Archives: June, 2010

DWI Convictions Due to Faulty Breathalyzer Calibration

From the Washington Post:

Nearly 400 people were convicted of driving while intoxicated in the District since fall 2008 based on inaccurate results from breath test machines, and half of them went to jail, city officials said Wednesday.

D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said the machines were improperly adjusted by city police. The jailed defendants generally served at least five days, he said…

The District’s badly calibrated equipment would show a driver’s blood-alcohol content to be about 20 percent higher than it actually was, Nickles said. All 10 of the breath test machines used by District police were wrong, he said. The problem occurred when the officer in charge of maintaining the machines improperly set the baseline alcohol concentration levels, Nickles said.

This is the same jurisdiction where a woman who had a single glass of wine with dinner and a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of .03 was arrested for being under the influence in 2005. The national standard for a DWI arrest is .08, and anyone testing below .05 is presumed not to be intoxicated. The District of Columbia’s standard for arrest was anything above .01 if the officer deemed the driver intoxicated. Public outcry over the strict policy, particularly in a town built on tourism, prompted the D.C. Council to temporarily amend the law. The D.C. Police website still says that police can charge DUI (Driving Under the Influence, not Driving While Intoxicated) for a BAC of .07 or lower.

There is good reason to question the foundation of DWI laws and enforcement. Radley Balko makes the case that the federal push for reducing the national DWI BAC standard from .10 to .08 achieved little for public safety in Back Door to Prohibition: The New War on Social Drinking. Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) founder Candy Lightner regrets the no-tolerance direction her organization has taken: “[MADD has] become far more neo-prohibitionist than I had ever wanted or envisioned… I didn’t start MADD to deal with alcohol. I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving.”

This Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing Government, we focused on the following issues this week:

  • Downsizing’s new Department of Transportation website is up and running!
  • A new essay on “Overpaid Federal Workers” is also up and it’s already generating a lot of buzz in the media.
  • Amtrak’s reputation for financial shenanigans lives on.
  • Kudos to the Washington Post for pointing out what we’ve been saying for a while: “regime uncertainty” is stifling the economy’s ability to recover.
  • President Obama’s lieutenants have instructed federal agencies to come up with spending cuts equal to five percent of their discretionary budgets for fiscal year 2012. 2012? Why wait?!?!

Latest Trade Figures Should Cool Talk of Getting Tough with China

The drums of a trade war with China are beating more loudly in Congress this week. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is threatening to introduce a bill in the next two weeks that would raise tariffs on imports from China if it does not quickly appreciate the value of its currency, the yuan.

The argument behind the bill is that an artificially cheap yuan makes Chinese goods too attractive for struggling American consumers, to the disadvantage of certain U.S. companies that would prefer to charge us higher prices, while it stifles U.S. exports to China.

The latest monthly trade report, released yesterday by the U.S. Department of Commerce, should give pause to those who want to punish China for its currency policies.

In the first four months of 2010, compared to the same period in 2009, U.S. exports of goods and services to China were up 41 percent. That is twice the rate of growth of our exports to the rest of the world excluding China.

Meanwhile, imports from China were up 14 percent year-to-date, compared to a 25 percent increase in imports from the rest of the world. As a result, while our trade deficit with all other countries grew by 46 percent, from $78 billion to $114 billion, our trade deficit with China grew only 6 percent, from $67 billion to $71 billion.

A more flexible, market-driven yuan would be welcome, for all the reasons we’ve written about at the Center for Trade Policy Studies, but its current rate is not an excuse for raising trade barriers.

Problems Overturning Citizens United

Congress has been trying to overturn the Citizens United decision for the past four months. (Citizens United invalidated bans on speech by groups taking a corporate form). Their effort — the DISCLOSE Act — now seems bogged down in the House of Representatives. The National Rifle Association argues that they should not have to disclose their small donors. The labor unions also have complaints:

Amaya Tune, a spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO, told Bloomberg this week that “the final bill should treat corporations different than democratic organizations such as unions. We believe the legislation should counter the excessive and disproportionate influence by big business and guarantee effective disclosure of who is paying for what.”

Here’s the problem: The Supreme Court has ruled that Congress cannot regulate campaign finance to achieve equality of influence.  Ms. Tune is calling for changes in DISCLOSE to “counter the excessive and disproportionate influence by big business.” If Congress enacts those changes, how can the law be defended against the charge that Congress is seeking to legislate a greater equality of influence? Won’t the parts of the law demanded by the unions be unconstitutional?

A Look Inside the Dark Heart of the GOP

Evidence that Republican leaders and conservative pundits want to shake off their anti-gay image continues to mount. Since the 2008 election, gay marriage has become legal in four more states and the District of Columbia, yet conservatives have been virtually silent. As Congress moves to repeal the don’t ask, don’t tell policy, Republicans are almost all voting against it, but they’re not making a lot of noise about it.  Jonathan Rauch cites the lack of interest in Iowa in overturning the state court’s gay marriage decision and Republican strategist Grover Norquist’s observation that the Tea Party enthusiasm is focusing Republicans and conservatives on economic rather than social issues.

Many politicians have had a long dark night of the poll. They know that public opinion on gay rights has changed. Gallup just issued a poll showing that more than half of Americans believe that “gay or lesbian relations” are “morally acceptable.” Seventy percent, including majorities of all demographic groups, favor allowing openly gay people to serve in the military. Those are big changes since 2003, much less 1993, and politicians can read polls. Indeed, one thing that gay progress shows us is that cultural change precedes political change.

But out in the real world, where real Republicans live, the picture isn’t as promising. In the Virginia suburbs of Washington this week, Patrick Murray defeated Matthew Berry in a Republican primary. Berry, formerly a lawyer for the Institute for Justice and the Department of Justice, seemed to be better funded and better organized than Murray, an Iraq war veteran. The Republican in my household received at least two mailers and three phone calls from the Berry campaign and nothing from Murray. So why did Murray win? Well, Berry is openly gay, and David Weigel at the Washington Post reports that the Murray campaign did send out flyers focusing on gay issues. They may have gone only to Republicans in the more conservative parts of the district. And Republican activist Rick Sincere tells me that “in the last few days before the election, I received numerous emails from the Murray campaign that included subtle reminders that Matthew is gay and supports an end to DADT. He also, in a Monday email, took a quotation from Matthew out of context to make it look like he supports a federally-enforced repeal of Virginia’s anti-marriage law. In other words, Murray played the anti-gay card.” Blogger RedNoVa made similar observations, adding, “If you were at the Matthew Berry party last night, you would notice that the average age in the room was about 30. Young people were everywhere. The future of our party was there. Murray’s campaign crowd was older, and full of party purists.”

But Northern Virginia is far more genteel than western Tennessee, where the Jackson Sun recently reported that two Republican congressional candidates suggested that physical violence was an appropriate response to gays who enlist in the military:

Republicans Stephen Fincher, Dr. George Flinn, Dr. Ron Kirkland and Randy Smith as well as independent Donn Janes took part in the event…

The candidates said that they think President Barack Obama and Democrats’ support for ending the military “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy is “political correctness” that adds an unnecessary stress on the military.

Flinn portrayed ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as the latest in an effort by Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to weaken the military.

Kirkland, a Vietnam veteran, said of his time in the military: “I can tell you if there were any homosexuals in that group, they were taken care of in ways I can’t describe to you.”

Smith, who served in the first Iraqi war, added: “I definitely wouldn’t want to share a shower with a homosexual. We took care of that kind of stuff, just like (Kirkland) said.”

With Republicans like that, it’s no wonder that many moderates, centrists, and libertarians still aren’t sure they want to vote Republican, even with Democrats running up the deficit and extending federal control over health care, education, automobile companies, newspapers, and more.

Planning a Cybersecurity Auto-Immune Reaction

A Senate plan to give the president authority to seize control of the Internet in the event of emergency is security malpractice of the highest order. As I told C|Net’s Declan McCullagh, this is a plan for an auto-immune reaction. When something goes wrong with the Internet, the government will attack that infrastructure and make society weaker.

The Internet is the medium over which we communicate and self-organize. It’s where emergency response happens—where individuals learn what is happening, communicate it to others, compare notes with friends and loved ones, and determine appropriate responses. (Our appreciation for “first responders” should not be diminshed by noting that they are typically second responders, taking over for private citizens who are almost always first on any scene.)

The Internet is also self-repairing. When weaknesses in it are exposed, that fact is communicated via Internet, and the appropriate fixes and patches are distributed via Internet. Seizing control of the Internet—to the extent the government can do that—would degrade society’s natural response to emergency, and it would undercut the Internet’s ability to self-heal.

This idea—of government authority taking over the Internet for our protection—fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the Internet, the nature of our society, and the type of government the Framers prescribed for us.

Plowing Through the Defenses of National Education Standards

Arguably the most troubling aspect of the push for national education standards has been the failure – maybe intentional, maybe not – of standards supporters to be up front about what they want and openly debate the pros and cons of their plans. Unfortunately, as Pioneer Institute Executive Director Jim Stergios laments today, supporters are using the same stealthy approach to implement their plans on an unsuspecting public.

Standing in stark contrast to most of his national-standards brethren is the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli, who graciously came to Cato last week to debate national standards and is now in a terrific blog exchange with the University of Arkansas’s Jay Greene. Petrilli deserves a lot of credit for at least trying to answer such crucial questions as whether adopting the standards is truly voluntary, and if there are superior alternatives to national standards. You can read Jay’s initial post here, Mike’s subsequent response here, and Jay’s most recent reply right here.

I’m not going to leap into most of Jay and Mike’s debate , though it covers a lot of the same ground we hit in our forum last week, which you can check out here. I do want to note two things, though: (1) While I truly do appreciate Mike’s openly grappling with objections to what might be Fordham’s biggest reform push ever, I think his arguments don’t stand up to Jay’s, and (2) I think Mike’s identifying national media scrutiny as what will prevent special-interest capture of national standards is about as encouraging as BP telling Gulf-staters ”we’ve got a plan!”

Let’s delve into #2.

For starters, how much scrutiny does the national media give to legislating generally? Reporters might hit the big stuff and whatever is highly contentious, but even then how much of the important details do they offer? Think about the huge health care debate that just dominated the nation’s attention. How many details on the various bills debated did anybody get through the major media? How much clarity? Heck, sometimes legislators were debating bills that even they hadn’t seen, much less reporters. Of course, the health care bill was much bigger than, say, the No Child Left Behind Act, but remember how long after passage of NCLB it was before the Department of Education, much less the media, was able to nail down all of its important parts?

Which brings us to a whole different layer of policy making, one major media wade into even less often than legislating: writing regulations. How many stories have you read, or watched on TV news, about the writing of regulations for implementing anything, education or otherwise? I’d imagine precious few, yet this is where often vaguely written statutes are transformed into on-the-ground operations. It’s also where the special interests are almost always represented – after all, they’re the ones who will be regulated – but average taxpayers and citizens? Don’t go looking for them.

Finally, maybe it’s just me, but I feel like I keep hearing that daily newspapers are on their way out. Of course they might be replaced by cable television news, but those outlets almost always fixate on just the few, really big stories of the day – war, economic downturns, murders, golfers’ affairs, celebrity arrests – and education can rarely compete for coverage. And that seems likely to remain the case even if the education story is as scintillating as, say, federal regulators reducing the content of national standards by five percent. Indeed, education is so low on the reporting totem poll that the Brookings Institution has undertaken a crusade to save its life, and has noted that right now “there is virtually no national coverage of education.”

Wait, virtually none? Uh-oh. If national media scrutiny is supposed to be the primary bulwark protecting national standards from the special-interest capture that has repeatedly doomed state standards, the fact that almost no such coverage actually takes place really doesn’t give you a warm-fuzzy, does it? And if special-interest capture can’t be prevented – if standards can’t be kept high – then the entire raison d’etre of national standards crumbles to the ground.  

Which helps explain, of course, why national standards supporters are typically so eager to avoid debate: Their proposal is hopelessly, fatally flawed.