Sunday, April 19, 2009

Members of Congress value school choice -- for themselves

Only for the Privileged Few? WaPo Editorial
Members of Congress value school choice -- for themselves.
Monday, April 20, 2009

A NEW SURVEY shows that 38 percent of members of Congress have sent their children to private school. About 20 percent themselves attended private school, nearly twice the rate of the general public. Nothing wrong with those numbers; no one should be faulted for personal decisions made in the best interests of loved ones. Wouldn't it be nice, though, if Congress extended similar consideration to low-income D.C. parents desperate to keep their sons and daughters in good schools?

The latest Heritage Foundation study of lawmakers' educational choices comes amid escalating efforts to kill the federally funded D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program that helps 1,700 disadvantaged children attend private schools. Congress cut funding beyond the 2009-10 school year unless the program, which provides vouchers of up to $7,500, gets new federal and local approvals. Education Secretary Arne Duncan cited that uncertainty as the reason for his recent decision to rescind scholarship offers to 200 new students. Senate hearings on the program's future are set for this spring, and opponents -- chiefly school union officials -- are pulling out all the stops as they lobby their Democratic allies.

The gap between what Congress practices and what it preaches was best illustrated by the Heritage Foundation's analysis of a recent vote to preserve the program. The measure was defeated by the Senate 58 to 39; it would have passed if senators who exercised school choice for their own children had voted in favor. Alas, the survey doesn't name names, save for singling out Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), architect of the language that threatens the program, for sending his children to private school and attending private school himself.

No doubt there are those who would argue that personal choices should not dictate decisions of policymakers. Fair enough, but where is the objective examination of this program, a rational discussion of the pros and cons? Where is the humanity of not wanting to hurt children who won't be able to continue in their current schools if the scholarship program is eliminated? No one has been able to offer any evidence of the drawbacks of this small, local program, while evidence of its benefits has been mounting. It has been disappointing that many of those one would expect to speak up for the educational rights of poor, minority children -- and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) tops the list -- have been almost mute or, as has been the case with D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), downright hostile. Meanwhile, former mayor Anthony A. Williams and former D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous continue to champion school choice as the civil rights issue it is.

Mr. Duncan, in a recent interview, spoke eloquently of his family's choice of Arlington as a place to live because of what he called the "determining factor" of schools. He told Science magazine: "My family has given up so much so that I could have the opportunity to serve; I didn't want to try to save the country's children and our educational system and jeopardize my own children's education." We don't think it's too much to expect our leaders to treat their constituents with the same fairness and regard they demand for their own families.

In Falls Church, a transit boondoggle - overall cost to taxpayers is an eye-popping $8 per ride

A Bus to Nowhere. WaPo Editorial
In Falls Church, a transit boondoggle
WaPo, Monday, April 20, 2009

EASING TRAFFIC gridlock in the Washington area isn't an either-or proposition. More mass transit is desperately needed, but buses and trains alone won't clear clogged roads. Transit projects such as the Purple Line, a light-rail line in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, are necessary, but so are road improvements, such as the widening of Interstate 66.
Yet sometimes transit advocates allow their zeal to obscure what is practical. Such is the case in Falls Church, where some officials continue to defend a bus system that is, by any measure, indefensible.

Falls Church is already transit rich. The 2.2-square-mile city has only 11,200 residents, yet is served by two Metrorail stations and Metrobus. There are few spots in the city that are more than a 20-minute walk from a Metro station. Yet, in the mid-1990s, city officials envisioned a fleet of technologically advanced, environmentally friendly buses that would feed into the Metro system. Officials were able to secure enough grants to launch a pilot program. When electric buses proved to be expensive and unworkable, the city acquired four clean diesel buses at a cost of about $250,000 each. In early 2003, the George bus system, named for the country's first president, started operating.

The buses, operated by Metro, are state of the art, but interest has been tepid. George has averaged only 70,000 trips annually, half of what was expected. That amounts to a measly 10 riders per hour of service, according to the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. Most of the outside grants have dried up, and George now costs $600,000 a year to operate, half of which is subsidized by the state. The 50-cent fare, which generates $18,000 a year, barely makes a dent. The overall cost to taxpayers is an eye-popping $8 per ride, compared to $1.20 per ride in Fairfax City and $2.08 per ride in Arlington. It would be cheaper, as the alliance has noted, for taxpayers to pay for a cab.

With a painful fiscal 2010 budget shortfall forcing Falls Church to freeze pay and reduce services, George is a luxury the city can't afford. There has to be a better way to spend $600,000.

Beware green jobs, the new sub-prime

Beware green jobs, the new sub-prime. By Dominic Lawson
Sunday Times, April 19, 2009

When everybody seems to have the same big idea, you just know it can only mean trouble. Remember sub-prime mort-gages? Now universally excoriated as the spawn of the devil, the proximate cause of the credit crunch and all that followed, a few years back “sub-prime” was everyone’s darling. Financiers loved it because it generated sumptuously high-yielding debt instruments; governments, because it promised to make even the poor into proud property owners.

Now business lobbyists and governments on both sides of the Atlantic have got a new big idea. They call it “green jobs”. Leading the pack is, as you might expect, Barack Obama. The president recently defended a vast package of subsidies for renewable energy on the grounds that it would “create millions of additional jobs and entire new industries”.

In Britain, the business secretary, Lord Mandelson, promises billions in state aid for the same purpose. To add verisimilitude, last week he gave a royal wave from the inside of a prototype electric Mini. Mandelson’s chauffeur was a representative of the lower house: the transport secretary, Geoff Hoon.

The occasion for this photo opportunity was the government’s proposal to offer a £5,000 subsidy to anyone buying an electric car of a type not yet available: exact details to be given in Alistair Darling’s forthcoming budget. The idea is to create a “world-beating” British-based electric-car-manufacturing industry, while also attempting to meet Gordon Brown’s promise to have the nation converted to electric or hybrid cars by 2020.

That remarkable prime ministerial pledge predated the recession; its motive was to demonstrate that Britain was “leading the world in the battle against climate change”. We aren’t, as a matter of fact; but under new Labour we have certainly led the world at claiming to do so. Mandelson expressed this almost satirically last week when he declared that “Britain has taken a world lead in setting ambitious targets for carbon reduction”.

As ever, new Labour confuses announcements and newspaper headlines with real action. Whenever it becomes obvious even to ministers that Britain will not meet its current carbon reduction target, they replace it with a yet tougher target, only with an extended deadline.

It does not yet seem to have occurred to new Labour that this is making it look ridiculous, especially to the environmentalists whose support it is presumably trying to solicit. Or perhaps it has, but it would rather that than lose our “world leadership” in target-setting.

There is something almost comical in the government’s belief that the electric car, dependent as it is on the national grid, is a sort of magic recipe for reducing carbon emissions. Some months ago President Sarkozy of France had an identical idea and commissioned a report on the prospects for turning Renault and Citro├źn into producers of mass-market electric vehicles. The report concluded that “the traditional combustion engine still offers the most realistic prospect of developing cleaner vehicles simply by improving the performance and efficiency of traditional engines and limiting the top speed to 105mph. The overall cost of an electric car remains unfeasible at about double that of a conventional vehicle. Battery technology is still unsatisfactory, severely limiting performance”.

Note that this crushing verdict came in a country where electricity is for the most part generated by nuclear power, which produces . In this country, more than three-quarters of the grid’s power comes from theno CO2 fossil fuels of gas and coal.

Presumably it is the latter that accounts for the fact that when the London borough of Camden commissioned a study to see whether it should introduce electric vehicles for some of its services, it found that “EVs relying on the average UK mix of energy to charge them were responsible for significantly more particles of soot that lodge deeply in the lungs . . . than the average petrol-powered car”.

If all our electricity were to be generated by wind power, without any fossil-fuel back-up, this criticism would not apply. Then the cars could take days, rather than hours, to recharge (depending on the weather) and would be so expensive to run that driving would become the exclusive preserve of the rich.

A further absurdity is that electric cars are suitable only for short rides within urban areas – precisely where we are being encouraged to abandon cars and use public transport. Ken Livingstone exempted electric cars from his congestion charge as if, in addition to their suppositious environmental benefits, they also had the magical property of being incapable of contributing to congestion. As the Ecologist magazine has reported: “The focus on electric vehicles and the political love they get is totally misguided . . . to have that as the spearhead of government transport carbon-reduction policy is insane.”

The magazine is controlled by Zac Goldsmith, the prospective Conservative candidate for Richmond Park and team Cameron’s environmental guru. Last week his colleague George Osborne took a different tack, observing that the absence of plans for a national network of charging points meant that “the Labour plan is like giving people a grant to buy an internal combustion engine, without bothering to set up any petrol stations”. Osborne had his own suggested grant to create “green jobs”: “We will give every household a new entitlement to £6,500 of energy-saving technologies.”

I’m not sure how the Tories came up with the figure of £6,500. It is pointedly bigger than Labour’s proposed £5,000 electric car subsidy; but all these figures are preposterous. If you multiply £6,500 by the number of households in the land, you get to £160 billion, bigger on its own than the national debt that Osborne has repeatedly told us is unaffordable.

Electoral bribes apart, there is a more serious misconception behind the idea that ploughing subsidies into the “green economy” is a sure-fire way of boosting domestic employment. At best it will move people from one economic activity to another. Labour’s plans would subsidise car production workers to move from making conventional models to electric vehicles, which hardly anyone wants to buy. Osborne’s proposals would subsidise the double-glazing and home insulation industry and suck in many workers gainfully employed (without subsidy) elsewhere.

The key to a successful, wealth-generating economy is productivity. Saving energy is what businesses have done already, because it lowers their production costs. The problem with any form of subsidy is that it makes the consumer (through hidden taxes) pay to keep inherently uneconomic businesses “profitable”. Meanwhile, diversified energy companies such as Shell, with plenty of speculatively acquired wind-farm acreage, are salivating at the plans by Obama to introduce cap-and-trade carbon emissions targets for American industry.

Obama’s energy secretary, Steven Chu, had some soothing words for US manufacturing companies that complained that the new policy will make them even less competitive with Chinese exporters, since the people’s republic has indicated that it has no intention of inflicting a similar increase in energy costs on its own producers. He suggested that America might have to introduce some sort of “car-bon-intensive” tariff on Chinese goods. One of China’s envoys, Li Gao, immediately retorted that such a carbon tariff would be a “disaster”, since it could lead to global trade war.

Actually, Mr Li is right: and this is how an achingly fashionable and well-intentioned plan to create “millions of new green jobs” could instead end up making the global economy even sicker than it is already.

Alien Tort Statute - A New Ruling Imperils Firms And U.S. Diplomacy

Rights Case Gone Wrong. By Curtis A. Bradley and Jack L. Goldsmith
A Ruling Imperils Firms And U.S. Diplomacy.
WaPo, Sunday, April 19, 2009

As American taxpayers shell out hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out U.S. companies, a federal court in New York recently paved the way for significantly increasing some of these firms' financial burdens. Relying on the Alien Tort Statute of 1789, the court ruled this month that certain companies that did business with apartheid South Africa -- including distressed firms such as General Motors and Ford -- can be held liable for South Africa's human rights violations during that period.

The Alien Tort Statute was designed to allow diplomatically sensitive tort cases to be brought in federal court in the hopes of avoiding the friction with foreign governments that could arise if state courts failed to provide a fair hearing. The statute hid in obscurity for almost 200 years before a federal appellate court in New York invoked it in 1980 to allow victims of human rights abuses committed abroad to sue foreign officials in U.S. courts. This holding turned the statute on its head by creating, rather than reducing, friction with other countries. It also spawned a cottage industry of human rights litigation.

At first, these cases were largely symbolic. The foreign plaintiffs had little chance of recovering damages from foreign officials; in effect, victims of human rights abuses used U.S. federal courts to criticize foreign governments. But the character of this litigation changed dramatically during the past decade. Plaintiffs started suing corporations on the theory that the firms "aided and abetted" foreign regimes and should be liable for those regimes' actions. These cases are not merely symbolic -- the U.S. corporations have deep pockets and U.S. bank accounts -- and present enormous opportunities for judicial meddling in foreign relations.

The South African case, brought by class-action attorneys many years after apartheid ended, is a dramatic example. The South African government opposed the litigation on the grounds that it would interfere with the policy embodied by its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which "deliberately avoided a 'victor's justice' approach to the crimes of apartheid." The Bush administration's State Department opposed the lawsuit, arguing that it "risks potentially serious adverse consequences for significant interests of the United States" by threatening international economic relations as well as political relations with South Africa and other countries whose firms are defendants.

This should have been enough for dismissal. Five years ago, the Supreme Court said in reference to the South Africa litigation that "there is a strong argument that the federal courts should give serious weight to the Executive Branch's view of the case's impact on foreign policy." Yet the New York court, unpersuaded, concluded that allowing the lawsuit to proceed "would not contradict American foreign policy in a manner that would 'seriously interfere with important governmental interests.' " Thus it supplanted its foreign policy views for those of the federal government and refused to respect South Africa's efforts to move its society forward.

More significant, the court ruled that firms were liable for a foreign government's human rights violations, even if they did not engage in the abuses or intend to facilitate them, as long as companies were aware that their business activities would substantially assist the government's illegal practices. This put GM and Ford on the hook for supplying trucks that the South African government used to attack anti-apartheid activists, and IBM for providing computers and software that the government used to register and segregate individuals.

The underlying acts associated with apartheid are abhorrent. But it is crass retroactivity to say that these firms are legally responsible for actions of the South African government. Under the New York court's standard, a great deal of global investment in the developing world would now be subject to U.S. judicial scrutiny.

So what can be done about this sort of litigation, which threatens to transfer billions from U.S. firms doing business abroad to plaintiffs' lawyers and their foreign clients? Lower courts won't resolve an issue they created. The Supreme Court's single ruling on the statute in modern times provides little guidance. The high court declined to review an earlier iteration of the South African case because four justices who owned stock in defendant companies recused themselves, precluding a quorum.

The executive branch is unlikely to press for reversal. President Obama recently nominated Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh to be legal adviser to the State Department, the government office that presents the U.S. view of these cases to federal courts. Koh is an intellectual architect and champion of the post-1980 human rights litigation explosion. He joined a brief in the South Africa litigation arguing for broad aiding-and-abetting liability.

That leaves Congress, which has never hinted that corporations should be liable in these cases. Lawmakers have also given foreign governments, including South Africa's, statutory immunity from cases such as the apartheid litigation. Courts circumvent this immunity when they hold liable secondary actors not directly responsible for the abuses. Much worse, these lawsuits threaten to deepen the economic distress of U.S. and foreign firms by imposing an enormous tax on investment in developing countries at a time the world desperately needs such investment. Judicially made corporate human rights litigation is a luxury we can no longer afford.

Curtis A. Bradley is a professor at Duke Law School. Jack L. Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard Law School, has participated in Alien Tort Statute cases in support of defendants.

WaPo on Iraq: How the Obama administration can respond to incipient signs of trouble

Iraq's Wobbles. WaPo Editorial
How the Obama administration can respond to incipient signs of trouble.
WaPo, Sunday, April 19, 2009

IT'S BEEN only seven weeks since President Obama outlined a strategy for Iraq aimed at withdrawing most U.S. troops by the end of next summer. But already there is cause for concern. During the past month security around the country has been slipping: At least 37 people have been killed in four major attacks on security forces in the past week alone, and there have been multiple car bombings in Baghdad and other cities. Those strikes have been claimed by al-Qaeda, which appears to be attempting a comeback. But there have also been new bursts of sectarian violence among Sunni and Shiite extremists.

Following successful local elections in January, Iraqi politicians are mired in backroom squabbling over the formation of provincial governments. The Shiite-led national government has made disturbing moves against some of the Sunni leaders who led the fight against al-Qaeda. Hamstrung by the fall in oil prices, the government is having trouble meeting commitments to pay former insurgents or expand the security forces. Normally the U.S. ambassador would be deeply involved in trying to smooth over such problems, but there has been no ambassador in Baghdad since February.

It's not time to panic: U.S. commanders point out that overall, violence in Iraq is at its lowest level since the first year of the war. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, bolstered by the election outcome, remains strong and confident. But the administration needs to be alert to what is happening in Iraq -- and ready to adjust political and military plans to prevent what could easily become a downward spiral.

One early decision point involves the withdrawal timetable, which calls for U.S. troops to leave all Iraqi cities by the end of June. That pullout is looking risky in a couple of places, including the northern city of Mosul, which has never been entirely cleansed of anti-government insurgents. The U.S. commander in the area told a Pentagon briefing last week that American troops could remain in the city if the Iraqi government requests it following an ongoing review; such flexibility should be extended to other areas, if necessary.

U.S. diplomats and commanders also need to make sure that Sunni leaders -- already under renewed attack by al-Qaeda -- are treated fairly by the government. It's hard to tell from Washington whether recent arrests of some tribal leaders were justified or prudent; that's one reason why the administration's chosen ambassador, Christopher Hill, needs to get to Baghdad as soon as possible. He should be confirmed when Congress returns this week.

Mr. Hill's main focus, once he arrives, ought to be helping to ensure that Iraq's national elections, expected next January, go smoothly. Judging from January's results, elections may be the best way to defuse sectarian tensions and resolve disputes among feuding factions. Al-Qaeda and other extremists will try to disrupt the democratic process, while Iran will seek to manipulate it. Though the new administration has minimized the promotion of democracy as a goal, both in Iraq and elsewhere, it offers perhaps the best means of enabling the troop withdrawal that Mr. Obama has promised for next year.