“Nuance” in Politics and Public Policy? No, Thanks

In 2004, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry called his ever-shifting position on the war in Iraq “nuanced” as a way of explaining why he was for it before he was against it and why his prescriptions for its future kept changing.

“Nuance” pops up frequently in debates on politics and public policy, almost always as an excuse for either non-specificity on a current position or flip-flopping from a past position.

Of all the words in the political lexicon, none makes for a brighter neon DO NOT TRUST sign than “nuance.”

According to WordNet, “nuance” is “a subtle difference in meaning or opinion or attitude.”

Nuance is a wonderful characteristic in painting, literature, music, and the other arts.

In political philosophy and public policy, it’s  a cheat mechanism used for the purpose of creating unwarranted wiggle room.

“Define your terms, you will permit me again to say,” wrote Voltaire, “or we shall never understand one another.”

That’s the whole point of resort to “nuance” in political and policy discussions. The “nuanced” advocate or candidate doesn’t want to be understood, or at least doesn’t want to be understood clearly. He’s trying to create a loophole through which he can escape his position when that position becomes inconvenient.

“Nuance” is the excuse of the civil libertarian who’s all for free speech until someone says something she doesn’t like, at which point we learn that “hate speech isn’t free speech.”

It’s the talking point of the pro-gun-rights politician who announces that a 30-round magazine is too large and must be banned — but that his views on guns haven’t changed.

And yes,  it’s the plea from the formerly anti-war politician who votes to invade Iraq and then wants to be treated as the anti-war candidate.

What it’s not is a desirable quality in politics and public policy.

From our political candidates, we deserve clear statements of principle and position, not “nuanced” attempts to avoid declaring any principles or positions at all which they might later be held to. If a politician changes her mind, we deserve to know — and to know why — rather than just being told she hasn’t and that we just don’t get the “nuance.”

From our laws and proposals for laws, we deserve specificity. We’re expected to abide by those laws. Letting the cops, prosecutors, judges, and bureaucrats who implement and enforce them write post-passage “nuance” into them is letting them make the law up as they go and leaving ourselves at their “nuanced” mercy.

Regardless of one’s position on any given issue, it’s important to define our terms  and then either stick to them or admit that we’ve abandoned them.

In politics and public policy, “nuance” is where truth goes to die.

Open This Content

Lung Disease Outbreak: First Casualties of the War on Vaping?

On August 15, Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services announced “a cluster of people with severe lung disease who all reported recent vaping or dabbing (vaping marijuana oils, extracts, or concentrates).”  CNN reports more than 120 similar cases nationwide based on a survey of state health departments.

“Vaping” has been a thing  for a decade or so, practiced by 10 million or more Americans (including, sometimes, me). While some studies indicate that there may be down sides to using e-cigarettes, most of the evidence says it’s not nearly as bad for you as tobacco, and this is the first significant supposed “outbreak” of  vaping-related illness I’ve heard of.

What’s going on here?

The likely answer, sometimes alluded to but certainly not very well covered in the press, is that the outbreak is a sign of “success” in the FDA’s war on vaping and in the US government’s war on drugs in general.

Because marijuana remains illegal in most states, and because the FDA and state and local governments have cracked down hard on the sale of e-cigarette products to minors by retailers, nobody uses marijuana and teens don’t vape.

No, wait a minute. That’s not quite right. Let’s try this out instead:

Because marijuana remains illegal in most states, and because the FDA and state and local governments have cracked down hard on the sale of e-cigarette products to minors by retailers, there’s a booming black market in e-cigarette products, including “juice” that supposedly contains cannabis.

Teens are still vaping, and teens and adults are still using marijuana. But instead of buying “juice” from a reputable company at a local convenience store, they’re buying it on the street.

If companies like JUUL and retailers like Wawa sell dangerous products, they’re likely to face lawsuits, regulatory fines and sanctions,  and damage to their brand reputations. They try to avoid killing their customers, if for no other reason than that killing their customers would be bad for their bottom lines.

That guy on the street corner selling a cheap tank of cannabis sativa “juice” for your teenager’s e-cigarette may be an artisan who takes pride in his work. Or he may be a scam artist looking for a quick buck and your kid may be getting a cocktail of dangerous chemicals intended to simulate cannabis from someone without a name who will have moved to another corner — or another town — by the time your kid shows up at the ER with a breathing problem.

Stay tuned as the same “public health” advocates who brought us the first wave of e-cigarette regulation for the chillllllllllldren  label the current outbreak an “emergency” and demand more of the same measures that made that outbreak inevitable.

The war on drugs, in which the war on vaping is quickly becoming the latest front, has done far more harm to Americans than the drugs themselves. If you care about your kids, talk with them — and if necessary buy their vape products for them instead of sending them to the street corner.

Open This Content

Politics versus Policy in the New “Public Charge” Rules

On August 12, the Trump administration announced new rules for immigrants seeking permanent residence status (through issuance of a “green card”)  in the United States. Those rules apply a longstanding prohibition on immigrants likely to become “public charges” (that is, dependent on government benefits) to  applicants who have received certain of those government benefits — among them Medicaid, SNAP (“food stamps”), and housing assistance — for more than 12 months.

The politics of the move are obvious: Trump is throwing more red meat to his anti-immigration “base.” The new rules are of a piece with his border wall project and high-profile ICE raids on workplaces where undocumented immigrants are employed. They’re not intended to solve a problem. They’re intended to keep his voters enthused as the 2020 election cycle heats up.

As actual policy, who can really complain? Well, some people can and will. But if the US government is going to regulate immigration at all (I don’t believe that it should, and the Constitution says it can’t), “pay your own way or go away” doesn’t sound like an unreasonable rule.

Interestingly, though, the policy conflicts with the politics. It discourages the “legal” immigration most Trump voters claim to be fine with, and encourages the “illegal” immigration he campaigned on a promise of “fixing.”

Suppose you are a would-be immigrant to the United States.

You can “get in line,” fill out forms, show up for meetings, submit to questioning, bust your hump meeting various requirements, and still find yourself turned away (or sent back) for any number of reasons.

Or you can walk across the border in the middle of the night and go to work, with a much lower chance of being found out, and sent back, than if you interacted with US immigration authorities.

Adding to the burden of the first approach doesn’t mean fewer immigrants. It just means that more immigrants will take the second approach.

Is that the outcome you signed up for, Trump voters?

Anti-immigration agitators fondly quote economist Milton Friedman: “[I]t is one thing to have free immigration to jobs. It is another thing to have free immigration to welfare. And you cannot have both.” The rule change is a sop to that sentiment. But it leaves out another thing Friedman said about what happens when we try to have both:

“Mexican immigration, over the border, is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country. But, it’s only good so long as it’s illegal.”

If Americans want fewer “public charges,” the solution isn’t to single out immigrants for exclusion from government welfare benefits. It’s to eliminate, or at least drastically reduce and toughen  eligibility requirements for, those welfare benefits. For everyone, not just for people who happen to  hail from the “wrong” side of an imaginary line on the ground.

Two evils — immigration authoritarianism and welfare statism — do not add up to one good. We should ditch both.

Open This Content

Sneering at “Conspiracy Theories” is a Lazy Substitute for Seeking the Truth

On the morning of August 10, a wealthy sex crimes defendant  was reportedly found dead in his cell at New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center.

“New York City’s chief medical examiner,” the New York Times reported on August 11, “is confident Jeffrey Epstein died by hanging himself in the jail cell where he was being held without bail on sex-trafficking charges, but is awaiting more information before releasing her determination …”

That same day, the Times published an op-ed by Charlie Warzel complaining that “[e]ven on an internet bursting at the seams with conspiracy theories and hyperpartisanship, Saturday marked a new chapter in our post-truth, ‘choose your own reality’ crisis story.”

After three years of continuously beating the drum for its own  now-discredited conspiracy theory —  that the President of the United States conspired with Vladimir Putin’s regime to rig the 2016 presidential election — the Times doesn’t have much standing to whine about, or sneer at, “conspiracy theories and hyperpartisanship.”

Is Jeffrey Epstein really dead? If so, did he kill himself or was he murdered? If he was murdered, whodunit and why?

Those are legitimate questions. Calling everyone who asks them, or proposes possible answers to them, a “conspiracy theorist” isn’t an argument, it’s intellectual laziness.

Yes, some theories fit the available evidence better than others. And yes, some theories just sound crazy. If someone says a UFO beamed Epstein up, or that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump posed as corrections officers and personally strangled him, I suggest setting those claims aside absent very strong evidence.

But there are plenty of good  reasons to question the “official account.”

Yes, prisoners have committed suicide at federal jails and prisons. But prisoners have also escaped from, and been killed at, such facilities. In fact, notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger was murdered in a federal prison just last year.

Given Epstein’s wealth and power, the wealth and power of persons accused of serious crimes in recently unsealed court documents, the claim of one of his prosecutors that Epstein “belonged to” the US intelligence community, the well-established inability of the federal government to secure its facilities or prevent criminal activity inside those facilities (including the corruption of its own personnel), the equally well-established unreliability of claims made by government agencies and officials in general, and the already flowing stream of admissions that the Metropolitan Correctional Center’s procedures weren’t followed where Jeffrey Epstein was concerned, the question is not why “conspiracy theories” are circulating — it’s why on earth they WOULDN’T be.

No, I’m not saying that Epstein is alive and living it up in “witness protection,” or that he was murdered by a hit team on behalf of one of his “Lolita Express” cronies. I just don’t know. Neither, probably, do you. Nor do those screaming “conspiracy theory!” at every musing contrary to the suicide theory.

Maybe we’ll find out the truth someday. Maybe we won’t. Pretending we already have, and shouting down those who suggest we haven’t, isn’t a method of seeking knowledge. It’s a method of avoiding knowledge.

Open This Content

Reading is Fundamental; Congress Should Try It

As the US House of Representatives took up the Affordable Care Act, aka “ObamaCare,” in 2010, then Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) famously told her fellow members of Congress “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”

The 900-plus page bill (which eventually sprouted thousands of pages of implementing rules and regulations) had been posted to the web only days before, printing and distribution of hard copies was taking time, and some members felt that its content bore careful consideration and discussion before a vote.

They ended up passing it anyway, but they were right to worry. Since the ACA became law, its provisions have created considerable confusion and debate in the public square, among regulators, and in the courts.

Is it really too much to ask of US Representatives and US Senators that they know what they’re voting on before they vote? Apparently so, and it’s easy to see why.

Legislation that arrives before Congress these days isn’t even really written by members of Congress. It’s written by staffs of lawyers and “experts,” then its details are thrashed out between teams from those staffs.

By the time a bill actually comes to a vote, it’s often long, confusing, and full of devilish details that any given member might vote against if he or she noticed them. They count on their staffs (and lobbyists who influenced the legislation) to notice those details for them. Congress is effectively a 535-headed rubber stamp, albeit one of mixed “yeas” and “nays.”

It shouldn’t be that way. It doesn’t have to be that way. In 2006, Downsize DC proposed the Read The Bills Act. It’s about 3,000 words long, but  its core provision requires that “before final passage of any bill (other than a private bill) or resolution, the full verbatim reading of the text to each house of Congress.”

US Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) sponsored the Read The Bills Act in 2012. It didn’t pass. It should have.

Harvey Silverglate points out in his book Three Felonies a Day that “[e]ven the most intelligent and informed citizen (including lawyers and judges, for that matter) cannot predict with any reasonable assurance whether a wide range of seemingly ordinary activities might be regarded by federal prosecutors as felonies.”

We have way too many laws. Those laws are too long and at turns too vague and too detailed, depending on whether vagueness or detail better facilitate the arbitrary exercise of government power.

If Congress can’t be bothered to even know what’s in the laws it passes, why should the rest of us be bothered to understand and follow those laws?

It’s time to pass, and follow, the Read The Bills Act.

Open This Content

Tweeting Publicly Available Information Isn’t “Shameful and Dangerous”

On August 5, US Representative Joaquin Castro (D-TX) posted an infographic to Twitter naming and shaming his city’s most generous supporters of President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign: “Sad to see so many San Antonians as 2019 maximum donors to Donald Trump …. Their contributions are fueling a campaign of hate that labels Hispanic immigrants as ‘invaders.’”

Condemnations quickly followed.

Donald Trump Jr. compared the tweet to the Dayton, Ohio killer’s “hit list.”

“Targeting and harassing Americans because of their political beliefs is shameful and dangerous,” tweeted House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), apparently forgetting the time he similarly targeted Democratic donors in the 2018 midterms.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) played the sympathy card: “This isn’t a game. It’s dangerous, and lives are at stake. I know this firsthand.” Scalise was shot and wounded by a Bernie Sanders supporter in 2017.

US Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) called Castro’s tweet “grossly inappropriate” and characterized it as “encouraging retaliation.” While re-tweeting it.

Come on, Republicans. This isn’t even a tempest in a teapot. Castro didn’t “dox” anyone, nor did he call for, explicitly or implicitly, violence against anyone. His tweet included only public information  available to anyone with an Internet connection and a few minutes to waste.

Candidates for federal office are legally  required  to report the names, addresses, and occupations of everyone who donates $200 or more to their campaigns. Those names,  partial addresses, occupations, and amounts donated reside in a searchable database on the Federal Election Commission’s web site.

I personally don’t support these campaign finance laws. I think disclosure of donor information should be voluntary. I would be disinclined to vote for a candidate who concealed where his or her support came from, and hope other voters would as well, but I don’t believe that political speech in the form of campaign donations should be forcibly regulated in any way.

But whether I like it or not, campaign contributions are, by law, easily discovered public information, on the premise that we all have a right to know who’s giving money to which candidates … and to act accordingly (short of criminal violence) with respect to both those candidates and those donors.

And, let’s face it, someone who donates the maximum legal amount ($2,700) to a presidential candidate has an agenda. That agenda might be political (she supports the candidate’s ideas) or commercial (he’s trying to buy influence) or personal (they’re buddies or relatives). Whatever that agenda is, they’re putting real money into it.

If I know a local business owner or acquaintance donated to a candidate or cause I consider evil or dangerous, I may take my business elsewhere or not invite the donor to my next backyard barbecue. If I know a business owner or acquaintance supports the same candidates and causes I support, I might go out of my way to patronize that business or get to know the acquaintance better.

Those possibilities are just costs or opportunities of political donations. If you’re not proud of your agenda, keep your checkbook closed. “Problem” solved.

Open This Content