Another $60 Million Down the Drain

From today’s New York Times:

Billionaires Start $60 Million Schools Effort

Eli Broad and Bill Gates, two of the most important philanthropists in American public education, have pumped more than $2 billion into improving schools. But now, dissatisfied with the pace of change, they are joining forces for a $60 million foray into politics in an effort to vault education high onto the agenda of the 2008 presidential race.

[…]

The project will not endorse candidates — indeed, it is illegal to do so as a charitable group — but will instead focus on three main areas: a call for stronger, more consistent curriculum standards nationwide; lengthening the school day and year; and improving teacher quality through merit pay and other measures.

No big surprise here, but man, it’s disappointing to see very intelligent, well-meaning people spending their money on ideas that have been tried and failed. The federal government has failed to improve education for very obvious reasons, and pushing failed state-level reforms to the federal level will end in even more expensive failure.

The government-run education system is the root of our problems in education, and the only mechanism for systemic reform and improvement is educational freedom (preferably through broad-coverage education tax credits).

The Center for Educational Freedom is ready and waiting to help Gates and Broad spend their education dollars more effectively.

Even if Gates and Broad don’t want to do what’s necessary to change the education system, they would do much more good by simply devoting this money to an endowed scholarship fund for low-income kids.

Libertarian Radicals

At the new Encyclopedia Britannica blog I ask whether Brian Doherty, in his Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, can have it both ways:

Doherty makes two claims about libertarianism that may seem to be in tension: First, as the title proclaims:”The most significant thing about libertarianism, the element that distinguishes its unique place in modern American thought, is that it is radical. It takes insights about justice and order and the fight between liberty and power farther and deeper than most standard American liberals, patriots, or Jeffersonians.”

But he also says:

“Libertarians can believe, with some justification, that we are in some sense already living in their world….We are not living in Karl Marx’s world….We live in a world energized and shaped by the beliefs of Marx’s political-economic rivals and enemies–the classical liberals, the thinkers who believed a harmony of interests is manifest in unrestricted markets, that free trade can prevent war and make us all richer, that decentralized private property ownership helps create a spontaneous order of rich variety.”

I think he can. And while you’re at the Britannica site, check out my entry on libertarianism.

Stacked Deck

The Senate Agriculture Committee continues their hearings today with a focus on Title I – that’s the part of the farm bill that deals with farm subsidies. In the list of witnesses (available here), you will see significant representation from the main commodity groups (corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and a few others) and farmer groups (American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union). From what I can see, only two witnesses (out of the list of sixteen due to appear) could be expected to give a different take on farm programs: the North American Millers Association, as a user of commodities, might speak up about the damage commodity programs do to markets, and Bread for the World are rightly concerned about the effect of American farm subsidies on poor people around the world.

To be sure, farmers are affected by these programs and deserve a seat at the witness table. But where are the taxpayer groups? The food producer associations? Is the Committee even interested in the effects these programs have on the rest of us who pay for farm welfare? I guess that’s a rhetorical question.

Yeltsin the Hero

More than any other man, Boris Yeltsin moved the Russian people from tyranny to a rough approximation of freedom. For that he is one of the authentic heroes of the 20th century.

In a way he personalizes Mikhail Gorbachev’s accidental liberation of the Russian and Soviet people. Gorbachev intended to reform and reinvigorate communism. He brought Yeltsin from the rural region of Sverdlovsk in 1985 to shake up the stagnant party as the Moscow party boss. But Gorbachev set in motion forces that he couldn’t contain. Once people were allowed to criticize the communist system and glimpse an alternative, things moved rapidly–partly because of Yeltsin’s unexpectedly radical leadership.

Two years later Gorbachev and the party hierarchy pushed him out of the Politburo. But he turned around and ran for the Congress of People’s Deputies, won, and then was elected to the Supreme Soviet. He created Russia’s first parliamentary opposition (in the Supreme Soviet) and then won election to the new Russian parliament. Against the continuing opposition of Gorbachev, he was elected to the chairmanship of that body, thus becoming president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.  He stunned politicos by resigning from the Communist Party.

And then in 1991, less than four years after being pushed out of politics by Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin became the first elected leader in a thousand years of Russian history, winning a popular election for president. Six weeks later he hit his high point. When hard-line communists tried to stage a coup, Yeltsin courageously raced to parliament to rally opposition.  He jumped on a tank to address the crowd, creating one of the iconic images of the collapse of communism.

At that point Yeltsin was the boss, eclipsing Gorbachev, and the Soviet Union was on its way out. Yeltsin effectively dissolved the Soviet Union, leaving 15 newly independent states in the vast expanse that was once the USSR. As biographer John Morrison notes,

His greatest achievement was to avoid the violent “Yugoslav scenario” and allow the Soviet Union’s 15 republics to go their separate ways peacefully in 1991-92 without civil war. Yeltsin defied nationalist demands for the restoration of a greater Russia and made huge concessions to the other successor states, notably Ukraine, but got little credit for it.

Not many political leaders happily let their subjects go. What other political leader ever gave up control over 14 countries? But by doing so, he avoided years of bloodshed. Yeltsin then set about freeing prices and privatizing state property, the largest privatization in the history of the world. As the New York Times notes, he was one communist leader capable of learning from–and feeling shame about–the success of capitalism:

On a visit to the United States in 1989, he became convinced that Russia had been ruinously damaged by its state-run economic system, in which people stood in long lines to buy the most basic needs of life and more often than not found the shelves bare. Visiting a Houston supermarket, he was overwhelmed by the kaleidoscopic variety of meats and vegetables available to ordinary Americans.

A Russia scholar, Leon Aron, quoting a Yeltsin associate, wrote that Mr. Yeltsin was in a state of shock. “For a long time, on the plane to Miami, he sat motionless, his head in his hands,” Mr. Aron wrote in his 2000 biography, “Yeltsin, A Revolutionary Life.” “ ‘What have they done to our poor people?’ he said after a long silence.”

Yeltsin wasn’t perfect. He was often boorish and apparently had an excessive taste for alcohol. Despite letting the other Soviet republics go, he launched the devastating war in Chechnya. He unconstitutionally dissolved parliament in 1993; when communist lawmakers defied him, he sent tanks to shell parliament.  But it should be noted that Yeltsin at that time was seeking to defend liberal democracy against a return to communism. Imagine if Nazi legislators had stayed in the German parliament into 1949, resisting Adenauer’s policies and threatening to bring back National Socialism. Would it be undemocratic to call out the military to counter them? Fareed Zakaria’s worry in 1997 that Yeltsin’s creation of a “Russian super-presidency” might be abused by his successors looks all too prescient now. But a reversion to communism would have been worse.

And finally, after becoming the first elected leader in Russia’s history, he became something even more important–the first Russian leader to voluntarily give up power. True, he turned Russia over to Vladimir Putin, making him more like Ronald Reagan, who delivered the United States to the Bushes, than George Washington, who left us in the capable hands of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Still, the words that President Reagan addressed the American soldiers who invaded Normandy could also be applied to Boris Yeltsin: “These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”

Raise a glass tonight to Boris Yeltsin, the man who freed a continent and helped end the Cold War.

Understanding the U.S. Supreme Court’s Abortion Decision

(This post is scheduled to be published in the summer 2007 volume of the Journal of Clinical Ethics as part of its regular column “Legal Trends in Bioethics.”)

On April 18, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its ruling in the combined cases of Gonzales v. Carhart and Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood. The Court overturned two Circuit court decisions and found the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 constitutional. The federal Act in question is now the law of the land. No state can allow partial-birth abortions unless to save the life of the woman having the procedure.

The Federal Act. The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 is very specific regarding what type of abortion procedure is prohibited. Not all D&Es are prohibited, only “intact D&Es”, also known as “intact dilation and extraction,” “D&X” or “intact D&X.” The Act is also very specific about the criteria for violations to exist.

The alive fetus must have been delivered to the point where its entire head is outside the body of the mother or, in the case of a breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the mother before it is killed by an overt act of the healthcare professional doing the abortion. Any procedure where the fetus has not been delivered to these anatomical landmarks is not prohibited. Note, since the fetus must be alive when it reaches the indicated anatomical landmarks, an intact D&E where the fetus is dead before it reaches these landmarks is not prohibited. Further, since the healthcare provider must have the intention of performing an intact D&E, there is no liability if the procedure accidentally became an intact D&E. The intention issue is a difficult one because some procedures are typically followed right from the beginning of the procedure only if an “intact” D&E is intended. The Act’s language and the Court’s interpretation of the Act seem to define an “intact” D&E as one that has reached the specified landmarks, however, this leaves open the possibility that there is such a thing as what might be technically an “intact” D&E that is not illegal because the required anatomical benchmarks have not been reached. Finally, it is important to note that the Act specifically excludes the abortion recipient of any potential liability under the Act.

The Court’s Majority Opinion. The federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 is constitutional. The decision was 5-4. Kennedy wrote the opinion joined by Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and Alito. The majority opinion found that Act is not void for vagueness, not invalid on its face, and does not impose an undue burden due to overbreadth. This is the first time since Roe v. Wade that the Court has upheld a restriction on abortion that does not include a general exception for the health of the mother. In past ruling all restrictions on abortion had to leave the healthcare provider the option of performing the prohibited procedure if there was any health concern at all that justified using that procedure rather than another. This time the Court found it sufficient for the Act to include an exception for the life of the mother, but no general health exception. No less significant health consideration than saving the life of the woman can justify using the intact D&E procedure. The major significance of this ruling is the deference it shows legislative action. The opinion states:

We assume the following principles for the purposes of this opinion. Before viability, a State may not prohibit any women from making the ultimate decision to terminate her pregnancy. It also may not impose upon this right an undue burden, which exists if a regulations’ purpose or effect is to place a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability. On the other hand, regulations which do no more than create a structural mechanism by which the State, or the parent or guardian of a minor, may express profound respect for the life of the unborn are permitted, if they are not a substantial obstacle to the woman’s exercise of the right to choose.

The fact that a law which serves a valid purpose, one not designed to strike at the right itself, has the incidental effect of making it more difficult or more expensive to procure an abortion cannot be enough to invalidate it.

Where it has a rational basis to act, and it does not impose an undue burden, the State may use its regulatory power to bar certain procedures and substitute others, all in furtherance of its legitimate interests in regulating the medical profession in order to promote respect for life, including life of the unborn.

Considerations of marginal safety, including balance of risks, are within the legislative competence when the regulation is rational and in pursuit of legitimate ends.

(Citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

In addition to a clear deference to legislative action, the majority opinion also shows a lack of deference to individual healthcare providers and their ability to judge what is in the best interest of patients.

The Court’s Dissenting Opinion. Ginsburg wrote a dissenting opinion in which Stevens, Souter, and Breyer joined. Those dissenting would have found the Act unconstitutional. The opinion criticizes the majority for relying on “rational grounds” for upholding State action when in earlier cases the Court has used the standard of “heightened scrutiny.” They also object to the majority’s deviating from the Casey ruling that “state regulation of access to abortion procedures, even after viability, must protect the health of the woman.” (internal quotation marks omitted). The dissenters argue that the majority’s deference to the legislature in overriding constitutional rights deteriorates the gains U.S. society has made in recognizing women as protected by that Constitution and as individuals with the full rights of citizenship. Ginsburg writes:

There was a time, not so long ago, when women were regarded as the center of home and family life, with attendant special responsibilities that precluded full and independent legal status under the Constitution. Those views, this Court made clear in Casey, are no longer consistent with our understanding of the family, the individual, or the Constitution. Women, it is now acknowledged, have the talent, capacity, and right to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation. Their ability to realize their full potential, the Court recognized, is intimately connected to their ability to control their reproductive lives. Thus, legal challenges to undue restrictions on abortion procedures do not seek to vindicate some generalized notion of privacy; rather, they center on a woman’s autonomy to determine her life course, and thus to enjoy equal citizenship stature.

In keeping with this comprehension of the right to reproductive choice, the Court has consistently required that laws regulating abortion, at any stage of pregnancy and in all cases, safeguard a woman’s health.

(Citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

The As-Applied Challenge. The majority opinion states the Act would be unconstitutional if it exposed women to significant health risks. The Court did not find a prohibition against intact D&Es created such a risk, but it did acknowledge that “preenforcement, as-applied challenges to the Act could be filed as a proper way to protect the health of women should there be “discrete and well defined instances a particular condition has or is likely to occur” where use of intact D&E must be used to protect the health of the mother. While the majority opinion allows for such challenges, it is unclear what such a lawsuit would look like. The dissent asks, “Surely the Court cannot mean that no suit may be brought until a woman’s health is immediately jeopardized by the ban on intact D&E.” I’m sure the answer will be forthcoming soon since lawsuits challenging the Act on as-applied basis are undoubtedly already being planned.

Free For All Blog

Harvey Silverglate and Wendy Kaminer have launched a new blog–Free For All.

Here is how they describe their joint venture:

As the name signifies, The Free for All is a running commentary on the state of the American citizen’s (and sometimes the non-citizen’s) personal freedoms and civil liberties in the hectic, dangerous, confusing, hypocritical, stupid, and oftentimes near-insane modern era. Like my long-running Freedom Watch columns, The Free for All will seek to analyze the impact of various cultural, political, legal, academic and media stories du jour relating to the American promise of “liberty and justice for all.”

Wendy and I chose the name The Free for All to underscore the blog’s commitment to unfettered, no-holds-barred discussion. While Wendy and I are both what I call libertarian liberals (she might disagree with this label, since she often disagrees with me even when I’m right!), there are very few issues on which we see exactly eye-to-eye. By taking our once private debates into the public domain, we hope to create a resource for those of you who, like the two of us, are similarly trying to make sense of today’s headlines.

Recent posts express their skepticism about the ability to prevent school shootings by ‘profiling’ potential shooters.

One-Half Cheer for a Weaker Dollar

I spent two days last week in Oslo, Norway, for a conference and naturally wanted to sample one of the country’s fine beers. My pint of Ringes was served cold at Lorry’s, a popular and slightly low-brow pub near the Royal Palace. I nursed it slowly because it cost 61 kronor, which converts to slightly more than $10.

It seems I’m not the only American traveling abroad these days who has found that our once mighty dollars do not go as far as they used to. As this morning’s Investor’s Business Daily reports:

The dollar last week sank to a 26-year low against the British pound and is nearing record lows vs. the euro. Even the lowly Japanese yen has gained some ground against the greenback. 

Analysts say the dollar’s fall is the result of a cyclical shift in the global economy: Growth and interest rates in Europe and Asia are outpacing those in America, drawing capital away from U.S. stocks, bonds and other assets.

Most politicians and many economists believe that a weaker dollar is just what the U.S. economy needs. A depreciated dollar means U.S. exports are more affordable abroad and imports more expensive at home, promoting sales and profits for U.S. exporters and putting downward pressure on the trade deficit. 

Count me on the side of Milton Friedman in believing that exchange rates should float freely without government interference. But excuse me if I can’t work up much enthusiasm for the depreciating dollar. And it isn’t just because I want to pay less for a beer in Oslo.  

A weaker currency cuts like a double-edged sword in our domestic economy. On the downside, it raises prices for millions of American families that buy imported clothing, shoes, food, and consumer electronics.  It raises input costs for U.S. businesses. It puts upward pressure on the price of oil, which is universally quoted in dollars.  In fact, I counted the many ways in which we will all pay for a weaker dollar in an op-ed a few months ago. (Don’t be fooled by the headline written by a distracted copy editor!) 

So pardon me if I don’t lift a hearty toast to the weaker dollar.