In a Politico story about what appears to be push-polling (”a political campaign technique in which an individual or organization attempts to influence or alter the view of respondents under the guise of conducting a poll”) by Hillary Clinton is this gem:
Freeman Ng, a software designer in Oakland, Calif., reported getting a call late in the morning of May 5.
He wrote on DailyKos that day that he was asked how the fact that “Barack Obama failed to vote in favor of abortion rights nine times as a state senator” might affect his vote.
He said he was also asked a question that associated Edwards with tax hikes.
“A lot of the statements struck me as being very conservative and moderate in orientation, like the tax thing,” said Ng, who stands well to the left of center. “To me, that was a plus that he’s going to raise my taxes.”
Hey, you wanna pay more taxes Fine, pay more taxes. Nobody’s stopping you. But leave me out of it.
The most fascinating story in the world is China today, as the world’s most populous country struggles toward modernity.
The Chinese rulers seem to be trying to emulate Singapore’s success in creating a dynamic modern economy while maintaining authoritarian rule. But can a nation of a billion people be managed as successfully as a city-state Since 1979 China has liberated its economy, creating de facto and even de jure property rights, allowing the creation of businesses, and freeing up labor markets. The result has been rapid economic growth. China has brought more people out of back-breaking poverty faster than any country in history.
And, as scholars such as F. A. Hayek have predicted, the development of property rights, civil society, and middle-class people has created a demand for political rights as well. Every week there are reports of actual elections for local posts, lawyers suing the government, dissidents standing up and often being jailed, labor agitation, and political demonstrations. It’s reminiscent of the long English struggle for liberty and constitutional government.
And it would be great if it turns out that modern technology can make that struggle shorter than it was in England. A hopeful example was reported this week. According to the Washington Post, hundreds of thousands of “text messages ricocheted around cellphones in Xiamen,” rallying people to oppose the construction of a giant chemical factory. The messages led to “an explosion of public anger,” large demonstrations, and a halt in construction.
Leave aside the question of whether the activists were right to oppose the factory. The more significant element of the story is that, as the Post reported, “The delay marked a rare instance of public opinion in China rising from the streets and compelling a change of policy by Communist Party bureaucrats.”
Cellphones and bloggers fighting against the Communist Party and its Propaganda Department and Public Security Bureau — and the “army of Davids” won. Reporters and editors afraid to cover the story followed it on blogs, even as the censors tried to block one site after another. This isn’t your father’s Red China.
Citizen blogger and eyewitness Wen Yunchao
said he and his friends have since concluded that if protesters had been armed with cellphones and computers in 1989, there would have been a different outcome to the notorious Tiananmen Square protest, which ended with intervention by the People’s Liberation Army and the killings of hundreds, perhaps thousands, in the streets of Beijing.
The cause of freedom is not looking so good in Russia these days. But in China a hundred flowers are blooming, a hundred schools of thought contending.
In Zimbabwe, the government is ordering businesses to cut prices and threatening to jail executives who don’t comply, in an attempt to deal with inflation that is now variously estimated at somewhere between 4,000 and 20,000 percent a year.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill both houses of Congress have passed legislation establishing stiff penalties for those found guilty of gasoline price gouging. The bill directs the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department to go after oil companies, traders, or retail operators if they take “unfair advantage” or charge “unconscionably excessive” prices for gasoline and other fuels in an “energy emergency.” (The complex energy legislation is still working its way through both houses, though both have endorsed the price-gouging provisions.)
How’d'ja like to be the bureaucrat charged with enforcing such vague and emotional language, or the businessperson trying not to incur a 10-year jail sentence for doing something “unfair” or “unconscionably excessive” It’d be sort of like living in, you know, Zimbabwe.
Did Congress offer bureaucrats and businesses any more specific guidance You bet they did. H.R. 6 and S. 1263 define an ”unconscionably excessive price” as a price that
(A)(i) represents a gross disparity between the price at which it was offered for sale in the usual course of the supplier’s business immediately prior to the President’s declaration of an energy emergency;
The Washington Post has been running a huge series on the power and influence of Vice President Cheney. The first two parts examined his immense influence on the administration’s response to 9/11, “pushing the envelope” of presidential power (not to mention vice-presidential power) and crafting the administration’s position on the use of torture –or rather “cruel, inhuman or degrading” methods of questioning.
But the third part, although written with the same sinister soundtrack, tells a very different story. The Post reporters seem to want us to be alarmed by Cheney’s power over fiscal policy and by his relentless push to reduce the burdens of taxes and spending on the American people. But there’s a problem with that story: not only is fiscal conservatism a good thing — unlike, say, secret authorization for domestic surveillance — but if Cheney’s goal was to constrain spending, he failed utterly.
Jo Becker and Barton Gellman report on Cheney’s power over the budget:
Cheney has changed history more than once, earning his reputation as the nation’s most powerful vice president. His impact has been on public display in the arenas of foreign policy and homeland security, and in a long-running battle to broaden presidential authority. But he has also been the unseen hand behind some of the president’s major domestic initiatives….
And it was Cheney who served as the guardian of conservative orthodoxy on budget and tax matters….
The vice president chairs a budget review board, a panel the Bush administration created to set spending priorities and serve as arbiter when Cabinet members appeal decisions by White House budget officials. The White House has portrayed the board as a device to keep Bush from wasting time on petty disagreements, but previous administrations have seldom seen Cabinet-level disputes in that light. Cheney’s leadership of the panel gives him direct and indirect power over the federal budget — and over those who must live within it….
Cheney often stepped in if he sensed the administration was softening its commitment to Republican “first principles,” Bolten said, and he was “a pretty vigorous voice for holding the line on spending and for holding the line on tax cuts.” Longtime Cheney adviser Mary Matalin said the vice president brings a “spine quotient” to internal debates.
To a fiscal conservative, this all sounds just fine: The most powerful vice president in American history, known as a strong conservative, is put in charge of fiscal policy and forces bureaucrats and Cabinet officers to “live within the budget.”
But we know the rest of the story: President Bush has increased federal spending at a faster pace than any president since Lyndon Johnson — or indeed faster. (And it is by no means all defense and homeland security spending.)
The Post reporters never quite tell us that, though there are some hints:
Cheney shared conservative trepidations about the president’s signature education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act, which gave the federal government more control over K-12 education. He has griped privately to confidants, such as economist and CNBC host Lawrence Kudlow, about the administration’s failure to control spending. And in robust internal White House discussions, he raised concerns about the cost of the administration’s decision to expand Medicare to include a new multibillion-dollar drug entitlement, but bowed to the political reality that the president had to fulfill a campaign promise….
“Dick once told me that our president is a ‘big-government conservative,’” said former senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), in a recollection disputed by Cheney’s office. “Now, Dick keeps his opinions to himself whenever he disagrees with the administration, as he should. But I believe that Dick is a small-government conservative.”…
In a way, Cheney’s story is the story of the Bush administration: Where they pushed bad policies, policies that dramatically expand the power of the federal government and infringe on our liberties, they have had much success. When Cheney and occasionally Bush backed good policies, policies that would constrain government, they failed miserably. Indeed, if Vice President Cheney is indeed a “small-government conservative” who used his unprecedented power to “hold the line” for “conservative orthodoxy on budget and tax matters,” he has been a failure of Carteresque proportions.
Maybe taxpayers would be better off if Cheney had had his own staff prepare a secret federal budget and implement it without input from Bush’s staff, relevant Cabinet officers, Congress, or the courts.
Libertarians sometimes say that they are “liberal on free speech but conservative on economic freedom,” or that “liberals believe in free speech and personal freedom, while conservatives believe in economic freedom.” That proposition got another test in the Supreme Court yesterday. Conservatives and liberals split sharply on two free-speech cases.
And let’s see . . . in two 5-4 decisions, the Court’s conservative majority struck down some of the McCain-Feingold law’s restrictions on campaign speech and upheld a high-school principal’s right to suspend a student for displaying a “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner. Liberals disagreed in both cases.
So the liberals strongly defend a student’s right to engage in nonsensical speech that might be perceived as pro-drug, but they approve a ban on speech criticizing political candidates in the 60 days before an election.
Now I’m for free speech in both these cases. But if you had to choose, which is more important–the right of a high-school student to display silly signs at school-sponsored events, or the right of citizen groups to criticize politicians at the time voters are paying attention Political speech is at the core of the First Amendment, and conservatives are more inclined to protect it than are liberals. That’s a sad reflection on today’s liberals.
The liberal attitude toward speech is also on display on the front pages of our leading liberal newspapers. A banner headline in the Washington Post reads “5-4 Supreme Court Weakens Curbs on Pre-Election TV Ads/Ruling on McCain-Feingold Law Opens Door for Interest Groups in ‘o8.” This long headline mentions “TV Ads” and “Interest Groups” but never uses the words “speech” or “First Amendment.” But the sidebar on the high-school case is headed “Restrictions on Student Speech Upheld.” For that issue, a straightforward understanding that speech is involved. And the New York Times website leads with “Justices Loosen Ad Restrictions in Campaign Finance Law,” while the sidebar on the school case reads, “Vote against Banner Shows Divide on Speech in Schools.” Though I should note that the old-fashioned, tree-destroying version of the Times does have a subhead reading “Political Speech Rights.”
Maybe libertarians should try to describe their philosophy by saying “libertarians believe in the free speech that liberals used to believe in, and the economic freedom that conservatives used to believe in.”
A few weeks ago, when I introduced ACLU executive director Anthony Romero at a Cato Book Forum, I began by asking
which right the American Founders considered most basic, that is, indispensable to securing all the others. Is it the right to property, which Arthur Lee described as “the guardian of every other right,” because without it we are all at the mercy of whoever controls all the resources Is it the right to keep and bear arms, without which resistance to the state is rendered toothless Is it, as Thomas Jefferson said, the right to trial by jury that protects citizens from the arbitrary power of the state Is it the case that, as Winston Churchill said â€“ not an American Founder, of course, but always good for a quote â€“ “A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize” Or could it be the writ of habeas corpus, known as the Great Writ, which in 1969 the Supreme Court called “the fundamental instrument for safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary and lawless state action”
Afterward, my smarter colleague said, “It’s habeas.”
So that’s why it’s good that the ACLU has declared today a “Day of Action to Restore Law and Justice.” ACLU members and others are rallying on Capitol Hill and visiting congressional offices asking Congress to restore the right of habeas corpus.
One of the most frightening elements of the powers asserted by the Bush administration in the war on terror is the power it claims to arrest American citizens and hold them without access to a lawyer or a judge. The conservatives of the American Freedom Agenda have joined the ACLU in calling for repeal of the Military Commissions Act and restoration of the right of habeas corpus. Cato adjunct scholar Richard Epstein petitioned Congress not to curtail habeas corpus as it considered the Military Commissions Act last fall, to no avail. This issue will provide a good test of the proposition that divided government is a good thing. Will the Democratic Congress do the right thing and restore our constitutional rights
A headline in the Saturday Washington Post reads:
Russia’s Gazprom Purchases Siberian Gas Field From BP
The story begins:
The state-controlled energy giant Gazprom on Friday bought a vast natural gas field in Siberia from a unit of British-based petroleum conglomerate BP, continuing the Kremlin’s policy of shifting control of the country’s major energy projects from foreign to state hands.
The last part of the sentence begins to hint at what really happened, a truth that is concealed by words like “purchases” and “bought.” In fact, the Russian government and its giant energy firm Gazprom forced BP to sell, as it has forced other companies to turn valuable properties over to Gazprom and the oil company Rosneft, often through the use of trumped-up tax or regulatory issues.
Journalists should be straightforward about such things. Gazprom did not “purchase” a gas field from BP. This was no “willing buyer, willing seller” transaction. It would more accurately be described as a seizure, a confiscation, or at best a forced sale.
The Wall Street Journal used similar language. The New York Times, to its credit, was more honest and clear: Its headline read, “Moscow Presses BP to Sell a Big Gas Field to Gazprom,” and the story began, “Under pressure from the Russian government, BP agreed on Friday to sell one of the world’s largest natural gas fields to Gazprom, the natural gas monopoly, in the latest apparently forced sale that benefited a Russian state company.”
Footnote: Today is the second anniversary of the Kelo decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could take private property for the benefit of other private owners such as developers. In a stinging dissent, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote:
The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory. …Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms. As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result.
The United States is not Russia. But O’Connor’s warning that “the beneficiaries [of forced takings] are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms” is certainly borne out — not just by a new Institute for Justice report on eminent domain in action — but by the actions in Putin’s Russia.
The New York Times reports on American troops’ efforts to push Al Qaeda insurgents out of Baqaba, Iraq, and liberate residents from their strict rule:
The insurgents have imposed a strict Islamic creed, and some have even banned smoking, one resident told Capt. Jeff Noll, the commander of Company B of the First Battalion, 23rd Infantry, during his patrol through the neighborhood.
Banning smoking President Bush is right — if we don’t stop them in Iraq, we’ll have to fight them in Manhattan, and Montgomery County, and San Francisco….
Microsoft was so disdainful of the federal government back then that it had almost no presence in Washington. Largely because of that neglect, the company was blindsided by a government antitrust lawsuit that cost it dearly.
Mindful of that history, Google is rapidly building a substantial presence in Washington and using that firepower against Microsoft, among others.
This story just keeps repeating itself. People build companies, and then activists, competitors, and politicians notice that they have deep pockets. It happened to Microsoft, then to Wal-Mart. When the parasite economy first started lapping at Google last year, I wrote this:
Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and many other wealthy officers of the company got rich the only way you can in a free market: by producing something other people want. A lot of brilliant people worked long hours producing computer software that hundreds of millions of people chose to use, in the midst of a highly competitive market that offered lots of other options.
But in our modern politicized economy — which National Journal columnist Jonathan Rauch called the “parasite economy” — no good deed goes unpunished for long. Some people want to declare Google a public utility that must be regulated in the public interest, perhaps by a federal Office of Search Engines. The Bush administration wants Google to turn over a million random Web addresses and records of all Google searches from a one-week period. Congress is investigating how the company deals with the Chinese government’s demands for censorship of search results by Chinese users.
So, like Microsoft and other companies before it, Google has decided it will have to start playing the Washington game. It has opened a Washington office and hired well-connected lobbyists. One of the country’s top executive search firms is looking for a political director for the company.
What should concern us here is how the government lured Google into the political sector of the economy. For most of a decade the company went about its business, developing software, creating a search engine better than any of us could have dreamed, and innocently making money. Then, as its size and wealth drew the attention of competitors, anti-business activists, and politicians, it was forced to start spending some of its money and brainpower fending off political attacks. It’s the same process Microsoft went through a few years earlier, when it faced the same sorts of attacks. Now Microsoft is part of the Washington establishment, with more than $9 million in lobbying expenditures last year.
Google has become a brilliantly useful company. We can’t imagine how we got along with it. I can’t even imagine how I got along without Google Desktop. Some of us appreciate that; others believe that becoming indispensable imposes obligations on a company. Google has started to find out how it feels to be the most flagrantly successful company in America.
Alas, Google seems to have taken to Washington all too enthusiastically. As the Post notes,
In its first major policy assault on a competitor, Google’s Washington office helped write an antitrust complaint to the Justice Department and other government authorities asserting that Microsoft’s new Vista operating system discriminates against Google software. Last night, under a compromise with federal and state regulators, Microsoft agreed to make changes to Vista’s operations.
So Google’s brilliant staff are now spending some of their intellect thinking up ways to sic the government on Microsoft, which is once again forced to give consumers a less useful product in order to stave off further regulation. The Post’s previous story on Google’s complaint called it ”allegations by Google that Microsoft’s new operating system unfairly disadvantages competitors.”
Bingo! That’s what antitrust law is really about–not protecting consumers, or protecting competition, but protecting competitors. Competitors should go produce a better product in the marketplace, but antitrust law sometimes gives them an easier option–asking the government to hobble their more successful competitor.
Recall the famous decision of Judge Learned Hand in the 1945 Alcoa antitrust decision. Alcoa, he wrote, “insists that it never excluded competitors; but we can think of no more effective exclusion than progressively to embrace each new opportunity as it opened, and to face every newcomer with new capacity already geared into a great organization, having the advantage of experience, trade connection and the elite of personnel.” In other words, Alcoa’s very skill at meeting consumers’ needs was the rope with which it was hanged.
I look forward to more competition between Microsoft and Google–and the next innovative company–to bring more useful products to market. But I’m saddened to realize that the most important factor in America’s economic future — in raising everyone’s standard of living — is not land, or money, or computers; it’s human talent. And some part of the human talent at another of America’s most dynamic companies is now being diverted from productive activity to protecting the company from political predation and even to engaging in a little predation of its own. The parasite economy has sucked in another productive enterprise, and we’ll all be poorer for it.
A headline in the Washington Post blares:
Japan’s New Public Health Problem Is Getting Big
Obesity Has Grown, Along With Appetite For Western Foods
But no. Obesity is not a public health problem. It is apparently becoming more widespread in Japan, though still much less so than in the United States, but it remains an individual and non-contagious problem.
The meaning of “public health” has sprawled out lazily over the decades. Once, it referred to the project of securing health benefits that were public: clean water, improved sanitation, and the control of epidemics through treatment, quarantine, and immunization. Public health officials worked to drain swamps that might breed mosquitoes and thus spread malaria. They strove to ensure that water supplies were not contaminated with cholera, typhoid, or other diseases. The U.S. Public Health Service began as the Marine Hospital Service, and one of its primary functions was ensuring that sailors didn’t expose domestic populations to new and virulent illnesses from overseas.
Those were legitimate public health issues because they involved consumption of a collective good (air or water) and/or the communication of disease to parties who had not consented to put themselves at risk. It is difficult for individuals to protect themselves against illnesses found in air, water, or food. A breeding ground for disease-carrying insects poses a risk to entire communities.
The recent concern over a tuberculosis patient on an airplane raises public-health issues. You might unknowingly find yourself in an enclosed space with a TB carrier. But nobody accidentally ingests a Big Mac. And your Big Mac doesn’t make me fat. That’s why obesity is not a public health issue, even if it’s a widespread health problem. As I wrote before,
Language matters. Calling something a “public health problem” suggests that it is different from a personal health problem in ways that demand collective action. And while it doesn’t strictly follow, either in principle or historically, that “collective action” must be state action, that distinction is easily elided in the face of a “public health crisis.” If smoking and obesity are called public health problems, then it seems that we need a public health bureaucracy to solve them — and the Public Health Service and all its sister agencies don’t get to close up shop with the satisfaction of a job well done. So let’s start using honest language: Smoking and obesity are health problems. In fact, they are widespread health problems. But they are not public health problems.