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Are Americans Cheap?

The New York Times and Washington Post editorialize about America’s “stinginess.” Former President Jimmy Carter says when it comes to helping others, “The rich states don’t give a damn.” Standing outside the White House, the singer Bono told the press that America doesn’t do enough to help the needy:

“It’s the crumbs off our tables that we offer these countries.”

It seems obvious to Bono and President Carter that America offers “crumbs” because the governments of most other wealthy countries distribute a larger percentage of their nations’ wealth in foreign aid. Yes, the U.S. government gave out $20 billion last year, much more than other countries give, but that’s only because we are so stupendously wealthy. If you calculate foreign aid as a percentage of our wealth, the United States gives much less than others.

Actress Angelina Jolie calls that “really disgusting” in my new TV special, titled “Cheap in America.” “ABC News” will broadcast it tonight (Wednesday, Nov. 29 at 10 p.m.—sorry—I know some of you are reading this column after that). Jolie goes on to say, “I think most American people, you know, really do think we give more. And I know that they would if they could understand how little they give and how much more we can afford to give, absolutely, without even noticing.”

But wait a second … when talking aid, why do Jolie and the others talk just about what the government gives? Why conflate America with our government? America is the people.

Jolie could look to herself as an example of the generous American. She gives weeks of her time and millions of her own dollars to charities. America is 300 million private individuals, and their contributions far exceed what government gives. When you include those, America is anything but cheap.

After the Asian Tsunami two years ago, the U.S. government pledged $900 million to tsunami relief. American individuals donated $2 billion—three times what government gave—in food, clothing, and cash. Private charities could barely keep up with the donations.

Americans’ preference for voluntary contributions over forced giving through government is one way in which Americans differ from other people. (Don’t think it’s forced? See what happens if you don’t pay your taxes.)

Syracuse University professor Arthur Brooks’s new book, “Who Really Cares

[editor’s note:  also see PTBC blog entry here]

, points out that Americans give more than the citizens of any other country. Individually, Americans give seven times more money than people in Germany and 14 times more than Italians give. We also volunteer more.

And thank goodness we do, because charity does things better. I notice the difference on my way to work. In my neighborhood the “Men in Blue”—that’s what they call themselves—clean streets. I wondered who the “Men in Blue” were. Day after day they did menial work energetically … even enthusiastically.

It turns out that they are mostly former street people, ex-alcoholics, and drug addicts. A private charity, the Doe Fund, puts them to work while trying to teach them to be responsible and stay clean.

One year later, 54 percent of the “Men in Blue” are drug-free and employed. That’s twice the success rate of other city shelters.

I’m still not sure exactly what makes Doe Fund successful, but they clearly have discovered something. I never see government workers clean anything with enthusiasm. Doe Fund workers do. It’s why I voluntarily give them some of my money.

Charity almost always does it better.

America is a uniquely charitable country. So when you hear that “Americans are cheap,” just remember: We gave $260 billion in charity last year. That’s almost $900 for every man, woman, and child.

Of course some people give nothing. Some people are cheap. Which raises the question: Who gives and who doesn’t? I’ll report on that in my next column.

Contact the Editor: Joel Johannesen
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Working Mothers Need The Free Market, Too

Last week, my “20/20” co-anchor, Elizabeth Vargas, returned from maternity leave. Her first story was on the “mommy wars.”

“Why,” Elizabeth asked, “has so little been done on issues like paid maternity leave; safe, affordable child care; and flexible work schedules?”

I understand her pain. Elizabeth has a lot of responsibility: a full-time job, plus two young kids at home. I would find it overwhelming. But does that mean the government should impose leave, day care, and flex-time policies on employers or make taxpayers bear the cost for the choices women make?


All these well-intended laws have unintended consequences, and the consequences are usually worse than the problem they were meant to solve. When governments require companies to provide paid maternity leave and other benefits, many firms avoid hiring women. How is that good for women?

But Elizabeth got support from Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who said government has to take charge. “Listen, we did that on child labor laws,” he said. “If we’d left it up to business alone to decide that, I suspect there would have been many who would still be employing infants.”

Even if Dodd were right that it took government to end child labor—there’s evidence to suggest he’s not—is he saying women need to be protected like children? That hardly sounds enlightened.

Dodd says businesses wouldn’t suffer under his mandate because “in every study that’s been done on areas of productivity, profitability and growth, 90 percent of the employers [who provide such amenities] have reported either no negative impact or actually a positive benefit.”

Gee, if that’s true, why do we need a government mandate? If offering paid leave and day care is good for companies, they will offer those benefits. Some do already.

But other companies think the burden of such promises would bankrupt them. I wouldn’t dismiss that concern so quickly. People who risk their own capital make better decisions than a politician who imposes policies on others with little risk to himself.

Elizabeth pointed out that most countries have “family friendly” laws paid for by the taxpayers. But women in those countries pay a price. In Europe, the unemployment rate for women is over 10 percent—double the rate in the United States. From 1970 to 2003, employment in the United States increased 75 percent, by 58.9 million jobs. Yet in France, Germany and Italy, where many job benefits are mandated, employment grew only 26 percent, by 17.6 million jobs. And many of those new jobs were in government!

If a woman wants a career and a family, that’s great. But why must government force other people to help her out? Forcing companies to behave in a certain way just limits the marketplace of possibilities.

Leaving workplace choices to women and employers creates better opportunities for both. The forthcoming book by Michelle Bernard of the Independent Women’s Forum, “Women’s Progress: How Women Are Wealthier, Healthier and More Independent Than Ever Before” points out that American women have never enjoyed more options or such a high quality of life. From 1997 to 2002, the number of female-owned businesses climbed 20 percent to 6.5 million firms. 

That happened because in America, despite numerous attempts by bureaucrats to kill it, the entrepreneurial spirit lives. Let’s not suffocate it with government rules that will only reduce women’s choices.

It’s wrong for politicians to treat women like damsels in need of rescue from the whims of employers. Women need what all of us need: the freedom to make decisions for themselves in a competitive marketplace.

Contact the Editor: Joel Johannesen
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White Guilt Doesn’t Help Blacks

Complaints about racism dominate the media discussion of the disparity between black and white success in America. Comedian Chris Rock captures the prevailing sentiment between both races when he tells white audiences, “None of ya would change places with me and I’m rich! That’s how good it is to be white!”

A white author, Tim Wise, gets applause from students on American campuses for talking about “white privilege.” Wise’s message is in huge demand—he does 80 speaking engagements a year. When we taped an appearance at Skidmore College, students of all races praised him as “eloquent,” “phenomenal,” and “so on point.”

But among some black intellectuals a new perspective has emerged, one that puts racism and “white privilege” low on the list of problems plaguing black Americans. Shelby Steele’s latest book, “White Guilt”, argues that whites do blacks no favors wringing their hands about white privilege.

“I grew up in segregation,” Steele said during my interview with him.  “So I really know what racism is. I went to segregated school. I bow to no one in my knowledge of racism, which is one of the reasons why I say white privilege is not a problem.”

Steele claims, “the real problem is black irresponsibility,” which has produced high illegitimacy and high-school dropout rates that limit black progress. “Racism is about 18th on a list of problems that black America faces,” he says.

Steele says too many blacks and whites are stuck in the old conversation, as though it was 1950. And he thinks there are questionable motives for this on both sides: “If we can get a big discussion going about what white privilege is, we never have to look at what blacks themselves are doing. And black responsibility. How are we contributing to our own problems? How are we holding ourselves back? Why don’t our children do better in school than they do?”

Whites’ preoccupation with guilt and compensation such as affirmative action is actually a subtle form of racism, Steele says. “One of the things that is clear about white privilege, and so many of the arguments for diversity that pretend to be compensatory, is that they advantage whites. They make the argument that whites can solve [black people’s] problems. … The problem with that is … you reinforce white supremacy all over again. And black dependency.”

Steele says that when blacks make racism their central focus, they mire themselves in destructive victimization—and sabotage their own chances for advancement.

“White privilege is a disingenuous idea,” he says. In fact, now “there is “minority privilege.”

“If I’m a black high school student today, there are white American institutions, universities, hovering over me to offer me opportunities. Almost every institution has a diversity committee. Every country club now has a diversity committee. I’ve been asked to join so many clubs, I can’t tell you. There is a hunger in this society to do right racially, to not be racist. … And I feel rather privileged by it. I don’t have to even look for opportunities, in many cases, they come right to me,” he adds.

But there is still racism in America. At ABC News I’ve aired hidden-camera video that showed salesclerks spying on black customers, cab drivers passing blacks to pick up whites, landlords lying to blacks about vacancies, and employers favoring white-sounding names. So don’t whites owe blacks compensation for that and for past injustices?

Steele answers, “You owe us a fair society. There’s not much you can do beyond that. There isn’t anything you can do to lift my life up. I have to do that.”

“The fact is,” he adds, “we got a raw deal in America. We got a much better deal now. But we can’t access it unless we take … responsibility for getting there ourselves.”

He makes good points. White privilege exists, but it’s not the whole story.

Contact the Editor: Joel Johannesen
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Property Theft In America

Do you live in a blighted home in a blighted neighborhood? You might without even knowing it.

But don’t worry, your local politicians will be happy to tell you—as soon as some land developer decides your neighborhood would be a great place to build swankier homes or shops.

Don’t want to leave your home? Tough luck. Once the politicians, in their superior wisdom, decide that the development project will produce more tax revenue or jobs than you and your neighbors do, you’ll have to go. Oh, they’ll pay you something for your home, maybe less than it’s worth—but you’ll have no right to say no and stay where you are.

That’s called progress, and it’s how things go in America today. The working class is under threat of expropriation for the benefit of the well off.

Shockingly, last year, the U.S. Supreme Court said that was just fine. (Eminent domain is permitted by the Constitution for “public” uses, such as roads or post offices. Using it for private development is a fairly new practice.) After the public backlash against that ruling, over 20 states restricted the use of eminent domain for private economic development. But the protection of homeowners is less than perfect. There’s always an exception for “blighted” neighborhoods.

But blight is in the eye of the beholder, and the judgment of those beholders who wield power counts more than yours.

According to the Institute for Justice (IJ), the public-interest law firm, “the definition of ‘blight’ has become so broad and unprincipled that governments regularly target perfectly fine homes in ordinary neighborhoods for the wrecking ball. Nice homes with spectacular oceanfront views in vibrant neighborhoods can be condemned for reasons like ‘diversity of ownership,’ meaning that each home is owned by a separate family—something that should be a point of pride for Americans rather than an excuse to take what rightfully belongs to a homeowner. If owning your own home means your house is blighted, whose house isn’t blighted?”

IJ lawyers are currently defending property owners in Long Branch, N.J., whose homes are threatened by politicians and developers who want to build expensive condominiums in their place. It’s odd that the politicians now call these homes “blighted” because only a few years ago, Mayor Adam Schneider praised the condition of the beachfront homes in the middle-class MTOTSA neighborhood. “If the whole area looked like [MTOTSA], we would not be doing [redevelopment],” said the mayor at the time.

Now, all of a sudden, the area needs to be leveled so developers Applied Companies and Matzel & Mumford can provided badly needed condos for the rich.

The homeowners tried to challenge the legality of the condemnations, but a court dismissed the complaint.

It’s bad enough the politicians want to steal the homes of these working and retired people. But according to IJ, the city led the residents to believe a way might be found to save their homes even after they had promised the property to the developers. Says IJ: “[T]he MTOTSA homeowners took the mayor up on his offer, promising to cooperate with the city and help with neighborhood improvements. Rather than work with the homeowners, however, the city dismissed them … ”—demanding elaborate plans for expensive infrastructure improvements.

“To save their homes, in other words, Long Branch expects 93-year-old Al Viviano and his few dozen neighbors to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants and specialized urban redevelopment plans,” says IJ. “[T]he problem with MTOTSA is not blight; it is that it has 93-year-old retirees, not rich and trendy professionals.”

Mayor Schneider insists the residents knew the redevelopment plan already was in place and were told the chance of saving their homes was slight. And anyway, he said, he couldn’t really see how the few homes in good repair could be integrated into the development plan.

Americans have long prided themselves on their homeownership. It has been seen as the key to the independence and freedom that made America what it is.

Now ownership is subject to arbitrary rule by arrogant politicians.

Contact the Editor: Joel Johannesen
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Birdwatching, Government Style

Here’s a job that’s really for the birds: staring at dead chickens.

The job is tedious, done in unpleasant places, and largely useless. But you and I pay thousands of people to do it.

A federal website for job hunters says the Department of Agriculture has “many vacancies—nationwide” for “bright, energetic and committed people like you to carry out its mission to protect consumers by ensuring the meat, poultry and egg supply is safe, wholesome and truthfully labeled.” So if staring at dead chickens is your idea of a good time, there is a job for you with the USDA, inspecting poultry. And don’t worry that you’ll lose the job because it doesn’t do much good—how often does that cause the government to close a program?

I learned about these dead-bird watchers when a union, Government Workers Local 2357, persuaded “20/20” go into poultry-processing plants with hidden cameras to document their claim that conditions in the plants are deplorable and that chickens are contaminated with bacteria.

Inside the plants, with bird intestines strung all over the place, it was easy to see why the chickens we buy are often crawling with germs. In fact, we had a lab perform tests, and they found four kinds of bacteria: yersinia, salmonella, listeria and campylobacter. Food-borne bacteria can be deadly; it kills hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans every year. Hundreds of thousands of people get sick from it. Many of you who thought you had the stomach flu this year really had food poisoning from bacteria. We should treat raw chicken as if it were covered in fecal matter—it’s crawling with bacteria. Keep it away from the salad, and wash the cutting board.

Local 2357 had a different solution: The government must hire more union inspectors. Apparently if more people stared at the birds, they’d be better at seeing invisible germs.

The Department of Agriculture already has inspectors inside every plant. An inspector must visually examine each bird as it slides by on the assembly line. Hiring more inspectors would make that work easier, but I wondered: Would it really make chicken safer?

Twenty years ago, epidemiologist Glenn Morris was asked by the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate the inspection system. He and other scientists concluded that it made little sense, because what the inspectors can see isn’t usually what makes people sick.

A chicken could look terrible and still not make us sick. It’s bacteria that make people sick, and without a microscope, you can’t see bacteria. “Birds that have no evidence of feces whatsoever may be covered with campylobacter and salmonella,” said Morris.

When the inspection program began, the government assumed visible signs of disease and discolorations in the skin meant that chicken would be a danger to people. But we’ve known better for years. It would make much more sense to do microbial testing: take samples off the line and put them in Petrie dishes to see what kind of bacteria grows. So has the government stopped dead-bird watching? No.

Government rarely stops anything.

The chicken industry likes things the way they are because it gets free employees. They have taxpayer-paid inspectors to make sure all the birds look good; the inspectors even stamp the bacteria-laden birds with a government label that promises they’re wholesome.

Microbial testing of random samples would be cheaper. And scientists told us the best protection would be to treat poultry with cobalt irradiation, which kills virtually all disease-causing organisms and doesn’t require paying government inspectors to watch dead birds go by.

But that’s not what the union wanted reported.

Although the government now does some microbial testing, the USDA still pays inspectors to stare at every chicken. After all, that keeps all the players working. Businesses get free employees. Employees get jobs. Unions get dues. The government gets our money.

Imagine what would happen if you could watch your tax dollars as closely as the federal government watches dead chickens.

Contact the Editor: Joel Johannesen
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Getting Medical Insurance From Your Boss Is A Bad Idea

According to the new “ABC News” poll on health care, Americans are eager to have the government force employers to provide heath insurance: “Nearly eight in 10 favor a federal requirement that all employers offer insurance to their full-time workers.”

Why?! Do our employers pay for our food, clothing, or shelter? If they did, why would that be good? Having my health care tied to my boss invites him to snoop into my private health issues, and if I change jobs, I lose coverage.

Employer-paid health insurance isn’t free. It just means we get insurance instead of higher salaries. I’d rather have the cash and buy my own insurance. Companies only provide it because of a World War II-era tax break that never went away.

But people think it’s something for nothing. In Maryland, the legislature even tried to single out Wal-Mart for a special employee health-insurance mandate. Luckily, the courts struck down that law. It would have some cost workers their jobs, and all of them would have been paid less.

Anyway, insurance is a terrible way to pay for things. It’s expensive and wasteful. Some years ago, an insurance CEO said that it costs $35-$50 to process a $25 claim.

Insurance burdens us with paperwork, invites cheating, and, worst of all, creates a moral hazard that distorts incentives. The first question people ask a doctor who recommends a test is not “Do I really need that?” but “Does my insurance cover it?” Insurance raises costs by insulating consumers from medicine’s real prices.

Suppose you had grocery insurance. With your employer paying 80 percent of the bill, you would fill the cart with lobster and filet mignon. Everything would cost more because demand would rise and supermarkets would stop running sales. Why should they—when their customers barely care about the price?

Suppose everyone had transportation insurance. The roads would be crowded with Mercedes. Why buy a Chevy if your employer pays?

We have gotten so used to having “other people” pay for most of our heath care that we routinely ask for insurance with low or no deductibles. This is another bad idea.

Suppose car insurance worked that way. Every time you got a little dent or the paint faded, or every time you bought gas or changed the oil, you’d fill out endless forms and wait for reimbursement from your insurance company. Gas and mechanic’s prices would quickly rise because service stations would know that you no longer cared about the price. You’d become more wasteful: jackrabbit starts, speeding, wasted gas. Who cares? At most you’re paying 20 percent of the bill.

Insurance invites waste. That’s a reason health care costs so much, and is often so consumer-unfriendly. In the few areas where there are free markets in health care—such as cosmetic medicine and LASIK eye surgery—customer service is great, and prices continue to drop.

The ABC News poll suggests that people understand that. When asked about “consumer-directed plans,” “nearly eight in 10 Americans think that allowing people to shop around for their own medical care would be an effective way to control costs.” But many people still want a free lunch: “consumer-driven care looks less popular if it’s accompanied by the risk of higher out-of-pocket expenses.”

Somehow people seem to believe “insured” means free.

This is not to say that we don’t need insurance. We need it to protect us against financial catastrophes that could result from a stroke or heart attack. That’s why Health Savings Accounts, which cover smaller out-of-pocket health expenditures, are paired with high-deductible catastrophic insurance. That’s a good thing.

But America’s demand that insurance cover everything from pets to dental work puts us on slide toward bankruptcy.

Contact the Editor: Joel Johannesen
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Trade Restrictions Stick It To Consumers

The Washington Post wants us to think that Anita Dungey won a heroic small-business victory over big business. But all she really did was stick it to American consumers and punish workers in some poor country.

Dungey’s family owns Auburn Leathercrafters in upstate New York, a company that makes dog collars and leashes, some as expensive as $100. Thanks to a tariff on its foreign competitors, Leathercrafters can charge more for its products than it could charge in a free and competitive market.

Recently Dungey discovered that Congress, exercising a little-known power and urged on by Wal-Mart, was about to suspend the tariff for three years. She panicked. Loss of the restriction on her competitors would have been “devastating” for her, she said. “The suspension is . . . just about long enough to put most of the small guys out of business.”

So, in the words of the Post, she “launched a one-woman campaign against four bills” that would have suspended the tariff. Her campaign succeeded. The suspension was cancelled.

The Post reported the story as a David-versus-Goliath tale.” [T]ax breaks delivered to corporations in the form of tariff suspensions have gone largely without public notice,” said the Post.

What? How can the removal of a tariff from a foreign company be a tax break for an American company? A tariff taxes foreign goods and helps domestic manufactures charge higher prices than they could in a free market. By any definition, that’s a special-interest privilege. Government interferes with free trade to help favored businesses. But if a tariff is a privilege, how can suspension of a tariff also be a privilege? I guess in the topsy-turvy world of Washington, everything government does—or doesn’t do—is a privilege for someone.

Thanks to the tariff Dungey’s company enjoys, you and I are forbidden to buy cheaper dog collars from foreigners eager to sell them to us through Wal-Mart.  Those foreign collars are probably made by workers with very low incomes. Selling their products in the big American market gives them a chance to climb out of poverty.  The tariff is a blow against them in favor of the tony items sold by Leathercrafters. How is that fair?

The Post also claimed that Congress’s power to suspend tariffs “cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue.” But anyone who thinks tariffs are good for taxpayers needs to wake up and smell the money. The only way a tariff can produce tax revenue is by forcing consumers to pay more for things they want. So whatever taxpayers seem to gain through tariffs is cancelled out by what consumers lose in higher prices. Defenders of tariffs look at only one side of the ledger while pretending that a dollar in your pocket is equivalent to a dollar in a government account. I’d rather have the dollar in my pocket.

I am sympathetic with those who dislike the influence-peddling involved in selective tariff suspensions. But there’s an easy answer to that: Get rid of all tariffs permanently!

A free and competitive economy—meaning free trade and no tariffs—is the best deal for consumers. So let’s get the politicians out of the way. If they have no privileges to dispense, no special interests will be lining up to influence them.

Contact the Editor: Joel Johannesen
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Mcdonald’s Didn’t Make Them Fat

I have a question for federal Judge Robert Sweet: If your own children blamed McDonald’s for making them fat, would you buy it?

I don’t think so.

Yet the judge has given the green light to a lawsuit against McDonald’s by two teenaged girls who claim the popular fast-food chain tricked them into eating food that made them fat and sick. At first it looked as if this lawsuit was going to be pushed down the garbage disposal, but now it’s back. What’s going on?

Three years ago, the girls accused McDonald’s of deceptive advertising and selling unhealthy food. Judge Sweet dismissed the suit because the allegations were too vague. “Where should the line be drawn between an individual’s own responsibility to take care of herself and society’s responsibility to ensure others shield her?” he asked. “The complaint fails to allege the McDonald’s products consumed by the plaintiffs were dangerous in any way other than that which was open and obvious to a reasonable consumer.”

But he invited the plaintiffs to re-file it with more specific information. Sure enough, they did, and last month, the judge ruled that the girls had identified to his satisfaction “40 deceptive ads” and “sufficiently described” the harm McDonald’s food allegedly caused them: “obesity, hypertension and elevated levels of LDL cholesterol.”

Who knows what a jury will do when the lawyers play on its sympathy for the overweight girls. Whether McDonald’s wins after a lengthy legal battle or loses and gets hit with a big damage award, you and I will pay through higher prices. Our choice of foods could even be limited if fast-food chains decide it’s the only way to avoid future lawsuits. Au revoir, French fries?

Are we a nation of responsible adults or children? I don’t want government to be my Daddy any more than I want it to be my Big Brother.

Whatever happened to self-responsibility? Sure, McDonald’s commercials put the best spin on its products. All advertisers do that. Individuals should exercise caution, and parents should teach their kids a little skepticism. It’s not as if information about nutrition is hard to come by. Today we’re constantly harangued about cutting calories, reducing fat, and exercising more. McDonald’s competitors, such as Subway, provide lots of counter-information. You’d have to live in a cave not to know about this stuff.

Fast food doesn’t have to make you fat. Soso Whaley of New Hampshire once ate only at McDonald’s for a month. The result? Unlike the guy who did the “Super Size Me” documentary, Soso lost 10 pounds, and her cholesterol dropped 40 points. How? She didn’t pig out. Low-carb dieters have lost weight at McDonald’s by eating the burgers without the buns and skipping the fries.

All this goes to show that anyone whose health was harmed by eating at McDonald’s only has himself or herself to blame. To bloat himself up an individual has to choose to enter the restaurant on a regular basis, overeat an unbalanced diet, and fail to exercise. Should that person be able to pin his health problems on McDonald’s?

If so, where does it stop? You can get fat eating Girl Scout cookies or dining at expensive restaurants. Should we sue someone whenever we don’t like the results of what we do?

The consequence will be higher prices and fewer choices for consumers. If that’s what our system of “justice” gives us, then something is badly wrong.

I want lower prices and more choices.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t be able to sue a business when they have been harmed. But we should limit frivolous lawsuits the way the rest of the world does. The loser should have to pay the legal bills of the winner. It’s only fair. It costs a lot of money to defend against a lawsuit, even a frivolous one.

Contact the Editor: Joel Johannesen
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Hooray For DDT’s Life-Saving Comeback

Who says there’s never any good news? After more than 30 years and tens of millions dead—mostly children—the World Health Organization (WHO) has ended its ban on DDT. DDT is the most effective anti-mosquito, anti-malaria pesticide known. But thanks to the worldwide environmental movement and politically correct bureaucrats in the United States and at the United Nations, the use of this benign chemical has been discouraged in Africa and elsewhere, permitting killer mosquitoes to spread death.

I don’t expect any apologies from the people who permitted this to happen. But I am thankful this nightmare is ending.

DDT was banned by President Richard Nixon’s Environmental Protection Agency in the early 1970s, after Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring,” claimed to show that DDT threatened human health as well as bird populations. But some scientists found no evidence for her claims. Even if there was danger to bird eggs, the problem was the amount of DDT used, not the chemical itself.

Huge amounts of the chemical were sprayed in America. I’ve watched old videos of people at picnics who just kept eating while trucks sprayed thick white clouds of DDT on top of them. Some people even ran toward the truck—as if it was an ice-cream truck—they were so happy to have mosquitoes repelled. Tons of DDT were sprayed on food and people.  Despite this overuse, there was no surge in cancer or any other human injury.

Nevertheless, the environmental hysteria led to DDT’s suppression in Africa, where its use had been dramatically reducing deaths.  American foreign aid could be used to finance ineffective alternative anti-malaria methods, but not DDT. Within a short time, the mosquitoes and malaria reappeared, and deaths skyrocketed. Tens of millions of people have died in that time.

DDT advocates pointed out that the ban amounted to mass murder. But they could not move the rich white environmental dogmatists who reflexively condemn all kinds of chemicals, and presumably lost no sleep when millions of poor African children died.

But now this has changed. Last month, the WHO announced that it supports indoor spraying of DDT and other insecticides “not only in epidemic areas but also in areas with constant and high malaria transmission,  including throughout Africa.”

“The scientific and programmatic evidence clearly supports this reassessment,” said Dr. Anarfi Asamoa-Baah, WHO assistant director-general for HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria. “DDT presents no health risk when used properly.”

WHO now calls DDT the “most effective” pesticide for indoor use. Some environmental groups have also changed their anti-DDT tune, including Greenpeace, Environmental Defense and the Sierra Club. Last year, Greenpeace spokesman Rick Hind told the New York Times, “If there’s nothing else and it’s going to save lives, we’re all for it. Nobody’s dogmatic about it.”

That’s easy to say now. But what about all the people who died when groups like Greenpeace dogmatically refused to budge on the ban? Might an apology be in order?

Junk-science debunker Steven Milloy, an adjunct scholar with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, wonders why the environmentalists took so long to change their minds.

“There are no new facts on DDT—all the relevant science about DDT safety has been available since the 1960s,” Milloy says.

Milloy adds: “It might be easy for some to dismiss the past 43 years of eco-hysteria over DDT with a simple ‘never mind,’ except for the blood of millions of people dripping from the hands of the WWF [World Wildlife Fund], Greenpeace, Rachel Carson, Environmental Defense Fund, and other junk science-fueled opponents of DDT.”

Milloy reminds us that the same people who spread DDT hysteria are now pushing the global-warming scare. “If they and others could be so wrong about DDT, why should we trust them now?”

That’s a fair question. For now, let’s celebrate the coming elimination of malaria in Africa.

Contact the Editor: Joel Johannesen
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Big Business Loves Government

I keep reading that big business wants government off its back. But that’s a myth. Here’s the truth:

“[B]ig business and big government prosper from the perception that they are rivals instead of partners (in plunder). The history of big business is one of cooperation with big government.”

That’s Timothy Carney writing in a recent Cato Policy Report. He’s the author of a new book, “The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money.” Carney’s book shows that government and business are not antagonists but allies. They’ve always been allies.  Politicians like it that way because they get power and prestige, and businessmen like it because they get protection from competition.

There was never a time in America when big business didn’t get favors from government, which means the taxpayers. Canal and railroad companies loved the big government contracts. Corruption was rampant, and work was often shoddy, but the contracts paid handsomely. The politicians prospered, too. Only taxpayers and consumers lost out.

The history books say that during the Progressive era, government trustbusters reined in business. Nonsense. Progressive “reforms”—railroad regulation, meat inspection, drug certification and the rest—were done at the behest of big companies that wanted competition managed. They knew regulation would burden smaller companies more than themselves. The strategy works.

Regulation isn’t the only form of protection that big business gets from government. Companies with political clout get cash subsidies,  low-interest loans, loan guarantees and barriers to cheap imports.

Even foreign aid is a subsidy to big business because governments receiving the taxpayers’ money buy American exports. Fans of foreign aid say those exports are good for the economy because they create jobs. Don’t believe it. If the taxpayers had been able to keep the money,  their spending would have created other jobs—probably more jobs.

Most people don’t realize that Enron favored the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and wanted energy regulations beneficial to itself; Philip Morris favors tobacco regulation; Wal-Mart’s CEO came out for a higher minimum wage; and General Motors embraces tough clean-air rules. Why?  Because, as Carney points out, big companies with lots of lawyers and accountants can make the regulations work for themselves, while smaller competitors are hampered.

Carney’s is not the first book to bash big business. What makes his different is that rather than opposing the free market, he loves it—  which is why he hates the business-government alliance. In a free market the consumer calls the shots. In the corporate state the business-government alliance restricts consumer choice.

Another friend of the free market hated the business-government alliance: Adam Smith. In “The Wealth of Nations” Smith wrote, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the publick. . . . But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary.”

There’s where things went wrong. The government does facilitate such assemblies. More than that, it provides big business something it can’t have in the free market: the power to restrict competition by force. Anyone worried about the power of big business should remember real coercion comes only from government.

The voluntary, competitive marketplace is better for us all.

Contact the Editor: Joel Johannesen
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It’s Hard To Tell A Conservative From A Liberal

In this era of a big-spending Republican administration, the differences between conservatives and liberals have shrunk so much, it’s hard to tell who’s who.

Take embryonic stem-cell research. President Bush has limited taxpayer funding of this research on right-to-life, not fiscal-conservative, grounds. He’s not against all federal financing of the research, but he doesn’t want to expand what’s already being done. Conservatives generally support him.

Liberals oppose Bush’s stance because they like funding what they favor, and they favor stem-cell research.

They often describe Bush’s policy as a ban on research. That’s not true. Researchers at Harvard, Vanderbilt, and other private institutions already spend millions on this work.

Clearly there’s a difference between private and government financing, and someone can logically favor the first while opposing the second.

Many Americans think embryonic stem-cell research is immoral. Federal funding makes them pay for something they regard as murder.

Actor Mel Gibson was one of the few who stated it clearly: “Why do I, as a taxpayer, have to fund something I believe is unethical?”

Yet many conservatives miss the point.

Consider last week’s U.S. Senate primary race in Rhode Island between liberal Republican incumbent Sen. Lincoln Chafee and “conservative”  Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey. Chafee accused Laffey of being a “hypocrite”  because “He invested in embryonic stem cell research as a member of Wall Street community but now opposes Federal funding.”

I would expect a liberal to overlook the difference between private and government funding. But conservatives should understand that there’s no hypocrisy when a private investor funds something he doesn’t think government should fund. So when I heard George Stephanopoulos asked Laffey about this on ABC’s “This Week,” I expected a principled explanation of the difference.

I was disappointed. Here’s what Laffey said:

“At the federal level I’ve studied the subject. After $100 million and 10 years of federal money, there are no cures and no human clinical trials, while there are thousands going on with adult stem cells.  So I urged the federal government to spend more money on adult stem cells because I want solutions now. My father has Alzheimer’s, so no one can get up like Sen. Chafee and tell me I don’t care about people.”

When Stephanopoulos asked if he had a moral objection to taxpayer funding, he said, “No, I don’t. I’m a businessman. It’s an economic decision. I want to put money where it works.”

Wait a second: That’s the conservative case against federal funding? It’s not effective? I thought conservatives wanted government strictly limited to what the Constitution prescribes. If Laffey is that clueless, conservatives shouldn’t mourn his primary loss to Chafee.

Two years ago, when California had a referendum proposing that the state’s taxpayers spend $3 billion on stem-cell research, lots of rich and famous liberals, including Bill Gates, said they were all for it.

I thought: Why don’t they just donate their own money? Many of America’s best innovations come from private research. Last year, a private ship reached space twice, inspired by a $10 million “X prize” offered by private investors. A private prize also inspired Charles Lindbergh to fly across the Atlantic. Government force isn’t necessary for stem-cell research.

So I confronted the leader of the California campaign, a wealthy housing developer named Robert Klein: “Spend your own money. … Gates wouldn’t even notice it. It’s $3 billion out of the—what—$40 billion he has?” Klein said, “What we’re trying to do is bring the society together.”

Bringing society together sounds nice, but government is force. Voluntary contributions to a charity would people together for the public good.

Klein added: “We have to provide this opportunity. If it’s the will of the people.”

The will of the people can mean tyranny of the majority.

Too bad neither liberals nor conservatives have scruples against forcing people to do things they don’t wish to do.

Contact the Editor: Joel Johannesen
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Secrets In The Senate

Their arrogance is stunning.

Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alas.) and Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) are the acknowledged kings of pork-barrel spending. They bring billons of taxpayer dollars to their states to ensure their hold on power. But apparently,  that’s not enough. They also want to make certain that you and I don’t see what they get away with. So secretly they tried to keep us in the dark.

Fiscal hawks in the Senate, led by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), are sponsoring a bill to create a database that would keep track of government spending. You could search that database from your home and find out who got all that special-interest taxpayer largess.

That seems like useful information for citizens who would like to keep their eyes on their spend-happy representatives.

But what’s good for the taxpayers is not necessarily good for the politicians who ladle out our money, or the feeders at the government trough who get all those contracts and grants. The power brokers would rather the people not look over their shoulders.

The bill to create the database has sponsors from both parties, including Majority Leader Bill Frist and Minority Leader Harry Reid. It has support from 100 conservative and liberal government-watchdog organizations.  It was approved unanimously by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The measure was headed for a vote in the full Senate when suddenly it was derailed by unidentified senators. The Senate, it turns out,  has a rule that lets any member delay a bill—without revealing his identity. It’s called the “secret hold.”

This mystery led to several days of speculation, but finally, Sen. Stevens came forward. The next day Sen. Byrd did, too.

Byrd has since lifted his hold, but Stevens hasn’t. Byrd said he wanted time to read the bill and try to improve it. Stevens, who is a member of the committee that held hearings but didn’t speak up at the time, now says he wants a cost-benefit analysis done before he makes up his mind.

Sounds fishy to me. I think these guys just don’t want us to see how they spend our money.

When the Democrats held power, I confronted Sen. Byrd about his “Honorable” Robert Byrd Highway-type projects in West Virginia. His answer was as arrogant as he was: “I would think that the national media could rise above the temptation of being clever, decrepitarian critics who twaddlize,  just as what you’re doing right here.”

“Twaddlize?” I asked.

“Trivializing serious matters,” he explained.

I persisted, “Is there no limit? Are you not at all embarrassed about how much you got?”

Byrd glared at me, “Are you embarrassed when you think you’re working for the good of the country?!”

As for Sen. Stevens, last year, the congressional transportation bill included $450 million to build two bridges to little-populated parts of his state, Alaska. One of these “bridges to nowhere” would connect Ketchikan to a nearly uninhabited island.

When Sen. Coburn proposed that the money instead be spent to repair a bridge over Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain that had been damaged by Hurricane Katrina, Sen. Stevens had a little tantrum. He stood on the Senate floor and said if his state’s loot was cut, he’d resign and “be taken out of here on a stretcher!”

Good! Sen. Stevens, please go. I’ll help carry the stretcher.

The Senate shot down Coburn’s proposal 82-15. Big spenders stick together.

I’m skeptical of Sen. Stevens’s demand for a cost-benefit study. Congress estimates it would cost $4 million to build the database and $2 million a year to run it—small potatoes next to the hundreds of billions Sens. Stevens and Byrd spend on pork.

And the benefit? Can you put a dollar figure on the good that would result if the big spenders were inhibited because the people were watching them?

Maybe we wouldn’t need a user-friendly database if the government weren’t so big. But it is that big. So at least let’s make it visible. Let’s get rid of secret holds and secret spending.

Contact the Editor: Joel Johannesen
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Busybody Politicians, Get Off Our Backs

If you want to buy or sell foie gras in a Chicago restaurant, you’ll have to break the law. Not that this stops anyone. Restaurants all over Chicago sell the French delicacy—even restaurants that never sold it before. They openly thumb their noses at the new law.

City officials say cracking down on foie gras pushers won’t be a high priority. But the law is on the books, ready whenever the authorities want to harass some troublesome restaurateur. The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “The more laws and order are made prominent, the more thieves and robbers there will be.”

In this case the politicians are catering to the animal-rights lobby, which complains that geese and ducks are force-fed to make the fattened-liver paste. (The American Veterinary Medical Association investigated the process and has abstained from condemning it.)

Political leaders say they work hard to advance the general welfare. What they really do is help vocal and well-organized special interests.

Sometimes I think the type of people who run for office are the most dangerous people. Most of us want to run our own lives, or help people by offering them charity, or selling them things. The people who want to run other people’s lives are . . . different. In pursuit of their vision of the perfect world, they justify even absurd restrictions on our freedom. For example:

In Belton, Mo., it is illegal to throw a snowball.

In New Jersey and Oregon, it is illegal to pump your own gas.

In Kern County, Calif., it is illegal to play bingo while drunk. In Illinois, it is against the law to hunt bullfrogs with a ?rearm.

In Massachusetts, it’s illegal to deface a milk carton.

In Fairfax, Va., the use of pogo sticks is outlawed on city buses. In Palm Harbor, Fla., it is illegal to have an artificial lawn.

Some of these silly laws are old, but dumb as they are, they are still on the books. The bureaucrats’ bad ideas never go away. They don’t repeal old laws; they just pass new ones.

Plan on painting your porch on your day off? Don’t do it in Spring Hill, Tenn. The city council banned any “alteration or repair of any building” in a residential neighborhood on Sundays, even do-it-yourself work.

The mayor of the tiny community of Friendship Heights, Md., said he had to protect his citizens from cigarette smoke. So several years ago,  he got his town to pass the most stringent anti-smoking law in America. It banned cigarette smoke not just in restaurants, bars, and offices, but outdoors, too.

The mayor is a doctor who should have known that only the flimsiest of data suggests secondhand smoke hurts people. The suggestion of slight risk came from studies of people who lived with smokers, and were exposed to lots of secondhand smoke at home and in cars. The idea that outdoor cigarette smoke is a meaningful health risk is silly. Granted,  secondhand smoke is a nuisance. But so are many other things.

But the mayor was a zealot, and Friendship Heights banned smoking anywhere on city property, which meant no smoking on the sidewalks,  the streets or the parks.

I said to Mayor Alfred Muller, “You’re another of these busybody politicians who want to tell other people how to live their lives.” He replied, “Well, we’re elected to promote the general welfare, and this is part of the general welfare.”

The mayor seemed very sincere, and the citizens of Friendship Heights felt protected by his concern. However, shortly after I interviewed him, he had to register as a sex offender after touching a 14-year-old boy’s genitals in a restroom at Washington National Cathedral. The mayor got probation, and the village council repealed his law. Now we finally know what it takes to get a law repealed.

The people who have the biggest passion for restricting other people’s behavior are the very people we should worry about most.  Unfortunately, they keep running for office.

Contact the Editor: Joel Johannesen
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Schools Need Competition Now

This week’s back-to-school ads offer amazing bargains on lightweight backpacks and nifty school supplies. All those businesses scramble to offer us good stuff at low prices. It’s amazing what competition does for consumers. The power to say no to one business and yes to another is awesome.

Too bad we don’t apply that idea to schools themselves.

Education bureaucrats and teachers unions are against it. They insist they must dictate where kids go to school, what they study, and when.  When I went on TV to say that it’s a myth that a government monopoly can educate kids effectively, hundreds of union teachers demonstrated outside my office demanding that I apologize and “re-educate” myself by teaching for a week. (I’ll show you the demonstration and what happened next this Friday night, when ABC updates my “Stupid in America” TV special.)

The teachers union didn’t like my “government monopoly” comment, but even the late Albert Shanker, once president of the American Federation of Teachers, admitted that our schools are virtual monopolies of the state—run pretty much like Cuban and North Korean schools. He said, “It’s time to admit that the public education system operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve. It more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.”

When a government monopoly limits competition, we can’t know what ideas would bloom if competition were allowed. Surveys show that most American parents are satisfied with their kids’ public schools, but that’s only because they don’t know what their kids might have had!

As Nobel Prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek wrote, “[C]ompetition is valuable only because, and so far as, its results are unpredictable and on the whole different from those which anyone has, or could have, deliberately aimed at.”

What Hayek means is that no mortal being can imagine what improvements a competitive market would bring.

But I’ll try anyway: I bet we’d see cheap and efficient Costco-like schools,  virtual schools where you learn at home on your computer, sports schools, music schools, schools that go all year, schools with uniforms, schools that open early and keep kids later, and, who knows what?

Every economics textbook says monopolies are bad because they charge high prices for shoddy goods. But it’s government that gives us monopolies. So why do we entrust something as important as our children’s education to a government monopoly?

The monopoly fails so many kids that more than a million parents now make big sacrifices to homeschool their kids. Two percent of school-aged kids are homeschooled now. If parents weren’t taxed to pay for lousy government schools, more might teach their kids at home.

Some parents choose to homeschool for religious reasons, but homeschooling has been increasing by 10 percent a year because so many parents are just fed up with the government’s schools.

Homeschooled students blow past their public-school counterparts in terms of achievement. Brian Ray, who taught in both public and private schools before becoming president of the National Home Education Research Institute, says, “In study after study, children who learn at home consistently score 15-30 percentile points above the national averages,” he says. Homeschooled kids also score almost 10 percent higher than the average American high school student on the ACT.

I don’t know how these homeschooling parents do it. I couldn’t do it. I’d get impatient and fight with my kids too much.

But it works for lots of kids and parents. So do private schools. It’s time to give parents more options.

Instead of pouring more money into the failed government monopoly, let’s free parents to control their own education money.  Competition is a lot smarter than bureaucrats.

Contact the Editor: Joel Johannesen
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Leave The Decadent Businessman Alone!

Dov Charney is a fast-talking 36-year-old entrepreneur whose company has a loose, sexy atmosphere. As you might guess, some former workers have sued him for sexual harassment.

Charney pays his 4,000 employees, mostly immigrants, an average $12.75 an hour, plus subsidized lunches, health care, and free English classes.

He calls his company, American Apparel, “an industrial revolution” because everything happens in Los Angeles: knitting the fabric,  cutting the patterns, turning them into finished products. He says, “It is less expensive for me, the way we do business, to manufacture here in the United States.”

How can that be? Most of America’s clothing business makes its clothes offshore. “Well,” he says, “there is a high cost to going offshore.  If you’re working with a supplier in China you’ve gotta work months in advance. If you’re working with your own factory, you could wake up one morning and say, hey, let’s make 10,000 tank tops today.”

Charney’s ideas are working. This year, he says, total sales should be $200 million, and he hopes to open another 30 stores in the next few months.

Some say one reason for his success is that he has made the company a casual, open, even sexy place to work. He decorates some stores with covers from sex magazines, uses sexual language at work, and doesn’t mind if his employees do, too.

Charney feels free to engage in sexual relationships with staff members. “If it’s a truly consensual loving relationship,” he says, “there’s nothing wrong with it. I think that those relationships can be very healthy and are very much part of living in a free world.”

But in today’s highly policed workplace, that belief brought Charney trouble. Three women who used to work for him sued, claiming he created a “hostile environment.” The plaintiffs say they were made to feel unwelcome, and Charney is accused of dropping his pants and revealing his underwear.

Charney told me, “I’ve never had any intimate intentions with these women. I never propositioned them in any way. All of these allegations are false.”

I asked him about showing his underwear: “Well, I think for a designer to be in his underwear when he’s designing underwear is quite common.”

Women who still work for Charney don’t see a problem. One told me, “You see the company, you see the posters on the walls. I think that he was always honest about who he is. And for someone to come and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know, and I’m surprised,’ I don’t think it’s fair.”

Charney adds, “There is a sexual element to fashion that is inescapable. So like, to then start saying, ah, let’s get scared about sex.  You know, we can’t mention the word sex in the workplace, I mean, it just doesn’t add up. It’s not right.”

Good point. If you don’t like the atmosphere in a workplace, don’t work there. Why should people have a right to “damages” because they don’t approve of a company’s environment? No one is forced to work for Charney, so why can’t people like him run their companies just as they wish?

As the novelist Ayn Rand put it, “The right to agree with others is not a problem in any society; it is the right to disagree that is crucial. It is the institution of private property that protects and implements the right to disagree.”

“Freedom is everything,” says Charney.

Freedom is the most important thing. But now Charney is a maverick swimming against the tide of Big Government with its endless laws telling us how to live, what we may say, and even whom we can look at sexually.

Do the bureaucrats and labor lawyers really know best?

We’ll be better off when we can paraphrase what Jonathan Edwards said in his 1970s song “Sunshine”: “They can’t even run their own lives.  I’ll be damned if they’ll run mine.”

Contact the Editor: Joel Johannesen
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It's a question.