Devil in the Details

They Want Your TV

As current law has it, the residents of the 16 million American households that still rely on over-the-air broadcasts as their only source of television will awaken on January 1, 2007, to nothing but a snowy screen, as the channels they've relied on for decades all suddenly stop broadcasting. The looming turnoff is the result of a mid-1990s effort to spur the manufacture of high-definition televisions by providing consumers with something to watch. The idea was to give, free of charge, every television broadcaster a second band of frequency on the radio spectrum to be used for digital broadcasts. In response to criticism that this constituted an extraordinarily large giveaway, the gift was made a temporary one: In 2007 the broadcasters must give back the extra spectrum and move exclusively to digital signals.

In practice, nobody expects Congress to actually go through with the plan. Access to free television is, as one telecom analyst puts it, “the real third rail of American politics.” But there's a serious problem with simply delaying the transition date to some uncertain point in the future when nobody relies on analog over-the-air broadcasts. Over the past five years, the United States has dropped from fourth to 13th place in the International Telecommunications Union's rankings of the most-wired nations, primarily because of a lack of competition. Opening the spectrum to uses other than TV broadcasts is crucial to boosting Americans' Internet access because, as the New America Foundation's Michael Calabrese has testified to Congress, “Access to these low frequencies can reduce the deployment costs for wireless networks by a factor of three or more.”

The good news is that the spectrum is so useful that taking it back from TV stations and selling it to other companies could raise a huge sum of money. Depending on how the auction is structured, the government is expected to raise between $10 billion and $30 billion. Offering free or subsidized conversion boxes that would allow analog sets to receive digital broadcasts, as congressional Democrats have proposed, would cost far less -- somewhere between $355 million and $3.6 billion.

Standing in the way, however, are House Republicans led by Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton of Texas, who opposes such subsidies and has instead introduced draft legislation, to be taken up after the August recess, that would simply delay the transition date for two years. Such a postponement merely increases pressure for further delays in the future.

Meanwhile, the party that mocked Al Gore for suggesting that public policy might have had something to do with the creation of the Internet will have proved to everyone that while legislators may not invent the technologies of the future, they certainly can stifle their creation.

-- Matthew Yglesias

Our Federalists

With the Federalist Society, the right's networking organization for law students and lawyers, back in the news due to the John Roberts membership kerfuffle, many liberals are wondering, Why don't we have one of those?

Well, we do.

It's called the American Constitution Society (ACS), and it's rapidly becoming a force to be reckoned with. The two groups have roughly the same mission: to strengthen the prospects of their favored constitutional principles, both by debating and refining their legal arguments and by establishing a network of similarly minded students, lawyers, judges, and officials.

Nobody could claim the 4-year-old ACS has yet achieved parity with its conservative counterpart, which has a 19-year head start. The ACS' annual convention, held last month at Washington, D.C.'s Hyatt Regency Hotel, drew some 1,200 guests; the Federalist Society, which hosts separate lawyers' and students' conventions, drew roughly 2,000 attendees between the two.

But the ACS is catching up quickly. It now has chapters at 127 law schools, to the Federalist Society's 180, and it counts twice the number of lawyers' chapters as it did a year ago. Just as the Federalist Society has a reputation for lining up luminous panels featuring heavyweights on both sides of any debate, the ACS convention marshaled a lineup with names like Tribe, Mikva, Biden, and Dellinger -- not to mention appeals judges from half the circuits in the country and even George W. Bush's current solicitor general, Paul Clement.

“The ACS convention looked very much like a Federalist convention,” said panelist Bradford Berenson, a former associate counsel to President Bush and a Federalist Society member, “just with people with a different general set of beliefs in the audience.”

As with all things liberal these days, though, the frustration of an ideology in exile provided a subtext for much of the convention. Although many speakers raised questions about Roberts' suitability for the Court (NAACP President Elaine Jones, for example, raised the specter of such “brilliant” ignominies as Chief Justice Roger Taney, author of Dred Scott, and Supreme Court nominee Judah Benjamin, later the Confederacy's secretary of war), few attendees seemed to think he could be stopped.

Amid this grim political reality, the already robust ACS stands as a rare encouraging sign of liberal confidence. “A lot of people came up to me and said, ‘This is a pretty depressing time, and you're making us feel optimistic,'” said Lisa Brown, the ACS' executive director. “What more can we ask?”

-- Jeffrey Dubner

Iraq, Quantified

If you're a journalist or scholar writing about Iraq, chances are good you've come across the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index, a collection of statistics on the country's reconstruction. The data are compiled by senior fellow Michael O'Hanlon, who, along with research assistant Nina Kamp, crunches numbers on the fifth floor of the Brookings building near D.C.'s Dupont Circle. “This is ground zero,” says O'Hanlon, 44, in his office on a busy afternoon, 10 days before the August 15 deadline for a new Iraqi constitution, which, like most things involving that country, has become a contentious topic. Administration officials have been pushing for a strict deadline; others have encouraged a more flexible time line; O'Hanlon takes a balanced view.

“The broad strategy of trying to keep to a quick time line is correct,” he says. “But if it gets to a point where there's another week of work and they could get to a resolution on how to share oil revenues if they had more time, then it's worth a delay.”

It wasn't clear whether Iraqis were going to make the deadline. But one thing is certain: O'Hanlon will be fielding plenty of calls from journalists about the country's progress. That was the idea from the beginning. He created the index on November 14, 2003, because, he says, “I realized that by providing data systematically, you could get people to come to you.” It seems to have worked. He now has a quarterly column on The New York Times op-ed page, and the Iraq Index is cited regularly in major newspapers and on national television.

The formula is simple: O'Hanlon compiles statistics from the U.S. Department of Defense and other sources on such indicators as U.S. troop fatalities (1,818, August 2005); typical length of gasoline lines (one mile, January 2005); percent of Iraqis who say they're “hopeful for the future” (65.7, February 2005). Yet he knows the limits of indices.

“I wouldn't want to go to the extreme and say that you can predict the success of the war by using quantitative features,” he says. “We made that mistake in Vietnam.”

When O'Hanlon isn't compiling data on Iraq, he's working on a book project (with Kurt M. Campbell) to help Democrats hone their position on national security. “We're getting our butts kicked on this issue,” he says. “That's a documented fact.” Spoken like a true statistician.

-- Tara McKelvey

Metro Food Fight

Since late June, Washington's Metro buses and trains have been inundated by the “Got Lactose Intolerance” ad from The advertisement features four individuals seemingly caught in the throes of severe gastrointestinal distress, each scrambling to enter the same restroom, and the ad's text, like a ready-made lawyer joke, informs the lactose intolerant of D.C. that they may have grounds to join a class-action lawsuit against the milk industry.

The advertisements claim that 75 percent of people worldwide are lactose intolerant, and that minorities are even more likely to suffer the effects of lactose intolerance. The statistics regarding minorities explains the geography of the ad buy, which is concentrated on Metrorail's Green Line and the buses from Anacostia to northeast D.C. -- the transit routes serving the heaviest nonwhite areas in the District.

A visit to the Web site reveals Milk Makes Me Sick to be a side project of a larger group, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The PCRM was founded in 1985 and devotes the majority of its time to anti–animal-consumption efforts. It also heavily advocates vegetarianism or veganism by, among other things, publishing a starter's guide to vegetable diets and promoting its version of the four food groups: fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.

To the PCRM, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, nutritional health can be achieved only in the absence of meat and dairy products -- or “dairy crack,” as Neal Barnard, the organization's director, has called them. Complaints about the business and advertising practices of the meat and dairy industries are clearly just a skirmish in the larger war to promote mainstreamed veganism.

But the PCRM's are hardly the only philosophy-of-food ads adorning the Metro this summer. Abutting them are ones proclaiming that America's obesity epidemic is a mere myth propagated by the “food police.” The ad, titled “Obesity Hype,” is from the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), a Washington-based food-industry front group engaged in a seemingly endless press-release battle with the PCRM. In addition to identifying the PCRM as a “cult” and its “leader,” Barnard, as “Dr. Strange-Veggie,” the CCF claims that 95 percent of the PCRM's members never graduated from medical school and that the committee has ties to both PETA and to terrorist organizations.

Not too surprisingly, the CCF is a group founded by seed money from Philip Morris and is the primary propaganda arm for the food and dairy industries in the emerging battle over the politics of food. A nonprofit 501(c)(3), the CCF funnels most of its donations directly to Berman & Co., the lobbying firm of the CCF's founder, Rick Berman.

So if you're in Washington and can't find a political debate, take the Green Line and see Big Meat and Big Dairy duke it out with Big Vegan -- and wonder where's the party for the rest of us.

-- Jordan Kline


From the August 3 broadcast of the Focus on the Family radio show

James Dobson: … [P]eople talk about the potential for good that can come from destroying these little embryos and how we might be able to solve the problem of juvenile diabetes. There's no indication yet that they're gonna do that, but people say that, or spinal cord injuries or such things. But I have to ask this question: In World War II, the Nazis experimented on human beings in horrible ways in the concentration camps, and, I imagine, if you wanted to take the time to read about it, there would have been some discoveries there that benefited mankind. You know, if you take a utilitarian approach, that if something results in good, then it is good. But that's obviously not true. We condemn what the Nazis did because there are some things that we always could do but we haven't done, because science always has to be guided by ethics and by morality. And you remove ethics and morality and you get what happened in Nazi Germany.