Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Dealing With Teacher Shortages

Many Utah school districts have been grappling with a shortage of teachers in specific disciplines — particularly math, science, and special education. No shortage of teachers exists for some disciplines and there is an overabundance of teachers for others. Shortages vary by locality, but seem to be quite general for math, science, and special education.

When we look at this problem from an economist’s viewpoint, it is really quite simple. The demand for these positions exceeds the supply of qualified individuals to fill the positions. When demand exceeds supply of any commodity, the cost of the commodity necessarily increases. Therefore, if we want to fill these positions, we need to be willing to pay the going rate — the rate demanded by the market.

This presents a sticky problem for school districts and educator unions. The idea that a teacher of one subject is inherently more valuable than a teacher of another subject runs somewhat counter to basic unionization philosophy. It is also a difficult job to balance compensation with demand. What do you do when demand changes? It causes morale problems when the new person gets paid more than a seasoned person or when a seasoned teacher is grandfathered in under high demand rules when demand has dropped. Private business deals with this kind of thing all of the time, but government has a very poor track record of effectively managing it.

Now let’s look at the matter from a sociologist’s point of view. There are obviously some underlying cultural/sociological reasons that insufficient numbers of people pursue certain types of teaching positions. Perhaps these reasons exceed the value of compensation. When we make career choices, our cost-benefit analysis always includes factors beyond pay (and benefits). Job satisfaction, prestige, the nature of human interactions on the job, our personality type, and many other factors come into play.

The legislature recently considered ways to pay more for high demand teaching jobs. I suspect, however, that unless we address the sociological aspects of the issue, we will still fail to achieve an equitable resolution.

One solution I constantly hear bandied about is that we should get professionals from the community to take turns stepping in and teaching high demand positions. We have numerous citizens (engineers, scientists, etc.) that use the principles needed to be taught in their daily jobs. Or what about using retired professionals who have the needed skills?

While this sounds like a wonderful solution, we need to realize that it ignores these two realities: 1) that teaching is itself a profession, and 2) that teaching children requires certain skills. Knowledge of a skill does not automatically make one proficient at teaching that skill. Ability to teach a skill to adults does not necessarily mean that one is capable of doing a good job of teaching that skill to children. Probably every adult has experienced as a child (or as a parent) at least one teacher that was simply not cut out for the teaching profession or that was lousy at teaching children.

Bringing in qualified professionals or retired professionals to teach our children is a great idea — providing we make sure they get the skills necessary to make them good teaching professionals as well. It’s a whole new career that requires additional skills.

There are ways to address the shortage of teachers for high demand positions. Getting to a truly effective solution requires understanding and addressing all of the factors involved, including social, economic, and skill issues.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

I Just Say No

When it comes to yard sales, I just say no. That is, I don’t do yard sales. I don’t hold yard sales and I don’t go to yard sales. If I need to get rid of something, I’d rather give it away than to hold a yard sale. Yard sales are just fine for those that go in for them, but it’s not for me.

Over the years, members of my family have obtained various ‘treasures’ from yard sales. The vast majority of this stuff has ended up being useless junk, although, a (very) few actually useful items have been obtained. The overall value derived, however, has not been worth the time and money invested in obtaining the stuff we have gotten.

And, for heck sakes, just how much stuff does my family need? I am of the opinion that everything I acquire owns a piece of me. It requires some of my time and thought. It requires storage space and maintenance. Once I get used to having it, I may need to replace it at some point. The total cost of ownership needs to go into every cost-benefit analysis when considering acquisition of anything. Sometimes, it’s not even worth receiving something for free if its total cost of ownership is too high.

My uncle has a bad case of packrat disease. As a kid I loved playing in the ‘collector’ cars he accumulated on his property. But nothing ever happened with any of the cars except to rust and decay. Every so often he would add another car to his collection. A few years ago, the city where he lives forced him to remove all of these heaps of junk from his property.

But that didn’t affect the stuff my uncle had been compiling inside his house. My uncle was a yard sale hobbyist. He bought copious piles of stuff that he never used.

Today my uncle lies on his deathbed. Family members have spent the past couple of weeks working on cleaning out his house. The haul has included over 50 fishing poles, more than 100 belts, and some two dozen hats of pretty much the same style. Of course, those were just among the small items. The entire house from top to bottom was so filled with stuff acquired from yard sales that one could barely navigate inside.

From this perspective, “yard sale-ing,” as a friend of mine is wont to call it, is a mental disorder. For those of you that enjoy yard sales, more power to you. But for me, I’ll continue to just say no to yard sales.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

On the Other Hand …

The dean of conservative pundits, William F. Buckley questions (here) whether our efforts in the Middle East are destined to be futile. Echoing the concept that there is no way to stop an idea whose time has come, Buckley warns that “if the enemy is in the nature of a disease, [the U.S.] cannot win against it.”

Buckley’s dour estimation of our situation in Iraq bucks what many of his conservative colleagues are saying. Echoing the Murtha talking points, Buckley writes, “It is simply untrue that we are making decisive progress in Iraq. The indicators rise and fall from day to day, week to week, month to month.”

Unlike Vietnam, Buckley says, where the enemy had an “operative headquarters …, we have no equivalent of that in Iraq.” All of the terrorist mayhem seems so spontaneous. Of course, that’s the nature of terrorism. Sponsors in Iraq and Syria remain in the shadows while semi-independent radicals carry out attacks that kill and maim innocents, striking fear into the hearts of citizens.

The sharpness of Buckley’s point is apparent when he writes, “What can a “surge,” of the kind we are now relying upon, do to cope with endemic disease? The parallel even comes to mind of the eventual collapse of Prohibition, because there wasn’t any way the government could neutralize the appetite for alcohol, or the resourcefulness of the freeman in acquiring it.” Echoing Senator Reid, Buckley is arguing that we are powerless to stand against terrorism and that the terrorists will eventually unavoidably carry the day in Iraq.

On that optimistic note, let’s look at another view of the Bob Kerrey article that I discussed yesterday. Conservative contrarian Andrew McCarthy critiques Kerrey’s positions in this article. McCarthy takes Kerrey to task for equating desire for self-determination with democracy. (Never mind that many of our Founders thought the same way.) Or at least McCarthy seems to think that Iraq’s style of Islamic-centric self determination stands in sharp contrast to the way we do it in America and/or that it won’t benefit American interests.

McCarthy agrees with Kerrey that liberals ought to be in love with the Iraq War, since it is a Wilsonian “exercise in democracy building, not just mere jihadist repulsion.” McCarthy agrees that “you don’t have to occupy a country to fight terrorism,” but he argues that “you do have to occupy a country to, as [Kerrey] puts it, impose democracy.” He demonstrates his point by citing the long-term occupation required in each of the examples Kerrey cited as positive models of imposing democracy.

However, McCarthy disagrees with Kerrey’s altruistic humanitarian focus on bringing democracy to the Middle East. He argues, “A war that Americans have come to regard, rightly or wrongly, as more geared toward Iraqi self-determination than al Qaeda suppression is a war for which American support was certain to flag. We did not, after all, occupy Germany and Japan to evangelize about the glories of freedom. We occupied them because they nearly defeated us in a war of national survival: The American people, fully invested back then in victory, understood instinctively that we had to stay until the peril was extinguished.”

McCarthy seems to ignore the fact that the war against radical Islam is more like the Cold War than WWII. Americans were far more ambivalent about the Cold War than about WWII.

Kerrey contends that we ought to be in the business of imposing democracy, but McCarthy asks why. Indeed, McCarthy sounds very much like a realist when he claims that bringing democracy to the Middle East will not improve our national security (and will probably make it worse). He cites the fact that terrorists have a track record of exploiting democratic freedoms to operate quite freely in Germany, Spain, the UK, and the US. He asks why we should think that they won’t also exploit newly minted democratic freedoms in the Middle East to achieve their wicked ends.

McCarthy argues that we should dump democracy building in favor of focusing our “finite attention … on determining what measures are necessary to eradicate jihadist networks, and on bluntly considering how such steps square with our regnant international law infrastructure — the legacy of a world that no longer exists … if it ever did.”

I find it interesting that staunch liberals can be found that argue fervently in favor the war in Iraq, while some died-in-the-wool conservatives argue just as fervently that we are on the wrong track in Iraq. Despite the media’s successful portrayal, there is not a clean partisan split on this issue. Is it any surprise that the opinions of Americans in general of this issue are scattered across the board?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

"What Does Your Conscience Tell You to Do?"

Bob Kerrey (not to be confused with John Kerry) has been a Navy Seal, Governor of Nebraska, U.S. Senator (D-NE), co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, and a university president. He is also a true combat hero who lost part of his leg from an enemy grenade but coolly continued to effectively command his unit. He also expresses regret for his part in committing war atrocities at Thanh Phong in Vietnam.

Kerrey’s general political position is far to the left of mine. But in keeping with his established stance on military issues, Kerrey strongly takes anti-war members of his own Democratic Party to task in this WSJ op-ed article.

Kerrey disagrees with the statement, “Democracy cannot be imposed with military force.” He says, “[T]hose who say such things seem to forget the good U.S. arms have done in imposing democracy on countries like Japan and Germany, or Bosnia more recently.”

The attack to remove Saddam Hussein was justified, Kerrey believes, because regardless of what anyone says, “Iraq was a larger national security risk after Sept. 11 than it was before.” He says that this is true despite incompetence of “the Bush administration and no matter how poorly they chose their words to describe themselves and their political opponents.” He also believes that the fact that Saddam Hussein was not responsible for 9/11 is totally beside the point. But he also believes that disagreements about this are ultimately unimportant at this juncture.

Arguing for a need to look forward instead of backward, Kerrey writes, “[N]o matter how much we might want to turn the clock back and either avoid the invasion itself or the blunders that followed, we cannot. The war to overthrow Saddam Hussein is over. What remains is a war to overthrow the government of Iraq.”

Brooking no warmth for critics that would prefer a low-cost, easily controllable dictatorship, Kerrey wonders how those that favor military intervention in Darfur today, “or who argued yesterday for military intervention in Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda to ease the sectarian violence that was tearing those places apart,” can honestly think that dictatorship in Iraq is acceptable.

Kerrey asks what we would think our necessary role to be had Shiite and Kurdish insurgents overthrown Saddam and attempted to establish a democratic society only to end up facing al Qaeda forces. He asks, “Wouldn't you expect the same people who are urging a unilateral and immediate withdrawal to be urging military intervention to end this carnage? I would.”

“American liberals need to face these truths:” Kerrey asserts, “The demand for self-government was and remains strong in Iraq despite all our mistakes and the violent efforts of al Qaeda, Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias to disrupt it.” He notes that al Qaeda specifically targets those necessary for a functioning democracy, including “school teachers, aid workers, private contractors working to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure, police officers and anyone who cooperates with the Iraqi government.”

Kerrey then asks, “With these facts on the scales, what does your conscience tell you to do?” His answer chastens, “If the answer is nothing, that it is not our responsibility or that this is all about oil, then no wonder today we Democrats are not trusted with the reins of power.”

Ripping on leaders who seem to be caving in to public opinion, Kerrey advises, “Concessions will not work with either al Qaeda or other foreign fighters who will not rest until they have killed or driven into exile the last remaining Iraqi who favors democracy.”

While Kerrey agrees that most terrorists in Iraq are there because we are there, he argues that this is the case “because radical Islam opposes democracy in Iraq.” If we had installed a dictator, he contends, the terrorist “groups wouldn't have lasted a week.” Kerrey charges, “We must not allow terrorist sanctuaries to develop any place on earth. Whether these fighters are finding refuge in Syria, Iran, Pakistan or elsewhere, we cannot afford diplomatic or political excuses to prevent us from using military force to eliminate them.”

Ultimately, Kerrey seems to believe that our national ideological polarization over how to deal with Iraq ill serves us. He calls for what we have found to be elusive: “a bipartisan strategy to deal with the long-term threat of terrorism.” He quotes Senator Jim Webb (D-VA), who said, “You do not have to occupy a country in order to fight the terrorists who are inside it.”

That is certainly something worth thinking about.

13% of Your Muslim Neighbors Wouldn't Mind Killing You

The headline of this AP story reads, “Most U.S. Muslims Reject Suicide Bombings.” Well, that’s a relief. But, let’s remember that it only takes a tiny handful of extremists to murder and maim thousands of innocents.

Digging into the story, we find that the Pew Research Center, which has been characterized as a left leaning organization, has completed “one of the most exhaustive [surveys] ever of [U.S.] Muslims.” Pew’s brief of the study with a link to the full study can be found here. (As a side note: those that are interested in Mormonism might find Pew’s interview of two LDS leaders and Pew’s discussion entitled Presidential Politics and Mormon Faith to be valuable.)

Pew entitles its brief, “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream,” ostensibly because it finds that American Muslims are “largely assimilated, happy with their lives, and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world.”

But a notable minority of American Muslims appears to buy the radical Muslim line. The survey finds that a whopping 13% of American Muslims agree that suicide bombings of civilians “in defense of Islam” (whatever that means) is acceptable at least some of the time.

Unsurprisingly, Muslims under 30 are far more likely to fall into the category of those favorable to suicide murders than are their elders. Al Qaeda and its fellow travelers regularly garner their suicide bombing perpetrators from the younger and more radical population. Younger Muslims identify much more strongly with their Muslim identity and are much more religiously devout than their elders.

The survey also found that that “native-born African American Muslims are the most disillusioned segment of the U.S. Muslim population. When compared with other Muslims in the U.S., they are more skeptical of the view that hard work pays off, and more of them believe that Muslim immigrants in the U.S. should try to remain distinct from society. They also are far less satisfied with the way things are going in the United States.” This seems to be a reflection of the disproportionately high rate of social problems (including crime and prison population) among African Americans.

Yet another statistic that ought to mean something to us is that only 40% of American Muslims believe that Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks. The report does not say how the general public ranks on this question, but the percentage of average Americans that accept the statement that Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks is undoubtedly substantially higher.

It should also not be surprising that “By six to one, [American Muslims] say the U.S. was wrong to invade Iraq, while a third say the same about Afghanistan - far deeper than the opposition expressed by the general U.S. public.” Of course, there is still substantial disagreement on this point among Americans in general, and all are welcome to their opinions.

The United States is made up of many different groups of people. It is not uncommon for citizens to identify even more strongly with a given identity group than with the larger identity group of being American. For example, scholars might consider themselves to be members of a formal or informal academic society before they think of themselves as Americans. Farmers might consider their agricultural identity before their American identity. Religious people might consider their religious identity before their national identity.

But it should be noteworthy when a separate group identity can be leveraged to physically threaten other Americans. When 13% of American Muslims think murder of innocents in the name of their religion is OK, that's a problem. It provides fertile ground for radical ideas to turn into radical actions.

I’m not arguing for a return to Senator McCarthy’s stupid and reactionary responses to the threat of communist domination or for something like FDR’s internment of Japanese Americans. But it’s not a bad idea for the nation to watch for problems in the places they are most likely to originate. We should pursue outreach efforts. But we should be wise enough to pursue appropriate investigative/enforcement efforts as well.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Legal Loan Sharks

What is the right thing to do when it comes to payday lenders in Utah? Payday lending outlets have proliferated like crazy in Utah over the last few years. And that’s not just my imagination. As explained in this D-News article, “The first store appeared in Utah in 1984. In 1994, 17 were in the Salt Lake area. Now, state-license lists show Utah has 381 payday loan stores and online lenders licensed here.” That’s 1.6 payday lending outlets per 10,000 residents.

Payday lenders claim to serve a valid market. They also claim to already be one of the most highly regulated industries in Utah. However, D-News points out that part of the reason for the proliferation of the payday lending industry in Utah is that Utah has among the least restrictive laws in the nation with respect to the industry. There is also a burgeoning target market that includes Hispanics, Air Force troops, and college students. Some payday lenders offer (in Spanish) candy from Mexico.

The pure libertarian argument would be to eliminate government interference and allow the market to do its own thing. The idea is that the market would regulate itself. But most Utahns countenance legislation to restrict all kinds of moral ills. For example, Utah is one of two states that permit no forms of gambling. A market certainly exists for gambling, but the general consensus is that it is a moral ill that has enough societal drawbacks as to warrant its restriction. There is certainly a worthy argument that the payday lending industry generates enough societal ills to warrant its restriction as well.

An interesting discussion of various opinions about regulation of the payday lending industry in Utah can be found at this Utah Politicopia site.

Industry and free market proponents say that payday lenders provide services that customers are unable to find elsewhere, but others counter that the industry simply preys on the ignorant. An argument made by Rep. Steve Urquhart (R-St. George) is that state regulation of this industry is valid because the industry’s basic business plan involves the state as an unwitting partner. How so? Urquhart says that the business strategy is based on a high default rate. This leads to escalating debt as interest accrues at incredibly high rates along with steep penalties. This finally leads to prosecution in Utah’s court system, which then becomes the enforcer of obscene contracts that are structured from the outset to victimize the client party.

Urquhart says:
“Anyone who thinks the victims of these loans are well-informed needs to go to district court and watch them get run through like cattle. The payday lenders always have polished attorneys. The borrowers rarely have any representation; they are left on their own, often with poor language abilities or life skills. They get loans for meager amounts, but owe fortunes after the loans churn hundreds of percentage points. It is sad to watch.”

As far as customers having no alternatives Tom Gregory suggests, “Credit card cash advances, or credit card use. Loans from family members. Government welfare options, including Medicaid. Religious welfare offerings, including fast offering assistance. Bank overdraft protection. Equity loans. Or, gasp, going without.”

KCPW reports that payday lenders gave Utah legislators $10,500 in 2006: $7000 to Democrats and $3500 to Republicans. Although Rep. Urquhart garnered $500 from the industry, it does not seem to have limited his criticism of the industry.

As far as whether the industry is moving toward self regulation, consider the claim of Don Hester of Debt Free Consumer, that the number “of people trapped by payday loans increases about 400 percent per year.” And any bankruptcy lawyer can tell you that almost all bankruptcy filers have at least one outstanding payday loan.

The payday lending industry is based on predation and entrapment. Yes, the prey is willing until the trap is sprung. And then the citizens of Utah, through the state’s court system become partners in these predatory practices. The government is only an extension of its citizens. Is it right to allow this industry to use Utah’s citizens to enrich some people unimpeded while financially destroying some of the most vulnerable among us?

Critics of payday lending regulation claim that government has no business protecting people from their own stupidity. Still, we do it on a regular basis. For example, we have certain seatbelt laws because we are unwilling to bear the emotional and economic cost of people not wearing seatbelts. Libertarian minded folks will tell you that we have no business regulating seatbelt compliance, but that is not what most Utahns believe.

The fact is that we are willing to violate the principles of laizzes faire when a greater moral good is achieved by doing so. We do not always agree on what constitutes a greater moral good, and that is why we have a legislative system that includes public debates.

Some of the proposed restrictions on payday lending include Dollar limits on single loan amounts, combined loan Dollar limits, limits on number of outstanding loans, various APR caps, elimination of automatic loan rollovers, restriction of predatory penalty practices (that amount to $4.2 billion annually nationwide – see here), and requiring lenders to register with the state.

Critics of these proposals claim that those desperate for easy loans will simply resort to getting loans from far less scrupulous purveyors, such as illegal loan sharks. It’s the old coat-hangers-in-back-alleys ploy, which is a sleight of hand trick. Just as we exchanged less than 200 illegal and unsafe abortions annually for 1.4 million legal abortions annually, we now have a proliferation of people taking advantage of legal loan sharks who employ the argument that it would be worse if the practice were restricted.

We need to think clearly about what course of action would result in the greatest moral good. And I simply do not believe from the evidence I have seen that allowing the payday lending industry to continue on its current course will constitute much good at all. We should seriously consider restrictions on the payday lending industry that will prevent predation of the vulnerable.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Reducing Medical Errors

While I am on the topic of medicine, I want to mention an interesting take on medical mistakes. Harvard School of Medicine’s Dr. Jerome Groopman has written a book entitled How Doctors Think. His book is intended to wake up the medical community to thinking errors that harm patients. He believes that medical schools should begin teaching courses in logic as applied to diagnosing patients. Groopman is considered to be one of the best in his field, but some of the stories of his own thinking errors leave one with perhaps reduced confidence in doctors.

Groopman says that doctors too often hit on the first possible diagnosis that comes to mind and then stick with that diagnosis. They look only for factors that might confirm their initial diagnosis while ignoring factors that might suggest something else.

For example, Groopman related the story of consulting with another doctor while preparing for surgery. He had a series of procedures lined up. He planned to try one after the other until he found the root problem. The other doctor listened and then said, “Maybe he has gout.” At first it seemed preposterous, but after thinking about it, Groopman realized that he had ignored some symptoms and tests. The patient was then treated effectively without having to endure extensive exploratory surgery.

Groopman says that it is important for patients receiving a diagnosis to ask three questions:

1) Is there anything else this could be?

2) Could there be other issues in addition to the main diagnosis?

3) Is there anything in your examination or tests that might be counter indicative of this diagnosis?

Groopman says that this approach will help the doctor think in ways that will produce the best possible outcome. He says that many doctors will not welcome the questions, but that your health is more any doctor’s ego.

One Nation On Drugs

As I visited recently with a friend that is a family practice doctor, he said, “If you come to me with a particular problem, more than likely I will prescribe a pill for it. It’s what we do.”

Injuries will be treated as necessary, but most of those are handled in urgent care rather than in family practice. My friend regularly performs minor procedures in his office, but he will refer patients to appropriate specialists for more serious procedures. Some patients come for regular exams. Still, the majority of patients walk out of my friend’s office with one or more prescriptions.

And it’s pretty much the same throughout the medical industry. It’s not limited to family practice and internal medicine. Most specialists also follow the same regimen. Even surgeons commonly load up their patients with drug prescriptions in addition to performing surgical procedures.

This practice is not limited to strictly medical doctors either. Over the past several decades, psychiatry has moved toward treating all psychological issues as being physically/chemically based. So, a visit to a doctor of psychology will likely garner you one or more drug prescriptions. If you want counseling, you will have to visit a qualified social counselor.

Many people criticize the powerful drug industry. After all, our doctors are their front line sales team and our pharmacies are their retail outlets. But I don’t know very many people that would like to do without many of the drugs we currently have available today. Still, we certainly ought to do something about the ability to extend patents nearly ad infinitum via simple repackaging.

We are indeed a nation on drugs — very often legally prescribed drugs, although street drugs are still popular. There are those doctors that are de facto drug pushers like Dr. Candyman. And there is no shortage of people that illegally obtain prescription drugs like Rush Limbaugh did. But most Americans limit their drug consumption to over the counter (OTC) or legally prescribed drugs.

Why do we take drugs? Well, because the drugs do something for us. Years ago I attended a lecture by a chiropractor. He discussed the incredibly high rate of consumption of OTC NSAIDS in the U.S. He said, “This tells us that painkillers don’t work.” I nearly laughed out loud. No, Americans consume NSAIDS because they do work. I knew what the good chiropractor intended to imply was that NSAIDS do not cure the cause of the pain. But nobody ever claimed that they did.

Prescription drugs have their downsides as well. Following a stroke, my father was prescribed many different drugs, all of which were described as essential. Within a couple of weeks he became so lethargic and loony that something had to give. He is now taking almost no drugs, much to the horror of his doctors, but he is thriving better than at any time in the last nine months or so. The results of the stroke remain, but he has a better quality of life.

Once we had a family friend come to us and say that she was recovering from a prescription drug addiction. She then asked forgiveness for violating our trust. She admitted that once when she had been in our home she had gone through our medicine cabinet and had taken several pills from a prescription bottle. This woman seemed like an upstanding citizen. We would never have suspected her of stooping to this kind of theft. She found her own behavior reprehensible.

I have hypothyroidism, which for most people is easily treatable with a daily dose of thyroid replacement hormone. It’s tiny, it’s relatively cheap, and it has few side effects. Other than that, I rarely take any kind of drug. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve taken anything else (including NSAIDS, decongestants, etc.) in the last year.

I am truly grateful for the many advances in medical science that can help improve life span and life quality. But many of these treatments are a double-edge sword. Abuse of legal drugs has proliferated like crazy as our medical system has become increasingly drug-centric. I believe it is essential to approach drug therapy with a firm resolve to prevent the therapy from becoming harmful. Doctors and pharmacists can only do so much in this regard, so patients must exercise caution and proper judgment on their own.

Be aware of what you’re putting into your body. Steer away from addictive drugs. If you don’t feel comfortable taking something, don’t take it. Don’t be afraid to ask the doctor to prescribe something that is less addictive. Don’t continue drug therapy past the appropriate time for it. It’s great when drug treatment can improve your life. Just don’t let it ruin your life at the same time.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

National Dishonor

In his book, America: The Last Best Hope, Vol. 2, Bill Bennett writes about Congress cutting off funding for support of our allies in Southeast Asia in the mid 1970s. He notes that the anti-war crowd had argued for years that the conflict in Vietnam was merely a civil war. They willingly ignored the clear lines of support and direction to the “indigenous” Vietcong from North Vietnam and the Soviet Union.

After cutting off all financial and military support, many of the anti-war members of Congress expressed shock when the Communist “North Vietnamese army leaders shredded their agreements” with the U.S. and “brazenly rolled over their Southern neighbors.”

When the “U.S. ambassador and his staff had to be airlifted by helicopter from the embassy roof” in Saigon, President Ford said, “This is not a day for recriminations.” Bennett says, “Ronald Reagan reportedly answered, “What better day?””

The potential outcomes of the discontinuance of aid had been openly discussed. When Representative Don Fraser (D-MN) was asked if he and his colleagues wanted Cambodia to fall, he replied “Yes, under controlled circumstances to minimize the loss of life.” Rep. Fraser and his colleagues willed a legally established pro-American government to fall because they said that Americans were tired of the war.

In the vacuum left by our abandonment of our allies, the Communists gleeful and horrifically ousted the legitimate government. The Killing Fields of Cambodia soon consumed over two million human lives. It’s difficult to imagine how much worse it would have been had not the loss of life been “minimized,” per the anti-war crowd’s desire.

Bennett’s description (pp. 448-449) of what happened when we quit supporting the Republic of Cambodia is almost difficult to read.

Henry Kissinger records the response of a pro-American leader of Cambodia. Distraught at the collapse of American will and American allies in Southeast Asia, Kissinger offered to rescue Sirik Matak from certain death. Matak’s response, in elegant French, is memorable:

“I thank you very sincerely for your letter and your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave [Cambodia] in such a cowardly fashion. As for you, and in particular your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would … [abandon] a people which have chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection, and we can do nothing about it. You leave, and my wish is that you and your country will find happiness under the sky. [If I die here] I have committed only this mistake of believing you.”

“When the Communist Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh, they shot Matak in the stomach. Unattended, it took him three days to die.”

Bennett suggests that Matak “should have sent his letter to Senator Kennedy and Congressman Fraser.”

This dishonorable episode is just one of the reasons Bennett titled his chapter covering 1974-1981, The Years the Locusts Ate (see Joel 2:25).

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Do High Gasoline Prices Warrant Government Intervention?

KSL Radio’s Doug Wright says more government intervention is the answer to high gasoline prices. I rarely tune into Doug Wright’s show. It doesn’t work with my schedule and I don’t feel that I get that much out of it. But this morning I had some business to attend to, so I drove to work late and caught part of Doug’s segment on the outrageously high gasoline prices we are currently paying.

It’s no secret that retail gasoline prices have gone through the roof, jumping some 30% since the beginning of the year. We’re paying four cents more today than we were in the knee-jerk gouge-a-thon following Hurricane Katrina. Gasoline prices are at an all-time record high. And we haven’t even hit the annual Memorial Day price bump yet.

The job of a talk show host is to make everything they talk about sound very important while filling the allotted block of time every day. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a slow news day. If it doesn’t sound important, the ratings will drop and so will advertising revenue. Effective talk show hosts use all kinds of tricks of the trade (emotionalism, absurdity, partial truths, twisting facts, minimizing complexity, etc.) to make the issues they talk about sound significant.

Gasoline prices affect everyone and they are getting on everyone’s nerves right now. Since it’s a hot topic, expect talk show hosts to talk about it. Mr. Wright has apparently devoted several segments to this issue over the past several weeks.

Wright’s approach today was to suggest that the conglomerating of U.S. oil companies over the years has resulted in an environment where gasoline distribution is now more like a public utility than a free market. Wright repeatedly made the point that the free flow of gasoline through the economy is essential to our national security. At least he seemed to stop short of calling for a government takeover of the oil industry, a la Venezuela’s beloved dictator, Hugo Chavez. Rather, he suggested that we need something more along the lines of public oversight of the industry, similar to our state’s Public Service Commission that regulates electrical and natural gas suppliers.

Government can certainly take steps to help foster fairness and freedom in markets. Occasionally government has a role to play in enforcing morality upon amoral free markets. But usually when government meddles in the market, it ends up causing more significant problems than the ones it assays to solve.

Whenever people clamor for government intervention, I think it is wise to take a step back and look at what is really happening and how things really work. With that understanding in mind, we should then ask whether the desired intervention is likely to actually produce the desired outcome. And then we should ask what other effects will likely result from the desired intervention.

Fact #1 is that our economy is completely dependent on oil. We have found no viable alternative to oil. Wright was right (pun) when he said that biofuels are not a viable alternative. The amount of land mass required to grow the crops, the amount of fuel required to develop and harvest the crops, and the amount of energy expended in converting the crops to usable fuel are problematic issues. I wrote about various alternative fuels last May, when gas prices were making their annual spike.

Fact #2 is that the oil market is highly volatile. It is interesting to note that the $3.15 we pay for a gallon of gas today is roughly equivalent to $0.47 in 1960 Dollars. Back in 1960, gas cost only $0.25/gallon. So gas today costs about 188% of what it cost in 1960. But let’s take an expanded view using inflation adjusted Dollars. Just a few months ago gas cost 132% of 1960 prices, last fall it cost about the same as it does today, in 1980 gas cost 200% of 1960 prices (even more than today), and in 1998 gas cost only 56% of 1960 prices. Oil prices fluctuate wildly. So do gasoline prices. For a more detailed handling of the factors that go into gasoline prices, see this post. No amount of government intervention is going to prevent the market from fluctuating.

Fact #3 is that oil operates in a global economy. Becoming oil isolationists might improve national self reliance, but experience shows that both economic and political isolationism have proven to be disastrous courses of action. Even if our nation produced the amount of oil it consumed, that does not guarantee that domestic oil would not be sold to foreign buyers or that we would purchase no foreign oil unless we passed laws that forced it to be so. Such laws have almost universally resulted in bad news.

Part of the reason gas station boycotts never work is that oil functions in a global economy. The price you see on the marquee at your local gas station is determined as much by how much gasoline is being purchased in China and India today as it is by how much gas people in the U.S. are buying. But another reason that gas station boycotts don’t work refers back to fact #1. You might be able to keep from buying gas for a few days, but no business can do that. You might not drive to the store to buy a product, but by golly, you are waiting for UPS or FedEx to deliver products to you, and their trucks and airplanes aren’t fueled by nothing.

The answer, some say, is to create self sustaining walk-able communities. The libertarian-minded economists at the Café Hayek blog frequently take pleasure in poking holes in these kinds of proposals. They love to demonstrate that achieving this kind of self sufficiency either requires living in poverty or maintaining a very expensive illusion where the fuel expended by others to sustain your lifestyle is ignored.

Fact #4 is that, as Pete du Pont says in this article, “[O]ur country's political establishment, from Congress to the press and the presidency, has worked for a quarter century to prevent increases in our energy supply.” Not only has the political establishment put the kybosh on oil production, but du Pont discusses how they have effectively stifled the development of all of the most reasonable alternative fuels as well.

Doug Wright suggests that the oil conglomerates have such a strong monopoly that they collude with each other in their dirty smoke filled rooms to figure out how to stick it to hapless consumers and even the government, which is just as dependent on oil as are you and I. (Remember the Enron tapes?) Wright says that the industry is so powerful that it owns enough politicians on both sides of the aisle to stifle effective reform. He says it is high time for the government to regulate the industry. Please note that the oil industry is already one of the most highly regulated industries in our nation.

Wright also suggests that oil is more like a public utility, since it is a commodity that is so essential to our welfare, our national security, and our economy. Wright seems to be saying that the government needs to take control because we simply can’t stop ourselves from using oil. (Stop me before I drive again!)

I would just like to point out that these same arguments could be said of food staples. Should we also, for example, bring the bread industry under the auspices of a Public Service Commission? Would adding the kind of regulation Wright suggests improve the free flow of the commodity and bring prices down? It certainly hasn’t worked that way in any other country that has tried it. How is it that we are suddenly going to make it work?

Most calls for government intervention are founded in frustration and/or a desire to protect one’s turf. Turf protection is why you can’t legally pump your own gas in Oregon, for example. That’s not where Wright is coming from. Many consumers are frustrated with gasoline prices right now. That is understandable.

But most frustrated calls for government intervention are also founded in ignorance of how things really work. I suggest that except for emergency cases, any call for government intervention should be approached calmly and deliberately with an eye on getting a firm grasp on how the matter actually works and what effects intervention is likely to cause. I’m no libertarian purist. I am not saying that there is never a place for government intervention. I’m simply saying that there is a right way to approach such questions.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

It's the Demography

A few years ago my kids were surfing channels looking for a children’s show. We only have broadcast TV, so the only show they could find at the moment was called Captain Planet. Predictably, it turned out to be a smarmy propaganda medium for radical environmentalism couched in super hero worship and cutesy environmental moral superiority.

The particular episode they were watching dealt with the evils of overpopulation and pretty much said that anyone that has more than one or two kids is evil. I had to laugh, however, when my six-year-old was bothered with the fact that some of the devices required to support the plot clearly violated the laws of physics. It’s pretty bad when a little kid understands that the only reason for the hero to show up has been bizarrely contrived in an unentertaining way.

With the collapse of the 1970s population bomb hype, I thought that the general public (if not the left fringes) had recovered from overpopulation fear mongering. (Especially in light of the UN’s latest population forecasts.) But at least some Americans seem as addicted to this kind of alarmism as some are to tabloids. As noted here by researcher Nicholas Eberstadt, some of our nation’s most educated continually fall for this stuff, although, it is consistently wrong.

When I was a teenager I went to work as a bagger in a grocery store. Every week purveyors would show up to stock the tabloid racks. Some of these publications are actually great (if vulgar) comedy, but I couldn’t understand how anyone would pay money for them. Still, every week we sold almost every copy. I was often surprised to see who bought that junk. Population bomb hype works very similarly.

Eberstadt surmises that “maybe the obsession has to do ... with America’s hunger for--at times, near worship of--numbers.” Oh, and we do love numbers. From the least newsworthy item to the greatest issues of the day, we are continually regaling each other with numbers. (Just check out my last post.)

Eberstadt is quick to point out that not only nationally, but worldwide, birth rates are down rather dramatically over the last century. We are producing fewer children per adult than at anytime in reliable history. Unprecedented population growth has occurred because people everywhere are living much longer lives than at any time in reliable history. (Don’t get started on the age stuff in Genesis.) Health care and safety issues have improved so substantially in the past century or so that worldwide life expectancy has doubled over this period. Even third world nations are approaching U.S. post-WWII life expectancy.

Unfortunately for those in the environmentalist community with anti-human agendas, limiting birth rates to even one child per couple will not achieve their desired minimally populated utopia anytime soon. The only way for the anti-humanists to achieve their goal would be mass genocide. In that case, I suggest they start with themselves. Just imagine the amount of pain that could have been spared if each of the great genocidal maniacs of the 20th Century had started with themselves.

Demography plays into many aspects of life, including politics. Michael Barone, the widely respected political demographer, writes here about what population shifts in the U.S. mean for politics. He says that with a few outliers (the Salt Lake City area being among them), areas of the country can be put into one of four general categories. Each classification considers the rates of domestic inflow/outflow, immigrant inflow, and natural growth.

Heavily Democratic Costal Megalopolises all had domestic outflows (2-10%) and immigrant inflows (5-8%). This is causing economic polarization akin to Mexico City and São Paulo. Republican leaning Interior Boomtowns have grown 18%, having significant domestic inflows (9-19%) and immigrant inflows (roughly half the domestic growth). Interior Boomtowns had 6% natural growth as opposed to 4% for Costal Megalopolises. Boomtowns also have much less economic polarization.

The decreasingly Democratic Old Rust Belt has seen a 4% domestic outflow and only a 1% immigrant inflow, with natural growth of only 2%. What are left are the somewhat Republican Static Cities with domestic outflow of less than 1% and immigrant inflow of 0-4%. Barone doesn’t list natural growth rate for this category.

Barone says that almost all smaller areas fall easily into one of the four categories mentioned. New Orleans is an outlier due to Katrina. The Salt Lake City area is an outlier because it “demographically looks a lot like the America of the 1950s. In 2000-2006 its population grew a robust 10%. But it had a domestic outflow of 4% (young Mormons going off on their missions?), balanced by an immigrant inflow of 4%.” What really makes the SLC area different is its whopping 9% natural growth rate, which is still far below historic national rates. Incidentally, I think Barone’s suggestion that missionaries comprise the 4% domestic outflow is off base because there is a continual flow of outgoing and incoming missionaries. This outflow more likely due to new college graduates heading off to new careers.

What all of this means for politics is a shift in Congress. Following the 2010 census, California will gain no House seats for the first time in 160 years. New York will lose yet more seats (down to 29 from 45 in 1960). By and large, Democratic leaning states will lose seats while Republican leaning states will pick up seats. And that goes for Electoral College electors as well.

Does this mean that traditionally Republican states will continue to lean Republican? Barone doesn’t get into that. It seems to me that some of the people fleeing the Costal Megalopolises and the Old Rust Belt for the Interior Boomtowns and Static Cities will bring their politics with them. I suppose a study would need to be done on the political persuasions of the people that are moving to get an answer to this question.

Another interesting note is that almost all areas had immigrant inflows. From Barone’s article, it appears that none had immigrant outflows. Others have said that this trend can be expected to continue at least through 2030, when Mexico is expected to drop below replacement birthrates and will begin to need all of its people to maintain infrastructure. Barone admits that immigrant populations vote heavily Democratic, but he leaves the question open as to how this will impact traditionally Republican areas with immigrant inflows.

Barone says that 20 years ago almost nobody would have predicted the demographic shift we are seeing today. It makes me wonder what kind of unexpected shifts will occur over the next two decades.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

If History Is Any Indicator ...

Americans frequently express the sentiment that they’re tired of politics as usual. But I chuckle when I hear people pining for a president from outside of the political spectrum. Why? Because we have little history of electing such people. Not that we haven’t had people like that run, but because they by and large get little, if any support.

Historical precedents mean only so much. We sometimes treat them like they are inviolate rules — until the supposedly impossible happens. But we can get a general idea of how things work in real life by looking at how they have worked traditionally.

Like it or not, the U.S. political system is a strong two-party system. Third party candidates can make a difference and have helped determine the outcomes of presidential elections in the past. But under our current system it is very unlikely that a third party candidate could capture the White House.

And while the argument that Lincoln was a third party candidate might have some technical merit, it is not substantially correct. The Republican Party largely rose from the ashes of the dying Whig Party, although it also received a healthy infusion from anti-slavery Democrats. The upshot is that by the time Lincoln ran for the presidency in 1860, there were still only two major parties.

Presidential Nominee Qualifications
A quick glance at past presidential elections helps us understand what Americans look for in their major presidential nominees. My analysis leads me to believe that Americans generally want elected political experience and/or executive experience. The higher the level of this experience and the more expansive it is, the better. Appointed political experience can help the resume. Military Generals are appointed, but they operate in both executive and political theaters. 12 former generals have served as president. But only three of them had no other major political experience. Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower all were very successful high-profile war generals.

But military experience is not an absolute must-have. Nor does the person with the highest rank or greatest military experience always carry the day. While 18 of our presidents have been commissioned officers below the General/Admiral rank, and Buchanan was a lowly private, 10 of our 42 presidents served no military duty. (Yes, we have had 43 presidencies, but only 42 presidents because Cleveland served his two terms separated by Benjamin Harrison’s term.) I don’t know how to rate FDR for military service. He served ably in the appointed position of Asst. Secretary of the Navy, but he never served as a soldier, sailor, or marine. Still, it is interesting to note that in 25 of 54 elections, the loser had no military experience.

If you delve into the resumes of the two main contestants in each presidential election, you will discover that many of them had deep elective political experience and often executive experience as well. We tend to nominate people that have served as Vice President, state Governor, and/or U.S. Senator. 13 presidents previously served as VP. 18 have been governors. 15 have been senators. Although 19 have been U.S. Congressional Representatives, we tend not to nominate people for whom this has been their highest office. I surmise that this is because the former three offices listed require broad-based appeal, while representatives can often be elected by appealing to relatively narrow interests.

However there are some notable exceptions to these rules. Madison, Lincoln, and Garfield had not served at a level higher than representative prior to their election to the presidency. But Garfield was a famous Civil War general, so he should probably not be included in this grouping. Madison was largely regarded as the Father of the Constitution. During his tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives, others often looked to him for guidance as to how the republic was really supposed to run. He had also served as Jefferson’s Secretary of State. This was a much more powerful position at that time and was second in line to succeed the president. So Madison was a special case.

Lincoln was elected in favor of more experienced opponents when the Democratic Party split on the slavery issue. Southern Democrats defected to vote for Breckenridge rather than vote for Douglas, who had a cagey approach to the slavery issue.

Two even more significant exceptions are Taft and Hoover, who had never served in the military and had never held elected office prior to becoming president. But both of them also ended up losing after a single term. Taft had been TR’s close and trusted friend. Although he never personally aspired to the presidency, the wildly popular Roosevelt succeeded in anointing Taft as his successor, only to cause Taft’s defeat four years later. Taft had been a judge and later became U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice, a job he actually did want.

Hoover’s candidacy is somewhat more of an enigma. A self-made tycoon, he had been a political insider for years. He eventually served as Commerce Secretary under Harding and Coolidge. He often overstepped the bounds of this position and used it as a platform to achieve national prominence. The press loved this progressive GOP wonder-boy. His Democratic opponent, former NY Governor Alfred E. Smith, came across unsympathetically to voters. Not only did anti-Catholic prejudice play against him, his heavy New York accent played badly with voters who heard him on their newfangled radios. Thanks to stereotyping, he sounded like a mobster. Hoover ran on the coattails of Coolidge’s successful presidency and won by a landslide. Four years later with the country mired in the Great Depression, FDR beat him hands down.

I would argue that only three past presidents have had resumes that appear wanting per the criteria I have listed: Lincoln, Taft, and Hoover. There are obvious reasons why each of these men was able to overcome this hurdle, although, those circumstances may not have been clear at the time each announced his candidacy. 39 of our 42 presidents have had the kind of experience I think Americans want.

High Quality Losers
The resumes of presidential election losers are often quite glowing as well. Sitting presidents have lost nine elections. The loser in each of eight elections has served as VP. Men that have served as governor have lost 18 times. Senators: 21 times. Representatives: 21 times. (This was the highest office for five of these.) Generals: 9 times.

My point is that for the most part, the people that receive the vast majority of the votes in our political system are people that have significant elected political and/or executive experience. Americans tend to shy away from people who have served no higher than congressional representative. Occasionally a popular war general can capture the White House. Our system is flexible enough to consider potential candidates that lie outside of these general rules, but they only rise to the top under extraordinary situations.

At this point, some will naturally want to point out all of the flaws in our political system and present utopian ideas about how it should work. That discussion is important and interesting, but it is outside of the scope of this post. I am not writing about how it should work; I’m writing about how it does work.

2008 Candidate Qualifications
With that in mind, let’s take a look at how current presidential hopefuls measure up. By my count there are 19 announced Democrat and GOP candidates plus five that will probably become candidates, for a total of 24 (see Wikipedia article). Military service appears not to be a strong point among this group, as 14 have no military experience. Wesley Clark (unannounced) has been a general, but he could hardly be called a popular wartime general. Five have been commissioned officers, with former Vietnam War POW John McCain holding the highest rank (Navy Capt.) among these. Ron Paul was an Air Force flight surgeon. Three have served in the enlisted ranks. Of these, Chuck Hagel (unannounced) is a decorated Vietnam War veteran who lost part of a leg in combat. Of the three Democrat and three GOP current front runners, only McCain has served in the military.

As far as political experience, Al Gore (unannounced) has been VP. Five have been governors. 11 have been senators. 10 have been representatives. Rep is the highest elected position for five of these, unless you count Speaker of the House as a higher position for Newt Gingrich (unannounced). Rudy Giuliani has been mayor of New York City, which some argue is a bigger job than governor of many states. Fair Tax advocate John Cox appears to be unable to get elected to anything. Setting him aside, this is a pretty impressive group of candidates.

By historical criteria, the five current/former representatives mentioned above are unlikely to garner their party’s nomination. It’s possible that some of them could be considered for the VP slot, but looking over the lot (Gingrich, Hunter, Kucinich, Paul, Tancredo) I wouldn’t bet on it. With the possible exception of Gingrich, who would be a huge risk, none of the other candidates offer his party’s eventual winner any substantial reason to select him.

Giuliani also goes against historical precedents. We have never elected a president whose highest office has been mayor of a major city. (I don’t care what the polls say right now.) VP material? Probably not. He doesn’t play second fiddle very well. Could Giuliani pull a Hoover? It’s not out of the realm of possibilities, but I’m not sure all the stars are aligned to make that happen. The picture will become much clearer after Christmas.

Statistically, the 10 candidates whose highest elected position has been U.S. Senator have a 27% chance of becoming president, if nominated. 15 former senators have served as president, but 11 of these were also VP, military general, governor, or lieutenant governor. The VP slot is much friendlier to senators without executive experience than the top slot. Of course, one of these people could end up becoming president after eight years of VP service. Or not. Remember Al Gore? Of course, some political watchers believe he still has a chance.

What about the five current/former governors that are running (Gilmore, Huckabee, Richardson, Romney, and T. Thompson)? 18 of our 42 presidents’ have been governors, but seven of these were a VP, senator, and/or general as well. Of the group of five, only Gilmore served in the military. Richardson has been a congressional representative. Thompson has been Health and Human Services Secretary. The rest have to point to other non-governmental qualifications.

New Rules
Of course, as I mentioned two months ago, the compacted primary election setup is likely to throw a monkey wrench in the gears of presidential election prognostication. Until quite recently, party nominees were largely selected in back room deals and high-level party wrangling. The new method is not only far more costly; it also interjects the will of the rank and file voter much earlier in the process.

It is quite possible that the old rules of political resume building no longer apply the way they once did. The resume screeners used to be big-wig party insiders. Now the screeners are the average party voters. Candidates now have to appeal to a much broader group that may have very different criteria than the people in the smoke filled rooms.

I can’t even begin to guess what voters will think are the most important candidate qualifications come super-duper-mega-Tuesday next February. Polling will certainly give the various camps somewhat of an inside track on this, but my guess is that when the statistical analysts crunch all of the numbers following the initial primary elections, a lot of politicos will be sitting around saying, “Boy, I did not see that coming.” And even then we won’t know if it is a one-time fluke or a new rule of the road.

In the meantime, let’s not forget historical precedent. While party machines probably now have less say in the selection of the eventual nominees, it has always been the people that have had the final say through our republican system. And the people have not changed that much. It is likely that much historical precedent will carry over even in the face of the new rules. On the other hand, the disclaimer they put in every mutual fund prospectus about past performance not being indicative of future performance applies here as well.

Friday, May 04, 2007

GOP 'Debate' Wrap Up

I didn’t watch last night’s GOP presidential debate for a couple of reasons. One is that I was too busy. After my son’s soccer game I attended the monthly adult Scout leader training, and then it was off to manage my parents’ finances and try to help with my Dad’s physical and psychological needs. Over that five-hour span, I was nowhere near a TV. Another reason is that our family's evening pattern rarely includes TV viewing.

But I doubt I’d have watched the debate anyway. 10 guys? Come on, that’s not a debate. That’s a meet the candidates night. I figured it would generate very little light. Besides, plenty of post mortems of the event would be written, many of which would undoubtedly prove more enlightening and more entertaining that the ‘debate’ itself.

The consensus of the pundits seems to be that Romney won the night, despite a gaffe on the war. McCain did OK. Giuliani did not. Ron Paul distinguished himself from the rest of the pack, but not necessarily in a good way. The rest came across as not very distinguishable from each other. James Robbins says here that it was a debate without a difference. To which I respond, "Well, duh! That should have been obvious going into it." Why bother to tune in at all?

The format of the ‘debate’ necessarily led to the conclusion that 9/10ths of the GOP candidates are joined at the hip on policy issues. This will probably earn angry remarks from died in the wool libertarians, but the remaining 1/10th apparently came across more like comedy relief. T.J. Walker says here that Ron Paul was consistently "wacky and impish." The natural thing to do in the face of so many policy carbon copies is for the pundits to analyze charisma, delivery, stage makeup, hairstyle, and other meaningless drivel.

Walker particularly makes a number of sometimes funny but useless comparisons, such as Tommy Thompson looking "like Sam the butcher from the old Brady Bunch series." Byron York in this article quotes someone as saying that McCain came across like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. On more substantive issues, York echoes most other conservative pundits when he says that Giuliani totally blew the question about abortion. York says Giuliani obviously "is not comfortable talking about the topic before Republican audiences."

Several pundits have noted that the 10-candidate format ill suited Giuliani, but was very good for Romney. Peggy Noonan says here that Giuliani’s "problem is the same as Hillary Clinton's. Both of them do well by themselves. Both seem diminished when standing and vying with others. They are solo acts." T.J. Walker, on the other hand, says, "Romney was George Clooney/George Hamilton cool (complete with the tan) surrounded by a dorm-room full of average dudes." Still, Noonan calls Romney, "statuesque."

For those of you that can’t get enough of Romney, political writer Mark Hemingway, who was raised Mormon but converted to Lutheranism, bristled here at the harebrained question posed to Romney about whether the government should intervene when Catholic clergy refuse communion to a person. Hemingway then lashes out at Bob Novak’s ridiculous assertion that Romney’s unwillingness to comment on the film September Dawn (about the Mountain Meadows Massacre) will hurt his election chances.

Noting that Brigham Young is played in the movie by an actor who has "made a career out of playing villains and criminals," Hemingway draws an analogy to help clarify this matter. "What if in 1959 a film about Galileo had come out starring Peter Lorre as Pope Urban VIII and Walter Winchell had written a column suggesting that Catholic presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy had better comment on the film and clarify his views on heliocentricity?" The absurdity of this seems obvious.

Like other pundits, Fred Barnes points out here that all 10 of the candidates wanted to come across as Reagan-like as possible. The venue, the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, certainly lent to that tendency. Peggy Noonan doesn’t like this tendency at all. She suggests that incessant Reagan comparisons are a trap set by the nasty left-wing MSM, and that gullible Republicans are playing along. Liberals certainly could benefit from showing how conservative candidates can’t possibly live up to the aura of St. Ronald, but the vast left-wing plot theory goes a bit too far.

Noonan says, "Reagan was Reagan, a particular man at a particular point in history. What is to be desired now is a new greatness." Her suggestion for GOP candidates being compared to Reagan is for them to respond, "You know I don't think I'm Reagan, but I do think John Edwards may be Jimmy Carter, and I'm fairly certain Hillary is Walter Mondale." That’s funny, but it’s not nice. Besides, GOP candidates are actively chasing the Reagan persona of their own volition.

Noonan dismisses most of the non-first-tier candidates collectively as "The Guy You Don't Know and Don't Think You Have To." While openly pining for Fred Thompson to get into the race, she sizes up the challenges faced by each of the three front runners. (Incidentally, John Fund suggests here that Thompson has much to gain by waiting and playing coy, despite the impending super-duper-mega primary I wrote about here.)

I think Noonan’s observations are fairly astute when she writes, "John McCain has to make himself new again, not just an old warrior working out old dreams but a fresh and meaningful choice. Rudy Giuliani has to make himself serious. America's mayor needs ballast. What does he know? Is there wisdom there or only instinct? Mitt Romney has to show he is not just an intelligent and articulate operator who is chasing the next and logical résumé point for no particular reason beyond that it's next, and logical."

There you have the debate wrap up third hand from a guy that didn’t bother to watch the debate. I’m not sure that watching it would have proved any more enlightening than my aggregation of sometimes trite analyses. So what does this mean for Americans? Well, I’m not sure it means much other than to say that our political process is moving forward apace.

So, what can we expect to happen? Giuliani has been riding a pretty good wave during this early part of the campaign, but I would be very surprised to see that wave continue to build over the next nine months. It is far more likely to flatten out either a little or a lot. Republican politicos have looked over the field of ten, and a lot of GOP and conservative voters are still wondering what other choices are available. The number of undecided Republicans is extremely high, as is appropriate at this point of the campaign.

This far out the crystal ball is still too cloudy to develop any firm sense of what the future holds.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Where There Is No Vision

Around 10:00 AM one very pleasant morning in late August 1977, I entered the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. I was among a fairly large group of teenage boys adorned with moppy bleach blond hair, T-shirts with popular Hawaiian logos, flip flops, and wide leg pants tinged with red from the soil of the island of Lanai.

We had just spent a grueling summer planting pineapple on the island, which at that time was the largest pineapple plantation in the world. (Due to labor costs, most pineapple operations have moved out to the Pacific Rim. The sparsely populated island is now home to two five-star resorts as well as a number of vacation condos.) As reward for our summer of labor, we were privileged to devote a significant portion of our earnings to spend a week as tourists on three popular Hawaiian islands (Kauai, Hawaii, and Oahu). The well managed tour took us to a variety of popular tourist haunts, including Pearl Harbor.

The atmosphere as I walked into the memorial, which straddles the sunken battleship USS Arizona, was something like walking into a cathedral or a shrine. Even the crassest youth in the group sensed something sacred and behaved respectfully. With the feeling of light ocean spray in the air, we gathered around the opening in the floor to look into the water at the deck of battleship below. Many tossed flowers or leis into the water. Although I had been taught the history of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I little understood what it really meant. But that morning I sensed something very special.

No to War
Americans were very disillusioned with foreign wars and entanglements in the aftermath of World War I. Europe seemed to be continuously beset with intractable problems that the U.S. could little affect. Hitler’s rise to power and successful aggression in the 1930s only seemed to bolster the sentiment that the precious blood of our valiant soldiers had been spilt in vain. Almost everything that had been achieved in WWI was lost in the space of a few years. As the decade of the 30s concluded, Americans could see the specter of all out war in Europe. But they wanted nothing to do with it.

President Roosevelt had maintained a firm stance of staying out of Europe’s problems during his first term and most of his second term in office. But when our ally Great Britain was endangered, he felt a need to act. He began by offering relatively minor aid, but this grew over time until FDR eventually promised all aid short of direct involvement in the war. For his changing stance, FDR was harangued by a number of isolationist Republicans in Congress.

Willingness to Help Allies
The isolationists had valid concerns. They felt they were standing on principle. They felt they were backed by the Constitution, although, others interpreted the isolationists' most cherished constitutional passages differently. But the isolationists had a tin ear for public sentiment. Commercial radio broadcasting had become ubiquitous by 1940. Few homes lacked a radio. Americans had experienced WWI via printed media, but radio now brought the sounds of live warfare in Europe directly into American living rooms. During the 1940 presidential campaign season there was a sea change in Americans’ attitudes as innocent Britains were bombed by Hitler’s Luftwaffe.

FDR’s 1940 opponent was the highly popular Wendell Willkie, who had been a Democrat and an FDR supporter only a few years earlier. Willkie had won the GOP nomination despite the isolationists in the party. Instead of campaigning against Willkie, FDR focused on the GOP isolationists in Congress, who seemed increasingly out of touch with America’s needs. People sensed that if Hitler was not stopped in Europe, 3000 miles of Atlantic Ocean would not stop him from eventually attacking the U.S. Although FDR sweated out election night at his Hyde Park home, he became the only U.S. president to win a third term by taking 54.7% of the popular vote and 449 of 530 electoral votes. Following his loss, Willkie magnanimously sacrificed his own ambitions to support FDR’s aid policies in the interest of the nation.

Devotion to Victory
Americans were willing to help, but they weren’t willing to go to war. That all changed on the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941, when Japan launched a sneaky attack on our naval base at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese had planned and trained for this attack for almost a year. The U.S. was unprepared for the attack, which killed 2,403, wounded 1,178, and crippled U.S. military capabilities in the Pacific. Among the five battleships destroyed, the USS Arizona’s destruction was the most spectacular. Japanese bombing was precise enough to cause a massive explosion. 1,177 of the Pear Harbor’s dead were associated with the demise of the Arizona.

Americans were stunned. Most supported with steely resolve Congress’ declaration of war on Japan the day after the attack. This resolve only deepened when Japan’s allies, Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. three days later. The next four years would require great personal and national sacrifice. World War II had begun.

Between the grim day of 12/7/41 and the conclusive end of hostilities in 1945, many mistakes were made. Many suffered. In hindsight it is obvious that many suffered needlessly. Among the mistakes made is the infamy of FDR’s Executive Order 9066, which ordered Japanese Americans to be incarcerated in internment camps. Many still argue that carpet bombing in Germany was unnecessary and immoral. Many military operations were mishandled. The egos of some generals hampered operations. Some still have qualms about using nuclear bombs against Japan. It was not always apparent that the U.S. and its allies would win the war. But from the outset the general consensus was that complete victory was the only acceptable outcome.

Although much work was required once victory was achieved, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who had won the war. Insurgent groups continued to harass allied troops, but these efforts were short lived. By the 1960s it became apparent that the aggressor nations had actually fared quite well in the aftermath of the horrific war, thanks to well managed reconstruction efforts.

A New Day of Infamy, A New War
12/7/41 did indeed live in infamy in the minds of most Americans. But as the generation most impacted by this event aged, younger Americans had decreasing levels of appreciation for it. Almost six decades later another day of infamy occurred on 9/11/2001, when radical Islamic terrorists attacked innocents on American soil, killing nearly 3000. Americans faced the grim situation with steely resolve. But unlike 60 years earlier, identification of the culprits and of the appropriate response was much more complex and nuanced.

Almost six years later we find ourselves at war in Afghanistan and in Iraq. There is much controversy about how and why we got to this point. There is much controversy about how we are presently faring in these conflicts and the overall significance of these conflicts. Some say that the Iraq War is a study in winning the war but losing the peace through improper management.

While it is interesting and valuable to study and discuss the historical elements of these conflicts, there are much more important questions at stake. What outcome do we really want to achieve? Why? Can the desired outcome be reasonably achieved? If not, what is the most reasonable desirable outcome? Given an agreed upon desirable outcome, what course of action is most likely to get us from where we are now to that desired outcome?

In my estimation, we do not have anything near consensus on the answers to these questions. It seems that we as a republic have never really had a clear vision of what we hope to achieve in Afghanistan and Iraq. I would argue that this was the same problem we experienced in Vietnam: a lack of vision. We didn’t generally know what we wanted to achieve. Like then, we muddle around now because we don’t know for sure what we want.

Americans have shown time and time again that we are generally willing to make sacrifices and to use military force when we have a clear focus. In WWII, everyone on all sides had a solid understanding of the overarching U.S. goal. In the current conflicts; not so much. I’m not saying that President Bush (along with many others that are better at communicating) hasn’t articulated a desired outcome. Rather, I suggest that Americans:
A) Think the vision is too muddled.
B) Do not buy this vision.
C) Do not think we’re pursuing a course of action calculated to achieve this vision.
D) All of the above.

Focus Required
It’s no secret that major mistakes have been made in the management of these conflicts, particularly with respect to Iraq. Significant mistakes have been made in pretty much every war. History shows that Americans are very forgiving of mistakes as long as it is perceived that we are making progress on the right path. Americans are good at doggedly moving toward a clear goal. But focus falls off if the goal looks like some ethereal cloud. How will we know whether we’ve hit the goal or not? How can we achieve victory when we don’t know what it looks like?

Despite all of the current maneuvering of congressional Democrats, and regardless of who becomes our next president, we will likely have military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq for years to come. The big question is what they will be doing there?

Americans need rock solid goals for these conflicts. They don’t want to run away, but they do want to have a hard and clear understanding of what they are working for. And then Americans need to know that we are doing what it takes to achieve the goal. Any leader that provides less than this will not enjoy broad public support.

Vision, Please
As I look at the current field of significant contenders for the 2008 presidential election from both parties, I don’t see even one that is anywhere close to giving Americans a solid goal or demonstrating a willingness to do what it takes to achieve success with respect to Afghanistan and Iraq. Some argue that Giuliani is the best bet for this. Maybe he’s the best in the field, but that’s not actually saying much. It seems to me that regardless of who wins, we will still be muddling around over there for years to come without any discernable victory.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Doing It Yourself

Spring of 1988 found me spending a number of weeks in a training class in downtown Oklahoma City. Not far from where the Alfred P. Murrah Federeal Building stood at the time, there was a lovely plaza that had an amphitheater surrounding a stage area. Along with ornamental flora, a number of complementary water features helped create a nice outdoor atmosphere in the middle of an urban area.

Spring weather found downtown workers emerging from underground tunnels that connect downtown buildings to take their lunches in the city’s park areas. The group I trained with often found its way to this pleasant amphitheater that was not far from our training facility.

The water features were dry in early spring. But one day when we went for lunch the fountains were functioning and there was clear chlorinated water running through the lazy river that wound around the stage area. The plaza was bustling with people who had come to enjoy lunch in these delightful surroundings. Among the crowd were a four-year-old boy and his father, whose arms were loaded with food from a nearby vendor.

While I was looking off in another direction, the man and his little son wandered near the lazy river on their way across the plaza. Neither the man nor the boy was paying close enough attention as the boy walked perilously close to the edge. I did not see it happen, but the boy’s foot slipped and he suddenly plunged into the water.

The water, which had seemed so serene and peaceful a moment earlier suddenly became a life threatening hazard for one little boy. I heard the splash and turned my head, but could not tell through all the commotion what was going on. I could see a man standing there with his arms loaded and with a look of complete horror on his face. He seemed completely unable to move. But I could also see one man from our group who had leaped up and had already cleared more than half of the distance between us and the river.

Larry was an interesting guy. He seemed fairly intelligent and genial, but his personal life consisted of a series of poor choices. I was frankly surprised that he had qualified for the training we were attending. But I didn’t know what was in Larry’s heart. He had been watching the man and the boy cross the plaza. He worried that their course was bringing the small boy too close to the water’s edge.

When the boy plunged into the river and Larry saw the man paralyzed with horror, he didn’t hesitate at all. He jumped up, ran about 15 feet, jumped into the river, and pulled the boy out before the child could suck down much water. A few minutes later the wet boy was frolicking around on the lawn. Larry didn’t think what he had done was any big deal. The water only came to his waist. Of course, it was over the boy’s head, and the little tyke didn’t know how to swim.

By the time I realized what was happening, Larry was handing the boy to his anxious father. The father didn’t know what to say. Larry had just saved the life of this man’s son. Another class member rustled up a towel, which Larry wrapped around himself for the duration of the afternoon class. Larry said that the discomfort from his wet pants was more than overcome by the warmth he felt inside.

I haven’t been back to Oklahoma City since that trip 19 years ago. I know not whether the plaza still exists or whether the water features remain unchanged. I imagine that our hyper safety conscious (and hyper litigious) society would no longer tolerate such a public hazard. But I learned several lessons from this experience.

I learned not to discount the good that an individual can do, even if that individual has made (and is still making) unfortunate choices. I learned that many people have built-in goodness. Larry showed me an example of being concerned about others. He didn’t know the people he helped, but he obviously felt that they were worth something; that human life has intrinsic value. It is worth making sacrifices and suffering inconveniences to help preserve life and to help others.

It is important to be observant. I was gandering off in another direction. I can’t remember what I was looking at. Larry saw a potential problem and watched to see if his assistance would be needed. This allowed Larry to formulate a plan somewhere in the back of his mind. When help was needed, there were over a hundred people close enough to do something, but only Larry moved without hesitation to provide the needed assistance. Larry didn’t wait for someone who was better qualified or more closely related to the boy. He took charge of the situation and did what he knew he could do.

These kinds of lessons can be applied broadly to good effect. It seems that society increasingly promotes the idea that we should leave matters to the professionals. Responsibility for others is taught, but less as a matter of direct involvement than as a matter of giving money so that the bureaucracy can properly handle matters — with proper training, of course. It seems there are classes of people that we are taught require über attention, while other classes of people are not worth our time or attention. This causes the special attention-worthy classes to focus on themselves. They are robbed of the idea that they can do much for themselves. They come to expect others to solve many of their problems for them.

I don’t discount the amount of good that can be accomplished when efforts are combined. I have personally seen the benefits that derive from my involvement in these kinds of efforts. But there is much we can do ourselves. We can watch for opportunities and we can step up to do what we can ourselves. We can even organize others to help. Those that take initiative to help others are probably more likely to figure out ways to help themselves along the way.

I appreciate what I learned from Larry. He set a great example for me. And I think his example is a worthy one for everyone.