Archives: 10/2009

‘Is Obama Punting on Human Rights?’

That’s today’s Arena question over at Politico.

My response:

This morning, both Bret Stephens, in the Wall Street Journal, and Mona Charen, at Real Clear Politics, catalogue Obama’s silence on human rights – China, Tibet, Sudan, Iran, Burma, Honduras – and his backpedaling from his campaign rhetoric. Meanwhile, Eric Posner, at the Volokh Conspiracy, rightly credits Obama for, among other things, not backing the Goldstone Report and pressuring Spain to water down its undemocratic “universal jurisdiction” statute, even as he condemns the administration, again rightly, for its decision to join “the comically named U.N. Human Rights Council,” bastion of some of the world’s worst human rights abusers.

What’s missing, it seems, is any coherent and systematic approach to those matters. During the Reagan administration I served for a time at State as director of policy for the Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs – now called, interestingly, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Things were simpler during the Cold War. We focused on totalitarian regimes, somewhat less on authoritarian regimes, since people were allowed to leave those. And, yes, realpolitik played at least a part in our thinking, as inevitably it must. But the basic principles were clear: If human rights were to be respected, not simply behavioral but systematic change would be required. And Reagan kept the pressure on, publicly. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, millions saw that kind of change, in varying degrees. But the contrast between totalitarianism and democratic capitalism is less clear today than it was then, and the Obama administration, in both its foreign and domestic policies, is doing little to clarify it.

The promotion of human rights starts at home, with allowing people to plan and live their own lives, not with vast public programs that compel people to live under government planning. And in foreign affairs it requires both private and public diplomacy, quiet and not-so-quiet attention to the conditions that give rise to human rights abuses. That doesn’t mean military intervention to change those conditions. But neither does it mean remaining silent, as the Obama administration too often has. Countless victims of abuse, from Cuba to China and far beyond, have written about how important it was that they knew that the world knew about them: When America speaks, the world listens. But equally important, history demonstrates that regimes that respect their own people respect other people as well. It’s time for Obama to speak out.

Arizona Republic Corrects its Tax Credit Savings Estimate in Response to Cato Input

Last Wednesday, the Arizona Republic published a fiscal impact assessment of the state’s education tax credit programs for k-12 private school choice. While the story itself was a good faith effort, there were errors in both its data and assumptions. I wrote an op-ed intended for the Republic correcting those errors and e-mailed a copy to the story’s author, Ron Hansen, the same day his story was published.

While the paper’s editorial page expressed no interest in printing my submission, the Republic published a correction today based on the accurate spending and savings figures I provided. In a phone call, Hansen indicated that the correction was precipitated by my e-mail, though he opted not to mention that in his story, saying that he didn’t think the source of the correction was important.

On the one hand, Hansen and the Republic are to be commended for publishing a correction, and it should be noted that the bad data were provided to them by Arizona Director of School Finance, Yousef Awwad. On the other hand, their correction is incomplete – acknowledging only the bad data and not the mistaken assumption explained in my op-ed.

So while the Republic has now raised its savings estimate from their originally reported $3 million to a corrected $8.3 million, they have yet to explain that this figure could actually understate the total savings.

Still, their response is better than I expected.  Most newspapers, in my experience, do absolutely nothing when factual and reasoning errors in their education stories are brought to their attention, and in fact go on to repeat those same errors in subsequent stories.

And they wonder why two thirds of the public now doubt their credibility….

9/11: All the PSA We Needed

Right on the heels of my post the other day discussing the error in inviting terrorism reporting, here’s another video (and suspicious-activity-reporting Web site) produced by the Los Angeles Police Department.

The production values in this video are hipper, and L.A. appears to have its share of actors willing to look concerned about terrorism. But really, the attacks of September 11, 2001 were all the Public Service Announcement we needed to encourage reporting of genuine suspicions.

Asking amateurs for tips about terrorism will have many wasteful and harmful results, like racial and ethnic discrimination, angry neighbors turning each other in, and—given the rarity of terrorism—lots and lots of folks just plain getting it wrong. People with expertise—even in very limited domains—can discover suspicious circumstances in their worlds almost automatically when they find things “hinky.”

My impressions of the LAPD were formed up in the late 80’s and early 90’s when I lived in southern California. To encourage reporting, what that department needs most is to make the community confident of its own fairness and competence. Reporting of meritorious suspicions will naturally follow that. There’s no need for it to artificially gin up crime or terrorism reporting.

College Prices Aren’t So Bad When Other People Are Paying

Today the College Board – maker of such fine products as the SAT and Advanced Placement exams – released its annual reports on college prices and student aid. College prices, it seems, have gone up significantly over the last year. However, if the following statement from the reports’ author, economist Sandy Baum, is accurate – I haven’t been able to see the reports myself yet – student aid largely offset the price increases. And do you know what that might mean? Colleges were able to charge students more without greatly affecting access by pawning much of the new charges off on donors and taxpayers:

Sandy Baum, the College Board senior policy analyst who wrote both reports, said it was important to focus on the net price students actually paid, after subtracting grants and tax benefits, rather than the published tuition, or sticker price. And in that regard, Ms. Baum said, the situation looks far less dire. “Over all, it could have been worse,” she said.

So could it actually be, as I and others have argued repeatedly, that student aid helps fuel tuition increases by having third parties cover so much of the new costs? Here’s yet more evidence saying that yes, it could.

Bernanke Criticizes Trade Deficit, but Not Trade

In a speech on the West Coast this morning, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke at first glance appears to be agreeing with the critics of trade who blame the trade deficit for much of our economic ills. “Bernanke Calls for Action on Trade Gap,” according to the Wall Street Journal. “Bernanke warns against trade imbalances,” chimes in the French news agency, AFP.

Underneath the headlines, however, Bernanke’s comments offer no comfort for the critics. The real culprit is not “unfair trade” or “currency manipulation,” but misguided tax and spending policies in the United States and other major trading countries.

That is a point I hammer home in Chapter 5 of the new Cato book, Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization:

If our politicians are determined to do something about the trade deficit, the most constructive step they could take would be to promote a higher level of national savings. More domestic savings would reduce the need for foreign funds to finance domestic investment. … The most direct approach would be to reduce or eliminate the federal budget deficit. If the federal government were to borrow a few hundred billion dollars less each year, the pool of domestic savings would rise and more domestic funds would be available for investment. …Ironically, many members of Congress who complain loudest about the trade deficit have voted in the name of economic “stimulus” to plunge us ever deeper in debt.

Chairman Bernanke agrees. His policy prescription was not to raise barriers against imports, but to cut the federal government’s appetite for debt.

Flex Your Rights

Friends of the Cato Institute who closely follow the news about search and seizure and other civil liberties issues will probably know that there are simple, practical steps one can take to exercise our constitutionally guaranteed liberties, even when confronted by the police.

For everyone else, there’s Flex Your Rights. Founded by former Cato intern Steven Silverman, Flex Your Rights aims to teach ordinary citizens how to make good use of their civil liberties:

The vast majority of people are mystified by the basic rules of search and seizure and due process of law. Consequentially, they’re likely to be tricked or intimidated by police into waiving their constitutional rights, resulting in a greater likelihood of regrettable outcomes.

The sum of these outcomes flow into all major criminal justice problems – including racial and class disparities in search, arrest, sentencing and incarceration rates.

In order to ensure that constitutional rights and equal justice are upheld by law enforcement, we must build a constitutionally literate citizenry.

“Regrettable outcomes” aren’t limited to time behind bars for breaking the drug laws. Consider also damage to property during searches, loss of dignity and privacy, wasted law enforcement time, and police violence during what’s sure to be a nerve-wracking encounter. All of this can happen even when you’re not violating any laws at all, and that’s reason enough to refuse a search.

The police, and the laws themselves, should work for us, and if we don’t require their help, then that should usually be for us to decide. Flex Your Rights is here to help you do so. They’ve just launched a revamped website, which looks great, and they also have a new film in production titled 10 Rules for Dealing with Police. I look forward to seeing it!