Tesla, Nissan, Google, and several carmakers have declared that they will have commercial self-driving cars on the highways before the end of this decade. Experts at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers predict that 75 percent of cars will be self-driving by 2040. So far California, Nevada, Florida, Michigan, and the District of Columbia have passed laws explicitly legalizing self-driving vehicles, and many other states are looking to do so.
The coming era of autonomous autos raises concerns about legal liability and safety, but there are good reasons to believe that robot cars may exceed human drivers when it comes to practical and even ethical decision making.
More than 90 percent of all traffic accidents are the result of human error. In 2011, there were 5.3 million automobile crashes in the United States, resulting in more than 2.2 million injuries and 32,000 deaths. Americans spend $230 billion annually to cover the costs of accidents, accounting for approximately 2 to 3 percent of GDP.
Proponents of autonomous cars argue that they will be much safer than vehicles driven by distracted and error-prone humans. The longest-running safety tests have been conducted by Google, whose autonomous vehicles have traveled more than 700,000 miles so far with only one accident (when a human driver rear-ended the car). So far, so good.
Stanford University law professor Bryant Walker Smith, however, correctly observes that there are no engineered systems that are perfectly safe. Smith has roughly calculated that "Google's cars would need to drive themselves more than 725,000 representative miles without incident for us to say with 99 percent confidence that they crash less frequently than conventional cars." Given expected improvements in sensor technologies, algorithms, and computation, it seems likely that this safety benchmark will soon be met.
Still, all systems fail eventually. So who will be liable when a robot car-howsoever rarely-crashes into someone?
An April 2014 report from the good-government think tank the Brookings Institution argues that the current liability system can handle the vast majority of claims that might arise from damages caused by self-driving cars. A similar April 2014 report from the free market Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) largely agrees, "Products liability is an area that may be able to sufficiently evolve through common law without statutory or administrative intervention."
A January 2014 RAND Corporation study suggests that one way to handle legal responsibility for accidents might be to extend a no-fault liability system, in which victims recover damages from their own auto insurers after a crash. Another RAND idea would be to legally establish an irrebuttable presumption of owner control over the autonomous vehicle. Legislation could require that "a single person be responsible for the control of the vehicle. This person could delegate that responsibility to the car, but would still be presumed to be in control of the vehicle in the case of a crash."
This would essentially leave the current liability system in place. To the extent that liability must be determined in some cases, the fact that self-driving cars will be embedded with all sorts of sensors, including cameras and radar, will provide a pretty comprehensive record of what happened during a crash.
Should we expect robot cars to be more ethical than human drivers? In a fascinating March 2014 Transportation Research Record study, Virginia Tech researcher Noah Goodall wonders about "Ethical Decision Making During Automated Vehicle Crashes." Goodall observes that engineers will necessarily install software in automated vehicles enabling them to "predict various crash trajectory alternatives and select a path with the lowest damage or likelihood of collision."
To illustrate the challenge, Stanford's Smith considers a case in which you are driving on a narrow mountain road between two big trucks. "Suddenly, the brakes on the truck behind you fail, and it rapidly gains speed," he imagines. "If you stay in your lane, you will be crushed between the trucks. If you veer to the right, you will go off a cliff. If you veer to the left, you will strike a motorcyclist. What do you do? In short, who dies?"
Fortunately such fraught situations are rare. Although it may not be the moral thing to do, most drivers will react in ways that they hope will protect themselves and their passengers. So as a first approximation, autonomous vehicles should be programmed to choose actions that aim to protect their occupants.
Once the superior safety of driverless cars is established, they will dramatically change the shape of cities and the ways in which people live and work.
Roadway engineers estimate that typical highways now accommodate a maximum throughput of 2,200 human-driven vehicles per lane per hour, utilizing only about 5 percent of roadway capacity. Because self-driving cars would be safer and could thus drive closer and faster, switching to mostly self-driving cars would dramatically increase roadway throughput. One estimate by the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research in November 2013 predicts that a 50 percent autonomous road fleet would boost highway capacity by 22 percent; an 80 percent robot fleet will goose capacity 50 percent, and a fully automated highway would see its throughput zoom by 80 percent.
Autonomous vehicles would also likely shift the way people think about car ownership. Currently most automobiles are idle most of the day in driveways or parking lots as their owners go about their lives. Truly autonomous vehicles make it possible for vehicles to be on the road much more of the time, essentially providing taxi service to users who summon them to their locations via mobile devices. Once riders are done with the cars, the vehicles can be dismissed to serve other patrons. Self-driving cars will also increase the mobility of the disabled, elderly, and those too young to drive.
Researchers at the University of Texas, devising a realistic simulation of vehicle usage in cities that takes into account issues such as congestion and rush hour patterns, found that if all cars were driverless each shared autonomous vehicle could replace 11 conventional cars. In their simulations, riders waited an average of 18 seconds for a driverless vehicle to show up, and each vehicle served 31 to 41 travelers per day. Less than one half of one percent of travelers waited more than five minutes for a ride.
By one estimate in a 2013 study from Columbia University's Earth Institute, shared autonomous vehicles would cut an individual's average cost of travel by as much as 75 percent compared to now. There are some 600 million parking spaces in American cities, occupying about 10 percent of urban land. In addition, 30 percent of city congestion originates from drivers seeking parking spaces close to their destinations. A fleet of shared driverless cars would free up lots of valuable urban land while at the same time reducing congestion on city streets. During low demand periods, vehicles would go to central locations for refueling and cleaning.
Since driving will be cheaper and more convenient, demand for travel will surely increase. People who can work while they commute might be willing to live even farther out from city centers. But more vehicle miles traveled would not necessarily translate into more fuel burned. For example, safer autonomous vehicles could be built much lighter than conventional vehicles and thus consume less fuel. Smoother acceleration and deceleration would reduce fuel consumption by up to 10 percent. Optimized autonomous vehicles could cut both the fuel used and pollutants emitted per mile. And poor countries could "leapfrog" to autonomous vehicles instead of embracing the personal ownership model of the 20th century West.
If driverless cars are in fact safer, every day of delay imposes a huge cost. People a generation hence will marvel at the carnage we inflicted as we hurtled down highways relying on just our own reflexes to keep us safe.
Do Some Circus and Zoo Animals Dream of Freedom and Revenge Against Their Masters? One Author Says Yes
Reviewed: Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance, by Jason Hribal, CounterPunch/AK Press, 153 pages, $15.95
All along Hurricane Katrina's Evacuation Belt, in cities from Houston to Baton Rouge to Leesville, Louisiana, the exact same rumors are spreading faster than red ants at a picnic. The refugees from the United States' worst-ever natural disaster, it is repeatedly said, are bringing with them the worst of New Orleans' now-notorious lawlessness: looting, armed carjacking, and even the rape of children.
"By Thursday," the Chicago Tribune's Howard Witt reported, "local TV and radio stations in Baton Rouge...were breezily passing along reports of cars being hijacked at gunpoint by New Orleans refugees, riots breaking out in the shelters set up in Baton Rouge to house the displaced, and guns and knives being seized."
The only problem--none of the reports were true.
"The police, for example, confiscated a single knife from a refugee in one Baton Rouge shelter," Witt reported. "There were no riots in Baton Rouge. There were no armed hordes." Yet the panic was enough for Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden to impose a curfew on the city's largest shelter, and to warn darkly about "New Orleans thugs."
Even before evacuees could get comfy in Houston's Astrodome, rumors were flying that the refugees had already raped their first victim, just like that 7-year-old in the Superdome, or the babies in the Convention Center who got their throats slit. Not only was the Astrodome rape invented out of whole cloth, so, perhaps was the case reported 'round the globe of at least one prepubescent being raped and murdered in New Orleans' iconic sports arena.
"We don't have any substantiated rapes," New Orleans Police superintendent Edwin Compass said Monday, according to the Guardian. "We will investigate if the individuals come forward." The British paper further pointed out that, "While many claim they happened, no witnesses, survivors or survivors' relatives have come forward. Nor has the source for the story of the murdered babies, or indeed their bodies, been found. And while the floor of the convention center toilets were indeed covered in excrement, the Guardian found no corpses."
As Katrina wiped out New Orleans' communications infrastructure, and while key federal officials repeatedly expressed less knowledge than cable television reporters, panicky rumors quickly rushed in to fill the void. Many of them have shared the exact same theme--unspeakable urban ultra-violence, perpetuated by the overwhelmingly black population.
St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis issued a statement Monday that "Rumors are flying and being repeated occasionally in the media that describe supposed criminal actions in St. Tammany Parish. These rumors are NOT true." Police superintendent Compass had to fend off accusations that his beleagured force "stood by while women were raped and people were beaten."
The truth, whatever it may be, is clearly horrific enough, with just about every eyewitness account from New Orleans mentioning the palpable menace from crazed gangs of looters and ne'er-do-wells, especially after nightfall. Compass himself told reporters on Thursday that 88 of his cops were beaten back into a retreat by angry Convention Center refugees, forcing Mayor Ray Nagin to suspend rescue operations in favor of restoring a semblance of order.
But the lies matter too. If federal government officials can't even get their ass-covering justifications straight, let alone such non-trivial, easy-to-discern matters as whether there are indeed thousands of water-deprived refugees massed at a Convention Center, those stranded near the epicenter will likely be starved for information that could literally save their lives.
"Complaints are still rampant in New Orleans about a lack of information," NBC Anchor Brian Williams wrote on his weblog, echoing one of the most familiar complaints from the city.
I recently went out for a bout of activist carousing with Ban the Ban, a group opposed to the District of Columbia's proposed ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. I had expected to see plenty of heated arguments about the merits of the ban between smokers and non-smokers, and I did. I had not expected to see non-smokers attacking the ban on principle locked in debate with smokers who, between languorous puffs and grey exhalations, welcomed it as a means of reducing their own smoking.
If the argument--one I heard more than once from D.C. barflies--sounds strange, it is not, at any rate, rare. When New York City was mulling its own smoking ban, one young "man on the street" interviewee told the Village Voice: "I'd actually be all for it, which is odd since I am a smoker myself. I think it might make me smoke less. The increase in the cost of a pack of cigarettes hasn't stopped me from smoking. I just have friends who come up to visit from Florida bring cartons for me."
If we ignore for a moment the morality of endorsing a public restriction as a means to a personal self-help project, this is in one sense a perfectly ordinary thought. We are all, sometimes, afflicted with akrasia, those attacks of weak will that lead us to satisfy fleeting desires at the expense of our own acknowledged long-term interests.
Like Ulysses lashed to the mast, we empty the pantry of sweets, hire pricey personal trainers, join rehab groups, or loudly announce an intention to start working on that novel, knowing how embarrassed we'll feel if there's no progress to report when a friend asks how it's coming. Markets duly respond to our demand for self-restraint: Virgin Mobile recently introduced an anti-drunk dialing feature that allows users embarking on a pub crawl to block themselves from calling up that ex until the following morning.
There may even be ways for government to help us combat akrasia without overly restricting our freedoms. In his recent book The Ethics of Identity, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah offers (as a thought experiment more than a serious policy proposal) the example of the "self management card." When we go shopping for smokes or fatty foods or alcohol or a dose of heroin, Appiah imagines, the store is required to swipe our cards to ensure we haven't gone over a self-imposed limit, set by logging on to a special website set up for that purpose. An actual card of that sort would, of course, be a privacy nightmare, but it shows that attempts to help people make sound decisions need not be paternalistic.
Normal and necessary as these akrasia-countering mechanisms may be, though, they may also be symptoms of what Nobel laureate economist James Buchanan has dubbed "parentalism." Buchanan's term is not to be confused with paternalism, the familiar idea that sometimes people--other people--need to be restrained for their own protection from making poor choices. (In some cases, as with children or the severely mentally handicapped, this may well be right.) Parentalism is in a sense more insidious: It emerges when we begin to suspect that we ourselves are not competent to make our own choices, to yearn for someone to relieve us of the burden of choice. As Buchanan puts it:
Never mind the vomiting. For members of O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal, drinking ayahuasca, a foul-tasting psychedelic tea brewed from two Amazonian plants, involves four hours of recitation, chanting, questions and answers, and religious instruction.
That may help explain why the church has only 130 or so followers in the U.S., despite the drug trips at the center of its rituals. But the federal government does not want to take the chance that Uniao do Vegetal, a synthesis of Christianity and indigenous South American beliefs that originated in Brazil, will do for ayahuasca what Timothy Leary did for LSD.
So in 1999, after intercepting a shipment of ayahuasca extract bound for Uniao do Vegetal's U.S. headquarters in Santa Fe, customs agents searched the home of the group's president, Jeffrey Bronfman, and seized 30 gallons of the tea. In a case the U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to hear, the group's members are demanding that the government stop harassing them and start respecting their religious practices.
The Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration say ayahuasca is illegal because it contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is banned by the Controlled Substances Act. Uniao do Vegetal members say their use of ayahuasca is protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which prohibits the government from imposing a "substantial burden" on the free exercise of religion unless it is "the least restrictive means of furthering [a] compelling governmental interest."
In 2002 a federal judge, concluding that Uniao do Vegetal was likely to win this argument, issued a preliminary injunction barring the government from interfering with the church's rites. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit upheld the injunction in 2003, and last year the full appeals court concurred.
For the Bush administration, which is big on religion but down on drugs, this case ought to pose a dilemma. RFRA, passed in 1993 with strong support from religious conservatives, was aimed at maximizing religious liberty by requiring the government to meet a stringent test when it prevents people of faith from acting on their beliefs.
The law was a response to a 1990 decision in which the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom does not require the government to tolerate the peyote rituals of the Native American Church. While the First Amendment bars the government from deliberately targeting a specific religion, the Court said, it does not require exemptions from "neutral laws of general applicability" that happen to interfere with religious practices.
"To make an individual's obligation to obey such a law contingent upon the law's coincidence with his religious beliefs, except where the State's interest is 'compelling'...contradicts both constitutional tradition and common sense," wrote Justice Antonin Scalia for the majority. "Any society adopting such a decision would be courting anarchy."
Notwithstanding Scalia's warning, Congress passed RFRA with the intent of restoring the "compelling interest" test the Court had applied before the peyote case. Although the Court ruled in 1997 that RFRA was unconstitutional as applied to the states, it still binds the federal government.
In a 2002 case that foreshadowed Uniao do Vegetal's fight for the right to drink ayahuasca, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit suggested that RFRA might protect possession (but not distribution) of marijuana by Rastafarians. No doubt that possibility gives drug warriors nightmares in which everyone arrested on marijuana charges claims to consider the plant a sacrament.
Yet it's not as if the idea of exempting religious groups from drug bans is unthinkable. The Volstead Act allowed Jews and Catholics to continue drinking wine as part of their rituals, and the federal government (like many states) lets members of the Native American Church eat peyote, the very practice that gave rise to the Supreme Court's abandonment of the "compelling interest" test. It's hard to see why ayahuasca rituals, which are officially pemitted in Brazil, are less tolerable.
Still, Scalia had a point: Religious beliefs cannot be a license to break the law. The government would never allow a religious group to commit murder because its god demanded human sacrifices. Then again, preventing murder is a pretty compelling interest, part of government's central mission to protect people from aggression.
A good rule of thumb might be that when a religious group can reasonably demand an exemption from a law, it's the law rather than the group that deserves scrutiny.
If you're a cultural historian, a movie geek, or just looking for an excuse to spend three hours watching TV, here's a video double feature you should try. First watch the premier pot-smuggling flick of the 1970s, Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke. Then pop in the decade's most famous film about Coors smuggling, Smokey and the Bandit.
When you're done, try to figure out just how the good ol' boys and the hippies, two American tribes who were supposed to be sworn enemies, wound up flocking to such similar movies. The stories aren't twins--the heroes of Up in Smoke are too stoned to realize they're ferrying illegal cargo or that a smokey is on their trail--but if you catch them in the right light, they look like brothers.
These days it's widely recognized that it was the 1970s, not the '60s, that marked the real cultural revolution in the United States. The earlier decade might have seen America's traditionally tiny bohemia become a mass phenomenon, but it was in the '70s that the wave crashed, breaking down the boundaries between the rebels and the mainstream. One sign of this was a burst of creativity in Hollywood, where figures who spent the '60s soaking up the counterculture and making low-budget exploitation features--Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson--used their new freedoms and their unorthodox training to transform the face of American film.
Meanwhile, other hands kept turning out those exploitation movies. In the new book Hick Flicks: The Rise and Fall of Redneck Cinema (McFarland), Scott Von Doviak gives us an entertaining and illuminating look at their world.
"While blaxploitation pictures ruled the urban grindhouses, providing heroes and myths for those trapped in the inner cities," he writes, "hick flicks dominated the drive-in circuit, bringing their own set of archetypal figures to flyover country." Von Doviak, who covers film for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, has cast a wide net; he ends up discussing everything from early B movies to 21st-century fare, from backwoods creature features to arthouse documentaries. But the heart of his book is the 1970s, and the soul is movies about outlaws driving cars or trucks, ideally with a load of illicit spirits.
I can't endorse every opinion Von Doviak espouses. Notably, he fails to appreciate the peculiar charms of Sam Peckinpah's Convoy, surely the only film that is simultaneously a Christian allegory, a vaguely anarchist political fable, and a feature-length adaptation of a novelty song about CB radios. (It isn't a good movie, but it's much better than any picture starring Kris Kristofferson and Ali MacGraw has a right to be.) But Van Doviak is a witty and astute student of these films, entertainments that could simultaneously reflect the values of both the American counterculture and its alleged opposite.
I don't want to overstate this point. Hollywood has always celebrated individualist rebels, and the Southern backcountry has a longstanding anti-authoritarian tradition that, as the historian David Hackett Fisher put it in Albion's Seed, was "more radically libertarian, more strenuously hostile to ordering institutions than were the other cultures of British America."
Smokey and the Bandit was not a story that could be imagined only after 1969. It was a classic bandit narrative in the tradition of Robin Hood and Jesse James, with an invulnerable hero who defies unjust laws (in this case, speed limits and alcohol regulations), battles an oppressive sheriff (in this case, Jackie Gleason), and can move almost invisibly among the common folk who admire his heroic deeds (in this case, other drivers).
But this Robin Hood was rebelling at a time when the word rebellion invariably suggested the word freak. This Little John was played by Jerry Reed, a guy who used to jam with Elvis. This Sheriff of Nottingham was a fat racist cop, a cultural archetype that took hold during the civil rights movement--and was most evocative among those who sided with the protesters. The genre that begat them reached its peak after the country relaxed its attitudes toward on-screen sex, violence, and sympathy for lawbreakers, a change largely driven by the cultural revolution.
And there was something else. Once the ideals and fashions of Haight-Ashbury had leaked into the rest of the country, there was no predicting the ways they'd be adapted to local circumstances. By this point, those rednecks weren't just jeering the same sheriff as the hippies. Some of them were growing their hair, smoking weed, and listening to trippy music.
Such behavior swept the South and West in the '70s, but its headquarters was Austin, the city at the heart of Jan Reid's The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock (University of Texas Press). Originally published in 1974, Reid's compulsively readable book was revised and reissued last year in substantially expanded form. It tells how a group of Texas-based musicians, most famously Willie Nelson, created a new style of music, usually called outlaw country, and a new cultural archetype, dubbed the cosmic cowboy. Larry Yurdin, who spent a chunk of the '70s running radio stations in Austin and Houston, once described the cosmic-cowboy scene to me as "the Texas version, in 1972, of what happened in San Francisco in '67. In a good ol' boy, Wild West context, it was the Summer of Love. With guns."
Once such a tremendous cultural collision has happened, it starts to look natural, even inevitable, in retrospect. By 1979 Hank Williams Jr. could sing, "If I get stoned and sing all night long/It's a family tradition"--and sure enough, the tradition was there, and not just in the Williams family. It just had to be discovered first.
It's during that period of discovery, when cultural identities are being reinvented and reshuffled, that things look more ambiguous. There's a scene in White Lightning, one of the better hixploitation flicks, where two moonshine runners walk past a hippie van that has the slogan "Legalize marijuana!" scrawled on its side.
"Legalize that shit, it's gonna ruin moonshine liquor forever," spits one of the rednecks. I like to imagine the van was carrying Cheech and Chong. Ã‚Â
In December, after a federal jury convicted McLean, Va., pain doctor William Hurwitz of running a drug-trafficking operation, the foreman told The Washington Post "he wasn't running a criminal enterprise." Don't bother reading that sentence again; it's not going to make any more sense the second time around.
Hurwitz, who is scheduled to be sentenced on April 14 and will go to prison for life if U.S. District Judge Leonard Wexler follows the prosecutors' recommendation, was charged with drug trafficking because a small minority of his patients abused or sold narcotic painkillers he prescribed for them. Prosecutors argued his practice amounted to a "criminal enterprise" based on a "conspiracy of silence"--i.e., a conspiracy in which Hurwitz did not actually conspire with anyone--because he charged for his services and should have known some of his patients were faking or exaggerating their pain.
Judging from the comments of the jury foreman, Ralph Craft, the jurors did not really buy this theory. Perhaps they still harbored the legally unsophisticated notion that drug traffickers are people who engage in drug trafficking. But they convicted Hurwitz anyway, because they didn't like the way he practiced medicine.
"I'm not an expert," Craft conceded, while expressing the opinion that Hurwitz was "a little bit cavalier" in prescribing opioids. "He ramped up and ramped up the prescriptions very quickly," he said. "This is stuff that can kill people. He should have been extra careful."
Craft and his fellow jurors were appalled by the sheer number of pills Hurwitz prescribed. "The dosages were just astounding," he said, calling them "beyond the bounds of reason."
As an example, Craft cited a prescription for 1,600 pills a day. As Hurwitz explained during the trial, this particular prescription, which was never filled, resulted from a nurse's calculation error that was discovered at the pharmacy. But it's true that many of his patients were taking very high doses of painkillers, doses that would kill someone unaccustomed to narcotics.
Although the jurors apparently considered such doses inherently suspicious, they are necessary for treating severe chronic pain because patients develop tolerance to the analgesic effects of narcotics. They are safe because patients also develop tolerance to the potentially fatal respiration-depressing effects of these drugs. Responses to pain medication vary from person to person, and there is no a priori limit to how high doses can be "ramped up."
The prosecution deliberately obscured these points during Hurwitz's trial, relying on the jurors' ignorance of pain treatment principles to convict him. The government's main medical expert, Michael Ashburn, testified that consumption of high narcotic doses by patients with chronic pain who do not have cancer is a sign of drug abuse.
In a letter they wrote before the verdict, six past presidents of the American Pain Society rebuked Ashburn for this statement, along with several other misrepresentations of pain treatment standards. "We are stunned by his testimony," they said. "Use of 'high dose' opioid therapy for chronic pain is clearly in the scope of medicine."
As these pain experts recognized, Hurwitz was not the only person on trial at the federal courthouse in Alexandria. So was every doctor who has the courage to risk investigation by treating people who suffer from severe chronic pain with the high doses of opioids they need to make their lives livable.
In poignant letters to Judge Wexler, who has fairly wide latitude in punishing Hurwitz now that the U.S. Supreme Court has made federal sentencing guidelines merely advisory, dozens of his former patients recount how he saved them from constant agony caused by migraines, back injuries, reflex sympathetic dystrophy and other painful conditions that left them disabled, homebound, despondent, and in some cases, suicidal. They outline the difficulties they had in getting adequate treatment before they found Hurwitz and the trouble they've been having since the government put him out of business.
"Good pain doctors are hard to find," writes one. "I am saddened that Dr. Hurwitz is branded a criminal for helping me and helping people like me." Another argues that Hurwitz's "crime"--trusting his patients--was one of his greatest virtues. "It is to Dr. Hurwitz's credit," he says, "that he chose to trust that his patients were genuinely seeking relief from pain that cannot be objectively measured. This trust is, in my experience, all too rare."
Threatening doctors with prison for viewing their patients with inadequate suspicion will make it even rarer.
Does your urine belong to Congress? Should private citizens not suspected of any wrongdoing be hauled up to Capitol Hill and grilled under oath, on live TV, about what substances they've put in their bodies?
Congressman Henry Waxman sure thinks so. The Los Angeles Democrat is convening hearings Thursday, March 17 on the pressing national security issue of ballplayers using performance-enhancing steroids. Last Wednesday, subpoenas were sent out to seven current and former Major League Baseball players to testify about their hormones in front of the oxymoronic House Committee on Government Reform.
Only one player, recent retiree Jose Canseco, has enthusiastically accepted the committee's invitation, though he's lobbying hard for immunity. By crazy coincidence, the former Bash Brother has a new, factually-challenged and universally-panned bestseller on the market, titled Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big.
"Canseco's allegations about steroid use by Mark McGwire and other baseball players have received enormous media attention," an apparently envious Waxman wrote in his Feb. 24 letter requesting the hearings. "Many of the individuals have denied the accusations. Mr. Canseco insists his information is accurate. ... There is a simple way to find the truth in this matter. ... [H]ave them testify under oath."
Using the enormous power of the federal government to arbitrate literary disputes seems a little much. We wouldn't dream of forcing George W. Bush to swear on the Holy Bible just because Kitty Kelley reported that he snorted coke at Camp David, yet a private citizen's alleged use of a substance that's actually legal (with a prescription) is enough for Washington to set the wheels of publicity-masquerading-as-justice in motion.
And this isn't just a case of arrogant athletes getting their comeuppance – it potentially affects half the national labor force. Besides dragging Sammy Sosa and Jason Giambi on camera to recite the Fifth Amendment, the committee has issued a subpoena to Major League Baseball that, according to the L.A. Times, requests "results of drug testing since 2003," and "the names, disciplinary action taken and reason for suspension for all drug-related violations since 1990."
In other words, Congress is asserting its right to your drug tests, even if they were conducted based on a private agreement between employer and union, and even if the results – including disciplinary action – were understood at the time to be secret. About half of all employers test for drugs, and an estimated 50 million tests are performed each year. Should the federal government have the right to subpoena your private medical records?
That's hardly the only power-grab in this show trial. Waxman's committee (which is chaired by the equally distasteful Virginia Republican Tom Davis), literally believes it can investigative anything and everything it wants to. "Under the rules of the House," Davis and Waxman wrote Major League Baseball on Thursday, "the Committee on Government Reform may at any time conduct investigations of any matter."
Interestingly, baseball may end up mounting the first sustained attack on the committee's license to conduct fishing expeditions. Historically at each other's throats, team owners and the players union have joined forces under the same lawyer, Stanley Brand, who has vowed to fight the subpoenas on jurisdictional and constitutional grounds, all the way up to the Supreme Court.
"That would be limitless jurisdiction," Brand told told reporters after receiving the Davis/Waxman letter. "There would be nothing they couldn't look into ... . If that is the case, they don't have to have rules on jurisdiction because these guys can do whatever they want."
Cracks have already appeared in baseball's tenuous solidarity. Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling (who has no idea why he was subpoenaed) and White Sox slugger Frank Thomas have already said they'll testify. But Brand is at least talking a tough game about chalking a line in the sand.
For once, the urinalysis enthusiasts in the nation's sports pages are not joining as one to cheer on the feds. Epithets like "witch hunt" and "grandstanding politicians" are being tossed around, and for the first time in my memory, sportswriters are expressing concern about privacy rights and the long reach of Uncle Sam.
"I think they feel empowered to do whatever they want," Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Randy Wolf said last week, while emphasizing that he opposes steroid use. "You look at what they did with the 'confidential' drug tests that we had ... they said, 'Eh, we don't care if it was confidential or not. We're going to do what we want with it.'
"It's kind of a 1984 deal where basically, they want to know everything you're doing at all times, and because we're in the public spotlight our civil liberties are flushed down the toilet. It's chemical McCarthyism."
A Republican effort to stamp out needle-exchange programs abroad incensed editorial boards at The Washington Post and The New York Times last weekend, and both pages slammed the latest congressionally-mandated gag rule to hit the United Nations.
That conservatives are trying to stamp out harm reduction abroad is no small story, but both pages missed the fact that this is only the latest installment in a long story of strings-attached giving that has been changing U.S. foreign aid policy for years. From AIDS prevention measures stigmatizing sex, to anti-human trafficking targeting prostitution, to drug policies purged of pragmatism, foreign aid has become an American adventure in social engineering.
Global AIDS conferences have become as much a matter of America-bashing as AIDS-fighting. Last July, U.S. AIDS coordinator Randall Tobias was heckled mercilessly at the International AIDS conference in Bangkok. The discord stems from U.S. gestures toward a comprehensive approach on AIDS that never quite panned out. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria was founded three years ago as a multilateral effort to help funnel vast sums of money to developing countries in need of public health funding. It took a localized, hands-off approach, scrutinizing applications but generally leaving questions of implementation and disbursement to local agencies and governments. The U.S. offered the first grant of $200 million and was expected to be a major supporter.
But during the president's State of the Union Address in 2003, he busted out with something called the "President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief," or PEPFAR, and a competing bureaucracy was born.
PEPFAR was smaller in its ambitions – only 15 countries were targeted – but much better funded, with $15 billion promised over five years. The Global Fund's biggest donor had proven itself capable of promising huge sums of money, but they would not be going into the Global Fund. Tobias tried to stem the ensuing wave of criticism by claiming that the organizations could work together. But it soon became clear that they had fundamentally different missions. PEPFAR enthusiastically endorses the so-called "ABC" approach – Abstinence, Be Faithful, and Condoms. The program gave President Bush an opportunity to scale up from his $10 million abstinence crusade in Texas (where there is no evidence it worked) to a billion-dollar version in Africa (where there is new evidence it's not helping.)
PEPFAR promises that 33 percent of all funds are spent on abstinence-promotion and that faith-based organizations can receive funding even if they refused to talk about or provide contraception. Condoms, the most statistically proven and economically sound method of prevention, are a last resort to be distributed to "high-risk" groups. The program also forces any organization receiving funds to explicitly oppose the legalization of prostitution.
The anti-prostitution demand is major, and it affects anti-human trafficking funds as well as AIDS funding. NGOs and organizations fighting trafficking are likely to be working against the stigmatized, underground nature of illicit prostitution, but they can't accept U.S. funds unless they condemn the practice. In the U.S., the push for action on human trafficking has come from the Christian right, and the lines between victim and sex worker have all but disappeared. U.S. funds go to outfits like the International Justice Mission, which has been accused of " brothel raids " in which its representatives "rescue" Asian sex workers against their will. Human trafficking is a much bigger issue than sexual slavery, but U.S. efforts thus far have focused almost exclusively on women, children and sex work.
With sexually-active Africans and Southeast Asian prostitutes on the hit list, intravenous drug users couldn't be far behind. Representatives Mark Souder (R-Ind.) and Tom Davis (R-Va.) are now trying to keep American aid money out of the hands of any organization that promotes clean needle exchanges. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Charles has already succeeded in scaring the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) out of mentioning harm reduction in its literature, and UNODC projects are being threatened. Their actions have sent a ripple of terror through the network of international organizations.
Martin Jelsma, a program coordinator at the Transnational Institute, has been following the tension between the U.S. and UNODC for years. He worries that the current pressure "threatens the very heart of the few proven methods that are effective to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS."
As with condom distribution programs, there is no real question that needle exchange programs are effective in reducing AIDS transmission. In a hearing he held last month (tellingly titled "Is there such a thing as safe drug abuse?"), Souder didn't take long to reveal the root of his antipathy to harm reduction, and it had nothing to do with his alleged doubts about efficacy.
"These lifestyles," he said, "are the result of addiction, mental illness, or other conditions that should and can be treated rather than accepted as normal, healthy behaviors."
Souder's objections have to do with determining what is "normal" and "healthy" for other people; preventing AIDS transmission isn't on his agenda. As with the rest of U.S. AIDS assistance, his policies are more concerned with shaping a certain kind of global citizenry than stopping a virus. The New York Times editorial calls this a "triumph of ideology over science," but Souder and his coterie simply have different goals in mind. If keeping condoms and clean needles out of foreign hands are worthwhile goals in themselves, the science doesn't matter. Stopping the spread of AIDS would be a bonus, but it's not the priority, and it hasn't been for a long time.
Souder and others will talk of halting funding, but funding will only be redirected elsewhere. The UNODC has already buckled. The U.S. contributes far more than any other government to the fight against AIDS, and NGOs that depend on USAID will change their policies to survive.
"Compassionate conservatism" used to be a punch line, but it's in full swing these days, and it appears to involve throwing huge sums of our money into programs that don't work. If compassionate conservatism turns out to be neither, it will indeed be U.S. policy that finally brings wealthy Americans taxpayers and impoverished AIDS victims together. Both will be paying the price.