Tuesday, December 13, 2005

We're Watching... Your Phone

The New York Times reports:

Most Americans carry cellphones, but many may not know that government agencies can track their movements through the signals emanating from the handset.

In recent years, law enforcement officials have turned to cellular technology as a tool for easily and secretly monitoring the movements of suspects as they occur. But this kind of surveillance - which investigators have been able to conduct with easily obtained court orders - has now come under tougher legal scrutiny.

In the last four months, three federal judges have denied prosecutors the right to get cellphone tracking information from wireless companies without first showing "probable cause" to believe that a crime has been or is being committed. That is the same standard applied to requests for search warrants.


Cellular operators like Verizon Wireless and Cingular Wireless know, within about 300 yards, the location of their subscribers whenever a phone is turned on. Even if the phone is not in use it is communicating with cellphone tower sites, and the wireless provider keeps track of the phone's position as it travels. The operators have said that they turn over location information when presented with a court order to do so.

Prosecutors, while acknowledging that they have to get a court order before obtaining real-time cell-site data, argue that the relevant standard is found in a 1994 amendment to the 1986 Stored Communications Act, a law that governs some aspects of cellphone surveillance.

The standard calls for the government to show "specific and articulable facts" that demonstrate that the records sought are "relevant and material to an ongoing investigation" - a standard lower than the probable-cause hurdle.

I'm not sure that cell phone tracking is as big of a problem as "privacy advocates" will claim. It reveals the approximate location of a phone (not necessarily the owner), but not the anything that a search warrant would normally be required for. It's not giving the contents of calls or the contents of homes. The information is essentially the same as (and possibly less accurate than) what could be obtained by following a suspect's public movements.

The magistrate judges, however, ruled that surveillance by cellphone - because it acts like an electronic tracking device that can follow people into homes and other personal spaces - must meet the same high legal standard required to obtain a search warrant to enter private places.

"Permitting surreptitious conversion of a cellphone into a tracking device without probable cause raises serious Fourth Amendment concerns, especially when the phone is monitored in the home or other places where privacy is reasonably expected," wrote Stephen W. Smith, a magistrate in Federal District Court in the Southern District of Texas, in his ruling.

This might make sense if the information revealed more than mere (possible) presence at a location. However, as far as I can tell the information says "suspect may be home" rather than "suspect is in his basement harvesting his marijuana plants."

For the record, the Fourth Amendment (which I do not believe applies here, for lack of search or seizure) states:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause...
Congress may need to address the issue more directly, but the 1994 standard sounds most appropriate.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Representation Without Citizenship

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Republican lawmaker on Tuesday proposed changing the U.S. Constitution to exclude non-citizens from the Census for the purpose of drawing congressional districts, a move that effectively would deny them a voice in U.S. politics.

Under the present system, as determined by the 14th amendment to the Constitution, the Census Bureau counts all individuals living in the country once every 10 years. This data is used when drawing up the 435 congressional districts and when determining each state's vote in the Electoral College that decides presidential elections.

Michigan Rep. Candice Miller wants to change that so that both legal and illegal aliens would be excluded.

From Rep. Miller's statement:

"Every 10 years the census determines the number of Congressional districts allocated to each state. If we continue to include illegal aliens in that count, we'll allow others to steal the Congressional voice of American citizens. This is about fundamental fairness and the American ideal of `One Man; One Vote.'"

"A district which has tens or hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants dilutes the voice of citizens in other areas of the nation and enhances that of those who live in such areas," Rep. Miller continued. "In my opinion, that is simply not fair."

Why should anyone be concerned with providing representation to non-citizens? They already have representation - from their embassies.

Supporters of the amendment argue that the presence of non-citizens caused nine seats in the House to change hands between states in 2000.

California gained six seats it would not have otherwise had, while Texas, New York and Florida each gained one seat. Meanwhile, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin each lost a seat and Montana, Kentucky and Utah each failed to receive a seat they would otherwise have gained...

According to Clark Bensen of Polidata, a Virginia firm which [analyzes] demographic information, excluding non-citizens would have boosted President George W. Bush's margin of victory in the Electoral College from 4 to 12 votes in the disputed 2000 election and from 34 to 42 in 2004.

President Bush would not have even needed to win Ohio in 2004

As the major beneficiary of skewed apportionment, Democrats will oppose the plan. So does a confused former Census bureaucrat:
"The Census Bureau cannot become a quasi-investigatory agency and still perform its basic responsibilities as a statistical agency," said Kenneth Prewitt who headed the agency from 1998 to 2000 and oversaw the last national census.
The basic responsibility of the Census Bureau is to conduct the Census - the Constitutionally mandated decennial enumeration of the population - not to assemble a vast collection of statistics of questionable usefulness. Besides, it's a check-box, not an interrogation.
"Lawful members of our society who pay income, property and sales taxes as well as for your and my Social Security, will ask why they are being denied the earliest and most basic right of our democracy -- political representation," Prewitt said.
Besides the fact that many are not lawful members of society, maybe Mr. Prewitt should explain how foreign nationals get political representation without voting. Why do the citizen neighbors of non-citizens have a right to disproportionate representation? (The tax question is complicated, and not all that relevant, as you can see here.)

And for the most idiotic comment of the day:
Lawrence Gonzalez of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials said the proposal harked back to the days before the abolition of slavery when blacks were only counted as three fifths of a person.

The similarity here isn't what Mr. Gonzalez thinks. Three fifths of black slaves were counted in apportioning Congressional seats, but slaves could not vote. This increased the (white) South's representation in Congress far beyond what it would have been if only citizens were counted. Counting all slaves as citizens for apportionment, but not voting, would have been even worse - granting even more disproportionate representation to the roughly two thirds of Southerners who were allowed to vote. (The South, of course, wanted all slaves to count, but not to vote.) The post-Civil War amendments that now govern Congressional apportionment and voting were written to fully count and give voting rights to former slaves, not to address the problems of illegal immigration or to create Congressional seats to represent foreign nationals.

Aliens, whether legal or illegal, are not and should not be represented in Congress. They cannot vote and their presence is simply used to skew the political map in favor of their voting neighbors. If "representation" of foreign nationals is so important, why don't we just have the Mexican ambassador appoint those six Congressmen from California? Foreign nationals are represented by their ambassadors - and that's a lot more representation than most Americans get.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Scrap the Shuttle

Previously, I've written that the International Space Station should be scrapped because of its high cost and limited scientific value. The station and the shuttle essentially exist to keep each other running, but at extraordinary cost. Now, The Washington Post reports on the shuttle's (or perhaps we should say sinkhole's) budget problems:

A large deficit in NASA's troubled shuttle program threatens to seriously delay and possibly cripple President Bush's space exploration initiative unless the number of planned flights is cut virtually in half or the White House agrees to add billions of dollars to the human spaceflight budget...

NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin has said that terminating the shuttle program would be just as expensive as keeping it going. The shuttle routinely consumes more than 30 percent of NASA's budget.

How's that now? I'm guessing that this means that shut-down costs like scrapping vehicles and facilities and transferring workers would cost an amount comparable to the current budget - but that isn't a reason not to do it. I'd rather spend $1 billion to shut down a program today that costs $1 billion a year than to wait until ten years pass and another $10 billion is spent to do it. Delaying the inevitable will cost billions of dollars.

Where [Griffin] has not fared so well, however, is in allaying lawmakers' misgivings about the "gap" in human space travel between the end of the shuttle program in 2010 and the first manned flights of the new exploration vehicle in 2014.

Griffin said earlier this year that NASA now projects that the new spaceship would fly by 2012, with a return to the moon by 2018, but he was unable to satisfy those who want to close the gap completely.

If they want space travel to be exciting and inspiring, the small "gap" would probably be helpful. Congress is probably mostly concerned about protecting pork:

NASA's budget difficulties have also been complicated by having to pay for about $400 million in special projects inserted, mostly by senators, into the agency's 2006 funding...

Scrapping the shuttle was proposed, but didn't make it far enough:

Several sources confirmed that the budget office in the early negotiations proposed stopping shuttle flights altogether. "It sucks money out of the budget, and it's a dead-end program," one source said.

But "that argument's over," another source said. "The political side of the White House said, 'We're keeping it.' If you kill the shuttle right now, it will be heavy lifting for your foreign policy because of the international obligations" around the space station.

That's why we should scrap the station at the same time.

[Cross-Posted at Just Barely Inside the Beltway]

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Undocumented Documents?

PC reporting from Reuters:
Some states even recognize documents known as "matriculas consulares" which allow undocumented Mexicans to obtain driving licenses and open bank accounts.
If these people are truly "undocumented," how can they have such documents?

"Undocumented" isn't just a harmless, ambiguous PC term for "illegal alien" - it isn't even close to being true.


For more misused language, check out The Top Politically inCorrect Words for 2005.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Free Trade for the Willing

From the Investor's Business Daily:

If you heeded the hype from gloomy hand wringers or news photos of shop-trashing anti-American thugs, you'd think President Bush left the Argentina summit in failure. It's nothing but rubbish.

Seldom has news been so distorted against facts. Most of the U.S. media claim that because the 34 states were obstructed from full agreement on a declaration to kick-start free trade by a few holdouts, it's some sort of victory for the chief obstructor, U.S. antagonist Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

Just by the numbers, it's a false impression. Only five states at the Organization of American States summit in Mar del Plata withheld signing a statement to restart talks for a Free Trade of the Americas pact, and four of those — Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay — did so temporarily on valid concerns about farm subsidies.

The U.S. sympathizes with them, but is hamstrung by its larger trade relations with heavily subsidized Europe. That's why the U.S. is going to bat for those four at the World Trade Organization's 148-nation Doha Round of trade talks in Hong Kong this December.

That leaves just Venezuela obstructing free trade, and on ideological grounds. The real story is that 29 very different states — making up 90% of the hemisphere's GDP — endorsed free trade.

Free trade opponents try to cloak themselves in anti-Americanism, but it just doesn't work:

Even more encouraging, the summit's most articulate advocates for free trade spontaneously came from Latin American leaders whose nations have already experienced free trade. Among them, Mexico's President Vicente Fox emerged as a star, bluntly warning anti-trade factions they are "out of touch with reality."

Fox should know. Mexico's GDP has nearly doubled and its exports to the U.S. have tripled since the 1994 passage of NAFTA, expanding Mexico's economy to just a hair's breadth below that of Brazil, a country with almost twice Mexico's population.

Central American states south of Mexico aren't stupid, either, and NAFTA's success encouraged them to seek their own free trade pact with the U.S. — CAFTA. They know how it draws permanent investment and increases business activity across the board, even in industries like coffee not subject to tariffs.

In the absence of a FTAA, states are reaching separate agreements:

If anything, it's Chavez who is isolated. No one has taken him up on his counterfree trade proposals, which are not based on market mechanisms but pork-barrel spending.

In the end Bush won because free trade is moving along anyway, summit or no summit. Panama is close to signing its own trade pact with the U.S. The Andean states — Colombia, Ecuador and Peru — are in the last stages of a swift, 18-month effort to hammer out a pact. Besides these smaller, separate deals, the World Trade Organization talks will overtake anything that went on at this summit.

Fox of Mexico called it right when he said that free trade would just move on with the willing who want it.

It might be nice to have a free trade zone for the whole Western Hemisphere, but we should not let a handful of countries (or fewer) stand in the way. As with so many other areas of international relations, we must remember that a broad international agreement is not an end in itself. A 29-nation agreement is infinitely better than hoping for the slightest possibility of reaching a watered-down and meaningless version after years of negotiations.
(AP) Bush's first stop in Panama represents what has been his multitrack strategy for opening up world markets. Even as the FTAA is stalled and worldwide trade talks are embroiled in thorny issues of farm subsidies, the president has set his sights on individual countries that are eager to do business with the United States, the world's largest economic power.
The FTAA without Venezuela isn't such a shabby goal either - it already wasn't going to include Cuba.

[Cross-Posted at Just Barely Inside the Beltway]

Monday, November 14, 2005

One Year of Observant Observations

Today marks one year of Observant Observations - a site which began with the November 14, 2004 post, "Importing Price Controls" (an issue which remains significant even now).

While Observant Observations continues to strive to bring you insightful insights into politics and world events, I will take a moment to note a few collaborative projects with slightly different missions which are occasional victims of cross-posting:

Just Barely Inside the Beltway - "Bringing you news and views from our nation's capital... because we live relatively close to it."

The Four Horsemen - "Musings from the men who revolutionized the Gonzaga campus conservative movement!"

And if you've ever wondered where Observant Observations gets its news, here are the top sources (in addition to a customized home page with top AP, Reuters, and NY Times headlines):

RealClearPolitics - Links to today's top news and opinion articles.

BBC News - World news from Britain.

Der Spiegel - World and European news from Germany.

The Drudge Report - Whatever news Matt Drudge thinks is important.

Orbusmax - A Drudge Report for the Pacific Northwest.

Other occasional news sources:

The Washington Times and The Washington Post

The Prague Post

The Spokesman Review

Saturday, November 12, 2005

After Losing by 20 Points, Trial Lawyers Declare Victory

I received this email from a Spokane lawyer:

The Washington State Trial Lawyers Association just had a great victory - 55.5% to 44.5%. Folks that was an 11 point spread. By the way, this was an off year election, it can get better. As a result of that campaign I feel that I learned some things that will help us on all justice and economic issues. I feel like I can pause and regroup before going back to the barricades.

The insurance industry relied on demonizing attorneys and piggy backing on the trust that people of necessity have in their doctors. We broke that cycle when we PERSONALIZED the harm that was being done to individuals and the callous response of the medical community. I had a number of people tell me how impressed they were by the ad with the guy who had his throat burned away by an anesthesiologist and told us about it through a squawk box. At that point the insurance companies appeared to be saying, "We don't care about people just lower our costs."

Compared to doctors, Republicans legislators and oil companies will be a piece of cake. We need to find real people who are being hurt by their policies and get their story in front of the public.

I can only assume that the "victory" they are describing is the defeat of Washington's I-330 which:
...would change laws governing claims for negligent health care, including restricting noneconomic damages to $350,000 (with exception), shortening time limits for filing cases, limiting repayments to insurers and limiting claimants’ attorney fees.
The Trial Lawyers vocally opposed I-330 (which would cut their potential income from such cases) and even wrote their own initiative (I-336) which would have increased bureaucratic regulation of health care. Any competent observer of American politics should know that having a pathetic story is not sufficient to produce a victory - and a look at the final numbers is quite enlightening. Promoted through a front for the WSTLA, "Citizens for Better Safer Healthcare," I-336 suffered a devastating defeat in the same election - losing by almost TWENTY POINTS:
Measure - Votes For - Votes Against
Initiative Measure 330 - 656385 44.146% 830467 55.854%
Initiative Measure 336 - 590231 40.163% 879358 59.837%
So Washington Trial Lawyers celebrate another's loss while ignoring their own defeat by double the margin.

If this is victory, I can't wait to see their defeat.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

DC Loses Lawsuit Against U.S. Constitution

From The Washington Times:

A federal appeals court yesterday ruled that Congress has the authority to prevent the D.C. government from taxing commuters.

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District said the Constitution clearly grants Congress "exclusive authority" to govern the District, tossing out a lawsuit brought by more than 30 plaintiffs -- including Mayor Anthony A. Williams -- who sought to impose a commuter tax.

"The policy choices are Congress' to make," the court said. The decision was written by Judge John G. Roberts, now the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He was a member of the appellate court when the lawsuit was argued there in April.

For the record, the exclusive authority provision is from Article I, Section 8:
The Congress shall have Power... To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District... as may... become the Seat of the Government of the United States...
What part of "in all Cases whatsoever" don't they understand?

Reaction to yesterday's ruling, which upheld a U.S. District Court decision last year, was mixed across the region.

U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a Virginia Republican who has supported a plan that would give the District a vote in the House, hailed the decision and said it came as no surprise to him. He said the city needs to develop its tax base and not "soak commuters."

D.C.'s existing taxes are one of the major reasons I won't be moving there any time soon. The District should work with Congress to solve its internal problems, not steal $1.4 billion in tax revenue from neighboring states.

D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty, a Ward 4 Democrat who is running for mayor next year, said he will introduce a bill to call for a referendum that would abolish the D.C. Home Rule Charter's ban on a commuter tax, then impose such a tax.

"The court's decision is outrageous," Mr. Fenty said. "It flies in the face of why this country was founded.

"It is a matter of fundamental fairness that we move to release the shackles of this congressionally imposed ban on taxing income earned in the District," he said.

And he's not even afraid of that pesky Constitution.
Mr. Williams, a Democrat, also voiced his displeasure with the court ruling, noting that cities such as New York and Philadelphia have levied taxes on commuters.
Although commuter taxes are already questionable policy (perhaps they could be described as imperialist taxation) there's one notable difference here: the Constitution does not grant Congress exclusive authority over New York or Philadelphia.

More on imperialist taxation:

"The people of the District bear the burden of this unfair limitation," he said. "As we've argued countless times, a commuter tax would not have any impact on Maryland and Virginia residents, who would be able to deduct the taxes they pay to D.C. from their state taxes."

But Maryland Deputy Attorney General Michael Berman disagreed.

"Those other states would be forced to cut services or tax citizens who do not commute into the District to make up the shortfall," said Mr. Berman, who argued the case on behalf of the state last April.

It is unfortunate that Virginia and Maryland had to spend any of their resources fighting this absurd lawsuit.

[Cross-Posted at Just Barely Inside the Beltway]

Update, Nov. 17th: DC Commuter Tax Update.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

When is a Walk-Out Not a Walk-Out?

Insipired by a similar event scheduled for tomorrow at noon in Seattle, the Spokane terrorist group known as PJALS is helping to organize an anti-Bush "walk-out" with this email:

City-wide student walkout - Nov. 2


On Nov. 2nd, Spokane's Lack of Action Collective (in alliance with PJALS) is organizing people to take responsibility to stop the whole disastrous course led by the Bush administration. We seek to create a political situation where the Bush administration's program is abandoned, where Bush himself is driven from office, and where the whole direction he has been taking U.S. society is reversed. This event is also for those who prefer a more direct approach, and who do not necessarlly advocate unjust U.S. policy or imposed rule in general.

No election, whether fair or fraudulent, can legitimize criminal wars on foreign countries, torture, the wholesale violation of human rights, and the end of science and reason.

The people's will must be forged into an organized political resistance which reverses the whole direction of society, and forces Bush himself from office.

Bring signs, noise making devices, flags, banners, and any other means of aquiring attention.

On November second, we will move towards a nation wide societal movement to push out the Bush regime. WE WILL BE HEARD!

WHEN: Nov. Second, 3pm!

WHERE: Riverfront Park, FOUNTAIN AREA (a march will possibly take place)

WHY: Because the world can't wait! We're all in this together!

HOW: By any means necessary!

See YOU there!

When is a walk-out not a walk-out? When you're already out. 3pm is a half hour after Spokane high schools get out. That takes guts.

Tonight I'm going to follow their example and protest the PJALS terrorists by having a sit-in in my own apartment. That'll tell 'em.

Monday, October 31, 2005

The Hills Are Alive, With the Sound of Drilling

Before I went to Austria, I heard stories about boorish Europeans accosting visiting Americans in order to spout the usual irrational anti-American, anti-Bush propaganda like the claim that the war in Iraq is all about oil. I hoped to be able to point out that if that was true and oil was found in Austria or they would have to be invaded next. The Europeans I met were entirely friendly, but it turns out that Austria has oil after all:

Alpine mountains and tasty milk chocolate spring to mind when thinking about Austria. But oil? Actually, the country is home to Central Europe's largest reserves and it has become a testing ground for new drilling technology. And the country is in the middle of a mini oil boom.


[OMV] Oil and gas production have quadrupled in the past four years, earning them a mid-table position in relation to their European competitors, with exploration underway in all five continents. Now, the company is pumping oil from the ground just outside of Vienna.

Northeast of the capital city, where the Green Veltlin grape grows and the land is mostly flat, this part of Austria has little to remind one of the Alps further south and west. But nowhere on the Central European mainland is there a higher concentration of oil production. The most important field, named after the local town of Matzen, was discovered in 1949 and was estimated at a volume of half a billion barrels of crude oil.

Reserves of this size did not quite lift Austria into the OPEC league -- in terms of worldwide oil consumption, the Austrian reserves would last just six days -- but it formed the foundation of OMV and is still being tapped with great care today. Fifty smaller fields in Austria have since been discovered and drilled, with around 750 oil and 120 gas probes extracting fossil fuels in the wine region. OMV's local production covers some 10 percent of Austria's crude oil needs and 15 percent of its natural gas consumption.

ANWR drilling opponents and Florida NIMBYs could learn something from Austria:

But over an above its relatively modest production, the Austrian oil fields are vital for another reason. The 1,500 mile long branch-like pipeline network is the only one of its kind in the global oil business. And Austria is an ultra-modern laboratory which could come up with answers to two of the most pressing questions facing the energy industry. How much gas and oil can still be found? How much scope is there for further developing existing fields?

In the fossil fuel treasure hunt, Austria is way ahead of the rest of the world in terms of efficiency and exploration. This is reflected in a remarkable production curve. Normally, one would expect a new field to chart a rapid increase in yield to begin with, followed by a so-called plateau for a number of years, before dropping off at a similar rate to the initial rise.

Austria's oil production decreased 30 years ago, but then began to rise again before leveling out in 1992 and maintaining the same level ever since. Gas production has actually begun to improve again...

Not far from OPEC's headquarters, northeast of Vienna, the seismograph trucks are massaging the earth so vigorously that the wine cellars start to shake.

Austria should be applauded for taking some responsibility for its own energy needs and developing the technological solutions that environmentalists like to pretend cannot exist.

And finally, a small piece of trivia:
Austria may not produce enough to be in OPEC, but Vienna does host the organization's headquarters.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

So How Much for Siberia?

Perhaps I should rethink the idea of studying Russian once I have a permanent job...

Mark Steyn has a great article out, "The Death of Mother Russia." He sums up Russia's problems fairly well:

Russia’s export of ideology was the decisive factor in the history of the last century. It seems to me entirely possible that the implosion of Russia could be the decisive factor in this new century. As Iran’s nuke programme suggests, in many of the geopolitical challenges to America there’s usually a Russian component somewhere in the background.

...Russia is literally dying. From a population peak in 1992 of 148 million, it will be down to below 130 million by 2015 and thereafter dropping to perhaps 50 or 60 million by the end of the century, a third of what it was at the fall of the Soviet Union.


Most of the big international problems operate within certain geographic constraints: Africa has Aids, the Middle East has Islamists, North Korea has nukes. But Russia’s got the lot: an African-level Aids crisis and an Islamist separatist movement sitting on top of the biggest pile of nukes on the planet.


What would you do if you were Putin? What have you got to keep your rotting corpse of a country as some kind of player? You’ve got nuclear know-how — which a lot of ayatollahs and dictators are interested in. You’ve got an empty resource-rich eastern hinterland — which the Chinese are going to wind up with one way or the other. That was the logic, incidentally, behind the sale of Alaska: in the 1850s, Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich, the brother of Alexander II, argued that the Russian empire couldn’t hold its North American territory and that one day either Britain or the United States would simply take it, so why not sell it to them first? The same argument applies today to the 2,000 miles of the Russo–Chinese border. Given that even alcoholic Slavs with a life expectancy of 56 will live to see Vladivostok return to its old name of Haishenwei, Moscow might as well flog it to Beijing instead of just having it snaffled out from under.

That’s the danger for America — that most of what Russia has to trade is likely to be damaging to US interests. In its death throes, it could bequeath the world several new Muslim nations, a nuclear Middle East and a stronger China. In theory, America could do a belated follow-up to the Alaska deal and put in a bid for Siberia. But Russia’s calculation is that sooner or later we’ll be back in a bipolar world and that, in almost any scenario, there’s more advantage in being part of the non-American pole. A Sino–Russian strategic partnership has a certain logic to it, and so, in a darker way, does a Russo–Muslim alliance of convenience.

The Alaska option is unlikely but intriguing (but after recent events, let's keep them out of Congress for a while).

What do you do with a giant, virtually unpopulated but resource-rich region of a dying country? Trying to keep it open to the world simply through business engagement seems unlikely after the Yukos affair. Japan should generally share our concerns, but the EU is still stuck trying to figure out itself, not to mention Turkey, the successor to the original Sick Man of Europe. The development needed by Siberia requires political and legal stability that is currently nowhere to be seen.

The Great Powers of Europe grappled with an incredibly similar problem just a century ago. Can we do better, or at least not do worse?
Western policymakers would do well to dust off their history books and reread the sections dealing with the terminal decline of the Ottomans. After the "new start" of 1908, the reform movement faltered and the government drifted. Giddy optimism among Ottoman subjects turned into bitterness and a sense of betrayal. Finally, the reform movement came to an end when the empire's former subjects humiliated it in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. A frustrated young Ottoman officer, Enver Pasha, seized power in a coup on Jan. 23, 1913. Thirsting to restore the empire's greatness, he plunged Ottoman Turkey into World War I the following year. The "Eastern question" that dominated diplomacy in the late-19th and early-20th centuries--managing Ottoman decline--was finally answered with the dismemberment of Enver's dream state in the world's first global blood bath.
So how about this - instead of rebuilding an underwater city, let's buy Siberia. It's big, and it's above sea level.

For more on the economic problems and promise of Siberia, check out "Siberia: Russia's Economic Heartland and Daunting Dilemma."

Monday, October 24, 2005

Don't Eat Your Piggy Bank

From Australia's The Age:

British banks are banning piggy banks because they may offend some Muslims.

Halifax and NatWest banks have led the move to scrap the time-honoured symbol of saving from being given to children or used in their advertising, the Daily Express/Daily Star group reports here.

Muslims do not eat pork, as Islamic culture deems the pig to be an impure animal.

Salim Mulla, secretary of the Lancashire Council of Mosques, backed the bank move.

"This is a sensitive issue and I think the banks are simply being courteous to their customers," he said.

How about a warning label: "Your piggy bank is not actually made of pork, but if you are concerned about the possibility, remember that you probably should not eat it."

However, the move brought accusations of political correctness gone mad from critics.

"The next thing we will be banning Christmas trees and cribs and the logical result of that process is a bland uniformity," the Dean of Blackburn, Reverend Christopher Armstrong, said.

"We should learn to celebrate our difference, not be fearful of them."

Khalid Mahmoud, the Labour MP for a Birmingham seat and one of four Muslim MPs in Britain, also criticised the piggy-bank ban.

"We live in a multicultural society and the traditions and symbols of one community should not be obliterated just to accommodate another," Mr Mahmoud said.

"I doubt many Muslims would be seriously offended by piggy banks."

I applaud Mr. Mahmoud for showing us that one special interest group does not speak for all Muslims. It may also be worth noting that Jews cannot eat pork either, but this apparently was never enough to abolish the piggy bank.

Update, Oct. 25: I forgot to note yesterday that the Muslim prohibition on interest could possibly keep devout Muslims out of Western banks in the first place, rendering the bank-eating issue moot.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Federalism at Work

From the Spokesman Review:

Spokane County Sheriff Mark Sterk endorsed a plan... to raise $6.5 million a year for mental health services by increasing the local sales tax by 0.1 percentage points.

Sterk... went so far as to say that he would urge Spokane County commissioners to enact the tax even if the Nov. 8 advisory vote fails to pass public muster.

"We have no other resources to plug these people into, and that's just flat wrong," Sterk said of the current situation.

Proposition 2 asks voters if they want the tax – 10 cents on every $100 purchase – for the next three years.

Commissioners don't need voter approval, however, to raise the tax. State law allows the county to raise the tax to fund mental health and substance-abuse treatment.

Mental health providers say the tax money is necessary to help fill an estimated $7.5 million shortfall in mental health care funding caused in part by fewer federal Medicaid dollars.

This is the kind of local government responsibility that the Anti-Giuliani made us yearn for.
(S-R) "As we've been working with the state to point out the financial dilemma we're in, one of their first comments is, 'Why don't you take advantage of the authority the Legislature has already given you?' " said Commissioner Todd Mielke.
And so they did, mostly. There's even a "Yes for mental health" campaign that gives more details, but raises some important questions.

Spokane County Commissioners... are considering a small (1/10 of one percent), temporary (three years) sales tax to be used exclusively for mental health programs.

These local dollars will stay in Spokane County and be used to offset recent large cuts in Federal mental health funding.

Two questions need to be answered though:

  1. Why are there mental health funding cuts? If they are simple spending reductions that can be tied to tax cuts, this is a perfect example of federalism at work. When federal tax cuts are followed by federal spending cuts that affect local services, it is entirely appropriate for local governments to raise local taxes to make up the difference (assuming, of course, that the spending was appropriate in the first place). That way local services are locally controlled - and it also works against the gimme-pork mentality of so many Americans (including 82 U.S. Senators).

  2. Why make it temporary? If mental health funding is so crucial, shouldn't it's funding source have more permanence? Will all be cured in 3 years or will you be seeking a state or federal bail-out again? How about standing up, being an example, and saying that Spokane County can take care of it's own.
The federal government does not exist to remedy every imaginable problem and couldn't do it if it tried. Let's have more local governments follow the example of these three Republican county commissioners and solve problems instead of whining about them.

Not 125 Miles From My Back Yard!!!

From Fox News:

In an about-face, Gov. Jeb Bush is backing a plan allowing limited exploration for oil drilling off Florida's coastline.

"My position is if we can get an assurance to extend a 100- to 125-mile swath from Pensacola all the way to Jacksonville to protect our beaches, then we ought to try and get it. We don't have that today," Bush said.

While the current moratorium on offshore drilling is set to expire in 2007, there is no law banning drilling entirely. Opponents of the governor's plan on both sides of the aisle would rather see an outright ban on drilling for the entire eastern Gulf of Mexico.

"...it would hurt Florida's economy by messing up our pristine beaches," said Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat.

But drilling has been permitted for decades off other parts of America's coastline, such as Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Alaska and portions of Southern California. One oil industry expert says that after two seasons of hard-hitting hurricanes, it's time Florida contributed its share.


According to proponents, there is enough untapped, natural gas in the Gulf to power as many as 60 million American homes for the next hundred years. But opponents say the risk of oil spills and pollution could damage Florida's tourism-driven coastal economy.

Drilling opponents are guilty of the same NIMBY approach that people like Ted Kennedy and use to oppose development of wind power off the coast of Cape Cod:
"Mother Nature dictates where you site a wind farm, and Nantucket Sound has some of the best wind resources in the United States," says Gordon. "[It] is an optimal site to locate a wind farm that can produce at peak output all of the electrical requirements of the cape and islands, without any pollution emissions, without any water consumption and zero waste discharge."

...The campaign to stop the wind farms was started by Cape Cod merchants and wealthy landowners. It's also opposed by almost every town government. Sen. Ted Kennedy, who has a home overlooking the proposed wind farm, also opposes the project.
The one notable difference is that any project off the Florida coast would appear to be at least twenty times as far from shore as the Cape Cod windmills - and even the windmills would be so far away that they would appear to be no more than a half-inch tall (click here for graphics).

If an obsession with tourism is considered more important than energy production, this knee-jerk prohibition on the development of needed energy resources should have consequences. Florida or its consumers should be charged a premium for any imported oil or gas that could have been replaced by domestic production. The proceeds can be used to benefit states that are willing to try for at least some modicum of energy self-sufficiency but are still stuck paying the higher prices caused by nonproduction.

Update, Nov. 6th: Although penalizing anti-production states might be attractive, it may be barred by Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution - the plain text of which is ambiguous. The better solution remains to allow energy production as federal policy regardless of the demands of neighboring states. In Florida's case, drilling would take place far outside of state waters.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Are You Paid by the Minute?

In yet another example of an overreaching federal government, the first case before the Supreme Court this session is a waste of time bickering about an inconsequential amount of time:

WASHINGTON - It may not have been the type of high profile, landmark litigation that makes history, but John Roberts' first case as the 17th chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court involves workers' wages at an Eastern Washington meat processing plant.

Roberts' inaugural case focuses on whether more than 800 workers at the Tyson Fresh Meats Inc. plant in Pasco should be paid for the three minutes it takes to walk to the production line from a locker room where they put on required protective clothing.

A district court judge has awarded more than $3 million to the workers who brought the class-action lawsuit.

At typical trial lawyer rates, that's $1 million for the lawyers and an average of $2500 per worker. But before the trial lawyers get their cut, they should have to show that the workers were working every second of the other 99.4% of the workday. Not only is the amount trivial (no one would have noticed if wages were 0.625% lower to account for a changed policy), but why should the federal government or the courts micromanage employment to this extent?

How about protecting employers from having to pay for snack breaks, coffee breaks, water cooler breaks, bathroom breaks, smoke breaks, staring at the wall breaks, and gossip breaks? Or to get closer to the example at hand, how about a class action lawsuit by employers against employees for even the most minute failure to work at one hundred percent productivity one hundred percent of the time?

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Whose History Should Trafalgar Square Honor?

LONDON (AP) - The latest battle of Trafalgar is getting ugly. Mayor Ken Livingstone wants to erect a statue of former South African President Nelson Mandela in Trafalgar Square alongside monuments to British military heroes. City officials oppose the idea, and in a showdown this week, one of Britain's most respected sculptors dubbed the proposed Mandela statue "mediocre." Livingstone compared that sculptor's work to a "dog mess."


Livingstone wants Mandela at the heart of the piazza, already dominated by another Nelson. A statue of 19th-century naval hero Adm. Horatio Nelson stands atop an 185-foot-tall column, and the square itself is named for the admiral's 1805 victory over the French and Spanish fleets.

Also in the square are statues of King George IV and Victorian generals Sir Henry Havelock and Sir Charles James Napier.

Joining the League of Dishonorable Mayors with Ray "I ain't got no busses" Nagin, we now have Ken "What do generals have to do with history?" Livingstone:
"I have not a clue who two of the generals there are or what they did," he said.
The Westminster Council (Westminster being the relevant borough within Greater London), on the other hand, has a reasonable solution - placing a statue in a more relevant location:

Conservative-controlled Westminster Council has rejected Livingstone's plans for a 9-foot-tall bronze statue on the square's north terrace, outside the main entrance to the National Gallery.

The council says its opposition is practical, not political. It does not like the look of the proposed statue by sculptor Ian Walters, which depicts Mandela clad in a characteristic loose-fitting shirt, his hands raised as if in animated conversation. It also wants the monument placed in front of the South African embassy on the eastern edge of the square.

Paul Drury, a consultant for conservation group English Heritage, which also opposes the mayor's plan, has said that placing an "informal, small-scale statue" of Mandela alongside military heroes "would be a major and awkward change in the narrative of the square."

Mr. Livingstone has yet to give a good reason why a statue of a foreign political leader who effected change in a distant former colony should disrupt a British monument to British military history. In addition to the Westminster Council's suggestion, more appropriate locations surely exist - including Parliament Square, which currently features statues of such foreign statesmen as Abraham Lincoln and Jan Christiaan Smuts.

Don't expect Mr. Livingstone to let history stand in the way of rewriting history:
Shortly after his 2000 election, Livingstone suggested replacing the military statues with figures "that ordinary Londoners would know."
The easiest way to rewrite history is to delete it.

For a first-person analysis of the situation in London, feel free to donate money and/or frequent flyer miles by using the e-mail or PayPal links on the right. Offers of employment or employment advice are always welcome.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Disney Film Uncovers Union Terrorist Conspiracy?

Today's most idiotic news story: Flight attendants outraged over Jodie Foster film:

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Labor unions representing most of the nation's 90,000 flight attendants have urged their members to boycott a new Jodie Foster film that portrays a flight attendant and a U.S. air marshal as terrorists...

The Walt Disney Co. film, which was the No. 1 release at the North American box office last weekend, stars Foster as an airline passenger who awakens from an in-flight nap to find her young daughter missing. It turns out that one of the flight attendants aboard is involved in a terrorist plot hatched by the plane's air marshal.

This is what we call a "twist." Nobody expects flight attendants and air marshals to be terrorists. I haven't seen Flightplan, and don't currently plan to, but how are you supposed to have anything but cookie-cutter villains in movies anymore? When made into a movie, The Sum of All Fears was rewritten to eliminate the involvement of Arab terrorists, replacing them with a bizarre neo-Nazi conspiracy. (Do we need to start referring to Al Qaida as der St├╝tzpunkt to avoid making it sound too Arabic too?)
An AFA spokeswoman in Washington said the unions worry that moviegoers will take away impressions that will make it more difficult for flight attendants to "earn the trust and respect of passengers."
That's awfully defensive for a union representing what I thought was an honorable profession. Maybe the filmmakers are on to something?

These hypersensitive union thugs could focus on more pressing concerns, like how their actual members will be affected by energy costs and airline bankruptcies, but instead they're whining about portrayals in the movies. We should be thankful the American Bar Association doesn't take that approach.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

New Zealand: Australia's Canada

New evidence has turned up that New Zealand really is Australia's Canada. My original theory, based on geography and populations reaches this conclusion: Canada and New Zealand are both free to pursue ridiculously pacifist foreign policies (e.g., refusing to participate in missile defense or banning nuclear-powered vessels) because in the end they will both be protected by their bigger, stronger neighbors.

New Zealand has taken this a step further, apparently selling it's air force. Check out this account of the Prime Minister's election night activities:

Bit by bit, the gap between the Nationals and Labour started narrowing. But as she kept one eye on the TV screen, Clark would have had to divert some of her attention to another problem. Her security advisers told her that a rogue aircraft was flying around the dark skies over Auckland.

The pilot was threatening to do a September 11 on the city's landmark Sky Tower... The security advisers debated whether Clark should decamp to a secret location; maybe the pilot would try to assassinate her by doing a kamikaze dive into her house instead of the Sky Tower. What must have been particularly alarming for Clark was that there was not a lot she could do about the plane. At its last cabinet meeting just that week, Clark's Government had finalised the sale of the only New Zealand planes capable of firing a gun, a squadron of Skyhawk fighters.

Clark had decided some time ago that New Zealand faced no external threat, so the Skyhawks could be dispensed with and she could concentrate on her pacifist, anti-nuclear strategy. The Skyhawks were mothballed months ago. Short of calling the Royal Australian Air Force to come to her rescue and scramble a couple of fighters, which do have guns, to cross the Tasman, there was no way she could intercept, let alone force down or shoot down, the plane.

As a strategic analyst at the University of Auckland, Paul Buchanan, observed, once an aircraft planning a terror act was 3m above New Zealand soil, the Government could only watch and wait.

What a great way to take responsibility for your nation's defense - sell your weapons and call the neighbors.

Luckily for Auckland:

As things turned out, everything was all right on the night. The pilot did not have jihad on his mind but his wife, who had left him.

A flying instructor had strolled into a local airport to steal a plane, fired up the engine of a Piper Cherokee Warrior and taken out his marital angst above the city. He left the Sky Tower, which was evacuated, alone, instead crash-landing in the water off a beach, where he was saved from drowning and captured by onlookers.

No doubt New Zealand will also be protected by missile defense systems developed by the U.S. and Australia. It's easy to be a pacifist when a cop lives next door, but as recent events have shown, that might not be enough.

Friday, September 23, 2005

It's Hard to Understand a Constitution If You Don't Have One

A BBC article criticizes the nomination of John Roberts as Chief Justice because he just might agree with recent Court majorities:

This is a story about a Princess and a frog, about a kiss and a betrayal. But it's not a fable...

The Princess in our story is an honorary title I've bestowed on her for a grace and spirit superior to the rather sulky Princess of the fables. She's a young woman named Christy Brzonkala. She was a bubbly high-school basket player who enrolled at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in the expectation of qualifying for a sports career.

The frog is Bufo. To give him his full name, Bufo is Bufo microscaphus californicus who lives in southern California. Strictly speaking he's toad, but a very distinguished toad, his head crowned by a white v-shaped cross...

It was with rare creatures like Bufo in mind that the US Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Bufo has been proudly on the protected list since 1994 - that was the year Christy began her new life as a student at Virginia Tech.

It was with women like Christy in mind that the country's principal law-making body, Congress, spent four years listening to testimony from victims of rape and domestic violence, backed up by reports from law enforcement agencies, physicians, and federal and state officials.

In the U.S., "testimony" doesn't change the Constitution - amendments do. We continue:
So in 1994 Congress in its wisdom, with both political parties in support, made a new federal law, the Violence Against Women Act. It provided funds for enforcement.
In it's wisdom... that's nice... except Congress can't amend the Constitution merely by being "wise."

One night that very September, a few weeks after her 18th birthday, Christy was devastated. An innocent kiss turned into a brutal gang rape by Virginia Tech football players led by one Antonio Morrison.

When she pressed charges through the university's judicial system, the jocks on campus were hostile. Football matters such a lot in American colleges. There was no frog to retrieve her golden dreams.

Virginia Tech administrators considered the allegations of rape strongest against Morrison and suspended him for two terms. Morrison's family appealed, claiming he was being treated unfairly because he was black. The university's provost - a woman - decided his punishment was excessive. She allowed him back on campus and into the team.

This is where the article finally falls apart. Christy's response to a "brutal gang rape" was to go to the university's judicial system? That makes about as much sense as taking it to the League of Nations. University judicial systems have one primary purpose - to keep the criminal acts of students from the police. The writer does not address why (or if) criminal rape charges in the Commonwealth of Virginia (the appropriate authority) were not possible.

But more importantly, the author demonstrates a misunderstanding of the Constitution that sadly even many Americans share. Despite all the claims of the intent or wisdom of Congress, the Constitution restricts the power of the federal government by limiting it to enumerated powers. The most abused congressional power is the power to regulate interstate commerce. In both of these cases, claimed ties to interstate commerce are laughable. The tie to a Roberts decision is similarly absurd:

Bufo, like the Princess, was menaced by big guys. In his case, the big guy was a San Diego developer who wanted to get his hands on the soil from Bufo's breeding round. This would have been the end of Bufo and all his kind. The US Fish and Wildlife Service - Bufo's bodyguards if you will - stopped the developer. So the developer went to court. A three-judge panel in California ruled for Bufo and against the builder. For their authority, they relied on that commerce clause.

Step forward Judge Roberts - that pivotal nominee for the Supreme Court. Everyone has been trawling through his record to see how he might tip the balance of the Court...

Bufo, he said, ought not to have been protected by the interstate commerce clause, because "he is a hapless toad that for reasons of its own lives its entire life in California."

That's not quite what the Roberts opinion said, but it's close enough. The question is where Congress gets the power to protect/regulate a non-commercial animal with no interstate attributes. Similarly, no matter how sad Christy's case might be, where does Congress get the power to impose a federal criminal rape law on the entire nation? Federal criminal laws are normally based on clear federal jurisdiction, such as crimes occurring on federal property. Regardless of how "wise" a particular policy might be, Congress can only impose it through enumerated powers and cannot unilaterally amend the Constitution (compare to the British Parliament which recently abolished Double Jeopardy protections).

But then again, it's easier to whine than to actually read the Constitution.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

New Orleans "Mayor" Excludes Self from Recovery Efforts

Regarding rebuilding the war-torn underwater city of New Orleans, the Anti-Giuliani had this to say:
(AP) "I don't want anyone outside of New Orleans telling us how to plan this city," said New Orleans Mayor [and Dallas, Texas resident] Ray Nagin...
As you may recall:
(Fox News) New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin greeted President Bush when he arrived in Louisiana last night, and was at his side as he fielded questions on the Katrina relief efforts this morning. That quality time with the president, however, marks the mayor's first visit to the disaster area since Wednesday when Nagin pulled up stakes and moved his family to Dallas. The Dallas Morning News reports that Nagin has already bought a house in the city, and enrolled his daughter in school.
I guess that excludes you, "mayor."

In other news, I'll just take my $4.5 million, thank you very much:
[The Heritage Foundation] has proposed that Congress reopen the $286.4 billion transportation bill enacted in July to remove some $25 billion in what it deems questionable projects, including a proposed $230 million bridge in Alaska from Ketchikan to an island with 50 residents.
I'd be happy to move to an island in Alaska for my share of that $230 million, and they don't even have to build me a bridge.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

An Underwater Convention in 2008?

From the New York Times:

BATON ROUGE, La., Sept. 9 - The New Orleans business establishment-in-exile has set up a beachhead in a government annex here, across the street from the state Capitol. From here, organizations like the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau have begun to plot the rebirth of the city.

In the cramped offices and hallways of this building, called the Capitol Annex, and continuing into the evening at bars and restaurants around Baton Rouge, New Orleans's business leaders and power brokers are concocting big plans, the most important being reopening the French Quarter within 90 days.

Also under discussion are plans to stage a scaled-down Mardi Gras at the end of February and to lobby for one of the 2008 presidential nominating conventions and perhaps the next available Super Bowl.

Great. Doesn't anyone remember how glad we were that the 2004 Republican convention wasn't in Florida? Tampa-St. Petersburg was one of the top choices before New York was chosen, but when it came time for the actual convention (during hurricane season) hurricane country was, not surprisingly, being battered by hurricanes.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

An Undeclared War Continues in Louisiana

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Police shot and killed at least five people Sunday after gunmen opened fire on a group of contractors traveling across a bridge on their way to make repairs, authorities said.

Deputy Police Chief W.J. Riley said police shot at eight people carrying guns, killing five or six.

Fourteen contractors were traveling across the Danziger Bridge under police escort when they came under fire, said John Hall, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers.

They were on their way to launch barges into Lake Pontchartrain to help plug the breech in the 17th Street Canal, Hall said.

None of the contractors was killed, Hall said.

The bridge spans a canal connecting Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River.

No other details were immediately available.

This is hardly a surprise after med-evac helicopters started taking fire. What are the insurgents going to do next, decapitate hostages on television?

Friday, September 02, 2005

Ray Nagin is no Rudy Giuliani

(CNN) -- New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin blasted the slow pace of federal and state relief efforts in an expletive-laced interview with local radio station WWL-AM.

NAGIN: I'm like, "You got to be kidding me. This is a national disaster. Get every doggone Greyhound bus line in the country and get their asses moving to New Orleans."

Nagin proves my point about do-nothing whiners:

(AP Photo
, "An aerial view of flooded school buses in a lot, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2005, in New Orleans, LA.")

It has been estimated that the busses in this photo alone could have evacuated more than 26,000 people to the very welcoming city of Houston.

Observant Ovation to A Lady's Ruminations and the Drudge Report.

Update, Sept. 9: Mark Steyn writes:

Readers may recall my words from a week ago on the approaching Katrina: "We relish the opportunity to rise to the occasion. And on the whole we do. Oh, to be sure, there are always folks who panic or loot. But most people don't, and many are capable of extraordinary acts of hastily improvised heroism."

What the hell was I thinking? I should be fired for that. Well, someone should be fired. I say that in the spirit of the Mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, the Anti-Giuliani, a Mayor Culpa who always knows where to point the finger...

To give the city credit, it has a lovely "Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan" for hurricanes. The only flaw in the plan is that the person charged with putting it into effect is the mayor. And he didn't...

Consider the signature image of the flood: an aerial shot of 255 school buses neatly parked at one city lot, their fuel tanks leaking gasoline into the urban lake... Instead of entrusting its most vulnerable citizens to the gang-infested faecal hell of the Superdome, New Orleans had more than enough municipal transport on hand to have got almost everyone out in a couple of runs last Sunday.

Why didn't they? Well, the mayor didn't give the order. OK, but how about school board officials, or the fellows with the public schools transportation department, or the guy who runs that motor pool, or the individual bus drivers? If it ever occurred to any of them that these were potentially useful evacuation assets, they kept it to themselves.

So the first school bus to escape New Orleans and make it to safety in Texas was one that had been abandoned on a city street. A party of sodden citizens, ranging from the elderly to an eight-day-old baby, were desperate to get out, hopped aboard and got teenager Jabbor Gibson to drive them 13 hours non-stop to Houston. He'd never driven a bus before, and the authorities back in New Orleans may yet prosecute him. For rescuing people without a permit?

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Move New Orleans

Assuming the U.S. doesn't withdraw from Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina's devastation and a budding insurgency, what is to be done next?

One suggestion that deserves more attention than it will probably get is moving the city to higher ground:
When the cost of restoring New Orleans to urban life is finally calculated, add to it the cost of maintaining it in its present location, then add the inevitable costs that will incur over the next 50 years as there are more hurricanes and Mississsippi River flooding, it makes sense to not bother. Other cities have moved when their old location proved untenable, why not New Orleans?
A BBC article has a useful map and cross section of New Orleans demonstrating that not only are large parts of the city below sea level, but the Mississippi River has been engineered to flow by the city 3 meters (10 feet) higher than sea level. This problem of geography is well known and was often pointed out during last year's hurricane season:
"[New Orleans] basically sits like a bowl, and most of the city is under sea level... so if we get a storm like Ivan to hit us directly" there could be 12 to 18 feet of water in the city, [New Orleans Mayor Ray] Nagin said.
Two posts at SunnyBlog.com (here and here) explain the situation well.

If we could move the millenia-old temples at Abu Simbel, why not New Orleans?

Update, Sept. 2: Eric Zorn writes in the Chicago Tribune:

Do we invest again in the madness of what many refer to as a city in a bowl? Or do we spend all that money--federal tax money, insurance industry money and donations--on building New-New Orleans more safely inland?

Expect sentimental appeals to the history and traditions of the devastated city from those who want to rebuild it on the spot. But remember that along with great music and great food, New Orleans' history is one of defiance of the inevitable.

And its traditions, in the words of Blanche DuBois, one of its most famous fictional residents, include a dependence on the kindness of strangers.

This time, this stranger is opening his heart and his wallet. In return, he asks only that there not be a next time.

Update, Sept. 9: Poll: Most Say Abandon Flooded New Orleans

WASHINGTON (AP) - More than half the people in this country say the flooded areas of New Orleans lying below sea level should be abandoned and rebuilt on higher ground.

An AP-Ipsos poll found that 54 percent of Americans want the four-fifths of New Orleans that was flooded by Hurricane Katrina moved to a safer location.

Should the U.S. Withdraw from Louisiana?

From the BBC:

Looting and lawlessness is widespread in flood-stricken New Orleans as people made homeless by Hurricane Katrina grow increasingly desperate.

There are reports of shootings, carjackings and thefts across the city, where a full evacuation is under way.

Medical evacuations from the Superdome stadium have been disrupted after a gun shot was fired at a rescue helicopter.

President George W Bush, who will visit the disaster area on Friday, called for "zero tolerance" against law-breakers.

From Australia's Herald Sun:

"A National Guardsman was wounded by a gunshot. This happened outside the Superdome," Colonel Pete Schneider of the Louisiana National Guard said.

Col. Schneider said the Guardsman was being treated but was not in a life-threatening condition.

Officials also said that one shot was fired at a huge twin-rotored Chinook helicopter which has been taking part in an operation to move hurricane refugees out of the stadium to other cities...

Residents reported hundreds of looters on the streets, car-jackings, armed robberies and even shots fired at helicopters evacuating patients from local hospitals.

Media reports said one gang had commandeered a telephone company van to carry out robberies, while Fox News television said two men with AK-47 semi-automatic rifles had opened fire on a police station.

From the CBC:
"Hospitals are trying to evacuate," said Coast Guard Lt.-Cmdr. Cheri Ben-Iesan, a spokeswoman at the city emergency operations centre. "At every one of them, there are reports that as the helicopters come in people are shooting at them. There are people just taking potshots at police and at helicopters, telling them, 'You better come get my family.'"
From the City Journal:
Thousands of opportunistic vultures have looted stores all over the city, and shot in the head one police officer who tried to stop them. The New Orleans Times-Picayune has posted photos on its website of other police officers joining in the widespread theft from unattended stores. Looters have picked clean Wal-Mart’s gun department downtown.
Isn't it time for the left to start calling for a U.S. withdrawal from Louisiana? We could just change "New Orleans" to "New Baghdad" - but that might insult Baghdad.

Meanwhile, the whining begins:
...local officials said that had Washington heeded their warnings about the dire need for hurricane protection - including fortifying homes, building up levees and repairing barrier islands - the damage might not have been nearly as bad as it turned out to be.
"Washington" wouldn't let New Orleans, Orleans Parish, or the state of Louisiana do anything? Sorry guys, I can't find the federal duty to condemn and rebuild an entire American city on high ground anywhere in the Constitution. I also can't find the provision that abolished all levels of government in the state of Louisiana. Maybe the Supreme Court found that in the 14th Amendment too?

Interestingly enough, the local government has been less than helpful:

...the locals and outsiders who try to help New Orleans in the weeks and months to come will do so with no local institutional infrastructure to back them up. New Orleans has no real competent government or civil infrastructure - and no aggressive media or organized citizens’ groups to prod public officials in the right direction during what will be, in the best-case scenario, a painstaking path to normalcy.

...the city’s decline over the past three decades has left it impoverished and lacking the resources to build its economy from within. New Orleans can’t take care of itself even when it is not 80 percent underwater; what is it going to do now, as waters continue to cripple it, and thousands of looters systematically destroy what Katrina left unscathed?

The city’s government has long suffered from incompetence and corruption. Just weeks before Katrina, federal officials indicted associates of the former mayor, Marc Morial, for alleged kickbacks and contract fraud. Morial did nothing to attract diversified private investment to his impoverished city during the greatest economic boom of the modern era.

The current mayor, Ray Nagin, can’t help but be an improvement. A former cable executive, Nagin ran for office pledging to spur economic growth in New Orleans. He deserves our support now, but in his three years in office, he has made no perceptible progress in diversifying New Orleans’ economy. On television this week, the mayor has shown no clear inclination to take charge and direct post-Katrina rescue and recovery efforts for his population, as Mayor Giuliani did in New York on and after 9/11.

As some Bush-hating Canadians accidentally pointed out:
It has been known for decades that New Orleans, a seaport below sea level, was vulnerable to the great catastrophe that has occurred this week.
Did only President George W. Bush have those decades of knowledge? Every state has a different set of known recurring threats - local "leaders" need to stop whining and start dealing with them.

Update, Sept. 2: New Orleans vs. Houston:

Many years ago, an oilman in Houston pointed out to me that there was no inherent reason Houston should have emerged as the world capital of the petroleum business. New Orleans was already a major city with centuries of history, proximity to oil deposits, and huge transportation advantages when the Houston Ship Channel was dredged, making the then-small city of Houston into a major port. The discovery of the Humble oil field certainly helped Houston rise as an oil center, but the industry could just as easily have centered itself in New Orleans.

When I pressed my oilman informant for the reason Houston prevailed, he gave me a look of pity for my naivet├ę, and said, “Corruption.” Anyone making a fortune in New Orleans based on access to any kind of public resources would find himself coping with all sorts of hands extended for palm-greasing. Permits, taxes, fees, and outright bribes would be a never-ending nightmare. Houston, in contrast, was interested in growth, jobs, prosperity, and extending a welcoming hand to newcomers. New Orleans might be a great place to spend a pleasant weekend, but Houston is the place to build a business.

Today, metropolitan Houston houses roughly 4 times the population of pre-Katrina metropolitan New Orleans, despite the considerable advantage New Orleans has of capturing the shipping traffic of the Mississippi basin.

It is far from a coincidence that Houston is now absorbing refugees from New Orleans, and preparing to enroll the children of New Orleans in its own school system. Houston is a city built on the can-do spirit (space exploration, oil, medicine are shining examples of the human will to knowledge and improvement, and all have been immeasurably advanced by Houstonians). Houston officials have capably planned for their own possible severe hurricanes, and that disaster planning is now selflessly put at the disposal of their neighbors to the east.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

A Federal Right to Military Bases?

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Governors and legislators from several U.S. states are vowing to fight proposed Pentagon cutbacks at Air National Guard bases after a military review commission approved stripping aircraft from dozens of units.

In one contentious move, the independent panel reviewing proposed military base cutbacks voted on Friday to close the Willow Grove Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base near Philadelphia. That came despite a federal court ruling barring deactivation of a Guard unit at the base without Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell's consent.

The commission changed wording in its motion to leave the Pennsylvania Air National Guard 111th Fighter Wing intact but ordered it stripped of its A-10 attack jets.

Rendell, who argued the U.S. Constitution grants states the right to maintain militias, reacted with defiance.

"Unless they get the (federal court) decision overturned, no one is going anywhere," the Democratic governor said...

If Pennsylvania thinks its so important to have a militia with A-10 attack jets, why exactly does that mean the federal government has to provide them?

Other states had similar reactions:

In Missouri, Republican Gov. Matt Blunt ordered the state's attorney general to sue the Pentagon and the commission for moving Guard fighters from St. Louis.

Massachusetts Democratic Rep. William Delahunt said if the state exhausted its legal options to save the Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod, he would seek to defeat the base closing recommendations legislatively.

Sue first, deliberate later.
Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich pledged to continue his court fight against the move of F-16 fighters out of Springfield, Illinois, which he said would "impact the safety and security of the entire Midwest."
Yeah, next time the Canadians invade the planes will be... closer to the front.

If states want these planes so bad, why don't they pay for them?

Why Do We Have Air Force Bases?

I've long recognized excessive attention on the local economic effects of military base closures (the now-concluding BRAC Commission). Earlier this spring I received a mass-mailing from Representative Cathy McMorris which included this statement:
"My membership on the Armed Services Readiness sub-committee will enable me to influence military base realignment critical to the future of Fairchild Air Force Base, which is integral to our region's economy."
So I emailed her office with this simple question:
Could you explain to me how Fairchild is integral to our nation's defense? I believe this is the key question as local economic concerns should not trump national defense. However, pro-Fairchild statements are generally too focused on local economics.
After almost a month without an answer, I printed out the email and mailed it to her DC office. Several weeks after that, I got another taxpayer-funded mailing with a postcard asking for feedback on her constituents' most important issues. I sent it back suggesting that her office actually respond to constituent mail and email. On April 14th - seven weeks after the original email - I got this message:

Dear Nick:

Thank you for contacting my office regarding Fairchild Air Force Base and the role it plays in our regions economy. I appreciate hearing your thoughts on this issue.

As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, one of my top priorities is to ensure we keep our nation safe. As you mentioned in your letter, I am currently serving on the Readiness Sub-Committee which has jurisdiction over the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC). Later this year the BRAC will submit to Congress a list of military bases recommended for closing or realignment.

In our District Fairchild plays a critical role in our economic security and our national security. As the only re-fueling tanker base West of the Rockies, Fairchild is playing a significant role in the Global War on Terror by supplying the fuel for our planes and bombers. In addition, Fairchild is home to the Air Force's only survival school and houses a unit of Washington's Air National Guard. Fairchild is also well positioned for the future with 4,300 acres of land that is protected from encroachment and airspace interference.

Fairchild is also important to our economic security. It is the largest employer in Spokane County, responsible for over 5,000 direct jobs and hundreds of indirect jobs. I agree with you that in the BRAC process we need to focus on Fairchild's strategic location and the integral role it is playing in the Global War on Terror. This is my intent and purpose.

Thanks again for writing. Please do not hesitate to contact my office if I can be of further assistance.

Best Wishes,

Cathy McMorris
Member of Congress

Don't skim the message or you might miss the answer. The answer, in the end, was little more than geographic isolation - which seems to be a common attribute among potential base closures. Tankers, schools, and National Guard units can be moved, and we still don't know why re-fueling needs to be centered near Spokane, WA.

Fairchild did survive the BRAC process. Presumably someone was able to answer the question with greater clarity and precision than the district's representative in Congress.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Does Your Thesaurus Offend You Too?

From the AP:
An online thesaurus struck a listing Monday for the word "Arab" after Arab-American groups complained the entry listed derogatory synonyms.

The entry, which appeared on thesaurus.com, listed the word as a noun meaning "beggar," and gave 16 pejorative synonyms including "homeless person" and "welfare bum."

The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee contacted the synonym book's online publisher Friday to complain about the entry; the American Arab Forum also criticized the listing on Monday...

Several hours after Roget's Thesaurus was called by The Associated Press, all entries for "Arab" had been pulled from the site.

Barbara Ann Kipfer, editor of the third edition of Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus, said the entry had likely been on the site for years, but never made it into printed versions of the thesaurus.

"We're simply going to take it out," she said on Monday. "The last thing you want with a thesaurus is to offend anyone."
No Barbara, the last thing you want in a Thesaurus is to be wrong.
Kipfer said an 18th-century term "street arab" had appeared in other thesauruses, referring to a homeless child who has been abandoned and roams through the streets.

What is actually going on here is a fairly comprehensive cross-referencing of the English language. The site probably looked something like this one (adapted from Roget's) which links "Arab" to its meaning as "traveler" and then provides synonyms:

Synonyms within Context

Traveler - Tourist, excursionist, explorer, adventurer, mountaineer, hiker, backpacker, Alpine Club; peregrinator, wanderer, rover, straggler, rambler; bird of passage; gadabout, gadling; vagrant, scatterling, landloper, waifs and estrays, wastrel, foundling; loafer; tramp, tramper; vagabond, nomad, Bohemian, gypsy, Arab, Wandering Jew, Hadji, pilgrim, palmer; peripatetic; somnambulist, emigrant, fugitive, refugee; beach comber, booly; globegirdler, globetrotter; vagrant, hobo, night walker, sleep walker; noctambulist, runabout, straphanger, swagman, swagsman; trecker, trekker, zingano, zingaro.

These words aren't linked to "Arab" - they're linked to "traveler." Or perhaps tourists should be offended at being linked to those pesky noctambulists. Ramblers should be offended at being linked to those dedicated Hadjis. Beach combers should be offended at being linked to those thin-air-breathing mountaineers.
[Aref Assaf, president of the American Arab Forum,] said he was satisfied that the listing had been removed.

"We look forward to working with them, should they need a proper definition of the word. The easier definition is 'anyone who is Arabic,' which would have been more than sufficient," he said.
Could someone please teach Assaf the difference between a thesaurus and a dictionary?

Appropriate synonyms could include "Bedouin", "Arabian", "Saracen", and a variety of archaic terms. Instead, this knee-jerk attack on the thesaurus destroys knowledge - both of history and the English language.

On Roget's site, by the way, horrifying links remain:
  • "negro" remains linked to "brunette" (via "dark")
  • "white" remains linked to "ball and chain" (via "white elephant") and "bathtub gin" (via "white lightening")
  • "Indian" remains linked to "obliterate" (via "revoke" via "Indian give")
The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee - Destroying Knowledge and Literacy, One Entry at a Time!

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Does Your Cat Have a Cell Phone Yet?

In the May/June 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs ("Down to the Wire," p. 111), Thomas Bleha complained that the U.S. is falling behind in broadband and cell phone services:

In 2001, Japan was well behind the United States in the broadband race... By May 2003, a higher percentage of homes in Japan than in the United States had broadband.... Today, nearly all Japanese have access to "high-speed" broadband, with an average connection speed 16 times faster than in the United States--for only about $22 a month. Even faster "ultra-high-speed" broadband, which runs through fiber-optic cable, is scheduled to be available throughout the country for $30 to $40 a month by the end of 2005...

The government used tax breaks, debt guarantees, and partial subsidies. It allowed companies willing to lay fiber to depreciate about one-third of the cost on first-year taxes, and it guaranteed their debt liabilities. These measures were sufficient to ensure that new fiber was laid in cities and large towns, but in rural areas, municipal subsidies were also needed... covering approximately one-third of their costs...

That's nice, they have faster internet and paid for it. But why should we do the same thing?

The demand for more speed will never end as long as people are taught to be addicted to their computers and websites are continually bloated with unnecessary bells and whistles. I recently got an email from my mother asking me where her local Boy Scout office was because her internet searches kept coming up with irrelevant results. I found the answer myself online, but politely suggested that she might try the actual phone book next time.

The question is how much speed an access is actually needed? Bleha cites telecommuting and teleconferencing as benefits of increased broadband, but what's the problem now? It takes 3 seconds to email a file instead of 1? The only problem I ever had with my (less speedy than cable) DSL service was when I tried to watch C-SPAN on my computer - until I realized that the problem was actually with Windows Media Player and RealPlayer worked just fine.
The United States is even further behind Japan in wireless, mobile-phone-based Internet access... the cellular infrastructure is so spotty that even in large cities calls from an ordinary wireless phone may not go through. Sadly, U.S. mobile-phone competition is still based on price and the extent of a company's coverage rather than the kind of advanced data services available in Japan and elsewhere.
Sadly? How necessary are these data services? My phone does all kinds of things that I never use because they are simply unnecessary. Besides, using all of these applications on tiny phone screens may do little more than promise a world of more car accidents, eye strain, and no chance for relaxation.

I was at a grocery store this afternoon and a lady's cell phone rang. She answered it and kept yelling into it that she couldn't hear because there was almost no signal. She repeated this several times and before the conversation presumably ended. Then the phone rang again, she answered again, and went through the same performance again. I stood there mumbling to myself "well then why did you answer it again?" I've seen people blocking the aisles at Costco reading their email. The DC Metro put up signs asking people to keep their phone conversations to themselves, but with little effect. The only source of peace is that many cell phones don't work in the subway tunnels. This is so great for "quality of life" that it should be federally subsidized too?

In advocating significantly increased federal involvement in broadband and wireless networks, he says:
To reach everyone, the effort would require developing a combination of technologies: wireline, wireless, and satellite. The United States' vastness no doubt complicates the task, but it is no excuse for not undertaking the job. (Canada, the world's second-largest state, also ranks second in global broadband connectivity.)
Citing Canada as a large state is extraordinarily deceptive. While Canada is geographically the world's second-largest state, it has a population of a mere 32 million, 90% of whom live in the tiny corridor within 100 miles of the U.S. border:

Most of those 90% live adjacent to the Northeast. Japan, on the other hand, is ten times as densely populated as the U.S. I also wouldn't be surprised if the development in Canada has been driven by the burdens of international trade.

Bleha also repeatedly asserts that this technology is necessary for an "improved quality of life," but doesn't give a real basis for this. Yet he demands that the Bush administration do the marketing for him. He's quite concerned about losing the broadband "race" - but where is the destination and what does the winner get? Those are questions that should be answered with specificity, not vague assertions about the "quality of life." I have had a cell phone for a year now, and I haven't needed any feature that wasn't available on cell phones a decade ago. I (sadly, according to Bleha) really only care about price and coverage (especially free nationwide roaming.)

Some broadband is necessary for multitasking and cell phones are convenient for their mobility, but where's the crisis?

Update, Oct. 5: Canada Lags U.S. in Wireless:

Here's another kick in the national pride for anyone under the illusion Canada is the world leader in telecommunications it likes to think it is...

Statistics Canada reported Tuesday that at the end of March there were 47 wireless subscribers for every 100 people in this country, a level reached in the United States in mid-2002. In fact, the most recent U.S. figure available indicates that at the end of last year, there were 61.7 wireless subscribers for every 100 people...

...Canada ranks just 27th in wireless penetration among the top 30 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development...

The study found that the average wireless customer in Canada pays a startling 60 per cent more than they would under a U.S. plan, and a 19-per-cent premium over customers of European carriers.

There are several reasons for the difference between U.S. and Canadian wireless prices... there are six or seven national players in the U.S. market so competition is fiercer than in Canada, which has only three. And U.S. competition has intensified in recent years with the spread of number portability...

Bleha didn't like U.S. services being driven by price, but it turns out that high prices caused by a lack of competition are exactly what's holding back Canada.