Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Hey, At Least They're Paying Attention To Us!

After a lengthy hiatus from blogging due to travelling, a funny/sad post at H&R on the drug war has finally inspired me to tentatively make my first post in almost a month:

As I'm sure you'll agree, most anti-drug ads are utterly awful, even if they aren't filled with a bunch of lies that kids quickly see don't reflect the reality of drug use they see around them. I don't know anyone who praises these as being something they think will actually make a difference. And furthermore, kids today are very media-savvy: many have been taught to be pretty skeptical of what they see on television commercials. So is it any surprise that even the government has found that the government’s anti-drug ads ($1.2 billion worth) have been unsuccessful in preventing teens from changing their opinions about drugs?

The funniest angle on all of this is that the Partnership for a Drug-Free America is claiming that their ads are successful because they have been the recipient of satire and the butt of countless jokes. Um, we're laughing at you, not with you. But is any publicity good publicity? Well, it probably is... for the drugs.

And to top it off, check out the great placement of a new full-page anti-drug ad in USA Today, right across from a headling reading "Anti-drug advertising campaign a failure, GAO report says":

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Fascinating Historical Figures

Here's someone I've never heard of before but sure sounds like an interesting character: John Wilkes, who's the subject of a new biography by Arthur Cash. Some snippets from Daniel McCarthy's review in Reason:

...John Wilkes—radical journalist, member of Parliament, outlaw, prisoner, lord mayor of London, and self-described libertine.... His life and career go a long way toward dispelling the superstition that liberty must advance hand in glove with order, guided by men of sterling moral character.

...Wilkes helped lay the foundation for some of the most basic rights taken for granted in the United States and Great Britain: freedom of the press, the right to privacy, religious liberty. Most often Wilkes did this—at considerable risk to himself—by goading the government into overreaction and then suing the king’s ministers and agents. Along the way, he conducted innumerable adulterous affairs, dabbled in dueling, accumulated debts he had no intention of paying—“I take the liberty to inform you that at present it is not my interest to pay the principal, neither is it my principle to pay the interest,” he told one creditor—and published what some have considered the filthiest poem in the English language.

...Endorsing one bill for religious tolerance, he declared, “I wish to see rising in the neighborhood of a Christian cathedral, near its Gothic towers, the minaret of a Turkish mosque, a Chinese pagoda, and a Jewish synagogue, with a temple of the sun, if any Persians could be found to inhabit this island and worship in this gloomy climate the God of their idolatry.” At the time, as Cash writes, “Jews had no religious rights at all” and “it was specifically against the law to hold a Roman Catholic mass, and a Catholic who took in pupils or opened a school could be imprisoned for life.”

And this was in the 1760's! Pretty impressive, and definitely someone worth learning more about.

End the War On For Farming

This is probably a big risk considering I'll be home in Saskatchewan next week, but I'm going to link very favorably to this op-ed in the LA Times by Jonah Goldberg on farm subsidies. He's right in saying that there is almost no issue besides this one that almost everyone outside of the benficiaries (and their political connections) agrees is terribly policy, yet nobody has the political will to do anything about it. These subsidies cost billions, hurt consumers and the environment, and most appallingly, make it almost impossible for farmers in really poor countries compete on the global market and move along a path to development. All to please less than 1% of the the population in the richest nations on Earth.

We just can't seem to let go of the romantic notion of a farmer toiling away in the fields. This idea is behind similar policies found in most states and provinces where an "agricultural land reserve" is artificially maintained through zoning and subsidies. Unwisely, many environmentalists actually support these types of protections despite the fact that a monoculture such as field of corn is about as "natural" as downtown Manhattan. And probably less so than Central Park.

Read the whole thing.

Surprising/Useless Baseball Trivia

Which team had the best record in the major leagues when the 1994 season was called in August due to the players' strike?

The answer is in the comments.

Using the Right Tool for the Job

Tim Lee makes a great observation about ends and means while discussing Matt Yglesias’ insightful post regarding the uselessness of violence in achieving the kind of goals we would like to achieve in the Middle East. It's worth quoting at length:

…the policy tools you use largely dictate the kinds of policy ends you can achieve. Brutal repression is generally not a good way to create a liberal democracy. Prohibition is not an effective way to reduce drug use. Government construction is not generally a good way to create safe and attractive housing for poor people.

Unfortunately, this is a point that tends to get lost on politicians, who are often intoxicated by the power of the tools at their disposal. They come to believe that they merely need to decide on a goal, and the awesome machinery of government will go to work making that goal come to pass. That works pretty well if your goal it to blow up a building, construct a new highway, or send a man to the moon. But it tends to backfire when your goal involves reshaping fragile, highly interdependent social systems. Because the same lumbering giant quality that makes government so good at blowing things up and sending people to the moon tends to shatter the intricate social networks on which liberal social goals depend.

People who don't grasp this problem get drawn into asinine political debates that miss the real issue: should there be liberal democracy in Iraq? Should people use fewer drugs? Should the poor have more housing? The answers to these questions are obvious, but the fact that the ends are clear doesn't mean that the means are obvious.

I am (rightfully) pretty hard on politicians, but for the most part I don't think they are actively evil and destructive people - the just have some outrageous and contempuous (but well-intentioned) ideas about how to create a better world. The problem-solver in all of us wants to believe we've got the answers to whatever situation we're confronted with. But usually the correct path isn't immediately obvious and we need to step back and let things develop. A precautionary approach, whereby you reduce the risk of catastophic consequences, is a wise outlook. Society can be amazingly resilient (which can of course be both a blessing and a curse), and so-called "lawmakers" need to realize that laws aren't really made (or at least maintained) in the policies they create, but in the social institutions people create with each other. Giving a little more thought to using the right tool for the job would go a long way in creating a more effective government.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Justifiable Outrage

Ron Bailey at Reason has stepped away from looking at science issues for the last couple of days and is doing a bang-up job exposing the disgraceful disregard for civil liberties currently infecting the government. He rightfully criticizes the secret trials proposed by the Bush administration for dealing with terror suspects. A former Navy lawyer summarizes these trials like this:

"We know you're guilty. We can't tell you why, but there's a guy, we can't tell you who, who told us something. We can't tell you what, but you're guilty."

This is what stands for due process these days? An outraged Bailey adds:

Is the Bush Administration taking a cue from how the People's Republic of China conducts secret national security trials? The two Congressional committees hearing testimony today on this scandalously un-American proposal should hold Administration officials in contempt of Congress for violating their oaths to defend the Constitution and toss them in jail.

Third-Party Morality

It appears as though the Green Party of Pennsylvania has received/accepted over $66,000 in contributions from Republican supporters in order to try and get on the ballot in the PA Senate race. The thinking by the GOP is that this will split the far-left vote between the Green candidate and Democrat Bob Casey, thereby allowing everyone’s favorite frothy mixture, the beyond-awful Rick Santorum, to overcome his deficit in the polls and retain his Senate seat. Predictably, the Bleed-Blue-Forever! Dems at Daily Kos and elsewhere are outraged at this, saying the Greens should be ‘ashamed’ and claiming they have no principles and are tools of the GOP. Now, there is no Senator in America I want to lose more than ol’ man-on-dog Santorum. And if I cared about the Democrats’ success in the election (for the record, I would like them to take control of the Senate), maybe I’d care a lot more. But has the Green Party really done anything unethical here? I admit it feels a little dirty, but they have potentially enabled themselves to get on the ballot in a major Senate race, no small feat in a system that creates almost insurmountable barriers to entry for parties outside the mainstream. Should they care where there money is coming from? Or is it justifiable means to and end? Have they simply used the Republicans to achieve their goal of getting on the ballot? Or have they sold their soul to the devil on this one? I think some of the confusion lies with many Dem-supporters' belief that the Greens ‘like’ them. More likely, the Greens believe (as I do) that the Dems are as corrupt, power-mad, morally bankrupt and bereft of good ideas as the Republicans are.

Colbert v. Wikipedia

America's finest satirist and political talk-show host takes on the online encyclopdia.

(And to update this, the Wikipedia entries for African elephants and Stephen Colbert are now locked due to so many people trying to change them in an act of "vandalism". Very reminiscent of This Hour Has 22 Minutes' gathering enough signatures to force a referendum on changing then-Canadian Alliance Party leader Stockwell Day's name to Doris.)

Related hilarity from "America's finest news source": Wikipedia Celebrates 750 Years Of American Independence.

On to Plan I-rony

The cultural conservatives who oppose OTC access to Plan B are actually urging President Bush not to bow to political pressure in appointing a new FDA head. Unbelieveable. This is reminiscent of their criticism of the FDA's review process on the drug, which they criticized for only considering "the drug's safety and its effect on pregnancy". You know, like the FDA is supposed to do.

Reason's headline: "Stop Politicizing My Heartfelt Desire to Oppress Women"

For The Ladies

Don't delay, the "Men of Mortuaries" 2007 Calender is out now! For those who have a sexy bodybuilder/grave digger obsession. [Via TtP]

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The FDA (May) Take (Tentative) Steps Towards 1991

After much political monkey business meant to please the ultra-conservative base, the FDA may be poised to allow Plan B, the "morning after pill", to be available without a prescription. Despite the fact that restricting access to Plan B probably increases the likihood of women having actual abortions, the Christian wing of the Republican party has fought removing the prescription requirement because they consider it a form of abortion and claim that this easy-out will encourage sexual promiscuity - although much noise is made about supposed "health reasons" behind restrictions. In taking this wise move, the FDA is just taking their own advice (their own advisory comittee studying the issue recommended doing this years ago) that has been silenced for political reasons.

The Descent of Perspective on Human Freedom

Patrick Henry, 1775: "Give me liberty or give me death."

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), 2006: "I am a strong supporter of the first amendment and fourth amendment and civil liberties, but you have no civil liberties if you are dead."

More here.

A Regulation in Search of a Problem

This is old, but still worthy of a post: Writing in the NY Times, Christopher Elliot brings our attention to the fact that there is currently no federal requirement for restrooms on planes:

A functioning toilet is such a basic necessity that the law appears to take it for granted. Perhaps it shouldn't.

Thank god somebody is looking into this, because I'm sick of having to shit in a paper bag at my seat on long flights. He continues:

Of course, airlines don't exploit this regulatory lapse.

Oh, right. So remind me again why we need a law?

Finding Meth Just Got Easier

Doing his usual excellent job over at Slate fighting meth hysteria, Jack Shafer describes how the online meth offender registries are a futile attempt at curbing the drug trade, prevents those convicted of meth offenses from turning their life around...and they make it really easy to find people who might be able to sell you meth, if you're into that sort of thing. But kids don't know much about negotiating the internet, do they?

Maybe They Don't Want Your "Help"

Last week, Chicago City Council approved a measure that would require stores with greater than 90,000 square feet of retail space and more than $1 billion in sales to pay a higher minimum wage and provide additional benefits. This was brought on to help poor residents of the city have a living wage. Besides the questionable constitutionality of the law, economists know that the real effect will be to drive big-box retailers out into the suburbs, making it more difficult to find work in the city. Interestingly and encouragingly, those who actually want and need these jobs are far less keen on the idea than the people who spend their time trying to "help" them:

More than a dozen church and community leaders ratcheted up the rhetoric Monday over a proposed city wage ordinance for big-box retail stores, saying the measure would hurt economically depressed areas.

The group, made up of leaders from predominantly African-American communities, said the measure would scare big retailers away from the city because it sets a higher minimum wage than the federal minimum.

"Why aren't we doing all we can to attract businesses?" said Dr. Leon Finney of the Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church. "Many of these jobs in retail are starter jobs.... I'm more interested in having a job than a living wage."

At least some people understand economic incentives.