Weekly Hit & Run Archive 2005 January 1-31

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Friday Weird Link

Aleister Crowley sings!

New at Reason

Kerry Howley checks the fuzzy math in Myanmar's casualty statistics.

New at Reason

Patrick J. Michaels cools off the post-tsunami global warming hysteria.

A Tour de Force I Can't Endorse

The Texas District and County Attorneys Association has named the "best/worst dissent of 2004":

In ruling that Pennsylvania's drunk-driving laws can't be enforced on people on horseback, the state Supreme Court had only one dissenting judge, Michael Eakin, who phrased his dissent in a poem inspired by the "Mister Ed" theme song:

"A horse is a horse, of course, of course, but the Vehicle Code does not divorce its application from, perforce, a steed as my colleagues said. 'It's not vague,' I'll say until I'm hoarse, and whether a car, a truck or horse this law applies with equal force, and I'd reverse instead."

The People Have a Right to See...

...Mickey Rooney's ass. Fox's standards department reviewed a Superbowl ad for cold remedy Airborne, in which the two-time honorary Oscar winner shows his crack, and, in the passive-voice description of a Fox Sports spokesman, "it was deemed inappropriate for broadcast."

Rooney objects: "What we're selling here is something I really believe in, which is an awareness of the germs we're all exposed to. There's nothing sensual about the brief exposure of my backside, and it's not gratuitous. ... It's a fun spot, and the public deserves to see it."

While it's good to see Rooney on the side of free expression* this time around, note that not too many years ago he was making news as the celebrity spokesman for a nationwide ban on crush video. What a difference when it's your own tail on the line.

Interestingly, Airborne is now trying to get the FCC to require Fox to broadcast the spot, an effort that is, obviously, going nowhere.

(* Blah blah blah private company yakity yak right to do whatever they choose with their own airtime gobble gobble gobble not censorship unless the government hickory dickory libertarians should be applauding Fox, etc.)

From Dobbins to Dustbin

As wonks scramble to find a silver bullet to slice the Gordian Knot in Iraq, a revealing, and very confused, piece has been posted on the Foreign Affairs magazine website by former ambassador James Dobbins, who must have earned a bundle in hardship pay after serving in Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia and Afghanistan.

His article is titled "Iraq: Winning the Unwinnable War", and though that's pretty catchy, there is much to lament in it. Dobbins opens with this argument:

The beginning of wisdom is to recognize that the ongoing war in Iraq is not one that the United States can win. As a result of its initial miscalculations, misdirected planning, and inadequate preparation, Washington has lost the Iraqi people's confidence and consent, and it is unlikely to win them back. Every day that Americans shell Iraqi cities they lose further ground on the central front of Iraqi opinion.

The war can still be won--but only by moderate Iraqis and only if they concentrate their efforts on gaining the cooperation of neighboring states, securing the support of the broader international community, and quickly reducing their dependence on the United States. Achieving such wide consensus will require turning the U.S.-led occupation into an Iraqi-led, regionally backed, and internationally supported endeavor to attain peace and stability based on the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.

This is hardly the place for an extended critique, but one can see where Dobbins is heading here: toward building a consensus that will essentially stabilize Iraq without paying too much attention to what kind of regime is left there. The Iraqis may work out some pluralistic power-sharing arrangement, but Dobbins is little concerned about democracy:

The United States should continue counterterrorism cooperation with regional governments and support for democratic forces in the region. But if Washington hopes to build regional support for the regime in Baghdad, these goals will have to recede from the fore of its public diplomacy and its rhetoric at home.

Perhaps the weakest aspect of the piece, however, is that it rests on an assumption that the major problem in Iraq is that the people there fear for their country's sovereignty. That is indeed an obstacle, but far less so than one Dobbins ignores: the minority issue. The real problem in Iraq today is how to resolve the growing tension between the different Iraqi communities, and there the countries of the region, the UN, and most others, have very little positive to add.

Only the U.S., among the non-Iraqis, has a fundamental role to play in that context, and any decision to announce a withdrawal (as Dobbins proposes, though he adds the key, and rather self-defeating, caveat that this must only occur once Iraq is stabilized) would merely heighten sectarian tensions, as all sides would prepare for the post-withdrawal vacuum. The fact is that by declaring a pullout, even without setting a deadline, the U.S. would turn itself into a virtual lame duck as far as the Iraqi communities are concerned. What stability would that bring?

Proud Moment in Tort Law

Austin Aitken, who obviously forgot how to operate the on/off switch on his remote control, claims he vomited while watching an episode of NBC's "Fear Factor" in which contestants ate cuisinarted rats. He's suing the network for $2.5 million. Asked if he thougth he'd prevail, Aitken replied, "I just put any figure. You really think I expect to get 2.5 million?" Nope, but that doesn't stop him from using the court system as his personal lottery.

New at Reason

Jacob Sullum says doctors and patients should be able to vote with their feet.

Yet More Liberal Federalism

This time from Stanford law prof Richard Ford Thompson.

Torture: Does it work?

Another minor thing for the apologists to consider, has any of the special attention given detainees in Gitmo, Iraq, Afghanistan, anywhere actually produced results? Or is the whole "get tough" mantra primarily a psychological process to purge the nagging fear that America is "soft?"

Special bonus section for the Wall Street Journal op-ed page: Compare and contrast water-boarding and high marginal income tax rates as government policies which fail to produce the intended results.

The Apologists

They're talking torture over at The Corner. John Derbyshire has been trying to revive the It's Just Like A Frat House defense -- thinking, no doubt, of the outtake from Animal House where John Belushi crammed a glowstick up Tim Matheson's ass, or perhaps the little-known sequence in Old School where Will Ferrell was beaten to death. Jonah Goldberg took a different tack, printing this letter from a reader:

After I was captured, my hands were tied behind my back and
I was struck repeatedly in the face with an open hand. After enduring
the beating I was thrown on the water board, where under questioning the
enemy would drown you till the verge of losing consciousness, only to
revive you and start all over again. Then a black bag was secured around
my head and throat which made it difficult to breathe. I was confined to
a three by four foot tiger cage with a coffee can for a toilet. Loud
music blared from speakers in the compound and I was repeatedly dragged
from my cage for more beatings and interrogation. At night when it was
freezing the guards would pour cold water on me. I was deprived of any
food for five straight days.

Sounds pretty bad, doesn't it? Well that is only part of what EVERY U.S. Navy and Air Force pilot and flight crew goes through in survival school. The Army does it for their special forces guys as well. We do this to our own people for training but we can't do it to terrorists?

Set aside all the obvious problems with that comparison. Consider instead those last seven words: "but we can't do it to terrorists?" Between Derbyshire and Goldberg's correspondent, the torture apologists seem to operate in two modes -- one in which they can't accept the fact that the abuse rises to the level of torture, and one in which they can't accept the fact that not everyone being tortured was a terrorist. I guess you have to hold both of those thoughts in your mind at once to realize just how enormous a stain this scandal leaves on everyone involved in it.

Seriously, When Do I Get My $240,000?

Another government-propaganda story was unearthed this morning by USA Today.

Seeking to build support among black families for its education reform law, the Bush administration paid a prominent black pundit $240,000 to promote the law on his nationally syndicated television show and to urge other black journalists to do the same.

The campaign, part of an effort to promote No Child Left Behind (NCLB), required commentator Armstrong Williams "to regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts," and to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio spots that aired during the show in 2004.

More on the arrangement, which USA Today discovered using Freedom of Information Act requests, here.

Propaganda vs. Journalism

My favorite part of the ONDCP fake-news story is the office's complaint that the GAO is "making a mountain out of a molehill" because "it would be difficult for 'a reasonable broadcaster' to mistake the videos for independent news reports." The claim is dubious, or at least irrelevant. In the case of the Medicaid drug benefit, several TV stations, knowingly or not, did pass off the government's video press releases as real news stories. The important question is whether viewers are given enough clues to distinguish between government propaganda and independent journalism. And when the topic is the war on drugs, even people who follow the issue closely have trouble telling the difference.

Flying Blind

This amusing and detailed rundown on Delta's airfare plans reminded me that people have all kinds of different ideas of economic value and that price is just one component.

The notion of fairness, the idea that everyone should pay the same price, collides rather harshly with the desire for loyalty rewards, the idea that you get a special price. The airlines have all kinds of structural and management problems, and let's not even get into the regulatory issues, but the airlines have also cultivated a near psychotic consumer set.

Everyone on a given flight cannot have the best deal. Some people will have paid more for their ticket, some less. Some much, much less. Folks who obsess on this probably should not fly.

GAO Denounces Gov't "Covert Propaganda"

Stories in The Washington Post and GovExec.com. This marks the second time that the Government Accountability Office has chided the Administration for producing fake news tapes that were subsequently broadcast in the guise of independent journalism.

What's neat about this one is that the "news story" in question, which was planted by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, was about "plans for a new White House ad campaign on the dangers of drug abuse." In other words, your tax dollars were spent by anti-drug government P.R. types to make fake journalism about how your tax dollars are being spent by anti-drug government P.R. types ... and then your tax dollars were spent once more to reveal that, indeed, your tax dollars are being misspent.

"Do Not Use For Personal Hygiene..."

...That admonition was the winner of an anti-lawsuit group's contest for the wackiest consumer-warning label of the year.

The sponsor, Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch, says the goal is "to reveal how lawsuits, and concern about lawsuits, have created a need for common-sense warnings on products."...

A $250 second prize went to Matt Johnson of Naperville, Ill., for a label on a children's scooter that said, "This product moves when used."

A $100 third prize went to Ann Marie Taylor of Camden, S.C., who submitted a warning from a digital thermometer that said, "Once used rectally, the thermometer should not be used orally."

The personal hygiene label, btw, was on a toilet brush.

Whole story, courtesy of The Washington Times, is here.

Go to Reason Contributing Editor Walter Olson's site Overlawyered.com for more on this and related legal topics.

When Barbarians and Gatekeepers Collide

As Reason has been documenting and championing for years, the liberating power of technology continues to make life sad and uncomfortable for gatekeepers of all stripes. The process -- in which empowered amateurs mock, supplement and occasionally replace previously respected tastemakers -- has been especially advanced in Major Lague Baseball, as I wrote in December 2003. Teams (including many of the most successful ones) have been increasingly hiring the outside rabble and heeding their advice, to the great consternation of many inside experts.

That backdrop adds intriguing metaphorical context to this already-interesting Baseball America roundtable discussion, in which two members each from the Old Guard and New alternate between testiness and rapproachment as they try to answer the exact same questions. I especially enjoyed how the recently co-opted bomb-throwers climbed down from some of their more provocative earlier comments, terming them "overstatement" and "exaggeration" that were "designed to sell books." (Link via Baseball Primer.)

Luck in Iraq

From the NY Times (via Drudge) comes a report that the Pentagon is working overtime to deal with what a spokesman called "the very dynamic situation" in Iraq:

The Pentagon is sending a retired four-star Army general to Iraq next week to conduct an unusual "open-ended" review of the military's entire Iraq policy, including troop levels, training programs for Iraqi security forces and the strategy for fighting the insurgency, senior Defense Department officials said Thursday.

The extraordinary leeway given to the highly regarded officer, Gen. Gary E. Luck, a former head of American forces in South Korea and currently a senior adviser to the military's Joint Forces Command, underscores the deep concern by senior Pentagon officials and top American commanders over the direction that the operation in Iraq is taking, and its broad ramifications for the military, said some members of Congress and military analysts.

In another sign that the Iraq campaign is forcing reassessments of Pentagon policies, Army officials are now considering whether to request that the temporary increase of 30,000 soldiers approved by Congress be made permanent. One senior Army official said Thursday that the increase is likely to be needed on a permanent basis if the service is to meet its global commitments - despite the additional cost of $3 billion per year.

Whole thing here.

Luck is, says the Times, "a revered figure among soldiers and a mentor to their officers."

While it seems clear that violence in Iraq is intensifying in preparation for the scheduled elections at the end of the month, it's not clear what might happen if they're postponed. Iraq's former security adviser, Muwafaq al-Roubaie, has told the BBC that to do so would create a "bloodbath." That story here.

Reason On the Air

At NPR, Nick Gillespie explains how hard Alberto Gonzales will have to work to disgrace the office of the Attorney General.

Indexing Economic Freedom

I'm not a big fan of these surveys, but this still seems notable:

For the first time in the 11 years that the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal have been publishing the Index of Economic Freedom, the U.S. has dropped out of the top 10 freest economies in the world.

The slide is partly a matter of other countries getting better, as opposed to the United States getting worse. But "Sarbanes-Oxley in the category of regulation and aggressive use of antidumping law in trade policy have kept [America] from keeping pace with the best performers in economic freedom. Most alarming is the U.S.'s fiscal burden, which imposes high marginal tax rates for individuals and very high marginal corporate tax rates."

The Statistician Gets Nervous Completing the Service

Yesterday I cited a Scott Richert article that argues (among other things) that the number of abortions has risen during the Bush years. Ramesh Ponurru disputes Richert's figures here; Richert replies here. The original article is now online here.

Me report; you decide.

Being Less Than They Can Be

More cries of trouble with U.S. troop strength and management (of the sort that, I argue here, make more U.S. wars of choice this year unlikely, or at the very least terribly unwise) coming from Army Reserve chief Lt. Gen. James Helmly in a memo to the Army's chief of staff, says Reuters, via MSNBC. There may, of course, be a fair amount of bureaucratic squeaky-wheelism going on, (he was saying the same thing a year ago as well) but Helmly says the Reserve--200,000 strong, with 52,000 in active duty and 19,000 of those in Iraq or Afghanistan (says the Reuters story--this Baltimore Sun via Newsday story refers to 30,000 reservists in Iraq and Kuwait)--is "degenerating into a 'broken' force"

Get Some Long Tail...

Over the past few years as editor in chief of Wired, Chris Anderson has re-energized that pathbreaking publication into one of the most consistently provocative, interesting, and visually arresting mags around (he's also got good taste in other mags; scroll down).

Along the way, he's managed to pen a number of great articles, none better than his October feature on "The Long Tail," which explains just and why cultural proliferation works to make more of everything available in truly incredible ways; and how businesses better respond if they want to keep customers happy. Read Brian Doherty's summary of the story from Hit & Run here. Among the fascinating elements of the story:

Not only is every one of Rhapsody's top 100,000 tracks streamed at least once each month, the same is true for its top 200,000, top 300,000, and top 400,000. As fast as Rhapsody adds tracks to its library, those songs find an audience, even if it's just a few people a month, somewhere in the country.

Anderson has signed a book contract based on the story and has started a consistenly interesting blog called, you guessed it, The Long Tail. Definitely worth regular reading.

Episodic Hallucinations

An appeals court has overturned the 2002 conviction of Andrea Yates for drowning her children, citing false testimony by a prosecution witness. During the trial, psychiatrist Park Dietz described an episode of Law and Order, which he said Yates regularly watched, in which a woman successfully pleads not guilty by reason of insanity after drowning her children in a bathtub. The prosecution suggested that Yates, who likewise offered an insanity defense, had modeled her crime after the TV show. But it turns out this particular episode of Law and Order existed only in Dietz's mind.

It's hard to believe that Dietz, who served as a consultant for the show, could have mistakenly remembered an episode that was never produced. But it's also hard to believe that he thought he could get away with deliberately inventing an episode, given how easy it would be to check. It reminds me of that time on Boston Legal when the prosecutor argued that a killer imitated an episode of a popular crime drama, but then it turned out there was no such episode.

Da Judge on Civil Liberties

Fox News Channel's Judge Andrew Napolitano, the hardest-hitting civil libertarian on cable, laid into the Intelligence Reform Act of 2004 a few days ago in the Baltimore Sun. A taste:

The Patriot Act and its progeny are the most abominable, unconstitutional congressional assaults on personal freedom since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 made it a crime to libel the government. With them, Congress and the president have attempted to legitimize the exchange of liberty for security. In effect, the government says, "Give us your freedoms, and we will protect you." Such a satanic bargain misunderstands the nature of freedom and historically never has worked....

Congress may not read our laws; but it should read our history.

Whole thing here. Napolitano's new book, Constitutional Chaos, is an excellent overview of the various ways government undermines the rule of law, whether the issue is the War on Drugs, asset forfeiture, or the War on Terror.

As I mentioned the other day, he's the subject of an interview in the March issue of Reason--and one more reason to subscribe.

iSuit

I always thought it was odd that Microsoft got targeted for an antitrust suit while Apple, which does a lot more in the way of "bundling" (all Macs, after all, run MacOS) than MS. But that doesn't mean that this new suit filed against Apple for selling tracks on iTunes that only play on the iPod, makes much more sense. The claim (emphasis below mine) is that:

Apple has unlawfully bundled, tied, and/or leveraged its monopoly in the market for the sale of legal online digital music recordings to thwart competition in the separate market for portable hard drive digital music players, and vice-versa.

Apple has a monopoly in portable digital music players? That'll be news to all the folks I know who own a Rio or one of these. And iTunes is a monopoly too? Funny, since the article goes on to mention:

Apple's online music store uses a different format for songs than Napster, Musicmatch, RealPlayer and others.

The customer filing the suit seems to have an idiosyncratic definition of "monopoly." Maybe he's thinking different.

UPDATE: D'oh, right. And as commenter AJS notes, you can always burn the tracks you bought off iTunes to a CD, then rip 'em to whatever format you like to put on your non-iPod portable. Which is admittedly a pain in the ass, but it means it's not even true that you need to buy an iPod to make your iTunes tracks portable.

...and let's not even get started on girls who wear glasses!

Good old boys may remember the one about the transexual who complained about the most painful part of becoming a woman: the part where they remove half your brain. Not so fast, fellas! A new British study, sent to us by superhero The Tick, suggests women (or at least, women looking to get hitched) may be getting short shrift because of their high IQs:

The study found the likelihood of marriage increased by 35 percent for boys for each 16-point increase in IQ.

But for girls, there is a 40-percent drop for each 16-point rise, according to the survey by the universities of Aberdeen, Bristol, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

The study is based on the IQs of 900 men and women between their 10th and 40th birthdays.

"Women in their late 30s who have gone for careers after the first flush of university and who are among the brightest of their generation are finding that men are just not interesting enough," said psychologist and professor at Nottingham University Paul Brown in The Sunday Times.

Claire Rayner, writer and broadcaster, said in the article that intelligent men often prefered a less brainy partner.

"A chap with a high IQ is going to get a demanding job that is going to take up a lot of his energy and time. In many ways he wants a woman who is an old-fashioned wife and looks after the home, a copy of his mum in a way."

I say AP buried the lead on this one: "Englishmen think their mothers are stupid."

New at Reason

Nick Gillespie and Bruce Caldwell discuss Hayek's Challenge, perfect information, and The Road to Serfdom today. Also: Prominent writers, thinkers, and researchers consider Friedrich A. Hayek's legacy.

New at Reason

Harvey Silverglate argues that the Supreme Court's enemy-combatants rulings will have little influence on the government's conduct.

Those Zany Attorneys General...

I just taped a commentary for the NPR show Day To Day that suggests the main role of the U.S. attorney general is to act as a continuous source of embarrassment and scandal for the president, a role that Alberto Gonzales has filled to a tee even before his confirmation hearings got started today.

Day to Day typically airs from noon to 1pm eastern time. You can find out where it's at on your local dial by going here. The audio for the show will be archived here by about 3pm ET.

For the latest on Gonzo, go here. Torture's definitely out, he's saying now, but extreme tickling may be in.

Advantage: Jon Stewart

Looks like Crossfire might be facing cancellation. Still breathing, alas: Hannity and Colmes, where the formula seems to be "just like Crossfire, but with dumber hosts."

Poor Bush

The guy cannot get a break with this tsunami thing. The President announces he will give $10,000 to Asian relief, which is dwarfed by Formula One racing star Michael Schumacher's pledge of $10 million and matched by $10K from the Oakland County employees' "casual Friday" fund.

Such gift scorekeeping is rather tawdry at even a 6-year-old's birthday, and Schumacher did suffer the very personal loss of a bodyguard and does make $80 million a year, but the White House must wonder if it went a little light on the donation.

Persecution Complex, Continued

Before the holidays, I poked a bit of fun at the attempt by some activists to claim that Christians in America are somehow persecuted. But this press release, about a Secret Service prohibition of crosses on the inaugural parade route, sounded like it might be a genuine instance, even if the idea of this kind of "bigotry" (in the words of Christian Defense Coalition head Patrick Mahoney) sounded implausible coming from the Bush administration.

Then I took a look at the actual document the group's so upset about. The ban is actually on a wide range of "structures" including puppets, folding chairs, crates, statues, and so on. Since it explicitly exempts "signs' made of "cardboard, poster board, or cloth," a handheld cardboard cross is presumably fine, meaning this isn't a content-based restriction, but rather a general ban on big wooden objects, with crosses being one example thereof. (I expect if the Secret Service thought there was much chance of anyone bringing one, they might've specified giant wooden Stars of David or jade Buddhas too.) I'm sure there must be at least some genuine examples of anti-Christian discrimination; can't these guys find one to get upset about?

Reason Writers Around Town

At the International Herald Tribune, Michael Young discusses the latest drive to end the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, and what the U.S. could be doing toward that end.

This push is coming mainly from Walid Jumblatt, the Druze parliamentarian and political legacy who most recently made waves stateside by calling Paul Wolfowitz a "virus" and wishing the deputy secretary of defense had been killed in a Baghdad rocket attack. The U.S. revoked Jumblatt's visa over that comment, but as his current stance shows, he is a truly unpredictable character—nobody's flunky in a country where everybody's a flunky. Contrast his opposition to the Syrians with the dutiful comments of Hizbollah MP Mohammed Fneish, who (in an interview where he otherwise talked a good game about individual rights and limited government), says "At any rate, if you go today from North to South, you won't find any Syrian checkpoints in Lebanon." (In fairness, I should note that this is an accurate statement as far as it goes.) Other background: I wrote about the solidarity of French and American positions on the Syrian occoupation; Michael Young wrote about the fruitful divisions in Lebanon's media; and back before major combat operations in Iraq had been accomplished, I surveyed what the invasion of Iraq might do for self-determination in Lebanon.

Science Bloggin'

One of my favorite writers, Will Saletan, has launched a new science blog over at Slate. For more on science and politics, check out sometime reason contributor Chris Mooney.

New at Reason

Ronald Bailey shows what's really killing people in the developing world.

Aim High

Courtesy of Drudge comes news that David Banach, the Garden State Laser Man, has been charged under the USA PATRIOT act. FBI officials acknowledge that there is no evidence of terrorism, but say the suspect's actions were "foolhardy and negligent." Banach is a resident of Parsippany—and thus should be prosecuted on general principles. Interestingly, the USA PATRIOT act is being invoked with respect to his attack on a Cessna Citation carrying six people but not the attack two days later on a Port Authority police helicopter investigating the original incident, because helicopters are not classed as "mass transportation vehicles" under the USA PATRIOT act. (I'm using the term "attack" loosely and without presumption of intent; Bardach says he was just demonstrating the laser pointer to his daughter.) Jeff Taylor started an interesting discussion of the feasibility of laser attacks on planes, which Brian Doherty continued yesterday. Fans of General Sir John Hackett's very time-specific bestseller The Third World War: August 1985 may recall that that book included a discussion of laser-blinding as a new means of warfare. If anybody knows of an earlier discussion, I'd be interested.

Fetal Fatalities

A counterintuitive observation from Scott Richert:

Abortion is on the rise in the United States -- and has been since George W. Bush was first inaugurated President in January 2001. Current estimates of the number of abortions performed annually in America hover just above 1.3 million. What may astonish many of the "moral values" voters who reelected President Bush last November is that, from 1992 to 2000 (coinciding with President Clinton's eight years in office), abortions actually declined, from 1.528 million to just over 1.1 million -- the lowest rate since 1974.

Richert's argument is that the rise in abortion rates is linked to a rise in male unemployment. The article isn't online, unfortunately, but it appears in the January issue of Chronicles.

(And yes, I know: Clinton's eight years in office actually stretched from 1993 to 2001. Caveat duly noted.)

The Terrors of Choice

Apparently launching his own personal effort to spare us all from the "paradox of choice," Barry Schwartz seems to have settled on a formula that allows him to churn out op-eds that have the same soothing monotony as his ideal supermarket shelf. The schtick is pretty straightforward: Pick some public controversy where the value of "choice" is adduced as a reason to support some insufficiently progressive policy, briefly regurgitate some of the familiar arguments against said policy by way of introduction, then bring out the paradox thesis—more choice is actually bad, because our poor brains become overwhelmed by all the options.

The formula's deployed in Schwartz's New York Times op-ed today, though not, alas, with results quite as hilarious as last time around. We can bypass the dumb "what if the markets dip at the exact time you'd most prefer to retire" and the stupendously circular "it's not 'your' money it's our money... once we've taxed it away" and focus on the familiar "choice paralysis" argument. First of all, the upshot seems to be only that faced with too many choices, people will fail to make any choice at all. Since Schwartz seems to think it would be foolish to elect to divert payroll tax into a private account, it's not wholly clear why that's a problem from his perspective. But assuming that it is, the specific evidence he brings to bear—that participation in private pension funds drops two percent for each 10 additional fund options—is so narrow that the objection ends up being the equivalent of a claim that democracy is hopeless because butterfly ballots are confusing. Surely a bright fellow like Schwartz could come up with a way to structure the system in tiers, such that novices would have a small number of easily-selected "defaults" while experienced investors would have access to a wider range of options. (In the same way that someone who finds themselves overwhelmed in the huge Whole Foods can spare themselves choice paralysis by choosing to patronize the smaller corner market.) But then, looking at ways to ameliorate the "paradox of choice," rather than using it as a bludgeon, doesn't appear to be part of the formula.

It's All About Stopping Terrorism

The L.A. Times reports on the spread of the US-VISIT program (stands for "U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology"), establishing digital biometric identity checks for foreigners at U.S. border crossings. It was launched a year ago, has cost $700 million so far, and the feds have just announced they are extending it to cover 50 different U.S. land entry points, and by the end of 2005 should be covering every U.S. land port. How's it doing so far?

Last year, the new tools helped authorities arrest or deny entry to 372 people sought for federal or state crimes or identified as violators of immigration law, according to Department of Homeland Security officials.

None of those apprehended was linked to terrorist plots, officials acknowledged.
.....
"At the end of the day, our argument is, 'You're spending all this money, but how many terrorists have you caught?' " said Moira Whelan, a spokeswoman for the Democratic members of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security.

Hutchinson acknowledged that no terrorism suspects had been detained under the system, but he asserted that it served as an increasingly effective defense against the threat of terrorism.

Tragedy vs. News

Regarding the tsunami, Alex Beam of the Boston Globe has some thoughts--with some sympathy for the devil, Stalin, along the way--on the personal distinctions between news and tragedy, and how "compassion is like a radar signal that loses force the further it radiates from our hearts."

[Link via Arts & Letters Daily]

Classical Liberal Loses Influence With Putin

A top Putin adviser of classical liberal sympathies, Andrei N. Illarionov, is relieved of his duties as Russian envoy to the Group of Eight meetings; this after some public criticisms on Illarionov's part of some of Putin's actions and policy. From the New York Times report:

Mr. Illarionov described the government as both arbitrary and wrong-headed, criticizing the Kremlin's crackdown on the news media, its expropriation of the main asset of Yukos, the oil giant, its centralization of political power and its foreign relations.

His assessments were unsparing. He called the seizure last month of the Yukos unit "the swindle of the year."

In the government's attack on a healthy company, and its signals about which companies were Kremlin favorites, Mr. Illarionov said, "financial flows are rerouted from the most effective companies to the least effective ones."

Moreover, Mr. Putin's decision to do away with elections for governors throughout Russia, and to appoint governors through the presidency, Mr. Illarionov said, ensured that political competition was undermined, to ill effect. "Limited competition in all spheres of life leads to one thing," he said. "To stagnation."

Illiarionov collaborated with the Cato Institute on a conference on "The Liberal Agenda for a New Century," involving a meeting between Putin and various libertarian scholars; Cato's Tom Palmer comments on the development here.

Fair Enough for Government Work

Yesterday a federal judge ruled that New York's old Eminent Domain Procedure Law, so ridiculously rigged in the government's favor that popular outrage prompted the legislature to change it last year, nevertheless was fair enough to satisfy the 14th Amendment's requirement of due process. The Institute for Justice reports that U.S. District Judge Harold Baer upheld the Village of Port Chester's condemnation of four commercial buildings owned by William Brody, which the government has decided would be put to better use as a supermarket parking lot. Under the eminent domain procedures that existed at the time of the condemnation, Brody received no direct notice and had no meaningful opportunity to contest the forced transfer of his property. In its press release, I.J. (which represents Brody) notes:

The only notice Brody received about his one opportunity to challenge the condemnation of his property was a tiny legal notice in a newspaper....The ad made no reference to Brody or his address. It didn't say that he was losing any rights. In fact, it didn't say anything that would tell an ordinary person that he should do anything at all.

I.J. plans to appeal Baer's decision.

Goner Gonzales? (Veiled Subscription Pitch)

From the top of today's Wash Post:

Gonzales Helped Set the Course for Detainees:
Justice Nominee's Hearings Likely to Focus on Interrogation Policies

There's nothing that's exactly news in the story, but I'm betting that the Dems--and maybe some anti-torture Reps, too--take a pretty mean hatchet to Gonzales as confirmation of him as attorney general gets underway, even to the point of killing the nomination. Someone in the Bush admin is eventually going to pay for screwups with detainees, Abu Ghraib, etc. and Gonzales is as likely a candidate as anyone (more so than Rummy, I'd wager today). Especially since as Clinton showed, it can be tough to get someone through to the AG post (and what a goddamned multiple disaster his third pick turned out to be).

For the March issue of Reason, now in production and out on newsstands in early February (subscribe!), we've interviewed Judge Andrew Napolitano of Fox News Channel and author of the good new book Consitutional Chaos. The hardcore civil libertarian had this to say about Gonzales:

Alberto Gonzales will be the first attorney general in American history, publicly, to be in favor of torture. The others may have been in favor of it privately, but Al Gonzales is in favor of it publicly.

Update on Gonzo: The Wash Times like his odds of being confirmed.

Did I mention you should to subscribe to the print edition already? Rates are going up but if you act quickly, you can still get a year of Reason (11 issues) and a free copy of Choice: The Best of Reason for a measly $19.95.

New at Reason

Brian Doherty explains why Bill Kristol may have to settle for a nice game of MechAssault 2: Lone Wolf to fix his war jones this year.

Will Eisner, R.I.P.

Just learned, to my dismay and sorrow, that comic book great Will Eisner died Monday night at age 87, after heart surgery.

Eisner was around in the comics periodical field since the beginning. He first established his mastery of the form in the '40s in his newspaper comic supplement The Spirit, telling charming and wonderful tales of a superpowerless masked crimefighter (the thought-to-be-dead criminologist Denny Colt) and his comic-noir adventures in "Central City" with pal and sparring partner Commissioner Dolan (and his daughter Ellen, whose matrimonial grasp he fled) and a plethora of other grotesques and archetypes and gunsels and kid sidekicks. His stories were tense, funny, deeply urban and deeply human, some of the finest popular entertainments of the American Century.

He stopped the Spirit in 1952. Eisner is famed as a pioneer in the graphic novel form, and for the past 25 years has mostly used the comic form to tell non-genre tales (most set in the South Bronx environment in which he spent much of his childhood) which, I have to admit, I have not kept up with (but will). He didn't give in to fan desires to see him revisit old glories. I don't have the critical language--I don't know who could--to explain to you how fun, funky, innovative, and, well, cool, a Will Eisner page at the top of his game looked. But take a look here, and here, and here, and here. The wonder of it is, there are hundreds and hundreds more where that come from. But no more new ones.

The Warren and Kitchen Sink reprints of the old Spirit supplements in the '70s and '80s were totems of great power and joy in my childhood, and I grin every time I see one of his twisty, shadowy, unprecedented pages. He walked by me once at a San Diego Comic Con and I ended up standing on the escalator behind him for a long ride. I didn't bother him; doubtless he heard more than enough anonymous "you're the greatest!" comments from fans at such events. But I was quietly humming with joy that, two steps above me, was Will Eisner.

Update: Wanted to share this quote I found from someone who did not shy away, as I did, from trying to describe what made Eisner such a great cartoonist, from his protege, and a man who knows from lines on a page, Jules Feiffer:

"Eisner's line had weight. Clothing sat on his characters heavily; when they bent an arm, deep folds sprang into action everywhere. When one Eisner character slugged another, a real fist hit real flesh. Violence was no externalized plot exercise, it was the gut of his style. Massive and indigestible, it curdled, lava-like, from the page."

While not attempting a full biography here, I might also note that in addition to being one of the form's greatest practitioners, Eisner was also one of the comics world's greatest entrepreneurs and theoreticians.

New at Reason

Cathy Young looks into Putin's soul.

New at Reason

Bush ties one hand behind his back on Social Security, ancient software grounds the airlines, and Golden State regulators are a bunch of hockey pucs, in Reason Express.

Laser Update

A lengthy CNN report on the laser-in-cockpit brouhaha here; Homeland Security transportation chief Asa Hutchinson assures us no terror is involved. I was playing with one of these powerful green laser pointers with some friends myself over New Year's weekend (nowhere near an airport, honest) and it remains a mystery to me, as discussed here on Hit and Run by Jeff Taylor and various commenters, how in heck anyone could get and keep these things aimed inside a small window on a moving target high above you whose angle in relation to you is constantly changing.

Commenters: You're One in A Million! (Er, Ten)

To give some comparison and contrast to the shrinking cable news ratings noted below, here's some new figures regarding blog readership, authorship, and commenting from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. From a ComputerWorld account:

Blog readership jumped 58 percent between February and November and included 32 million U.S. citizens in 2004. More than 8 million U.S. citizens have created a Web-based diary, and one in 10, or around 14 million U.S. Internet users, has contributed thoughts or comments to a blog.

[Link via Rational Review.]

Outnumbered in Iraq

The UK's Times reports that General Muhammad Abdullah Shahwani, director of Iraq's new intelligence services, thinks that insurgents in Iraq may outnumber U.S. and coalition forces, with more than 200,000 active fighters and supporters. And many of them are embedded in the Iraqi National Guard:

The commander of the Iraqi National Guard in Baghdad said that his forces were trying to root out guerrillas who had infiltrated his organisation, and who were passing on intelligence to the insurgents to enable the attacks. Major- General Mudhir Abood said that the problem had arisen because the force had been set up hastily in the face of a rapidly deteriorating security situation and that the new recruits had not been sufficiently vetted.

More than 1,000 police and National Guardsmen have been killed since the security forces were established after the war in relentless attacks aimed at plunging the country into chaos.

The Hertford Code

The Knights Templar surface in an English market town. Secret tunnels exist, or don't, in the store-room cupboard of a clothes shop. There are rumors of a ghostly vacuum-cleaner, and of the secret origins of the biscuit. It sounds like a James P. Blaylock novel, but actually it's a funny dispatch in The Guardian.

Cutting the Coaxial Cable

While the tsunami disaster has meant a temporary uptick in ratings for televised news of all sorts, it seems as if viewers everywhere are noticing what our own Jesse Walker has (celebratedly) noticed here (unless, alternately, they just didn't care about the news in an election year), that the Web is a far better, richer news source than TV. From a report in Variety's Dec. 29 issue, not freely available online, in the Nielsen year 2004 (which, unlike the rest of our years, ends on Dec. 26) CNN lost 22 percent of its primetime audience from 2003; MSNBC lost 16 percent; CNBC, 13 percent; CNN Headline, 11 percent, and even kingmakers Fox News were down 2 percent compared to 2003.

Blogging for the NSC

Another interesting recommendation from that Defense Science Board report to the DoD: "We recommend that the president work with Congress to create legislation and funding for an independent, nonprofit, and nonpartisan center for strategic communication to support the National Security Council." The so-called Center for Strategic Communication would need about $100-150 million a year, to do stuff like pay weblogs for disseminating America-friendly messages to countries "ripe and important" -- the report's vivid phrase for places "where the risk of U.S. intervention is high." In bureaucratic jibber-jabber:

Subcontracting to the commercial and academic sectors for a range of products and programs that communicate strategic themes and messages to appropriate target audiences. Broad themes and messages would include respect for human dignity and individual rights; for individual education and economic opportunity; and for personal freedom, safety, and mobility. Examples of products would be a children's TV series (Arabic Sesame Street); video and interactive games; support for the distribution and production of selected foreign films; and Web communications including blogs, chat rooms, and electronic journals.

It should be pointed out that "a number of senior administration officials took part in the study as integral participants, officials from not only the Department of Defense but also the Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the intelligence community."

An American BBC, and a New "Manhattan Project" for "Intimate Surveillance"

The Defense Science Board, the quasi-independent body that's paid to give advice to the Dept. of Defense, presented in December a long report and policy brief [PDF] on Stabilization & Reconstruction (S&R) efforts following American military interventions. Among the more-urgent-than-usual recommendations are a "revolution in strategic communication"; a "'Manhattan Project'-like program" to develop "more intimate, terrestrial, 21st-century ... intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities"; and, shockingly (to me) an American BBC:

There is no reason why the United States cannot sustain an activity analogous to the UK government-funded BBC World Service, which has tremendous credibility around the world and serves as an instrument to promote truthful news and British values. Building up that credibility -- building up that "brand" -- requires a decade or two of persistence.

Oh, I can think of a few "reasons".... More on this interesting report later, and thanks as always to the Federation of American Scientists for making it available to the rest of us.

Magical Box

Yeah, it is just another set-top box but this one is built to use a DSL connection as a major source of content and hook into home networks. The catch, of course, is the DSL provider -- will they have clue? SBC's track record is spotty at best.

Still, mate this box, or something similar, DSL, and a satellite TV provider and you'll have a nice fist-fight with the cable guys with consumers sure to win.

Traffic and Terror

I'm not sure I buy all of Hans Monderman's ideas about traffic engineering, but I definitely enjoyed Mark Steyn's defense of them:

But, alas, on the state highways New Hampshire is going in the opposite direction to Mr Monderman. On formerly scenic Interstate 89, the discreet mile markers have been augmented by eye-level markers every fifth of a mile reminding you what road you're on and that it's been 0.2 miles since the last reminder. Until this summer, if you were on a bendy road following a river, you'd take the curves carefully lest you plunged over the edge and died in a gasoline fireball at the foot of the ravine. That happened to some poor fellow every 93 years or so, so now they've put up metal barriers along the picture-postcard river roads punctuated every couple of hundred yards by ugly-ass shock-absorbers that look like trash cans. So now you don't have to worry about plunging into the river because the barrier will bounce you back into the road to be sliced in two by the logging truck. The uglification of New Hampshire's highways is a good example of how, even in a small-government state, the preferred solution to any problem real or imaginary is more government.

From there Steyn moves to the war on terror, defending the idea that it's generally better to devolve power to individuals than to give more of it to the state. Solid stuff, mostly, though I can't imagine what he was thinking when he wrote this:

In his last book, published a few months ago, the late Anthony Sampson claimed that after September 11 'the fear of terrorism strengthened the hands of all governments'. It certainly shouldn't have. In America, I don't believe it did.

Uh ... right. By the way, I'm going to have to confiscate those scissors.

[Via Lew Rockwell.]

Exhale, Stage Left

The Washington Post's Peter Carlson--a man of unimpeachable and impeccable taste when it comes to magazines (scroll through)--has written an absorbing profile of retiring NORML honcho Keith Stroup.

Stroup is an interesting character, at once responsible for much of the progress made over the past 25 years regarding pot laws and for one of the biggest setbacks to legalization.

Back in Washington, he was lobbying for a bill to ban federal funding of a controversial program that sprayed Mexican marijuana fields with the herbicide paraquat, shown to cause lung damage in people who smoked the tainted weed. Stroup asked [Peter] Bourne, Carter's drug adviser, to support the bill. Bourne refused. Stroup was outraged. To him, it was a moral issue: The feds were deliberately poisoning pot smokers! Seeking revenge, Stroup leaked a secret to newspaper columnist Jack Anderson in July 1978: Bourne had snorted cocaine at NORML's 1977 Christmas party. And Stroup revealed the names of a couple of witnesses.

Needless to say, a shit storm ensued that really derailed efforts toward drug policy reform.

Whole story here.

Back in 1993--wasn't that a year!--Jacob Sullum looked at "the pitfalls of marijuana reform."

Take Your Ban and Shove It

The Miami Herald reports that a Cutler Ridge, Florida, bar owner who is resisting the state's voter-approved smoking ban has met with some success, winning a favorable ruling from an administrative law judge. Apparently the legislators who wrote the ban were clear that they didn't want any smoking but failed to specify what bar and restaurant owners were required to do about it. My favorite part:

On July 9, Florida Alcohol Beverage and Tobacco agent Jorge Fernandez walked into Pace's bar and saw people smoking. He told manager Lisa Tyrell, who got Pace on the phone with the agent. Pace received a warning that day and asked Fernandez to tell him when he would be back so he could "make sure he had patrons smoking inside his business," according to case documents filed by the state.

Shooing Anonymice?

Your news organization's veracity -- and your ability to monitor it -- might soon be jacked up a notch or two, if some new sourcing guidelines quietly proposed by The Associated Press in December are approved by the AP's union. According to the document, which Editor & Publisher wrote about here,

[M]aterial from anonymous sources may be used only if:
1. The material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report.
2. The information is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source.
3. The source is reliable, and in a position to have accurate information.

Further, reporters "should explain in the story why the source requested anonymity and, whenever possible, describe the source's motive for disclosing the information," and "must provide attribution that establishes the source's credibility; simply quoting 'a source' is not allowed." Articles containing anonymous sources must be run under a byline (AP dispatches frequently do not); they "must not say that a person declined comment when he or she is already quoted anonymously," and complaints about the anonymice's truthfulness must be processed pronto.

Why does this matter? The AP is the globe's dominant general-news service, "the largest and oldest news organization in the world," producing more of our news diet -- especially on foreign affairs -- than most people realize. Also, being a cooperative of leading news organizations, its practices can quickly become the industry norm (most newspaper copy-editing manuals, for example, derive from the AP Style Guide). As Jack Shafer and others have repeatedly pointed out, cracking down on the use of anonymous sources is one of the easiest journalistic reforms to announce, and one of the hardest to pull off. I've long argued that describing in as much detail possible why a source wishes to remain anonymous would bring important new details to a story (such as, "people who work for the government's X Dept. are terrified for their jobs, and/or are inveterate gossips"), and weed out much of the usage (such as my own) that's based on journalistic laziness. (Link via Howard Owens.)

Government 101

From The New York Times' interview with Jeanne L. Phillips, chair of the Presidential Inaugural Committee:

Q: I hear one of the balls will be reserved for troops who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

A: Yes, the Commander-in-Chief Ball. That is new. It will be about 2,000 servicemen and their guests. And that should be a really fun event for them.

Q: As an alternative way of honoring them, did you or the president ever discuss canceling the nine balls and using the $40 million inaugural budget to purchase better equipment for the troops?

A: I think we felt like we would have a traditional set of events and we would focus on honoring the people who are serving our country right now -- not just the people in the armed forces, but also the community volunteers, the firemen, the policemen, the teachers, the people who serve at, you know, the -- well, it's called the StewPot in Dallas, people who work with the homeless.

Q: How do any of them benefit from the inaugural balls?

A: I'm not sure that they do benefit from them.

Q: Then how, exactly, are you honoring them?

A: Honoring service is what our theme is about.

[Via Tex.]

New at Reason

Julian Sanchez dusts off the Magna Carta for the War On Terror.

New at Reason

David R. Henderson and Charles L. Hooper prescribe a dose of Vioxx reality.

From the Small-But-Important Victories Dept.

Headline from Reuters: "Senator Says Lifetime Terror Detentions 'Bad Idea'".

The Decline of the Right: Pt. 2

The Lew Rockwell essay that I linked to this morning has sparked an interesting discussion over at Liberty & Power, with William Marina penning an extended critique of the piece. I don't want to get bogged down in summarizing what everyone has said so far, but I have three points to add to the discussion.

First: With only a few exceptions, such as Bob Barr, the Republican leadership was not particularly skeptical of government power in the '90s. There was a tremendous skepticism at the grassroots, though, and the politicians fell in line with their rhetoric and, occasionally, their behavior.

Second: That grassroots skepticism hasn't died. There are more colors in the country than red and blue, and there still are many libertarian-leaning conservatives out there. But a decade ago they were driving the debate; today they've been marginalized. What you might call the talk-radio right -- the folks who listen to Limbaugh, post to Free Republic, and serve as political troops for the GOP -- have generally moved in the direction described by Rockwell.

Third: One reason this shift was possible, as Rockwell argues, is because the grassroots conservative movement personalized its politics, becoming less anti-government than anti-Clinton. Rather than opposing the imperial presidency, activists demanded a president who wouldn't "stain" the office. There's nothing wrong with Clinton-bashing per se, of course, but there is something wrong with losing your perspective.

What Rockwell didn't mention, and perhaps doesn't see, is that the same dynamic is now at work on the left. If the Bob Barr conservatives (and, further out, the militia conservatives) have been tamed or marginalized by Team Red, then the Ralph Nader leftists (and, further out, the Seattle leftists) are being tamed or marginalized by Team Blue. The chief instrument of this shift has been an excessive focus on George W. Bush, just as the other rebellion was hobbled by an excessive focus on Bill Clinton. Again, there's nothing wrong with Bush-bashing per se, but not if you lose your perspective.

If John Kerry had been elected in November, the grassroots ferment that fed MoveOn and the Dean campaign would have lost its anti-authoritarian edge as quickly as the talk-radio right did. Indeed, beneath their sometimes radical rhetoric and their dark theories of conspiracy, the rebels were already tamed. That's what "Anybody But Bush" meant in practice.

Orderer of Disorders

The January 3 New Yorker includes a revealing profile of Robert Spitzer, the main driving force behind the landmark third edition of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The article, by Alix Spiegel, makes clear that the DSM, widely viewed as a scientific taxonomy, is little more than a compilation of the conventional wisdom among the handful of psychiatrists who play an important role in shaping the text--or, in some cases, the whims of one guy with a typewriter:

In 1974, Roger Peele and Paul Luisada, psychiatrists at St. Elizabeths Hospital, in Washington, D.C., wrote a paper in which they used the term "hysterical psychoses" to describe the behavior of two kinds of patients they had observed: those who suffered from extremely short episodes of delusion and hallucination after a major traumatic event, and those who felt compelled to show up in an emergency room even though they had no genuine physical or psychological problems. Spitzer read the paper and asked Peele and Luisada if he could come to Washington to meet them. During a forty-minute conversation, the three decided that "hysterical psychoses" should really be divided into two disorders. Short episodes of delusion and hallucination would be labelled "brief reactive psychosis," and the tendency to show up in an emergency room without authentic cause would be called "factitious disorder." "Then Bob asked for a typewriter," Peele says. To Peele's surprise, Spitzer drafted the definitions on the spot. "He banged out criteria sets for factitious disorder and for brief reactive psychosis, and it struck me that this was a productive fellow! He comes in to talk about an issue and walks away with diagnostic criteria for two different mental disorders!" Both factitious disorder and brief reactive psychosis were included in the DSM-III with only minor adjustments.

DSM-III was supposed to make psychiatric diagnoses reliable--i.e., consistent from one practitioner to another. As Spitzer himself concedes, this goal remains elusive. Meanwhile, as Spiegel notes almost in passing, the more important question of validity--whether the "disorders" described in the manual correspond to real entities with similar causes and solutions--has been addressed hardly at all.

"One of the objections was that it appeared to be more authoritative than it was," a psychiatrist who worked on both DSM-III and its revision tells Spiegel. "The way it was laid out made it seem like a textbook, as if it was a depository of all known facts. The average reader would feel that it carried great authority and weight, which was not necessarily merited."

The Decline of the Right

Lew Rockwell decries the devolution of Team Red:

The most significant socio-political shift in our time has gone almost completely unremarked, and even unnoticed. It is the dramatic shift of the red-state bourgeoisie from leave-us-alone libertarianism, manifested in the Congressional elections of 1994, to almost totalitarian statist nationalism. Whereas the conservative middle class once cheered the circumscribing of the federal government, it now celebrates power and adores the central state, particularly its military wing....

In 1994, the central state was seen by the bourgeoisie as the main threat to the family; in 2004 it is seen as the main tool for keeping the family together and ensuring its ascendancy. In 1994, the state was seen as the enemy of education; today, the same people view the state as the means of raising standards and purging education of its left-wing influences. In 1994, Christians widely saw that Leviathan was the main enemy of the faith; today, they see Leviathan as the tool by which they will guarantee that their faith will have an impact on the country and the world.

How a Takings Became a Givings to Rich People

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mt.) are playing Batman and Robin on the issue of tax breaks for historic homes.

Grassley, sez Fox News, wants to scotch a break that allows owners to get 10 percent off the value of the home in exchange for maintaining its historic facade. This despite that fact that many homeowners are barred by local govs from changing the look of their homes anwyay. The break is typically enacted when the homeowner donates an easement covering the facade to a charity.

It's no surprise that Washington, D.C., has also become the leading city in the nation for historic easements, with 900 granted so far.

The average value of the home that gets the special tax break is $1 million, yielding a $110,000 tax credit.

The credit is supposed to compensate for property values lost by giving up the right to remodel an historic facade, but in fact property values usually go up for historic properties.

Asks the goggled-eyed senator from the Hawkeye State:

"Isn't it kind of ludicrous to be talking about having a tax credit for historic preservation (search) when you live in a neighborhood where you can't change the facade of your home anyway?"

Well, yes, Sen. Grassley, it is. And it's pretty stupid to have those laws about preservation in place anyway; on their own, people will pay for a good chunk of the past if they find it valuable and meaningful enough.

Link via Freedom News Daily

Starving Leviathan With Unlimited Credit

Is the Milton Friedman-blessed Grover Norquist concept of "Starving Leviathan" -- letting the federal government run huge budget deficits so that it eventually runs out of money for basic programs -- really an effective way to impose spending discipline on Congress and the public? Cato's Will Wilkinson votes no.

[E]conomist William Niskanen, chairman of the Cato Institute (also my employer), has presented econometric evidence that federal spending tends to increase when tax revenues decline, flatly contradicting the starve-the-beast theory. Furthermore, according to William Gale and Brennan Kelly of the Brookings Institution, members of Congress who signed the President's "No New Taxes" pledge were more, not less, likely to vote for spending increases, which is hard to square with the starve-the-beast theory. [...]

By promulgating the idea that given a tax cut, spending will take care of itself, advocates of the "starve the beast" theory have helped produce a political climate in which principled vigilance about spending seems unnecessary.

You Mean They Actually Research This Stuff?

For all the blather about Media Bias (to which I've contributed more than my fair share), it's worth pointing out that academics have actually researched bits of this question in great detail. Three interesting papers from 2004:

In March, MIT political science professors James Snyder, Stephen Ansolabehere and Rebecca Lessem published a study [PDF] of newspaper endorsements from 1940-2002. Conclusion:

First, newspapers have shifted from strongly favoring Republicans in the 1940s and 1950s, to dividing their editorial endorsements roughly equally between the parties. Today, Democratic candidates are about 10 percent more likely to receive an endorsement than Republican candidates. Second, newspaper editorials have come to favor heavily those already in office. Incumbents today receive the endorsement about 90 percent of the time. In the 1940s, incumbents received endorsements only about 60 percent of the time. The consequence of this shift, we estimate, is to increase incumbents' vote margins, on average, .2 to 1 percentage points.

In January, Snyder and Ansolabehere teamed up with Stanford's Erik Snowberg to look at [PDF] media coverage of campaign contributions from 1996-2000.

The average figures reported in newspapers exceed the analogous figures from the FEC by as much as eight fold. Press reports also focus excessively on corporate contributions and soft money, rather than on the more common types of donors -- individual -- and types of contributions -- hard money. We further find that these biases are reflected in public perceptions of money in elections. Survey respondents overstate the amount of money raised and the share from different groups by roughly the amount found in newspapers, and better educated people (those most likely to read newspapers) showed the greatest discrepancy between their beliefs and the facts.

Italics mine. Also, the American Enterprise Institute's Kevin Hassett and John Lott compared coverage of similar economic news during different presidencies, and concluded that "American newspapers tend to give more positive news coverage to the same economic news when Democrats are in the Presidency than for Republicans."

Suppress This, Mr. Cunningham!

Four years ago I wrote an article about a fascinating 16-year-old New Jersey kid named Sergio Bichao, who was driving his high school and local school board nuts with his Matt Drudge-style website, which denounced lazy teachers, racist security guards, and money-squandering school board members, all while he was making great grades, editing the school paper, and serving as student body president. (Bichao went on to win election at age 18 to that very same school board, where he serves as an Ayn Rand-quoting Republican in a Democrat-dominated area, while attending Rutgers.)

Anyway, among the article's feedback was an e-mail from a 60-something guy named Robert Abbott, for whom the story scratched a 50-year-old scar that had clearly not healed. In 1951, Abbott and two pals from St. Louis Country Day high school wrote a parody of their headmaster's recent state-of-the-school report, which they found particularly daft. They submitted the satire to the yearbook ... and I'll let Abbott tell the story:

The yearbook editor got cold feet and went to the jerk headmaster to get his permission to print the parody. He said No and added that none of us would get our diplomas if it was printed. [...]

Even worse than having our writing suppressed, I didn't have any copies of the parody, and I thought they had all been lost. Copying machines were not around in 1951. So over the last 50 years, this parody assumed mythic proportions in my mind.

But there was a happy ending:

In 2001 I attended my 50th class reunion and ran into classmate Barry Jackson. He was showing people a carbon copy of The Headmaster's Report. His mother had typed some copies back in 1951. I grabbed a copy from him and put it on my web site.

The whole world, including Headmaster Cunningham, if he still lives, can read the charming, very '50s-sounding parody here (go here for the backstory). As Abbott says,

I know I'm 50 years late with this, I know I shouldn't have stayed mad for 50 years, and I even realize our suppressed writing wasn't really that great, but doing this makes me feel a lot better.

Why Kerry Lost

Via Drudge comes this summary of a forthcoming Newsweek story that interviews the man, the myth, the Frankenstein monster hisself. A snippet:

The deeper problem may be Kerry's personality, which may be too distant or reserved to win mass affection. As Thomas left Kerry's house in November, Kerry called out and followed him down the street. Kerry wanted to show a letter from a schoolgirl that had been left on his stoop. The letter read, in part, "John Kerry, you're the greatest!" Kerry looked into the reporter's eye. "The pundits have never liked me," he said. "Is it the way I look? The way I sound?" He seemed vulnerable for a moment, then caught himself, smiled and walked home to his empty house.

First in schoolgirl crushes but alas, last in hearts of his country's pundits. Yeh, that explains it.

Whole thing here.

Progress

I was in southern Mexico when the tsunami struck, with virtually no Internet access. On the other hand, my hotel had cable. It was the first time in a long while that I was largely dependent on CNN for information about a major breaking story.

It's one thing to know intellectually the limitations of TV news. It's another to see those limits so starkly after being used to the depth of the Net. Few things are as frustrating as watching something go by on that news scroll, wanting to click through for more information, and suddenly remembering that you can't -- that you're stuck listening to what the newscasters want to tell you, even if it's the exact same thing they told you 10 minutes before.

What was really astonishing was to remember that 14 years earlier, when the first Gulf War was underway, CNN was the amazing new innovation, not the dinosaur in the rear-view mirror.