Archives: 12/2013

China Grapples with Mao Zedong’s Legacy at His 120th Birthday

December 26 is the 120th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s birth, typically a date of great celebration in China. But this year the Chinese government seems somewhat ambivalent about celebrating Mao’s disastrous achievements. It’s about time. 

Many countries have a founding myth that inspires and sustains a national culture. We’ve just seen South Africa and the world celebrate the accomplishments of Nelson Mandela, the founder of that nation’s modern, multi-racial democracy. In the United States we look to the American Revolution and especially to the ideas in the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776. 

The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, is the most eloquent libertarian essay in history, especially its philosophical core:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The ideas of the Declaration, given legal form in the Constitution, took the United States of America from a small frontier outpost on the edge of the developed world to the richest country in the world in scarcely a century. The country failed in many ways to live up to the vision of the Declaration, notably in the institution of chattel slavery. But over the next two centuries that vision inspired Americans to extend the promises of the Declaration—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—to more and more people.

China of course followed a different vision, the vision of Mao Zedong. Take Mao’s speech on July 1, 1949, as his Communist armies neared victory. The speech was titled, “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship.” Instead of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it spoke of “the extinction of classes, state power and parties,” of “a socialist and communist society,” of the nationalization of private enterprise and the socialization of agriculture, of a “great and splendid socialist state” in Russia, and especially of “a powerful state apparatus” in the hands of a “people’s democratic dictatorship.”

Tragically, unbelievably, this vision appealed not only to many Chinese but even to Americans and Europeans, some of them prominent. But from the beginning it went terribly wrong, as really should have been predicted. Communism created desperate poverty in China. The “Great Leap Forward” led to mass starvation. The Cultural Revolution unleashed “an extended paroxysm of revolutionary madness”  in which “tens of millions of innocent victims were persecuted, professionally ruined, mentally deranged, physically maimed and even killed.” Estimates of the number of unnatural deaths during Mao’s tenure range from 15 million to 80 million. This is so monstrous that we can’t really comprehend it. What inspired many American and European leftists was that Mao really seemed to believe in the communist vision. And the attempt to actually implement communism leads to disaster and death.

Denmark Without the Danish? A Crisis of EU Regulation

Two of my lifelong interests — government over-regulation and scrumptious Scandinavian baked goods — have finally intersected:

…scientists have now discovered that too much of the most commonly used type of cinnamon, cassia, can cause liver damage thanks to high levels of coumarin, a natural ingredient found in the spice.

The EU has accordingly decreed that coumarin levels must be kept below 50 mg per kg in “traditional” or “seasonal” foodstuffs eaten only occasionally, and 15 mg per kg in everyday “fine baked goods.” This is triggering a crisis in Denmark:

Last month, the Danish food authority ruled that the nation’s famous cinnamon swirls were neither traditional nor seasonal, thus limiting the quantity of cinnamon that bakers are allowed to use, placing the pastry at risk – and sparking a national outcry that could be dubbed the great Danish bake strop.

The president of the Danish Bakers’ Association, Hardy Christensen, said: “We’ve been making bread and cakes with cinnamon for 200 years. Then suddenly the government says these pastries are not traditional? I have been a baker for 43 years and never come across anything like this – it’s crazy. Using lower amounts of the spice will change the distinctive flavour and produce less tasty pastries. Normally, we do as we’re told by the government and say OK, but now it’s time to take a stand. Enough is enough.”

The one thing cinnamon buns have been missing all these years is a sense of outlaw defiance of authority. Now they are perfect. [adapted from Overlawyered]

A Stinting Round of Presidential Drug Pardons

Last week President Obama commuted the sentences of eight inmates caught up in the crack cocaine sentencing fury, all of whom had served at least 15 years for what was often relatively peripheral involvement in the drug trade. Clarence Aaron, for example, was serving three life sentences without possibility of parole for a first-time nonviolent offense. Many advocates from all political viewpoints pushed for Aaron’s release, among them Debra Saunders who wrote dozens of columns on his case in the San Francisco Chronicle over the past 12 years. 

I’ve got a new op-ed for Bloomberg View (my first appearance there) calling the new venture in presidential clemency “mingy and belated”: 

 

According to the Washington Post, one of the administration’s motives was, oddly, its wish to help “eliminate overcrowding in federal prisons.”

If that’s the case, Obama is trying to bail out Lake Michigan with a paint can. The federal prison population has increased by more than 700 percent since 1980 and the number of inmates now exceeds the Bureau of Prisons bed capacity by 35 percent to 40 percent, requiring the use of contract prisons, halfway houses and other makeshifts.

Even if the president could free another batch of eight prisoners every week for a year, his mercy will still have touched only about one-fifth of 1 percent of the inmates in federal prisons.

One argument I’ve heard on behalf of the White House is that this is a trial balloon, and if the President doesn’t suffer political damage from it, he may be back with broader pardons later, perhaps after the mid-term elections. It’s a politically coherent argument, I suppose, but I can’t think it’s one that’s especially flattering to Obama as he will appear to later historians. 

[cross-posted and adapted from Overlawyered]

Scientific Breakthroughs of the Year 2013

I hope that many of you had a chance to check out Cato’s new website: www.humanprogress.org.

In the same vein, here is a just-released video put together by the folks at Science Magazine summing up the greatest scientific advances of 2013:

As G.K. Chesterton put it, ”The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.”

It’s a Very Merry Christmas for Washington Insiders

Last year, while writing about the corrupt and self-serving behavior at the IRS, I came up with a theorem that explains day-to-day behavior in Washington.

Simply stated, government is a racket that benefits the D.C. political elite by taking money from average people in America

I realize this is an unhappy topic to be discussing during the Christmas season, but the American people need to realize that they are being pillaged by the insiders that control Washington and live fat and easy lives at our expense.

If you don’t believe me, check out this map showing that 10 of the 15 richest counties in America are the ones surrounding our nation’s imperial capital.

Who would have guessed that the wages of sin are so high?

D.C., itself, isn’t on the list. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of people living large inside the District.

Spreading Some Holiday Cheer: Global Warming Not Always ‘Worse Than We Thought’

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

We know this: Every holiday season some of our readers make some offhanded comment at a party, to the effect that, well, global warming (or its effects) appear to have been a bit overblown. Before you finish, you’re likely to be assaulted by a sharp ranch dressing-laden carrot stick or you might get a face full of dill-dipped broccoli.

Fight back! Before things escalate to the level of food assaults, trot out some of the facts in this, our annual guide for holiday parties.

First of all, the tendency for prominent findings about the impacts from human-caused global warming to be “worse than we thought” is not only a pure play for press coverage, but also strains, if not obliterates, scientific credibility.

The unscientific preponderance of “worse than we thought” stories is starting to become more widely recognized (although we have been talking about it for years). And it is having consequences. Fresh from accepting his Nobel Prize for physiology/medicine, University of California’s Randy Schekman announced that his lab would no longer be sending any research papers to “luxury journals” like Science and Nature because of their preference to select papers “that will make waves because they explore sexy subjects.” Schekman explains that “These journals aggressively curate their brands, in ways more conducive to selling subscriptions than to stimulating the most important research.” Global warming alarmism is a prime example of this.

In fact, there are scientific studies that conclude that things aren’t likely to be worse than we thought, but looking to the “luxury journals” or to the press to highlight them is a fool’s errand.

But that’s where we can help!

In the spirit of this season of good cheer, and as a respite for the increasing number of those out there suffering from “apocalypse fatigue,” your obedient servants at the Center for the Study of Science are here to bring you a little holiday joy and good news.

Below, we’ve collected some clips and quips culled from the recently published scientific  literature (and observations) that show that perhaps the impacts from climate change resulting from our production of energy from fossil fuels isn’t going to worse than we thought—and, in fact, may not prove to be so bad at all.

Carbon Taxes vs. Carbon Subsidies

To address global warming, many economists advocate raising carbon taxes while lowering income taxes or other distorting taxes. This makes sense in principle—if global warming concerns are valid—but in practice the approach can easily generate more cost than benefit.

For those who believe global warming merits a policy response, therefore, the question is whether any policy change can generate greater benefit than cost.

The answer is yes: removal of existing carbon subsidies. As documented by economist Lucas Davis (Berkeley), many countries keep gasoline and diesel prices far below market levels, thus encouraging over-consumption. These subsidies harm economic efficiency, independent of global warming.

Other policies have the same features as carbon subsidies: they reduce economic efficiency and encourage over-consumption of energy. One example is the deductibility of mortgage interest, which means bigger houses and therefore higher heating and cooling bills. A second example is agriculture subsidies, which encourage production in inefficient locales that require energy-intensive techniques like irrigation.

Repeal of all such policies is thus a no-brainer. When policy is shooting the economy in the foot, the best response is less shooting, not new taxes to fund a bullet-proof shoe.