Stenographers to the Powerful

There’s a mini-scandal brewing over a Time magazine column by Joe Klein that attacked House Democrats for playing politics with the domestic wiretapping issue. Klein wrote that the House Democratic proposal would, among other things, “require the surveillance of every foreign-terrorist target’s calls to be approved by the FISA court” and “give terrorists the same legal protections as Americans.” In an accompanying blog post he accuses Democrats of standing in the way of sensible legislation “because of blind, stupid partisan politics.”

Now, as Ryan Singel ably demonstrates virtually every word of the FISA discussion in Klein’s article is false. The Dems’ proposal doesn’t require court approval to intercept communications overseas, nor does it “give terrorists the same legal protections as Americans.” The bill isn’t that long or complicated; had Klein bothered to actually read it, it would have been obvious that these characterizations were false. Klein even seems confused about which legislation the House has been considering. Klein issued a weasely follow-up post on his blog on Saturday conceding that he “may have made a mistake” in discussing the details of the bill but sticking by his “larger point” that House Democrats were to blame for holding up sensible legislation.

Today, Time issued its own correction to the online version of the column, and will apparently print that correction in the magazine as well. It reads, in its entirety:

In the original version of this story, Joe Klein wrote that the House Democratic version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) would allow a court review of individual foreign surveillance targets. Republicans believe the bill can be interpreted that way, but Democrats don’t.

As Glenn Greenwald points out, it’s hard to find a pithier summation of all that’s wrong with our nation’s media elites. The editors of the nation’s most popular newsweekly apparently don’t believe it’s their job to evaluate the two sides’ competing claims and decide which is more credible. They seem to believe that “balance” simply requires faithfully transcribing each side’s claims. Even when one side’s claims is clearly true and the other side’s claim is clearly false, it’s not the reporter’s job to say so, or even to quote an independent expert saying so.

And that, of course, leaves Time’s four million readers with the erroneous impression that the Democrats want to give overseas terrorists the same legal protection as American citizens. Most readers aren’t going to take the time to read the bill and disentangle the competing claims. Most don’t read Glenn Greenwald’s blog, Ryan Singel’s blogs, or Cato@Liberty.

It’s worth mentioning the broader context here. The House Democrats’ bill, known as the Restore Act, is far from perfect. It allows the executive branch to intercept foreign-to-domestic calls on American soil without a warrant in certain circumstances, which I think runs afoul of the spirit of the Fourth Amendment. But the legislation is much better than the Protect America Act Congress passed in August, and better than the companion legislation being discussed in the Senate. And the House Democrats have resisted intense lobbying from the telecommunications industry to give them retroactive blanket immunity for illegally sharing their customers’ private information with the government. They deserve more credit than anyone else in Congress or the White House for putting principle above political expediency.

Klein has rewarded them for their courage by repeating inaccurate Republican talking points and thereby smearing them as soft on terrorism. By refusing to print a meaningful correction—one that points out that the Democrats proposal does not, in fact, “give terrorists the same legal protections as Americans”—they are perpetuating the false impression that thousands of ordinary Time readers got from Klein’s column. And they are also starkly revealing the sad state of elite journalism.

Constitutional Reform in Latin America?

Yesterday I went over to the Organization of American States (OAS) for a roundtable on “Constitutional Reform in the Americas.” The event featured opening remarks by the OAS Secretary General, followed by country-specific presentations by experts on Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Venezuela.

I won’t bore you with the details, but three themes emerged:

1) The ever-expanding constitutions of many Latin American countries, both to strengthen strongmen (Chavez) and to add to the copious list of positive rights (Brazil). This is not good for either constitutionalism or rule of law because on the one hand you have the country’s founding document being changed at the whim of a single man and on the other a constitution bloated with such things as the fundamental right to, e.g., four weeks’ paid annual vacation decreases in legitimacy. To paraphrase an old Argentine lawyer who advised that country’s last significant amendment process in 1993-94, “constitutional inflation leads to rule of law devaluation.” Alternatively, the Latin American counterpart to the old saw about French constitutions being filed in libraries’ periodicals section is that Latin ones are filed as encyclopedias.

2) The desire to constitutionalize (or rebalance constitutional structures relating to) the “special rights” of indigenous peoples. There is nothing wrong per se with wanting to recognize that certain native peoples preceded the arrival of European colonists/conquerors (British-American in the U.S., Spanish and Portuguese in Latin America) and that these people should not be exploited as a result of their having been vulnerable to colonization. But to enact wholesale nationalizations and special privileges on the basis of race, or caste, or tribe – let alone raise these perversities to the constitutional level as is being proposed in Bolivia – is a political and legal travesty.

3) The battle over political reform is no longer, if it ever was, between left and right or socialism and neoliberalism (the common Latin American term for pro-market policies and the Washington Consensus), but rather between democracy and authoritarianism. This may not represent that much of a change from the past – the populist governments that plagued the region in the 20th century could be alternately left or right wing – but it does confirm that the “consolidating democracy” project of the ’80s and ’90s has stalled if not taken a reverse. That is, the narrative that those of us studying Latin America in college and grad school in the late ’90s to early 2000s learned – the Third Wave of democratization, Latin America finally being on the right path but just needing time to grow economically –  underestimated some nasty undercurrents of resistance.

In short, the roundtable was equal parts fascinating and frustrating. You can watch it (in Spanish) here.

Lind on Libertarianism

Michael Lind is at it again, proclaiming the death of libertarianism on the op-ed pages of the Financial Times. “The two great trends now,” he writes, “are the collapse of libertarianism as a political force and the rise of economic populism.”

In the piece Lind provides a potted history of America’s evolving political economy. In the opening act of 1932-1968, New Deal welfare-state liberalism occupied the political center, flanked on the left by economic populism and on the right by Eisenhower-style “dime store New Deal” conservatism. Then came the shift to the right during 1968-2004, when welfare-state liberalism was shunted to the left, a newly assertive libertarianism occupied the right, and moderate conservatism commanded the center. Now, according to Lind, anxieties over globalization have led to the rout of the libertarians and the rebirth of populism. So we’re back to where we began, with welfare-state liberalism in the center (where, according to Lind, it rightfully belongs).

I’ll concede that we’ve seen a cyclical shift in recent years somewhat along the lines Lind describes. The political terrain has become more difficult for supporters of free markets and limited government, and more inviting for Lou Dobbsian populism.

But we need to be careful to distinguish between cyclical and secular change. Lind focuses on the back-and-forth of the pendulum and misses the fact that the whole clock has been moving. And it’s been moving in a generally libertarian direction.

Lind merrily proclaims that welfare-state liberalism has reclaimed the center that it occupied during 1932-1968. But he ignores the fact that welfare-state liberals today are dramatically more libertarian on economic issues than their predecessors in their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Nobody these days seriously supports a return to a 70% top income-tax rate, or Keynesian fine-tuning, or interest-rate controls for banks, or the phone monopoly, or regulated trucking; nobody touts nationalization or wage-and-price controls as cures for what ails.

The economy today is dramatically more competitive and entrepreneurial today, and markets are dramatically less regulated, than was the case a few decades ago. And notwithstanding Lind’s fond hopes for a return of the New Deal liberal ascendancy, there is little reason to believe that this huge secular shift is going to be reversed in the foreseeable future.

Edwards vs. Edwards on Hunger

My prior post on hunger in the United States attracted some comments in the blogosphere regarding what presidential candidate John Edwards has been saying about the issue.

Candidate Edwards has been claiming that 35 million Americans are going hungry. For example, in recent Thanksgiving comments he said: “More than 35 million Americans went hungry last year.”

That is not true. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is the official source for such statistics. Here is what the agency says:

“USDA does not have a measure of hunger or the number of hungry people. Prior to 2006, USDA described households with very low food security as ‘food insecure with hunger,’ and characterized them as households in which one or more people were hungry at times during the year because they could not afford enough food … In 2006, USDA introduced the new description “very low food security” to replace “food insecurity with hunger.”

O.K., well how big is the group called “very low food security?” If you look at the chart here, you see it is at most about 3% of the population (about 9 million people), or those with an episode of “very low food security” even a single time during a year.

In sum, this appears to be a good topic for a Washington Post’s Pinocchio analysis.

Is Rudy Running for Editor of the Weekly Standard, or President of the United States?

Lest one worry that Rudy Giuliani’s campaign consists of little more than repeating “9/11” over and over again, it’s worth having a look at his appearance yesterday at the “Politics and Eggs” event in New Hampshire to see what he’s up to. It appears he’s most focused on currying favor with the couple dozen or so die-hard neoconservatives who buzz around Washington complaining that President Bush isn’t hawkish enough.

First, Giuliani assembled a world class cadre of extremists to staff his foreign policy team, including David “End to Evil” Frum, Norman “I Hope and Pray that President Bush Will Bomb Iran” Podhoretz, Michael “The Case for Assassinating Foreign Leaders” Rubin, and a host of others.

But then, at yesterday’s Politics and Eggs breakfast, Giuliani played some dog-whistle politics, blasting away at the State Department for having undermined the Bush administration’s foreign policy. “We have to do a better job of explaining ourselves,” Giuliani observed. “The core of diplomacy is being able to explain the United States in various parts of the world, in cultures that might be very different, and it’s our job to understand them better.”

And then came the time to take in the State Department, a bête noire for neoconservatives, for a drubbing. (I’m loosely transcribing from a video of the speech.)

I would change the mission of the State Department. The State Department exists not just for the purpose of explaining other countries to us–it’s real important–as I said, with the Middle East, maybe we didn’t do a good enough job with understanding them….but the main purpose of an Ambassador is to sell the United States…

I think we need to reinvigorate the State Department. When you tell me America’s reputation is in trouble in various parts of the world, I say “what has our Ambassador done to protect that reputation? How much explanation has the Ambassador done on television? How much explaination has the Ambassador done in the media and in meetings, explaining what the United States is all about?”…

We’ve got to have a State Department that understands that we have a reputation that needs to be defended and respected… We don’t want to force things on anyone in the world–we’d like to share it with them. That’s what diplomacy is about, it’s about sharing who we are with others and getting them to understand us better, and to understand our motives, because we don’t have bad motives…

Rarely has such banality been married to such obtuseness. It’s as though this is somehow a revelation: Giuliani has discovered that the State Department should be concerned with America’s image abroad! Eureka! But this rests on the comfortable fallacy that our problem is fundamentally one of perception rather than reality. Foreigners understand our policies quite well. They dislike them. So flogging the State Department for apparently not understanding the platitude that “we have a reputation that needs to be defended and respected” is a bit much. Particularly when coming from a man who holds such easy-to-explain-to-the-world views as that the United States has favored the Palestinians too much in the Israel-Palestine dispute.

Public diplomacy isn’t a magic bullet. If the medicine tastes bad enough, all the sugar in the world isn’t going to help it go down.

Giuliani decided to finish the talk with a flourish. Discussing his views on diplomacy further, he observed that:

You need to know when to negotiate and you need to know when not to negotiate. Because negotiating when you’re not supposed to negotiate, you can kill more people. I know that’s hard for some people to understand, but if you negotiate at the wrong time, you can cost human lives…

I’ll just leave you with this example: What about Hitler? Should Chamberlain have negotiated with Hitler? Or should England have listened to Churchill in the 1930s? The answer is pretty simple: We’d have saved millions of lives if we’d stood up to Hitler at a much earlier stage. We’d have saved a lot of lives if we’d stood up to Islamic terrorism at an earlier stage.

Ah, the Hitler analogy. The last refuge of a neocon.

The Biological Process that Dare not Speak its Name

A century and a half after Darwin penned On the Origin of Species, the Florida state board of education is considering adding the word evolution to its official curriculum. Until now, it has been referred to only obliquely as “biological changes over time.”

At least one school district (of which Florida has only a handful) is already balking at the proposed change.

Most of my fellow evolutionists seem to think that government-mandated instruction in evolution, in state run schools, is the ideal path to biological enlightnment. Personally, I think 150 years of foot-dragging before seriously considering the use of the word evolution bodes ill for the quality of instruction that will follow.

Two Tax Rates Catching On

A few years ago, I proposed a major overhaul of federal taxation with a plan I called the dual-rate income tax. (See here and here). The plan would get rid of virtually all credits and deductions, be favorable to savings and investment, and compress the current six-rate system down to two lower rates.

I proposed the idea to the president’s tax reform panel in 2005, but the panel didn’t bite. Panel co-chair, former Senator John Breaux, said: “Chris, I looked at your plan; I don’t like it.”

But this year, the two-rate idea is catching on. House Republicans led by Paul Ryan have proposed a two-rate plan called a Simplified Tax. (Please join us to hear Mr. Ryan speak about his plan on December 6). And yesterday, presidential candidate Fred Thompson included a two-rate plan in his platform.

In the long-run, Americans should follow the lead of more than 20 countries that have enacted flat taxes. Meanwhile, the two-rate plan would represent a huge step toward that ultimate goal.