The Federal Communications Commission Versus the First Amendment

Newspapers and movie studios have reasonably good protections from government intervention and censorship. But as Steve Chapman explains, the Federal Communications Commission successfully has limited the First Amendment rights of television networks:

The First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech has complex implications, but it clearly means two things: The government cannot tell you what to say, and it cannot tell you what not to say. That is your own business, and if you conduct it in a way the government dislikes, the government can take a flying leap. Unless by “government” you mean the Federal Communications Commission. It operates on the assumption that in its special realm, the First Amendment is a nonbinding resolution.

In addition to the constitutional argument, he makes two excellent points. First, improving television quality (as defined by politicians) is not the business of government. Second, parents should decide what their kids see, not bureaucrats:

…parents who want to shield their kids from bad language on TV already have ample means to do so – via channel blocking and V-chips that can be used to filter out programs with content they regard as inappropriate. The FCC says these methods are ineffective because parents don’t use them. More likely, parents don’t bother because they don’t think the problem is serious enough to justify the effort to shield kids from words they’ve already heard on YouTube. To insert the federal government is not a way to strengthen the authority of parents but to circumvent it. …The idea that we need the FCC to assure educational opportunities for children is nonsense on stilts. In the first place, there are plenty of channels, from PBS to the Discovery Channel, that offer nothing but educational programming. …In the second place, any parents truly interested in exposing their children to intellectual stimulation are more likely to shut the TV off than turn it on. Even if more educational programming would be a good thing, what business is that of the government? More G-rated films would be a good thing, too, but we don’t force movie studios to produce them. …Today, most viewers no longer distinguish between cable and broadcast programs. So having different rules for each makes about as much sense as having different regulations for odd- and even-numbered channels.

Further Evidence of Federal Silliness

As an irony junkie, I enjoy watching federal officials argue that they should be able to run the country’s educational system at the same time they flunk the basics.  For example, the Clinton Administration once posted this map on the White House website:

 

There are a number of interesting things about this map.

  • Apparently, Owensboro, Kentucky, isn’t in Kentucky anymore.  In fact, it looks like Kentucky isn’t in Kentucky anymore.  It has moved to Tennessee. 
  • Illinois has annexed the entire western portion of Kentucky, completely cutting off everything south and west of Union county, and with it Kentucky’s access to the Mississippi River.
  • It seems that Kentuckians were so infuriated by the loss of western Kentucky — and their state’s very name — that they invaded their neighbors to the east, capturing the city of Roanoke, Virginia.
  • Both Minnesota and Iowa have led incursions into South Dakota, conquering and dividing up that state’s southeastern corner.  South Dakota’s largest city, Sioux Falls, has fallen into the hands of wild-eyed Minnesotans.  Everything south of Sioux Falls is living under brutal Iowan occupation. 

So the other day, while in a lobby shared by CNN and the U.S. Department of Education (ED), a poster on the ED side bearing the following logo caught my eye:

U.S. Department of Education and Federal Student Aid logo (Start here. Go further.)

The proper usage of further and farther is the subject of some dispute.  Authorities have traditionally instructed that farther is used when discussing distance (Maine is farther from DC than New York) while further expresses a difference of degree (he further refined his craft).  Some argue that the distinction has been effectively erased by usage.  But I figured that since the ED’s new slogan was based on the common expression “you’ll go far,” there was a good chance that I had struck gold.

Yet the fun had really just begun.  When I pulled out my mobile phone to snap a photo, a very large man jumped up from behind the security desk and interposed himself between me and my prize.  He told me to put the camera away.  Irony or no irony.  Why?  Federal building.  Therefore, no taking pictures.   Of a poster.  In the lobby.  Of a building that doesn’t house, and isn’t near, anything even mildly important.  (Okay, that’s not fair.  If anything happened to those offices, who would all those former college attendees blow off?)

By the time I was done at CNN, an even larger man (the first man’s supervisor) wanted to have a word with me.  I wonder if their demeanors would have been different had the CNN reporter and cameraman not happened to follow me downstairs.

When Common Sense Just Isn’t Enough

The National Association of Manufacturers has been in Washington long enough to know that sometimes, if you make that last appeal, that last argument, compliment the right person, then things might just go your way. 

In an unusual (to me, at least) letter expressing opposition to an utterly inane amendment sponsored by Sen. Charles Schumer that would required ALL inbound cargo at U.S. ports to be screened (an impossibility without bringing international trade to a halt), NAM’s Jay Timmons urges the Senate to oppose the amendment. In the letter, Timmons describes the impracticability of the idea and describes how such measures would actually make the ports less secure.

But, to be sure, to cover his bases, and to appeal to that special sense of honor and duty reserved only for politicians, Timmons concludes with this gem:

The NAM’s Key Vote Advisory Committee has indicated that votes on the Schumer amendment will be considered for designation as Key Manufacturing Votes in the NAM voting record for the 110th Congress.  Eligibility for the NAM Award for Manufacturing Legislative Excellence will be based on a member’s record on Key Manufacturing Votes.

That could be the clincher!

Cost Overruns, Again

The Washington Post reported yesterday that the cost of new combat ships from Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics will likely be at least $350 million each, instead of the originally budgeted $220 million.

That 59 percent cost increase is routine for big federal procurements. The table below summarizes official government estimates of costs for various defense, energy, and transportation projects.

No doubt, what goes on with these projects is a “nudge nudge, wink wink” between federal officials and major contractors. The game involves key players on both sides low-balling initial costs in order to get project approval, and then having an informal agreement to let costs float up over time.

In this case, one cause of the combat ship cost increase, noted the Post, was that ”the Navy said its original cost estimate did not factor in some management costs.” How convenient!

A Sampling of Federal Cost Overruns
(Defense items in constant dollars; other figures in current dollars)
Project Estimated Cost and Date of Estimate
Original Latest or Actual
Transportation    
Boston “Big Dig” $2.6b (1985) $14.6b (2005)
Virginia Springfield interchange $241m (1994) $676m (2003)
Kennedy Center parking lot $28m (1998) $88m (2003)
Air traffic control modernization $8.9b (1998-2004) $14.6b (2005)
Denver International Airport $1.7b (1989) $4.8b (1995)
Seattle light rail system $1.7b (1996) $2.6b (2000)
     
Energy  
Yucca mountain radioactive waste $6.3b (1992) $8.4b (2001)
Hanford nuclear fuels site $715m (1995) $1.6b (2001)
Idaho Falls nuclear fuels site $124m (1998) $273m (2001)
National ignition laser facility $2.1b (1995) $3.3b (2001)
Weldon Springs remedial action $358m (1989) $905m (2001)
     
Defense (per unit in 2003 dollars)  
Global Hawk surveillance plane $86m (2001) $123m (2004)
F/A-22 Raptor fighter $117m (1992) $254m (2002)
V-22 Osprey aircraft $36m (1987) $93m (2001)
RAH-66 Comanche helicopter $33m (2000) $53m (2002)
CH-47F cargo helicopter $9m (1998) $18m (2002)
SBIRS satellite system $825m (1998) $1.6b (2002)
Patriot advanced missile $5m (1995) $10m (2002)
EX-171 guided munition $45,000 (1997) $150,000 (2002)
     
Other  
Capitol Hill visitor center $374m (2002) $559m (2004)
Kennedy Center opera house $18.3m (1995) $22.2m (2003)
Kennedy Center concert hall $15.1m (1995) $21.3m (1997)
Washington D.C. baseball stadium $435m (2004) $611m (2007)
International space station $17b (1995) $30b (2002)
FBI Trilogy computer system $477m (2000) $600m (2004)
Pentagon secret spy satellite $5b (n/a) $9.5b (2004)
Pentagon laser anti-missile system $1b (1996) $2b (2004)
Sources: Compilation by Chris Edwards based on GAO reports and Washington Post stories. Figures in $millions (m) or $billions (b).

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

In the 2006 campaign, Democrats accused Republicans of “selling access” to Congress. But now, the Washington Post reports,

Eager to shore up their fragile House and Senate majorities, congressional Democrats have enlisted their committee chairmen in an early blitz to bring millions of dollars into the party’s coffers, culminating in a late-March event featuring House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and 10 of the powerful panel chairs.

In the next 10 days alone, Democratic fundraisers will feature the chairmen of the House’s financial services panel and the House and Senate tax-writing committees. Senate Democrats also plan a fundraising reception during a major gathering of Native Americans in the capital Tuesday evening, an event hosted by lobbyists and the political action committee for tribal casinos, including those Jack Abramoff was paid to represent.

Where is The Who now that we need them?

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again

Health Authoritarians Afraid That People Won’t Do as They’re Told

The Wall Street Journal reports: 

The big drinks makers now plan to disclose the caffeine content on the product label.

The new information will allow consumers to compare the caffeine content of various soft drinks and comes as beverage companies are introducing new supercharged drinks….

While health groups laud the move toward more labeling, some worry the caffeine disclosure might be used to encourage more caffeine consumption. “It’s conceivable that some people will choose higher caffeine soft drinks,” says Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who has lobbied for caffeine labeling by soda companies.

Yes, there’s always some possibility that when you give people more information, they’ll still make their own choices. Some people consider that the nature of a free society. Others consider it a good reason to impose more and more restrictions, until people do as they’re told. No doubt we’ll soon find out which category includes Mr. Jacobson.

You Go to War with the State Department You Have

There’s been a good bit of commentary over the last few weeks about the role of the State Department in post-“Mission Accomplished” Iraq.

First, WaPo reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran pulled the curtain back from America’s “provincial reconstruction teams” in Iraq, noting that in one instance

The USDA had trouble finding six people who wanted to work in Iraq among its more than 100,000 employees. Although a USDA official said the department encouraged its workers to apply, officials at State believe USDA did not move with alacrity because the two agencies had not agreed on a mechanism to reimburse the USDA for the services it would provide in Iraq. Eventually, USDA and State agreed that USDA would provide just two of the six. The other four would be private contractors hired by State.

The first USDA specialist, Randy Frescoln, a rural credit specialist from Iowa, landed in Iraq in December and was sent to the reconstruction team in Tikrit. Although he was supposed to stay in Iraq for a year, he said he plans to leave next month because he received a promotion while he was away. The second specialist has not yet arrived.

Even if USDA and State were to get an agriculture expert to Diyala now, [a State Department administrator] believes, it is too late. Security conditions have deteriorated so significantly in the province that reconstruction personnel are lucky to make one or two trips a week off the military base where they live and work.

Secretary of State Rice was left only to lament that the State Department simply doesn’t employ the types of people who the administration wants to rebuild Iraq: “These are people like agronomists, veterinarians, city planners and others. No diplomatic service in the world has these specialties.” That’s true enough. As a result, it’s been left to DOD to staff open State Department spots in Iraq. (No word on whether DOD employs veterinarians and city planners.)

We’ve seen the announcement that State intends to double the number of “Provincial Reconstruction Teams” in Iraq, from the total staffing today of 10 30-person teams to 20 teams. Also, Sen. Richard Lugar has resurrected the idea of the “Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization” in the State Department, which some of its strongest advocates liken to a “colonial office.”

And now we have former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger discussing the super-ultra-mega embassy in Baghdad in today’s Post:

“I defy anyone to tell me how you can use that many people. It is nuts … it’s insane and it’s counterproductive … and it won’t work. I’ve been around the State Department long enough to know you can’t run an outfit like that.”

Then, a “senior State Department official” chimes in with a broader complaint:

“Maintaining an oversized mega-embassy in Baghdad is draining personnel and resources away from every other U.S. embassy around the world, and all for what?”

To try to salvage the Bush doctrine, that’s for what. 

But really, there’s an even broader question here: Do we want a national security bureaucracy that’s capable of taking on the types of tasks that we’re trying to do in Iraq? If so, we probably need a complete overhaul of the entire bureaucracy itself. That doesn’t mean just the State Department, or just DOD — it means everything.

There’s going to be inevitable bleedover between on-the-ground reconstructors, political advisers, police, military, intelligence operatives, and on and on. These people, by and large, are not currently employed by agencies that can force them to deploy into the middle of a conflict. You’d have to develop an agency that has these people on staff and could force them to deploy in order to come even close to the capacity that you’d need to have a good shot at success in these types of endeavors.

Simply put, our current bureaucracy is not designed — at all — with these sorts of operations in mind. If we came to the consensus that we need to do a lot more Iraq-style missions in the future, it’s time to completely reformulate not just our strategy, but the structure of the agencies that are devoted to executing the strategy.

Realistically, putting this into practice would probably mean at least tripling, if not quadrupling, the State Department’s budget, and maybe doubling the DOD budget, putting the combined budget well over a trillion dollars a year — about 10 percent of GDP. And that’s without anything near a guarantee of success. Sounds like a colossal waste to me.

For more on these themes, see Chris Preble and my paper on “failed states,” or the shorter essay (.pdf) we extracted for the American Foreign Service Association’s Foreign Service Journal.