Think Tanks Wrap-up

Feb. 22, 2002 at 1:48 PM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 22 (UPI) -- The UPI Think Tank Wrap-up is a daily digest covering brief opinion pieces, reactions to recent news events, and position statements released by various think tanks.

Pacific Research Institute

(PRI promotes individual freedom and personal responsibility as the cornerstones of a civil society, best achieved through a free-market economy, limited government, and private initiative. PRI researches and analyzes critical issues facing California and the nation, and crafts strategies for policy reform.)

SACRAMENTO -- Trials and Errors -- and Omissions

By K. Lloyd Billingsley

Prosecutors here are striking a blow for the rule of law by bringing up members of the Symbionese Liberation Army on charges resulting from a 1975 bank heist in which 42-year-old Myrna Opsahl was murdered. Opsahl, a doctor's wife and mother of four sons, was at the bank to deposit that week's church collection. Reporters are trying hard to reach all corners of this story, but a lot has been passed over.

The SLA was a combination criminal gang and left-wing militia that illustrated a principle outlined by George Orwell. In "Animal Farm," the revolutionary animals quickly decided that "rats are comrades." The SLA, like many a left-wing dictatorship, set about "expropriating" property, through armed holdups.

The group's symbol, a seven-headed snake, stands for the principles now known as Kwanzaa. These do not come from Africa but were invented by Ron Karenga, a former black nationalist and now a professor at Cal State Long Beach. Karenga was a leader of the United Slaves, a group which in 1969 engaged their rivals, the Black Panthers, in a gun battle on the campus of UCLA.

According to Patricia Hearst Shaw, who was abducted by the SLA and served time for participating in another of their heists, Sara Jane Olson, also known as Kathleen Soliah, was in the bank when a shotgun blast downed Opsahl. The SLA troopers wrote her off as a "bourgeois pig." The SLA women were dressed as men and disguised their voices, but recent stories have not mentioned that Olson was an accomplished stage actress. She once worked as a waitress at a San Francisco eatery, the Plate of Brasse, under the alias of Kathleen Anger.

The trial here promises high drama, especially when Patricia Hearst Shaw, alias "Tania," takes the stand. Prosecutors may also deploy new evidence against Soliah and her SLA comrades Bill Harris, Emily Harris, and Michael Bortin. As a number of fugitive Nazis discovered, adoption of a normal lifestyle with regular employment and friendly neighbors does not cancel misdeeds committed decades earlier.

Those who plead that Sara Jane Olson's record as a mother, church member, and doctor's wife makes this trial a waste of time forget that the role of government is to protect life and property, both lost in the 1975 robbery. Government at all levels could perform more of this work, which is their legitimate business, was it not so engrossed in efforts that are not its business. Few pieces on the Olson case have hinted at how much catching up there is to do.

The Black Panthers had little use for the SLA, whose first victim was Marcus Foster, the first black superintendent of Oakland schools. But the Panthers also left a trail of victims including Alex Rackley, one of their own, and Betty Van Patter. She was a bookkeeper at the Panthers' school in Oakland when she disappeared and was found floating in San Francisco Bay, dead from massive head injuries.

No one has ever been arrested or charged. It happened during the 1970s, a long time ago, but then so did the SLA robbery. A government that holds the rule of law as more important than political correctness should look into it.

The Acton Institute

(The Acton Institute works to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles. Its goal is to help build prosperity and progress on a foundation of religious liberty, economic freedom, and personal moral responsibility.)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Free Economy Farming

By Kevin Schmiesing

As the legislative priorities of the 107th Congress become clearer, some things around Washington appear to be in for a change while others will stay the same. Tax forms will look different next year; new campaign finance laws might be enacted; social security may be tweaked.

One segment of federal policy that appears to be immune to substantial reform, though, is agricultural subsidies. Since the Freedom to Farm Act of 1996 -- an initiative intended to reduce subsidy dependence -- the dollar amount of federal payments to farmers has increased fourfold.

It has often been noted that Americans have a romantic view of rural life that fuels the sentiment that the family farm needs to be preserved at any cost. Christians, in particular, admire the ideal of the family farm, where the value of physical labor in cooperation with the fecundity of God's creation is upheld. Farmers participate in a special way in the stewardship mandate of creation. Some theologians, moreover, point to the sacramental character of agriculture as a process by which the goods of the earth are transformed into life-giving nourishment.

These sentiments may explain why many Americans -- religious and non-religious alike -- are unwilling to question the subsidies that presumably enable family farms to survive. Even among traditionally self-reliant farmers, subsidies are often viewed as a necessary evil, the only alternative to economic ruin.

There is no question that farming can be a difficult and volatile business. There is no point disputing the experience of innumerable farmers who have lost their farms or have been forced to sell and leave agriculture because they have found it impossible to support a family. The question that needs to be posed is this: Are federal subsidies the solution?

Many sincere Christians argue that augmenting market prices for farmers' crops is necessary because market-dictated prices would be so low as to drive farmers out of business. In solidarity, they say, we must provide financial support to farmers in need.

But this argument fails on two accounts.

First, it is mistaken as to the long-term benefit of subsidies. One of the most serious drawbacks of subsidies as they are currently implemented is that they are not restricted to farmers in dire need of aid. Keith Collins, head economist at the Agriculture Department, compares subsidies unfavorably with other forms of welfare:

"In our food stamp program we means-test the working poor with strict requirements, but we ask nothing of farmers," he says.

The result of this failure is that, generally speaking, the bigger the farm the better the federal benefits. This is not the way to preserve family farms, which tend to be smaller.

"The data shows that government subsidies are tilting the playing field in favor of the largest farms," said Clark Williams-Derry, senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group, in a New York Times article last year.

Such unintended consequences should not surprise anyone familiar with how government works. When corporations bed down with government, it is usually the players with the most resources that glean the most benefits.

As Deanna Dyksterhuis, the proprietor of a family farm in Oregon, explains, "Family farms ... are busy taking care of their resources of land, water, and labor. They don't have time nor do they think about traveling to Washington to ask for special favors and privileges."

For the family farmer, life in the fields may involve more than earning a living -- it may mean preserving an ancestral homestead, a cherished way of life, or a system of roots in a turbulent world. But farming is also a business -- an economic enterprise that is therefore subject to the rules of economics. Subsidies for food, like subsidies for any other item, distort market signals and prevent normal adjustments in supply and demand. How can a farmer know when to cut back on corn and expand the soybean crop when prices are distorted by non-market factors?

The distortion of market signals, furthermore, ultimately damages the competitiveness of the American farmer. Under normal market conditions, businesses that are most agile, adaptive, and innovative survive and prosper, while those that cannot -- or will not -- change will fail. It is wrong to insulate farmers from this process. Subsidies stifle the spirit of entrepreneurship that encourages farmers to adopt new technologies and methods and otherwise streamline their operations so that they remain competitive in a global market. This kind of creativity is itself part of the stewardship mandate.

Again, it is recognized that this process can sometimes be a painful one. But the alternative -- centralized decisions as to which agricultural products get subsidized and to what extent -- is a prescription for inefficiency, stagnation, and the rewarding of special interests, all of which compromise a commitment to solidarity and the common good.

In addition, agricultural policy should not be viewed in isolation from other issues. It is widely understood, for instance, that the extraordinarily high levels of subsidies enjoyed by European farmers hurt American agricultural exports. American subsidies, in turn, diminish competition from farmers in other nations, who may be able to produce some crops more efficiently than farmers in the United States can. An overall lowering of trade barriers would be part of a solution to the problem of agricultural subsidies.

All of this is not to say that the family farmer will not need help at times to stave off economic disaster. Dependent as it is on the vagaries of nature, farming will always prove a risky business. But governmental intervention may not be the most helpful alternative.

This leads us to the second way in which the argument for subsidies errs: it ignores the principle of subsidiarity. Rural towns have famously been tightly-knit church-centered communities. Why not draw on those resources as solutions of first resort? Social institutions closest to the problem at hand are best able to judge the extent and nature of the aid required. They are also best able to tailor assistance to the personal situations of those in need.

For one farmer, introduction to new agricultural products may be more helpful than subsidies; for another, a low-interest loan to get through a bad year may be most necessary. Governmental subsidies gloss over these individualized needs and chafe at the natural bonds of community, discouraging the recognition of interdependence among farmers that could go a long way toward providing a safety net in times of hardship --economic or otherwise.

This personal dimension was the most important issue in the debate over welfare reform, and it is the best argument for agricultural reform. Ultimately, we may decide that sustaining family farms is worth the enormous cost to the public treasury and that we are willing to foot the bill.

That kind of concession will not make it right. Our focus should be not so much on the preservation of the farm as on the preservation of the dignity and self-respect of the farmer. That federal subsidies will further that goal is a questionable proposition indeed.

(Kevin Schmiesing is a research fellow for Center for Economic Personalism at the Acton Institute.)

Reason Public Policy Institute

Air Scare: Does Air Pollution Cause Asthma?

By Joel Schwartz

While previous studies showed that air pollution can aggravate pre-existing lung ailments, a new study of children in southern California reports that frequent, strenuous, outdoor exercise, combined with high levels of ozone air pollution, can more than triple children's risk of developing asthma.

This study, published in the Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal, is the first study to find that air pollution might actually cause asthma, not just aggravate it. Officials of the California Air Resources Board, which paid for the study, were quick to claim that its results applied not only to the six southern California communities where it was performed, but also to many cities across the country.

ARB officials also maintained that the study justifies additional air pollution regulations in order to protect children's health. State and local public health officials and advocates echoed these sentiments in the many newspapers that carried the story.

But pollution-control advocates who invoke this study to justify ever more intrusive air pollution regulations are playing fast and loose with the numbers. Though high ozone levels of the past may have caused asthma in some parts of southern California, children exposed to current levels of air pollution are at virtually no additional risk of developing asthma.

In the Lancet asthma study, researchers followed two groups of children in southern California from 1993 to 1998. One group lived in six communities with low pollution levels; the other lived in six communities with high pollution levels. After accounting for factors besides pollution that could account for differences in asthma rates (such as income, ethnicity, parental smoking, etc.) the study found that:

*Children in high-ozone communities who participated in three or more team sports (about eight percent of all children in the study) were 3.3 times as likely to become asthmatic when compared with less-active children. Asthma was unrelated to sports participation in the low-ozone communities.

*Children who spent the most time outdoors were 1.4 times more likely than other children to become asthmatic in the six high-ozone communities, but not in the low-ozone communities.

The study also measured other pollutants, such as airborne particulates and nitrogen dioxide, but found no relationship between these pollutants and asthma. Despite the increased asthma rate found for very-active children in polluted areas, asthma rates did not differ overall between the high- and low-pollution areas.

The asthma study estimated children's ozone exposure using pollution measurements from 1994 to 1997. But southern California has made great progress on air pollution in the intervening years. The communities in the study went from an average of about 34 days per year exceeding the federal ozone health standard, down to an average of just four during the last two years -- a reduction of almost 90 percent. Even Crestline, Calif., which was not part of the study, but has the worst ozone in the nation, exceeded federal standards an average of 23 days per year for the last two years -- about a third less often than the asthma study areas.

Ozone levels are far lower everywhere else. For example, a few other areas of California -- San Bernardino, Riverside, Fresno, eastern Los Angeles County and Kern County -- have about 5 to 15 high ozone days per year. Ozone across the Houston metro area exceeds the standard from one to 10 days per year. Beyond these regions, no other part of the country averages more than four high-ozone days per year, and most have one or none.

In other words, no American experiences ozone at levels similar to those of the asthma study, and more than 97 percent of Americans don't even experience one-tenth as many high ozone days. Clearly, regulators and public health advocates are wrong when they claim either that the asthma study has something to say about the risks of current air pollution levels, or that current regulations are not sufficient to reduce air pollution.

Proponents of the pollution-causes-asthma hypothesis also err in claiming that air pollution is partly to blame for rising asthma rates during the last 20 years. The Environmental Protection Agency reports ozone levels dropped an average of 24 percent between 1980 and 1999, and other pollutants also declined substantially.

Areas with the most ozone pollution experienced the greatest improvement. And the asthma study itself also found no difference in overall asthma incidence when comparing high- and low-ozone communities.

Asthma is a serious disease and no one wants to take risks with their children's health. But for children to be at risk, they'd need to be frequently exposed to high ozone levels. Fortunately, they're not. Recent air quality improvements mean that no one in America is now exposed to high ozone as often as in the southern California study.

Asthma exacts a large health toll on our society, making it urgent that we learn what causes the disease and how to neutralize it. But regulators and activists do the public a disservice when they exaggerate health threats. Not only do they scare people for no good reason, they also divert attention and resources from real threats to people's welfare.

(Joel Schwartz is a senior scientist at Reason Public Policy Institute, and the former executive officer of the California Inspection and Maintenance Review Committee, which evaluates California's Smog Check program and advises the state Legislature and governor on Smog Check policy.)

Institute for Public Accuracy

(The IPA is a nationwide consortium of policy researchers that seeks to broaden public discourse by gaining media access for experts whose perspectives are often overshadowed by major think tanks and other influential institutions.)

WASHINGTON -- Pentagon and Propaganda

*Christopher Simpson, associate professor of communication at American University and author of the books "Blowback" and "Science of Coercion."

"Donald Rumsfeld strongly implied last night that the Department of Defense is not running covert operations in its military operations. The truth of the matter is that U.S. psywar and covert operations against American citizens and allied countries are expanding more rapidly today than at any other time in U.S. history. The program has several clear levels. For example, John Poindexter, a national security perjurer who supervised the Iran-Contra disaster, has been quietly appointed to lead the new Defense Department 'Information Awareness Office'.... Its task is high-tech tapping of computer networks in the United States and abroad. Then, National Security Directives mandate use of information warfare techniques to disrupt and sabotage critics of Bush's policies. The White House Office of Drug Control Policy is today running television promotions that claim smoking marijuana equals supporting terrorism. And the Pentagon is pushing for expanded authorization of what it calls 'the blackest of black' covert operations against people it regards as opponents. These are developments during the last week alone. This is a pattern of behavior, it is a policy, and it is not an accident. It's a program of action by the present administration to utilize federal power to confuse, deceive or damage anyone who might disagree with them, including the American public."

*David Miller, member of the Stirling Media Research Institute in Scotland.

"There are majorities in most countries in the world against the US/UK policy on Afghanistan. Rather than manipulate global opinion, the U.S. government might benefit from listening to the global public."

*Jack Shaheen, author of the recently released book "Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People."

"Over 900 Hollywood movies for more than a century have negatively portrayed Arabs. When the White House met with Hollywood officials, they said that content was not on the table--perhaps it was under the table. If the U.S. government wants to 'win hearts and minds' and show Arabs and Muslims that we are more alike than different, then they should acknowledge the vilification that has taken place. You don't win hearts and minds by continuing to vilify a people, as movies and TV programs continue to do."

*Nancy Snow, author of "Propaganda, Inc.: Selling America's Culture to the World," is completing another book, "Propaganda Nation."

"The news about the Office of Strategic Influence should raise concerns for anyone who recognizes that the United States continues to lack credibility in the world and not just in the Middle East."

Competitive Enterprise Institute

(CEI is a free-market think tank that supports principles of free enterprise and limited government, and actively engages in public policy debate.)

WASHINGTON --CEI Questions Handling Of Microsoft Settlement Comments: Says Publicity and Propaganda Turning Case into "Antitrust O.J. Simpson Affair"

By Competitive Enterprise Institute

In a letter to the head of the Bush administration's antitrust division this week, the Competitive Enterprise Institute questioned the Department of Justice's handling

of public comments on the proposed settlement of the Microsoft antitrust lawsuit.

Of 30,000 comments filed, 2,900 "contain a degree of detailed substance," according to the Antitrust Division. Of these, the Division picked only 47 "major" comments for special indexing and summarization, which are overwhelmingly against the settlement.

The rest, including CEI's, have been relegated to a "don't bother" pile, wrote James V. DeLong, a senior fellow in CEI's Project on Technology & Innovation, in his letter to antitrust head Charles A. James.

The 47 comments chosen by the antitrust division staff "seem to consist largely of legal minutiae combined with webs of jargon spun by hired-gun economists," said DeLong, who objects to a "grandiose antitrust industry" that is converting antitrust into industrial


"Narrowing down the comments is necessary, but for DOJ staff to perform the selection without outside input creates a concern about bias -- not against a party, but against the predictability, speed, and clarity in antitrust policy needed by the business community," added DeLong.

CEI's initial comments emphasized: (1) Publicity and propaganda are turning the proceeding into "an antitrust O. J. Simpson affair" and doing great damage to the legal system. (2) The bounds of a legally acceptable decree are tightly confined by the appellate decision, as James himself noted in testimony before the Senate; (3) The initial findings of fact are "a thorough mess," and rejecting the settlement will plunge the trial judge into an "impenetrable morass."

Both the letter and CEI's initial comments are available on the CEI Web site at

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