In "Don't Dismiss the Democrats" (Nov.), Joel Kotkin demonstrates a truly creative use of words when he belittles the idea of "putting someone in jail for…performing an abortion." Why, anyone who would jail someone just for "performing" must be a menace to all actors, jugglers, concert pianists, etc. By all means, let us encourage the free expression of performers: of Ted Bundy, who performed mass murder so audaciously and creatively; of the Central Park teenagers, who performed rape and assault with so much enthusiasm; of Saddam Hussein, who has performed the magic act of making Kuwait disappear; of Josef Stalin, who performed land reform by cleverly starving millions of kulaks; and of Adolf Hitler, whose followers raised performance art to a new height by the zeal and efficiency with which they performed genocide.
The issue, of course, is whether a "performance" takes away someone else's rights. An unborn baby has no less human life than does a newborn baby, a handicapped person, a mature adult, or a senior citizen afflicted with Alzheimer's. To say that government has the power to give one person the right to extinguish another (innocent) human life is to turn the concept of libertarianism on its head. And to say, as does Mr. Kotkin, that a person who snuffs out an innocent life should not be brought to justice by the state is to completely misunderstand the proper function of government.
Robert L. Brittingham
I fail to see much positive in Joel Kotkin's embracing the donkey over the elephant because, he says, "the Republican Party…has chosen to embrace within its core the most repressive elements in our society." I find liberals abandoning the First Amendment (by calling for curbs on "racist" speech at universities, for example) and promoting a "fair draft" for the upcoming war with Iraq (that supposedly would alter the "discriminatory" race- and class-based makeup of our all-volunteer armed forces) far more frightening than conservatives giving lip service to a drug war everyone knows is a joke or defunding performance art by chocolate-splattered feminists parading in the buff. All told, if one chooses not to become a big-L Libertarian, one is better off joining the Dumbos than the Eeyores. Dumbo's positions may be asinine, but Eeyore's ideological shifts are dumb like a fox.
Sally Anne Moore
So Joel Kotkin won't register as a Republican because he doesn't wish to ally himself "with proto-fascists like Bill Bennett and Jesse Helms." I'm not particularly fond of those two myself. On the other hand, I won't become a Democrat because I refuse to ally myself with the likes of Ted Kennedy. Come on, Kotkin. The Democratic Party has time and again proven itself to be purely statist and socialist. Read its last several party platforms and breathe deeply their strange and esoteric smells. Better yet, take a good long look at the party's most recent presidential candidate.
Lawrence D. Skutch
Jeff Taylor's article criticizing the Textile, Apparel, and Footwear Trade Act of 1990 ("Wooly Bullies," Dec.) was right on target with one exception: the implication that American agribusiness would benefit from a failed Uruguay Round of GATT talks. In fact, the majority of American farmers would benefit more from reductions in foreign trade barriers and European farm subsidies than they would "lose" from continuing to rely on government farm policy. As a result, mainstream farm groups urged Congress to uphold President Bush's veto of the textile bill so that the GATT talks could continue. True, four Democratic farm-state senators who voted against the 1985 textile bill joined Minority Leader Robert Dole (R–Kan.) and supported the 1990 legislation. But the House vote to sustain President Bush's veto included representatives from the country's 10 largest farm states. Taylor is right that the protectionists will be back. For hundreds of years, the battle for free trade has been more successfully fought in textbooks than in reality. But as foreign barriers fall and more individuals come to depend on trade for their jobs, the chances increase that protectionism will be relegated to the classroom, where it belongs.
Director of Trade Policy
Citizens for a Sound Economy
Jeff Taylor's "Wooly Bullies" was on target, but deficient in at least one important respect: The bulk of American farmers, represented by the American Farm Bureau Federation (3.8 million member families) were strongly opposed to the Textile, Apparel, and Footwear Trade Act of 1990, and supported its veto. Most farmers know that a free-trade policy is in their own best interest as well as that of the nation and world as a whole. Unlike the labor movement and a good portion of American industry, farmers have been steadfast in modern times in their support for free trade. If the current GATT talks fail, it will be due to the European Community's stubborn resistance to the reduction of farm subsidies, including dumping through subsidized exports. The U.S. proposal to substantially reduce or eliminate farm subsidies in Europe and the United States is a logical extension of freer trade and elimination of the costly and unproductive system of production controls and subsidies that have plagued farmers for far too long.
Jacob Sullum's examination of the U.S. auto-insurance industry ("Totaled!," Nov.) was highly perceptive. The only shortcoming in this otherwise sterling piece was the omission of the role the McCarran-Ferguson Act has played in creating not only the auto-insurance mess but also the troubles in other sectors of insurance.
The McCarran-Ferguson Act exempts the insurance industry from antitrust suits (with a few minor exceptions). The reason given is that insurance companies can better set rates if they share their actuarial data. Further, consumers will be better able to compare insurance products if each company offers policies based on a common form (as is currently provided by the Insurance Services Office).
Of course, sharing these data does enlarge the statistical sample on which insurers rely to set rates. However, rates are just as likely to be set for other reasons. Overhead, claims losses, investment income, and so on vary from insurer to insurer. Rates reflect far more than just the insurance risk the insurer is accepting. The case for sharing data appears less than compelling
As for product comparison, the current system seems to favor the notion that "you can have any color car you want so long as it's black." An auto policy based on a common form is unlikely to vary much from company to company. So the consumer's choice becomes one of which agent smiled more warmly rather than which company will suit the policyholder's insurance needs. Warm smiles are important, but insurance tailored to the needs of the client is better than off-the-rack coverage. Form-based policies diminish this diversity.
A further provision of the McCarran-Ferguson Act places the responsibility for regulating the insurance industry on the states—a wonderful example of federal government spinelessness. Congress and the White House excuse the industry from antitrust rules and then require the states to deal with this stacked deck. The feds shouldn't set such rules in the first place. But when they do, they ought to clean up the mess that follows.
Lloyd's of London Press Inc.
New York, NY
Mr. Sullum replies: The McCarran-Ferguson antitrust exemption does not appear to be a significant factor affecting price or diversity in the auto-insurance market. Large companies generally set their own rates and do not need access to data collected by other insurers. In any case, I don't see any objection to allowing companies to share information, so long as barriers to entry remain low enough to deter collusion. Indeed, the ready availability of rate-setting data probably helps to promote competition.
In his review of Jean-Claude Derian's America's Struggle for Leadership in Technology ("Oú Est le Boeuf?," Nov.), Michael Schrage observes that "this book is marred by an unrigorous approach to these techno-cultures. While Derian relentlessly cites newspaper articles and book passages, he appears to have conducted only a handful of interviews with real, live people."
Regardless of the merits of Derian's book, I find this remark to be a classic example of intellectual narrowness. It confuses a particular style of writing and research, known as journalism, with the generality of knowledge about humanity.
Journalism is only one way of writing about human affairs. There are many others, of equal validity. Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages. None can afford to issue a blanket denigration of the others for not being like itself.
For example, historical research deals with texts; ethnography, or participant observation, requires initiation into the group under study; and social statistics, in such areas as geography, economics, or sociology, compiles and interprets numerical data.
In none of these areas are the number and nature of the interviews a valid criterion of rigor. Each has its own criteria.
And, of course, various composite or synthetic approaches are possible as well. In such cases, one must still be cautious in criticism since one may not completely understand the author's methodology and may therefore miss the point.
Journalism, in turn, can be savaged by the partisans of the alternative approaches.
A historian would dismiss a work merely consisting of interviews with: "How do you know that he actually said a year ago what he just told you he said then?"
An ethnographer would say: "How can you possibly know anything about these people when you spent such a short time with them? You have to get beyond the facade they put up for strangers."
A social statistician would say: "Gather some numbers to show that the people you interviewed are statistically typical, that they aren't just unimportant exceptions."
If Derian's book in fact lacks interviews, then it may not be journalism, or at any rate, journalism of the type Mr. Schrage is accustomed to. Do not confuse that with lack of intellectual rigor.
Andrew D. Todd
Regarding Martin Morse Wooster's review of Politics, Markets, and America's Schools ("Poor Man's Choice," Nov.), did he and I read the same book? Judging from his assessment of John Chubb and Terry Moe's choice proposals, I would have to guess that we did not.
Wooster contends that the Chubb/Moe plan stops short of the kind of "education voucher" plan advocated by the Heritage Foundation and others. He also indicates that private schools would have to be "nationalized" in order to participate in the plan, thus "ensuring that few, if any, truly private schools would remain." Unfortunately, Wooster seems to have been fooled by a semantic trick Chubb and Moe have used in their writings to defend against attacks from the left.
What their plan does is change the official definition of "public school," so as to include those private schools that express an interest in receiving "scholarships" (a more politically acceptable term than vouchers) from the government. The authors state specifically that the criteria for being designated a public school should be exactly those standards—minimal health and safety standards, existence of an educational program, etc.—that most states already impose on private schools. Thus, the amount of state regulation imposed on private schools would not increase under the Chubb/Moe approach, except perhaps regarding racial balances (though it's unclear that the authors would require even that sort of restriction if political or legal considerations did not exist). Besides, private schools choosing to become "public" would know that going in.
I read Chubb and Moe as trying to formulate not a "liberal's" ideal choice plan, but instead one that has a realistic chance of being enacted by local or state governments across the country, including those with vivid histories of racial animosities surrounding public schooling. Wooster's claim that polls show tremendous public support for "vouchers" is simply untrue. In poll after poll, respondents support the concept of choice among public and private schools, to be sure—but throw in the word voucher and the numbers drop significantly. Politically speaking, advocating choice plans in some jurisdictions is fraught with peril, from the education establishment, civil rights groups, or a public wary of the notion of "destroying public education" or reintroducing segregation. If Chubb and Moe use definitional and semantic devices to shunt aside potential rhetorical salvos against market-oriented education reform, it is incumbent upon scholars and journalists to recognize that.
For all intents and purposes, the Chubb/Moe approach is a voucher program, somewhat more regulated than might be optimal, but cleverly designed to include public, private, parochial, and proprietary schools without explosive outcry. Even its passage into actual law is a lot to hope for.
Mr. Wooster replies: Under voucher plans, parents receive checks from the state which they can then spend as they please. Under Chubb and Moe's plan, parents go to a "Parent Information Center," look over a list of schools, and then select from a state-approved list. No monies are given to parents. Therefore, the Chubb/Moe plan is not a voucher plan. Indeed, on pages 217 and 218 of their book, the authors attack "the stereotypical identification of choice with vouchers" because "vouchers are not even necessary."
Admittedly, neither Chubb nor Moe call for controls over the content of private schools who choose to become state-funded. But when private schools are bailed out by the state (a process of nationalization as certain as the takeover of private railroads by the U.S. government in the 1970s), history shows that the content of these schools' curricula is gradually restricted. Certainly this has been the case in the Netherlands and in Canada. Moreover, can Hood be certain that the courts would allow state funding of a school with any religious content?
As I noted in my review, certainly a public school system designed by John Chubb and Terry Moe would be far better than any public school system that now exists. But that does not mean that their plan is ideal.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Letters".