Friday, September 01, 2006

Shutting Down Debate

In 22 years as head of a public policy research organization, I have never before seen a more concerted effort to shut down debate on important public policy issues. That this effort is coming from the liberal end of the political spectrum, which historically has defended unfettered intellectual inquiry and free speech, is both surprising and disturbing.

During the past year, prominent conservative and libertarian writers and activists, including Doug Bandow, Peter Ferrara, Michael Fumento, Steven Milloy, Grover Norquist, and Armstrong Williams, were accused of failing to report possible financial conflicts of interest. In each case, liberal advocacy groups used sympathetic reporters to "out" their more conservative opponents. In some instances there may have been actual conflicts that should have been reported in bylines, but most of the allegations relied on guilt by association or accounts of fundraising tactics widely used by groups on both the left and the right. Several people had their careers adversely affected by the attacks.

Eric Schlosser, the anti-fast food crusader who wrote Fast Food Nation, has a new "children's book" out on the same subject, titled Chew on This. I put "children's book" in quotation marks because while this book has pictures and simplifies complicated issues, it delivers a mostly grown-up message about how evil big corporations exploit farmers, hide the harmful health effects of their products, pay their employees too little, put profits before people ... well, you know the litany.Heartland Science Director Jay Lehr wrote a review of Chew on This pointing out its flaws and chastising Schlosser for trying to change public policy by targeting kids.

A few years ago, Schlosser might have responded by answering Lehr's charges in writing or in interviews. But times have changed. Houghton Mifflin, Schlosser's publisher and one of the largest book publishers in the world, hired an outside public relations firm to investigate Heartland's history and funding and to warn editors against publishing or reporting what we might say.

Unbelievable, you say? In an interview with Bloomberg LLC, Schlosser accused Heartland of being an "Astroturf" organization and a "fake grassroots organization." (Heartland was founded by a group of small business owners 22 years ago and has 1,400 donors. What's "fake" about that?) He even claimed Heartland was "originally created with money from the tobacco industry." That statement is patently false and obviously intended to defame us. It was retracted by Bloomberg after we threatened legal action for libel.

Al Gore has been trying to shut down debate on global warming since at least 1988. More recently, in a June interview with ABC News host and fellow Clinton administration alum George Stephanopoulos, Gore said, "the debate in the scientific community is over." Actually, the debate is just starting. Most climatologists disagree with the alarmist perspective Gore presents in his movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," and Gore's lies and exaggerations are getting more attention thanks to a widely circulated essay by Dr. Richard Lindzen, one of the world's most respected astrophysicists.

But Gore and his allies no longer want to argue about the facts. Global warming, Gore says, is a "moral issue." In his movie and in interviews, Gore repeatedly compares people who disagree with him to people who denied that smoking causes cancer, and he claims they are all stooges of the oil industry.

Gore's allies orchestrate daily, weekly, and monthly media events to create the appearance of a scientific consensus and an urgent need for immediate action to "stop global warming pollution." Every day we read about "new research" proving global warming is imminent, though often the research is not new or not about global warming. Once a week or so we read about politicians and sometimes business leaders calling for expensive (but largely symbolic) government programs. Gore's people are also paying an outside public relations firm, this time to place phone calls to thousands of households urging them to attend his movie. Can you imagine? Automated phone calls urging people to attend a movie?

On June 27, U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona said, "The debate is over. The science is clear: Secondhand smoke is not a mere annoyance, but a serious health hazard." Most people can be forgiven for having thought the truth lay somewhere in between: Working in a smoke-filled bar for 20 years seems likely to pose a risk to your health, but our bodies can probably tolerate occasional exposure to cigarette smoke.

Science writer Michael Fumento reminds us that secondhand smoke is a dramatically diluted substance compared to what active smokers breathe in. Spending an hour in a typical bar back in the 1970s was the equivalent of smoking only .004 cigarettes. The level of smoke contaminants in today's bars is much lower, and several orders of magnitude less than OSHA indoor air quality standards. Proof that exposure to secondhand smoke is dropping rapidly can be found in the amount of cotinine in the blood of nonsmokers. It fell 68 percent for kids and 75 percent for adults from 1988 to 1991 ... before nonsmoking sections in restaurants were the rule instead of the exception, and before the recent rush to ban smoking in public places and massive tax hikes.

I won't recite the litany of fallacies behind the secondhand smoke scare, partly because I've described them before in this space, and partly because, according to General Carmona, they no longer matter. Carmona, like Schlosser and Gore, is annoyed by critics who keep poking holes in the public health crisis that pays the mortgage on his home. Is defending smokers as important as defending modern agriculture and fossil fuels? Absolutely. What's happening to smokers and their still-legal product could happen to all of us and our favorite-but-slightly-risky products or activities. Small hypothetical health threats are being used to justify bans and tax levels that vastly exceed any reasonable computation of the costs smokers impose on the rest of society.

Name-calling and ad hominem attacks have always been used in debates over public policy, but in my memory they have never before risen to the heights to which they've been employed by today's left. They are no longer just tactics. They constitute a carefully chosen and massively funded strategy of the left: Inundate the public with the message that "the debate is over" and demonize anyone who dares to say otherwise.

The left's sudden intolerance for debate reflects the movement's intellectual bankruptcy. The American public doesn't support bigger government and higher taxes. It doesn't trust elected officials or unelected bureaucrats to "manage" the economy or tell them which schools their kids must attend. Yet these unpopular policies form the core of what liberals have to offer. No wonder they want to stop debate. They always lose.

It is critically important that we use every opportunity to explain and demonstrate that debates over the important issues of the day are not over. The moment debate ends, dogma and propaganda start, and they are poor guides to good public policy. We can't "take a vacation" from the debate and expect it to be the same as when we left it. We need to reject and disprove every claim that the debate is over, because otherwise there will be no debate when we return.

We also need to defend the free-market organizations the left is seeking to demonize. When you see a free-market group or one of its spokespersons being attacked in the press, I urge you to take a moment to write a letter, send an email, or place a phone call to the publisher or broadcaster and defend that victim. Tell them it isn't fair to attack people's motives or to make allegations about "who funds them." Such rhetoric does more to mislead than inform the audience. The left has changed the rules of engagement. We have no choice but to change our own tactics.


Injustice in paternity judgments

Child support enforcement programs are supported by all sides of the political spectrum, from women’s advocates on the left to traditionalists on the right. While this popularity is sometimes understandable, it has also allowed glaring and inexcusable abuses to fester and grow. Of these, none is more egregious than when men are forced to pay 18 years of child support for children who are not theirs, and who in many cases they’ve never even met.

In “The Innocent Third Party: Victims of Paternity Fraud,” a new article in the American Bar Association’s Family Law Quarterly, Washington DC attorney Ronald K. Henry details how this problem developed, and proposes some common sense solutions. The problem is relatively new, and stems in large part from the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, which restructured the welfare system.

The Act mandates that a mother seeking welfare benefits for her child must provide the name of the child’s father so the state can recoup its costs by securing a child support order.

According to an Urban Institute study, most of the men targeted are low-income and uneducated, and the court pleadings in these child support cases are unnecessarily complex. Many men are left confused or doubtful about the seriousness of the proceedings. Moreover, substitute service, where the court summons is often left at an erroneous last known address, is frequently used instead of personal service. When the putative father does not appear at his hearing, a default paternity judgment is entered against him.

A federal report shows that in many child support enforcement offices, half or more of the paternity judgments are entered by default. Of the 250,000 paternity judgments ordered in California each year, more than two-thirds are entered by default. Even when men obtain DNA tests clearing them of paternity, most courts rarely set aside these judgments.

The men who do receive the summonses and appear in court still face a stacked deck. Henry explains: “The paternity fraud victim is hustled through the formality, often in less than five minutes, and may not even realize what has happened until the first garnishment of his paycheck. The State’s direct financial incentive is to establish paternity regardless of actual paternity facts. In welfare cases, there is almost always only one attorney in the courtroom and that attorney is not representing the paternity target.”

State child support collection efforts are heavily subsidized by federal dollars. Therefore, Henry asserts, the federal government could greatly reduce the problem of false paternity establishments by reimbursing states only for establishments which are confirmed by DNA tests. States could purchase bulk DNA tests at a cost per unit considerably less than even one month of child support.

States should also act to reduce default judgments by improving service of process and by making the procedure more understandable for litigants, few of whom have legal representation. In default judgment cases, DNA testing should be required as soon as the child support enforcement agency locates the putative father. And states should pass laws or institute policies which allow fallacious paternity judgments to be retroactively challenged.

Because of the indifference of both the states’ child support enforcement systems and their federal funders, no firm figures exist on how many men have been mistakenly defaulted into fatherhood. Henry estimates that the number could exceed one million.

Child support debtors receive little public sympathy, at times with reason. Yet the victims of false paternity judgments aren’t men trying to evade their legitimate responsibilities, nor are they Nicholas Barthas determined to ensure that their exes will never get a penny. They are instead victims of one of the most indefensible civil rights violations in America today–an injustice which cries out for redress.


Police chases forbidden by a Leftist Australian State government (Queensland)

How soft on crime can you get?

Police have been ordered not to chase some suspected drink drivers under a trial that forbids police from using "gut feeling". The strategy, aimed at reducing dangerous high-speed chases, will also force police to abandon pursuits once they enter the trial districts of Redcliffe and Toowoomba. Under the 12-month trial from October 1, police will no longer be "justified" to chase a driver who fails to pull over for licence, vehicle or street checks; impromptu random breath tests (excluding RBT sites); suspicious or suspect behaviour "based on officer instinct alone"; and all simple offences.

The new safe driving policy, sparked after concerns raised by state coroner Michael Barnes and a report by the Crime and Misconduct Commission in 2003, has infuriated some traffic police, who believe the trial will put lives at risk. One unnamed veteran officer said once "grubs" worked out that police could not give chase they would drive straight to Toowoomba or Redcliffe. He argued many serious offenders had been arrested and charged from routine police checks sparked by gut feelings.

Although police will be able to pursue a driver "reasonably suspected" of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, the policy stipulates it must be to such a degree that the "suspected impairment has or will create circumstances that pose an imminent, significant risk to public safety". The trial could go statewide if successful.

Coalition police spokesman Vaughan Johnson accused the State Government of interfering in operational police duties and putting people's lives at risk. "This is the Government playing with the lives of ordinary Queenslanders by not allowing police to be police officers," Mr Johnson said. "Instead they are being ordered to be social workers by this current Labor administration. "This shows again how politicised the police service has become and that is certainly not what the equation of police and government is all about."

A police spokesman said all officers working within the two trial districts would be required to comply with the policy. "During the trial, however, if an officer in a non-trial area is engaged in a pursuit which moves into a trial area, they must also comply with the trial policy," the spokesman said. "The main objective of this trial is to find the right balance between ensuring that laws are upheld and public safety remains paramount." In 2003, a CMC report found that traffic/driving offences were the most common reasons for pursuits. Almost all of the pursued drivers were male, at least three-quarters were under 30 years old and a substantial proportion were unlicensed and had consumed alcohol or drugs.


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