It’s Almost Like You Can’t Have One-Size-Fits-All Day

Apparently, Florida’s Hillsborough County School District has tried to take religion off the calendar, resulting in almost everyone—religious or not—taking Good Friday off. As reported in the St. Petersburg Times on Monday:

After most Hills­borough students skipped classes on Good Friday, superintendent MaryEllen Elia initially used religion to explain the huge disparities in absentee rates between schools.

“Schools reflect their particular community. You may have in a community a particular religious affiliation that is strong,” Elia said.

This morning, the Times’ editors saw things differently:

The Hillsborough County School District should be embarrassed by the mess it made of classes on Good Friday. This was a regular school day, included on the calendar. Yet rather than function as normal, the district made clear to religious conservatives and overindulgent parents that students and staff could blow off the school day.

This issue should have been settled. Hillsborough spent two years wrangling in the national limelight over the calendar before agreeing to a secular schedule that recognized no religious holidays. Yet rather than hold fast to a decision already made and vetted by a committee of school officials and parents, the district gave a wink and a nod to treat Good Friday as an unofficial holiday.

The massive confusion over whether Good Friday was really a holiday led not only to many kids missing school for religious activities, but lots heading to the malls and beaches for more secular observances. It’s a somewhat extreme example of what regularly happens with one-size-fits-all public schooling: When you try to legislate away the values held by one group, you often end up creating havoc for everyone, whether with school calendars, textbook adoptions, freedom of speech, and the list goes on.

But how can we avoid these constant clashes and crashes? Oh, right: Instead of forcing everyone to support a single system, we could let parents use their public education dollars to choose their children’s schools. Then religious folks could pick schools with acceptable calendars, mathematical traditionalists could get the “old” math, conservative parents could choose which penguins their children read about, and so on.

But, of course, all that freedom would never work, right? It would just lead to chaos…

Paul Krugman’s Fallacious Forecast of a $6-7 Trillion Drop in Housing Wealth

The Case-Shiller index of house prices covers just 20 major metropolitan areas. It shows house prices down by 10.7% between January 2007 and 2008, but that largely reflects the fact that Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco account for 27.4% of the index.

In Fortune magazine’s March 17 interview, economist Paul Krugman says “We’re probably heading for $6 trillion or $7 trillion in capital losses in housing.”

Such estimates begin by assuming the S&P Case-Shiller index of house prices (which is now down 12.5% from its peak month) has a lot further to fall, and that it accurately represents the value of all real estate held by U.S. households throughout the 50 states.

The Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances (updated with flow-of-funds data by David Malpass of Bear Stearns), shows U.S. real estate worth $22.5 trillion in the fourth quarter—up 2.5% from a year earlier and accounting for 31.2% of household wealth.

If you think the Case-Shiller index will eventually fall by 30% (Krugman said 25%), then 30% of $22.5 trillion would yield an estimate of $6-7 trillion capital losses “in housing.” But the $22.5 trillion is not just single-family homes—it includes commercial property, apartments and farm land. More important, even single-family housing wealth is not located in only 20 major metropolitan areas.

The Office of Federal Housing Oversight (OFHEO) index covers all 50 states, including nonmetropolitan areas, but not the most expensive homes (which is not where Case-Shiller finds the biggest declines). The OFHEO index shows house prices down 3% in January, compared with a year before. But even that average is by no means typical of all housing (much less real estate) in the entire nation.

Between the fourth quarters of 2006 and 2007, house prices rose in all but two of the many states excluded by Case-Shiller, and the increase averaged 3.8 percent.

Economists and journalists who use gloomy predictions about the Case-Shiller index to predict a comparable loss of real estate wealth are making several serious mistakes.

I Am the Very Model of a Modern Attorney General

Yesterday, in addition to announcing its decision in the Medellin case (which I blogged about here), the Supreme Court heard argument in two cases relating to the War on Terror. 

First, in Munaf v. Geren, two U.S. citizens (also citizens of Jordan and Iraq, respectively) held captive in Iraq by U.S. forces – as part of Multi-National Force-Iraq, which may but should be a key determinant – challenged their detention and potential transfer to Iraqi authorities for what they fear will be torture as part of criminal prosecution in Iraqi courts.  This seems to be an easier case than Boumediene, a case argued in December wherein Guantanamo detainees challenge their containment and the military commissions by which they are to be tried.  (My colleague Tim Lynch blogged about that case here and here, and also filed an amicus brief.) 

Whatever hope the detainees had was probably dashed by the incoherent presentation made by Northwestern Law School Clinical Professor Joseph Margulies on their behalf.  As Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSblog put it, “when several Justices of the Supreme Court tell an attorney they do not understand his argument, and they do so because the argument was, indeed, fundamentally confusing, the chances of winning may be significantly reduced.”  Ouch.  Margulies turned what should be relatively straightforward issues into a convoluted maze, and those of us in the audience were not the only ones shaking our heads.

The second argument, and the one relating to the title of this blog post, involved the prosecution of the guy who was caught smuggling explosives into the U.S. from Canada in an attempt to blow up LAX at the turn of the century.  (Is it ok to use that expression for the 1999-2000 period yet?)  In United States v. Ressam, Attorney General Mukasey exercised the AG’s historical (but not much used of late) prerogative to argue before the high court, defending the 10-year additional prison term slapped on the Milennial bomber for “carrying an explosive” while “committing a felony” – the felony being lying to the border guard.  Having learned from Margulies’s example, Mukasey did a workmanlike job and sat down with 14 minutes remaining in his allotted time.  The case will turn on some rather technical statutory analysis which I’ll spare you, but it was refreshing to see an appellate advocate who was clearly not there to hear his own voice.

The Hillarys and the Huckabees

In a recent op-ed I dub the two kinds of enemies of freedom in America “the Hillarys and the Huckabees.” I think it has a nice ring.

Hillary Clinton and Mike Huckabee are classic examples of two strains of big-government thinking in a country that otherwise prefers small government. Hillary is the quintessential nanny-state liberal who is determined to have the government take care of adult Americans the way parents take care of children. Huckabee wants the government to stamp out sin and make us all do God’s will as he sees it….

But, despite that heritage of freedom, we’ve always got the Hillarys and the Huckabees and the other people who think they could run our lives better than we can. The Huckabees on the right continue to resist the cultural changes of the 1960s, and the Hillarys on the left continue to resist the economic changes of the 1980s.

The “Huckabees” want to censor cable television because they don’t think you can be trusted to decide what your family should watch. They support bans on drugs, pornography, gambling and violent video games because you just don’t know what’s good for you. They want prayer in the schools and sound science out. They want to subsidize heterosexual marriage and ban gay marriage. They want government to take the place of God and stamp out sin on earth. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, a classic Huckabee, complains about “this whole idea of personal autonomy, … this idea that people should be left alone.”

The “Hillarys,” meanwhile, want to raise taxes because they think they can spend your money more wisely than you can. They don’t believe in school choice because you don’t know how to choose a school for your children. They think they can handle your retirement savings and health care better than you can. They think, as Hillary Clinton has advocated, that the government should produce video lectures on how to burp a baby and how to brush your teeth and have them “running continuously in doctors’ offices, clinics, hospitals, motor vehicle offices, or any other place where people gather and have to wait.”

The Huckabees want to be your daddy, telling you what to do and what not to do. The Hillarys want to be your mommy, feeding you, tucking you in and setting your curfew. But the proper role for the government of a free society is to treat adults as adults, responsible for making their own decisions and accepting the consequences.

Senator Levin’s War on Taxpayers

In a remarkable display of chutzpah, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan is quoted in the Christian Science Monitor stating that “Tax havens have declared war on honest taxpayers.” This is from a politician who routinely votes for higher taxes and has a rating of “F” from the National Taxpayers Union because he votes against taxpayers 85 percent of the time – a record that puts him below Senators Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Tax havens, by contrast, have helped taxpayers by forcing governments around the world to lower tax rates. Indeed, a prominent British accountant explains in the story that low tax rates are the appropriate way to deal with global competition. Returning to the theme of chutzpah, an OECD bureaucrat (who receives a tax-free salary!) actually admits that people should have a right to financial privacy – but only if the term is stripped of all meaning by giving governments unlimited snooping rights:

“Tax havens have declared war on honest taxpayers,” says US Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, who along with Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois is co-sponsoring the “Stop the Tax Haven Act,” introduced last year. … Chas Roy-Chowdhury, head of taxation at Britain’s Association of Chartered Certified Accountants… says… “Governments should open themselves up to the wind of global competition and accept that they need to run efficiently to keep tax rates low.” … Perez-Navarro [of the OECD] adds that individuals should have the right to a certain banking confidentiality, but that when investigators want to see numbers they should be handed over.

Foolish European Union Regulations

Two stories from the British press highlight regulatory excess from the Brussels bureaucracy. The Times reports that a winemaker is being harrassed because he is selling his wares in 37.5cl bottles instead of the 50cl or 35cl sizes allowed by European regulation:

An award-winning winemaker whose wares are sold at the royal palaces is facing a £30,000 bill after European bureaucrats ruled that he was using the wrong-shaped bottles. Jerry Schooler, who sells 400,000 bottles of fruit wines and mead a year, has been threatened with prosecution over his determination to use traditional measurements. The proprietor of the Lurgashall Winery in West Sussex, has been told to halt the sale of beverages such as mead, silver birch wine and bramble liqueur in 75cl and 37.5cl bottles. If he continues to sell them, he could be taken to court under a new EU directive that permits the sale of such products in 70cl, 50cl or 35cl measures only. …Mr Schooler now faces costs of about £30,000 to change his production line. “We are going to have to change all our bottling, the labels, machinery, boxes and maybe the corks as well and it is going to cost me thousands to do it,” he said. …West Sussex County Council’s trading standards department said that the winery was bound by EU Directive 2007/45/EC, which was drawn up in September to “lay down rules on nominal quantities for prepacked products”. It said the directive meant that the use of 37.5cl bottles for liqueurs was illegal.

The absurdity of this story makes one wonder how such a regulation came into existence. Did a bureaucrat wake up on the wrong side of the bed one day and decide that wine should only be sold in bottles of certain sizes? Is there some sort of crazy health or safety rationale for the regulation? Speaking of which, that’s the alleged reason for a regulation that is forcing English bus companies to make customers disembark in the middle of routes. This foolish regulation apparently is designed to prevent driver fatigue, but, as reported by the Sun, the practical effect is to make people waste their time:

Thousands of passengers are being forced to hop off buses midway through journeys to comply with barmy EU laws. A Brussels ruling has banned local services longer than 30 miles to ensure drivers don’t spend too long at the wheel. As a result, drivers have to pull in as they hit that limit and order everyone off their bus. They then change the route number on the front and invite passengers to jump back on before resuming the trip. …Western Greyhound has split its Newquay to Plymouth route in three — even though it uses a single driver throughout. Passengers must buy three tickets and break their journey twice. Managing director Mark Howarth said: “It’s a farce. We have to kick customers off as soon as the driver hits the 30-mile limit. “Often it’s in the middle of nowhere. Passengers think we’re crazy.”

The Freedom Agenda, According to Colin Powell; Plus, How Freedom Fills a Vacuum

Fred Kaplan’s new book, Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power, is written in a pleasantly breezy, journalistic style that makes it easy to blow through in an afternoon. While a lot of the material in the book will be familiar to those who’ve been closely watching the trainwreck-in-slow-motion that is the Bush administration’s foreign policy, it contains a few shocking tidbits that are new. Here’s one that was particularly striking, discussing the so-called “freedom agenda,” a plan to spur undemocratic Arab regimes to democracy that was led by Iran-Contra figure Elliot Abrams. When a document Abrams had overseen describing Washington’s agenda for overhauling the Arab world leaked to al Hayat, the Arab world unsurprisingly reacted with outright hostility. Secretary of State Colin Powell was dispatched to smooth ruffled feathers. He met with his staff before the trip.

Speaking privately with his aides, Powell said the White House was, in effect, telling the Arabs, “Get down out of those trees and be democrats.” The United States had just toppled the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq with military force. Now, Powell said, we seemed to be ordering the Arab nations, “Line up, you’re all next.”

There’s also this, where Natan Sharansky was apparently trying to warn Bush that Ariel Sharon’s policy of disengagement from Gaza could wreak havoc there.

Sharansky wrote a private letter to President Bush, making [the case that disengagement would be dangerous] and hoping that he too would oppose Sharon’s move. Bush wrote him back a private letter, saying that he supported Sharon’s policy. Disengagement, the president argued, would create a vacuum, which the natural forces of freedom would fill: Gaza would become a democracy almost of its own accord.

If you need to get caught up on what’s gone wrong, Kaplan’s book is a decent primer. More info here.