Dreaming of a libertarian daily newspaper

Peggy Noonan has an Opinion Journal column today about near universal support for our troops, regardless of varying opinions on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That story is interesting, but I believe the angle she uses to approach her point is worth noting. Consider:

We all criticize the mainstream media, regularly and with reason. More and more and day by day the MSM is showing us that its response to the popularity of conservative media and the rise of alternative news sources is to become less carefully liberal. What in the past had to be hidden is now announced.

This is not necessarily bad: it makes things better by making them clearer. I didn’t enjoy their ideological smuggling. Now they’re more like free-market people: Here are my liberal wares, if you want to buy them buy them, if not the Fox News stall is down the street, buy their faulty product and curses on you!

Fine with me, except that as a consumer of news I think they’re making a mistake. In a time of endless opinion, fact is king. Fact is rarer, harder to come by, more valuable. If only the MSM understood what money and power there are to be had from being famously nonideological, from being a famously reliable pursuer and presenter of fact. Wouldn’t it be great if that were the next new thing?

I don’t often agree with her columns, but she gets it right on that point. As I’ve said many times before, the mainstream media is a marketplace. Rather than complaining about universal bias, which is a blunt tool at best, news customers should find a source that makes them happy. As I’ve said and as she states here, if The Washington Post is too liberal, read The Washington Times. The business side of it will work itself out, whether it’s through a shift in strategy by the publisher, bankruptcy, or sufficient population acceptance of the status quo. It’s just an extension of the marketplace of ideas, which keeps American political thought vibrant. And it works better than mere complaining.

Take me out to the corrupt government

I don’t know what’s more egregious, Major League Baseball preventing bidders from offering to cover cost overruns or this political pissing contest within the D.C. City Council:

[D.C. Mayor Anthony] Williams continued to meet with council members yesterday to try to win support for the stadium lease agreement. He stepped up the pressure on the council in a statement criticizing council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) for supporting the use of public money to help build a parking garage for a future Target store in his ward while opposing public funding for the stadium.

“His actions are inconsistent and shortsighted,” Williams said. “It’s time for Mr. Graham and other council members to stop holding up our agreement with Major League Baseball.”

Graham said the Target project was different because the costs are much lower and the use of public funds far less. “I hope the mayor is not in meltdown mode,” he said.

How can two people be so far apart on an issue, and be so wrong in the same way? The size of the infraction doesn’t matter, since they both have their hands in the City’s fiscal cookie jar to offer private businesses a free gift. Qualitatively, both are stealing from the taxpayers for inexcusable bribes to businesses. Who cares if one does it to buy votes and the other to buy a legacy?

How to handle a “bad” employer

Reading this story on the Transport Workers Union strike in New York City proved why I despise unions. Consider:

Union President Roger Toussaint said the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, an agency with a $1 billion surplus, can do better by 34,000 workers who typically earn $35,000 to $55,000 annually while operating the nation’s largest mass transportation system.

“This is a fight over whether hard work will be rewarded with a decent retirement, over the erosion or eventual elimination of health benefit coverage for working people,” Toussaint said in a written statement. “It is a fight over dignity and respect on the job. . . . Transit workers are tired at being under-appreciated and disrespected.”

Every day that I go to work is a fight for dignity and respect. Not because I don’t get it; I do. It’s a fight for both me and my client because we have this crazy notion that if either of us is ever unhappy with the working relationship, we’re free to terminate it. Either one of us.

As an example, that scenario led me to becoming self-employed in early 2004. For several years leading up to starting my own business, I’d noticed a declining level of “dignity and respect,” to use Mr. Toussaint’s words, from my previous employer. Working conditions were fine, but I hadn’t had a raise in more than two years, my promotion path stalled, and broken promises concerning future opportunities mounted. I hated it and wished it hadn’t come to that. But the business culture changed and I didn’t like the new direction. I sought new career options, finally uncovering an option to become self-employed. It was scary and I had to earn that dignity and respect again, but I haven’t regretted it. If my current situation deteriorates, I’ll figure out something new. And so it goes.

Also, as I’ve seen some people discuss, dignity and respect extends to transit customers, too. I don’t live in New York, so I can’t vouch for how transit workers there treat passengers customers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if such reports as gleefully shutting doors as people visibly approach are true. It happens in D.C. on the Metro, so I see no reason to believe it doesn’t happen in New York. I generally experience this at lunch time, when trains are timed to let passengers off without time to transfer to other incoming trains in the station. Instead of bitching, though, I’ve decided to walk the short distances between the stations I travel. I lose the convenience, but I respond to poor treatment with my wallet.

There are legitimate issues in this strike, of course. It’s a shame the TWU is on the wrong side of them, which only makes it look stupider. In the 21st Century, hard work isn’t rewarded with a decent retirement, especially when the demand is that it begin at age 50, funded by taxpayers. Employers (or clients) reward hard work with compensation. The worker can then use that money for whatever he wishes. A smart person will direct a portion of his earnings to a decent retirement. He’ll also pay for health insurance appropriate for his situation. He won’t wait for someone to give him a one-size-fits-all solution designed to satisfy the common worker’s needs. Bartering hard work for a decent retirement and health insurance is less efficient than exchanging hard work for money. Money is excellent since it can then be exchanged for items the earner decides are useful. It’s an amazing power built into capitalism.

This strike illustrates how the need to be taken care of by others is a quaint relic of decades past. Unions should be a quaint relic, too. It’s unfortunate that the striking workers appear immune to such useful lessons.

I want my police state onscreen only

Here’s an interesting story on a trade group’s efforts to improve the movie-going experience:

The National Association of Theater Owners, the primary trade group for exhibitors, is pushing to improve the theatrical experience by addressing complaints about on-screen advertisements, cellphones in theaters and other disruptions, while planning a public relations campaign to promote going out to the movies.

Some of the proposed solutions may not be so popular. The trade group plans to petition the Federal Communications Commission to permit the blocking of cellphones inside theaters, Mr. Fithian said. That would require changing an existing regulation, he added. But some theaters are already testing a no-cellphones policy, asking patrons to check their phones at the theater door.

A spokesman for a cellphone lobby said the group would object to any regulatory change. “We’re opposed to the use of any blocking technology, because it interferes with people’s ability to use a wireless device in an emergency situation,” said Joseph Farren, a spokesman for CTIA-the Wireless Association, based in Washington.

Hypothetical situation: Movie theaters entice couples back to the movies with a “no babies” policy. Their marketing works! But to accommodate this newly rediscovered date night at the movies idea, the couple needs to hire a babysitter to watch their kids. Everything so far falls into a normal scenario. Now twist this to include the “ticking time bomb” (aka highly improbable, particularly distressing) scenario. The babysitter needs to reach the couple because their child is having a medical emergency. They can’t receive the call because the cell phone signal is blocked. This is wise?

I can understand a desire to make the movie-going experience more pleasant, but are cell phones that troublesome? Only once have I been watching a movie in a theater when a rude person interrupted the film with a ringing cell phone not set to vibrate. The individual answered the call and conversed for several minutes, to much vocal complaint from other members of the audience. I’d have no problem with a business policy of removing guests from the theater who engage in such unacceptable behavior, as the theater should’ve done with that gentleman. But that occurred more than six years ago. Perhaps people are still too stupid to put their phones on vibrate or turn them off. My recent experience suggests not.

But for a moment, I’ll assume it’s more frequent, since I don’t see that many movies in the theater now. (An indictment against movie quality, not movie-going experience, by the way.) What’s wrong with a “no audible ringtone” policy? I’d accept a “no cell phone” policy, too, but I’d accept it by hiding my phone or not bothering to go to the movies. It’s never been a problem, but I’ve been to concerts where patrons had to check camera phones at the door, verified by metal detectors. I hated it then, and I refuse to attend such concerts in the future. I won’t trust a business which doesn’t trust me. But that involves private transactions. Blocking cell phone signals is so far beyond that standard, I’m stunned anyone has the gumption to request such nonsense. Clearly the FCC should reject this. Otherwise, the trade group might as well lobby Congress for a tax on Netflix to stop the devastating impact of DVD rentals.

(Hat tip)

Anyone care to imply that Joe Gibbs is washed up?

I can’t let the Redskins’ glorious demolishing of the hated Cowboys last night fade away without linking to a story about my new favorite basketball player, Darrell Armstrong. Behold:

The Redskins wrapped up a 35-7 victory over the Cowboys shortly before the Mavericks left the locker room to play the Timberwolves.

As part of the pregame ceremonies, guard Devin Harris wished the crowd a happy holiday. Then Armstrong, who wasn’t scheduled to speak, asked for the microphone. He added his holiday wishes, then made his fine-inducing proclamation, a twist on a famous line by former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson.

In Dallas (Mr. Armstrong plays for the Dallas Mavericks), he exclaimed “How ’bout those Redskins!” Mr. Armstrong is my new hero.

Misdirection quote of the day

Smarter people have already skewered the President’s faulty logic on allowing NSA surveillance of domestic communications without a court order, so I won’t pile on unnecessary commentary other than to say that President Bush is wrong. Instead, I want to highlight this quote from Vice President Cheney where he refutes the notion that Congress didn’t know that’s it legislated this in 2001. Consider:

“It’s been briefed to the Congress over a dozen times, and, in fact, it is a program that is, by every effort we’ve been able to make, consistent with the statutes and with the law,” Vice President Cheney said yesterday in an interview with ABC News “Nightline” to be broadcast tonight. “It’s the kind of capability if we’d had before 9/11 might have led us to be able to prevent 9/11.”

I remember a little something about the FBI being tipped off that something big was going to happen and that information sitting around unused. Yet Vice President Cheney is saying that We didn’t have that kind of capability before 9/11. He’s lying spinning. He should just be honest and say that we’re too lazy now to bother with the Constitution and civil liberties. As long as we’re safe, that’s what matters. I’m not buying it, but I’d respect the honesty. Instead I’ll roll my eyes at the farce he’s perpetuating.

Ban newspapers because they induce paper cuts

The Washington Post presented an editorial today supporting the looming smoking bans in Washington, D.C. and Maryland. The logic is flawed beyond the most basic “we’re ignoring private property rights because it’s inconvenient,” moving quickly to “Huh?” status. Consider this bit of logic concerning economic hardship exemptions:

Howard County, which also is considering a new smoking law, has a somewhat different hardship situation. To comply with a 1996 law, many restaurants and bars established — at considerable cost — separate, ventilated areas for smokers. Such areas have been found ineffective in fully protecting people from unhealthy air, but those restaurant and bar owners deserve consideration for installing the equipment as called for then. At last count, a majority of the County Council favored exempting these establishments from the proposed new ban. That’s too generous and unhealthy. County Executive James N. Robey (D) proposes giving them until 2008 to comply, which would be more than fair.

Before moving on, I’d like to commend the Post’s editorial staff for approving of restaurant and bar owners who installed the equipment. Since they did it out of general kindness and customer demand, it’s amazing … Wait, oh, yeah. They installed the equipment because it was required by a law. A law whose solution proved to be useless, but costly. Government is a force for good. Especially when unhealthy air on private property is involved. Continuing:

As more and more reports are showing, smoking bans generally have had no significant effect on revenue and employment. Also, as more and more contiguous areas enact bans, the less likely their establishments will be to lose customers. As reported by The Post’s Matthew Mosk and John Wagner, at least seven states, including California, New York and Delaware, as well as 180 localities, require smoke-free bars and restaurants. These areas have recognized that just as eateries are required to serve safe food, they should be required to provide safe air. In this region, it’s time to stop the stalling.

I’ll accept that smoking bans generally have had no significant effect on revenue and employment, but only because it’s generally convenient to moving my counter-analysis along. The larger point offered is that dwindling smoking-friendly areas in public means that businesses will still generate revenues because people have to go somewhere. Except, what if they don’t? The logic implies that people shouldn’t have the choice to smoke in public and they shouldn’t have the choice to stay home and smoke rather than go out to not smoke. What’s next, a law requiring people to frequent affected establishments? Of course not, because that would be crazy. Better to come up with a fix for the resulting economic hardship of a government-imposed cost of doing business. Before the bans, the owners didn’t mind. The customers didn’t mind. So who minds? I’ve already said I mind, but I choose not to patronize business that permit smoking, among other reasons. So what if, just maybe, personal choice matters?

Which leads to the safe food versus safe air comparison. Umm, I don’t have a way of knowing if a restaurant produces my dinner safely. I don’t know if they have E. coli swimming around on every surface in the kitchen. I can’t reasonably impose that standard before I eat the meal. After I eat, it might be too late. Somehow, some form of safe food standard seems workable. How is any of that the case with air quality? I can see cigarette smoke in the air. I can smell cigarette smoke from a surprising distance. I have a distinct, easily-measurable choice before I enter any transaction with a restaurant or bar included in the ban. I’m free to decide whether or not to continue my relationship with them. I’m also capable of doing so.

Stop treating me like a child.

All the news that’s fit to slant

Guess what? Media bias is real. Rather than excerpt any particular passage from the news release, I’ll sum it up with what I’ve said in the past: Duh. This is new information?

Give any thinking person access to media, whether newspapers, television, radio, or The Internets, and they’ll find something that could count as bias. It’s the reader’s job to read with a critical mind. Without that, the reader can be swayed “against his wishes,” which concerns me exactly zero percent. Buyer beware and all that. If a reader wants bias, he’ll seek it out. If he doesn’t, he’ll boycott news outlets that skew against his beliefs. If he’s too ignorant or lazy or whatever to participate in that exchange, I’m not going to feel sorry for him. The marketplace for ideas exists for a reason. Engage or shut up.

Read the summary of the study and make up your own mind; it’s a quick read. If nothing else, it’s an insight into the “Fun with Numbers” mentality of quantitatively comparing items that have no justifiable scientific link. That, tied together with methodology that appears to ignore context, will most certainly achieve the desired confirmation of the liberal media bias thesis. Big deal.

Tortured logic on torture

The McCain amendment (re)codifying prohibitions against torture of prisoners appears close to passage. There are a few last-minute snags, mostly surrounding the Bush Administration’s desire to avoid further criminal liability for anyone who may have tortured prisoners in the last few years. Sen. McCain is correct in refusing to compromise until the White House agrees to the legislation without changes.

Using a bit of choice wording and faulty logic, the editors of the Wall Street Journal further pushed their counter-argument yesterday, determined to see the torture option remain available to any and all U.S. personnel fighting the war against terror. Consider:

Part of the problem with interpreting those words is that they depend on the context. All things being equal, we can’t think of a worse human rights abuse than blowing someone to bits with a Hellfire missile. Yet no one objected when that happened to al Qaeda leader Hamza Rabia in Pakistan two weeks ago. If certain individuals can be ethically targeted for death in a war, then wouldn’t the same hold true for rough interrogation methods? A strange code of morality would allow the killing of Rabia but not his stressful questioning to prevent further murders he might plan against innocent civilians.

Some of the more sophisticated critics recognize this, as well as the possibility of “ticking bomb” scenarios. That includes Senator McCain, who has written in Newsweek that on occasion “an interrogator might well try extreme measures.” But he opposes writing any guidance into law or regulation–the way the Bush Administration has done–suggesting instead that the interrogator should go ahead and do what he thinks is needed and then depend on “authorities and the public” to “take [context] into account when judging his actions.”

I don’t see the direct connection between ethically targeting an individual for death during war and torturing him in captivity. If the individual, in this case Rabia, is free, he’s a danger. The proper intention against an enemy is to stop him from being a threat. Death certainly does that. But if he’s captured, is he a threat any longer? The basic answer is no, although the more complicated answer is presumably yes because he possesses information. Of course, if a target possesses such high value information that torturing him is allegedly justified, targeting him for death seems counter-productive to the larger goal of winning the war. Hellfire missiles and waterboarding aren’t interchangeable in this debate.

That, of course, leads back to the original argument. What is justified? Although specific definitions already exist, and the Bush Administration generated memos designed to pigeon-hole war on terror captives into a small box invented to avoid existing laws and treaties, the editors pretend that torture opponents should justify why current United States policy should be reversed revert back to pre-Bush Administration standards. The argument relies on obfuscation to distract weaker opponents. It’s a fine strategy if they can pull it off. They don’t.

And don’t forget “rendition”–the turning over of captured terrorists–to the likes of Egypt or Syria, the practice favored by the Clinton Administration because it lacked the nerve to handle captured terrorists outside the criminal justice system. We trust the CIA more than Egyptian intelligence, but where are the “torture” critics on the morality of this practice? The truth is that if the McCain Amendment passes, rendition will almost certainly increase. Perhaps this will be the next liberal target, until every al Qaeda detainee is treated no differently than a common thief.

We realize that our views on this subject won’t carry the day, at least not until the U.S. suffers a more serious attack. The Bush Administration is already backing down from Mr. Cheney’s earlier position, holding out in this week’s negotiations on the McCain Amendment only for immunity for the past actions of U.S. interrogators. We still wish the President would take his case to the public, and perhaps even request hearings next year on Capitol Hill, because Americans are more sophisticated about the reality of what it takes to break these terrorists than are most journalists.

But at least the Administration has been willing to admit that protecting Americans takes more than denouncing “torture” at the top of one’s lungs. Once the McCain Amendment becomes law, perhaps the torture moralists will continue their creeping honesty and let us know what U.S. interrogators can do to break the next Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Of particular offense in that passage is the nonsense questioning the manhood of the Clinton Administration because “it lacked the nerve to handle captured terrorists outside the criminal justice system.” Illegal activity, rendition in Clinton’s case, or torture in Bush’s case, is still illegal activity. It does not matter whether an administration had the balls to do the deed itself. How differently do we treat those who murder and those who hire a murderer in their place? But who has the testicular fortitude to beat the shit out of the bad guys is not all that matters.

Our sense of justice and morals prevent us from allowing or endorsing government-sanctioned torture in America. Whether we call it torture, rugged interrogation, or aggressive coercion, it remains against the law. More importantly, we have a civilian-led military, complete with a Congress and judiciary entrusted with powers to check the executive from abusing and ignoring limits on his powers. When those bodies refuse to act, as they have for the better part of this scandal, we also have the First Amendment. Not to empower individuals to dictate how to break terrorists, but to ensure that limits on military behavior are enforced. The opposite of that is not sophistication, but barbarism.

How about a “Bridge to Everywhere”?

In an editorial in today’s Washington Post, Felix G. Rohatyn and Warren Rudman propose a solution to decaying infrastructure in America. Specifically, they highlight two examples.

On the Gulf Coast, the failure to invest adequately in the levees of New Orleans and to prepare for or manage the resulting disaster was obvious to the world.

On the Pacific Coast, in the state of Washington, a quieter crisis loomed. The region’s infrastructure had been outstripped by growth. But the new governor, Christine Gregoire, had the courage to impose a phased-in motor fuels tax to repair the state’s dilapidated and congested roads and bridges. Her opposition tried to repeal [ed. note: Initiative 912] the legislation with a ballot initiative, but thanks in part to the support of the state’s most powerful business leaders, voters stood by her and supported the tax, which would cost the average driver about $1 a week. They appeared to understand that this is a small price to protect lives threatened by bridges such as Seattle’s Alaskan Way viaduct, a twin deck freeway that is used by 100,000 vehicles a day and that could collapse in an earthquake. Their last-minute intervention may have prevented one more disaster for now, but the opposition will undoubtedly be back.

I only know the general details of how Gov. Gregoire imposed the motor fuels tax, and I’m not impressed by the idea that raising taxes is courageous, but I’m fine with the facts mentioned so far. Infrastructure is in dangerous condition. Something needs to be done. Admittedly I don’t remember the last major earthquake in Washington state, but deteriorating infrastructure is still bad. However they pay for it, the improvements seem wise. However, as I stated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, fixing the problem at the local level, where information will be most accurate and current, is best.

I’m also aware that Washington isn’t the only location in America with infrastructure problems. Any short drive through the D.C. area will provide the same revelation, though I don’t know of anything specifically in immediate danger of falling down. As with the Wilson Bridge, though, proactive is best. So how do Mr. Rohatyn and Sen. Rudman arrive at this conclusion within a few short paragraphs?

Americans may not want “big government,” but they want as much government as is necessary to be safe and secure. Today state and local governments spend at least three times as much on infrastructure as the federal government does. In the 1960s the shares for both were even. Even so, increases in state spending have not been enough to check the decline in many of our public assets. A new type of federal involvement would be a powerful initiative and would require a new focus. Rebuilding America is a historic task; we have the means to do it.

I suspect that the authors haven’t noticed the federal deficit lately. Otherwise, I doubt they’d say we have the means to do this at the federal level. Regardless, it wouldn’t be a powerful initiative, but rather, a power-grabbing initiative. The federal government did this with the levees in New Orleans. How well did that work?

More interestingly, doesn’t the Washington example show that state and local governments are better equipped to know which infrastructure projects are most urgent? We can argue about whether or not an increased motor fuel tax is the way to pay for upgrades, but I’d rather Washington’s residents determine that. I also expect them to pay fund them. Just like my fellow Virginians and I should pay for road improvements in Northern Virginia.

After proposing the expansion of federal control, the authors offer a funding scheme that, in all honesty, I’m not quite sure I understand. It involves something about a national investment corporation (NIC) and “self-financing” bonds with a federal guarantee. It sounds more like Social Security IOUs than anything. If someone cares to read the article and decipher how the NIC would work, I’d be happy to listen. For now, I’m resigned to regarding it as a central planning sleight-of-hand that would transfer control and decision-making from where local knowledge resides to Washington, while spreading tax obligations everywhere. I’m not persuaded.

By the end of the editorial, the authors acknowledge that they’ll face opposition, although they fail to understand why:

There will no doubt be opposition to solving this problem. Advocates of “small government” will characteristically oppose government’s performing its valid, historical role. Critics will accuse the NIC of being a “new bureaucracy” when, in fact, it might be the only practical approach to reform in the existing bureaucracies.

I don’t oppose solving this problem. Claiming that “small government” advocates characteristically oppose this is incorrect. “Small government” advocates expect the government to perform its necessary, appropriate tasks. However, building roads, bridges, airports and water projects are for state and local governments. Just because we’ve historically violated that does not mean we should continue to do so, adding more bureaucracy and impossible-to-deliver promises to the government heap.