Government Archives

January 31, 2004

It doesn't ad up

The New York Times carried a small story yesterday about pharmaceutical advertising. Seems Congressman Henry Waxman is criticizing the Food & Drug Administration because it isn't going after drug companies enthusiastically enough for their ads:

Mr. Waxman's staff found that the number of notices of violation or warning letters to pharmaceutical companies for misleading ads fell to 24 last year from 108 in 1999.

When the agency did contact companies about ads it found misleading or incomplete, moreover, it took longer to send its complaints, the report said. For 14 of the ads that generated letters last year, the agency sent letters an average of six months after the ads first appeared. By way of comparison, the report cites a General Accounting Office study of a five-month period in 2002, when the agency took an average of 41 days to send warning letters.

As an example of slow action, the report discussed a consumer ad for Taxotere, a cancer treatment sold by Aventis. The ad first ran in People magazine in October 2002, but the agency did not send a warning letter to Aventis until more than a year later.

This report is being used by advocacy groups to bash the FDA:
"The F.D.A. is in a semi-lawless mode with respect to enforcing drug advertising rules," said Sidney M. Wolfe, director of the Health Research Group at Public Citizen in Washington, an advocacy group. "It began in the Clinton administration, but it's gotten much worse. The amount of enforcement has gone down when the amount of advertising has gone significantly up."
Reading the actual report (PDF), the situation seems slightly less dire:
In 2002, FDA cited one advertisement for every seven complaints submitted to the agency. But in 2003, the citation rate declined to one citation for every eight complaints submitted to FDA.
One in seven, one in eight. Big deal.

More importantly, here's what these self-styled consumer advocates consider such a big deal:

The agency said that the headline in the ad, "The next move may be the key to survival," falsely implied that Taxotere was essential for patients to survive, when, in fact, other treatments were available.
This is what our tax dollars are going for? They're making a federal case of this? Not only is it trivial -- after all, we're talking about prescription drugs here, which cannot be purchased without a doctor's prescription anyway -- but it's stupid. Clearly, the statement "X may be the key" does not imply that X is essential. It says that it "may be" -- which implies that it may not be.

It goes on. Some of the other inanities include:

  • "[Y]ou portray a seemingly healthy unimpaired man out fishing and taking care of a child, rather than depicting a more typical person with persistent, moderate to severe pain taking Oxycontin."
  • "You also claim that, 'Because Taxotere is generally safe and tolerable, you can stay involved in important aspects of your life.'... [T]his claim ignores the risks associated with the drug that may prevent or interfere with the patient's ability to stay involved in important aspects of his or her life..."
  • "Claims such as 'Novartis and Gloria ended 30 years of delibiltating abdominal pain, bloating, and constipation in just 3 days' imply that the 'treatment from Novartis' (i.e., Zelnorm) conferred complete relief of her symptoms... Zelnorm is not indicated as a cure for IBS with constipation and does not help everyone."
In short, we're apparently spending taxpayer money to chastise the FDA for not spending more taxpayer money to inform people who can't buy a particular drug without their doctors' prescription that the photographs in drug ads may not reflect every person who suffers from the symptoms the drug treats, that patients are different, and that drugs actually have risks. Duh, duh, and duh.


And it would be so devastating if the federal government were slashed in size? To whom, other than bureaucrats and their parasitic hangers-on like Public Citizen?

February 10, 2004

Central intelligence?

I'm obviously not an expert on the subject, and clearly Stansfield Turner is one. But does his proposal that the nation's fifteen intelligence agencies (?!?!? We have 15 intelligence agencies? Yes, we do.) be consolidated under one person really sound like the best idea? Turner suggests this as a solution to the problems with the Iraqi WMD intelligence, but I don't quite get his reasoning. The problems were the result of one or more of the following:

  • Deception by the president.
  • Cherry-picking of intelligence which supported the administration's proposals.
  • Inherent difficulties in gaining accurate information about the inner workings of a totalitarian state.
In any of those cases, I don't see how Turner's proposal is supposed to help. It might make it easier to pick out a scapegoat after the fact, but is that really what our goal should be? As long as you have more than one agency, there will always be more than one assessment, so "cherry picking" will always be possible. It's not as if putting all the agencies under one roof will result in one answer; to the extent it does, we already have a process -- the National Intelligence Estimate -- for coming up with a consensus of what the intelligence shows. Moreover, to the extent it does lead to a greater consensus, is that really a good thing? Intelligence is an ambiguous business; disguising that fact by creating the illusion of consensus would be more misleading than helpful.

Certainly, it would reduce inefficiency and duplication of effort if control of all intelligence agencies were centralized. Central planning always does that. The problem is that duplication of effort isn't always a bad thing. Competition is more chaotic, but that's a strength as well as a weakness. It means that when one attempt gets it wrong, another has the opportunity to get it right. Why give that up just to give the head of central intelligence more power?

Great Moments In Border Security

I'm glad to know we're protecting the country from church-going Mainers:

Crossing the U.S.-Canada border to go to church on a Sunday cost a U.S. citizen $10,000 for breaching Washington's tough new security rules.

The expensive trip to church was a surprise for Richard Albert, a resident of rural Maine who lives so close to the Canadian border the U.S. customs office is right next door to his house...

The local U.S. customs station is closed on Sundays, so he just drove around the locked gate, as he had done every weekend since the gate appeared last May, following a tightening of border security.

My wife is from a border town in Maine very much like the one in the article (though her border crossing was open 24/7), so I know from experience that what the government has done to this poor guy is ludicrous. In some of these tiny French-speaking towns (which were lopped off from Canada rather arbitrarily when the border was finalized in the 1800's), the *only* way to the outside world is through Canada. Residents of these towns by necessity have been crossing the border unimpeded for centuries. (Heck, *I've* done it a few times.) Closing a flimsy little gate on these people and fining them when they try to go about their lives does nothing to make us safer.

Neither does leaving a border crossing unguarded in the first place, for that matter.

March 10, 2004

Drink alcohol or we'll fine you

Law of unintended consequences? Or just moronic law? Yet another one-size-fits-all "solution" turns out to have some serious problems in its implementation:

Of the roughly 20 hookah bars in New York City, about half are clustered along a short stretch of Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens, known as Little Egypt. Here in the hazy cafes, owned mostly by Egyptian immigrants, men smoke fruit-flavored tobacco called shisha through water pipes called hookahs as they banter in Arabic, play chess or backgammon, or simply pass the day in a fragrant fog.

But big trouble has come to Little Egypt, causing the kind of jitters more often associated with the cigarette habit. Hookah shop owners say the city's Health Department has begun sending agents to Steinway Street to aggressively enforce the stringent smoking laws that took effect last spring - laws the owners had thought they could quietly sidestep.

Yes, but there's an exception in the law for "cigar bars," so these establishments are okay, right?


The owners have enlisted the help of their councilman, Peter Vallone Jr., who wrote to the city's health commissioner last week arguing that the shisha cafes are no different than the cigar bars that qualify for a legal exemption from the smoking laws. Mr. Vallone said that city law allows smoking if the bars draw at least 10 percent of their revenue from the sale of tobacco. Most of the shisha café owners say they earn well over half their revenue from tobacco.

But a Health Department official said yesterday that the cigar-bar exemption applied only to places that sell alcohol.

And they can't serve alcohol, because most of their clients are Muslims who don't drink.

So unless the law is changed, these businesses will be fined out of business by the fascistszealots at the Health Department, who have too much money in their budget, giving them the resources to employ agents to snoop around trying to catch people smoking at these bars.

Michael Bloomberg: Destroying free enterprise since 2003.

March 14, 2004

Thank god it's an election year

On Friday, the New York Times whined about the fact that Washington politicians weren't spending enough time interfering in our lives (*):

Call it legis-lite: the Republican leaders of Congress have been running one of the least demanding workloads in decades, politicking most of the year while scheduling only 94 days in session, 40 fewer than four years ago.
And yet, Congress still has plenty of free time for the important stuff; it's an election year, after all. I know, because Congress is taking time to inject itself (no pun intended) into the issue of... steroids in sports:
"Your failure to commit to addressing this issue straight on and immediately will motivate this committee to search for legislative remedies," warned McCain, R-Ariz. "I don't know what they are. But I can tell you, and the players you represent, the status quo is not acceptable."
Now, what John McCain thinks he can do about it -- steroid use without a prescription is already illegal, after all -- is beyond me. And the steroid rules are the result of collective bargaining between Major League Baseball and the Players' Association. But the fact that McCain thinks he should do something about the issue -- and the fact that nobody had the guts to tell him to shove his legislative remedies where the sun don't shine -- is disgusting. Is there a single person left in Washington -- okay, aside from Ron Paul -- who believes in limited government? What possible justification can there be for the Senate sticking its nose in the personal medical decisions of professional baseball players, or the rules of a private business like Major League Baseball?

(*) Actually, what the Times was complaining about was something different; it was complaining that Congress was spending one of its limited days in session on the issue of frivolous lawsuits -- a topic which is actually legitimate for the legislature to be addressing. The House passed a bill to ban tobacco-style tort lawsuits against the fast food industry. The Times had a fit, of course, because (gasp) "big business" might benefit.

The nation has a time-proven tort system that should not be tampered with to protect individual industries. The judiciary is capable of dismissing frivolous suits, and if any tort reform is needed, it should not be tailored to benefit any one class of defendants.
This is disingenuous on so many levels.
  1. What's been "time proven" is that the tort system is spinning more and more out of control.
  2. The judiciary may be capable of dismissing frivolous lawsuits, but even if it does so, each of those frivolous lawsuits cost the defendants -- and hence consumers -- tens of thousands of dollars. Somehow I doubt the Times would put forth the equivalently silly argument that it doesn't matter whether the government unfairly arrests immigrants because "the judiciary is capable of dismissing inappropriate criminal charges."
  3. Somehow I doubt even more strongly that the Times would endorse such a bill as this one if it applied to lots of industries rather than just fast food, so the argument that it's too narrowly tailored is disingenuous.

March 24, 2004

The General Welfare

As the NY Times reports, "Despite the Sluggish Economy, Welfare Rolls Actually Shrank".

After Congress overhauled the nation's welfare system in 1996, the number of families receiving benefits dropped much faster than federal and state officials had expected. Even more remarkable, officials say, the rolls did not grow during the recession of 2001 or the sluggish economy since.

In fact, in the last three years, the number of families on welfare has declined slightly, to two million, which is less than half the number receiving public assistance when President Bill Clinton signed the welfare law in August 1996.

Experts suggest many reasons. People work harder to find jobs before seeking public assistance. Welfare recipients have learned job skills and a work ethic. States provide child care and other noncash help so they can keep jobs after leaving welfare. And, some experts say, new rules and requirements may intimidate poor people from seeking welfare.

The article does imply overall that it is a good thing that fewer people are on welfare (imagine that), but of course there are the obligatory quotes from those who don't agree:

Shawn Fremstad, a policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning research and advocacy group, said, "Falling caseloads amid rising poverty should be a cause for concern."

Wendell E. Primus, a welfare official in the Clinton administration who resigned to protest signing of the 1996 law, amplified that concern: "It's an indictment of the welfare law, the welfare system, that it has not been more responsive to economic conditions."

Meaning, perhaps, that it hasn't been responsive in the way that Wendell E. Primus expected it to be a few years back:

To call welfare reform a "striking public policy success" would overstate its impact significantly. Let's see what happens during a recession and when more families reach the five-year time limit imposed by the 1996 law. Welfare reform is publicly perceived as successful because of dramatically reduced caseloads, increased employment of single mothers, declining child poverty, and even some increase in the percentage of children living in two-parent families. But these developments are not just due to welfare reform but also to the strong economy of the 1990s, which was able to raise real wages at the bottom of the scale and reduce unemployment to its lowest levels in 30 years

So now that the economy isn't as strong, Primus regards this success as a failure. Strange. Anyway, Mickey Kaus, on the same page, has a great rebuttal:

The 1996 welfare reform was a defeat for "Money Liberals," such as Wendell Primus, who are concerned above all else with getting money into the hands of those in the bottom quintiles of the income charts. Reform was a victory for the work ethic, and the notion that honoring this popular American value - by not giving cash to those who don't work - is ultimately the best way to build a decent society for poor and rich.

Read the whole thing (TM).

March 27, 2004

I only read it for the pictures

In the midst of the back-and-forth about responsibility for 9/11, we might wonder whether it could have been prevented, whether the government devoted enough attention to the problem of terrorism. Then we might wonder why, given the massive federal budget, they couldn't do more. With millions of federal employees, what was the problem?

Well, to get an idea, read this obscene story of government misallocation of resources. (Warning: not office-safe.) For months, an undercover federal agent was paid... to work out at a gym. And it wasn't because members of Al Qaeda trained there.

Ronnie can barely think about tomorrow. The week's workouts have taken their toll -- on his way out he grabs at a twinge deep inside his shoulder that feels like a torn muscle. But there's no stopping now, because Ronnie G. is on a mission. He is actually Iran White, a top undercover cop sure that he's about to crack the biggest case of his career. He has worn a wire and kept a Glock stuffed in his waistband for two months, all in a daring attempt to get close to Anderson and, ultimately, to Bonds himself. White is armed because he's looking for juice: He's on a hunt for steroids.
Yes, steroids. At a time when national security was, and is, of paramount importance, the federal government was, and is, investigating steroid use. What prompted this investigation? Was it a rumor that Islamic terrorists were dealing steroids to fund their operations? Nope; it was just a personal vendetta:
To White, [IRS agent] Novitzky -- who did not participate in this article -- seemed to have an unusual interest in the ballplayer. He mentioned Bonds frequently after a sighting or a Giants game. One day at court Novitzky struck up a conversation with White that went beyond the usual talk-radio banter.

"That Bonds. He's a great athlete," White says Novitzky told him. "You think he's on steroids?"

White took a moment before replying, in his bourbon-and-cotton voice, "I think they're all on steroids. All of our top major leaguers."

Novitzky seemed to care only about Bonds. "He's such an asshole to the press," he said. "I'd sure like to prove it."

Yes, the major investigation was prompted by a guy who wanted to prove that Barry Bonds was using steroids because he wasn't friendly to sports reporters. What this has to do with the federal government isn't exactly clear; what this has to do with the IRS's mission is even less obvious.

Surely, though, other law enforcement officials would inject some sanity into the mix, right? Nope. They were just as eager to go after the steroids. Why?

A few weeks after the April 17 meeting, White, Novitzky and a handful of other agents meet at the San Jose Federal building. According to White, Novitzky names Bonds, Jason Giambi and other major leaguers as targets of the investigation. Cracking down on BALCO just for money laundering would never merit such energy from law enforcement, but a connection to Bonds would launch it into headlines around the country. Prosecutor Nedrow sets the tone. "Gentlemen, this case is going to have to be done by the numbers," he says. "With all of the attorneys and the athletes, everything and everybody will be under scrutiny."
(Emphasis added.) Well, there you go. Headlines. Always an important consideration for law enforcement.

Yes, this is what government is wasting your money on, while claiming they need more money for "first responders" in the event of terrorism.

(The punch line to this joke of a story, incidentally, is that after all this work, Barry Bonds and other athletes were given immunity to testify against BALCO et al. before a grand jury. In other words, the feds couldn't get enough evidence to prosecute Bonds for anything, and indeed couldn't get enough evidence to prosecute the BALCO people without the help of the athletes.)

March 29, 2004

What do you get when you cross laundry, a dog, and a Hefty bag?

A few years ago, Georgetown law professor David Cole famously catalogued the list of characteristics that government agents over the years had cited as attributes of a drug courier profile. Among the characteristics cited were: arriving in the morning, arriving in the afternoon, arriving in the evening. Disembarking first, disembarking last, and disembarking in the middle of the crowd. Traveling alone, and traveling with someone. In short, these "profiles" were merely an excuse invented by police after the fact to justify their stops and searches of passengers.

To that list of absurdities, we can add taking out the trash on trash day. Police in Carlsbad, California raided the home of Dina Dagy. Why? She used a lot of electricity, a police dog "reacted as though it had smelled drugs," and the Dagys took out the trash. "Huh?" you may be thinking. No, really:

They also noticed the family had put its trash out that morning, something police say drug growers often do to hide the evidence. In the Dagys' case, however, it was trash day.
Yes, they made that argument with a straight face: putting out the trash is "something drug growers often do." Their other arguments were less silly, but no more legitimate:
When authorities noticed how high the [utility] bill for the Dagy home was, they sent a police dog to the neighborhood, and it reacted as though it had smelled drugs.
Of course, these sorts of dogs "react" by sitting down, which makes their slightly less than unambiguous. So based on lack of conservation, a tired dog, and some bags of trash -- which, incidentally, the police could simply have examined, since it is not constitutionally protected once it is placed out at the curb -- they were able to obtain a warrant.

Apparently, that's pretty common:

Authorities say they have already apologized verbally several times and were only following proper procedures. Tracking down marijuana growers by reviewing electricity bills, they say, is a common practice.
Your government at work, folks. Keeping America safe from terrorists and those who do too much laundry.

March 30, 2004

The Death of Common Sense

So it seems that some churches in residential neighborhoods in Queens are causing friction with their neighbors, because all the people coming to services are causing parking problems. The solution? Force all new religious institutions to build parking lots. Which may be oppressive enough, since real estate in New York is very expensive. But for certain groups, like Orthodox Jews, the rule is beyond idiotic. That's because Orthodox Jews don't drive to synagogue. They have no need for any parking spaces at all.

They know this, but, hey, government is government:

City Councilman Tony Avella, one of the authors of the proposed law, called it a necessary first step.

"You can't write a law for just one religion," Mr. Avella said of the Orthodox Jews' complaints.

Of course. So what's next, requiring Catholic churches to provide male and female bathrooms for priests?

And here's the real question: if government pays for Jews' parking spaces, would this pork barrel spending be kosher?

April 8, 2004

Doing his part for the economy

Let nobody say that John Ashcroft isn't trying to help George Bush get re-elected; in addition to helping to direct the domestic side of the war on terror, our Attorney General is creating fun and stimulating new jobs to help with the national employment figures:

Lam Nguyen's job is to sit for hours in a chilly, quiet room devoid of any color but gray and look at pornography. This job, which Nguyen does earnestly from 9 to 5, surrounded by a half-dozen other "computer forensic specialists" like him, has become the focal point of the Justice Department's operation to rid the world of porn.

In this field office in Washington, 32 prosecutors, investigators and a handful of FBI agents are spending millions of dollars to bring anti-obscenity cases to courthouses across the country for the first time in 10 years. Nothing is off limits, they warn, even soft-core cable programs such as HBO's long-running Real Sex or the adult movies widely offered in guestrooms of major hotel chains.

"Honey, how was your day at work?"

It's crap like this that gives war-on-terror-supporting libertarians agita when we think of the November elections. We have the choice between religious wackos and un-deregulatory anti-free traders. Yuck. But what's particularly disturbing about this story is this: even if you think the first amendment shouldn't and doesn't apply to this sort of material, what the heck kind of use of national resources is this? Is there really nothing more threatening to national security than pictures of naked people that forty or fifty law enforcement types couldn't be spending their time on?

Damned if you do...

Later today, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is going to testify before the 9/11 commission; while she's using the time as an opportunity to spin the Bush administration as the greatest since the universe was created, Democratic critics will take her testimony as an opportunity to point out all the things that the administration didn't do which in hindsight would have clearly stopped 9/11 if only people had listened. But while people complain about what the government didn't do, though, you can be sure they won't be mentioning this story: ACLU Files Suit Over 'No-Fly' List, describing a lawsuit just filed by the ACLU against the Transportation Security Administration. The no-fly list, of course, is the government's list of suspicious names to be screened closely before being allowed to board airplanes.

Now, I have no doubt -- based on the story, based on other anecdotes I've heard, and based on general knowledge of how government doesn't work -- that the list contains inaccuracies, is probably inefficiently maintained, and could generally be improved. But does that create an issue of constitutional rights, as the ACLU claims?

The lawsuit, filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Seattle, seeks a court order to force the TSA to change the system so fewer innocent passengers are wrongly accused.
Does the ACLU have any helpful suggestions, though, or are they just saying, "Do a better job?" And if the current system is a violation of constitutional rights, doesn't that mean that the system must be shut down entirely unless they can do a better job?

In any case, the complaints hardly seem to rise to the level of constitutional violations. What harm? Well, there's Air Force sergeant Michelle Green, who

...said she was humiliated in front of her supervisors on a work trip when airline agents told her she could not get a boarding pass because she was on the no-fly list. "No innocent American should have to go through such a humiliating experience," she said in a statement.
And college junior Alexandra Hay:
The airline ticket agent told her she was on the no-fly list, delayed her boarding and would not tell her why she was on the list.
And Reverend John Shaw, who
...said he had trouble receiving his boarding pass and was treated with suspicion by airline personnel on vacation trips with his wife.
And of course ACLU attorney David Fathi:
At the airport in Milwaukee last summer, David C. Fathi said, he was led by at least three armed county sheriff's deputies who questioned him about his identity. On another occasion, he said, an officer threatened to detain him because his name appeared on the list. "I have pretty thick skin," said Fathi, an ACLU attorney who likened the experience to being made to feel guilty until proven innocent. "It's humiliating and it's frightening" to have the experience regularly, he said.
So we have some personal embarrassment, being "treated with suspicion," questioning, and "delayed boarding." Wow. And the ACLU wants to shut this down because it's a violation of constitutional rights? Because someone was embarrassed? Or had to jam her luggage into the overhead compartment?

By the way, Fathi "likened the experience to being made to feel guilty until proven innocent." Uh, as opposed to what? Innocent until proven guilty? Is the ACLU suggesting that the only people to be singled out at airports for increased attention -- and remember, that's all this is -- are those who have actually been convicted of terrorism?

The real point here, though, isn't that the ACLU is wrong on this issue. Rather, the point is this: if the ACLU is throwing up roadblocks to heightened scrutiny, at airports, even after 9/11, what kind of fight would they have put up before 9/11? (And just to be fair and balanced, is there any chance the airlines would have gone for this before 9/11? The last thing they needed/wanted was the added expense and hassle of such a program.) Was there any prayer that the Bush administration could have tightened security to a level adequate to have prevented 9/11? Of course not. So keep that in mind when everyone acts as if Rice was a big screwup because 9/11 happened on her watch.

Old politicians never die...

...they just stand around yelling, "Hey, look at me!!!!" until someone pays attention to them.

Imagine you called up Ariel Sharon and said, "Hamas is going to blow up a bus in the future, unless we increase security and resolve this whole Middle East mess." Now imagine that Hamas did blow up a bus, and Israelis wanted to know why the Israeli government didn't prevent it. Would you expect that your deep insight would make you the star witness in an investigation of that question? Or would you realize that your vague contribution wasn't really very helpful?

Well, if you're former U.S. Senator Gary Hart, the answer to that question would be the former. It seems that Hart chaired a commission a couple of years ago -- the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, aka the Hart-Rudman Commission (famous mostly, or only, for coining the term "Homeland Security"), and he's itching for people to notice he's still around:

Now that the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States -- the so-called 9/11 commission -- is moving toward completion of its deliberations and preparation of its final report, I am increasingly asked what information our earlier commission, the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, has provided the 9/11 commission and why that information has not been made public. When told that the 9/11 commission has not asked for any public testimony from us, most people are incredulous. If the 9/11 commission is really trying to find out what was known and when it was known, they ask, why would your national security commission's warnings and recommendations not be of direct relevance and urgent interest? Didn't you publicly and privately warn the new Bush administration of your concerns about terrorism? Didn't you specifically recommend a new national homeland security agency? Why wouldn't all this be of central importance to the work of the 9/11 commission? The simple answer to all these questions is: I don't know why we have not been asked to testify.

Since the U.S. Commission on National Security officially ceased to exist as of the summer of 2001, I cannot speak for the other 13 commissioners. But I have been waiting for many months to hear from the 9/11 commission, fully expecting a request for public testimony from members of our earlier commission, and have heard nothing.

That does sound like a reasonable question... at least until you read the Hart-Rudman commission's report, which can be located, in several parts, here. Shorter version, for those of you too lazy to read it: the future is challenging, terrorism will be one threat among several, we should work with other countries, and if we just reorganize the government bureaucracy which runs the intelligence community to make it work better, we can solve all the problems we'll face.

If you're wondering whether there's some earthshattering revelation I'm omitting, just read Hart's own words from his Salon article:

Though we had no ability to forecast specific times, places and methods for such attacks, we were united in our certainty that they were bound to occur. In our first report we said: "America will become increasingly vulnerable to hostile attack on our homeland [and] Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers." In our final report we urged the new Bush administration to create a national homeland security agency to prevent terrorist attacks.
So unless there's something I'm missing -- a classified version of his commission's report containing specific intelligence, for instance -- I can't begin to see why anybody would care what Hart had to say. Unless one is thrilled by phrases like "creating an interagency task force" and one loves helpful advice such as "It is likely that the legislation that is finally passed by Congress will differ somewhat from the Administration's proposals. If the differences are significant and apt to be deleterious, then it may be appropriate to advise the President to veto it." (Yes, this is what passes for wisdom inside the beltway.)

April 24, 2004

Maybe they meant the seventh Commandment?

The New York Times editorializes against new naturalization tests for applicants for American citizenship. They're afraid, apparently, that the tests will be too difficult, which would be "unfair" to candidates. In a typical example of Timesian liberalism, the problem isn't with unqualified applicants, but with having standards and expecting people to live up with them:

While the bureau plans to design a new curriculum for the community-based organizations and agencies that help immigrants prepare for the test, the government will provide no money to make that process less onerous. That's unfortunate. There is already a tremendous shortage of English classes for foreign speakers, and the demand will certainly increase. Immigrants and their advocates are right to be concerned. A study published by the Urban Institute says that some 8 million people in the country are eligible to apply for citizenship now, 2.7 million in California alone. A chief reason they do not apply is difficulty with English.
In other words, it's not the responsibility of immigrants to learn what they need to in order to become citizens. It's not the responsibility of "their advocates" to teach them what they need in order to become citizens. It's the responsibility of "the government" -- meaning taxpayers, of course -- to make immigrants qualify for citizenship.

(Keep in mind, incidentally, that as a general rule, one has to have lived as a permanent resident in the US for at least five years before applying for citizenship. If someone can't be bothered to learn English in five years, who needs him?)

In a bizarre example of irony, the Times adds:

One typical question asks which amendment of the Constitution guarantees the right to vote. Many natural-born Americans would be stumped on that one (it's the Seventh), but more than 90 percent of the applicants pass the current exam.
For those of you who, like the New York Times editors, failed social studies, the seventh amendment says,
In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Ain't nothin' about voting in there, as you can see. Can we revoke the citizenship of the Times' editors?

(Hat tip: TW)

May 18, 2004


A judge came up with a creative sentence for an individual convicted of the horrible crime of violating neo-Prohibition:

A Fishers mother must serve at least two days in jail and write a 20-page research paper as part of a sentence imposed today in connection with an underage drinking party at her home last year.


"It's a fair sentence," said Deputy Prosecutor Matthew Gernand. "Underage drinking is a large problem. It becomes a larger problem when you have parents starting to condone that activity, and then providing alcohol for the minors.

"I think the sentence serves as a good message to the community that parents should not be hosting parties and allowing their kids to drink."

Sturtevant also ordered the woman to write a 20-page research paper on the impact of underage drinking, serve 60 days of home detention with electronic monitoring and 180 days of probation, pay $184, and perform 50 hours of community service work.

"Part of the paper is she is going to have to provide statistics on underage drinking, and how it's a harm," said Gernand. "It's not to be an opinion paper. It's to be a factual paper, with statistics."

So she can have any opinion she wants, as long as it's the correct one, because then it's a fact. So what happens if she "provides statistics on underage drinking" and shows how it isn't a harm? Does the judge unsuspend her suspended sentence and send her to prison? After all, it appears that her real crime was not serving the alcohol, but "condoning" underage drinking. Wouldn't want people to get the wrong ideas, after all.

Incidentally, the party was in honor of her son, who is entering the military. Maybe he'll be sent to go fight in the Middle East -- where they also punish people for the "crime" of serving alcohol.

Thanks, Mom

Missing the point once again, the New York Times editorial board has retroactively endorsed New York Mayor Bloomberg's anti-smoking campaign:

Mayor Michael Bloomberg took a lot of ridicule for his crusade against smoking, but now it looks as if he will have the last and best laugh. After a decade of only limited progress, New York City has just recorded an 11 percent decline in the number of adults who smoke, in little more than a year.
Even if you believe those numbers (and see below for a comment on that) that's not the point. Bloomberg wasn't being ridiculed for making ineffective anti-smoking proposals; Bloomberg was being ridiculed for sticking his nose where it doesn't belong. Nobody elected Michael Bloomberg to be the city population's mother. What's really sad is not that the Times editors disagree with this, but that they don't even realize that this is the issue.

As to the actual decline, while the press release is prominent on the city's website, damned if I can find the actual report. Which I'd like to find, so I can see the fine print about the methodology, because I find this number awfully suspicious; a sudden sharp spike --


-- sounds more like a survey design or measurement error than a true change. (On the other hand, the cigarette tax was hiked significantly in that time, so it's possible.)

By the way, note that the "11% decline" in smoking is from 22% to 19%; while that's approximately mathematically accurate, I suspect many readers would assume that an 11% decline describes a drop from 22% to 11%. If the Times editors wanted to avoid ambiguity, they should have provided the actual numbers.

May 26, 2004

Point, click and shoot

If we stop taking pictures, the terrorists will have won: New York City's Transit authority, which operates the city's mass transit, has made a proposal: "a ban on unauthorized photography, filming, and videotaping  city subways, buses and Staten Island Railway trains. The press and businesses or individuals with permits would be exempt."

What possible reason could there be for such a ban? According to the story, the reason is the new all-purpose excuse for every idiotic government proposal:

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the bombing that killed hundreds on a commuter train in Madrid earlier this year, tighter security has been a high priority, Mr. Seaton said. The other proposed rule changes are also needed, he said.
Ah, yes. Tighter security. Of course. Let me count the ways that this is stupid.
  1. How on earth does this enhance security? One might be able to argue that we don't want people taking pictures in the subway because it could allow terrorists to study the area, see where the guards are, see where bombs could be planted, etc. But how could that possibly apply to buses? And since people can stand around the subway station and observe the security measures firsthand, what good is it going to do to keep them from having photographs? And if the media, "advertisers, artists and others, 'would all be allowed' to take pictures as long as they obtained written permission in advance," then who exactly does that leave out? People who write "To blow it up, praise Allah!" on their permit applications under "Reason"?
  2. Even if it did enhance security, how could this possibly be enforced? Digital cameras are getting smaller and smaller -- this is the era of the camera phone, after all. Is everyone who enters the subway system and/or gets on a bus going to be frisked?
  3. Even if it did enhance security and could be enforced, they're not planning to enforce it. From the article:
    While transit officers would make common-sense judgments about issuing summonses to tourists who take pictures without knowing the rules, even visitors would be subject to fines, Mr. Seaton said, although there is no provision for confiscation of cameras. He said taking a picture or filming without authorization would be subject to a relatively low $25 fine.
Oh, I see: a $25 fine. That changes everything. Maybe the plan is to bankrupt Al Qaeda... . very slowly.

The only thing I can't figure out from this story is whether this proposal comes from some petty bureaucrat who came up with a stupid idea because he likes to throw his weight around (as petty bureaucrats so often do), or whether this is simply a (poorly) disguised fund-raising measure.

October 8, 2004

Let's play twenty questions

Given that Friday night's debate is a "town hall" style debate where non-professionals get to question the candidates, I thought I'd come up with a list of questions that I would ask if I were in the audience. (The New York Times had the same thought, printing a list of questions from prominent pundits -- except that their liberal worldview led them to structure the two sets of questions as "Senator Kerry: aren't liberal policies great?" and "President Bush: aren't conservative policies bad?") So here are approximately twenty non-rhetorical questions for each candidate, in no particular order:

For Kerry

  1. Why do you keep saying that you can get more allies on board for the war in Iraq when there are only a couple who have the operational capability to pour resources into Iraq, and those have already said they aren't interested? Whether or not you do get allies on board, what is your plan for fixing the current situation in Iraq?
  2. Do you think the US is capable of taking on both Iraq and Afghanistan simultaneously? If so, why do you call the former a "distraction" from the latter? If not, aren't you embarrassed over the size of the American military budget?
  3. How do you plan to reduce the deficit when your own proposals call for spending even more in new government programs than you propose to raise in new taxes?
  4. How do you explain your vote against the first Gulf War if you believe that a vote for the second Gulf War was necessary to give the president's threats credibility?
  5. Assume that the United States had not invaded Iraq. What would you have done, beyond the invasion of Afghanistan, to reduce or end the terrorist threat? "Work with allies" is not a sufficient answer; that's merely a tactic; I'm looking for you to explain your larger, big picture strategy.
  6. You once suggested that if the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam, there would only be two or three thousand people who might need sanctuary from the North Vietnamese after their inevitable victory. Do you think that your massive underestimation of the cost to the Vietnamese of American withdrawal demonstrates a profound lack of understanding of the threat American enemies pose?
  7. Assume the US hadn't invaded Iraq. What would have been your plan for maintaining the policy of containment when it was clear that our allies were unwilling to continue such a policy?
  8. Given the Democratic Party's stated commitment to treating people equally, why do you oppose gay marriage? How can you justify your support for racial preferences?
  9. If your plan for bilateral talks with North Korea proves fruitless, how will you contain and/or defeat them?
  10. Is there any area of the economy in which you believe government has no proper role?
  11. Is there any area of the economy or society in which you think states have a proper role but the federal government has no proper role?
  12. Can you identify one significant government regulatory or spending program that you would eliminate if you could?
  13. Other than the current guy, who do you think was the worst president the U.S. ever had, and why?
  14. What philosopher has had the biggest impact on your thinking, and why?
  15. It is likely that a Supreme Court justice will retire in the near future. Who are the two or three people on your short list of nominees to fill the first vacancy?
  16. Do you believe the second amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms? If so, why do you support "gun control"? If not, why do you read the second amendment so much more narrowly than you read the rest of the constitution?
  17. Do you call Bush's stem cell policy a "ban" because it sells better politically, or because you don't distinguish between lack of government subsidies and a ban?
  18. You endorsed the 9/11 commission's recommendations for reform of the intelligence community before you had even read them. Why?
  19. Do you believe that the best defense is a good offense? Or do you think that a defensive response to 9/11, such as enhancing port security, can be effective?
  20. What do you think the real reason was that the United States was attacked on 9/11?

For Bush

  1. How do you plan on reducing the deficit when you keep cutting taxes without corresponding cuts in spending -- when, in fact, you keep drastically increasing spending?
  2. Why was nobody fired over 9/11? Why was nobody fired over the mistaken Iraqi WMD predictions? Why has nobody been fired for any of the pre- or post-9/11 mistakes? Shouldn't there be some accountability?
  3. You keep saying that you provided as many troops as commanders on the ground asked for. Do you agree, even given the situation on the ground? If yes, how can you, given the situation on the ground? If not, why do you keep hiding behind that mantra, and why haven't you replaced the commanders that made these misjudgments?
  4. Other than training a new Iraqi police and military to keep law and order, do you have any plan for finishing up in Iraq? Or do we just have to hope that not too many Americans are killed before these forces are ready?
  5. Do you think the Iraqi WMD debacle has hurt American credibility in dealing with Iran?
  6. Do you believe Islamic terrorism is a serious domestic threat? If you do, why is the Justice Department waging war on medical marijuana, pornography, assisted suicide, and online gambling? How can people feel safe and confident in the government's ability to protect us domestically when you can't even catch the anthrax mailer?
  7. What's your plan for North Korea if your insistence on multilateral talks fails?
  8. Do you think global warming is (a) a hoax, (b) unproven, (c) real but not caused by human behavior, or (d) caused by human behavior?
  9. How can you justify signing McCain-Feingold when it provided for massive restrictions on political speech in violation of the first amendment?
  10. Can you identify one significant government regulatory or spending program that you plan to eliminate? Why didn't you eliminate this in your first four years, and why would anybody believe you're going to cut it now?
  11. How does it threaten the institution of marriage if gay marriage is allowed? If the institution of marriage is "sacred," shouldn't it be left to churches rather than the state?
  12. Assuming the United States succeeds in Iraq, what is the next step you plan to take?
  13. Who do you think was the worst president the U.S. ever had, and why?
  14. Not counting Jesus, what philospher has had the biggest impact on your thinking, and why?
  15. Why haven't you vetoed any spending bills?
  16. During the last campaign, you said you would nominate Supreme Court justices in the mold of Justices Scalia and Thomas. But although both Justices are conservatives who oppose judicial activism, they have some significant differences. Would you nominate someone closer to the conservative Scalia or the libertarian Thomas?
  17. Why are you putting such a low priority on programs such as Nunn-Lugar, which would reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation?
  18. Can you answer the question you failed to answer in your last press conference? What mistakes have you made? Trading Sammy Sosa doesn't count.
  19. Other than drilling in ANWR, how do you plan to reduce independence on Middle Eastern oil? Is nuclear energy part of your plan, and how do you propose to overcome NIMBYism and environmental objections if it is?
  20. You claim to be a "compassionate conservative," and yet you've presided over a massive increase in domestic spending and deficits, you've abandoned federalism, and you've flip-flopped on free trade. Other than your opposition to abortion and gay marriage, in what way do you think your policies conform to conservative ideas?

I could probably come up with more, given time, but I think that's more than sufficient. To both of my readers: free to add your own suggestions in the comments section...

August 11, 2005

Are you suffering from the heartbreak of psoriasis?

If you are, you shouldn't worry. Help is on the way. At least, I think so. I can only assume that personal health problems such as these will be next on New York Attorney General/gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer's agenda.

Certainly, crime is no longer a problem in the state of New York. After all, a few weeks ago he took time from his busy campaign schedule to save us from the scourge of bad music on the radio, leading to this Onionesqe quote:

As a result, Mr. Spitzer said in the settlement documents, "Sony BMG and the other record labels present the public with a skewed picture of the country's 'best' and 'most popular' recorded music."
(They did? The bastards! I am so disillusioned. I honestly thought Ashlee Simpson was one of the country's best singers. Next you're going to tell me that America's Next Top Model may not actually be America's next top model.)

And for an encore, he decided to protect us from the horror of tasteless radio sketches.

The New York State attorney general's office, which usually busies itself with white-collar crime, took the time yesterday to announce a crackdown on a face-slapping contest.
(Yes, you read that correctly.)
Attorney General Eliot Spitzer said at a news conference that the parent company of a New York radio station, WQHT-FM, known as Hot 97, had agreed to pay $240,000 in penalties for its "Smackfest" competition, in which two contestants, usually young women, slap each other while standing several feet apart in the station's studio in Greenwich Village. The station also agreed to end the contests.

At the news conference, Mr. Spitzer played a clip that the station had posted on its Web site. It showed a man in a sweatshirt standing on the side between the two young women, their faces blurred out, and directing them in a loud voice.

"Queens, go!" he said, using one woman's competition name. She then smacked the other woman across the face. When they were not slapping each other, they stood with their hands behind their backs. The winner was the one who delivered the loudest slap.

I can think of less interesting things to listen to on the radio... like static. But it would be a close call. Of course, my solution would be to turn the dial -- which I guess explains why I'm not running for governor. I would assume it's just boring and pointless; fortunately, I have Eliot Spitzer to set me straight:
Mr. Spitzer said: "You can see how disturbing this is, how appalling. We'd like to think that we've advanced beyond the days of the Roman Colosseum."
Ah, yes. We clearly haven't. I distinctly remember reading the works of the great Roman historian Tacitus, describing the classic face-slapping contests between the Christians and the lions. Who won those, by the way?

And can we feed Eliot Spitzer to the lions? Where on earth does the Attorney General of New York get the authority to fine radio stations for tasteless (or even "disturbing" or "appalling") material? The article doesn't say; the New York Times spent three paragraphs giving us the history of face-slapping (I'm not making this up, folks -- read the article), but provided just this one cryptic comment on the legal issue:

The station crossed a legal line by advertising and profiting from the contest, said Francine James, the deputy attorney general who led the investigation.
Yes, there was an "investigation." ("Hey, Francine, what did you do at work today?" "Listened to the radio.") Your tax dollars at work, folks.

August 29, 2005

A billion here, a billion there...

The New York Times is upset because the Base Closing Commission isn't -- in the Times' view -- aggressive enough at shutting down bases:

Such reprieves hearten the communities involved, and it is easy to sympathize with local fears of base closings. Yet every such reversal diverts funds the Pentagon ought to be spending on real and urgent requirements - including the needs of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan - to the upkeep of installations the military has already concluded it can do without. The commission's actions eliminate a substantial chunk of the nearly $50 billion the Defense Department estimated it would have saved over 20 years.
Other reporting from the Times gives more specific numbers:
Principi told reporters Friday night that changes in the Pentagon blueprint approved by the commission had cut the estimated savings over 20 years to $37 billion, from $48 billion, though he called the revised number "very preliminary."
So, in other words, the Times is worked up about a difference of $11 billion... over twenty years. That is, about $500 million per year. Since the military budget (not counting the war in Iraq and Afghanistan) is about $400 billion, we're talking about 1/10th of 1 percent of the military budget. Within rounding error of 0. There may be good reasons to support more base closings... but "savings" isn't one of them.

Neither, in my view, is the Times' short-sighted, fighting-the-last-war argument:

Looking over the panel's rationale for most of these changes, we think the Pentagon had it right the first time. In the case of Portsmouth and the Groton base, a majority of the commissioners seemed to be swayed by the claim that China's naval building efforts might one day create new missions for America's current fleet of 54 underused nuclear-powered attack submarines - a costly legacy of the days when America's main enemy was an oceangoing superpower, not cave-dwelling terrorists. The Portsmouth shipyard is good at repairing submarines. The Groton base, located near the Navy's prime submarine building and repair contractor, Electric Boat, has a school for training submarine crews.

China does theoretically have the economic and technological capacity to build a large and threatening submarine fleet. But it has no obvious reason for doing so unless Washington insists on casting it as a substitute cold war enemy. The United States Navy remains the world's most powerful. The Bush administration has been handing far more dangerous leverage to Beijing by failing to narrow America's gaping budget and trade deficits, which have allowed China to buy a huge amount of the national debt.

Yes, that's all true, and the Times is right when it says that in this century we've been fighting "counterinsurgency wars" that are different than "superpower conflicts." But here's the thing: we don't know what we're going to face in ten or twenty or thirty years. To argue that China will never be our military enemy is myopic. And if/when we do need to confront them -- say, over Taiwan -- it will be awfully nice to have a submarine fleet ready... because it will be rather difficult to build one on short notice.

Ten years ago, would anybody have predicted we'd be engaged in a counterinsurgency war in Iraq? No. So why act as if you know what we're likely to face -- particularly when that prediction is based on faith in the goodwill of the government of China -- in the next ten years? (But I am amused at how the Times is preemptively Blaming America First, just in case such a confrontation with China happens.)

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