Monday, March 31, 2008

Circuses for the Masses

After Utah’s ‘conservative’ governor and legislature saw their way clear to chuck $53 million in taxpayer money into a sports arena for a privately owned soccer club during the 2007 legislative session, I was surprised to see who lined up to defend this misuse of public funds.

Yes, I know all of the arguments put forward by proponents. For example, it is claimed that these taxes will largely come from out-of-staters coming to the soccer matches. Even if that were true, I’m not sure that this is a very good argument. If soccer fans are going to be the main taxpayers, why not just have them pay the additional cost in the price of the tickets instead of punishing everyone that stays in a hotel or rents a car? There are plenty of other fairy tales used as justification.

Now authors Neil deMause and Joanna Cagan are about to release a book called Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit. After a dozen years of research, the authors show how in the U.S. over $2 billion per year transfers from public treasuries to private profit via sports stadiums. The taxpayers put the money out as an ‘investment,’ but the revenues generated go to private business. Some of this translates to businesses paying more taxes, but often the biggest beneficiaries are substantially exempted from doing so.

In the book, deMause and Cagan document how nationwide, annual public subsidies of sports arenas for private sports clubs exceed all revenues generated by the Big Four sports leagues. Taxpayers are effectively totally subsidizing all professional and semi-professional football, baseball, basketball, and hockey, as well as all smaller sports leagues, including soccer and women’s basketball. Without public subsidies, these clubs (as presently constituted) would completely fail.

Of course, the same is true of many arts, such as symphony orchestras, ballet companies, art galleries, and museums. The propriety of public funding of these arts is certainly a debatable proposition. But they are mostly straightforward non-profit organizations, whereas, most sports clubs are held out to be for profit (and some individuals involved profit quite handsomely indeed).

The authors of Field of Schemes have a blog where they discuss public funding of sports arenas for private clubs. You can hear an audio interview with Neil deMause here.

Should taxpayers be heavily subsidizing private sports clubs? It baffles me when some that label themselves conservatives wholeheartedly answer yes to this question.

Funding Terror Through IP Piracy

I have written about protection of intellectual properties on several occasions (here, here, and here). Some of the comments on these posts also offer interesting insights. Intellectual property rights are murky and problematic.

Is it OK for you to make a copy of a DVD you have purchased for your own private use? I don’t care what the laws actually say, most people would say yes.

Is it OK to make a copy of a DVD your friend owns for your own personal use? It is my opinion (and that of the law) that this crosses the line. This is known as IP piracy.

In many countries there is a thriving industry in IP piracy. Now the U.S. Attorney General is saying that terrorist groups and syndicated crime groups are using IP piracy to fund their operations (see AP article).

People in Hollywood make movies and put them out for sale on DVD. Pirates burn copies and sell them cheaply with very low overhead. Not only are Hollywood movie makers ripped off, but the people buying the pirated movies are funding terror and organized crime. That’s much worse than copying your friend’s DVD or CD.

Friday, March 28, 2008

McCain's Christian Problem or Christians' McCain Problem

Joel Rosenberg writes in this NRO article that his company’s polling reveals that John McCain is in serious trouble with Christian voters. Among groups of Christians that George W. Bush won handily in 2004, McCain is currently running far behind both Clinton and Obama.

Some of this boils down to Christian leaders that openly oppose McCain. For example, Rosenberg quotes James Dobson as saying that he opposes McCain because McCain “did not support a constitutional amendment to protect the institution of marriage, … voted for embryonic stem-cell research to kill nascent human beings, … opposed tax cuts that ended the marriage penalty, … has little regard for freedom of speech, … organized the ‘Gang of 14’ to preserve filibusters, and … has a legendary temper and … often uses foul and obscene language.”

There’s more going on here than Rosenberg suggests. For one thing, Christian support for George W. Bush was high because he was ‘one of them.’ Bush has openly supported many Christian ideals — both conservative and liberal Christian ideals. While he has been strong on abortion issues (the conservative side), he has also been keen on expanding social spending (the liberal side), even including churches in the mix to a certain degree.

Beyond this, it is important to note that Christians do not actually have a strong track record of reliably voting as a bloc. They didn’t prior to Reagan. They didn’t in 1992 or in 1996. To the extent that they have voted as a bloc, it has largely been in response to the culture wars of the 60s, 70s, and even the 80s. Now a new generation of Christians is coming to the fore. They didn’t battle on the front lines of the drug culture, abortion, or homosexual agenda wars. They have grown up with that stuff. It’s old hat.

This new generation is looking at traditional Christian concerns of addressing society’s less fortunate and striving for harmony in equality. That’s why a fiscally liberal/socially conservative Huckabee was popular with Evangelicals. Without a horse in the race at present, this new generation of Christians are more willing to look at alternatives that promise to address age-old Christian social issues.

Rosenberg says that McCain and the GOP need to act fast to regain the Christian vote. He says that the clarion issue that polls well with them is national security, especially if elements of Islamic extremism, alliance with Israel, and family safety are emphasized. Rosenberg suggests that McCain is the only candidate that can authoritatively make this king of appeal.

OK, so McCain’s best chance with Christian voters is to scare them into voting for him? Please pardon me if I suggest that this approach would be something less than strong (or worthy). Rosenberg doesn’t even question why Christians now seem so fickle. If political views among Christians are truly changing, as I suspect, this kind of scare tactic will seem like little more than a cheap sales gimmick.

The GOP alliance with religious conservatives has never been a comfortable fit. The newer generation of Christians does not feel as shackled to the GOP as their forebears. If they begin shifting to the Democrats is sufficient numbers, they are going to demand that their concerns — some of which are morally conservative issues — get some attention by that party. Some on the Left that have been highly critical of the religious Right might be surprised in the near future to find themselves yoked together with them. I imagine that will be a rocky relationship as well.

As Christians look for political answers to moral and spiritual issues, they would do well to remember what Jesus taught about his kingdom not being of this world (John 18:36). While Christians must do what they can to improve matters, politics is a troll’s garden, regardless of party affiliation. Don’t expect to harvest many white lilies from such a profane nursery.

Christians should also remember that in politics, to get anything you want, there must be a lot of compromise. This is often difficult for Christians, because the scriptures call for no compromise when it comes to gospel standards. But we must be realistic about politicians. Don't expect your next president (or governor, or whatever) to be a great Christian leader. Remember that in politics, rather than working with true disciples of Christ, you are usually making friends with mammon.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Lobbying at the Grass Roots Level: Caucus Meeting Report

35 minutes into last night’s caucus meeting, it became clear that the UEA and its fellow travelers had made good on their promise to pack GOP caucus meetings with operatives — at least with respect to my precinct. A few minutes later, it was clear that these folks came to the meeting with a huge chip on their collective shoulder.

The educrats demonstrated an unmistakable us-against-them attitude. Many of my neighbors were surprised to find that they were on the “them” side of this equation. I watched as stunned people, some of whom were PTA members that had donated thousands of hours to public schools, were in essence told that they were evil for supporting any kind of education reform that entailed anything other than putting more money into the current bureaucracy. What was worse is that those saying this were public education employees with whom some of these volunteers had worked closely over the years.

One attendee complained that the UEA is already the largest lobbying organization in the state because “23% of the legislature consists of UEA members.” (I’m not sure if the largest lobby charge is accurate. How many legislators are members of the Utah Realtors Association?) The attendee charged that the educators at the meeting were only there at the behest of the UEA. One of the educators retorted, “This effort isn’t just sponsored by the UEA, but by others interested in education, like the PTA, and … uh … and …” “Everyone else that profits from public education,” replied the first person. That comment brought hoots and jeers from the educators.

One man named Doug was marvelously controlled as he eloquently argued with measured passion for less socialism, less government, and more free enterprise. He made a reasoned plea, backed up with dollar amounts and statistics, for open minds and innovative approaches to all issues involving government, including education.

However, when Doug quoted some data from the Utah Taxpayers Association, several educators rudely interrupted to say that it was “a corrupt organization.” The association, they said is “the UEA for business interests, which is why the UEA is so necessary” for education interests.

Let me make it clear that I believe that educators should be free to join a union if they wish. I have problems with coercive practices that attempt to force education employees to be union members (or members of a specific union). But I have a much bigger problem with the proposition continually put forth that educator unions work in the interest of students.

I do not disagree that some things unions have supported have had a salutary effect on students. But it is ridiculous to suppose that educator unions are good arbiters of student welfare. The relationship of educator unions to parents and taxpayers is like the relationship of the United Auto Workers Union to car buyers. How well does the UAW represent you as a car buyer? The relationship of educator unions to students is like the relationship of the UAW to cars. The students are simply the product. Can anyone seriously claim that UAW actions have produced superior automotive products? Rather, it seems that the opposite is true.

My state legislative representative happens to live in my precinct. He stood and cited from an official state report showing that in the last three sessions, the legislature has appropriated more than $937 million to public education over and above regular funding.

Moments later, my former fifth grade teacher stood and said that the legislature never willingly did anything for education or for Utah’s school children. He said that during his four decades in public education, every raise he ever got, every new building and facility improvement he ever saw, and every supply came only “from the UEA. The legislature,” he claimed “never did anything for public education!”

My former teacher’s argument seemed rather silly in light of the numbers cited just moments earlier by our legislative rep, but a younger teacher then stood and stridently charged that “the GOP in this state has constantly been at war with public education. I’ve been a lifelong Republican, but I simply can’t understand the party’s opposition to public education.” He continued, saying, “Public education is the key to individual success.” Never mind the private and home schooled individuals that have succeeded well. There seemed to be no appreciation of the fact that public education consumes 62% of the state budget, that there are other needs, and that the size of the revenue pie is limited.

My former teacher soon chimed in to say that people too often give public education a bum rap. “The people that pulled off manned flight to the moon, the Space Shuttle, and Skylab — the most advanced achievements ever — were products of public education,” he claimed.

OK, so Werner von Braun was a product of the German education system. And while many people that worked on the cited NASA missions were publicly schooled, they were in those schools back in the 50s and 60s. Studies show that today’s public schools are a far cry from those of yesteryear. Not only do students perform worse on average, we spend 250% more per student in real (inflation adjusted) terms than we did back then.

The education Nazis at my caucus meeting made it clear that they and others like them intended to wrest control of the Utah Republican Party in order to punish those that were “anti-education.” But they ultimately proved to be bad at math. Enough of them wanted to be county and state delegates to fill every slot our precinct had available. An equal number of people that weren’t education employees were nominated. Even though numbers of educators and non-educators at the meeting seemed close to being evenly split, not a single educator was elected to serve as a delegate.

The educators should have talked among themselves and agreed on one or two individuals instead of trying to win every slot. They ended up spreading themselves too thin and diluting their collective vote weight. Some of the educators must have voted for one or more non-educators, but apparently no non-educators voted for educators. By the time the voting rolled around, I’m afraid that the educators seemed very myopic and unreasonable. It was not an impressive display. I’m afraid that they only succeeded in convincing some of their neighbors that education reform is even more necessary.

Despite the spirited discussions, the meeting ended normally and we all parted amicably. While I was not unaware of UEA efforts to pack GOP caucuses with operatives, I was surprised at how singular these people were in their focus. They are certainly citizens and cannot be unaware of the multiple and complex issues dealt with in state governance. For them, however, there seemed to be only one issue. It will be interesting to see how many of these folks turn up the next time around.

This is how our political system works at its lowest level. Neighbors with various points of view gather, discuss issues, and vote for people to represent them at the county and state conventions. Last night at my precinct’s caucus meeting, the angry educator lobby failed to convince their neighbors to vote for them. Perhaps next time they’ll work smarter to combine votes. It also wouldn’t hurt for them to try being less abrasive.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Enforcing Fairness

Years ago I worked at the IRS. Long-time employees earned 26 days of vacation leave annually. Rules allowed employees to carry over up to 30 days of leave into each new year. For many seasoned employees, that meant using over five weeks of leave per year.

While that sounds like a wonderful thing, many people found it difficult to actually take that much time away from work. This especially true given the fact that workers each earned 13 days of sick leave annually. There was no maximum limit on accruing sick leave. Many employees had built up months of sick leave.

I had been working for the service for a couple of years when a co-worker became seriously ill. Having been frugal with leave, this person was able to continue fully paid for many weeks. Eventually, weeks of hospitalization and bed rest exhausted the supply. While my co-worker was improving, the family was rapidly burning through its savings.

Several of my co-workers that had large leave balances approached human resources and asked if they could donate some of their excess leave to the ill person. We’re talking the federal government here, so a request of this nature would normally have taken several years to process. But somebody knew somebody that knew some high up muckety-muck in Washington. Thus, special dispensation was soon granted and many people donated leave, allowing my ill co-worker to remain financially stable while recuperating.

This leave donation program benefited a number of individuals over time. A couple of years after it was instituted, I became a beneficiary of the program when I experienced my first major Multiple Sclerosis attack and spent many weeks unable to work. I am deeply grateful for the generosity of my co-workers, which helped me and my family through a very trying time. It was several months before I was able to function at full capacity again.

But people soon noticed problems with the leave donation program. Donation opportunities had initially been limited to somewhat extraordinary situations. Eventually, however, workers were bombarded with requests, many of which seemed to be for fairly common situations that should have been manageable with a little planning, responsibility, and self reliance.

It was not surprising to see donors only giving to individuals they personally knew and whose situations seemed deserving. Of course, this led to cries of unfairness. Who could really judge the worthiness of a given case? Some prospective recipients felt their privacy had been violated. Who wanted their entire medical history paraded before the whole work force? The program, which had begun with co-workers requesting an opportunity to give had somehow shifted to potential recipients requesting donations.

The bureaucracy came to the rescue with a plan to level the playing field. No longer would employees be regaled with the tragic details of each case. Instead, only the names of potential recipients would be published in the monthly newsletter. Not only would this protect privacy, it would centralize all requests so that employees weren’t continually harangued with donation requests. A basic process was created to qualify each requestor.

Of course, donations dropped like a rock. Details would be leaked by close co-workers of afflicted individuals, and donors would still only give to those individuals they personally knew that seemed to have highly deserving situations. The union griped about the unfairness of the program. Some people got lots of donations and others got none whatsoever. The program, it was complained, favored the popular.

A committee was convened to address the problems. The result was a leave sharing pool, which was a form of cooperative insurance. You could pay in a certain number of hours of leave each year to be a member of the pool. If you were to end up in a situation that exhausted all of your leave, you could apply to the leave bank. As is the way of all bureaucratic processes, the application process became cumbersome and legalistic.

The new leave bank program soon showed its own set of problems. How much leave a beneficiary would receive was a crap shoot, depending on how much banked leave existed in the system at any given moment. This varied by dates people paid into the system and when requests for benefits hit.

The solution was to prevent all payouts until the end of the year, when all donation amounts and applications were known. Then each approved applicant would receive an equal proportion of the total banked leave. Thus, needed help did not assist individuals in real time, but only helped them after the fact. The connection between need and benefit became very loose. The person that needed six months of leave received the same benefit as those that needed only a couple of weeks, thus all beneficiaries were on ‘equal footing.’ Self interest had been substituted for the charity factor.

Initially, many participated in the leave bank program. But many people quit participating when it was reported that due to the number of leave requests one year, beneficiaries had received only a couple of days of leave each. The long-term cost of participation in the leave bank far outweighed the long-term expected benefit.

This case seems to prove the claim that no good deed goes unpunished. The initiative and generosity that spawned the program were eventually completely sidelined in order to achieve ‘fairness.’ Where some once benefited greatly, eventually many benefited little. But at least it was ‘fair’ in some kind of legalistic sense. But it wasn’t just.

Often when we seek to enforce justice through policy, we end up achieving the correctness element of justice while excluding the moral rightness element. Oddly, we usually embark on these crusades in the name of achieving moral rightness. Then when all is said and done, we end up only enforcing a legalistic correctness, which any good lawyer can twist to his purposes.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Cost of Federal Commandments

“There are now some 200,000 full-time government employees writing and enforcing federal commandments.” —WSJ Editors (here)

President Bush ran for office as a “compassionate conservative.” The translation of this is that he believes in big government as well as moral conservatism. It means that he is so concerned about helping the less fortunate (an ever expanding definition) that he is willing to spend your money in a big way to do it, and that he is concerned enough about morality that he is willing to enforce it via government.

With the advent of the current presidency, the Reagan ideal of smaller government went out the window. The result is reported by the WSJ editors. “The cost of new regulations has increased every year on Mr. Bush's watch, but last year was by far the highest.”

OK, you say, so we’re regulating like we’ve never regulated before. What’s the big deal? “The Small Business Administration calculates that the total cost in 2005 of complying with 145,000 pages of federal rules and procedures was $1.1 trillion,” write the editors. “This is the rough economic equivalent of imposing a second federal income tax on the economy.”

Think of how much you paid in federal taxes last year. No, not the amount of your tax refund. The amount of total tax (before applying withholding and payments) on your return. Consider the fact that to satisfy federal regulations you are paying that much more for the goods and services you purchase each year. It’s a hidden tax, but you are paying it.

Republicans have traditionally railed on Democrats for creating costly and burdensome regulations. For the past seven years the GOP has been working hard to erase any distinction between the two parties on this score.

Lest you think we’re just about out of the woods, consider the fact that administrations tend to go crazy adding new regulations in the final year of a president’s tenure. Also consider the fact that of the three major contenders for becoming our next president, all of them have bought into “the mother lode of new intervention: the capping of CO2 and other greenhouse gases from motor vehicles and electric utilities, which could have net costs in the hundreds of billions of dollars.”

This kind of thing is the antithesis of what a struggling economy needs to turn around and thrive. Government regulations are insidious because their implementation and cost are invisible to most voters. And when a voter is impacted, no one can be found that is actually accountable for these oppressive rules. Congress happily passes the responsibility for this kind of under-the-radar legislation on to faceless, nameless bureaucrats.

Land of the free? Not if our “compassionate” politicians have their way.

Unfunded Mandate

In today’s Utah Policy Daily, LaVarr Webb writes, “Utah’s Health Care Reform Task Force will soon get underway amid hope and optimism that, over time, we can control skyrocketing health care costs and expand insurance coverage to nearly everyone.” Here’s to hoping that this political process won’t simply mess things up worse than they are at present. (An obviously vain hope.)

Webb knowingly says that meaningful health care reform will entail a lot of sacrifice and pain. Consider the stakeholders in the current system. Webb counts “people, institutions and groups – doctors, hospitals, drug companies, medical equipment manufacturers, insurance brokers, agents and companies” that all make “a lot of money from the current system.” Never mind the patients. And in our current system, we don’t mind them.

The only way to curb costs is to cut income to those that make money from the current system, opines Webb. “We won’t have health system reform without some pain,” he writes. I would go on to say that without serious reform, we won’t have a decent health system at all. This should be apparent if we follow the current semi-private highly socialized system to its logical conclusion.

But what kind of reform can be expected from a gathering of groups that owe their livelihoods to our current mess? One element that continues to rear its ugly head is requiring each individual to be covered by health insurance. The citizens of Massachusetts are seeing the harsh realities of this policy. The California Assembly wisely killed Gov. Schwarzenegger’s plan to do the same there. Sen. Obama (D-IL) argues with Sen. Clinton (D-NY) that this is a show-stopper. And Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT) has joined with Sen. Wyden (D-OR) to push a bipartisan national plan that includes the same.

Politicians frequently toss around the term “unfunded mandate.” Usually what this means is that a higher level of government mandates that a lower level of government provide some service without providing funding to cover the requirement. In this case, we have government passing an unfunded mandate onto its citizens.

The argument, of course, is that medical costs are being raised by the uninsured. Emergency treatment cannot be denied those without insurance. When medical providers are unable to collect from some patients, the costs are borne by everyone else in the form of higher prices. Another argument is that the uninsured refuse preventative care, waiting until problems rise to costly critical levels before seeking treatment. The answer, of course, is to force everyone to be covered.

“Giving everyone insurance won’t help a bit if costs continue to soar,” writes Webb. And he’s right. Universal insurance will certainly enrich insurance companies, their shareholders, and their executives. But it has already proven not to reduce costs or improve care. In fact, in Massachusetts it is doing exactly the opposite. One MA care provider said (see here), “Forcing people to buy substandard care they cannot afford is not universal care. It is a hoax.” In Canada, the Supreme Court found that universal coverage often actually buys a place in line rather than actual care.

I am concerned that Utah’s task force is going into the project with a preconceived notion that everyone must be covered by insurance. Of course, no one will be permitted to select only catastrophic coverage or high deductible coverage. That kind of thing would be useful for the young and healthy on limited incomes. Instead, they will be forced to subsidize those who place higher demands on the system. This is a recipe for increasing the rate at which health care costs are already rising.

The way it is looking, a coalition of politicians, “doctors, hospitals, drug companies, medical equipment manufacturers, insurance brokers, agents and companies” will succeed in mandating that you and your neighbors have no option but to buy their products and to subsidize those that can’t afford to buy those products. They will call it market-based reform. They will pat each other on the back, host a fancy awards dinner, and hold a news conference with a bunch of smiling people — smiling because they will have succeeded in creating a legally mandated revenue stream from your pocket to theirs.

Unfunded mandate, indeed.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Spoiled Brats

My Dad has never spoken to us much about his experiences growing up in WWII Germany. He has mentioned things like how he got out of attending Hitler Youth Group by using the bureaucracy’s inefficiencies to get his records lost, making toys for Christmas for his siblings while my Grandfather was away at war, and the time my Grandmother was nearly sent to jail for insulting the family of an SS officer. Dad has also talked about the hardscrabble life his family led immediately following the war.

But Dad’s personal experiences of war have only seeped out bit by bit over the years. For one thing, Dad repeatedly told us that he didn’t want his children to have to know of the horrors of war. Also, I have come to realize that the war left Dad with nasty scars that he would rather keep locked away in the deep recesses of memory. He has little desire to rip these wounds open afresh.

The other day I was visiting with Dad along with two of my sons. Something brought Dad to explain that when he was 12 years old, he was assigned to be on his school’s fire team. The team’s assignment was to be ready to extinguish any fire that might erupt in the school, particularly as the result of an air raid. Dad said that sometimes he was required to spend the night at the school pursuant to this duty.

One night when the air raid siren sounded, Dad hopped up, rapidly dressed, and started running from home toward the school. This had become so routine that he wasn’t even fully alert. A few blocks from home, Dad rounded a corner and was brought out of his robotic stupor by a massive blast. He realized that the district was being carpet bombed. It was like he was in some eerie dream. About every third building was systematically being torn apart with massive explosions. Huge chunks of debris were flying everywhere, but somehow Dad was never hit.

Dad stood rooted in place as if he were watching from the outside rather than being in the middle of it all. He watched a sheet of debris rip through and take down a huge century-old tree just a few feet away. Suddenly he realized that this was reality. He was able to uproot his feet and run to a bomb shelter. The lights had been doused. There were many people, but he couldn’t see any of them. He had no idea whether his mother and siblings were safe or not. He sat in a corner trembling in the dark, longing for daybreak as his thoughts were haunted by phantasms of what he had seen and was imagining.

No wonder Dad has been reluctant to talk about his war experiences. No wonder he had recurring nightmares of old war events during the weeks immediately following his stroke.

After telling me and my boys about this horrific event, Dad began talking about happier times. He talked about leaving Germany and immigrating to America. He talked about getting a job and starting a family. He then said, “I came here, started working, and started paying taxes for the bombs that had been dropped on me.”

But there was no bitterness in his voice. Instead, Dad was grateful. He said he was grateful for this country that had given him so much. Dad is not blind to America’s problems. He is not shy about being critical of those problems. But he also knows that this is the greatest nation on earth and he proudly flies the American Flag.

Dad’s ruminations reminded me of an article I read years ago. I recall neither the article’s title nor its author. But the author used the metaphor of a candy store to describe the United States. He said there were those on the outside with their faces pressed up against the glass thinking about what they could do if only they could get inside.

The author then mentioned those that are born inside the candy store but see no opportunity. Some fail to reach out and take advantage and others that do take advantage see the whole place as evil because some in the store are unable or unwilling to reach the higher shelves in the store. Many that get through the door from the outside don’t reach those top shelves either, but they are grateful just to have the opportunities they get.

Injustices do exist. And while we should do what we can to fight injustice, no one should bitterly give up simply because our nation is less than perfect. Was it fair that my Dad had to grow up in a war ravaged country with despotic leaders? Was it fair that he started his life in this country behind the curve, with less command of the language and culture than other workers in his field? Was it fair that he was discriminated against because he had the same accent as those %@#& NAZIs? None of that mattered to Dad. He was grateful for the opportunities available in America.

Yet we live in an era when victimology is taught and celebrated. There are those that turn some pretty good coin selling this tripe and even spewing hateful drivel about people that don’t fit into their identity group — people they call their oppressors. Those that buy this grim ideology blind themselves and others to the opportunities available to them. They see little or nothing good about America, focusing only on her blemishes. As one author put it, this is like looking at a few bugs on a tree and seeing only the bugs but not the tree.

America is a great nation. She is not perfect, but she is filled with opportunity for anyone willing to earnestly seek it. While we should do what we can to remedy our nation’s ‘bugs,’ we should also realize that America gives us ample reason to be grateful and proud — not simple nationalistic pride, but pride in those ideals embodied in her founding to which we diligently aspire.

Unlike most other nations, the USA was founded mainly on principles and ideals rather than on distinguishing atavisms. Those principles and ideals are our common heritage. Working to more fully honor these will go a long way toward combating injustices.

Though all of our dragons are not slain, the USA is the greatest nation on the earth today. I’m grateful for a Dad that has shown me how to value what we have, imperfect though it may be. I pity those whose myopic focus on blemishes causes them to disdain this country rather than being grateful for her abundant goodness. I do not think it wrong to call them spoiled brats. I choose to be among the grateful.

Monday, March 17, 2008

What Do We Really Know About the Economy?

London-based financial consultant David Roche claims here that there is no way to avoid the looming recession. And it’s going to last a long time. But barring “major policy blunders,” he writes “it won't be a 1930s-style depression.”

Now, there’s some cheery news. Roche provides a number of details about how U.S. and global finances function. He concludes that all of the things that the Fed and other central banks are doing to attempt to stop the disaster simply are incapable of addressing the basic facts of the situation.

Roche may be right. Then again, expert opinions on the economy right now are a dime a dozen.

On a related subject, Nobel Prize winning economist Edmund S. Phelps argues here that many of our current economic woes stem from the assumption that our highly complex economy is basically predictable — an idea that became widely accepted three decades ago. According to this theory, all “the risks in the economy” are “subject to known probabilities … driven by purely random shocks and not by innovations whose uncertain effects cannot be predicted.”

In Phelps’ view this theory is arrogant and wrong-headed. But acceptance of the theory provided the excuse needed for those that were eager to tinker with and manage the economy. Phelps contends that the main constant in an economy as complex and dynamic as ours is uncertainty. He essentially makes the case for humility in dealing with the economy.

In much the same vein, GMU economist Russ Roberts discusses at length here why it is impossible for anyone to empirically determine the specific economic effects of economic events. He starts out discussing a dissatisfying answer he had to give a reporter who wanted to know whether the U.S. had benefited or been harmed by NAFTA.

Roberts replied that it is “absurd to think that in a $14 trillion economy, you could tease out the impact of increased trade with Mexico and Canada and disentangle it from the thousands of other changes going on.” Only those with an agenda, suggests Roberts, could possibly make claims that they know for certain how NAFTA or any other economic event has impacted the U.S. economy.

Roche may be right. We may be in for a long hard slog in the economy. But then again, I’m not so sure that people like him can successfully predict the economic future. I’m not sure anyone can. But I do believe in good old fashioned human ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit. As long as we don’t hamstring people, they will find ways to make the best of whatever situation presents itself.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Emotional Learning

In a high school of some 1,800 students, I was among the great average masses. I wasn’t among the dregs, but I also was definitely not among the popular class either. I didn’t fit into any of the identity niche groups: jocks, top honors, student government, super geeks, cowboys, seminary board, burn outs, etc.

Like the average boy, I found the girls attractive. But I didn’t do much about it. If I had even a passing interest in a girl, I found myself somehow completely incapable of even speaking coherently to her. And since I didn’t turn 16 until I was into my junior year (and thus, didn’t get a driver license until halfway through that year), I didn’t date much.

During my senior year I developed a relationship with a beautiful young lady that seemed to appreciate the fact that I could play the piano. We dated some. Probably simply due to the fact that she showed some interest in me, I was soon completely smitten.

Learning to navigate the perilous channels of human relationships is an important part of growing up. But it can also be painful. It took me a while to understand that the young lady that I thought held my heartstrings viewed our relationship more as a friendship than a romance.

You often can’t see clearly the dynamics of a relationship from the inside. Fortunately, a friend that could see what I was experiencing calmly leveled with me one day about what he saw. It was immediately obvious to me that his observations were correct. I also realized that deep down I had already known what he revealed to me, but I had been resisting it.

Coming to this realization was painful. I had hoped for something more and had invested a lot of thought and energy in that hope. My young lady friend and I dated a couple more times after that. Treating her as just a friend on those dates while yearning for something more was heart rending. But I had been taught by good parents and mentors how to behave appropriately and respectfully.

Eventually the school year ended. I worked away from home for the summer. When I got back, I went to college full time and worked nearly full time. My friend was still in high school. We never saw each other that year. I saw no sense in pursuing it, and I definitely did not want to dredge up old emotions that I had been able to somewhat contain.

In retrospect I can see that I was incredibly self centered about the relationship. I had zero concept of what this girl was going through. She seemed like such a nice, normal girl. She was always pleasant and never discussed the demons she was battling, which I later realized were very cruel.

My friend’s biological father had abandoned the family when she was just tiny. Her mother had eventually married a man that was a long-haul trucker. He was gone sometimes for as long as two weeks at a shot. Then my friend’s mother had died of a cancer that had spread rapidly. Although the trucker tried to be somewhat of a father — he provided for the kids — my friend, her older brother and younger sister were basically raising themselves. Although I was not ignorant of these facts, I was nearly oblivious to the horrendous challenges they imposed.

Although our relationship had turned out not to be romantic — and I felt my heart had broken — our friendship had been somewhat special. Over the years, I have occasionally run into this lady. She married into a family I had long respected. From time to time I have seen my friend — sometimes with husband and kids in tow — in public places. Whenever this has happened, she has made a point of stopping to chat with me.

My oldest son will be going on his first date and attending the prom this weekend. My wife and I have done a lot to teach him proper manners and etiquette for such a formal event. Getting my son ready for this has brought back a lot of memories — not just memories of things and events, but emotional memories.

I still remember the marvelous feeling I experienced when my friend asked me to the girl’s choice dance. And I still remember how I felt months later when I realized that she didn’t feel quite the same way about me that I felt about her. Oddly, there’s still poignancy even decades later. But strangely enough, I cherish having gone through that experience. I learned much from it, and the years since have only enhanced that learning.

Before too long I will have to watch my children endure similar experiences. I regularly pray for the Lord to keep their hearts safe and to protect their emotions. What I mean by this is not that I hope that their hearts are never broken, but that they will be careful about to whom they entrust their hearts, and that the Lord will keep their hearts from breaking any more than is absolutely necessary for them to eventually develop into emotionally healthy adults.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Extreme Life

I’ve kind of laid low on the whole Eliot Spitzer debacle. I have been somewhat disappointed by those that have turned up just about everywhere to gloat over this man’s fate. It’s like expressing glee at watching the guy that just sped past you on the highway fatally crashed in a twisted pile of metal down the road. We should rather pray for this man and his family.

To be sure, Spitzer’s whole public career has been an example of pushing beyond the limits — of aggressive edginess and doing whatever it takes to win. Lives have been wrecked in the process of exceeding the boundaries of propriety and law, but apparently that’s not important beyond the spectator value this kind of theater provides.

Perhaps a more important issue is why citizens elect such a person to office. In recent years our culture has come to celebrate the extreme. We celebrate extreme sports, for example. Television programs and movies regularly present the extreme and bizarre for our viewing enjoyment.

We used to revere excellence. We’ve gone way beyond that to seek after and honor the fantastic, the disproportionate, the over-the-top, the extravagant, the grotesque, the EXTREME. It’s as if oddities that were once relegated to lurid perusal at circus side shows have somehow become the passion of the mainstream.

Gov. Spitzer might have gotten his just desserts, but it’s as if the public is watching this with the same kind of fascination with which they watch people voted off the island on Survivor or watch singers lose on American Idol. It’ll all be forgotten in a few news cycles, and then we’ll get back to more important stuff, like when some starlet is going into rehab.

Whatever happened to normalcy? And whatever happened to lauding excellence? When did the weird become venerable? Is this the prize that was won in the hippie generation’s culture war battles?

No doubt high performing circles throughout society have been no stranger to weirdness for a long time. But, as Daniel Henninger says here, people once “had internal monitors” that kept their excesses in check. “Now,” writes Henninger, “we live in a less hinged age. We have unrestrained personalities with unrestrained behavior.”

And we celebrate those personalities and behaviors. We spend our time and money on them. We spend our votes on them. Henninger contends, “The current presidential campaign is flirting with the weird fires that we've set all over the American landscape. The too long campaign requires the outputting of too much naked ambition. Political desire -- wanting it so bad for so long -- runs risks.” We spend our time and votes seeking for the best candidate and even the best symbol, rather than seeking out the best chief executive.

I do not see society signaling for a U-turn anytime soon, but maybe it’s not as bad as all that. I remember back in the 70s hearing my parents wonder about what the future world would be like for their children. In some ways, those days were worse than current conditions. In other ways, those days seemed more normal. I suppose much the same will be able to be said a generation from now about today.

But I feel that I must do something about the way things are going. When I think about that, I am reminded of the words Tolkien has Gandalf speak in The Return of the King: “It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Irrational Voters = Irrational Policies?

In his book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan contends that democracies, while undeniably better than totalitarian governments, are also undeniably inferior to free markets. You can see a 28-page paper that is an abbreviated version of the arguments in the book here.

Caplan contests the validity of the “miracle of aggregation” theory of democratic voting. The theory works like this. The votes of ignorant voters, regardless of their number, end up statistically cancelling each other out. So only the votes of informed voters actually count. Thus, the only truly important thing is how the majority of informed voters vote.

While acknowledging the reality of this theory, Caplan argues that it only works if voters make only random errors but no systemic errors. In democracies, contends Caplan, evidence proves that voters consistently vote irrationally rather than just ignorantly. Thus, systemic errors skew the results so that voters regularly choose policies of which the majority approves, but which are not in the best interest of society.

Caplan uses a broad array of research to demonstrate at least four biases among voters that he asserts are irrational, since they are not factually supported.

—Anti-market bias. Voters have a basic distrust of free markets and tend to favor protectionism, regulation, and forms of planning; although, these are proven to cause far more problems than they solve.

—Anti-foreign bias. Voters distrust and dislike anything (and anyone) foreign, so they favor protectionism, which actually imposes net penalties on their own country.

—Make-work bias. Voters believe that jobs are the source of prosperity, when in actuality productivity is the source of prosperity. Individuals can prosper if they only have a job, says Caplan. But societies only prosper if individuals do jobs that create goods and services that others willingly purchase.

—Pessimistic bias. Voters continually believe that the economy is much worse than it actually is. Thus they favor policies intended to improve the economy, but that often make matters worse.

Caplan does not argue that markets are perfect. He says that economists like him know better than anyone the flaws inherent in markets. However, he does claim that free markets are usually (but not always) superior to any kind of government intervention, even that which is accomplished by the will of the voters.

Daniel Casse penned this critical review of Caplan’s book. I agree with many of Casse’s criticisms. He writes, “As an analysis of how far voters are out of step with settled economic thinking, Mr. Caplan's argument seems irrefutable. Yet as a work of political theory it is pretty dismal.”

Casse is particularly non-plussed by Caplan’s suggestion that it would be better for independent experts to shape policy than to suffer policy at the hands of irrational voters. Hmmm… that sounds an awful lot like the way they used to run things in communist countries and in Nazi Germany.

At any rate, Casse says that Caplan lumps all democratic systems into a single basket and fails to consider “the special character of American democracy.” Casse points out that our Founders intentionally established a political system that is inefficient and is riddled with checks and balances not present in many other democratic systems.

As a demonstration of the silliness of Caplan’s arguments, Casse suggests that, while the biases stated by Caplan have certainly fueled a lot of debate, little of this has materialized into actual policy. In other words, all of the strong arguments mounted by Caplan, says Casse, amount to nothing of consequence.

Caplan’s thesis might make economists “feel better about themselves,” writes Casse, but “it should not make ordinary Americans feel any worse about their democracy.”

It concerns me that Casse so cavalierly tosses aside Caplan’s criticisms of democratic systems. The biases noted by Caplan certainly do seem to exist. Americans seem overly willing to submit to freedom-limiting government activities.

Is it true, however, that few of these kinds of things actually become policy? Maybe that’s so when it comes to international trade. But what about domestic policy? What about state and local policy? How many irrational policies does the average American suffer under?

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Beyond School Choice

Sol Stern has long been a proponent of school choice. He has written passionately about it in the City Journal for at least two decades.

Economists have long known that promoting free trade — people acting disparately in their own interests — results in a self-organizing society that efficiently produces superior results to controlled trade. They also know that trying to control markets results in inferior products, higher costs, and rationing.

The whole idea behind school choice — such as Utah’s school voucher law that dramatically failed on referendum last November — is that it would create market pressures that would result in across-the-board improvements in education.

In this WSJ op-ed article, Stern takes a serious look at how school choice has actually worked over the past two decades, and he’s not pleased with the results. He calls for “education reformers … to resist unreflective support for elegant-sounding theories, derived from the study of economic activity, that don't produce verifiable results in the classroom.”

School choice, argues Stern, simply isn’t enough when it comes to achieving real improvements in education. Although some children that have escaped bad public school situations have certainly been helped, the competitive environment created has not resulted in significant positive changes in public schools. The basic problem, claims Stern, simply isn’t adequately addressed by school choice alone.

So, what is that basic problem? The culprit is instructional content, claims Stern. Schools — even most private and charter schools — ultimately use the same instructional content. This stems from the nature of the instruction provided at the nation’s 1,500 ed schools, where our teachers receive their teaching education.

Although ed schools “represent an almost perfect system of choice, markets and competition,” writes Stern, “the schools are uniformly awful, the products the same dreary progressive claptrap.” For example, a recent study found that “almost all elementary education classes [at the ed schools] disdained phonics and scientific reading.”

Why don’t ed schools respond to actual student needs? Because they have become ideological institutions rather than institutions focused primarily on instructional quality. Stern writes, “Professors who dare to break with the ideological monopoly--who look to reading science or, say, embrace a core knowledge approach--won't get tenure, or get hired in the first place. The teachers they train thus wind up indoctrinated with the same pedagogical dogma whether they attend New York University's school of education or Humboldt State's.”

Even administrators intent on promoting a rigorous curriculum face an uphill battle trying to get decent instructional material and trying to hire qualified teachers to teach it.

However, Stern cites Massachusetts as a model to follow. Its improvement in student performance over the past few years is “something close to an education miracle,” he says. But it came about due to the efforts of “a few key former education leaders” that “pushed the state's board of education to mandate a rigorous curriculum for all grades, created demanding tests linked to the curriculum standards, and insisted that all high school graduates pass a comprehensive exit exam.”

As an example of market-based education gone awry, Stern puts forward the New York City system. “Everything in the system now has a price,” he says. This includes $50K bonuses to principles for raising their school’s test scores, and rewarding kids with “cell phones for passing tests.” No evidence exists that any of this actually improves educational outcomes. It certainly incentivizes fudging on test scores.

“Don't get me wrong:” writes Stern, “Market-style reforms are sometimes just what's necessary in the public schools.” But, he asserts, those “who put their faith in the power of markets to improve schools must at least show how their theory can account for the stubborn persistence of the thoughtworld” of ed school indoctrination.

No doubt that part of the problem of the school choice experiments over the past two decades is that the sampling is simply too small. Only a few thousand students nationwide are involved, as opposed to the 50 million that are not. That’s like trying to impact the entire economy of the USSR by having a few free market tourist spots on the Crimean coast.

After two decades of pushing hard for school choice reforms, few programs have actually been adopted and some of those are in trouble because many inner city Catholic schools (the main available option) are closing down. For school choice to be effective, about half of our students would need to be involved. Stern begs us to face the reality that this simply isn’t going to happen in the foreseeable future.

Ultimately, Stern is most interested in what actually works — factors that actually improve our kids’ educational outcomes. School choice efforts shouldn’t be abandoned, but by itself, school choice simply isn’t enough to substantially improve our education system.

We should put our efforts where we’ll get the most bang for the buck. Ed schools need reform so that we can get teachers qualified to instruct rigorous content-based curriculum. Since public schools are subject to political pressure, we need to demand of our politicians and boards of education the implementation of such curriculum at every level of the K-12 experience. We need to look at what really works and then do it.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

But It's for the Children!

Ever willing to impose any kind of restriction in the name of child safety, the Utah State Legislature has passed a bill that will require all children under age 8 to be restrained in child safety seats when traveling in a vehicle. Unless they’re traveling in the bed of a pickup truck. Then no kind of restraint is required.

HB140 is another do-gooder piece of legislation that imposes restrictions on a broad swath of society to achieve a minimal increase in “child safety.” Ah yes, that lovely phrase that justifies all government meddling in the lives of parents and children.

Studies show that kids ages 4-7 that use a booster seat with seat belts reduce their chance of injury in an accident by 59% over using seat belts alone. Sounds great. So, how many people are we talking about? How many kids ages 4-7 wearing seat belts are injured in accidents where a booster seat would have substantially reduced the injuries? Umm… that’s not quite so clear.

They think that 451 kids nationwide age 5 and under survived what would otherwise have been fatal crashes in 2004, mainly due to being in a car seat. But there’s not much out there about the actual number of kids ages 4-7 that actually had suffered significantly fewer injuries due to being restrained in a booster seat as opposed to being restrained in just seat belts.

How many Utah kids might this help each year? Well, that’s not very clear. But it’s all for a good cause, right? So we’ll let government be our nanny and tell us what to do.

What kind of requirements does this bill impose on parents? If you have kids under 3rd grade, forget carpooling with your neighbors unless you’re going to take the time to move car seats from vehicle to vehicle, or are willing to fund and carry around extra car seats. How many more child safety incidents are we causing by running more vehicles through school zones during drop off and pick up times due to reduced carpooling? How much more environmental impact are we causing?

Ah, never mind that. We’ll soon have a new law (because you know that our big-government-loving governor will sign it) that will make us feel good, will give us a new source of revenue via law enforcement, and will give the finger-waggers another reason to rag on parents.

And don’t expect it to stop there. Because the intrepid child safety interlopers actually recommend that kids be buckled into booster seats through AGE 12, weigh as much as 100 lbs, and grow to 5 feet in height! I’m surprised that they stop before age 18. (What of the girl I knew in college that was 4’11”?)

So in a few years, after we have become accustomed to our new government-approved restricted travel style, our children’s “advocates” will be back for another round to make sure we put our kids into booster seats until they’re most of the way through puberty.

While there seem to be no studies that show that new laws like this one actually have an overall and substantial salutary effect, there are studies that “preliminarily” show that laws like this marginally increase booster seat use. More people complying with overblown safety advocacy must be a good thing. I can’t wait to see what kind of restrictions on your life the legislature comes up with next year — all for a good cause. That’s progress!

Monday, March 03, 2008

Beating Poverty

“He looks at a poor person and sees a potential entrepreneur.”

Has there ever been a time when poverty didn’t exist? Even Jesus said, “For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good…” (Mark 14:7). Although we may never be able to conquer poverty in general, the Scriptures are also replete with admonishments to help the poor. For a believer, the question is how that can best be accomplished.

The traditional method of simply throwing money at the poor has its shortcomings. Nobel Prize winner Dr. Muhammad Yunus says in this Wall Street Journal interview that the “dollar has only one life” in philanthropy; “you can only use it once….” His solution is to introduce an element of capitalism. When it comes to truly helping the poor, Yunus claims, “income is the best medicine.”

Dr. Yunus has been at this for a couple of decades. He has created a profitable banking business based on making microloans to the impoverished, aiming especially at women (because women tend to use the funds in ways that benefit the family better than do men). Grameen Bank lends small sums to poor women for small business ventures. And they repay at the rate of 98%, even though the interest rates are not low, collateral is nonexistent, and legal documentation is nearly nonexistent.

“Social business” is what Yunus calls his business model. He describes it “as "cause-driven" rather than profit-driven.” The “social business dollar has endless life, it recycles. And you build institutions,” says Yunus. “When it's an institution you bring creativity into it. You bring innovations into it. You bring continuity into it.”

Philanthropy is best employed in extraordinary situations, suggests Yunus, rather than in dealing with everyday poverty. For that you need a business proposition. Then, Yunus claims, “immediately you become concerned about the cost, about the revenue, the sustainability, the surplus generation, how to bring more efficiency, how to bring new technology, how to redesign, each year you review the whole thing . . . charity doesn't have that package.”

Yunus has no problem with a traditional profit-based approach to business. He simply offers another option. He seems to be all about freedom of choice and expanding options. He does suggest, however, that the reason for the current woes in the subprime lending industry can be boiled down to shoddy business practices and getting too greedy. “They have the collateral, they have the lawyers, they have the entire legal system behind them” he says, “But they still could not protect themselves.”

The entire article is really worth reading. One of the main points that I garnered is that there are ways to empower the poor so that they generate income and lift themselves from their current desperate condition. It starts by seeing their potential to do much more for themselves than they are currently doing and then working to enable that to happen.

Many of our anti-poverty programs treat the poor as if they are incapable of changing and improving. It should not be surprising that they remain poor. But there are ways to create mutually profitable situations that actually help the poor achieve and learn how to stop being poor. Those kinds of efforts are worthy of our support.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

A Real American Hero

I have a hero. I grew up with him and we were close friends through high school and during our young adult years. Since each of us got married and started families, we rarely see each other. But since we live not far from each other, I hear news about him.

Let me tell you why my quiet, unassuming friend is one of my heroes. We both used to work at the same bank. When I went on to find employment in the accounting field, he went on to start his own business. He has built his business over the years to the point that he makes a decent living.

When you see government figures on how many new jobs have been created during a given period, you can know that the vast majority of those jobs were created by small business entrepreneurs like my friend. It is people like him that take the risks to start and keep small businesses running that make it possible for the rest of us to have jobs where we don’t have the stress of being our own boss. It is people like him that are the backbone of the American economy.

I salute all law abiding entrepreneurs. If that were my friend’s only strength, I would admire him, but might not class him as a hero. So there’s more to this story.

When my friend graduated college, he joined the Navy as a reserve officer. For two decades he has served our nation in the Navy. He has been deployed for long-term deployments a number of times. He expects to serve for another five years or so and to see more long-term foreign deployments.

Last night I ran into my friend. I asked him how he can run his own business and yet be deployed for a year at a shot. He explained that he has a couple of employees that are very trustworthy, and that when he is deployed, he puts the matter into God’s hands, expecting that God will help do what is best. If it turns out that his business falls apart while he is gone, it will all be for the best. He figures that he has enough experience at business that he can simply try his hand at something else.

That, my friends, is a real American hero. His supportive wife is another hero. Thank God for people like my friend and his wife.