Archives: 03/2009

Freedom for Yang Zili

Congratulations to Yang Zili, a Chinese advocate for political pluralism and human rights who has been set free after serving eight years in prison.

As I noted in the Fall 2007 edition of Cato’s Letter, Yang was an admirer of the libertarian thinker F. A. Hayek and described himself as a political liberal. A computer engineer by trade, Yang quickly recognized the power of the internet to spread ideas, founding a website, the “Garden of Ideas” (www.lib.126.com), where he forcefully condemned communism and argued for democratic reforms. “I am a liberal,” he wrote, “and what I care about are human rights, freedom and democracy.” Yang also participated in a discussion group called the New Youth Society, where he discussed the potential for political reform in China with young people who were similarly passionate. In 2001, Yang Zili and three of his colleagues were jailed for conspiring to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party.

As the Washington Post reported in 2004, the small group met for only a few months, and during that time one of its members was reporting to the Ministry of  State Security. Indeed, the Post reported:

What happened to the New Youth Study Group offers a glimpse into the methods the party uses to maintain its monopoly on power and the difficult moral choices faced by those caught in its grip. The fate of the study group also illustrates the thoroughness with which the party applies one of its most basic rules of survival: Consider any independent organization a potential threat and crush it.

The eight members of the New Youth Study Group never agreed on a political platform and had no real source of funds. They never set up branches in other cities or recruited any other members. They never even managed to hold another meeting with full attendance; someone was always too busy.

And yet they attracted the attention of China’s two main security ministries. Reports about their activities reached officials at the highest levels of the party, including Luo Gan, the Politburo member responsible for internal security. Even the president then, Jiang Zemin, referred to the investigation as one of the most important in the nation, according to people who have seen an internal memo summarizing the comments of senior officials about the case.

Such is life in a police state.

Yang Zili spent eight years in prison for being brave enough to speak out against an authoritarian regime, which is 8 years too many in my book. Still, we can take comfort that he got out, and that his colleagues are slated to be released from prison next year.
Unfortunately, many young internet activists brave enough to stand up for freedom still languish in jail.

Federal Enforcement Policy Is Up in Smoke

Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement that the federal government will end raids on medical marijuana distributors is terrific news.

The Bush administration’s scorched-earth approach to the enforcement of federal marijuana laws was a grotesque misallocation of law enforcement resources. The U.S. government has a limited number of law enforcement personnel, and when a unit is assigned to conduct surveillance on a California hospice, that unit is necessarily neglecting leads in other cases that possibly involve more violent criminal elements.

This shift in policy is also more mindful of the constitutional principle of federalism by allowing the states to try different policy approaches, and it is more respectful of the division of opinion within the medical community about the benefits of marijuana for certain patients. This de-escalation of the drug war is good policy and is long overdue.

More Cheap Money from the Fed

The Federal Reserve announced that it would create $1.2 trillion out of thin air and use it to buy mortgage-backed securities and Treasury bonds, even though

Some Fed leaders have resisted buying Treasurys in the past because they were unsure whether it would help reduce borrowing costs and because they feared that it would appear that the central bank was simply printing money to finance the government’s deficit, a hallmark of countries with poorly managed economies.

Obama’s First Signing Statement

obama-signs-billPresident Obama issued his first signing statement last week. While approving the $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill, he reserved the right to reinterpret, evade, or ignore a number of the bill’s provisions. To some conservatives, that smelled like vindication; and some liberals found it fishy. Who’s right? Both, to some extent.

During the Bush years, “signing statements” came to stand for a much broader set of issues than the practice itself. After President Bush used one to basically announce that, veto-proof majority or no, he didn’t have to follow the McCain Detainee Treatment Act, “signing statements” in the public mind became shorthand for the Bush theory that the president is sole constitutional “decider” on all matters related to national security—in much the same way that the PATRIOT Act became shorthand for overzealousness in homeland security. The obnoxiousness of each—open defiance in the signing statement case, the dopey Orwellianism of the acronym with PATRIOT—made them symbols, even though neither represented the worst abuses in the fight against terrorism.

But what really matters is the underlying constitutional theory, not the particular quasi-legislative device it’s reflected in. Which is worse: openly announcing that you’re not going to obey new congressional restrictions on torture—as Bush did with the 2006 McCain Amendment—or secretly violating the old ones for years? The latter, clearly. At least a signing statement puts you on notice.

On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama, unlike McCain, never promised to end the practice of signing statements entirely. Obama’s position was more nuanced. When it comes to signing statements, some nuance is appropriate. I don’t agree with the ABA’s blanket condemnation of the practice. As the Congressional Research Service has pointed out, despite the Supreme Court’s 1983 repudiation of the legislative veto, Congress continues to smuggle legislative vetoes into omnibus spending bills. One could argue that the president’s only recourse is to veto the bill–and more vetoes of spending bills would surely be welcome. But it seems to me that in such cases, issuing a signing statement is a venial sin at worst. There’s a vast difference between that sort of signing statement and one that asserts that the president cannot be bound by a law barring torture.

Most of the objections Obama lodged in his signing statement fall well short of the Bush-Cheney end of the spectrum. But there’s at least one that looks particularly dodgy:

United Nations Peacekeeping Missions. Section 7050 in Division H prohibits the use of certain funds for the use of the Armed Forces in United Nations peacekeeping missions under the command or operational control of a foreign national unless my military advisers have recommended to me that such involvement is in the national interests of the United States. This provision raises constitutional concerns by constraining my choice of particular persons to perform specific command functions in military missions, by conditioning the exercise of my authority as Commander in Chief on the recommendations of subordinates within the military chain of command, and by constraining my diplomatic negotiating authority. Accordingly, I will apply this provision consistent with my constitutional authority and responsibilities.

Here Obama echoes Bushian claims about the extent of the president’s authority under the commander-in-chief clause. But given the context, perhaps the better parallel is with Bill Clinton. President Clinton also asserted the power to ignore congressional restrictions on his ability to place U.S. troops under foreign command. That sort of executive unilateralism in the service of multilateralism was distinctly troubling. As one commentator noted in 2000:

Responding to congressional efforts to stop the new policy, the Clinton administration has claimed a broad constitutional power in the president to delegate military command authority to any person. According to the administration, the president’s commander in chief power allows him to select whomever he believes necessary for military success…. That position has serious constitutional and policy defects. First, the administration’s legal justification for its recent multilateral command policy fails to account for the Constitution’s limitation on the delegation of federal power outside of the national government….

You know who wrote that? John Yoo. My head hurts.

Third-World Accommodations

In the 2003 film The Barbarian Invasions, a patient’s wealthy son offers a handsome bribe to the administrator of a decrepit, chaotic, state-run hospital in Montreal that is (mis)treating his dying father.  “This is silly,” the startled administrator exclaims.  “We’re not in the Third World.”

Britain’s health-care system is perhaps slightly less state-dominated than Canada’s.  Yet today comes the following report:

The British government apologised Wednesday after a damning official report into a hospital likened by one patient’s relative to “a Third World” health centre…

Between 400 and 1,200 more people died than would have been expected in a three-year period at the National Health Service (NHS) hospital, according to an investigation by the Healthcare Commission watchdog.

Receptionists with no medical training were left to to assess patients arriving at the hospital’s accident and emergency department, the report found.

Julie Bailey, whose 86-year-old mother Bella died in the hospital in November 2007, said she and other family members slept in a chair at her bedside for eight weeks because they were so concerned about poor care.

“What we saw in those eight weeks will haunt us for the rest of our lives,” said the 47-year-old. “We saw patients drinking out of flower vases they were so thirsty.

“There were patients wandering around the hospital and patients fighting. It was continuous through the night. Patients were screaming out in pain because you just could not get pain relief.

“It was like a Third World country hospital. It was an absolute disgrace.”

The politicians quoted in the story promised, again, that, you know, they would improve things.

The Incredible Expanding Stimulus Programs

Get on a media list, and you get lots of emailed press releases. Like this one today:

APPLIANCE AND RETAIL INDUSTRY URGE QUICK ACTION ON CONSUMER REBATE PROGRAM FOR APPLIANCES

In case you’re wondering, it’s from the Association of Home Appliance Measures (AHAM). And it won’t surprise you to hear that “The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) and the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) urge the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to quickly disburse funding to state energy offices for the Energy Efficient Appliance Rebate Programs so that consumer rebates will be available for the summer months to purchase ENERGY STAR appliances.” Yes, indeed, that’s the way to get the economy moving again: get people out there buying new appliances.

You know what I think would really stimulate the economy? Federal tax credits for contributions to free-market think tanks. Nonprofits are facing diminished revenues and layoffs during these tough times. A tax credit would “create or save up to 4 million jobs.” OK, maybe not quite 4 million, but some number “up to” that. And by focusing the credit on free-market think tanks, you’d help to encourage sound long-term economic policy. It’s a win-win idea. I should get out a press release.

Wednesday Podcast: ‘The Science of Medical Marijuana’

Photo: Kelly Anne CreazzoSpeaking at a Cato forum Tuesday, Dr. Donald Abrams, director of Clinical Programs at the University of California Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, discussed the science behind medicinal marijuana, and explained why the drug should be allowed for patients who suffer from a variety of symptoms.

After the event, Abrams spoke with Caleb Brown for Wednesday’s Cato Daily Podcast, explaining the promise of marijuana as medicine:

One of the reasons I am in favor of people using the plant is because… we no longer have a health care system in the United States, we have a disease management system, and it is very expensive largely due to pharmaceuticals. If there is a plant that is a medicine that people can grow for themselves in their own backyard then I think we can really go a long way to decrease some of the costs of health care. But if we are saying that a physician is going to be able to prescribe this entity to a patient then unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you look at it, it does need to be regulated or approved and the only way to do that is through the standard route.