Afghanistan's Ruling Taliban Ban Leather Jackets

Is the Taliban going AR? The Taliban, the strict Islamic fundamentalist
group currently holding power in war-torn Afghanistan recently announced
it was banning the wearing of leather jackets. According to the Associated
Press, “Taliban soldiers used knives to slash the leather jackets
young men were wearing in Kabul today, saying the jackets were prohibited
under Islam, witnesses said.” How long before PETA puts up a “Mohammed
wore synthetics” billboard?

Companies Steel Themselves Against Competition

For the past several months
U.S. steel companies, their unions and Democrats on Capitol Hill have
been whining that steel manufacturers from Brazil, Japan, Russia and other
countries are “dumping” steel in the United States. These critics
charge that companies from these nations are unfairly selling steel at
a price that is simply too low for American firms to compete. As a letter
from 13 U.S. governors to President Bill Clinton summed up the case, “Our
businesses cannot compete with unfairly priced, dumped and subsidized
products from desperate foreign markets. Each day of lost market share
equals real job losses and serious financial consequences for a vital
American industry.”

Although the Clinton administration
initially resisted calls to take action against the “dumping”
of steel, the Commerce Department ruled in late March that Belgium, Canada,
Italy, South Africa, South Korea and Taiwan all illegally dumped stainless
steel into the U.S. market. Stainless steel from those nations could face
tariffs as high as 60 percent if the U.S. International Trade Commission
decides the “dumping” hurt domestic steel makers. Although stainless
steel makes up only a small percentage of the steel market, this decision
makes it all the more likely that the Commerce Department will rule that
Japan, Russia and Brazil illegally dumped hot-rolled carbon steel into
U.S. markets.

As with most “anti-dumping”
appeals, however, the real problem is not with the foreign producers but
with the domestic steel industry; special protectionist measures now will
only reinforce and exacerbate those problems.

As a September 1998 article
in The Economist noted, long-running protectionist legislation
on behalf of the steel industry has encouraged firms to avoid taking measures
to reduce their costs or improve their operating procedures. Whereas in
other countries consolidation of firms has followed relatively flat steel
prices, The Economist notes “in the hour or so it takes to
get from Gary, Indiana, to Chicago you will pass nearly half a dozen full-scale
integrated steel plants, each with its own supplier networks, inventory,
production schedules, marketing and sales force.” ThatÂ’s an extremely
expensive method of business for a rather undifferentiated commodity such
as steel.

In fact it is so inefficient
that the traditional steel industry faces serous domestic challenges from
small-scale competitors once derisively referred to by the big steel companies
as “mini-mills.” Unlike the traditional steel companies, which
use ion ore and huge blast furnaces, the mini-mills use scrap metal and
electric-arc furnaces. Dismissed only a few years ago as insignificant
players, mini-mill companies such as Nucor now produce almost 40 percent
of U.S. steel and Nucor recently passed U.S. Steel as the number one domestic
producer of steel.

The more traditional steel
companies have tried to run their own mini-mills with little success.
An Alabama plant, Trico, financed by a group of traditional steel producers,
lost nearly $40 million last year. The large steel companies with their
bureaucratic, old style production methods have been unable to replicate
the set of management processes and coordination necessary to make mini-mills
succeed.

The large steel companies
are using the current surge in steel imports, caused in part by the huge
boom in the U.S. economy, to seek quotas to protect them from their own
inefficient production methods. House Republicans and Democrats joined
together in late March to approve the Steel Recovery Act which would limit
the amount of steel imported into the U.S. to the average of level of
steel imports from July 1995 to July 1997.

This bill would be a disaster.
According to the Precision Metalforming Association, limiting steel imports
to this average would have left American industry 4 million tons of steel
short of what it needed. The result would be a dramatic rise in the price
of steel in the U.S., which would result in increased cost to consumers
— a special tax on consumers to benefit the steel giants. In addition
without an opportunity to sell its steel in the world’s largest market,
foreign nations won’t have access to the dollars they need to help recover
from the ongoing Asian economic crisis. Setting up protectionist barriers
in America now would be like throwing gasoline on a raging fire.

The regimen of protectionist
barriers on foreign goods such as Japanese cars already harms American
consumers (almost $1,000 per car in the case of the automobile quota);
the last thing Congress should be doing in the midst of AmericaÂ’s economic
boom is imposing even more burdens on business and consumers.

Gattaca: The Documentary

In the dystopic film, Gattaca,
Ethan Hawke plays a man in a world where genetic testing and engineering
run amok. Children’s DNA is tested at birth and their genetic makeup used
by the government and businesses to determine what sort of job they will
hold and the person they will marry. Just a scary fantasy, right? Maybe,
but Michigan is taking a giant step towards making some parts of that
fictional future come true.

Beginning in 1965 Michigan required
blood samples to be taken from all newborns. The samples were handed over
to the state for genetic testing. Like many such laws, this one was passed
to “protect” children — the blood samples were screened for treatable
genetic disorders such as hypothyroidism. Although the state claims to
be looking out for children, parents aren’t informed of the procedure
— my wife and I learned about the law from newspaper reports about the
law not from the Michigan hospital which took our daughter’s DNA on behalf
of the state.

In 1983, the Michigan legislature
passed a law requiring the state to keep the blood samples on file, but
didn’t specify for how long. State officials claimed that for liability
purposes it needed to keep the blood samples until the children turned
21, at which time the samples would be destroyed. The first wave of children
targeted by the law will turn 21 in 2003. As that date gets closer, however,
the state is already concocting new justifications for keep the samples
indefinitely and is already putting the samples to use in ways that should
frighten anyone concerned with fundamental civil liberties.

A privacy commission set up
by Michigan’s Republican governor, John Engler, recently issued a proposal
that the state should maintain the DNA samples literally forever. The
privacy commission (which seems rather unconcerned with people’s privacy
concerns), notes that DNA samples have already been instrumental in solving
crimes. In several high profile cases, DNA samples of children involved
in kidnapping and murder cases have been used to identify the victims
and the criminals who preyed on them. Police use of the DNA samples in
such cases currently requires parental consent, but it doesnÂ’t any sort
of court order. The privacy commission believes that status quo should
be maintained.

At each step of the way, the
state has pushed the boundaries. When it started taking DNA samples and
testing them in the 1960s it could have made the program voluntary —
large numbers of Michigan citizens probably would have allowed the state
to pay for genetic tests of their children, though clearly some would
have opted out. Similarly, the state could make the retention of the records
voluntary. It could allow parents the choice of whether or not to maintain
their children’s DNA for forensic use and it could give the children of
such parents the choice of whether or not to have the DNA samples destroyed
when they reach 18.

But of course the state doesn’t
do this because the argument at each stage is that the mandate is for
the greater good — it’s the government looking out for the poor defenseless
children.

Over time, though, the state
will inevitably continue to push the envelope and expand police access
to the DNA samples to promote the common good. Michigan cities are already
on the cutting edge of questionable police use of DNA.

In 1994, for example, Ann
Arbor, Michigan, was plague by a serial killer. Police suspected the killer
was an African American and knew some of his general habits but had little
else to go on. So they forced 160 African American men to submit to “voluntary”
DNA testing to exclude themselves as suspects in the killings. The tests
were voluntary in the same way that getting arrested is voluntary — those
who refused to give DNA often received police visits at work or had police
stop them on buses or on the street.

Blair Shelton was one of the
men who gave his DNA sample only after police harassment at his workplace.
Like all 160 men, Shelton was excluded as a suspect. The police eventually
caught the serial killer, but without any help from the DNA dragnet.

The nightmare was only beginning
for Shelton, however. Even though another man was convicted of the murders
and the DNA sample excluded him from being connected to the crime, the
Michigan State Police insisted they had to keep his DNA sample on hold
indefinitely. First the prosecutor claimed they had to keep the blood
sample on file until the convicted killer exhausted his appeals. The prosecutor
actually expected people to believe that if DNA samples of someone who
had nothing to do with the crime were destroyed, the real killer’s conviction
could be overturned. When that argument didn’t fly, the police argued
that if their crime lab destroyed the samples they might lose their accreditation!

Shelton had to sue and his
case spent several years in the courts. Finally in 1997 the Michigan Supreme
Court ordered the state police to destroy all blood samples they had taken
from suspects for the purpose of DNA testing. State police Capt. Richard
Lowthian actually told the Detroit News, “It’s a monumental change in
the way we operate. When we eliminate someone as a suspect, were’ going
to immediately destroy the records. We have no choice.”

But given the choice, Lowthian
clearly would have liked to maintain the records. And it is a matter of
time before the police begin lobbying the legislature to overturn the
Supreme Court’s ruling. All it will take will be a single high profile
murder or rape and police suggestion that if they had just maintained
their DNA samples, they could have cracked the case quickly.

This is, after all, how things
have gone in Europe. In many European countries widespread DNA testing
has become an all purpose tool for police. In a 1997 case in France, for
example, a judge ordered every man in the village of Plein-Fougeres to
undergo “voluntary” DNA tests in hopes of finding the murderer of 13-year-old
Caroline Dickinson who was raped and strangled while on a school trip
in the area in 1996.

In Great Britain, authorities
were on the verge of ordering 7,500 truck drivers to undergo DNA testing
after the murder of a visiting French student. Before the authorities
could put their plan into action, however, the killer was apprehended.
In fact in the United Kingdom DNA is routinely taken from criminal suspects
and stored in a national database. Of course British officials reassure
the public that the innocent have nothing to fear.

Police officials in the United
States look at such provisions and begin salivating. Apparently in agreement
with Michigan authorities, New York City Police Commissioner made headlines
when he called for maintaining a database of DNA sample from everyone
arrested in New York.

So pardon me if I’m a bit skeptical
when Michigan tells me that they’re only interested in protecting my daughter
by keeping her DNA on file indefinitely.

India, Poland Good Examples of What Not to Do

India and Poland recently made world news with protests in both countries over
food prices. Both nations, though publicly committing themselves to move away
from socialist-style economies continue to heavily subsidize agriculture as
well as set prices for food.

In Poland, farmers held strikes and set up roadblocks to demand higher prices
for food. Poland is reforming and privatizing is state-run enterprises as it
heads toward European Union membership. Unfortunately, decades of communist
mismanagement of the agricultural sector mean Polish farmers aren’t even
close to being competitive with other European growers, and they fear being
put out of business by cheaper imports from other EU nations.

The farmers solution? Force Polish government (and thereby consumers) to purchase
food from farmers at an extremely high price in order to protect Polish farmers
from competition. The Polish government seems likely to go along with this nonsense.

This is a disastrous policy for several reasons. First, contrary to the Associated
Press’ Andrzej Stylinski who wrote the protests “illustrate that
many are worried about tougher competition that threatens living standards,”
if allowed to flourish agricultural competition will enhance Polish living standards.
Although farmers will experience some short-term financial problems, this would
be more than made up by the benefits to the entire nation of lower food prices.

Second, such subsidies have proven to be long-term albatrosses around the
neck of consumers wherever they have been implemented. The political pressure
which creates them also makes it very difficult to ever remove them, and as
a result once large subsidies are in place the impetus to modernize and become
competitive is lost. Even in the United States, which has a comparatively free
market system, agricultural subsidies passed under emergency conditions or to
address very specific, short-term problems have remained in place decades after
they served any purpose other than enhancing farmers’ bottom lines at
the expense of consumers.

India has a similar problem – after protests it announced it was lowering
announced price hikes on wheat and rice available at government-run ration stores
that serve over 300 million poor Indians. The government buys commodities such
as wheat and rice and then turns around and sells the commodities at a much
lower price in the stores.

Again, such subsidies distort the information that agricultural markets need
to operate efficiently. Since neither the farmers nor the consumers receive
or pay market prices, the farmers have no incentive to be more competitive and
consumers have no incentive to seek out more competitive producers.

The result of such systems can be seen in India which experienced a poor summer
crop and as a result has seen severe shortages of some commodities such as onions.
India’s vast system of subsidies only exacerbates such naturally occurring
problems and magnifies their effect as has happened with the onion shortage.

Sources:

Polish farmers bow to government pressure, suspend protests for higher prices.
Andrzej Stylinski, Associated Press, February 4, 1999.

India lowers wheat, rice prices under pressure. Associated Press, February
2, 1999.

Gas Prices Hit Another All-Time Low in the United States

Gasoline prices in the United States reached an all-time inflation-adjusted
low in February, dropping to less than $1 per gallon nationwide. The average
cost of gasoline for all grades and including taxes reached 99.8 cents per gallon
on February 18 according to the Lundberg Survey of 10,000 gas stations nationwide.

After 18 months of perpetually declining prices, however, gas prices might
soon begin to inch upwards. “The price cutting is faster and deeper than it’s
been so far this year, but it is probably fizzing out,” Trilby Lundberg
told the Associated Press. “Behind the average price fall are a few lonely
no-change (prices) or price hikes here and there, from which I infer that retailers
and their suppliers can’t take it anymore.”

Add increased demand in the spring along with pollution control measures that
will likely add to the cost of gas, and American consumers will likely see an
upward correction over the next few months.

So much for those who 3 years ago were predicting an imminent oil shortage
and massive price hikes.

Source:

Gas prices dip to less than $1. Associated Press, February 21, 1999.

Hillary Clinton Denounces Forced Family Planning at Hague Forum

“Today I hope we can agree first and foremost that government has no place
in the personal decisions a woman makes about whether to bring a child into the
world,” U.S. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton told the delegates at the
Hague Forum. The Hague Forum is a meeting of government and non-government representatives
discussing the progress the world has made on population issues since 1994s UN
Conference on Population in Cairo, Egypt.

When it comes to family size, “that is a decision that should be made
freely and responsibly without government coercion,” Clinton said.

The Hague Forum produced the usual round of commentary about overpopulation.
The Boston Globe, for example, followed Paul Ehrlich’s lead with its editorial,
“A population Bomb.” World population will continue to boom, despite
the ongoing decline in total fertility rates, unless the United States increases
its family planning assistance to developing nations.

On the other side were conservatives such as Jay Ambrose who noted “Lester
Brown of the World Watch Institute is still watching and still announcing how
close we all have come to endless midnight, though … statistics still
show human welfare improving virtually any direction you look.”

There might be some middle ground here, though. Clinton, the Globe and Ambrose
all agreed that increasing the status and health options of women is of fundamental
importance for the 21st century.

Sources:

Hillary Clinton urges an end to forced family planning. Mike Corder, Associated
Press, February 9, 1999.

Population summit. Jay Ambrose, Scripps Howard News Service, February 9, 1999.

A population time bomb. Boston Globe, February 8, 1999.