Archives: 11/2009

Obama, International Law, and Free Speech

Stuart Taylor has a very good article this week about the Obama administration, international law, and free speech.  This excerpt begins with a quote from Harold Koh, Obama’s top lawyer at the State Department:

“Our exceptional free-speech tradition can cause problems abroad, as, for example, may occur when hate speech is disseminated over the Internet.” The Supreme Court, suggested Koh – then a professor at Yale Law School – “can moderate these conflicts by applying more consistently the transnationalist approach to judicial interpretation” that he espouses.

Translation: Transnational law may sometimes trump the established interpretation of the First Amendment. This is the clear meaning of Koh’s writings, although he implied otherwise during his Senate confirmation hearing.

In my view, Obama should not take even a small step down the road toward bartering away our free-speech rights for the sake of international consensus. “Criticism of religion is the very measure of the guarantee of free speech,” as Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School, wrote in an October 19 USA Today op-ed.

Even European nations with much weaker free-speech traditions than ours were reportedly dismayed by the American cave-in to Islamic nations on “racial and religious stereotyping” and the rest.

Read the whole thing.

The Spirit of Nien Cheng (1915-2009)

Nien ChengNien Cheng, author of best-seller Life and Death in Shanghai and one of the greatest Chinese voices of humanity to have opposed communism, passed away in Washington yesterday. To read her account of the cruelty and madness of the Cultural Revolution, during which she was imprisoned for six-and-a-half years and her daughter killed, is to come away inspired by Nien Cheng’s sheer strength of character and the dignity and power of the individual even in the face of totalitarianism. Her refusal to accept dogmas, her deep understanding and love of Chinese culture and history, her capacity for self-reflection, the way in which she used her learning and sharp wit to confront her oppressors and expose their incoherent views, and her ability to survive persecution—all was truly a triumph of the human spirit.

I had the great good fortune to have known Nien Cheng both through Cato and because she coincidentally lived in the same Washington condominium building as I did for many years until I recently moved. (It was the same building in which she typed her book manuscript once she lived here in exile, never thinking that many people would read it.)

To know Nien Cheng was to confirm the impressions one forms of her from reading her book, and more. As neighbors, we chatted from time to time, and on several occasions my now-wife Lesley and I enjoyed tea and lively discussion in her apartment. Mrs. Cheng was generous and polite, and she was curious about the opinions of others. But she was also very well read, kept up on current affairs, and was opinionated, honest and transparent. She was always insightful. The trappings of political power never impressed her. She was regularly invited as a guest to White House functions by several administrations, but although she was honored, she had long been turning them down because, as she told me, she was too old for such things and it was too much time standing around.

Nien Cheng never liked to waste time and so maintained the habits of an industrious person. Perhaps that was partly a strategy to keep her mind at ease since the death of her daughter tormented her all of her life. I’m sure, however, that she ultimately died in peace. Never displaying an air of self-importance, she was ready and happy to pass on, as she told me and others on more than one occasion. For testifying to the world about the realities of Chinese communism and for living a courageous life, Nien Cheng holds a special place in the hearts and minds of all advocates of the free society, especially the Chinese.

May her spirit live on.

Federal Wages Fly High

Yahoo News is highlighting the story “10 Jobs With High Pay and Minimal Schooling.” Topping the list: air traffic controllers, who work for the federal government.

These workers make sure airplanes land and take off safely, and they typically top lists of this nature. The median 50% earned between $86,860-142,210, with good benefits. Air traffic controllers are eligible to retire at age 50 with 20 years of service, or after 25 years at any age.

Huge salaries and retirement after 20 years – sweet deal!

Air traffic controllers seem to provide a good illustration of my general claim that federal workers are overpaid.

I don’t know what the proper pay level for controllers is, but I do know that we should privatize the system, as Canada has, and let the market figure it out.

Degree Disaster Behind The Great Wall

Based on my regular reading on education, but not China specifically, I know that the world’s most populous nation has had a lot of trouble finding jobs for its throngs of recent college graduates. I wrote a bit about that yesterday, pointing out that the important higher education lesson from China is that pumping out more college grads is meaningless if they don’t have skills that are in demand. Well, thanks to a very helpful Cato@Liberty reader who actually lives in China (and wishes to remain anonymous) I now have a much better idea just how important that lesson is. He directed me to this Asia Times article that includes, among many fascinating tidbits, this startling revelation:

An explosive report released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in September said earnings of graduates were now at par and even lower than those of migrant laborers [italics added].

Wow! If this report is accurate, until now I have had no idea how truly ridiculous Washington’s obsession with pumping out more degrees to keep up with the Chinese has been – and I’ve been pretty sure it’s ridiculous! Much more troubling, if I’ve had little clue about the true extent of the absurdity, imagine how far from grasping it our government-loving federal politicians have been! Of course, as I wrote yesterday, even if they did know it, they probably wouldn’t let on.

Tuesday Links

  • Three cheers for divided government: “Since the start of the Cold War, we’ve had only a dozen years of real fiscal restraint” …And all of them occurred when the White House and Congress were held by opposite parties.

History Fun Fact: Ayn Rand Liked Ed Tax Credits

Many thanks to Lisa Snell at Reason for bringing this interesting historical fun fact from 1973 to light: Ayn Rand was a fan of education tax credits:

In the face of such evidence, one would expect the government’s performance in the field of education to be questioned, at the least, [but] the growing failures of the educational establishment are followed by the appropriation of larger and larger sums. There is, however, a practical alternative: tax credits for education.

The essentials of the idea (in my version) are as follows: an individual citizen would be given tax credits for the money he spends on education, whether his own education, his children’s, or any person’s he wants to put through a bona fide school of his own choice (including primary, secondary, and higher education).

Rand’s support for credits is interesting for a number of reasons, not least the fact that she explicitly endorses credits, not vouchers. I’ve had numerous and largely fruitless arguments over which policy is most “free-market” or least distorting. To me it is obvious that credits are the most “free-market” education reform. Now I can skip the arguments and yell, “Ayn Rand!”

Rand’s essay also highlights the fact that education tax credits were, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the most prominent private school policy on the scene. Federal tax credits were a live issue under Nixon and Carter. Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party gave strong and explicit support for education tax credits throughout the 1980’s – with tax credits, but not vouchers, mentioned specifically in the Republican Party platforms of 1980, 1984, and 1988.

The largely forgotten history of education tax credits … interesting …

Libertarian Movement — Just Too Big and Too Busy?

Last night – a Monday night, the eve of a hotly contested gubernatorial election in Virginia – there were at least three interesting events for libertarians in the Washington area:

  • Reason.tv held an event to launch “Radicals for Capitalism,” a new series of videos celebrating Ayn Rand’s continuing influence.
  • The Future of Freedom Foundation and the George Mason University Economics Society sponsored a lecture by Lawrence W. Reed, president of the Foundation for Economic Education, at GMU.
  • And here at the Cato Institute, an overflow crowd gathered to watch a new film, The Soviet Story, which the Economist called “the most powerful antidote yet to the sanitisation of the past.”

It’s got to be a sign of growth and health if the libertarian movement is offering three excellent programs on one Monday night in one area. But what’s an overscheduled libertarian to do?