Thursday, May 28, 2009

One Down, Four to Go

My oldest son graduated from high school yesterday. On the way home from the graduation exercises he said, “Well, I survived compulsory government education.”

The graduation exercises lasted two hours. It had its dignified moments, but overall it was far less dignified than when I graduated from the same high school years ago. The event reflected the continuing trend of culture becoming increasingly casual.

Some of the spectators were dressed more formally, as had been the case with almost all of the audience members back in my day. Most were dressed more casually. Some were dressed far more casually, like they were going out to work in the yard or perhaps troll for business in the red light zone.

The administrator that introduced the valedictorian seems to have thought that he had been asked to give a full-fledged speech. The valedictorian’s speech was puerile and somewhat disjointed, proving that you don’t have to be a good speechmaker to achieve academic excellence. The salutatorian’s speech was very good for an 18-year-old. The administrator speeches were bland and forgettable.

As the graduating seniors took their turns walking across the stage each receiving an empty diploma case (to be filled later upon returning the rented gown), various audience members took turns applauding those in whom they had interest. Some rousing acknowledgements were quite unseemly. Some of the rowdy actors were parents of graduates.

One of the school’s choirs sang beautifully, but it seems that the auditorium’s sound system had been poorly rigged so that it didn’t pick up their voices properly. The well performed songs were swallowed in the vastness of the arena.

On the way home, I remarked to my wife and son that the baccalaureate exercise the previous evening had been a much more enjoyable event. We went to that event not expecting much. After the opening, Mike Schlappi was introduced as the speaker. (Warning: linked website plays continuous music.) We were told that Schlappi had been on the US Olympic wheelchair basketball team and had won two gold medals and two bronze medals.

Schlappi wheeled out and began speaking, dropping some rather humorous lines. Then he told the tragic story of how he became paralyzed from the chest down at age 15 when a friend and neighbor shot him with a supposedly unloaded pistol as part of a joke.

For the next hour the audience was held in the thrall of tales of difficulties faced, challenges overcome, amazing people, and admonitions about how to deal with your own challenges. Although we were seated on metal grandstand benches, no one was wiggly. I walked out of there feeling fantastic.

I came away with several messages. When crap happens in your life, it doesn’t really matter who is to blame. What does matter is taking personal responsibility for making the absolute best of whatever situation you are in. Each of us has amazing power to improve the lives of others by doing simple things that demonstrate genuine human respect.

My son’s graduation exercise was a momentous event, even if it was occasionally boring and undignified. It was a significant public rite of passage. My son’s baccalaureate event was an uplifting and ennobling experience that will likely have long lasting impact on the lives of many that were in attendance.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Saving the American Family

My children are richly blessed. I often try to tell them that this is so, but I know that they don’t really understand yet. To them my pronouncements must sound an awful lot like parents telling their children to be grateful for the dinner they have because children in Africa are starving.

I know my children are blessed because I too was born abundantly blessed. Or you could say lucky, if you prefer that term. But I didn’t begin to understand how blessed I was until long after I graduated into adulthood. My wife was similarly born with perhaps the greatest blessing that a child can have.

For most of my lifetime I took this great gift for granted. I occasionally had glimpses of insight as I encountered people that lacked the benefits that I had. Sometimes I was amazed by how well some of these people did without such. At times I sensed an unspoken hunger to enjoy the richness I enjoyed, but which I was powerless to give.

What was this grand blessing? No, I wasn’t born into a wealthy family. My Dad spent most of his career as a blue collar worker. This greatest gift a child can have is to be born to a caring father and mother that are married and remain married to each other, and that are devoted to each other and to their children. Couple that with the blessing of being born and raised in the USA, and I am among a very small percentage of the most blessed people on the face of the earth.

But this blessing is become increasingly rare. The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics recently found that out-of-wedlock births in the US have surged to 40 percent. The value of this data is that it reflects actual tracked outcomes rather than some kind of statistical modeling. AEI scholar Charles Murray gives a brief report on the report’s findings in this blog post, where he writes that “illegitimacy varies enormously by socioeconomic class.”

Murray says that he’ll be spending the next little while continuing to delve into the study so that he can develop more concrete findings. Murray’s post focuses only on “whites of European origin” to rise above the entangling “issues of race and ethnicity.” He doesn’t appear to have any racist agenda, but seems to want to get at the data that produces the clearest picture. Murray contrasts figures from “the early 1980s to the mid-1990s” with current figures.

A graph in Murray’s post from the earlier period divides women in four economic groups based on family annual income and education. The top two tiers “almost never had babies without a husband,” while “white women with no more than a high school education in low-income households were having nearly half of their babies without a husband.” The overall illegitimacy rate for this group was 11 percent.

Between the mid 90s and 2007 the rate jumped to 28 percent. That is a stunning increase over a relatively short period of time. The current rate among the overclass, however, remains almost the same as during the earlier period, while the middle class rate has jumped from 4% to 20%. The working class rate has gone from 10.2% to 40%. The underclass rate has surged from 44.5% to about 70%.

Murray is surprised “that the elite could remain this segregated for this long on something as basic as family structure.” He warns, “But while the elite may continue to live in its pleasant little world for a while, that world is not going to bear much resemblance to the rest of America. And, increasingly, the rest of America isn’t going to bear much resemblance to the America we used to celebrate.”

Picking up on this, the Editors of the National Review write that “American society could become alarmingly polarized.” This sounds eerily similar to John Edwards’ populist 2008 presidential campaign message about “two Americas.” The NR Editors note that as bad as conditions are among non-Hispanic whites, matters are much worse among blacks and Hispanics, where 2007 illegitimacy rates were 72 percent and 51 percent respectively.

Why should we care if America no longer bears “much resemblance to the America we used to celebrate?” Our forefathers celebrated an America where slavery was legal. They used to celebrate an America where women and non-whites couldn’t vote. So what if fewer children are born to married parents?

The reason that in-wedlock births are so important is that by every single measure — economically, academically, socially, mental health, physical health, etc — children born to a married father and mother generally fare better than children born out-of-wedlock or to non-traditional couples. Moreover, children born to a father and a mother that stay married to each other throughout life generally outperform in every category children whose parents end up divorcing. Researchers have found that enduring even unhappy marriages (as long as abuse isn’t occurring) produce better outcomes for children than do so-called happy divorces.

Marriage patterns are largely a function of culture. The NR Editors invoke Pat Moynihan, who said, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” These editors are calling for government action to influence the culture to shore up the failing traditional family.

Tipping their collective hat to the traditional liberal concern of inequality, the NR Editors write, “The most important social shift has been the deterioration of middle- and lower-income families. Over the long term, strengthening those families is the best way to reduce inequality.” Various programs that take from the haves in order to give to the have-nots are paltry excuses for striking at the real heart of the problem.

But what is it that government should do? Very few states are willing to consider scaling back decades-old liberalized divorce laws. Many states have passed constitutional amendments that define marriage as being between one man and one woman, but a similar federal amendment failed spectacularly. Besides, other states have broadened the definition of marriage to the point that it begins to lose meaning and other states are assaying to do so.

The NRO Editors say “that programs designed to help disadvantaged children should respect the primacy of the family.” That sounds good, but what does it mean? Locally, this has sometimes led to family courts putting children into what have been suspected — and later proven — to be unsafe environments in the name of preserving of the natural family. For all of the NR Editors’ concern, they articulate only a muddled message about what should be done.

My life has been immeasurably blessed by my parents’ choice to get married and to continue a devoted relationship with each other and their children throughout the rest of their lives. My wife has been similarly blessed by her parents’ choices (and so have I). My children are garnering similar blessings now. I’d love for everyone to enjoy these kinds of blessings. But it looks like our culture is currently headed in the opposite direction at a fairly rapid pace, despite some examples of people saying, “Enough is enough,” and getting it passed as public policy.

After decades of tolerating widespread destruction of the family, advocates have finally started putting up serious resistance in recent years. But the battle plan looks more like the last-ditch defense of weakened lines than a strategy to win hearts and minds, and thus, win the war. I can only imagine what studies about family patterns will show a decade from now. And believe me, it’s not a pretty picture. Can the situation be salvaged?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Physical Learning

Last night I attended the “energy expo” at my son’s charter school. All of the children in grades 3-5 displayed and demonstrated projects centered on energy. There were water, wind, electric, solar, and biofuel projects.

Everything these students have done during this trimester has focused on energy. That includes their reading, writing, math, science, and every other subject. There have been multiple expeditions to explore various sources and uses of energy. This school does a lot of hands-on learning.

We never had science fairs when I was in elementary school. This expo was different than any science fair that I have attended. Instead of being a calm and orderly affair with projects neatly lined up along tables that form long aisles, these projects were scattered helter-skelter throughout classrooms and around the front lawn. And it was noisy.

There was a method to all of the madness. Children were encouraged to develop interactive projects. Some crews had students work in pairs, while others had students work individually. (They call them crews rather than classes at this school because being a crew member denotes having active responsibility rather than just being a ‘passenger.’) Students didn’t just stand idly by their projects. They were tasked with developing and delivering an oral presentation and demonstration that lasted 1-3 minutes. They were to solicit and be ready to answer questions about their subject.

The expo was well attended by family members, including plenty of grandparents. I was rather surprised at the presentation made by my son and his partner. These two little boys were pros. They had their lines well organized and practiced. They took turns enthusiastically delivering parts of their spiel, but the climax was when they demonstrated their project that they labeled ‘squirt finger,’ based on an idea they found in an old book.

The boys took turns wearing a belt to which was strapped two 6v batteries and a plastic water container. At the bottom of the container was a small pump. From the pump came a clear plastic tube and a push button electric switch (backed by a circuit breaker fuse). The boys passed out small Dixie cups to their audience and walked around dispensing water from their contraption into the cups. They then took questions. I was amazed at their ability to answer some of the questions posed by adults.

After perusing the numerous projects, I discerned that my son’s project was among those that had a pretty high ‘coolness’ factor. There’s something about a kid wearing an odd (and maybe even dangerous) looking device that squirts water. It was far different than the half dozen windmills that each lit up a tiny light. The project was so popular that my son and his partner didn’t get a break from presenting the entire evening. I was very proud of them.

Early in the evening, my son and his partner were interviewed by a reporter from the local newspaper. A photographer took many pictures of them and their project. I explained to my son that they will interview many students and take many pictures. It is likely that only one of those many photos will end up in the newspaper and that only a few students will be mentioned by name. I was trying to help my son not to get his hopes for fame up too high.

Another very cool project was done by a boy that had built an actual biofuel still. Unfortunately, the fuel produced from vegetable matter produced a vinegar scented substance that caused the combustion engine he had to choke. But it was an amazing project for a 5th grader.

There were water wheels, windmills, a model of a nuclear energy plant, solar ovens, solar powered radios, models of coal mining operations, a working model of an electrical transmission line, an underwater sound wave unit, and many other projects. You could tell that some had been developed with a lot of parental support, while others had had very little adult intervention.

My son was very pleased with himself and with his project as we carried stuff to the car at the end of the program. I felt that he had good reason to feel a sense of accomplishment. Ditto for most of the other students at the expo. Students at my son’s school are being trained to dig into their academic pursuits in a physical manner. Judging by the energy expo, at least some of the results of this approach are quite impressive.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Politicians Can Only Make Political Decisions, Not Economic Ones

I once watched a worker that was trying to insert a screw through two pieces of sheet metal. He aligned the pre-drilled holes and then started the screw with his fingers. At that point he looked around for a tool to finish the job and discovered that the only tool within reach was a hammer. He picked up the hammer and gave the screw a whack, driving it into place. Days later the screw fell out, causing the sheets of metal to vibrate against each other during normal operation of the equipment.

There is a proper tool for every job. Use of the wrong tool often produces substandard results. Sometimes it is necessary to make do with what you have. That’s called innovation. But regularly using the wrong tool when the right tool is available is just plain stupid.

One of the basic tenets of classical liberalism is to regard government as a tool to be used only where it is most appropriate; the chief role of government being to safeguard and expand liberty. Many people (from all over the political spectrum) view government as a big stick to be employed in forcing others to conform to their particular view of good.

In this light, John Steele Gordon writes here about why government is the wrong tool for running a business. Steele admits that “Capitalism isn’t perfect.” But he argues that it’s a better than government for running a business. He says that the reasons this is so include:
  • Governments are run by politicians, not businessmen.
  • Politicians need headlines.
  • Governments use other people's money.
  • Government does not tolerate competition.
  • Government enterprises are almost always monopolies and thus do not face competition at all.
  • Successful corporations are run by benevolent despots.
  • Government is regulated by government.
Gordon’s article includes some classic statements. He poses the maxim, “Politicians can only make political decisions, not economic ones.” That singular statement ought to be relentlessly pounded into students in every civics and economics course in the nation. It ought to run in a banner across the TV screen anytime a broadcast features any politician or anyone discussing political proposals.

Describing the Social Security system, Gordon writes:
“It is government's job to make and enforce the rules that allow a civilized society to flourish. But it has a dismal record of regulating itself. Imagine, for instance, if a corporation, seeking to make its bottom line look better, transferred employee contributions from the company pension fund to its own accounts, replaced the money with general obligation corporate bonds, and called the money it expropriated income. We all know what would happen: The company accountants would refuse to certify the books and management would likely -- and rightly -- end up in jail.”
Well, the company accountants might refuse to certify the books. Or the company could be run like Enron. Problems occur when investors are prohibited from taking their money elsewhere, as apparently was the case with many Enron employees. Another good point:
“Cost cutting is alien to the culture of all bureaucracies. Indeed, when cost cutting is inescapable, bureaucracies often make cuts that will produce maximum public inconvenience, generating political pressure to reverse the cuts.”
It is worth reading the article to see Gordon’s discussion of governments using other people’s money and how the taxpayer is shunted aside in negotiations regarding government spending. You can say that the taxpayers get their say at the ballot box and that businesses also use other people’s money through equity and debt, but these are vastly different things.

Politicians know that they are only marginally accountable to taxpayers and that they can manipulate the system to shut down most backlashes that might result from government spending. Groups lobbying for benefits know this too. When businesses use debt, they are subject to the articles of the contract. The parties to the debt have entered into the contract willingly (except in cases where government is pumping cash into businesses). If equity holders are unhappy with a company, they can often dump their shares within minutes and take their money elsewhere. Try doing that as a taxpayer.

Gordon describes how gross inefficiency is the default behavior when government tries to run a business. The GAO recently found that “no less than one-third of all Medicare disbursements for durable medical equipment, such as wheelchairs and hospital beds, were improper or fraudulent.” This kind of thing is typical in a government run business.

It is true that private enterprise has its share of inefficiencies and problems. But it is unquestionably the best tool for running businesses. Government’s role is to ensure a level playing field and to prevent businesses from stifling competition. When government steps in to prop up failing businesses, it works directly counter to its appropriate mandate. When government runs business itself, it is like using a hammer where a screwdriver would be appropriate. Or maybe it’s a hammer and a sickle.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A New Ambassador and A New Governor

“Well, he’s a politician,” I replied to my son’s question as to whether Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert is conservative. We were having a discussion about Governor Huntsman’s nomination by President Obama to serve as U.S. Ambassador to China.

At some point, Gov. Huntsman will resign and Lt. Gov. Herbert will be sworn in as governor, as provided by last year’s Amendment A to the state constitution. (There had previously been confusion as to whether the lt. gov. actually became governor or merely acting governor in such cases.) As governor, Herbert will get to select a new lieutenant governor that will need to be approved by the state senate.

I explained to my son that it is my understanding that Herbert is generally more conservative than Huntsman, particularly on social issues. At any rate, Herbert’s ascendency will change the way state government works as some Huntsman staffers are replaced with Herbert’s own people, as explained in this Pignanelli & Webb column.

Since the vacancy will occur during the first year of Gov. Huntsman’s second term, the law requires that a special election must be held at the next general election to permanently fill the remainder of the term. The next general election is in November 2010. Herbert will remain governor at least until then.

This SL-Trib article lists a number of possible candidates that may oppose Herbert in that election. But it also notes that Herbert has a leg up on most of these would be competitors. Many of them were planning for 2012 and simply won’t be able to pull their funding and organization together in time for 2010.

An exception to that might be Congressman Jim Matheson (D-UT). For a Democrat, he’s fairly conservative. He’s Mormon. (Let’s face it. In Utah at present that makes a difference.) He’s the son of Scott Matheson, a fairly popular Utah governor. Rep. Matheson already has a sizeable campaign war chest that could be applied to the governor’s race.

My personal opinion is that Matheson could prevail within the bounds of his current congressional district, but that it would be very difficult for him to gain sufficient traction outside of that area. I’m not sure if he has better name recognition than Herbert. Most Utahans could not tell you who their lieutenant governor is. Of course, many couldn’t tell you who their congressional representative is or who their senators are either. But by the time the 2010 election is held, Herbert will have been governor for a year and a half. You can bet that he will make every effort to be the only person most people will think about for governor during that time.

Regardless of who wins in 2010, there will be another gubernatorial election in 2012, according to the normal term cycle. Pretty much anyone that is willing to do what it takes to be competitive in the 2010 race certainly has an eye on 2012. This makes for two short fundraising cycles that will reduce the field of true contenders. Some may still compete to demonstrate interest and to start building a base for the future.

There are a lot of winners with the President’s nomination of Gov. Huntsman. Huntsman has been touted by many moderate Republicans as an up-and-comer in the party, perhaps with presidential possibilities. This new appointment will take him out of running for 2012, so Obama will never have to face him.

Huntsman wins too. He has made no bones about the fact that his true love is diplomatic work. He has suggested that he’d rather be Secretary of State than President. Besides that, he speaks Mandarin Chinese and has a good working knowledge of China and of issues related to that nation. He is eminently qualified for the position.

Utah grass roots Republicans can also be happy. Their alliance with Gov. Huntsman has never been an easy one. Given Huntsman’s recent socially liberal pronouncements and his unwillingness to show his face at state GOP events, many will be happy to see him get the heck out of Utah. There’s no great love lost there. I am not the only one to suggest that Huntsman might fit better in the Democratic Party than in the GOP. Pignanelli & Webb say that we should “not be surprised if Huntsman returns from China … as a Democrat.”

One thing’s for sure; next year’s session of the legislature will end up being a lot different than would have been the case if Huntsman were still governor. Some will say that this is a good thing. Others will think otherwise. But I’m pretty sure that you won’t see any use of the governor’s office to support civil unions and the global warmist agenda.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Publicly Sponsored Beauty Pageants

The recent flap about a Miss America contestant’s answer to a controversial question has put beauty contests in the spotlight. For a number of years my town has held a beauty pageant as part of its annual Independence Day celebration. For the record, I think this is a misuse of taxpayer funds and a misuse of city government’s title and resources.

To me, the whole concept of beauty pageants is inane, yet there is a whole pageant industry that promotes the concept. Demand for this kind of entertainment obviously exists. Still I question the morality of it.

A few weeks ago, the front page of the community section of our local newspaper featured a large color photo of some young women that were competing in the swimsuit portion of a different local beauty contest. These girls did not look like benign catalog models. Some of their swimwear was rather minimal. The angle of the photo, the …uh… clothing, the body makeup, the high heels, and the stances made it look an awful lot like porn.

You can argue all you want that only the willing are involved and that prizes are awarded for factors other than physical beauty, such as talent, scholarship, etc. But as stated in this Wikipedia article, “Although some competitions have components that are not based purely on physical appearance, “unattractive” contestants are unlikely to win, no matter how talented, poised, intelligent, educated, resourceful or socially conscious they are.”

The desired ‘beauty’ qualities promoted by these contests unquestionably lead some (perhaps most) contestants to engage in unhealthy practices. A very narrow ideal is promoted that relatively few girls and women have the physical capacity to achieve. This type of thing is already far too prevalent in media and it certainly fosters unhealthy perceptions and practices.

I have often told my wife that I seriously hope that our daughter never develops an interest in beauty pageant competition. Ditto for drill team dance. All too frequently I see girls dressed like trollops and performing dance moves that would be considered morally reprehensible were they performed on a stage on the Las Vegas strip. Most of these are groups that are sponsored by our public schools. I’m not too thrilled about cheerleading either.

OK, so I’m an old stick in the mud. Actually, I think people ought to be free to participate in these kinds of activities as much as they want — as long as it doesn’t happen on the taxpayer’s dime or under the rubric of government. And as long as it doesn’t cross the line of child abuse, which I think may be the case in some instances.

I believe that government should in no way lend credence to beauty pageants and similar activities. I do not believe these kinds of events are in the public’s best interest. Yet, if I were to go to the city council and state these sentiments publicly, I’d be treated as a pariah.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Rule of ... ?

The 1787 Constitutional Convention convened just weeks after Shay’s Rebellion had been put down in Massachusetts. This was not the first debtor rebellion in the states since the end of war, but it was the largest and it pointed up the inadequacy of the weak central government authorized by the Articles of Confederation to deal with certain internal problems, let alone foreign policy.

Significant conflict between “monied interests” and ordinary farmers developed in the years following the end of the American Revolution. The vast majority of the American economy was agricultural. Almost everyone was involved in agriculture at some level. The only way most farmers could get a start or deal with seasonal cash flow issues was to incur debt. Those that had money to lend could turn a profitable business, providing they could be repaid. That was becoming increasingly problematic.

The American states owed considerable war debts to foreign interests. The states could only raise funds through taxation, mostly in the forms of property, trade, and import/export taxes (including imports from and exports to other states). This inhibited interstate trade and pushed farmers at the margins into poverty. Taxation with representation was becoming as noxious as taxation without representation had been.

To make matters worse, since no reliable form of specie existed in the American states, America’s creditors demanded repayment in gold or silver, commodities that were extremely scarce in the states. This effectively established a precious metal standard for both government and private debts. When farmers could not produce precious metals to pay their debts and their mounting taxes (of ever increasing variety), courts issued judgments against them. To satisfy the judgments, properties were foreclosed and even meager personal possessions were confiscated. Many basically honest people found themselves in debtor’s prison.

Americans had been used to a certain level of democratic governance for well over a century. But representative and executive positions had mostly been reserved for the upper class. However, the wave of populism fostered by the revolution was changing things. Debtors had gained the upper hand in some state legislatures and had passed laws that were overly favorable to debtors and disrespectful property rights. Although well meant, these laws caused a credit contraction as those with resources quit lending. This harmed the very people the laws intended to help, causing yet more conflict between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’

America was in crisis as the Philadelphia convention convened in May 1787. The Founders’ response to the credit-debt crisis was multi-pronged. Article I Section 10 of the Constitution prohibited states from enacting any “Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts.” It also prohibited states from taxing (or regulating — Article I Section 8) interstate or international commerce, reserving this right to Congress. The federal government assumed the states’ war debts under Article VI, rendering some of the state level taxation unnecessary. (This was a sticky issue because some states had been more responsible in paying down their debts than other states.) Article I Section 8 also reserved to Congress the sole authority of establishing “uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States,” ensuring that there would be some kind of standardized relief available to debtors.

These provisions taken together helped ensure the sanctity of the contract and of private properties, while also providing a pathway to relief for debtors. That pathway was only defined when Congress passed bankruptcy laws beginning in 1801. The laws regarding contracts apply to everyone at all levels. This rule of law is a significant stabilizing element that helps form the basis of our economy and of our system of government.

GMU economist Todd Zywicki argues in this WSJ op-ed that the Obama administration has violated this basic rule of law in its exuberance to save union jobs at Chrysler.
“The Obama administration's behavior in the Chrysler bankruptcy is a profound challenge to the rule of law. Secured creditors -- entitled to first priority payment under the "absolute priority rule" [of U.S. bankruptcy law] -- have been browbeaten by an American president into accepting only 30 cents on the dollar of their claims. Meanwhile, the United Auto Workers union, holding junior creditor claims, will get about 50 cents on the dollar. …

“Violating absolute priority undermines this commitment by introducing questions of redistribution into the process. It enables the rights of senior creditors to be plundered in order to benefit the rights of junior creditors.”
Moreover, Zywicki argues that “in a Chapter 11 reorganization, creditors have the right to vote to approve or reject the plan. The Obama administration's asset-sale plan implements a de facto reorganization but denies to creditors the opportunity to vote on it.” This is the essence of the Chrysler “speedy bankruptcy” that has been mentioned in news sound bites. The rule of law is being violated to pay off political cronies; in this case, “union workers whose dues, in part, engineered [Pres. Obama’s] election.”

“The value of the rule of law,” writes Zywicki “is not merely a matter of economic efficiency. It also provides a bulwark against arbitrary governmental action taken at the behest of politically influential interests at the expense of the politically unpopular.” This is one of the basic tenets of our system of government. Government is to be of, by, and for all of the people, not just the politically powerful or favored.

Moving away from the rule of law to the arbitrary rule of men on contract issues will dismantle the creditor-debtor balance the Founders and their successors so carefully crafted. As occurred when state legislatures began disrespecting contract law and property rights in the 1780s, this path will also lead to a credit crunch as those with resources to lend factor in political risk factors.

Zywicki says, “we need to ask how eager lenders will be to offer new credit to General Motors knowing that the value of their investment could be diminished or destroyed by government to enrich a politically favored union. We also need to ask how eager hedge funds will be to participate in the government's Public-Private Investment Program to purchase banks' troubled assets.”

Many of the President’s fans seem to assume that their political opponents have been rendered permanently politically impotent. But history shows that they will come to power again. How will the President’s current supporters feel in some future day when their political opponents wield the method the President is pioneering to the benefit of their own politically favored groups?

The sanctity of the contract is not a partisan issue; it is an American issue. Majorities from all sides of the political spectrum (perhaps excepting Communists) should stand up against this abuse of power before it becomes another standard tool in the American political arsenal. It really doesn’t matter who is being paid off in this current instance. The danger posed by this action is enough to warrant opposing it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

To Kill a Nazi Guard

John Demjanjuk is 89 years old and is quite ill. Born in Ukraine, he came to the U.S. in 1951 as a displaced person. He and his family settled and he went to work as a diesel mechanic at a Ford plant in Ohio.  He became a U.S. citizen in 1958. Life seemed to go on pretty normal for the Demjanjuk family until evidence surfaced that he had been a Nazi SS guard at a death camp during WWII.

A strange saga began 32 years ago that sought to bring Demjanjuk to justice for war crimes. Demjanjuk says that he was never in the German SS. He says he was a Soviet soldier that was captured and spent most of the war in a German POW camp.

The courts disagreed with Demjanjuk. Four years after the original charges were filed the then 61-year-old auto worker had his U.S. citizenship stripped for lying on his citizenship application. Two years later, Israel requested his extradition. He was finally extradited to Israel three years later. His trial spanned a year and a half. Finally, he was convicted of being an evil Nazi death camp guard called “Ivan the Terrible” and was sentenced to hang.

During the appeals process information was discovered in records of the newly collapsed Soviet Union that proved the charges false. However, other records surfaced suggesting that Demjanjuk was a different Nazi death camp guard. Still, he was exonerated of the charges of which he had been convicted. After seven years in Israel, a 73-year-old Demjanjuk was returned to the U.S. It took five more years before his U.S. citizenship was restored.

A year after that, a new complaint was filed against the 79-year-old Demjanjuk based on the evidence referenced above. This began a whole new round of court actions that resulted in the revocation of his citizenship at age 84. Since that time, there have been a series of actions seeking to deport Demjanjuk to Germany for trial.

This week the sick 89-year-old Demjanjuk sat in a German court in a wheelchair breathing oxygen from a tank as charges against him were read. (See AP article.) Efraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center says that Demjanjuk’s trial will reinforce “the message that the passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the murderers.”

Holocaust survivor Charlotte Knobloch has no sympathy for the aging Demjanjuk because he “knew no mercy for his victims.” Saying that his trial “is a race against time,” she apparently wants to hurry to rub him out before he dies of natural causes.

The evidence against Demjanjuk has not been made fully public. In 2004 the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals found that the current evidence against him is “clear, unequivocal, and convincing.” While that helps legally justify the current actions, let’s not forget that the previous evidence that Demjanjuk was “Ivan the Terrible” was likewise considered incontrovertible by courts in multiple nations for at least a decade and a half.

My Dad grew up in a small German resort town on the North Sea. He never saw anyone wearing a Star of David identifying them as being Jewish, as occurred in larger German cities. The Nazi government was fairly effective in controlling information, so news of the Holocaust only began reaching Dad’s remote neck of the woods as whispered rumors late in the war. The rumors were so horrific that they were simply not believable.

Even when evidence of the Holocaust began to become public, the concept that such dreadful events were possible was so far outside of people’s experience and thought patterns that people could not bring themselves to believe it. It required an overwhelming cascade of evidence before people would believe. And then it changed everything.

The truth, it turned out, was far more horrific than any of the bizarre whispered tales had been. Millions of human beings — men, women, and children — had been methodically annihilated in huge death factories for the crime of being among classes of people the regime disliked. The government had tried to erase an entire class of people from the face of the earth. Until that evidence became clear, the thought that human beings were capable of carrying out such atrocities was inconceivable to most people.

Dad explained to me that once the Holocaust became part of the public psyche, it engendered an entirely new level of loathing and anger. And that was among people that had not been targets of the regime’s hatred. Imagine what kind of sentiments it fostered among those who survived the terror and those that lost loved ones in this horrendous crime.

The best way to reduce the chance of another future Holocaust is to instill in the worldwide psyche a complete and total repudiation of the practice. Any sense of legitimacy of such atrocities must be stamped out. It is in this vein that nations have spent three decades and millions of dollars to bring this one accused Nazi death camp guard to justice.

I somewhat understand and have great sympathy for the idea that the Holocaust atrocities (and anything like them) need to be criminalized and broadly de-legitimized. But part of me wonders if there isn’t a point where it makes sense to cut bait. Does it really make sense to rush to get a noose around this old man’s frail neck before his body naturally expires? Are there no cases where mercy might be applied without granting legitimacy to the crimes alleged?

Monday, May 11, 2009

To See or Not to See — (It's Only a Movie)

I read a couple of reviews of the new Star Trek movie over the weekend. Although I rarely go to movies, part of me would sure like to see this one. It sounds like it would be great if you liked the original Star Trek series.

Back when I was a kid I used to watch Star Trek on TV, especially in reruns. I was never a Star Trek aficionado. I couldn’t tell you the plots of all of the episodes, I didn’t know anything about the actors’ lives, nor did I own Star Trek paraphernalia as did a few of the really weird kids at school. (One girl in high school carried around tribbles and a toy communicator in her purse.)

But a Star Trek episode was often a good way to waste an hour, especially given what was usually on competing channels at the same time — talk shows, game shows, inane dramas, and silly sit-coms. We could only get three channels back then and home video equipment was still years away.

Having seen Star Trek reruns many times during my couch potato years, there were some episodes that I really liked — where they ended up in a 1920s mob environment, where they went back to 1969, where they were in a Roman gladiator world, and where they had an old western shootout (hmmm, I note a pattern here) — and episodes that I quite disliked — where they dealt with this powerful brat named Charlie, where kids on the ship had an evil imaginary friend, the planet killer thing, and the episode called The Empath. (I just hated that one.) Most episodes were forgettable of themselves, although, they reinforced the basic patterns of the series. (“He’s dead, Jim!”)

Give me a break; I was a kid. I haven’t seen most of these shows since then. Maybe I’d have different opinions if I were to see these episodes today. But I rarely sit down to watch TV, so that’s not going to happen.

Years went by and I found myself regularly watching the Next Generation series. More sophisticated, to be sure. Not nearly as much brute force involved. Not bad, though. Then came DS9 — the show that got stranger and stranger by the episode. Life was changing for me then. I pretty much quit watching TV at all, so DS9 (thankfully) went by the wayside for me. I saw parts of a couple of episodes of Voyager, and thought, “What the …?”

This new movie, it seems, recaptures some of the best elements of the original series. But apparently it captures some of the worst elements as well.

Last Thursday my son had to work late at his job at a movie theater because they were showing a preview of the recent Star Trek movie. He later described for me the crowd that turned out to see it. The people that were decked out in Star Trek uniforms, he claimed, were almost uniformly “very fat” and “old” (meaning middle aged). “These were grown people,” he continued incredulously; “Dad, it was pathetic.”

Although I’d like to catch the movie, I suppose that it will be like countless other movies I have thought about watching over the past few years. Somehow I will never find time to get away and watch it. There will always be more important things going on. Then it will be out of theaters and released on DVD. Even then I probably won’t even bother to rent it. Who has the time? (Which is just another way of saying that it just isn’t very important to me.)

Besides, past experience has shown me that I usually don’t see things the way most movie reviewers do. What turns their crank doesn’t turn mine and vice versa. No disrespect intended. We just have different motivations.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Norway and the Price of Freedom

Some old gnarled trees on the grounds of Akershus Fortress in Oslo Norway still bear bullet holes and contain bullets fired by Nazi soldiers to execute Norwegian resistance fighters. A simple sign in the grove reads, “De kempet og de falt, de ga oss alt.” (They fought and they fell, they gave us their all.) Today marks 64 years since Norway was liberated from Nazi occupation.

Norwegians today still recall with bitterness the date of April 9, 1940 when German forces occupied Norway in a rapid operation. Many Norwegians still harbor a certain degree of animosity toward neighboring Sweden, which was officially neutral throughout WWII, and yet allowed German forces to use Swedish rail lines to invade across Norway’s eastern border in the early morning hours of April 9, 1940 (and subsequently permitted German rail shipments to and from Norway through Sweden throughout the war).

Norway had also been officially neutral even from WWI days. It had neutrality treaties with the UK and Germany. But Norway was also strategically important. The Gulf Stream gives Norway ice free harbors throughout the bitter winters. Its location allows relatively open sea access to the UK and North America. We now know that both the Axis and the Allies had contingency plans for operations in Norway. Hitler decided early on to put Germany’s plans into action.

Norway’s population was (and is) only a fraction the size of Germany’s. Germans maintained strict control by overwhelming the hapless Norwegians. There was one German occupier for every eight Norwegians. During this time my own grandfather, an officer in the German Naval Reserve spent time in Norway, where he said everything tasted like fish. (Having lost all trading partners except Germany, the Norwegian economy contracted, causing them to turn to heavier fishing. Fish products were used to extend many other foods and were included in most animal feeds.)

Even today Norwegians harbor harsh feelings for Nazi sympathizers. The term Quisling, which is synonymous with traitor, refers to Vidkun Quisling. He was a Norwegian politician and army officer that founded Norway’s equivalent of the Nazi Party and secretly worked with German planners to implement their plans to invade Norway. The Nazis made Quisling the head of Norwegian government during the occupation. Following the war he was executed for high treason.

One of Norway’s claims to fame is that a Norwegian invented the paper clip. (It turns out that Johan Vaaler had obtained German and U.S. patents for a version of the paper clip around 1901, despite the fact that a superior version of the paper clip about which he knew nothing already existed. His patented version was never manufactured.) During the German occupation, many Norwegians began wearing paper clips on their lapels as a show of patriotism and resistance against the occupation.

Resistance Fighters
Many Norwegians worked in the home front resistance forces, which used both active and passive methods. My mission president, Arthur Halvorsen (Wilford) was in the Norwegian underground and engaged in clandestine activities, including smuggling, distribution of illegal newspapers, and message transmission. Eventually he became part of a four-man team that sent secret encoded radio messages to the UK.

Arthur’s team often used a secret upper room in a building near the city hall in Bergen. The city hall had been appropriated to be Nazi headquarters in that area. This room permitted a good view of HQ activities. On one occasion, an important German official was visiting Bergen incognito. A member of Arthur’s team was able to get a good photograph of this man along with other German officials standing on the steps of city hall. The film was quickly smuggled to Allied officials in the UK. The next day, a large print of the photo was reproduced on the front page of a British newspaper.

Arthur was never sure how or why the photo had been leaked to the press. It was a morale builder that demonstrated the capacities of Allied spy efforts. But the publishing of the photo was a critical mistake that endangered Norwegian underground operatives. It didn’t take the Nazis long to figure out the vantage point from which the photo had been taken. The next time Arthur’s team met in the room to make a radio transmission, they were suddenly attacked by soldiers. Arthur remembered being whacked on the head and losing consciousness.

Arthur was one of the lucky ones that survived the attack. But he ended up in a prison camp in another part of Norway. Eventually he and other hard nose prisoners (especially those caught attempting escape) were shipped to a serious prisoner of war camp in the eastern part of Germany. News was hard to get in the camp and often came only when new prisoners were brought in. But as the war wore on, it became apparent that things were not going well for the Germans. The prison guards of prime age were sent out to the front and were replaced by both older and younger men. Food became worse. The prisoners were suffering from malnutrition.

One day an officer came and asked for four volunteers that knew how to work a dairy farm. Arthur talked three other Scandinavians into stepping forward with him for the detail. At the time, they didn’t realize that they would never return to the prison camp. They ended up on a dairy farm out in the countryside, where they did all of the work. They were constantly overseen by an armed guard. They slept in the barn, no matter how cold it was. They were prohibited from approaching or having interaction with the residents of the farm house, but they knew that all of the men folk were off to war.

In many ways, this situation was preferable to being in the prison camp. They got better nutrition and exercise. They had something to do. They developed a working relationship with many of their guards. As the weeks passed, they began to regain much of their normal strength. The guards were regularly replaced by even older guards. The four Scandinavians began to formulate escape plans.

One part of the plan was to gain the confidence of guards and make so that no flight risk would be suspected. They found ways to pick up on every possible tidbit of information because they didn’t really know for sure where they were or what the best route to freedom was. Eventually everything was ready.

On the run
Arthur said that he felt badly about tricking the guard, knocking him out, and securing him in the outhouse, because this particular man had always been kind to them. They then crept up to the farmhouse and disabled its communications. They used the guard’s weapon to hold the residents at bay while they stole as much food and clothing as was feasible. They had already saddled the horses by then. They knew it wouldn’t be long before the residents alerted the authorities, so they made their escape as quickly as possible, driving the horses hard and moving eastward.

After many days of traveling by horse (mostly at night), they were running low on supplies. They decided that they would have to trust someone in order to get supplies, so they tied up the horses at what appeared to be a small grocery store and sent two men inside. They discovered that they were in Poland, but the shop owner could speak German as well. He was more than happy to trade supplies for their horses. He also told them all of the news he had about the war.

After talking to the shop proprietor, the escapees determined that going further east and into the arms of the advancing Soviet forces was probably not a good idea. Using a crude map provided by the proprietor, they plotted a route westward through remote areas that they figured would steer them as clear of military activity as possible.

Traveling by foot turned out to be harsh. Although spring had arrived, there was still plenty of rain, mud, and cold. The men were in good shape at the beginning of their foot trek, but they could carry relatively minimal supplies and those supplies were rapidly expended. The further they got into Germany, the more they had to travel under cover of darkness. Because they stuck to outlying areas, resupplying (even by theft) was difficult.

Weeks went by. The four once-hardy men were emaciated, filthy, and clad in rags. One day as they slept in a ditch, their lookout man awoke the others. He could hear the approach of vehicles, including heavy vehicles. It had to be a military operation. The escapees had been out of touch with news, so they didn’t know for sure what this meant. They assayed their options and determined that trying to backtrack away from the area would likely get them spotted, so they decided to lay low in the ditch.

Finally it sounded as if the heavy vehicles were very near them. They were afraid that if anyone even stuck his head up above the ditch bank, it would get shot off and would expose the others. But eventually they decided that one of them would have to carefully look. One of the men took a deep breath and carefully raised himself up enough to peer over the bank, and then he carefully lowered himself. “What did you see?” asked the others. “Tanks and vehicles. Each has a big white star on the side,” he answered. It had to be Allied forces.

One of the men ripped off part of what had once been a white shirt and fastened it to the end of a long reed. The men slowly stood up with their hands and the flag in the air and started walking toward the road. In very short order they found themselves being fed rations and being checked by medics. It was still months before the men were back home in Scandinavia, but their ordeal as prisoners and fugitives was over. They were safe once again.

Norway was officially liberated from Nazi rule on May 8, 1945 when German forces in the country surrendered to the Allies as part of the surrender of German forces in Europe. The leadership structure developed by the resistance movement proved to be highly useful in restoring order in the ensuing weeks. Crown Prince Olav (later King Olav V) returned to Norway from exile in the UK amid the wild cheering of adoring crowds on May 13. The rest of the royal family returned on June 7. The five-year night of Nazi occupation was over.

Having learned that neutrality does not ensure peace or safety, Norway soon joined NATO. All Norwegian males are required to fulfill a year of military service between ages 18 and 26 and remain on reserve call until age 44. Attitudes have changed somewhat with the passing of generations and the influx of significant numbers of immigrants from Asia and the Middle East, but the five-year Nazi occupation of the country has left a deep impression on the Norwegian psyche that will not soon go away. Many Norwegians still remember the captivity of their fathers (see Alma 29:11-12, Alma 36:2,28-29).

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Culture of Corruption

Jonah Goldberg has a stinging little article about some of the corruption occurring on the Democrats’ watch. He starts by giving a nod to some of the famed GOP crooks of recent years before launching into a hearty tirade about various dirty Dems.

Among other things, Goldberg discusses some shady dealings with respect to the current Chrysler debacle. (A tragedy in the making as described in this WSJ article by Holman W. Jenkins. One of Chrysler’s creditors describes in this NYTimes article how Obama administration officials tried to use hardball tactics to fleece his company in order to pay off political donors.)

Goldberg then writes, “If a Republican administration, staffed with cronies from Goldman Sachs and Citibank, were cutting special deals for its political allies ….” Whoa, he couldn’t be talking about the likes of Bush’s Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, could he?

Finally, after ripping on Dems, Goldberg sounds a note of bipartisanship, writing that “political corruption is inevitable whenever you give hacks — of either party — too much discretion over public funds.”

And therein, my friends, lies the crux of the matter. Goldberg’s rant may seem a bit overly partisan to some. The fact is that when the government controls such a large slice of the economy, thuggish political opportunists will rise to take as much advantage as possible, regardless of which party of crooks is running the show.

The more money that is involved, the greater will be the corruption. This is human nature. More to the point, it is the nature of politicians. Americans by and large simply accept such sleaze as the way things happen to work in our system. Occasionally egregious underhandedness raises the public ire until it passes from the news cycle. And then the corruption cycle returns to normal.

This is one reason that some Americans favor limited government. The less government has its fingers in the economy, the less political corruption there will be.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Deadly Data

Being an information technology worker, I read with interest this post by Joe Bugajski titled, The Data Model That Nearly Killed Me. Bugajski has decades of experience in engineering with particular expertise in data and application design. He has patents, peer-reviewed publications, and technical book authorship under his belt. When it comes to IT, Bugajski knows what he is talking about. When it comes to medicine he is no expert, but he has a story to tell.

Bugajski’s article details his horrific experience with getting inadequate treatment for a severe asthma attack he suffered earlier this year. He ended up in a large teaching hospital that reportedly has great care. But he describes how the staff fought continuously with the computer system that was supposedly designed to improve the quality of medical care.

The upshot is that the critical medication Bugajski needed was not administered until 34 hours after his arrival at the hospital and 14 hours after his admittance to intensive care. He says that this was significantly due to a poorly designed computer system. The problem was then repeated when a second dose of the medication was due.

While Bugajski’s article is informative, I found the extensive comments at the end of the article even more informative. Some comments focus on IT issues. Many comments coming from health care professionals expose serious flaws in the medical system that are not directly related to the industry’s use (or lack of use) of information technologies.

IT doesn’t always work well with medicine
Some posters suggest that health care IT systems are inadequate because they attempt to address competing requirements. Getting all of a person’s health data in one place is a worthy goal, but privacy concerns (and policies) often limit the ability of different practitioners (and different levels of practitioners) to access all of the pertinent data. Some systems restrict entry of certain types of data in order to limit liability.

Once an error makes it into the system, it is nearly impossible to correct. Too much data can also produce information overload for practitioners interfacing with the system. Systems are not designed to function well with the way practitioners actually think and work. Databases are poor systems for storing some types of medical knowledge and information.

Non-technical issues
Some posters suggest that these technical issues are only peripheral to the main problems in health care. Ian, a self-identified physician writes, “Sad truth: doctors are not paid for treating your pain: they are paid for documenting its location, duration, frequency, timing, quality, modifying factors, and associated symptoms.”

A frequently repeated complaint is that there is fragmented care due to the lack of a patient advocate with adequate knowledge and power to bring the various specialist treatments together to achieve a positive result. Numerous highly trained professionals are each only operating with a small piece of the puzzle. They are not empowered or incentivized to see the big picture. There is no ownership of the patient’s general welfare, so nobody in the system really cares about it.

To counter this lack of incentive, an EMT writes, “There is absolutely no substitute for an active sense of skepticism and a very irritated advocate in any healthcare setting. None.”

Another related matter is explained by a poster name Gerry. “… the physician of today has scant training looking at the patient, but lots of training at looking for a molecular cause for any illness. Thus, they tend to believe the lab more than they believe the patient.”

Charlie, a health systems integrator, feels that the problem lies in medical traditions. He writes, “Today, the culture of American medical professionals seems to be unfortunately similar to that of medieval priests - doctors are trained (through fairly brutal treatment involving sleep deprivation and rigorous indoctrination) to have a certain “hero” mindset and to disregard and distrust outside views that conflict with hierarchically dispensed dogmas.” Practitioners are trained not to ignore outside information but to treat it with disdain. That’s why the pleas of Bugajski and his wife for a known treatment were cast aside by multiple practitioners.

An alarming situation
Several posters alluded to the lack of response to audible (and perhaps visual) alarms on various medical devices. One doctor says that these are often ignored because practitioners already know about and have considered the condition causing the alarm. Even if this is true, it points out a glaring lack of concern for the psychological wellbeing of the patient and his family. To them it looks like the patient’s peril is being ignored. Hasn’t anyone considered how to alert care professionals without freaking out patients and their loved ones?

This brings to light another problem. Every medical device is being developed as a standalone thing. Patients are hooked up to numerous devices that don’t know about and don’t talk to each other, and that don’t provide concerted feedback to practitioners. Why is this the case? Why is there no incentive for developing patient friendly devices that provide useful and concerted feedback to practitioners?

Perverse incentives and myths
Another concern voiced is that creating a government based electronic health care record will produce perverse incentives for officially sanctioned misuse of the data. This will create an incentive for people to be less than forthcoming, perhaps creating dangerous situations. Gattaca anyone?

As I wrote in this post last year, GMU economist Robin Hanson argues that our culture has an unhealthy superstition about the heroic capabilities of modern medical treatment. Our cultural conditioning causes us to develop incentives for spending our health care dollars on things that have little impact rather than on more significant factors, “such as exercise, diet, sleep, smoking, pollution, climate, and social status.”

Hanson’s research reveals that much of our heroic based medicine produces as much in negative effects as it does in positive effects. In this article, Hanson argues that we could cut current medical expenses in half without seeing any real decline in health outcomes. Our culture militates against this and we have a massive medical industry that is heavily invested in the practice of heroic medicine. Despite evidence that this is a poor use of resources, people continually demand more of the same.

It seems clear that health care IT systems are a mixed bag, at best. Perhaps the attempt to develop rational IT models to support an irrational health care system is destined to produce an ill fitting outcome. Possibly we need more discussions about how to achieve better health outcomes than about how to pay for heroic medicine.

Friday, May 01, 2009

The GOP Dilemma

As a follow-up to my last post and related comments, I found WSJ articles by Kimberly Strassel and Peggy Noonan interesting. Both agree that the departure from the GOP of Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) is generating a lot of introspection among Republicans. This is not because Specter was a great Republican, but because this relatively small change has pushed the national GOP to the precipice of political irrelevance.

While a debate about what it means to be Republican is both useful and essential, “Mr. Specter,” writes Strassel, “is a very unhealthy basis on which to be having what might otherwise be a healthy debate. … The Pennsylvanian has only ever been purely ideological on one issue: the polls.” Noonan contends, “It is fine to dismiss Mr. Specter as an opportunist, but opportunists tell you something: which side is winning. That's the side they want to be on.”

Strassel particularly takes on Republican ‘moderates’ like Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) that talk airily about some undefined form of “centrism,” while supporting everything put up by GOP opponents. Strassel contrasts this with others that have taken principled stands against their party’s position on various issues. Such disagreements can often be tolerated. But Strassel suggests that Republicans that demonstrate by their actions that they agree with very little of the party’s principles cause more harm than good.

Noonan writes, “A great party needs give. It must be expansive and summoning. It needs to say, "Join me." … A great party cannot live by constantly subtracting, by removing or shunning those who are not faithful to every aspect of its beliefs….” This sounds good, but I’m not sure it’s as accurate as Noonan suggests. Or at least, I’m not sure that voting out (or threatening to vote out) a single senator in a primary election amounts to what Noonan is saying it does.

The Specter situation is similar to the conditions Sen. Lieberman ([I]D-CT) faced back in 2006. Lieberman was turned upon by the party establishment and was rejected by his party’s primary voters. Republicans crowed that the Lieberman expulsion would harm Democrats. Can anybody point me to evidence of that harm?

Both Strassel and Noonan call for the GOP to define its principles. “The party,” writes Strassel, “is currently in trouble because the party lost its principles. Overspending, earmarks, corruption and policy drift undermined Republican claims to be the party of reform. … [T]he GOP will never win running as a less enthusiastic version of big-government Democrats. … [T]he party must reclaim its mantle of the party of limited government and entrepreneurship.”

Noonan calls for party principles to include at least “a strong defense, … a less demanding and intrusive government, … [and] a natural affection and respect for tradition and for life….” Due to the party’s recent support of measures antithetical to some of these principles, contends Noonan, it “will take them a while to seem credible again.”

Credibility is the missing link. This is precisely what many Republicans are clamoring for in their own way. While Noonan calls for the welcoming of anyone that says they are Republican, it should be obvious that accepting too many that don’t actually buy into party principles helped create the credibility crisis in which the GOP finds itself today.

As I have said before, major political parties are made up of factions that often strongly disagree on various issues. Noonan says that it is extremely rare that someone comes along that can solidly unify those factions as did FDR and Reagan, so that the GOP should move ahead without looking for such a savior. It occurs to me, however, that the Democratic Party is currently experiencing such a rare moment with President Obama.

Noonan accurately lists the challenges facing the GOP, including “younger voters who seem embarrassed to be associated with them, an aging and contracting base and, perhaps most ominously, what appears to be a new national openness to a redefinition of the relationship between the government and the governed.”

The generational shift Noonan mentions may be a much greater issue than the GOP’s apparent lack of credibility — just as generational shift played a big role in the GOP coming to power in the 80s and 90s. After all, politicians are by definition among the least credible humans on earth, regardless of party affiliation. If this is the case, perhaps the best the GOP can do is to position itself to be ready to catch the next generational shift wave that comes along.

Regardless of the reasons for current conditions and what the future holds, it would certainly do the GOP well to restore some sense of credibility. The party should welcome even those that only marginally agree, but before that can happen in a healthy manner the party has to nail down precisely what its basic principles are. Then a significant core of party members has to unwaveringly buy into those principles.

As Noonan says, this kind of work takes a long time. How can something like this happen without a strong leader? It has to begin among the lowest levels and percolate its way up. This will be a painstaking process. But if the welcoming process Noonan touts starts before this point, the party will again be blown about like a ship without a rudder.

So, the solution for the GOP is to develop a strong set of core principles and to welcome any that are willing to sail under that banner. But it has to happen in that order or it won’t happen at all. Why would anyone want to be aligned with a party that basically stands for nothing more than not being registered Democrats?