Archives: 06/2006

Foolishness High as an Elephant’s Eye…

Kudos to the New York Times for Sunday’s article critically examining the United States’ dubious infatuation with ethanol. A sample:

For all its allure, though, there are hidden risks to the boom. Even as struggling local communities herald the expansion of this ethanol-industrial complex and politicians promote its use as a way to decrease America’s energy dependence on foreign oil, the ethanol phenomenon is creating some unexpected jitters in crucial corners of farm country.

A few agricultural economists and food industry executives are quietly worrying that ethanol, at its current pace of development, could strain food supplies, raise costs for the livestock industry and force the use of marginal farmland in the search for ever more acres to plant corn… .

But many energy experts are also questioning the benefits of ethanol to the nation’s fuel supply. While it is a renewable, domestically produced fuel that reduces gasoline pollution, large amounts of oil or natural gas go into making ethanol from corn, leaving its net contribution to reducing the use of fossil fuels much in doubt.

The article is not without its faults; for instance, it gives an uncritical airing of the opinion that American agriculture should be used for “food first, then feed” for livestock, “and last fuel.” (If the economics are such that demand for ethanol is more intense than the demand for corn chips, then why shouldn’t U.S. corn go to ethanol? Of course, that’s an enormous “if.”) Still, the NYT article is a very welcome departure from the claptrap on ethanol offered by other media.

Some Good News from the Court for a Change

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning struck down a set of restrictions on campaign finance enacted by Vermont. Six members of the court believed Vermont’s spending limits and extremely low contribution limits violated the First Amendment.

The six justices agreed that the Vermont law was invalid. But they disagreed about quite a bit, too. Justices Breyer, Roberts and Alito focused on the shortcomings of the Vermont law. Breyer and Roberts also rejected Vermont’s demand that Buckley v. Valeo be overturned. Justices Thomas and Scalia concurred in the opinion but rightly called for overturning Buckley in order to offer better protections for political speech. Justice Kennedy rightly expressed dismay with the Court’s recent campaign finance jurisprudence. In the larger picture, he seems closer to Thomas and Scalia than the other three in the majority.

This ruling was expected, but nonetheless good news. The majority opinion shows that we now have a majority of the court who recognize some limits on the power of the state over political speech. After McConnell v. FEC, it was far from clear than the judiciary would draw any lines limiting state restrictions on speech.

Still, this is hardly a robust affirmation of the First Amendment, and it is somewhat discouraging that the new justices, Roberts and Alito, were unwilling to overturn past errors by earlier majorities on the Court.

Well That’s Another Fine Mess You’ve Gotten Us into

AARP and Families USA are screaming about rising prescription drug prices, without and within Medicare Part D. The New York Times is calling for price controls on drugs purchased under Part D.

A 2004 study by the Manhattan Institute estimated that applying the type of price controls found in Medicaid and the Veterans Health Administration to Medicare would reduce pharmaceutical R&D by nearly 40 percent and reduce Americans’ aggregate lifespans by 277 million life-years.

In other words, the logic of “negotiating drug prices” is that everyone under the age of 65 should die one year sooner so 42 million geezers (sorry, Dad) can save a few bucks on Lipitor. But is the logic of opposing price controls that workers should have to pay through the nose to pump these geezers full of drugs?

Part D puts us all in a no-win situation: either pay up and bankrupt the nation or control prices, suppress R&D, and prepare to check out early. It is a trap, set by the Left and sprung by the GOP.

That’s why – if the repeal train has left the station – the only sane option left is a radical overhaul of the entire program. With a little luck, Republicans will come to see the box in which they have put themselves and rediscover their interest in Medicare reform.

Intelligence Failures

Sunday’s Washington Post featured an in-depth story on the infamous “Curveball” – the notoriously unreliable source at the center of the Bush administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein had a functioning WMD program in early 2003. Both President Bush and then-Secretary of State Colin Powell referred to Iraq’s mobile biological laboratories in major speeches in the run-up to war, despite the fact that a number of senior CIA analysts had doubts about Curveball’s credibility. When asked to verify Curveball’s reports, German intelligence officials would not do so. One told the CIA’s Tyler Drumheller, as Drumheller tells the Post: “I think the guy is a fabricator…We could never validate his reports.”

Most of the attention on the Iraq war has focused on the administration’s WMD claims. (Alas, the story still doesn’t go away.) And it is certainly true that the American public would have been far less supportive of the Iraq war at the outset if they knew that a key component of Iraq’s WMD program was a figment of one man’s imagination.

But the broader intelligence failure did not pertain to Iraq’s supposed WMD program; rather, it had to do with the Bush administration’s misplaced confidence that a stable functioning democracy could be quickly established in Iraq. Richard Perle, one of the leading advocates for war with Iraq, and now an advocate of confrontation with Iran (see yesterday’s Post Outlook section), still thinks this was the case. As Justin Logan and I write in our Policy Analysis, “Failed States and Flawed Logic”:

Perle would admit in the summer of 2003 that the DOD civilians’ plan centered on installing Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi as the new leader of Iraq. In Perle’s view, had the Chalabi plan been enacted, “we’d be in much better shape today.”

But Perle’s (and the Bush administration’s) confidence in Chalabi was badly misplaced. As John Hulsman and Alexis Debat explain in the most recent issue of The National Interest:

the administration simply backed the wrong horse in supporting Chalabi…In its appreciation of the impeccably tailored and mannered Chalabi, the administration failed to question how his exile status and Western orientation, indeed the very qualities that made him a neoconservative fantasy ruler for Iraq, would impair his leadership capability.

Just as there were officials inside of government who were skeptical of the WMD claims, so too did government experts try to warn the Bush administration that the post-conflict period would be protracted and costly. As I wrote over two years ago, the failure to heed these warnings has been, and is likely to be, far more costly that the “failed intelligence” on Iraqi WMDs.

Bush and Kelo

Per David’s Kelo anniversary posts below, skeptics are probably right to question the sincerity of the White House’s halfhearted embrace of property rights last week. Back in 2004, when Kelo was pending before the Supreme Court, the Bush administration not only refused to file an amicus brief on behalf of the property owners, but was actually on the verge of filing a brief on behalf of the land-seizing local governments.

The Institute for Justice’s Clint Bolick wrote at the time:

One would expect the Bush administration, with its professed support for strict constitutional construction and for property rights, to join the dozens of conservative and libertarian groups arrayed in this effort, or at worst to sit on the sidelines. But for reasons unfathomable to President Bush’s core constituency, the administration is seriously considering filing a brief opposing property rights.

[…]

So what is it that is impelling the administration to betray its principles?

Is it succumbing to pressure from federal bureaucrats born of solidarity with state and local power? Is it seeking to shelter big business interests that are beneficiaries of eminent domain abuse?

We can’t know because no one in the administration is saying. Even worse is the brazen disdain with which the administration has dismissed pleas from some of its staunchest allies to stay out of the case.

On Oct. 29, a letter signed by 44 conservative and libertarian luminaries — ranging from Grover Norquist to Paul Weyrich and David Keene, and encompassing such groups as the Free Congress Foundation, Family Research Council and National Taxpayers Union — sent the president a letter imploring him to stay on the sidelines. It would be nice to have the administration on the playing field on the side of its friends; but at this point, agnosticism is preferable to adopting the wrong religion.

When property-rights advocates presented a copy of the letter to Timothy Goeglein, the administration’s emissary to the conservative movement, he dismissively dropped it to the ground.

[…]

So when the arguments are submitted in the New London case, it will be jarring if we see the administration standing with the foes of property rights. Perhaps by then the administration will explain its betrayal — or maybe not, for its actions appear truly inexplicable.

Sadly, we now know that advocating for limitless government power isn’t “bizarre” for this administration, it’s routine.

Sam Walker in the L.A. Times

Last week I wrote about a conversation I had with Sam Walker, the University of Nebraska criminology professor whose research was abused by Justice Scalia in the Hudson case. I mentioned that conversation to ex-Reason associate editor Matt Welch, who’s now at the L.A. Times.

That turned into an op-ed for Walker in today’s paper. Excerpt:

The misuse of evidence is a serious offense — in academia as well as in the courts. When it’s your work being manipulated, it is a violation of your intellectual integrity. Since the issue at stake in the Hudson case is extremely important — what role the Supreme Court should play in policing the police — I feel obligated to set the record straight.

Scalia quotes my book, “Taming the System: The Control of Discretion in American Criminal Justice,” on the point that there has been tremendous progress “in the education, training and supervision of police officers” since the 1961 Mapp decision, which imposed the exclusionary rule on local law enforcement.

My argument, based on the historical evidence of the last 40 years, is that the Warren court in the 1960s played a pivotal role in stimulating these reforms. For more than 100 years, police departments had failed to curb misuse of authority by officers on the street while the courts took a hands-off attitude. The Warren court’s interventions (Mapp and Miranda being the most famous) set new standards for lawful conduct, forcing the police to reform and strengthening community demands for curbs on abuse.

Scalia’s opinion suggests that the results I highlighted have sufficiently removed the need for an exclusionary rule to act as a judicial-branch watchdog over the police. I have never said or even suggested such a thing. To the contrary, I have argued that the results reinforce the Supreme Court’s continuing importance in defining constitutional protections for individual rights and requiring the appropriate remedies for violations, including the exclusion of evidence.

I’m not familiar enough with legal scholarship to know just how much of an ethical breach it is for a judge to misuse academic research in an opinion. But Scalia was an academic before coming to the bench, so it seems to me awfully untoward — or awfully careless — to have invoked Walker’s research to further a point that the research pretty clearly disputes. Moreover, Scalia cited Walker in advancing a key argument in a case that could have some pretty significant repercussions.

Walker seems to think it’s a big deal. I find him convincing.

A Legacy of Bias

Last week on my personal weblog, I ran an excerpt from Dan Baum’s essential book Smoke and Mirrors about how the 1986 overdose death of Maryland University basketball star Len Bias led to the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act. The act is arguably the most militant, draconian crime-fighting bill ever passed by Congress.

Much of Baum’s book is told from the point of view of Eric Sterling, a congressional staffer who helped write most of the 1980s drug laws, but who has since become a vocal opponent of those laws, and of the drug war in general.

Yesterday, Sterling and Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums had an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that, sadly, the legacy of Bias’s death isn’t an end to the use of illicit drugs, but an exploding prison population, violence, and increased drug use — all caused not by Bias’s death, but by Congress’s overreation to it.

Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page covered similar ground this week.