Archives: 11/2009

Taking Over Everything (2)

“My critics say that I’m taking over every sector of the economy,” President Obama complained to George Stephanopoulos back in September. And I responded:

Not every sector. Just

And now check out the lead story in Sunday’s Washington Post:

Federal Oversight of Subways Proposed

The Obama administration will propose that the federal government take over safety regulation of the nation’s subway and light-rail systems, responding to what it says is haphazard and ineffective oversight by state agencies.

Not everything. But more and more. So much that even the growing opposition can’t keep up with it all.

A Handy PATRIOT Act Cheat Sheet

While there are a slew of USA PATRIOT Act reform bills buzzing about Capitol Hill, the focus in Congress is now on two chief contenders, reported out by the House and Senate judiciary committees respectively. The very very short version is that the Senate version renews expiring PATRIOT powers with very few modifications, and that the House version includes an array of moderately more robust civil liberties safeguards. As Kevin Bankston of the Electronic Frontier Foundation has argued cogently, these differences are really far less important than the need to reform the FISA Amendments Act, which vastly expanded the surveillance powers of the National Security Agency, in effect permitting the Bush administration’s program of warrantless wiretapping to proceed with some cosmetic trappings of oversight. Still, the House bill does go some ways toward restoring the quaint notion that government should pry in to the private records of its citizens only when some evidence exists to provide grounds for individualized suspicion.

The Obama administration, alas, has decided to back the Senate’s bill, though the Justice Department also expressed “concerns” about the handful of actually-substantive checks on government spying power, and made clear that it intends to continue “working with the Committee” to gut those before the bill reaches the floor. For those with a taste for the gory details, Wired points to CDT’s handy dandy cheat sheet comparing the main provisions of the two bills.

Fed Ed Snow Job

When you get to the top of a mountain, what do you find? Other than maybe a mountain goat, or the frozen remains of an ill-fated previous climber, snow, that’s what. That’s why it’s almost appropriate that the Obama administration’s Race to the The Top Fund, as I have written before and write again in this new op-ed, is essentially a snow job.  And it seems to be a particularly blinding one.

To qualify for Fund dollars, states have to make hardly any meaningful changes to their education systems. For the most part they just have to submit plans for how they could conceivably do good stuff. Moreover, the same “stimulus” that furnished the $4.35 billion for Race to The Top supplied roughly 20 times that amount to protect the abysmal, obese education status quo from recessionary pressures. Nonetheless, many conservatives, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, are going out of their way to lionize Obama & co. for their reform efforts.

Why the cross-spectrum adulation? One problem is certainly that some conservatives have given up on real reform — universal school choice and getting the feds out of education — in favor of being seen as “doing something” from Washington. Probably more important, though, is that Race to the Top is constantly being festooned in brash, combative rhetoric about pushing what are actually relatively minor — but still disliked by teacher union — improvements such as linking educator pay to student performance and increasing charter schools. (For a taste of the hyperbole, check out Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s opening commentary from Sunday’s Meet the Press.) That Race to the Top falls far short of actually doing even these very limited things seems not to matter.

That leads to a very familiar, but nonetheless dispiriting, conclusion: in education, a blizzard of rhetoric is all it takes to blind people to reality.

Cuban Blogger Yoani Sanchez Keeps Speaking Truth to Power

Yoani SanchezIt’s the 490th anniversary of Havana today and the Cuban government has arranged for celebratory activities. Ordinary residents of Havana and all Cubans who cherish their civil and human rights have less to celebrate, however, as Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez regularly reminds us. Sanchez has become a major irritant of the regime because of her penetrating posts about the absurdities and injustices of everyday life in communist Cuba. You can see her blog in Spanish here, and in English here.

Just over a week ago, in an incident that was widely reported in the international press and that reveals the threat to the Cuban regime of the growing Cuban blogger movement, Sanchez was assaulted in Havana by plain-clothed government agents. Though she was forcefully beaten, she and her friends managed to fight back and get away. More than that, they took pictures of their assailants and of the incident for posting on the blog, prompting the government thugs to leave the scene. One photo of an agent features the caption “She is covering her face…Perhaps afraid of the future.” Another photo features Sanchez pursuing her assailants with the caption: “They have watched us for decades. Now we are watching them.” Very smart.

As it happens, last week we posted a beautifully written paper by Sanchez (in Spanish) on Cato’s Spanish-language web page, www.elcato.org. (The paper just won a prize in an essay contest in Mexico organized by TV Azteca at which my Cato colleague Juan Carlos Hidalgo was a judge.) Her essay, “Liberty as a Form of Payment,” describes the fraudulent deal that Castro promised when he came to power. In exchange for liberty, Cubans would be better off culturally, economically, and in other ways. Sanchez describes the reality of social control under communist Cuba in which the real exchanges occur as a consequence of the power relationship. Access to housing, jobs, new goods, and the possibility of minor improvements in life, all depend on a well documented support of the revolution through attendance of mass meetings and membership in the communist party, for example.

Or through personal relationships with those in power. Sanchez describes how young women long ago began prostituting themselves to high ministry or military officials in exchange for non-monetary goods or privileges. Such “courtesans of socialism” later turned to traditional prostitution with the arrival of currency convertibility in Cuba. Sanchez also optimistically describes the role that technology, especially the internet, is playing in creating spaces of liberty. In a country where people increasingly feel the regime’s days are numbered, such exercises of personal freedom can be powerful.

Even Obama’s Make-Believe Jobs Are Not Real

The White House recently began claiming that the “Recovery Act” had “created or saved” 640,000-plus jobs. This turns out to have been a political mistake, in part because even sympathetic reporters understand that the “jobs saved” measure allows for creative accounting. But the White House also erred by providing (supposed) details about the jobs that were created. This made it very easy for reporters and other curious people to do a bit of fact checking, which has generated a spate of stories showing that the White House’s numbers are wrong, even using make-believe methodology. The Washington Examiner has put together a very useful interactive map which links to many of the news reports debunking the Administration’s fraudulent numbers.

The New Threats to Free Speech

In a new Policy Analysis, Cato Research Fellow Jason Kuznicki examines the ongoing threats to free speech both at home and around the world, from hate-speech laws in the United Kingdom and Canada and university speech codes in the United States, to the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam:

The result is not more happiness, but a race to the bottom, in which aggrieved groups compete endlessly with one another for a slice of government power. Philosopher Robert Nozick once observed that utilitarianism is hard-pressed to banish what he termed utility monsters—that is, individuals who take inordinate satisfaction from acts that displease others. Arguing about who hurt whose feelings worse, and about who needs more soothing than whom, seems designed to discover—or create—utility monsters. We must not allow this to happen.

Instead, liberal governments have traditionally relied on a particular bargain, in which freedom of expression is maintained for all, and in which emotional satisfaction is a private pursuit, not a public guarantee. This bargain can extend equally to all people, and it forms the basis for an enduring and diverse society, one in which differences may be aired without fear of reprisal. Although world cultures increasingly mix with one another, and although our powers of expression are greater than ever before, these are not sound reasons to abandon the liberal bargain. Restrictions on free expression do not make societies happier or more tolerant, but instead make them more fractious and censorious.

Read the whole thing.

Monday Links

  • The politics behind the health care overhaul.
  • Mass corruption in Afghanistan. Malou Innocent: “Washington has already surged into Afghanistan once this year. The United States should not spend more American blood and more of its ever-diminishing financial resources to prop up Karzai’s ineffectual regime.”
  • A government takeover of health care is not pro-choice – for anyone: “Whatever your views on abortion, the fight over abortion in the Obama health plan illustrates perfectly why government should stay out of health care. When the government subsidizes health care, anything you do with that money becomes the voters’ business. And rather than allow for choice between different ways of doing things, the government typically imposes the preferences of the majority — or sometimes, a vocal minority — on everybody.”