30 March 2008

Paying Once

There is an old saying that an army should not pay for the same ground twice. That goes for going after the same enemy twice…the exact same enemy. Two instances come from the long-running war in Iraq (and I mean from 1990/1 until the present): Saddam Hussein and Moqtada al-Sadr.

When President Bush (41), urged by then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Colin Powell, let Saddam off the hook in 1991, it set the stage for the present. From 1991 until 2003, the US, along with British and (sometimes) French airmen, patrolled the skies over northern and southern Iraq. After 12 years of aerial occupation, something had to give. In 2003, President Bush (43) finished what his father did not, and in doing so, paid for the same ground twice to defeat the same man again.

Now US and British forces are dealing (again) with Moqtada al-Sadr and his so-called Mehdi Army. When Marines had al-Sadr cornered in Najaf in August 2004, he was let off the hook for political/religious reasons, thus ensuring that Coalition and Iraqi forces would have to fight al-Sadr later down the road.

Over the past four years, al-Sadr’s fighters have a tendency to take control of towns and cities at politically opportune moments. This is followed by Coalition and Iraqi military action against al-Sadr, which cause al-Sadr to call for his troops to lay down their arms. These statements do not seem to have an effect, other than to give Coalition and Iraqi forces some hope that this confrontation will be the last, never mind the obvious stiff-arm tactic by al-Sadr.

The question is, will al-Sadr be let off the hook this time. That may be more of a question for Iraqi Prime Minister al-Malaki. But if the fighting grows more intense and bloody, direct contact between Brit and US regular forces and the Mehdi Army will come to pass…again. And in the legacy of peaceful reconciliation with an armed foe in Iraq, our guys will pay for taking the same “ground” twice.

Thoughts on Poverty

I wonder if the two following “number crunches” are related in any way.

From The Sun (New York):

Nearly 40% of students who enter New York City public schools in the first grade are gone by the eighth grade, a new study by New York University researchers concludes. Those who leave tend to be academically weaker than those who stay.

“The evidence does not support the hypothesis that the ‘best’ students leave,” the study concluded.

Meaning that some students are more mobile, and I mean mobile in a negative sense. They pick up and more – or more to the point, are picked up and moved – more often than other students.

And this, from City Journal:
…the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census remind us that the breakdown of the traditional two-parent, married family is a far greater contributor to poverty in America than many of the supposed shortcomings of our economy.

It would be interesting to know how much mobility is created by parents breaking up, getting new jobs, moving to new places, has to do with kids bouncing from school to school. The article continues:

After peaking in the 1950s—when about 87 percent of all children lived with two parents—the traditional family went through a rapid decline beginning in the 1970s and has continued to shrink over the last three decades, though the rate of decline has slowed somewhat. As part of this sweeping change, the percentage of children living with married parents has fallen more rapidly, down more than two full percentage points, to 66.6 percent of all kids, in the last 10 years alone. Consistent with these decreases has been a sharp rise in the number of children living with single parents and with unmarried parents.

The economic impact of this breakdown has been profound. Researchers estimate that the entire rise in poverty in America since the late 1970s can be attributed to “changes in family formation,” a euphemism for the decline of families headed by two married parents. The latest Census data illustrate the problem. Only one out of ten American kids living in two-married-parent families is in poverty—and about one-third of these families are recent immigrants whose poverty is temporary. By
contrast, 37 percent of children living with single mothers are impoverished.

Perhaps this doesn’t really mean anything. But perhaps it is reasonable to conclude that, if a child living with a just his or her mother is nearly four times as likely to live in poverty, then that same child – if he or she lives in New York – may very well be one of the 40% who don’t complete the journey from first to eighth grade locally. What might be more insightful is to find out what the effect trends are for the third generation, the children of these children. As generations pass on, is the trend of poverty more pronounced?

The City Journal article (which is actually a critique of social programs of presidential candidates) concludes that “[i]gnoring the obvious stress that family breakdown has inflicted on children” means that whatever is done through economic or social programs is destined to be a band-aid. But while I think the government is able to help (through largely economic incentives) families stay together, it cannot solve broken families. This issue has deeper, cultural roots that simply can’t be legislated away.

27 March 2008

Influence of Aussie Immigration Policy

A headline from The Australian yesterday brought a smile of wonder to my face: “West awakes from suicidal slumber”. I didn’t know the precise contents of the article, written by Janet Albrechtsen, but I was sure I would be happy with it.

The article centered on the Brit’s “bring[ing] in immigration controls based on the ‘Australian model’.” This is strangely odd because not long ago Australia was regarded “as an international pariah” because of immigration reforms – including a citizenship test – in the country. Now, Australia’s reforms are the benchmark for similar reforms in the UK.

The article also puts multiculturalism, and the cultural (and moral) relativism that accompanies it, in the spotlight. Though I doubt Mrs. Albrechtsen’s claim that “the multiculti crowd is dwindling to a few stragglers”, I think it is important that Western democracies are finally revived enough to claim, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, that “it is confidence in your own heritage that allows you to be generous to those of another heritage.” Indeed.

It makes me wonder just how long Americans will have to wait to unweave our won immigration web. Surely there will be no action by the Bush administration; nor will Congress do anything that does not assure individual members a smooth passage to reelection. Perhaps part of the solution, as it is in Australia and soon in the UK, is to offer probationary citizenship with limited entitlements. But then, that’s getting ahead of the situation as I see it.

Unlike the UK and Australia, the US is not surrounded by bodies of water. Regardless of any “universal, comprehensive, compassionate, collaborative” plan put forth by either party, open borders must be closed before anything else. The US electorate has already bought the fib of “one-time amnesty”.

But while American practical solutions may be different from our UK and Aussie counterparts, the core of the positive side of the argument is the same. Western culture matters. British culture is important to the survival of the UK. Australian culture is important to the survival of Australia. American culture is no less important to our survival as a nation.

26 March 2008

Two Inconvenient Reports

This past week, a United Press International article (linked here through the Washington Post) reported on a Harvard research project which concluded “that publicly voiced doubts about the U.S. occupation of Iraq have a measurable ‘emboldenment effect’ on insurgents there.” This effect “is more pronounced in areas of Iraq that have better access to international news media.” While the study is far from comprehensive – there are other types of “statements” put out through international media which could be studied – the study does lend credibility to the conviction that statements made by US policy makers have real, tangible effects.

This is not to say that, given the limited nature of this study, that all dissenting views of the war in Iraq should be silenced. I don’t believe that’s the case. However, those in positions of power who continually claim, regardless of reality, that all is lost in Iraq ought to take more care when they speak into a microphone. Words do have consequences, as the researchers at Harvard have shown, and some statements can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Not so much with former VP Al Gore’s belief, repeated in innumerable press statements, that the science concerning global warming had reached a consensus and that the debate was over. Man, Mr. Gore and his cronies would have us all believe, is the cause of global warming and CO2 is the invisible culprit. However, now comes reports that, given new information, the earth’s temperature has actually been either constant or cooling since 1998. This appears to be in complete disregard for the continuing rise in atmospheric CO2 levels.

The article (which is actually a transcript of a radio interview in Australia), makes note that this cooling – or at the very least, lack of warming – will have great implications for policy makers who have staked their careers on the assumption (or for Mr. Gore, the undeniable fact) that the earth was growing ever warmer.

From a more personal point of view, it seems to me that there is little need for global warming hysteria other than the need (by some) to make money on a dubious claim. The hyperbole surrounding the global warming movement, including equating skeptics with Holocaust deniers, appears even more juvenile in the light of new evidence. Similarly, those who have been, since the invasion of Iraq, swinging on the pendulum of public opinion to further political careers should feel more than a little ashamed, given the Harvard study.

Juxtaposing these two issues provides an interesting insight. On one hand global warming demands orthodoxy with regard to the cause (human creation of CO2) and effect (a warmer earth) of core doctrine. Dissent is tantamount to blasphemy to those who have fully imbibed the Kool-Aid. On the other hand, Iraq war “critics” (to use a kind term) demand that their cries of “we cannot win” are simply part of what makes America a great nation, namely Constitutionally protected dissent. Consequences of how that dissent is voice be damned, regardless of how it effects troops (which, incidentally, are always “supported”).

I’ll take this opportunity to dissent from both views. Dissent usually has its right place, but taken to extremes, it can be just as destructive as blind orthodoxy. We can’t, or we shouldn’t, “question everything,” but we should pick our verbal fights with full realization of our own bias and, moreover, the consequences of taking a stand.

24 March 2008

Of Truckers and Smoke Detectors

With the price of gas and diesel going up and up, I suppose it was only a matter of time before this happened. It appears that some, mostly independent, truckers are planning a strike for the week of April 1st. Note to self: do some serious grocery shopping this weekend.

What I find interesting about this story is not necessarily the story itself. Reading through the comments page reveals contradictory sentiments about the current role – and the right role – of government in the matter. Many of the comments by owner-operator truckers concerned over-taxation and regulation by the government. Yet one man in the article itself states that there needs to be more government oversight of the insurance industry. (Which, incidentally, makes sense as insurance is required for all drivers.) There’s also talk of suspending taxes on fuel “until our economy recovers”. Which is all well and good, except that those taxes actually are supposed to support something the truckers need: roads.

On the other side, on the comments page, there were cries of bailout. It’s as if the truckers are some sort of house-flipping scheme. Some writers claimed that the truckers probably wanted to be subsidized like other industries. Others said that what the truckers are complaining about is just the cost of business.

It all made me think a little bit harder about the right role of government in this matter. Should it be the task of the federal government (or of the various state governments, for that matter) to control the prices of things like gas and diesel? In my opinion, supply and demand should largely control that, regardless of how many taxes are placed on a gallon. Again, that tax money is supposed to support roads and infrastructure. (If it doesn’t, then that’s another problem entirely.) Should the government have oversight on insurance companies? In my opinion, when the various governments require purchasing a product like insurance, there should be oversight to make certain that there’s no price-gouging. However, this oversight should be as minimal as possible.

And it’s that minimalistic idea that seems to have been lost on so many, and not just those in government. There is very little need for the federal government in my day-to-day life, or the state for that matter. And yet, here I sit in my own home this morning, wide awake since 4 a.m. because one of my government-mandated smoke alarms ran out of back-up battery juice, which caused the system to double as an alarm clock. I thought I had replaced all of the batteries on Saturday. Alas, I missed two of them. Why, I must wonder, do I have one smoke alarm for every 300 square feet of my house?

I understand that the truckers may be hurting. If they’re paying inflated insurance prices, then they have a grievance that needs to be worked out. Perhaps the government can mediate that. But fuel prices should be handled by the market; otherwise we will have artificially low fuel prices which will lead to shortages. I don’t remember the exact time because I was too young, but I think fuel price fixing has been tried before. What’s needed more is a real conversation about the right role of government (as opposed to conversations about race, gender, etc…things that can’t be influenced by conversation). Do we really want to live in a mommy-state in which the higher levels of government solve every grievance? Perhaps images of government intrusion – for our own good, of course – should be setting off our internal smoke detectors.

21 March 2008

The Silliness of Numbers

An article in the New York Times today (I know…consider the source) discusses states’ reporting graduation rates. Seems there’s more than a bit of discrepancy between what is real and what is reported to the federal government.

This should be no surprise to anyone. Any time progress is ordered from above without strict guidelines for metrics, there will be a fudging of the numbers. The biggest piece of fudge comes from Mississippi, which reports an 87% graduation rate to the feds while calculating a 63.3% graduation rate internally (NYT graphic). The article cites different reasons for these types of discrepancies: inability to accurately track students by states, embarrassment of actual graduation rates, and No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Now, with the goal of “settling this once and for all,” Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is thinking about “defining a single federal graduation rate and requesting states to report it that way.”

The silly thing is that even if this were to be done, it would only provide more concrete metrics to describe what is already fairly widely known: public education in the US is in trouble. More numbers are not needed to know this, really. And in my opinion, the heavy hand of Washington is not needed, either. For all of the bickering about limited government and such, Republicans are to thank for NCLB, perhaps the most invasive mandate on education in US history.

Republicans would do well to remember that centralized government control of programs which actually exist far, far from the national seat tends to make those programs more dysfunctional. NCLB is a prime example. What’s needed is less federal intervention and micro-management. Education is the business of the various states and, even more so, of the localities which have the greatest motivation to improve their own schools. Encouraging local level reform in myriad directions may, indeed, result in some train wrecks. But it would also result in some stunning successes. Either way, local control of education is preferable to the one way, the only way, the federal government way.

19 March 2008

Palm Beach County Schools and the ACLU

Originally posted on The American Thinker website.

The Sun-Sentinel reports that the Palm Beach County School Board is being sued by the ACLU (on behalf of parents and students, of course) for "failing to provide students with a high-quality education guaranteed under the state constitution". The ACLU cites low graduation rates as the major cause of the lawsuit. Depending on whose calculation method is used, graduation rates range from 71.8% (using the state method of calculation) to the ACLU's 58.1% calculation. Taken from the Sun-Sentinel story:

"By any measure, the graduation rates in Palm Beach County are evidence of an
inadequate school system," the suit states. "And, the consequences for the students and the county are devastating as those who leave school without even a high school diploma are significantly less able or likely to share in the American dream."

Taken at face value, the statistics do not lead directly to "evidence of an inadequate school system." Granted, there is probably more depth to the argument than is presented in this short news article, but there may be other factors at work than just an "inadequate school system". Moreover, what would constitute an "adequate" school system? No word on that in the article.

There are, of course, calls for folks to do something. Predictably, money is in the equation. The Palm Beach County superintendent wants the ACLU to concentrate "on bringing more resources to public education." By resources, he probably means money. But a little research (schoolmatters.com) shows that the district spent $10,529 per student in 2005. One has to wonder if more money is really needed.

The ACLU, according to the article, doesn't want money, but rather "improvements". A surf through the ACLU of Florida's website didn't produce any clues to what these improvements might be, but presumably it would have something to do with the disparity in graduation rates between whites, blacks and Hispanics. The Palm Beach school system is huge, with nearly 175,000 students enrolled in 2005. Just what the ACLU would want the school district to "improve" in order to overcome this disparity leaves one wondering. Surely it must be some universal plan to address all of the woes of the district through governmental and bureaucratic means.

But neither of these methods, I think, will do much good. Spending more money will only make the situation more expensive --and I write this realizing that I have a very limited amount of information with which to work. The "improvements" are, given the information available, nothing solid or meaningful. What is not addressed in this matter publicly is how much the students and parents value education. If they do not value education, or give it only little value, then money and "improvements" will have negligible effect on the graduation rate and the disparity across racial/ethnic lines. Values of all kinds begin in the home. The climate of a school is largely a reflection of the values of the families who send their children there.

I'm not saying that schools can do nothing to change the climate. But that uphill battle can't be won by dollars or vague "improvements" - especially those advocated by folks who have little or no educational experience, which presumably includes the lawyers at the ACLU.

18 March 2008

A Glimpse into the Obama Future

I won’t rehash all of the notes that I took on the print version of Senator Obama’s “race” speech today. I wouldn't even put my wife through that! There are, however, some points at the end of his speech which clearly show where he would lead the US. It's a useful exercise, I think, to concentrate on them.

Sen. Obama’s first point concerns, of course, health care. He laments that “Emergency Room[s] are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care”. The obvious conclusion is that we, as Americans, ought to provide health care for everyone.

His second point, which is tied syntactically to the first, is that home ownership is in jeopardy for all. Home ownership, in turn, is directly tied to corporations moving jobs “overseas for nothing more than a profit”. The obvious conclusion here is that we, as Americans, ought to provide jobs for all able-bodied persons (US citizens and “others”) so that we all may take part in the dream of home ownership. It is a moral imperative.

His fourth, and my favorite, point is that we need to bring all military members “home from a war that never should’ve been authorized and never should’ve been waged”. That statement is predictable Demo-fodder. But the good part comes in Sen. Obama’s call to “show our patriotism by caring for [service members], and their families, and giving them the benefits they have earned.” So, make room for me at the recruiting center! I’m getting myself back in uniform. I can be assured, obviously, that Sen. Obama as president will look out for my benefits and my family and I’ll not have to sacrifice one bit. I’ll not have to do my job as a member of the armed forces. I’ll just earn benefits!

And that, I think, is the vision of the Obama candidacy. He seeks to placate the masses with his messianic message of a post-racial, risk-free, sacrifice-free American society. All will have health care; all will have a secure job and home, and even the military will be coddled. And it will all come courtesy of the Obama government. It’s post-racial? It’s post-rational!

Sen. Obama begins his “race” speech with these words from the Declaration of Independence: “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union” (my emphasis). He ends his speech with a story about an old, black man and a young, white girl coming together, and says that this “is where the perfection begins.” The Declaration of Independence did not and does not peddle utopia to the masses. Its opening statement displays full understanding that men, and by extension government, is imperfect. Therefore, perfection can only be approached, not achieved. For Sen. Obama, perfection can be achieved through unity of purpose (his unity and his purposes, as Dennis Prager so often points out) and through his government and his leadership. If these ideas sound more than a little totalitarian, well, I’d have to agree strongly.

Expectations of Pardon and Understanding

Much will be made of the Senator Obama speech given today. Folks with more political savvy than I have will dissect it along a number of lines, racial and religious being two. I have just one thing that I want to set apart for the reader. Sen. Obama asks that we, the electorate, excuse Jeremiah Wright’s “occasionally fierce [critiquing] of American domestic and foreign policy” because, on the whole, Mr. Wright’s only real crime – if it can be called that – is to have “the contradictions…of the community that he has served”. So in the end, it’s really not his fault that he spouts anti-American, racist rants to his (former) flock, or that DVDs of such things are provided by his (former) church. Mr. Wright must be forgiven and understood because, after all, he is a mirror of his community and his people.

I don’t buy that for a second. The reason is this: if the electorate accepts Sen. Obama’s call to allow for Mr. Wright’s comments, to show tolerance, then the electorate can reasonably suppose that the senator will have the same expectations when he is president. There has already been evidence of this, Sen. Obama’s musings on invading Pakistan and sitting down to unconditional talks with enemies in particular. How much noise has the electorate heard about those in the past three months? Sen. Obama has been absolved of those verbal missteps because…well, they don’t reflect the “real” Obama. It’s not the totality of him. It’s not what he’s about. Neither is his close relationship with Mr. Wright.

The worry, and it is a very real worry for me, is that once we find out who Sen. Obama is, all we may be able to do is grin and “understand” his reality.

Post Script: It's a good idea, I think, that folks read the speech rather than watch it. It's important to review and revisit what Sen. Obama says as he goes along.

16 March 2008

The "Pipeline"

I’m not sure where my wife digs this stuff up, but she sent a link this morning (from across the room) to a research paper entitled “Texas’ School-to-Prison Pipeline” (executive summary) released in October 2007 from a group called Texas Appleseed. Per the paper, the group’s “mission is to promote justice for all Texans” through problem-solving. The paper attempts “to explore the relationship between school discipline policies, the dropout rate, and ‘gateways’ into the juvenile justice system.”

The paper cites the following as evidence of something seriously wrong with the disciplinary system at work in Texas schools (these may not be verbatim from the paper):

- Students in alternative education placements for disciplinary reasons have a dropout rate five times higher than normal schools.
- Two-thirds of students in alternative placements are there because of the discretion of school districts, not because of state mandates.
- African-American students are, in some school districts, over-represented in alternative placements and in referrals resulting in both in-school and out of school suspension.
- Special education students are over-represented in the same ways.

What I took away from this is that, while reduced to easily readable numbers, the research done here appears to be specifically about numbers for the most part (or in whole). There is little or no reference to examples of discipline problems resulting in suspension or alternative placement. There is no reference to measures attempted before suspension or alternative placement. The reader is supposed to simply rely on numbers and relationships between populations within schools (specifically to show over-representation). What is more important than reasons students are referred for suspension or alternative placement, the reader of the report must assume, are the remedies to reduce the “pipeline.”

The first remedy, which is an obvious one, is that there are “fewer discipline problems in schools where parents are involved” (emphasis in the original). Parent / teacher communication, though, is a two-way street which is often only has traffic in one direction. The paper by in large marginalizes parental responsibility and focuses remedies on state, school district and individual school levels.

First, there is a call for greater oversight of programs and numbers by state agencies, including drilling the same kinds of statistics presented in the paper and overseeing all of the alternative placement sites in the state. There is also a call for expanded services in alternative placements, to include a wider range of course offerings and using more technology for those offerings. (There’s an obvious dollar link there, but the gratuitous use of technology in education is a topic for another time.)

The two which strike me the most of these policy recommendations, though, are the call for a “Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” for students and parents (to be offered by the state) and the call for “funding [of] expanded school-based mental health services” (emphasis in the original). One thing about rights and responsibilities is that the “right” to an education will always trump, in the minds of equality-of-outcome minded liberals, the responsibilities of students or parents. Thus, there will be a need for mental health services because the student/parent combo who has no place in the public education realm will need the services until such time as the age of the student allows them to exit the system.

But what hits closer to home for me are the recommendations for school districts and schools. My least favorite on the list is the call for more “teacher…training in positive behavior management, as well as training to enhance cultural competency”. “Positive behavior management” is a technique for addressing entire school populations with respect to appropriate behavior in school in a proactive manner (from what I’ve read), but I have no idea what “cultural competency is. As far as I know, improper behavior in the classroom or school – as well as good behavior – does not change definition based on ethnicity.

Which brings me back to the over-representation question. Why are the over or under-representation of “sub-populations” so important that teachers and staff need to be trained in “cultural competency”? Wouldn’t it make more sense on an equality level for all folks inside of a school (campus or district) to be educated – formally – in what is proper and improper behavior? Shouldn’t parents be required to attend the same or similar sessions? Why the emphasis on teachers and staff only?

This is especially curious because, one more time, the report claims that parents need to be involved by teachers. I’ll turn that on its head: teachers need to be engaged by parents so that they (parents) can find out how they can best support the learning, and ultimately the graduation, or their students.

It all comes back to a fundamental question about belief: is education a right or a privilege? If it is a right, as it clearly seems to be, then it is mandatory, compulsory. What’s more is that some students, those who believe they have a right to an education regardless of their actions, will demand to “be learned” by their teachers. Behavior and decorum fall by the wayside, as no child will supposedly be left behind, anyway. If education were to be seen as a privilege, then perhaps those troubled students and their parents would take more responsibility for their actions, at least inside of school. Maybe.

I realize that this remedy - individual responsibility - is probably overly simplistic, or can be read that way. I think that's ok. Not all remedies need to be comprehensive or culturally sensitive. They don't need to be state mandated or statistically driven. They don't even need to cost more money. They simply need to work. A developed sense of individual responsibility tends to work at the most important level, the individual - which is ultimately the "thing" being counted by the statisticians on the "pipeline".

14 March 2008

More Words That Matter – The Obama / Wright Edition

Some people are more important in folks’ lives and development than others. Parents and family are important, but can’t be chosen. Spouses and close friends are important and can be chosen. Churches and pastors can be chosen as well. I’ve mentioned before that Senator Barak Obama ought to choose his supporters more carefully – specifically his campaign workers. But Sen. Obama’s relationship with his pastor, Jeremiah Wright Jr., is more personal, more personally chosen, and more telling.

There has been more than a little reporting about this in selected places (like here), but not with the force and effect of the last few days. Last night, Brit Hume read a transcript of a sermon by Mr. Wright in which he literally asked God (big G) to damn America many times. Sadly, these are far from the only comments made by Sen. Obama’s “longtime spiritual mentor.”

Here are some significant quotes from Mr. Wright, as reported by Fox News:

“We bombed Hiroshima. We bombed Nagasaki. And we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon and we never batted an eye,” Wright said.

“We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because of stuff we have done overseas is now brought back into our own backyard. America is chickens coming home to roost.”

The pastor also said: “The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color. The government lied.”

From what I watched on Brit Hume’s show tonight, the “chickens” comment (and perhaps the others) were delivered by Mr. Wright the Sunday immediately after the terrorist attacks in 2001. Surely Sen. Obama would have, should have, must have felt that he needed to distance himself from a man who chose to proclaim such things from the pulpit. Far from distancing himself from his mentor, Sen. Obama titled his book based on a comment by Mr. Wright.

Indeed, only today Sen. Obama has released a statement that he “strongly condemn[s] the statements that have been the subject of this controversy.” But this seems more than a little belated and far less than sincere. Obama has not left the church “because of his “strong links” to the church, where he married his wife and where his daughters were baptized.” But as my wife pointed out, this church and it’s now-retired pastor are not God. Obama could have walked away if he felt morally obligated. Obviously he did not sense that obligation.

And this revelation concerning the Obama-Wright tie comes on the heels of Sen. Obama’s dealings with Antoin Rezco and even links to the FARC as reported by Investor’s Business Daily. These aren’t the kinds of friends, mentors or associates I want a future president to have. I have the audacity to hope that these issues, combined with the ambiguity of candidate Obama up to this point, will result in a decisively negative reconsideration of Sen. Obama by the electorate.

Post Script: I've since found this excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal online. It's a must-read.

11 March 2008

Sin, Rebranded

In what can be seen as an effort to look fresh and socially relevant, the Catholic Church has come up with a new list of deadly sins. Timesonline reports that Bishop Gianfranco Girotti came up with these “new sins which have appeared on the horizon of humanity as a corollary of the unstoppable process of globalisation”. Taken from Neal Boortz’s site on Monday, the new list is:

- Genetic experimentation
- Tampering with the order of nature
- Pollution
- Social injustice
- Causing poverty
- Accumulating excessive wealth
- Drug abuse

It seems to me that the old list was just fine, though I must admit that I’m not Catholic. But pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth cover a whole range of human faults and pitfalls. Moreover, the new sins can, I think, be covered adequately in the original seven. How is “genetic experimentation” something other than a combination of pride and lust (for power)? How is “drug abuse” something other than a combination of anger (at the self) and gluttony?

But what I find most suspect about the new list is how squishy terms like “social injustice” and “excessive wealth” have found their way on the rolls. If globalization is an “unstoppable process” and the acts of individuals is felt more widely than in previous centuries, then perhaps the Vatican should be more particular with their terms of sin. I defy anyone to give me a concrete, demonstrable definition of “social justice” that reaches the clarity of any of the old seven deadly sins.

What the Vatican may have accomplished in the end, while attempting to come to terms (or appease) secular forces in the world is to confuse believers and watchers alike by defining sin in malleable, PC terms.

10 March 2008

What’s in the Water?

What’s in the water? How about a whole slew of drugs! In trace amounts of course, but there nonetheless. A more complete list – or as complete as can be had by the public at the moment –can be found at this website. Some of the highlights of water supplies tested are “antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones” according to the AP as reported through the Wall Street Journal.

One of the questions is: why worry? If these substances are only in parts per billion or trillion, surely they can’t harm anything, right? How much are we willing to bet our future health (or current, for that matter) on that? I’m not sure about most folks, but I’d like to avoid tiny doses of medication when I quench my thirst.

Of course, the remedy will surely be for water treatment plants to come up with a way to cleanse water completely of all of these contaminants. That’s what water treatment plants are for, right? But with stories abounding for years about over-prescription of drugs for everything from sexual problems to mood problems to ADD/ADHD to infection, might this contamination be another sign that Americans simply take too many prescription drugs?

I know that’s a touchy question because it hits too close to the individual and his or her behavior. But it’s something to think about. I can’t purify water myself, but I can take care of what I do with prescriptions in my life. Individual responsibility – what a wonderful thing!

09 March 2008

Bogus Charges Fly Against McCain

In the last few days, Democrat and Republican lawmakers have jumped on the decision to buy future air-to-air refueling aircraft from Northrop Grumman and EADS. They say that Senator McCain is behind the decision to not award the contract to Boeing, with the net result, they claim, of “outsourcing” American defense industry jobs to Europe. While the latter part will, to some extent, be true (60% of the aircraft is reported to be made in the US), there are other considerations in play here.

First, it cannot and should not be ignored that in the not so distant past, Boeing, along with help from an Air Force person who later worked for Boeing, attempted to lease the Air Force refueling jets at an inflated price. To boot, the Air Force would have to pay more to buy the jets at the end of the lease. According to a report from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer from September 2003:

McCain cited one estimate provided to the Air Force by an independent consulting firm that concluded that the price of each plane should be between $59 million and $95 million. Under the lease, the Air Force agreed to pay Boeing $131 million for each plane. That number jumps to $161 million per plane when interest costs are added along with the cost of buying the planes at the end of the six-year lease.

From the point of view of someone who was in the Air Force at the time, it seemed like a bad deal back then, too. Leasing warplanes is just counterintuitive. The idea that it would save money also made little sense as, at the same time, money was being poured into the F-22 and Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programs with diminishing returns (on what was promised and on numbers of aircraft – if I remember correctly). In the final analysis, it appeared to me that the lease was a way to not spend money on the un-sexy need of tankers in order to fund sexy fighter programs – regardless of the old saying, “You can’t kick ass without tanker gas.”

In the end, Boeing got a new CEO over the deal and some folks went to prison over the deal. There’s little doubt that the lease deal was improper, underhanded, and just plain bad on many levels. Just because it happened some time ago doesn’t make it important.

Second, it is highly suspect that anyone would jump on this subject at this time. The only reason they’re doing this is because Senator McCain is the Republican nominee. They (Speaker Pelosi and DC Republicans and Democrats alike) appear to have wanted a closed tender deal with Boeing instead of competing the contract in order to get the best jet at the most competitive price. One wonders if, had Boeing been given the contract out-of-hand, there would be calls for investigation and accusations of kowtowing to the industrial-military complex thrown at the Bush administration. Those calling for an investigation (besides Speaker Pelosi) might have been different, the target would have been different, but the whole situation would smell the same.

So, with that in mind, here’s my counter-charge to those badmouthing Senator McCain’s past – and proper – scrutiny of Boeing: would you, oh lofty lawmakers, have the US military beholden to companies based on the special interests of your specific electoral geography? Must the men and women who protect this country do so only with equipment built in your specific electoral geography? It is accurate to say that this conflict of interest – awarding defense contracts based on job creation and geography – would be more damaging than anything Senator McCain has done, past or present, regarding the Air Force tanker procurement contract.

07 March 2008

More Mortgage Bailouts?

Reuters reported yesterday that Senator Chris Dodd will put forward legislation aimed at “setting up a federal entity to spend billions of federal dollars buying up faltering home loans at a discount.” The idea is for a federal agency, either new or existing, to use tax dollars to buy existing mortgages, then refinance them for the home owners “under more favorable terms”. Additionally, these government refinanced home loans would be “insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) or backed by government-sponsored housing finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”

Perhaps it’s just me, but I think that creating or extending a government agency to make a more favorable loan environment for folks who are in self-created mortgage trouble is wholly out of the federal government’s scope. The act of buying and refinancing home loans would essentially use American tax dollars to somewhere justify and placate bad economic behavior by buyer and lender alike.

While I recognize that perhaps something needs to be done, I do not believe that the federal government needs to be the cure-all. Perhaps closer oversight of loan policies is what’s needed. Perhaps banning of “balloon payment” type loans is in order. Perhaps sound, verifiable documentation should be required before a home can be purchased. While these remedies aren’t retroactive, they would certainly guard against future bubbles. Now, I’m not an economist by any stretch…but they seem like reasonable measures to me as an everyday mortgage holder. Much better than adding an arm for financing to the federal government, which already backs many home loans.

05 March 2008

Sickness and Evil

Over the weekend, a horrific crime happened fairly close to home, geographically speaking. It involved a teenager and three others killing the teenager’s family, including her eight and thirteen year old brothers. The father of the family, at last report, was still in a bad way in the hospital. A number of my students wanted to spend a few minutes talking about it.

I asked those who did want to talk about it to describe the actions of the killers using as few words as possible, one being preferable. Responses included sick, stupid (this one struck me as a bit inane for the topic), schizophrenic, bipolar, and evil. Two of those responses actually require making a judgment about the perpetrators. One of those two is just...stupid. The other three, even if the students don’t realize it, attempt to explain the actions of the perpetrators while actually deflecting blame away from the perpetrators.

What might not be immediately obvious – and I admit that I pay more attention than the average person to individual words – is that if it is said that a criminal is “sick” (insert mental illness here), then that criminal might theoretically not be responsible for his or her actions. It’s a potential way out.

I didn’t press the conversation too much, as there were more pressing things to do in class. It was just a slice of the day that I thought was interesting, possibly telling. The one kid who called it evil, I think, hit it on the head. Too bad I got three answers of “stupid” in the process.

02 March 2008

Reading Liberal Fascism

I’m only about 180 pages into Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, but I’m already ready to recommend it to anyone interested in political processes in the US – or anywhere for that matter. Don't let the title fool you; it is not a screed against this, that, or the other. It's a well researched, well written, honest critique of past (so far) political landscapes. The first few chapters are enough to make me stand in wonder at the idolatry evident in this year’s election cycle. If you happen to be reading this book, your thoughts are welcome.

Self of Steam

One of the interesting things about being an English teacher is that I get to hear all sorts of funny stories – stories that are, at least, funny to English teachers. They almost invariably involve a student’s improper use of words. A very experienced teacher once told me a story about a high-level student who referred to a character’s loss of confidence as a loss of his “self of steam.” Something had hurt his “self of steam.” Needless to say, the student writer should have had his “self of steam” taken down a few notches.

Many students have little or no idea what the term self esteem means. Many students think that it just means feeling good about themselves or feeling that they are worth something. What’s more, some students have a sense of entitlement when it comes to self esteem, meaning that they believe no one or nothing should threaten their self esteem. It is theirs and it must be enhanced at all times.

What these students miss, what they apparently haven’t been taught well enough, is that self esteem isn’t something that can simply be given or taken. It has to be earned through actions.

Too many times, though, students with over inflated self esteem refuse to see that they are, in fact, learners and mistake prone. Failure – on a small scale – is not as big a deal as it is made out to be. Failure, falling down is the beginning of real success. (Failure is only a huge problem when it becomes a chosen way of life. That’s a whole different problem called learned helplessness. Learned helplessness coupled with sky high self esteem makes for the ugliest problem student in the classroom, and there are too many of them.)

The sad thing, from a teacher’s point of view, about misplaced and unearned high self esteem is that it tends to limit students. Students who worry more about losing face, so to speak, than about learning are bound to achieve less then they ought. Saving face implies falling down, jumping back up and being indignant that the fall never occurred. Learning involves failure, recovery, and reattempting. Truly durable self esteem only comes through the latter. The former is vacuous and (seemingly) easy.

I say seemingly because at some point the student will leave the cocoon of public education and enter the real world. The adult world tends to deal with unwarranted self esteem in a quick and cruel manner. Better the student learns the lesson while still a student.

The way I try to overcome over inflated self esteem in the classroom is by letting my students know up front that I expect them to fail at some point in my class. I also let them know that the failure is not the important thing I let them know that it’s the getting up, the getting back on the horse that is important. I back this up with many stories of my own failures…and more importantly, what I did afterwards. This fail-recover-succeed cycle is where durable self esteem comes from. Once students understand and embrace this, learning occurs on a more rapid, predictable basis.