Archive for June, 2001

Canadian Health Care and Growing Dependence on the State

Sunday, June 17th, 2001

Sydney, Australia. — One of the more pleasant duties of my occupation is the occasional opportunity to attend international conferences and exchange scientific ideas with new colleagues and colleagues that have grown into friends. Many times the most productive exchanges occur over lunch and dinner. The sated feeling of a full stomach induces an aura of comfort conducive to open and frank exchanges. Scientists become willing to quietly speculate about ideas and notions they might not feel comfortable committing to in a formal forum.These occasions also provide opportunities to come to understand different societies and cultures. Certainly, scientists generally come from similar classes in their respective societies. Nonetheless, they generally adopt the ideas and prejudices that underpin their societies. Moreover, since scientists and engineers typically occupy privileged positions, they are consequently more likely to defend current social structures.

In is in this context, that I enjoyed a pleasant dinner with a group of Americans and Canadians at a Spanish restaurant in Sydney, Australia as the conversation drifted to differences between American and Canadian medical care. OK, OK, I might have pushed the conversation there.

My Canadian friends were at one time proud of government-provided universal medical care, while at the same time they admitted certain difficulties. There tends to be a shortage of doctors that often increases the wait for medical care. Care may be free, but it is rationed by time. However, Canadians have learned to be patient patients and generally accept inconvenience as one price for their health care system.

I asked what happens if someone has to wait for a heart operation? Well, I was told, if a patient needs one they get one, but the doctor, not the patient, is the one who decides what is needed. If a patient is not willing to accept the same risk as the doctor is, a patient cannot even pay a private doctor for separate treatment. The Canadian government does not permit private medical facilities that would require an overnight stay. The idea is that if a doctor offers his services privately, then he is taking them away from the pool of services available to the state. Patients must travel to the United States if they desire more medical care. The United States provides Canada a safety valve for alternative care.

If a Canadian doctor errs and you die while waiting for a heart operation because the doctor assigned you too low a priority, he or she is less liable to a lawsuit than a doctor would be in the United States. Of course, the health care system, the Canadian HMO if you will, is not liable at all. If the state health care system misallocates resources in a way that denies a patient services when needed, it is not accountable to the patient for this miscalculation. This is an interesting point to consider as we debate in the US the level of HMO legal liability. As long as there is a private component to the health care system, legal accountability is at least possible.

My Canadian friends explained that doctors are allocated to different provinces by the government. They seem to accept this heavy handedness without question, so I asked whether they considered it presumptuous of the government to tell doctors where to practice. Their response was that the government contributed to the education of doctors and therefore had a right to decide where they could practice. There are no private universities in Canada so the government is the source of doctors.

My Canadian friends had no response to the observation that by the same argument, the fact that the state provides a free public education would entitle the state to tell everyone, not just doctors, where they can live and what jobs they can occupy.

What is scary is not that my Canadian friends are somehow indifferent to the ever-expanding power and intrusiveness of the state, but rather that these people are not unlike me. They have much the same temperament and interests. Under only slightly different conditions, our places could be exchanged. It is chilling to realize how fragile appreciation of freedom and independence is; how easy it is to willing exchange personal freedom for security and to accept the role of sheep with the government as benevolent shepherd.

Fourth Amendment Searches with Thermal Imagers

Monday, June 11th, 2001

On June 11, 2001, the Supreme Court took another step in defining the Constitutional protections offered by the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against “unreasonable searches” in an age of rapidly improving and intrusive surveillance technology. The case involved one Danny Lee Kyllo. It seems that Kyllo was an avid indoor horticulturalist. Unfortunately, Kyllo devoted his botanical skills to raising marijuana plants rather than roses.

The indoor cultivation of marijuana requires high intensity lamps. On the basis of tips that Kyllo was involved in marijuana transactions and had larger than average electric bills, but without bothering to secure a warrant from a judge, the authorities arranged for Kyllo’s house to be scanned by an Agema Thermovision 210 thermal imager. The imager revealed the increased heat emanating from the house indirectly indicating the presence of the marijuana lamps. Using this additional information, the police persuaded a judge to issue a search warrant. The results of that search provided evidence used to convict Kyllo.

The issue before the US Supreme Court was whether the use of the imager constituted a search. If it was a search of a home without a warrant, then the evidence from the imager could not be presented to a judge to secure a warrant or used in a trial against Kyllo. If the use of the imager is considered the gathering of information that is “in plain view,” then its use is “presumptively reasonable.”

Writing for the majority in a close 5-4 decision, Justice Antonin Scalia found that the use of the thermal imager to scan a private home is indeed a search and requires a search warrant. Scalia’s reasoning relies on Silverman v. United States (1961) that argued that the essential core of the Fourth Amendment “stands the right of a man to retreat into his own home [and] there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.” Kyllo was at home and Scalia argues that in the home there is reasonable assumption of privacy that was violated by the scanner.

Justice Paul Stevens, dissenting, tried to draw a distinction between “through the wall surveillance” and “off the wall surveillance” but the only thing off the wall was Stevens’s reasoning. Stevens argued that the thermal imager was detecting emanations from the house not really looking into the home. But his distinction was one without a difference. If a device amplifies the senses and allows the authorities to determine what is happening in a house in a way that would normally require a more direct conventional search, the use of the device really is a search. Moreover, Scalia responded that even if this particular thermal imager provided crude images, “the rule we adopt must take account of more sophisticated systems that are already in use or development.”

One reason that a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy, according to Scalia, is because thermal imagers are not “in general use.” This is the one important flaw in Scalia’s argument. Technology will inevitably improve. If consumer video cameras in the future have infrared imaging capabilities, then any passerby could detect hot spots in a house. This being the case, the reasonability of the expectation of privacy erodes and the zone of personal privacy shrinks.

What is also interesting about this case is the way the court divided. In the past, Justice Stevens has been more likely to side against law enforcement authorities. Yet in this case he found that the use of a thermal imager did not constitute a search under the rules of the Fourth Amendment. On the other hand, Scalia and Thomas, who have been less inclined to shackle law enforcement authorities, are clearly fearful of a world open to high-tech government intrusion.

American Unilateralism

Sunday, June 10th, 2001

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now.” — Thomas Paine, Common Sense.

As President George W. Bush crosses the Atlantic to consult with European allies, he brings with him a unilateralist view that is likely to rankle Europeans. Then again, it is hard to remember when Europeans were happy with Americans. Inherent in this tension is the self-interpretative view Americans have of themselves.

Americans have always identified themselves as special and exceptional, a chosen people, a symbol of freedom unto the world. America did not represent just another country or a piece of land, but a new opportunity to create a world unencumbered by the evil tyrannies shackling Europe. When Puritans landed in the New World they believed they were establishing a new order. John Winthrop, evoked Biblical symbolism (Matthew, 5:14) when he forecast that, “We shall be a as a City on a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us…” Perhaps none said it better than Thomas Paine who argued in favor of American independence by proclaiming that “We have it in our power to begin the world again.”

This American exceptionalism was expressed in the idea that the United States had a “manifest destiny” to occupy North America. In 1845, John L. O’Sullivan staked out America’s divine right of “…manifest destiny to over spread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given for us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federaltive development of self government entrusted to us.” Though pursuit of this destiny often proved an excuse for cruelty to and devastation of indigenous peoples, in its most noble embodiment if meant confident fidelity to American aspirations for freedom and individuality.

For the first years of American history, American exceptionalism meant from a practical standpoint the separation of the United States from the rest of the world while it engaged in internal development. Americans traded with the world, but did not engage it politically. We were too good to be sullied by European intrigue. This attitude changed with the World Wars and the Cold War when American uniqueness proved the difference between post-war prosperity and a long descent into darkness.

After only 90 years of existence, it was not clear whether the United States would survive at it strove to expunge the stain of slavery. At times this confidence in American exceptionalism wavered. During the economic catastrophe of the Great Depression or even during the doldrums of the 1970s, America seemed in decline.

This American confidence and self-identity as a chosen people elicits admiration and anger, particularly from Europeans out of which much of the American tradition has emerged. Much of the world admires American prosperity while at the same time tries to console itself with the notion of moral superiority over the United States. Europeans disapprove of us because they cannot stand the fact that they love us so much.

Europeans love to ridicule the United States for its crassness, but hunger for American music and movies. Europeans fancy themselves as the stewards of western culture and a caring society, but lack the creativity of American culture and suffer under the burdens of their welfare states. Europeans lecture Americans on economics, while capital continues to flow from Europe to the United States. It must be infuriating for Europeans to proclaim concern for workers, while they labor with double-digit unemployment rates, while freer markets in the US produce low unemployment rates. Europeans neglect to support a US place on the United Nations Human Rights Commission, while the commission finds a place for China, Libya, and the Sudan.

In a recent essay, Charles Krauthammer argues that George W. Bush is tacking back to American unilateralism in part based on an American understanding of its own uniqueness and importance. Consult, be polite, but act in American interests. For example, while the Europeans have failed to ratify the Kyoto accords on carbon dioxide emissions, they are angry when President Bush states the obvious that the accords are dead. One might have thought that a 95-0 defeat in the Senate for the treaty would have been sufficient warning to Europeans, but it wasn’t. American explicit rejection of the Kyoto accords actually creates political cover for European governments reluctant to embrace the accords. European leaders get to criticize American at little political expense.

George Bush is pushing for missile defense, while Europeans, perhaps more vulnerable to missile strikes from rogue nations, fight what they see as renewed American militarism. Half the time they confidently assert that such a system cannot work and the other half of the time they fret that a protected America would disengage from European defenses.

America, under George W. Bush, refuses to have its interests forgotten in a faux multilateralism that ignores real issues and undermines American and in the long run European interests. What is generally good for the United States will benefit free nations everywhere. When you occupy the City on the Hill, many will be envious. Perhaps more will be inspired.

American Happiness

Friday, June 8th, 2001

“The necessity of pursing true happiness (is) the foundation of our liberty.” — John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690.

But he answered one of them, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” — Matthew, 20:13-16.

Facts and information are like blocks of carbon. They can be either black bits of charcoal covering everything with a choking and obscuring dust. Or, if placed under the pressure and heat of test and scrutiny, they can be gleaming bits of diamond whose every facet illuminates. Because of the complexity of humanity social science information and data must undergo the longest journey from dust to diamond.

Philosophers have long struggled on the definition of happiness. Aristotle suggested that happiness was the full use of one’s abilities for a constructive purpose, all in all not such a bad definition. What is clear is that societies that nurture happiness seem to be serving their members most effectively.

A recent study out of the Harvard University Business School and London School of Economics by Alberto Alesina, Rafael Di Tella, and Robert MacCulloch suggests that measures of happiness between societies may in some measure be a function of outlook and attitude. They found profound differences between the ways that Americans and Europeans view economic inequality.

In the United States over the last two decades, not only has there been an increase in wealth but it has been accompanied by a significant increase in economic inequality. Nonetheless, Americans appear to be going their own happy way. In general, happiness as measured by surveys of different groups has not changed in the face of this inequality. The authors found rich Leftists to be the only group in the United States upset with the inequality. But then again rich Leftist are notorious whiners. The study also found that in Europe, by contrast, “inequality makes the poor unhappy, as well as the Leftists unhappy.”

The authors suggest that the differences between Europe and the United States have to do with the perception of social mobility. In the United States, people, even if poor, aspire to be rich and consider it a sufficiently likely possibility that they do not wish to punish the rich. It this belief in social mobility and opportunity that distinguishes Americans from Europeans. Americans, as a group, believe in possibilities, while Europeans are more likely to feel trapped by class and circumstances. Ironically, the highly regulated economic structures required to redistribute wealth and income calcifies social structures and makes it more and more difficult to increase wealth at the lower end.

This suggests that if leaders of the Democratic Party like Representative Richard Gephardt and Senator Thomas Daschle really wish to make the lives of their constituents happier, they would worker harder to increase opportunity and wealth and labor less at harping on economic distinctions. For example, when considering the recent tax reduction bill, the real question should have been whether the bill increased social mobility rather than whether the rich would benefit.

Europeans like to chide Americans for working too hard and not knowing how to enjoy life. Europeans consider it a sign of social regression that all Americans are not guaranteed five weeks of vacation. Well, vacations can make life enjoyable. Who can deny the pleasure in sitting at a cafe on a Paris street or eating a delicious meal on Venice’s Grand Canal? Nonetheless, the data suggest that the balance between work and play struck by Americans makes life happier for Americans. Perhaps we should not make too much of this. If Europeans believe they know how to live better than Americans, let them continue in this fiction. After all a sense of superiority over Americans is one of the few pleasures all Europeans appear to enjoy. We should not rob them of this small delight.

Perhaps even more interesting are factors that contribute to happiness within the United States. For example, married people are happier than single people and religious people are happier than non-religious people. This latter fact makes Karl Marx’s statement, “The first requisite for the people’s happiness is the abolition of religion.” look particularly foolish retrospect. Yet there is not too much that Marx wrote that does not appear foolish in retrospect. The data do suggest that the government can nurture happiness in the United States by encouraging marriage (read eliminate the marriage tax penalty) and allowing an open field for private religious activity (read make donations tax deductible for those who do not itemize their deductions).

Samuelson, Robert, “Poverty v. Inequality,” AP, May 3, 2001.

Gay Jesus on Campus

Sunday, June 3rd, 2001

The ascent of the doctrine of political correctness on college campuses has been well documented by Dinesh D’Souza in Illiberal Education: Political Correctness and the College Experience, Roger Kimball in Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Higher Education, and others. In a seminal work, The Closing of the American Mind, philosopher Allan Bloom provided the intellectual underpinning for the proposition that too often “higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today students.”

Their charter and nature ought to make universities intellectual free-fire zones where no idea is so repugnant, so inane, so unconventional or so brilliant that it cannot find a forum for expression. Freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression are necessary prerequisites of academic freedom.

Unfortunately, many universities, fearful that protected groups might have their exquisitely delicate sensitivities offended, have instituted speech codes. The courts have been fairly consistent in striking down these codes as violations of the First Amendment, so they are often disguised as anti-harassment policies.

Rather than championing free speech, much intellectual energy on campuses has been devoted to devising subtle ways of enabling the thought police, without overtly violating the First Amendment. The Left have turned the ethos on campuses upside down. Free inquiry has too often been replaced by a Liberal orthodoxy no less repressive in its own way, than the Catholic Church’s silencing of Galileo for his suggestion that the Earth revolved around the Sun. It is not realistic to hide behind the notion that feelings need to be protected. Civil debate about fundamental and important issues will often and ought to evoke profound discomfort. Protecting people from intellectual and emotional distress hinders intellectual and emotional growth.

However, there are certain groups that appear to deserve no respectful deference, and are so retrograde that offending and insulting their beliefs is not only tolerated but considered evidence of open-mindedness. One such group is Conservative Christians.

The Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne is allowing performances of Terrence McNally’s play Corpus Christi on campus. The play is set in Corpus Christi, Texas, but is not a very subtle retelling of the story of Jesus Christ. One of the main themes is the baseless assertion that Christ and his disciples were practicing homosexuals. Although the play’s defenders suggest that the play is a respectful and sympathetic account of one man’s theology and not meant to offend, the play is deliberately provocative. One cannot use the dialogue “F*** God” and honestly contend that people will not be offended. The play represents bad history and morally corrupt theology that is deliberately offensive to many Christians. If you believe the reviews, it does not even represent good drama.

Chancellor Michael Wartell defends allowing the play’s performance as part of the university’s charter of academic freedom on campus. Blind squirrels sometimes happen upon a nut and in this case Wartell is correct. Foolish ideas have a necessary place on campus. However, would Wartell mount the same difficult barricades if the play were offensive to the gay community? Would Wartell allow the performance of a play on campus that portrayed Matthew Shepard, the gay man brutally murdered in Wyoming, in a negative light? I would not bet on it.

This incident makes clear the double standard with regard to free speech and academic freedom on college campuses. Some ideas are protected with admirable vigilance, while others are suppressed or even prohibited. If you are Conservative or Christian your ideas can be lampooned and ridiculed with impunity. If you are a member of a protected group and adhere to the conventional orthodoxy you are not even asked to feel uncomfortable. Ironically, in the long run, such treatment will toughen Conservatives; hone their arguments and ideology, while the intellectual muscles of the Left will atrophy from disuse. Ideas that require suppression to survive will in the long run be recognized for their vacuousness.