Record Trade Deficit + Campaign Season = Infuriating Statements

From the LA Times this morning, an article on the trade deficit for August. Both imports and exports were up slightly from the July figures, and the trade deficit itself was $69.9 billion. But it was not so much the trade figures that interested me (after all, the trade deficit has hit record highs repeatedly lately), but this statement from Rep. Marcy Kaptur:

“We are not only shipping jobs overseas, we are shipping billions of dollars overseas,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), a critic of Bush administration policies calling for free-trade pacts. “We are exporting our jobs and our wealth, not our products.”

We are shipping billions of dollars overseas? On net, the United States must, by definition, be a net importer of capital to balance the current account. I won’t belabor that point, though, since my colleague Dan Griswold has covered the topic more than ably here).

Kaptur, currently seeking reelection in Ohio’s 9th district, is one of the least trade-friendly members of Congress, according to last year’s rating of the 108th Congress (available here). Her press release on the trade deficit seems to boast of her being a “leading critic of “free trade” policies” (note the quotation marks around free trade, signifying, I assume, that free trade is a quaint concept).

I understand that it is election time and all, but I find it very frustrating that marketing oneself as someone who will fight against free trade — a poverty fighter, growth promoter and trust-buster all in one — is perceived to be a winning strategy.

The Kyoto Charade

One of the things I keep trying to hammer home to the media is the extent to which legislative promises to meet environmental goal X sometime in the future have almost always been, and likely always will be, meaningless blather

The reason is simple. Voters love promises to accomplish wonderful things, but they don’t love burdensome policies to secure those wonderful things. Because the public’s attention span is quite limited to say the least, loud and vigorous promises to slay environmental dragons will harvest political capital while subsequent failure to actually slay those dragons will go relatively unnoticed and cost politicians little. 

More data confirming that insight (reported in Platt’s, subscription required) came our way yesterday courtesy of Cap Gemini, a global consulting firm. European greenhouse gas emissions rose 0.4 percent in 2005 despite the fact that meeting European obligations under the Kyoto Protocol requires emissions to decline 0.3 percent per annum from 1990 through 2012. According to Cap Gemini, Europe is 300 million metric tons of CO2 away from meeting its treaty obligations, which means that it is ”highly unlikely” (Cap Gemini’s words) that European obligations under Kyoto will be met. 

Examination of the emissions data over time reveals that the Protocol is having no detectable impact on European emission trends. Greenhouse gases come primarily from fossil fuels, which means that unless fossil fuels become very expensive via taxation or regulation, emissions will remain unaffected. European governments, however, lack the stomach to inflate the heck out of fossil fuel prices because the public has no appetite for such a thing. A poll conducted a few months ago (EUObserver.com, subscription required) for the European Commission, for instance, found that 59 percent of those (notoriously Green) Europeans surveyed were not “prepared to pay more for energy produced from renewable sources than for energy produced from other sources.”

Why do environmentalists put up with this political charade? I’ve been asking that of environmental leaders of late, and as best as I can tell, they tolerate this kind of duplicity from their political champions because they fear that the charade is the best they can hope for at present. Better that politicians pretend to be doing something important while actually doing something quite inconsequential than for politicians to tell the Greens to get lost altogether.  

Maybe so, but the environmental lobbyists are probably hurting their own cause in the process. After all, if the public thinks that meaningful and low-cost things are being accomplished to address warming today, they will be less inclined to support far more costly programs to do the same tomorrow.  

Fine with us.     

ONDCP’s Smoke and Mirrors

Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project sends along video of Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) chief John Walters openly boasting about using federal tax dollars to defeat Question 7, a Nevada ballot initiative that would effectively legalize possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for personal use. 

Walter’s mere presence in the state to speak against the initiative seems to violate the Hatch Act,  not to mention his use of federal dollars to organize against it. Unfortunately, the Office of Special Counsel seems to have made a gaping “drug war exception” to the act, despite the fact that what Walters is doing seems to be in direct defiance of the plain language of the law.

Violation or no, Walters’ and ONDCP’s interference in a state election is yet another example of the Bush administration’s utter contempt for federalism. This administration’s definition of the term seems to be, “the states should be able to set their own policy, except when we disagree with them.”

Notice, too, that even if we were to accept that the social maladies Walters says “correlate” with marijuana use (a relationship that has zero scientific value, and thus oughtn’t even enter into policy discussions), most are caused by the drug’s prohibition, not its recreational use.

Enemy Combatants

Glenn Greenwald has a good post on the latest developments in the Jose Padilla case.

By way of background, President Bush has claimed the power to arrest any person in the world and to lock that person up indefinitely without a trial.  So long as Bush issues an “enemy combatant” order to his Secretary of Defense and not his Attorney General, the imprisonment is supposedly legal because Bush is acting as the Commander-in-Chief during a time of war. Most Americans are probably unaware that Bush believes that he can use the same powers here in the USA.  He has already done so.  That’s what the Jose Padilla case is all about and it is why the legal community follows it so closely.  A legal precedent is being set here.

Padilla is the American citizen who was apprehended at Chicago’s O’Hare airport.  The feds locked him up as an “enemy combatant” for some three years and just a few months ago they moved him to civilian court to face criminal charges in Florida.  Now that Padilla is out of the hole of solitary confinement, we are starting to learn for the first time what went on at the Naval brig during the years that he was held there incommmunicado.  The legal filings by Padilla’s lawyers are disturbing–stress positions, sleep deprivation, etc. (A word of caution: To my knowledge, Padilla’s lawyers are making allegations.  We do not yet know if the government disputes the allegations in whole or in part.  Greenwald is correct to point out that Congress recently approved such interrogation tactics against prisoners.)

Why does this matter?  Well, whatever one’s view on the propriety of our government’s policies concerning the wartime capture and treatment of non-citizens overseas, most everyone will agree that if we are serious about limited government, we must keep an eye on potential overreaching here at home.  Liberty in America rests upon a system of checks and balances.  The police can arrest us at any moment, but the judiciary can “check” lawless police actions fairly quickly.

Mr. Bush (and his successors) can now bypass the judiciary by simply issuing an “enemy combatant” order.  That means the liberty of every American rests upon nothing more than the grace of the White House (actually lower level bureaucrats).  Some may shrug and say “This is war.  Captured terrorists don’t belong in fancy hotels.  Heck, some harmless drug offenders might be raped or stabbed in a U.S. prison.” 

True enough, but isn’t that like saying “Yes, the casualties are mounting in Iraq, but so what.  Didn’t ya know the U.S. lost 6,821 Marines at Iwo Jima, a single battle?”  My point is that we ought to be careful about how we intend to assess the actions of the government.  Let’s strive to keep the government limited and to minimize casualties, mistakes, and injustices.

Safer Than We Think

The worst nightmare scenario anyone’s come up with in the War on Terror is the possibility of losing an American city to a loose Russian “suitcase nuke.”  Those of us who work within the blast radius of any such attack on the White House have even more reason for concern than most.  (For a morbidly fascinating diversion, go here and punch the zipcode of a target near you.  20500 for 1600 Pennsylvania.)

So I was happy to learn about this piece by Richard Miniter, shredding “the myth of the ‘suitcase nuke.‘ “  It’s a very convincing combination of analysis and original reporting showing that this particular nightmare is one that shouldn’t disturb our sleep.  Miniter’s bottom line:

For now, suitcase-sized nuclear bombs remain in the realm of James Bond movies. Given the limitations of physics and engineering, no nation seems to have invested the time and money to make them. Both U.S. and the USSR built nuclear mines (as well as artillery shells), which were small but hardly portable–and all were dismantled by treaty by 2000. Alexander Lebed’s claims and those of defector Stanislev Lunev were not based on direct observation. The one U.S. official who saw a small nuclear device said it was the size of three footlockers–hardly a suitcase. The desire to obliterate cities is portable–inside the heads of believers–while, thankfully, the nuclear devices to bring that about are not.

Miniter is a dedicated hawk, and thus not someone likely to downplay terror threats unless he’s been convinced on the merits that particular threats, like this one, have been overblown. 

How else might Al Qaeda acquire nuclear weapons, the quintessential “Weapons of Mass Destruction”?  Transfer by rogue states is extremely unlikely.  Both Iraq (pre-Gulf War) and Iran have had chemical and biological weapons and longstanding ties to anti-Israel terror groups, yet neither proved willing to risk transferring those weapons to their terrorist proxies, for fear of an overwhelming response by Israel.  The same logic of deterrence applies in spades to nuclear transfers. 

What about Al Qaeda developing a nuclear weapon on its own?  Even less likely.  Even if their homegrown WMD efforts have progressed much past the dog-poisoning stage, making a nuclear bomb still seems to require a dedicated effort by a modern state.  Does Al Qaeda have the resources and the brainpower to make that happen?  I have my doubts.  According to one account, terrorist mastermind Jose Padilla “believed he could separate plutonium from nuclear material by rapidly swinging over his head a bucket filled with fissionable material.”

Dueling Censorships

ANKARA: The Turkish court system acquitted a Turkish author (who lives and teaches in America) of the crime of  “denigrating Turkish national identity,” a charge supported by some remarks about mass murder of Armenians.  The remarks were made by a fictional character in one of her novels.  The acquittal was hailed in Europe as a victory for free speech.

PARIS: The French parliament has passed a bill imposing criminal penalties of up to one year in jail and 45,000 euros on anyone who denies that genocide against the Armenians took place.

The most intelligent thing anyone had to say was uttered by Turkey’s chief negotiator in EU membership talks, Ali Babacan, who suggested, “Leave history to historians.”

In one country it is a crime to affirm a statement.  In another it is a crime to deny it.  In both it is a crime to discuss it, because to discuss it one has to entertain the possibility that either the affirmation or the denial might be true.

Legislators need regularly to be reminded of John Milton’s dictum from his defense of a free press, Areopagitica; a Speech for the liberty of unlicensed Printing, to the Parliament of England, published in 1664:

[H]ere the great art lies, to discern in what the law is to bid restraint and punishment, and in what things persuasion only is to work.

“An expensive, time-consuming indignity”

Jefferds Huyck is not a “highly qualified” teacher according to the federal No Child Left Behind law. Sure, he’s got a doctorate in classics from Harvard, and his students bring home boatloads of awards for Latin proficiency, but being highly qualified in reality is not at all the same thing as being “highly qualified” under the NCLB. Under that law, “highly qualified” is almost universally interpreted to mean “possessing a four year degree from a state-approved teachers’ college.”

Mr. Huyck views this requirement, quite correctly, as “an expensive, time-consuming indignity.” The ubiquitous teachers’ college degree requirement means that Lance Armstrong cannot teach phys. ed., Bill Gates cannot teach business or computer science, and Johnny Depp can’t teach drama. That’s not to say that they would all make excellent teachers, but simply that they would never be given the chance.

As Cato Adjunct Scholar Marie Gryphon so ably explains in her recent Policy Analysis (and in the current issue of Business Week), public schooling’s hiring and personnel system is broken. There is, furthermore, no way to fix it within the confines of existing state school monopolies.

The way to ensure that the Huyckses of the world are not only allowed but encouraged to teach is to introduce market forces to the field of education. Anyone with Huycks’ abilities and results would be much sought after in a free education marketplace. Conversely, untalented, poor-performing teachers would be forced to improve or leave the profession, no matter how many ed. school degrees they had accumulated.