OpinionMeister

Friday, April 29, 2005

Private Sector Does a Better Job at Airports

The Associated Press reports that five airports that were allowed to keep private screeners show a statistically significant better job at screening passengers. Link.
A congressional investigation found airport screeners employed by private companies do a better job detecting dangerous objects than government screeners, according to a House member who has seen the classified report.

The Government Accountability Office found statistically significant evidence that passenger screeners, who work under a pilot program at five airports, including San Francisco International Airport, perform better than their federal counterparts at some 450 airports, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. and chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, said Tuesday.

"You get a statistically significant improvement if you go to federal supervision with private screening companies," Mica said.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Congress ordered every commercial airport but five to switch from privately employed screeners to a government work force.

This is no surprise. Why should civil servants, who cannot be fired no matter how bad a job they do, do a better job than those employed by private firms. The private screeners used on September 11 did not fail in their jobs. No object that were then banned on airplanes got past them. That is why the hijackers used box cutters, which were than allowed on planes.

The major failure was with the applicable laws and rules. Previous hijackings had always been to demand something. The laws reflected this by making it illegal for flight personnel to resist hijackers. It was thought that this would endanger the passengers more than allowing the hijacking to go forward. The law was based on getting the plane on the ground, where the professionals could take over and negociate with the hijackers.

The only changes that were necessary were those that reinforced the cockpit doors, redefined what could be used as a weapon, and allowed attempts to overcome the hijackers. The nationalizing of the screening personnel was not only totally unnecessary, it was counterproductive. If Israel, which has more experience in dealing with terrorists than any other nation on Earth, uses private firms to perform most security duties at its airport, why would we want to change from that to something different.

Pretty Good Budget Passes

The Washington Post reports on passage of the new budget. Link.
Congress passed a five-year, $14 trillion budget last night that will pave the way for oil drilling in parts of an Alaskan wildlife refuge, a new round of tax cuts and the first curbs on entitlements for the poor in nearly a decade.

The House approved the plan by a vote of 214 to 211, and the Senate voted 52 to 47. [...]

The budget resolution was seen as a must-win for President Bush, who has proposed a range of budgetary changes to trim the federal deficit and make room for his tax cuts. Some of those changes -- Medicaid restructuring, agriculture subsidy cuts and student loan savings -- were scaled back in the agreement. But many of the president's top priorities were secured. Budget director Joshua B. Bolten, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, and White House lobbyists worked furiously for a deal, cajoling and pressuring Republicans to get in line.

The budget deal alone does not ensure changes, but it will allow Congress to pass Medicaid curbs, oil drilling, tax cuts and other controversial measures with a simple majority in the Senate rather than the 60-vote majority needed to overcome a filibuster.

Unfortunately, the budget is only a first step. When the actual appropriation bills are worked on, the budget limits are sometimes ignored. To make this budget a reality will require a willingness on the part of the President to veto appropriations that exceed it.

International Help Needed for Invaded Island

Deutche Welle has a report headlined "Weasel Squad on Standby for Greek Mission." Link.
A Greek island suffering under the heel of a brutal invasion could be the first mission for a yet untried regiment of German Special Forces.

The inhabitants of the island of Lemnos, which has been under siege for some time, are considering sending out a distress call for the crack German troops in a bid to end the occupation which is threatening their livelihoods.

It appears that the invaders are wild rabbits that are wreaking havoc with the local farmers. The farmers want to hunt the rabbits, but Greek law forbids it. So they want to bring in specially trained German weasels to eliminate the rabbits.
Enter the Weasel Squad…or at least this is where they would enter if they weren't just so expensive to hire. "I've heard that each one costs about 4,400 euros ($5706)," Baveas sighed. "We would need at least 10 weasels," he dejectedly added.

Unconfirmed rumors of shady deals involving less well-trained but equally ruthless Austrian mercenary weasels were allegedly circulating in some desperate corners of Lemnos.

We all knew that Germany was a member of the Axis of Weasels, but I never realized that they took it so literally.

Ending of a Monopoly

Daniel Henninger has a column in Opinion Journal the reviews the history of the breakdown of the monopoly of liberal media following the elimination of the so-called Fairness Doctrine. Link.
In 1987, Rush Limbaugh sat down at a microphone at radio station KFBK-AM in Sacramento and began broadcasting something called "The Rush Limbaugh Show."

The rest is history.

The "rest"--the inexorable 15-year rise of conservative ideas and clout across what Howard Stern calls "all media"--is described in a provocative new book by Brian C. Anderson, "South Park Conservatives." What was once a mostly exclusive liberal country club--television, the press, book publishing, even the campuses--has become heavily integrated with aggressive, even crude, conservatives.

As described by Mr. Anderson, a writer with the Manhattan Institute, conservatives established their first beachhead in the early 1990s with talk radio. Then Fox conquered cable news and finally a virtual Mongol horde of conservative-to-libertarian bloggers swept across the Internet. [...]

Ronald Reagan may not make it to Mount Rushmore for winning the Cold War. But he secured his place in the conservative pantheon for tearing down another wall: the Fairness Doctrine.

The Fairness Doctrine was a federal regulation, dating to 1949, which mandated "contrasting viewpoints" from broadcasters. In reality, the Fairness Doctrine ensured that incumbents got "free" TV coverage across their terms while challengers got crumbs. The Fairness Doctrine was also an early nuclear option: If a local broadcaster's news operation made the local congressman or his party look bad, Washington could threaten to blow up his broadcast license.

No monopoly can exist for long if it does not have a government enforcing it. Contrary to what Marx and the Marxists thought, a free market will overpower any monopoly. Once government enforcement of the liberal media monopoly (technically an oligopoly) ended, the floodgates opened, and conservative voices came to be heard wherever there was easy access (i.e., not on network television or in the major newspapers). That is why it was in the new or formerly dying media technologies - radio, cable and satellite TV, and the Internet - that the formerly excluded conservative commentators thrived.

Left-wing conspiracy theorists see something sinister in talk radio, and they keep trying to enter it. But why should liberal listeners tune in, when they get all of the left-wing news and commentary they want on the major network TV news shows or in their local newspaper, which allows the New York Times to determine for it what is or isn't news. Conservatives did not go on talk radio and cable television because those were their media of choice, but because they were the scraps left over to them. It was their entry that caused these media to flourish. The Internet, starting from zero, was open to all shades of opinion, and all are doing well there, but conservatives and libertarians appear to be doing somewhat better than liberals, because, again, they are not competing for audience with the largest media in the country.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

State Tax Revenues

The Census Bureau released its report on 2004 state tax revenues, and TaxProf Blog has a summary. Link.
* State tax revenues increased 8.1% to $593 billion (up $44 billion from 2003)
* All 50 states increased their tax take
* The two biggest sources of state tax revenues:
o Sales taxes up 7.5% to $198 billion
o Individual income taxes up 8.5% to $197 billion
* The biggest tax increases:
o Documentary and stock transfer taxes up 26%
o Severance taxes up 18%
o Occupational and business license taxes up 16%
* Per capita taxes collected by states averaged $2,024
o Highest per capita taxes:
+ Hawaii: $3,048
+ Wyoming: $2,968
+ Connecticut: $2,937
+ Minnesota: $2,889
+ Delaware: $2,862
o Lowest per capita taxes:
+ Texas: $1,367
+ South Dakota: $1,378
+ Colorado: $1,533
+ New Hampshire: $1,543
+ Alabama: $1,549

Probably the single most interesting point is that all 50 states increased their tax revenues last year. A rising economy raises all states' tax takes. Another interesting point is that if you compare the color (red or blue) of the highest and lowest taxed states, the pattern clearly is that those who pay the highest state taxes vote to get the highest federal taxes as well.

Internet Advertising in the Big Leagues

Jeff Jarvis posts some very interesting figures from Ad Age. Link.
In terms of revenue, Google's estimated $3 billion and Yahoo's $2.9 billion compare with $6.2 billion for the big nets' prime time. And their market cap is up with the big boys: Google is No. 2 behind Time Warner; Yahoo is No. five behind Disney and News Corp. as well.

This is another milestone in the slow death of the old media. The only surprise is how quickly advertising has moved to the Internet, especially to its two largest companies. Ads placed on a TV network buy mass eyeballs, many of which are barely focused on the TV set. Ads placed with Google and Yahoo are shown to those who express an interest in subject matters that relates to the ads. It is like mailing ads to a carefully chosen list, rather than putting them out in front of everybody, no matter how unlikely it is that there would be any interest.

Small Cuts Are Better Than None

The Washington Times reports that Congress is about to approve a small cut in Medicaid. Link.
Congressional budget makers agreed to follow a recommendation by the nation's governors and cut at least $8.6 billion in Medicaid spending next year, a rare move because Congress usually is leery of touching entitlement spending programs.
Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, and Rep. Jim Nussle, Iowa Republican, head of their respective bodies' budget committees, said in a brief bicameral conference meeting yesterday that before a final budget bill is crafted, the proposed $2.6 trillion fiscal year 2006 budget must reflect a commitment to entitlement cuts. [...]

President Bush asked Congress to find $20 billion total in all entitlement programs savings this year. But Sen. Gordon H. Smith, Oregon Republican, got legislation passed that creates a bipartisan panel to study reforms and the effects that any cuts would have on the states' ability to provide health services. [...]

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, as chairman of the National Governors Association, crafted a bipartisan reform plan that streamlines administrative costs, including revising payment options and accounting policies. The plan is expected to save about $8.6 billion, according to House budget staff members.

$8.6 billion here, $8.6 billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money. Medicaid, like Medicare, is top-heavy with expenses of the elderly in the last year of their lives. It will not happen this year, but eventually the government will have to set priorities and decide if it is a better use of money to prolong the life of one elderly person by six months, or to put the money into programs for children and add thousands of person-years of life. Terminal illnesses are very expensive and leave little or no probability of a major extension of life. Some day, we will have to face these choices. They will be very unpleasant, but they will be necessary.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

New House Oil-For-Food Investigation Starting

In The New York Sun, Claudia Rosett reports on the latest investigation of the oil-for-food scandal. Link.
Next up in the U.N. oil-for-food scandal is a trip down the money trail, by way of the French bank tapped by the United Nations - in cahoots with Saddam Hussein - to handle the main escrow account of the graft-laden U.N. program. Tomorrow, the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations will hold a hearing delving into some of the oil-for-food banking details. [...]

Federal prosecutors are investigating allegations that Saddam sent millions in bribes to two as-yet-unnamed high-ranking U.N. officials to help shape the program in his favor. But all the investigating so far has barely begun to expose the full extent of the corruption and mismanagement involved in oil for food, under which Saddam grafted billions out of more than $110 billion in U.N.-approved oil sales and relief purchases meant to help the people of Iraq. "Follow the money," says Mr. Rohrabacher, who adds, "Sometimes it's easy to miss the fact that the bank is right in the middle of it."

That bank is the New York branch of the French bank, BNP Paribas (formerly the Banque Nationale de Paris). [...]

Among questions the subcommittee is likely to pursue is why BNP, straying outside its contract with the United Nations, reassigned letters of credit - meaning that payments from the Iraq escrow account guaranteed to one contractor approved by the United Nations for a given deal were instead sent to an unapproved third party. Under a U.N. sanctions regime, in which the basic aim of oil for food was to monitor Saddam's deals, such rogue payments, running right through the bank entrusted with the account, should have raised red flags. But the United Nations made no complaint. According to the U.N.-authorized inquiry led by Paul Volcker, the world body did not even bother to review BNP's handling of the letters of credit. [...]

It is also to be hoped that BNP will provide some insight regarding Saddam's oil sales and the associated letters of credit, with which oil buyers sent payments into the oil-for-food account. In a substantial sampling of such letters of credit, seen by The New York Sun, BNP handled both sides of the transaction - meaning the buyer used BNP-related accounts in various countries to open the letters of credit guaranteeing payment to the BNP account in New York. That would mean BNP was responsible for due diligence regarding many of the oil buyers under the program, a group that turns out to have been rife with front companies, many of them dealing openly in kickbacks to Saddam from about 2000 on. Many of these transactions were handled in Switzerland, famous for a degree of banking secrecy that should have raised yet more flags about the need for due diligence.

"Follow the money" is almost always a good rule in an investigation. A foreign bank with branches in the US is subject to US justice for crimes committed here. Just like the banks that aided the major corporate scandals here, the individuals involved should face criminal prosecution and the institution should be subject to civil liabilities to the parties harmed by their actions. In this case, that would be the people of Iraq, as represented by their now representative government.

Iraqi Cabinet Finalized

BBC reports that the cabinet list has been finalized and submitted for a vote. Link.
Iraq's new prime minister has submitted his new government for approval, ending months of political deadlock.

Ibrahim Jaafari's proposal, to include representatives all of Iraq's main ethnic and religious groups, needs to be approved a majority of MPs. [...]

There are indications that Sunni Arabs, who boycotted January's elections, are poised to receive several key portfolios.

At least seven women are also thought to be among the 32 or 33 names on Mr Jaafari's list. [...]

Mr Jaafari submitted his list to Iraq's three-man presidential council, who will in turn submit it to MPs in the country's National Assembly.

A vote is expected to be held on Thursday, with a simple majority needed among the 275 members for the government to win approval.

If all goes well the new government could be functioning within a few days, our correspondent says.
There has been a lot of frustration with how long this process has taken, but sometimes miracles take time. These are not people who are used to working together in a democratic fashion. The various ethnic groups there were held together under Saddam by total terror, just like the rival ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia were held together by firm Communist control. Look what happened there when the central authority collapsed and you can get an idea of how miraculous the developments in Iraq have been.

Forget timetables. We are seeing consistent progress in the country, and if it takes a little longer than total optimists had hoped, big deal.

Bad News From Russia

The Wall Street Journal reports that things have not changed much for Russians wishing to start a small business. Link. (subscription required)
Marina Ivashina got sick of local bureaucrats meddling in her baby-food business here, so she complained to the Kremlin. Two days later, her bank account was frozen. Five months after that, her business folded.

Ms. Ivashina is one of countless grass-roots entrepreneurs laid low by the resurgent forces of Russian officialdom. In her case, it's the authorities of Oryol, a sleepy town, 240 miles southwest of Moscow, which for 16 years has been ruled by the same man, Governor Yegor Stroyev. Critics say he's crushed all opposition and given relatives and cronies a free hand to run the economy. Locals nickname him the "boa constrictor." [...]

Ms. Ivashina's case shows that the crackdown on Yukos is no isolated incident. Across Russia, entrepreneurs who run afoul of local government can be targeted with tax audits, punitive fines and intrusive inspections. Some, like Ms. Ivashina, are forced to close. [...]

In a recent poll by Russia's national small-business association, Opora, entrepreneurs said they were more likely to fall victim to illegal actions by officials and policemen than by criminals. Less than 1% of them said they were sure that they could protect their lawful interests against the regional authorities in court, while nearly 70% said they had only a slim chance or none at all.

In many ways, Oryol is typical. Local government across the country is still dominated by former Communist Party bigwigs like Mr. Stroyev who quickly swapped class struggle for the free market. But their control of the bureaucracy meant they could maintain much the same leverage over the local economy as they had during Soviet times. Firms close to -- and often indirectly owned by -- the governor enjoy sweeping perks and preferences while independent private business struggles to survive.

The roots of stifling bureaucracy go deep in Russia. It wasn't just started by the Communists, although they combined it with terror, in the form of the Gulag. Read Dostoevsky for a view of pre-Communist Russian bureaucracy.

Under Yeltsin, moves were made to disband many of the organs of totalitarianism, but hardly any laws were changed. A legal framework for private property and privately owned businesses was never established. So when an unreconstructed Communist like Putin came to power, he was able to move the country back toward where it had been when he was a KGB official. Instead of state ownership, we have kleptocracy by former top Communist officials and their relatives. This was a world-class case of lost opportunity. Russia could have been a thriving, rapidly growing society today, instead of a continuation of Soviet stagnation.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Taxpayer Dollars to Soros Foundation

Cybercast News Service reports that "the Open Society Institute, a private foundation controlled by liberal billionaire and political activist George Soros, received more than $30 million from U.S. government agencies between 1998 and 2003." Link.
Various State Department documents indicate that OSI has been paid to run what the department describes as "democratization programs" in a number of countries.

"The Open Society Institute receives funding from the United States," a State Department press statement declared, "and has spent close to $22 million in Uzbekistan in order to help build a vibrant civil society."

Another report explained that "The United States also supports organizations, such as ... the Open Society Institute ... working inside and outside the (Burmese) region on a broad range of democracy promotion activities."

A State Department Fact Sheet also described "an HIV/AIDS prevention program carried out jointly with the Open Society Institute and Soros-Kazakhstan Foundation that targets high-risk populations" in Central Asia. The website of the U.S. Agency for International Development also lists numerous projects conducted in cooperation with OSI.

I guess this should not be surprising in budgets that spend millions to study the mating habits of obscure insects, but it still is just plain wrong. You can argue for government money to public charities, but a private foundation funded and controlled by one multi-billionaire is no place to send taxpayer dollars, no matter what good works it does. This is especially true when that multi-billionaire is very politically active. Money is fungible. The dollars given by government agencies to OSI, freed up dollars that Soros did not have to contribute, which he was than free to give to MoveOn.org and Americans Coming Together in his fanatical desire to defeat President Bush.

President Has Faith in DeLay

Actions speak louder than words. The Associated Press reports that the President has included Tom DeLay in his traveling dog and pony show on Social Security. Link.
GALVESTON, Texas - President Bush on Tuesday added a helper to his Social Security road tour: House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who is facing allegations of ethical improprieties but is seen by the White House as crucial to pushing Bush's plans through Congress.

Bush was traveling here to discuss his proposal to add private investment accounts to Social Security and included DeLay in the event being held near his district to show that "the president appreciates his leadership in the House," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. DeLay was also scheduled to fly back to Washington with Bush on Air Force One along with a few other Republican members of Congress from Texas.

It is good to see a Republican elected official who is not afraid of the New York Times and the Washington Post. With most Republican presidents and House and Senate leaders, any fellow Republican who was consistently attacked by these two liberal powerhouses would be left dangling in the wind. President Bush stands by his judicial and UN nominees, no matter how much the MSM blasts them for nonexistent wrongdoings, and it is internal consistency that has him supporting a very effective majority leader who, day in and day out is accused of doing what just about every member of Congress does routinely, with the Times/Post/CBS/ABC/NBC/CNN shocked! shocked! that such goings on could occur in our pristine and innocent Congress.

Hacker Sentenced

The Associated Press reports that a hacker, who broke into computers of eBay and Qualcomm and stole information, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to eight months in prison plus eight months of house arrest and cannot use a computer with an internet connection for three years without permission of his parole officer. Link.
Heckenkamp admitted breaking into San Jose-based eBay’s computers in February and March 1999, defacing a Web page and installing malicious programs that captured usernames and passwords that he used to gain access to other eBay computers.

Heckenkamp also admitted he broke into San Diego-based Qualcomm Inc.’s computers in late 1999 and installing more so-called “Trojan” programs. At the time, he was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. [...]

In the sentence, the judge also considered losses from other companies’ computers Heckenkamp was charged with accessing. They include Exodus Communications, Juniper Networks, Lycos, and Cygnus Solutions.

Hacking is not just innocent fun. It is the Internet equivalent of breaking and entering, plus burglary if information is stolen. The Internet was designed to be open for the easy exchange of information. Security was not a factor in its initial construction. Now that it is filled with commercial networks that contain credit card numbers and other personal data on people, security has to be a serious concern.

We can all marvel at the cleverness of successful and original hackers , but that is no different from our marveling at the thieves in good caper movies. At the end of a good caper movie, the clever thieves are caught and imprisoned, and that is as it should be with hackers as well.

Monday, April 25, 2005

US Acts to Strengthen Moderate Islam vs Radicals

US News & World Report has an article by David E. Kaplan subtitled "In an Unseen Front in the War on Terrorism, America is Spending Millions...To Change the Very Face of Islam." It details how the US government has moved beyond promoting political democracy in Muslim countries to acting to influence the internal fight within Islam between the radicals and the moderates. Link.
In at least two dozen countries, Washington has quietly funded Islamic radio and TV shows, coursework in Muslim schools, Muslim think tanks, political workshops, or other programs that promote moderate Islam. Federal aid is going to restore mosques, save ancient Korans, even build Islamic schools. [...]

The CIA is revitalizing programs of covert action that once helped win the Cold War, targeting Islamic media, religious leaders, and political parties. The agency is receiving "an exponential increase in money, people, and assets" to help it influence Muslim societies, says a senior intelligence official. Among the tactics: working with militants at odds with al Qaeda and waging secret campaigns to discredit the worst anti-American zealots. [...]

Approved by President Bush, the Muslim World Outreach strategy is now being implemented across the government. But it has stirred controversy. "The Cold War was easy," says a knowledgeable official. "It was a struggle against a godless political ideology. But this has theological elements. It goes to the core of American belief that we don't mess with freedom of religion. Do we have any authority to influence this debate?" The answer, for now, appears to be yes. "You do it quietly," says Zeyno Baran, a terrorism analyst at the Nixon Center who advised on the strategy. "You provide money and help create the political space for moderate Muslims to organize, publish, broadcast, and translate their work." [...]

The role of Saudi Arabia has repeatedly come up in discussions of the new strategy, sources say. Fueled by its vast oil wealth, the Saudis are estimated to have spent up to $75 billion since 1975 to expand their fundamentalist sect, Wahhabism, worldwide. The kingdom has funded hundreds of mosques, schools, and Islamic centers abroad, spreading a once obscure sect of Islam widely blamed for preaching distrust of nonbelievers, anti-Semitism, and near-medieval attitudes toward women. [...]

Many of the shock troops for America's new war of ideas are coming not from the CIA, nor from the State Department, but from the low-profile U.S. Agency for International Development. In the three years since 9/11, spending by the government's top purveyor of foreign aid has nearly tripled to over $21 billion, and more than half of that is now destined for the Muslim world. Along with more traditional aid for agriculture and education are the kind of programs that have spurred change in the former Soviet Union--training for political organizers and funding for independent media. Increasingly, those grants are going to Islamic groups. [...]

Elsewhere, U.S. officials are working quietly through third parties to train madrasah teachers to add math, science, civics, and health to their curriculum. The most ambitious program is in Pakistan, where sensitivities run so high that allegations of U.S. funding are enough to prompt parents to pull their children from schools, USAID staffers say. The agency is working through private foundations and the Pakistan Ministry of Education on what officials call a "model madrasah" program that may eventually include over a thousand schools.

As long as the funds are spent only overseas, I do not see a problem with the Establishment Clause. The courts are pretty clear that government funds within the US cannot be spent in ways that favor one branch of a religion over another. And clearly this use of funds is not intended to favor one branch of Islam over another for religion's sake, but to weaken religious or pseudo-religious forces that wish to harm us militarily. Cutting off recruits for radical Islamofascism is a very-long-term project. The large presence of Saudis in the terrorist ranks proves that poverty is not the driving force, but religious ideology. Changing of the thinking of the young in Islamic societies can help to isolate and shrink the terrorist organizations, which need a constant flow of new recruits.

Yosemite Switches to Hybrid Buses

Visitors to national parks such as Yosemite do not come in order to see and breathe black smoke from diesel buses. Since Yosemite banned private cars during peak season a few years ago, diesel buses have been shuttling visitors around the park. The Sacramento Union reports that those buses are now being replaced with hybrid diesel-electric ones. Link.
The diesel-electric buses like the ones delivered to Yosemite National Park on Monday are already running in 22 cities around the country, but this will be the first fleet to operate in a national park. The shuttles will carry visitors along Yosemite Valley, and into the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, a stand of some of the world’s largest trees.

The vehicles still consume diesel, but they’re vastly more fuel efficient, according to General Motors Corp. [...]

The hybrid buses produce up to 90 percent less emissions, one of the reasons why park officials chose the technology, National Park Service Deputy Director Don Murphy said in a statement.

The new buses are also much quieter than the conventional models.

This strikes me as a good use for a portion of the admission fees. The old noisy and dirty buses detracted some from the enjoyment of being in Yosemite, and these new buses will hopefully enhance the experience. How often do people get something for fees paid to the government?

Movement on Kosovo

Richard Holbrooke of the Washington Post has an op-ed in the European Wall Street Journal concerning Kosovo. Link. (subscription required) It seems that, after years of inaction by all of the parties involved, the US is starting to take a more active role in getting final status negotiations started.
Ever since the 78-day NATO bombing campaign freed the Kosovar Albanians from Slobodan Milosevic's oppressive grip in 1999, political control of Kosovo has been in the semi-competent hands of the United Nations, while NATO has maintained a fragile peace between the majority Albanian and minority Serb populations.

Under Security Council Resolution 1244, passed in 1999, the final status of Kosovo was supposed to be worked out through negotiations that would result in either independence, partition or a return by Kosovo to its former status as part of a country once known as Yugoslavia, now "Serbia and Montenegro." But instead of starting this process years ago, Washington and the European Union fashioned a delaying policy they called "standards before status," a phrase that disguised bureaucratic inaction inside diplomatic mumbo-jumbo. [...]

Last month, after warnings about the explosiveness of the situation from Philip Goldberg, America's senior diplomat there, Ms. Rice sent Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns to Europe for meetings with the nearly moribund Contact Group (the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Russia and Germany). Mr. Burns told them that the situation in Kosovo was inherently unstable and, unless there was an acceleration of efforts to determine its final status, violence would probably increase, with NATO forces, including U.S. troops, tied down indefinitely.

Under American pressure -- always the necessary ingredient in dealing with the sluggish, process-driven European Union -- a new Contact Group policy has begun to emerge. This summer a special U.N. representative will "determine" that Kosovo has met the necessary standards -- self-governance, refugees, returnees, freedom of movement, etc. -- and is therefore ready for status talks. (Of course, this should have been done years ago, but better late than never.) Then will come the really tough part: What should Kosovo's final status be? Separate nation, Serb province, partition?

There is often a tendency to put off difficult tasks in the hope that they will cure themselves, but they seldom do. Waiting may be deadly for the people of Kosovo, but it doesn't get any diplomats into visible trouble. Once they try to do something, they can fail very visibly.

That is why you cannot wait for the diplomats to initiate something, even something that is required by treaty or UN resolution. Sometimes the Secretary of State just has to get into the ring and knock some heads together to get something started. True, the new actions may fail, but inaction is nearly guaranteed to get nothing done, so we are no worse off with a failed attempt.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Lessons Learned, at Least by Some

Victor Davis Hanson looks at the lessons we have learned from the broad war on Islamic terrorism with the superior analysis of a good historian, rather than a journalist. Link. These lessons appear obvious in retrospect, but they had to be learned the hard way. As I read them, I could not help thinking that they have not been learned by all. Looking over the Democratic landscape, with the occasional exception, such as Senator Lieberman, the Democrats have not only not learned these lessons but have totally rejected them. Looking at the world through leftist glasses (rose colored perhaps) they cannot see the obvious truths that have emerged since September 11. Let us hope they acquire a lot more Joseph Liebermans before they next acquire executive power.

Last of Syrian Forces Out of Lebanon

The Washington Times reports that the Syrian government claims that the last of its military and intelligence forces will be out of Lebanon today. Link.
The last Syrian troops will leave Lebanon today after 29 years, a senior Lebanese military officer said, the result of fierce domestic and international outrage after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The announcement was made as the largest number of Syrian troops to leave Lebanon at one time vacated at least 10 positions in the northern part of the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon last night. [...]

He did not elaborate, but it appeared that the withdrawal would include the Anjar base in eastern Lebanon occupied by Syria's chief of military intelligence in Lebanon, Maj. Gen. Rustom Ghazale.
The same officer had said last week that Gen. Ghazale would evacuate Anjar by Tuesday. The withdrawal of Syrian intelligence officers along with the military has been a key demand of the Lebanese opposition.
Mr. Hariri's son, meanwhile, said he will run in Lebanon's general election scheduled to take place by the end of May.

Let's hope that the Syrians are telling the truth and the whole truth. Colonial rule is hard to maintain once the vast majority of the people want you out. The murder of the senior Hariri brought about just such a situation. 29 years ago, the Syrians promised a short occupation just to restore order, following the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli invasion and withdrawal. This is shorter than many government "temporary programs," but it is still way too long. Before the civil war, started by the PLO occupiers of the south of the country, Lebanon had the only representative government in the Arab world. It now has a shot at restoring its democratic status, and perhaps Beirut can someday regain its reputation as the "Paris of the East."

Friday, April 22, 2005

9/11 Related Trial Opens in Spain

The Washington Post reports on a trial of two dozen suspected al Qaeda members, including three who are accused of logistical support for the 9/11 attack. Link.
Two weeks before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a Syrian immigrant in Spain received a phone call from London. The caller reported that he had "entered the field of aviation" and that "classes were going well." He added, mysteriously, that "the throat of the bird has been slit."

The call was recorded by Spanish police as part of a long-term investigation into a suspected network of Islamic radicals, but it was weeks before the possible significance of the conversation was understood. Prosecutors here now say they believe "the bird" was a symbolic reference to the American bald eagle and that the caller was sending a message that the Sept. 11 hijackings were ready to proceed.

The wiretap will be a key piece of evidence against the Syrian, Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, and two other men suspected of being al Qaeda members who go on trial in Madrid on Friday after a 3 1/2-year investigation into the use of Spain as a staging ground for the Sept. 11 attacks.

It is important that we learn the details of al Qaeda's logistics, so that we can work on closing it down. Our war against al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist groups has prevented any major attack on US soil since 9/11, and any information that will help us keep the pressure on them is helpful. While Spain dropped out of the war with Iraqi Baathists and al Qaeda personnel working in Iraq, they have not dropped out of the worldwide war against terrorists. The Madrid bombing let them know that they were a target, and they appear to have done good work in finding Islamic terrorists in Spain.

Too Much Debt - Or Too Little?

Forbes columnist Kenneth Fisher has a very interesting take on the level of debt in the US. Link.
The debt worriers have been with us for a long time, and they've always been wrong. Their economic prescriptions are born of a moral philosophy that says debt is bad and more debt is worse. They don't like to see the U.S. importing capital from abroad at the rate of $600 billion a year. What the worriers fail to contemplate is the uses to which that capital is put.

What is the right debt level for society to carry? The answer is: that level where our marginal borrowing costs approach our marginal return on assets. [...]

The U.S. is nowhere near there. As a result, we need more debt to get more income, so people can become wealthier.

The Federal Reserve counts $97 trillion of assets in the economy, offset by $44 trillion of debt, leaving (with rounding) $52 trillion of net worth. [...] And we're getting a great return on that $52 trillion. Our national income is $12 trillion.
A $12 trillion return on $52 trillion of debt indicates a 23% return. Actually, the true return is somewhat lower, since the capital figure should include equity as well as debt, but that will still show a higher rate of return than we pay on our foreign debts.

New Cover-up Going On

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article concerning the special prosecutor appointed 10 years ago to investigate Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros. Link. (subscription required) Mr. Cisneros pleaded guilty in 1999 to lying to FBI investigators (and was pardoned by President Clinton in 2001), but the final report of the special prosecutor, required by law, was never released. Mr. Cisneros' lawyers have tied it up with 160 appeals, and now three Democratic Senators - Byron Dorgan, John Kerry, and Richard Durbin - are trying to shut down the prosecutor without the required report being made public.
So what don't Democrats want everyone to know? We're told that early on the Barrett probe moved away from Mr. Cisneros and his mistress and focused on an attempted cover-up by the Clinton Administration, especially involving the IRS.

Back in the early '90s Mr. Cisneros was considered the rising savior of the Democratic Party in Texas. "So there were people who wanted to save his political future," a source tells us. To that end, when the IRS began investigating him for tax fraud an extraordinary thing happened: The investigation was taken from the IRS district office that would always handle such an audit and moved to Washington, where it was killed.

"Never in the history of the IRS has a case been pulled out of the regional office and taken directly to Washington," our source continues. This information was originally provided to Mr. Barrett, some years into his investigation, by a whistleblower in the IRS regional office with 30 years of experience.

Using his subpoena power, Mr. Barrett also found that the IRS would not have been able to kill the case on its own. It had to have cooperation from the Justice Department, particularly the Public Integrity and Tax divisions. We're told Mr. Barrett beat back several attempts by Justice to squelch or otherwise limit his investigation, and that a lot of important names from the Clinton era appear in the report.
It seems we still are not free of Clinton-era scandals and efforts by the Democrats to derail any investigation of them. After eight years of slime, I was hoping that we could "put this behind us and move on." However, it looks like the Democrats still won't let us.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Too Soft for the Investigators

The Washington Times has the latest developments on the UN Oil-For-Food scandal investigation. Link.
Two senior investigators with the U.N. committee probing corruption in the oil-for-food program have resigned in protest, saying they think a report that cleared Kofi Annan of meddling in the $64 billion operation was too soft on the secretary-general, a panel member confirmed yesterday.
The investigators felt the Independent Inquiry Committee, led by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, played down findings critical of Mr. Annan when it released an interim report in late March related to his son, said Mark Pieth, one of three leaders of the committee.

The UN may have chosen an honest man to head the investigation, but they did not give him subpoena power, so he has not received the cooperation he would have needed to get to the bottom of the scandal. It is a typical case of an inside investigation, intended for PR and not for finding out the truth and punishing the guilty. Happily, Congressional committees and US attorneys do have subpoena power, and they have the incentives to use it. They cannot get any information from anyone with diplomatic immunity, but there are plenty of UN employees who do not have such a luxury. Let us hope that Congressional Democrats do not obstruct investigations of their favorite "government."

Tyrannies in Trouble

Michael Ledeen sees trouble for the tyrannies in North Korea, China and Iran. Link. He gives examples in all three countries of actions by the people there that shows that the government no longer holds total control. He then concludes with:
It has long been assumed that a repressive regime could survive as long as it had the will to crush any opposition, and that clever tyrants could deflect hatred of their regime by conjuring up an external enemy. There is still a tendency, particularly among intellectuals, to assume that these principles apply to contemporary dictatorships like those in China, Iran, and North Korea. Yet recent events suggest that these three countries, which are united by common interests and which help one another with advanced military technology, from missiles to WMDs, are losing control despite their fierce determination to cling to power and eventually fight and win a great war against the West. All three have nearby examples of new democracies, and their peoples are asking, with increasing intensity, why they are not permitted to govern themselves.

Five hundred years ago Machiavelli insisted that tyranny is the most unstable form of government, and he warned that the most dangerous development for any tyrant was the contempt of his own people. That dramatic tipping point is now very close in China, Iran, and North Korea. All that is required to get there is a steady flow of the truth from outside their borders, guidance for those who undertake the struggle against the tyrants, and constant reminders — backed up with modest action — that we are with them.
These are the hardest of the hard core. It will be far easier for the people to overthrow the government in Syria or force reforms in Egypt and even in Saudi Arabia. That so many examples of active opposition can be found in the three hardest-core cases is cause for optimism that the moves toward democracy we have seen in the world will continue for several more decades, as long as we have leadership in the United States that is serious about liberty and democracy worldwide.

News From the Religion of Peace

Reuters reports from Pakistan. Link.
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A Pakistani man accused of desecrating the Koran was shot dead Wednesday after being chased by an angry crowd.

Ashiq Nabi, in his thirties, was accused of being disrespectful to Islam's holy book and had been in hiding since Monday, a senior police official said.

"Today, a mob spotted him and shot him dead," said Mazahar ul Haq, police chief of Nowshera town, about 100 km (62 miles) west of the capital, Islamabad.

Blasphemy, including desecrating the Koran, is a capital offence in deeply Islamic Pakistan and carries the death sentence, but convictions have always been turned down by high courts because of a lack of evidence.

How far can democracy advance in lands where the people accept that it should be a capital offense to speak contrary to the Koran? This is the philosophy of Bin Laden. Scientific inquiry is blasphemy, and so a society that was very advanced a thousand years ago has stagnated since then. If the Muslim world wants to advance itself and interact with the rest of the world, they will have to accept that they are entitled to their beliefs, but they cannot enforce them on others by force or by threats of death.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Utah Defies Washington Over Education

The Washington Times reports on a disagreement Utah has with the Department of Education and on a highly intemperate letter the Secretary of Education sent to state officials. Link.
"I find it odd the threat of sanction would take away funds from the poorest schools," state Senate President John L. Valentine said before the final vote.
State Sen. Thomas Hatch, the bill's Republican sponsor in the Senate, emphasized during floor debate, "Nowhere in this legislation does it say we are opting out of NCLB. I don't think we're going to jeopardize federal funding. We're simply going to try to negotiate the best possible situation we can [with the federal government] and maintain control [of state education]."
Mrs. Spellings' implied threat of a funding cutoff propelled a backlash as the special legislative session convened.
"This is an extraordinarily worded letter," said state Rep. Margaret Dayton, a Republican and primary sponsor of the bill.
She said denunciation of Utah legislation by a federal official was an "unwarranted intrusion" on state autonomy, especially because local school districts and state taxpayers shoulder 100 percent of the responsibility and about 90 percent of the cost of Utah's 803 public schools.
The Education Department refused to comment.

This is the problem when states accept federal money. The feds feel free to add any strings they want at any time after the states have become addicted to the funds. I am reminded of how the Transportation Department threatened to cut off federal money for road construction in any state that did not adopt a maximum speed limit of 55 mph and separately to adopt a 21 year drinking age. Both of these decisions were clearly left to the states by the Constitution. Congress could not legislate these changes, so they used extortion instead. I am surprised that all 50 states complied, that none chose to stare down the feds and see if they would actually carry it out, knowing that those states' Congressmen and Senators would henceforth vote against any funding for the Transportation Department. The states are not powerless in situations like these.

Under the original Constitution, state legislatures elected their Senators, unless a legislature ceded this power to the voters. The House represented the voters, while the Senate represented the state governments. Prior to the 17th Amendment in 1913, The federal government would not dare have infringed so blatantly on the powers of the state legislatures. Their desires carried too much weight with their senators. The beginning of the decline and fall of federalism and the growing supremacy of the Federal government in all areas, even those left specifically to the states by the Constitution, can be dated to the passage of that amendment.

Fight Over Death Tax

Amity Shlaes has a column in the Financial Times on the evolving debate over the death tax. Link.
The Democrat wants to preserve the estate tax, America's inheritance tax. The Republican wants to abolish it. [...]

Except that Schumer is thinking he might give in on rate cuts for the estate tax. What is more, he may permit exemption from the levy for estates worth less than $3 million— or even $5 million, even though such a change would leave fewer than half of 1 percent of all estates subject to the tax. Oh, and the timing of the legislation— there is room for concession there too. In other words, Schumer will defend the estate tax and may well prevent its abolition, but the result will still be a levy more diminished than even the fiercest Republicans could have hoped for 10 years ago. [...]

As recently as a decade ago, Democrats assumed the estate tax was here to stay. "An old tax is a good tax" runs the tax maxim, and the estate tax is old. The last leader to fight seriously for repeal was Andrew Mellon in the 1920s. As for Republicans, their most radical document, the 1994 "Contract with America," called not for repeal but a gentle increase in the exclusion from $650,000 to $750,000 or $850,000.

After that, however, Republican strategists and conservative talk-show hosts dropped the "estate tax" label and began referring to "the death tax." They started talking repeal and started talking reduction. William Beach of the free-market Heritage Foundation pulled out examples of families that had been forced to liquidate their businesses to pay the levy and pushed those families into the spotlight of congressional hearings. [...]

What is more, many Americans, including Democrats, dislike the estate tax. If you believe that you may become rich one day, you do not want to curtail your own opportunity to build inheritances. Even if that means allowing someone else to advance his horrid offspring ahead of the rest. Such a triumph of hope over envy is the popular recognition of the very real successes of the 1980s and 1990s. This is what Beach, Norquist and the others divined. So did television screenwriters, who made the point in a scene about the Congressional Black Caucus in the TV series "The West Wing":

Character A: "Can you think of any reason why they'd oppose the estate tax?"

Character B: "Sure. The first generation of black millionaires is about to die."

The "death tax" saga tells us something about other American projects, including the campaign to privatize Social Security. It is that it is too early to declare privatization of Social Security a failure.

If the Democrats' position is now to keep the death tax only on less than half of one percent of the population, they have lost the moral high ground. The moral high ground on taxes is that they are to raise revenues for government "services," not to punish people who elected officials do not like. The Constitution does not allow laws that would name certain individuals that the law would apply to, but, especially in doling out tax favors, Congressmen often write "neutral language" definitions that would restrict a tax break to one large donor to their campaign. It isn't any different when a tax law harms such a small number of citizens.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Same Old Pravda

On a whim, I was reading Pravda to see how much it had changed since Soviet times. I found an article, written by an American leftist, which could have appeared in Pravda during Stalin's day, headlined "Being a Loser in America". Link. The author contends that America is a totally class dominated society where your life is determined by the family you are born into.
It was then I discovered I had not chosen my family wisely. Time and again I was informed that all available positions were being reserved for individuals whose relatives already worked at the firm.

After a few months of frustration, I found myself stocking pet food at a local grocery store for a few cents above minimum wage, a position I could have obtained without incurring the onerous debt of a law school education. So, rudely awakened from my idealistic slumber, I soon learned that the legal system is not the only industry fueled by nepotism and cronyism. [...]

Subsequently I decided to open my own law practice, thus encountering more American realities: First, the legal "system" is more adept at rationalizing injustice than doing justice; Second, the wealthy and powerful are constantly favored by the legal "system" over the poor and weak; Third, in the eyes of the legal "system," the Constitution and Bill of Rights are not the cornerstones of freedom and individual rights, but simply nuisances to be explained away or ignored. [...]

The culture is so dishonest that no profession or institution can be trusted to act with integrity. Although many administrators in the academic world stress the teaching of ethics in the classroom and demand honesty from both students and faculty, they predictably feel no obligation to adhere to such standards themselves when it doesn"t serve their interests. [...]

While some attorneys have actually lost their jobs for refusing to criminally prosecute innocent people, those with no such scruples have become politicians, judges, or highly paid consultants for the government, the media or corporate America. [...]

On a national scale, I"ve watched the future I once dreamed of produce technological progress and sociological regress, as America, under the Bush dictatorship, has plunged once again into the quagmire of racism, injustice, hatred, despair, and war based on lies. [...]

But this hope of future justice provides little solace when I think of those wrongfully imprisoned in American gulags simply because gutless politicians and judges are more concerned about their own careers than doing justice. Nor can I forget those who were martyred. [...]

I cannot say I am surprised that an American wrote that article. It could just as easily appeared on MoveOn.org. I was more surprised at how little Pravda had changed. During its heyday, it had no competition, and its readers had no other sources of news to compare it with. Today, Russians have access to western news reports and millions of them have relatives living in the US, with whom they can communicate. It seems habits die just as hard for Russian ex-communists as for American leftists.

From Bad to Worse

Byron York writes in NRO about the next step in the continuing saga of campaign finance getting worse and worse with each "reform" law. Link.
Next week the Senate Rules Committee is expected to consider the "527 Reform Act of 2005," sponsored by Republican Sen. John McCain, which would impose on 527s the same contribution limits that now apply to other political-action committees. No longer would the groups be able to accept seven- and eight-figure, Soros-style contributions. And that will be the end of the 527s, at least as they existed during the 2004 campaign. "There is less and less enthusiasm for organizing 527s, since Congress is signaling that it is inclined to legislate them out of existence," says election-law expert Jan Baran.

Under the immutable laws of political spending, however, the money is already going elsewhere. And this time, it is likely to go to 501(c)(4) organizations, known in short as C4s, named for the subsection of the Internal Revenue Service code which allows their formation. "The C4 is a tax-exempt vehicle that could be used as an alternative in most, if not all, cases," says Baran.

C4s are allowed to engage in unlimited lobbying, and can also engage in partisan campaigning, as long as that campaigning is not the group's "primary" purpose, according to the law. [...]

And one more thing. For megadonors, C4s have an enormous advantage over the old-style 527s: They are not required to disclose their contributors. One could give $10 million, or $20 million, or any sum, and remain anonymous. [...]

So now, after years of campaign-finance reform, we are entering an era in which a donor can give an unlimited amount of money to an unaccountable group without any public disclosure. Before McCain-Feingold, big donors gave fully-disclosed money to the political parties, which, because they represented the entire coalition that made up the Democratic or Republican parties, were far more accountable to the public than the new, outside, groups became.

Any campaign finance reform faces three problems that prevent it from ever improving the situation. 1) No mater what the Supreme Court has said, it is a blatant violation of the First Amendment. The Founders were specifically referring to political speech when they wrote the amendment. It may be deemed to also include pornography, but there is no rational way to find an exception for political speech. 2) The only "campaign finance reform" that can ever pass in Congress is one that the Representatives and Senators believe will hamper challengers far more than incumbents. Every "campaign finance reform" law is intended as an Incumbent Protection Act. 3) Multibillionaires have better lawyers than Congress has. Congress can never pass a "campaign finance reform" law that these smarter lawyers will not find ways around.

The only true needs of campaign finance reform are transparency and rapid dissemination of information to the public. The Internet allows the details of large donations to be reported almost instantly to all voters. As long as the voters know well before the election the identity of the donors, their affiliations, and the amount they donated, no other reform is needed. We need knowledgeable voters. The "reforms" we have had so far have encouraged keeping voters in the dark, by emphasizing limitations on money available to the candidates that they need to inform the voters of who they are and where they stand on the issues. This is expensive, and the candidates and the parties, not independent, unanswerable groups, should have the funds.

Blacks Need Private SS Accounts

Alphonso Jackson, Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing that minorities in general, and blacks in particular, will be the biggest gainers from President Bush's ownership society. Link. (Subscription required)
The National Urban League has issued its annual report on the state of black America. Sadly, but not surprisingly, the report concluded that economic and societal disparities continue to separate black and white Americans. Today, the typical black household has a net worth of only $6,100, while a typical white household has $67,000. In recent years, the wealth gap between blacks and whites has been intensifying. Blacks are more likely to be unemployed, living in poverty, and in need of government assistance.

We can begin reversing these trends and erasing today's racial inequities by encouraging black participation in what President Bush calls America's "ownership society." Through ownership, more Americans will accumulate wealth, become financially independent, and take a more active role in their futures, their children's futures, and the future of our country. [...]

An individual who owns his retirement security -- a concept central to the president's plan for reforming Social Security -- would enjoy many of the same benefits homeownership provides. And under the plan, even the lowest-income workers would have the opportunity to build equity.

Black Americans have the most to gain from the proposals. As it stands today, black seniors are disproportionately more dependent on Social Security, but they receive less benefit from the system. While approximately 20% of white Americans depend entirely on Social Security for their retirement income, the figure doubles for blacks.

But blacks receive far less in return for their Social Security contributions. One in three will get no benefit at all because he will die before he is eligible to collect benefits. After a lifetime of paying into Social Security, nearly 30% of black seniors are left in poverty, compared to 7% of white seniors. And while the average black male lives to age 67.8 -- after collecting less than one year of Social Security -- the average white male will collect seven years of benefits. In effect, black workers are subsidizing the retirement of whites. The inevitable results of not reforming Social Security -- raising payroll taxes or reducing benefits -- would only worsen the situation for blacks.

It should be a no-brainer to see that, under the current system, groups who live shorter lives are being robbed to pay benefits to groups who live longer. It also should be a no-brainer to see that the poor, among whom blacks are over-represented, have less ability to accumulate assets after paying payroll taxes for a retirement plan very few will even get their contributions out of.

President Roosevelt needed the votes of the segregationist Southern Democrats to get Social Security passed, and it helped to have a plan where blacks would subsidize whites. The Dixiecrats would never have voted for a plan that allowed blacks to accumulate enough wealth to stop being their servants. It is about time that we switch to such a plan.

Monday, April 18, 2005

A Party With No Anchor

The Associated Press reports some depressing, but totally predictable, news. Link.
House Democrats have decided to quit emphasizing that they will not negotiate changes to Social Security until President Bush drops his idea for private accounts. The switch in strategy comes after Democrats learned from focus groups that people frown on the lawmakers for being obstinate.

That's what happens when you have no ideas of your own. You let focus groups and polls decide where you stand on the issues, or you watch what the Republicans want and argue the opposite. Maybe the political consultants tell them that they must go with what the focus groups determine is popular, but the Democrats will not start winning elections again until they decide what they believe in and act accordingly.

Ancient Texts Yield to New Technology

Over a century ago, more than 400,000 fragments of ancient Greek and Roman texts on papyrus were found in central Egypt, but they had been made totally illegible by age. They were stored in a library at Oxford University until now. The Independent, a British newspaper, tells us that new technology is making some of the fragments readable. Link.
Now, in a breakthrough described as the classical equivalent of finding the holy grail, Oxford University scientists have employed infra-red technology to open up the hoard, known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, and with it the prospect that hundreds of lost Greek comedies, tragedies and epic poems will soon be revealed.

In the past four days alone, Oxford's classicists have used it to make a series of astonishing discoveries, including writing by Sophocles, Euripides, Hesiod and other literary giants of the ancient world, lost for millennia. They even believe they are likely to find lost Christian gospels, the originals of which were written around the time of the earliest books of the New Testament. [...]

The papyrus fragments were discovered in historic dumps outside the Graeco-Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus ("city of the sharp-nosed fish") in central Egypt at the end of the 19th century. Running to 400,000 fragments, stored in 800 boxes at Oxford's Sackler Library, it is the biggest hoard of classical manuscripts in the world.

The previously unknown texts, read for the first time last week, include parts of a long-lost tragedy - the Epigonoi ("Progeny") by the 5th-century BC Greek playwright Sophocles; part of a lost novel by the 2nd-century Greek writer Lucian; unknown material by Euripides; mythological poetry by the 1st-century BC Greek poet Parthenios; work by the 7th-century BC poet Hesiod; and an epic poem by Archilochos, a 7th-century successor of Homer, describing events leading up to the Trojan War. Additional material from Hesiod, Euripides and Sophocles almost certainly await discovery.

Oxford academics have been working alongside infra-red specialists from Brigham Young University, Utah. Their operation is likely to increase the number of great literary works fully or partially surviving from the ancient Greek world by up to a fifth. It could easily double the surviving body of lesser work - the pulp fiction and sitcoms of the day.

I must commend Oxford for saving these fragments, even though they had no grounds to imagine that, some day, technology would exist that would allow scholars to reads these texts. It sounds like the output of this project will keep classicists busy for the next century rewriting the history and analysis of ancient Greece and Rome, and, perhaps of early Christianity. This is very exciting news. We are talking about a very large increase in our knowledge of our roots.

Is Hillary a Political Genius?

Jay Cost, who writes for RedState.org, has an essay in Opinion Journal titled "Don't Overestimate Hillary". Link.
Where do her political credentials come from? It seems to me that she was a great supporting player to a good (though highly overrated) politician. She played the part of the forgiving, intelligent, driven wife with great effectiveness. When she takes center stage, however, the results are quite mixed. She botched health-care reform so badly that President Clinton got absolutely nothing from a Democratic Congress. She coined the term "vast right-wing conspiracy"--guaranteeing that conservatives everywhere would curse her existence until the end of time. She did win that New York Senate seat, but that, to my mind, was pretty unimpressive. She beat latecomer Rick Lazio, who was not a formidable candidate, to say the least (the word "sophomoric" comes to mind).

If her political accomplishments are unimpressive, why is she so feared? Why is she seen to be a political genius? The answer to this question eluded me for a long time, perhaps because it is so simple. The plain fact is that Hillary Clinton is actually one of the worst politicians in national politics today. She is feared as a brilliant politician only because she is such an obvious politician, which is actually the key mark of a bad politician. [...]

Hillary's movement is a big deal first and foremost because everybody notices her movement. Mr. Frist and others do not get noticed because, while one can identify their political movements through systematic evaluation of their voting records, their positioning is more subtle. But not Hillary's. There is nothing subtle about her strategic positioning. Not a thing. Everybody talks about Hillary's political calculations not because they are brilliant but because they are obvious, because everything about Hillary screams "political calculation." There is nothing organic to her politics; it all seems artificial.

This is the sign of a bad politician. All politicians do the same things. They all change their views. They all move with the political currents. They are all flexible and pragmatic. What differentiates the good politician from the bad one is that you never notice that the good one is pragmatic. [...]

[S]he is just downright wooden. She does not do public appearances well, at least television appearances. The good politicians appear natural on television. [...] A natural-seeming politician instantly washes away the belief of all but his most vitriolic opponents that this guy is nothing but a pragmatist. It is difficult to judge a man as calculating when he seems so natural. The bad ones appear staged and affected. Thus they cannot use television to build that much-needed trust. [...] Ironically, her awfulness as a politician is why people think she is so great. Her political moves are so obvious that everybody discusses how "political" she is. "Oooooh, she is so Machiavellian!" Pundits are in awe of how overtly political she is--and they assume that her overtness is a sign of her excellence. Far from it. As anybody who has read "The Prince" knows, the true Machiavellian is one everybody thinks is a saint.

I too have been puzzled by her reputation as a political genius. She was very politically inept in her handling of her health care commission. She only won the New York election against a nonentity after Rudy Guliani, a long-odds favorite to beat her, dropped out of the race. Being married to a successful politician does not make you one.

As for 2008, she would not stand a chance if there were no opponent running against her. Unfortunately for the Republicans, they have to come up with a candidate. I can think of several Republicans, visible enough to win a nomination, who could lose to her, but that is what it would take. I do not see how she would win a presidential election, but the Republicans could lose it, especially with every major news organization in the country devoting 100% of its resources to finding dirt on her opponent.

Friday, April 15, 2005

A Short Break

I am off to New York to attend a wedding. I should be back blogging sometime Monday.

Amish at Cutting Edge of Biotech

Living a traditional life does not mean rejecting the advances of science that can be applied compatibly to their lives. The Amish may reject cars, televisions, etc., but the Council for Biotechnology Information informs us that they are enthusiastic adopters of certain genetically enhanced crops. Link.
[A] growing number of Amish in Pennsylvania have been using genetically enhanced seeds because they see them as another tool to help them continue their traditional agrarian lifestyle.

"I myself like biotechnology," Amish farmer Daniel Dienner told the Associated Press. "I feel it's what the farmers will be using in the future."

Dienner is one of about 550 Amish farmers in Pennsylvania who have been growing a genetically enhanced, nicotine-free tobacco plant since 2001. Other Amish farmers have been growing a biotech potato, which is resistant to pests and viruses, on a test basis. (...)

Amish scholar Steven M. Nolt, an associate professor of history at Goshen College in Indiana, said he can't think of a reason why biotechnology would present a conflict with the Amish way of living.

"If it helped them to keep on farming small-scale farms, it would present a benefit," he said. "They don't dislike technology per se. They just avoid those technologies that might cause a diminishing of their family life or other strongly held beliefs."

"Amish law doesn't say anything about growing genetically modified tobacco," added Dienner in an interview with Wired magazine.

I got a huge kick out of seeing the Amish, usually thought of as quaint and so old fashioned, being light years ahead of the Europeans in accepting a useful piece of modern science. Not only do the Europeans bar their own farmers from planting genetically modified (GM) crops, but they have effectively banned Africans who hope to trade with the EU from planting GM crops either, contributing to starvation on that continent. It's a good thing that the Amish do not seek to trade with the EU.

McCain vs. Science

John Miller reports in NRO that John McCain buried a few words within a massive bill dealing with Native American affairs that would effectively ban any scientific study of ancient bones discovered within the borders of the United States. Link.
Their boldest attempts to cover up the past have involved Kennewick Man, a set of bones discovered in 1996 near Kennewick, Wash. The remains are more than 9,000 years old, and physical anthropologists find them intriguing because their morphology is said to differ significantly from that of North American Indians. Kennewick Man may be more closely related to the Ainu, an ethnic group indigenous to Japan, than to any modern Indian tribe. If true, it would mean that the story of human migration is much more complicated (and fascinating) than we have realized.

The only way to learn more, of course, is to let scientists take a close look at old bones. Several local tribes, however, invoked NAGPRA and demanded that Kennewick Man be turned over to them on the grounds that they were “affiliated,” as if any living person can claim a genuine “affiliation” with someone who died nine millennia ago. Their stated intention was not to examine Kennewick Man, but to rebury him. The federal government began to comply with their demands. Then a group of scientists sued. Last year, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the scientists.

Blocked by the courts, the tribes are now seeking a far-reaching political fix. They’ve enlisted the help of McCain, who has just shepherded a bill through his Senate Indian Affairs Committee. It’s actually a big piece of Indian legislation — one of those monster bills that almost nobody bothers to read from front to end. Tucked away in a hidden corner, the NAGPRA revision involves just a pair of words. Yet they would change everything.

There is good reason to protect burial sights of known tribes from construction projects or archaeologists. However, when bones thousands of years old are discovered, no tribe can reasonably claim them, and they can add significantly to our knowledge of the development of ancient America, if they can be studied. McCain's bill smacks of Stalin's attempt to force the crackpot theories of T.D. Lysenko on Soviet scientists because they fit his ideological inclinations. That passage in the bill should be removed, with or without McCain's consent.

Get DeLay

Ben Stein writes in American Spectator that there are two reasons why the Democrats and the liberal media are out to get Tom DeLay: He tells the truth and he is effective. Link.
He told the truth about how we have an out of control court system. He told the truth about an unelected elite in black robes literally enacting a slow motion coup against the Constitutional authority of the Congress. He told the truth about the brutality and viciousness of the killing of the totally innocent Terri Schiavo -- killed, again, in a manner so cruel we would not let a serial child rapist and murderer be executed that way. (...)

Second, he is effective. He gets the job done in redistricting Texas to take away the Democrat gerrymander and elect more Republicans to Congress. This mirrors the electoral preference of Texans, but it terrifies the other side, accustomed as it is to using the gerrymander to get more seats in Congress than it has popular votes in the nation. He gets the President's agenda through Congress. He does not suffer fools or hypocrites gladly.

The only thing I would add is that the redistricting that DeLay engineered, while justified, was not quite as benign as Stein describes. It was the typical round of replacing one party's gerrymandering with the other party's gerrymandering, that nearly always occurs when control of state government shifts. It was a move toward fairness, since under the previous gerrymandering a minority of voters elected a majority of congressmen. Still, the lines were not drawn to be objectively fair, but to secure safe districts for Republicans.

Moving from one gerrymandered situation where a minority of voters elect a majority of congressmen, to another gerrymandered situation where a majority of voters elect a majority of congressmen is a move in the right direction, Yet it still pales before a move to take redistricting out of the hands of politicians, as Governor Schwarzenegger is trying to do in California.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

College Freshmen Got Religion

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports on a poll of college freshmen conducted by The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. Link.
The poll of 112,232 freshmen at 236 colleges and universities found eight in 10 saying they attend religious services, believe in God and care about spirituality. More than two-thirds pray.

The survey suggested that while spirituality is increasing, affiliation with mainstream religions is declining. And students who said they regularly attend church or otherwise engage in religious practices were three times more likely to be politically conservative than liberal, a pronounced trend among the general American public, as well. (...)

According to the UCLA survey, 80 percent of students are interested in spirituality, 76 percent are searching for meaning in life, 74 percent discuss life philosophies with friends, 81 percent attend religious services, 79 percent believe in God, and 69 percent pray.

Sixty-four percent said their spirituality was a source of personal joy, but nearly half said they sometimes "felt angry with God" and 52 percent said they disagreed with their families about religious matters.

Maybe we have to update the old saying, "There are no atheists in foxholes." Perhaps today it should be, "There are no atheists during finals week."

There have been many surveys showing that young people are, on average, getting more politically conservative, so these results should not be a total shock. However, they likely will be a shock to their faculty, which probably contain about 0.01% who believe in G-d and/or attend religious services. Young people tend not to vote in very large numbers. As they age, they vote much more, making these results very bad news long-term for the left.

A Spam Conviction

The Christian Science Monitor has an article on the latest conviction for spam. Link.
From here, Jeremy Jaynes, a Raleigh businessman who rose to No. 8 on a list of "spam kingpins," broke the nation's toughest spam law by churning out more than 100,000 unsolicited e-mails a month. In fact, he was moving closer to 10 million a day. He was sentenced late last week in Leesburg, Va., to the stiffest penalty ever given to a spammer: Nine years in a state prison.

In part, it underscores Americans' changing attitudes about the sanctity of the inbox. And even as the unsolicited e-mail flows on, experts say the case sends a potent message to would-be Internet solicitors: We know where you live. (...)

Still, the junk keeps coming. In 2001, only 8 percent of e-mail was junk; today, that number hovers near 75 percent, and could jump to 95 percent, thanks to new methods where "spam gangs" hijack servers to churn out huge amounts of e-mail at one time.

On the one hand, it is hard to support a law that makes it a crime to communicate with someone. On the other hand, the volume of unwanted commercial e-mails is so huge that it has become a public nuisance. Ultimately, I think the solution will be technological, i.e., effective spam filters, rather than criminal prosecutions. Yet, as reluctant as I am to admit it, perhaps there is a place for criminal laws for those who are able to get around the best available filters and make our lives miserable.

GIs Cleared in Italian Shooting

The New York Post reports on the results of an investigation. Link.
U.S. military officials told NBC News that a joint American-Italian investigation found the soldiers acted properly in firing on a car bearing a just-freed hostage, journalist Giuliana Sgrena, and an intelligence officer, Nicola Calipari.

The car was about 130 yards from a checkpoint when the soldiers flashed their lights to get it to stop. They fired warning shots when the car was within 90 yards of the checkpoint, but at 65 yards, they used deadly force. Calipari was killed and Sgrena wounded.

It is good that the investigation was a joint American-Italian effort. If the men had been cleared only by a US military investigation, suspicions of a white wash would linger, especially in Italy. The joint effort does not guarantee that this will not happen, but it lessens the odds.

Nablus Stock Exchange Optimistic

Who would have thought there was a stock exchange in Nablus, in the West Bank. The Washington Times reports that things there are picking up. Link.
NABLUS, West Bank -- The economy is in a shambles, lawlessness reigns and the public is ambivalent about peace, but the mood on the Palestine Securities Exchange couldn't be more euphoric.
Based in Nablus, a city battered by the Israeli army where gunfire from militants still echoes throughout the downtown, the fledgling stock exchange doubled in the first quarter of the year on news of the emerging truce with Israel. (...)

"The first reason is that the companies are doing well. The second reason is that political stability is better," Mr. Yassin said.
The tiny market -- all of 26 companies with a market value of just $2.3 billion -- has attracted money from companies in the Middle East, wealthy Palestinians outside of Israeli-controlled territories and local housewives, according to traders. During the first three months of this year, trading volume was five times higher than for all of 2002. (...)

"The clashes between the Palestinians and the Israelis have dropped compared to what it used to be. Many people think the blackest days are past," Mr. Salameh said.
The gains are being driven by two blue chips: Palestine Development & Investment Ltd., a local holding company, and its phone monopoly subsidiary, Palestine Telecommunications Ltd. (PalTel). (...)

To be sure, with almost half of Palestinians living below the poverty line and commerce still choked by Israeli military roadblocks, Mr. Yassin said the success of the PSE-listed companies isn't an indication that the average Palestinian is prospering as well.
"We haven't reached the point where we reflect the whole economy," he said.

The Palestinian economy was devastated by the Intifada, as employment and living standards dropped sharply. It is encouraging to see at least part of the economy improving, hopefully in a way that many Palestinians will feel. Until the Palestinians internalize the knowledge that their lives are harsh and poor when terrorism thrives, but improve when relations with Israel improve, there will be no peace. There can only be true peace when both sides want it.

Conan the Civilized Governor

Debra Saunders had an interesting interview with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Link.
Schwarzenegger keeps his "Conan the Barbarian" sword in a lined box near the head of a long conference table. (...)

In his second year in office, this governor is more Sacramento-savvy than the rookie governor who said he didn't want to shuffle the boxes of bureaucracy because "I want to blow them up." (...)

"Nothing we want to do is drastic," the Austrian Oak explained. The guv doesn't want to roll back health care for needy families, as "it's too brutal." An aide brings a chart into the room, and Schwarzenegger shows how he plans to use gradual spending cuts to close the gap between what the state takes in and what it spends.

You're not blowing up the boxes, I say. "We will," Schwarzenegger says. (...)

So the big, bold move Schwarzenegger now cites is something that many critics see as a gimmick. He has proposed ballot measures to reform the pension system (not now, but later), improve education, redraw legislative districts and reform the state budget process. The latter two areas are most important to him.

Schwarzenegger noted that it is wrong that Sacramento can raid transportation money instead of cutting spending elsewhere to balance the budget. Yes, he raided those funds, too, but only because past practices forced him to. Now, if he has his way, there will be a ceiling beyond which Sacramento cannot raise spending, and future governors and legislators won't be able to dip into school and transportation coffers. (...)

The Dems deride the gov's gimmicks, even though their only trick is to raise taxes. Or should I say raise taxes, then still spend more than they have?

Don't root against Schwarzenegger: If he loses, then the whole state loses.

So far, Arnold has done a better job with the tough hand he was dealt than I can see any professional politician having done. It wasn't perfect, but I cannot imagine any human being doing better. It took a long time for the state to get into this bad of a situation, and it will take a long time with the right things being done for it to get back to its former greatness. The Governor, like the President, knows that small steps in the right direction are far better than no steps at all.

US Moves in the Caucasus

Stratfor Intelligence Brief has a fascinating article on recent US moves in the Caucasus, where we not only supported the replacement of authoritarian regimes but are now helping negotiate with breakaway regions. Link.
In a little-noticed detour from his swing through Central Asia and Afghanistan, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made a stop April 12 in Azerbaijan. There, sources say, government officials agreed to host U.S. forces at three bases in what, in all likelihood, would be a long-term arrangement. A day earlier, U.S. State Department envoys met with leaders in a breakaway region of neighboring Georgia, signaling strong interest in ending that country's secessionist conflicts. (...)

The U.S. strategy in this region is complex: Moscow is correct in its belief that Washington has launched an assault against Russian influence, but the game is much larger than that. Together with Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan form a land bridge between the Black and Caspian Seas, and thus represent an important transport corridor for Caspian and Central Asian energy supplies that have attracted huge investments from the West.

At the same time, exerting control of the Caucasus would complete the United States' geopolitical encirclement of Iran. (...)

Throughout the region, Josef Stalin carved out state boundaries in such a way that no single republic would contain undivided nationalities or ethnic groups, and all would be utterly dependent on Moscow as Soviet entities. As its interest in the region deepens, Washington will find itself inheriting some level of responsibility for resolving the ethnic conflicts and tensions that are among the most enduring aspects of Stalin's legacy.

President Bush certainly likes to take on tough problems. While the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians gets the most press play, the ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus - between Abkhazia and Georgia, between South Ossetia and Georgia, and between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region - seem just as intractable and have roots going back much further than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Success in any one of these conflicts is deserving of the "old" Nobel prize (before they started giving it to terrorists and ex-presidents whose only virtue for the Nobel committee is his opposition to the current president). Success in several or all of them deserves sainthood.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Russia is not Happy with Ukraine

The London Telegraph reports on a trip cancellation by the Prime Minister of Ukraine. Link.
Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine's prime minister, has indefinitely delayed her visit to Moscow after threats of arrest.

Miss Tymoshenko, who was part of Viktor Yushchenko's team which took power in the orange revolution last November, has been told that criminal charges against her are still in force.

She had been planning to go to Russia for a two-day state visit, planned for April 15, but the government has been forced to cancel.

Russia's top prosecutor said she is wanted in Russia on charges of bribing military officials while she was head of a gas trading company in the mid-1990s. She denies the charges.

Talk about petty. Russia was humiliated by the forced resignation of its man in Kiev and his replacement by Viktor Yushchenko. They put the CEO of Yukos in jail for backing the opposition, and now they threaten jail if the Ukrainian PM ever sets foot in Russia. So much for maintaining friendly Russian-Ukrainian relations.

Sinclair Broadcasting Follow-up

Remember when Sinclair Broadcast Group planned to air a documentary about the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and the uproar in the MSM forced them to back down. As reported by Broadcasting & Cable, the MSM had been tipped off by a Sinclair employee, who was subsequently fired. Link.
The Maryland Department of Labor has denied a claim for unemployment benefits filed by former Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. political reporter Jon Leiberman, who was fired last fall after he spoke out against Sinclair’s plans to air a documentary featuring Swift Boat Veterans’ allegations against Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Sinclair did not air the documentary, but included parts in a news special, Stolen Honor.

A document released by Sinclair Tuesday says the state’s Department of Labor concluded Leiberman was discharged from Sinclair’s news operation News Central for “speaking to the press/media without permission and sharing of propriety information outside the company.”

Leiberman gave an interview to the Baltimore Sun lambasting Stolen Honor as “biased political propaganda, with clear intentions to sway this election.” He was axed the next day.

It is a given on the left that any employee has a right, perhaps even an obligation, to sabotage anything his employer plans with which the left disagrees. They call it "whistle-blowing" and they beatify the whistle-blower. However, in the real world, whistle-blowing refers to exposing illegal acts by an employer. When you set out to expose something you merely disagree with for ideological reasons, you can be fired if your boss finds out about it. This sabotage is a long-term practice among left-wing federal employees, while its spread into private firms is more recent.

Socialist Scholars Split

The New York Sun reports that, after a 23-year run, the Socialist Scholars Conference has split. Link.
For 23 years, the Socialist Scholars Conference was a big tent under which leftist activists and academics took shelter in an increasingly conservative America. Last June, however, seven of the group's 16 board members resigned, "in protest of the lack of democratic and participatory governance procedures."

As a result of the split, the group's annual conference has been canceled, at least for this year. Meanwhile, the seven who quit the board quickly formed a new organization, the 2005 Left Forum, which has scheduled its debut conference for this weekend at the CUNY Graduate Center in Midtown Manhattan.

I had never heard of the Socialist Scholars Conference, but the name did not come as a surprise. Many like Thomas Sowell have pointed out that the only remaining stronghold of Socialism/Communism in America are university faculties. From the timing, it appears that they formed early in the first Reagan administration. Since then, his ideology has been a bit more successful than theirs.

Reading about the split reminded me of the Second Party Congress in 1903, when the Russian socialists split between the Bolshevics (Russian for "majority") and the Menshevics (Russian for "minority"). That split had consequences, ones that enslaved the Russian people plus many minority peoples for seventy years. I am sure that this one will rate but a footnote, if that. The student bodies are becoming more conservative, which points to a future when academic socialism slowly dies of old age.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Jordanian Journalist Takes on "Honor Killings"

Worldpress.org has an inspiring story about how one persistent person can make a difference. Link. Rana Husseini was hired as a crime reporter by the Jordan Times in 1993. The first "honor killing" she covered was of a 16-year-old girl who was murdered by one brother because another brother had raped her and she got pregnant.
It was only after The Jordan Times published her story, retaining all the undesirable details of the case, that she realized the strength of opposition that existed in Jordanian society toward the public disclosure of such crimes. According to official figures, “honor” killings reportedly claim at least 25 lives each year in this country of 4.8 million, one of the highest per-capita rates in the world.

“One of the criticisms I received was from an intellectual Jordanian woman who worked in a high position and had studied abroad,” says Husseini, whose self-gathered crime statistics reveal that “honor” killings amount to one-third of all violent deaths in Jordan. “She called the newspaper and started screaming and yelling at my editor, saying that they should stop me from writing about these crimes because I was tarnishing the image of Jordan.” (...)

“I discovered these killers were getting away with very lenient sentences,” says Husseini, still with a note of disgust in her voice. “And then I also discovered that women who survived these attacks were being put in prison [at the women’s correctional facility in Amman] for their own protection. I was outraged.”

The next few years saw Husseini take the lead on many public awareness campaigns, where she attempted to both change people’s attitudes and amend the law — a move which earned her the Human Rights Watch Award (2000) and Reebok Human Rights Award (1998). (...)

"“[Husseini] almost single-handedly brought this [‘honor’ crime] problem to the attention of the public"” wrote Queen Noor, wife of the late King Hussein of Jordan, in her autobiography, Leap of Faith. “Many criticized her work and motives, and some even sent hate mail and threats. But Rana persisted.”

I am surprised that she was not murdered. That was a very real risk she ran. Some Jordanian laws have changed because of her, as have many Jordanians' beliefs. It is a wonderful thing to see when the press makes a real difference for the better in how people live.