Thursday, March 31, 2005

It Is Finished

Well, it’s done. We have allowed Terri Shaivo the ‘dignity’ of being cruelly dehydrated and starved to death over a period of nearly two weeks. Many are secretly or openly glad because they are tired of this story. Now they can go about their regular lives without being inconvenienced with news about this unfortunate event.

But Mrs. Schaivo’s case does not exist in a vacuum. Its far-reaching effects may impact your own life – or death as the case may be. Our national psyche is now infused with the idea that it is humane and dignified to let someone die if we judge her/him to have a low quality of life. While this might be the case if death is imminent and machines are merely keeping failed organs functioning, Mrs. Shaivo was in no danger of imminent death prior to March 18. But the courts held that it was her will to commit suicide were she ever incapacitated. Our society is not yet willing to kill incapacitated people quickly so we employed a method that would result in a charge of murder were it applied to our worst criminals.

The editors of the National Review commented:
Why not kill Mrs. Schiavo quickly and efficiently, by depriving her of air to breathe? In principle, that would have been no different from denying her the other basic necessities of life. Why not give her a lethal injection? The law would not have allowed those methods; but the reason nobody advocated them was that they would have been too obviously murder. So the court-ordered killing was carried out slowly, incrementally, over days and weeks, with soft music, stuffed animals, and euphonious slogans about choice and dignity and radiance. By the time it ended, no one really remembered how many days and hours it had gone on. The nation accepted it, national polls supported it, and we all moved on to other things.
Sort of reminds me of the movies Soylent Green and Logan’s Run where people no longer useful to society were terminated.

Since I have MS, I could conceivably end up in a severely disabled state. I have told my wife that if it comes down to having machines keeping my organs pumping – and that I would die in minutes without the machines – to go ahead and pull the plug. But if I am a non-responsive money-consuming lump of flesh merely staying alive by means of a feeding tube, don’t let them pull the tube and kill me over days and weeks.

Radford University professor of political science Matthew J. Franck has an excellent analysis on how a 1990 Supreme Court ruling brought us to the point where murdering disabled people is legal. He includes Justice Antonin Scalia’s strong dissent and nearly prescient warnings of what the ruling would lead to.

So we’ve started down the slippery slope. Few believe that America is ready to plunge to the depths that the Netherlands has achieved after 30 years of legalized euthanasia, where just about anybody that doesn’t want to live or that is a drain on society is executed – uh, euthanized – with nary a second thought. But don’t be too sure. The National Review’s editors offered this chilling warning: “Next time it will be easier. It always is. Who’s next?”

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Do Mormons File More Bankruptcies?

Michael Stastny at Mahalanobis has an interesting post about Utah’s high bankruptcy rate. Several contributors added some interesting responses. The main thesis is to question why so many Mormons in Utah are declaring bankruptcy despite the church’s teachings on provident living and avoiding debt. This same thesis is echoed by financial expert Richard Halverson in a recent article in Meridian Magazine, a publication aimed chiefly at mainstream Mormons.

The thinking goes something like this. Utah has the highest rate of bankruptcy in the nation at about double the national average. Most Utahans (70%) belong to the LDS Church. Therefore, Mormons are filing bankruptcy at a higher rate than the national average. In the case of some Mahalanobis comments, a further conclusion seems to be that this means that there must be something wrong with the LDS Church when it comes to personal finances. These deductions may seem to make sense, but one must be careful in drawing conclusions from broad data that may turn out to be only casually linked.

Utah economist Dr. Kelly Matthews says that the people that pay a full tithing are not the ones that are filing bankruptcy. Moreover, he says that a high number of Utah’s Chapter 7 filers first file for Chapter 13 in an attempt to reorganize, but eventually file for Chapter 7 liquidation when the reorganization doesn’t work out. He says that this percentage is far higher than any other state, with the result that the number of bankruptcies are much higher than the number of filers. (This was from his commentary on the Doug Wright Show on KSL Radio several months ago – unfortunately I could not get a link to the transcript).

This seems to indicate that a higher number of Utah bankruptcy filers exhibit somewhat higher morals in that they first try to fix the problem. It also indicates that fully participating members of the LDS Church are not the ones contributing to the high bankruptcy rate.

A recent article in the Deseret News cites Christian E. Weller, a senior economist for the Center for American Progress in concluding that, “Utah's high [bankruptcy] rate can be traced in part to lower-than-average per capita disposable income levels. In 2003, Utah was the fourth-lowest state in per capita disposable income at $12,392.” This is corroborated by a study done by Drs. Jean Lown and Barbara Lowe of the University of Utah. Dr. Lown stated in an article in the Salt Lake Weekly that Utahans “don’t so much have a lot of debt, just a lot of debt in relationship to income.”

This same article adds the following to the list of problems for Utah households: larger than average families, larger than average houses (to accommodate the larger families), and more cars per household (to transport those families). One might conclude, therefore, that the church’s emphasis on not limiting family size lends to the high bankruptcy rate. A Deseret News article last summer alluded to this link.

The Salt Lake Weekly article cited above explored the link between the LDS Church and bankruptcy rates in Utah. Paul Godfrey, a professor of ethics at Brigham Young University is quoted as saying, “There is no smoking gun as to why so many people are filing.” However, he goes on to say:
It’s clear the LDS Church influence plays some kind of role in bankruptcy. I had students look at different religions. The LDS Church is the only one that talks about financial literacy from the pulpit. But there tends to be some weird cultural values that may encourage people to engage in riskier financial transactions.
The article says that Godfrey “describes these as informal myths—beliefs that, though neither taught nor encouraged by the church, form among some members. Blind faith, in a sense.” The article suggests that belief in these myths can lead to gullibility (or at least being overly trusting) and accumulating possessions in an attempt to demonstrate spiritual worthiness. However, the article admits having no empirical evidence to back this up.

What I take from all of this is that:
  • Utah’s high bankruptcy rate is artificially inflated somewhat by those that first attempt to take responsibility for their problems before giving up.

  • Most bankruptcies in Utah are filed by people that choose not to fully participate in the LDS Church.

  • Some members of the LDS Church have some strange financial ideas based on Mormon folklore rather than on actual LDS doctrine. Perhaps this is more common among those that don’t fully participate.

  • Given the below average household income, larger than average family size may stretch some families to the point of default on obligations when unusual financial events occur.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Die and Leave Me Alone!

Doug Gibson in a Standard Examiner article (registration required) offers a cogent opinion on furthering the culture of death in our country. He alludes to a moral imperative to care for those unable to care for themselves, which is a situation in which we may find ourselves someday. This is more deeply explored by Rabbi Aryeh Spero here. Peggy Noonan questions in a Wall Street Journal article (registration required) why some people are so rabidly passionate about killing Terri Schiavo. She concludes:
Once you "know" … that human life is not so special after all – then everything is possible, and none of it is good. When a society comes to believe that human life is not inherently worth living, it is a slippery slope to the gas chamber. You wind up on a low road that twists past Columbine and leads toward Auschwitz. Today that road runs through Pinellas Park, Fla.
Some people seem to think that it would be OK to starve Terri Schiavo to death if it could be proven that this was her will (which Florida state courts have admitted as fact). I do not understand why that is an issue. When someone wants to take action (or have action taken) to cause his or her own death, we call it being suicidal. We don’t assume such people are in their right mind. We assume they need mental health help. Unless you’re Dr. Kevorkian, you don’t advocate or assist them in killing themselves.

Refusing to hydrate and feed a person that would otherwise live is not the same as disconnecting machines that force a person’s organs to function. We are not talking about vital organ failure here. We are talking about forced malnourishment. Infants and many quadriplegics are unable to feed and hydrate themselves, but we would prosecute their caregivers for failing to provide the sustenance they need. This is true even for an animal for which someone is responsible.

Today Michael Schiavo is having his wife slowly murdered with the assent of our legal system. It was not OK for Scott Peterson to kill his wife, but somehow, because Mrs. Schiavo is in a persistent vegetative state, it is OK for Mr. Schiavo to kill her. Unbelievable. Regardless of what the federal and state judges have to say in the matter, it is morally and ethically wrong and it will lead to no good.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Are Public School Sports Programs a Good Thing?

I don’t think I represent the average guy. Of course, I guess the average guy doesn’t blog. What I mean is that I’m not into competitive sports.

That is, with a few exceptions, I don’t watch sports. I don’t participate in competitive sports. I don’t enjoy competitive sports. I enjoy some private and personal sports: biking, hiking, weight lifting, skiing, etc. I have enjoyed watching the Olympics from time to time. I have also been faithfully supporting and attending my children’s little league soccer, baseball, basketball, and karate practices and games for nearly a decade.

Having suffered through playing (or sitting on the bench for) three seasons of baseball and one season of football as a kid, I vowed that I would never force any of my kids to play sports. But what does a non-sports-oriented dad do when his kids want to play sports? He enthusiastically supports and cheers for them.

I’m very grateful to my children’s coaches, but I could never do what they do. I understand the basic rules of the various sports my kids play. I can tell you when something is good and when something is bad. But I don’t understand, nor do I really care to comprehend, the strategies involved – how to think sports.

When a group of guys gathers, the discussion frequently turns to sports, especially collegiate and professional sports. I am utterly clueless in such encounters. When other guys talk about “the game,” I usually don’t even know what sport season it is. When other guys drop the names of famous athletes, I rarely know who they are talking about. What seems to cause the greatest consternation among other guys is that I don’t even care. They’re passionate while I’m apathetic. I can’t comprehend how one feels personally invested in a group of professional athletes.

But what I have learned from watching my kids in little league sports is that there is an inherent value in sports that I had not previously recognized. The benefits are not just physical, but also social and mental.

This brings me to what for some is a very emotional topic. With the omnipresent problem of struggling to adequately fund public education, why do schools continue to sponsor extracurricular sports programs?

On the one hand, I have already conceded that participation in sports provides educational benefits. Besides the athletes, when schools field competition teams students learn about what it takes to run a team. Some students end up working behind the scenes and learning things not easily learned elsewhere.

On the other hand, relatively few students actually participate in school sponsored competition athletic programs. It seems unfair that so many of our precious education resources are concentrated on so few students, many of whom are envied for their popularity. It seems more appropriate that we should focus more resources on students with special needs.

There has been a trend in recent years for school districts to drop sports programs so that they can use the money elsewhere. Many schools have increased fees for participants, causing some to complain that only kids from well-to-do families can participate. Some lawmakers in Minnesota have proposed separating all extracurricular programs from public education, transferring them to community recreation departments (see Star Tribune article).

The article quotes two school district administrators that claim that only 1% of their budget goes for sports and that the associated educational benefit is well worth it. I think they’re underestimating. We wouldn’t build the kinds of football and basketball venues we do in schools merely for P.E. classes. One of the administrators quoted feels that moving programs to community organizations would strip out the underlying educational premise with the result that parents and communities would control who can participate without concern for the growth of the youth. I’m not sure I buy that argument.

Another article in the liberal Seattle Post-Intelligencer discusses money in sports at length. It decries the extents to which some parents go to promote their child’s athletic prowess, looking down the road to a college scholarship and/or big bucks from the pros. The author suggests that too many youth are lured into the idea that they are good enough to play collegiate and/or professional sports. He quotes long odds for anyone actually doing this. 1% of high school athletes get a Division 1 sports scholarship. Fewer than 1/100% of high school football players go pro. Fewer than 3/1000% of high school basketball players go pro. The author claims that the real driver of these problems is the money in professional sports.

We Americans have shown by the way we vote with our dollars and time that we highly value sports. Some people (including me) feel that the amount we spend on professional sports is obscene. I have difficulty understanding our national hedonistic worshipping of sports on the Sabbath, even among many self-professed religious folks. Still, as a nation we regard pro sports quite highly. Is it any surprise that our youth strive for excellence in something so important to us? Is it any surprise that we parallel related professional fields in our schools? Of course, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised if some of the same related problems pop up in our schools – corruption, drug abuse, etc.

In its July 1996 edition, National Geographic Magazine featured an article about the Olympics and why humans play sports. The article cited volumes of research that show that humans and animals require play to develop normally and to maintain normalcy. I suppose, however, that anything taken to an extreme is not normal. Pro athletes spend their time continually playing and preparing to play. I’m not sure I would want my child to become a pro athlete.

When all is said and done, I’m not sure how I feel about extracurricular sports in our public schools. I can see both sides of the issue. I understand the value of the programs on the one hand, but I also wonder if the money might not be better spent on different programs. I would appreciate exposure to more debate on this issue.

Monday, March 21, 2005

More Evidence That Fitness Helps MS Patients – Healthy Diet Also Helps

I suggested in a previous post that MS patients should exercise. My brother clued me into an article in the March 17 edition of the Salt Lake Tribune that discusses how fitness helps MS patients. Eduard Gappmeier, who has been studying this issue for the last 14 years at the UofU says, “Exercise does not lead to a change in the MS, but a change in how patients can live with it.”

Having made myself a Guinea pig on fitness and MS for the past 17 years, I’m not sure I fully agree. I believe exercise can actually lead to a change in MS. I believe it certainly can change the progression of the disease, although, that is difficult to prove or disprove clinically.

I guess I’m picking at nits. The fact is that if you have MS, exercise and fitness can help you. It definitely can improve your quality of life. It might slow disease progression. It is less likely that it can reverse existing disease effects, but I wouldn’t rule it out. It seems to have worked that way for me to some degree.

While exercise is great, you can make it more effective through a healthy diet. Quackwatch says that the Therapeutic Claims Committee of the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies (how’s that for a moniker?) has concluded that “no special diet … has been proven to alter its course.” Of course, I have difficulty trusting my health to bureaucratic organizations with long, official-sounding names. Besides, even if the committee is right and no diet conclusively improves MS, how can it be harmful to follow a healthy diet?

Over 40 years ago Dr. Roy Swank of the University of Oregon Health Sciences Center began studying the effects of diet on MS. After years of study he published the first edition of the Multiple Sclerosis Diet Book, which was later revised and updated with new information. The book has some good suggestions. Some of them are probably too restrictive for the average person. One of the book reviewers on Amazon who has MS and follows the diet closely says, “This isn't a miracle cure for the masses because most people either won't believe it, won't try it or won't stick with it.”

Another Amazon reviewer says, “If following a diet could cure or control MS, there would not be sick people around.” That, of course, is not true. The fact that a treatment exists does not mean that people will use it. Our eating experience is emotional and cultural as well as physical. Its patterns are deeply ingrained in our psyches. Statistics tell us that most people decline to eat healthy despite the well-known benefits of doing so. The trade-off required simply isn’t worth it to them.

I tried following Dr. Swank’s diet for the better part of a decade. While I wasn’t suffering significant MS symptoms, my health wasn’t the best. I enjoyed improved health when I started following Dr. Barry Sears’ Zone diet. I believe I was getting too little protein under the Swank diet. After a couple of years of following the Zone, I implemented some principles from Bill Philips’ Body for Life. I eventually also implemented principles from Tom Venuto’s Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle. I have taken a blend of everything I have learned from these and other sources to develop the healthy eating plan that I follow today.

Here’s what I can tell you about following a healthy diet:

  • A significant improvement in health will require a significant improvement in diet.

  • For most people, eating a healthy diet requires a major mental shift.

  • Very healthy diets are expensive, take a lot of work, and are difficult to follow. Our society simply isn’t oriented to this type of eating.

  • Be careful of plans that totally exclude foods you like. Some have the willpower to stay away from a food forever, but this frequently leads to binge eating when you “blow it.”

  • The best thing you can do is to inform yourself. Information can help you make the choices that will be best for you.

  • Do it. Actually implement your knowledge. Do it for at least six weeks if you want to find out if it will work for you.

  • If your eating plan isn’t working for you, don’t throw the whole thing out. Go back through your information. Get more information if necessary. Make a few adjustments and try it again for a couple of weeks. Repeat as necessary. Eventually you will get to something that works well for you long term.
Most doctors that treat MS would like to see their patients exercise and eat a healthy diet. Few of them prescribe such activity because the bulk of medical research is focused on drug treatments (where the money is). This is not like the cardiology field. Doctors are exposed to very little information on treating MS with diet and exercise. That doesn’t mean that individuals should assume that it’s not helpful.

I’m not repudiating the medical industry. The industry does a fine job, but it’s often not the entire answer. I’m not advocating black magic, disproved treatment methods (see Quackwatch article), or anything potentially unhealthy. I’m simply suggesting that you take responsibility for your own health. Use the resources of our medical industry to fulfill that responsibility. But also use other valid resources. Find what works for you and use it. Nobody has a greater interest in your health than you.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Space flight and jobs in Utah

On March 1 NASA released its RFP for the next generation of manned space systems, the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). NASA expects the CEV to replace the Space Shuttle, which has its final mission planned for 2010, just five years from now.

NASA’s plan calls for selecting a primary contractor by 2008, an unmanned flight by 2011, and the first manned flight by 2014. A trip to orbit the moon is scheduled for 2015, accomplishing what Apollo 8 did 47 years earlier. This trip is to be followed by three lunar landing missions that will finally return us to Neil Armstrong’s 1969 stomping grounds.

This will complete phase 1, or spiral 1, of Project Constellation. Spiral 2 envisions building a station on the moon for long-term habitation starting in 2020. No projected date has currently been set for spiral 3, which would take humans to Mars. (See PDF from NASA for details).

There is a great deal of question as to how NASA’s vision is to be achieved. A few months ago NASA invited 11 companies to provide their ideas on how to do this. You can read about it and find links to the companies’ presentations here. Some of the presentations are quite interesting.

President Bush hit the nail on the head when he said, “the cause of exploration and discovery … is a desire written in the human heart.” While the space program has long had its detractors, most Americans agree that we need to pursue a manned space program.

What does all of this mean for Utah? The solid rocket motors that hurl the Space Shuttle out of the earth’s atmosphere are built at ATK Thiokol in Promontory, Utah. With about 3500 employees, Thiokol is one of Utah’s largest employers north of Davis County. (It has another 1000+ employees at other Utah locations). The company, which is nearly six decades old and has been through a variety of ownership arrangements, was purchased by Alliant Tech Systems (ATK) of Minnesota in 2002.

At one point the company had over 6000 employees before falling on lean times in its Commercial and Strategic Systems division due to cuts in the nation’s defense program. About a decade ago the company downsized dramatically in a series of layoffs. However, the company has recently added about 400 employees and plans to add another 500 during the next fiscal year.

ATK has been working to strengthen Thiokol’s leadership ranks by bringing on Ron Dittemore, former head of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, as the company president last year. Two former astronauts have also been added to the upper ranks over the past few months.

It’s no secret that the majority of Thiokol’s revenue comes from its contracts to provide solid rocket motors for the Space Shuttle. The remainder comes from providing rocket motors and related parts for unmanned NASA flights, defense systems, and some commercial systems. To understand why this model could be a problem, refer to the first paragraph of this article. What does Thiokol plan to do when its lucrative shuttle contracts dry up in a few years?

A large part of the company’s strategic plan calls for convincing NASA that any new manned space flight system is likely to be less expensive and more reliable by building on the reusable solid rocket motors that Thiokol has a track record of producing (see Standard Examiner story).

The company has a good argument. Its motors are tried and proven and are already in production. They might not be as flashy as the liquid and nuclear motors that some vendors are suggesting, but we know they are reliable and cost effective. However, this strategy sounds an awful lot like having all of the eggs in one basket for the company. What will Thiokol do if NASA doesn’t buy it?

Thiokol is working to make sure that doesn’t happen. That’s why the company’s upper ranks now include two former astronauts and a former NASA bigwig. The company is also working aggressively to land a variety of other contracts, but if it doesn’t land the big NASA contract, it would be nearly impossible to bring in enough smaller contracts to compensate. Company leadership is confident that there won’t be layoffs in the future.

Americans will continue to invest in the space program for now. Will that continue to translate into jobs in northern Utah? Only time will tell.

Monday, March 14, 2005

We need real tax reform, but are unlikely to get it

LaVarr Webb’s Monday Buzz at Utah Policy says:

The harsh reality is that there are unlimited needs and good causes out there on which our tax dollars could be spent. But the line has to be drawn somewhere and that means some deserving people and deserving causes won’t receive funding or services. It’s easy to say, “There should be funding for just this one more program,” but there are dozens of “one more programs” and if we go down that
path very far we ultimately hurt the productive, tax-generating side of society. If we kill the goose we don’t get the golden eggs.”
This is a good argument for considering the taxpayer first. Since the “need” (it’s funny how often desires somehow become needs on both private and public scales) for government services will always exceed available revenue, we need to ask, 1) what can we afford, and 2) how can we stimulate the economy to increase revenues without additional burden on the taxpayer? A third question, that seems to never be properly addressed, is how can we reduce the existing tax burden?

All of our legislative bodies seem to regularly lose sight of question #1. Of course, since our elected representatives reflect our collective ideology, is it any surprise that government fails to address issues of affordability very well when our society has become increasingly oriented to the I-want-it-I-get-it-now mentality, racking up record debt in the process?

While we do have politicians that truly seek to address question #2, far more are focused on attempting to extract the absolute possible maximum from the producing class without actually killing it. Then there’s the class warfare crowd that would gladly kill off the producing class in a cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face maneuver.

Question #3 is only seriously addressed when someone with political capital stands up and makes it a priority. Some give lip service to tax reduction without actually doing anything about it. Still others with a socialist agenda are diametrically opposed to reducing tax burden. When our legislature suddenly discovered additional revenue this year, nobody seriously considered returning it to the taxpayers to whom it actually belongs. No leader made it a priority. Many politicians had marvelous excuses, but the fact of what they did remains.

Having worked in the tax industry, I don’t have a great deal of hope of seeing any meaningful tax reform in the foreseeable future. In my two decades of observing tax policy on many levels, it seems that the pendulum swings one way for a while and then swings the other way for a while, but meaningful change is rare. Developments that are hailed as major are usually only minor. Increases that are minimized as having almost no impact almost always have far reaching long-term costs and problems (take a look at our Social Security system).

Perhaps this view is simply too cynical. I generally like to think of myself as an optimist. But when it comes to tax policy, I’m more of a realist.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Legacy Highway Debated

The Daily Debate features an interesting debate on the Legacy Highway between Roger Borgenicht, a founding member of Utahns for Better Transportation, and Representative Stuart Adams (R-Layton). Look, everyone has already made up their minds on this issue (a January Dan Jones poll showed that 63% of Utahans favor the highway), but it’s interesting to see how the other side thinks.

As I read the points of Messrs. Borgenicht and Adams, it seems that they both agree that the Wasatch Front transportation problem requires both improved mass transit as well as new roads. They strongly disagree on how this is to be accomplished and on the timing of the needed projects. Borgenicht wants mass transit built first and denies that we have a crisis. Adams points out that we have a crisis that needs to be fixed now (as anyone that regularly commutes through the corridor of interest can readily tell you), and that mass transit is only a piece of the solution.

The debaters also have markedly differing viewpoints on community design. Mr. Borgenicht advocates a top-down approach that more or less forces communities to become tighter and more walkable enclaves that are connected by mass transit. Representative Adams advocates the American tradition of pushing decisions on community design down to the local level and letting the people govern themselves.

I think Representative Steve Urquhart (R-St. George) gets it right in his blog on the issue. He says, “To me, this is a no-brainer. Legacy is going to be built. It is simply a question of how much time and money will be wasted between now and then. Already, the delay has cost the State hundreds of millions of dollars, and, as people idle in traffic, the delay contributes to air pollution and wastes who-knows-how-many man-hours.”

I agree that this is a no-brainer. Every time there is a major incident that shuts down I-15, we end up with thousands of people stuck on the road and heavy traffic on adjacent community roads that were not designed to bear the load. We need a backup route. We also need a route for vehicles that are not traveling to Salt Lake City to bypass it instead of driving through it. We need mass transit that moves people to and from central destination points at critical times.

It’s clear that we’ve got to do both things. The question is, how much more time and money are we going to waste while unelected elitist groups attempt to exert their power over the will of the people?

Charley Foster on Bankruptcy Reform

Charley at the State of the Beehive has a good evenhanded analysis of the bankruptcy reform bill that has been making its way through Congress. He sometimes represents clients involved in bankruptcies. Having once worked for an installment loan department of a bank where I represented the bank’s interests in bankruptcy cases, I was interested in what he had to say. He feels that both sides have been distorting the issue, but that the chief controversial feature of the bill really isn’t that controversial. It’s worth the read.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Does the Constitution Mean Anything?

Is our Constitution merely a figment of someone’s imagination? No, you say. It’s a real document that I can hold in my hands and read. It was signed by a number of elected representatives. It is the law of our land. That all sounds wonderful for a Citizenship in the Nation merit badge class, but does it reflect reality?

While we can hold and read the Constitution, does what it says mean anything? Writing in the National Review, Jonah Goldberg argues that per the Supreme Court’s recent ruling against capital punishment for minors (see excellent legal analysis by Tony Mauro), “the meaning of the Constitution does not exist at all — outside the cranium of whichever justice provides the swing vote.”

Mr. Goldberg notes that it shouldn’t matter whether executing minors is a good policy or not. What should matter is whether the law fits within the framework of our Constitution. “We have gotten to a point where — on the major issues of the day — liberal elites and their fellow-traveling justices cannot tolerate the idea that a good law can be unconstitutional or that a bad law can actually be constitutional.”

Goldberg takes issue with the court’s increasing propensity to look to laws of other countries to interpret our country’s laws. He argues that the rulings of courts in Zimbabwe and Jamaica (just two of the foreign courts cited in recent rulings) are simply irrelevant to the constitutionality of a domestic law.

Legal expert John Hinderaker (of Power Line blog fame) writing in the Weekly Standard demonstrates how Justice Kennedy actually ruled against his own ruling of 16 years earlier where he stated that international law has no bearing on our Constitution. Hinderaker notes, “Justice Kennedy changed his mind. Amazingly, he found that the Constitution changed with him.” He concludes, “The Founders failed to foresee, unfortunately, an era in which unelected, unaccountable judges ignore the written words of the Constitution and the laws, and impose their own policy preferences by fiat.”

What happens to our Supreme Court Justices? Why is it that they seem to become more liberal over time? Because they actually do. Research reveals that nearly all justices tend toward more liberal rulings the longer they sit on the bench. (Epstein, Lee, Valerie Hoekstra, Jeffrey A. Segal and Harold J. Spaeth. 1998. “Do Political Preferences Change? A Longitudinal Study of U.S. Supreme Court Justices.” Journal of Politics 60(August):801-18. not available online) Some surmise that this is because justices become co-opted into the elitist Washington D.C. culture and they succumb to peer pressure.

Nationally recognized Constitutional expert Mark Levin (see National Review interview) recently released a book called Men in Black that documents the current level of judicial tyranny in our country. He notes that Congress could and should exercise much more oversight with regard to lower federal courts, but the Supreme Court is another issue. He suggests constitutional amendments for returning the Supreme Court to the Constitution they are sworn to uphold and for implementing judicial accountability: “1) Term limits for justices and judges; and 2) authorizing Congress to veto Supreme Court decisions with a super-majority (two-thirds) vote of both houses.” He believes the power to overrule the courts is more important than judicial term limits.

Our Founders intended for passage of an amendment to the Constitution to be difficult. Congress would likely be willing to give itself more power, but would the states go along with it? We will never know until someone stands up and starts to champion and actually propose these amendments. Do any of our current lot of politicians have the courage and the political capital to do it?

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Old Propaganda Packaged As News

Why is it that mainstream media buys into the tired and worn activist group tactic of packaging old information and releasing it as news? I suppose that special interest groups would discontinue this tactic if the media weren’t so readily complicit.

Take for example yesterday’s Associated Press story entitled Milk not best for strong bones, report finds. You have to read 60% of the article to find out that the report cited comes from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. You will probably not be surprised to discover that this is merely a fancy sounding title for an extremist animal rights group that has a long history of promoting an anti-human agenda. It frequently publishes scientific appearing reports that myopically ignore inconvenient information that contradicts the group’s beliefs and propaganda.

PCRM regularly releases propaganda that vilifies meat consumption, any type of lab testing using animals, any industry involving animals, etc. It is highly supported by many of the best-known leftists among the Hollywood elite. Its 20th anniversary celebration prominently features Alec Baldwin, who reneged on his promise to leave the U.S. if W. was elected president. Mainstream media kowtows to PCRM, promoting just about any piece of propaganda dropped at its frequent news conferences.

What about this latest report? It’s chock full of good reliable information, most of which has been known for at least half a century. It says that some foods are better sources of calcium than milk and that exercise is also an important factor in building strong bones in children. No kidding? Without the PCRM and its willing associates in the AP the world might never have known these important facts, right? Well, no. We knew this stuff before I was in elementary school.

So what’s the purpose? What is PCRM promoting this time? Well, they want us to stop serving milk to kids and start giving them alternative sources of calcium, such as “a cup of fortified orange juice, a cup of cooked kale or turnip greens, two packages of instant oats, two-thirds cup of tofu, or 1-2/3 cups of broccoli.”

Oh yes, this sounds good. Lots of kids might go for the orange juice alternative, but my five kids happen to hate orange juice (although, I don’t know why). Never mind the fact that other researchers say that it’s bad for kids to drink any kind of sugared drink, even if the sugars are natural. Some kids will eat oatmeal, but you usually have to add a lot of sugar and/or fat to make it palatable to them. Can you imagine the scene in our school cafeterias if we were to replace the milk carton with, say, cooked and wilted kale or turnip greens, a glop of tofu, or the ultimate favorite of all children, broccoli. Yum, yum.

Let’s be realistic. The vast majority of children wouldn’t eat this stuff under any condition, even if it were coated in thick layers of chocolate. Like much of the other healthy food served, most of these calcium rich foods would end up in the cafeterias’ garbage cans.

The AP story tries to redeem itself and provide balanced reporting near the end of the article by quoting from an “accompanying commentary” by a University of Wisconsin pediatrician that states that, “the easiest way to get … calcium is from low-fat dairy products.” Well, duh! Isn’t that why we have served 2% milk in our schools instead of whole milk for several decades now?

The PCRM’s stated goal is “reform of federal nutrition policies.” What these activists want is to remove dairy products from all federal programs, especially the school lunch program. This non-news report is just another in a long string that seeks to get the organization’s slanted views in front of as many people as possible, particularly elected officials, appointed government officials, and their staff. When news organizations like the AP regurgitate this stuff to the public it belies the underlying liberal current in the news organization and reveals its laziness in reporting. It is articles like this that have fueled the rise of the blogosphere.

Disclaimer: I live next to a dairy farm and am friends with its owners/operators.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Is It Acceptable To Engineer Human-Animal Hybrids?

In a recent conversation with my mother where we discussed several physical issues I am saddled with she remarked, “Boy, what a lousy set of genes we passed on to you.” I replied, “Mom, you gave me life! What could be better than that?” I suppose being physically perfect could be better, but it's not realistic.

Mankind has long desired and sought for ways to cure and prevent suffering that is part of our Telestial condition. Science has made some valiant efforts and has had some remarkable successes. The average lifespan continues to increase. Relatively few families in industrial nations grapple with the death of a child, while it was common a few generations ago for families to lose half of their children before adulthood. People used to regularly die from illnesses or injuries from which we now usually recover following proper treatment. I have often wondered when administering acetaminophen or ibuprofen to a sick child how people used to manage prior to the advent of these now ubiquitous remedies.

While we can be grateful to modern science for all of this, but most of us are aware that significant moral questions sometimes arise with regard to scientific developments. As a kid I watched old black and white horror movies about mad or misguided scientists: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Fly, the Invisible Man, Frakenstein, etc. These works speak to the common understanding we have that science can sometimes run amok and must be kept in check.

Writing in the Weekly Standard, Wesley J. Smith alerts readers to the fact that some leading, well-funded scientists do not feel that they have to answer to society for any of their research. Smith quotes Stanford University's Irving Weissman, who has fabricated a mouse that has millions of human brain cells, as saying, “Anybody who puts their own moral guidance in the way of this biomedical science, where they want to impose their will . . . interfere with science that could save lives.” Smith’s says, “In other words, Weissman can impose his will on the rest of us because he believes an experiment is worth conducting, but society has no right to impose its collective will on him.” Smith then goes on to call for an immediate effort to formulate public policy to govern biomedical research and development; however, he admits that good public policy requires time and careful deliberation.

Writing in the National Review, Christine Rosen discusses scientific ethics from a different angle. She highlights the infatuation we had in the early 20th Century with eugenics, which advocated reducing problematic physical and mental defects through selective breeding. Eugenics was widely promoted by many elites and respected scientists. We don’t learn about this in history classes because it is an unfortunate and messy episode that resulted in forced sterilization in many “enlightened” nations including the Land of the Free. Ms. Rosen’s point is that the politics surrounding the current push for biogenic research and development strangely parallels the politics of the push for eugenics a century ago. She points out that we allowed scientific exuberance to override ethical concerns and societal mores with an ultimately horrific result that we find difficult to face to this day. She cautions that we are in danger of doing something just as awful if we continue to follow our current path on biogenic science.

We all appreciate useful scientific development. Nobody wants to return to the days when Galileo was branded a heretic for teaching his scientific observation that the earth was not the center of the universe. However, science does not exist in a vacuum. It has no more right to ignore societal concerns than does, say the banking industry. Science has a responsibility to answer to society and society has the right to temper science with ethical and moral guardrails and traffic signals.

The situation we face today is that the speed of scientific development outstrips the ability of public policy to keep up, and when ethical concerns are raised the scientific community responds with arrogant elitism designed to shut down public input. Our nation’s founding fathers, particularly Madison, believed that good government can only be achieved through “full process of expression, assembly and deliberation,” while tyranny results when this process is prevented. We urgently need to establish publicly accepted standards for scientific – especially biomedical – development through vigorous open public debate to prevent tyranny in this arena that will eventually lead to outcomes that are unacceptable to society.