Watch Your Libertarian Language

Colleges often have to decide what their rules are about language that offends people. Is a professor’s criticism of affirmative action offensive to black students? Is a gay-rights group’s advocacy offensive to Christian or morally conservative students? And people can debate how to weigh free speech versus a nurturing atmosphere in a particular college.

But Marquette University seems to have reached new heights, or depths, in what it considers offensive. A graduate student there posted on his office door a pithy quotation from humorist Dave Barry:

 “As Americans we must always remember that we all have a common enemy, an enemy that is dangerous, powerful, and relentless. I refer, of course, to the federal government.”

A strong opinion, to be sure. One that I’d bet is shared by many but certainly not all Americans. Apparently Barry’s sentiment is not shared by the chairman of Marquette’s philosophy department, who took it upon himself to take down the quotation and sent a department email declaring it “patently offensive.”

Offensive to whom? Surely not to any of the usual identity groups, ethnic or religious or sexual-orientation or gender or whatever. Nor does it use the four-letter words that might be inappropriate for a public space. Perhaps it’s offensive to employees of the federal government, or to those who have a great deal of respect and admiration for the federal government. But one would think that at a university it falls within the parameters of debate. And while Dave Barry writes more effectively and memorably than most philosophers, his statement still qualifies as humor or political commentary or both.

Marquette is a private university and is thus free under the First Amendment to regulate speech as it chooses. But if libertarian jests are “patently offensive” and subject to censorship at Marquette, it might want to note that in a new paragraph of its academic freedom guidelines and perhaps in the catalog provided to prospective students.

Google Office vs. Government “Request”

TechCrunch is a terrific blog covering new Internet products and companies.  Edited by Michael Arrington, it’s a clearinghouse of information on ”Web 2.0” - the agglomeration of innovations that could take online life and business through their next leaps forward.

In this recent post, TechCrunch briefly assessed some concerns with Google’s office strategy.  Google has online offerings in the works that could substitute for the word processing and spreadsheet software on your computer - just like Gmail did with e-mail.

And just like Gmail, documents and information would remain on Google’s servers so they can be accessed anywhere.  This is a great convenience, but brings with it several problems, namely: 

The fact that unauthorized document access is a simple password guess or government “request” away already works against them. But the steady stream of minor security incidents we’ve seen (many very recently) can also hurt Google in the long run.

Arrington’s post goes on to highlight a series of small but significant security lapses at Google.  If Google wants companies and individuals to store sensitive data on their servers, they have to be pretty near perfect - or better than perfect.

Then there is government “request.” Arrington makes appropriate use of quotation marks to indicate irony.  Governments rarely “request” data in the true sense of that term.  Rather, they require its disclosure various ways - by warrant or subpoena, for example, by issuing “national security letters,” or by making a technical “request” that is backed by the implicit threat of more direct action or regulatory sanctions.

On resisting government demands for data, Google has been better than most - an awfully low hurdle.  It opposed a subpoena for data about users’ searches earlier this year.  But Google has a long way to go if it wants people to believe that leaving data in their hands does not provide easy (and secret) access to the government.  Indeed, thanks to the recently passed cybercrime treaty, doing so may well provide access to foreign governments, opening the door to corporate espionage and any number of other threats.

At a meeting of the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee in San Francisco last July, I asked Google Associate General Counsel Nicole Wong what the company is doing about its ability to protect information from government “request,” given the sorry state of Fourth Amendment law with respect to personal information held by third parties.  Her answer, which I must summarize because the transcript is not yet online, amounted to “not much.”  (Eventually, the transcript should be linked from here.)

Google has issued a “me too” about an effort to invite regulation of itself.  That project is going nowhere, but if it did get off the ground, it would do nothing about government access to the information that Google holds for its customers. 

Government access to data is a big flaw in Google’s nascent effort to move into online productivity services.

Newsflash: Politician Does Right Thing (Twice)

At Cato, we often point out when politicians do something wrong — and who can blame us given the target-rich environment? But we should also salute the rare politician who does something right (more or less). So let’s give two tips of the hat to New York mayor Michael Bloomberg for choosing not to inflame two recent situations that could easily have been exploited for political gain.

Last July, parts of Queens lost electricity for more than a week because several of the borough’s feeder cables failed, leaving about 100,000 people without power. During and after the blackout, several NY politicos piled on Consolidated Edison, which is a tried-and-true political tradition in New York City. But Bloomberg broke with tradition, publicly refusing to bash the utility. Instead, he worked to lower the political temperature, and he urged others to do the same.

Now, Bloomberg is also declining to bash yesterday’s announced $5.4 billion sale of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, two massive middle-income apartment complexes in Manhattan. Together, the complexes comprise more than 11,000 units in 110 buildings covering some 80 acres of the most lucrative real estate on the planet. The sale is reported to be the largest real estate deal in American history.

As the impending sale became public, many New York politicians and political activists ripped the deal because of fears of “gentrification.” But Bloomberg, to his credit, said simply, “MetLife owns it, and they have a right to sell it.”

Of course, housing affordability is a legitimate public concern. But the much-ballyhooed policy prescriptions — e.g., rent control, affordable housing mandates, “inclusionary zoning” — are window dressing at best and counterproductive at worst.

Fortunately, there is a far-superior policy response that also is market-friendly: government need only remove the restrictions preventing the market from satisfying the demand for affordable housing. This is argued well by Harvard economist Ed Glaeser and Wharton School economist Joe Gyourko in the Fall 2002 issue of Regulation.

If Bloomberg really wants to make my day, he should read Glaeser and Gyourko’s article and allow developers to build as much housing as the New York market demands.

Private Schools Now 33% Off!

There’s a common perception in this country that public schools are underfunded, and that if they could only spend as much as private schools do, they’d be in clover. When it is pointed out that the average private school tuition is around half of total public school spending per pupil, defenders of the status quo counter that tuition only covers a fraction of total costs.

So wouldn’t it be interesting to know how much private schools actually spend, in total, per pupil? Well now we do, at least for the state of Arizona.

In a study released yesterday by the Goldwater Institute, I analyze the results of their most recent private school survey. Among the other fascinating findings is that public schools spend one-and-a-half times as much per pupil as do private schools. Or, looked at the other way, private schools spend a third less than public schools.

Some other fascinating tidbits:

Teachers make up 72 percent of on-site staff in Arizona’s independent education sector, but less than half of on-site staff in the public sector. In order to match the independent sector’s emphasis on teachers over non-teaching staff, Arizona public schools would have to hire roughly 25,000 more teachers and dismiss 21,210 non-teaching employees.

When teachers’ 9-month salaries are annualized to make them comparable to the 12-month salaries of most other fields, Arizona independent school teachers earned the equivalent of $36,456 in 2004 – about $2,000 less than reporters and correspondents. The 12-month-equivalent salary of the state’s public school teachers was around $60,000, which is more than nuclear technicians, epidemiologists, detectives, and broadcast news analysts. It’s also about 50 percent more than reporters or private school teachers earn.

I wonder what effect these numbers will have on the flood of education stories about how desperately underpaid public school teachers are… given that those teachers are earning the equivalent of 50 percent more than the journalists who cover them.

There are many other gems in the full report, including a comparison of the condition of physical facilities between public and private sector schools. Public school lobbyists claim they need loads more money to repair and maintain their buildings, so it’d be interesting to know how private schools cope with this issue on a fraction of the public sector’s budget, hmm?

C-SPAN Airs Medicare Meets Mephistopheles Forum

Never mind Fox NFL Sunday

Move over, Scrubs re-runs.

C-SPAN2’s Book TV will air the Cato Institute’s book forum for Medicare Meets Mephistopheles at 12pm and 11:30pm on Sunday, October 22.  The forum features the author, David Hyman, along with Yale University’s Ted Marmor and Washington & Lee University’s Robin Wilson.

Isn’t scandal fun?

Leonhardt on Health Care Spending, Part II

A few weeks ago, David Leonhardt of the New York Times wrestled with the problem of health care spending.  In his column today, he inches closer to the question he’s dying to ask: how can we reduce health care spending without increasing costs?  (Here I see the fingerprints of Cato’s Arnold Kling, whom Leonhardt cites, as well as GMU’s Tyler Cowen.)

Readers of Cato@Liberty know I’m skeptical of a solution that Leonhardt offers: having the Medicare bureaucracy pay more for what it considers “quality” medical care.  It’s not that I think “pay-for-performance” is a bad idea – I think it’s a good idea that Medicare will undoubtedly ruin

At a Cato policy forum on November 2, I will be joined by Harvard’s David Cutler, National Medical Association president Sandra Gadson, and former Medicare administrator Gail Wilensky to discuss whether that’s so.

The Global Warming Cult

Debra Saunders of the San Francisco Chronicle penned a spot-on essay the other day regarding the manner in which the warming crowd has donned the trappings of a religious cult.  The true faith has even managed to claim a large number of scientists who one might think would resist the rather unscientific nature of this particular belief system.  Her opening paragraph sets the tone:

GLOBAL WARMING is a religion, not science. That’s why acolytes in the media attack global-warming critics, not with scientific arguments, but for their apostasy. Then they laud global-warming believers, not for reducing greenhouse gases, but simply for believing global warming is a coming catastrophe caused by man. The important thing is to have faith in those who warn: The End Is Near.

Unfortunately, the media is largely blind to the increasing weirdness of the debate and seems to have signed on as PR operatives for the New Church of the Earth Redeemed.

This is a theme I’ve hammered on before in these pages, but Saunders does a better job than I have highlighting the rather unscientific demeanor of our self-proclaimed guardians of scientific truth.  Worth reading.