Category: Public Policy

There’s a long-running debate among public policy commentators concerning the prudence of pursuing an all-or-nothing agenda or moving incrementally toward a particular goal.

How much accommodation is wise if that accommodation does make movement, however small, towards an ideal state of affairs, and yet also reinforces a system that is structurally opposed to the ultimate realization of that same ideal? When is it politically prudent to let the perfect potentially be the enemy of the good?

These questions in the context of all sorts of policy issues, but some examples include the libertarian concern to move toward a minimal or non-existent state, the pro-life concern to make abortion non-existent, and the gay “marriage” concern to legitimize and legalize same-sex partnerships.

The past week has seen a significant victory in this third arena in the state of California. When the state supreme court validated the practice of legal recognition of same-sex “marriage,” it cited the long history of the state government recognizing similar rights, privileges, and responsibilities for same-sex couples. That is, the incrementalist same-sex marriage approach, which sought sanction for same-sex adoption, same-sex partner health benefits, and so on, paved the way for the courts to recognize same-sex “marriage” as the last in a discernible line of logical public policy progression.

Citing a long list of moves by the state legislature to “equalize” treatment of same-sex couples (PDF of decision here, summary here), the majority concluded that “the current California statutory provisions generally afford same-sex couples the opportunity to enter into a domestic partnership and thereby obtain virtually all of the benefits and responsibilities afforded by California law to married opposite-sex couples.”

The perfectionist argument has been often based on a sort of Zeno’s paradox for public policy: accommodation or incrementalism may improve the state of affairs, but it likewise removes the possibility of achieving total victory. At least in the case of California and same-sex partnerships, that paradox seems to have been resolved in favor of the incrementalist approach.

From the UK:

I never for a moment thought that a life could be decided by something as arbitrary as one’s address.

The often-maligned US health care system is by no means a free market for health care services; rather, it is more of a hybrid public/private system. It’s imperfect and in need of reform, to be sure. But heaven help us if that reform takes the form of a governmental takeover of the entire system. How such a “reform” would improve our flawed system is beyond me.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
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Dana Joel Gattuso of the National Center for Public Policy Research warns that a provision in the pending farm bill will encourage increasing federal control of private lands (de facto federal ownership) via the mechanism of conservation easements.

That got me wondering just how much of the United States is owned by the federal government. Surprisingly, the information seems hard to come by. A study (pdf) conducted by congressional Republicans in 2005 and based on 2004 data found that the federal government owned more than 653 million acres, about 29 percent of the nation’s total land area. But when I went to the Web site of the agency to which that document directed me, the General Services Administration, I wasn’t able to locate the 2004 report, nor any more recent report that provides updated figures.

In this 2004 article, Robert Smith claimed that no one knows how much land the government owns because there is no bureau charged with keeping track.

Granted that the amount is constantly changing as the government acquires and divests (you can peruse available properties here), I’ll go along with Gattuso’s view that we want to avoid further expansion of government land ownership. Consider, too, that the figures cited above include only the national government’s holdings: state, county, and municipal governments no doubt own millions of additional acres.

On Wednesday the European Commission again delayed a decision on whether European farmers may grow more genetically modified (GM) crops. The commission claimed that more scientific analysis is needed before three new crops can be approved. But curiously, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has already twice analyzed the crops and found that they pose no danger to public health.

Divisions seem to have broken out within the commission on how to proceed with GM food. This comes at a time when biotech investors are increasingly exasperated with European procrastination on the issue.

The intra-Commission conflict on GM food is most bizarrely expressed in the open attempts by Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas to discredit the EFSA, an agency set up by the Commission in 2002 in order to specifically investigate food safety concerns. By undermining the authority of the EFSA, Dimas is colliding with Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel, who has defended the agency. The result is a complete stalemate which may leave the Europe years behind in biotech investment compared to the US and other countries.

Dimas’s hostility to GM food is cheered on by some environmental NGOs, in particular Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Greenpeace boasts that it orchestrated a campaign of 130,000 emails in order to obstruct the approval of the crops.

These NGOs have virtually no expertise in the area of consumer health research but join Dimas’s ritual attacks on the risk assessments done by the EFSA. It is particularly striking that they try to bring the EFSA into disrepute by implying that the World Health Organization (WHO) is speaking out against GM crops. But here’s what the WHO actually says:

“GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”

European worries about food safety are to a large extent based on the experience of the 1990s when a number of food scandals, in particular BSE or mad cow disease, caused understandable anxiety among consumers. All of these scandals, however, were entirely unrelated to GM food; it is irresponsible to exploit these fears in the current debate on biotechnology.

It is not difficult to see that at bottom the controversy is not so much about health and science but about politics and whose ox is being gored. In the European Council of Ministers, more agrarian-based countries like Greece (Dimas’s home country), Italy, Austria and Poland tend to vote against GM foods while states where traditional farming is not as dominant like the UK and the Netherlands are more open to biotech.

The politicization of the GMO debate is especially damaging at a time of global food price inflation. Future improvements in agricultural productivity will become increasingly necessary and biotech can play an important role in this area. The Commission must not allow pseudo-scientific excuses to stand in the way of serving the interests of the European, and indeed the global, consumer.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Thursday, May 8, 2008
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Michael Franc has an interesting piece on NRO about the demographics of campaign contributions. The gravamen is that Democratic presidential candidates in the current election have exhibited a whopping advantage among all kinds of elite groups, identified by professional, financial, or educational status. Meanwhile, Republicans garnered more support from plumbers, truckers, and janitors.

Franc doesn’t make much of an effort to explain the phenomenon, other than to note that Democrats have enjoyed a $200 million advantage in general, which may go a long way toward generating the more specific category advantages. And which may further be explained (this is my speculation) as being due to a) more people thinking a Democrat will win the White House and wanting to support a winner, or b) the Democratic primary race being more competitive than the Republican, or c) a combination of the two.

Instead of positing explanations, Franc focuses on what the trend may mean for the respective parties’ conventional policy tendencies:

What should we make of all this? National political parties, after all, reflect their supporters, and party leaders traditionally feel a responsibility to cater to their supporters’ whims. A party that receives overwhelming support from elite Wall Street investment firms, corporate bigwigs, and highly educated professionals may find it exceedingly difficult to raise their taxes or impose draconian new Big Government regulations on them. Similarly, a party that is losing well-educated suburban professionals and gaining support from blue-collar workers may find it more difficult to support free trade agreements and embrace globalization.

Next Monday will be the sixtieth anniversary of Luigi Einaudi’s inauguration as Italian President. Einaudi (1874-1961) was a distinguished economist and defender of classical liberalism. In the immediate period following World War II, he was governor of the Bank of Italy and finance minister. Many credit his policy of low taxes and dismantling tariffs with having laid the foundation for Italy’s “miracolo economico” of the 1950s and 1960s.

However, while his role as president between 1948-55 is still remembered, his legacy of economic freedom as a key to Italian post-war development has largely been forgotten. In a recent article, the Milanese financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore lamented that currently there is no political force in the country which feels inspired by Einaudi’s actions and insights.

The center-right led by Silvio Berlusconi which won the recent general elections in April cannot be considered a catalyst for market reforms. Its new economy minister Giulio Tremonti has expressed hostility to free trade and blames most of the world’s economic problems on an ideology he calls “marketism”. At the same time, the Northern League, Berlusconi’s junior coalition partner, is impossible to categorize in terms of its economic policy. It demands decentralization and reducing the role of the Italian state but also advocates protectionism.

Neither can Einaudi’s heirs be found on the Italian center-left. The recently founded Democratic Party (PD) has its origins in communism. One can appreciate its transformation towards more moderate positions and a certain openness to economic liberalization. However, the transition is not complete and cannot be compared to the process initiated by Tony Blair in the UK Labour Party in the 1990s.

It is regrettable that nobody wishes to emulate Einaudi’s achievements. These go beyond the technical mastery and application of market economics. Einaudi’s understanding of freedom also led him to insights of more wide-ranging importance for Italian society. He believed that an excess of state power tends to make citizens more lazy in the way they live their lives and think of their responsibility towards others. This attitude leads them to tolerate the social ills around them. They view the poor state of public services as inevitable and accept corruption and rent-seeking as unchangeable phenomena.

Now, that so many people in Italy worry about the economic situation of the country and feel alienated from the political institutions and their lack of accountability, one might think that the time is ripe to return to Einaudi’s lessons.

Blog author: dwbosch
Monday, May 5, 2008
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Daily Times of Pakistan:

LAHORE: Electricity shortage has exceeded 3,500 megawatts and load shedding is likely to increase across the country, Geo TV reported on Sunday. The water in both Tarbela and Mangla dams has dropped to dead levels, causing the shortfall, the channel quoted PEPCO officials as saying. The electricity demand had shot up after an increase in the use of air conditioners…

Ah, load shedding.

We lived in Guam for a couple of years in the early 90’s. The island was making the difficult transition from a 50 year old Navy-run power grid to a public utility and a growing tourist hotel presence on the island. Regularly scheduled blackouts were a fact of life. We learned to put up with them with the help of kerosene lanterns swung from hooks on the walls in case of earthquakes. We weren’t missing much in the way of TV back then anyway. There was that one stretch of outages by which we knew the wristwatch on the guy running the grid was running exactly seven minutes late. And while my very pregnant better half sometimes bristled at the loss of air conditioning twice a day, I quite liked the night-time blackouts that revealed a carpet of stars stretching from one horizon to the other, and bright blue phosphorescence on the reefs.

Anywho, one Pakistani doctor suggests their current power situation is the path to religious, military, political, and economic salvation:

Then there are my dear and good friends who keep pointing out that if only we as a nation revert to the true Sunnah, all our problems would be solved almost immediately. During periods of load shedding my mind does indeed turn to such admonishments.

More importantly, the only major advances in Muslim history, scientific, cultural and political, occurred before electricity was discovered. The Mughals, the Ottomans, the Safavids, the Ommayyads in Spain, the Fatimids in Egypt all brought great glory to Islam without a car, a motorbike, a split air-conditioner or a cell phone in sight.

Therefor I am convinced, especially during periods of load-shedding that our new and popularly elected government wants us, the people of the Islamic Republic, to revert to our greatness by recreating the environment in which Muslims excelled and built rich and thriving empires. In this connection I have a few suggestions that are offered in the true humility of my faith…

Heh. And this bit was great:

Also, the Islamic Republic will literally have no ‘carbon footprint’ since there will be virtually no production of ‘green-house’ gases except those produced in a biological fashion or in the industrial enclaves.

Therefore we can sell our carbon units to our neighbours to the east and the north. And if there are no airplanes, no cell phones and no ‘pillion riding’, then as a country we can demand a lot of money from our benefactors in the West. They all know what those three can lead to!

Hmmmmmm. Load shedding as a U.S. political platform? Nah – we’re way too impure for that.

[Don’s other habitat is www.evangelicalecologist.com]