29 December 2008

Random End of Year Thoughts

Getting ready for the new year to drop in, and as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. A few notes at the end of the year, then.

Israel is still in open warfare with its neighbors. Cease-fire agreements don't seem to mean much to enemies which vow to destroy the Jewish state, yet Israel is the one demonized by the "international community". Whatever that is. One wonders if the Israelis have finally had enough and will impose regime change on the Palestinians in Gaza, or if they will bow to "international pressure". Funny how "international" this and that generally seems to side with the autocrat.

Compassionate conservatism, in all its domestic glory, will be put on steroids with the coming of the Obama administration. I fear for the freedom of our people under the guise of soft-sounding terms like "equality" and "fairness". The next four years will be a real test to see if Americans can be talked into happily giving away their individual rights - most notably to liberty from government, as much as that is possible. I fear that we may bow all to quickly under promises of greater days. But I hope that, when faced with real personal limitations at the cost of much higher taxation, that we will bite the hand that feeds once we understand that it feeds us our own flesh, so to speak.

I have found it quite interesting how compassionate conservatism has found it necessary to eat the free market in order to save it. I would have thought that would come after January 20th - and not to save the free market, either. But having the ground prepared for it, Mr. Obama and Liberal-Progressive-Democrats have a precedent for ever more government intervention, thanks to a conservative administration. Pardon me, a domestically compassionate conservative administration.

Before I am taken for joining a Bush-bashing party as he heads out the door, while I disagree with many of his domestic policies, he has kept the US safe for the past 7+ years, and that is no small task. Whereas defense might win championships in football, the best way to win a war is with offense. Mr. Bush has done that - even with all of the mistakes which unfortunately come with waging war. I hope that Mr. Obama keeps us on offense.

Lastly, one thing which has changed this year has been my beloved Chicago Blackhawks. It may be crass to say, but the passing of the elder Wirtz and the club being taken over by Rocky has been a Godsend to Chicago hockey. As I write, the team is on a franchise record nine-game winning streak. They will host the Winter Classic on New Year's Day, and for the first time in a long, long time, Blackhawk fans are thinking playoff hockey with high hopes. It is refreshing; all things renew and grow, if given the right impetus and chance.

23 December 2008

Post Script to The Vampires of Our Youth

After reading a number of comments on my previous piece on American Thinker, "The Vampires of Our Youth", I felt the need to add a bit of post script.

First, I must admit that I omitted some qualifiers in the piece which may have expounded my point of view more accurately. This was done purposefully, as the danger of being overly explicit can sometimes seriously hamper discussion. My goal in writing, then, was more to put forward a pair of propositions tied by a common threat - the idea that evil can be (and is) "lightly coated" in good, and sold as wholly good (or admirable or desirable) to the impressionable.

One way which I have qualified my argument is that I have not read a single page of the Twilight series. I probably won't; it's not my taste. Therefore, I rely on reports from students who have read the novels (and seen the movie). Because I am relying on synopses of the story from students, I cannot pull apart the novel through a systematic analysis. I therefore only focused on the nature of vampire characters in previous novels, most notably Bram Stoker's Dracula, but also Anne Rice's novels as well. Therefore, my commentary rests on the "fictional norm" (if there can be such a thing) that in works of fiction vampires are damned. And whereas the students with whom I have discussed Twilight with see the main vampire character as "good", I counter that the nature of the vampire character is one of evil. The point I attempt to make is that while it may be possible to "mask" our true nature, nevertheless that nature is still there. It makes for great discussion in the classroom (as I don't mind playing devil's advocate).

But my point in the piece was not to be overly didactic, and therefore I omitted, purposefully, any discussion of redemption or, as one commenter put it, "rehabilitation". As far as the piece is concerned, it's a topic for another time. By not broaching the idea of redemption, I think perhaps I made my point a bit harder to grasp, or caused some readers to turn away all together. For that, I regret the omission. I could have, and perhaps should have, made some reference to the subject.

What I wonder most about is that so many folks decided not to comment on the link between my point about the novel and popular culture's view on criminality. Have we as a culture - or have large portions of our culture - accepted infamy as a basis for popular fame? Do we not wonder what the glorification of real criminals does to the idea of criminal behavior in our youth? When the despicable becomes admirable because of the spotlight and excuses of "it's not his fault…he's had a hard life…he didn't know what he was doing…and he is famous (or he will be)", then we have a problem.

The Vampires of Our Youth

Originally posted on American Thinker.

Something interesting is happening in our society, and while it may seem obvious to many, restating the issue in different terms may be beneficial. For our young people, it appears that all things bad - and by bad, I mean evil -- are being made into good things -- and by good, I mean admirable or desirable.

Take the relatively recent phenomenon of the Twilight series, which concerns vampires. Many, many teenagers have read the novels. I admit that I haven't, though with as much as my students talk about it, I sometimes feel that I have. What I find interesting about the novels is that readers, mostly teenagers (and not all female, despite the novels' appeal to that group), are convinced that the main vampire character is, in fact, good. There are evil vampires in the book, but the "good" one does things a bit differently. Apparently, he feeds off of animal blood; some readers have gone so far as to call him a "vegetarian vampire" - a term which I can only guess in somewhere in the novels, a contradiction in terms that mirrors the "good vampire" contradiction.

The young readers are sold on the idea that an inherently evil thing, a vampire, can be twisted into something good. Perhaps we, the wider public, just have to "understand" a certain point of view in order to see the "good" within the inherently evil thing. Because really, it is all about perception and point of view, not about objective right and wrong. After all, there is no objective right and wrong.

How easy it is to follow this line of thought, this mode of believing. And yet, I propose that it is damaging to our young people. It makes other evils -- real, demonstrable evils -- easier to accept because they can be lightly coated in "good". Good intentions, good methods, and promised good outcomes can conceal any evil. It is, after all, all about perception and what is good for the perceiver.

The light coating of "good" is, indeed, easy to believe until the vampire comes to your neck. Then it becomes all too real -- and too late. In traditional fictional vampire stories, being bitten tends to result in being damned. All the bravado of youth aside, not a desirable outcome at all.

A parallel to this, another example which comes directly from the youth "culture", has to do with crime. Criminal behavior is seen, I have been told, as entertainment and therefore is a "good" to those around it. The criminal provides a diversion for the public to wonder at, and in doing so is no different than television personalities, musicians, or sports stars. Indeed, the convergence of criminal behavior with "star" power is the ultimate entertainment combination -- all of the wonder of celebrity with the celebrated infamy of brash, criminal activity.

Of course, much like the fictional vampire, brash criminal activity is entertaining right up until the point where it hits you in the face (or shoots you in the face, for that matter). And for the participants, the damnation that comes with brash, criminal activity is more of a claim to fame than a blot on their character. Perpetrating crime may be seen as an endeavor of personal advancement . After all, who can criticize one's point of view if personal actions taken are "good" for that person? And certainly infamy has become, in some circles, a delectable form of "good".

But what is good for the vampire -- either fictional or social -- is bad for the community and the nation. That seems so obvious to me, yet I think that perhaps through various media and cultural influences, it is far less obvious to many of our youth. The vampire is alluring; a read of Bram Stoker's Dracula is useful. It describes an attempt to surreptitiously conquer the community by poisoning innocence. Twisting innocence to achieve some end is nothing new, nor is it new for those who wish to preserve a culture to fight against the evil influences. Those of us who would see our American culture survive would do well to help the younger generation recognize and reject evil in all its forms - even those which "seem" good.

21 December 2008

Global Warming and Learning the Hard Sciences

My initial thought here in writing this morning was to get into the recent scare advertisements put out by environmentalist groups. The ads seem to be aiming ever more at hooking the audience with scary words, spoken words, than before. But then it occurred to me that those who have imbibed the Global Warming/Climate Change (GWCC) Kool-Aid couldn't care less what tactics they use to proselytize. And the young are ever so vulnerable to hip messages, especially those with a bit of scariness to them.

So instead of critiquing ads (which in the end is more of a hobby for me than anything else), I thought perhaps that a bit of a challenge ought to be made, particularly to younger folks who live in fear of our climate and its (inevitable) changing. What young, or even older, GWCC believers ought to do is study hard the sciences and engineering behind understanding weather and climate and the proposed solutions. They ought to gain first hand knowledge of the background information and scientific techniques used to diagnose GWCC. They ought to work diligently at mathematics, physics, chemistry - the hard sciences - so that they can fully understand how anthropogenic GWCC comes about.

By pursuing these studies, they can also actively and truly make progress on ways to "fix" GWCC. Only through understanding the hard sciences can real "progress" be made. If one is particularly distraught by what GWCC might do to the planet, it would be imperative for one to work towards a fix him or herself. This can only be done through knowledge and practice in the hard sciences, and this study is of the most importance to the younger generation of GWCC believers. They, it may fairly be argued, can build their minds so as to build their world later.

Letter writing and Facebook groups and MySpace friends all worried about GWCC do nothing compared to a mind educated in the hard sciences when it comes to issues of climate. Yet sites like Mr. Gore's "we" extravaganza promote petitions and "connecting" over personal learning and scientifically intellectual involvement. It is, after all, much easier to join a Facebook group than to understand the dynamics of, say, ocean currents - or master trigonometry, for that matter.

At a time when everyone seems to bemoan the educational system (myself included) as a failure, it would seem to go without saying that anything that may be used to promote learning the hard sciences would be attempted. I do not believe in GWCC whatsoever - except for the fact that the climate is indeed always changing. But I'm more than happy to urge my students who do fear GWCC to get into the sciences, to work hard at understanding all of the fundamentals (math, chemistry, physics, etc.) behind the higher-level science. The learning will serve them well later. And in the end, those students who understand their sciences - GWCC believers or not - will make better judgments about the physical world around them. Perhaps that's the scary part for Mr. Gore and his GWCC crew; an informed public is a questioning one. With snow falling in Las Vegas this past week, they can't handle the questions.

20 December 2008

Fast Track to a Bankrupt Nation

Now that President Bush has apparently authorized some of the TARP money to bail out the auto industry, everyone expects others to line up for their share of the TARP funds. The $700 billion TARP (troubled asset relief program) was supposed to only go to financial industries; the public was told that the financial sector - lending and mortgage firms in particular - were supposed to be the source of our nation's economic woes. These institutions, we were told, were simply too big to fail. Though some did, and were allowed to (yet the sun still rose).

Now, after being turned down in Congress, GM and Chrysler have gotten a TARP handout from the executive branch. (Ford did not take any money, but may well reap rewards of any UAW concessions.) I don't doubt that the Congressional effort was more of a punt until after January 20th than anything else. President Bush's blessing of the release of TARP money is much the same. Under his "plan", GM and Chrysler would have to prove that they could become "viable", they must have a plan, by March 2009. If not, they have to pay their billions back…even though they won't have them. They're broke, and if they spend their TARP allowance, they'll be broke again in March. But never mind; we are told that GM and Chrysler are too big to fail.

One must wonder, then, which things are not too big to fail.

California is in a serious financial crisis - $38 billion dollars worth of shortfall. Will TARP funds, or some yet to be created federal money transfer program, bail out states and municipalities? Will they all be too big to fail?

Is the New York Times too big to fail? Supposedly the "paper of record", the company had to mortgage its own building recently to inject itself with cash. Will it become, in some form of twisted logic, too big to fail? Will it become a government paper of record?

Surely there are many more businesses and institutions waiting in the wings for federal largesse. It's the idea that something can be had for nothing. Yet the billions and trillions that are being created seemingly out of thin air will come to account at some point in the future. And while some may say that the day the bills will come due for this recent spending spree will be some day long in the future, I do not agree. The bill will come due much sooner, I believe, then anyone wants to believe. The imaginary land where capital value can be created from nothing can only last so long. With the rapidity of developments in our (seemingly) ever-shrinking financial world, it seems reasonable to believe that the real world will come crashing in sooner rather than later.

10 December 2008

Un-Bail-Able

Discovered this morning through Neal Boortz's site, a Reuters report "that over half of mortgage modifications seemed not to be working after six months". That measurement comes from the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Not exactly one that offers hope for bailouts.

And yet, the US public has been expected to believe that some things really are for every single person - some equality of outcome is a right. Home ownership is the latest, largest casualty of this attitude. The bipartisan belief that home ownership is something every single American is entitled to has resulted, along with other helping factors, in the housing mortgage mess of today. What the Comptroller's report suggests is that there is nothing that government or industry can do to make some people pay their mortgages. Foreclosure, or threat thereof, does not work; restructuring the loan did not work in half of the restructure cases, either. Therefore, neither stick nor carrot is the answer. Abstention from home ownership is. Home ownership, as Mr. Boortz points out, is just not for some people.

But home ownership is only one of many seriously misguided "all must be equal" subjects in our country. Take universal health care. I know it may sound heartless, but if a person pays, literally with cash or credit, large sums of money to damage their own health, why is it then someone else's responsibility to provide health care for that person? Why would, or should, the public at large bail out the defaulted mortgage of one's health? (And I do not mean accidents here, or unforeseeable illnesses; I mean self-created illnesses, largely from willing abuse of the body through overeating and ingesting any variety of substances which are known to be harmful.) Some people's health, I would suggest, is un-bail-able. And yet, the public may soon be told that they must support the self-ruined houses of some people.

A more furtive example of wildly unrealistic equality of outcome demands is the idea that every student, every child in America should go to college. The idea of equality - that college is for everyone - is both wildly unrealistic and unbelievably harmful. Students who have no business considering post-secondary education are told over and over again that they can, and should, go to college. Never mind that many students do not have the background knowledge for college. Never mind that these students have no idea why they might be going to college in the first place (other than the vague promise of a "good job" after graduation). All students are told, over and over, that college is the only way - it is the house of their future. It is the equal outcome - and it is, in a sense, pre-bailed-out by making student loans and financing available to all. Or might that make these not-so-ready for college student prospects for later bail outs? Either way, the reality that college is not for everyone is clouded by exhortations that everyone must go to college to obtain…happiness? (Or money, or both, if money does indeed equal happiness.)

These are just a few examples; more certainly exist. And while it may be tragic that one individual person can, in the course of his own life, delude himself into thinking that one or more of the above is true for himself, at least that singular tragedy does not have massive effects on the whole population. A wide-spread belief that home ownership is an imperative for every single American has caused our nation great harm. Attitudes toward health and education may well have massive, ill effects as well. Indeed, whereas the individual delusion can be tragic, national delusions such as those discussed here can create situations which are truly world changing…and not it a good way.

09 December 2008

Our Road to Nationalization

The Drudge Report calls it right this morning. The headline on its front page is simply "Nationalization". As Congress makes the argument that the American taxpayer needs something in return for the "loan" extended to the Big 3 automakers (GM, Ford and Chrysler), it seems to me that this excuse is simply a cover for nationalization of the auto industry - and all of the jobs that come with it.

How this would be preferable to bankruptcy - both for the automakers and for the nation as a whole - is beyond my understanding. Most analysis that I've read indicates that the $15-17 billion that Congress is offering up is really only a band-aid, and a small one at that. Those billions will be burned through before spring...and then the automakers will come calling again.

It amazes me that Congress would spend that sum with more than half of the American people rejecting the idea of a carmaker bailout, according to a CNN poll. Perhaps Congress would have us believe that it can pick good investments, and that GM, Ford, and Chrysler are great investments, even if they need infusions of billions of dollars from time to time.

I say Chapter 11 for those who are unable to stand under the weight of their negotiated contracts. I do not want a stake in the Big 3. I do not want to support bloated labor structures and contracts. What's more, I do not want Congress to spend my money chasing the nationalization of an industry after they've already nationalized the credit system.

03 December 2008

Defining Customers and Products in Education

Originally posted at EdNews.org.

Recently, I went to a local school board meeting where goals were to be set for the district. One thing that was plugged throughout the formal presentation was that the school district desires to become more aware of customer service. In fact, much of the talk revolved around the "customer". However, there was almost no discussion of who the producer is and what the product actually is. It seems that perhaps these were taken for granted. Surely everyone knows what the product of an educational facility is, right?

Definitions are important, especially when the stakes are high. The service provider would be the teacher, the school, and the school district. While this may seem like a big tent for this group, it's permissible because this group is not my focus. The customer, to use the term quite broadly, may consist of the parents and the local community. Indeed, the customer group might be "nationalized" – though I hesitate to be that bold. But the most problematic customer group belongs to the students.

If the student is the "product", then some conflicts that must be addressed. First and foremost is the obvious clash that emerges from the simple coincidence of customer and product in the student. If the student is not compliant or does not buy into the kind of "product" he is becoming, then the system simply fails. One product-chosen failure equals one failed student at or approaching 100 percent of the time. From a macro perspective, if 30 students out of a freshman class of 300 don't buy into the "product", that's a 10 percent product failure rate – and that's without adding students who fail while still buying into the "product". If certain "sub-populations" (which I've discussed before) don't value themselves as a "product", then schools flirt with failing under No Child Left Behind. Despite NCLB and its stress on accountability, the micro is more important here: individual student-chosen failure.

The convergence of customer and product in the student allows for a system with a singular failure point in all cases, and that single point is always free to choose to break the system all by himself. If the student chooses to fail, then there is virtually nothing that the service provider can really do to overcome that. However, since the student is also the product, the service provider (the teacher, the school, the district) may be (and publically usually is) held responsible for the failed product regardless of the actual performance of the service provider.

The most bothersome part of this is the equation of the failed student with a failed system. However, the perception of system failure is preventable when we realize that the student is not the product. This may trouble those who believe that schools revolve around students, that individual student success and failure are the hallmarks of good and bad schools. But that just isn't the case, and I suggest that it can't be. This is because the student-customer does not necessarily know what will make him a good "product". He doesn't know this precisely because he is not yet educated. It seems self evident, then, that the student must solely be either product or customer. Because the student is a thinking, feeling being, I submit that he cannot be the product.

So just what is the product, then? It is the teaching that is made available. The product is the information, techniques, and values which fills the space and time of each classroom. And this, too, is problematic, though for far different reasons.

Bureaucrats like numbers and percentages. The media likes them, too. People in general find it easier to judge things through statistics. It is easier to quantitatively measure two things and find out which is better (or worse), or which has more value. People can measure, judge, and move on. It's quicker and easier than the alternative, which is qualitative analysis.
Thus, the information, techniques, and values which fill the time and space of a classroom are problematic because they are difficult (if not impossible) to measure quantitatively. The "product" demands to be evaluated qualitatively, which requires subjectivity. Subjectivity invites all sorts of bias and requires a level of trusted professionalism that sadly seems lacking. To make matters worse, high-stakes testing and the quantitative analyses which result from it do not raise collegial relationships or deepen professional trust, rather they erode them. (For much more on this see "Below the Bubble" by Jennifer Booher-Jennings.)

So while more and more focus is leveled on tests, score, and student "success" (defined as passing the test) metrics, there seems to be less and less focus on teaching as an art in the real-world classroom. Yet ironically, teachers, schools, and districts are held accountable for students' test scores. And here is where there is a shift to the macro. Test scores themselves – the quantitative measurements – are used to validate what happens in the classroom regardless of student motivation or "buy in". To some extent, this is reasonable. However, when whole schools can "fail" based on student desire, drive, and ability, there is a clear problem.

The way to address this problem, I suggest, is a return to autonomy in the classroom and for the school. Teachers, under the professional (not quantitative) supervision of principals, should be given great latitude on how – and even what – they teach in their classrooms. This does not mean complete freedom; it means that year-end goals are set by the principal and the superintendant (where applicable) and teachers work to meet those goals. Principals, districts and states could then conduct qualitative assessments of teachers. Again, this would require a great amount of professionalism and trust between teachers and administrators – indeed greater professionalism at all levels. And it would have to be understood explicitly that the information, techniques, and values are being measured during an evaluation.

In this way, trusted professionalism among educators may be greatly increased. Students may rightly become consumers of learning instead of reluctant or hostile "customer-products" of schools. And folks at all levels may regain focus on what really matters in education: the quality of information, techniques, and values espoused in the classroom.

02 December 2008

Mumbai and the Smaller Picture

In the wake of the Mumbai attacks, there is a great deal of attention being paid to why the attacks happened where they happened, who was targeted, etc. In some places, the hand-wringing gets closer and closer to the US.

But the best theory I’ve heard to date, and I’ve heard it in a couple of different places, is that the attacks happened in India specifically to gin up conflict between India and Pakistan so that pressure could be taken off of terrorists operating in the western part of Pakistan, in the tribal areas. The simple logic is that if the Pakistani military is forced to deal with an angry India, fewer troops, if any at all, would be allotted to hunting terrorists in the tribal areas.

Think of it as an extension of the maxim “all politics are local”. It seems a great deal more plausible than uber-macro, pessimistic opinions on why the attacks occurred. And if this “local” explanation of the attacks is accurate, it would be best that India work quietly to assist Pakistan in the tribal areas (if it can at all). In that way, pressure can stay where it belongs – on the terrorists – and away from the terrorists’ “release valve” – India/Pakistan hostilities.

27 November 2008

Thoughts on Media Madness

Some quick thoughts on the short book Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture by James Bowman.

1) Mr. Bowman's general concept of modern mass media rings true to me: the media consider themselves objective beyond reproach; that they are objective makes them right (and more intelligent). Because they are more intelligent, they can be objective. The circle repeats.

2) The media are self-aggrandizing in that they push deeper truths or accurate "realities" in order to show that they are, in fact, better than those they report about (assuming that the reporting is about an ideological foe). Through mass production of consumable stories (which Mr. Bowman argues tend to push some "reality" that hides beneath generally observable facts or situations), the media pushes their world view - a world view which sees themselves as above others due to their objectivity and intelligence.

3) Celebrity plays into this media free-for-all in that today's celebrity creates itself and, with media help, is self-sustaining.

4) Mutating political issues into moral issues causes a false dichotomy of many issues. The media pushes issues as "us versus them" or as "right versus wrong" so as to create drama and conflict (both big sellers), and also so that the more intelligent and morally correct media can render judgment as they see fit. Objectivity, mentioned before, coupled with intelligence demands that the possessors of both be morally correct - even if the possessors are self-proclaimed.

5) After reading, it seems to me that the closed-world thinking that appears to happen in the media/celebrity circle masks reality, or perhaps better put, distracts from what might be really important. Why should anyone care what celebrity "z" says about some supposedly critical "issue"? Is this celebrity any better informed than I am on the matter? Who is to say that the "issue" is critical at all; is it simply because the celebrity says so? And anyway, what one celebrity or another thinks about anything is probably less important than, say, what a well-informed friend of mine thinks about the same thing.

25 November 2008

Obama's Version of Giving Back, Asking, and Responsibility

On Monday, president elect Obama introduced his economic stimulus / crisis tackling / stability granting team. He also indicated that the tax increase on the "rich" - folks who earn over $125,000 a year (or something thereabouts…the number is malleable) would be somewhat delayed.

But this morning I read something interesting on Neal Boortz's website. It's a clip, verbatim, from Barack Obama's campaign website, which is apparently still up and running. With regard to taxes, it says:

"Obama will ask the wealthiest 2% of families to give back a portion of the tax cuts they have received over the past eight years to ensure we are restoring fairness and returning to fiscal responsibility."

Much like Mr. Boortz, I find the wording chosen for this statement telling. Mr. Boortz rightly notes that "give back" and "fairness" are telltale signs of government desire to redistribute money it feels it should have. (I hope that I've characterized Mr. Boortz's thought properly.)

One thing to notice about the words from Mr. Obama's website is where they begin. There is no mention of the work required to earn enough money to put one's self in the top 2%. It is as if we are to believe that they are there either through heredity (old money) or luck (not skill).

By skipping over the work required to get there portion, Mr. Obama can make the easy baby-step to taking something from the wealthiest 2%. But again, notice the verb - "ask". Mr. Obama will "ask" the wealthiest 2% to "give back" to the government. "Ask" is a kind verb; it necessarily indicates that one may answer "no" to the question. But any sane American knows that the IRS doesn't ask, and it does not take no for an answer.

But back to the kindly side of Mr. Obama's "give back" plan. He is only "asking" for a "portion of the tax cuts" that the rich have received. Therefore, the wealthiest 2% will get to keep some of what they have been given by the federal government. Notice how the tax cut is now something granted by a connotatively benevolent federal government. But there's something in between the words here - and I hope that I'm reading too much into it. If the wealthiest 2% of Americans will have to forfeit some of the "tax cuts they have received over the past eight years", does that mean that the IRS will be looking retrospectively into our tax records to "recover" some of that tax cut revenue? I hope not, but Mr. Obama's choice of words does not reassure me.

Finally, all of this is done to restore "fairness" and to regain "fiscal responsibility". I'll skip the fairness part - Mr. Boortz did a fine job with that one. But just whose "fiscal responsibility" are we talking about here? The bulk of people I know are fiscally responsible. They take care of their families, their mortgages, their car payments, their credit card bills. Indeed, even the town where I live is fiscally responsible, and not without painful limiting of expenditure (just ask any teacher in the district). What Mr. Obama really means here is that he wants to take more from the wealthiest 2% of Americans so that he can make the federal government more fiscally responsible.

I wonder about the logic of giving someone in debt more money. I wonder even more when the one who is in debt, and who is asking for more money is simultaneously ramping up spending. Just yesterday, there was talk about another "stimulus" package. Mr. Obama wants one ready to go so that he can sign it into law on 20 January. Numbers are unclear at this point, but half a trillion dollars is certainly in the ballpark. That's another $500 billion on top of the $700 billion in "bailout" TARP money.

This passes for fiscal responsibility for Mr. Obama. It doesn't pass for "fairness" in my book, because I am sure that even though I am not a member of the wealthiest 2% of Americans, I will be paying for Mr. Obama's spending spree - one that is supposedly for America. And I won't be asked about it. I'll just be told to give back what I've earned. And that may well damage my family's carefully crafted fiscal responsibility.

23 November 2008

Victor Davis Hanson on Education

Writing on Real Clear Politics, Victor Davis Hanson makes a wonderful point on teaching classical studies in high schools. His point, in full:

"Four years of high-school Latin would dramatically arrest the decline in American education. In particular, such instruction would do more for minority youths than all the 'role model' diversity sermons on Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Montezuma, and Caesar Chavez put together. Nothing so enriches the vocabulary, so instructs about English grammar and syntax, so creates a discipline of the mind, an elegance of expression, and serves as a gateway to the thinking and values of Western civilization as mastery of a page of Virgil or Livy (except perhaps Sophocles's Antigone in Greek or Thucydides' dialogue at Melos). After some 20 years of teaching mostly minority youth Greek, Latin, and ancient history and literature in translation (1984-2004), I came to the unfortunate conclusion that ethnic studies, women studies--indeed, anything "studies"-- were perhaps the fruits of some evil plot dreamed up by illiberal white separatists to ensure that poor minority students in the public schools and universities were offered only a third-rate education."
Having taught both Latin and Classical texts (in translation), I am in full agreement with Mr. Hanson. The students I have known and taught who study Latin tend to have an easier time with new English vocabulary. They have a good idea what seemingly strange words, like puerile or bellicose, mean without context clues. They know these things from Latin vocabulary. They do, indeed, have a greater understanding of English grammar rules because of their study of Latin grammar (which, in its elementary form, is fairly straight-forward and formulaic). And if they can get to the point where they can read and translate simple Latin sentences and paragraphs on sight, they tend to be able to digest other texts with more ease.

In my classes, I tend to focus on Greek tragedy as much as I can - albeit in translation. The texts are foundational. They are accessible for all students (given the number of excellent modern translations available). But what is most important are the themes expressed in them. When a student really digs into a play like Antigone or Medea, he has to wrestle with big ideas which are meaningful to life today, right now, to him. When Antigone defies her king to bury her brother - and thus not offend the gods - students can put themselves in the scene. They can debate what is right. And what's more, when they dig a little deeper into the text, they find that Sophocles gives an answer. When Medea's self-centered madness drives her to unspeakable acts of violence, students can question the revenge ethic. These themes are timeless; they will always have a place in the classroom. If I could, I would spend a semester on Greek tragedy (though some students may well get a bit tired of it). After which, I would perhaps cover The Iliad and non-fiction Classical readings. That would make for a fine freshman year of high school English.

22 November 2008

Orwellian Terms in Modern Times: Newspeak and Duckspeak

After enduring the longest presidential election campaign in history – and if it was not, I pity anyone who endured anything longer – it is instructive to look back at a few words and how they were used. It may also be useful to look at what those words have turned into now that the election is over and one point of view has gained office.

One of the most overused terms in this election cycle was change. Even though the Democrat side used it as its slogan (along with hope), both sides sought to use the word to its advantage. That’s not to say that change was ever really defined; indeed, the vague nature of change was precisely what made the electorate comfortable with it, I believe. Though a lack of specificity, the “change mantra” became all things to all people – Democrat and Republican alike. In the end, no one really defined what change meant. It was a slogan, a mantra, and the Democrat version of change – to use a newspeak adjective of sorts – was “double-plus good” change. Nailing down what change really meant turned out to be a negative priority. A good thing for the winning side, too. Change can be a scary thing if it is defined.

The idea of change was somewhat coupled with the idea of experience. Too much experience, it seems, would be “double-plus bad”. Change requires fresh thought, fresh insights into an old, decrepit, sickly apparatus (like the federal government). The new face, the outsider, would be all the better because of a lack of experience.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the presidential election which upset the whole newspeak apple cart. The Republicans chose an experienced candidate who was also seen as a changer – sometimes to the great dismay of his party (including this writer). For its vice presidential candidate, the Democrats chose an old party whose long run in the Senate defied the fresh, new, inexperience of its candidate. And then, the unexpected rouge wave of the Republican vice presidential choice – a new, fresh face, an outsider who arguably had more governmental experience than the Democrat presidential candidate. With so much confusion about what change and experience meant in this election (note: not what they really meant), another of Orwell’s ideas would come into play, and heavily. Duckspeak.

“There is a word in Newspeak,” said Syme. “I don’t know whether you know it: duckspeak, to quack like a duck. It is one of those interesting words that have two contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it is abuse; applied to someone you agree with, it is praise.” - George Orwell, 1984
Duckspeak would cure the problematic issues of change and experience. Any definition of change espoused by an opponent would be labeled as bad (or “double-plus bad”). Only the experience of a political compatriot would be good (or “double-plus good”). Any and all experience of an opponent, regardless of the particulars of that experience, was belittled and labeled as a liability. Experience of those friendly to a cause would be a boon to the cause.

One particular thing to note is that none of the specifics are mentioned here; what change means and what experience matters are beside the point. The goal of newspeak and duckspeak in this election cycle was simply to paint “us” as good and “them” as bad. And I think that many people thought these labels were the core argument of electing the next president.

As anecdotal evidence, here’s a video of Democrat supporters taken after the polls. One wonders, seriously, if Republican supporters would have shown the same predispositions, just in an opposite direction. My guess, sadly, is that they may well have. Duckspeak may well have overcome any desire for information and informed decision making. “Me good. You bad.” It’s much easier that way. And that, after all, is what Orwell says newspeak is for. It is used to create a society where “there will be no thought”. Where there is no thought, there are lots of people who are easily controlled.

18 November 2008

How’s Your Gas? (Part II)

Last time I wrote about this particular subject, the local north Texas price for a gallon of regular unleaded was at $2.75. And there was much rejoicing. Now, the price stands at $1.79. That’s down almost a dollar in a little more than a month. OPEC will certainly reduce production as a result of sliding oil prices. At some point, petroleum prices will stabilize, but I don't expect to hear too much about it in the media. Crisis averted; move along. Nothing to see here.

I admit that during the summer months, I thought that gas prices would stay high – over $3 a gallon. My wife and I adjusted our driving habits; we assumed that things would stay bad. I suppose that’s a good low-risk assumption to make. It is much safer than betting on low gas prices, and then having to sacrifice one important thing to feed another, namely the car.

This past year’s worth of oil-worry has left me with a question, though: what will the fallout be of the “petroleum bubble”? Obviously lower transport costs are afoot, people will spend less to get around town. But will there be a longer term attitude change in American consumers? I wonder if, when buying their next new car, folks will remember the price of gas in the summer of 2008 and make a choice influenced by that fact and not just the price of gas right now – do a little preventive maintenance shopping, perhaps.

17 November 2008

The Auto Bailout and Moves Toward Centralization

There may be action today in Washington D.C. to bail out the Big Three automakers. Numbers vary - and when numbers get this big, what's a 40 or 50 per cent variance - but the low end would give $35 billion to automakers to "retool". The retooling would theoretically give the automakers the capability to build more fuel efficient cars, therefore make more money, therefore stay afloat financially.

It won't work. And I don't say that because I know anything about auto-making. I don't even know that much about finance, especially when it gets to the silly heights of what seems to pass for sound economic decision making today.

But it seems fairly straight-forward that if a company has commitments to previous and current employees, in the form of retirement packages and medical coverage, that it simply cannot cover, then no amount of retooling in other areas can fix that gap. Barring the unlikely event that the car makers can create cars without labor, if the labor agreements don't change, then the companies will just bleed money. It doesn't matter where the money comes from.

That the money will come from the federal government (and by extension, you and I) is worrisome. The federal government will essentially buy an interest in the auto companies, just as was supposed to happen with financial institutions (though who really knows what has happened or will happen to that $700 billion). In my opinion, the federal government's holding of auto maker's stock does not portend future success for GM, Ford, or Chrysler. The federal government isn't - or shouldn't be - in the business of creating wealth. It cannot even protect wealth; see Social Security. The interest bought will be about power, about having control.

And there is sure to be a "car czar" put in charge of all of this. Detroit will be his or her fiefdom. Dispensing government largesse will be his or her "duty".

We may well have an "urban czar" do to the same for our large metropolitan areas. A "super-mayor" of sorts. Billions are waiting to be printed and pushed toward cities.

We may well have many, many more "czars" dividing up the interests - might they be called special interests - of our nation in order to better minister to them from the bucket of the federal government.

These moves are but symptoms of government expansion to come. What's more, it is not just a Democrat-led charge. Domestically, G.W. Bush pushed big government under the guise of "compassionate conservatism". Both parties eventually bought into the $700 billion to stabilize the financial sectors (which may have been a necessary measure, though its ever-changing target makes one wonder). Both sides, Democrat and "compassionate" Republican, seek to fix problems they have no business fixing. Whether recognized or not, these are power grabs disguised as help, and at some point, we will ask who can help us get away from the "czars" and the federal government.

16 November 2008

The Joys of Zero-Tolerance and No Child Left Behind

One thing certain about zero-tolerance policies: their inflexibility may well render them useless, or at the very least diminish their effectiveness in addressing their intended target. No Child Left Behind is a fine example of this.

A group or researchers at the University of California at Riverdale looked at when NCLB's rising proficiency standards for reading and math would cause crisis in public schools. Under NCLB, 100% of students must meet proficiency standards by 2014; in that year, NCLB becomes a zero-tolerance policy.

According to the UCR researchers: "Even using the most optimistic model, the analysis found that nearly 100 percent of California elementary schools failed to meet [adequate yearly progress] by 2014. In fact, average proficiency in English Language Arts fell short of AYP by the year 2011, and math proficiency fell short by 2012."

No surprise there. The only way to reach 100% proficiency would be to lower the bar to the lowest common denominator. What makes that logic truly baffling is that because students are actual human beings - and therefore vary in ability, motivation, and background knowledge - the lowest common denominator proficiency standard for each locality would vary from year to year, from school to school, and from district to district. The students would be "driving the bus" so to speak. In a way, they already do.

But NCLB - or at least the prognostication of every school failing to meet its lofty goals - is a way to reach a sort of equality. Equality of failure for the schools, equality of less-than-mediocrity for the students, and an equal dimming of the future for the nation. And really, that's what NCLB is about. Equality over opportunity. Is that the American way?

13 November 2008

Obama's Czars

Originally posted at American Thinker.

Suddenly a rash of czars is in prospect for the Obama Administration.

The title "czar" in the executive branch has some history. The "drug czar" title appeared during the Reagan administration. The term has always seemed a little strange to me, but that's probably because the word has a negative connotation in my opinion; an all-powerful, micro-managing type of connotation. What's more, after spending a little time participating in the "war on drugs", it seemed that the czar's effort was futile and cost a lot of money.

Enter the Obama administration. As of 12 November, there are many desks with "czar" titles on them to come. We already have an "intelligence czar", and it appears that seat is safe. Does the executive branch need a "tech-czar"? Apparently. Who knows what technology might do without direct executive oversight. With Detroit ready to take some many billions of dollars from the federal government, there's talk about a "car-czar". Some sense in that, because the dollars given will supposedly (under the touted plan) buy stakes in the Big Three for the US Government. What was that talk about statist expansion, again?

And surely we need an "energy czar" to oversee (micro-manage) the miraculous transition from our current fossil fuel addiction to whatever comes next. But that czar had better be fond friends with the "climate czar" - and in all honesty, if Mr. Gore takes that spot, there won't be any spotlight for the "energy czar", and perhaps little energy, as well. For that matter, why have two positions? If one believes Global Warming / Climate Change orthodox teachings, one feeds the other. On the other hand, two "czars" have two staff, and that's job creation.

It may be that all these czars and many, many more will have seats around the Obama table. Surely there will be an "economy czar". An "education czar" could rule over No Child Left Behind with an iron fist. Perhaps a "czar" installed at the Pentagon? That's probably a bit of a stretch. But somehow I fear this cast of czars and their footmen. With Congress seemingly willing to purchase stakes in just any company that asks, these "czars" may eventually gain more power than would be healthy -- for their spheres of interest and the country.

12 November 2008

World Government and World Spending

Recently, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for the US and the UK to lead a “global effort to build a stronger and more just international order” which he sees as a real possibility under an Obama administration. Much of what I’ve read – despite the five or six “points” on which Mr. Brown’s plan is set – revolves around financials. The International Monetary Fund appears to be a centerpiece in the plan. Through global buy-in and coordination, the hope is to “build a truly global society,” in Mr. Brown’s words, according to the Telegraph.

But I have to question how transparently and equitably large, international establishments can function. It appears that transparency is not an advocated position when large amounts of money are involved. A few days ago, Fox News covered a report from the United Nations itself on the amount of money the UN has coming in and going out. As Fox News puts it, “Rich countries, led by the United States” pony up “about $17.2 billion in 2006 [which was] spent on various programs.” And the cost of operations is rising at a pretty rapid pace, “at an average annual increase of 13 percent since 2002.” That can be expected to continue, as the UN lifted a self-imposed (or US imposed) spending cap this past June.

If the United Nations is the model for large-scope, international institutions, one may wonder what Mr. Brown’s global monetary cooperation to create “a truly global society” would cost, and how transparent it would be, if at all. As the UN continues to refuse to reform itself, continues to spend more and more (like so many governmental institutions in the US), it is a continual reminder of what self-interested, bureaucratic organizations can become.

07 November 2008

Proposition 8 and Tyranny of the Tiny Minority

One might think that voters would have solid ground on which to amend their own state’s constitution. Granted, all state constitutions must fall within the bounds of the US Constitution, there still is a lot of wiggle room for variation between the states. Over the course of time, constitutions are bound to be amended.

This past Tuesday, Californians voted to amend the state constitution so “that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California (according to the Sec. of State of California website). It would not negate any legal rights in civil unions, which can be same-sex. It would, in its most basic sense, take a title away from same-sex couples. They could not, in the eyes of the state, marry.

5,376,454 Californians voted in favor of Proposition 8. 4,870,010 voted against it. That’s over 10 million people who made their voices heard. It marks the second time that a clear majority has voted to ban marriage between same-sex couples in California in less than a decade. One might think that would be the end of the story for a while, at least until the next election cycle.

But instead, hundreds turned out in protests in Los Angeles and San Francisco. I say hundreds, because 2,500 (from estimates here and here) don’t equate to “thousands” in my eyes. They’ve demanded “the Freedom to Marry”. (Capitalization in the original.) That would be an estimated 0.0244% of the total voters who have protested (as of the morning of 6 November). Will that miniscule, vocal minority rule the day?

If the ACLU and lawyers from both Los Angeles and San Francisco have their way, it will. They’ve asked the California Supreme Court to overturn Proposition 8. If the Court attempts to rescind Proposition 8, they have effectively placed the power to amend the state’s constitution in the hands of less than 3 hundredths of one percent of the population who were able to and chose to vote on the matter.

For those who may question the civility of taking away a title – marriage – from a certain group of people – namely those same-sex couples who want to assume it for themselves, I ask you to look at the issue from the other side of the fence. What does it say that 99.9756% of voters who made their voices heard and accepted the decision may have their votes essentially negated by 2,500 protestors and a few (or more than a few) lawyers? I call that tyranny of the minority – the ludicrously small, intolerant, self-centered minority. A lamentable state, indeed.

05 November 2008

Positives About Tuesday

My wife sometimes gets angry with me because I tend, at the end of the day, to try to find the bright spots in otherwise unhappy situations. While I’m in the minority here, I find yesterday’s presidential election results a very unhappy situation. I think that the lurch to the left will ultimately do great harm domestically and internationally.

That being said, here’s a short list of bright spots:

- First and foremost, now that the US has elected a man of African descent, we – all of us – should move beyond race. We should, as King suggested, judge all based on the content of their character, and we should do so without unnecessary gentleness or being “PC”, both of which cloud judgment and are the source of endless excuses.

- Democrats should have no one to blame for their own actions. President Bush (the younger) has been the all-purpose excuse. If Democrats invoke his name much after January 2009, they will look just silly. (This, of course, assumes that the public will think that Pres. Bush can’t possibly the scapegoat long after leaving office. Then again, when one considers the plot of Animal Farm…)

- Republicans have the opportunity to become conservative again. The “compassionate conservatism” that Pres. Bush sold the electorate twice ended up smelling much more like Liberal social policies than anything “compassionate”. Republicans, if they want to regain their social conservatism, need to get back to basics and shed nuance. The electorate may meet them half-way after 4 years of really Liberal government expansion.

- The potential that a soon-to-be President Obama will take more from everyone in taxes is high in my opinion, all of his claims of not increasing taxes for 95% of the public notwithstanding. Most people don’t like having more taken from them. Four years of that may change minds within the electorate greatly.

- No human can be the “messiah”. Sen. Obama will soon feel the awesome weight of the office he is about to assume. His slick pronunciations and sloganeering won’t wash outside of electoral politics. He will have to govern. He will not be able to vote “present”. Presidential decisions will not be “above his pay grade”. If he governs well, all the better for the nation. If he fails (as I feel he will), then we will hopefully only have to endure four years of his tenure.

Hope springs eternal – and I’m not talking about the glib kind sold on the campaign trail.

03 November 2008

Tuesday Thoughtcrimes and More

In anticipation of Election Day events – and at the risk of sounding quite cynical – I offer a short list of Orwellian thoughtcrimes which may well be “committed”.

Non-Verbalized Racism: Some may think that any vote for Sen. McCain or any third party candidate is a verification of latent racism.

Verbalized Racism: This may be accomplished by uttering any of the following with reference to Sen. Obama and/or his campaign – socialist, communist, elitist, articulate, etc. Verbalized racism may be compounded with non-verbalized racism and indicate irrefutable racist tendencies.

Selfish Anti-Patriotism: This may be brought about through critical examination, either through thought or word, of redistributive properties of candidate’s financial and economic plans. Those critical of redistributive policies are against the Nation (or the Party) and are thus unpatriotic and are coupled with non-verbalized racism. Wincing at redistributive policies is tantamount to verbalized selfish anti-patriotism and also constitutes non-verbalized racism.

Fear-Mongering: Thoughts or verbalized statements concerning “what if” certain candidates are elected constitute unwarranted, radical fear-mongering. Thoughts of this nature indicate non-verbalized racism. Statements of this kind indicate verbalized racism.

More thoughtcrimes and their active extensions may well come into being as time goes on. The first test of what our future will look like will depend on who wins on Election Day. The next will be how the losing side reacts.

One Day Before the Vote

Many folks, it seems, are worried about what will happen on Tuesday night or in the early hours of Wednesday morning. There are some who say that either an Obama win or loss will incite riots. There are some who say that McCain supporters will cling even more adamantly to their guns and their God if he loses. There are many, many who see this election as one which has strained the fabric of our nation. They would be right.

The cause of this, I think, is our hyper-media, fueled with hundreds of millions of political dollars (far more than necessary or prudent), looking for divisive (and thus decisive?) information with which to contrast candidates. Not that much of these things have to do with the character or content of the candidates, but it sure does make for “breaking news” – in boldface, flashing fonts.

Hyper-media has raised hyper-partisanship to new levels. It doesn’t help that hyper-race-sensitivity has come into play. Just to demonstrate how much one candidate’s race matters in this contest, it has managed to nearly eclipse any positive spin with regard to the gender of not one, but two candidates.

(A telling point, then, is the absence of warnings – both past and present – when Sen. Clinton was and if Gov. Palin should be defeated. No riots were or are predicted; no sexism accused, or virtually none.)

And so, the hyper-this and hyper-that seem to have accelerated some sort of cultural-political continental drift where conservative and liberal plates move further away from each other, leaving a void in the middle.
But I can’t help but think that perhaps this is somewhat of an illusion created by media and political magicians. Someone once said that if a lie is told often enough and with enough force, it can become the truth. If Americans are told often enough, with enough conviction and supposed authority, that there are serious divisions in the country, then it can become the truth. Razor close presidential elections seem to have reinforced the supposed truth of division. But I wonder if our hyper-media were toned down 80% if we wouldn’t have a more civil society and more civil – and less dollar-driven – political body.

01 November 2008

My Get Rich (Relatively) Quick Scheme

Like many Americans, I occasionally have Homer Simpson-like thoughts of getting rich very quickly. All of them die as mere thoughts; I’m a bit too risk averse to dive into the deep end alone. That’s why I’m glad that the deep end is coming to me.

During this presidential campaign, Sen. Obama has said repeatedly that those of us making less than $250,000 would get a tax break, or wouldn’t see our taxes increased, or something akin to those. It would be “fair” for those making more than that to pay more; it would, as Sen. Biden said, “patriotic” for folks making more than $250,000 a year to pay more.

Regardless of who I’m voting for on Tuesday and who might win, I was fairly secure that I personally would not be considered “rich”, as our combined income is well below what Sen. Obama and Sen. Biden consider rich. We are middle class. Or at least that’s what I think.

There’s a decent chance that my wife and I will be considered “rich” under an Obama administration. In recent days, the bar which theoretically separates the rich from the middle class has been lowered considerably by Democrats – more than 50%. So whereas one might consider two beginning teachers’ salaries distinctly “un-rich”, it may not be long at all for us to be “rich”. Indeed, politicians may well make it happen much more quickly than I could ever do so by myself.

Perhaps I owe them thanks, then. The government may achieve for me what I have not achieved for myself. The funny thing is that I don’t really want to be rich; I have no great ambition to become wealthy at the expense of other things in life. That, too, is a good thing if Sen. Obama gains the White House. I can be fairly certain that I won’t get wealthy, but my wife and I may well be considered “rich”. Now that’s one rich paradox, isn’t it?

27 October 2008

Am I Better Off? Are We?

Just a quick thought, a suggestion, of something each of us should do before we go to vote on the first Tuesday in November. We should, each one of us, make a list or narrative about how good – or how bad – our lives are. In four years’ time, we’ll all be asked again if we are better off than we are right now. Therefore some objectivity is called for.

When I pen (or type) my commentary, I’m adding a column for “Should the government do anything about it?” The question "Are we better off" may well be more important when it comes to presidential politics than its close cousin with the first person singular pronoun.

And I think that, in the name of objectivity, this should be done before the 4th of November. Again, this is for the sake of some objectivity. Once the votes start rolling in, emotions may take over – causing glee or despair, depending on which way you lean. So write early, and unlike voting, you can write prolifically.

Side Note: Apologies for the long hiatus. Busy times require some things fall by the wayside. I’ll be back at it more regularly near the end of this week.

18 October 2008

Attacking the Man

“Joe the Plumber” has been a sensation since the debate this past Wednesday night. The sad thing is, it has wound up being for all of the wrong reasons. Joe asked a very interesting question – a question that the mainstream media has refused to ask over the last umpteen months. But instead of focusing on the question and Sen. Obama’s telling answer (something about wanting to “spread the wealth around”), the media decided to dig into Joe’s personal life. So much for questioning those in positions of power.

Some things that Joe has been harshly criticized for are that he isn’t a licensed plumber, that he doesn’t, in fact, earn over $250,000 a year, that he is a Republican (which precludes him from asking a question of a Democrat candidate), that he owes back taxes, and that somehow he is a plant of Sen. McCain. All of these are, to use a favorite term of Sen. Obama, distractions from the main point – Joe called Sen. Obama on his socialistic tax plans, and Sen. Obama admitted that they are, in fact, socialistic.

And while we’re here in the land of the subjunctive mood, if I were a 16 year-old high school student who plans to go to college, I might ask Sen. Obama how his plans to subsidize college for all would help me to achieve my educational goals. I might point out that subsidizing college tuition has not brought down, but rather inflated, tuition at virtually every institution. I might also point out that if everyone has a right to a college education, then supply and demand might certainly push tuition even higher. I might conclude by asking if the federal government would subsidize education which, realistically speaking, don’t lead anywhere meaningful (various “studies” majors) versus hard sciences and technology. Would the result of subsidizing such empty learning be something good for the nation?

Of if I were a 4 year-old, I might ask why the federal government deserves the green light to come into my home and “advise” my parents how they ought to be taking care of me, how they ought to be educating me. I might ask why the federal government sees the need to expand some early education plans when the effect of such plans are negated by the time I’ll be in the third grade. I might conclude by asking rather bluntly who is to raise a child in this country, the parents or the government.

Would I have my life dissected because I, in fact, am neither a 16 year-old high school student nor a highly articulate 4 year-old? Which is more important, my actual personal “condition” or the questions I ask?

Democrats, particularly Sen. Obama and Sen. Biden, are attacking the man because they cannot openly and honestly answer the questions he poses. When Sen. Obama did, he spoke his true feelings: that the wealthy owe the lower and lower-middle classes their wealth. The wealthy must pay more taxes as a “patriotic” gesture. They are aided by the mainstream media, who are in the tank for Sen. Obama and have the means to dissect anyone’s life with a fine scalpel.

They attack the man because they are socialists. And the most telling thing about their inner motives is that they’re attacking the “average guy”. They want power; the power to take and redistribute the wealth of the country as they see fit. If Joe is any indication of the Democrat Left’s feelings regarding power and the average guy, the average guy is in for a drubbing.

11 October 2008

How’s Your Gas?

Funny how I’ve not noticed much about this one in the news…but gasoline prices have dropped precipitously in the last week or so. I can buy a gallon of gas for $2.75 locally, which is a drop of nearly 30 cents per gallon. I’m willing to guess that supply and demand have taken hold of prices. Conservation of gas seems to be the watchword for lots of folks; I’m often asked what kind of mileage my little car gets. The recent economic downturn probably has something to do with less demand as well.

And interestingly, I don’t think that the federal government has had to “fix” this situation. There was no need to guard against price gouging or to levy “windfall profits” taxes. The market needed to work. It was painful for many for a while, but now there’s some “relief” at the gas pump. And maybe it will last for a while.

So while the federal government works to bailout just about every industry, I think it’s important to realize that sometimes things need to get a bit difficult before people become willing to make changes, like driving less or buying more efficient cars. And while I’m sure there’s not a direct analogy to be made, I wonder if in the long run all of this governmental buying of financial institutions won’t hurt more than a kind of “summer of $4 gasoline” for the financial world.

10 October 2008

A Book for Undecided Voters

The presidential election rolls toward its end, and there are still lots of people who are undecided. I must admit, I am not one of them. But I do understand why undecided voters in search of more information might shy away from reading books like The Case Against Barack Obama by Freddoso or The Obama Nation by Corsi. That they are specifically anti-Obama may put an undecided voter off. There may be apprehension on the part of the undecided voter that reading such a book might be equivalent to throwing support to Sen. Obama's rival, Sen. McCain. So for those who are not inclined to read these titles, let me suggest an alternative – one which does not contain Sen. Obama's name at all: The True Believer by Eric Hoffer (a paltry $10.36 at Amazon).

Published in 1951, The True Believer discusses the "nature of mass movements" – something that America seems to be suffering from at the moment. At a slim 168 pages, it's a quick read. And though it is filed under philosophy, there should be no fear that the language is too lofty or the arguments are too complicated for the average reader. Mr. Hoffer was no ivory tower academic, it appears. Mr. Hoffer is described on the book's back cover as a "self-educated" who "worked in restaurants, as a migrant field-worker, and as a gold prospector".

The reason I find this book so important is that it gets to the heart of the matter: that the true believer is essentially blind to the world around him and to those who lead him. But I go too far. I urge any undecided voter to read Mr. Hoffer's book. It may change your mind, or at the very least, it will ask some important questions about the leaders and followers on the Democrat side this time around the electoral merry-go-round.


09 October 2008

Obama, Fusion, and New Party Socialism

While there's little doubt that both political parties are leaning toward more invasive government, the recent revelation that Sen. Obama was at least considered part of or endorsed by the New Party - a socialist organization - shows just how far left the candidate is.

The New Party described itself, reportedly, as a "socialist democratic" party which aimed at gaining representation by having candidates run under two banners, presumably both Democrat and New Party. This idea is called "fusion". By way of double-billing allegiances, New Party members might theoretically pick up votes from backers of both parties, thus "fusing" party popularity.

Of course, it might also be argued that "fusion" is a way to hide a real socialist allegiance by a candidate. That must be why it was ruled as unconstitutional in 1997.

One online reporter found archived webapges that shed light on Sen. Obama's association with the New Party in the 90s; he was running uncontested for state senate at the time. The linked article's evidence is interesting to say the least. What is even more interesting is how difficult it is in this electronic age to pop things down the memory hole and forget about them. The archived webpages were certainly not gotten rid of to save bandwidth.

If the link betwee Sen. Obama's and the New Party turns out to be solid, then it may go a long way to turning support away from him. Surely he would not be able to say he didn't know what the New Party was all about or that he hadn't read about their past. Surely he wouldn't be able to say that he was just an aquaintence. Surely the media will check all of this out. As I've written before, I believe Sen. Obama is a socialist. This just firms up the case, in my opinion.

Then again, perhaps it is easy to pop some things down the memory hole. Only time will tell just how easy it is, or just how much people are willing to ignore in the face of intrusive socialism.

04 October 2008

The Difficulty of Downsizing

Once in place, it seems that government apparatus are nearly impossible to dismantle. Instead, they grow in size and scope. The idea is nothing new. In testimony before Congress concerning the then proposed Department of Education, Dr. J. Gresham Machen argued that creating instrusive government agencies, particularly federal agencies, tends to be a one-way road. According to Dr. Machen, “It is very much easier to prevent the formation of some agency that may be thought to be unfortunate than it is to destroy it after it is once formed.” After an agency is formed, Mr. Machen argued, it tends to grow and gain more power, even if it does not accomplish its original goal. Any perceived failure may well be attributed to lack of power or funds, both of which, when supplemented, expand the intrusiveness of the agency.

The federal Department of Education has done just that. Dr. Machen’s testimony was given in February of 1926. If he were to see the power and scope of the agency today, I doubt he would be surprised, given his testimony. That it took nearly 80 years for the Department to impose, through Congress, No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Through that apparatus, the federal government has intruded upon every classroom in the nation.

My purpose is not to debate the benefits or detriments of NCLB. My purpose is to use the Department of Education and NCLB as a warning sign of how difficult it is to remove the federal government from some sphere of public life once it has a bureaucratic foothold.

While some call for abolishing NCLB, most lawmakers kick around “strengthening” or “reforming” NCLB, or making it more “flexible”. One wonders if the worry is where the power would go. Who would “hold schools accountable” for teaching students if not the government? Who better to provide “oversight” of state and local activities than the federal government? The chorus is “let all power flow upward”. And thus, the Department of Education – a body which I would argue has no need to exist, certainly not as a regulatory body – grabs more money and increases the scope of its intrusion just as Dr. Machen warned over 80 years ago.

So as we enter this last month before the election, it might do us well to consider what government agencies the presidential candidates would create, which ones they would enlarge in scope and power and funding, and who might actually attempt to cut government.

In education, “universal” zero-to-five programs (discussed here and here) would further increase the power of the Department of education. These plans, currently shelved in Congress, would allow for federal intrusion beginning at birth. Of course, this power creep would all be for the “benefit” of the child.

Nationalized healthcare, even in some initially modest form, would certainly grow to be a bureaucratic beast. The Department of Education example aside, Medicare and Medicaid have already proven that. Once in place, destroying nationalized healthcare would take a mammoth effort, if it could be done at all. However, as opposed to education programs, nationalized healthcare is something which can be totally avoided by simply not creating it.

Perhaps there are other examples, but it suffices to say that growing government is easy – and very costly. President Bush and Congress (of both political persuasions) have taught us that lesson. Are we better off for it? Are we freer with federal oversight? Would we be yet still freer with federally mandated programs on top of the gargantuan federal programs we already have? Can we afford to build ever-larger state apparatus? Can our liberties withstand them?

I would answer no. But it remains to be seen if the electorate will begin to dismantle federal intrusion on themselves by demanding of their representatives to stop growing government. Stopping the growth is the first step to downsizing government, and it will be a tough pill to swallow for some. But if we really value individual liberty, we will begin to refuse to hand them over to the state, whose programs take power and money under the guise of “aiding” the electorate.

03 October 2008

Biden's Bailout Via Bankruptcy

One of the several "you gotta be kidding me" moments during last night's VP debate for me was Sen. Biden's declaration that bankruptcy courts ought to be able to not only change the interest rates on mortgages, but also reset the principal owed. I'm sure that Sen. Biden thinks that this would be a great way to support middle-class Americans. But there is a huge problem with his plan.

It seems the logic of his idea is that if something is worth far less than it was at inception, then the amount borrowed - the principal - should be adjusted accordingly. Of course, this adjustment would only be allowed in a downward manner. No politician would dare think to raise the principal on loans whose value had actually increased.

But think about other things that may decrease after purchase, much to the buyer's surprise. The obvious target would be cars - but US automakers are already getting a nice chunk of money.

Instead, consider the college graduate who, tens of thousands of dollars in debt, suddenly realizes that his degree in "(insert group name here) studies" is worth next to nothing in the marketplace. Or the student who discovers all too late that going to a wildly overpriced private college is not worth the debt incurred. Under Sen. Biden's logic, shouldn't these graduates be able to renegotiate their student loans based on the revealed "value" of their education? Surely there must be a court to remedy these poor choices.

I did not think that Gov. Palin did a particularly good job at the debate last night, but she did hit one very high note concerning personal responsibility. Greater individual responsibility would necessarily result in a more responsible citizenry as a whole. Just as I suggested in a previous article on education, it's a bottom-up approach. And it would be of great benefit to each citizen, each community, and ultimately the country. Sen. Biden and his running-mate offer a top-down approach which will grow government intervention, weaken communities, and render helpless individuals.

29 September 2008

Lurching Toward Statism

A crisis is a great way to enact rapid change. The current financial crisis is being used as a vehicle to enact statist legislation disguised as a rescue.

According to the Heritage Foundation, and found at many other sites, the compromise solution which Congress will vote on today allows for the federal government “to purchase those assets from local governments, pension funds, and small banks that serve low- and middle-income families.” This one provision would make federal intervention at all levels of government and commerce permissible, and attractive.

But the electorate shouldn’t worry about that. It’s in the name of “low- and middle-income” Americans, so it must be for the greater good. The emotional appeal is akin to the tired slogan “it’s for the children”. Under this guise – helping out the little guy in America – this bailout bill has grown from three pages to over 100 (as of Friday). The size of the bill today is, to my knowledge, unknown. Surely most members of Congress will have not have read the bill before voting on it.

But it’s an emergency, we’re told. Everything could melt down, we’re told. Something ginormous must be done immediately, we’re told. And in the end, something ginormous will be done. And our federal government will be more deeply embedded in our everyday lives, in our finances and our mortgages, in our banks and lending institutions. And once the panic has been averted, even if only for a relatively short time, the hands of Washington will pat their own backs and congratulate selves. And we will have moved further from a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” and closer to a people of the government, by the government, and for the government.

27 September 2008

Chosen Stupidity

It’s not all that often that I have an experience in school that I just can’t shake. As a secondary teacher, the average, day-to-day lunacy of a mass of teenaged minds leaves little to wonder at, from a negatively connotative point of view. But some time ago, I had a conversation with a former student that has required me to consider the root cause of the stark change in the student. Some background is in order. (Note: My continual reference to “the student” is simply to remove any sort of identification from the student, including gender. The student’s attitude is all that is relevant.)

When the student was in my class, the student was quiet and reserved, but also bright and insightful. The student would make interesting comments about literature, seemingly out of nowhere at times, and generally made good grades. Then the student chose a different path. The student “thugged out” (my term).

A telling interaction with the student came as the student sat waiting for punishment, the result of some misdeed. As our conversation progressed, the student told me that things easily confuse him/her. I told the student that I knew, knew, that this is not the case. The student is bright, insightful, and thoughtful. The student said something akin to, “You don’t know me anymore.” Indeed.

That student had chosen stupidity. Without detailing the entire conversation, it is clear to me that the student had embraced a set of principles which necessitates abandoning his/her previous intellectual curiosity. The student’s ethic had become that of a thug, and the student had such distaste for any intellectual pursuit that he/she had managed to wash any and all academically ambitious attitudes away cleanly. The student may never make the turn back to his/her former self, now left long behind. The transition back to academic achievement would entail too much work, too much mental effort. Another student lost.

And who is at fault here? The student for choosing the clearly wrong road? The parent, or parents, for not reining in the student? The school for not creating after-school programs to keep the kid away from bad influences? The thug culture, which is seemingly so seductive? What needs to be added? What needs to be removed?

Call me heartless, but endless safety nets need to be removed. This student, along with many of the same cut, will receive endless opportunities to “succeed” regardless of their desire to accomplish anything of worth – even a simple day of not acting out. The never-ending safety net tends to encourage a sense of entitlement coupled with irresponsibility. At some point, the safety net has to be removed; the student has to touch the burning hot stovetop. Sometimes more than once, or twice. Then, perhaps, learning will occur and the student will choose to take the paradoxically easier road of working hard.

26 September 2008

Stop speaking in the name of the American People!

Originally posted at American Thinker.

A recent advertisement by the Al Gore backed we-can-solve-it-dot-organization closes with the claim that it has been “approved” by “the American people.” No, it hasn’t. Count me out. I demand it.

The reason is contained in the very text of the ad. It opens with a child playing with building blocks, and says, “The solution to our climate crisis seems simple; repower America with wind and solar.” (Emphasis mine) “Seems” is a great word for Mr. Gore’s message. It does seem quite simple to think that all we need to do is build more solar collectors and wind farms, and voila! Energy independence! That seems wonderfully simple. And the “we/me” simply has to demand it, and it will be so.

It echoes other ads by the Mr. Gore’s group. Want “green” jobs? Just demand them… from the government, no less. Want energy independence in ten years? Just demand it… from the government, again. Why not avoid the middle-man and demand an end to global warming from the deity? (There’s not much money to be made in that endeavor.)

But as I stated, the capper in the ad is the claim that it has been “approved” by “the American people.” Mr. Gore and his worker bees are attempting to co-opt 320 million Americans in their quest to demand what they cannot deliver themselves. He’s using $300 million to fund his efforts. Does that say something about what Mr. Gore might gain from the group’s demands? It seems simple to me. How about you?

Post Script - An excellent observation made earlier today by a friend: imagine walking into your doctor's office and demanding immortality...

25 September 2008

An Upside of “Do Nothing”?

At the end of the month, a Congressional ban on offshore drilling will expire. This is due to doing nothing, which is something the current Congress and its leadership is quite good at. It is part of the reason Congress managed to achieve a single-digit approval rating earlier this year.

Reports are that the issue will be taken up again after the election. Apparently fighting the drilling effort would hurt some (Democrats) in bids to remain in power. So there’s a hoodwink going on here. Congress sees no need to risk damaging its sky-high approval rating (around 20%) just before election time. Only matters of urgent spending are entertained – hence the mortgage bailout. Expect the drilling bans to be reinstated just as soon as Congress comes back to “work” in January 2009, if not the day after the polls close in November.

In a related note, Victor Davis Hansen writes an interesting piece this morning, “Dr. Frankenstein’s Wall Street”. In it, he chronicles the ways in which our culture has created the current financial crisis. It is a very worthwhile read, and it hits on an important point: our country is what we make it. If we choose to endlessly pursue something – anything – then there’s a good chance that we will achieve that something. It seems very American to pursue a goal; it is important enough to be enshrined in our Declaration of Independence. But what we pursue needs examining here.

If we do indeed choose to become more energy independent, we cannot ease our way into it through inaction, no more than we can simply demand it and expect it to come to be. We have to pursue it. And there is where the “do nothing” solution is more a tactic than a plan. It is a way to put off until later what Congress chooses, for political reasons, to not address now. And we choose our Representatives and Senators. Do you know where yours stands?

21 September 2008

The Fight Before Us and Teaching the Classics

Originally posted at American Thinker.

Two articles have come out at the end of this week. I would like to characterize them, but I’m not sure how to do it without sounding overly partisan or, perhaps, rapidly anti-something. Then again, I suppose that isn’t possible, nor would it be true. Both are anti-Left, and decisively so. One is “The Undefended City” by Bill Whittle at National Review, the other is “The Drumbeat” by William Staneski at American Thinker. One is more optimistic than the other, but both focus on the culture war in the US, indicating that it is more decisive than any other war our country is involved in.

As a teacher, the thoughts of these two writers in turn make me think about my classroom. As a high school teacher, my classroom is a place where students are physically dethached (some more than others) from the trappings of pop culture and media, but still bearing their baggage, sometimes literally. But it’s also a place where students can stop, slow down, and take a long look into other worlds. I choose to make the worlds that they look into ones from Western culture and tradition. I do that for a specific reason.

I tell my students, just as my teachers told me, that all roads in fiction lead to theme. Big questions need to be put forward; hypotheses need to be tried out, beaten up, reformed, and finally tossed out or adopted as is appropriate. The classics are perfect material for these mental exercises. Their themes, those big ideas in literature, are timeless and infinitely relevant. Sometimes the more distant in the past a piece of literature is helps with its relevance; analyzing the results of the revenge ethic in Agamemnon has not lost its relevance despite the millennia that have passed since its creation. In fact, the theme may be more accessible because it doesn’t have all of the cultural baggage of modernity. Through Aeschylus’ looking glass, students can evaluate their own motives, and perhaps change their own worlds. The same goes for Oedipus and Antigone, as well as for the lessons of Achilles and Odysseus.

Perhaps I take a bit of liberty by focusing so much on the classics. Too often it seems that popular culture and media look back into the past for only two reasons: to cast blame or to rhapsodize wildly about more heady days. I see no benefit in either in the classroom. We look back to learn valid lessons, meaningful lessons, lessons with which we can make better lives for ourselves. Mine is a “bottom-up” approach; make a more agile, better thinking (not “correct” thinking) part – the individual – and the whole – the community – will gradually get better. In that way, I believe we can defend the city and change the beat of the drum.