Topic: Government and Politics

Democrats and Civil Liberties

Back during a blogosphere brouhaha about “libertarian Democrats,” Jesse Walker of Reason offered this advice to Democratic candidates who wanted to attract libertarian votes:

The short answer – and this applies to Republican candidates too – is: (a) Don’t be as bad as the other guy, and (b) Be actively good on at least one important issue.

He went on to urge Democrats to “Be good on the issues where the left is supposed to be good.” Like, you know, peace and civil liberties. And the problem for libertarians who are tired of being yoked to an increasingly less libertarian Republican party is that the Democrats aren’t following this advice. Not only have they seized on their narrow 2006 victory to start pushing for national health insurance, more regulation, public housing, and a budget that implicitly requires a massive tax increase, they have dithered about the war in Iraq and completely ignored real civil liberties reforms. Democrats are far more concerned about the firings of eight U.S. attorneys than about the authority the president claims to arrest American citizens and hold them without access to a lawyer or a judge.

Now two leading lefty pundits have called the Democrats out on these issues. Arianna Huffington wants to know when the Democratic presidential candidates are going to say something about the war on drugs. She’s embarrassed to have to admit that a conservative Republican senator from Alabama, Jeff Sessions, thinks the penalties for crack cocaine use are excessive, while liberal Democrats look the other way.

And John Nichols of the Nation thinks Democratic candidates ought to be able to endorse a package of constitutional reforms being supported by the chairman of the American Conservative Union. The American Freedom Agenda, endorsed by several prominent conservatives, envisions such reforms as

  • Restore habeas corpus to prevent the illegal imprisonment of American citizens;
  • Prohibit torture and extraordinary rendition;
  • Prohibit unconstitutional wiretaps, email and mail openings via warrantless searches.

Nichols thinks Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards don’t endorse such goals because they’re cautious politicians. Maybe. Or maybe it’s because they want to be president, and they want to exercise just as much power as President Bush exercises.

So far it’s hard to find the issue(s) on which Democrats are “actively good.” Maybe their 2008 strategy for attracting moderates, centrists, and libertarian-leaning voters is to hope the Republicans keep on spending, centralizing, preaching, incarcerating, and struggling in Iraq.

Hollywood For the Stylish

I loved this. It seems that there is a push (led by a fashion lawyer and a fashion show consultant, no less) for Washington, D.C. to get its own version of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. According to today’s Yeas and Nays column in the Examiner (second item), a few D.C. council members are pushing to create a “Commission on Fashion Arts and Events.” It will “recognize the achievements of D.C.’s burgeoning fashion community” (really) and dedicate a section of the “city’s landscape” for fashion retail.

Howard Dean Overwhelmingly Wrong Again

In the Democratic party’s weekly radio response to President Bush, Democratic National Chair Howard Dean said, “It’s time for the President to show respect to the American people, who voted overwhelmingly to leave Iraq.”

One can support withdrawal from the floundering war with Iraq without getting carried away.  The Democrats indeed took control of Congress in the last election, but the results were hardly overwhelming, nor is it clear that the vote was primarily about Iraq. In the House elections, Democrats carried the total popular vote by almost 5 million, or 52.0 to 45.6 percent. In the previous election, the Republicans had a margin of almost 3 million, but then about 37 million more people voted that year, so to some extent the shift in 2006 was a result of more Republicans than Democrats staying home.

As for Iraq, Democrats did best in 2006 among voters who said Iraq was “extremely important” or “not at all important” to them. A Democratic polling firm found that Iraq was the most important issue in the election, especially among people who voted for Democrats, though it was still only cited as most important by 37 percent. And in the exit polls corruption, terrorism, and the economy were all named as “extremely important” by slightly larger numbers of voters than Iraq.

Republican over-spending, corruption, the religious right, health care, perceptions of a weak economy, immigration, Iraq – lots of issues pushed voters toward the Democrats in 2006. We should be careful not to over-interpret the results of any election, as elections inevitably involve many factors. In any case, a swing of 3 or 4 percent toward the Democrats in a low-turnout election is hardly evidence of any “overwhelming” vote, much less an overwhelming referendum on any issue.

Federal Stem Cell Funding in the Future?

On Thursday, April 12, two bills dealing with embryonic stem cell funding will come up for votes by the U.S. Senate. The president has promised to veto one of the bills should it come to his desk, but he supports the other. Ironically, the vague language of one of the bills and subsequent confusion in the press regarding the provisions of both bills have made passage of a funding bill more likely.

Here is my summary of what the bills would do: S. 5, which is essentially the same bill as the one passed by the House in January, allows federal funding of a wide range of embryonic stem cell research. S. 30, a “compromise” bill negotiated with the White House, allows federal funding of embryonic stem cell research but of a kind that is essentially worthless.

But that is not how the bills have been described in the press. Two examples follow:

The Washington Times reported this morning:

The White House yesterday signaled support for legislation that provides federal funding for stem-cell research using embryonic cells that have no chance of surviving.

The legislation, authored by Sen. Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican, seeks a middle ground in the highly charged debate over stem-cell research. His bill skirts moral concerns over using embryonic stem cells while ensuring federal funding for the breakthrough science.

Mr. Isakson’s bill would allow scientists to conduct research on embryos they determine are incapable of surviving in the womb but whose stem cells are still viable for research. The bill would also allow funding for research on stem cells from embryos that have died during fertility treatments.

The Kaiser Family Foundation’s Kaisernetwork.org reported something similar:

The White House on Thursday announced its support for a bill (S 30), co-sponsored by Sens. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), that would allow federal funding for stem cell research using embryos with no chance of survival, the Washington Times reports (Lopes, Washington Times, 4/6).

Currently, federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research is allowed only for research using embryonic stem cell lines created on or before Aug. 9, 2001, under a policy announced by President Bush on that date.

Coleman and Isakson’s measure would fund research on stem cells taken from “dead” human embryos or extracted from living embryos without destroying them. In addition, it would allow federal funding for research on stem cell lines derived from embryos that are not likely to survive during the freezing process or in the womb.

I’m sure the reporters who wrote those articles had access to some interpretations by members of Congress or the White House to which I’m not privy. But I don’t see much similarity between what they describe and the actual language of the two pieces of legislation. Here is what the two bills, in relevant part, actually say:

S 30: It is the purpose of this Act to—

(1) intensify research that may result in improved understanding of or treatments for diseases and other adverse health conditions; and

(2) promote the derivation of pluripotent stem cell lines without the creation of human embryos for research purposes and without the destruction or discarding of, or risk of injury to, a human embryo or embryos other than those that are naturally dead.

By contrast, 

S 5: (b) Ethical Requirements— Human embryonic stem cells shall be eligible for use in any research conducted or supported by the Secretary if the cells meet each of the following:

(1) The stem cells were derived from human embryos that have been donated from in vitro fertilization clinics, were created for the purposes of fertility treatment, and were in excess of the clinical need of the individuals seeking such treatment.

(2) Prior to the consideration of embryo donation and through consultation with the individuals seeking fertility treatment, it was determined that the embryos would never be implanted in a woman and would otherwise be discarded.

(3) The individuals seeking fertility treatment donated the embryos with written informed consent and without receiving any financial or other inducements to make the donation.

The appeal of S. 30 to both sides of the debate may be that “without risk of injury” is open to interpretation. Those in favor of embryonic stem cell research can claim that funding for research done without the intent of injuring embryos, even if it in fact might injure some embryos, is acceptable. Those who worry about the well-being of embryos are likely to interpret the phrase very narrowly, as not allowing the funding of any research with even a potential for harming embryos.

The result will be the same whether both, neither, or one of the bills is passed. The nonsensical waste of time debating federal funding will continue, while researchers who truly care about making progress will do so with private funding.

Great Moments in Government

In the private sector, there is a bottom-line incentive to obtain the best supplies at the cheapest price. In government bureaucracies, by contrast, there is little incentive to be frugal. Instead, the focus is on mindless paperwork and onerous regulation.

The process for obtaining paper towels on Capitol Hill is a good example. Even the Washington Post is unable to resist a tongue-in-cheek tone in an article about the search:

The office of the Architect of the Capitol, which is responsible for stocking paper towels in bathrooms throughout the Capitol complex, recently released its requirements for paper supplies to potential vendors.

…The specifications, written with the detail only your massive federal bureaucracy could provide, spell out eight requirements for towels fit for the Capitol. Among them: “C-fold paper towels provided shall have a minimum unfolded width of 10.25 inches, with a permissible variance of plus .25 or minus .50 inches, and maximum length of 14 inches. Each towel shall have a minimum area of 130 square inches. The folded width of each towel shall be 3 inches, with a permissible variance of plus .25 or minus .50 inches. The rate of absorption of paper towel material provided shall not be greater than 20 seconds for the absorption of 0.1 milliliter of water on any representative sample of paper towel as submitted. The color of the paper towel shall be white, with a minimum brightness rating of 70 when measured in accordance with the requirements of test method T-452 of the Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industries. The minimum thickness of 12 single plies of the paper towel material provided shall be 0.070 inch when measured under an applied pressure of 0.5 psig.”

And we won’t even get into the “average bursting strength” requirement of the two-ply toilet paper. 

The Sound of No ‘Peak’ Story Popping

Last week, in a Capitol Hill press conference featuring congressmen Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.),  the Government Accountability Office unveiled a new report on the looming catastrophe the United States faces from “peak oil.” With gas prices up and environmental stories popping in the press, Bartlett, Udall, and the GAO had to be thinking they’d have a hit on their hands.

So, if a GAO report falls on Capitol Hill and the media ignores it, does it count as news?

I can find no coverage of the press conference or the report in either the New York Times or the Washington Post. The only mention of it on either of those papers’ websites is in a transcript of an online chat session with Post politics reporter Lois Romano, wherein a reader asks if the Bartlett-Udall press conference will generate buzz.  Romano’s response (in essence): What press conference?

In fairness, the report did get a bit of play: the AP moved a short story on it and the WSJ briefed it. But no one is interviewed in either story, and the two pieces have the whiff of being quickly typed up from a press release. In other words, the media decided the report didn’t merit any real attention.

Peak oil, if you’ve never heard the term, is the theory that oil, as a finite resource, will grow increasingly difficult and expensive to extract over time. At some point, the global extraction rate will peak and then decline because of the increasing cost and difficulty.

The GAO report investigates the theory and comes up with three scintillating conclusions (I’m paraphrasing):

(1)  The world will indeed reach an oil peak — in the next few years, or the next 15 years, or the next 35 years, or the next 70 years, or sometime in the 22nd century.

(2)  It’s currently unclear how the United States will adjust to declining production rates when they do occur.

(3)  We’re all doomed, doomed I tellz ya’!

OK, (3) is hyperbolic — but just a tiny bit.

The notion of peak oil gained currency back in the early 1970s, a little more than a decade after geophysicist Marion King Hubbert correctly predicted that (Lower-48) U.S.-produced oil would peak around 1970. (Peak oil theory is often referred to as “Hubbert’s peak.”)

But Hubbert wasn’t the first person to come up with the concept. The notion dates at least to 1875 (yes, 1875) when John Strong Newberry claimed the oil peak was imminent. From then on, there’ve been many versions of the same refrain: The End (of oil) is nigh.

In respect to Newberry, Hubbert, Bartlett, Udall, and all the other “end is nigh” guys, there is validity to their theory. At some point in the future, the rate of global oil production will max out and then begin to decline. And it’s quite possible that we may not have cheap and easy substitutes for oil when that occurs, so there’ll be some significant changes for the world. But it’s also quite possible that we’ll develop substitutes for oil long before the cost of extraction, by itself, produces an oil peak; instead, the peak would result from our preferring — and thus shifting to — the substitutes. After all, that’s what has produced many previous natural resource shifts.

But let’s assume the former scenario plays out. Does that mean we are, indeed, doomed? And should we thus adopt the GAO report’s two policy recommendations that the U.S. government (1) carry out a massive global information-gathering effort to determine when the oil peak will occur, and (2) orchestrate a bold, unified national program to prepare for the peak oil transition to substitutes?

Let’s consider the policy recommendations first. Given the U.S. government’s track record on determining Iraq’s supply of weapons of mass destruction, how wise would it be to rely on the government to estimate the future supply of known and unknown sources of oil in Iraq, Iran, Saudi, Nigeria, Russia, Kuwait, Syria, Venezuela, China, Cuba, under the world’s oceans, etc.? How reliable would be government projections of the future technological developments that will increase human abilities to access that oil? Moreover, given that the U.S. government’s only great success in developing and broadly implementing an alternative energy program is nuclear power, do we really want it to be orchestrating a national program for a major transition to new energy sources? (I won’t mention the risk that the government, in carrying out these policies, would “fix” its findings and efforts around various politicians’ agendas.) If we are solely dependent on government to save us from the ruination of peak oil, then we probably are doomed.

So, does this mean that we should do nothing? Quite the opposite, quite the opposite — we should, and already are, acting boldly on energy. There are countless scientists, engineers, business executives, economists, and others, both in the United States and abroad, exploring and developing all sorts of transition strategies and technologies to substitute for oil. And there are countless scientists, engineers, business executives, and others, both in the United States and elsewhere, who are exploring and developing strategies and technologies to extend the life of the oil we have yet to extract. And we consumers have the best (and only necessary) incentive to utilize those developments when it makes sense to do so — we have to pay for the oil and alternative energies that we use. Those dynamics are far broader, more powerful, and more effective than any government Great (Energy) Leap Forward would be.

Bartlett, Udall, and the GAO are correct to be thinking about peak oil. But realizing that oil will peak one day is only the beginning of a thoughtful policy discussion, not the clinching demonstration that immediate government action is necessary. The only necessary (and sufficient) government energy policy is to allow consumers, innovators and entrepreneurs the degrees of freedom to make their own energy choices and to experience the costs and benefits of those choices.

Government is not the sole enlightened, rational actor on the planet. (Some might say the word “sole” should be removed from the previous sentence.) Somehow, we need to get the politicians to discover that.

Politicians — You Gotta Love ‘Em

Of what other group can it be said that you really can’t trust anything they say? Sure, Mary McCarthy said of Lillian Hellman that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ” But she didn’t say that about writers as a group.

Mitt Romney’s newfound deep commitment to social conservatism has drawn lots of skepticism. But now he’s rewriting his life story in the fashion of lifelong Yankees fan Hillary Clinton and coal miners’ boy Joe Biden:

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) is taking some heat for not packing it.

Campaigning in New Hampshire this week, the candidate for the Republican presidential nomination told an audience that he is a “lifelong hunter,” according to the Associated Press. “I’ve been a hunter pretty much all my life,” the news service reported.

But the campaign now acknowledges that the former governor has been hunting twice in his life — once when he was young and lived on a ranch in Idaho, and more recently on a quail-hunting trip in Georgia with GOP donors.

Politicians — you gotta love ‘em.