State of the Union

Federal Judge: Bush Administration was Criminal Conspiracy

Federal judge Vaughn Walker ruled today that the Bush administration’s warrantless surveillance program was illegal.

This has been obvious ever since the New York Times blew the lid off of the National Security Administration’s massive surveillance operation in late 2005.  It is amazing that the issue is still open to dispute.

Unfortunately, there is not a snowball’s chance in hell that busloads of White House, Justice Department, and National Security Administration officials will be going to jail for this crime.

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Sauce For The Gander

Having presumed to judge bloggers by their Top Ten Influential Books Lists, I think it’s only sporting if I publish my own and subject it to the same critique. Here it is:

1. Jane Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities
2. Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy
3. Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate
4. Nicholas Wade, Before the Dawn / Gregory Cochan, The 10,000 Year Explosion
5. Chateaubriand, The Genius of Christianity
6. Willmoore Kendall, Contra Mundum
7. Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead. I don’t think I have any Randianism left in me, but my wife would say that I’m as obnoxious today as I was the week after I read The Fountainhead for the first time.
8. Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities
9. Robert Nozick, Philosophical Investigations. Back when I had the energy to do (or try to do) philosophy, I was enthralled by Nozick’s “non-coercive” approach.
10. John Henry Newman, Grammar of Assent.*

How do I stack up? Let’s review the categories: Read More…

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Taking the Pulse of the People

More on the costs of Obamacare: A USA Today/Gallup poll finds that almost two-thirds of people think the healthcare reform bill costs too much and, more interestingly, “expands the government’s role in health care too far.” We kept hearing that after the bill passed and people either learned what was actually in it, or just became more comfortable with the idea of its passage, they would get on board. That hasn’t turned out to be the case. Support for the bill has actually decreased since the day after it passed. And in fact, for the first time, President Obama’s disappoval rating has reached a full 50%.

That’s not to say the public doesn’t see any good in the bill. A plurality thinks it will actually improve healthcare in the country. I’m guessing that they believe it will do this by lowering the ranks of the uninsured. But they don’t think it will personally improve their own family’s healthcare—a plurality thinks it will make their quality of care and coverage worse. Their view seems to be that this massive new entitlement might help the tens of millions of people who are uninsured, but damage the health and bottom line of the hundreds of millions of people in the general population. The fact that there is such a split indicates that people might actually be thinking about this bill in more specific terms than they often do about Washington legislation.

There are reports that some opponents of the bill have turned to violence, threatening Democratic lawmakers who passed it. Many Democrats blame the heated rhetoric of Republicans. But the poll indicates that many people think the Democrats, at least in part, brought these troubles upon themselves:

And when asked about incidents of vandalism and threats that followed the bill’s passage, Americans are more inclined to blame Democratic political tactics than critics’ harsh rhetoric. Forty-nine percent say Democratic tactics are “a major reason” for the incidents, while 46% blame criticism by conservative commentators and 43% the criticism of Republican leaders.

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Listening to the Red Tories

Audio from the Tocqueville Forum’s two-day event at Georgetown University on the “Red Tory” ideas of Philip Blond is now online. Red Toryism is a cousin to Ordoliberalism and the economic thought of Wilhelm Roepke, and perhaps a grandchild of Chesterton and Belloc’s Distributism — though all that makes it sound more old-fashioned than Blond’s work actually is.  Blond’s talk is online here; the panel on which Rod Dreher, Ross Douthat, and I discussed Red Toryism is here, and the subsequent panel featuring John Millbank, Andrew Abela, and  Charles Mathewes is here.

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Internet Idol

Austin Bramwell turns a discriminating eye to a meme that’s been making its way through the prestige blogosphere: Tyler Cowen’s proposal that bloggers list the ten books that most influenced them. Matthew Yglesias, Will Wilkinson, and Ross Douthat were among those to take up Cowen’s challenge. Think of it less as “Dancing With the Nerds” than “The Running Man” for political geeks.

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Interactive Education

Reason‘s Katherine Mangu-Ward has a well-reported piece in The Washington Post succinctly summed up in its headline: “Traditional schools aren’t working. Let’s move learning online.”

She’s not completely convincing when she writes that “it’s time to take online education seriously — because we’ve tried everything else.” Actually, I think that at one time, our schools didn’t do too shabby a job of educating the little ones. Our current crisis in education hasn’t been around for as long as education has (though I’m sure complaints have). Students used to have a better grasp of history, it seems, to give just one example.

Still, an excellent argument can be made for more online—and hence, self-directed—learning. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to say that every person should undergo the same education. Some students need extra attention; some students need extra challenges. Online education might be able to provide both, as Katherine points out. She offers some striking data, too:

How do we know online education will work? Well, for one thing, it already does. Full-time virtual charter schools are operating in dozens of states. The Florida Virtual School, which offers for-credit online classes to any child enrolled in the state system, has 100,000 students. Teachers are available by phone or e-mail from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week. The state cuts a funding check to the school only when students demonstrate that they have mastered the material, whether it takes them two months or two years. The program is one of the largest in the country. Kids who enroll in Advanced Placement courses — 39 percent of whom are minority students — score an average of 3.05 out of 5, compared with a state average of 2.49 for public school students.

The idea behind some of these programs isn’t new. I remember taking a correspondence course or two when I was in high school, being mailed spiral-bound books of materials, sending in essays to be read and graded, and receiving the same course credit as my friends taking the class in our bricks-and-mortar building. It was a lot less frustrating learning this way than sitting through the same material in class, given at a glacial pace. Of course, now students aren’t getting cheaply made collections of text. As Katherine points out, instead of just hearing a lecture about Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, students can see a reconstruction of it online: history brought to life. These sorts of new media displays could and should be incorporated into the classroom, too.

There is a danger, though. It’s possible that encouraging students to spend more time online could exacerbate a problem that Peter Wood identifies in his review (in the latest issue of TAC) of Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System:

In America today, no one feels particularly abashed by not knowing stuff. “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” asks the popular Fox TV show. “So what if I’m not?” is the implied answer. It is OK for adults not to know the difference between the Battle of Bunker Hill and the Battle of the Bulge. We know that’s just “book knowledge” and could Google it if we really needed to find out.

Katherine’s right. Our schools aren’t working. The solution likely won’t come from unionized teachers eager to protect their turf. But perhaps a mix of the old and the new is the best way to impart knowledge, both to students who need personalized attention and to students who might be better off personalizing their own education.

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Naomi Wolf: Tea Parties Fight Fascism

In an interview with Justine Sharrock, Naomi Wolf shows that she doesn’t completely buy into the Left’s stereotype of the Tea Parties as racist. Not only that, she endorses states’ rights and taking on the Fed:

NW: I used to think “End the Fed people” were crackpots. The media paints them as deranged. But it turned out we had good reason to have more oversight. Or take their platform about states’ rights. Demographically, I’m a hippie from San Francisco and I’m not culturally inclined to be sympathetic to states’ rights. My cultural heritage is FDR and Medicare and federal government solutions. But if you think through the analysis, strengthening state rights is a good corrective of the aggregation of an over-reaching federal power. Take California’s challenge of the Patriot Act or states like Vermont leading the way with addressing the corruption of the voting system. It’s a good example of the Tea Party thinking out of the box on how to address a problem.

JS: That’s interesting because strengthening states’ rights is key to their entire platform, including protesting health care reform. Would you call yourself pro-Tea Party?

NW: Even though I’m appalled when racism surfaces, and I personally don’t agree with certain policy solutions and a lot of what they believe in, as someone who is very concerned about reinvigorating democracy the Tea Parties are an answer to what I asked for.

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Yes, We Can Repeal Obamacare

That’s what Jim Antle argues at the Daily Caller. He doesn’t necessarily expect that that GOP, or chastened Democrats, will repeal it, but he points out that it simply is not true that entitlements are never curtailed — and he cites the story of the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act passed in 1988 as proof:

The Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act was nevertheless repealed a year later. No change in partisan control of Washington was necessary—the repeal was passed by a Democratic Congress and signed into law by another Republican president, George H.W. Bush. The repeal turned out to be most popular with the elderly voters who had demanded the new benefits in the first place.

Why? In addition to creating new benefits, the reform also imposed staggering new costs. Those costs fell most heavily on the senior citizens who were supposed to be the program’s biggest constituency. But, congressional Democrats were astonished to learn, many of these seniors were happy with their existing coverage and resented having to pay a new tax to fund this expansion of government—costs which kicked in before many of the benefits.

Read on for some interesting parallels with the Tea Party movement. Then as now, “Members of Congress also had to hear from angry mobs opposed to the legislation, otherwise known as their constituents” — although those protesters were Democratic-voting senior citizens.

I still doubt the GOP leadership would have the will, even if this November they could attain the means, to overturn Obamacare. Doing so, after all, might well energize a liberal base that has so far been lukewarm to the legislation itself. Progressives now are disillusioned because they didn’t get the public option. They might come to a new appreciation for the “Affordable Healthcare Act” if they feared Republicans were going to take it away — and really, who expects the GOP to have the fortitude to take anything away? For decades Republicans have preferred to try to out-pander the Democrats to their own constituencies, hence elite GOP support for amnesty for illegal immigrants, increasing funding to the Department of Education, and the prescription drug add-on to Medicare. If the Republicans do tinker with Obamacare, that record suggests they will only make it more expensive, intrusive, and generally worse. But maybe the Tea Parties really will transform the GOP — “hope” for “change” springs eternal on both sides of the partisan spectrum.

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An Adult Debate

Today President Obama signed into law a package of “fixes” for the healthcare reform bill passed to such uproar this month. Obamacare is not even ten days old, and it’s already starting to cost us more:

Among other things, the “fixes” bill significantly expands health insurance subsidies for lower- and middle-income families while watering down a tax on expensive health policies.

The bill also increases the overall cost of the health care reform legislation to $940 billion over the next 10 years, $65 billion more than the original health care bill Obama signed into law last week.

Expect estimates to keep going up. Even Canada, the country whose healthcare system is so often pointed to as an example of an efficient, government-run system, is now being advised to have an “adult debate” about what the system can accomplish as costs continue to rise:

David Dodge, the past governor of the Bank of Canada and former deputy finance minister … said medicare costs will inevitably rise in coming years at a greater rate than government revenues and the country’s gross domestic product, and require some unpalatable choices to be made.

Choices he suggested include new taxes specifically dedicated for health care or a steady reduction in the scope and quality of services provided by the public health system that would require people to either pay for private care themselves or suffer ever greater wait times for service in the public system.

“These are stark and unpalatable choices that we face with respect to health care, but there is no magic solution,” he said. “We absolutely must have an adult debate about how we deal with this. Finding solutions in this area is extraordinarily difficult, but it is imperative.”

Dodge spent most of his career working under Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. He made these remarks at a Liberal confab. The Canada Health Act was passed by the Liberal Party under Pierre Trudeau. Even Canada’s left-centrists realize that their entitlements could bankrupt the country. America’s seem to have no clue. Perhaps Obama shouldn’t have canceled his Indonesian visit this month to enact healthcare reform—he should have canceled it to take a trip up north to see how federal involvement in healthcare has panned out there.

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Who Owns Your Genes?

Not the pharmaceutical companies, according to a federal judge who yesterday struck down patents on two genes linked to breast cancer. Biotech businesses and their scientists say the decision will stifle research, destroy incentives for product development, and grow government by leaving federally supported universities as the only institutions willing to undertake further genetic studies. None of this rings true. No doubt holding legal monopoly over a part of a human being is more lucrative for any firm than having to compete with other companies in developing biotechnology, but it is not necessarily best for patients. Other industries do just fine in terms of innovation, and much better in terms of cost control, without being able to patent their consumers.

I think this paragraph from the New York Times‘ story gets at the nub of the matter:

[The company] sells a test costing more than $3,000 that looks for mutations in the two genes to determine if a woman is at a high risk of getting breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Plaintiffs in the case had said Myriad’s monopoly on the test, conferred by the gene patents, kept prices high and prevented women from getting a confirmatory test from another laboratory.

Considering the amounts of money at stake in the principle, we’ll be hearing much more about this in months to come.

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