Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Michelle Obama at Mary's Center for Maternal and Child Care

Do the right thing
White House, Tuesday, February 10th, 2009 at 9:25 pm

"No matter what you do, you can't pass a law that makes somebody do the right thing, right?"

That was First Lady Michelle Obama's message to a group of young people she met with on a visit to Mary's Center for Maternal and Child Care, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that provides a range of social services.

Instead, she said, it's the responsibility of every individual, family, and community to do the right thing. But where you come from shouldn't be a barrier to success."

I didn't come into this position with a lot of wealth, with a lot of resources," she said. "There is no magic dust that was sprinkled on my head or on Barack's head. You know, we were kids much like you who figured out one day that our fate was in our own hands, you know, and we made decisions to listen to our parents and to work hard and to work even harder when somebody doubted us."

See photos from the event below, or read the full transcript of the First Lady's meeting at the center.

In the End, People Are Still the Problem

In the End, People Are Still the Problem, by Chris Horner
Planet Gore/NRO, Feb 10, 2009

The New York Times’s Andy Revkin wonders if the worst thing we could do would be to give humans abundant, cheap, clean energy . . .

A solar-powered city, Masdar, is being built in Abu Dhabi. If super-cheap solar power is achieved, will humanity grow too much?

One aim of this blog is to explore efforts to expand the menu of cheap, non-polluting, renewable energy options. That’s a pretty clearcut need given the risks attending the unfettered use of fossil fuels and the reality that 2 billion people today cook on guttering fires using fuelwood or dung harvested mainly by girls who are not going to school as a result.

But I had a dream about energy one fitful night not long ago and it left me a little cold. I pondered what kind of world might result if Nate Lewis at Caltech or Dan Nocera at M.I.T. or Shi Zhengrong at Suntech Power Systems in China had a breakthrough that made solar panels as cheap as paint?

We could synthesize food, even meat, in solar-powered factories. We could render water from the sea or briny aquifers drinkable in endless amounts (as is being done with wind power in sere parts of Australia even now).

And we could, in essence, vastly increase the carrying capacity of the planet. Fossil fuels were a bit part of the growth spurt from 1 billion to nearly 7 billion people in two short centuries. On a finite planet, where would limitless energy, combined with humanity’s infinite aspirations, take us? This leads to a question that’s been touched on here periodically. Does a shift in values and aspirations have to accompany the technological leaps that will assuredly be made in the coming decades? . . .

There is, of course, nothing new to this view:
If you ask me, it'd be a little short of disastrous for us to discover a source
of clean, cheap, abundant energy because of what we would do with it. We ought
to be looking for energy sources that are adequate for our needs, but that won't
give us the excesses of concentrated energy with which we could do mischief to
the earth or to each other.— Amory Lovins in The Mother Earth—Plowboy Interview, Nov/Dec 1977, p. 22
Giving society cheap, abundant energy . . . would be the equivalent of
giving an idiot child a machine gun. — Paul Ehrlich, “An Ecologist's Perspective
on Nuclear Power,” May/June 1978 issue of Federation of American Scientists
Public Issue Report

FDA, foodborne illness outbreaks and inspections

FDA Must Shift Priorities. By Scott Gottlieb, M.D.
AEI, Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Food and Drug Administration spent about 10 years to set a standard for how many peanuts needed to be in peanut butter before food companies could call the spread by that name, last amending that "peanut butter rule" in the 1990s.

More recently, a Georgia peanut plant was able to knowingly ship dangerously tainted peanut butter in one of the largest food contamination scares in the nation's history.

How can an agency that spends a decade carefully defining what's meant by the words "peanut butter" allow tons of the stuff to become contaminated with a deadly bacterium and evade detection, even though the foodmaker itself was aware of the dangerous adulteration?

Already, more than 1,550 products--from Little Debbie peanut butter crackers to Wal-Mart bakery peanut butter cookies--have been recalled after eight people died and more than 500 people (half of them children) were sickened. Salmonella had seeped into huge vats of raw peanut butter produced by a single manufacturer, the Peanut Corp. of America, investigators say.

FDA's approach to these two regulatory endeavors--setting the ingredient list for "peanut butter" and ensuring its safety--shows how the agency's priorities are out of proportion.

FDA has an entire office dedicated to debating what claims firms can make on food product labels. For example, when can products with fish oil carry claims that they reduce heart risks, or what defines the "standards of identity" that dictate when crushed tomatoes can be called "ketchup."

These regulatory tasks provide clarity for consumers--and rules of competition for manufacturers. The regulation itself is not without some merit. But what does it matter what percentage of peanuts makes up a spread when you can't even guarantee that it's free from deadly contaminants?

Go where danger lurks

What the FDA needs most of all is a risk-based regulatory mind-set. Resources, and focus, must be apportioned based on a top-down view of where the greatest consumer dangers lurk. That means riskless endeavors, such as defining what constitutes peanut butter, can be handled by private or academic entities working with FDA. There's precedent for this sort of collaboration.

This doesn't mean FDA already has all the resources and tools it needs to do the high-risk stuff--far from it. According to news reports, the actions of the Georgia peanut plant appear so deliberate that it's easy to say no amount of regulation could have prevented that harm. But greater authorities would have tightened the regulatory net around this and other bad actors.

More than a year ago, the FDA issued a "Food Protection Plan," asking Congress to give it authority to demand access to records that food producers keep. The plan has gone largely ignored. In the case of something like a peanut butter plant, if the producer manufactures on three lines and one is found to be contaminated, FDA can't demand that the firm divulge results of tests on its other two lines, even though there's a reasonable chance similar problems exist.

Firms with "positive" test results also aren't required to report those to FDA, even for deadly pathogens. They should be. But right now, even if the findings went back to FDA they would be fed into an outdated information system that makes it hard for the agency to sort through the reports. That computer system needs updating so that it flags the highest risk findings.

The lack of information tools also means that FDA can't easily trace the source of contamination. So every time there's a food scare, everything gets recalled even though only a fraction of products are actually contaminated. Industry could help with the creation of a better "trace back" system.

FDA also needs more direct control over food plant inspections. As a piece of political pork, Congress gives a lot of the money for inspections to states, which conduct the assessments (sometimes poorly) on FDA's behalf. The Georgia peanut plant was inspected by state, not FDA, regulators.

Better tests, better tools

Finally, FDA also needs money for developing better scientific tools to isolate contaminants. During the pepper recall last summer, the diagnostic test used by FDA to detect the contaminating bacteria took two weeks to read out a result. The FDA's food center can acquire all these new resources without being split off into a separate food agency, as some in Congress are advocating.

But an equally large part of FDA's problems doesn't relate to inadequate resources per se, but to the disparate and far flung nature of the agency's various functions itself, and the FDA's lack of perspective on how to focus on the most important from among those responsibilities. Regulators aren't marshalling resources in support of the things that matter most to ensuring consumer safety.

Congress exacerbates FDA's strain by foisting on it new responsibilities every time a consumer cause célèbre crops up. Now, many lawmakers want FDA regulation of the entire cigarette industry. Whatever the merits, this new responsibility would divert from more pressing FDA tasks such as, say, ensuring the safety of the nation's blood supply. Nor does a cigarette center fit FDA's historical mission of health protection and promotion.

Longstanding preoccupations, and mission creep, divert too much of FDA's attention from pressing tasks. FDA needs to more tightly focus itself on the areas that pose the biggest risks to consumers.

Scott Gottlieb, M.D., is a resident fellow at AEI.

Obama: Hoping for Action

Obama: Hoping for Action. By Jennifer Donahue
Huffington Post, February 10, 2009 12:32 PM (EST)

"I believe in hope, but I also believe in action," President Obama said today in Florida.

This guy can deliver a soundbite, and he knows it. Last week, the question was, how could Obama let the Republicans hijack the Economic Stimulus plan, "screw up" on Daschle, and allow negative stories to define the week?

This week, the ever-disciplined Obama is hitting back. He knows where he needed to take this: to the majority of Americans who elected him. To the growing number of unemployed Americans. To those whose mortgages are more than the value of their homes.

Obama may not be used to the ways of Washington yet, but he certainly knows how to deliver his message to the American people. His style, his delivery, his tone, his words: all still sharp from a campaign that ended only months ago.

Even on the details, he is getting it right this week. An 8pm news conference instead of 9pm. More eyeballs, more age groups, more Americans reached. Daytime campaign events orchestrated better than Hollywood could.

Republicans thougth they had a slam-dunk last week, but this week, they are facing the music. I'm not a betting person, but I would bet on this: calls into House and Senate offices will tell lawmakers this: listen to your President.

In Cato: It's a Recession, Not a 'Catastrophe'

It's a Recession Not a 'Catastrophe'. By Alan Reynolds
Cato, February 9, 2009

President Obama, writing in the Washington Post, said, "By now, it's clear to everyone that we have inherited an economic crisis as deep and dire as any since the days of the Great Depression." But how would we know if and when this crisis is really more "deep and dire" than others?

Many may believe we're in the worst recession since the Great Depression, if only because politicians and the press keep repeating that claim. But we need to compare some facts to discern whether this recession is (or will be) "worse" in some sense than those of 1973-75 or 1981-82.

Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf told the House Budget Committee that if the economy is still contracting by mid-year, then this recession will be longer than the 1981-82 and 1973-75 downturns, each of which lasted 16 months. Yet this recession was quite mild until last September. And the severity and human discomfort of downturns can't be measured by their duration.

A wise adviser to President John Kennedy, Arthur Okun of Yale, devised the "misery index" to gauge the pain of economic crisis - a measure that simply adds together the unemployment rate and the inflation rate. It hit 22 percent in June 1980, during an inflationary recession that preceded the Fed's disinflationary squeeze of 1981-82. The misery index was nearly as bad in January 1975, at 19.9 percent.

Assuming inflation was close to zero this January, the misery index would have been roughly the same as the unemployment rate, or 7.6 percent. By this standard, we have a very long way to go before the economy feels nearly as miserable as it did in 1975 or 1980.

There are several other ways to measure economic distress, however, some of which are shown in the nearby table. The first two columns show the total change in real GDP and industrial production from the economy's peak to its trough for that cycle.

[graph in the original article]

Current data show only what happened so far, of course. But that gives us some idea of how much further the economy would have to fall to end up as "deep and dire" as the recessions of 1973-75 or 1981-82.

An average of 55 forecasters in the Jan. 15 Wall Street Journal survey expect real GDP to fall by another percentage point (a 2.1 percent drop in total) before recovering in the third quarter. If they're right, this would be just the third deepest postwar recession by that broad measure.

Measured by unemployment, on the other hand, this might well be the second deepest recession. The current unemployment rate of 7.6 percent is quite unlikely to reach the postwar record of 10.8 percent. But the Journal forecasters expect the jobless rate to top out at 8.9 percent after the recession is technically over - making this very close to becoming the second worst recession in terms of job loss.

In a 1999 Business Week column, Harvard economist Robert Barro suggested we should also improve the misery index by adding a long-term interest rate (and GDP). The table shows 30-year mortgage rates. By that measure, there's no way we'll come close to matching the sort of misery of past recessions - notably, the 18.45 percent mortgage rate of October 1981.

With one exception - the steep 45 percent drop in the S&P 500 stock index since October 2007 - few other indicators of economic distress could support this being the worst postwar recession. Thanks to low inflation, for example, real disposable income rose every month during the fourth quarter - at an annual rate above 6 percent.

The president needs to be a calming voice right now, a source of strength. It's not helpful for him to be warning of a "catastrophe" and making vague, untenable allusions to the Great Depression.

Recessions have almost always ended within a year or so, long before there was a Federal Reserve or Keynesian theory. Debts have to be worked down and excess inventories sold off so that profits, and therefore stock prices and wealth, can revive.

Such curative processes do not take years, as the president suggests - unless the government does too much foolish tinkering. But recovery will require more perspective and patience than we've been seeing from the White House lately, because time really does heal many economic wounds.

Alan Reynolds is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and the author of Income and Wealth.

WaPo on granting early release to nonviolent offenders

Inmates Who Should Walk. WaPo Editorial
A Virginia proposal would free tax dollars by granting early release to nonviolent offenders
WaPo, Tuesday, February 10, 2009; Page A16

A BIPARTISAN group of Virginia state senators, led by Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) and Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), have drawn up a plan to save taxpayers millions of dollars by allowing some nonviolent offenders to be released early from prison. The proposal would let prison officials use their discretion to release low-risk offenders up to 90 days before the end of their sentences. Officials already have the power to shorten sentences by 30 days.

Those convicted of drug possession would be given an opportunity for even greater leniency. The plan would mandate that such inmates have access to treatment programs at the beginning of their incarceration; currently, inmates are offered treatment toward the end of their terms. A judge, in consultation with prison officials, would have discretion to order the early release of an inmate who successfully completed extensive drug rehabilitation. The proposal also calls for some nonviolent offenders to be placed in community-based programs rather than jail and for others to be monitored electronically instead of being locked up.

The plan, rooted in the state's growing fiscal crisis, is aimed at advancing the effort by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) to save roughly $50 million by closing two prisons. The success of a program in the state of Washington that is similar to the one being mulled in Virginia suggests the risks are reasonable and the potential savings substantial.

In 2003, Washington state legislators allowed for sentence reductions of up to 50 percent for nonviolent offenders. Excluded from this program are those who have been convicted of a violent crime or sexual offense, as well as those guilty of selling drugs to a minor or any other crime against a person. Eligible inmates earn early release credits each month by staying out of trouble and completing work, education and treatment programs. Inmates can lose credits because of bad behavior or become ineligible for release if they commit a serious infraction behind bars.

The Washington State Institute for Public Policy, the research arm of the state's legislature, followed roughly 2,600 inmates released early from 2003 to 2007. The institute compared this group to roughly 4,800 similar inmates who had served their full sentences and were released before the inception of the 2003 program. In a report released in November, the institute concluded that the program saved taxpayers an average of $10,000 per prisoner. The recidivism rate for those released early was about 3 percent lower than for the control group.

Releasing offenders early always carries political and real-life risks. But Washington's example shows that carefully screening inmates for eligibility and strictly limiting early release to well-behaved, nonviolent offenders can save tax dollars, preserve public safety and result in a more rational penal system.

U.S.–India Homeland Security Cooperation: Moving Forward

U.S.–India Homeland Security Cooperation: Moving Forward, by Lisa Curtis and Jena Baker McNeill
Heritage, February 9, 2009

Full text w/references here.

On December 31, 2008, the Indian government passed legislation that would strengthen its ability to investigate, prosecute, and--most importantly--prevent acts of terrorism. Much like the effects of 9/11 on the U.S., the Mumbai attacks have catalyzed Indian efforts to adopt a more integrated and structured approach to homeland security. The U.S. and India alike should recognize the value of their shared experiences in the war on terrorism. Drawing on these experiences, India and the U.S. should pursue a robust dialogue through which to share counterterrorism strategies, thereby improving the security of both nations.

Countering Terrorism at its Source

One of the most important aspects of terrorism prevention is undercutting the terrorists' support base while denying terrorists access to money, training, and weapons. Additionally, counterterrorism measures must disrupt terrorists' ability to propagate their message, recruit new members, and network with cohorts and other supporters. Therefore, the most important measures that can be taken to prevent another Mumbai-like attack anywhere in the world is for Pakistan to punish those involved in the inspiration, planning, training, and equipping of the terrorists while proactively undercutting the extremist propaganda that led to the Mumbai massacre.

Pakistan has allowed the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LT)--the terrorist organization responsible for the Mumbai attacks--to operate openly in the country since the early 1990s. However, since the Mumbai massacre, Islamabad has raided key LT training facilities, shut down several LT offices throughout the country, arrested and detained key LT members, and pledged to turn over administration of the LT headquarters outside of Lahore, Pakistan, to government authorities. These are positive, albeit much belated, steps. But Islamabad must go further: It must prosecute individuals found to be involved in the Mumbai attacks and shut down LT's ability to sustain itself as a terrorist organization.

Mumbai Attacks Prompt Changes in Indian Anti-Terrorism Policies

The Mumbai attacks were a wake-up call for India regarding the urgent need to address its homeland security shortfalls and to institute a more effective nationwide approach to countering terrorism. As a result of the attacks, India passed legislation establishing a National Investigation Agency (NIA), much like America's FBI, to investigate threats or acts of terrorism. Senior NIA officers will have unique authority to pursue and investigate terrorism cases throughout the country, thereby addressing the challenge of separate jurisdictions between Indian states.

Furthermore, the Indian parliament acted to strengthen existing anti-terror laws by expanding definitions of terrorist attacks and instituting legal reforms and other judicial modifications, including establishing special courts for speedy trials and revising burdens of proof and search and seizure standards.[1]

During a gathering of India's state chief ministers in early January, Home Minister Chidambaram defined two broad goals to improve India's counterterrorism efforts: first, to raise national preparedness to meet an increasingly sophisticated terrorist threat, and second, to enhance the speed and decisiveness of the nation's response to a terrorist threat or attack.

To meet these objectives, India has begun to modernize police weaponry as well as the way in which police departments operate. The Indian Home Minister also issued an executive order to start the functioning of the Multi-Agency Center (MAC) as an interagency counterterrorism center similar to the CIA's National Counterterrorism Center. The MAC was created several years ago to analyze intelligence flowing in from different organizations and to coordinate follow-up actions, but its work had been inhibited by lack of staffing and resources.[2] The government also intends to set up subsidiary MACs at the state level to streamline local intelligence gathering.On several occasions, Indian terrorism analysts have cited lack of coordination among the various Indian investigative and intelligence organizations operating across the country as a major impediment to improving terrorism prevention.

The U.S. Experience Following 9/11

Like India, the U.S. experience with the 9/11 attacks was a catalyst for widespread change in the American security model. In the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. began to reevaluate its terrorism policies, homeland security efforts, and disaster response structure. Several of the priorities the U.S. identified included:

  • Integration. The 9/11 attacks demonstrated that stovepipes of authority only led to a lack of information and confusion in the wake of disaster. As a result, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created, bringing together 22 different agencies, each with their own role to play in the homeland security enterprise. Along with the creation of DHS, the birth of the Homeland Security Council provided momentum for more robust national disaster planning. And Homeland Security Presidential Directive 8 established new requirements for national disaster readiness, which included a major role for DHS.
  • Resiliency. Resiliency is the capacity to carry on in the wake of disaster. After 9/11, the U.S. realized that it was important to protect people from terrorism, but it was equally important to ensure that the nation can persevere in the case of disaster, natural or otherwise. For example, the U.S. developed a Target Capabilities List, which cut across 15 scenarios and examined what resources and responses were needed to protect against, prevent, respond to, or recover from a terrorist attack or natural disaster.
  • International Cooperation. The U.S. learned that the transnational nature of contemporary terrorist threats, the interdependence of modern societies resulting from globalization, and the concept of using layered defense to thwart attack from conception to execution all demonstrated the need for multinational homeland security partnerships.
Shared Experiences, Common Goals
There is much room to expand U.S.-India cooperation on matters of intelligence and homeland security. Since 90 percent of counterterrorism concerns intelligence, Washington and New Delhi should focus on breaking down barriers to sharing intelligence. Indeed, the Mumbai attacks have already spurred greater U.S.-India counterterrorism cooperation.

New Delhi and Washington should also increase official diplomatic and non-governmental exchanges on improving counterterrorism cooperation. The level and frequency of the U.S.-Indian Counterterrorism Joint Working Group (CTJWG) meetings should be raised. These meetings should include talks on ways to organize and streamline operations of various intelligence-gathering and investigative institutions as well as a free exchange of ideas on how to address the ideological foundations of terrorism. India's experience in addressing new terrorism threats that involve both homegrown and international elements should be a focal point of these discussions. To help introduce new ideas on the latest counterterrorism technology and research, the CTJWG talks should also incorporate private sector entities and think tanks specializing in counterterrorism.

Finally, the United States should position itself to be a resource to India, finding means of sharing the lessons it learned after 9/11. For instance, the U.S. could improve its international counterterrorism assistance programs by allocating more funding and authority to the DHS to lead those programs that are consistent with its mission sets. Currently, most of America's counterterrorism assistance programs are controlled by the Department of Defense and the State Department. While these government agencies should remain at the forefront of U.S. international counterterrorism assistance, DHS can take the lead, for example, in programs that help other countries improve their disaster response efforts and aviation and maritime security policies.

Increased Cooperation Is Critical

As the U.S. and India both continue to look for strategies that can effectively protect their citizens from terrorism, each country stands to gain considerably by sharing experiences and best practices and increasing their overall intelligence cooperation against global and regional terrorist threats.

Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow for South Asia in the Asian Studies Center, and Jena Baker McNeill is Policy Analyst for Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.