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May 23, 2006 11:13AM

Misinformation on Iran

Last week, Canada's National Post ran a revolting and disturbing report that the Iranian majlis had passed a law instituting "separate dress codes for religious minorities, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, who will have to adopt distinct colour schemes to make them identifiable in public."  Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the story was that 

Religious minorities... will also have to wear special insignia, known as zonnar, to indicate their non-Islamic faiths. Jews would be marked out with a yellow strip of cloth sewn in front of their clothes while Christians will be assigned the colour red. Zoroastrians end up with Persian blue as the colour of their zonnar. 

Several news outlets and blogs picked up on the story, and the New York Post ran the original column under the headline "Iran OKs 'Nazi' Social Fabric." 

As it turns out, however, the reporting appears to be false.

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May 23, 2006 10:34AM

The Veterans Administration and Data Privacy

I woke up this morning to learn that I might be one of the more than 26 million veterans whose personal information — including name, social security number, and date of birth — is now in the hands of a (presumably) common thief. I won’t be certain that I am one of the individuals affected until I receive notification in the mail from the Department of Veterans Affairs. But I’m reasonably sure, given that I joined the service after 1975, that my personal information has now been compromised.


The Washington Post is certainly correct that this is a case of “incompetence” — the VA employee in question removed the data to his home, from whence it was stolen. The Post editors note:

Mr. Nicholson says that the employee was not authorized to take this information home, but his department clearly failed to do enough to enforce its own guidelines. It now promises to restrict access to sensitive data to those who need it and to conduct background checks on those who do. It’s extraordinary that this approach did not prevail already.

It is indeed. But the larger point is this: If we depend upon government to defend us from compromises of our personal information, and if we assume that such violations are most likely to be perpetrated by negligent, incompetent or mendacious individuals in private firms, then who is to protect us from negligence, incompetence or mendacity on the part of government officials?


In the case of the private firms, I retain some capacity for limiting the scope of my liability by tearing up that credit card application, or by hanging up on the telemarketer trying to sell me (another) home equity loan. Meanwhile, I subjected myself to a degree of scrutiny that most Americans avoid when I joined NROTC in 1985, and the active duty Navy in 1989. In a sense, I “opted in” and my name appears in a VA database. On the other hand, most Americans “opted out” by having never served in any branch of the military; and in this particular case, their personal data is not at risk. 


But unlike credit card solicitations and telemarketers, letters and phone calls from the federal government cannot be ignored, meaning that Americans are not always afforded the opportunity to opt in to a particular database. Nearly every American has a social security number, most have filed federal income taxes, and millions of American males are required to register with the federal government under the Selective Service Act. Each of these cases involve an obligation under the law; choosing to opt out is a criminal offense.


So I ask again: Given that we cannot limit our liability without penalty of fine or imprisonment when the government demands personal information from us, who protects us from identity theft when the government is at fault? 

May 23, 2006 10:03AM

Con Nation

According to new data from the U.S. Department of Justice, one in 136 Americans is behind bars today, including an astounding 12 percent of all black men between the ages of 25 and 29. The United States represents 4.6 percent of the world's population, but houses nearly 23 percent of humanity's prison population. Certainly, part of this is likely due to politicians' unfortunate habit of addressing every social problem with a new law, but much of it is due to our ever-more-draconian drug laws. A few more statistics to chew on from the latest edition of Drug War Facts, published by Common Sense for Drug Policy:

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May 23, 2006 9:51AM

Nuclear Welfare

At a Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee hearing yesterday, outgoing Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Nils Diaz reported that 16 utility companies were busily planning to build 25 new nuclear power plants thanks to last year’s energy bill. Champagne corks were popped, backs were slapped, congratulations were offered, and all was right in the political world.


Just what did last year’s energy bill do to usher in this nuclear nirvana? Well, our fair Senate–said by many to be in the grip of doctrinaire, free market Republican jihadis–passed a 20‐​year extension of the Price‐​Anderson Act (which protects the industry from liability if damages from an accident exceed a certain amount); adopted a 1.8 cent production tax credit for up to 6,000 megawatts of new nuclear generating capacity; provided risk insurance against the financial costs of litigation and other delays in building new nuclear power plants; and provided federal loans and guarantees for up to 80 percent of project construction costs.


Look, I’ve got nothing against nuclear power per se. But if nuclear energy had economic merit, it wouldn’t need this avalanche of government help and hand‐​holding. Neither party looks good in all of this. Republicans have no business meddling in markets this way. And Democrats should quit folding to business interests like a cheap suit.

May 22, 2006 5:00PM

The Influential Mr. Mbeki

The Financial Times selects the most influential pundits and commentators in countries around the world. Their South African correspondent writes that the opinions of Moeletski Mbeki “arguably carry more clout” than those of his brother the president. If so, that’s good news for South Africa. Judging by his Cato paper “Underdevelopment in Sub‐​Saharan Africa: The Role of the Private Sector and Political Elites,” Mbeki has a pretty insightful understanding of what Africa suffers from. He blames African poverty on mismanagement and exploitation by political elites that control the state and see it as a source of personal enrichment. Inhibiting wealth creation by the private sector, the elites use marketing boards and taxation to divert agricultural savings to finance their own consumption and to strengthen the apparatus of state repression. He writes that peasants, who constitute the core of the private sector in sub‐​Saharan Africa, must become the real owners of their primary asset — land — over which they currently have no property rights (in much of sub‐​Saharan Africa, though South Africa is an exception to this).

May 22, 2006 3:04PM

Mencken Fellows Penn & Teller Take Over TCM Tonight!

Need a cure for a bad case of the Mondays? Tune into Turner Classic Movies tonight, when Cato H.L. Mencken Research Fellows Penn Jillette and Teller take over as special guest programmers.


A quick look at what Penn & Teller have spooled up:

  • 8 PM—The Marx Bros.’ underappreciated 1939 film At the Circus
  • 9:30 PM—Orson Welles’ controversial 1976 documentary F for Fake, about the brilliant forger Elmyr de Hory
  • 11:15 PM—MGM’s disturbing and highly controversial 1932 film Freaks
  • 12:30 AM—Neil Simon’s 1975 Vaudeville tribute The Sunshine Boys, starring Walter Matthau and George Burns (with then‐​little‐​known F. Murray Abraham in a supporting role).