Blind Faith and FISA

Over at Ars Technica, I cover Sen. Chris Dodd’s plans to filibuster the FISA bill that is now under consideration in the Senate. Given that the Senate already overrode Dodd’s filibuster and passed legislation that undermines civil liberties back in February, his effort this time is a long shot. But he’s giving it all he’s got. Dodd gave a really excellent speech on the Senate floor in opposition to the legislation. He makes a lot of great points, but this passage was my favorite:

This bill does not say, “Trust the American people; Trust the courts and judges and juries to come to just decisions.” Retroactive immunity sends a message that is crystal clear: “Trust me.”

And that message comes straight from the mouth of this President. “Trust me.”

What is the basis for that trust? Classified documents, we are told, that prove the case for retroactive immunity beyond a shadow of a doubt. But we’re not allowed to see them! I’ve served in this body for 27 years, and I’m not allowed to see them! Neither are a majority of my colleagues. We are all left in the dark. I cannot speak for my colleagues—but I would never take “trust me” for an answer, not even in the best of times. Not even from a President on Mount Rushmore.

I can’t put it better than this: “ ‘Trust me’ government is government that asks that we concentrate our hopes and dreams on one man; that we trust him to do what’s best for us. My view of government places trust not in one person or one party, but in those values that transcend persons and parties.”

Those words were not spoken by someone who took our nation’s security lightly, Mr. President. They were spoken by Ronald Reagan – in 1980. They are every bit as true today, even if times of threat and fear blur our concept of transcendent values. Even if those who would exploit those times urge us to save our skins at any cost.

We once had a Republican president who understood that blind faith in the president was unpatriotic. Not only do few Republicans understand that today, but it seems a lot of Democrats have forgotten it too.

U.S. Sugar Program Costs Another $1.75 Billion

The state of Florida announced yesterday that it will pay $1.75 billion to buy out the nation’s largest sugar producer and 300 square miles of land it owns north of the environmentally sensitive Florida Everglades. Although most news stories ignored the connection, the deal is yet another cost Americans continue to pay for our misguided agricultural programs.

The company selling the land, United States Sugar, has for decades benefited from a federal program that guarantees a minimum price for United States Sugar’s crop through a system of loan guarantees and strict import quotas. This means American families and sugar-consuming industries are typically paying two to three times the world price for sugar.

The sugar program also imposes damage on the environment, which motivated yesterday’s announcement. Like other farm programs, the sugar program encourages over-production. In the case of United States Sugar, that means the extraction of fresh water that would otherwise flow naturally into the Everglades, and the over-application of fertilizers that artificially raise the phosphorous content of the runoff, causing a sharp decline in periphyton, such as algae, that supports bird and other animal life in the Everglades. [For more about the environmental damage caused by U.S. farm programs, see my 2005 article published by the Property and Environment Research Center.]

In large part because of the damage caused by subsidized domestic sugar producers, Congress allocated $8 billion in 2000 for cleaning up the Everglades. Florida’s purchase of United States Sugar was just the latest installment in an ongoing clean-up operation.

Of course, Congress could have avoided much of this mess years ago by repealing the sugar program. If Americans had been free to buy sugar at world prices, our domestic sugar industry would have been smaller and more efficient with a much smaller environmental footprint. Converting the sugar-cane fields to more environmentally friendly uses would have been much less expensive because the annual subsidies would not have been capitalized into the value of the land.

When the Democrats took power in Congress in 2007, they pledged themselves to be in favor of reform, fiscal responsibility, and protection of the environment. Yet the new farm bill that Democrats voting overwhelmingly in favor of last month, and that their likely presidential candidate Barack Obama endorsed, strikes out on all three counts.

Odd Phenomena

Jeffrey Goldberg looks in Matt Yglesias’ and my direction and declares that “it’s an odd phenomenon” that people care about the fact that Goldberg and James Kirchick are making false claims about what the president of Iran said. False claims that are leading people in the United States to want to go to war with Iran.

You know what else is an odd phenomenon? That Jeffrey Goldberg still hasn’t addressed the fact that he published a number of articles before the Iraq war falsely linking Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda that helped get 4,000 Americans killed, drive America’s reputation into the ditch, flush $600,000,000,000 down the toilet and enhance Iran’s position in the region. That’s odd.

Conflicting Data? What Conflicting Data?

The public school advocacy group Center on Education Policy released a new report today, titled “Has Student Achievement Increased Since 2002?” Its answer is “yes,” based on relatively worthless high-stakes state-level testing data and on the more esteemed National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). For reasons known only to the report’s authors, they make no use of the available U.S. trend data from either the PISA or the PIRLS international tests (though the CEP study mentions PISA results for a single point in time, it ignores the changes in that test’s scores over time.)

As it happens, U.S. scores have declined on both PISA and PIRLS in every subject and at both grades tested since they were first administered in 2000/2001. In the PISA mathematics and science tests, the declines are large enough to be statistically significant, that is: we can be confident (and disappointed) that they reveal real deterioration in U.S. student performance. In mathematics, our score has dropped from 493 to 474, causing us to slip from 18th out of 27 participating countries down to 25th out of 30 countries. In science, our score fell from 499 to 489, dropping us from 14th out of 27 countries to 21st out of 30 countries.

It is reckless and misleading to form judgments about trends in U.S. student performance without taking into account the declines on these respected international tests. And, as Neal McCluskey and I pointed out last year, the improving trends that exist on some NAEP tests predate the passage of the No Child Left Behind act, and have in some cases actually slowed since that law’s passage.

It is this rather discouraging reality that should guide policymakers in the coming year, as they debate the future of NCLB.

Family Security Matters: REAL ID = National ID

A month ago, I wrote here and in a TechKnowledge article about the telling imagery that a company called L-1 Identity Solutions had used in some promotional materials. The cover of their REAL ID brochure featured an attractive woman’s face with her driver license data superimposed over it, along with her name, address, height, eye color, place of birth, political affiliation, and her race. This is where the national ID system advanced by the REAL ID Act leads.

Here’s another example. A group called Family Security Matters has reprinted on its site a blog post supporting the $80 million in grant money that the Department of Homeland Security recently announced, seeking to prop up the REAL ID Act. (I’ve written about it here and here.)

What’s interesting is not that a small advocacy group should support REAL ID, but the image they chose to illustrate their thinking: a man holding his “National Identity Card,” his fingerprint and iris images printed on it, and presumably programmed into it.

Were there ever any doubt that REAL ID was a national identity system and a step toward cradle-to-grave, government-mandated biometric tracking, Family Security Matters has helped clear that up.

TSA Background Check Includes Political Party

We’re now learning the meaning of a new policy that Americans can’t “willfully” refuse to show ID at airports. The Consumerist has a write-up of one man’s experience with IDless travel. It turns out they do a background check on you using, among other things, your political affiliation.

That’s a nice window onto what identity-based security is all about: giving the government deep access into all of our personal lives. Of course, this type of security is easy to evade, and the 9/11 plot was structured to evade it. Checking ID cannot catch someone who has no history of wrongdoing.

Identity checks at airports require law-abiding American citizens to give up their privacy, including their political affiliations, with essentially no security benefit.

Scientists Gone Wild

One of the oft-encountered talking points offered by the Left is the extent to which the Bush administration has alternatively ignored, intimidated, and done violence to the scientific community. The picture being painted is that of a know-nothing Christian fundamentalist in the thrall of corporate America waging unremitting war against the Enlightenment.

While there is enough truth to this charge to give it legs, the “science” lobby is scarcely blameless. For all the moral and ethical posturing surrounding the sanctity of “the scientific process” and the need to keep the same safe from assaults by power-hungry politicians and ignorant political mob action, climatologist James Hansen’s recent call to literally criminalize disagreement with him about climate change is a more radical assault on the the scientific process and the scientific method than anything forwarded by the Bush administration.

Now, James Hansen would probably argue that he’s not interested in criminalizing disagreement per se; he’s interested in criminalizing dangerous, life-threatening speech that the speaker knows is fraudulent. Perhaps. But exactly what is the nature of this special mind-reading power that allows James Hansen to determine that Rex Tillerson, head of ExxonMobil, believes X but says Y? Is it so beyond the realm of possiblity to think that Rex Tillerson actually believes what he says (pace, say, commentary by our own Pat Michaels on the subject)? Or does James Hansen presume to know Pat Michaels’ true and secret thoughts as well?

To the extent that James Hansen’s views are embraced by the self-appointed gendarmes of science, politicians are right to suspect that climate change alarmism is heavily influenced by the lust for power, the demands of ego, and the pursuit of political agendas that go far beyond a disinterested search for scientific truth. Moreover, one can’t help but wonder about the strength of an argument that requires the threat of force to silence critics.

Call me an idealogue, but criminalizing skepticism about scientific theories is probably not the best way to facilitate the quest for scientific truth.