While Google and Microsoft continue to be subject to scrutiny over their censorship of web content in China, the Chinese government claimed yesterday that their internet access is not all that different from the United States. According to Liu Zhengrong, the government internet official, "If you study the main international practices in this regard you will find that China is basically in compliance with the international norm. The main purposes and methods of implementing our laws are basically the same."

Zhengrong noted that major American publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post claim that they have their own authority to delete stories and topic threads. Zhengrong acknowledged that the Chinese government operates a firewall to censor "harmful content," stressing the importance of protecting children from nasty sites containing pornography. Additionally, he added that individuals have complete freedom to question politically sensitive material, and it's really just a "tiny percentage" of websites that are restricted in mainland China.

Cato Unbound has an interesting debate going on right now over the future of Europe. Theodore Dalrymple asks, "Is 'Old Europe' Doomed?" and argues that at the very least the continent is "sleepwalking to further relative decline," probably, in part because too much left-style regulation is strangling the economy, compared with the "success" of neoliberalism here in the United States. Charles Kupchan takes a contrarian view, noting that the EU is about as wealthy as the United States (and that includes a number of Eastern European countries that are still developing). Anne Applebaum thinks Dalrymple may have a point.

It's an interesting debate, but it's not clear that Europe's really doing so much worse than the United States in the usual economic terms. (Dalyrmple also makes various cultural arguments that I'll set aside here.) Here, for instance, is economist Robert Pozen's take on those perennial Europe-U.S. comparisons:

UN: Shut Guantanamo Down

Following an 18 month investigation directed by the UN Commission on Human Rights, five experts have called for the U.S. to close Guantanamo Bay. Determining that the force feeding techniques employed by the facility are acts of torture, the UN envoys have composed a 38-page report on their findings. Although the report will not be released until the next UN Commission meeting on March 13, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack has already started doing damage control, calling the findings "unfounded."

Steven Greenhouse reported on a ploy by immigration officials to catch undocumented immigrants; the officials would pose as officials from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and then and deport catch any unsuspecting illegal immigrants who came their way.

Right, very clever. Really, though, all this does is ensure that undocumented workers will be even less likely to seek out actual work-safety officials in the event that they, say, get injured on the job—and Hispanic workers already have disproportionately high injury rates at work. And with fewer immigrants willing to speak out, employers will have even less incentive to maintain safety standards at work. Business wins, while immigrants will continue to resemble indentured servants more and more. Very clever, indeed.

In the health care debate, there's often much talk that so much money is "wasted" trying to save those in the last years of their life. (The statistic that gets hauled out here is that the share of Medicare costs incurred by patients in their last year of life is about 28 percent.) In the New York Times last year, Daniel Altman suggested that major health care costs could be saved simply by, well, letting people die earlier:

End-of-life care may also be a useful focus because, in some cases, efforts to prolong life may end up only prolonging suffering. In such cases, reducing pain may be a better use of resources than heroic attempts to save lives.
On the other hand, the other day Max Sawicky highlighted a quote from a textbook by economist Jonathan Gruber that says—regardless of one's moral views on the question—that this is unrealistic:

A gay woman in Londonderry, New Hampshire, has sued a Cracker Barrel restaurant, claiming that management did nothing after she complained of employees sexually assaulting her and making crude references to her sexuality. The woman, Bonnie Usher, joined the Cracker Barrel staff as a cook in 2000. In the complaint she filed with New Hampshire human rights commission, she says that she was denied better work shifts and promotions because she is a woman, that she was subjected to abusive language, was groped by a co-worker, and that a photo of the groping was hung on the wall of the restaurant's employee area.

Usher was fired in 2004, and she is maintaining that the company fired her because she complained about mistreatment on the job. A spokesman for Cracker Barrel says the company was not aware of Usher's complaints.

Bonnie Usher's suit is interesting because it adds gender discrimination and sexual harrassment to a long list of employee complaints over many years. In the early 90's, a Cracker Barrel memo, written by a company executive, was leaked. The memo stated that managers should fire employees who did not "demonstrate normal heterosexual values." One lesbian employee, Cheryl Summerville, said the reason given on her separation papers was "Employee is gay." Summerville's Cracker Barrel was in Georgia, where there is no state protection for gay workers, so she was unable to take legal action against the company. There was a shareholder outcry against Cracker Barrel's policy, and a decade-long boycott of the restaurant by gays and gay rights activists, leading to the addition of a non-discrimination clause in Cracker Barrel's employee policies.

Then there was the matter of discrimination against African Americans. A civil rights investigation found that black diners in Cracker Barrel restaurants in seven states--about 50 Cracker Barrel locations--were segregated from whites in restaurant seating, seated after white customers who arrived later, and given inferior table service. Interviews with employees revealed that managers "often directed, participated in, or condoned the discriminatory behavior."

In 2004, Cracker Barrel agreed to change its training and management practices to prevent discrimination against African American customers, though the company denied the allegations made against it. There were a hundred suits filed by individuals against Cracker Barrel, and--according to attorney Heidi Doerhoff--"They're still fighting tooth and nail against all the private plaintiffs."

Cracker Barrel's Equal Opportunity Statement claims that "Cracker Barrel will not tolerate any form of discrimination, harassment or retaliation affecting its employees or applicants due to race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, age, marital status, medical condition, or disability." Though any chain can undergo the misfortune of having one of its franchises dishonor the company's non-discrimination policy, accusations--so far, all of them proven--against Cracker Barrel have been so numerous for so long that the addition of a new one does not speak well for the company's desire to change its ways.

Some ledes just speak for themselves: "The CIA's top counter-terrorism official was fired last week because he opposed detaining Al-Qaeda suspects in secret prisons abroad, sending them to other countries for interrogation and using forms of torture such as "water boarding", intelligence sources have claimed."

That would be in addition, of course, to the State Department officials who are being sidelined because they had favorable views towards arms control, and the top NASA scientist who was being pressured into silence for speaking out about global warming. And that's just the news from the past few weeks.

Force-Feeding at Guantanamo

While the number of detainees on hunger strike in Guantanamo Bay has dwindled down to four, the tactics that were employed by U.S. personnel to force-feed many of the strikers remain controversial. Guards were strapping detainees into "restraint chairs" for hours at a time and inserting feeding tubes down their nasal passages. Additionally, protesters were being held in isolation from one another and denied shoes, towels, pillows and blankets, in order to break them down. Authorities at Guantanamo call the practice "humane and compassionate"—a preventative measure against possible violence and rioting. But who knew it was so difficult to control starving people?

There is an airstrip in Hope, Arkansas where close to 11,000 80-foot motor homes are stored. These motor homes belong to FEMA, and were purchased to serve as temporary housing for victims of hurricanes. FEMA has signed a two-year contract with the city of Hope to keep them at the airstrip for a $25,000 a month rental fee.

People in New Orleans and the surrounding areas need these motor homes desperately, but FEMA refuses to put any of them in a flood plain because they would then have to be raised and anchored. Raising and anchoring them would make them, according to FEMA officials, permanent housing, and the parish governments of Louisiana do not want that type of permanent housing.

As it stands now, the only way Hurricane Katrina victims can live in one of these motor homes--assuming some of them actually leave the Arkansas airstrip--if by moving to another area. In the meantime, FEMA spokesman James McIntyre says most of the trailers will end up in Mississippi or in Rita-ravaged sections of Louisiana. An argument can probably be made that by the time the units leave Arkansas, their intended inhabitants will have moved away, anyway.

Always nice to see the CIA Director getting down and dirty. In the Times today, Porter Goss takes to berating people who leak national security secrets to the press:

As a member of Congress in 1998, I sponsored the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act to ensure that current or former employees could petition Congress, after raising concerns within their respective agency, consistent with the need to protect classified information. Exercising one's rights under this act is an appropriate and responsible way to bring questionable practices to the attention of those in Congress charged with oversight of intelligence agencies. And it works. ….

On the other hand, those who choose to bypass the law and go straight to the press are not noble, honorable or patriotic. Nor are they whistleblowers. Instead they are committing a criminal act that potentially places American lives at risk. It is unconscionable to compromise national security information and then seek protection as a whistleblower to forestall punishment.Unconscionable, eh? Now admittedly I tend towards the extremes when it comes to thinking about classified information and national security secrets—"leak early, and leak often" is the motto 'round these parts—but even from a more "reasonable" angle, Goss' position doesn't seem right.