Friday, February 29, 2008

pre-destination & free will in Star Wars (Episode 3)

One more thought from seeing Episode 3 this evening...

The key plot device is the prophesied death of Padme during childbirth (as envisioned by Anakin and later encouraged by the Chancellor). But as Padme is preparing to give birth, we realize that it is Anakin who is largely responsible for her death. Through his remarkable turn to remarkable evil, he "takes away" her will to live. (In the film, we are told that "she has lost the will to live".) In this sense, her death is an odd type of self-fulfilled prophecy-- instead of bringing an event on oneself, it is brought upon one by another.

This leads to all sorts of mind-bending thoughts about the interactions of free will and pre-destination. Hollywood occasionally picks up this question-- with relatively recent (and enjoyable) movies such as Minority Report, The Truman Show, and Stranger than Fiction.

Star Wars, statism, and freedom

Over the last month or so, we've watched all six episodes of Star Wars. Of course, Tonia and I had seen the first three (that were released) as youngsters, but not the last three. (We don't get out to see movies much anymore!) Beyond general interest, our oldest three boys have thoroughly enjoyed the Legos Star Wars video games (when we visit my wife's parents) and were quite interested to see the films.

In Episodes 4-6, freedom-- and in particular, freedom from the (nearly) omnipotent and evil State-- is, of course, a prevalent theme. But threats to freedom of that sort are common to movies-- good vs. evil, opportunities for rescue and redemption, etc. So, it didn't strike me as being noteworthy.

But in seeing Episodes 1-3 recently, it is clear that the (potential) evils of the State are intentionally fleshed out by George Lucas in significant detail-- beyond plot device to philosophical statement.

The tension in Episode 1 derives from trade protectionism and the desire to use force to prevent mutually beneficial trade. Of course, war is a prominent theme. More broadly, the initiation of force is largely condemned within the Jedi code-- something that rightfully excites Libertarians. (Lucas does leave it unclear whether he views "final" uses of force as legitimate-- for example, when Mace Windu plans to finish off a "defenseless" Chancellor Palpatine at the end of their battle.) Finally, the theoretical and practical flaws of democracy are highlighted alongside the even graver dangers of dictatorship.

And then there's the killer line from Padme: "So this is how liberty dies...with thunderous applause."

adopt a super-hero!

Sometimes I'm a little slow...

It didn't occur to me until tonight-- as we sat through Episode 3 of Star Wars-- that both Luke and Leia were adopted. As such, they join a pantheon of fictional superheroes who were adopted.

Three other famous members of the group: Superman, Batman, and Spiderman.

if not Pell Grants, how about charter schools-- to promote a little more competition?

A press-release from BIPPS (the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions) on efforts to allow charter schools in Kentucky (with one interesting exception)...

A school-choice bill filed Tuesday by Rep. Stan Lee would add Kentucky to a growing list of states with charter schools.

House Bill 578 would allow local school boards, universities or local governments to sponsor charter schools – public schools operated by groups of parents, teachers, other individuals or private organizations.

More than 40 states, including six of the seven states bordering Kentucky, offer parents the option of enrolling students in charter schools....

Charter schools operate free of many of government restrictions, including teacher-union hiring mandates, which hamper some traditional public schools. These schools have more flexibility in approach and policy, including theme-based core curricula, longer school days, requiring parental involvement and using alternative teaching techniques.

The release then quotes Pastor Jerry Stephenson, chairman of Values Coalition U.S.A., "a leader of Louisville’s black community", and a minister at Louisville’s Midwest Church of Christ:

Education was a hallmark of the Civil Rights Movement. Civil-rights leaders like Dr. King believed that education was the key to bringing our people to the promised land to enjoy the richness of this nation...Charter schools, we believe is the option that would allow the community, the family, the education system and the faith community to regain the value of education – not only for African-American children but for all children in our community.”

Pell grants = educational vouchers

From the editorialists of the WSJ, the use of a popular (and effective) analogy for those who clamber for significant educational reform: from Pell Grants for college to educational vouchers for elementary and secondary parents and students...

If unrestricted federal education grants are kosher for college students, why not for grades K-12 too? That's the question President Bush is asking with his cheeky proposal Monday to create Pell Grants for Kids, a program to offer $300 million in scholarships that low-income students could use to attend the school of their choice.

Pell grants for college are among the most popular ways to spend money in Washington. Over the past seven years, Members from both sides of the aisle have lined up to expand the number and size of these grants that students can use to attend the college or university of their choice, public or private. Last year, 5.3 million students received a total of $14 billion in Pell grants, up from 4.3 million students receiving $8.8 billion at the start of the Bush Presidency. However, what no one wants to admit is that Pell grants are essentially "vouchers," with the decision about where to spend the money in the hands of parents and students.

Mr. Bush's proposal would give Pell grants to students stuck in public secondary and elementary schools that have failed to meet federal testing benchmarks for five years running or that suffer high drop out rates. The bulk of that money would go to inner-city students who otherwise have little chance of going to college or even finishing high school. In the same way, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program has given 2,600 of the poorest students in Washington a better chance at a good education.

Neither of these programs is getting anywhere in the current Congress, however, and the new Pell grant proposal was immediately denounced by Democrats. The reason, as ever, is because K-12 education is dominated by a union monopoly that can't abide parental choice. Lucky for students the same unions don't yet run American universities.

Ideally, this would be done at the state level. But if we're going to spend money at the federal level to promote education, I cannot imagine a better proposal.

"weighted student formula": making education funding more equitable and efficient

Excerpts from an essay by Sam Staley in the Evansville Courier-Press on a significant proposal for education reform
(hat tip: Jeff/NA N-T)...

First, on the need for institutional change (vs. tweaking the system or spending more money)...

At root is a fundamental problem. Public schools are bureaucracies run — sometimes micromanaged — by local elected officials who are often poorly equipped to hold their administrators accountable for results. The public school system is flawed. We don't have the right incentives lined up to encourage the innovation and investment in the classroom necessary to get the results our children deserve.

It's no one's "fault." It's not because Republicans or Democrats are in charge. It's an institutional problem. In short, the system needs changed, not necessarily the people in charge or working within it.

Fortunately, for the first time in decades, a school finance reform measure is being implemented in school districts across the nation with the potential to cross the partisan divide and create the incentives necessary for teachers and administrators to build and nurture effective classrooms.

The concept is simple: Fund our schools based on whether they are providing an education parents (and students) value. Note the distinction — fund the schools, not the districts. Move the money down to where it can be used most effectively and give the people closest to the classroom control of it. Each school's funding is based on the level of enrollment. The more children a school teaches, the more money a school gets. And funding is adjusted for the special needs of the individual student.

The concept, dubbed "Weighted Student Formula," is showing promise where it's been applied. The most extensive experiment is in New York City public schools, where school-based funding (and budget control) is being extended to 1,300 schools....

Staley points to examples in Oakland, Cincinnati and San Francisco-- and notes that "Nevada changed its state statutes to give every public school district the freedom to adopt this new model"-- before pointing to two other advantages...

-Because the funding is tied to the student, the effect is to equalize funding across the board. All students in the same category get funded at the same level, so inequities based on income, commercial tax base or politics are minimized.

-The formula also creates transparency, a benefit anyone who has spent time trying to track dollars in the current system can appreciate.

"poverty" in terms of consumption vs. income

From an essay by Michael Cox and Richard Alm as published in the NYT-- in an update related to their excellent book, Myths of Rich and Poor: Why We're Better Off Than We Think (hat tip: Linda Christiansen)...

With markets swinging widely, the Federal Reserve slashing interest rates and the word "recession" on everybody's lips, renewed attention is being given to the gap between the haves and have-nots in America. Most of this debate, however, is focused on the wrong measurement of financial well-being.

It's true that the share of national income going to the richest 20 percent of households rose from 43.6 percent in 1975 to 49.6 percent in 2006, the most recent year for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics has complete data. Meanwhile, families in the lowest fifth saw their piece of the pie fall from 4.3 percent to 3.3 percent.

Income statistics, however, don't tell the whole story of Americans' living standards. Looking at a far more direct measure of American families' economic status — household consumption — indicates that the gap between rich and poor is far less than most assume, and that the abstract, income-based way in which we measure the so-called poverty rate no longer applies to our society.

The top fifth of American households earned an average of $149,963 a year in 2006. As shown in the first accompanying chart, they spent $69,863 on food, clothing, shelter, utilities, transportation, health care and other categories of consumption. The rest of their income went largely to taxes and savings.

The bottom fifth earned just $9,974, but spent nearly twice that — an average of $18,153 a year. How is that possible? A look at the far right-hand column of the consumption chart, labeled "financial flows," shows why: those lower-income families have access to various sources of spending money that doesn't fall under taxable income. These sources include portions of sales of property like homes and cars and securities that are not subject to capital gains taxes, insurance policies redeemed, or the drawing down of bank accounts. While some of these families are mired in poverty, many (the exact proportion is unclear) are headed by retirees and those temporarily between jobs, and thus their low income total doesn't accurately reflect their long-term financial status.

Inexplicably, Cox and Alm fail to raise to two other important issues that would strengthen their case: non-cash resources made available to the poor by the government (which are not counted as "income") and income that is not reported (because the activity is illegal or to evade taxes or to avoid the loss of government benefits). See my recent blog posting on research by Robert Rector which spells this out further...

So, bearing this in mind, if we compare the incomes of the top and bottom fifths, we see a ratio of 15 to 1. If we turn to consumption, the gap declines to around 4 to 1. A similar narrowing takes place throughout all levels of income distribution. The middle 20 percent of families had incomes more than four times the bottom fifth. Yet their edge in consumption fell to about 2 to 1.

Let's take the adjustments one step further. Richer households are larger — an average of 3.1 people in the top fifth, compared with 2.5 people in the middle fifth and 1.7 in the bottom fifth. If we look at consumption per person, the difference between the richest and poorest households falls to just 2.1 to 1. The average person in the middle fifth consumes just 29 percent more than someone living in a bottom-fifth household.

To understand why consumption is a better guideline of economic prosperity than income, it helps to consider how our lives have changed. Nearly all American families now have refrigerators, stoves, color TVs, telephones and radios. Air-conditioners, cars, VCRs or DVD players, microwave ovens, washing machines, clothes dryers and cellphones have reached more than 80 percent of households.

As the second chart, on the spread of consumption, shows, this wasn't always so. The conveniences we take for granted today usually began as niche products only a few wealthy families could afford. In time, ownership spread through the levels of income distribution as rising wages and falling prices made them affordable in the currency that matters most — the amount of time one had to put in at work to gain the necessary purchasing power.

At the average wage, a VCR fell from 365 hours in 1972 to a mere two hours today. A cellphone dropped from 456 hours in 1984 to four hours. A personal computer, jazzed up with thousands of times the computing power of the 1984 I.B.M., declined from 435 hours to 25 hours. Even cars are taking a smaller toll on our bank accounts: in the past decade, the work-time price of a mid-size Ford sedan declined by 6 percent.

And then, to wrap up, another connection to the oft-overlooked benefits of international trade...

There are several reasons that the costs of goods have dropped so drastically, but perhaps the biggest is increased international trade. Imports lower prices directly. Cheaper inputs cut domestic companies' costs. International competition forces producers everywhere to become more efficient and hold down prices. Nations do what they do best and trade for the rest.

Thus there is a certain perversity to suggestions that the proper reaction to a potential recession is to enact protectionist measures. While foreign competition may have eroded some American workers' incomes, looking at consumption broadens our perspective. Simply put, the poor are less poor. Globalization extends and deepens a capitalist system that has for generations been lifting American living standards — for high-income households, of course, but for low-income ones as well.

socialism and (a lack of) ethics

From Richard John Neuhaus in First Things, an excellent excerpt from a 1962 editorial by John Strietelmeier entitled “On Soaking the Rich” (occasioned by the release of a book commemorating his work)...

We object, on moral grounds, to denying any man the right to profit from his ingenuity and his industry....The idea of an economically egalitarian society in which no one is very rich and no one is very poor is not at all our idea of Utopia. It seems to us merely a mean manifestation of envy....

The good ­society does not let any considerable proportion of its citizenry subsist on sub-human standards of food, clothing, or shelter. If necessary, it will ‘soak the rich’ to ensure the poor a minimally decent standard of living....[But] The productive capacity of the United States is so great that we do not need to rob the rich to pay the poor.

There are other parts of the world, notably Latin America, where it would seem that there is not enough to go around, and that the concentration of wealth in a few families while millions starve cannot be justified on any moral grounds. If we lived in Brazil, for instance, we would be a socialist, and make no apologies for it.

But we live in the United States, where it is not necessary that everybody be poor so that no one need be desperately poor. Socialism in the United States, it seems to us, is not grounded in necessity but ideology, with more than a tinge of envy mixed up in it. Capitalism, too, is shot through with envy, but at least in this country it allows man the moral choice between being generous and being selfish—a choice which socialism makes for him, and thus removes from the sphere of morality.

me sick, me blog

Prolific blogging from me the last two days...The occasion?

First, I have more spare time right now. My schedule is lightening up, with the end of my accelerated pre-MBA course. So, I hope to keep a more vigorous blog-pace between now and the Fall when I return to the classroom full-time and my congressional campaign is rolling.

But the biggie: I'm sick! Fever for three nights in a row (first time in forever!) along with cough, congestion and general achiness. This morning, the doctor tested me for strep and the flu, but nada. (Earlier, we found out that Zach has strep.) So, the doc said that it's probably a four-day virus that's going around. I'm on day four now, so we'll see!

Anyway, I have to stay away from my kids for the most part-- and blogging doesn't require as much thinking as other writing projects-- so I'm going to continue working methodically through my blogging pile.

"the myth of middle-class job loss"

That's the title of Stephen Rose's piece in the WSJ-- with more on international trade, in the broader context of technological advance, economic growth, and the supposed decline of the middle class...

Economic change is a messy process. New technologies open up many opportunities for those prepared to take advantage of them. At the same time, old firms and their workers are displaced and forced to start over. In 1900, for example, 40% of the U.S. work force was involved in agriculture. Today, that figure is less than 2%, and no serious observer would argue that we are worse off as a result of this transformation.

Yet many of today's most prominent politicians and pundits are making an updated version of precisely this argument. They claim that the decline in the number of manufacturing jobs has led to the replacement of good middle-class jobs by low-skill, low-pay "hamburger-flipping" service jobs.

This kind of populist dogma is bad politics and even worse economics. The assertion that the American middle-class is disappearing along with manufacturing jobs is, put simply, based on an outdated view of how the economy operates, and is empirically wrong. Nonetheless, the view that the economy has failed the middle class is widespread. The outsourcing of jobs to low-wage countries is, of course, the latest culprit. Polemicists from all sides find it irresistible to blame expanding trade for middle-class decline. But how widespread a problem is outsourcing, exactly?

It is certainly true that many jobs in manufacturing clothing, steel, metal products and automobiles have gone overseas....[But] In research just published by the Progressive Policy Institute, I show that incomes and employment have grown by substantial amounts in every state (even in the so-called Rust Belt) since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.

In fact, there is no convincing, data-driven proof that trade has led to any overall job loss during the last 30 years. To the contrary, the economy has grown at a slow but steady rate (a few brief recessions notwithstanding) with trade and employment rising in tandem....

While women still lag in pay compared to men of similar educational attainment, the extraordinary rise in women's income since 1979 is a fact at odds with the notion of an overall decline in the American middle class. For men, the change in employment since 1979 has not been quite as clear-cut, or as positive....

I find that most of the employment gains over the last 30 years have been in business-management activities (administration, sales, finance and business services) as well as in professional services such as health care and education. While the percentage of U.S. jobs derived from manual work in agriculture, mining, timber and manufacturing has declined, the share of jobs related to low-skilled retail and personal/food services has remained steady....

Obama and Clinton on trade (NAFTA)

From the editorialists of the WSJ, some nice observations and rhetorical bombs...

Democrats claim the world hates America because President Bush has behaved like a global bully. But we don't recall him ever ordering an ally to rewrite an existing agreement on American terms -- or else.

Yet that's exactly what both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are now promising to do to our closest neighbors, Mexico and Canada. At their Ohio debate on Tuesday, first Mrs. Clinton, followed ever so quickly by Mr. Obama, pledged to pull America out of the North American Free Trade Agreement if the two countries don't agree to rewrite it on Yankee terms. How's that for global "unilateralism"?

Democrats sure have come a long way from the 1990s, when Bill Clinton pushed Nafta through a Democratic Congress. And the truth is that both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama have spoken favorably about Nafta in the past. Yet now they are sounding the loudest protectionist notes by a potential President in decades. More dangerous, neither is telling the truth about the role of trade in the U.S. economy....

While it is politically incorrect to say so, Nafta has been good for all of North America....In Nafta's first decade after 1993, trade between the U.S. and Mexico multiplied to $232 billion from $81 billion. Trade with Canada has also blossomed, with Canadian exports to the U.S. by surface transport rising 79% in a decade and U.S. exports to Canada increasing 38%.

The deal also increased U.S. productivity. U.S. firms found they could be more globally competitive by putting some manufacturing in Mexico or Canada while retaining high-end production in the U.S....Such flexibility may have saved thousands of U.S. jobs from going abroad. In the first 10 years of the deal, the U.S. economy added 18 million jobs and the jobless rate sank to record lows.

Nafta has also been crucial to Mexico's continuing development. After the 1994 peso devaluation, the political left in Mexico had all the ammunition it needed to turn back liberalization. But Nafta made that difficult. In the two presidential elections since the 1994-1995 peso crisis, Mexicans have voted for a modern economy. Nafta has helped Mexico develop strong retail competition for the first time and allowed the economy to diversify beyond oil. Other gains include greater transparency in Mexico's fiscal accounts, an independent central bank and an inflation rate that is now lower than in the U.S.

None of this counts with Mr. Obama, who is whacking Mrs. Clinton for saying in 2004 that Nafta had been good for New York state and the country. He also points out that "in her own book Senator Clinton called Nafta 'one of Bill's successes.'" Instead of defending the economic record of the 1990s, Mrs. Clinton's response has been to call for a "time out" on trade deals...

But the Illinois Senator is less than honest about his own Nafta history. In his race for his Senate seat in 2004, he told Illinois farmers that the U.S. benefits from exports under the World Trade Organization and Nafta, and he recommended that the U.S. go after more deals like it. He also discouraged protectionism, warning that "as an exporting state, Illinois would be hurt by a trade war sparked by tariffs. This would be particularly devastating to our agricultural economy."

But that was when he was trying to appeal to farmers who rely on exports. Now that he's battling for union endorsements...

As the Democratic contest continues, it is becoming a race to the bottom on protectionism. Perhaps the best trade demagogue will win, but someone should point out that the last President who tried to govern as a protectionist was Herbert Hoover. It didn't turn out so well.

Neuhaus on Rice (on Jesus)

From Richard John Neuhaus in First Things, a brief but glowing recommendation from someone who is not the easiest audience (after a more neutral approach by Marvin Olasky in World)...

I am not given to reading books with titles such as Interview with the Vampire, The Mummy, The Witching Hour, and The Tale of the Body Thief. In fact, I don’t read them at all. Those are among the titles with which Anne Rice won fame and fortune....

I had heard about her conversion, with its consequent and radical change in her writing. I had not read the first book in her Christ the Lord series, Out of Egypt, and it received a rather cool notice in these pages. [See also: two letters that take the reviewer to task and her response.] Then she sent me the second, The Road to Cana, with such a ­gracious inscription that I felt obliged to take a look. A couple of hours later, I put it down with a sense of great appreciation.

Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana, to be published this month by Knopf, is a remarkable achievement. From the beginning of the Christian movement, writers have been trying to fill in the details of “the hidden years” of the life of Jesus before he began his public ministry. Thus the fanciful tales contained in the pseudo-gospels of the early centuries. The serious Christian cannot help but wonder what it was really like in the household and workplace of Nazareth. Mel Gibson was delicately attentive to that curiosity in his film The Passion of the Christ. The ­ Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola include “compositions of place” that entail such exercises of the ­imagination.

Questions about what Jesus was thinking when this or that happened involve mysteries of his divine and human nature. Scholarly tomes have been written about, for instance, his “messianic self-­consciousness.” Such imaginative reconstructions can end up in treacly Bible storybooks or in bizarrely muddled fantasies such as Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son.

Ms. Rice’s The Road to Cana is a rare achievement: an engaging story told within the structure of biblical narrative and theological orthodoxy. Of course, there are those who will say that, if God wanted us to know the details of those hidden years, he would have inspired the gospel writers to tell us. I think they are wrong about that. With our capacity for ­reason, God gave us curiosity and imagination to be employed to his glory.

That is the employment to which Anne Rice has turned her storytelling talents. She does not claim to know what happened; she is simply saying how it might have been. This is a novel, after all. I do not say that this is great literature; Dostoyevsky need not fear for his preeminence. But The Road to Cana makes more vivid the Word—both the person and the text—and that is no little accomplishment.

can you get a divorce without a marriage?

From Richard John Neuhaus in First Things...

The Supreme Court of Rhode Island says not. Cassandra Ormiston and Margaret Chambers live in Rhode Island but were wed in Massachusetts in a same-sex ceremony that the Bay State calls marriage. A year later, citing irreconcilable differences, they applied for a divorce in Rhode Island.

That state has this odd law that says you have to be legally married to get legally divorced, and a marriage is between a man and a woman. Moreover, because of a residency requirement, they can’t get divorced in Massachusetts either.

They’re not interested in living together in Massachusetts, or anywhere else. So it seems they’re in a fine pickle of their own making.
Cassandra in Greek means “she who entangles men.” Homer might not believe what Cassandra is up to today.

"gay" by science, choice, or mystery?

From Richard John Neuhaus in First Things...

Make no mistake about it: Psychotherapist Gary Greenberg wants society to be more approving of homosexuals and homosexuality. But he thinks the gay movement has taken a wrong turn by attempting to make its case on the basis of science. “This is the way I was born.” Or “This is the way God made me.” “I have no choice.” “Love me for who I am.” We have all heard those claims times beyond numbering.

Greenberg’s article “Gay by Choice? The Science of Sexual Identity” appears in the very leftist Mother Jones. In it, he takes a very different tack: “Sexuality, profoundly mysterious and irrational, will not be contained by our ­categories. . . . It is time to find reasons other than ­medical science to insist that people ought to be able to love whom they love.”

I love the reference to mystery. It parallels Paul's reference to marriage in Eph 5:32. And an important last sentence. What are our hopes in this realm if we leave this to science and ignore the ethics of how we relate to one another? Putting it another way: figuring out the science (assuming it's figurable) does not mean that the proper ethics will follow naturally!

notes that “all the major psychotherapy guilds” have bought into the “I have no choice” position and rigorously exclude any consideration of reparative therapy for those who do not want to be homosexual. From his own practice and from the pertinent research, Greenberg says that “sexual orientation is more fluid than we have come to think.” People, women more frequently than men, “do move across customary sexual orientation boundaries.”

There are, he says, ex-gays, just as there are ex-straights and gays by choice. “Much of this research has stayed below the radar of the culture warriors, but reparative therapists are hoping to use it to enter the scientific mainstream and advocate for what they call the right of self-determination in matters of sexual orientation. If they are successful, gay activists may soon find themselves scrambling to make sense of a new scientific and political landscape.”

Of course, there have long been groups that have challenged the thought patrol of the major psychotherapy guilds. There are, for instance, the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), Exodus International, Courage (a Catholic group), and True Freedom Trust. But it is of more than passing interest to see these arguments advanced in Mother Jones.

As I wrote in my essay on eugenics, the appeal to science might be double-edged. In Turn Neither to the Right nor to the Left, I noted that a full-blown appeal to biology-- to the exclusion of (any) choice-- is demeaning to the human person. But now we have a sympathetic insider making related arguments. Interesting...

Buckley's vibrant voice and unique life

From Henry Allen of the Washington Post (hat tip: C-J)...

What a grand and grandiloquent monster of genial and mischievous self-creation William Buckley was....

...the eyebrows -- the eyebrows! -- wandered off like the vagaries of life itself, one frowning while the other vaulted up his forehead in triumph, horror, irony. Dead now at 82, but so alive in memory....

He was the Connecticut millionaire's son trained to despise affectation and love modesty -- and yet . . . he had the gifts of a great comedian, gifts that are irresistible to anyone in this land that so honors the perpetual undergraduate. And such a vortex of contradictions: the Roman Catholic prep-school Skull and Bones Yalie heir to an Irish family's Mexican oil fortune. (He spoke Spanish before he spoke English.) Foe of anti-Semites, advocate of tattooing AIDS carriers on the buttocks, champion of McCarthyist Communist-hunting, and of the legalization of marijuana. His outrageousness immunized him against effective condemnation.

That last sentence/thought is very interesting!

In 1986, he wrote in the New York Times Book Review: "I asked myself the other day, 'Who else, on so many issues, has been so right so much of the time?' I couldn't think of anyone." A monster, or, as the French say, a monstre sacré, one whose grandeur puts him beyond criticism.... one pitied Buckley in the next decade when he founded the National Review. He was getting too much attention, laughing too hard, skewering too many enemies and getting away with it.

...puns such as the one that appeared in the National Review when it was learned that the American Academy of Dermatology and Syphilology was dropping the last two words of its title: "Skinicism is only sin deep."

Buckley seemed to be having so much fun, no matter how dark and difficult his positions could be, such as his magazine's early support of segregation or his defense of Joe McCarthy. So much fun, in fact, that he could debate Ronald Reagan over handing the Panama Canal over to Panama -- Buckley favored the hand-over, unpredictably enough -- and remain friends with Reagan even after saying to him: "The force of my illumination would blind you."

Of course, the argument could be made that there would have been no Reagan presidency without Buckley, the man who made conservatism exhilarating, the man who convinced a substantial part of the public that it was liberals, not conservatives, who were the lugubrious navel-gazers.

Buckley was a man of wild energy, a man who claimed to write his syndicated column in 20 minutes, a feat possible because he was, in the words of a former employee, "the fastest typist I ever saw." He wrote 5,600 of those columns, by one account. He wrote more than 50 books, including 10 spy novels and journals of his sails across the Atlantic, along with a children's book he claimed to have written in 45 minutes. He gave 70 speeches a year. He ran for mayor of New York. With his wife, Pat, he conducted a blue-chip social life. His television show, "Firing Line," ran for 33 years. He played the harpsichord.

Norman Mailer, who also attained monstre sacré status but had to work at it harder, said of him: "No other actor on earth can project simultaneous hints that he is in the act of playing Commodore of the Yacht Club, Joseph Goebbels, Robert Mitchum, Maverick, Savonarola, the nice prep-school kid from next door, and the snows of yesteryear." He was in the Army during World War II, and in the CIA afterward....

Once I saw him debate William Shockley on "Firing Line." Shockley had won the Nobel Prize for his work on transistors but had moved on to a theory of racial inferiority based on intelligence tests.

Buckley despised him, but...a Shockley is unbeatable in argument -- they're too good at defending themselves, and they always get the last word.

The program was a donnybrook of true vexation on the part of Buckley. I thought maybe he'd have to leave Shockley with a draw. Then he made the move he must have been waiting to make the whole time.

I have to quote from long-ago memory, but I think I have the sense of it: One topic we have neglected to light upon is the remarkable fact that Asians and Jews tend to score markedly higher on intelligence tests than members of our ethnic group, Dr. Shockley.

Before Shockley could summon up his full harrumph, Buckley glanced at his wristwatch, and no doubt with a flash of the eyes, a dance of the brows, and a glare of a smile, he said: "But I see we've run out of time. This is William Buckley, for 'Firing Line.' "

The last word, at least, was Buckley's. And the last laugh.

word of the day: intercalary

The meaning of the word?
(or anyone for a game of Balderdash?)

a.) a key component of the grapefruit diet

b.) something placed inside a celery stick-- such as peanut butter or cream cheese

c.) the change in gravitational force as one gets closer to a heavenly body

d.) a leap day

Thursday, February 28, 2008

problems with the virtual fence

From Spencer Hsu of the Washington Post (hat tip: Drudge)...

The Bush administration has scaled back plans to quickly build a "virtual fence" along the U.S.-Mexico border, delaying completion of the first phase of the project by at least three years and shifting away from a network of tower-mounted sensors and surveillance gear, federal officials said yesterday.

Technical problems discovered in a 28-mile pilot project south of Tucson prompted the change in plans, Department of Homeland Security officials and congressional auditors told a House subcommittee....

The announcement marked a major setback for what President Bush in May 2006 called "the most technologically advanced border security initiative in American history." The virtual fence was to be a key component of his proposed overhaul of U.S. immigration policies, which died last year in the Senate.

Investigators for the Government Accountability Office had earlier warned that the effort was beset by both expected and unplanned difficulties. But yesterday, they disclosed new troubles that will require a redesign and said the first phase will not be completed until near the end of the next president's first term....

Boeing has said that the initial effort, while flawed, still has helped Homeland Security apprehend 2,000 illegal immigrants since September. It estimated in 2006 that it would spend $7.6 billion through 2011 to secure the entire 2,000-mile southern border, an ambition that was meant to win support from conservatives for legislation creating a guest-worker program and a path to legalization for 12 million illegal immigrants.

But officials said yesterday that they now expect to complete the first phase of the virtual fence's deployment -- roughly 100 miles near Tucson and Yuma, AZ, and El Paso, TX -- by the end of 2011, instead of by the end of 2008....

A nongovernment source familiar with the project said that the Bush administration's push to speed the project during last year's immigration debate led Boeing to deploy equipment without enough testing or consultation....

Two things come out of this:
1.) The need to supplement external border enforcement with internal enforcement. Border security can only do so much-- and if one is serious about illegal immigration, a coherent plan must (strongly) address businesses which hire illegals. It would be akin to a "War on Drugs" that just worried about the border, but said nothing about drugs once they were in the country.

2.) The difference between theory and practice-- and what we're sold by various interest groups and bureaucrats. Two years ago, the talk was that we just needed a physical fence. And proponents of that plan estimated costs that were ridiculously low. Now, we have a virtual/physical fence-- more realistic, but still fraught with problems.

"disaster apartheid"? subsidize the rich or have them pay their own way...

From Matt Welch in Reason, an interesting account about trouble with the public provision of fire services in California, some privatization of fire services, and the firestorm caused by the differential-- ironically, against those who pay their taxes and then pay for private services on top of that...

When Southern California really burns, as it does every fourth October or so, there can never be enough firefighters....Doing so would require standing fire squads of at least triple their current size, with nothing much to do until the next far-off catastrophe except draw salaries and qualify for pensions. So in the most recent conflagration the state of California bolstered its ranks of roughly 9,000 firefighters by deputizing more than 3,000 prison inmates to go on the front lines and recruiting an equal number of reinforcements from other Western states.

That much was uncontroversial. Then the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg News revealed the shocking news that the American International Group (AIG), an insurance company, had been adding a very modest supplement to the firefighting effort—six trucks—on behalf of its clients. For premiums averaging a hefty $19,000 a year, AIG policyholders in the fire-vulnerable “wildland-urban interface” have their homes assessed for vulnerability, kitted with sprinkler systems, and doused with fire retardant. When wildfires rage within three miles of a covered house, AIG-contracted teams come out to lay down a fresh perimeter of retardant and check the roof and nearby brush for stray embers (the cause of most housing tract losses during an inferno). According to Bloomberg, AIG firefighters saved at least six houses, including one lucky enough to be next door to an AIG client.

You would think that the creation of supplementary firefighting capability—the costs of which are borne entirely by the homeowners who choose to live in fire zones, instead of taxpayers—would be a cause for at least mild enthusiasm. Instead, it was greeted with howls of class warfare.

The leftist critic Naomi Klein called it “disaster apartheid”...The liberal historian Rick Perlstein called it “a sickening indication about how the conservative mania for privatization is beginning to create two Americas: One that is protected from fires, and one that is not”...

What’s noteworthy about his critique is that it’s almost the exact inverse of what L.A.’s influential socialist/apocalyptic critic Mike Davis argued in his famous 1996 essay “Let Malibu Burn,” which complained bitterly about “public subsidization of firebelt suburbs,” “cheap fire insurance, socialized disaster relief and an expansive public commitment to 'defend Malibu'.” Davis resented—and rightfully so—a system of government incentives that rewards development in fire zones that no private companies would insure while transferring tax money from the poor to the rich.

This year’s critics, by contrast, balk at letting the wealthiest Californians finally pay their fair share. Since the Naomi Kleins of the world don’t want the rich to get more public protection, and they don’t want the rich to get more private protection, what options are left? Burn, Malibu, burn.

Howey on illegal immigration and the Republicans

"If the Republicans aren’t careful, they are going to become the Whigs of the 21st Century."-- Brian Howey

Howey quotes himself to Mike Pence on a discussion on immigration-- and then starts into his prescient essay.

What was striking about my audacious quote was that Pence could only chuckle a bit and wince. It wasn't a notion he could contest. And then he told me about the various town hall events he had done since he and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison had tried to forge a national compromise in 2006. They advocated illegal immigrants returning to their countries of origin, then reporting to "Ellis Island Centers" where they could be processed, given U.S. work permits, sign pledges to learn English and attain citizenship, and pay a fine for breaking U.S. laws....

For this, Pence was branded by people like U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo as caving in to "amnesty." The whole thing crashed, there was no compromise, and that created the kind of xenophobic presentations that then Indiana Congressman John Hostettler did in the summer of 2006. Pence said Tancredo and others warned him that he would face the wrath of voters. Last I looked, Pence won comfortably in 2006 by more than 38,000 votes. He said he went to numerous town hall settings in Indiana’s conservative 6th CD and found most people simply wanting a solution. Meanwhile, U.S. Reps. Hostettler, Mike Sodrel and Chris Chocola, the latter of whom participated in Hostettler’s show hearings, all went down to defeat. Most of that was attributed to the Iraq War, but I suspect that some of their intolerance impacted voters, particularly swing independents and moderate Republicans who are fed up with the various phobias that take aim at Latinos, gays and, I suppose, Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer....

When we conducted the first Howey-Gauge Poll on Feb. 17-18, a number that didn’t exist jumped out at me. In an open ended question as to what the top issues are, immigration didn’t even make the list. Other polls I’ve seen have immigration far, far down on the priority list if at all. A vast majority of Americans simply want the federal government to do its job, protect the borders and help the 14 million to 20 million Latinos already here to assimilate into American society. They don’t want, as Hostettler said during the 2006 immigration rallies, millions of Latino workers thrown into county jails and deported.

Illegal immigration obviously matters a lot to some people-- but it does not rise as a general "top five" issue. So, it should be addressed as an important public policy issue. And it must be addressed politically-- to deal with the concerns of a "special interest group".

From there, Howey paints a bleak picture for Republicans given future ethnic demographics...

Republicans like Tancredo, Hostettler and Delph are in the process of digging a deep hole for the Republican Party....The GOP is becoming a party mostly of middle-aged white guys....

Now here’s where the 21st Century Whig thing comes into play. The Pew Hispanic Center notes that 57 percent of registered voters now call themselves Democrats, while just 23 percent call themselves Republicans. There is now a 34 percent gap in partisan affiliation among Latinos...

Illegal immigration is a tough issue. As those who value "rule-of-law", Republicans are torn between that allegiance and a political desire to have a "bigger tent". On top of that, many Republicans are torn by a pro-business mindset that makes tougher enforcement against illegals more problematic-- as they are often unwilling to prosecute (or at least unexcited about prosecuting) the laws against businesses hiring illegals. (See: the many GOP votes against the Sullivan Amendment in the last Congress.)

Sirico on Buckley

Excerpts from
Fr. Robert Sirico's memoriam to William F. Buckley Jr...

Among other things, I did not know that Buckley had been helpful at the inception of the Acton Institute. Just one more reason to respect his life and vocation...

Having been my father’s remote control, I recall one Sunday afternoon in the 1960s being told to stop and back up to the “educational channel,” as it was called.

The Sirico household were not big viewers of what was then Channel 13 in New York, so I wondered what my father was thinking.

I click over to the channel and my father said, “Sit down; you’ll learn something.”

Indeed, I did.

That was the first time I had heard or seen William F. Buckley, Jr., who died in his study on Wednesday while at work on yet another erudite page of insightful, urbane, and scintillating prose. Buckley (or Bill, as he almost insisted people call him) holds the record of sending me to the dictionary more than anyone I have ever read in the English language.

He was more than just a stylist. He was a thinker, and a very serious one. He made a mighty contribution to the intellectual culture—raising it as high as he possibly could and never becoming despondent when it refused to budge.

He will be lauded by numerous pendants and scribes for the incredible number of his accomplishments, preeminent of which is his historic role as godfather of the modern conservative/libertarian movement in the founding of the National Review.

He was also a decent harpsichordist, a sailing enthusiast, an avid skier, world traveler and adventurer, lover of Latin, and debater par excellence. If he could do all these things at once, which I am sure he attempted, all the better. All of which is to say that he loved life and lived it to the fullest.

When the time came for me to found the Acton Institute, I was concerned in the early years with establishing our credibility and I conjured up the idea to write Bill Buckley, whom I had met only once or twice in passing, and ask if he would consider being the inaugural speaker of what I’d hope would become an annual dinner.

To my utter amazement he promptly replied (he was always prompt in his replies) that yes, he would be delighted to come, waiving his usual five-figure speaking fee to launch us on our way. That was almost 20 years ago.

We remained in contact over those years, and he was always unfailingly supportive and gracious and, in fact, was a personal donor to our work.

Sirico continues by sharing his fondest memory with Buckley-- in Cuba-- before concluding...

Bill Buckley was as generous as he was intelligent, and as humorous as he was cultured. I suppose that one of the secrets I learned from Bill Buckley in building a movement for human freedom was to be encouraging of other efforts pulling in the same general direction.

He was a man of faith and principle and while I know he had many, many friends of far longer duration and of far greater intimacy than myself, I shall count it as one of the true blessings of my life to have been one of them.

Skaggs and Hornsby

From Arsenio Orteza in World...

Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby just might give bipartisanship a good name.

In 1986 Skaggs and Hornsby were among the hottest names in country and pop music, respectively. Skaggs had placed five albums and 13 singles in the country top 10, and Hornsby had just hit No. 1 with his debut album The Way It Is and its chart-topping title cut. Skaggs has since become one of the most prolific and acclaimed bluegrass bandleaders in the world, an enthusiastic performer of gospel music, and a favorite among red-state Republicans. His latest album, Salt of the Earth, is nominated for "Best Southern, Country, or Bluegrass Gospel Album" at this year's Feb. 10 Grammy Awards. Hornsby has performed with the Grateful Dead, recorded everything from classical to jazz, and campaigned for John Kerry.

In short, the two would seem to have little other than musical talent in common.

Beginning with "Darling Corey," however, the Bill Monroe song on which the two collaborated on Skaggs' 2002 album Ricky Skaggs and Friends Sing the Songs of Bill Monroe, their paths have repeatedly crossed. Last March, they released Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby (Legacy), which featured inventive arrangements of bluegrass standards and Hornsby originals such as "Mandolin Rain" and "Crown of Jewels." The album was a hit, giving rise to a series of Skaggs-Hornsby concerts.

"We're still getting offers," says Skaggs, "and some of the best stuff [in the shows] wasn't even on the record. We play [Hornsby's] 'The Way It Is,' which is an absolutely wonderful bluegrass tune, 'The End of the Innocence,' and 'The Valley Road.' And hearing Bruce play [piano] on some of the instrumentals that I've written has been great."

Despite long hours of rehearsals and performances, the sharp contrast in their worldviews, according to Skaggs, has not proved an obstacle.

"We've gotten into some discussions about political issues, the war a bit, and the truth of God's Word—what I believe is the truth and what's doubtful to the naysayers who may think it's just a book. But it was always very respectful on both ends. I think I understand Bruce's heart and his position, and he certainly knows mine. We just never let it become any kind of issue."

What almost became an issue was Hornsby's request that they record a version of Rick James' notoriously lascivious R&B hit "Super Freak." Skaggs eventually saw the humor in performing the song as a breakneck-paced bluegrass number, and, in the end, the recording not only ended up on their album but also became its most talked-about song.

"Every time we'd see each other," says Skaggs, "Bruce would go into this falsetto voice, kind of a Prince imitation, and start singing 'Super Freak.' And I thought he was joking for the longest time. But one day he said, 'OK, boys, let's cut "The Freak" today.' And we all looked at each other like 'He's serious! He really does want to cut this!' So we worked it up and had a big laugh."

Laughter notwithstanding, the decision to accede to Hornsby's request, like every other career decision that Skaggs has made since founding Skaggs Family Records in 1997, was motivated by a seriousness of intent.

"It was his album too," says Skaggs, "not just mine. So I was willing to make a concession and do it for the love of my friend. I was not going to let it come between his and my relationship."

Orteza goes on to describe Skaggs' personal, spiritual, and professional journey..., cold!

From World...

While some 10-year-olds were asking for Xbox 360s for Christmas, fourth-grader Forest Pearson begged his parents for a 30-gallon air compressor. With the compressor, a pressure washer he saved for from his allowance, and some ingenuity, Forest finally completed a snow machine he's used to turn the backyard of his West Linn, Ore., home into a private ski slope. The contraption created by the young engineer made 3 feet of snow in just one night using the same principles employed by major ski resorts. "We're past toys," mother Elizabeth Pearson said. "We're into air compressors and spray nozzles."

That young man would seem to have a promising future!

conserve or not to conserve: that is the question

From World...

The environmentally conscious Canadian government has urged its citizens to conserve water. But now that enough citizens have listened, city officials in Toronto are learning that when the faucet turns off, the city's water works gets soaked in red ink. Armed with low-flow shower heads and toilets, Toronto residents used 11 percent less water in 2007 than they did in 1988. To make up for shrinking receipts from water usage, the city has instituted a 9.4 percent increase in water prices. "Conservation is killing us," one public works official, tasked with rebuilding an aging water infrastructure with declining revenue, told the Toronto Star.


Is this, most of all, an example of:
a.) the unintended consequences of govt policy
b.) reversing cause-and-effect; if they wanted to do this, just raise prices from the beginning to encourage conservation
c.) the likely conflict of interest when govt is connected to service or good production through taxes or regulation
d.) toilet humor at the govt's "expense"

the write stuff?

From World....

In scientific terms, the paper airplane designed by a major university could soon be out of this world. According to Japanese press reports, researchers at the University of Tokyo are testing a paper airplane they hope to launch from the International Space Station to see if the origami glider can survive the rigors of reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. If the plan succeeds, the paper airplane should hit speeds upwards of Mach 7 as it hurtles toward Earth, shattering any and every paper airplane record.

It'll be interesting to see how this works out in practice-- vs. on paper...

the govt really likes to give away money

From World...

The one thing harder than getting money from the government: returning it. That's the case for Plymouth, England, resident June Clarke, who sought to return $7,000 in disability payments after she says she was miraculously healed. The 56-year-old pastor's wife spent six years bound to a wheelchair after suffering spine and hip injuries in a bad fall at work. At the time she applied for government aid but says she was miraculously healed in 2007. After getting a clean bill of health from a government doctor, Clarke tried unsuccessfully to return $7,000 in disability aid to the British government. "I felt uncomfortable taking benefits when I didn't need them," Clarke said. But the government refused to take the cash back, saying its computer system had no "miracle button" to acknowledge the astounding recovery. Instead, Clarke worked out a program to stop the payments and pay back the thousands by volunteering.

You sure have to admire someone ethical's framework when they do something like this!

Van Morrison rocks with Jesus...

From Arsenio Orteza in World...

Ever since Van Morrison emerged in 1965 as the R&B-shouting lead singer of Them, record stores have stocked his music under "rock," but they could've just as easily stocked it under "soul," "blues," "jazz," and—occasionally—"gospel."

Perhaps the only completely accurate Van Morrison category would be the one that Morrison himself has repeatedly embraced: "mystic." In dozens of songs documenting his Celtic soul's restless quest, he's made a career in popular music seem like a higher calling.

In January Polydor/Universal Music launched its Morrison reissue campaign by releasing the first of what will eventually comprise 29 remastered, bonus-track-enhanced editions. Of the initial seven, Tupelo Honey (1971), Wavelength (1978), and Back on Top (1999) have long been bestsellers, but it's Into the Music (1979) and Avalon Sunset (1989) that will continue to fascinate Christians.

On Into the Music, Morrison sang of reading his Bible ("Rolling Hills") and finding "sanctuary in the Lord" ("Full Force Gale"), on Avalon Sunset of God's all-sustaining omnipresence ("When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God?") and the healing power of "Jesus' name" ("Whenever God Shines His Light"). The reissue adds a version of "When the Saints Go Marching In," in which Morrison name-checks St. Augustine, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. John of the Cross. Coming from someone famous for "Brown-Eyed Girl," such sentiments are attention-getting. What makes them compelling is Morrison's dramatization of them as statements of deep conviction.

time for a 3rd party in this year's presidential run?

Doug Schoen in U.S. News and World Report on the probability of a (reasonable) successful third party run for President this time...

When it comes to major national issues such as slavery, Prohibition, the federal deficit, and civil rights, as well as energy policy and the environment, third parties have long served as an important outlet for moving political debates forward. As we've repeatedly seen in American history, even when a third-party candidate loses, sometimes his ideas win....

We tend to think of elections as zero-sum games—and usually for good reason. But when it comes to a third-party candidate, a genuine opportunity exists for an independent to dictate the issues that come to the fore, not only on the campaign trail but also after the election is over and governing begins.

The American people have become convinced that government in its current form is simply not working....We are presented with partisan rhetoric and attack politics instead. And the American people are yearning for, even demanding, an end to the divisiveness and the development of policies that produce real results, not just sound bites.

There is a segment of the electorate that I have called the Restless and Anxious Moderates, or the rams, who I believe will decide the election. They include most of the independents and a fair number of Democrats and Republicans as well. These voters are practical and nonideological and unabashedly results-oriented. They eschew partisanship and want the parties to come together to confront the difficult challenges America is facing. Indeed, it is my argument that the rams could become the Restless and Anxious Majority if a credible third-party candidate emerges. The RAMs make up roughly 35 to 40 percent of the American electorate. RAMs are ordinary, average Americans. They go online, they watch the news, and they are interested, but they are not the political activists of the blogosphere or the evangelical right. They are centrist, middle-aged, middle-class, practical people who believe in consensus solutions to problems. When they look at politics in Washington, they are aghast....

History has shown repeatedly that third-party movements have their greatest influence when three basic conditions are met. First, when voters are dissatisfied with the state of the country. Second, when the two major political parties are unpopular and when the electorate is polarized. Third, when voters are experiencing the stress and dislocation of economic uncertainty. Make no mistake: We have arrived at a historic moment.

The greatest challenge facing a third-party candidate is creating a strategy that will lead to victory in November. It will depend initially on the candidate's ability to mobilize millions of Americans on his or her behalf. But there are now methods and tools to channel that discontent that did not exist in prior elections. The Internet has created a more level playing field when it comes to grass-roots organizing and fundraising....

Schoen goes on to point to potential candidates: Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jack Welch, Tom Brokaw, and Lou Dobbs. I can only imagine Bloomberg and Dobbs in general-- and given McCain's presence, this time I can only imagine Dobbs.

Mike and Baron or Hill and Sodrel?

From Paul Bedard in U.S. News and World Report...

There's a new rule at the Republican National Committee. Refer to the two leading Democratic presidential candidates simply as "Barack" and "Hillary" and you'll be fined $10. The reason: Using first names makes the candidates sound more likable but calling them "Senator Obama" and "Senator Clinton" makes them sound more distant and bureaucratic. "I don't think people are actually being fined," says one insider. But everyone is being "encouraged" to follow the rule.

Or you could argue that calling him Senator Obama implies too much experience and is unwise in equating Senator McCain and Senator Obama?

the Clinton/Bush dynasty

Some interesting observations from Fouad Ajami in U.S. News and World Report...

Ironically, the two presidential families have not been all that different-- at least how they operated in tandem with Congress. To note, all of them are closer to each other than to Reagan.

The American promise has always been about new beginnings, men and women inventing and reinventing themselves. Dynasties, and the claims of aristocracy and descent, were for older lands. There were breaches to be sure, and the dynastic element reared its head in the early years of the republic: The sixth president, John Quincy Adams, was the son of the second, John Adams. Dynasticism is unapologetic now; it stalks this election. And a voter from South Carolina put the matter in stark terms, in a question E-mailed to Senator Clinton during a recent debate in California. "I am 38 years old, and I have never had an opportunity to vote in a presidential election in which a Bush or a Clinton wasn't on the ballot."

Wow! I had never thought of that before. I was barely able to vote for Reagan in 1984 or I would be in the same category...

The appearance of the Bush and/or Clinton families on the national ballot the last seven elections—and the bid of Mrs. Clinton for an eighth appearance—are of no small consequence for our political practice. Clinton rides dynasticism but denies it....Her case of standing alone must be reckoned as persuasive as the claim that George W. Bush, too, would have made it to the pinnacle of the political system without pedigree and the claims of political aristocracy....

There is an odd feel to the alternation of two families at the center of political power. In the Arab world, it is taken for granted that leaders bequeath power to their sons. South Asian culture, less riven by male primacy, makes room for the political rise of daughters and widows....

But dynasticism now appears in our midst as the country grows in population and diversity; it visits us in the most "modern" of ways—through branding. The old verities give way, and a nation wired in the extreme reaches for names and brands it knows. Call it covert dynasticism, but Americans now succumb to the spell, and to the magic, of pedigree. The Floridians who voted for Jeb Bush as their governor hardly knew him; he was a president's son, and this did the trick. There is, too, the hold of the Clintons on their followers, something of the unquestioning awe with which people follow leaders in the personalistic politics of the Third World. The political parties in America have hollowed out. This renders the political process open to both insurgents and pedigreed politicians. Barack Obama symbolizes the former, Hillary Clinton the latter....

Noonan on Obama's "eloquence"

In the first half of her Wall Street Journal essay, Peggy Noonan (hat tip: Linda Christiansen) wrestles with what others have described as Obama's eloquence and describes the challenge he will face in winning the Democratic nomination while appealing to the general populace...

Barack Obama's biggest draw is not his eloquence. When you watch an Obama speech, you lean forward and listen and think, That's good. He's compelling, I like the way he speaks. And afterward all the commentators call him "impossibly eloquent" and say "he gave me thrills and chills." But, in fact, when you go on the Internet and get a transcript of the speech and print it out and read it--that is, when you remove Mr. Obama from the words and take them on their own--you see the speech wasn't all that interesting, and was in fact high-class boilerplate. (This was not true of John F. Kennedy's speeches, for instance, which could be read seriously as part of the literature of modern American politics, or Martin Luther King's work, which was powerful absent his voice.)

Mr. Obama is magnetic, interacts with the audience, leads a refrain: "Yes, we can." It's good, and compared with Hillary Clinton and John McCain, neither of whom seems really to enjoy giving speeches, it comes across as better than it is. But is it eloquence? No. Eloquence is deep thought expressed in clear words. With Mr. Obama the deep thought part is missing. What is present are sentiments.

Our country can be greater, it holds unachieved promise, our leaders have not led us well. "We struggle with our doubts, our fears, our cynicism." Fair enough and true enough, but he doesn't dig down to explain how to become a greater nation, what specific path to take--more power to the state, for instance, or more power to the individual. He doesn't unpack his thoughts, as they say. He asserts and keeps on walking.

So his draw is not literal eloquence but a reputation for eloquence that may, in time, become the real thing.

But his big draw is this. In a country that has throughout most of our lifetimes been tormented by, buffeted by, the question of race, a country that has endured real pain and paid in blood and treasure to work its way through and out of the mess, that for all that struggle we yielded this: a brilliant and accomplished young black man with a consensus temperament, a thoughtful and peaceful person who wishes to lead. That is his draw: "We made that." "It ended well."

People would love to be able to support that guy.

His job, in a way, is to let them, in part by not being just another operative, plaything or grievance-monger of the left-liberal establishment and left-liberal thinking. By standing, in fact, for real change.

Right now Mr. Obama is in an awkward moment. Each day he tries to nail down his party's leftist base, and take it from Mrs. Clinton. At the same time his victories have led the country as a whole to start seeing him as the probable Democratic nominee. They're looking at him in a new way, and wondering: Is he standard, old time and party line, or is he something new? Is he just a turning of the page, or is he the beginning of a new and helpful chapter?...

for rhetoric, Obama = Reagan?

From Stephen Hayes in the Wall Street Journal, a comparison of Obama to Reagan-- in terms of style and rhetoric...

These are words that move and uplift, that give hope to the hopeless. These words inspired millions of voters nationwide to join the grand experiment called democracy, casting votes for their candidate, their country, their destiny:

"More than anything else, I want my candidacy to unify our country, to renew the American spirit and sense of purpose. I want to carry our message to every American, regardless of party affiliation, who is a member of this community of shared values . . . For those who have abandoned hope, we'll restore hope and we'll welcome them into a great national crusade to make America great again!"

So Ronald Reagan proclaimed on July 17, 1980, as he accepted his party's nomination for president at the Republican National Convention in Detroit, Mich.

Earlier that day, the New York Times ran a long profile of Reagan on its front page. The author, Howell Raines, lamented that the news media had been unsuccessful in getting Reagan to speak in anything other than "sweeping generalities about economic and military policy." Mr. Raines further noted: "political critics who characterize him as banal and shallow, a mouther of right-wing platitudes, delight in recalling that he co-starred with a chimpanzee in 'Bedtime for Bonzo.'"

Throughout his campaign, Reagan fought off charges that his candidacy was built more on optimism than policies. The charges came from reporters and opponents. John Anderson, a rival in the Republican primary who ran as an independent in the general election, complained that Reagan offered little more than "old platitudes and old generalities."

Conservatives understood that this Reagan-as-a-simpleton view was a caricature (something made even clearer in several recent books, particularly Reagan's own diaries). That his opponents never got this is what led to their undoing. Those critics who giggled about his turn alongside a chimp were considerably less delighted when Reagan won 44 states and 489 electoral votes in November.

One Reagan adviser had predicted such a win shortly after Reagan had become the de facto nominee the previous spring. In a memo about the coming general election contest with Jimmy Carter, Richard Whalen wrote Reagan's "secret weapon" was that "Democrats fail to take him very seriously."

Are Republicans making the same mistake with Barack Obama?

For months now, Hillary Clinton has suggested that Mr. Obama is all rhetoric, no substance. This claim, or some version of it, has been at the center of her campaign since November. One day after losing to him in Wisconsin and Hawaii -- her ninth and tenth consecutive defeats -- she rather incredibly went back to it again....

The assumption behind much of this criticism is that because Mr. Obama gives a good speech he cannot do substance. This is wrong. Mr. Obama has done well in most of the Democratic debates because he has consistently shown himself able to think on his feet. Even on health care, a complicated national issue that should be Mrs. Clinton's strength, Mr. Obama has regularly fought her to a draw by displaying a grasp of the details that rivals hers, and talking about it in ways Americans can understand.

In Iowa, long before the race became the national campaign it is today, Mr. Obama spent much of his time at town halls in which he took questions from the audience. His answers in such settings were often as good or better than the rhetoric in his stump speech, and usually more substantive. He spoke about issues like immigration and national service in a thoughtful manner -- not wonky, not pedantic, but in a way that suggested he'd spent some time thinking about them before.

More important for the race ahead, Mr. Obama has the unique ability to offer doctrinaire liberal positions in a way that avoids the stridency of many recent Democratic candidates. That he managed to do this in the days before the Iowa caucuses -- at a time when he might have been expected to be at his most liberal -- was quite striking.

His rhetorical gimmick is simple. When he addresses a contentious issue, Mr. Obama almost always begins his answer with a respectful nod in the direction of the view he is rejecting -- a line or two that suggests he understands or perhaps even sympathizes with the concerns of a conservative....

Independent of policies (a huge consideration!), you have to praise Reagan and FDR for their contribution to America in times of significant struggle. At least on paper, Obama seems to have
the same gifts and opportunities if he becomes president.

Obama = JFK's rhetoric + LBJ's policies

Michael Ramirez of Investors' Business Daily in World...

This ties to recent critiques of Obama's "eloquent but empty" rhetoric-- vs. his most-liberal rating with the Senate as a legislator.

It also implicitly recognizes JFK's conservatism on, at least, marginal tax rates and "supply-side" tax cuts.

Cartoons By Michael Ramirez

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

not just Kentucky and Indiana...

Justin Ewers in U.S. News & World Report on state fiscal problems-- with a few mentions of Kentucky's situation...

When Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected California's governor in 2003, he vowed to solve one big problem. The state's nearly $100 billion budget was a mess. After the tech bubble popped, tax revenues had dropped by 17 percent in one year and the state, required by law to balance its budget, was struggling with an $8 billion deficit. Schwarzenegger went into action, borrowing heavily until the economy and tax revenues picked up, and the ship of state seemed to steady. Last year, he declared victory, along with a "zero deficit."

The good times didn't last—in California, or in many other states that struggled out of the dot-com bust only to watch the housing bubble disappear along with much of their revenue. This winter, with the economy slowing again, Schwarzenegger finds himself mired in a budget crisis even bigger than the first. Shrinking tax revenues and housing deflation are creating a $14.5 billion budget hole to fill. Declaring a fiscal emergency, Schwarzenegger is asking for a 10 percent spending cut in all state agencies. In addition to closing 48 state parks and releasing early as many as 22,000 nonviolent prisoners, he has proposed deep cuts in education, trimming $4 billion from next year's K-12 budget, which would require suspending a law that guarantees a minimum level of school funding.

Experts say this is no ideological, small-government crusade. "He's trying to get people's attention," says Daniel Mitchell, a professor of management and public policy at the University of California-Los Angeles. "This is a train wreck, where California is heading."

The Golden State isn't the only one teetering on the brink of budgetary disaster. The economic slowdown has depleted sales and income tax revenues, the lifeblood of state governments, for the first time in four years, causing budget shortfalls in 20 states. According to the National Governors Association, 35 to 40 states could face cuts in 2009....

[There are] three hard choices: Raise taxes, cut spending, or both. Maryland and Michigan opted for both last year, but election season may put an end to the tax hikes....

So where to swing the ax? Around two-thirds of many general funds are devoted to education, healthcare, and corrections systems. In North Carolina, which so far isn't experiencing a shortfall, those three services make up 93 percent of the state budget. When the state faced a $2 billion shortfall on a $14 billion budget during the last recession, it had to make some heartbreaking choices....

A few leaders, like Schwarzenegger, have begun to bite the bullet. New Hampshire's governor has asked for cuts of at least 5.7 percent. In Kentucky, which faces a shortfall of nearly $900 million, state agencies, including colleges, are trimming spending by 3 percent. Experts say tuition hikes and staff cuts will surely follow.

To ease the pain, gambling revenues are being dangled in front of some voters. Measures on the ballot in California this week would allow four Indian tribes to massively expand their casino operations, bringing the state up to $430 million. Kentucky's governor is pushing for a constitutional amendment to legalize gambling...

will this bother social conservatives?

From Tara Hettinger of the Jeff/NA News-Tribune, news that Q and U have gotten hitched...

Marriage is between one man and one woman-- not two letters! ;-)
But this sure is a cute story-- and a creative way to teach kids about Qu...

The sounds of “Canon in D” filled the room Monday as kindergartners at St. Paul Catholic School dressed as queens and quarterbacks filed in quietly, walking down the aisle and taking their seats.

Everyone stood and looked to the back of the room as “Here Comes the Bride” started to play, and two students appeared, the queen holding the letter Q; the quarterback holding the letter U.

The two marched to the front of the group, meeting Courtney Cooper, kindergarten teacher who also officiated the ceremony.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are here today to join the letters Q and U in holy matrimony, forever,” she announced.

She asked the two if they took one another in quarrels and in health. They said, “I do.”

“By the power vested in me by the St. Paul Catholic School, I now pronounce you ‘QU,’” Cooper said.

The traditional phrase, “You may now kiss the bride,” was not said, because as 5-year-old Catherine Sellmer pointed out, “Letters can’t walk and they can’t kiss.”...

The students have known about the wedding for a few weeks, and Cooper said she can see the lasting effect this will have on them.

“Already in our phonics papers, I can see the difference that they know Q can’t go without a U,” she said.

“Q can’t make a word without U because Q does not make a sound,” Sellmer explained as to why the letters got married....

You can probably imagine the other public policy jokes I might have added, but I'll leave that to your own (hopefully fertile) imagination.

creationism, evolution, and intelligent design

Rod Rose, a columnist from Lebanon, IN with some oh-so-common confusion and conflation on evolution, creationism and ID (hat tip: Jeff/NA News-Tribune)...

Florida’s state school board Tuesday decided to require that the word “evolution” appear in science textbooks.

This is news for several reasons; the most important is that it is the first time Florida is requiring students in public schools be taught the “scientific theory of evolution.”

Florida’s students will now be taught that “evolution is the fundamental concept underlying all of biology and is supported by multiple forms of scientific evidence.”

Objections are imminent....

So far, so good, but it's downhill from here...

Creationists argue that “God alone suffices” is all they need to support their concept of intelligent design. Creationists do not question God. Science by its nature questions everything.

--> Not really...If he means young-earth (YE) creationists, then they don't support ID. If he means old-earth (OE) creationists, they may or may not support ID as science, but see some role for evolution vs. "God alone" (whatever that would mean theologically).
--> Indeed, Science (with a Capital S) questions all, but scientists and science do not; the latter have their biases and blindspots.

The intelligent design argument is not new; it is more than 200 years old, going back to the “blind watchmaker” analogy proposed by William Paley. Call it “creationism” or call it “intelligent design,” but do not call it scientific theory.

--> Philosophically, ID has been around for much longer. With a scientific veneer, it has been around most notably since Paley. But creationism is not equivalent to ID-- and again, the YE variety is opposed to ID. YE creationism has some scientific evidences, although they are far-from-compelling. OE creationism is not science per se. ID is a scientific pursuit.

In June 2008, Scientific American magazine published “15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense.” The word “nonsense” is perhaps a bit harsh — certainly not all devout Christians disbelieve the theory of evolution...

Scientific American’s editors lamented, “Embarrasingly (sic), in the 21st century, in the most scientifically advanced nation the world has ever known, creationists can still persuade politicians, judges and ordinary citizens that evolution is a flawed, poorly supported fantasy.”

It is none of those. The reality of evolution has been proven, repeatedly.

Evolution is a fact.

--> Again, we have a conflation between OE and YE creationism. We also have conflation between so-called micro-evolution (indisputable) and so-called macro-evolution which purports to provide a comprehensive scientific "explanation" for the development of life (and falls well short by any objective measure).
--> I'm willing to cut slack to newspaper writers. But what's far more embarrassing is that educated scientists are unable or unwilling to make such vital distinctions.