Tag: disaster

Broken Windows All Over

It reminds us of the need to repeat, and repeat, and repeat the same messages.  Tornadoes, diseases, and wars are not good for “the economy.”  They may be good for hardware stores, doctors, and military contractors, but not for the rest of us.  Still, the New York Times couldn’t help but tell us on the front page that “Reconstruction Lifts Economy After Disasters.”

Frederic Bastiat exploded the fallacy long ago.  Here’s a modern (and shorter) retelling:

John Paul Stevens, Defender of High-Tech Freedom

I’m saddened to hear of the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens. Whatever you might say about his jurisprudence in other areas, one place where Justice Stevens really shined was in his defense of high-tech freedom.

Justice Stevens wrote the majority opinion in some of the most important high-tech cases of the last four decades. In other cases, he wrote important (and in some cases prescient) dissents. Through it all, he was a consistent voice for freedom of expression and the freedom to innovate. His accomplishments include:

  • Free speech: Justice Stevens wrote the majority decision in ACLU v. Reno, the decision that struck down the infamous Communications Decency Act and clearly established that the First Amendment applies to the Internet. In the 13 years since then, the courts have repeatedly beat back attacks on free speech online. For example, Justice Stevens was in the majority in ACLU v. Ashcroft, the 2004 decision that struck down another attempt to censor the Internet in the name of protecting children.
  • Copyright: Justice Stevens wrote the majority opinion in the 1984 case of Sony v. Universal, the case in which the Supreme Court upheld the legality of the VCR by a 5-4 vote. The decision, which today is known as the “Betamax decision” after the Sony VCR brand, made possible the explosion of digital media innovation that followed. When the recording industry tried to stop the introduction of the MP3 player in 1997, the Ninth Circuit cited the Betamax precedent in holding that “space shifting” with your MP3 player is permitted under copyright’s fair use doctrine. The iPod as we know it today probably wouldn’t exist if Sony had lost the Betamax case. Justice Stevens also wrote an important dissent in the 2003 decision of Eldred v. Ashcroft, in which he (like the Cato Institute) argued that the Constitution’s “limited times” provision precluded Congress from retroactively extending copyright terms.
  • Patents: The explosion of software patents is one of the biggest threats to innovation in the software industry, and Justice Stevens saw this threat coming almost three decades ago. Stevens wrote the majority decision in the 1978 case of Parker v. Flook, which clearly disallowed patents in the software industry. Three years later, Stevens dissented in the 1981 case of Diamond v. Diehr, which allowed a patent on a software-controlled rubber-curing machine. Although the majority decision didn’t explicitly permit patents on software, Stevens warned that the majority’s muddled decision would effectively open the door to software patents. And he has been proven right. In the three decades that followed, the patent-friendly U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has effectively dismantled limits on software patents. And the result has been a disaster, with high-tech firms being forced to spend large sums on litigation rather than innovation.

So if you enjoy your iPod and your uncensored Internet access, you have Justice Stevens to thank. Best wishes for a long, comfortable, and well-deserved retirement.

A $1.1 Billion Re-Election Campaign. For the Senate.

When Rep. Collin Peterson (D- Minn. and Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee) pronounces that a farm program is too generous, you know you’ve crossed a line.

But that’s what happened recently after Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark), Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman and – oh, hey, how about that? – facing a tough re-election battle in November proposed an extra $1.1 billion in emergency farm aid be added to a jobs/tax/unemployment/kitchen sink bill going through the Senate this week. These extra handouts would flow despite the fact that the 2008 farm bill contained ”reforms” (the so-called ”permanent disaster” program) ostensibly to put an end to politically-motivated ad hoc emergency aid of just the type that Senator Lincoln is pushing now.

For those who can stomach it, this excellent article by Dan Morgan, one of the nation’s best agriculture journalists, contains plenty of background information.

Earthquakes and Freedom: Chile vs. Haiti

Although some comparisons between Haiti’s 7.0 earthquake in January and Chile’s 8.8 quake this weekend have attributed the massive differences in devastation and lives lost (230,000 vs. some 700 respectively) to different enforcement of building codes and planning, the real reason for Chile’s superior ability to endure the disaster has everything to do with its vastly higher level of economic freedom, reliable rule of law, and the much higher level of prosperity that results. Here are three good articles that make those points:

Bret Stephens on “How Milton Friedman Saved Chile”

John Stossel on “A Tale of Two Quakes”

Anne Applebaum, “Chile and Haiti: A Look at Earthquakes and Politics”

And here’s a piece I wrote on Haiti explaining how economic freedom could have dramatically reduced death and destruction there.

Helping the Haitians

The tragedy unfolding in Haiti has elicited an outpouring of sympathy, and it is hardly surprising that governments and NGOs from all over the globe are mobilizing resources to aid in recovery. Help is flowing to the shattered island: teams trained in rescue operations, emergency medical services, security personnel, and financial aid. This type of assistance will likely continue for some time.

The U.S. military is also involved. Several Navy and Coast Guard vessels shipped out almost immediately. A few thousand Marines are helping to restore order, and more might soon be on the way. Such a ground presence makes sense, provided that the mission is carefully defined, and the long-term expectations are tempered by a dose of humility. The United States has, after all, intervened repeatedly in Haiti, and it remains the poorest country in the hemisphere. One might even conclude that our interventions have contributed to Haiti’s chronic problems, a consideration which should give pause to those calling for the United States to commit to a long-term project to fix the country.

One can make an argument against sending military assets to deal with such crises. A nation’s military is designed and built for one purpose – to defend the nation – and when it is deployed for missions that do not serve that narrow purpose there is a risk that the institutions will be rendered less capable of responding to genuine threats. I question the wisdom of humanitarian intervention on those grounds in my book, The Power Problem, stipulating, among other things, that the U.S. military should be sent abroad only when vital U.S. interests are at stake.

All that said, President Obama’s decision to swiftly deploy U.S. personnel to Haiti is appropriate on at least two grounds. First, sending troops into harm’s way – and usually into the middle of a civil conflict, as we did in the Balkans and in Iraq – is very different from mobilizing our formidable military assets to ameliorate suffering after a natural disaster. The latter types of interventions are less likely to engender the ire of the people on the losing end (and there always are losers). Humanitarian missions are also less likely to arouse the suspicion of neighbors who might question the intervener’s intentions. Indeed, there was a measurable outpouring of support and goodwill toward the United States after the Bush administration deployed U.S. military personnel in and around Indonesia following the horrific tsunami of late 2004. Genuine humanitarian missions, “armed philanthropy” as MIT’s Barry Posen calls it, are likely to be far less costly than armed regime change/nation-building missions that must contend with insurgents intent on taking their country back from the foreign occupier.

Another important consideration is a country’s interests in its respective region. Humanitarian crises, even those whose effects are confined within a particular country’s borders, often pose a national security threat to neighboring states. What has happened in Haiti over the past 48 hours might meet that criteria, but the White House’s immediate motivations seem purely altruistic. My frustration is that the U.S. policy since the end of the Cold War of actively discouraging other countries from defending themselves ensures that they will have little to offer when a similar natural disaster occurs in their own backyard, which means that the U.S. military is expected to act – even when our own interests are not at stake.

But that is a discussion for another time. The scale of the tragedy in nearby Haiti cries out for swift action, and I am pleased to see that many organizations – both public and private – have stepped forward to help. I wish these efforts well.

Health Reform: Blame Mitt

If – and it is still a big “if – Democrats pass a health bill, that bill will owe as much to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney as to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. In fact, with the so-called “public option” out of the Senate health bill, the final product increasingly looks like the failed Massachusetts experiment.  Consider that the final bill will likely include:

  • An individual mandate
  • A weak employer-mandate
  • An Exchange (Connector)
  • Middle-class subsidies
  • Insurance regulation (already in place in Massachusetts before Romney’s reforms)

As to why this will be a disaster for American taxpayers, workers, and patients, I’ve written about it here, and my colleague Michael Cannon has covered it here and here.

Gee, thanks, Mitt.

Tom Ridge on the Bush Administration’s War on Terror

Former congressman, governor, and secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Tom Ridge is a long-time GOP loyalist.  But he apparently doesn’t have good things to say about the Bush administration on its vaunted war on terrorism.

A new report on his upcoming book warns:

Tom Ridge, the first head of the 9/11-inspired Department of Homeland Security, wasn’t keen on writing a tell-all. But in The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege…and How We Can Be Safe Again, out September 1, Ridge says he wants to shake “public complacency” over security.

And to do that, well, he needs to tell all. Especially about the infighting he saw that frustrated his attempts to build a smooth-running department. Among the headlines promoted by publisher Thomas Dunne Books: Ridge was never invited to sit in on National Security Council meetings; was “blindsided” by the FBI in morning Oval Office meetings because the agency withheld critical information from him; found his urgings to block Michael Brown from being named head of the emergency agency blamed for the Hurricane Katrina disaster ignored; and was pushed to raise the security alert on the eve of President Bush’s re-election, something he saw as politically motivated and worth resigning over.

This confirms widespread suspicion that the Bush administration’s terrorism initiatives were highly political.  It also undercuts the claim that we should trust government to protect us by sacrificing our liberties and giving trustworthy public servants greater discretion.