Archive for June, 2007

Journalistic Disclosure

Sunday, June 24th, 2007

About a year ago Linda Greenhouse, Supreme Court correspondent for the New York Times, was at the center of a small media controversy. In a speech after winning the 2006 Radcliffe Institute Medalist, Ms. Greenhouse complained of a “sustained assault on women’s reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism” and that the “government turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and toward creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha and other places around the world — [such as] the U.S. Congress.” This is not the first time that Greenhouse has draw attention her private positions on public issues. In 1989, she participated in an abortion rights rally, telegraphing her personal opinion on the seminal Rov v. Wade Supreme Court decision. Greenhouse’s opinions represent conventional, if pedestrian, Left-wing belief common in New York and perhaps even a more universal set of convictions at the New York Times.

At the time, Greenhouse was criticized by the Daniel Okrent, the public editor of the New York Times, for making clear the perspective she brings to her work. According to Okrent, “It’s been a basic tenet of journalism … that the reporter’s ideology [has] to be suppressed and submerged, so the reader has absolute confidence that what he or she is reading is not colored by previous views.”

At that time, we supported and endorsed here Greenhouse’s freedom and even obligation, to make clear her political positions. We don’t doubt Greehouse’s sincere efforts to cover Supreme Court as professionally as she can. However, in the interest of full disclosure it is salutary that her readers now know what perspectives inform the way she views the world.

This week a similar controversy erupted when MSNBC scanned public elections records and found that of the 143 journalists they could identify, 125 had donated to Democrats and Liberal causes while only 16 gave to Republicans or Conservative causes. Even the ethics columnist from the New York Times was found contributing to According the MSNBC many news organizations were trying to crack down on such activities.

The MSNBC story was interesting first and foremost because it provided yet more evidence to buttress the general consensus that the major media lean heavily Left. The New York Times was upset at the revelations because, “Given the ease of Internet access to public records of campaign contributors, any political giving by a Times staff member would carry a great risk of feeding a false impression that the paper is taking sides.” One is left to wonder if campaign donation records were less accessible the Times would be as upset. The NY Times is worried about appearing the by taking sides. It no longer needs to worry; the side that it has chosen is now common knowledge.

We find the public disclosure of the political opinions of journalists to be a matter of necessary public transparency. If a journalist holds opinions so strongly that he or she is willing to donate to candidates and causes, it is likely that such perspectives do affect the way that he or she covers stories. Everyone has a built-in narrative of the way that the world is. There are many stories that could be reported and only a finite amount of time and effort that can be devoted. Honesty demands that stories chosen fit the world view of the reporter. If you believe that climate change is an important issue you might cover that more than crime rates. If woman’s rights issues are important to reporter, perhaps those stories will receive higher priority than stories about inflation or corruption on the city council. Even if each particular story presents both sides, the collective effect of covering certain stories more than others influences the tenor of coverage. Imagine the different perspectives conveyed if one news organizations reported every morning about the grief of a relative who had lost a soldier in Iraq and another organization provided examples of martial heroisms. All the stories presented could, within their context, be absolutely true. However, the collective effect of two different topics of coverage would be radically different.

Politicians are many times required to disclose financial interests that might affect their positions on public issues. Although there should be no law requiring such disclosure, knowledge of the politics of reporters is valuable to consumers of news.

Unions versus Workers

Sunday, June 17th, 2007

Although there are necessary limits to popular sovereignty (the Bill Rights is just one list of such constraints), as a general rule, the more fearful any organization or group is of popular sovereignty the less likely it enjoys the full assent of the governed. Many would argue that the requirement that someone join a union in order to work is a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of association. Unions argue that such requirements are necessary because even workers who do not join the union benefit from the collective bargaining carried on by unions on behalf of their membership. It is on this premise that union membership requirements have been maintained.

However, collective bargaining is not the only function of unions. Unions also engage in political advocacy and they use union dues to do so. Some people who were forced to pay dues despite not being union members, particularly those who may disagree with a union’s political positions, were more than a little annoyed that their money is being used in such ways. In 1976, 20 workers who chose not to become members of the Communications Workers of America brought suit against the union. The case took a long time to wind its way up to the US Supreme Court, but in 1988 in Communications Workers v. Beck the US Supreme Court held that the law “does not permit a union, over the objections of dues-paying nonmember employees, to expend funds collected from them on activities unrelated to collective-bargaining activities.” In other words, unions could collect dues from nonmembers for collective bargaining, but it violated the First Amendment to compel these workers to subsidize union political activities.

In 1992 (a little late considering that the Beck decision was rendered in 1988) the first President George Bush issued an executive order which required federal contractors to make workers aware of their rights under the Beck decision. When President Bill Clinton came to office he rescinded Bush’s executive making it more difficult for workers to appreciate their rights. In 2001 George W. Bush signed an executive again requiring federal contractors to inform their workers of their rights. If a Democrat is elected in 2008, the executive order will likely again be rescinded and once again workers rights will be whittled away through obscurity. This coupled with an effort earlier this year by House Democrats to eliminate secret ballots in union elections is a clear indication of how much unions and their political allies respect workers.

Unions are anything if not tenacious. In the state of Washington, a voter-approved initiative required state employee unions to obtain a nonmember’s explicit and affirmative consent to use union funds collected under the auspices of collective bargaining for electioneering. The unions claimed they met this requirement by sending a letter and assuming that no response implied affirmative consent. In a 9-0, the US Supreme court last week in Davenport et al. v. Washington Education Association declined to subscribe to such sophistry.

In all these cases, one has to wonder why unions that are supposed to act on behalf of workers are so ingenious a finding ways keep workers unaware workers of their political rights.

Unfortunate Guilt

Sunday, June 10th, 2007

“He is also to be authorized to grant `reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment’ Humanity and good policy conspire to dictate, that the benign prerogative of pardoning should be as little as possible fettered or embarrassed. The criminal code of every country partakes so much of necessary severity, that without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel. As the sense of responsibility is always strongest, in proportion as it is undivided, it may be inferred that a single man would be most ready to attend to the force of those motives which might plead for a mitigation of the rigor of the law, and least apt to yield to considerations which were calculated to shelter a fit object of its vengeance.” — Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 74, March 25, 1788.

The question is before us is whether the President should pardon or grant a reprieve to Lewis “Scooter” Libby. Libby was chief of staff to Vice-President Dick Cheney. Libby was recently convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice for his grand jury testimony and interviews with federal investigators surrounding the Valerie Plame affair.

Valerie Plame was a CIA employee who suggested that her husband Joseph Wilson be dispatched to Africa to check on reports of Iraqi interest in purchasing uranium. Despite the fact that he reported such interest in his oral report to the CIA, Wilson criticized President Bush’s assertion that Iraq was seeking uranium. The criticism was expressed in an op-ed piece in the New York Times. Of course, these claims were disputed by the Administration. During the that period, the fact the Valerie Plame worked for the CIA was revealed to and reported, almost incidentally, in a column by Robert Novak.

The revelation was first thought to be a scandal since revealing the name of covert CIA agent is illegal. In response to this Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald was tasked with finding out whether who revealed her name and to prosecute any guilty parties. There were a few cool heads at the time. Victoria Toensing, one of the lawyers who wrote the legislation, argued under the terms of the legislation Valerie Plame was not a covert agent and the release of her name was no crime. This was a conclusion that Fitzgerald implicitly reached because he never charged anyone with this crime.

It is reasonable to question the judgment of the prosecutor in spending time trolling for perjury submerged in inconsistencies in testimony. Even before Fitzgerald was named Special Counsel, federal agents had determined that Richard Armitage, Deputy Secretary of State, was the source of the fact the Valerie Plame helped secure the Africa trip to Africa for her husband. Apparently, Armitage was just gossiping. At the point that Fitzgerald knew the source of the leak and the fact that the leak was not a crime, the investigation should have ended. A conventional prosecutor with many crimes to pursue probably would have moved on. A special counselor does not look good coming up empty handed so there is always the temptation for prosecutor indiscretion.

Nonetheless, even if we posit that the Special Counsel acted improperly in using the grand jury to create crimes where none existed, this does not excuse perjury on the part of Libby or anyone else. Libby was convicted by a jury of his peers, so must assume his guilt at this point. Conservatives who argued that President Clinton’s perjury was unacceptable cannot not now turn around and excuse perjury on the part of Libby.

However, the sentence meted out to Libby of 30 months in jail and a $250,000 fine seems excessive given the context. Clinton plea bargained a deal with an agreement not to practice law for five years (probably not his intention anyways) and only $25,000 fine. Clinton’s National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, deliberately absconded with highly secret documents and was sentenced to community service and to a $50,000 fine.

President Bush should reduce Libby’s sentence to something similar to Berger’s sentence and not grant a pardon. Libby still maintains his innocence and pursuing appeals. This reprieve would keep Libby out of jail and permit him to still pursue his appeal.

What About Those Higher Gas Prices?

Sunday, June 3rd, 2007

Willing the ends without willing the means is almost the very definition of puerile behavior. Nonetheless, this behavior is descriptive of the Democratic approach to the twin issues of climate change and gasoline prices. Al Gore and his environmental minions constantly remind us of imminent climate disaster posed by greenhouse gas emissions, much of it released from the tailpipes of our cars. The quickest way for us to move toward reduction of these emissions, either by developing and purchasing higher mileage cars or altering our traveling habits, is by increasing the price of gasoline. Indeed, the Clinton-Gore Administration modestly increased the federal gasoline taxes. On the other hand, higher gas prices automatically induce spasms of anti-oil company rhetoric. This is reflective of the internal contraction within the Democratic Party of populist rhetoric and the impulse to use the government to manage our lives for us.

Economist Robert Samuelson recently elaborated on the hypocrisy. Samuelson explained how the cause in the recent spike in gasoline prices is limited refining capacity. Because of low profit margins in this sector of the industry, refining capacity has not increased very much over the last few decades. In the early 1980’s, the US enjoyed an excess of refining capacity and partially as a consequence no new refinery has been built in the US since 1976. Recent increases in US refining capacity have been the product of modernization of existing facilities rather than the construction of new ones. Of that capacity, the US is currently using nearly 90%. It is not generally possible to run at 100% of capacity, given accidental stoppages and scheduled maintenance.

Some have argued that the oil industry has deliberately arranged to minimize refining capacity to force an increase in prices. Such activity is illegal, if it can be proved. Illegal restraint of trade seems unlikely, given that refining capacity in the US is not concentrated in one or two firms. Samuelson cites Michael Salinger of the Federal Trade Commission as describing the concentration in the oil refinery business as “low to moderate.” Moreover, foreign refinery capacity would tend to limit the ability of US refining firms to create artificial shortages. Given the stated governmental goals of reducing gasoline consumption over the next decade, it is not clear whether it makes economic sense for oil companies to make the long-term, large-scale capital investments in significant increases in refinery capacity.

Even if one could demonstrate that oil companies were artificially generating increases in prices, aren’t they doing what environmentalists want but to do but do not have the political power to execute? The only question seems to be whether the government is enriched by taxes or oil companies by windfall revenues, for consumers the effect is the same. High gas prices will push the US economy toward lower gasoline consumption, the stated goal of environmentalists.

The disheartening part is that despite the rhetoric, the higher gasoline prices we have experienced may decrease gasoline consumption but will have only have marginal, perhaps not even measurable, climatic impact over the next few decades. To have a significant effect would require rapid decreases in emissions, changes that are sufficiently aggressive that they would likely cause painful and disruptive economic transitions. Such transitions could stunt economic growth just when we need it to finance Social Security and Medicare for the baby boomers, and they would likely hurt the less affluent the most severely. This is the truth that Democrats are unwilling to acknowledge.

We are told we need to invest those renewable energy sources with less of a climatic impact. If such alternatives were available on a large scale and less expensive, we would have moved to them already. If they are more expensive, it means that no matter which way one cuts it, more personal resources will be used to pay for more expensive energy. Less money to be spent on everything else. Under normal free market economic circumstances, economic transitions make life better because there is a trend to move to the more efficient provision of goods and services. Government forces transitions are, almost by definition, inefficient.

Democratic partisan James Carville recently criticized the manner in which George Bush led us in the War on Terror because he did not involve most Americans directly in the cost of war. Bush did not raise taxes; rather he encouraged economic growth through tax cuts. He asked Americans to lead their lives normally and did require additional economic sacrifices. Carville argues that when you go to war you have to take the entire country to war. Everyone needs to feel the sacrifice [1]. If we take Carville at his word, should not Democrats be asking for sacrifices in the fight to save the planet? Too many subscribe to the illusion that by relatively modest efforts; people driving a few more Prius’s, coupled with a few more wind farms and solar panels, we can significant alter the climate change trajectory. Should not the true economic costs of the economic transformation required to deal with what Al Gore claims is the greatest global challenge of the age be made clear.

Ultimately, the argument made by those who advocate aggressive measures be taken to reduce climate change, is that the present, almost certain, negative economic consequences necessary to alleviate climate change are much smaller than the predicted negative consequences of not doing so. Honesty demands that such a case be made without minimizing current costs or maximizing future ones.

[1] Leave aside for a moment that the US won the Cold War by essentially economically outgrowing the Soviet Union. In a very real way, Americans won the Cold War not through economic retrenchment, but through the growth associated with business as normal. Maintaining economic strength is a necessary strategy in winning a war. What Carville is really complaining about is that Bush chose tax cuts rather than tax increases in order to invigorate the economy.