Friday, December 22, 2006

Social Security Concerns (Part II)

As I said in Part I, we have several options for improving the downstream solvency of the Social Security program. This assumes, of course, that we believe that this is a worthy goal.

Some deny that any problem exists. For these people, no action is necessary. Many of these people would not be directly impacted during their lifetimes, so for them, no problem exists. However, for those that believe they have at least some duty to future generations, some action must be taken to resolve eventual solvency problems.

I previously discussed the various feasible options (privatization, cutting benefits, raising retirement age, raising taxes, etc.), but I said that each of these options was difficult to implement. I surmised that no meaningful change would likely occur during the 110th Congress.

But why is change so difficult to achieve? Part of the reason for this is the dual nature of the Social Security system itself. It was sold to Americans both as a way to care for the elderly and disabled in our society AND as a retirement investment plan — a pooled investment plan.

Today we are all familiar with 401(k) plans, IRAs, and the like, where we each have an individual account. Back in the 1930s when the Social Security plan was formulated, very few had access to individual investment vehicles. Company pensions were more common, as was the case until a shift occurred about two decades ago. Americans understood the idea of paying into a pension plan that would provide a retirement payout.

For many Americans today, especially those that have entered the workforce in the last decade, this system where the individual is divorced from his/her personal investment seems antiquated and bizarre. Many in conservative circles tout the ideals of pure privatization and individualization of retirement planning.

However, this completely denies the other aspect of the system — the aspect that takes care of those that are less fortunate in our society. Some would very much like to divorce these two elements from each other. They would make retirement investment its own program, and make social care a separate program that is paid for out of the general revenue fund. This would expose the true cost of the social side of the equation.

This sounds reasonable, but splitting the program is not quite as easy as it sounds. What about provisions for the working poor — those that pay into a retirement system throughout their lives, but never generate sufficient to provide a decent retirement benefit? Do we really want to bear the societal costs of leaving a significant group of seniors in a more indigent situation than at present?

While liberals (increasingly joined by those that call themselves conservatives) have long touted the idea of reducing benefits “for those that can most afford it,” this changes the basic nature of the program’s contract as understood by most Americans. It changes the program more into a wealth transfer system.

Some have likened this concept to an insurance pool where benefits are paid only to those that need it, and others that paid premiums are simply happy to have been so fortunate as to not require receiving benefits. But most Americans that pay into Social Security think of it more like a life insurance/annuity policy. They pay a premium and expect a guaranteed payout. Most Americans don’t buy into limiting benefits because they see it as the breaking of a contract.

Reducing benefits also has a very real impact on productivity. As with all social programs, those at the margins are most impacted. I saw this happen when my father discontinued a productive and fulfilling electrical engineering contract because the net effect of the tax increase was very little take home pay. Of course, he didn’t discover this until he filed his income tax return, but it chagrined him that the government made his work essentially of no value.

Raising taxes on current producers to pay benefits to non-producers hardly seems equitable. After running up the tax rate for years, politicians realized that they had pretty much pushed it to its limit. Further increases will only further harm productivity, which may even reduce program revenues.

And it simply galls most Americans that the Social Security Trust Fund consists of government IOUs. The T-bills that represent the program’s funds are “investments” in the same way that giving yourself a loan is an investment. The interest paid on these bills at some point must come from the pockets of the taxpayers.

Social Security is a tough nut to crack because of the dual nature of its contract with the American people, and the way it is funded. No solution that fails to address all of these elements will resolve the program’s future solvency problems. Some of the solutions might push eventual insolvency further down the road a few years without really fixing it.

Our nation has a poor track record of seriously addressing problems until a crisis occurs. We’re not in crisis with Social Security, and we likely won’t be for at least several decades. However, we could resolve future problems now with far less pain than the next generation will face when the crisis looms large.

Will we do that? I would like to think that we would be insightful enough to do so, but due to the politically difficult nature of fixing the problems now, it doesn’t look like it will happen anytime soon.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

A Hopeful History of America

A couple of months ago I wrote about my purchase of Bill Bennett’s history book, America: The Last Best Hope (Vol. 1). I promised a review of the book when I completed it. I actually completed the book a few weeks ago, but events have conspired to keep me from writing about it.

Please refer to my original post for Bennett’s six reasons for writing the book. This first volume covers the exploits of the early European explorers down to the gathering storm that would become World War I. Future volumes are promised.

Bennett says that his book is intended not only to convey correct facts in their proper context, but also to do so in a manner that makes the book enjoyable to read. I am no especial history aficionado. I didn’t particularly care for history during my primary and secondary education. Nor did I have much concern for it during my undergrad years. Interest in history is something that has sort of grown on me during the ensuing years. Given this perspective, I found Bennett’s book quite a page turner. For me, it was very enjoyable to read, so I felt that Bennett had achieved this goal.

The book is 525 pages long. It includes a separate bibliography for each chapter. Bennett spends 29 pages on the early European explorers and 31 pages on the early colonial period, before launching into the American Revolution. While Bennett covers the causes, prosecution, and initial outcomes of the war in only 45 pages, he does a very good job of selecting and assembling pertinent information in a coherent manner that flows very well and provides a well rounded handling of the subject.

Bennett follows this up with a fine 26-page discussion of the framing of the Constitution. In doing so, he provides important insights into the personalities of key individuals, as well as the backgrounds of the competing interests and philosophies that went into the founding of our nation. Bennett does not gloss over the slavery issue, but he put it in its proper context. He explains that the compromise on this issue was very likely essential to the formation of the Union, but that the basic morality of it would chafe until it exacted a terrible price.

Throughout Bennett’s discussion of the Revolution, the founding of the nation, and the beginning years of the Republic, the figure of George Washington looms large. Bennett does a good job of providing insight into Washington’s personality, but Washington himself seemed to have a stoic shell that withstood attempts to get inside.

I found Bennett’s discussion of the development of our two-party system highly intriguing. Bennett keeps this thread running off and on for well over 100 pages, weaving it through a variety of topics. He explores the personalities, ideologies, and the societal issues involved. The roots for two parties developed during Washington’s first term among his cabinet members and inner circle. Washington and Hamilton heading up the faction that eventually became the Federalists, and Jefferson (a truly amazing and unique individual) and Madison heading up the Democrat-Republicans.

With the passing of Washington and Hamilton, the Federalist movement waned to the point that there was only one major party with two factions, with the Federalists more or less as a third party. Eventually the Whig Party arose in opposition to the direction Andrew Jackson had taken the Democratic Party. During this era, Washington politics was dominated by Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. Up until this time, all major parties included slave owners and slavery advocates. Bennett does a masterful job of discussing the variety of events and circumstances that eventually caused public sentiment in the North and the South to divide so sharply over this issue. The Republican Party rose from the ashes of the Whig Party with opposition to slavery as a major platform component.

Bennett makes particular note of the fact that extremists on both sides of the slavery issue pushed matters to the point that the topic was taboo to debate politically. The abolitionists demanded that all slavery cease immediately, although, this would leave slaves economically unable to fend for themselves. They viewed any debate about slavery as a discussion with the devil. Slavery hard liners in the south, known as fire eaters, would not brook any discussion of slavery, because it was obvious that they were on the losing side. Any debate was tantamount to a declaration of war to these people.

Left in the middle were the vast majority of Americans that thought that there could be an amicable way to eventually bring the practice to a close without economical devastation of the South. When a Republican won the 1860 election, despite promises of seeing to the interests of the South, fire eaters took their ball and went home. Unwilling to even risk debating slavery, seven states decided to secede from the Union. (Don’t take these few oversimplified lines as a representation of Bennett’s handling of the secession of the South. Read the book yourself.)

The events preceding the Civil War, the war itself, and the war’s immediate aftermath consume over 150 pages of Bennett’s book. Bennett clearly believes that these events clearly defined (and perhaps redefined) us as a nation, perhaps even more than the Revolution and the founding of the nation. Bennett’s handling of the war is gripping (at least it was to me), but the painful horribleness of it all flows freely to the reader through Bennett’s pen. Throughout it all, the legendary figure of Abraham Lincoln is explored in ways that Washington defied. This great communicator (albeit with a somewhat nasally tenor voice), was repeatedly underestimated by those around him (both his supporters and opponents), but Lincoln understood this and continually used it to his advantage. The fact that we have a Union today is largely due to Lincoln’s single-minded personal commitment to this principle.

Bennett openly laments the fact that Reconstruction was so poorly handled and was stopped well before achieving many of its goals. Part of this was due to Lincoln’s assassination, and the ascension of those that rejected his mild policies toward the rebels in favor of harsh policies. Part of it was due to the fact that Americans were tired of the whole matter and simply wanted to get on with life. The upshot was a century of enforced segregation and Jim Crow laws.

I enjoyed Bennett’s discussion of the Gilded Age. Looming large in this discussion is the larger than life figure of Theodore Roosevelt, whose personal efforts transformed the American political scene for decades afterward. Roosevelt was another truly unique and amazing individual. He believed in the vigorous life and he lived what he believed. He always commanded the center of attention in every situation in which he found himself.

A short time after becoming U.S. Vice President, Roosevelt became President when William McKinley was assassinated. He was elected to a second term, but declined to run for a third. He was a war hawk, but he defined the progressive movement. While he was wildly popular with the public, his progressive politics did not endear him to his Republican Party machine. After a term away, he returned to try to take the nomination from his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft. When he failed to do so, he formed the Progressive Party, splitting the Republican vote and allowing Woodrow Wilson to win. Although the Progressive Party was short-lived and was based pretty much on Roosevelt’s personality, this split permanently changed the GOP.

Bennett wraps up his book by discussing events leading up to World War I. This handling is not as full featured as some of his other discussions, but I presume that he will handle it more fully in the beginning of his next volume.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I very much enjoyed reading America: The Last Best Hope. I heartily recommend it. Bennett does not always delve into detail, but he has a knack for including details that are interesting and that lend well to the progression of the story line. Bennett’s writing style is interesting and enjoyable to read. He promised not to hide America’s warts. Indeed, he explores them because he feels that our handling of them is what has made our nation what it is. But, true to his promise, Bennett promotes an informed patriotism.

Bennett hopes that his book will inspire a love for America. I think he accomplishes this goal. I hope that many people will read this book and treasure it. I look forward to the next installment in the series.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Get Well Wishes for an Ailing Senator

Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) suffered some kind of brain hemorrhage yesterday that resulted from a congenital condition (see here). The 59-year-old senator has spent his life in politics, but he seems to be a behind-the-scenes worker that doesn’t seek out the limelight. He underwent emergency brain surgery late yesterday and is currently in critical condition.

While this type of news would normally be greeted with an outpouring of empathy, the media and political buzzards are circling this suffering man in hopes of grabbing up juicy morsels of carrion. The reason? The Democrats hold a slim 51-49 majority in the incoming 110th Congress.

If Senator Johnson is no longer able to serve, South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds, who is Republican, would appoint a replacement, who would almost certainly be Republican as well. That would make the partisan split in the U.S. Senate 50-50. Since Vice President Dick Cheney casts the deciding vote in such cases (per the Constitution), the Republicans would retain their majority in the Senate.

Let me stipulate that I am a registered Republican. I would very much have liked to see the GOP retain control of one or both houses of Congress, but that’s not how the electorate voted. The spoils go to the victors, and that is as it should be. But we are a nation of laws. We have rules to govern what should happen in cases when an elected official can no longer serve, and those rules should be followed, even if the result seems ironically unfair in the short term.

However, the sick media and political drama surrounding Senator Johnson’s health condition is contemptible at best. Regardless of one’s partisan leanings, we should all hope (and pray, if you’re religious) for the best for this man and his family out of the goodness of our hearts. Besides, if he recovers enough to continue his service, the whole partisan question will be avoided and the media sickos can go back to obsessing about Brittany Spears’ love life.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

True Words

“Few things became the 109th Congress so much as its departure.” (Traditionally conservative Wall Street Journal Editors here).

How Do We Punish Employers That Hire Illegals?

Yesterday federal officials raided six Swift meat processing plants in the U.S., including one in Hyrum, Utah, arresting hundreds of illegal aliens that had obtained employment using falsified and/or stolen documents (see SL Trib, Des News, Logan Herald). While many have clamored for this type of action, its effect is obviously causing some second thoughts in some circles.

In light of very poor enforcement, there have been loud calls for punishing businesses that hire illegals. It appears that the feds are now doing that. Swift has suspended operations at the raided plants. It’s not clear whether Swift will face any kind of civil or criminal prosecution. It would be easy for them to argue that they had appropriate documentation for all of their workers and that federal regulations prevent them from raising residency or citizenship questions once documentation has been provided.

However, it is far easier to penalize the workers that obtained employment through widely used, but fraudulent means. Some that have called loudly for raids on offending businesses are now crying foul. Somehow they seem to think that the illegal workers should get off Scot free. Many of the stories in the MSM also decry the feds as Grinches for performing the raid just days before Christmas (as if we want the government to stop all enforcement operations during the month of December).

The main crux of the punish-the-evil-employer theory is that illegals are merely pawns in a corrupt system, so they bear little responsibility for their actions. Employers, on the other hand, are assumed to be far more culpable, being much higher up the chain of corruption. The theory assumes that stanching the supply of jobs for illegals by punishing offending employers will result in a lower supply of illegals coming across the border to get jobs. Supporters of this type of action include employers (that presumably hire no illegals) that claim that they can’t compete with employers that reduce their labor costs by hiring illegals.

Yet others argue that both the employers and the illegal workers are simply responding to market pressures, and are, therefore, not fully culpable for their actions. Some in this camp feel that borders are inherently immoral and/or that it is immoral to keep people from coming here that simply want to work and improve their lives and the lives of their families.

Our society, however, is also founded on the principle of personal responsibility. Our history shows that we do not like the perception of institutionalized corruption and that we are willing to take stark, but measured actions to combat it when it gets bad enough. However, we tend to hold individuals accountable for their actions and decisions. We are also a fairly forgiving society when individuals are penitent and/or there are mitigating circumstances surrounding a person’s unfavorable actions. But we tend to apply the punishment first and then consider mercy later unless the individual enjoys broad public sympathy up front.

We should crack down on employers that hire illegals. But that does not mean that we should excuse illegals that work for them. Enforcement must cut both ways.

Also, it is important to recognize that some of our own regulations that are intended to prevent discrimination actually provide cover for the employers. If Swift is charged, the case will be very difficult to prosecute, because Swift will likely be able to argue that it fully complied with government regulations.

This is likely to be the case, even if it is suggested that Swift encouraged falsified documentation via a wink and nod hiring process. To successfully prosecute employers, we would have to change our regulations, which would be construed as encouraging discrimination. It does not appear that anyone is willing to do that right now. Perhaps Swift will use stricter hiring practices when it begins operating its plant again, but there’s no guarantee of that.

Swift will suffer economically for hiring illegals, but it will likely not suffer legally thanks to existing regulations. Swift’s illegal workers, on the other hand, will suffer both economically and legally.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Social Security Concerns (Part I)

When it comes to debating what to do with Social Security, it seems that the most vocal sides are out of touch with the American public. But it also seems that the most vocal sides are at least somewhat in touch with public opinion. What is going on here?

Let’s look the history of the Social Security program. The great savior FDR looked out upon his economically disadvantaged constituents, especially the elderly, and said, “Lo, here is a great inequity. Let us make a New Deal to ensure that the elderly and disabled in our nation have sufficient for their needs.”

But support for outright transfer of wealth was hard to be found, and thus, it was necessary to provide incentives to make the program seem good to income producers. And so it was sold as a self investment plan to bolster one’s own retirement. Only those that contributed for a given number of quarters would receive benefits, except that those disabled would also receive benefits. And it seemed good to the princes. And so it was written, and so it was done.

And all was good, for in the beginning there were more than 20 workers to support each non-worker, average life expectancy was less than retirement age, and the tax was only 2% (albeit, with a steady rise to 6% over a 14-year period that was eventually extended to a 24-year period).

But lo, and behold, soon cries of dismay were heard that there were yet other disadvantaged people that were not covered by Social Security. And soon the princes found it worthy to expand the program to cover these poor souls. And there was much rejoicing, especially among those that did not provide for themselves.

But the people did not produce posterity at the rate of their fathers, and with more souls covered by the program, the ratio of workers supporting non-workers fell, causing great dismay. But great fortune smiled upon the people insomuch that their increased productivity rate compensated much for these shortcomings.

Nevertheless, the princes saw fit to raise the tax rate repeatedly until it stood at 12.4%, and the benefit rate was reduced for those with earnings exceeding a basic amount. The retirement age was also raised to reflect an increased life expectancy. Thus there began to be those that had retired and could still work, but refused to do so because working garnered no net gain.

Then lo, a cry from the plan trustees that unless revamped the plan would go broke. But few wished to make any serious attempt to resolve the problem, preferring to leave it as an inheritance to their posterity. And thus the financial status of the plan languished.

And that’s where we are today, folks. Many proposals to save Social Security are bandied about, but nobody seems to be biting. There are even those that use all kinds of high-falutin’ statistical models to make believe that the system is not imperiled. But it is clear that the plan cannot survive simply by continuing with its present structure. Something must change.

But what do we change? President Bush offered to partially privatize the plan to make it more of an investment plan. This modest plan was rejected. Nancy Pelosi has promised that Democrats in the 110th Congress will staunchly oppose any privatization efforts. That leaves only a few options, all of which are untenable to one or more powerful groups.

We could raise the tax on wages. This disincentivizes productivity and income production from working. It’s a hard sell to the workers and businesses that would bear this burden. We could increase the retirement age to reflect the realities of our population’s increased productive life expectancy. Try to get that one past the powerful AARP lobby.

We could cap benefits, denying them to retirees that continue to work or that have been responsible enough to spend their working lives saving for retirement, because “they can afford it.” Never mind the amounts they paid into a system that was promoted to them as a retirement investment. Sure, it was, but for their neighbors rather than for themselves. We could also ignore the problem until it reaches critical mass a generation or so down the road. Now, there’s a great legacy to leave to our posterity.

The problem is that none of these possible solutions are politically palatable. The only one that even approaches political viability is the ostrich approach, where we hide our heads and pretend the problem doesn’t exist. I’m betting that this approach is most likely to be the one that is ultimately adopted by our politicians over the next two years.

I’ll write another post at some point down the road on why I think this is such a difficult problem to solve and how the roots of this problem impact almost all things political in our nation.

Friday, December 08, 2006

National Academic League Follow-Up

I wrote last month (here) about the National Academic League in which my son is involved. My son’s team performed spectacularly throughout the season until the final game. You see this same kind of thing in sports.

My son’s 7-0 team was matched up with a team that was 3-3 (having had a by). My son’s team didn’t take the game seriously. It was their final game of the regular season and they were matched up against a push-over team, so they were in a festive mood. However, they ended up losing 57-53. The other team was hot and my son’s team was not.

Still, at 7-1 they ended up being tied for first place in the district. It was quite surprising to see which team they ended up competing against in the playoffs. They had been sure they would be up against their arch rival, a team they had beat by only one slim point. But they ended up competing against a team they had beat soundly by 10 points. That team had beat their arch rival (which was considered to be a very good team) by 20 points. It was difficult to understand how this could happen.

That is, it was difficult until the playoff game this afternoon. My son’s team played fairly well. However, the opposing team had one very hot player, an extremely quick and smart young man that had not played so well in the regular season game. This boy garnered a full one-third of the team’s 70 points. I don’t know how that team would survive without that one player. It was as if he knew everything and was very fast on the buzzer. My son’s team went down to a convincing 20-point defeat. Ouch. I think my son's team will have a new arch rival going into next year.

I was very proud of how well my son played, although, he wasn’t able to tell the name of the U.S. governmental department that deals with finances. In a way, I must admit that I’m relieved that it’s all over. For one thing, it’s healthy for kids to learn how to deal with disappointment and defeat. Real life is filled with those elements. For another thing, this will free up the 90 minutes my son spent at practice each day after school. It’s very beneficial, but it’s a serious time commitment.

The winning team will now go to the national playoffs. Location is not important in this activity. At the national level, games are played at a local school over a video link (something you can’t do with football). There is no travel involved, so competing teams may come from anywhere in the nation.

I highly endorse NAL. It provides a competitive outlet for academic and communication skills. As with sports, it develops speed, strategy, discipline, and competitive psychology. But unlike sports, it focuses on mental rather than physical skills. (I’ve never seen a player hauled off the field with an injury.) And it is a lot of fun.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

... Or Realism With a Few Flaws

Robert D. Kaplan writes quite favorably of the Iraq Study Group Report in this Atlantic Online article. Kaplan is not your average neocon hack. He has “traveled to and reported on more than 80 countries,” and has great expertise on the Middle East. Kaplan was an ardent supporter of the Iraq war, and worked secretly with the Bush administration “to help develop a case for the invasion of Iraq.” In so doing he damaged his reputation of journalistic independence.

Kaplan calls the report “a tough, intricate policy statement, albeit with serious flaws.” But he’s not ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as he says so many other conservative pundits seem ready to do. This morning, for example, Bob Lonsberry said on his radio show that the report was greeted with equal enthusiasm by the MSM and by terrorists. (Those are code terms conservatives greet with equal disdain.) Kaplan says that in actually reading the document, you discover that it’s no cut-and-run plan.

Kaplan claims some humility about the whole Iraq affair. Having been one to provide key support in getting the mission off the ground in the first place, he now says that it is possible to believe that “the frequency and magnitude of the mistakes [in Iraq] indicate a hubristic flaw in the concept of regime change itself….” He comes off as being angry with the administration for messing up something he helped start, saying that an alternative acceptable belief is that “toppling Saddam Hussein was a wise decision, incompetently handled in its occupation phase.”

The report’s flaws include an unrealistic reliance on Iran, Syria, and others that the group relies on to help accomplish indispensable portions of its blueprint. However, unlike those I cited in yesterday’s post that see nothing good in engaging Iran and Syria diplomatically, Kaplan enthusiastically supports attempting to do so, but with our eyes wide open. He thinks that the study group is engaged in fantasy when they claim to understand Iran’s and Syria’s motivations.

While conservative pundits throughout our great nation roundly blast the study group’s report and call for the Bush administration to immediately chuck it in the round file, Kaplan argues, “The Administration should co-opt this report—with adjustments, of course.” He warns that if the President fails to incorporate major portions of the report into his policies, “he will be truly on his own, utterly isolated.” I guess Kaplan thinks the President’s not already there. At any rate, those are harsh words from a war hawk. Perhaps they contain some wisdom.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


The Baker Commission’s realist take on the Middle East is unrealistic. WSJ editors claim here that Iran’s track record demonstrates that the realist’s Holy Grail of directly engaging Iran diplomatically won’t work.

Washington Times writer Joel Himmelfarb asserts here that the entire basis for the Baker Commission’s deliberations “is absolutely false.” Himmelfarb notes that we have had direct diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria for six decades, but that this has never overcome even our small differences with these regimes, let alone our major differences. Our multi-decade attempt to get these regimes to renounce terrorism has had zero success. In fact, it has had inverse success. (That’s a euphemism for abject failure.)

WSJ Editor James Taranto critiques the Baker Commission’s recommendations here. He believes the plan has some good suggestions, but he also believes that it has major flaws. One flaw is that the realists in Baker’s group conclude that the only way for the U.S. to achieve its goals in the Middle East is to employ all of its capabilities to achieve Arab-Israeli peace.

After noting that we have actually been seriously working on Arab-Israeli peace using the methods prescribed by the realists for decades with no satisfactory results, Taranto asks, “Why is it "realistic" to think that more of the same will magically transform the region now?”

Taranto claims that the “the so-called realists make two unrealistic assumptions.” The first violates principles of realism (i.e. that nations act only in their own self interest). The realists assume “that Arab nations, far from being concerned only with their own interests, have a sentimental attachment to the Palestinian cause.” They do not. They only use it as an excuse. If they were truly concerned, they would open their own borders and work to relieve Palestinians rather than making sure their plight remains desperate.

Taranto writes, “The second goes to a fundamental problem with realism: a failure to distinguish between nations and regimes. It’s obvious that it would be in the interest of Arab nations--especially the currently nonexistent Palestinian one--to coexist peacefully with Israel. But the regimes that rule those nations are concerned above all with self-preservation.”

One self-preservation tactic is to deflect criticism by using Jews as scapegoats for their own problems. (Sound familiar?) Thus, the Arab regimes act in their own interests rather than in the interest of the nations they rule. Regardless of what would be good for the nations they rule, it would be antithetical to the interests of these regimes to actually resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The solution, as Taranto sees it, is democracy. “Democratic regimes are far from perfect, but by providing for popular accountability, they align the interests of the regime with the interests of the nation better than any other system that has been devised.” Thus, Taranto appears to promote the Bush policy of creating a sustainable democratic regime in Iraq.

There has been a veritable love fest for the Baker Commission’s suggestions by the MSM and gushing politicians on both sides of the aisle for weeks. And the report was only released today! I am grateful that the administration has no requirement to actually follow the commission’s suggestions.

I believe it is important for our leaders to get good input so that they can make the best possible decisions. However, they did not run and we did not elect them to merely rubber stamp ideas and decisions made by unelected independent commissions. We hired them to lead and to make the hard decisions. (We also didn't elect them to pass the buck and say that the generals are making all of the decisions. That's not leadership.)

We have gotten into the habit of thinking that independent commissions are good things because they remove the issue at hand from the heat of politics. The MSM assiduously supports unelected independent commissions. We have come to believe that politics is bad whenever there is heated debate, impasse, or power struggles.

But kicking decisions to unelected groups passes the buck and reduces accountability. The Founders intended for us to have spirited debate and even exercise of political power. They felt that this would go a long way toward providing the checks and balances required for good government. Although it might not always be pretty, the decisions should be left in the hands of those that are accountable to the voters.

Let It Die

Utah’s fourth congressional seat is toast for now (see Trib article). I have made it clear (here and here) that I strongly oppose on constitutional grounds the plan to get a fourth seat for Utah now in exchange for giving Washington, D.C. a full voting seat.

Jesse Harris has a pointed post about this. Jesse says that the whole exercise was a waste of time and that it showed how our supposedly conservative state was willing to toss the Constitution aside to score some minor political brownie points. I wholeheartedly agree.

I am not opposed to Washington, D.C. having proper representation in Congress. However, I strongly feel that this must be done according to the rules outlined for this purpose in the Constitution. That is, the Constitution must be amended. The fact that there is insufficient political support for doing this in no way warrants making an end run around the law. The Constitution only means something if its provisions are respected. If we ignore provisions when it is convenient, the document ultimately means nothing.

The Trib suggests here that the fourth seat for a D.C. seat deal is not quite dead yet, noting that incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi supports the idea. So we’re not out of the woods yet.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Who Is Serious About Federalism?

LaVarr Webb of Utah Policy Daily has a post that bears repeating in today’s edition under the heading Monday Musings: Federalism Needed on Agenda.

Republican Party leaders are doing a lot of head-scratching and soul-searching as they contemplate their defeat in November and try to figure out how to win in 2008. Lots of pundits are offering advice, focused mostly on moving to the center or returning to core conservative principles.

It’s disappointing to me that few people are talking about a return to a properly balanced federalist system as a means to deal with the knotty problems facing the nation. In a recent speech to Republican governors, outgoing Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman came close to endorsing proper federalism. The Washington Post reported that Mehlman said that as Republicans built up their Washington power base, “the center of gravity shifted away from the statehouses that had been the traditional laboratories for policy ideas. The result was a vacuum that delivered little of interest to voters, while devaluing the national Republican brand.”

The consolidation of power at the federal level has continued under Republican rule. The result, I believe, is a federal government that is trying to do far too much. The federal job description has become so bloated that it is impossible to execute properly.

We need to leave more responsibility and more resources at the state and local levels where government is more manageable and producing positive results is still possible. While states are not without their problems and some states perform better than others, we’d see more innovation and more real results to the country’s toughest problems if they were addressed at the state level rather than the federal level.

For the most part, states balance their budgets; they don’t engage in financial shenanigans, hiding the seriousness of their financial problems. By contrast, the federal government is hurtling toward financial disaster, taking all of us with it.

It’s true that we live in a complex world with commerce and technology not respecting state boundaries. But we can still follow the Internet model of central coordination and standard-setting, with local control. The Internet is successful because it is decentralized. More and more large companies are decentralizing their operations as they go global. Few successful entities these days operate from a command-and-control, highly bureaucratized, one-size-fits-all organizational structure.

Republicans and Democrats looking for new ideas, for ideas that work, ought to embrace proper federalism as a means to find solutions to problems in 50 laboratories of democracy, in addition to improving the nation’s fiscal health.

Wise words indeed. I agree with Webb that the power pendulum has swung too far toward the central government and away from the states. Yes, I know that we fought a war about whether to have a strong federal government, but that doesn’t mean that all issues regarding the appropriate level for exercise of governmental power are resolved for all matters. Webb makes good sense with his arguments.

Simplifying Mehlman’s corporate speak quoted above, we have a guy that has just lost his job explaining that the strategy he has largely supported of centralizing power in Washington was an abysmal failure. It was bad for the country, and the voters knew it. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it is not in our nature to take advice from a loser.

Still, many conservative pundits thought prior to the election that the only way the GOP was going to really remember its basic principles was for it to spend some time in the doghouse. They’ve got their wish. The cynical side of me, however, doesn’t think this will work out the way they wish, at least in the long run. The party out of power always talks a good game and puts up a good fight. It’s easy, because they don’t have to be held responsible for actually accomplishing anything. But get them back in power and they morph into the same thing over again.

I could be wrong. I hope I’m wrong.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Medical Emergencies Change Lives

A couple of weeks ago my father suffered a stroke. Fortunately it was a relatively small stroke caused by a small blood clot temporarily lodging in a portion of the brain. My dad has recovered from most of the symptoms we first noticed, thanks in part to the fact that my mother and my wife insisted that my dad get immediate treatment.

However, during my dad’s treatment it was discovered that he has had at least one heart attack during the past five years. We believe that he has had three or four during the past five or six months. Each time dad has complained of symptoms that my mom thought could indicate a heart attack (see Heart Attack Warning Signs), my dad has adamantly refused to get it checked out, which is common. In hindsight, mom should have simply called 9-1-1 and forced dad to have it checked out the first time she noticed a symptom.

When a heart attack occurs, quick action is imperative to preventing unnecessary damage to the heart muscle. Even five minutes can make a difference in longevity and future quality of life. Nowadays, they can bust up clots and open up arteries to improve blood supply to the heart. Since my dad did not get timely treatment for his heart attacks, blood supply was stopped or reduced to some portions of his heart, causing some of the heart tissue to essentially die.

Thankfully, dad’s surviving heart tissue is functioning reasonably well. However, the impaired heart has been pumping out an insufficient amount of blood with each beat; a condition known as Congestive Heart Failure. A normal heart ejects at least 55% of the blood from the chamber with each beat. If the ejection fraction falls to 35% or less, it is considered Congestive Heart Failure because essential organs cannot get enough blood to thrive.

When this happens, excess fluid backs up waiting to be pumped through the heart. Since the heart cannot handle the fluid backlog, the body disperses the fluid according to gravity. If you are upright, the fluid pools in your legs and feet, causing swelling. If you are reclining, the fluid pools in your lower back and around your lungs, causing shortness of breath and difficulty sleeping. Secondary lung problems (bronchitis, pneumonia) can result.

Also, when the ejection fraction is low, blood remains in the heart longer than it should. In my dad’s case, this allowed a blood clot to form inside of his heart, which is a very dangerous condition. The clot could easily travel to the brain and cause a major stroke or death. They treat these things with clot busters and blood thinners. Eventually the clot should either dissolve or adhere to the heart wall.

It is a good idea to be well versed on stroke symptoms. It is important to get treatment within three hours of the first appearance of the symptoms, because within that window they have the option of using drugs that can attack the clot causing the stroke. After that window expires, they won’t treat with these drugs due to decreased effectiveness and increased risk of problematic side effects. As with heart attack symptoms, if stroke symptoms appear, call 9-1-1 immediately. Don’t wait. Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t think it’s a waste of time.

With heart problems, the earlier treatment is sought, the better the available options are, and the better the prognosis will be. However, even if treatment has not been sought in a timely manner, it is important to get treatment as soon as possible. Within my lifetime, heart problems have gone from being an almost immediate death sentence to being highly treatable.

While my dad is doing very well, his current condition means that family members will have to pick up a lot of slack and deal with things that dad has been used to handling. That means that family members will have less time for other things (i.e. blogging). But that’s the way life goes.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Are Third Parties Useless or Even Harmful?

Phoenix Roberts, editor of the Utah Ledger (a self-proclaimed conservative publication) posts a somewhat spirited debate between himself and someone named Bud about the wisdom of supporting third parties here. Bud chides the Ledger for supporting Senator Orrin Hatch over Constitution Party candidate Scott Bradley, whom Bud believes is a true conservative.

Before going any further, let me provide a little history. The Constitution Party was founded in 1992 as the U.S. Taxpayers Party. Scott Bradley is the Director of Telecommunications at Utah State University. He was a member of the Utah Republican State Central Committee for five years before joining the CP and running for the US Senate.

Roberts’ main contention is that voting for a third party is fruitless and is, therefore, a worthless pursuit. He asserts that the two-party system in the US is a permanent fixture, and he implies that if you want to get anything done politically you must support candidates only from the two main parties.

Roberts is particularly unhappy with the CP, as he contends that on three close 2004 races, votes for the CP effectively became “the equivalent of 2 votes for a Democrat.” Roberts is so upset about this that he resorts to name calling. “You boneheads do more harm than good. You remind me of Merrill Cook.” Ouch.

On his side, Bud repeats the CP mantra (I have heard it enough to wonder if it’s a religious chant), “Abraham Lincoln was elected President on a third party ticket called the Republican Party.” Bud is technically, but not substantively correct. Yes, the Republican Party was a third party, but it was nothing like the CP.

Prior to the founding of the GOP the two main parties were the Democrats and the Whigs. The Democrats trace their roots to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, but so do the Republicans. Following the dwindling of the Federalists (which more closely followed the precepts of Alexander Hamilton) to almost nothing, the Jeffersonians (Democratic-Republicans) were the only real party. This large party eventually developed two factions: those with a somewhat more populist bent, called Jeffersonian Democrats, and those that believed more in the strength of the republic, called Jeffersonian Republicans. By and by they became two parties, the Democrats and the National Republicans. The latter soon became the Whig Party.

Lincoln served one term as a Democrat Representative from Illinois in the US House. But as the issue of slavery began dividing the nation, it also began dividing political parties. In the early 1850s the Whig Party fractured “along pro- and anti-slavery lines.” There was less fracture in the Democratic Party, which held onto its power base among pro-slavery constituents, although, a number of Northern Democrats left the party. With the Whigs falling apart and the Democrats taking a clear pro-slavery stance, Lincoln, like many others, found himself with no party to which he felt he could belong.

In 1854, a coalition of anti-slavery advocates (including Whigs and Northern Democrats) formed the Republican Party. The party was tenuous at first, but it recruited famous explorer John C. Fremont to run as its presidential nominee in 1856. The party gained a great deal of popularity in the North. It is imperative to note that a number of then current office holders switched parties to join the new Republican Party. Also, a number of influential people, including those that could help fund the party, switched ranks. This new party lined up major supporters very quickly and won the presidency with Lincoln just six years after its birth.

The reason I disparage Bud’s comparison of the CP to the GOP is that the founding and running of the CP bears no resemblance to the founding and running of the GOP. The US has had smaller parties ever since the beginning of the party system. Some of these smaller parties have occasionally had flare-ups of popularity, and some have even been able to get candidates elected to certain posts. But these parties either remain too small to carry any political clout or their heydays are short lived and they quickly flare out, like Ross Perot’s Reform Party.

While the GOP was tenuous in its first few years, it was a major political force almost immediately. Whigs leaving their floundering party and anti-slavery Democrats needed somewhere to go, and the GOP was it. There were other third parties around at the time, but few of those leaving the Democrats and Whigs went to those parties. Why is that? Those other parties simply had limited appeal and/or didn’t get (or were incapable of getting) their message out.

Current third parties can flatter themselves into thinking that they are going to be the next big thing; that they’re just waiting in the wings for one of the two major parties to take a dive and then the world will beat a path to their door. But this is extremely unlikely. If they are attracting a small percentage of voters now, they will likely continue to do so unless they go the other way and disappear altogether.

Having said that, I disagree with Roberts on the usefulness of third parties. I believe that third parties have a valid role to play in American politics. They provide a haven for opinions that are poorly represented in the major parties. Roberts may think that his statistics show that CP members caused three GOP losses in ’04, but who is to say these people would have voted at all had the CP option not been available? Those that feel disenfranchised often express their vote by not voting. Third parties give them a valid way to vote their consciences.

Roberts says that “the first principal of political power is "You have none if you don't win elections."” Well, third parties rarely have a place at the table with the big boys, but that does not mean that they have no political power. Roberts himself asserts that they can help swing election results. Making their voice heard can help influence public policy, even if they’re not the ones doing the policy making.

I would not discourage anyone from voting for, starting, or joining a third party. I would simply encourage them to understand the realities of doing so. They should go into it with their eyes open rather than believing fables about the popularity and clout of the movement.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

National Security Attention Deficit Disorder

An AP-Ipsos poll done late last week shows that most Americans think the Democrats lack a decent strategy for dealing with Iraq (see here). Yet just a few days earlier, Americans voted mostly Democratic to give that party its largest win in three decades. What can be made of this?

Well, for one thing, it is clear that the GOP’s guaranteed security vote has evaporated. The poll seems to indicate that over half of the respondents place Iraq or terrorism as the #1 issue. While this is a far cry from the 90+% that placed national security issues as #1 in the aftermath of 9/11, it shows that there is still a strong national security vote. GOP wonks were freaked out by October polls that showed the GOP running 5% behind the Democrats on national security trustworthiness.

In the intense days immediately following 9/11, the GOP could rely on the solid security vote. A lot of people saw this as the #1 issue, and most of them trusted the GOP to take care of it. The GOP relied heavily on that sentiment in subsequent years. However, as 9/11 has faded further into history and our war in the Middle East has dragged on, the security vote has slowly dropped off.

What’s more is that a significant number of Americans started thinking the GOP wasn’t doing such a great job on security. Although they didn’t think the Democrats had a plan, they started thinking the Dems couldn’t be much worse on security than the GOP and perhaps might be better. GOP wonks still can’t fathom this sentiment.

During the heady days of being entrusted with the nation’s security, the GOP moved into the power corruption mode. They expanded government (size and power), domestic spending, and pocket lining at a rate that hadn’t been seen since LBJ’s days. As the GOP elephant grew larger and its security camouflage shrunk, its excesses and violations of its own principles became stunningly clear. As GOPers in Congress asked, “Do I look fat in this NCLB bill, Medicare expansion bill, or earmark?” voting Americans became disgusted.

But why did the GOP’s security camouflage shrink? Why has the public trust in the GOP to manage national security slipped? Mark Steyn in this article claims that the jihadist strategy of wearing down Americans with “a couple of deaths here, a market bombing there, cars burning, smoke over the city on the evening news, day after day after day, and ratcheted up a notch or two for the weeks before the election” has worked.

Steyn laments that while GOP strategists explain the election loss as historically normal for a president’s sixth year, “that's not how it was seen around the world, either in the chancelleries of Europe, where they're dancing conga lines, or in the caves of the Hindu Kush, where they would also be dancing conga lines if Mullah Omar hadn't made it a beheading offense.”

In other words, Steyn is asserting that the world’s bad guys are interpreting the election results as a win for them. He feels that everyone throughout the world pretty much sees the Democrats as soft on terror. And there are certainly some elements of the party to live up to that assertion. To bolster that perception, Democrat author Orson Scott Card pleads with Americans in this pre-election article to vote Republican for the sake of the nation’s security.

Card’s article is long and includes partisan attacks, but he also does a good job of laying out the bigger picture strategy of what we need to achieve in the Middle East and why we must not fail in Iraq. Unfortunately, most Americans have little clue about this strategy, because the administration has done a very poor job of clearly articulating it, talking down to Americans rather than talking to them like adults.

But the GOP’s fall from its security perch goes deeper than that. Steyn thinks that Americans have simply gotten bored of the war. They want to pick up the remote and change the channel from what they see as a reality show gone bad. He says that this merely confirms what the bad guys already think about us: that we don’t have the ability to stick with a conflict in the long term.

Steyn writes, “We think we can just call off the game early, and go back home and watch TV. It doesn't work like that. Whatever it started out as, Iraq is a test of American seriousness…. "These Colors Don't Run" is a fine T-shirt slogan, but in reality these colors have spent 40 years running from the jungles of Southeast Asia, the helicopters in the Persian desert, the streets of Mogadishu. ... To add the sands of Mesopotamia to the list will be an act of weakness from which America will never recover.”

I believe the problem lies in fickleness. Americans want a winning strategy. They want to decisively win the war in the Middle East. But Americans are also completely unwilling to accept the incredibly harsh realities of such a war. We would have to kick butt big time, lock down Iraq tighter than a drum, suppress and tightly regulate almost every aspect of life throughout the country, and accept horrendous levels of collateral injuries, damage, and deaths. We’re not willing to do that. So the officials in charge, attempting to implement the will of the American public, try to walk this wobbly line between trying to fight and trying to make nice, doing poorly at both.

In the US, we the people, are the government. Our government officials represent the ambiguous wills of a broad and varied public. Sometimes this can be like Aesop’s fable about the man, the boy, and the donkey; it comes off looking incompetent. We seem incapable of handling a regional conflict with a bunch of punks in a 35-mile radius around Baghdad, let alone manage two major theater wars like we did in WWII. Since the GOP has presided over the current security strategy, they’re the ones that are on the chopping block.

Late in life, Nixon surmised that the president of a free republic could only sustain a foreign war for a relatively short period of time before public sentiment turned against it. Americans want to get on with life. That even happened domestically after the Civil War when Americans wanting to get on with life grew tired of Union troops occupying the South, resulting in the drastic failure of Reconstruction and a century of Jim Crow.

So, in a way I agree with Steyn and Nixon (and even the terrorists) that the American public is willing to handle war and its effects only in the short term unless the enemy is very clearly defined, is containable, and is obviously of immediate danger to us. But we’re also very compassionate. That’s why, after WWII we willingly helped our former enemies for many years.

I suppose the lesson is that if you’re going to war, you’d better hit them fast, completely decimate their ability to fight against you regardless of how inhumane it might seem, and then lock down the situation. Americans will then respond by willingly helping with recovery efforts. What Americans won’t do is put up with seemingly endless and seemingly pointless fighting, or reconstruction efforts that lack good progress.

None of this bodes well for a long-term strategy in the Middle East that will ensure national security. Just keeping on doing what we’re doing might turn out OK in the long run (say 20 years), but it’s no quick fix. And although General Abizaid testified differently before the Senate yesterday (see here), it’s debatable about whether it will even work out in the long run. Turning tail and running away is more insane than staying and continuing our current strategy. Americans want to win, but we lack the will to do what it takes to win.

Most people chuck the whole blame on the shoulders of the politicians, but the politicians are simply trying to carry out the messages the public sends them, so I put the problem back on the shoulders of us, the American people. I have no clue where the next two years will take us. I wish I could be more optimistic about this, but we largely deserve the government we get.

Friday, November 10, 2006

National Academic League

This is the third year that I have a child participating in National Academic League competitions. I had never heard of NAL until my oldest son came home from junior high one day a couple of years ago and announced that he had tried out for the school’s NAL team. “What’s NAL?” I asked.

When I was a kid, they used to show academic competitions between colleges on Saturday mornings after all of the cartoons were done. They called them college bowl games. The games featured teams of brainy kids that answered brainy questions. NAL competitions are very much like those college bowl games.

The NAL website says that grades 5-12 can participate. The organization was founded by Drs. Terrel H. Bell and Donna L. Elmquist in 1992. Dr. Bell spent most of his professional career in Utah and served as Education Secretary under three US presidents.

NAL games are like team Jeopardy on steroids. While there is plenty of trivia, there are also problem solving and correlation exercises involved. Topics center on math, science, history, geography, English grammar, civics, literature, etc. Questions are specifically structured to correlate with national standardized test criteria.

Games are divided into four quarters, three of which last 12 minutes. Each quarter has its own format. In the first quarter teams face off with five players at each team’s table and five players on each team’s bench. Questions are delivered by series of three to each team in turn. On each team, the play rotates through the players in order. A 30-second shot clock runs for each question.

A correct answer earns two points. While no points are subtracted for an incorrect answer, the other team gets a chance to steal the series and earn one point by answering the missed question. At the end of the series of three questions, the opposing team begins a series of three questions. Once a player gets two questions wrong, that player rotates to the bench and is replaced by a player from the bench.

Answers must be precise. For example, at yesterday’s meet, players were asked to give the chemical symbol for table salt. When a player blurted out “nacl,” his team cheered. The correct answer, however, was “NaCl.” The opposing player that got the point had to say, “Capital n a, capital c l.”

The second quarter is played as a team. Each team has five members that cluster and conference. The questions are more complex, and are delivered to the team on cards. The moment the card is delivered, a 60-second clock begins running. Correct answers garner three points, with no points subtracted for incorrect answers. One question yesterday featured names of five living things. Teams had to correctly state what category each thing fit in. My son was particularly proud of knowing that perch was a fish, rather than a bird, as was assumed by others on his team. Of course, the first team to buzz in gets to answer first. The other team only gets a turn if the first team’s answer is incorrect. So it’s a matter of teamwork, knowledge, and speed.

A typical question during this round might include five or six math problems (some of them rather complex), matching five or six explorers with what they are noted for having discovered, answering which sections of the Constitution concern themselves with five or six issues, accurately describing the water cycle using the proper scientific terms, etc.

The third quarter actually begins at the start of the game. Each school’s third quarter team is given a question. They are then ushered into rooms that have a variety of resources. During the first two quarters, the teams prepare to present background information, pros and cons of the issue, and recommendations along with backup for those recommendations. It’s kind of a passive debate. Presentations must last at least three minutes, but must not exceed five. 30 points are possible for each team. Each team is judged independently against the stated criteria, which includes quality of research, logic flow, presentation skill, grammar, thoroughness, and persuasiveness.

Some of the questions are not bad. One recent debate concerned daylight saving time. Another discussed compulsory voting. But some questions are lame. I remember one from last year that concerned a proposal to go to twelve 30-day months each year, with three 10-day weeks each month. It was a stupid, totally unrealistic issue, and the teams handled it stupidly. Still, these kids have to work as a team to quickly do research, make a decision, develop a plan, create props, and create a cohesive presentation. They then must stand up in front of a roomful of people and calmly present.

The fourth quarter is my favorite. They are back to having teams face off at the tables, but this time each player faces off with the player directly across from them. Play repeatedly circulates through players one through five. There is a 30-second shot clock. Two points are awarded for a correct answer, but one point is subtracted for a wrong answer, so you only answer if you are quite certain. If neither player answers correctly (or in time), it becomes a free-for-all where the first one to buzz in gets a chance to answer. This quarter moves fast and the scoreboard changes fast. Many games are won or lost in this quarter. Once again, players rotate to the bench upon missing two questions.

One of my favorite questions from last Tuesday’s fourth quarter was about a girl that buys a beater car for $900, pays $200 down, has 10 equal payments and pays a flat 10% interest rate on the total beginning loan amount. What is the payment amount? Having once worked in that line of work, I almost immediately knew the answer was $77. The players have calculators, but it took one of our math whizzes 29 seconds to answer the question correctly. It would have been a lot tougher to have to compound the interest.

Last year, my second oldest tried out for the junior high team. He is now a starting player in his second year on the team. His team is feeling pretty cocky right now, having won the first three games of the eight-game season by at least 10 points each (one by 25 points). One of those games was against last year’s district champs. It is likely that they will get a humbling at some point over the next five games, but for now it is fun for them to revel in their success.

NAL is like sports competition for the nerdy kids, but the teams have an interesting mix. Some of the kids are popular. Most aren’t. Some have athletic prowess, but most don’t. It is amazing to see some of the less popular kids step up and shine. Some of the team members excel in specific areas. Some are just all around brainy. Many of them never thought of themselves in that way before they were coaxed into trying out for the team.

I highly endorse NAL. It is fun. It’s interesting (even for adults). It gives kids opportunities to grow mentally and culturally. I’m grateful to the teachers that coach teams and act as judges to make all of this possible.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A Well Deserved Punishment

Spanked. That’s what happened to the GOP yesterday nationally. They got a serious spanking. And they deserved it. (The didn’t get spanked in Utah, of course. Everything remained pretty much status quo here in Utah.)

GOP wonks today are licking their wounds, philosophizing about where they went wrong, badmouthing the Democrats, talking about what to do next, and doing tortured contortions in an attempt to find some kind of silver lining. Some are noting that historically the president’s party loses an average of about the same number of seats that were lost yesterday in the House and Senate. So this is just business as usual, right? Uh, no.

Let’s face it; this is a shellacking for the GOP. The Democrats ran a very tight campaign machine. The Republicans didn’t. The Democrats did not lose one congressional incumbency, while the GOP lost many. Pollsters are saying that the GOP base didn’t turn out well, and that unaffiliated, independent, and moderate voters went overwhelmingly for Democrats.

There are lots of reasons for the loss, of course. It’s hard to pin this failure on one thing. The National Review editors say here, “This defeat had a thousand fathers.” But I think it can be boiled down to two key elements: Iraq and departure from Republican principles.

On #1, the problem is that most Americans think that we’re not winning in Iraq and that we don’t have a strategy that will get us there. Democratic pollster Patrick Caddell said on today’s Bill Bennett Show that while there is widespread discontent about Iraq in every demographic category, only about 20% think that leaving Iraq is the right solution. Most people, including most Democrats, simply want us to engage in a strategy that is calculated to win the war. They don’t think we have that right now.

On a side note, Caddell expressed concern that the new Democratic congressional leaders would misread displeasure with Iraq as anti-war sentiment. He stated that his data did not support that conclusion. James Taranto notes here that pro-Iraq incumbents won while key anti-Iraq GOP incumbents lost. Caddell explained that leadership would come from the most tenured Democrats, which come from the 60s school of liberalism and are far more liberal than the rank and file Democratic members of Congress. He is concerned that these people will push for getting out of Iraq at all costs, which is not a strategy that most voters will approve of.

In a move that was apparently obvious to most Washington insiders as just a matter of time, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has tendered his resignation. The lame duck GOP Senate will have to approve President Bush’s replacement nominee, Robert Gates. I would be surprised if they did not quickly try to push through a series of nominees for various positions. Of course, being emasculated may prevent them from achieving this goal.

On issue #2, the GOP Congress has of late been the epitome of mismanagement and lack of concern about Republican principles. Rep. Jeb Hensnarling (R-TX) contritely pledges (here) a return “to the principles of Ronald Reagan and the Contract of America[, o]ur core vision of limited government, individual empowerment, a strong national defense and traditional values….” Well, now is a jolly fine time to do that. Might not 12 or 24 months ago have been a strategically better time to make this move?

The conservative base voted in a dispirited way because their guys in Washington seemed to pretty much ignore them, other than tossing them an obviously token piece of legislation and some worthless lip service now and then. I would argue that it’s not that the GOP majority in Washington has been incognizant of its base. It’s that they became addicted to the perks that go along with leadership. And like an addict that knows that what he is doing is bad for him but finds himself unable to stop it, the GOP majority has simply been unable to turn themselves around.

The voters sensed this, and figured that they needed to sever the congressional GOP’s ties to its cherished addictions. But that alone will not turn the GOP around. The GOP needs rehab. It needs a new crop of conservatives to step forward and wrest control of the party from their faltering fathers. These people won’t simply appear. That will require a lot of work by people with strong ideals. Will that happen? I don’t know. Who is going to take up the charge?

Even now, GOP wonks are consoling themselves with the thought that the next two years of Democratic leadership will be so bad as to cause voters to come running back to the GOP in droves in 2008. They shouldn’t flatter themselves. The seats that they have lost will not be so easily regained. They will have to do far better than just not being Democrats.

Geographical patterns are telling as well, as Fred Barnes discusses here. Concentrating on the South while ignoring the Northeast because it’s too liberal and ignoring the interior West because it seems secure has proven to be a losing strategy. Matthew Continetti says (here), “It would be difficult for the South to become more Republican. But it's easy for New England and the Northeast Corridor to become more Democratic.” And that goes for the West too.

Last year, former Rep. Dick Armey (R-TX) warned Republicans (here), “When we act like us, we win. When we act like them, we lose.” The folks in charge didn’t get the message. Or perhaps they did, but they were already too far gone. And they knew it too. They saw the train wreck coming, but their entire campaign strategy seemed to consist of the message, “At least we’re not as bad as the Democrats.” Obviously, the voters chose to disagree with them.

GOP pundits are saying, “Well, we have two years to get it back together.” No they don’t. Not if they’re talking about 2008. They have about two months to get it together.

The GOP got walloped last night. And they have no one to blame but themselves. GOP diehards are thinking that the phoenix will quickly rise from the ashes of this defeat. Not unless they return to their core principles, exercise serious leadership on important issues, and do a heck of a lot of hard work.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Let the Voters Decide

A week after Halloween, Election Day has finally arrived. A coworker of mine was recently naturalized after living in the U.S. for many years. He is thrilled to have the opportunity to actually vote. I disagree with him politically, but I am almost as excited for him as he is for himself. I would like to see more of that kind of enthusiasm among long-time voters.

One of the things that bothers me about our current system is the feedback mechanism we have for elected positions that have less public visibility. I think about elected judges, for example. How many of us have spent time in one of their courtrooms? I have served jury duty exactly three times during my life, and I have testified in court once. I have been to small claims court a couple of times. These experiences have given me a very limited view of a very few judges. How am I to know whether to re-elect a judge or not?

Well, I pop open my handy-dandy Utah Voter Information Pamphlet to Section C, where I find information about judges. For each judge there is a very brief bio along with a listing of responses to 15 questions by a random sample of attorneys that have appeared before the judge. The 15 questions differ depending on judicial level, and there are only 13 questions for district and juvenile court judges. You need to see pages 3-4 to see what questions were asked. For judges whose courts include juries, a random sampling of jurors answered 15 questions (page 4).

Most of the questions revolve around courtroom management and the appearance of fairness. Attorneys that practice before a judge can obviously be tainted by certain biases. For one thing, many of the attorneys work with the judge on a regular basis. It’s kind of like being a coworker. Am I completely objective about my coworkers? I don’t know. I don’t mean to offend anyone in the legal profession, but my limited experiences inside the courtroom haven’t inspired a great deal of confidence in the competence of attorneys that practice before those courts. In other words, I feel that the attorney answers need to be taken with a large block of salt.

For each question, attorney surveys allow the respondent to choose among a range of six possible choices from totally favorable to inadequate. Almost all judges receive ratings of 90% or higher totally favorable on each question, unless they have done something really bizarre, like get themselves in the national media spotlight as the epitome of a bad judge, like Leslie Lewis of the Third Judicial District (Salt Lake, Summit, and Tooele Counties), and then they receive at least a 70% totally favorable rating. From a statistical viewpoint, ratings like these are so skewed as to be meaningless. It means that our survey methodology (questions, study group selection, groupthink in interpreting questions, gathering method, etc.) stinks.

Juror surveys are also meaningless. Jurors only get two possible choices for their answers: yes and no. It’s a pass/fail thing rather than a grade. Almost no judge (even the notorious Leslie Lewis) received less than 97% yeses on any question. Again, from a statistical view, these responses are meaningless.

I don’t mean to imply that we don’t have great judges in Utah, but just as reality dictates that all students cannot be A students, reality dictates that not all judges can in reality receive a top grade. (We don’t live in Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average.) But for most voters, the only information they have to make decisions about judicial candidates is the Utah Voter Information Pamphlet, which is woefully inadequate for that purpose.

Similar arguments can be made about some of the county positions regularly on the ballot (surveyor, treasurer, clerk, auditor, etc.) Most voters just don’t have access to enough information to make an informed decision. Sure, we could all attend all of the city and county meetings, and we could go sit in the galleries of courtrooms, but who has the time for that?

Some claim that the answer to this problem is to remove these officials from the ballot and make them appointed by the executive. The argument goes that we allow the President to select important offices like U.S. Supreme Court Justices, Attorney General, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, etc. All they need is for the Senate to confirm the executive’s choices. Why shouldn’t this same pattern work for every level of government?

I wholeheartedly disagree with this type of thinking. The best way to hold public officials accountable to the people is to make them occasionally stand for election. Do we want these officials to be accountable to the people or to the oligarchy? I don’t want a county auditor or sheriff that is beholden to the county commission. I want them to be accountable to the people of the jurisdiction they serve.

No, the answer is not to remove voter choice. The answer is to find a mechanism for providing better information to voters. Good government is partially the result of well informed voters.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

At War With the President

I am in the process of reading Bill Bennett’s history book America: The Last Best Hope. In discussing the War of 1812, Bennett makes an astute observation. He says (p. 204), “It is always trouble for a president when a war is identified with him—and not with the country’s enemy.”

The War of 1812 was the result of continued British interference in American trade, continued British pirating of American ships and sailors, British refusal to relinquish control of forts ceded to the Americans in the 1783 Treaty of Paris, and the concept among Americans that Canada was a threat that was lightly guarded and easy prey.

The main point of contention was the British Orders in Council that stated the British position that forts in American territory would not be relinquished per the Treaty of Paris until Americans satisfied war debts from the Revolution. Even as the Americans worked to pay off the debts, the British sensed that the Americans were too weak and/or unwilling to take the forts by force, so they kept making new demands before the forts would be vacated.

Ironically, the Orders in Council were withdrawn in London just two days before Congress declared war. Transatlantic communication typically took at least three weeks back then. (Please note that Congress declared war. This was not simply an executive decision following Congress’ authorization of necessary force.) Our new president, James Madison, one of our nation’s Founders and the brilliant mind behind the Constitution, strongly pushed for the war, which was strongly opposed by the northern states. Bennett says (p. 198) that while Madison was one “of the greatest of the Founders, he was not well suited for governing what he had helped gather.”

The war went badly initially. US forces were defeated in several important battles, and they infamously fled in the face of British troops advancing on the nation’s new capitol (Washington, DC), allowing the British to burn the new Executive Mansion and the Capitol Building. It soon became apparent that the Canadians would not take invasion passively, so Canada wasn’t going to be an easy plumb to pick. The war became a debacle.

Part of the reason for the problem was that Madison and his predecessor Thomas Jefferson had worked for years to prevent the development of a national navy and were strongly opposed to a standing national army. World history to that point (and especially European history) showed that national military forces were difficult to control and often became threats to their own governments. Wishing to avoid this problem, Jefferson and Madison supported using only state militias. The War of 1812 and other international conflicts soon proved this to be an overly cautious stance that reflected a moralistic denial of reality.

As the war became increasingly unpopular, people began calling it, “Mr. Madison’s War.” The cry started in the northeast, which had long opposed Madison’s policies, but it eventually became more general throughout the country. But the war wasn’t without its bright sides. One American victory in Baltimore yielded our National Anthem. The war’s greatest victory for the Americans, the Battle of New Orleans, actually occurred a couple of weeks after an end to the war had been negotiated by US and British representatives in Belgium.

The Treaty of Ghent basically left both sides in the same position they were at the beginning of the war, so it seemed that little was gained and much was lost. In retrospect, Bennett says (p. 211), “[T]he War of 1812 helped to form a new American consciousness. This American identity was fused in the crucible of battle.” But Madison’s political reputation never recovered from the war. Wikipedia notes here, “In 2006, historians ranked Madison's failure to avoid war as the #6 worst presidential mistake ever made.”

I find Bennett’s proposition compelling that a president is in trouble when a war becomes identified with him/her rather than with the enemy. Just during my early life, this occurred with both Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon with respect to the Vietnam War. I think it is obvious that this has now occurred with George W. Bush with respect to the Iraq War.

Most of the discourse on the Iraq War, regardless of who is discoursing, seems to be tightly tied to President Bush. It even happens when the President and his administration’s officials are talking about it. The focus seems to be on the president rather than on the enemy we face, regardless of who is talking. I think Bill Bennett’s astute observation applies here. This focus is a symptom of the extent of the trouble in which the president finds himself at present.

It would be interesting to explore the reasons the Iraq War has become identified with President Bush, but only if the exploration could exclude the type of extreme commentary from either side that has become common in political discourse. This type of discussion yields plenty of sparks and heat, but not much light.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

New Conservative News Source In Utah

A new conservative news source for Utah has started up. The Ledger aims to be a monthly publication with weekly updates. Current posts include this article by its editor, Phoenix Roberts.

Roberts clearly believes that passion for doing what one does is OK, but that it is antithetical to objectivity. “What we do not believe is that there’s any such thing as journalistic objectivity,” he writes. “Honesty and fairness, yes, but not objectivity.”

Instead of feigning objectivity, The Ledger promises to be different. Roberts provides this recipe, “We will be honest with you. First, we acknowledge our passion and our perspective. Second, we believe that right and wrong are not fluid concepts and we are not afraid to call’em as we see’em. Finally, we’ll never write a story unless we are as sure of our facts as we can be.”

While the news portion will cover mostly political issues reflecting “the opinions of the majority of Utah’s people,” the publication will also cover a variety of Utah issues, including history, arts, people, activities, etc. Lest you think this to be too lopsided, Roberts promises to praise public officials when they do right and “shout it from the rooftops” when they mess up, regardless of political persuasion.

I suppose the proof will be in the pudding. I will be watching closely to see how well The Ledger lives up to its promo.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Why Do We Sometimes Accept Tyranny?

Café Hayek (an economist blog) has an interesting post and discussion regarding Social Security. The original post and the following commentary are worth reading.

The post centers around the assertion by a retired journalist that the government should increase Social Security taxes to improve payouts from the system. His main reasoning behind this is that he was too irresponsible to save for retirement on his own, and that most Americans must be as irresponsible as he is. To him the obvious answer is that the government should have more, not less control of our retirement savings and options.

This journalist is quite free with the property of others; property that must be confiscated to cover his retirement. John Adams said (here), “The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence.”

“Oh, come on,” friends have said to me, “Social Security is completely ingrained in our society. It addresses serious social problems. It’s not perfect, but our society needs it. We couldn’t live without it.” William Pitt answered similar arguments by saying (here), “Necessity is the excuse for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of the tyrant and the creed of the slave.”

Speaking of slavery, did you know that this is where the term pork barrel arose? Slaveholders in the South used to occasionally take a barrel of pork out to the fields or shanties of their slaves as a gift from the master. The idea was to placate the slaves into thinking that, although they were in slavery, it really wasn’t so bad because the master was taking care of them. Most slaves never ran away. Most did not rebel. Most accepted their fate, having been robbed of the flame of liberty that should burn in the breast of every human.

Do we realize what we give up for our socialized society where we have made government the main responsible party for the needs of the aged? We pay a cost for this. Do we ever stop to think about what we are paying?

When President Bush promoted Social Security reforms that would have transferred a minute amount of responsibility for management of retirement savings back to the individuals, politicians went absolutely nuts. The plan was demagogued into a bizarre caricature of the actual proposal. ‘Liberty-loving’ Democrats stonewalled it, and ‘freedom-loving’ Republicans were unable to muster sufficient political will to stand behind it.

Both parties opted to keep the slaves on the plantation. Neither was able to stand the thought that they might allow just a tiny amount of the sunlight of freedom to flow into the dank, sealed box that is Social Security. I wish I could say that we have the chance to change this on November 7, but we don’t. Regardless of which party controls the chambers of Congress, there will be little sentiment toward increasing personal liberty, even in a minor way. (Unless you’re a terrorist, that is. Then you’ve got all kinds of civil libertarians ready to increase your freedom.)

This could all change if enough of us slaves revolted, but apparently most of us are willing to sit back and accept our fate, eagerly feeding from the pork barrel whenever the master drops it off in our vicinity. We are seemingly oblivious to what we are giving up in exchange for our acquiescence.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Homework Nazis

When my 10th grader and 8th grader were young, I enjoyed reading to them. It was something we did almost every evening. It started out with Dr. Seuss and Disney Baby books, but eventually advanced to the Chronicles of Narnia and Madeline L’Engle’s first generation books. I’m not sure if our nightly reading had any effect on my boys’ personal reading habits, grammar skills, or academic abilities. But it was definitely a bonding time, a shared ritual that we deeply cherished.

Then I went back to school. While continuing my full-time job I spent four arduous years doing night school to finally complete a master degree. During those four years, two additional children were born. But during those years, my ability to spend time reading to my children evaporated as well. Before long, my older sons were doing recreational reading on their own. They didn’t need me to read to them. I was busy every night, so I never spent time reading to my little boys like I had read to their older brothers.

Moreover, by the time I finished school, a couple of new elements had entered our lives to reduce available time. My older boys were involved in sports and music lessons. But they had homework every night as well. Usually my wife or I had to help them with their homework when they were in the first half of elementary school. But it wasn’t anything like reading to them had been. It was not a cherished experience and there was nothing cozy about it. Instead, it was often like a battle.

That pattern continues, but now I have a 4th grader and a 1st grader that also have homework. In a couple of years, their little sister will join them in the drudgery of homework. I have often wondered as I have struggled to help a child with a homework assignment precisely how useful that particular assignment is in reality. But year after year, day after day we struggle on because it’s in the child’s best interest, right?

Well, no. Award winning author Orson Scott Card, says in these two articles (part 1, part 2) that homework advocates are all wet on this. And he has research to back him up, something he specifically notes that homework advocates do not have for their position. Card has some pretty harsh words about homework, especially for elementary school children.

Card tries to help us understand homework from a child’s perspective, likening school to a job, where you commute each way, spend seven hours doing exactly what you are told to do, being where you are told to be, and eating, drinking, and using the restroom only under very strict parameters. Then you go home and spend another hour or three doing the same work under the control of a live-in supervisor. If you are ever ill, you have to make up the work you missed. And the law prohibits you from quitting this lousy job. To top it off, most of the after-hours work is nearly or completely meaningless.

“Now, hold on just a moment,” I can hear the homework champions saying. “Homework is useful in lots of ways.” Sure it is. If you hold to that theory, go read Card’s articles. He takes every single argument that favors homework and pounds it with a sledgehammer.

Two of Card’s points especially hit home with me. He notes that effective learning and effective working requires downtime. We require downtime for many high-intensity jobs, and most of us know that we need time away from our jobs to refresh ourselves and do those jobs better, but we prevent kids from having downtime away from the grind of school. “[W]e require them to focus intensely on six or seven different subjects during the school day... and then cycle through half of them again for hours each night! And we keep the pressure up on weekends, holidays, vacations.”

In addition to this point, I might add that assigning homework by definition means that it is more important than any other activity in which the child could be involved. That is a pretty arrogant position to take. Academic skills are not the only type of education our children need. What about the education one can get from a part-time job? What about the education one can get from pick-up sports events with the neighborhood kids, or looking at bugs on the sidewalk, or any number of other things a kid might do besides schoolwork at home?

Card asks what right schools have to in effect assign parents to do homework with their children. If parents are needed to help with their kids’ homework, he argues, the teachers aren’t doing their jobs. If the parents aren’t needed, then the argument that homework helps parents be involved in their kids’ educations is moot. Card argues that the parents that help their kids with their homework would be involved in their kids’ education anyway. The other parents won’t get involved either way.

Card refers to research that shows that homework is completely useless for elementary school kids, and only begins to gain utility as kids get older. But even for high school seniors, homework only makes a 4% difference in standardized tests and college entrance exams. “But I had to do it as a kid,” you say. So what? Is this just the wicked traditions of the fathers being passed down? What’s the point of doing something useless?

Card also brings up the specter of childhood obesity. Homework certainly doesn’t help that situation. He also says that homework does not teach responsibility, as some claim, but teaches compliance and obedience.

Card argues that homework should be rare. And in those rare instances where it is assigned, it must be meaningful and in truth useful to learning the subject matter at hand. It has to be worthwhile. Part of the reason kids do homework half-heartedly is because they know many assignments are meaningless. Card also thinks that homework should only be something that cannot be done at school. Otherwise it should be done at school.

I wouldn’t say that my kids’ homework has been totally useless. My involvement has occasionally made me realize, “So this is the crap they are teaching my kid at school.” It has given me the opportunity to correct misinformation. But homework has also stolen many precious hours that could have been employed in more worthwhile pursuits.

Card provides a list of homework rules that I’m sure would quickly be rejected by the homework Nazis. But some of them make good sense. And I daresay that some teachers would welcome this set of rules as well, a point Card makes as well. For the homework Nazis, Card states a guiding principle that they must be made to understand.

“You don't try to force them to do things your way at school. They shouldn't try to force you to do things their way at home. Each of you should be master of your own domain. They only get to assign homework — work done by your children in your home — with your consent.

“Few teachers and fewer school districts ever really think of it that way. That's all we need to do — remind them that their legal and moral authority over our children ends with the final bell and the children's safe departure from school premises.

“After that, we're responsible.

“We're not employees of the school district. They're not our bosses. We don't have to do their bidding.

“And no matter how much they love our kids, we love them more. They were our kids before they went to school, and they'll be our kids when they get out again. They're still our kids during all the years and days and hours in between.”