Edwards vs. Edwards on Hunger

My prior post on hunger in the United States attracted some comments in the blogosphere regarding what presidential candidate John Edwards has been saying about the issue.

Candidate Edwards has been claiming that 35 million Americans are going hungry. For example, in recent Thanksgiving comments he said: “More than 35 million Americans went hungry last year.”

That is not true. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is the official source for such statistics. Here is what the agency says:

“USDA does not have a measure of hunger or the number of hungry people. Prior to 2006, USDA described households with very low food security as ‘food insecure with hunger,’ and characterized them as households in which one or more people were hungry at times during the year because they could not afford enough food … In 2006, USDA introduced the new description “very low food security” to replace “food insecurity with hunger.”

O.K., well how big is the group called “very low food security?” If you look at the chart here, you see it is at most about 3% of the population (about 9 million people), or those with an episode of “very low food security” even a single time during a year.

In sum, this appears to be a good topic for a Washington Post’s Pinocchio analysis.

Is Rudy Running for Editor of the Weekly Standard, or President of the United States?

Lest one worry that Rudy Giuliani’s campaign consists of little more than repeating “9/11” over and over again, it’s worth having a look at his appearance yesterday at the “Politics and Eggs” event in New Hampshire to see what he’s up to. It appears he’s most focused on currying favor with the couple dozen or so die-hard neoconservatives who buzz around Washington complaining that President Bush isn’t hawkish enough.

First, Giuliani assembled a world class cadre of extremists to staff his foreign policy team, including David “End to Evil” Frum, Norman “I Hope and Pray that President Bush Will Bomb Iran” Podhoretz, Michael “The Case for Assassinating Foreign Leaders” Rubin, and a host of others.

But then, at yesterday’s Politics and Eggs breakfast, Giuliani played some dog-whistle politics, blasting away at the State Department for having undermined the Bush administration’s foreign policy. “We have to do a better job of explaining ourselves,” Giuliani observed. “The core of diplomacy is being able to explain the United States in various parts of the world, in cultures that might be very different, and it’s our job to understand them better.”

And then came the time to take in the State Department, a bête noire for neoconservatives, for a drubbing. (I’m loosely transcribing from a video of the speech.)

I would change the mission of the State Department. The State Department exists not just for the purpose of explaining other countries to us–it’s real important–as I said, with the Middle East, maybe we didn’t do a good enough job with understanding them….but the main purpose of an Ambassador is to sell the United States…

I think we need to reinvigorate the State Department. When you tell me America’s reputation is in trouble in various parts of the world, I say “what has our Ambassador done to protect that reputation? How much explanation has the Ambassador done on television? How much explaination has the Ambassador done in the media and in meetings, explaining what the United States is all about?”…

We’ve got to have a State Department that understands that we have a reputation that needs to be defended and respected… We don’t want to force things on anyone in the world–we’d like to share it with them. That’s what diplomacy is about, it’s about sharing who we are with others and getting them to understand us better, and to understand our motives, because we don’t have bad motives…

Rarely has such banality been married to such obtuseness. It’s as though this is somehow a revelation: Giuliani has discovered that the State Department should be concerned with America’s image abroad! Eureka! But this rests on the comfortable fallacy that our problem is fundamentally one of perception rather than reality. Foreigners understand our policies quite well. They dislike them. So flogging the State Department for apparently not understanding the platitude that “we have a reputation that needs to be defended and respected” is a bit much. Particularly when coming from a man who holds such easy-to-explain-to-the-world views as that the United States has favored the Palestinians too much in the Israel-Palestine dispute.

Public diplomacy isn’t a magic bullet. If the medicine tastes bad enough, all the sugar in the world isn’t going to help it go down.

Giuliani decided to finish the talk with a flourish. Discussing his views on diplomacy further, he observed that:

You need to know when to negotiate and you need to know when not to negotiate. Because negotiating when you’re not supposed to negotiate, you can kill more people. I know that’s hard for some people to understand, but if you negotiate at the wrong time, you can cost human lives…

I’ll just leave you with this example: What about Hitler? Should Chamberlain have negotiated with Hitler? Or should England have listened to Churchill in the 1930s? The answer is pretty simple: We’d have saved millions of lives if we’d stood up to Hitler at a much earlier stage. We’d have saved a lot of lives if we’d stood up to Islamic terrorism at an earlier stage.

Ah, the Hitler analogy. The last refuge of a neocon.

The Biological Process that Dare not Speak its Name

A century and a half after Darwin penned On the Origin of Species, the Florida state board of education is considering adding the word evolution to its official curriculum. Until now, it has been referred to only obliquely as “biological changes over time.”

At least one school district (of which Florida has only a handful) is already balking at the proposed change.

Most of my fellow evolutionists seem to think that government-mandated instruction in evolution, in state run schools, is the ideal path to biological enlightnment. Personally, I think 150 years of foot-dragging before seriously considering the use of the word evolution bodes ill for the quality of instruction that will follow.

Two Tax Rates Catching On

A few years ago, I proposed a major overhaul of federal taxation with a plan I called the dual-rate income tax. (See here and here). The plan would get rid of virtually all credits and deductions, be favorable to savings and investment, and compress the current six-rate system down to two lower rates.

I proposed the idea to the president’s tax reform panel in 2005, but the panel didn’t bite. Panel co-chair, former Senator John Breaux, said: “Chris, I looked at your plan; I don’t like it.”

But this year, the two-rate idea is catching on. House Republicans led by Paul Ryan have proposed a two-rate plan called a Simplified Tax. (Please join us to hear Mr. Ryan speak about his plan on December 6). And yesterday, presidential candidate Fred Thompson included a two-rate plan in his platform.

In the long-run, Americans should follow the lead of more than 20 countries that have enacted flat taxes. Meanwhile, the two-rate plan would represent a huge step toward that ultimate goal.

Which Secretary Chertoff Do You Believe?

In February, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the following about the REAL ID Act: “If we don’t get it done now, someone is going to be sitting around in three or four years explaining to the next 9/11 Commission why we didn’t do it.”

Alice Lipowicz of Washington Technology reported on REAL ID yesterday:

[Chertoff] and other DHS officials have said that older drivers present a lower terrorism risk and, therefore, might be allowed more time to switch to Real ID licenses. According to the Washington Post, DHS might extend the deadline to 2018 for drivers older than 40 or 50. Moreover, states will have more time to implement the act, Chertoff said.

DHS had previously extended the statutory May 2008 deadline for beginning implementation to December 2009 and recently set 2013 as the deadline for full implementation.

2013 is more than 5 years from now - 2018 is more than eleven. For all Chertoff’s urgency at the beginning of the year, has the Department abandoned its mission to secure the country?

Of course not. But Chertoff and the DHS were clearly trying to buffalo the Congress and the American people on REAL ID earlier this year. They haven’t succeeded.

Happily, this national ID system doesn’t add to our country’s security as its proponents have imagined. We are not unsafe for lacking a national ID. I explored all these issues in my book Identity Crisis.

If REAL ID were a sound security tool, pushing back the deadline for compliance would be a security risk, of course, as would reducing the quality of the cardstock used to make REAL ID-compliant cards - another measure DHS is considering.

Forget security, though. DHS is straining to get the program implemented just so it can claim success and save some face.

“[T]hose who are singing a funeral dirge, I think they’re singing the wrong tune,” Chertoff said November 6th. Alas, as before, Secretary Chertoff is the one more likely to sing a different song.

Privatize Marriage

Stephanie Coontz, a historian, suggests in the New York Times that government get out of the marriage business. Why, she asks, “do people — gay or straight — need the state’s permission to marry?”

For most of Western history, they didn’t, because marriage was a private contract between two families. The parents’ agreement to the match, not the approval of church or state, was what confirmed its validity.

For 16 centuries, Christianity also defined the validity of a marriage on the basis of a couple’s wishes. If two people claimed they had exchanged marital vows — even out alone by the haystack — the Catholic Church accepted that they were validly married.

So, she says, “Let churches decide which marriages they deem ‘licit.’ But let couples — gay or straight — decide if they want the legal protections and obligations of a committed relationship.”

It’s a great idea. Indeed, it’s such a good idea that I proposed it in Slate back in 1997:

So why not privatize marriage? Make it a private contract between two individuals. If they wanted to contract for a traditional breadwinner/homemaker setup, with specified rules for property and alimony in the event of divorce, they could do so. Less traditional couples could keep their assets separate and agree to share specified expenses. Those with assets to protect could sign prenuptial agreements that courts would respect. Marriage contracts could be as individually tailored as other contracts are in our diverse capitalist world. For those who wanted a standard one-size-fits-all contract, that would still be easy to obtain. Wal-Mart could sell books of marriage forms next to the standard rental forms. Couples would then be spared the surprise discovery that outsiders had changed their contract without warning. Individual churches, synagogues, and temples could make their own rules about which marriages they would bless.

One of the problems with this whole idea is that, as usual, the state has entangled itself in our lives. There are 1049 federal laws that mention marital status, most of them dealing with taxes or transfer payments. If marriage becomes a matter of private contract, the federal government will still have to decide whether to recognize all such contracts for the purpose of handing out marital benefits. And that doesn’t even get into custody, inheritance, property, next-of-kin, hospital visitation and other sorts of laws usually handled at the state level. Just another example of how the intrusion of the state into every corner of society makes it difficult to privatize any aspect of life. But it’s good to see the idea getting some discussion.

This Week at the Supreme Court

Notwithstanding last week’s agreement to hear the D.C. guns case – the announcement of which managed to be both later than originally expected and earlier than expected after the decision’s postponement – the Court has gone back to putting itself out of business by reducing its workload to nothingness.  (How’s that for judicial restraint?) 

The Court has granted review to 51 cases this term, putting it about at the same pace as last year, when only 68 cases were decided after argument.  This is down from the 70-low-80s of the previous 15 years (except 92 in 1997-98), which itself is down from the 100-110 pace before that (and, for example, 129 in 1973).

But forgetting the numbers game, this week the Court is hearing four arguments, in cases involving: 1) private causes of action under ERISA (Larue v. DeWolff); 2) the deductibility of financial advisers’ fees from trust/estate taxes (Knight v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue); 3) whether New Jersey may construct a natural gas facility on the Delaware River over Delaware’s objection (New Jersey v. Delaware); and 4) the federal preemption of a (Maine) state law that blocks the delivery of Internet-bought tobacco to teenagers (Rowe v. New Hampshire Motor Transport Assn.).  Not too exciting, other than that case 3 comes in under the Court’s rare original jurisdiction (meaning no state or lower federal court first ruled on the matter).

On Friday, the justices are scheduled to hold a private conference to discuss more pending cert petitions, with orders on those expected next Monday.  The safe bet is that they’ll deny them all – though there is one interesting case (McDermott v. Boehner) where one sitting congressman is suing another over the latter’s disclosure to reporters of an illegally taped (and embarrassing) phone conversation.  Stay tuned.