Topic: General

Some Good News from the Court for a Change

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning struck down a set of restrictions on campaign finance enacted by Vermont. Six members of the court believed Vermont’s spending limits and extremely low contribution limits violated the First Amendment.

The six justices agreed that the Vermont law was invalid. But they disagreed about quite a bit, too. Justices Breyer, Roberts and Alito focused on the shortcomings of the Vermont law. Breyer and Roberts also rejected Vermont’s demand that Buckley v. Valeo be overturned. Justices Thomas and Scalia concurred in the opinion but rightly called for overturning Buckley in order to offer better protections for political speech. Justice Kennedy rightly expressed dismay with the Court’s recent campaign finance jurisprudence. In the larger picture, he seems closer to Thomas and Scalia than the other three in the majority.

This ruling was expected, but nonetheless good news. The majority opinion shows that we now have a majority of the court who recognize some limits on the power of the state over political speech. After McConnell v. FEC, it was far from clear than the judiciary would draw any lines limiting state restrictions on speech.

Still, this is hardly a robust affirmation of the First Amendment, and it is somewhat discouraging that the new justices, Roberts and Alito, were unwilling to overturn past errors by earlier majorities on the Court.

Well That’s Another Fine Mess You’ve Gotten Us into

AARP and Families USA are screaming about rising prescription drug prices, without and within Medicare Part D. The New York Times is calling for price controls on drugs purchased under Part D.

A 2004 study by the Manhattan Institute estimated that applying the type of price controls found in Medicaid and the Veterans Health Administration to Medicare would reduce pharmaceutical R&D by nearly 40 percent and reduce Americans’ aggregate lifespans by 277 million life-years.

In other words, the logic of “negotiating drug prices” is that everyone under the age of 65 should die one year sooner so 42 million geezers (sorry, Dad) can save a few bucks on Lipitor. But is the logic of opposing price controls that workers should have to pay through the nose to pump these geezers full of drugs?

Part D puts us all in a no-win situation: either pay up and bankrupt the nation or control prices, suppress R&D, and prepare to check out early. It is a trap, set by the Left and sprung by the GOP.

That’s why – if the repeal train has left the station – the only sane option left is a radical overhaul of the entire program. With a little luck, Republicans will come to see the box in which they have put themselves and rediscover their interest in Medicare reform.

Intelligence Failures

Sunday’s Washington Post featured an in-depth story on the infamous “Curveball” – the notoriously unreliable source at the center of the Bush administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein had a functioning WMD program in early 2003. Both President Bush and then-Secretary of State Colin Powell referred to Iraq’s mobile biological laboratories in major speeches in the run-up to war, despite the fact that a number of senior CIA analysts had doubts about Curveball’s credibility. When asked to verify Curveball’s reports, German intelligence officials would not do so. One told the CIA’s Tyler Drumheller, as Drumheller tells the Post: “I think the guy is a fabricator…We could never validate his reports.”

Most of the attention on the Iraq war has focused on the administration’s WMD claims. (Alas, the story still doesn’t go away.) And it is certainly true that the American public would have been far less supportive of the Iraq war at the outset if they knew that a key component of Iraq’s WMD program was a figment of one man’s imagination.

But the broader intelligence failure did not pertain to Iraq’s supposed WMD program; rather, it had to do with the Bush administration’s misplaced confidence that a stable functioning democracy could be quickly established in Iraq. Richard Perle, one of the leading advocates for war with Iraq, and now an advocate of confrontation with Iran (see yesterday’s Post Outlook section), still thinks this was the case. As Justin Logan and I write in our Policy Analysis, “Failed States and Flawed Logic”:

Perle would admit in the summer of 2003 that the DOD civilians’ plan centered on installing Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi as the new leader of Iraq. In Perle’s view, had the Chalabi plan been enacted, “we’d be in much better shape today.”

But Perle’s (and the Bush administration’s) confidence in Chalabi was badly misplaced. As John Hulsman and Alexis Debat explain in the most recent issue of The National Interest:

the administration simply backed the wrong horse in supporting Chalabi…In its appreciation of the impeccably tailored and mannered Chalabi, the administration failed to question how his exile status and Western orientation, indeed the very qualities that made him a neoconservative fantasy ruler for Iraq, would impair his leadership capability.

Just as there were officials inside of government who were skeptical of the WMD claims, so too did government experts try to warn the Bush administration that the post-conflict period would be protracted and costly. As I wrote over two years ago, the failure to heed these warnings has been, and is likely to be, far more costly that the “failed intelligence” on Iraqi WMDs.

Protecting Your Privacy

As I purchased $10 worth of trinkets at the Container Store, the clerk began the transaction by saying, “May I have your phone number?” I replied, “Uh, no.” And that was that; without any objection he rang up the transaction. 

One way people can protect their privacy is by saying “no” more often. Companies ask for information, but they often don’t require it.

A couple of years ago, a guard at the White House looked at my driver’s license and told me, “You shouldn’t use your Social Security number as your driver’s license number.” So there’s another tip: ask the DMV to assign you a random number for your license.

None of this, of course, will stop your bank or phone company from giving up your information when the feds ask. But there are steps everyone can take to keep our lives just a little more private.

Still Fighting the Last War

The right half of the blogosphere is abuzz with Senator Santorum’s revelation that since 2003 Coalition forces have recovered some 500 pre-1991 artillery shells and other munitions that contain “degraded mustard or sarin nerve agent.” (Not much of a revelation, given that in 2004 the Coalition’s Iraq Survey Group acknowledged the existence [.pdf, p. 18] of pre-Gulf-War shells).

It’s all a bit sad and embarrassing. Do the folks trumpeting this story really expect Americans to hear it and gasp: “My God: Saddam might have put some of those degraded mustard gas shells on his unmanned aerial vehicles, and dusted an American city. I’ve had my doubts about this war, but in the end, it was worth it after all!”

The WMD-based justification for the war never made much sense. As Gregg Easterbrook (among others) has pointed out, “WMD” is a misnomer, particularly when applied to chemical weapons: “Chemical weapons are dangerous, to be sure, but not ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in any meaningful sense. In actual use, chemical arms have proven less deadly than regular bombs, bullets, and artillery shells.” Sure, all of that stuff will kill you, if used properly. But none of it is worthy of the scare term “WMD”–certainly not the sort of decrepit ordnance Santorum’s talking about. Still less can it serve as post hoc justification for the war.

Rube Goldberg, Call Your Office

In a recent blog post, I mentioned L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s quest for control over his city’s public schools.

Well, he got it. Sort of.

After concessions to appease both the teachers’ unions and the school board, the L.A. school district chain of command will soon look like it was designed by Rube Goldberg. On acid.

The Mayor will have more or less complete control over a dozen or so especially troubled schools, and veto power over the Superintendency. The superintendent will gain budgeting powers, except over the union employee contract (which is, of course, the biggest budget item). Teachers and principals will be made no more accountable to parents, but they will gain the power to set their schools’ curricula. The board will negotiate the union contract – except of course that they will lose control over what teachers actually teach. Oy vey.

Had Villaraigosa won the supreme authortity he was seeking, it would have meant a transfer of monopoly power from the board to the mayor, and would have done nothing for the city’s kids. The deal that has been cobbled together amounts to a monopolist with multiple personality disorder. Its prospects are, if anything, even bleaker.

What L.A. needs is for power to be returned to parents. The educational chain of command should involve two parties: the school and the family. If the school fails to measure up, the family should be able to easily move its children elsewhere.

Any other “accountability reform” is self-serving political quackery.