Thursday, June 27, 2002

The Lazarus Effect

Gore may decide this weekend whether or not to run for President in 2004. The former Vice President has invited key Democratic fundraisers to Memphis this weekend to debate, in all probability, whether he’ll be able to attract enough money to make a credible run against a large field of motivated rivals.


Wednesday, June 26, 2002

Next, Subsidizing the Pony Express

The New York Times is also taking on the Amtrak debate today, except they’re castigating the Bush Administration for not shoveling money into the company fast enough. According to the Times, “the administration has been sluggish about proposing a national rail policy.” Do we, though, really need a national rail policy? Specifically a national passenger rail policy? We don’t have a national stagecoach policy, or a national canal policy (as far as I know). Could it be possible that, with a couple specific exceptions, passenger rail is simply no longer an economically efficient mode of mass transportation in this country? I’d like to suggest exactly that. The Times seems to think that it is a “fantasy” that “there are private train operators eagerly awaiting their chance to compete.” A simple route auction could solve the question of whether or not there are private companies willing to take over Amtrak’s job without subsidies. And if they can’t sell off at least the Boston to Washington, D.C. corridor there’s even less reason than even to subsidize Amtrak’s operations.

This is the Red Line to Oblivion. The Train Will Not Be Stopping.

Robert Samuelson has an excellent summary of why the nation should end passenger rail subsidies and let Amtrak go quietly into graveyard of industry. He points out the extremely small number of people that Amtrak actually moves around the country – 0.3% of intercity passengers – and the fact that subsidies run as high as $300 per passenger, per trip. Amtrak supporters like to point out that passenger rail is subsidized all over the world; in most countries profitably is not a goal their systems seem to even attempt. That’s true, of course, but it says more about the decades of inefficient industrial policy in places like Western Europe than it does about American transportation policy.

Save the Bums

The popular congressman from my ancestral district, Oregon’s third, has taken a strong anti-bum exploitation stance. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) has called for a federal investigation of the video "Bumfights," which features homeless men fighting each other and, according the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “performing other risky stunts.” Advocates for the homeless, naturally enough, are aghast that someone would produce such a film, though the filmmakers themselves have aggressively defended their creation. The FBI has responded to Blumenauer’s worries by saying there is no apparent violation of federal law, though as a member of Congress, Earl must know that that situation is remedied easily enough. Still unclear is why the Portland area’s favorite liberal politician is making a video of dueling indigents filmed in Las Vegas a public priority. Rep. Blumenauer is generally best know for advocating “urban livability” zoning restrictions and riding his bicycle to work.


Tuesday, June 25, 2002

Riding the Tariff-Go-Round

In the interest of making the debate over steel tariffs even more confusing and annoying to our trading partners, the Bush administration has decided to balance out the threatened 30% tariff on imported steel with 224 separate exemptions. The rationale for the unnecessary and damaging tariffs, you might remember, is that below-cost foreign imports were putting defenseless U.S. steel producers out of business. Now the Administration is acknowledging that domestic producers are incapable in keeping up with demand for such basic goods as steel bars and stainless steel wire. It seems not to have occurred to them that they could repeal the tariffs all at once rather than through hundreds of exceptions to various overseas allies and foreign corporations.


Sunday, June 23, 2002

A Moveable Feast of Global Disasters

Alarms are frequently raised about the threats of global warming these days, but have we all forgotten the how recently the climate horror on the horizon was global cooling and the coming of the next Ice Age? Andrew Kenny writes in The Spectator of the parallel meteorological scares and why the worry over warming has proven to be so much more politically salient. For more background, see columnist Lowell Ponte's 1976 book The Cooling and Dave Shiflett's analysis of the Kenny piece on The American Prowler.

The Distinguished Yet Ineffective Gentlemen

David Broder popularizes (right before our eyes!) some Harvard-based political science in today's column about the Senatorial curse - the tendency of U.S. Senators to be poor presidential candidates. One of the most interesting conclusions is that the substantial advantages of the being a Senator - long terms, frequent lack of serious re-election challenges - work against a candidate when they hit the national campaign trail. They've unprepared for the pace and unrelenting criticism of the big race, rarely performing as well governors, especially those from large states.


Saturday, June 22, 2002

Heather Has Two Controversial Mommies

In another example of the war between Liberal journalists and cultural conservatives, we have debate over Nickelodeon airing a half-hour Nick News segment on gay parenting. Religiously-minded parents deluged the network with criticism, while enlightened Progressives shook their heads in despair, wondering at the continued evidence of homophobia disguised as faith. In an interesting postscript, New Republic editor Michelle Cottle throws some support in the direction of the outraged breeders:

"Now, Nickelodeon is a private broadcaster. Its directors have every right to tackle these sorts of issues. But, when the network ventures into the world of adult subject matter--and any discussion that touches on sexuality falls into this category--they have to be prepared to alienate some parents. And while journalists have a right (an obligation, even) to champion the virtues of tolerance towards gays, they should also recognize that the issue remains a controversial one. Sneering at the fears of the more conservative-minded only furthers Middle America's conviction that we are a bunch of godless, soulless, drug-abusing, elitist, pinko perverts. This perceived liberal bias is what makes folks like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity so successful--which should give the rest of us more than a little pause."

The debatable "power" of Sean Hannity notwithstanding, her piece is refreshing in its acknowledgement that there is a major rift between the open-minded liberalism of most reporters and the traditionalist priorities of religious conservatives.

Do Good to Them That Hate You

The New York Times is in a snit today over the way Islam was characterized by the Rev. Jerry Vines at the Southern Baptist Convention's recent Pastors' Conference. Calling his comments an example of "hateful bigotry," the NYT wants President Bush to publicly condemn the comments, despite the fact that the President addressed the meeting via satellite, praising the SBC "a powerful voice for some of the great issues of our time." Offending comments include Rev. Vines' opinion that the prophet Mohammed was a "demon-possessed pedophile" and that "Allah is not Jehovah...Jehovah's not going to turn you into a terrorist." The leadership of the SBC is standing by their man, listing the Reverend's many qualities and claiming that one of the Prophet's twelve wives was only nine when their marriage was consummated, making at least part of Vines' comments verifiable.

What seems to alarm the Times most, however, isn't the pedophilia accusation itself as the wider message of Rev. Vines' comments, which denounced religious pluralism. Of that he was certainly guilty, and his comments "made clear his belief that Islam is inferior to other religions." Well, yes, but how could he not? How is someone to profess belief in a monotheistic religion without thinking that other religions are at least marginally less good? It seems strange to consider the alternative, that Rev. Vines could be an observant Christian yet still believe that Islam is somehow just as valid. It might not have been the most elegant way of professing his faith, but his message certainly falls quite short of bigotry. If merely asserting that your religion is better that another is now some kind of hate crime, we've entered a strange world indeed.

I don't know anything about the writer of this particular editorial, but it smacks of just the kind of effete, intellectualized distaste for organized religion that folks living in the Blue States have come to expect of institutions like the New York Times. It is a species of secular humanism that holds that having religious beliefs is fine, as long as you don't take them too seriously. If you are a Christian and go out on a limb to say that the teachings of Jesus are superior to those of Mohammed you might as well be speaking in tongues and rolling on the floor. In this world an earnest expression of belief is wearingly déclassé, a rustic amusement for trailer park residents. Passionate belief is scary to the agnostic crowd. Because they refuse to make the necessary moral distinctions between denominations who want to distribute free Bibles and those who want to kill every Jew on earth, people like our editorial writer often seem unable to tell the difference between Campus Crusade for Christ and Islamic Jihad. From this perspective, it is natural to condemn a Baptist minister for saying he thinks Christianity is better than Islam because that's intolerant, and we all know tha bad things that happen when you're express intolerance.

The Patriotic Citizen is a Fit Citizen

The busybody impulse of those in power never seems to flag. Not content with monitoring suicide bombings in Israel, the continuing hostilities in Afghanistan and the threat of nuclear war over Kashmir, the President focused this week on his new public health initiative, "HealthierUs," through which he hopes to scold Americans into exercising more often. The program recommends such innovative personal health strategies as using a push lawnmower rather than a motorized one and washing your hands frequently. Assumably they'll issue a winter edition which advises Americans to wear a sweater when it's cold and treat the flu with a nice warm bowl of chicken soup.


Wednesday, June 19, 2002

We Stare Unblinkingly at the Future

News from the pharmacy: sleep is now optional. The drug modafinil, marketed by pharmaceutical company Cephalon, Inc. under the brand name Provigil, can allegedly keep you up with no sleep or adverse side effects of traditional stimulants for two days straight. If you want to catch a regular eight hours of sleep after those two days, you can stay up for another 40 hours straight before you'll finally need to catch up. Originally developed for narcoleptics, this drug has already sparked images of supersoldiers and a post-human future. Most likely, however, Cephalon will make the bulk of its money from replacing Mountain Dew and No-Doz in the arsenal of every procrastinating college student, long-haul trucker and overworked medical resident.

Fairfax Babylon

David Plotz of Slate paints an interesting portrait of my former home, Fairfax County, Virginia in today's New York Times. In the last 25 years or so it has transformed from a quiet set of sprawling suburban neighborhoods into a strip mall, office park, parking lot, apartment complexed metropolis all its own. Despite being able to maintain its status as one of the richest counties in the country (#2 as of the 2000 census), it has absorbed a huge number of working class immigrants, mostly from Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, in the last decade.

And those immigrants are occasion for some not-so-subtle legislation, such as the proposed ban on paving over front lawns to provide homeowners with more parking spaces. As Plotz points out, the houses most likely to have their lawns paved over are those with more than the usual number of residents packed inside - i.e., extended families living together. Those kind of extended families are far more likely to be immigrant families. Hence the gut-level reaction among many Fairfax residents that a bunch of smelly immigrants are destroying our neighborhoods and property values. There was also a proposal in the Virginia legislature offered by Fairfax County state Senator Leslie Byrne (D) that would have forbidden people from sleeping in rooms other than their bedrooms - again a measure clearly targeted at crowded low-income households that often are the only housing immigrant families can afford. Judging by the popularity of such measures (Sen. Byrne's bill passed the Virginia state Senate but was later withdrawn after sparking a public outcry) I expect more anti-immigrant zoning restrictions in the years ahead.

He's Nibbled His Way into Our Hearts

Gringos and Latinos can both rejoice. The Cartoon Network has decided to pull Speedy Gonzalez out of the political correctness vault and put him on the air again, despite concerns from skittish executives that he and his fellow Mexican mice fostered negative stereotypes. The decision has gotten positive coverage from and is supported by the League of United Latin American Citizens.

The Pre-Pre-Primary Continues

The 2004 presidential race has been on since the verdict in Bush v. Gore, but some news organizations are just beginning to recognize that. Yesterday the Washington Post's Jim VandeHei described some of the issues Sen. Joseph Lieberman has positioned himself prominently on, from beating up on Enron to overseeing the structure of the soon-to-be Department of Homeland Security. So far, Lieberman seems to be in the lead over such likely Democratic primary rivals as Sen. Tom Daschle, Sen. John Kerry, and Sen. John Edwards. UPI was especially critical of the Post, pointing out at length how they called Lieberman's presidential ambitions five months ago. Memo to UPI: If knowing that a U.S. senator wants to be President was cause for congratulations, everyone in Washington would have a Pulitzer Prize.


Monday, June 17, 2002

The Bigger They Are...

The House of Representative's senior member may be facing a serious challenge this year. John Dingell, who has represented the Dearborn, Michigan area since 1955, was recently redistricted into a contest with fellow incumbent Lynn Rivers. According to the latest campaign finance reports, Dingell has over twice as much cash on hand ($1,155,862 vs. $459,799 as of 3/31/02) and a long history of bringing home the bacon to his district.

According to the Detroit News, Rep. Rivers' district includes the particularly Liberal areas around the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, while Dingell's historic district was mostly blue collar union workers dependent on the auto industry. It seems unlikely, for example, that environmentalists among the Ann Arbor voters will appreciate the decades Dingell has spent cozying up to the auto industry. If only because Rivers and Dingell exemplify such different ways of doing business, the fight for Michigan's 15th should end up being one of the most entertaining in some time.


America's New Money, Courtesy of Parker Brothers

The U.S. Treasury has alarming new plans for the nation's currency. In the interest of staying a step ahead of counterfeiters, they are contemplating adding new colors to existing bills. The Treasury spokesman assures us that they will only be adding "subtle color" so that "the public can rest assured that notes will maintain their distinct American look and feel." As with anything inspired by the Euro, I'm skeptical. Sure, it might start as only a little pink on Alexander Hamilton's cheeks, but are we to believe it will really stop there? Before you know it they be adding oddly-tinted spiral designs and other inexplicable shapes and our venerable currency will end up looking this this.


Thursday, June 13, 2002

The Over-the-Hill Claims of an Alarmist Classic

This year marks a milestone for the environmental movement - the 40th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Unfortunately most Americans have come to accept the false premise on the book without question. Today Ms. Carson's polemic is considered closely akin to secular scripture by the Left, despite the fact that her central argument about human health - that an influx of synthetic chemicals into the food chain was causing a massive increase in human cancers - was been disproved.


Wednesday, June 12, 2002

All The W Keys Fell Off By Accident. Really.

News is out this morning that the there actually is some substance to stories that, during the transition Clinton-Bush transition, outgoing Clinton administration officials vandalized offices in the White House and EEOB. Most notable were prank messages left on answering machines and the alleged theft of dozens of "W" keys from keyboards around the White House. The General Services Administration estimates $20,000 was spent for repair, replacement, and cleanup of White House offices as the Bush team was moving in.

Now would be a good time to remember the pro-Clinton backlash against the vandalism story. Columnist and popular TV pundit Mark Sheids wrote the following in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (among other papers) on June 4, 2001:

"The next time a serious press seminar is held on just why so many readers are so skeptical, so disbelieving and so hostile about who we in the press are and what we write, I have an answer: the Nationally Circulated Hoax in the mainstream press that Clinton staffers had vandalized the White House and Air Force One.

"The whole story was a fabrication and, to be blunt, a lie. It was a deception carefully cultivated by the Bush White House and then fed to friendly conservative journalists who were duped into perpetrating this fraud upon their readers and their listeners.

"Are the Bush people that arrogant not to care or that dumb not to know how embarrassing circulation of the phony story of the January pillaging of the White House by departing Democrats would prove to be for these conservative commentators?"

I had forgotten that Air Force One was part of the original story, but now it seems there is evidence of intentional damage to at least the White House. Doubtless Sheilds will scurry to issue a correction.


Tuesday, June 11, 2002

How Do You Compromise With Someone Who Wants to Kill You?

In perhaps the least shocking development to come out of the Middle East since 1947, a new poll of Palestinians by a local news agency finds that the majority believe that the goal of their current conflict with the Israelis should be the complete destruction of the state of Israel. A despairing 68% of Palestinians also approve of suicide bombings against civilians - and that's down from 74% just six months ago. Lest this measurement of Palestinian public opinion be doubted, another suicide bomber has struck this afternoon in the town of Herzliya, killing at least nine people.

Successfully Selling Anti-Capitalism

In a surprising development for political opinion magazines, the lefty standard-bearer The Nation is declaring profitability for possibly the first time ever. As Frank Ahrens of the Washington Post reminds us, it is expected that even such venerable titles as National Review and The New Republic continue to bleed their benefactors of steady amounts of cash year after year. The ideological irony comes in publisher Victor Navasky's capitalistic strategies for success - selling access to the magazine's online archives to universities for as much as $10,000 a year and running a series of luxury cruises and seminars for well-heeled subscribers. The cruise idea is especially amusing given writer Eric Alterman's cover story from October 1997 mocking the fundraising cruise hosted by National Review:

"The great thing about being a right-winger, so far as I can tell, is that you get to exploit people and feel good about it. Any self-respecting liberal would feel guilty being so well served by so many apparent Third Worlders. But the National Review cruisers don't feel guilty about anything, and it seems to make them nicer people. They are polite. They don't sneer. They seem to really care when they ask how you feel, how you slept or how you can possibly believe what you read in the "liberal media." The young female guards posted outside the auditorium to keep out the nonpaying riffraff are warm and friendly. Just think of the angst any decent-minded liberal would experience at the thought of refusing entry to a seminar on how to save the country."

Note: Not only has Navasky come to embrace the idea of elitist vacations as left-wing fundraising opportunities, but as it turns out in December 2000 the friends and editorial staff of The Nation cruised on exactly the same ship - Holland America's M.S. Ryndham - that has been used by the NR crowd to "exploit people and feel good about it" in 1997. Ha.


Sunday, June 09, 2002

Will They Also Be Offering a Major?

UC Berkeley's journalism school will soon be offering a class in the art and science of the blog, taught by Wired magazine co-founder John Batelle and the school's new media program director Paul Grabowicz. Postings to the class blog on intellectual property issues will be mandatory.

The Next Holy Crusade:
Banishing the Fat Merchants from the Temple of Public Health

In today's Washington Post, two university professors bring the hammer down on fast food companies, soft drink producers and snack providers. Their op-ed is part of a fairly new but long-predicted campaign to do to Frito-Lay and McDonald's what was done to Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. Professors Brownell and Ledwig are worried about the negative health effects of increasing childhood obesity and, not surprisingly, see a shadowy corporate conspiracy as the villainous cause. They aren't modest about their demands, either: in a page taken directly from the anti-tobacco campaign, they call for and end to all food advertising and marketing campaigns directed at children, among other things.

This is, of course, exactly what many opponents of the war on tobacco told us would happen. The key to these kind of nanny-state regulations are heartfelt appeals to well-being of The Children. Tell the world that you're trying to protect the poor, vulnerable children of the nation and your argument becomes impervious to criticism. Anyone who opposes you is clearly trying to hurt children, and we don't want anything to do with people like that, do we? In 1997 when The Nation published a story about the evils of caffeine and the shocking way soft drink companies were marketing to children, the argument seemed laughable. Certainly we would never see federal regulations, class action lawsuits and coerced corporate settlements over the health effects of Doritos and Mountain Dew. If the prestige of the Post editorial page is any sign, we move closer to that scenario every day.

I have a particularly prescient editorial cartoon from 1917 on the wall of my office. It features a jug of whiskey being escorted to jail by Uncle Sam. As he walks by with a ball and chain labeled "W.C.T.U.," his fellow indulgences snicker short-sightedly from the sidewalk: the cigar, nut sundae and stick of chewing gum wave him humorously on his way to the dock. The jug, knowing his predicament all too well, shouts over "You fellers needn't feel so all-fired cocky; they'll be after you next." And it's come to it at last. We had Prohibition and now the Byzantine array of rules and taxes that followed it, the tobacco avengers have smacked down the nicotine industry, and the attack on the makers of the other sweet treats is just shifting into gear. Guard your pork rinds well, fellow citizens. They may be your last.

Iron Mike Hits the Mat

Bravo for Lennox Lewis and his decisive knockout of Mike Tyson in the eighth round of last night's title fight in Memphis. In the words of the local newspaper, "He simply beat Tyson senseless." The fact that a convicted rapist is still welcomed into the sport has always been troubling; his repeated outbursts of trash talk and head-biting have only confirmed the verdict of Tyson as less an athlete and than a violent emotional child. Lewis, on the other hand, seems to be a genuinely good guy. Fellow fighter and Olympic super-heavyweight champion Audley Harrison has even said he thinks Lewis should be knighted for his contributions to the sport.

Twilight of the French Socialists

It seems the effects of France's presidential election are still being felt in this week's parliamentary contest. Reinforcing the theory that the strong showing of right-leaning candidates like Jean-Marie Le Pen has severely demoralized the left, officials are reporting record low turnout for the first round of general elections. With many of the 577 local seats being contested by as many as 20 candidates, only the results of the runoff will be able to give a clue as to the final composition of new government. Consensus is forming, however, that the leftist parties are poised to suffer a dramatic reversal.


Friday, June 07, 2002

A Sterling Example of Independence

Much to the chagrin of the leftist Europhiles, the majority of people in the UK are still opposed to replacing the pound with the Euro.


Thursday, June 06, 2002

Mr. Chairman, I Move for an Immediate Pop Ballad

Applause to Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) for questioning the practice of inviting empty-headed celebrity activists to testify before Congress. He was upset at the prospect at being lectured on the evils of hilltop mining by noted geological enthusiast and Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson. Not every celebrity witness is as ridiculous as this of course. Having Muhammad Ali testify about funding for Parkinson's research is understandable; he's widely respected for his charitable works and actually suffers from the disease. Unless Kevin can show the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee his certification as a hydrologist or mining engineer, however, I suggest he stay on the tour bus.

Pulling Out of the Station?

The new president of Amtrak has announced that the rail company will cease operation entirely in July if it doesn't get $200 million in loans by the end of the month. While it seems likely they will find the money they need, it leaves one free to imagine a world where this inefficient, cash-sucking monstrosity finally sees a merciful end.

East Coast Senators will howl, no doubt, about the need for the rest of the country to keep the company going so not as to inconvience the relative handful of people in the Boston to Washington, D.C. corridor who actually ride Amtrak, but that must be endured. If the nation's banks are suspicious enough about the company's future, we might see it fall apart entirely and thereby eliminate the annual begging/threatening spectacle as Amtrak officials parade their incompetnece before congressional appropriators while demanding billion dollar subsidies. One example of their trouble: they've mortgaged almost everything they own, including Penn Station in New York. If they default, it could result in the chance-of-a-lifetime real estate auction.


Tuesday, June 04, 2002

Sons of Martian Liberty

I never knew there was such a thing as the Outer Space Treaty, but apparently its implications and limitations are on the minds of David Kopel and Glenn Reynolds. They mention that the treaty's second article essentially forbids any nation from claiming the moon or parts of any other celestial object as their own. The U.S., for example, has agreed it can never claim sovereignty over Mars, even if we're the first nation to settle there. This would seem to also effectively limits private individuals or corporations from making similar claims, though Kopel and Reynolds argue that a home government could defend Martian property claims of its citizens without violating the treaty. Better yet, the future yeomen of Mars would form their own provisional government and be able to pick and choose which nation, if any, to associate themselves with politically. The concept raises interesting questions about the ultimate source of governmental authority and how future men and women might choose to assemble a new political system outside of the influences and pressures of earth - ideas explored entertainingly by novelist Kim Stanley Robinson in the book Red Mars and it's sequels.


Monday, June 03, 2002

Taking a Walk Down Coronation Street

Queen Elizabeth II is the center of attention this week as she celebrates her Golden Jubilee with all manner of public events. By most reports Her Majesty is as popular as ever, no doubt in part because of the monarchy's ability to change with the times. While the highlight of Queen Victoria's Jubilee in 1887 was a royal banquet attended by "fifty foreign kings and princes, along with the governing heads of Britain's overseas colonies and dominions," the biggest event of the current celebration was an outdoor concert featuring Ricky Martin and the Beach Boys. Her current popularity will be useful in years ahead, as the Queen has recently dismissed the idea that she may abdicate.

Long Live the King

Part-time Elvis impersonator, Realtor and former state representative Bill Lorge has entered the race for governor of Wisconsin, challenging current Gov. Scott McCallum. He has said that he wouldn't perform in the Presley persona during the campaign, but in the event he wins, he's open to the idea of a command performance: "If the president ever came to Wisconsin and said, 'Do a little Elvis for us,' well of course I would," he said. "Everybody has to have a little fun in their lives."


Saturday, June 01, 2002

Singing Songs and Carrying Signs

Going against the movement toward ever-higher security around government building in DC, the U.S. Court of Appeals has overturned a 30-year old ban prohibiting demonstrations and protests on the sidewalk in front of the east steps of the Capitol. Groups with a political grudge can now chant slogans to their heart's delight, though their view of the building itself is going to be obscured for the next few years by construction of the Capitol Visitor Center, itself a crisis-inspired security measure.