Category: Public Policy

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, January 12, 2006
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Some new developments on the idea to move cable television to an a la carte subscription model: Christians and minorities are “concerned.”

According to the Christian Science Monitor, FCC chairman Kevin Martin is pressuring cable providers to move away from the tier-based subscription system to “a full thumbs-up/thumbs-down choice of individual channels.”

In what’s sure to tweak the sensibilities of the cable industry, Martin threatened that if no such moves were made, “basic indecency and profanity restrictions may be a viable alternative.” In other words, it’s the “Do what I want or there’ll be trouble” method of politicking.

The pressure by the FCC may in fact work against the existence of such “family friendly” or religious fare. In a curious confluence, “Democratic politicians and Christian broadcasters are crying foul. They are concerned that a wide expansion of channel choice could raise cable and satellite prices and spell the end of small networks targeted toward niche audiences.”

Martin emphasizes that there should also be “family friendly” packages, but I don’t see the real point of this if people can pick and choose what channels they want themselves anyway. Let them decide what is “family friendly” and what is not. Of course that’s precisely the situation these “niche” broadcasters want to avoid.

For its part, the Family Research Council and its senior legal council Patrick Trueman emphasized the importance of obscenity and decency enforcement on cable and satellite TV, in testimony before a Senate subcommittee last year.

As the nation prepares to celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. on Jan. 15, it’s time to broaden the discussion of race relations in America to include not just blacks and whites, but Asians, Hispanics and Native Americans. The long fixation on black-white relations has obscured some important measures of racial progress — or lack of it — in American society, argues Anthony Bradley. “In fact, the greatest impediment to appropriating King’s dream is our unwillingness to move beyond a white social barometer,” he says.

Read the complete commentary here.

Blog author: mvandermaas
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
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Jeffrey Tucker at the Ludwig Von Mises Institute:

You might say that water needs to be conserved. Yes, and so does every other scarce good. The peaceful way to do this is through the price system. But because municipal water systems have created artificial shortages, other means become necessary. One regulation piles on top of another, and the next thing you know, you have shower commissars telling you what you can or cannot do in the most private spaces.

Has central planning ever been more ridiculous, intrusive, and self-defeating?

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
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Arnold Kling at the excellent EconLog says that “the government should empty its strategic petroleum reserve and buy energy futures contracts instead. At some point, the futures market has to be taken seriously.”

He concludes, “The government has all sorts of subsidies for alternative energy. However, the most efficient subsidy would be to buy oil futures contracts. If we must have an energy policy, it should consist solely of strategic futures market purchases.”

This on the heels of the announcement by Whole Foods Market Inc. that “the company is buying enough wind power credits to cover energy use at all of its U.S. stores, bakeries, distribution centers, regional offices and its Austin headquarters.” For Acton research fellow Anthony Bradley’s take on wind power, click here (and listen here for a radio interview [mp3] with Bradley on the subject). Read here about offshore wind farms.

I’m all in favor of the market determining what alternative energy sources there are and who decides to use them. Good for Whole Foods, I wish them luck. I’m not convinced, however, that I need to help pay for their switch to wind power, which government subsidies for such ensure that I do. Nuclear energy deserves a second look, and the harsh realities of energy markets is forcing even Europe to recognize this, as various European nations slate the construction of new nuclear reactors.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
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Check out this review of James Howard Kunstler’s new book, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century (Atlantic), which describes it as a “litany around the increasingly fashionable panic over oil depletion.” This paucity of oil will in large part contribute to a future in which “the best-case scenario is a mass die-off followed by a forced move back to the land, complete with associated feudal relations. As the title implies, this is to be an ongoing state rather than a crisis to be overcome – a sentiment that the US critic Susan Sontag described as ‘apocalypse from now on’.”

Kunstler in part attempts to rehabilitate the figure of Malthus, who he says was generally right, but who could not take into account the veneer of transitory economic advancement enabled through the use of fossil fuels. Kunstler’s book fits in with a newly ascendent genre of apocalyptic writing, which unanimously agrees that humanity faces extinction. “The core elements of the litany are predictable: climate change, disease, terrorism, and an-out-of-control world economy. Other elements such as killer asteroids, nanotechnology or chemical pollution can be added according to taste,” writes the reviewer Joe Kaplinsky. Indeed, the view is shared across ideological and religious lines. The Rapture Index, for example, is currently at its high point for 2006: 154.

He contends that in The Long Emergency Kunstler essentially views humans themselves as the problem: “He has long argued against suburbia and the car, in favour of a ‘New Urbanism’. In places it is perhaps possible to read The Long Emergency as a revenge fantasy. Embittered at his inability to convince others that they should change their ways, Kunstler takes refuge under the wing of Nature’s avenging angel. He can be ignored (he attributes this to a psychological flaw in his detractors); the inhuman laws of nature cannot.”

For an introduction to New Urbanism, check out the controversy in the Journal of Markets & Morality on the question, “To What Extent and in What Ways Should Governmental Bodies Regulate Urban Planning?” beginning with an essay by Charles C. Bohl, director of the Knight Program in Community Building at the University of Miami, and continuing with a response by Mark Pennington, lecturer in Public Policy at the University of London. As is typical of the controversies, there is then one more cycle of responses.

Kunstler continues, noting that “apparently, those who will suffer most terribly in the long emergency are the US Republican states whose culture is built on violence and fundamentalist Christianity. Neighbourhoods with spacious housing (‘McMansions’) and ‘poor street detailing’, a particular insult to Kunstler, are singled out for destruction. Europeans, by contrast, may pull through in better shape. There is an uncanny alignment between the supposedly objective, inevitable laws of nature and Kunstler’s prejudices. Perhaps the best summary of his views is found in the book’s epigraph: ‘I don’t know if the Gods exist, but they sure act as if they do.'”

The remainder of the review gives a lengthy examination of Kunstler’s underlying claims, evidence, and prejudice, including his view of the effects of “entropy,” and is well worth a read.

Blog author: kjayabalan
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
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There are two good articles out there in today’s press about socialist thinking, which alas is all too prevalant, especially in issues concerning the environment.

The first is a tribute to Arthur Seldon in the Daily Telegraph. Some of Seldon’s friends and family are gathering in a London synagogue today to remember one of the founders of the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The creed was capitalism, a concept about which Seldon wrote his most distinguished book in 1990, and which had been under sustained assault for much of the 20th century. Seldon’s work begins with this typically unapologetic statement: “Capitalism requires not defence but celebration. Its achievement in creating high and rising living standards for the masses without sacrificing personal liberty speaks for itself. Only the deaf will not hear and the blind will not see.”

The second is another hilarious take-down of environmentalists by Mark Steyn in The Australian.

While Seldon helped lauch free-market thought throughout the United Kindgom and the United States, it’s clear that the environmentalists still command headlines with their scare tactics and incoherent arguments. The world desperately needs more Arthur Seldons.

Check out this interview with Acton senior fellow in economics Jennifer Roback Morse from the Zenit News Agency, “Righting the Wrongs in Modern Sex and Marriage.”

She talks about writing her recent book, Smart Sex: Finding Life-Long Love in a Hook-Up World (Spence) and says, “I wanted to write a book for the ordinary person who wants to get married and stay married. Most readers are not economists or theologians, so I wanted to convey to the public that this book is meant for them.”

The long wait is finally over. Federal vouchers are coming!

Before you get too excited, however, I have to inform you that the vouchers are not for education. You can’t use these vouchers to send your child to the school of your choice.

Instead, because of the government-mandated switch for broadcast TV from analog to digital bandwidths, set for Feb. 17, 2009, upwards of 20 million television sets will be obsolete, only able to receive the then-defunct analog signals.

“To avoid a consumer revolt, Congress has set aside about $1.5 billion to smooth the transition. Owners of outmoded TV sets will be eligible for two vouchers, worth $40 each, to help buy converter boxes that will enable today’s analog TV sets to receive digital signals,” Fortune magazine reports.

The government argues that the move will open up huge new areas of bandwidth for greater technical innovation and delivery. Once broadcast TV is moved to the digital spectrum, the old analog bandwidths will be auctioned off, and the government stands to make a pretty penny on the deal. “The sale of this valuable, scarce real estate is expected to bring in about $10 billion, maybe more. That will help reduce the federal budget deficit,” writes Marc Gunther.

Of course, those companies buying up the newly-opened space will be better off too: “With the new auction, we will finally become a broadband nation,” says Blair Levin, a Washington analyst with Stifel Nicolaus. “Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Intel, Dell — these companies will all benefit. The more broadband pipes you have, the more applications will come along, the more often you will upgrade your device.”

The interesting thing about these digital tuner vouchers is that one argument for their issue is that the poor will be disproportionately affected by the switch. Gunther writes, “But for consumers with one of those 70 million sets — many of whom are likely to be poor, elderly or uneducated, being forcibly switched from one technology to another will be a nightmare.”

Gunther goes on to describe the “nightmare scenario,” in which “people who depend on free, over-the-air TV for news and entertainment will lose their access, or have to pay more for it, so that the rest of us can get faster service on our Blackberries and ESPN on our cell phones.”

Last I checked, news and weather information on which people depend is still freely available over the radio. And maybe some of us would be better off with less access to TV. AC Nielsen reports (PDF) that “During the 2004-05 TV season (which started September 20, 2004 and just ended September 18, 2005), the average household in the U.S. tuned into television an average of 8 hours and 11 minutes per day.”

We’ve all heard the stories about families on federal assistance in the inner city with big screen TVs, or living in trailer parks with satellite dishes. Nowadays, Marx might say that TV is the opiate of the people rather than religion, or better yet, that TV has become the religion of the people.
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Blog author: mvandermaas
Monday, January 9, 2006
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Monopoly #1: I was somewhat shocked the other day when I heard a strong critique of the much-vaunted Canadian national health care system on NPR. I wasn’t dreaming – here’s the link to prove it. The report notes that “after 50 years, the Medicare dream has turned nightmare for many” – something that many advocates for socialized health care in the US would do well to take note of. It also takes note of the recent precedent-setting court decision in Quebec which gives residents who are on waiting lists that jeopardize their health the right to opt out of the public system. (You can listen to the report in Real Audio format by clicking here; previous posts on the topic here, here, and here.) Government health care in Canada seems to be teetering on the brink.

One facing a judicial red light; the other, green.

Monopoly #2: The same can not be said for the governmental education monopoly in Florida. Last Thursday, the state Supreme Court struck down Florida’s statewide voucher system.

In a 5-2 ruling, the high court said the program undermines the public schools and violates the Florida Constitution’s requirement of a uniform system of free public education.

This is unfortunate, for the simple reason that the introduction of vouchers has been an effective education reform measure in Florida. The Wall Street Journal noted the positive effects of the program back in June:

The saga began in 1999, when Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law the first money-back guarantee in the history of public education: the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Under the program, whenever a public school receives two failing grades on Florida’s academic performance standards, state educational officials come into the school with a remedial program, and the students are allowed to transfer to better performing public schools or to use a share of their public funds as full payment of private-school tuition.

Six years later, only 750 children are attending private schools using opportunity scholarships. But their footsteps have reverberated across the state, prompting failing public schools to reform. Steps taken by failing schools have included spending more money in the classroom and less on administration, hiring tutors for poor performing teachers, and providing year-round instruction to pupils.

Defenders of the status quo insist that such reforms were already under way. But a freedom of information request by the Institute for Justice from school districts that lifted schools off the failing list revealed ubiquitous reference to the dreaded V-word: Without such measures, school officials warned, we wind up with vouchers. The rules of economics, it seems, do not stop at the schoolhouse doors.

The results have been stunning. Even with tougher state standards, nearly half of Florida’s public schools now earn “A” grades, while a similar percentage scored “C’s” when the program started. A 2003 study by Jay Greene found that gains were most concentrated among schools under threat of vouchers.

Most remarkable has been minority student progress. While the percentage of white third-graders reading at or above grade level has increased to 78% from 70% in 2001, the percentage among Hispanic third-graders has climbed from 46% to 61%, and among blacks from 36% to 52%. Graduation rates for Hispanic students have increased from 52.8% before the program started to 64% today; and for black students from 48.7% to 57.3%. Minority schoolchildren are not making such academic strides anywhere else.

And so we revert to the status quo. Sadly, the ones most harmed by the status quo are the ones most in need of the reforms that school choice would bring – the poor.

My predictions: As Canada introduces more market oriented solutions to its health care problems, the quality of care that Canadians recieve will rise and fewer Canadians will have to head south of the border to obtain it; and until American public schools face genuine competition, the quality of the education they provide (especially in inner city and poor areas) will increase negligibly if at all. (more…)

Topping today’s Science/Nature section at BBC News, “Population size ‘green priority'”, by Richard Black. The article focuses on the thoughts of Professor Chris Rapley, Director of the British Antarctic Survey, who contends that the “current global population of six billion is unsustainably high.” This is to say nothing of the growth rate and future generations.

Based on a column Rapley wrote for a new BBC feature, The Green Room, the article presents the view that “humankind is consuming the Earth’s resources at an unsustainably fast rate,” based on “a number of studies.”

The basis for Rapley’s concern, as you might expect, is carbon emissions, but he writes, “Although reducing human emissions to the atmosphere is undoubtedly of critical importance, as are any and all measures to reduce the human environmental ‘footprint’, the truth is that the contribution of each individual cannot be reduced to zero.”

He concludes, “Only the lack of the individual can bring it down to nothing.”

Rapley laments that there is a paucity of opportunities to discuss population growth, since it is not often discussed at global environmental summits. “Rare indeed are the opportunities for religious leaders, philosophers, moralists, policymakers, politicians and indeed the “global public” to debate the trajectory of the world’s human population in the context of its stress on the Earth system, and to decide what might be done,” he writes.

Rapley does seem to overlook the UN’s World Population Day, which is little more than a campaign for population controls. And the myth of humanity as a plague species has been fodder for London’s “The Human Zoo,” as well as happening to be the view of Agent Smith in the Matrix movies.

As we saw in a recent commentary by Acton research fellow Jay Richards, Rapley is certainly not alone in his concern. A letter to Richards about his book on intelligent design from a prominent scientist read in part: “Still, adding over seventy million new humans to the planet each year, the future looks pretty bleak to me. Surely, the Black Death was one of the best things that ever happened to Europe: elevating the worth of human labor, reducing environmental degradation, and, rather promptly, producing the Renaissance. From where I sit, Planet Earth could use another major human pandemic, and pronto!”

Perhaps some individuals have imbibed such a view, as birth rates in the developed world are not growing. A 2004 UN report showed that “because of its low and declining rate of population growth, the population of developed countries as a whole is expected to remain virtually unchanged between 2005 and 2050.” Most of the countries in the developed world which will account for the decline in birth rates belong to the EU. The US, on the other hand, is one of the eight nations that will “account for half of the world’s projected population increase.”

But part of the reason that Rapley’s concerns aren’t getting much attention beyond pop culture phenomena and some macabre colleagues is that the population explosion myth has been rather thoroughly debunked. The case of carbon emissions is simply the latest hook for population control advocates. For more on population and the environment, check out Acton’s policy section, which links to a number of helpful resources.