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.

19 September 2008

Taxation and Patriotism

Much has already been written and said about vice presidential candidate Biden’s comment about paying taxes and patriotism. Though many have missed the quote (from Townhoall.com, “We want to take money and put it back in the pocket of middle-class people," Biden said. Of those who would pay more, he said: "It's time to be patriotic ... time to jump in, time to be part of the deal, time to help get America out of the rut.") and merely heard what others have said about it. But given Sen. Biden’s words, much can be said from a middle class point of view – none of which has anything to do with Sen. Biden’s warped, statist view that giving the government more of what it wastes most would help anyone outside of government.

As a worker who doesn’t really earn all that much per year, but still pays federal taxes, I can honestly say that my federal tax burden is not unbearable. I also realize that I only see, in the form of federal income tax, a small portion of the tax revenue generated by my employment. There are numerous taxes that are “behind the scenes” for the average worker; the employer pays them. Those employers are, to a great extent, wealthier than I am. Taxing employers more – those nasty, rich people – creates a potential problem for me. Sen. Biden claims that increased tax revenue will be passed along to the middle and lower classes. I don’t believe for a second; no more than I believe that I will receive a dime from Social Security when I’m 65. But what’s more, taxing job-creators is a potential threat to my job. No government handout should, or can, take the place of my job.

It may be a humbling realization, but those of us in the working and middle classes don’t create jobs, we accomplish work. That’s our role. Business owners and entrepreneurs create wealth and jobs. Money taken from the pockets of business owners and entrepreneurs may enrich the government, but it also reduces the ability and willingness to take on salaries.

I’m neither an economist nor a lawyer-turned-senator, but the following seems self evident. If the government willingly increases the tax burden on the “wealthy” – many of them business owners and entrepreneurs – then the government reduces opportunity and prosperity for the working and middle classes. There’s nothing patriotic about that.

16 September 2008

A President, Not a CEO

One comment can cause such a kerfuffle in this presidential race, no matter how true it may be. A top advisor for the McCain camp, Carly Fiorina said that none of the candidates for president or vice president are qualified to run a major corporation. News outlets, in their clearly unbiased nature, shortened the statement, limited their headlines to Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin (CBS News for example). Any sort of partisan spin in this gets away from the central truth of the statement. None of the candidates are qualified to be a CEO of a major corporation.

That’s a good thing. Governing and running a business are not the same thing. Anyone who believes they are ought to attempt to do both simultaneously within the same power structure.

Whereas businesses are created to deliver services for profit, governments necessarily take in taxes to deliver services. One is a producer of wealth, one is a consumer of wealth – one would hope for the protection of the nation and its citizens. Attempting to run a government for profit would necessitate that government producing something that the public would want to buy, something they would be willing to pay for above and beyond required taxes. If anyone can figure out what that product might be, please call Congress and demand it.

Some say that the executive branch “manages” the US economy, that the president pushes the buttons of economic progress (or decline). I don’t think either is correct, nor are they the proper role of the executive. While the government ought to regulate business so that business is conducted in an open and honest way (or at least as much as is reasonably possible), putting the executive in the role of “US Economic Manager” is a slide toward nationalism of industry. That just seems obvious, yet all too often the press (and by extension, perhaps, voters) asks “How will the president or candidate fix the current economic crisis?”

That is an error. The executive can’t “fix” the economy, only influence it. And perhaps not as much as the press (and perhaps voters) think. Take oil prices, for instance. Did trips to OPEC countries by members of the executive branch reduce oil prices, or did reducing demand?

Much of this election cycle has been filled to the brim with declarations of what the next president will do for the everyday folks. Presidential campaigns promise to fix this, fix that, and always in a universal and comprehensive way. Rubbish. What we need is a leader who has the judgment to pick the right course, the courage to move forward warily but resolutely, and wise enough recognize when course changes are needed. That might sound like a job description for a CEO, but there are no widgets being produced here – rather a country.

13 September 2008

Threats, Acts, and Proportionality

The Australian reported on Thursday that a court in Britain has acquitted six Greenpeace members of vandalism of a coal-powered electric plant. The reason, of course: the “dangers of global warming” which are, after all, “enormous”.

Granted, the vandals only painted part of their “message” before being caught, but they did do damage to the tune of about $76,000. But the more important thing is that a jury decided that the defacers were justified in their actions in order to “rein in carbon emissions”. One wonders just how far a jury would be willing to go to justify actions purported to save the planet from the hobgoblin of global warming.

In a somewhat related story, the Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts global cooling ahead. For decades. The cause: the sun, the ebb of sunspot activity. Who to believe, Al Gore or the Old Farmer’s Almanac. I’ll take the latter.

11 September 2008

Redistributing Your Wealth

I didn’t quite believe what I read on Neal Boortz’s site this morning (I’m always a day behind on his “Nuze”), so I did a little research. Apparently, Sen. Obama said the following on Monday night’s portion of his interview with Bill O’Reily:

“What I believe is, is that there are certain things we have to do. We've got to help people who are having tough times affording college, so they can benefit like we benefited from this great country. People who are having a tough time -- they don't have health care; people who are trying to figure out how they are going to pay the bills…”
How are we supposed to help people benefit from college, get health care, and pay their bills? Through higher taxes on the wealthy. According to Sen. Obama, the rich can afford it, and really ought to do it anyway. But the taxation issue is only half the problem here. The other half is that the “beneficiaries”

The greater half – the more telling half – is that those who would supposedly be helped might not want or be ready to get that help. What is the point of sending thousands of high school graduates to college if they themselves are not ready (or willing) to handle the challenges of a college curriculum? Sen. Obama would make higher education an unearned right, paid for (or at least more subsidized than it already is). Colleges and universities would have to do one of two things: remediate and scaffold and accommodate for unprepared students or drop standards. That doesn’t sound like it is worth once more cent in taxes on anyone.

The health care issue is somewhat the same. While there ought to be some things done to change the current bureaucratic nightmare of our healthcare billing and insurance system, having a government subsidized take-over is not the answer. It would layer bureaucracy on top of bureaucracy – always a recipe for wild inefficiency. Additionally, “universal health care” won’t really do a thing to make people healthier. Wider, easier availability through “free” health care may tend to reward those with self-inflicted health problems and simultaneously give those same people no reason (other than their own discomfort) to change their behaviors. That’s not worth another penny of taxes, either.

The last one is the kicker, though. Why in the world should anyone be taxed so that some other citizen can pay his bills? We already have massive mortgage bailouts for both lenders and borrowers. Is the next step bailing out satellite dish owners who run afoul of their provider? Will the government subsidize SUV owners who are “unfairly” penalized by high gas prices? Will there be a Starbucks stipend for those who can’t afford their five macchiatos a week because of soaring energy costs? And what would stop these same people in “trouble” from blowing our money just like they squandered their own? Is that worth a cent of anyone’s tax dollars?

At what point would a president Obama leave us alone with the money we’ve earned so that we may do with it what we please? At what point would those “less-fortunate” be able to stand up for themselves, without an unasked-for government program hauling them up as high as the government thinks they ought to be? Marx famously wrote, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Sen. Obama, showing his Marxist stripes, would graft that tenant onto the tax code of the US. That’s not a guess, that’s not speculation, that’s what the man said.

Just say no to Obama’s Marxism.

06 September 2008

College Drop Outs - The "Why" is Simple

According to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette headline, there’s “No simple explanation for college dropout rate”. The article relates the story of one person who left college and never went back. She is, according to the piece, “one of more than a million people in Pennsylvania and a quarter million in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area who are older than 25 and categorized by the U.S. Census as ‘some college, no degree.’”

Oddly enough, the article hits on what I think is the reason those who leave college sometimes don’t look back: they can earn a decent living and live happily without a degree.

The above mentioned student ended up “[making] more money than she expected waitressing in a Downtown restaurant”. And even though the “drop out” says she regrets it now, it’s only because she feels that her college experience (and possibly a degree) would have been “done and over with it by now”. Not a good reason to attend and spend, and spend.

One of the great fallacies in our society is the idea that one must go to college to have a good life. I simply do not believe that to be the case. The “must go to college” mantra, mixed in with plenty of “you can be anything you want to be” and a perceived “right” to success (whatever that may mean), leads many students down a blind alley – the first bit of their college experience. Many of them don’t know what they’re getting into, nor are they prepared for serious college-level work. (In the interest of full disclosure, I wasn’t ready, and I was a pretty decent student.)
Nor, I would argue, should they waste time and effort worrying about getting a college education.

Many high school graduates can, I believe, find something to do for a living that doesn’t require a college diploma. This is especially true if the high school graduate has learned to read and write with some proficiency, has gained some sort of work ethic, and knows how to employ that work ethic day in, day out. These things can be learned in high school. And specific trade skills can be learned at a trade school or through on the job training.

Of course, employers may have to realize that they do not need college graduates, either. But that perhaps is another post for another time. But I’ve got to think that if a motivated, articulate, enthusiastic young person goes into a place for a job and is willing to learn the trade, an employer would be excited to train and employ that person.

I’m not saying that college isn’t necessary. I’m not even saying that it’s a bad thing for anyone to further their education. But the myth that college leads to a better life, simply by virtue of possessing a sheet of paper with an institution’s name and a degree emblazoned on it, is folly.

04 September 2008

Thoughts on Governor Palin’s Speech

I stayed up late last night, later than I normally do, to watch Governor Palin’s speech at the Republican convention. I had not expected a rousing speech; I had thought that hers would essentially introduce herself, make the case for her candidacy by citing her own experience, and that would be that. She went much further.

As someone on Fox News commented after the speech (I think it was Mort Kondracke), Gov. Palin gave the most compelling case against Sen. Obama and for Sen. McCain that has yet been given on the campaign trail. What’s more, she did it with a style that wasn’t mean or “pit bullish”; it was factual and reasoned and impassioned.

What’s more, Gov. Palin displayed a sense of humor that was keen and sharp but not vicious. In contrast to the wild rumors, tall-tales, and flat out lies being printed about her, Gov. Palin’s pokes at Sen. Obama and the media were effective precisely because they were based on fact, as good humor always is. As a result, her humor revealed a deeper bit of truth about both as well: many members of the media largely see themselves as gatekeepers and news makers, not as reporters, and Sen. Obama is all about raising taxes and expanding government regardless of his fluffy rhetoric.

But Gov. Palin’s speech wasn’t all attack, though some may characterize it as such. That kind of characterization happens often when stark contrasts are made between two things, no matter what they are. By juxtaposing Sen. Obama’s life, experience and goals against Sen. McCain’s, the contrasts leap out. Gov. Palin was not shy about pointing out the obvious (something that the media, for all its news-making savvy, can’t seem to bring itself to do). A president Obama would result, she said, in higher taxes, much bigger government, and less personal liberty – all of which point toward a “change” for the worse. Sen. McCain does not share those positions and will fight to expand personal liberty, and personal responsibility which naturally arises from it. Simple.

Today, there are bound to be countless headlines and commentaries about how Gov. Palin gave a “star” performance last night. Indeed, some said that a “star” was born last night. But really, we don’t need another “star”. We need someone who is down-to-earth, small-town, and straight-forward. Gov. Palin showed that she can be that for the greater good of America, and she doesn’t have to wrap herself in “star” status to do it.

Her speech was a winner; it was worthy of the executive branch. I for one hope she becomes part of the executive branch in January.

03 September 2008

Standardized Tests and Behavior Driven Metrics

One problem with public education and standardized tests is the way bureaucracies subdivide test results in order to gain some meaningful measurements from the results. Every year in Texas after tests are taken, many schools sit on pins and needles waiting to see if their “sub-pops” make the grade. “Sub-pop” is a bit of a euphemism for racial group or economic background. Students are measured at grade level, and then by racial/ethnic/ background within that grade level. Students are also divided by “economic situation”, meaning poorer students get grouped.

The trick is that if one of a school’s “sub-pops” doesn’t make the grade for a given year, the school is rated “unacceptable”. After all, no child can be left behind, right?

But it is my opinion that these “sub-pops” attempt to measure school success by dividing students in precisely the wrong way. It is arguably a racist position to think that a child’s educational success ought to be calculated with his or her skin color as a factor. Similarly, factoring in the student’s economic situation erroneously places the focus on something the kid can’t change. And while there may be a correlation between economic status and school achievement, one hardly causes the other any more than color does. Yet these are the primary methods for dividing and measuring student success today.

Instead, students should be divided by other objective criteria which probably have far greater impact on their educational success. Students might be “sub-popped” based on the student’s social promotion or grade retention history. Students’ criminal background might create another meaningful “sub-pop”. Students with a history of absenteeism might create a meaningful “sub-pop” as well.

These criteria might not only look at the at-risk end of the spectrum, either. Students with high attendance histories or records of high achievement could form “sub-pops” as well. However, the bulk of students at most schools would simply fall into a middle ground “sub-pop”; most students are, after all, just regular students working to graduate.

The thing of note in these alternative criteria is that they are driven by student behavior – something the student can control – and not race or economic background – things the student cannot control. After all, if the point of these testing metrics is to ensure student success, doesn’t it make greater sense to focus on student actions when creating metrics?

(Note: I realize that the privacy issue with regard to student records may well make these kinds of metrics impossible. However, those privacy policies are created by government, and government rules can always be changed.)