Sunday, July 31, 2005

The road to ruin and other thoughts for a Sunday morning

Bill Steigerwald skewers local, state and federal officials for pork-barrel transportation projects that make big promises which never seem to come true, and for which they are never held to account.

In the long run, almost everything transportation racketeers want gets built. Nobody checks if the planners' promises panned out. Transit officials aren't prosecuted or publicly shamed by the media for the inevitable cost overruns. Nobody exposes the fibs that are always told to get federal approval for superfluous highways and under-used subways.

Indeed. As Robert Moses proved, elected officials and their minions love to build things, whether they are needed or not. This explains government's prediliction to build not only unneeded roads but also stadiums, convention centers, convention center hotels, etc. Politicians like pictures of themselves shoveling dirt and cutting ribbons with giant scissors. There's no apparent glory, after all, in merely keeping city streets clean and safe.

Speaking of cities, on Saturday, Steigerwald once again turns to Joel Kotkin for advice on turning Pittsburgh and America's other ailing cities around. I'm not always a fan of Kotkin (see this February post) but he has some good things to say from time to time, such as:

I think Pittsburgh can reposition itself as a very livable place. I think the key advantage for Pittsburgh should be affordability and quality of life. Why would somebody go to Pittsburgh? The answer might very well be that it's livable, it's urban, it's got history, it's got some great architecture, it's a good place to raise a family; you have relatively easy access to the countryside. Ask yourselves why you live in Pittsburgh -- and I would say this for almost any city -- and then build on that. ... People move to different places for different reasons. If you want to live a middle-class life in a decent way, but you still want to be in the city, then Pittsburgh may have an appeal. And stress the neighborhoods. One of the things I always try to tell cities is, take a look at your neighborhoods where people are moving in. Many times they have older houses, tree-lined streets. They have good churches and community institutions. Build on those places instead of constantly trying to prove to the visitor who comes from New York or Chicago, that, "Yeah, well we've got this hip and cool stuff, too."

(Steigerwald talked to Kotkin back in May, seeking his advice for presumptive mayor-elect Bob O'Connor.)

Finally, it's Sunday, and no matter what mood I'm in on a Sunday morning, good or bad, I can't help but summon the words of the late, great Johnny Cash:

On a Sunday morning sidewalk,
I'm wishing, Lord, that I was stoned.
'Cause there's something in a Sunday
That makes a body feel alone.
And there's nothing short a' dying
That's half as lonesome as the sound
Of the sleeping city sidewalk
And Sunday morning coming down.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

It's the personality, stupid

Jacob Weisberg says Hillary Clinton faces one simple but possibly insurmountable obstacle as a presidential candidate, and it has nothing to do with her husband, her failed healthcare plan or even her gender. The problem, says Weisberg, is that she simply is not likeable, and, for better or for worse, presidential elections are often popularity contests. To wit:

...a case can be made that the first woman who gets elected president will need to, as Hillary does, radiate more toughness than warmth. But in American elections, affection matters. Democrats lost in 2000 and 2004 with candidates Main Street regarded as elitist and aloof, to a candidate voters related to personally. Hillary isn't as obnoxious as Gore or as off-putting as Kerry. But she's got the same damn problem, and it can't be fixed.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Payola, smayola

Daniel Gross explains why federal laws prohibiting payola are outdated. Like Gross, I can't get too excited about Eliot Spitzer's crusade against Sony and other record companies that bribe DJs to play certain songs. Anyone who thinks radio stations play Celione Dion based on talent alone is hopelessly naive and probably shouldn't be allowed to handle sharp objects.

Goodbye, freedom

Yesterday, I posted an essay expressing my ambivalence about New York City's decision to conduct random searches at subway stations. You'll find no equivocating in these excellent essays from the ultraliberal Counterpunch and the libertarian Reason. Their point: These random searches are a flagrant violation of the Fourth Amendment and an ineffective and possibly counterproductive means to prevent terrorism. Freedom-loving people should not stand for them.

Thanks, boys, for reminding me where I stand.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Neither liberty nor security

This nation’s political dialogue has been corrupted by alarmist rhetoric the past four years, and no one is innocent, neither Republicans nor Democrats, conservatives, liberals or moderates. Every dispute becomes a battle for the very soul of the republic.

It is with this in mind that I am trying to ask myself why I should not be outraged over the NYPD’s decision to randomly search the bags of people entering New York City subway stations. After all, why—aside from logistical concerns, which are not inconsiderable—should we treat ground-level mass transit differently from flying? Airport security has been escalating for decades, and when one considers the measures that were instituted in the wake of the Pan Am 103 bombing, the layers that were added after September 11 hardly seem cumbersome at all. Taking off one’s shoes and having someone rifle through your suitcase is a small price to pay to avoid another 9/11.

I should add that I was in New York last week, and based on local news reports, New Yorkers not only tolerate the new policy, but welcome it. Who was I to argue with them? I would soon be back in Pittsburgh, and after all, those planes slammed into the World Trade Center, not the USX Tower, and the London Underground finds no counterpart in the T. Freedom is a right that can seem like a luxury.

That said, it is useful to remember that the goal of terrorism is not to kill, though killing is necessary for terrorism to succeed. The life of a bystander on a subway train, unlike the soldier on a battlefield, has no tactical value. His death is but a symbol, a message to his countrymen: You, or someone you love, could be next. We become fearful of doing the things that we do every day, and we lose faith in our government to protect us. Thus, any defensive measures that exceed the bounds of ordinary law enforcement, however necessary, represent a surrender to the terrible logic of terrorism. Four years out from September 11, this may sound clichéd, but that makes it no less true.

This takes us down a path that is fraught with peril, as the British discovered last week. I didn’t question their shoot-to-kill policy when I first heard about it, any more than I question our government’s policy to shoot down planes that fly into restricted airspace over the White House. British and American authorities now wrestle with the dilemma that the Israeli soldier, standing at a checkpoint in the occupied territories, confronts every day. Does he pat down the suspicious-looking young man in the bulky jacket, knowing that he could be blown to bits? Does he kill the man, knowing that if he is wrong, he’ll not only take an innocent life but also inflame hatred and possibly incite more terrorism? Does he let him pass, and accept responsibility for what happens next? There is no margin for error.

These are no longer theoretical questions for Americans. The police officers stationed outside New York City subway stations are proof of that. Liberty and security need not be mutually exclusive, but they are not always compatible, either. I don't pretend to know what the proper balance should be, and I have little faith that our leaders do, either. And I am saddened to think that we are one step closer to a day when we must choose between them.

Monday, July 25, 2005

We are not afraid

Well, as it turns out, some people are afraid.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

"Defining deviancy up"

John Tierney, who's been a welcome addition to the New York Times' op-ed page, has been beating up on federal and local law enforcement officials over the newest front in the drug war: abuse of prescription painkillers. According to Tierney, in the hopes of catching a miniscule number of addicts and dirty doctors, the DEA is persecuting honest physicians and the patients desperate for relief from legitimate ailments. Still, he sees a certain twisted logic in it:

During the war on drugs in the 1980's and 1990's, federal and local agents risked their lives going after drug gangs on the streets. As their budgets for drug enforcement soared, they arrested hundreds of thousands of people annually and filled a quarter of American prison cells with drug offenders.

But what did they have to show for it? Drugs remained as available as ever on the streets - and actually got a lot cheaper. The street price of heroin and cocaine dropped by more than half in the last two decades. Dealers just went on dealing, not only lowering their prices but also selling stronger, purer versions of heroin, cocaine and marijuana.

Given this record, and the pressure from Congress to show results, it's understandable that the Drug Enforcement Administration and local police departments hit on a new strategy: defining deviancy up. Federal and local authorities shifted their focus to doctors and the new scourge of OxyContin and similar painkillers, known generally as opioids.

As quarry for D.E.A. agents, doctors offered several advantages over crack dealers. They were not armed. They were listed in the phone book. They kept office hours and records of their transactions. And unlike the typical crack dealer living with his mother, they had valuable assets that could be seized and shared by the federal, state and local agencies fighting the drug war.

Tierney goes on to explain that attorneys general in 30 states complained to the DEA because this crackdown on pill poppers has doctors scared to write patients the prescriptions they need merely to get through the day. And because Oxycontin has become more difficult to purchase, true addicts have been driven to use heroin.

Perhaps the DEA will lay off prescription painkillers and divert resources back to fighting the scourge of heroin. Which might raise street prices, leading addicts to search out a cheaper alternative, like Oxycontin and other prescription painkillers. Then the DEA will be able to go after Oxycontin, sending addicts back to heroin, and then the DEA can go after heroin again...

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Busy, busy, busy

I hope to return to regular blogging soon. In the meantime, my shamelessness knows no bounds.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

More shameless self-promotion

One of my favorite writers has an op-ed in today's Trib.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

God Save the Queen

Slate's coverage of the London terrorist attacks includes a compelling essay criticizing Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's decision to raise America's terror alert status. To wit:

Without receiving any new credible intelligence, he raised DHS's already discredited color alert to orange, saying he wanted to wake up mass transit authorities. In the process, he gave ever-jittery TV anchors one more reason to prattle on about danger in the United States, even though today's bombings occurred in a different country thousands of miles away and were, comparatively speaking, not an operational success for the jihadists who seem likely to have been behind them.

Perhaps it bears repeating that terrorists seek to alter the way in which we lead our lives, to close open societies, and to turn liberals into authoritarians. ...

At the risk of seeming callous, the other message Chertoff should have sent is that Americans need to toughen up a bit. Be vigilant; don't panic. Look at how the British are handling these attacks. Their endurance of the Irish Republican Army's 30-year terror campaign has made them masters at picking up the pieces after an attack and moving on. Did they institute a national alert today? No. Did they close down the subways indefinitely? No.

Righto. Quit scaring my mother and keep a stiff upper lip. There's a difference between vigilance and paranoia. Freedom invites risk, and though the price is often terrible--more terrible, Americans know, than what the British paid today--it's a price worth paying. For what is the alternative?

That said, I do have a visceral need for a little ass-kicking right about now. Listening today to Tony Blair and yes, George W. Bush, I was reminded that there is good and evil in the world, and that we are on the side of good, flawed though our response to evil may sometimes be.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

What was he doing with Perot?

I am embarrased to admit that until he died, I knew Admiral James Stockdale only as a minor historical footnote: He was Ross Perot's running mate in the 1992 presidential election. You'll recall that he turned the vice presidential debate that year into something of a sideshow when he asked the eternal questions, "Who am I? Why am I here?"

Well, Stockdale was a Medal of Honor winner who spent 7 1/2 years in a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp:

On Sept. 9, 1965, his A-4 fighter-bomber was hit by antiaircraft fire, and he ejected over a small coastal village. A beating on the ground broke his left knee. It was broken again in prison, and he never regained its full use. In prison, he was tortured and suffered other injuries. He was placed in leg irons for two years and held in solitary confinement for four.

As recounted in the citation for his Medal of Honor, the military's highest award for valor, he mutilated himself to stay out of propaganda photographs. Later, he managed to slash his wrists, coming close enough to death to convince his captors that he would not give in. The Navy said the torture of other prisoners then abated.

In prison, Adm. Stockdale recalled these words of Epictetus: "Lameness is an impediment to the leg but not to the will."

What is one to make of such bravery, such unflinching fortitude that most of us can scarcely imagine, let alone muster? What is one to say about such a man? Just thank you, and rest in peace.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

A battle of wits with an unarmed man

I foolishly decided to engage Angry Drunken Bureaucrat, who clearly has a far superior grasp of public policy than myself, in a discussion over the Supreme Court's recent eminent domain decision.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Life is short

First John Ritter, then Robert Palmer, now Luther Vandross. Is 54 the new 27?

Up is down, black is white

I find myself in the curious position of agreeing with the ethically impaired House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and disagreeing with his Democratic counterpart, Nancy Pelosi, regarding a proposal to deny federal funds for local redevelopment projects in which eminent domain is used to make way for a commercial venture. The measure is in response to the Supreme Court's recent ruling that governments may use eminent domain to acquire private property even when it is not for a traditional public use such as a highway or government building.

Republicans and a relative handful of Democrats are backing the measure, while most Democrats, including Pelosi, stand opposed:

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) criticized the measure. "When you withhold funds from enforcing a decision of the Supreme Court, you are in fact nullifying a decision of the Supreme Court," she told reporters. "This is in violation of the respect of separation of powers in our Constitution."

Here's why she's wrong: For starters, there is nothing for Congress to enforce in this decision. (And one could argue that Congress has no responsibility to enforce any law, only to obey them; the executive branch is responsible for law enforcement.) The high court merely allowed a local government (New London, Conn.) to move forward with a plan to use eminent domain to acquire homes that stand in the way of a private redevelopment project. The court's decision did not compel any government, either state, local or federal, to adopt either a specific definition of public use or any particular policies regarding eminent domain; in fact, the majority in this decision noted the court's longstanding deference to legislatures regarding the proper use of eminent domain. Congress, being a legislative body, has every right to use its power of the purse to endorse or oppose the use of eminent domain in local redevelopment projects that seek federal support. (A bill in the Senate would go further by prohibiting eminent domain for economic development projects.)

I can, however, understand Pelosi's frustration, given the all-out assault that conservatives have launched on the judiciary, and the contempt for the rule of law and separation of powers they've shown in the process. Some Republicans are foolishly backing a constitutional amendment that would protect references to God on public property (in reaction to another recent Supreme Court ruling) and one Republican House member introduced an amendment to an appropriations bill to strip $1.5 million from the Supreme Court's budget as punishment for the New London case. Such behavior one would expect from children.