Rep. Wexler: “Don’t Vote for My Iran Bill, Please!”

A few weeks ago, I puzzled over what the heck Congress was doing on Iran. Turns out I wasn’t the only one puzzled.

We now have one of the co-sponsors of the House bill, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fl.), posting on the Huffington Post begging his colleagues not to vote for his own bill. Why? Because:

It is clear that despite carefully worded language in H. Con. Res. 362 that “nothing in this resolution should be construed as an authorization of the use of force against Iran” that many Americans across the country continue to express real concerns that sections of this resolution will be interpreted by President Bush as “a green light” to use force against Iran.

The language that is most disconcerting in the resolution is the third resolved clause, which demands that the president initiate among several things an “international effort to impose stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran.”

I firmly believe it was not the intention of the authors of this resolution to open the door to a US blockade or armed conflict with Iran. However, I fully understand and share the American public’s mistrust of President Bush and his administration, which has abused its executive powers, willfully misled this nation into a disastrous war in Iraq and disturbingly continues to beat the Iran war drum.

Now, it takes a big person to say “I made a mistake,” and if that’s what Rep. Wexler believes, he should be commended for magnanimity. But it isn’t such a long bill. The wording isn’t complicated. And presumably if he holds this skeptical view of the Bush administration, it didn’t emerge in the time since he signed on to the bill. Which raises the question, “Why did you co-sponsor the bill, then?”

Yet another puzzle for the civics teacher attempting to teach America’s youth “how bills become law.”

Dumbing Down Trade to Make it Saleable

There is no doubt that Americans have soured on trade. And I’m willing to concede that trade’s opponents have made good use of anecdotes and symbols and catchphrases to compensate for the scarcity of facts and logic in support of their views. But this report in The Hill is really disappointing to me, and presumably would be to all others who understand trade and its benefits without the efforts to candy coat them.

Reportedly, the Chamber of Commerce commissioned a survey to gauge attitudes and reactions to certain terminology and arguments for and against trade. Surveys were conducted in six cities earlier this year by a company called Presentation Testing. The purpose was, ultimately, to come up with a refined message to improve the appeal of trade advocacy and to determine which words to emphasize and which to avoid. I sincerely hope the Chamber didn’t break the bank on this project because the recommendations are feeble, if not downright laughable. Here are some of the findings.

Instead of referring to “globalization,” it is better to use the term “international trade” because of the pernicious connotations of exploitation and cheap goods associated with the former. (This may be the most useful point from the survey, although I’m not convinced we should just concede the false impressions).

Trade advocates should stress how trade deals “level the playing field.” (Why does that phrase sound familiar, you ask? Because protectionists have already trademarked it. Nary a politician speaks of his support for trade without the disclaimer that it be fair trade and that the playing field be level. When Americans hear “level playing field,” they think lousy, cheating foreigners. This is very bad advice.)

Whoops, I shouldn’t have used the term “protectionists,” above. The survey found that “protecting something sounds positive,” and therefore one should never speak ill of “protectionists.”

“Our trading partners should treat us as fairly as we treat them” was deemed a “home run statement” by the company that took the Chamber’s money. Again, this statement resides on page one of the modern “isolationists’” handbook. (Apparently, isolation is not as warm and fuzzy as protection, according to the survey results.)

“With fears of losing health insurance paramount in workers’ minds, it’s critical that you mention you have a plan for them to hold on to it if they lose their jobs,” the document suggests. What plan? Is there a plan? Should we just lie? Would reassurances that workers can keep their health coverage – while reinforcing fears that they’ll lose their jobs – suddenly attract their support for trade? How about reminding them that trade is way down the list of reasons why people lose jobs, for starters?

Here’s one of my favorite pieces of advice (justifying the price tag of the study all by itself, no doubt): When advocating the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement, “You must distinguish South Korea from North Korea.” Yet, making the argument to a Democrat that a trade agreement with Colombia would show support for a crucial ally in a region prone to anti-Americanism would be ill-advised because Democrats “just don’t believe it – and most people know nothing about [Hugo] Chavez (and therefore don’t care about Venezuela.)” Are the survey consultants pretty sure, then, that Democrats know that South Korea is the good guy and North Korea the bad guy?

Look, my trade center colleagues and I have noted the many occasions in which we marshal the facts, make the arguments, and hope to convince the audience of the propriety of free trade only to have our opponents battle back by telling a emotional story about a worker who lost his job, then his wife got sick, and his dog ran away.

People seem to prefer stories to the facts. As trade advocates, we need to have better anecdotes, pithy catchphrases and resonant symbols to complement our winning facts and logic. Suffice it to say this latest consulting survey won’t end the search.

Supply Response to School Choice

Some people writing about education reform and school choice worry about how to supply good schools for kids to choose even if there’s a decent market in education.

Of course, the supply side is just a factor of how free the educational system is. Free enough money, children, and schools and the rest will follow.

It’s already happening in response to Georgia’s new special-needs voucher program:

Johnson led the push for the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship program, which state lawmakers narrowly passed in 2007.

The program uses taxpayer money to provide vouchers so special education students who attend public schools can go to private schools instead. Modeled after a similar voucher program in Florida, it is designed to give families more schooling options.

Johnson said last week that he expects more private schools to open and existing campuses to expand to meet demand.

Some of the new schools may come from out of state, like the Center Academy opening in Smyrna.

The Florida-based company runs 13 private schools for students with disabilities and is opening its first school in Georgia. The company plans to open six more schools in metro Atlanta the next five to 10 years, said Steven Hicks, vice president of operations.

Hicks and others say Center Academy is the first private school to come to Georgia because of the voucher program.

“I assume others will follow,” Hicks said. “There is a demand for more private schools.”

Hostages Returned to a Less-Free U.S.A.

Couldn’t help noting that Keith Stansell, one of the U.S. hostages recently rescued from Colombia, had this to say:

To the government and armed forces of Colombia, their heroic actions, those of those soldiers that day, brought me home safe, and for this I thank them.

To my country who never forgot me, never, and especially to the U.S. embassy in Bogota, my heartfelt thanks.

And to you, the men and women of the media, thank you for respecting our privacy in these last few days. Thank you. I ask you please to continue to do so, please, as we proceed with our transition process back to a normal life as a family. Thank you very much.

And to Governor Crist of the great state of Florida, sir, I don’t have a driver’s license. How am I going to get home?

Without a government-issued ID to show at the airport, it appears that Stansell will have to undergo a deep background check, which may include his political party. (Having been “off the grid” the last three years, he may not have much background to check.) The Department of Homeland Security welcomes you home, Mr. Stansell.

Massachusetts Opts to Keep Digging

Yesterday, I blogged about Ezra Klein’s claim that universal coverage would help contain health care spending.  Klein writes:

This is, at least in the abstract, the political logic of focusing on access first: Expanding access creates pressures that force the system to figure out how to control costs.

That’s what I quoted yesterday.  Here are Klein’s next two sentences, about how his theory is unfolding in Massachusetts, which has implemented what the Boston Globe calls a “near-universal health insurance law”:

There’s evidence this is beginning to happen in Massachusetts. The legislature is beginning to consider cost-control measures.

Oh, are they?

Today, the Boston Globe reports that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts requires consumers to buy so many different types of insurance benefits that it increases premiums by about 6 percent.  So how is the legislature grappling with the problem of already expensive premiums that are growing faster than inflation?  According to the Globe:

State lawmakers are now considering proposals that could require employers to add more benefits, including expanded mental healthcare coverage.

Wow.  I don’t think we can afford much more of this cost containment.

HT: David Hogberg.

The Power to Consult about War?

“In no part of the Constitution is more wisdom to be found,” James Madison wrote in 1793, “than in that clause which asks the president to give Congress a courtesy call whenever he’s picked a new country to invade.”  Well, no, that’s not actually what he said.  It went more like this:

In no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found, than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department. Beside the objection to such a mixture to heterogeneous powers, the trust and the temptation would be too great for any one man.

How to check that temptation?  In 1973, Congress tried the War Powers Resolution, a deeply flawed piece of legislation that has never so much as inconvenienced a president bent on war.  Former Secretaries of State Jim Baker and Warren Christopher – and a bipartisan panel of DC bigwigs – have a new answer: semi-mandatory consultation with Congress backed up by a dread “resolution of disapproval” (that the president can veto!).  Somehow I don’t think this is going to work.   

I haven’t had a chance to read the full report yet, but judging from the coverage and the op-ed Baker and Christopher penned for yesterday’s Times, the Commission’s proposal seems like an exercise in High Broderism.  For some serious attempts at putting teeth in the War Powers Resolution, check here and here

However, as I explain in the Cult of the Presidency, I’m skeptical that any of these megastatute solutions are going to work.  Because no Congress can truly bind a future Congress and no statute can force the courts to resolve separation of powers fights they’d rather duck, such legislative solutions tend to be about as effective as a dieter’s note on the refrigerator.  Unless and until ordinary voters demand that Congress stand and be counted on issues of war and peace–and defund unauthorized wars–we’ll continue as before.  Hey, maybe we are the change we’ve been waiting on.

Bias, Bias, Everywhere

Jay Greene and Eduwonkette—an anonymous education blogger whom Greene thinks is married to Eduwonk but I suspect is the original Wonkette’s kindergarten teacher—are having a tiff about the supposed superiority of peer-reviewed papers over think-tank reports. Unfortunately, Eduwonkette trots out the old saw that you can’t trust think tank reports because most think tanks have “stated ideological” agendas.

This ignore-the-report-because-of-the-messenger thing is getting pretty tiresome. Greene’s colleague Greg Forster has dealt with the phenomenon before, as has Cato’s Andrew Coulson and former AEI president Christopher DeMuth—but it’ll probably never go away. People will always dismiss the work of those who are upfront about their convictions in favor of those who are supposedly “objective.” But this is too often a sad excuse to ignore the merits of what the intellectually transparent have to say, and worse, it puts on blinders to the reality that all people are to some degree self-interested and, hence, biased.

In a stroke of serendipity, it just so happens that Inside Higher Ed reported yesterday on a new study finding that peer-reviewed research is often fraught with citation errors; so much for the assumption that “peer review” is synonymous with “quality.” Making matters worse, Inside Higher Ed notes, these errors are heaped on top of the “well-documented” presence of bias in academic research that emphasizes evidence supporting authors’ points of view, that includes citations intended to curry favor with influential colleagues, or that plays down contrary evidence:

Like any self-enclosed, loosely policed network, citations are far from perfect. It’s well documented, for example, that researchers tend to cite papers that support their conclusions and downplay or ignore work that calls them into question. Scholars also have ambitions and reputations, so it’s not surprising to hear that they might weave in a few citations to articles written by colleagues they’re trying to impress — or fail to cite work by competitors. Maybe they overlook research written in other languages, or aren’t familiar with relevant work in a related but different field, or spelled an author’s name wrong, or listed the wrong journal.

All of these shortcomings are reviewed and discussed in an article published this year in the management science journal Interfaces along with the critical responses to it.

As it turns out, scholars have already done some work quantifying problem citations, divided into two categories, “incorrect references” and “quotation errors.” The authors of the paper, J. Scott Armstrong of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Malcolm Wright of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute at the University of South Australia, Adelaide, write of the former type, “This problem has been extensively studied in the health literature … 31 percent of the references in public health journals contained errors, and three percent of these were so severe that the referenced material could not be located.”

In the end, all research must be seriously scrutinized, and this will only be done when we accept that everyone has biases and we take every report, paper, or pronouncement with a healthy grain of salt.