Tuesday, July 24, 2007

If It's All Political, Then EVERYTHING Is Political

Here's this week's column. There was more to say about Dr. Carmona after the Tribune's own editorial last week, which you can read either excerpted in this column or here. My proposed headline is above, but the editor thought better, and this week, he's right.

East Valley Tribune, July 22, 2007

It’s half a cheer for the Tribune editorial page, which last Wednesday objected to the Bush administration’s political interference with former Surgeon General Richard Carmona. The Tribune objected "to the administration’s efforts to censor scientific inquiry in order to cater to a particular worldview."

The editorial also noted the administration’s "authoritarian attitude." It’s nice to see that recognition by libertarians, who by my lights always talk philosophy but usually act for tax breaks for the well-to-do.

Noticing that the Bush administration has pushed executive power beyond anything imagined by FDR or LBJ seems appropriate, if belated. At least Roosevelt proposed a court-packing plan, then withdrew it under withering criticism. Bush doesn’t bother with proposals, he just uses "signing statements" to tell Congress and the courts he doesn’t intend to follow the law.

With Bush’s authoritarianism now duly noted, we’ll see if the Tribune ever follows through, or if, like Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Mesa, criticism of the Bush administration will go into the record but never actually surface when it might actually matter.

It’s one of life’s little mysteries. The most vociferous libertarians are at state universities, where as part of their taxpayer-supported education or employment, they learn to divorce their political philosophy from actual experience. One example, noted by Matthew Yglesias, is how libertarians pretend that the huge pile of government regulations and restrictions known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is somehow a libertarian concept.

But this being the Tribune, they couldn’t oppose the Bush administration without making some fresh howlers. The first was a false equivalence, noting that the Clinton administration fired Dr. Joycelyn Elders as Surgeon General for "controversially endorsing sexual education to the degree where she suggested schools teach youths about masturbation." Quoth the Tribune, "Her removal from office had nothing to do with science, but with politics and the embarrassment she brought to the Clinton administration."

Claiming Elders’s treatment was equivalent to Carmona’s requires you to believe that (1) it’s scientifically incontrovertible that you should (or need to) teach young people about masturbation, (2) therefore public opinion about the sex-ed curriculum is improper, and (3) a public official who says something really embarrassing to the administration shouldn’t be fired. This is, to put it charitably, a stretch.

The other huge howler is the Tribune’s assertion that any position filled by the president is "inherently political" and therefore, "we should teach ourselves to be as suspect of their motives and influences as we are of experts in the private industry. An expert’s employment by the government simply should not be considered a sign of objectivity."

Read that paragraph again, slowly. First, it shows how the Bush administration hasn’t just trashed the Justice Department; they’ve degraded the whole concept of public service. Gen. David Petraeus, the new U.S. commander in Iraq, was appointed by President Bush and confirmed by the Senate. Therefore, according to the Tribune, when Petraeus issues his progress report in September, we must suspect his motives and influences and not consider him as automatically objective. We’ll see if that happens.

Second, there should be some difference between writing potboiler fiction and writing editorials, and the editorialists should leave the wildly-implausible conspiracy theories to Michael Crichton. How can government employees be simultaneously (1) lazy and inefficient, and (2) relentlessly and effectively bent on world domination?

Lastly, this argument means that the Tribune has thrown in the towel on some past editorial positions, like the endorsement of the Yucca Mountain, Nevada, nuclear waste repository. If we should suspect every expert’s motives, especially those from the government, then why shouldn’t Nevada use every political trick available to stop that project, no matter how many studies say it’s safe? See, everybody has motives and influences, and even if the Tribune says the case is proved -- well, who knows what motives and influences are at work on the page to my left? So fight on, Nevada; your friends in the East Valley have no cause to complain.

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