Archive for November, 2001

Environmental Skeptic

Sunday, November 25th, 2001

University of Maryland economist Julian Simon was one of those provocative people that others can rarely be neutral about. The late Dr. Simon was an environmental optimist who believed that the world was getting better and that the most obvious proof of this was the continual increase in life expectancy. He is perhaps best known for his bets with environmental doomsayers like Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb. Simon bet Ehrlich that a basket of raw materials would grow less expensive over a ten-year period, indicating these materials were becoming less scarce.  Simon won the wager. He made a number of similar such bets and he usually won.

In 1997, a self-described “old left-wing Greenpeace member” Bjørn Lomborg of the University of Aarhus, Denmark, read an interview with Simon in Wired magazine. Lomborg’s first reaction was that Simon was just spreading typical “American right-wing propaganda” which, of course, is far more dangerous than the mere garden-variety “right-wing propaganda.”

Simon disputed the conventional environmental “litany” that pessimistically sees a world where air and water pollution are relentlessly increasing, raw materials are rapidly becoming scarcer, energy grows harder to find, and the quality of life generally begins to decline. Lomborg subscribed to the litany and set out to examine commonly available data and demonstrate Simon’s error.

After considerable research aided by his students, Lomborg’s intellectual honesty forced him to adjust his view in light of evidence. He wrote a number of controversial articles in Denmark. This work grew into the comprehensive, and well-documented book, The Skeptical Environmentalist. By merging the intuition of an economist, the numerical care of a statistician, and the concern of an environmentalist, Lomborg takes a hard look at the “state of the world.”

Lomborg documents how air and water pollution are rapidly decreasing. For example, the last time the air in London was this clean was the 1500s. Fossil fuels are not becoming scarcer and will not run out in the foreseeable future. Life expectancy and health are steadily improving and this progress can be expected to continue. The Green Revolution has given us ample food, while food prices are decreasing and growth in food supplies will be sufficient to accommodate expected increases in population. More and more people have access to clean water and sanitation. The fraction of the world’s population in poverty is decreasing. Levels of education and literacy are increasing. People are generally safer and less likely to die in an accident.

One can sense in Lomborg a real disappointment with how important figures in the environmental movement have displayed either willful deception or incredible naiveté in trying to present the case that the world is becoming less hospitable. For example, Lester Brown, of the Worldwatch Institute, uses minor decreases in rice yields, associated with year-to-year fluctuations, to argue that rice yields have peaked. However, the long-term curve clearly shows increasing yields. A few years after Lester’s comments, the yields were clearly increasing again. Moreover, these sorts of errors or deceptions were not isolated to single incidents, but are repeated frequently. Honest scientists are the first ones to point out and address potential problems with their data and to offer alternative hypotheses. Lester Brown appears more like an attorney trying to win a case than a dispassionate observer.

The largest section in Lomborg’s book addresses global warming. After reviewing the evidence, Lomborg believes that there is a significant anthropogenic (man-made) component to increasing surface temperatures. Lomborg spends considerable time evaluating models for predicting future climate changes. The model problem is complex and the question of the interaction of aerosols, water vapor, and clouds are still unresolved. These models suggest a range of 1 to 5 degrees centigrade increase in temperature over this century, depending on both which model is used and which scenario is chosen in terms of growth in carbon dioxide emissions.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an international group of scientists and others chartered “to assess the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant for the understanding of the risk of human-induced climate change.” What is disconcerting is that the panel has typically assumed yearly growth rates of 0.64 percent in carbon dioxide emissions throughout this century for modeling purposes, whereas the 1980s emissions grew by 0.47 percent and by 0.43 percent in the 1990s. These small differences compounded over a century create dramatic differences in predicted climate changes. In Lomborg’s view, increases in temperature over this century will trend toward the lower end of 1 to 2 degrees centigrade.

The real questions of environmental policy are a combination of the expected costs of environmental effects versus the costs of mitigation. The logical policy is the one that minimizes the total costs of mitigation and environmental damage. Inefficient use of economic resources means there will be less to spend on other priorities like education, health, and welfare.

Coupled economic and environmental models suggest that a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions of 11 percent gradually applied over this century minimizes total costs. These reductions are far smaller than the more Draconian cuts of the Kyoto accords. The carbon dioxide restrictions of the Kyoto accords will substantially increase net world mitigation and environmental costs. Moreover, the costs of the Kyoto-level reductions could be substantially trimmed if carbon dioxide emission rights could be traded internationally, a policy that is meeting political resistance.

The question of minimizing economic costs is, of course, always open to debate as knowledge and modeling improve. Unfortunately, in its latest report, the IPCC did not provide estimates of the economic costs and benefits of abatement of carbon dioxide emissions, making it more difficult to reach a consensus on environmental policy.

In a perfect world, what could be better than if scientists found a clean, inexpensive, inexhaustible source of energy that could replace fossil fuels? At one point, we thought there was just such a possibility, as reports emerged that hydrogen fusion at room temperatures was possible, so called cold fusion. Unfortunately, it now appears these reports were premature and we cannot expect respite from this energy source in the near future.

Nonetheless, Lomborg notes that the reaction to the news by extremists in the environmental community is illuminating. Jeremy Rifkin of the Foundation on Economic Trends, thought such a development was, “the worst thing that could happen” because it would allow man to exploit the planet even more. John Holdren, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley lamented, “…clean-burning, non-polluting hydrogen-using bulldozers still could knock down trees…” Laura Nader, also of Berkeley believes that “…many people just assume that cheaper, more abundant energy will mean that mankind is better off, but there is no evidence for that.”

Most people are concerned both about their economic and environmental future. The world is not perfect and there still are many problems to overcome, but fortunately the evidence suggest that human life and the environment are getting better. We need to constantly weigh the costs and benefits of environmental improvements. However, for the vocal minority in the environmental movement, environmentalism is a mere device to enforce a Luddite, anti-technology agenda on the rest of us.

Crackdown on Student Who Defends America

Sunday, November 18th, 2001

Naturalized American citizens are often times more conspicuously patriotic than American-born citizens who are more likely to take their birthrights for granted. After all, a naturalized citizen makes a deliberate choice to declare allegiance to the United States. Those born here may or may not consciously assume a sincere allegiance or love of country. Perhaps, this tendency partially explains the actions of Zewdalem Kebede, on September 22, 2001.

Kebede is a senior majoring in political science at San Diego State University. He was born in Ethiopia and is a naturalized citizen. On the eventful Saturday, Kebede was studying in the Reserve Book Room of the Love Library. Within earshot, four Saudi Arabian students were conversing in Arabic keeping their conversation private from passersby. Kebede, however, speaks fluent Arabic.

According to Kebede, the students were rejoicing in the September 11 terrorist attacks and were only displeased that the White House was not also hit. Unable to contain his displeasure, he spoke to the Saudi students in Arabic and told them they should be ashamed of their attitude. Thousands of citizens of the country that was being so hospitable to them had been killed.

The details of the verbal exchange between the Kebede and the Saudi students remain unclear. Witnesses could not speak Arabic. No one reports any physical exchange or intimidation, though one of the Saudi students called the campus police. By the time, the police arrived what ever happened had been over for 30 minutes. Kebede and the students had gone their separate ways. Nonetheless, the Saudi students claimed harassment. Apparently, the university police cautioned both parties. Without any formal finding of wrongdoing, Kebede was warned by the president of the university about “abusive” conduct and was “admonished to conduct [himself] as a responsible member of the campus community in the future.”

In response to the incident, Kebede stated for the student paper:

“I’m naturalized American. I have taken an oath to protect this country, so that is my part to do — for that I am happy. I am an honest citizen for this country. I showed those guys that there are people who love America, who defend America. That’s what I showed. Is that a crime?”

Actually, the incident is illustrative of the Leftist assault on free expression on campus. Any serious campus ought to be an intellectual free-fire zone, under the presumption that in such a crucible truth emerges. People who are too emotionally or intellectually insecure to see or hear ideas that challenge their comfortable notions are not yet ready for college. If the ideas the Saudi students expressed could not bear scrutiny, then perhaps those ideas were deficient.

The Left on campus wants to suppress speech that makes minorities uncomfortable. As Peter Beinart of The New Republic explained that too often on campuses, “…[Sp]eech that offends minority students constitutes an implicit threat to their safety and therefore merits suppression. Threats to national security or rhetoric that offends those who suffered on September 11 do not.”

If you are really uncertain as to the nature of San Diego State’s official reaction, consider what would have happened in a similar incident if the people involved had been different. Assume that the four students who were talking privately were white students discussing their satisfaction that a black American had been dragged to his death in Texas and that their only regret is that more black Americans had not met a similar fate. Further assume that a black student overheard the ugly conversation and had the courage to confront the white students to tell them that they should be ashamed of themselves. Do you really believe that San Diego State University would have written a letter of admonition to that black student, and allowed the white students to walk away with no consequences and their identities unrevealed.

The courageous black student would have lauded for his actions and so should Kebede.

A Big Mistake

Sunday, November 11th, 2001

“In all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right…to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.” — Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution.

It is disappointing to listen to radio and television call-in talk shows and hear some middle Americans express an enthusiastic willingness to exchange civil liberties for greater security. This willingness is born of our current insecurity induced by the attacks on the New York World Trade Centers and the Pentagon. We have not recently experienced significant losses of civil liberties for many to understand the nature of the trade they seem prepared to accept.

This last week, the Justice Department, under Attorney General John Ashcroft, implemented rules which on their face appear to violate the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee that those accused of a crime (and even those just detained) are entitled to enjoy the “assistance of counsel” in the preparation of a defense.

According to this new policy, if the attorney general formally declares that “reasonable suspicion exists to believe that an inmate may use communications with attorneys or their agents to facilitate acts of terrorism,” the government can eavesdrop on their conversations.  Inmates have no expectation of privacy and the government can regularly monitor conversations with friends, relatives, and other inmates. However, conversations with attorneys had always been considered privileged.

To its very modest credit, the Justice Department says that it will institute procedural safeguards to protect the attorney-client privilege. Attorneys will be notified that their conversations may be monitored.   In addition, third parties, not federal prosecutors, will monitor the conversations. Presumably, the use of third parties will protect Fifth Amendment guarantees against self-incrimination.  These third parties would only release the information if a federal judge approves. These efforts, nonetheless, are not sufficient.

The genius of the Constitution is that it recognizes that individuals have rights that cannot be, at least not easily, circumvented by the state. In addition, the possibility of tyranny is mitigated by the distribution of powers between branches of government. For example, before the executive branch can search a house, it needs to obtain a warrant from an independent magistrate.

It would seem that if the Justice Department has compelling reasons to believe that an inmate is initiating terrorist acts through his attorney, they should be able to so persuade an independent judge. Without the safeguard of independent review, this new policy clearly erodes Sixth Amendment protections.

There are many changes we can make to reduce the possibility of foreign terrorism.   We can improve the vetting and tracking of visitors on visas, we can upgrade airport and aircraft security, and we can improve our foreign intelligence by recruiting more human assets.  There is no public case for the nibbling away at the edges of the Sixth Amendment by this new policy. Moreover, this policy may be short lived.  It will not likely survive scrutiny in the courts once there is an opportunity to challenge it.

We need not yield to hyperbole.  This new regulation will not transform the United States into a police state. Our institutions are too resilient. Nonetheless, it does provide a disturbing precedent that somewhere down the line will prove far more serious. The best our generation can do is to pass the freedoms we have inherited down to our children whole and intact. This new Justice Department policy diminishes our children’s political birthrights.

The Violent German Left Comes of Age

Sunday, November 4th, 2001

“Not to be a socialist at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head.” [1] — French Premier Georges Clemenceau

Sometimes it appears that the Left and Progressives have erected such a high-walled idealized dream world that they are surprised and shocked when the real world unexpectedly intrudes. Minds protected by an ideological fortress rarely glimpse the real world. That is why the Left was surprised to find out from Khrushchev in 1956 that Stalin was at least as vicious a tyrant as any of the former czars of Russia. That is why they were surprised to learn that people would risk their lives at sea fleeing Vietnamese or Cuban Communism. That is why they were surprised when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979. Certainly, that is why they were surprised when the Berlin Wall fell.

This gradual remedial education of the Left and introduction of the Left to the notion that Western capitalism or capitalism under the supervision of democratic institutions is not so bad is theme in the article “The Passion of Joschka Fischer” by Paul Berman. The New Republic piece uses the political life of Fischer, the German foreign minister, as a metaphor for two-decade long transition of the Left.

Berman is a self-identified Progressive and his treatment of Fischer is somewhat laudatory and apologetic. If you did not know Berman was a Progressive, one could tell as much by his language. No American Conservative would describe police as what “we Americans used to call `the pigs.”’ Nonetheless, Berman does manage to convey accurately the trauma and anxiety of the Left in confronting a Post-Cold War world.

In 1973, Fischer was barely more than a political street thug and now, as foreign minister, he is the highest-ranking government official who is also a Green Party member. In January 2001, Stern magazine published old photographs showing Joschka Fischer apparently assaulting a police officer. The publication caused a sensation in Germany and triggered Berman to consider the metamorphosis of the violent Left to the more responsible European political mainstream.

It seems long ago now, but the early 1970s was the era of kidnappings and murders by the Baader and Meinhof Red Army Fraction. The Cold War was not so cold and the European Left believed the real threat to peace and freedom was the United States. They believed that the United States was the political heir of the Nazis. The threat was Fascism, and to the German Left, fighting America and capitalism was fighting Fascism.

Reality intervened especially after the Left began to align itself with radical Palestinians. The Red Army Fraction facilitated radical Palestinians in their murder of Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972. In 1976, German and Palestinian terrorists hijacked an Air France airliner and forced it to fly to Entebbe Airport in dictator Idi Amin’s Uganda. Were it not for the timely intervention of Israeli commandos, Jewish passengers who had been singled out from the rest of the passengers, might have been executed. The violent Left in Germany began with the charter to oppose Nazism and Fascism and found themselves killing Jewish civilians. The sharpness of that irony helped cut even through the closed-minded certainty of the Left.

Although a youthful Joschka Fischer was willing to engage in some modest political violence, he seems to have been only peripherally associated with the more violent elements of the Left. A mature polished politician, he is now in the political mainstream, at least as the mainstream is defined in Germany.

To the surprise of the pacifist Green Party (pacifist, that is, only with respect to American military action), Fischer supported NATO’s intervention in Bosnia. Imagine the chagrin of the Green Party discovering that someone who is willing to strike a police officer is not really a “pacifist.” It is doubly ironic, that Fischer has now come full circle and has finally found a way to help fight Fascists after all. Except that he did it as an American rather than Russian ally.

This quotation was originally and incorrectly attributed to Winston Churchill.