May 2002 Archives
May 31, 2002
As we gather around F.B.I. headquarters sharpening our machetes and watching the buzzards circle overhead, let's be frank: There's a whiff of hypocrisy in the air.
One reason aggressive agents were restrained as they tried to go after Zacarias Moussaoui is that liberals like myself — and the news media caldron in which I toil and trouble — have regularly excoriated law enforcement authorities for taking shortcuts and engaging in racial profiling. As long as we're pointing fingers, we should peer into the mirror.
LONGMONT, CO—The Information Age was dealt a stunning blow Monday, when a factual error was discovered on the Internet. The error was found on TedsUltimateBradyBunch.com, a Brady Bunch fan site that incorrectly listed the show's debut year as 1968, not 1969.
Caryn Wisniewski, a Pueblo, CO, legal secretary and diehard Brady Bunch fan, came across the mistake while searching for information about the show's first-season cast.
Read about America's prospects in the World Cup in this piece from ESPN. Let's hope we do better than in 1998! Excerpt:
While they're ranked 13th in the world by FIFA (Portugal is fifth, Poland 38th and South Korea 40th), the Americans are far from a world power. They are 10-4 this year, but 0-4 against European opponents, with losses to Italy, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands.
Still, they're among only nine teams to qualify for each tournament since 1990.
The steel industry got its tarriffs. Farmers got their subsidies. Should tech get some pork of its own? We seem to be getting close. TechNet has called for a "National Broadband Policy" which Red Herring called a "Marshall Plan" for broadband when it endorsed TechNet's call to action. There is good data suggesting that investment in broadband is good for the economy. Well investment in anything is probably good--if you ignore the opportunity costs of those funds being invested elsewhere. But as Milton Friedman taught us: there is no such thing as a free lunch. The risk of "national policies" is that funds will get allocated based on political criteria--as with steel tariffs and farm subsidies--not on a real assessment of where the needs are.
I'm skeptical that politicians can even figure out where the true needs are in time to make a difference--assuming they even wanted to--and very skeptical that the unintended consequences wouldn't create more problems than existed in the first place. But, more likely, favors will be handed out from politicians to those players who can afford to compensate them--in whatever way. As Lawrence Lessig said to me recently: "no one pays the government to encourage innovation, they pay the government to protect from competition."
Pete DuPont assembles an excellent reading list in his latest column. A MUST read for al those who intend on being culturally literate is "The Skeptical Environmentalist." I plan on writing more about it in the coming weeks, but please read Pete DuPont's description of the tome below and read the book if you haven't already. And if you want A LOT of discussion, check out Andrew Sullivan's Book Club, where he features Lomborg's book.
From DuPont's column:
In a December column I briefly referenced Bjorn Lomborg's "The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World" (Cambridge University Press) as the most interesting public policy book of 2001. Having used it for half a year as a reference guide on environmental matters, it is even better than I thought.
$4,377. That's what the latest farm bill is expected to cost the average American family over the next 10 years from taxes ($1,805) and inflated food prices ($2,572). The progress made in the Republican driven Freedom to Farm Act of 1996 has been, essentially, lost. And all because it's an election year. But politics is politics--and until there is a penalty for voting for the other guy's pork, politicians are going to vote for the other guy's pork--because the political benefits (specifically getting the other guy to vote for YOUR pork) outweigh the consequences (when have you ever voted against your guy for voting on someone else's pork?)
Less than three months after the Bush administration suggested its stiff new tariffs on steel imports would have only a limited impact on prices, the levies are sending waves of pain through America's manufacturing sector -- including steep price increases, supply shortages and layoff threats.
Many environmental problems may be better solved by using market principles. See this summary of a NY Times article from NCPA:
Because the federal government in 1990 allowed electric generating companies to trade emissions permits among themselves, rather than forcing them to conform to strict regulatory rules, targeted emissions have been reduced at a fraction of the cost estimated a decade ago.
I had lunch with Professor Lawrence Lessig this week, and here are some highlights from that conversation.
I asked about his views on the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act proposed by Senator Fritz Hollings, which has pitted Hollywood against Silicon Valley (for a primer on the subject, see this piece in R21). Lessig argues that because the openess of the Internet guarantees a network capability that didn’t exist before, the “vested interests” (content companies and cable companies, in particular) are attempting to reassert control over the network in two areas: 1) the physical layer 2) the content layer. For the physical layer, he referred to the cable companies, but we spent more time discussing the content layer.
May 30, 2002
Today, the libertarian Cato Institute issued a statement saying that greater FBI surveillance powers do not pose a threat to society. While it’s true that camera surveillance in public places does not pose privacy problems, it does bring up the larger issue of the expansion of government power. If there were cameras on every street and the government could use them to follow political enemies around (as they have a history of doing), that would be a very serious problem indeed. It is strange to see Cato being so nonchalant about such a dangerous movement.
California's recent Oracle scandal highlights Governor Davis's rather sketchy record of mixing policy and fundraising opportunities. Given Davis's missteps, many taxpayers would like to see greater government accountability. Here's an article that discusses the potential of technology to catch improper dealing by government officials.
Thanks to Henry Miller for forwarding his piece that ran in the Wall Street Journal today:
The crisis in vaccine research, development and production is even worse than described in your illuminating May 22 editorial "A Needless Vaccine Shortage," and myopic public policy is largely to blame. A prime example is your description of the CDC's use of its "buying clout and power," to compel steep discounts for purchases. If any interference with market forces were warranted, arguably government should be offering a subsidy rather than imposing what amounts to a punitive tax on vaccine makers.
Wrong-headed, excessive regulation, you observe accurately, is another significant obstacle to pharmaceutical development. Consider, for example, the FDA's position on a vaccine to prevent meningitis C, a bacterial illness that infects thousands of persons and kills hundreds in this country annually. At present no conjugated (comprised of connected components) vaccine against this infectious disease is approved for use in the U.S., although three excellent products are available in Canada and Europe. The safety and efficacy of these vaccines have been demonstrated in pre-licensing testing and in large-scale immunization programs, with more than 20 million doses administered. But jealous of its prerogatives, the FDA refuses to recognize the foreign approvals, although such "reciprocity" is supposed to be a goal of discussions among international regulators. When asked about the FDA's cooperation on this issue, a European regulator responded, "It's like discussing the Thanksgiving dinner menu with the turkeys."
Thomas Sowell writes this review of Dinesh D'Souza's new book "What's So Great About America." I've read the book and think it is excellent--a must read and a quick read. If you would like to meet Dinesh, please email email@example.com. I plan on writing more about it myself, but for now here is some of Sowell's review:
In contrast to those who say that we must seek to understand the "root causes" of the hatred of America in the Islamic world, in terms of things that we have done wrong, D'Souza sees the fundamental causes of that hatred in the envy and resentment of American success spawned by the Islamic world's own failures.
According to D'Souza, "the fundamentalists are a humiliated people who are seeking to recover ancestral greatness." Proud Muslims "find it hard to come to terms with their contemporary irrelevance." He asks: "When was the last time you opened the newspaper to read about a great Islamic discovery or invention?"
Jack Kemp writes this open letter to Europe. Here are some highlights:
As Thatcher points out, the "new-left" elite in charge in Brussels, operating under the sobriquet of "the Third Way," has managed to persuade people "that free-enterprise capitalism needs to be tamed, qualified or restrained by state interventions to render it sympathetic. They have succeeded in this because it is still not widely understood that capitalism contains within itself the means by which society as a whole progresses. It does not need a touch of socialism on the tiller to help it along." As Havel said, the Third Way is the route to the Third World.
Leaders in Brussels continue to insist on high tax rates, expanding the welfare state, increasing government spending and income redistribution, more regulations on business, protectionism and other market interventions to limit competition. And they insist on "harmonization" among EU members to create uniformity of these anti-growth policies within a single European superstate. The result has been chronic unemployment that hovers around 8.5 percent in EUroland on average, even higher in France (9.1 percent) and Germany (9.6 percent), and depressingly higher in areas I visited in eastern Germany.
May 29, 2002
The traditional left/right political spectrum has been fragmenting since the end of the Cold War. It was to be expected since the spectrum was in essence defined by how pro- or anti-socialist you were—and with socialism dead as an ideal and dying as a policy, political alliances are splintering. Like Yugoslavia after the fall of communism, we are seeing the balkanization of ideologies on the right who were unified in their opposition to the left, but now are finding ways to oppose each other.
One of the more interesting divisions is between “conservatives” and “libertarians.” Frances Fukuyama, in this article in the Wall Street Journal describes libertarianism as “an ideological hostility to the state in all its manifestations” and declares that the free-market revolution reached its Jacobin phase with Newt Gingrich in the mid-1990s and is now abating. (Even Newt may be changing his tune, as noted in R21.) Two major areas of contention, according to Fukuyama, are foreign policy and biotechnology. Libertarians, he argues, as isolationists were proven misguided on September 11. And libertarians have joined with the left (or more accurately parts of the left, for it is fragmented too) in supporting stem cell and cloning research—and even reproductive cloning (see R21's take on cloning). This, according to Fukuyama not only raises moral objections from many conservatives, but also ignores the interests of the community, while protecting in the extreme the rights of the individual.
May 28, 2002
CMC Professor Charles Kesler wrote an interesting piece for National Review that discusses the unraveling of a historical conservative coalition between neoconservatives, libertarians, and traditionalists. Now that the coalition has broke, he argues that conservatives should dump their "amoral" libertarian allies and attack the state on moral grounds. He says, "Americans are not anarchists, and reject even anarchism's romance. So did the Founders, who stood for moral freedom and thus for limited, republican government. For them... Big Government is bad not so much because it is big and costly but because it is disordered and, in principle, unlimited." Even if you don’t agree with him that libertarians are anarchists, he makes some interesting points.
Price is right to point out Peggy Noonan's analysis of Bush's Berlin speech below. Bush certainly seems to have made an eloquent case to the Europeans for why we share common values and should be united in this war against terrorism. The two questions that follow are: will the Europeans listen? and does it matter? The answer to both may be: probably not.
The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes looks at the issue of how the Bush administration views Europe in this piece published in the London Times. To describe how the US and Europe are drifting, he notes his colleague William Kristol's observation that "America is nationalist, religious, and martial, while Europe is post-nationalist, post-Christian, and pacifist" and makes an important point: Bush doesn't wake up worrying about Europe. In fact, Europe is fairly far down the list.
For the first time in 500, perhaps 1000, years, Europe is not one of the central characters on the world's stage. Do they matter? Of course they do. They are a very important trade partner and provide valuable military support at times--and they have great food--but it may be that Europe will in essence remain on the sidelines during the new geopolitical global struggle: the war against terrorism.
May 27, 2002
Courtesy of columnist Peggy Noonan, one of the few columnists whose writing consistently stirs genuine feelings of patriotism by evoking history and the greatness of American ideals, we get a fabulous analysis of President Bush's speech in Berlin last week. In the age of mass and highly diffuse media, it is easy to understand how presidential speeches often get lost in the flotsam and jetsam of our daily lives. This we should lament, because President Bush's speech is worthy of widespread attention. Despite American hegemony as the world's only "hyper power," close ties to Europe are essential to our economic ($2 trillion yearly trade) and military (NATO) well being. Noonan's analysis goes a long way to bring President Bush's plain-spoken yet movingly eloquent words home to us. Further, her analysis, seen through her lens as former speech writer for President Reagan, is fascinating in its dissection of the messages a presidential speech conveys to allies and enemies alike.
May 24, 2002
A consensus is growing among African leaders and their western counterparts that trade and investment in Africa are critical to overcoming poverty. Prior over-emphasis on inter-nation aid has actually handicapped Africa by promoting a mentality of dependency -- leaving the impression that African countries could not compete in the global economy.
Wildly innacurate accounts of Jenin were reported and believed--especially in Europe. Read this UPI story on the topic.
I have a passion for evolution. It is a force of almost unimaginably beautiful power and elegance—capable of creating the wondrous assortment of all life that exists through the combination of a simple mechanism and time. And it is a fact. Evolution, “defined as the genealogical connection among all earthly organisms, based on their descent from a common ancestor, and the history of any lineage as a process of descent with modification,” is true—as true as the Earth being round or the fact that if I fall out of a tree, I will fall down to the ground (not up.) Certainly there remain conflicting theories about what causes evolutionary change—the mechanism of evolution—just as there are theories about the mechanism of gravity (we don’t know how gravity works), but this does not challenge the certainty of it’s existence.
Stephen Jay Gould taught me this (and is the one quoted above). Gould, who died Monday, was tremendously influential for me as I developed my ideas about how the world works. Some of Gould’s theories were controversial and not always broadly accepted. His idea of “punctuated equilibrium” was derided as “evolution by jerks” by critics who think evolution happens more gradually as (to which Gould countered that they believed in “evolution by creeps.”)
May 22, 2002
Will the market or the Eliot Spitzers (New York's Attorney General who negotiated the Merrill Lynch settlement) of the world address the conflict of interest issue with todays investment banks. Today's Wall Street Journal touches on the subject:
"Wall Street should want its analysis to have credibility; sacrificing consumer (that is, its client's) trust to drum up short-term investment banking fees was always a dumb strategy. As rich as traditional Wall Street is, the real business opportunity of recent decades has been grabbed by Fidelity, Vanguard and their ilk. Just last week Charles Schwab announced a new ad campaign pitching its financial advice squarely at customers upset by the Street's conflicts of interest.
In other words, the marketplace will do a lot more to solve Wall Street's credibility problem than anything in Eliot Spitzer's Merrill settlement.
Some foreign governments have implemented policies favoring open-source software-software usually available without charge that individual users are free to modify-over proprietary software. Brazil, Italy, Germany, Singapore, and the European Union, for example, have given advantages to open-source providers through government procurement and other means. Some people believe the United States should follow suit.
The AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies convened a panel on April 12 to discuss whether open-source programs, such as the Linux operating system, have advantages to society that are not captured by the market and, if so, whether the federal government should step in to promote that software.
From the NCPA:
During the next 20 years, U.S. oil consumption could grow by one-third, and electricity demand could grow by more than 45 percent. The administration has proposed a balanced energy plan: of 105 recommendations, 42 encourage conservation and promote environmental protection; 35 deal with diversifying the U.S. energy supply and modernizing infrastructure.
The House of Representatives and the Senate have passed different measures, which are now awaiting action by a conference committee.
Both bills forgo increasing fuel efficiency standards, which would not decrease U.S. dependence on foreign oil and might force drivers into smaller, more hazardous vehicles. And Senators restrained pork-barrel spending better than their counterparts in the House.
However, the House's bill is far closer to the president's plan. The problem with the Senate bill isn't so much the amount of money it would spend but the types of programs it proposes.
A fairly depressing story from Washtech.com noting that the tech recovery is still not in close view. Among the points:
- -- The Nasdaq is down 13% for the year
-- Venture investing for Q1 was down from Q401, and a recovery will lag a rebound in the public markets
-- Biotech, thought to be the bright spot, has taken some big hits recently
-- Telecom may not recover until 2004
-- The tech recovery will probably lag the end of the recession by a year
May 21, 2002
Instead of "convergence" we are seeing confrontation between Silicon Valley and Hollywood. At issue of late is where should the onus for piracy protection lie. A bill in the Senate would require virtually any technology device to contain government approved anti-piracy technology. Here is a primer on this issue.
Issue: Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act (S.2048) (Formerly known as Security Systems Standards and Certification Act (SSSCA)).
Sponsored by: Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings (D-SC) and Senators Ted Stevens (R-AK), Daniel Inouye (D-HI), John Breaux (D-LA), Bill Nelson (D-FL), and Diane Feinstein (D-CA). Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank, California, is seeking co-sponsors for his legislation, which would be similar to the CBDTPA in the Senate.
What the bill would do:
The Senate Republican High Tech Task Force urges the Senate to defeat the Kerry (D-MA) amendment related to investor/state dispute resolution. The Kerry amendment would deny U.S. investors the opportunity to seek relief from foreign governments that adopt trade-impairing measures under the guise of environmental, health, or consumer protection. The amendment jeopardizes U.S. investments abroad, and it is particularly problematic for high-tech as the technology industry is the largest overseas investor as well as the largest manufacturing employer in the United States. Curtailing exports abroad will curtain high wage technology jobs in the United States, as well as investment opportunities abroad.
The man, who at one time wanted to cut federal spending to the bone, now advocates increased government funding for the full range of nano-related activities, from quantum-mechanics education in grade school to doubling the National Science Foundation budget.
Terrorism is the area of nanotechnology that both excites and worries Gingrich the most. "Engineered viruses present the greatest threat to the human race," he said, stating that global thermonuclear war wouldn't kill as many people as a nano-engineered virus, specifically designed to infect as many people as rapidly as possible.
There have been chilling remarks recently from Cheney and Rumsfeld, among others, that it is not a matter of if another attack will occur, but when. Former CIA director James Woolsey outlines some important steps in his piece entitled "Foiling the Next Attack" in today's WSJ.
He points out that some people did anticipate that 9/11 could happen and did try to get us to focus on the possibility of suicide attacks. Those people did so based not on foreign intelligence but on their own judgment, sparked by other sources of information. Therefore, we must now concentrate on finding, and getting judgments made by, the people who are likely to be right. Woolsey recommends combing academics, Nobel Prize winners, and law enforcement to get creative about anticipating and stopping the next attack.
Woolsey makes other points about intelligence on the next attack:
The politicians spent last week playing the blame game, as the Democrats seized their first opportunity in 9 months to challenge the Bush Administration's competence in the war on terror. As George Melloan points out, they've paraded out the infamous lines from Watergate ("What did the President know and when did he know it?") to wonder whether Bush knew more than he told and could have done more to stop 9/11.
Cheney countered that the Democrats should be very careful not to seek political advantage by making incendiary remarks and that they were acting in ways unbecoming to their positions.
What on earth are these people thinking?
Thanks to the National Center for Policy Analysis for this summary of an article in Investor's Business Daily:
A new study by William Beach of the Heritage Foundation documents Americans' growing reliance on government. While the rate of increase has slowed in recent years, the level of dependency is still climbing - and may be on the verge of another rapid expansion.
The study measures federal spending from 1962 to 2002 in five areas where similar private or community-based services also exist: housing aid, health and welfare support, retirement, post-secondary education and agricultural services.
o Dependency has grown by 117 percent since 1962 and 38 percent in the last two decades.
o It has grown 9 percent since George W. Bush took office.
o The government now spends 5 times as much on retirement programs, 8 times as much on education and 9 times as much on health and welfare as it did in 1962, after inflation.
o Nearly 27 million people depended on federal government in 1962, while 70.6 million do today - a 162 percent rise, or 3 times the rate of the population growth.
Paul Volcker, former Fed chairman, chairman of the International Accounting Standards Committee, and the chair of the independent oversight board at Arthur Andersen, calls for "a new independent public oversight body to emphasize and reinforce the central role of the auditing firm," in today's Wall Street Journal.
He makes several points:
-- Arthur Andersen is dead
-- Reforms will be self-initiated by auditing firms but that is not enough
-- To be viable as a stand-alone auditor, clients will have to be willing to pay for pure auditing and auditing firms will need a new regulatory body
-- Volker outlines his litmus test for the legislation needed to establish this body
-- Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D., Md.) legislation is the only one that passes Volker's test
Volker brushes off the ability of the industry to self-correct with little explanation--just that "the historical record affords no comfort on that score." Perhaps, but the Arthur Andersen explosion surely is a wake-up call that will be heeded. And it is not clear that creating more bureaucracy won't simply create more obstacles for businesses to run around and remove some of the moral hazard that exists today. If investors want unconflicted auditing, that pressure should be felt on the share price so that companies are motivated to hire pure auditors and pay a premium for it. If they don't, legislators should ask why before creating red tape that will shift companies focus from soothing investors to soothing regulators.
May 20, 2002
The list of Grey Davis' fundraising follies continues to grow. Or let me restate: public awareness of the uber-fundraiser's aggressive tactics is beginning to broaden. This article in the Christian Science Monitor does a good job in detailing some of the issues that have come to light to date. Among them:
-- The Oracle debacle, in which campaign donations seems to have ensured 0 competition for a huge contract for Oracle with the State of California
-- The Berkeley bungle, in which students were hit up for $100 each for the privilege of chatting with the Governor.
-- The plumbers problem, in which Davis administration, just before receiving a large donation from the plumber's union, delayed a decision allowing plastic pipes in homes, which would hurt the plumber's bottom line.
-- The teachers trouble, where Davis hit up the California Teachers Association for $1 million in the middle of a policy discussion.
-- The Accenture misadventure, in which the firm gave the governor $50,000 and later won a $453 million contract.
-- The jailors jam, in which Davis took money from the State prison guards' union just weeks after he gave them a 34 percent pay raise and chose to shut down five private prisons.
The Monitor is more apologetic than I would be, though it is not clear that Davis has broken any laws, he sure seems to have come close. Clearly he's acted in direct violation with the best interests of the citizens of California and the pattern of unethical behavior here is astounding. I don't buy the argument that it is in anyway justified because Davis needs the money, being governor of such a large state. Do voters care about ethics? We'll find out in November.
Did you know you could go to jail trying to save lives? A bill to criminalize cloning research has passed the House and is now being deliberated in the Senate. Bush supports the Brownback/Landrieu bill in the Senate that sets a 10-year jail term for researchers experimenting in the field of therapeutic cloning. If this bill passes, I'm convinced of two things: 1) it will not represent the wishes of the vast majority of Americans and 2) it will be their fault: because Americans haven't spoken up about this issue.
The problem is that, on the face of it, cloning is creepy. The idea that my wife could give birth to someone with my DNA is weird to say the least. But only thinking of the science-fiction while ignoring the science is intellectual laziness and a bassackwardness that will cost lives.
If you haven't heard about nanotechnology by now, don't worry, you will. Nanotechnology is the science of developing tools, materials and machines with atom-by-atom precision. A nanometer, for starters, is a billionth of a meter -- bigger than a water molecule, smaller than DNA. With the technology to manipulate the basic building blocks of matter we will develop revolutionary new applications across a variety of industries.
Imagine, for example, what a material 100 times as strong and 1/6th the weight of steel would do to the aerospace or automotive industries, or to our everyday lives. As existing semiconductor technologies reach their physical limitations, atomic scale manufacturing is the next frontier in electronics. Biotech, which already deals, in a sense, with machines and materials at the molecular level, is another area that will be profoundly influenced by nanotechnology.
Joe Firmage, founder of US Web and Silicon Valley's Fox Mulder, spoke at Silicon Forum today. His latest effort is Motion Sciences, dedicated to "the advancement of humanity's scientific and ethical appreciation of the physics of Nature, the discovery of new technologies enabling clean and abundant energy generation, combustion-free transportation, and sustainable material infrastructure, the wise use of resulting knowledge and tools for the egalitarian well-being of all life, and to the guidance of all such missions by an Oath for Peaceful Use of Science."
Huh? Basically, Firmage thinks he's figured out how gravity works (or at least has a beat on it) and wants to harness that knowledge to do a whole bunch of neat things.
May 19, 2002
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Welcome to R21, dedicated to examining the issues of the day with a modern perspective. My name is Chris Alden and R21 is intended to serve as a community for friends and associates--anyone who wants to discuss innovation in technology, politics, or any element in our society.
I come from a generation that (if you will indulge the generalization) spent early adulthood in a post-Cold War world after the "end of history" spending the "peace dividend" while we worked on our careers, wary of political activism and resistant to intellectualism. Our generation contributed a tremendous amount to the boom-time 90s, yet as we grew, settled down, and started families we began thinking more broadly about the world. The dot com bust made us realize that careers could be evanescent and couldn't be central to our lives, and 9/11 made us realize that geopolitics still matters--and ideas matter. As we get older, and as the world demands it, our generation is becoming more politically, culturally, socially, and geopolitically aware and active, yet very often we are at a loss as to how to become involved--and even how to educate ourselves.