda if the West assumes all blame and foots all the costs. Via Kyoto, many countries appear willing to go for this deal, but what happens if and when Russia signs on remains to be seen.



A Reagan moment

Leaving the eloquent remembrances of Ronald Reagan to others, I want to add one personal experience where no words were exchanged, no music played and no cameras rolled. In fact, the President wasn't even there.

It happened at the Reagan Library. I had taken a group up to see it, late one afternoon when I knew the crowds would be light. After the tour, waiting for our group to take in the last of the exhibits, I went outside for some fresh air. A patio stretches along the back of the Library, overlooking a lush farming valley, distant hills and the Pacific Ocean. The sun was beginning to set, and I was alone. The view was magnificent, and as I took it in, something caught my eye. I had noticed it on my last visit, but had no time to see it up close. It sits at the edge of the patio, off to one side, a fitting monument to one man's vision and courage — a slice of the Berlin Wall. It's in the same spray painted, grafittied condition as on that day in 1989 when East met West, and the world would never be the same again. Now here it was, part of that splendid view, speaking to me.

Historians will forever argue the causes of the chain of events that led to this piece of wall being here, and not still part of an ongoing nightmare in Berlin. Detente had been the favored policy vis-a-vis the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for decades. Credit must indeed go to a lot of people, not the least being Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. Yet it was Reagan who set the tone for the one country who really mattered. SDI, Pershing missiles in Europe, both were considered acts of a warmongering cowboy. Statesmen cringed when Reagan dared talk about an evil empire. Even some of his speechwriters begged him not to use the phrase, "Tear Down This Wall." at the Brandenburg Gate. After all, why jeopardize a diplomacy that had worked so effectively for years? That simplistic cowboy knew what the diplomats couldn't see. He knew the power of an idea – freedom. He had information that the Soviet economy was much more fragile than people like Arthur Schlesinger or Lester Thurow were saying. He gambled, but the deck was stacked in freedom's favor.

And now that piece of the Wall is here. Looking at its scarred surface, and then behind it to a vision of calm and beauty, I was reminded how blessed I was. As the beneficiary of generations who have sacrificed, it is so easy to take what I have for granted. Here, amid the solitude and beauty of this very American place, was a fitting monument to the fact that this freedom is priceless. Because of one man's refusal to accept things as they were, millions of people now have the chance to share that feeling. I was wiping the last tear from my eye as the rest of our group came out to see the sunset.

Follow-up: Up late on a project last night, and heard on the radio that traffic was backed up for four hours around the exit to the Reagan Library, as thousands came to pay their respects. All traffic to the library was being diverted to parking and shuttles at a local college, and from there it took the mourners another five hours to get to the library. This was at 3:00 in the morning.



June 5, 2004

Ronald Wilson Reagan
1911 - 2004



ronald reagan


whatever else history may say about me when i'm gone,
i hope it will record that i appealed to your best hopes,
not your worst fears:
to your confidence rather than your doubts.
my dream is that you will travel the road ahead
with liberty's lamp guiding your steps
and opportunity's arm steadying your way.

President Ronald Reagan, 1992


It has, you did, and we will. Thank you, Mr. President. You will live in the heart of America forever. May you rest in peace with God.


Thanks to Gerard Van der Leun at American Digest for the right words at the right time.


Bjorn Lomborg commits economics

Via InstapunditWinds of Change  and MetaFilter,  Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and nemesis of global warming True Believers worldwide, was the driving force behind a recent meeting of economists to evaluate a range of global problems. The purpose of the conference was to prioritize these problems in a way that considered both their significance and the costs of mitigation. The Conference, The Copenhagen Consensus,  concluded that of the problems where evaluations could be properly made, HIV/AIDS should be ranked first. (If you're interested, here is the final, prioritized list). 

The heresy (or principal heresy) of the conference was the application of cost-benefit analysis in setting priorities. Since resources are finite, and addressing any of the problems on the list involves considerable resources, it is important to consider costs in determining the set of problems to which said scarce resources should be devoted. Readers may refer to any good introductory economics text for further discussion of the concept. Some people, however, can't come to grips with what resource scarcity implies. Take for instance the statement produced by a " Counter-Conference"  set up by a group of primarily Danish environmental groups. Their conference statement has a whole section titled "The resources of the Globe are limited." It's a start, but they otherwise fail to apply the concept, except to note that rich countries use too many of them. Other nuggets include:

International environmental agreements must have precedence to rules of free trade.

Free trade really angers these people. Free is good. Trade is good. Put the two words together and you get apoplexy.

But without regard to the needs of the poor, water is increasingly becoming a commodity, which is, furthermore, consumed without regard to the continuing ability or non-ability of nature to supply man with water.

The problem, properly put, is that "nature" rarely puts adequate supplies of potable water in all the locations where humans can conveniently and costlessly consume it. Wheat, corn, cows and any number of other natural things are inconveniently not where people want them to be, nor in a form suitable for immediate consumption. Water must be processed, transported and stored, and the systems for doing so require significant resources in addition to the water itself. My home state of California can serve as a warning. Because we treat water as special, we have evolved a pricing and delivery system that makes it economically feasible for farmers to grow rice in a desert. We arrived at this massive mis-allocation of resources by ignoring matters of supply, demand and cost.

Poverty can force people to over-exploit natural resources. One of the great challenges is to ensure a future for the three billion people that today subsist by traditional farming.

The group correctly points to the harm caused by agricultural subsidies in the industrialized world. Lomborg and his group agree, and in fact place that problem as #3 on their list, behind only HIV/AIDS, and hunger and malnutrition. However, from there the contra-conventioneers pretty much leave the well-reasoned path and skid around in the dirt. Taken together the group's statements on agriculture go something like this: We should preserve the right of the world's poor farmers to continue living on the brink of starvation (the report calls it subsistence farming.) The real problem with too much poverty is that really poor people wreck the environment. (Actually, this is tragic and true.) However, too much efficiency is worse. Give these farmers a little wiggle room — some disease- and insect-resistant crop seeds, the right fertilizer, access to modern farming techniques, scale economies, savvy marketing help, and the next thing you know, they're buying Hummers, sending their kids to Brown, and wrecking the environment even more. Apparently there is some magic level of marginal existence that is "ideal," (sustainable is the term of choice) but it doesn't sound like any of the conference-goers have actually consulted the poor on what their preferred level of poverty is.

People, irrespective of race, religion, gender and age have a right to define the future for themselves and for their society. Workers in developed and developing countries must not be played out against one another and be forced to compete under poor working conditions. If global social equity is to be achieved, all people must have democratic rights. The ILO conventions must be strengthened globally by having the governments of all countries ratify them.

In other words, people should be free to choose their future, except that we enlightened types need to define for them the choices they are permitted to make. We cannot let them be seduced by Nike, who oppresses them with decent working conditions, and wages that are multiples of their countries' average incomes. Signatures on pieces of paper can make this work. We promise. And so the manifesto goes — on, and on, and on, in true NGO resource-wasting fashion.

Meanwhile, Rajendra K. Pachauri, the Chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  had a more direct response to Lomborg and the Copenhagen proposals. Apparently too witless and/or too lazy to attempt a reasoned rebuttal, he simply compared Lomborg to Hitler.



June 4, 2004

Trade, protectionism and jobs

While reading Jeff Cornwall's summary of the latest economic news at Entrepreneurial Mind, I ended up at the Congressional Joint Economic Committee website, and found a piece the Committee released Wednesday on the relationship between trade and jobs. It's mostly a puff piece, but it referenced some stats I'd been meaning to track down–on the costs of artificially protecting jobs. In its 2002 annual report, the Dallas Fed  summarizes the costs of protecting jobs for several industries. Direct and indirect costs are included. In summary form, here are just a few examples, from 20 listed, of how our government works extra-specially hard for us:

Protected industry Jobs saved Total cost
(in millions)
Annual cost per job saved
Benzenoid chemicals 216 $ 297 $ 1,376,435
Sugar 2,261 1,868 826,104
Dairy products 2,378 1,630 685,323
Maritime services 4,411 2,522 571,668
Apparel and textiles 168,786 33,629 199,241

source: Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas    

Just to make sure you're reading the table correctly, the last column is how much artifical trade restriction costs, per individual job protected. Workers in the benzenoid chemical business must be especially strategically important, because it costs Americans over $1.3 million,  per job, per year to keep them hard at work. Protecting sugar industry jobs, about which I've written before, costs Americans over $835,000 per year, per job protected. As the article says, it would be cheaper if we simply gave these people their regular paychecks, told them not to show up, and let the market work as it should. The article goes on:

And the protection doesn't even work. Subsidies to steel-producing industries since 1975 have exceeded $23 billion; yet industry employment has declined by nearly two-thirds.

One cost of protection that the Dallas Fed numbers probably miss is the cost of lost trading opportunities for our firms and products because of other countries' trade barriers. These are higher than they would be in the absence of our own protectionism. That is, after all, the premise of trade negotiations.

That gets to the final point (for now) about government meddling in the economy. Politicians never pick the right horses. They can't, because at any given time, the winners don't pay lobbyists and stuff campaign coffers for these kinds of favors. They don't need the help. It's the laggards that always end up at the trough.



BBC suppresses evidence of unholy alliance—
"THEY'RE NOT ANTIWAR: They're just on the other side."

Via Glenn Reynolds (who coined this piece's subtitle a while ago), comes this link to an article by Nick Cohen in Britain's New Statesman that the BBC is refusing to publicize  some pretty unsavory ties between the ad hoc groups organizing antiwar protests, the Socialist Workers' Party and Islamic fundamentalists. A group called Respect, an umbrella group uniting the SWP and the Muslim Association of Britain (whose Islamofascist credentials are apparently pretty impeccable.) Article also available here.  Also via Glenn, Lt. Smash,  says the same thing is happening in America. The same kind of alliances exist, yet the press is refusing to air the story.

Why is this news? After all, hard Left organizations have always preyed on the witless tools who make up the rank-and-file of most activist peace groups. Cohen recounts the frustration of the BBC reporters who have been anonymously feeding him the info:

...The anti-war movement wasn't a simple repetition of the old story of the politically naive being led by the nose by sly operators. The far left was becoming the far right. It had gone as close to supporting Ba'athist fascism as it dared and had formed a working alliance with the Muslim Association of Britain, which, along with the usual misogyny and homophobia of such organisations, also believed that Muslims who decided that there was no God deserved to die for the crime of free thought. In a few weeks hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions, would allow themselves to be organised by the opponents of democracy and modernity and would march through the streets of London without a flicker of self-doubt.
Wasn't this a story?
It's a great story, I cried. But why don't you broadcast it?
We can't, said the bitter hacks. Our editors won't let us.
Radio silence was imposed on the sinister and in many ways right-wing behaviour of the far left and has continued into the campaign for this month's elections. With the exception of the New Statesman and Tribune - and the Harry's Place website at hurryupharry.bloghouse.net - no one has found it worth noting that, for the first time since the Enlightenment, a section of the left is allied with religious fanaticism and, for the first time since the Hitler-Stalin pact, a section of the left has gone soft on fascism.

Stateside, meanwhile, Lt. Smash adds:

This isn't just happening in Britain, however. In a quest to broaden their membership, American anti-war groups have accepted into their ranks some groups that are decidedly illiberal in their politics.
Recent rallies in my hometown of San Diego have seen banners calling for an end to the occupation of Afghanistan, speakers calling for solidarity with the Iraqi resistance, and even a battle cry for communist revolution within the United States. Apologetics for tyrants like Saddam and terrorist groups like Hamas are common. Palestinian flags are the protestors' favorite.
The anti-war movement in America isn't just pacifist Quakers and liberals ashamed of prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib. Increasingly, it has become a front for those who are cheering for the downfall of western civilization.

Smash's post has links to the various groups and incidents he mentions here. He concludes with the quote we started with:

As my friend Glenn is fond of saying: "They're not anti-war, they're just on the other side."

Let's just put all of this in plain English. The Left, champion of the downtrodden and marginalized, has now hitched its wagon to a movement that wants to kill: Christians, Jews, Atheists, adulterers, homosexuals, women who refuse to be subjugated, etc. If the Socialist Workers' Party, for example, is willing to ally itself with such a group, it is fair to ask, for what purpose? Noam Chomsky hasn't, as far as I've heard, come out in favor of stoning gays or forcing women to wear the burqa. What larger goal of the Left exists, for which it is worth sacrificing virtually all of its other principles (or rather, its other stated principals)?

The answer can only be power and the destruction of the West. This isn't progressive socialism. It's hatred-filled nihilism. Yet to the BBC, this major sea change in the politics of the Left is not news. I'm not into conspiracy theories, but something else seems to be going on here.



June 3, 2004

Cotton Barons declare war on academic freedom — and on free trade

Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution updates a story that I missed, but you shouldn't. The World Trade Organization has ruled that our system of subsidies to the U.S. cotton industry are in violation of WTO rules. (See this article for a disussion of the issue and the ruling.) Daniel Sumner, an economist from U.C. Davis, filed a meticulously-researched economic brief on behalf of Brazil, who brought the WTO action. The cotton lobby is furious. From  an earlier Marginal Revolution post, Tyler Cowen writes:

The cotton lobby has called the research "unethical," noting that it was produced in a state university. Sumner's Dean questioned his judgment in doing the work. And Sumner himself?
"What is this, the mafia or something? Think of it as a criminal case, and one side says,  'We'll put pressure on this guy not to participate.' That's not right, is it?"

The Washington Post, in an article detailing the controversy, sums it up pretty well:

To opponents of farm subsidies, the treatment Sumner is getting underscores what they have been saying all along: that well-organized and well-heeled interest groups benefit from the federal payments and will go to great lengths to protect the system despite evidence of the harm inflicted on some of the world's weakest citizens. The World Bank and other international institutions have long complained about the impact of subsidies on Third World farmers, but Sumner's cotton analysis was unusually detailed and precise.
"He's done a real service, not just to Brazil, but to the world, by clarifying the role that U.S. farm programs are having globally," said Gawain Kripke, senior policy adviser at Oxfam, the international aid group. Although U.S. officials have said they will likely appeal the WTO ruling, Oxfam hopes the decision will increase pressure on the United States, the European Union and Japan to scrap subsidies that effectively guarantee a minimum price for certain crops. The rich nations' reluctance to cut assistance to their farmers has been a major sticking point in global negotiations to lower trade barriers worldwide.

First off, the strong-arming is a violation of academic freedom. Cotton growers are free to spread their research dollars wherever they see fit, but Sumner has an unquestioned right to apply his expertise in the manner he did. Secondly, other than having an unduly detailed critisism of their subsidy program brought to light by a prominent economist, what really irks the Cotton Club is that Sumner works for a publicly-funded university. Actually, that means a taxpayer-funded university, and cotton subsidies run counter to the interests of American (even California) taxpayers.  I score that Prof. Sumner 1, taxpayers 1, consumers 1, struggling Third World farmers 1, cotton growers 0. Sounds like a win to me. Sumner is a brave guy, and I would love to see this fight get very public.



The Saudis as Prey

Our war with you will not end until God's will is enforced and the crusaders are expelled from the land of Muslims, leaving [you] as easy prey

This warning to the House of Saud, part of a statement issued in the wake of last week's Khobar attack, was attributed to al Qaeda's Arabian peninsula chieftain, Abdulaziz Muqrin. The attack, and the statement, lead Jim Hoagland  (in today's Washingtom Post) to wonder who is in charge of Al Qaeda's war strategy. The bloodiest attacks in May outside Iraq were both aimed at the Saudi oil industry. The Kingdom had previously been off-limits when Bin Laden and his second-in-command Ayman Zawahiri were clearly in charge. Hoagland has some choice words for other Arab governments as well:

Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others get no free pass for distancing themselves from the United States or for pleading that they cannot help in the war on terrorism while Israel occupies Palestinian land. The terrorists now strike inside Saudi Arabia, even though the U.S. military presence they used to justify their first attacks has been withdrawn. They have not finished in Europe, either.
Everyone who refuses to surrender to bin Laden's world view is merely "prey,"  to use the Khobar terrorist chief's word. Through the fog generated by the turmoil in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prison abuse investigations or Saudi Arabia's own misunderstandings, someone has the power to remind us of the real stakes in this struggle.

More hysteria about Abu Ghraib and the Palestinians is coming from American media than from Arab governments. The "fog" appears to be lifting in Riyadh, and maybe Cairo. Perhaps that's because the Arabs are finally arriving at a clear view of the enemy. It had to happen sooner or later, and sooner is better. After all, they have more at stake.



June 2, 2004

Impossible to address the deficit without new taxes? Don't believe it.

The Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation both do tremendous work on Federal budgetary and spending issues. Today, National Review's John J. Miller writes about his recent conversation  with two of Cato's gurus on the subject, Stephen Slivinski and Chris Edwards. They have taken President Bush and presumptive Democratic nominee John kerry up on their pledges to cut the Federal budget deficit (currently guesstimated at $478 billion) by 2009. First, barring unexpectedly high levels of Congressional spending mayhem, economic growth will eliminate a big chunk of the debt, perhaps a third. Cato's budgeting proposals are aimed at eliminating the remainder, about $300 billion, by 2006. That's the whole deficit, not half. Further their proposals would do it

-  without touching defense items;
-  without cutting homeland security, except for privatizing TSA functions and a few other minor cost-saving reforms;
-  while allowing all of the Bush tax cuts to become permanent.

The full set of recommendations can be found in   Cato's new policy paper.

Since the paper provides a good executive summary, I'm not going to paraphrase it here. Cato is often vilified as an absolutist, 'the best government is no government,' Libertarian propaganda operation. This study will convince you otherwise. The recommendations are unrealistic only because of too many powerful and entrenched interests who benefit greatly from current aspects of bad government policy. The authors of the study don't presume to redefine the role of the Federal Government or of the budgetary process. They also don't presume the items they scrap aren't legitimate expenditures of government at the state and local level. They just don't belong in the Federal budget.

The recommendations are extensive, but to eliminate an accumulation of excess this large, they need to be. A lot of sacred cows are slaughtered here, which will be offensive to many vegetarians and those that believe the Federal Government should be in the business of solving all of America's problems. As Cato's Slavinsky says, "...we recognize that eliminating any government spending program is tremendously difficult because each one has a political constituency." The exercise evaluates spending items according to some basic principles. To quote the principal author of the study:

We took a structural view of the problem," says Edwards. "We decided that there are several categories of unnecessary spending. A lot of it is simply wasteful, which we defined as all things the General Accounting Office or other auditors have described as fraudulent, duplicative, obsolete, mismanaged, or ineffective. We also looked for cases of federal spending that represent unjustified redistribution, damage the economy, perform a state or local function, or should be privatized.

Every member of Congress should be required to state their position on this study before being allowed to hold forth on issues of fiscal responsibility. Yesterday I bemoaned the scarcity of Small Government conservatives in the current budget debates. The real problem is electoral politics, and not the lack of opportunities to make smaller government work for all of us.

Update: After citing the Heritage Foundation's excellent work in this area, I was remiss in not citing a recent report. Economy Watch, the Heritage econ weblog, mentions their most recent release, a March 10 backgrounder by Brian Riedl. (At Heritage, a "backgrounder" is anything under 50 pages, and indicates that there is way more material where it came from.) The full text can be found here. The policy recommendations of the two studies overlap, as you would expect. The Heritage piece provides a bit more about the political landscape surrounding the budget process. In my view, both should be essential source documents in the ongoing battle over the budget. If the subject interests you, read them both.



Ben Stein explains Red-State America

This quintissential Renaissance man has been increasingly AWOL from his Beverly Hills and Malibu haunts. In this article, Ben talks about the people he meets in Red State America  – at his northern Idaho vacation spot and on his lecture tours. What he describes is an openness, optimism and spirit that never comes across in media profiles of "typical Americans." They are not quaint, nor are they throwbacks to some pre-modern era. Despite the media hysteria about every administration misstep, why does George Bush do so well here?

Possibly it is because those friendly folks at Hill's Resort and Bottle Bay and in Ripon, Wisconsin, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Dennison, Ohio, know that Mr. Bush is one of them. Despite his patrician upbringing and his wealth — modest indeed by John Kerry's wife's standards — Mr. Bush connects with America.
The men and women laughing softly into the summer night at Priest Lake and Lake Pendoreille would feel comfortable with him and he would feel comfortable with them — and that may yet tell the tale in this election. He is one of us.

A summary can't do it justice, so do yourself a favor and read the whole thing.



Free Iraq a threat to Arab elites

Linda Chavez reminds us that it's not just the Baathist dead-enders and the Al Qaeda-like groups that want to see democracy in Iraq fail. To make this point she points out that the freest Arabs in the Middle East are the million or so Palestinian citizens of Israel. The Arab elites don't want any more stark comparisons in their own back yards.

The NIMBYism behind high gas prices

The Heritage Foundation links to two articles today on the reasons for high gasoline prices. First is an article by Tom Bray in the Washington Times. It's a good overview of the drivers of prices, and of current problems. Flash: The main culprit isn't OPEC. The cost of crude oil represents less than half of the pump price of a gallon of gas. The main culprit isn't Big Oil either. Refiners' profit margins (averaging around 6%) are about half the average of industrial companies. Here's some more information from the issue's not-so-common-knowledge files:

–  The last U.S. refinery was built in 1976.
–  Current refineries are operating at about 93% of capacity. This leaves no slack in the system for problems, and precious little for the extensive routine maintenance required to keep a refinery running efficiently and safely.
–  Taxes represent about 25% of the pump price. And they're based on the pretax pump price, so taxes increase an additional penny per gallon for every four-cent rise in the pretax price.
–  Meanwhile, the economic recovery is increasing demand, and competing for existing oil stocks with the rapidly growing Chinese and Indian economies.

The article doesn't mention other factors, such as Federal, state and local envoronmental regulations that mandate different gasoline formulations for different places in the country, and at different times of the year. With so little flexibility in refining, this is a recipe for shortages, which cause price spikes driven by supply/demand imbalances. Add the possibility of some major refinery downtime into the mix, and it's a recipe for very long gas lines.

Meanwhile, no one wants new refineries to be built near them. We can't tap the ANWR reserves, lest we put unsightly non-natural stuff in a tiny part of a vast, remote and desolate area that almost no one will ever visit. As the article says, it surely makes the Saudis wonder why we complain about OPEC, yet are willing to do so little ourselves to mitigate the problems we cause for ourselves.

After you digest this appetizer, read this briefing  by Charli Koon, Senior Policy Analyst for Energy and the Environment at the Heritage Foundation. High points from her piece are similar to Bray's article, but much more detailed and depressing. Great read if you want some meat on the subject, and written in layman's terms.

The brief suggests that Congress should stop vilifying the petroleum industry and actually do something useful to help mitigate the problem, including:

That may be asking too much, and understanding this stuff is so hard. Besides, oil companies are big and rich. They deserve to be beaten with sticks.



June 1, 2004

Thanks, and update on new site

Thanks for stopping by. Since this URL isn't indexed anywhere, you're probably here at my request. Old content from a very early prototype is in the archive, with all new items on this page. This design is completely new, including the name. Recently, I picked up enough HTML and CSS to tackle a 'facelift' (having been told that FORTRAN is not easily adapted to this task), and ended up rebuilding from scratch.

My apologies to users of older browsers, including Internet Explorer 5.
I built and tested using current versions of Internet Explorer (IE 6) and Mozilla (1.6). I'm told that, with older browsers, especially on small displays running less than 16-bit color, the layout looks awful. If you're in that group, I promise to get a more robust version up soon. That's what I get for hiring cheap help.

To those offering comments and suggestions,  please accept my sincere gratitude for your feedback as this project hurtles toward a date with its own domain name.

Please feel free to drop me a line via the contact page or e-mail link. Suggestions regarding hosting and platform would be particularly timely. Movable Type is a candidate, but I don't know much about alternatives. Content management is a big issue, due to constraints on my time. I'm not opposed to investing up-front time in a system that will make life easier once it's in production.  Meanwhile, expect posts on a regular basis from here on. For an idea of what you might expect here, see the sampling of links to recent posts at the top of the right-hand column. Thanks again, and enjoy.

Dave S.
June 1, 2004




Republican infighting over the budget – and it's the wrong fight

LA Times staff writer Janet Hook has  this story  about GOP infighting, with the tax cutters facing off against the deficit hawks. At issue is a pay-as-you-go provision of the budgeting process that expired in 2002. It would require that any future tax cuts be offset by either other tax increases or spending reductions.

Read the article for a reasonably good summary of the debate. My beef is that spending cuts appear to be completely off the table. The writer omits the traditional importance of the principle of small government as the third element of Republican fiscal orthodoxy. Alas, the omission is unimportant this year. The spending cutters are MIA, as they have been for essentially the entire Bush term of office. I was in the middle of preparing the laundry list of spending excesses during the time the Republicans have controlled the White House and (with a brief Senate hiatus) both houses of Congress. It's exhausting and it's pointless. With an evenly divided electorate, no one is going to risk losing (or not winning) House or Senate seat by advocating cuts in Federal spending that intensely offend a key constituency. Meanwhile, the individual taxpayer is nibbled to death by ducks, one nip at a time.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the 2002 Farm Bill socke the American taxpayer with about $180 billion in mostly unnecessary, wasteful and counterproductive spending over the next ten years. Other data are available from sources including Citizens Against Government Waste and the National Taxpayers Union. The latter is not a real union and so it can't strike for a better deal. Sadly, there is no Foundation for the Protection of Incumbency. I'm sure they could tell me why I shouldn't worry about all this. No time for a proper rant, so that's it for now.



Jobs least likely to be outsourced

BusinessPundit  mentions a Forbes  fluff piece on the ten jobs that are relatively safe from being sent offshore (which is, by the way, only one form of outsourcing. The term also includes jobs that are eliminated because the employer is procuring the service from any source outside the firm.) The ten jobs on the Forbes list:

-  CEO
-  Physician, surgeon
-  Airline pilot, copilot
-  Laywer
-  IS/IT manager
-  Sales manager
-  Pharmacist
-  Chiropractor
-  Physician's assistant
-  Education administrator, public primary and secondary school

What do these jobs have in common? Leaving the school administrator in a separate category for now, these jobs are all personal service jobs, with a high degree of either training, experience or both needed to be successful. The personal service aspect of some of these is obvious. Doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, chiropractors and physicians' assistants need to be where the clients are. Some aspects of their jobs, however, are candidates for outsourcing or offshoring.

The IT manager is an example of how some skilled jobs in an industry can be outsourced, but others can't.  Outsource-proof managers handle problems that are either supportive of specific locations, or are of a nature that the most cost-effective location for the job is near the center of business operations. Same thing for the sales manager, even for a sales force dispersed worldwide.

Here are a few summary hints for those worried about their jobs going somewhere without them:



May 31, 2004

ACLU Values

This is an item I wanted to comment on last week, and the Tongue Tied column cited in the post below reminded me about it. Here's the story from the LA Daily News. The ACLU is threatening to sue Los Angeles County because of a tiny cross that appears in the County seal. (see illustration.)

crime of the century
Next Stop: "In God We Trust?"

The cross represents the Spanish missions, which played a crucial role in the settlement of California and the Los Angeles area. Is the ACLU defending the Constitution, or attacking vestiges of Christian influence in American culture? The seal provides us with a good litmus test, for it contains an even more prominent and overtly religious symbol. The County's website  tells us that the gal in the toga in the center of the seal is Pomona, the Roman goddess of gardens and fruit trees. If the ACLU proposes that we worship Greek or Roman gods, they're free to express their opinion. I would think, though, that that they would prefer Dionysus as a more appropriate patron for modern Los Angeles. In any event, in the opinion of the ACLU, an image of an Actual Deity isn't a threat to the rights of Angelenos, but a symbol of a faith that sustained a group of California's most important pioneers is.

According to independent legal experts, the ACLU appears to have little chance of success if this goes to court. From the article:

Douglas W. Kmiec, chairman and professor of constitutional law at the Pepperdine University School of Law, said there is little in U.S. Supreme Court precedents that would "demand such erasure of history."
"I think this is unfortunately an all-too-commonplace effort to revise history and to expunge from the historical record all evidence of religious belief," Kmiec said. "It would be hard, it seems to me, to conclude that anyone seeing the seal of Los Angeles County would feel coerced to believe in a particular religious faith."

Based on questionable legal grounds, the ACLU would have the County divert scarce funds from an already-strained budget to alter buildings, vehicles, legal documents, stationery, etc. to eradicate evidence that religion is part of Los Angeles history.

George Orwell, call your office.

Update 6/1: Bad News. The County caved.  I'm not a lawyer, but this is an incredibly stupid, and expensive, concession. Professor Bainbridge, a UCLA law professor, agrees, and shares the same feelings of disgust that I have. See also his links to comments by Eugene Volokh, another law professor, and by Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review. This trend is going to end very badly, and I pray that the ACLU is the big loser.



Gun control and family values

This sign of the times comes to us from the Fox News Tongue-Tied section. A grade school teacher gave her class toy squirt guns shaped like fish, as a reminder to save rainforests. (nope, makes no sense to me, either). Remember that in our zero-tolerance, zero-intelligence world of school safety, kids get kicked out of school for bringing things less lethal than this to school. But that's not the good part.

One of the students' mothers complained to the school. She disapproves of having weapons in her house, fish-shaped or otherwise. Just another hyper-sensitive pacifist? Well, no. According to the story:

The parent who complained, Karen Young, doesn't want fish-shaped toy guns in her house because she accidentally shot an ex-boyfriend one time when the gun she was beating him with went off.

Further comment would be pointless.



Hacker attacks on financial firms increase dramatically

According to a Deloitte & Touche study, reported by Internet.com,  IT attacks on financial services firms more than doubled last year. The survey sampled 100 large banks and other financial firms. In the penny-wise and pound foolish department, file this bit:

Seventy percent still believe viruses and worms are the greatest threat to IT security. Despite that, fewer respondents reported fully deployed antivirus measures — 96 percent last year compared to 87 percent this year.

Reasons cited include flat IT budgets and a general conservatism among financial services firms when it comes to adopting new technology. Come on, guys! Your companies are fat targets.

In fairness, these firms face an unusual and challenging environment:

Smaller institutions may be weak links in the chain, and their vulnerabilities can compromise the big fish who are counterparties to their transactions. All this points to rosy futures for IT pros in the security field. There are lots of scary places that are only a mouse-click away. The security challenge will only grow in coming years.



"The Day After Tomorrow": Great CGI, but not exactly the learning experience we expected...

The Instapundit rounds up a few comments  about the movie that Al Gore wants us all to see because, you know, it's based on Real Science! O.K. Al, so was Star Trek. Here are some highlights:

Julian Sanchez:

George Bush should be buying people tickets to this movie. It's preposterous from start to finish
...the crowd was laughing from start to finish, during many of the ostensibly most dramatic scenes. Partly it's because of the movie's hyperformulaic, throw-in-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach (A wave of hypercold is about to descend, freezing our heroes, and then... wolves! Words fail, seriously)

Dan Drezner  "Reading the reviews, however, it's clear that the film has put left-of-center movie critics in an awkward position."

Slate's David Edelstein:

Everyone will have his or her favorite bad moment in this movie: We could almost hold another contest. [snip]
Of course, if I had to catalog all the moronic plot turns in The Day After Tomorrow, we'd be here until the next ice age. It's just so very bad. You can have a pretty good time snickering at it—unless, like me, you think there's something to this global warming thing, and you shudder at the irony of a movie meant to warn people about a dangerous environmental trend that completely discredits it.[snip]
Meanwhile, global-warming experts I know are already girding themselves for a major PR setback, as everyone involved in this catastrophe becomes a laughingstock. Is it possible that The Day After Tomorrow is a plot to make environmental activists look as wacko as antienvironmentalists always claim they are? Al Gore stepped right into this one, didn't he?

Cafe Hayek  (who also has some links on the movie), speculates about plot elements that a similar flick made by free-market zealots might contain, including:

A ten-cent increase in the federal minimum wage casts millions of blacks and Hispanics into permanent unemployment and despair; all of the unemployed women scrape up pennies by offering themselves as prostitutes, while all of the unemployed men swarm to the suburbs to rape soccer-moms and then riot so violently in the cities that the Empire State building, the U.S. Capitol, the Sears Tower, and the Bank of America building all crash violently to the ground, killing tens of thousands of innocent civilians, including a kindly book-peddler specializing in works by and about Ayn Rand.

Glenn Reynolds sums up: "Once again, the Gore endorsement looks like the kiss of death."



May 30, 2004

Armchair Warmonger: Steyn's Iraq update

The latest from Mark Steyn, in which he laments the staying power of some fair-weather hawks in the press, is his usual fine piece of work. He is irked by a few British journalists who, though originally professing support for the war, are now appalled by the fact that a war is in reality taking place. Pretty clear that in some circles, even pro-war journalists don't really understand what is entailed when one commits to fighting a ground war. Civilians are killed. Some soldiers commit atrocities. Important buildings get shelled. However by his analysis the war has already proved worth it. He also adds an inportant insight regarding Bush's declining poll numbers:

...here's where the events of recent weeks may have done some damage. In my corner of northern New England, as in Highgate and Holland Park, it is also stressful being a Bush apologist. Most of the guys I hang out with demand to know why he's being such a wimp, why's he kissing up to King Abdullah about a few stray bananas in some jailhouse, why's he being such a pantywaist about not letting our boys fire on mosques, why hasn't he levelled Fallujah. In other words, don't make the mistake of assuming that Bush's poll numbers on Iraq have fallen because people want him to be more multilateralist and accommodating. On my anecdotal evidence, they want him to be more robust and incendiary.

good analysis on Kerry's nouveau-hawkism, too:

And evidently John Kerry's internal polling is telling him the same thing. Hence, his speech in Seattle on Friday: "This country is united in its determination to destroy you," he told the terrorists. "As commander in chief, I will bring the full force of our nation's power to bear on finding and crushing your networks. We will use every available resource to destroy you." Winning the Presidency isn't like winning the Palme d'Or, and Kerry, the ne plus ultra of weathervane politicians, seems to have figured there aren't enough votes in sounding like Michael Moore, Howard Dean or even Al Gore. With an eye to her own political viability, Hillary Clinton the other day demanded an expansion of the army.
Does Kerry mean it? Probably not. The tough talk's a cover for what would be a return to the ineffectual reactive national-security policy of the 1990s...

You really need to read the piece to savor some choice verbiage that reinforces this point. By the way, if you miss one of his columns, you can usually find links to them on his own site.



Comforting thought for the hospitalized in California: Your nurse may have gotten into school by lottery!

Okay, not all nursing schools are this insane. Lance Izumi writes in this piece  for the Pacific Research Institute that the Associate Degree Nursing programs at the state's community colleges have gone this route. Turns out that they can't meet their "diversity guidelines" (read minority admission quotas) if they consider applicants' grades and test scores.

This bit of admissions discrimination causes a few problems. Most obviously it deprives qualified applicants of places in affordable nursing programs. My own experience with hospitalization a few years ago points to another real problem – poorly trained nurses inflicting care on real patients.

It also turns out to be costly to the colleges. Since a large percentage of the accepted students are academically unprepared for the work, schools are forced to provide expensive remedial assistance. Despite this, dropout rates in these programs approach 30%. Schools lose again, since their costs are fixed per term. Dropouts mean the school forfeits their tuition money, but are stuck with the same fixed costs of educating the class. The article sums it up best:

Cost, however, is not the only problem with the lottery admission system.
According to Dean Albert, "Qualified students that are forced to wait on long waiting lists will go on to other careers." Of the 300 students currently on her waiting list, some have only the minimal math and English requirements and a 2.5 grade point average, while others have completed science courses plus core subjects and boast 3.0-4.0 averages. Yet, says Albert: "It is first come, first serve. It is not based on qualifications. No longer are the best and brightest rewarded for choosing nursing as a career. They just get in line like everyone else. Why should they stay in line when other professions will reward them for their efforts?"
By ignoring qualifications, the result is a decrease in the quality of nurses at people’s bedsides. While prospective nurses must pass a test to enter the nursing profession, the lottery system ensures that many nurses are merely adequate rather than superior. Patients and their families who want the very best care possible end up being the losers.
Ignoring merit qualifications for nursing program applicants results in waste, inefficiency, and lower quality care. Some healthy reform is vitally needed.

One more insult to our collective injury: While this admissions lunacy produces empty chairs in taxpayer-funded nursing programs, hospitals are paying handsomely to attract qualified nurses from overseas. Don't bet money that this situation will change. Group rights are involved. You don't matter.



D.C. area schools intensify emphasis on literacy. Some teachers opposed to idea.

Today's Washington Post profiles a failing elementary school in northern Maryland, and its new emphasis on basic reading and writing skills. Social studies and science have taken a back seat to reading, reading, reading. Math remains the other principal part of the curriculum. The school, serving mostly low-income Black and Hispanic students, is in danger of being taken over by the state due to low reading and math scores. Already the school district must pay the costs for any student at the school whose parents wish a transfer to a better- performing school. Teachers at the school are divided on the wisdom of the shift. The article describes one teacher's experience with her students' reading tests:

When she grades her students' answers, Segal is not surprised that they range from incomprehensible to irrelevant to, rarely, acceptable. "If it was one question, it would be okay," Segal said. "But they're overwhelmed with what they have to do at one time."

Despite reading scores that, even in the third grade, are often one or two grade levels behind, some teachers are critical of the decision, worrying that this imposes a two-track educational system. The article mentions another point of view:

"Once they learn the fundamentals of reading, writing and math, they can pick up science and social studies on the double-quick," said Jerry D. Weast, superintendent of Montgomery County schools. "You're not going to be a scientist if you can't read."

No question that basic reading, writing and math are the foundation on which all else needs to be based. If a school's student population needs work on the basics, they are Job One. Kids with solid fundamentals can catch up quickly. There is no hope for them–in science or any other subjects– unless they master basic math and literacy. Joanne Jacobs is a good source if you want to learn more about this and similar trends, although I don't know that she's written on this particular news item.

This task of helping kids master grade-level reading and writing poses a big problem to one-size-fits-all providers of primary education like public school districts. A school district really serves a mix of customers with very different kinds of needs. A single curriculum ignores this fact. An elementary school targets the abilities of a hypothetical average student (or range of students.) That works for the school if the disparities in ability are not too large. The best and worst students are poorly served, but no administrator worries about what the bright kids miss out on. Social promotion was a way to ignore the meeds of the students lagging behind their peers. They just got moved through the system and pushed out the door as semi-literates. With new school accountability, failure to serve these poorly prepared students now ultimately penalize the school. Test scores for the third grader performing at a first grade level now have serious consequences.

Dumbing down the curriculum, and/or lowering pass rates that are deemed to signify acceptable educational attainment, are perennial strategies. However, a major problem lies in the diversity of the students a single educational provider is expected to serve. Monopolies are not good at this kind of thing. It would not work for political reasons to have schools that cater to the unique needs of subsets of the populations they serve. With performance measurement and full disclosure of schools' results, we may see parents finally demanding and getting the opportunity to place their children in the right school for their needs.



May 29, 2004

The Heritage Foundation explains farm subsidies

Brian Riedl reminds us that farm subsidies are far and away the largest and most wasteful corporate welfare program we have. We spend more (at the Federal level) on these subsidies than we do on homeland security. This is a short item, but a good overview of the topic. There is more on the Heritage site on the issue, and on proposed ways to stop the abuse. Brian's piece recaps some fun facts:

It also means that American consumers pay something like double the world market price for things like sugar. The subsidy-inflated cost of sugar means we pay more for things sugar is used in.

We lose jobs. Due, for example. to high domestic sugar prices, candy manufacturing has largely fled the country.. Life Savers are now manufactured in Canada.  (by the way, this link, to a Feb. 2004 article by George Will, is worth a read on its own.)

The power of the farm lobby makes government more expensive in other areas. In order to secure the votes needed to get agricultural pork through the budgetary process, farm state lawmakers buy the support of others by in turn supporting other spending projects. See the 2004 Pig Book Summary, published by Citizens Against Government Waste, for a synopsis of how busy legislators find lots of work for your tax dollars.

Subsidies make farmland more expensive than it otherwise would be. The value of farmland, like any other productive asset, is based on the value of what it can be used to produce. Think of it this way. An acre of farmland, used productively, can produce X dollars per year in revenues without subsidies. The availability of subsidies, which can only be acquired by farming (or owning) that acre of land, are worth another Y dollars per year. The present value of Y, the annual subsidy income, is reflected fully in a higher value for that acre of land. It's as if the subsidy were an invisible crop, grown alongside the sugar beets or tobacco or rice.

Why isn't something done about this? Mainly because too many lawmakers in both parties have a big financial stake in keeping the subsidy trough full. Political contributions from agricultural interests are huge. The farm lobby can virtually guarantee re-election of pro-ag Congressmen and Senators in districts where agricultural interests dominate. This lock on re-election means that farm state legislators disproportionately rise to senior levels in the House and Senate. These legislators in turn are in positions to grant favors to other legislators who trade favorable treatment of their interests for support of agricultural subsidies.

The myth of the noble farmer has deep roots. Though it is a business like any other, farming evokes an imagery that puts it in a category with mothers and puppies.

But, you say, Republicans are for cutting wasteful spending, and now they control the White House and both houses of Congress. Why, can't they do something about this? A look at the electoral map provides a quick answer. A lot of Red States are farm states. Worse, a lot of battleground states are farm states. With a closely divided electorate, and a disproportionate number of swing voters in farm states, there is absolutely no political constituency for reform anytime soon. One ray of hope is that farm interests are a big stumbling block to trade liberalization, which affects economically more important interests, like intellectual property rights, trade in services, and access by American companies to foreign governments' own procurement processes. These issues are the current subject of the WTO Doha round, where it has become clear that European and American farm subsidies are major obstacles to greater openness of foreign markets. There will be posts on this another day.



Oil–for–Food Cover-Up is a Mother

Roger Simon, who has been following the issue since shortly after the program ended, has read Claudia Rosett's latest update on NRO, and says that if she's right, this could be the mother of all cover-ups.

I've been concerned since day one that our administration has made some kind of deal with Kofi Annan that we would not press for a thorough investigation, in return for U.N. assistance in Iraq and with the other members of the Security Council. If I'm right, and this comes to light, it could be Bush's worst scandal to date, bar none. The Democrats and the press have been soft-pedaling this, but that would change if any administration cover-up comes to light, or if anyone with administration ties appears to have benefitted personally. My advice: Back Volcker all the way. Tell Kofi and his kleptocrates they're on their own, and take whatever flak results. This thing is a minefield, and is too big to keep covered up for long.



May 28, 2004

New Kerry campain strategy: Borrow JFK's material, while avoiding saying anything of substance

Couldn't help commenting on this piece  in today's American Spectator. Seems that Kerry or his speechwriting team decided to lift some key phrases from a JFK speech without benefit of attribution. What was apparently notable, though, about this "Major Policy Address" was its complete lack of anything major, or anything resembling policy.

Since I've been critical of Kerry for his evasiveness on specific policy issues, this doesn't surprise. What did surprise me was this frank quote from a Kerry staffer, when asked about the lack of meat in the speech:

"He's not going to get any more specific than he already has," says a Kerry campaign staffer. "Especially on Iraq, what can he say? We're not boxed in like the New York Times would have everyone believe. We're just not going to set ourselves up to be held accountable."
(emphasis mine)

So there we have it. Kerry is running on the "I'm Not Bush" platform. Until he caved to the decency wing of his party and agreed to accept his nomination at the convention, I had a great idea, now moot. Given Kerry's personal negatives (his numbers go up when he's not talking), and the generic theme of his campaign, the convention could have nominated "An Unnamed Democrat, who is not George W. Bush, and who by the way served in Viet Nam." Then at the latest date to qualify for filing, Kerry's name could be discreetly substituted on the ballot, since election laws almost everywhere require an actual human being to actually run for President. Oh, well, just a thought.



What product are unions selling?

In a wide-ranging interview with the American Enterprise, FedEx Chairman and founder Frederick Smith was asked about the role of unions in the global economy. Here is his take:

Anybody who says the union movement wasn't a big part of this country's economic power a century ago is not being honest. But the problem with unions recently has been that they simply have not changed the way every other institution in the country has. They continue to try to deal with issues like globalization in the political arena rather than in the economic arena. That's a prescription for declining influence–just what's happened to them. Their market share has gone down from about 35 percent right after World War II to 12 or 13 percent of the workforce today. And if you take out government, it's down to about 8 percent. If you were managing a company that had that kind of decline, you'd have to ask yourself if perhaps your product isn't what the market wants.
Over time, people who run businesses came to understand that a motivated and a committed workforce is worth a lot in terms of competitive advantage and profitability. So many of the things that modern corporations do obviate the need for a third party getting between the corporation and its employees and customers. One problem of the modern union movement is that customers are often taken for granted and treated as a distraction, when, in fact, they're everything.

Private sector unions have been in decline for two reasons:

In economic terms, political strong-arming is known as rent seeking. Whether it's promoting steel tariffs, fighting to maintain the government near-monopoly in primary and secondary education or orchestrating anti- Wal Mart demonstrations at city halls, these activities are attempts to avoid direct competiton. Ultimately, it would be more beneficial to union members if they could find ways to provide extra value that justifies high unit labor costs.

Thanks to the Opinion Journal for the tip.



Al Gore's latest, or why the Electoral College is a Good Thing

Rich Lowry's piece in today's NRO got me to thinking about how things might be different today had Gore won Florida back in 2000. His comments and my thoughts come on the heels of an address Gore delivered to the MoveOn organization at NYU this week (full text here) .

Jim Taranto provides his analysis in yesterday'sOpinion Journal. He cites both Jon Podhoretz  and the New York Times' Maureen Dowd, and sums up thusly: "Pretty much everyone agrees Gore is nuts."

Far be it from me to disagree with a conclusion that unites liberal and conservative opinion. Reading the speech, it's hard to ignore that Al has gone 'round the bend. Keith Burgess-Jackson sums it up best: "Be honest. Al Gore scares you, doesn't he?"



May 27, 2004

Three year old dies from obesity

A three year old child died from heart failure at a London hospital, brought on by exreme obesity. According to this report by the BBC  Hospitals are seeing more and more cases of very young children with life-threatening side effects of obesity.

Being the BBC. there were a few perfunctory nods to common sense, namely that children should eat well and learn about nutrition. The rest of the article was a Nanny State tirade against everything but the causes of the problem. From the article:

The report attacked the government, NHS, the food industry and advertisers for failing to do enough to address the growing problem of obesity.

The BBC, having bid farewell to common sense a long time ago, was uncritical of this idiocy. To understand what the problem is, let me repeat the salient item from the headline: The child was three years old! What the hell were the parents thinking? McDonald's can't prevent child abuse. Neither can the rest of the food industry or its advertisers. The article doesn't say otherwise so I assume the parents have access to the wonders of the British medical care monopoly at no out-of-pocket cost. As tragic as this loss is for the family of the child, it was a needless one. Do U.K. parents really think that their government is capable of protecting their children from willful neglect? For those who entertain that fantasy, what individual freedoms do they suggest we surrender for this protection?



Lifestyle matters: Immigrants to U.S. have longer life expectancies than those born here

According to the Associated Press (cited in this Seattle PI article), a new study by a researcher at the National Institutes of Health shows that among every ethnic group, immigrants outlive native-born Americans. Results are especially significant for Black and Hispanic populations. From the AP article:

The study reviewed millions of death and health records from 1986-94. Though the numbers are old, more limited studies of recent data suggest the same patterns hold true, although life expectancy is generally rising.
The records showed the average American-born black man could expect to reach 64, while a black man born overseas would likely live beyond 73 if he immigrated. In the case of an African-born man remaining in his homeland, he might well have died before his 50th birthday.
Perhaps most astonishing is that immigrants outlive the U.S.-born population even though they're more likely to be poor and less likely to see a doctor, often a prescription for a shorter life.
Such results may seem counterintuitive, but their explanation makes sense.
Lifestyle is a powerful factor. Black immigrants are three times less likely to smoke than American-born blacks, according to NIH research, and far less likely to be obese. Black immigrants drink less and exercise more, according to other federal research.

This suggests that lifestyle, rather than genetic predisposition or differential utilization of health care, is a dominant factor in longer life. It's also the thing that is completely within the control of the individual.



May 25, 2004

Harlem Renaissance: Is new development good for existing residents?

Columbia University is considering an expansion into West Harlem. Community activists fiercely oppose the plan, since it would bring -- perish the thought -- more income and people into the community! Of course the "G word"-Gentrification - is batted about in hopes of inflaming emotions. But who benefits from the status quo? If nothing changes, nothing changes.

In his Tech Central Station article, Richard Kravatts  explains the economics and cites studies of gentrifying neighborhoods. It turns out that even the construction of new high-income housing is beneficial to low-income residents.

Objections are based on several flawed premises, including the misconception that people today spend their entire lives in a single neighborhood. That sentiment harks back to a world that, if it ever existed, predates World War II. Opponents of new development also choose to discount the fact that concentrations of poverty are bad for the poor themselves. In fact, many who oppose the idea of affluent people moving into poor neighborhoods are also champions, through set-asides and the like, of moving poor people into more affluent neighborhoods. If the poor benefit from one kind of movement, they certainly benefit from the other.



Meanwhile, in another part of the city... Brooklyn debates a new Nets arena

NIMBYs may be vocal in Harlem but across the East River, both the pro-arena and anti-arena sides of the debate each want development. This is a big change for traditionally anti-development neighborhood groups.

Julia Vitullo-Martin of the Manhattan Institute, in  this New York Post column, talks about the borough's change of heart, and other issues in this old and complex drama.

Dude, where's my amnesty?

America's immigration system is a farce. And unfortunately statements by the Bush administration are making the problem worse. When Bush talked in January about some sort of amnesty program for illegal immigrants, he forgot that part of his audience included lots and lots of people south of the border who interpreted this trial balloon as an indication that America would be granting blanket amnestly to anyone entering the country illegally. They don't understand nuance down there.

As Rich Lowry  writes in today's National Review Online, the upshot has been a sharp increase in deaths along the Arizona border with Mexico, as immigrants rush to get here before some imaginary deadline for amnesty eligibility passes.

Illegals already understand that we're not really serious about enforcing our laws. Why can't we make them understand that we're not serious about meaningful reform, either?



Stuck in Purple America

What are you if you have the cultural appetites of a New York film critic, think San Francisco is the most beautiful city in the country, yet believe in individual liberty, personal responsibility and limited government?

Ilya Shapiro says you are a Purple American.  His essay struck a chord with me, and probably will for others who lead "Blue State" lives but have "Red State" value systems and politics. I live in Los Angeles and thrive on its cultural offerings, yet am distinctly at odds with the majority of my social circle when it comes to politics and values. In fact, I joke with the volunteers at my local polling place about how short the wait for a Republican voting booth always is. I love it when the conversations are overheard by some of the crunchy granola types in line behind me.

Our cultural elite in Los Angeles takes for granted that liberal politics and love for the finer things in life go hand-in-hand. Thank God Arnold Schwarzenegger has begun to put the lie to that misconception. Was it that long ago that the stereotypical Democrat was a blue-collar union man, and it was the Republican who loved opera and fine wine? My how times have changed.

Bill Cosby angers Black Establishment. Good for him

Thomas Sowell commends Bill Cosby for his remarks  at Howard University, at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. In his speech, Cosby was critical of parents who will buy their kids expensive sneakers rather than spend the money on things that help them succeed in school. He was also critical of the failure to encourage the adoption of standard English rather than street slang.

Cosby has been a significant benefactor of Black educational causes over the years, yet his remarks were greeted with stony silence by members of the Black Establishment in attendance. Sowell laments their attitude:

Now, in too many black communities, dedicating yourself to getting an education is called "acting white."
These are painful realities and they do not become any less real or any less painful by hushing them up. Nobody enjoys being made to look bad in public. But too many in the black community are preoccupied with how things will look to white people, with what in private life would be concern about "what will the neighbors think?"
When your children are dying, you don't worry about what the neighbors think. When the whole future of a race is jeopardized by self-destructive fads, you put public relations on the back burner.

It seems it is more politically acceptable to sweep these serious problems under the rug than confront them.

Update

The Wall Street Journal  (subscription required) comments on the speech, and provides some context:

By week's end Mr. Cosby had issued a statement pointing out that most of the news accounts dropped the context within which his remarks were delivered: a 50% high school dropout rate for inner-city African-American males that he rightly characterized as an "epidemic." In other words, Mr. Cosby's argument is that 1) a 50% black dropout rate ought to be regarded as a national scandal in a post-Brown America; and 2) dysfunctional behavior is dysfunctional whatever one's skin color.

Hard to imagine that anyone can view this as a mere image problem.



May 24, 2004

Steyn on "Asymmetrical Democracy" for Iraq

Why do we assume that all parts of Iraq are ready for the same dose of autonomy? As Mark Steyn says in today's Sun-Times column  The Kurds have managed autonomy pretty well for the better part of ten years. The rest of the country is a mixed bag, potential-wise. Steyn points to Canada and the U.K. as examples where different political subdivisions have different powers. As he says,

The best bulwark against tyranny is a population that knows the benefits of freedom, as the Iraqi Kurds do. Don't make the mistake of turning Iraq into a dysfunctional American public school, where the smart guys get held down to the low standards of the misfits and in the end they all get the same social promotion anyway. Let's get on with giving the Kurdish and Shia areas elected governors and practical sovereignty, province by province.

Such distinctions would have the further advantage of showing the local populations that there are costs to turning a blind eye to terrorists, whether home grown or imported. Ultimately, if they see their interests (and freedoms) are aligned with helping to end the bloodshed, then real freedom could come more quickly for all.



May 23, 2004

Site host problems through tonight

Sorry for the spotty site access yesterday and today. Verizon is upgrading their web services systems, and a notice there says everything will be back to normal by tomorrow. They had to pick a weekend when I was doing a lot of testing. Time to assemble that local test server I've been considering.


Press bias: a good thing or just inevitable?

Roger Simon agrees with Jay Rosen's take on journalistic bias in this article. Jay knows journalism, and his analysis strikes me as a realistic one. Bias is inevitable, and in fact is worse that many people believe. Journalists are human, and there is no way to eliminate the biases inherent in human judgement. Here is how he describes the sources of bias in a story:

There's bias in the conversation our biased reporter has with his biased editor, bias in the call list he develops for his story, bias in his choice of events to go out and cover, bias in the details he writes down at the event, bias in his lead paragraph, bias in the last paragraph, bias when his editor cuts a graph. The headline someone else writes for him, that has bias. There's bias in the placement of the story. (No bias in the pixels or printer's ink, though.)

There's an even better bit in the article, though, describing how historically the press has evolved, and what it has meant for objectivity:

The trouble arises (and this is the whole reason we have the bias debate) because American journalists some time ago took refuge in objectivity, and began to base their authority on a claim to have removed bias from the news. This claim was not just hot air. It corresponded to things journalism did.
... First journalism removed the political party from influence in the newsroom. Then it removed, as much as possible, the publisher and his pro-business mentality. Then it removed the political opinions of its own people. Then it removed the community — local bias, if you will. Then it removed the public because it had polls instead, and they were more objective.
At each step in these strategic removals, the justification was objectivity: producing more unbiased news. And in this way the press wound up basing its authority—the professional journalist's bid for public trust—on the claim to have mastered the removal of bias. When actually, they just kicked everyone else out.

To me, there is a difference between a bias and an agenda. We'll have that discussion another day. Both, however, produce an information product that will reflect the viewpoints of those producing it. For too long, the American public has accepted these offerings uncritically. As Roger says, that appears to be changing. He says that we may have the Jayson Blair affair to thank for finally putting to rest any pretense to Big Media objectivity. What we as news consumers, and as citizens, do with that information is up to us.



Shaun Singleton celebrates another birthday

Shaun works for the L.A. chapter of a major nonprofit organization that builds affordable housing for low-income Angelenos. He is one of the new breed of private-sector managers who are trying to bring best-practices management systems to the not-for-profit sector. These are big challenges for many charities, and skills like this are sorely needed. It is probably too much to expect that the same kind of thing could happen to state and local government.

To commemorate the passing of another year with grace and dignity, Shaun and his wife are regaling their guests with steak, home-shot venison and ice cream. These are good things.



May 21, 2004

Moody's upgrades California debt

As reported in the Sacramento Bee, the rating agency ""upgraded California to A3 from its earlier rating of Baa1, still below the national average. But Moody's gave the state a 'positive rating outlook,' attributing it to increased tax revenues and an improved budget climate."

This was unexpected, since the Governor and the Legislature are stll far apart on negotiations surrounding California's fiscal 2005 budget. The upgrade still leaves California's debt rating as the lowest in the country, but is welcome news. Agency debt ratings typically lag actual changes in economic conditions, with the firms preferring a series of small moves rather than a few big ones. The news was greeted by Democrats, predictably, as another reasons why tax increases are needed. Nothing new here. However there is no indication from Schwarzenegger's team that such a move is being considered.



May 20,2004

Those Pesky Free Markets: Part 276

Gary Andres reports today in NRO that, wailing and lamentation by Congressional Democrats aside, competition among providers under the new Medicare prescription drug program for seniors is already driving down prices. Some highlights:

...Unlike a one-size-fits-all model proposed by many on the Left, these companies have to post prices on websites, in marketing literature and via toll-free information lines. They started doing so a few weeks ago. And guess what happened when companies started seeing what others charged for say, Lipitor, a cholesterol-lowering drug? Senator Kennedy may claim it's all a vast capitalist conspiracy – but prices went down.
According to the government's Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), brand-name medicines dropped 11.5 percent on average in one week as drug-card sponsors compared prices. An industry trade publication reports that CVS's myPharmaCare card went from listing one of the highest prices on Lilly's market-leading Zyprexa (an antipsychotic drug) to the lowest in its category when it cut the cost by nine percent in just a few days.

Apparently, since the (so far) 72 approved drug card plans publicize their prices to compete for enrollees, prices are falling across the board.



May 15, 2004

Helping Low Wage Americans

The minimum wage is a bad policy tool. It is expensive, creates job losses and targets largely the wrong people. The Earned Income Tax Credit is a far more sophisticated approach to supplementing low-wage incomes without creating disincentives and job losses. Now, the Employment Policies Institute updates the concept with what they call the Wage Based Tax Credit. It's the same idea as the EITC, but the subsidy is targeted to low hourly wages, rather than on low incomes alone, which could reflect part-time work at a higher wage. Link is a summary on the Institute's site, which points to the full text.



May 1, 2004

California's Anti-Jobs legislators

The Pacific Research Institute recently released this study, documenting the worst anti-technology industry bills of the last legislative session, and the legislators that introduced and supported them. Only half became law, but the cost to the State in lost jobs is tremendous. Lists the bills, sponsors and worst offenders. I'll write more on this, once I've had some time to collect my (currently relatively unprintable) thoughts.


End of Current Items


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