Credit Where Credit Is Due For Inventions

Al Gore neither invented the internet or even claimed to have done so.  John McCain didn’t invent the BlackBerry. Contrary to a couple of comments in Barack Obama’s speech last night, it looks like Americans did not invent everything. Marc Ambinder writes:

After a period of prolonged study and meditation (ie, I consulted Wikipedia for 45 minutes after the speech), I have concluded that these claims are questionable at best and false at worst. Not quite sixteen words, we-invaded-Iraq-on-the-strength-of-this-information false. But probably false. Here is my evidence:

An English scientist by the name of Willoughby Smith first discovered that selenium was photoconductive, and a French scientist named Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect. That was the basis of “solar technology.” That, and the English Chemist Edward Weston apparently holds the first American patent for a solar cell.

The history of automobiles is more complicated, but Wikipedia has the rundown here. In a nutshell: The British, French and Russians (!) had all developed some form of steam-powered automobile in the 18th century. (The British were apparently doing pretty well until something called the Locomotive Act of 1865 came along: It required that any motorized vehicle be preceded by a man waving a red flag. Talk about stifling innovation.)  Anyway, here’s the kicker: “It is generally acknowledged the first automobiles with gasoline-powered internal combustion engines were completed almost simultaneously by several German inventors working independently.” German inventors, it must be observed, are not American.

Nomination of Nation’s First Dog Expected Soon

The Obamas are close to deciding on a key appointment–the nation’s first dog. They are looking to find a rescue Portuguese Water dog. The appointment is expected in April but there is no decision as to the dog’s name.

No problems are anticipated with Senate confirmation of this appointment, assuming the dog is not found to be delinquent on his taxes and assuming no nanny controversies.

Posted in Barack Obama. Tags: . No Comments »

The Big Government Debate Versus Limited Government

Greg Sargent argues that Obama might be able to transcend the debate over big versus small government which has dominated political debate:

Obama may be well on his way to breaking the “big government versus small government” rhetorical frame that has had a stranglehold on our political discourse for well-on decades now.

The promise of rising above old disputes has been Obama’s core political animating impulse since he burst onto the national scene. He was elected President after defeating not one, but two of the leading practitioners of 1960s-style cultural politics — the Clinton machine and the Rove-Atwater acolytes who hijacked the McCain campaign. He refused to engage on his foes’ terms the Vietnam-era-rooted arguments — about patriotism, about what it means to be a “real American” in a cultural sense — that have dominated our politics for decades.

Now Obama is attempting the same thing with the “big versus small government” dispute, and while others have tried this, Obama may be succeeding. Consider: When he said yesterday he’s not in favor of “big government” it just didn’t have the defensive feel that Bill Clinton’s “era of big government is over” speech did. Obama didn’t feel the need to package his agenda with any fancy name, like the “New Covenant.” Obama is not being apologetic or coy in steering towards an extremely ambitious role for government. Quite the opposite.

To be sure, Obama is enjoying a major assist: The economic crisis has left the public as desperate for domestic governmental assistance as at any other similar point in history. But the point is, Obama is seizing this moment to finally accomplish what has eluded other Dems: Transcending the “big versus small government” argument and, by extension, leaving it behind for good.

In so doing, Obama is allowing the public to judge his proposals for ambitious governmental action not through the old big-versus-small prism, but on their own merits. And the public likes them — big government and all.

Republicans often attack big government as if politics was divided between Republicans who oppose big government and liberals who support it. This has always been a misleading argument. Despite their rhetoric, government has grown tremendously under Republican governments. Two major expansions of government–the “war on terror” and the use of government to promote the agenda of the religious right, have occurred under George Bush.

Liberals do not support big government for the sake of big government. Instead liberals support certain policies and accept whatever size of government is necessary to support such policies. Of course there are different views among liberals with some being much more accepting of big government and the Nanny State than others.

Regardless of their views on the size of government, it is common for liberals to support limitations upon the power of government and what the government can legitimately do. There is also variation here, such as with many liberals now supporting government mandates on health care coverage with some of us, including many who backed Obama, being philosophically opposed to this.

I’ve often been a proponent of the importance of limitations on the power of government as opposed to dwelling over the size of government. For example, back in December I wrote:

In judging whether the policies of a party will make us more or less free, considerations of the size of government only play a small role. It is far more important to consider the role of government in the lives of individuals, as well as the underlying principles they hold. A political party which denies important principles such as separation of church and state, and which ignores the limitations upon the Executive Branch devised by the Founding Fathers, is an enemy of freedom regardless of their rhetoric about cutting the size of government. Of course Republicans haven’t done too well with regards to cutting government spending either.

Will Willinson also discussed the difference between small government and limited government recently:

The fact that a government is small doesn’t rule out the possibility of egregious restrictions on non-economic liberties or of incredibly burdensome economic regulation. Suppose it takes two years to fill out all the paperwork, get all the licenses, etc. to start a small business, but once you do that, your profits aren’t taxed all. Suppose many forms of exchange are simply prohibited. You might have small government, low taxes, and very little economic freedom. Of course, a small government can ban abortion, prostitution, drugs, a free press, etc. just as well as a big one. Such a government may need to spend a lot of its modest budget on police and prisons instead of on genuine public goods. The size of the budget as as percentage of output doesn’t tell you anything about the composition of spending. This is a really important point. The United States spends a lot on prisons, the military, drug law enforcement, border patrol, etc. A lot of this is the opposite of rights-respecting, and a lot of it is downright wasteful. The composition of spending is important both as a matter or morality and a matter of economic growth (which I happen to think is also a matter of morality.)  Which is all to say, the fact that a government is small logically implies almost nothing about either liberty, justice or efficiency…

Limited government is really what matters, but “limited” is also a bit ambiguous. The most important sense is “rights-respecting.” Bills of rights are meant to declare that legitimate (and legal) government is limited to activities that do not violate rights. Many disputes between classical and modern liberals turn on their theories of rights. For example, if the collective action problems inherent in the provision of certain public goods justifies taxation, then a state that collects taxes for this purpose does not violate property rights. If you think there is no such justification for taxation, you’ll tend to see the taxing state as violating rights and thus overstepping its proper limits. If you think there is such a justification for taxation, and believe there is an abundance of collective action problems that may be resolved only by government action, then you may think that a quite high level of taxation and government spending is perfectly consonant with limited, property-rights respecting government…

Let me wrap it up. The “size” of government is not a good proxy for either economic or non-economic liberty or for economic performance. Advocates of “small government” need to worry more than they do about the moral and economic dimensions of the composition of spending, and they need to realize that they care more than they think they do about questions of “distributive justice,” which is pretty obviously manifest in enthusiasm for reforms, like the “flat” and “fair” tax.

I think our real concern ought to be limited government. But whether you think an ideally limited government is also small will depends on lots of things including your account of rights, your beliefs about the relative efficiency and reliability of state vs. market provision of various goods, your beliefs about the necessity of public spending to facilitate growth, and more. The claim behind my version of  ”liberaltarianism” is that there is a principled position between classic night-watchman “minarchism” and full-on modern liberalism. If you’re not an anarchist or totalitarian, then you think that it’s possible for the state to do either too little or too much.

There is far more of interest in Wilkinson’s full post, as well in a follow up post here.

Bobby vs. The Volcano Monitors

A common conservative tactic is to misrepresent legitimate government spending in a way that might sound absurd until the facts are reviewed. We saw this in attacks on science spending by John McCain and Sarah Palin both during and after the 2008 campaign. Bobby Jindal used similar tactics in his response to Obama’s speech last night. Jindal mocked volcano monitoring but there is true value to this:

The $140 million to which Jindal referred is actually for a number of projects conducted by the United States Geological Survey, including volcano monitoring. This monitoring is aimed at helping geologists understand the inner workings of volcanoes as well as providing warnings of impending eruptions, in the United States and in active areas around the world where U.S. military bases are located.

Most of the money from the stimulus bill earmarked for monitoring (only about a tenth of the total going to the USGS) will go to modernizing existing monitoring equipment, including switching from analog to digital and installing GPS networks that can measure ground movements, said John Eichelberger, program coordinator for the USGS’s Volcano Hazards Program. Much of the expense of this technology comes from the manpower required to make and install it, he added.

“Ultimately most of this creates jobs or saves jobs that would have been lost” to recent budget shortfalls Eichelberger told LiveScience.

When he heard Jindal’s remarks, Eichelberger said he “was frankly astonished” that the governor would use this particular example, given his own state’s recent brush with a catastrophic natural disaster.

More response at Scientific American:

Well, Congress authorized some of that $140 million to be spent on volcano monitoring, but not all of it, ProPublica notes in a blow-by-blow of the economic recovery package. That line, ProPublica says, is directed to “U.S. Geological Survey facilities and equipment, including stream gages, seismic and volcano monitoring systems and national map activities.”

Critics writing in The New Republic and elsewhere say Jindal’s jab at volcano monitoring was disingenuous. The USGS is charged with working to “reduce the vulnerability of the people and areas most at risk from natural hazards,” including volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and wildfires which it says cost hundreds of lives and billions of dollars annually in disaster money. Between 50 and 70 volcanoes erupt each year, according to the Smithsonian’s global volcanism program. And between 1980 and 1990, they killed at least 26,000 people and caused 450,000 people to flee their homes, the USGS says. “Why does Bobby Jindal think monitoring volcanoes is a bad thing for the government to be doing?” Nick Baumann writes in Mother Jones. “There doesn’t seem to be any immediate way for private enterprise to profit from monitoring volcanoes (maybe selling volcano insurance?), but there is obviously a huge public benefit from making sure volcanoes are monitored: warning people if a volcano is going to erupt. Isn’t that obvious?”

The USGS recently predicted that Mount Redoubt in Alaska is rumbling and expected to blow. Check out our guide to volcanoes for more, and read about what causes a volcano to erupt in our Ask the Experts piece. See another post for more on Jindal’s response to Obama’s speech, including Jindal’s comments on the salt marsh harvest mouse.

Jindal’s science might be expected from Kenneth the Page (who he has commonly been compared to after his disastrous rebuttal) but not from an up and coming political leader.

The Anchorage Daily News provides a full run down of response to this comment.

> What was Jindal talking about? (Scientific American)

> Governor of hurricane-threatened state shouldn’t belittle volcano monitoring (Chicago Tribune politics blog): “If anyone should understand the risk nature can represent to large population centers, it’s a Louisiana governor.”

> Jindal vs. the volcano (Talking Points Memo): “The potential argument that volcanic monitoring has no relevance when it comes to saving American lives and property is baseless.”

> Jindal a volcano-watcher hater (Alaska Dispatch): “What’s really puzzling is his hostility to our own Alaska Volcano Observatory, which Republican Ted Stevens worked hard to get for us.”

> Government’s role in natural disasters (Paul Krugman blog, The New York Times): “Does (Jindal) really think that the response to natural disasters like Katrina is best undertaken by uncoordinated private action? Hey, why bother having an army? Let’s just rely on self-defense by armed citizens.”

> What the stimulus bill really says about volcano monitoring (Questionable Authority blog): “Volcano monitoring … is clearly not the only thing that’s being funded (with the $140 million). Jindal was clearly ignoring the truth in his attempt to paint the bill in the worst light possible.”

> What is volcano monitoring? Where are U.S. volcanoes? (Live Science)

Republican Errors Help Give Obama Big Win Tuesday Night


Barack Obama achieved a tremendous political victory with his speech Tuesday night, primarily due to the Republicans self-destructing. After Bobby Jindal’s dismal performance we may see a change in the view that Jindal is an up and coming Republican leader. Republicans might also need to reconsider the value of responding to presidential speeches if they are going to do this poor of a job.

Multiple bloggers have already compared Jindal to Kenneth from 30 Rock. Matthew Yglesias had one of the more favorable comments about Jindal, writing, “Bobby Jindal apparently believes it’s appropriate to address the citizens of the United States in a tone that suggests we’re all nine years old.” Nate Silver came to a similar conclusion writing, “If it sounds like Jindal is targeting his speech to a room full of fourth graders, that’s because he is. They might be the next people to actually vote for Republicans again.”

These evaluations that Jindal was speaking down to the level of nine year olds is far better than the review from Andrew Sullivan which said, “there was a patronizing feel to it as well – as if he were talking to kindergartners – that made Obama’s adult approach so much more striking.” The Note also went with the perceived younger audience in live blogging: “Reminds me of a Kindergarten teacher.”

The content was even worse than the delivery. Jindal’s response consisted of repetition of the same old Republican talking points which few still buy. They didn’t need a whole speech to do this. They could have just sent people to the GOP Problem Solver which I linked to hereEzra Klein wrote:

…it’s a speech that Boehner could have given in 2007 and that Frist could have given in 2005 and that Lott could have given in 1998 and that Gingrich could have given in 1993. Jindal made a mistake accepting the GOP’s invitation to give this response. Yesterday, he seemed like a different kind of Republican. Today, he doesn’t.

It is far too early for anything to definitely determine the 2012 Republican nomination, but Sarah Palin was the big winner following Jindal’s performance, making America the big loser.

Jindal spoke of Katrina, thinking the Americans he spoke down to had forgotten which party was to blame for the inadequate response. He repeated standard Republican scare tactics about tax increases after Obama announced a tax cut for 95% of Americans. It no longer works for Republicans to speak of fiscal responsibility and small government when the result of electing them has been increased deficits and increased government intrusion in individuals lives. How many times do they think they can get away with saying one thing when out of power and then doing the opposite after taking office?

Jindal attacked the stimulus package with standard Republican debating tactics (i.e. gross distortions of the truth). He protested ” a ‘magnetic levitation’ line from Las Vegas to Disneyland” as if this was the only route under consideration for high speed rail, and as if we should stick to old fashioned railroads on standard tracks. He sees “volcano monitoring” as a waste of money. Apparently he believes that those in the path of an erupting volcano should receive no more benefits of advanced notification than those in the path of Katrina.

Jindal’s comments on health care were especially bizarre:

We stand for universal access to affordable health care coverage. We oppose universal government-run health care. Health care decisions should be made by doctors and patients – not by government bureaucrats.

His statement is puzzling considering that Republican policies would lead to health care being less affordable and would do nothing to promote universal access. He may oppose universal government-run health care, but so does Obama and so do most Democrats. None of the proposals being discussed call for government-run health care.

Jindal says he opposes health care decisions being made by government bureaucrats, but the Republicans have been the ones who have backed interference with doctor/patient decisions over the protests of Democrats. This includes Republican support for government interference in end of life decisions such as in the Terri Schiavo case, restrictions on abortion rights, restrictions on contraception, and opposition to medicinal marijuana use even in states where it is legal.Beyond these Republican policies, most Americans are far more likely to see a private insurance company interfere in decisions made with their doctor than they are from the government-financed Medicare plan.

Jindal did such a poor job that even Fox was critical. Considering the vast differences in their speeches, it is no surprise that most viewers were far more convinced by Obama’s arguments. CNN found that “two-thirds of those who watched President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress reacted favorably to his speech.”  CBS News found a tremendous increase in support for Obama’s policies as a result of the speech:

Eighty percent of speech watchers approve of President Obama’s plans for dealing with the economic crisis. Before the speech, 63 percent approved.

Fifty-one percent of speech watchers think the president’s economic plans will help them personally. Thirty-six thought so before the speech.