An Irrelevant Europe - Best for the World?

In a recent op-ed Robert Kagan laments that (Western) Europe is sliding into irrelevance. But that might be the best thing for the rest of the world.

Don’t get me wrong, the world owes plenty to Europe. It’s given the world great art, architecture, literature, and music. It’s also given the world the ideas of universal education, the scientific method, research institutions, property rights, rule of law, democracy, religious freedom, and freedom of thought and expression, among other things. These ideas and institutions coalesced to power the engine of progress that drives the economic and technological development that have improved human well-being — not only in Europe but elsewhere — to levels far beyond what our ancestors could have imagined. Consequently, today we live longer, healthier, more educated, freer, and wealthier than ever before. But for the past century, Europe seems determined to undo all the good it’s ever done.

Europe gave the world the ideologies of Fascism and Marxism, which were responsible — or provided rationalizations — for 100–150 million deaths worldwide, including many outside Europe, most notably in China, Cambodia and North Korea. Then in a few short decades, despite having risen Phoenix-like from the ashes of destruction of World War II, instead of brimming with optimism, Europe has taken a decidedly pessimistic turn.

It no longer believes in progress. Its birth rate has dropped below replacement rates, yet, despite its protestations of equality, fraternity, secularism, and respect for human rights, it’s unwilling or unable to welcome or integrate immigrants of different colors or religious backgrounds into its societies. And one by one it’s abandoning the great ideas that brought it, and the rest of the world, progress, and advanced human well-being.

Its political leadership, although democratically elected, has abandoned democracy in its pursuit of a united Europe. The more the idea of the EU fails in democratic tests — most recently in Ireland — the more devious its politicians’ machinations to bypass popular approval.

It has abandoned scientific inquiry, relying instead on mantras such as the “science is settled.” Having abandoned science, it now relies on superstition, manifested in the notion of a global-warming-triggered apocalypse of Biblical proportions if average temperatures exceeds 2 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels — an apocalypse complete with death, disease, pestilence, droughts, famines and floods. Not only is there no evidence for this, this superstition persists despite the current reality that more Europeans die in winter than in summer, Europe’s long history of misery and want during cold periods and plenty during warm eras, and that even as media coverage of extreme weather events becomes more compelling and ubiquitous, globally the deaths and death rates from such events are in long term decline. If Europe had spent a fraction of the resources in adapting to climate change as it did on complying with the futile, but politically-correct Kyoto Protocol, it might have reduced by thousands the death toll of its 2003 heat wave.

Europe is now on the verge of abandoning the quest for technological progress, preferring instead to be ruled by the so-called precautionary principle which, as applied by Europe, actually increases human misery and death. It does this by discouraging, if not vetoing, new and safer technologies that could displace older and less safe technologies on the grounds that “safer” is not good enough — it has to be absolutely safe.

The precautionary principle was used to justify relinquishing its use of DDT, which was easy, because Europe had already conquered malaria. It is also used against genetically modified crops. The misapplication of the precautionary principle, coupled with its abandonment of scientific inquiry evident in the torching and destruction of experimental trials on genetically modified crops and its reliance on superstition, has resulted in a de facto ban on such crops in most of Europe. But giving up such crops isn’t hard either. Western Europe is well fed — in fact today it worries more about obesity than hunger — and its farmers’ excessive productivity is actually a drag on its taxpayers. Some Europeans would also give up nuclear and coal, but that would actually be giving something up, so protestations to the contrary, that will come about only after renewable energies mature and are better able to pay for themselves without subsidies.

But worst of all, Europe is once again exporting dangerous, misanthropic ideas, which unfortunately are echoed even in the US where many are in thrall of European ideas, no matter how ill-conceived. These ideas are couched in doublespeak, such as the European version of the precautionary principle, which could kill as many people as the failed ideologies of Fascism and Marxism.

Europe talks endlessly of helping developing countries and offering token amounts of aid but then refuses to reform its agricultural policies which would do a lot more for helping the latter help themselves. At the same time it bemoans the new prosperity of long-suffering Asia that has lifted over a billion out of a poverty that Europe has not known since even before the French Revolution because it’s enabled by and rides on greater energy use. And for that, some Europeans threaten punishment through carbon tariffs.

But energy use and economic development are inextricably linked not only in China and India but in Europe and elsewhere. Even as energy use fueled economic development, it freed human beings from back-breaking physical labor, allowed women to escape the drudgery of household work, equalized economic opportunities for women, reduced the need for child labor, liberated animals from being our beasts of burden, and enabled brains to displace brawn, laying the foundation for a less energy-intensive economy.

Europe campaigned actively, but fortunately unsuccessfully, to ban DDT. Despite this, African nations, deferring to European “expertise” on matters technological while fearing a European boycott of their agricultural exports if even trace amounts of DDT are found on them, have been slow to adopt DDT to combat malaria — fears that Europe did nothing to dispel and may, in fact, have actively encouraged. For the same reasons, Africans have been reluctant to turn to genetically modified crops to reduce hunger and malnutrition. And once again, Europe is standing silently by if not actively discouraging the use of genetically modified crops.

For context, consider that over 6 million people die each year from malaria, hunger and malnutrition, a toll that annually rivals that of the entire Holocaust. Yet Europe has done little to help or reassure Africa in this regard, thereby abandoning one of the Holocaust’s most important lessons, namely, inaction can be no less culpable than active participation.

Europe may be able to walk away from further economic and technological development, but the rest of the world can’t afford to, not if it values human and environmental well-being.

An irrelevant Europe could save innumerable lives in the developing world. And that might be best for this world.

TV Is Great

Books? Newspapers? Who needs ‘em!

Take a look at this clip from the Colbert Report, which lampoons the overwrought reaction several politicians had to the recent Boumediene decision. (Tim Lynch wrote about it here, here, and here.) Fear-mongerers are increasingly looking like buffoons, thanks in part to the native common sense of comedy writers. And thus Colbert introduces Neal Katyal for a quick primer on the U.S. Constitution and the genius of its design.

Comedy Central doesn’t meet your standard? Not effete enough? TV has something for you too.

Here (in RealAudio and MP3 format) is a segment from Friday’s Newshour with Jim Lehrer on PBS in which something unique and exciting happens: A victim of the flooding in the midwest exhibits personal responsibility and does not ask for government help. Here’s the key couple of sentences:

Narrator Elizabeth Brackett: Despite the devastation, [flood victim Barb] Boyer, like many who farm in these floodplains, says she does not expect much government help.

Barb Boyer: We’ve always lived our life that we’re responsible for our own choices, our own destiny. And we chose not to carry the flood insurance. That was our responsibility. There’s a lot of people that - of course, we are going to need help, but do I expect it? No. We’ll start over. That’s all I know right now.

It’s stirring and inspiring to see people in dire straits who haven’t abandoned their values, the values that make this country great.

And it’s all brought to you by TV!

Jim Webb, Drug War Peacenik?

I’ve just posted a piece at the Guardian on Sen. James Webb’s Scots-Irish ethnic populism. But he’s got his good side, too. A Virginia newspaper reports today:

Virginia Sen. Jim Webb began building a public case Thursday to change the nation’s drug laws to stress treatment over incarceration for nonviolent offenders.

The freshman Democrat held a hearing of the Joint Economic Committee to solicit testimony from prosecutors and scholars who argued that the decades-long emphasis on incarceration has been costly and ineffective.

Perp Walk for Former Bear Stearns Employees

Today many newspapers ran a front-page photograph of ex–Bear Stearns fund managers walking in handcuffs. It’s called a “perp walk.” Instead of arresting people quietly, the police parade them in handcuffs before the media. The walk refers to when the whole spectacle is orchestrated in advance (i.e. “Are the TV cameras out there?  Okay, let’s park the van 3 blocks away and walk slowly over to the courthouse.”)

Federal Appellate Judge David Sentelle, who was a former prosecutor himself, had a terrific article condemning this pernicious practice.  Here’s an excerpt:

Why does the prosecutor subject the accused to that walk of shame in handcuffs before the media?  It still appears to me to be no more nor less than an attempt improperly to sway the thinking of potential jurors or subject to the punishment of shame an accused who has not yet been convicted of anything…. The real shame, I think, is that of the prosecution more than the defendant. 

Unfortunately, the full article is not available online. 

For related Cato work, go here.

Fordham Follow Up

Yesterday, I wrote about a new Thomas B. Fordham Institute report on high-achieving students. I focused mainly on a bit of hyperbole issued by Fordham president Chester Finn and vice president Michael Petrilli concerning the “plainly” positive effect of government “standards and accountability” on low-achieving kids. Today, I just want to add a quick, seemingly obvious observation — but one barely hinted at in the report — concerning survey results that show teachers think high achievers in their schools get short shrift.

“Teachers say that while the public schools muster serious effort to improve the academic achievement of struggling students, their resources rarely converge on the needs of high achievers,” report Stave Farkas and Anne Duffett, who handled the survey section of Fordham’s report.

The problem is — you’ve got it! — one-size can’t fit all! A single system of public schools — especially one ever-more centralized with crude government accountability mandates like the No Child Left Behind Act — can only focus on one or two things at a time, and high achievers aren’t it.

So what’s the obvious solution? School choice!

In a market, consumers purchase things according to their individual preferences, needs, abilities, etc., and producers tailor products accordingly. I need a small, fuel-efficient car, I get a Corolla. You want a big beast to haul your soccer balls, you get a Suburban. I want dinner that’s also entertainment, I go to Benihana. You want buttered lobster bites, you head to Long John Silver’s.

When producers and consumers are free, diverse preferences that seem almost infinite are met by equally diverse providers, and everyone is better off. With school choice, gifted kids could go to schools that specialize not only in nurturing gifted children, but specific talents like artistic ability or scientific acumen. On the flip side, students with specific learning disabilities could go to schools that focus on their problems. In contrast, when everyone gets what government tells them they’re going to get, well, you know what happens.

Sadly, the only choices mentioned in Fordham’s report are district-run magnet schools and programs, but since the survey was of public school teachers, that’s understandable.  What’s not understandable is why in their NRO piece yesterday, Finn and Petrilli, while lionizing government “accountability” for supposedly helping low-achieving students, didn’t point to the huge promise of markets to educate each and every student.

GAO Issues Report on Privacy

This week, for a hearing in the Senate Homeland Security and Government Reform Committee, the Government Accountability Office released a report on privacy titled “Alternatives Exist for Enhancing Protection of Personally Identifiable Information.” (GAO testimony based on the report is here.) I served on a National Academy of Sciences “Expert Panel” that gave the GAO some perspectives on issues related to the Privacy Act.

The report had three main conclusions, with my comments:

The Privacy Act’s definition of a “system of records” (any grouping of records containing personal information retrieved by individual identifier), which sets the scope of the act’s protections, does not always apply whenever personal information is obtained and processed by federal agencies. One alternative to address this concern would be revising the system-of-records definition to cover all personally identifiable information collected, used, and maintained systematically by the federal government.

The “system of records” definition has indeed fallen out of date. Thanks to the growth of search and other technological developments, records not organized by personal identifier can be accessed and used by the federal government, but they fall outside the purview of the Privacy Act. This should change. The report also highlights the fact that data used by the federal government, but held by information resellers, escapes the purview of the Privacy Act. This should also change.

According to generally accepted privacy principles of purpose specification, collection limitation, and use limitation, the collection of personal information should be limited, and its use should be limited to a specified purpose. Yet, current laws and guidance impose only the modest requirements in these areas… . Alternatives to address this area of concern include requiring agencies to justify the collection and use of key elements of personally identifiable information and to establish agreements before sharing such information with other agencies.

Once they have collected it, federal agencies can do anything they want with personal information simply by declaring their plan to do so in the Federal Register through a “System of Records Notice” or “SORN.” The statements agencies may make when they collect information do not bind them in the slightest. This is wrong and it should change. GAO’s recommendations to limit collection and sharing of information are rather tepid, alas, and they wouldn’t change agencies’ institutional incentives to over-collect and promiscuously share the personal information of the citizenry.

Privacy Act notices may not effectively inform the public about government uses of personal information. For example, system-of-records notices published in the Federal Register (the government’s official vehicle for issuing public notices) may be difficult for the general public to fully understand. Layered notices, which provide only the most important summary facts up front, have been used as a solution in the private sector. In addition, publishing such notices at a central location on the Web would help make them more accessible.

It’s true that Privacy Act notices don’t inform the public well. They are obscurely written documents in an obscure publication. But I’m not sure that the publication of “layered notices” would be an improvement. Sure, there’s a consensus among government types that layered notices are the next big thing, but I don’t believe that they will change citizen understanding or behavior in any significant respect. Notices are also not terribly relevant in the government environment because a person can’t decline to do business with a government based on its privacy practices or promises.

There’s more to learn on “notice” and its importance or relevance for getting people more privacy. The thing we know is that reducing data collection and use leads directly to privacy. Getting policymakers to understand the privacy costs they’re imposing on the public would be as effective, if not more, than notifying the public about what’s been done to them after a policy is made and the horse is out of the barn.

Right Message, Wrong Messenger

A column in the Wall Street Journal correctly explains that Senators Obama and McCain have a habit of displaying economic illiteracy. So it is rather ironic that the author is Karl Rove, the man who spent the past seven years steering George W. Bush into one bad economic decision after another.

On many occasions, I visited economists in the administration to complain about their Keynesian fiscal policy (such as rebates), wasteful spending (such as farm bills and Medicare expansion), and senseless regulation (such as Sarbanes-Oxley), and invariably I would be told that the Bush White House was pursuing bad policy but that there was nothing that could be done because Karl Rove’s political strategy shop was calling the shots.

Only in Washington can people disply this amount of chutzpah and still retain credibility:

Barack Obama and John McCain are busy demonstrating that in close elections during tough economic times, candidates for president can be economically illiterate and irresponsibly populist. In Raleigh, N.C., last week, Sen. Obama promised, “I’ll make oil companies like Exxon pay a tax on their windfall profits, and we’ll use the money to help families pay for their skyrocketing energy costs and other bills.” Set aside for a minute that Jimmy Carter passed a “windfall profits tax” to devastating effect, putting American oil companies at a competitive disadvantage to foreign competitors, virtually ending domestic energy exploration, and making the U.S. more dependent on foreign sources of oil and gas. Instead ask this: Why should we stop with oil companies? They make about 8.3 cents in gross profit per dollar of sales. Why doesn’t Mr. Obama slap a windfall profits tax on sectors of the economy that have fatter margins? Electronics make 14.5 cents per dollar and computer equipment makers take in 13.7 cents per dollar, according to the Census Bureau. Microsoft’s margin is 27.5 cents per dollar of sales. Call out Mr. Obama’s Windfall Profits Police!

…This past Thursday, Mr. McCain came close to advocating a form of industrial policy, saying, “I’m very angry, frankly, at the oil companies not only because of the obscene profits they’ve made, but their failure to invest in alternate energy.” …And do we really want the government deciding how profits should be invested? If so, should Microsoft be forced to invest in Linux-based software or McDonald’s in weight-loss research? Mr. McCain’s angry statement shows a lack of understanding of the insights of Joseph Schumpeter, the 20th century economist who explained that capitalism is inherently unstable because a “perennial gale of creative destruction” is brought on by entrepreneurs who create new goods, markets and processes. The entrepreneur is “the pivot on which everything turns,” Schumpeter argued, and “proceeds by competitively destroying old businesses.”

…Messrs. Obama and McCain both reveal a disturbing animus toward free markets and success. It is uncalled for and self-defeating for presidential candidates to demonize American companies. It is understandable that Mr. Obama, the most liberal member of the Senate, would endorse reckless policies that are the DNA of the party he leads. But Mr. McCain, a self-described Reagan Republican, should know better.