P.L.A. - A Journal of Politics, Law and Autism

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Thursday, May 29, 2003
 
Subpoena The Video Rental Records

Jay Nordlinger in NRO suggests that Chief Justice Rehnquist may resign this summer and proposes a possible replacement:
William Rehnquist may step down this year, and we'll need a new chief justice. My choice, I guess, is somebody already on the Court: Clarence Thomas. The more I read about him, the more impressed I am with him. He is a brave and independent-minded man, embodying many of the qualities that an American should have — that anyone should have. But he is also a formidable judge, consistently writing intelligent, lively, and eloquent opinions. (More important, they are right opinions.)

There is at least one point in favor of Nordlinger's recommendation. A nomination of Clarence Thomas to the position of Chief Justice may help us determine if he committed perjury.

If there is one thing the Republicans believed in during the Clinton wars of the 1990s, it is that there is no limit to lengths we should go to discover if high officials committed perjury.

Republicans cheered as Ken Starr required a mother to testify against her daughter. The confidentiality of communication between White House counsel and the President could not stand in the way of a search for evidence of perjury.

Secret Service agents could be compelled to testify against a President. If that precedent causes future Presidents to make sure that Secret Service agents are not always available to protect the life of the chief executive, that is a small price to pay.

As people of my age will recall, Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of crude conduct, amounting to sexual harassment, which, if true would have disqualified him from serving on the Supreme Court. In one particular, Ms. Hill accused Thomas of making reference to having seen a particular pornographic movie. Thomas categorically denied the charge.

Republicans then attacked Ms. Hill's credibility alleging, in David Brock's memorable phrase, that she was "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty." The attack worked and Thomas was confirmed.

For some reason I could never fathom, the United States Senate never subpoenaed Mr. Thomas' video rental records. If that particular tape, which Thomas denied under oath ever having seen, had been listed among his rentals, Ms. Hill's credibility would have been greatly enhanced and Thomas would have been proven a perjurer.

Given that history, there seems little reason why a nomination of Clarence Thomas to Chief Justice should not result in the subpoena of his video rental records to see if he is a perjurer. If the search for the truth permits Ken Starr to rummage through the First Lady’s underwear drawer, surely having a look at Justice Thomas’s video rental records to see if a felon is about to ascend to the highest position on the highest court in the land is justified.


 
The Inevitability of Government Funded Universal Health Care Coverage

The New York Times reports on a new project to identify the links between genetic defects and a number of diseases like cancer and heart disease:
A new approach to identifying the genes involved in complex illnesses like cancer and heart disease will be announced today by the Center for the Advancement of Genomics in Rockville, Md., and Duke University.

The goal is to jump-start the long-discussed idea of bringing genomic data to bear on people's health risks, based on the premise that all diseases have a genetic component.

The new center would be able to process a huge amount of DNA data in an effort to identify genetic mutations that play a role in disease:
Physicians at Duke's medical center plan to draw up lists of human genes considered likely to play a role in diseases of interest, like the 100 or so genes that may, when mutated, play a role in coronary artery disease. Dr. Venter's center would sequence the full DNA of these 100 genes from large numbers of patients, looking for the mutations that seemed to be linked to the disease. These mutations could then be used to assess the risk for coronary artery disease in the population at large.

According to Duke University’s Ralph Snyderman, "One of the powers of genomic information will be determining individualized risk for disease and response to therapy.”

I am fully supportive of the project. I think that research identifying genetic defects that increase the risk of disease will eventually result in therapies that prevent or cure many diseases. I believe that a cure for autism, for instance, is likely to come from the identification of one or more genetic defects combined with prenatal or early life therapies to correct the defect.

The development of “individualized risk for disease and response to therapy” assessments will also force the country to a government funded universal health care insurance system.

The current system of private health insurance simply cannot survive the development of information that permits individuals and insurance companies to accurately assess the risk of incurring health care costs on an individualized basis. Actuarial experience of large groups will become increasingly irrelevant as an individual's exact DNA sequence determines the risk of disease.

People with few or no genetic predispositions for diseases will be unwilling to enter insurance pools with those who are genetically predisposed become sick.

Insurance companies will be reluctant to assume the risk of large health care expenses for individuals with genetic defects related to expensive diseases.

Given those two factors, our current system of private health insurance will collapse. We will either then mandate universal coverage regardless of individual risk assessment or abandon the concept of health care insurance leaving each individual to the luck of the genetic draw.

I fully expect that risk adverse voters will demand that the government opt for mandated universal coverage.


Wednesday, May 28, 2003
 
Leaving One Child Behind

Dominion has a teen age daughter who attends high school in Houston. A teacher’s aide and assistant coach at her school slammed a student to the floor breaking his arm. What caused the teacher’s aide to assault the student? The student was gay.

Dominion links to this report:
He proceeded to wrap some plastic around his hand and wrapped it around my neck and pulled me up out of my desk and slammed me to the floor," said the student. "I'm terrified of that man."

The student is recovering at home. X-rays showed that his arm has two hairline fractures.

"I feel like no teacher should ever do that to anybody's child," the student's mother said. "(He was) making remarks about 'gay (expletive).' If my son would have hit that teacher, they would have (dragged) him out by his heels."

Eight other students in the classroom confirmed the student's story.

The Houston Independent School District said that it is investigating the incident and that the teacher's aide has been reassigned away from students and Westbury.

In addition to an investigation by the school district, an investigation by the police and the District Attorney’s office is appropriate.

The last time I looked, assault and battery was a crime.



 
Changing The Tone

Atrios points us to this Denver Post article.

Mr. Bush has promised repeatedly to change the tone of politics. That, of course, does not mean that he wished to make politics more bipartisan. Quite the contrary, the Republicans wish export partisan rancor to the 50 state capitals:
We are trying to change the tones in the state capitals - and turn them toward bitter nastiness and partisanship," said Grover Norquist, a leading Republican strategist, who heads a group called Americans for Tax Reform.

"Bipartisanship is another name for date rape," Norquist, a onetime adviser to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, said, citing an axiom of House conservatives.

When can we expect Mr. Bush to stop Republican efforts to turn state capitals "toward bitter nastiness and partisanship?" When any Republican so much as hints that he or she opposes any part of the Bush agenda, they are taken to the woodshed. Mr. Bush could stop Norquist and his associates if he wished. When can we expect Mr. Bush to denouce the "bipartisanship is date rape" mentality of his party?

Mr. Bush wants the benefits of hard nosed, take no prisoner partisanship while posing as a "uniter not a dvider." The only remaining question is whether or not the media, the Democrats and, ultimately, the voters will permit him to get away with his charade.



Monday, May 26, 2003
 
Ivory Tower Dreamers

One of the most consistent (and effective) arguments used by Republicans against Democrats has long been that Democrats are Ivory Tower dreamers who implement policies without a concern as to whether or not the policies will actually work. Theory, the argument goes, instead of hard-nosed practicality drives liberal policy.

Republicans, on the other hand, claim to be steeped in the discipline of the market. With Republicans in office, government will be run like a business with programs that actually work and are cost effective. Pie in the sky dreaming will be out. Government programs and expenditures would be judged not on the basis of theoretical navel gazing but rather on the basis of real world experience and practicality.

The trouble with that argument is that although it may sound plausible in the Ivory Tower of Washington think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute or the American Enterprise Institute, it fails the kind of scrutiny that conservatives claim to admire. The evidence suggests that it is Republicans who implement government programs dreamed up by ideologues with no evidence from the real world that such programs will actually work.

Conservative’s reliance on Ivory Tower dreamers for policy prescriptions has pervaded many aspects of public policy. I wish to examine three such areas. The remainder of this post will show how conservative Ivory Tower ideas have infected fiscal policy, social policy and military policy.

Fiscal Policy

Ronald Reagan came to power with an ideological zeal to cut taxes and balance the budget. The problem, of course, was that his taste for cutting taxes was not matched by a hunger for spending cuts.

Instead of making the real world practical choice to cut spending along with taxes in order to achieve both lower taxes and a balance budget, Republicans relied on an unproven theory that asserted that tax cuts, spending increases and a balanced budget could all be simultaneously achieved.

The theory to support such a strange notion came from Arthur Laffer.

The Economist.com includes in its listing of economic terms the phrase “Laffer Curve.” That entry includes the following:
Legend has it that in November 1974 Arthur Laffer, a young economist, drew a curve on a napkin in a Washington bar, linking AVERAGE tax rates to total tax revenue. Initially, higher tax rates would increase revenue, but at some point further increases in tax rates would cause revenue to fall, for instance by discouraging people from working. The curve became an icon of supply-side ECONOMICS. Some economists said that it proved that most governments could raise more revenue by cutting tax rates, an argument that was often cited in the 1980s by the tax-cutting governments of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher…

The lack of empirical evidence meant that nobody could really be sure where the United States and other countries were on the Laffer curve.

I do not know whether or not Arthur Laffer really drew a curve on a bar napkin and launched an economic revolution. The telling phrase in the Economist listing is “the lack of empirical evidence.” The Reagan fiscal experiment was done, despite its attendant risks, without any real world experience or empirical evidence to show that it would work.

The evidence is now in. It is indisputable that under the 12 budgets submitted by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the federal government ran budget deficits totaling $3.1 trillion. By way of comparison, the deficits incurred in the 12 years under Reagan and Bush are more than four times the total deficits of the 20 years of Democratic Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and Clinton. More than one half of the national debt accumulated from the founding of this country through fiscal 2001 occurred during the 12 years after Ronald Reagan decided to test an unproven theory of fiscal management.

Which party implements public policy based on unproven theories concocted by Ivory Tower dreamers?

Social Policy

A second example of Republican reliance on the unproven ideas of Ivory Tower dreamers is the President’s faith-based initiative. The faith-based initiative was a core plank in the President’s 2000 election campaign. The program calls for federal dollars to be funneled to religious charities for use in providing social services to the poor.

That proposal was based on the assumption that faith based organization will be more effective than government in providing social services to the poor. As one Republican Congressman has written:
President Bush has noted that throughout history, some of the most effective anti-poverty programs have been non-governmental programs – private, often religious-based efforts organized at the local level by people who live where they serve, and who see local problems first hand. Some of the most effective private programs have little bureaucracy, are open to experimentation – and most importantly, are staffed by people who have a faith-based calling to help the poor, not simply with food or housing, but also with direct, caring contact which helps motivate defeated people to pick themselves up and better themselves.

The faith-based initiative is the brainchild of University of Texas Professor of Journalism Marvin Olasky.

The underpinnings for Bush’s faith-based initiative were contained in Olasky’s 1992 book The Tragedy of American Compassion. That book was written in the year Olasky spent at the ultimate conservative Ivory Tower, the Heritage Foundation.

What was the evidence that faith-based organizations would be more effective in providing social services to the poor? It seems that at least part of the “empirical evidence" came from Olasky himself. As a New York Time Book Review said:
By his own account, Olasky wrote the book after comparing the evangelism of nineteenth-century philanthropy to secular welfare efforts, which he believed to be rendered useless by their lack of emphasis on personal responsibility. This belief was confirmed, he wrote, by taking "a first-hand look at contemporary compassion toward the poor" during two days he spent disguised as a beggar in order to visit Washington soup kitchens: "I put on three used T-shirts and two dirty sweaters, equipped myself with a stocking cap and a plastic bag, removed my wedding ring, got lots of dirt on my hands, and walked with the slow shuffle that characterizes the forty-year-old white homeless male of the streets." During his two days (no nights) as a street person, he was offered, he reported (and here we reach the germ of the experiment), "lots of food, lots of pills of various kinds, and lots of offers of clothing and shelter," but never a Bible.

Does the President really base social policy on the experience of a journalism professor spending two days impersonating a beggar? Apparently he does.

The Washington Post reported on a study of the effectiveness of one program in the faith based initiative:
The assumption behind President Bush's faith-based initiative is that religious charities can do a better job, at a lower cost, than secular organizations in providing many social services, from drug treatment to employment training. But an Indiana study suggests it isn't necessarily so.

The study by researchers at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis is among the first attempts to compare the effectiveness of faith-based and secular organizations using objective data.

The researchers looked at 2,830 people who went through job training programs run by 27 government-funded organizations in two Indiana counties. They found no difference between secular and religious programs in job placement rates or starting wages. But clients of faith-based groups worked fewer hours, on average, and were less likely to receive health insurance.

That study looked only at a job training programs in one state. Even the principal investigator of the study, Sheila Kennedy warned against drawing too many conclusions from one study:
Kennedy warned against drawing broad conclusions from the relatively narrow study, which was based on the first two years' data in a three-year project funded by the Ford Foundation. It reflects the experience in two urban areas -- Marion County, which includes Indianapolis, and Lake County, which includes Gary, Ind. It used state-reported statistics on 11 religious and 16 secular job training programs in 2000-2002.

"It's accurate for these kinds of providers in this state. It isn't necessarily accurate for soup kitchens or day-care centers, and the outcomes in other states might be totally different," Kennedy said.

For my purposes, however, the most important part of the Post story concerns the empirical evidence available to the administration before it decided on its social policy:
Empirical studies of faith-based vs. secular organizations are rare. Reliable numbers are hard to gather, and the topic became hot two years ago, when Bush came into office pledging to help religious groups compete for government funding.

"There's a lot of stuff out there about what people think is effective. But there's next to nothing with data that isn't anecdotal or self-reported," said Robert W. Tuttle, a professor at George Washington University Law School who tracks the faith-based initiative.

In other words, George Bush decided on social policy based on a series of anecdotes or self reports or a ideologue dressed up like a beggar. Empirical evidence seems to have placed no role in Bush's decision-making process.

It is apparent that our social policy is being made based on the theoretical ideas of Ivory Tower dreamers and not on the hard experience of the real world. Is that not the precise criticism of Democrats that Republicans have made for several decades?

Military Policy

One of the military policy priorities of the current administration is the deployment of a missile defense system. One trouble with a missile defense system is that it is easy and cheap to construct effective countermeasures. The development of castle walls and moats begat the catapult. The same might happen with regard to missile defense.

According to this article in Slate:
In September 1999, the CIA's National Intelligence Estimate concluded that any country able to develop ballistic missiles "would also develop various responses to US defenses," including such "readily available technology" as decoys, chaff, or wrapping warheads in radar-absorbing material.

The tests designed to test a missile defense system have been altered again and again to assume away any problem. As Fred Kaplan reported in the same Slate article:
In 1997 they decided finally to confront the issue, devising a test plan that would involve shooting down a mock warhead surrounded by nine or 10 decoys, all of which would look like a warhead to the sensors of a heat-seeking radar. In 1998, the program was revised so that the warhead would be flanked by just three decoys. In 1999, plans were again altered; only one decoy would be required, and it could be a large balloon. Philip Coyle, then the Pentagon's test director, wrote a widely distributed report the following year criticizing this devolution. The balloon's heat signature, he wrote, was "very dissimilar" to that of the mock warhead, so the radar "can easily discriminate" between the two.

Despite the lack of realism in the test design, only five of the eight tests have been “successful.” One of the “successful” tests shows the difficulty in actually building an effective system. As Kaplan reports:
In one nominally successful test, after the interceptor slammed into the warhead, shards from the collision caused the radar on the ground to malfunction. If a second warhead had followed, the whole system would have been blinded.

Last December, despite the absence of any track record of success in realistic tests, President Bush decided to order deployment of the system. The cost of a missile defense system is substantial. The administration will spend more $9 billion this year on missile defense. The total cost of a fully deployed system could exceed $1 trillion according to one estimate. Before those costs are incurred, perhaps we should have a system that actually works.

Fred Kaplan, writing in Slate, says that the Bush administration is unconcerned about whether or not the system will actually work:
The Bush administration seems to be no longer even pretending that its missile defense system will work. More than that, it no longer seems to care...

But look at the Bush's new National Security Presidential Directive, "National Policy on Ballistic Missile Defense," an unclassified version of which was released by the White House on May 20. Buried within the five-page statement—the usual litany of prospective threats and strategic rationales—are these two sentences:
The United States will not have a final, fixed missile defense architecture. Rather, we will deploy an initial set of capabilities that will evolve to meet the changing threat and to take advantage of technological developments.

"Architecture," in this context, means pretty much what it means in its colloquial sense: a detailed blueprint with measurements, an underlying design, a notion of how a structure's materials fit together, all rooted in basic principles of physics and engineering
For the administration to start deploying a missile defense system before devising an architecture is no different from a construction firm starting to hammer nails, put up joists, and lay out a roof before knowing the style or size of a house.

Conclusion

The Republican Party claims to be the party of ideas. Having new ideas is great. Before those ideas become public policy, however, perhaps there should be some empirical evidence of efficacy.

Does it make sense to risk the nation’s fiscal health on the flimsy evidence of a curve drawn on a bar napkin?

Should we base our social policy on the experience of a University Professor who dressed up like a beggar for two days?

Before we spend $1 trillion of taxpayer money on a missile defense system, would it not be nice to have the system tested to see if it works or at least to have blueprint of what we plan to build?

The next time you hear someone complain that government programs do not work, that some air head Ivory Tower resident seems to be making policy, that we need politicians with practical experience with budgeting and making things work, remind them to vote for Democrats.


Sunday, May 25, 2003
 
Today’s Tour 5/25/03


Moral Clarity

Avedon is more than a little skeptical about conservative claims to having “moral clarity” while liberals are “moral relativists.”
For years, I've been trying to come up with a concise definition of what conservatives call "moral relativism". Looking at the record, it appears that conservatives generally oppose any evidence of enjoying life if it is done by liberals, and can forgive every kind of immoral, unethical, or criminal act if it is performed by conservatives (unless they are conservative Democrats). It was okay for Newt Gingrich to orchestrate an impeachment of Clinton over adultery because Gingrich's on-going series of adulterous relationships were Republican adultery, whereas Clinton, being a Democrat, was being immoral. The dead woman in Scarborough's office was not suspicious, because he was a Republican; the missing girlfriend of Condit was suspicious, because he was a Democrat. Liberals should honor their (conservative) parents, but conservatives don't have to honor their (liberal) parents. Clinton was evil because he was caught in one little untruth, but Bush's consistent pattern of dissembling over even life and death issues is a virtue.


Education Policy

Julia is unhappy with the unintended consequences of the President’s education reforms and the effect those reforms are having on the recruitment of fourth grade teachers. I have a son entering the fourth grade next year so Julia's point resonates with me.


Jeanne D’Arc notes that many parents are upset at the emphasis now placed on standardized test scores in the lower grades:
I don't think people without kids in school realize how deep the hatred of standardized testing runs. You can make 110 pound soccer moms look like the Incredible Hulk just by mentioning the words "standardized test." Veins stand up on their necks and words you wouldn't believe pop out of their mouths. Two weeks into first grade, my daughter, along with all the other 6-year-olds, was spending time each day learning how to bubble in a standardized test (they start taking them at the end of second grade). That bit of information was passed from parent to parent in the hallways with more urgency and frustration that the inevitable yearly rumor of lice. ("Can you believe they're doing this? These are babies. Are they nuts?")

Bob Somerby questions the logic behind punishing kids as a means to somehow (exactly how is left unsaid by standardized test advocates) improve poor schools:
Put aside your views on graduation exams and focus instead on Finn’s logic. According to Finn, minority kids do poorly on these tests because “for the most part, they’ve got worse schools to go to.” But instead of taking direct action against the schools, Finn says we must flunk the students—and then the schools will somehow improve.

Jesse is upset at a conservative attack on teachers.


When four of my favorite writers are discussing the same topic, it is time to pay attention. Please read and enjoy.



Ten Trillion Dollars

RonK writing at the Daily Kos notes that the budget projections for the Unites States government have deteriorated in just two years by the whopping total of $10 trillion. Ron tries to wrap his mind around that number:
Here's one way of bringing it down to personal scale. There are roughly 100 million households in the USA. $10,000,000,000,000 divides out to $100,000 per household. (If you live in a nicer-than-average house, help yourself to a bigger-than-average slice of the negative pie.)

Here's a more concrete benchmark: the replacement cost of America's housing stock -- every house, duplex, condo, apartment and trailer, from sea to shining sea -- is roughly $10T.

The finances of the United States government have deteriorated by the value of the entire housing stock of the country since Mr. Bush entered office. Does that fact deserve at least a little bit of attention? Is it more important that a few shark attacks or a missing intern? Is $10 trillion enough for the media to focus on that issue instead of whether or not John Kerry had a Jewish ancestor? Is the loss of $10,000,000,000,000.00 more or less important than how George Bush looks in a flight suit?