31 May 2007

Self-Reliance and Utopian Fantasies

In a recent speech, Hillary Clinton talked about her desire to change the US from an “on your own” (what she calls Bush’s “ownership society”) society to a “we’re all in it together” society. She said:

"I believe our government can once again work for all Americans. It can promote the great American tradition of opportunity for all and special privileges for none."
Special privileges? For people like her husband, perhaps? He’s asking for a lot:

The globe-trotting former president with the New York office and a worldwide charitable enterprise is seeking $1.16 million in taxpayer money for fiscal 2008. That is more than double the amount requested by fellow Democrat Jimmy Carter and substantially more than Republican George H.W. Bush.

Clinton's office attributes much of the cost on New York's pricey rents, noting that his Harlem neighborhood office costs about $500,000 a year, far more than Bush's Houston office at $175,000 and Carter's Atlanta digs at $102,000.

Clinton, who has earned nearly $40 million in speaking fees since leaving office, also wants a lot more for telephone expenses -- $79,000 compared with $17,000 for Bush and $10,000 for Carter.

And while all three former presidents are entitled to pensions of $191,000 next year, Clinton has requested $10,000 more for health insurance.

Not to belabor the point, but even compared to the other two living presidents Bill Clinton is privileged. And if a $10,000 plus-up over his already fantastic health care is what’s envisioned for “universal health care”…it’s a vision that can’t be fulfilled.

And when talking about privilege, about being rich, Hillary Clinton portrays picture altogether. While defending private jet rides she’s taken – and apparently reimbursed donors for – she said,

"I know a lot of rich people. My husband and I never had any money ... now all the sudden we're rich," Clinton said. "I have nothing against rich people. ... but what made America great is the American middle class."

So, she's really not been rich all of this time? Somehow I find that hard to believe. She may not have felt rich, but I'd wager that she's had more access to money and power in her lifetime than either you or I could imagine. But back to the “we’re all in it together” comment. I have to wonder if this can be dove-tailed in with her comments in February regarding Exxon profits:
"I want to take those profits and put them into an alternative energy fund that will begin to fund alternative smart energy alternatives that will actually begin to move us toward the direction of independence."

I have to ask myself if I would trust the US government to spend $39 billion of someone else’s money on what it says it would. I give the government money every paycheck in the form of Social Security tax, and this money I will never see again. It’s already spent; it’s not sitting in some account waiting for me to retire. Where would another $39 billion from Exxon go?

What some are saying is that Hillary Clinton is a rank socialist. I would agree with the socialist part, but I think she’s more of an elitist. Bill earns $40 million is speaking fees since stepping down, yet the couple is only now “rich”. And despite being rich, Bill feels entitled to an extra $10,000 for health care, along with much more than is afforded to other ex-Presidents. But we’re all in it together. And she’s going to take those profits (and not just Exxon’s, either).

I’d prefer to be left alone – to go it alone, as they say – and not have the government make me feel like it is tending to my every need. I only want the government “working for me” when it comes to national defense and providing the infrastructure and institutions which make a representative democracy work and flow. I can’t do those on my own. But I sure can save for my own retirement, choose my own health care (I’d like more options, not one – the federal government) and lift myself by my own boot-straps. And in doing so, I can help others to do the same.

Any government which claims it can tend to the needs of all, which says it can level the playing field for all, which attempts to force equality of outcomes for all is pushing a utopian fantasy.

Post Script - For more on this topic (from better writers than myself), take a look at these two articles: Cal Thomas and Neal Boortz.

28 May 2007

An Unfair Doctrine

Recently, there has been a fair amount of talk about the “Fairness Doctrine”. According to various reports Democrats are attempting to resurrect “fairness” on license-requiring frequencies, namely broadcast television and radio.

In contrast to when it was first adopted in 1949 as an FCC rule (not as law), there are many, many more outlets for citizens to get news and information from. Most of the new media forms of delivery – cable television, satellite radio, internet – would not be subject to the rule. Moreover, more and more people are getting information from these other media. Additionally, there are cases where old and new media merge. Podcasting and streaming audio and video are used to promulgate content from broadcast media to new outlets, primarily using the internet. This makes it easier for many citizens to hear the views of those who take the time and effort to be heard. Contrast this with limited media in 1949. Perhaps the “Fairness Doctrine” made sense then when the number of broadcast stations was very limited. But today it would limit one category of media in a marketplace which is diverse and competitive. This is hardly fair.

Thus there is a basic issue of liberty tied in with reinstating the “Fairness Doctrine”. Given that the such a law, or rule, would impact only broadcast media, two targets are obvious. Even during my limited time in the US over the last year and a half, the tendency of broadcast television news to lean left, some further than others, is fairly obvious. Equally so is the tendency for talk radio, particularly on the AM dial, to lean to the right. Which of these is the target, or are they both?

As Democrats are in control of the House and that is where the push is coming from, a reasonable conclusion is that talk radio is the target.

But I think it’s important to look at the other broadcast media and compare before piling on the “fairness” wagon. Possibly the only broadcast television news which could be labeled conservative is on Fox. All of the others could arguably be tagged as left-leaning. Fox as a network is competitive in the marketplace and has a decent share of viewers, though not because of any government imposed doctrine and not in large part because of its news programs. Nevertheless, Fox (not Fox News) prospers in an open market which is for the most part left-leaning.

On the other hand, talk radio is very conservative. The list of conservative talk radio hosts is endless, and even those who could easily be labeled moderate or even non-political may be covered by the blanket of so-called “conservative radio”. But this is not due to lack of competition. Air America, an unabashedly liberal / leftist broadcaster, had millions of dollars thrown in its direction…and it failed. It could not garner an audience; it could not survive in the marketplace, so it went bankrupt. Would it be fair to subsidize Air America so that it could compete in the marketplace of ideas? Or would that be a government imposition of a very specific viewpoint in the marketplace, akin to, perhaps, government subsidies to make (insert conservative talk radio host here) available on broadcast television to level the playing field there?

The point here is that by re-implementing the “Fairness Doctrine” the government would necessarily be limiting the liberty of all to choose the message given and received by turning up the volume of some. And it cannot be discounted that this doctrine will also turn down the volume of others; it would limit their right to speak and to be heard. This is true for both left-leaning broadcast television and right-leaning talk radio. It would limit the fair exchange of ideas, not facilitate it. It would give those in power, whoever they may be, a free hand in dictating what people hear, and thus what people think. That, as Charles Fried discusses in Modern Liberty, is the foundation of liberty – the freedom to think without undue impositions on what to think. And here equality in the form of the “Fairness Doctrine” is the enemy of freedom of thought and of liberty.

27 May 2007

Educational Spending Perspective

Originally posted on The American Thinker website.

The Census Bureau reported this past week that in 2005 an average of $8701 was spent per student in government schools. That number in itself doesn't really say much because it doesn't provide a comparison to anything in particular. But it does offer a helpful starting point for running some numbers to analyze the business of government education.

Let's assume the following:

  • Each student "pays" his or her school $8700 a year for their education.
  • Each student takes 6 classes a school year, making the per-class distribution of funds $1450 per class.
  • Each teacher is paid the 2004-05 national average (source) of $47,600 (rounded down from $47,602), which does not include associated benefits costs. To give some indication of benefits, tack on 25% [in government employment the benefits may be higher, but this figure is realistic in the private sector -ed.] bringing teacher compensation to $59,500.
  • Given a secondary school teacher's schedule, each teacher teaches 5 classes a day with an average of 25 students per classroom. That's 125 students a teacher sees every day.
Therefore, for a given school year, a teacher takes in $36,250 per class or $181,250 in total.

In this model, 32.8% of that total goes directly to teacher compensation. That leaves another $121,750 per teacher for the school to cover administrative, counseling, maintenance, security, extra-curricular, and other activities. In business, this would be called a "gross margin" and a 67.2% gross margin is very healthy, indeed. That's a heap of money per school, especially considering that in large high schools, there may be 200+ teachers.

200 teachers at $121,750 per teacher equals $2.435 million gross margin per school above and beyond teacher compensation. That's a lot of money to be managed.For school-level administrators, there seems to be an expectation that they be chief instructional officers for their staff and quasi-CEOs of their schools simultaneously. It's an unrealistic expectation. This is big business wrapped in a cloak of education, and the two should probably be separated by structure - one side to deal with money, the other side to lead the school academically.

The really strange thing is that there is no reliable correlation between school spending and student achievement. It only makes sense that dollars are put in the headlines because they are digestible data chunks. What would be a more productive is a discussion about things that really affect student achievement, like teacher skills and expectations, family expectations and out-of-class activities.

But these things force judgment calls which some find uncomfortable or, God forbid, offensive - offensive because the discussion might place them in a bad light.

25 May 2007

Strange Places to Not Find Sugar

A few days ago, I noticed something odd about the tube of toothpaste in our house. I really wasn’t looking at anything in particular when I noticed the following printed on the back of the tube: “No Colgate toothpaste contains sugar.”

I thought that was really strange. Why would a tube of toothpaste have to declare, even in the smallest way, that it’s sugar-free? In The Road to Wigan Peir, George Orwell wrote, “We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine-gun.” I suppose that somewhere out there toothpastes are made with some form of sugar; the complete antithesis of dental care it would seem.

23 May 2007

More Thoughts on Immigration Reform

The more I read about the latest immigration reform bill, the less I like it. For some good reading on this bill, Thomas Sowell has two (link and link), and Hugh Hewitt has a series of comments (last one here, with links) on what he can get of the bill, which is still in draft form.

The first thing that strikes me about the bill is that, according to many reports, it has been debated and created in secret. Additionally, there was, and maybe still is, an effort to push the bill through the Senate without much debate. This is in addition that there is to my knowledge still only “draft” versions of the bill out there for review. These things all point to a bill which must have some serious flaws in it or which contains aspects that are very controversial and therefore must be kept secret.

The Z visa provision is one of the most troubling provisions of the bill. According to what I’ve read, one of the very first things that will happen if this bill becomes law is that millions of illegal immigrants will be eligible for the Z visa, which essentially allows them to stay in the country indefinitely. Also, it appears that only the head of a household will be required to have a background check done when applying for the Z visa. Lastly, Z visas are renewable ad infinitum, so the illegal immigrant becomes a documented foreign national on US soil – doing jobs that Americans won’t do, because they can’t find jobs in their home country, etc.

The background check, or lack thereof, for all family members is problematic. While a mother and father may be quite law abiding – other than being in the country illegally, which this bill essentially asks everyone to forget – son and daughter may not be. I have heard nothing of comprehensively checking for a criminal history of all family members covered under the Z visa. This is odd, as the immigration reform bill is dubbed as “comprehensive”. As it stands, I believe that this bill will provide legal status to many criminals already in the country, and again, when I say criminal here, I mean beyond being in the country illegally.

Finally, there’s the question of the cost to taxpayers of illegal immigrants no matter what their status. The Heritage Foundation released a cost analysis recently (executive summary here) titled "The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to the U.S. Taxpayer." Without getting into the details, this bill will impose a huge cost in the form of benefits on taxpayers. This is something which is really just common sense if given some thought. If a growing population is to maintain a level of services (schools, hospitals, police and fire forces, etc.), then tax payers must spend more money on those services. However, if a growing proportion of the citizenry is poor and not well-educated, then the tax-base of the community will also be lower. Two choices exist then: raise the tax burden of those who can pay more taxes or lower the level of services. How many new citizens will push for the latter? This is a long-term problem, though, as Z visa holders become embedded in the country (even more so than illegals are now) and either gain citizenship or are granted more rights as permanent residents.

In the end, for reasons too many to number here, I do not support the latest “comprehensive” immigration reform. Additionally, I don’t think we should have a “comprehensive” plan. How about an incremental plan in which the laws as they exist are enforced? I wrote many Senators this past week on just that point. If you feel the same way, perhaps you should, too.

18 May 2007

Troops and the "Total Force"

Sitting in the Sydney airport last week, I read an article on Real Clear Politics (lost the link…sorry) concerning Army and Marine troop levels. The author gives some background on where our current troop numbers come from, including how the Reserves began to be used, and where he thinks troop levels should go. His number was about 650,000 if I remember correctly.

I think that even that number is too low. I think that a number of between ¾ and 1 million is more of a target to reach for. And, as I’ve written before, I believe that moving toward this number of troops should have started almost 6 years ago, on 12 Sep 2001. But there are other things which must be done as well to create a force which can win the long fight we’ve chosen.

First, there must be a move away from using Reservists as active duty soldiers. The “Total Force” idea sounds good from the outside – using Reserve units to augment active duty forces in times of need. This idea, though, gives a false sense of the real role of Reservists. Since the early ‘90s, some jobs which were shared by active duty and Reserve troops have since fallen completely under the umbrella of the Reserves. Additionally, the very term Reserves belies how they are being used. If we have, in fact, tapped our reserve forces, then we can see the bottom of the well, so to speak. Obviously this is not the way to run an ongoing, long war.

“Total Force” has its roots, I believe, firmly embedded in the idea that at some level (or at all levels) the military should be run like a business. Fewer overall numbers reduces costs. Unused “commodities” – Reserve soldiers who drill once a month – can be viewed as waste or “overstock”. From a business point of view it is better to use every piece of “equipment”, fully utilize every cog in the machine, the result being maximum efficiency.

Efficiency, though, is not something that necessarily applies to the military. I realize that might cause a laugh, but there is more to war fighting than simply maximum output of all “equipment” involved. Fully trained, ready-to-fight forces must be kept in reserve (not to be confused with the Reserves, which function in a different way) so that strategies can be changed, actions by the enemy can be met, and commanders on the ground can flex their efforts as quickly as possible. These are very difficult, if not impossible, things to achieve when the whole force – the “Total Force” – is being used to maintain a level of effort already.

It is no surprise that the current “surge” of troops into Iraq has already begun to stir questions of when the operation will yield press-release level results, i.e. all quiet on the Baghdad front. The “what’s next” if the "surge" does not yield politically acceptable is not a pretty picture to envision.

Quick Thought on Immigration Reform

Senate members and the President's folks hashed out an immigration "reform" bill, or something of that nature, it was announced yesterday. As I was driving for quite some time yesterday, I was able to listen to a few different points of view (albeit all conservative) on the measure, details of which are still coming out.

My first, though certainly not my last, impression is one of wonder: why must there be a law or laws enacted when there are already laws in place? One quote that I heard yesterday (though I can't recall who said it) was that this bill will "restore the rule of law." If there are already laws on the books covering immigration and setting out penalties for illegal immigration, why does it take another law to "restore" them?

Also, it appears that the latest "reform" calls for greater border protection. Wasn't this also the promise in the 1986 amnesty bill? Why should Americans believe that something will be different with this law? Right along with that is the thought that granting amnesty (which the 2007 bill grants, no matter what euphemistic title is used by advocates of the bill) will help solve the exploding illegal population. Nearly 3 million illegals were granted amnesty in 1986. 20 years later, amnesty is being considered for an estimated 12 million illegals (and the number may be as high as 20 million). That's at least a 400% increase in 20 years. If insanity consists of repeating the same action while expecting different results, this bill falls within the bounds.

And finally, there's the idea, mainly on the Left, that giving preference to immigrants with higher skill levels is discriminatory to lower-skilled would-be immigrants. Of course it is. When a country has the luxury to choose who enters the country, it has the option to pick who it wants to pick. There is no God-given right to entry into the US. Many, if not most, other countries are very picky about who they let in. The US should be no different.

It was nice to see that Senator Cornyn walked away from the immigration deal, as well as some other senators. My hope at the moment is that the rule of law be enforced before any new laws, and certainly any amnesty, is considered and passed. Enforcement is the way to "restore the rule of law," not passing yet another law.

16 May 2007

Rep. Paul's Irrationality

During the Republican debate last night, Representative Paul made what some see as a huge misstep when he commented on the Iraq war and the origins of terrorism against the West. But his flaw was not just his sentiment. His own line of thinking was contradictory.

Initially, according to the transcript, Rep. Paul said, “I think Reagan was right. We don't understand the irrationality of Middle Eastern politics.” This statement, in itself, is true.

Rep. Paul becomes self defeating when he attempts to rationalize terrorist’s political roots and objectives. Rep. Paul, after a rebuttal by Giuliani, says, “I believe very sincerely that the CIA is correct when they teach and talk about blowback...They [terrorists] don't come here to attack us because we're rich and we're free. They come and they attack us because we're over there.”

This statement strikes me as an attempt to use Western rationality to explain the roots of Middle Eastern problems, which is the very thing that Rep. Paul says we cannot do.

He exacerbates this disconnect in logic by claiming that Iraq’s (and other Middle Eastern countries) negative reaction to hosting US bases is a mirror image to how the US population would feel if other countries built bases inside the US. If, as Rep. Paul suggests, we cannot understand Middle Eastern politics because of its irrationality, we cannot then directly compare Middle Eastern and Western political situations or reasons for action. To do so is intellectually dishonest.

04 May 2007

Outsourcing Mundane Thinking

I just caught the cover of the 28 April edition of The Economist. The headline is “When everything connects” and the cover sports various things giving off information with the assistance of the chips they have embedded in them. As the headline suggests, everything has a chip – the dog, the car, a can of soup (or beans?), the ground, everything.

I haven’t read the article. I will, but something came to mind. The important question, I think, is not what will things look like “when everything connects,” but rather do we want everything to connect? The following are all examples taken from the cover mentioned. Do we really want a can of soup in the grocery store to announce to us when it is half-price? Do we really want a computer chip in the dog to tell us when to take it outside? Do we really want a chip inside our bodies letting us know when our blood pressure is too high?

There seems to be a willingness to use technology to do anything that a human can do. I call this the gratuitous use of technology. As the examples above indicate, data passing technology and wireless connectivity can be theoretically taken as far as the mind wants to go. Why learn how to take someone’s blood pressure if there’s a chip that can be implanted which provides constant blood pressure monitoring? Why pay attention to the dog if I can get an IM, an SMS or an email letting me know that the dog wants to go outside?

One possible, plausible result of all of this gratuitous technology might be the dampening of our collective ability to pay attention to the world around us without prompting. It’s imaginable in a world of “complete connectivity” that people would become so accustomed to being prompted with actionable information that they lose, at least to some extent, the ability to discern when to act on something without being prompted. Taken further, the lack of practice anticipating needs (like the dog wanting to go out) or reacting without prompts would necessarily lesson thinking capabilities.

I really like technology, which must be obvious as I’m writing in a format developed from and for our wired world. But there are should be at least some thought on the value added and ethics involved in technology and its applications. And these go beyond the obvious debates about implanting chips in people, especially with regards to privacy. I think the more important questions lie in how we do our thinking, or what facility we task to do our thinking. Should we task ourselves to think for ourselves, even about the most mundane subjects, or should we become increasingly dependent on machines to do our mundane thinking for us?

I’d prefer to use my own nugget for as much thinking as I can handle. Studies into Alzheimer’s patients have shown, after all, that exercising the brain is important. The brain is, after all, like a muscle, and I’d rather keep mine off of “performance enhancing technologies,” for lack of a better term. And anyway, there’s always the obvious point that machines, even the most reliable of machines, will break down at some point. If I rely on a machine to do my thinking for me and that machine breaks down, I’m lost. If I rely on myself to do my own thinking and I break down, well, it won’t really make much difference to me then, will it?

03 May 2007

Thoughts on Fred Thompson

Just a quick thought on something, or rather, someone. I’ve read a few articles by and watched one interview with Fred Thompson. I’ve also seen some headlines which (not verbatim) say things like “The Effect of Thompson” and “Thompson the Next Reagan”. I don’t think these kinds of articles matter much.

What matters much more, I think, is how it appears that Thompson makes an effort to speak plainly and in a straight-forward manner. One article he penned concerned the NFL draft and personal character. While some in the comments section bemoaned the pedestrian nature of the article, I thought when I read it that it spoke volumes about Thompson’s character. Sure he was talking about sports, but taking the analogy just a few steps shows what Thompson feels is important in people. Talent without ethical foundation is ultimately self-defeating. At least that’s what I got out of it. It’s something that needs to be said, over and over again, and Thompson found an effective way of getting the point across.

What’s more, I got the impression that he probably wrote the article(s) himself, without too much editing by some “operative” and certainly without any filtering. Quite refreshing in a time when it seems that every sound-byte length statement made by any politician has to be pasteurized to the point of sterility…or virulency, depending on the whackiness of the intended audience. I hope that Thompson continues to speak clearly and plainly, and generally for that matter. In doing so, he’ll do more to show the electorate what he believes in and how he might lead.