Archives: August, 2010

Making a Joke of Human Rights

Earlier this year, Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama signed legislation that threatens U.S. residents with prison if they fail to purchase health insurance.

This week, his administration told the United Nations that this legislation shows the United States is making progress on human rights.

Egg Farming and the Salmonella Recall

The New York Times invited me to contribute to its “Room for Debate” feature on the big egg recall and here is an excerpt from my reply:

…Advocates cite the current outbreak, at last report limited to two related Iowa egg farms, as reason to enact pending legislation that would intensify federal regulation of food-making in the name of safety. Large food and agribusiness companies have generally signed off on most of the new proposals as acceptable. Many smaller producers, on the other hand, suspect there will be less room for them, and for local variety generally, in this reassuring new world of business and government cooperation.

I go on to cite the CPSIA debacle, in which a safety enactment devastated small producers of children’s goods while entrenching some of the dominant industry players.

Read the full New York Times post here. Some other perspectives worth checking out: Ronald Bailey, Ira Stoll, Ann Althouse.

The Kirchners Go After the Newspapers in Argentina

Argentina’s power couple (President Cristina Fernández and her husband and former president Néstor Kirchner) took their fight against the country’s major newspapers one step further today when the government released a report that might ultimately give it control of the company that distributes paper to the newspapers.

The government report targets Papel Prensa, a private company that belongs to a group controlled by Clarín and La Nación, Argentina’s major daily newspapers, and that distributes paper to 170 newspapers all over the country regardless of their editorial line and ideology.

The government claims that the previous owners of Papel Prensa sold the company back in 1976 under pressure from the military junta that then ruled Argentina. The report says that the government will sue the board members of both newspapers for “crimes against humanity” and “illegal purchase” of Papel Prensa. It also brings up charges of financial irregularities and unfair competition in the distribution of paper.

Both Clarín and La Nación vehemently deny the charges, pointing out that in the 27 years under democratic governments, Papel Prensa has never been impugned in the way it was acquired back in 1976. They claim this is a plan from the Kirchners to take over the company, and thus extend government control over the distribution of the newspapers main input: paper.

This is not the first time that the government has targeted Papel Prensa. Two weeks ago, the Commerce Secretary, Guillermo Moreno, stormed the company’s board meeting wearing boxing gloves and a helmet, shouting “you won’t vote here.” Last Thursday, Moreno, along with 10 others, broke into the offices of Papel Prensa shouting “I’m the owner” while trying to take over offices and desks.

Even though they no longer control Congress, the Kirchners have found a way to get what they want largely because of the divided and weak opposition. However, they might be pushing the envelope in picking such a contentious fight in a country where freedom of the press is still valued.

We Fail More—So Put Us in Charge

The Washington Post reports today on an article coming out in Foreign Affairs in which Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III reveals a successful 2008 intrusion into military computer systems. Malicious code placed on a thumb drive by a foreign intelligence agency uploaded itself onto a network run by the U.S. military’s Central Command and propagated itself across a number of domains.

The Post article says that Lynn “puts the Homeland Security Department on notice that although it has the ‘lead’ in protecting the dot.gov and dot.com domains, the Pentagon — which includes the ultra-secret National Security Agency — should support efforts to protect critical industry networks.”

The failure of the military to protect its own systems creates an argument for it to have preeminence in protecting private computer infrastructure? Perhaps the Department of Homeland Security will reveal how badly it has been hacked in order to regain the upper hand in the battle to protect us.

Journalists Warn of Regulation’s Costs

All too often, news stories about proposed new regulations mention all the supposed benefits of the regulation while ignoring such potential costs as higher prices, reduced service, or even the demise of the business. Today I’m glad to see journalists noting those costs right up front in their discussions of a new regulation proposed by Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli. Public radio WAMU says:

Currently there are 21 abortion clinics in Virginia. Abortion service providers say at least 17 of those might shut down if state officials use their authority to regulate those clinics.

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli says abortion clinics provide many other medical services beyond abortions, so they’re subject to the same regulations as larger medical facilities.

That opinion was issued in response to a request from Virginia State Senator Ralph Smith, who says his only interest is to protect the health of the patient.

“I certainly feel that for the safety of all involved that they should be as regulated as other procedures,” says Smith.

For most clinics, meeting a higher regulatory standard could mean additional equipment or space renovation.

Tarina Keene director of NARAL Pro-choice Virginia says the cost involved could drive some clinics out of business.

Yes, indeed, they noted those potential costs right there in the first line. And so did the Washington Post, front page, third sentence:

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II has concluded that the state can impose stricter oversight over clinics that perform abortions, a move immediately decried by abortion-rights organizations and others as an attempt to circumvent the General Assembly, which has repeatedly rejected similar measures.

Cuccinelli’s legal opinion empowers the Board of Health, if it chooses, to require the clinics to meet hospital-type standards. Abortion-rights advocates say that could force some clinics to close because they would be unable to afford to meet the new requirements.

Now if only we could get journalists to take such prominent note of the costs that new regulations impose on other kinds of services, from lemonade stands to local restaurants to for-profit colleges to internet service providers.

Pre-Crime Software?

It sounds a little bit like the “pre-crime” unit featured in the 2002 film “Minority Report,” but news that Washington, D.C. will implement software to “predict” crime is not quite as worrisome as it might seem at first blush.

Beginning several years ago, the researchers assembled a dataset of more than 60,000 various crimes, including homicides. Using an algorithm they developed, they found a subset of people much more likely to commit homicide when paroled or probated. Instead of finding one murderer in 100, the UPenn researchers could identify eight future murderers out of 100.

Berk’s software examines roughly two dozen variables, from criminal record to geographic location. The type of crime, and more importantly, the age at which that crime was committed, were two of the most predictive variables.

Unlike applying data mining to detection of terrorism planning or preparation, which is exceedingly rare, using tens of thousands of examples of recidivism to discover predictive factors is a good way to focus supervision resources where they are most likely to be effective.

The article describes use of this software for monitoring parolees and probationers. Using data mining to justify anything approaching extra punishment would be a misuse, and many far more difficult issues would arise if it were used on the general population.

Biden’s Fatal Conceit

The White House’s misbegotten “Summer of Recovery” continued today with the release of another administration “analysis” that purportedly demonstrates the stimulus’s success in “transforming” the economy.

Vice President Joe Biden unveiled the report alongside Energy secretary Steven Chu and numerous businesses officials willing to serve as political props in return for Uncle Sam’s free candy. Biden bemoaned the nefarious “special interests” that were coddled by the previous administration. What does the vice president think those subsidized business officials attending his speech are called?

The money the White House has lavished on these privileged businesses isn’t free. The money comes from taxpayers—including businesses that do not enjoy the favor of the White House—who consequently have $100 billion (plus interest) less to spend or invest. Therefore, the fundamental question is: Are Joe Biden — an individual who has spent his entire career in government— and the Washington political class better at directing economic activity than the private sector?

Biden repeatedly stated that the “government plants the seed and the private sector makes it grow.” Because the government possesses no “seeds” that it didn’t first confiscate from the private sector, what the vice president is advocating is the redistribution of capital according to the dictates of the Beltway. This mindset exemplifies the arrogance of the political class, which at its core believes that free individuals are incapable of making the “right” decision without the guiding hand of the state.

Unfortunately for Joe Biden, the state’s hand guided the private sector into the economic downturn that the administration and its apologists would have us believe was a consequence of imaginary laissez faire policies. From the housing market planners at HUD to the money planners at the Federal Reserve, government interventions led to the economic turmoil that the perpetrating political class now claims it can fix.

Enough already.

The following are Cato resources that challenge the vice president’s breezy rhetoric on the ability of the federal government to direct economic growth:

  • Energy Subsidies: The government has spent billions of dollars over the decades on dead-end schemes and dubious projects that have often had large cost overruns.
  • Energy Regulations: Most federal intrusions into energy markets have been serious mistakes. They have destabilized markets, reduced domestic output, and decreased consumer welfare.
  • Energy Interventions: The current arguments for energy intervention and energy subsidies fall short.
  • High-Speed Rail: Policymakers are dumping billions of dollars into high-speed rail, even though foreign systems are money losers and carry only a small share of intercity passengers.
  • Special-Interest Spending: Many federal programs deliver subsidies to particular groups of individuals and businesses while harming taxpayers and damaging the overall economy.