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January 31, 2006

The Oscars

The Oscar nominations have been released. Let me say a few things.

To begin, I have not seen any of the movies. I plan to see Capote sometime next month when it shows at a small art theatre here in Tuscaloosa. The others I have not seen, though I would like to see all of them. Having said that, in an information age such as ours, I believe there is enough available by way of criticisms and reviews for me make some slight comments.

There will be a lot of clamoring that the Oscars no longer represent mainstream America. Indeed, it has already begun. I am sympathetic to this notion on a lot of levels. I do not expect most Americans to head off to the movies after a long week to watch the gay cowboy movie. I do not expect anyone with a firm grasp of history to be jumping at the prospect of watching George Clooney's naive interpretation of all that took place during the McCarthy era. Beyond that, I understand that for many folks, the movies are an escape. They want to laugh and cry, but rarely do they want to think. I am tempted to criticize this point, but life is hard sometimes. I won't fault anyone for wanting a fun movie to relax with on a Friday night.

And yet I find it increasingly disturbing that so many Americans champion movies for superficial reasons. A movie is not good because it is clean. It is not good because it makes you feel good and warm and fuzzy. It can be all of those things, but a lack of profanity or the promotion of a cheap emotional reaction does not necessarily make for good art. I do feel that good movies were left out: King Kong and Cinderella Man. (Don't think of suggesting the mediocre Narnia) I think most of the movies nominated for best picture are products of a liberal Hollywood but by all accounts, they are still art. They are pictures that must be engaged. They must be critiqued and challenged. And those with differing political viewpoints must be willing to create vibrant art that challanges that liberal status quo.

Complaining gets you nowhere. Powerful art will open doors that we cannot currently imagine.

Posted by Matt at 12:31 PM | Comments (19) | TrackBack

The Problem We Face

Powerful writing by Roger Kimball. A highlight:

"Whatever the wisdom of the position in the abstract (and I have my doubts about it), the resurgence of international terrorism, fueled by hate and devoted to death, renders it otiose. Last summer’s bombings in London were, as these things go, relatively low in casualties. But they were high in indiscriminateness. The people on those buses and subway cars were as innocent as innocent can be: just folks, moms and dads and children on their way to work or school or play, as uninterested, most of them, in politics or Islam as it is possible to be. And yet those home-grown Islamicists were happy to blow them to bits.

Here is the novelty: Our new enemies are not political enemies in any traditional sense, belligerent in the service of certain interests of their own. Their belligerence is focused rather on the very existence of an alternative to their vision of beatitude, namely on Western democracy and its commitment to individual freedom and economic prosperity. I return to Hussein Massawi: “We are not fighting so that you will offer us something. We are fighting to eliminate you.”

In fact, the situation is even grimmer than Mr. Massawi suggests. For our new enemies are not simply bent on our destruction: they are pleased to compass their own destruction as a collateral benefit. This is one of those things that makes Islamofascism a particularly toxic form of totalitarianism. At least most Communists had some rudimentary attachment to the principle of self-preservation. In the face of such death-embracing fanaticism our only option is unremitting combat."

How does one articulate the point with further clarity? This is, as Norman Podhoretz says, World War IV. I do not suppose that we should create a rabble over each and every political moment, but I am increasingly frustrated with the lazy attitude that we - I point to myself, as well - possess. As a Christian certainly I have a higher calling to "glorify God and enjoy Him forever," and yet the incessant worries of the day not only override Christian virtue; they override common sense, as well. We are at war, and yet we act as though we are not.

It is not easy, I confess. World War II necessitated that we ration our food and buy war bonds. The immediate cause is not so dire, but one wishes that America - her churches and schools - were clearly aware of the threats we face from the madrasses of Pakistan, the mullahs of Iran, the deranged old man in charge of North Korea and the arrogant nationalists of China. These are important matters; one wishes that we all shared a sense of awareness and, indeed, of urgency.

Posted by Matt at 09:08 AM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

January 30, 2006

Hamas in an Awkward Situation

Since the Hamas majority victory in the Palestinian elections, it's been interesting to see how the EU has had to upend it's policies. It shouldn't have caused so much turmoil for them, since one set of terrorists were simply replaced with another, but the EU's (and the UN's) refusal to see what was so obvious has caused it. When the Fatah guys were siphoning off all the aid they were getting, and undoubtedly sending some to their Hamas buddies, these august world bodies could use the excuse the Hamas was just an extremist organization and didn't represent the view of the Palestinian people. The vote, however, put them in a difficult situation.

Some flip-flops, however, aren't as strange as they look. The recent election of German Chancellor Angela Merkel moved Germany to the right, and their policy change is consistent with conservatives elsewhere; treat terrorists like terrorists.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has threatened to cut vital European Union aid to the Palestinians, said on Monday President Mahmoud Abbas should urge Hamas to recognize Israel and renounce violence.

"The Palestinian president has a huge responsibility and I will tell him this when I meet him today," Merkel said after talks in Jerusalem with Israeli President Moshe Katsav.

"As a president, he should urge Hamas to respect certain principles," she said, citing recognition of Israel, which the Islamist militant group has sworn to destroy, and abandoning violence.

Merkel, who was to meet Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, is the first EU leader to visit the area since Hamas swept to victory over the moderate leader's long-dominant Fatah faction in a parliamentary election on Wednesday.

The first step in "negotiating with terrorists" is getting them to renounce terrorism. Then you can negotiate peace. This needs to be the free world's policy regarding Hamas. And I'm not just talking about a press conference; I'd want to see the Hamas charter--which is now essentially a political platform--rewritten to respect the existence of the state of Israel. Without that change, there can be no negotiations regarding the Palestinian situation. You can't negotiate a peaceful settlement between two parties if the charter of one insists on the destruction of the other. Treating terrorists like terrorists means, as a first step, getting Hamas to renounce its terroristic goals.

This actually puts conservatives in a good situation with regards to the Palestinian situation. If Hamas refuses to denounce terrorism, it demonstrates to the UN, the EU and other liberal organizations that their denouncements and blaming of Israel while ignoring Palestinian atrocities has been as misguided as conservatives have said all along. Israel has not been as pure as the driven snow, to be sure, but you might assume the Palestinians, who have specifically targeted civilians, were indeed supremely innocent if you only looked at UN resolutions. Thus, if Hamas won't officially renounce the terror of their ways, they are exposed for those yet willing to see.

If, however, they do officially denounce terrorism, they become, so some extent, defanged. Even if such a denouncement is simply a facade, they demoralize and anger their base among the Palestinians in Gaza. Their majority could very well be in jeopardy following that.

So now that Hamas is the official face of the Palestinian people, it puts them in a difficult situation, one in which they could have avoided by staying in the minority. While the election results may have been surprising to most (possibly even to Hamas itself), the ultimate diplomatic position it creates can, at least in the short term, help Israel and the Middle East. It's disheartening to see how much of Gaza buys into the idea of the destruction of Israel, but now that Hamas has been pushed to the fore, their awkward situation can be used against them as another blow to terrorism.

Posted by Doug at 02:56 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

January 29, 2006

Chocolate City Checkin

Greetings from New Orleans! Yup, still here. I've been deployed with FEMA for four months now and recently re-upped for another six months. Sunny and the kids moved out here last Monday. For now we're holed up in a Homewood Suites, but we move into a 2BR corporate apartment in the Warehouse District on Wednesday. I'm so happy to have them out here and I'm so proud of my wife for taking this huge step with me.

We found a "normal church" this morning. I'd been to four or five different churches since I arrived and came to the conclusion that southern churches were too weird for me. This morning's service at Calvary Baptist Church in Algiers was refreshing. It seemed natural to give it a shot since Collin will be starting school there on Wednesday. (Oh - side story... Collin took his entrance exam. The test was 35 pages long and was supposed to take 2.5 hours. He finished in 1.5 hours and the proctor told Sunny not to buy the uniforms until the test was graded as if she thought he couldn't sit still long enough to take the full test. He did extremely well and of course we got a call from the principal very excited to have him enroll.)

Calvary Baptist hosts the Red Cross and prepares most of the meals delivered to victims and relief workers still hard at work in east New Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines. It's hard to tell what the rest of the world thinks about the Gulf Coast recovery efforts, but I suspect many think things have pretty much returned to normal. Far from it. In fact, I drive through the devastated areas and progress is noted by the opening of a single gas station or small restaurant. I heard on the radio the other day that less than 25% of all City of New Orleans restaurants have been certified by the health department to reopen. It's been five full months since the storm!

I'm currently the deputy director of infrastructure recovery for St. Bernard Parish. St. Bernard was destroyed by stormsurge. Every single building flooded, leaving 70,000 homeless. I manage a staff of ~40 working on 500 projects worth nearly $750mil. It's been challenging, but also a phenomenal opportunity. I'm working 70-80 hrs/wk and frankly haven't had the urge to blog. I rarely read blogs anymore either. I have many pictures and videos of St. Bernard, Plaquemines and the 9th ward, but haven't found the time to post. I'll try my best to get something up. I'm sure the passion for blogging will return, but probably not until my work here is done.

I haven't been a complete lump on a log though. I managed to co-author two pieces on exit polling since September: one for the American Statistical Association Joint Statistical Meeting proceedings and the other for Public Opinion Pros.

Take care everyone.

Posted by Rick at 06:09 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

January 28, 2006

Theology's Consequences

After the West Virginia mining tragedy, Michael Spencer wrote a three part series on The Gospel for Appalachia. (Click here for part one, part two and part three) This is a very compelling read about the state of one of the nation's poorest regions, and Michael makes some strong suggestions about what Christians can do to help revive this region of the nation.

Michael makes a lot of commentary about the nature of the Church in Appalachia as it currently exists:

"Religion in Appalachia is devout, and it stands at the center of the culture. Its message is everywhere. No matter what the sign out front, most churches have the same message: Life is a battle between God and the devil. Hard times are to be expected. The Good Book and the good Lord are there for those who are believers. Satan, drugs and alcohol are there for the sinner. When a person comes to understand that death is near, and heaven is our only hope for happiness, then he will get saved. He will get right with God."

This sort of thinking reminds me of one of the central tenets of conservatism, both political and theological. It is this: ideas matter. The philosophical understandings of human nature are not always abstract concepts for the college classroom. They eventually find themselves in the halls of government; in Congress and the courts. The ideas of Rousseau profoundly influenced political liberalism just as Burke influenced conservatism. And those ideologies mark the two major political parties within the United States. Each party enacts legislation that can, more often than not, be traced directly back to the philosophical roots of their own ideologies.

In this regard, theology also matters. It has consequences beyond the personal beliefs of its adherents. This is what I seem to understand in Spencer's discussion of Appalachia. A theology that does not graciously and voluntarily eschew possessions, but instead suggests that desiring "stuff" is sinful on pretty much any level, will depress a local economy if the notion gains any significant traction over a period of years. A theology that suggests the Bible is all a man needs in terms of education will do very little promote serious education. Similarly, and this is as true in the inner city as it is in the mountain regions, any theology that looks at hard times as just part of life, with the believer bearing no ability (or responsibility) to change his or her condition in life, may indeed create believers without a strong work ethic.

I am not talking about believers, like Spencer, who voluntarily choose a life of ministry that brings less in terms of material wealth, nor am I talking about the Biblical command to value Christ above all our possessions. I am not suggesting that there is any replacement for a clear understanding of the Scriptures. And yet we see in our culture a small but significant number of believers who advocate, as nothing short of orthodoxy, the notion that money and education are almost always tools of the devil. That a hard life is just a common life and we can't change nothin' so we'll just cling to the Lord. These things do happen, but to suggest that the command to all believers is a life of poverty and ignorance is dangerous, offensive and, above all, unBiblical.

I once heard a very well-known Southern Baptist pastor suggest that kindergarten teachers should not be holding bakesales; college professors should be doing this instead. I cannot possibly remember what portion of the sermon necessitated such a comment, but I fear that a subtle point was reinforced to the congregation. The point being that the work of the elementary school teachers is more important. Therefore in a sense, it is suggested that college is not important. What an absurd thing to say in a world where educated Christians are needed more and more.

I do not want to suggest that I have all the answers to such matters, but I find Spencer's essays to be a clear example of the maxim that ideas have consequences, whether political or theological. Secular humanism has consequences. Existentialism has consequences. And theology that denounces money, in even the most innocent of circumstances, and education will lead to a culture that is economically depressed in a way that cannot be good for anyone involved.

Posted by Matt at 10:57 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

January 26, 2006

The Palestinians Under a Magnifying Glass

If you've ever said that it's not the Palestinian people that hate Israel, just their government...

...if you've ever said that the Palestinians just want to live in peace with the Jewish state...

... if you've ever had any illusions about what it would take to get peace between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East...

...this is your wake-up call.

The Islamic militant Hamas won a landslide victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections, winning 76 seats in the 132-member legislature, election officials said Thursday. The rival Fatah Party, which controlled Palestinian politics for four decades, won 43 seats.

Hamas, classified by the US, the EU, Canada and (obviously) Israel as a terrorist organization, has a one-party majority in the Palestinian parliament. What they say, goes. As a reminder, here are some selected quotes from the Hamas Charter (courtesy Wikipedia):
"Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it."

"The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgement Day. It, or any part of it, should not be squandered: it, or any part of it, should not be given up."

"There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors."

"After Palestine, the Zionists aspire to expand from the Nile to the Euphrates. When they will have digested the region they overtook, they will aspire to further expansion, and so on. Their plan is embodied in the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion", and their present conduct is the best proof of what we are saying."

Any group who's charter is founded on paranoia arising from a hoax like the "Protocols" is not a stable group. And any country that votes them in as a clear majority of their government, given Hamas' view on the existence of Israel, cannot be simply said to be a people misrepresented by their government. It's not just the fanatics and the nut cases affirming the mission of Hamas, it's a majority of the people.

There are arguments to be made on both sides of the issue regarding whether Sharon should have evicted Jews from Gaza. But one good thing that came out of it was the opportunity to put a magnifying glass onto the actions of the Palestinians and their real motives.

The world has been put on notice. Is anyone listening?

Not surprisingly, Iran is thrilled.

Posted by Doug at 02:26 PM | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Virginia to Vote on Gay Marriage Ban

My home state of Virginia is on track to hold a referendum this November on whether to amend the state's bill of rights to ban gay marriages:

The state Senate all but guaranteed on Wednesday that Virginia will hold a November referendum on whether to amend its 230-year-old Bill of Rights to bar same-sex marriages.

The Senate voted 28 to 11 to follow the House of Delegates in approving the amendment. Though each chamber still must pass the measure adopted by the other, their wording is identical and support among the senators and delegates is strong.

"The family is the foundation of our society, and it's been based on a union of a man and a woman since the inception of marriage," said Del. John A. Cosgrove (R-Chesapeake). "A constitutional amendment . . . will protect that."

Although constitutional amendment referendums are common in Virginia, it will be only the second time since 1970 that the Bill of Rights has been subjected to amendment.

There will no doubt be very vocal opposition to this amendment. But unless they can get state leaders (and particularly Democratic Governor Tim Kaine) to come out against it they are unlikely to be successful in defeating the measure.

Posted by Tom at 11:04 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 25, 2006

Georgia Goes After Voter Fraud

In my home state of Georgia, the legislature has signed off on the final version of a bill to require photo IDs at polling places. Next stop: the governor's desk, and he says he'll sign it.

This was tried last year, but a judge struck it down, considering it tantamount to a poll tax. Since I believe it said that people without a driver's licence could get a state-issued ID but would have to pay for it, I can understand that ruling. This version makes it free.

Predictably, the Democrats don't like this anti-voter-fraud idea.

State Rep. DuBose Porter of Dublin, the Democratic leader in the House, denounced passage of the bill as unnecessary and an attempt by the GOP “to rig this November’s elections.”.

He said the GOP has not been able to document a single case of fraud involving election-day voting.

“Aren’t we just speaking about a problem that doesn’t exist?” Porter said.

Well, if you don't check ID at the polls, how can you substantiate claims of voter fraud? Wonderful catch-22.

Just as predictably, the ACLU is ready to challenge this common-sense measure. Must protect the civil liberties of those ballot stuffers, dontcha' know?

Posted by Doug at 02:13 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

January 24, 2006

Google Capitulates to China

The motto of the Google folks is "Don't be evil", and they certainly set a high bar in their Code of Conduct. But does capitulating to a communist government that doesn't want inconvenient facts to be known by its citizens fit in that code?

Online search engine leader Google Inc. has agreed to censor its results in China, adhering to the country's free-speech restrictions in return for better access in the Internet's fastest growing market.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based company planned to roll out a new version of its search engine bearing China's Web suffix ".cn," on Wednesday. A Chinese-language version of Google's search engine has previously been available through the company's dot-com address in the United States.

By creating a unique address for China, Google hopes to make its search engine more widely available and easier to use in the world's most populous country.

Because of government barriers set up to suppress information, Google's China users previously have been blocked from using the search engine or encountered lengthy delays in response time.

The service troubles have frustrated many Chinese users, hobbling Google's efforts to expand its market share in a country that expected to emerge as an Internet gold mine over the next decade.

Now, this isn't a First Amendment issue (which only applies to the US federal government) and Google is free to conduct its business any way it sees fit. I have no issue with that. I'm just noticing the apparent disconnect between its motto and its actions.
Google officials characterized the censorship concessions in China as an excruciating decision for a company that adopted "don't be evil" as a motto. But management believes it's a worthwhile sacrifice.

"We firmly believe, with our culture of innovation, Google can make meaningful and positive contributions to the already impressive pace of development in China," said Andrew McLaughlin, Google's senior policy counsel.

Google's decision rankled Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog group that has sharply criticized Internet companies including Yahoo and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN.com for submitting to China's censorship regime.

"This is a real shame," said Julien Pain, head of Reporters Without Borders' Internet desk. "When a search engine collaborates with the government like this, it makes it much easier for the Chinese government to control what is being said on the Internet."

Does filtering search results rise to the level of being truly "evil". No, not really. But it does make it complicit in doing a disservice to Chinese users who want to learn about what freedom really means. It may not be "evil", but I don't know how "good" it is. Google does filter things in other countries, like some Nazi references in Germany and France, but I think this is a bit different.

Posted by Doug at 08:17 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Punishment vs. Rehabilitation

Consider the following sentences:

All these sentences were handed down in a 2-week period, January 6-19, in Massachusetts and Vermont.

In the debate on punishment vs. rehabilitation, certainly there should be some combination of the two. And at least have the former if the latter is deemed unlikely (think repeat offenders, as in the second and third examples above) if for no other reason that societal self-defense. These are children we're talking about, after all.

UPDATE: The 60-day sentence has been extended to 3-10 years. The judge's statement:

"The court agrees a punitive response - punishment - is a valuable and necessary component of society's response to criminal conduct," he said. "It is a tool that the court has routinely used for the past 24 years on the trial bench. As stated during the sentencing hearing, however, punishment is not enough of a response in some cases.

"This is one of those cases," he said.

But to me, the original sentence didn't have much of any punitive response. Nonetheless, I'm glad this was done.

Posted by Doug at 01:25 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Continued Progress in Iraq

Good news from the fledgeling democracy in Iraq: The 3 main factions have agreed to work together (H/T Mark Kilmer at "No End But Victory"):

The main Shi’ite bloc in Iraq, the Iraqi Alliance, fell short of gaining an absolute majority which would have enabled them to run the government themselves. They are willing to work with the Sunni parties with a proviso: the must actively combat the insurgency.
But he [Senior Iraq Alliance member Dr Hussein al-Shahristani] warned the Sunni parties that if they wanted to join the coalition, they would have to fight the insurgency actively.

“We’ll require them not only to condemn terrorism - as they do normally - but to work with us in combating terrorism and overcoming it,” he said.

The two main Sunni groups and Kurdish parties said they want to give this national unity thaang a go.

At this point, the Iraqi experiment is still working, and getting stronger. The first class of cadets from military training graduated recently, and the multi-national force continues to help Iraq beat back the insurgency.
Continued efforts by Iraqi and Coalition Forces continue to help Iraq progress toward democracy by making it harder on the insurgency, building up infrastructure and fostering stability.

“The pressure on the terrorists continues, making it harder … for them to conduct the attacks targeting large numbers of vulnerable civilians,” Brig. Gen. Donald Alston, Strategic Communication Director for Multi-National Force Iraq said in a press conference Jan. 22 in Baghdad .

“Having 227,000 Iraqi Security Forces provides capability for a wide range of security operations and more Iraqis on patrol equals greater intelligence – keys to defeating the insurgency and Al Qaeda in Iraq ,” he said.

Alston noted that attacks across Iraq were down 40 percent the previous week, and defined MNF-I’s mission:

“Our combined operations are designed to provide a safe and secure environment for the seating of the new Iraqi Government and to defeat the terrorists and foreign fighters who are attempting to derail democracy.”

It's not without its losses, but as Iraq moves more and more into self-government, the cause is a good one.

UPDATE: The BBC is reporting that "Iraqis and Afghans are among the most optimistic people in the world when it comes to their economic future".

In Afghanistan, 70% say their own circumstances are improving, and 57% believe that the country overall is on the way up.

In Iraq, 65% believe their personal life is getting better, and 56% are upbeat about the country's economy.

The experts at polling firm Globescan, who conducted the survey, venture the guess that war may have created a "year zero" experience of collectively starting again.

Posted by Doug at 12:57 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 23, 2006

Hamas Willing to Negotiate?

In the "I'll Believe It When I See It" Department, Hamas says it'll negotiate with Israel under some preconditions.

Hamas is "interested" in Israeli peace proposals and may be willing to negotiate indirectly with the Jewish state, Dr. Mahmoud al-Zahar, Hamas chief in the Gaza Strip, said in an exclusive interview while ruling out the possibility of his terror group disarming or ceasing "resistance" attacks.

"If the Israelis have an offer to be discussed and [the offer includes] two very important points – the release of all [Palestinian] detainees and a stop of all Israeli aggression, including the process of withdrawal from the West Bank...then we are going to search for an effective and constructive process [that will bring this] at the end," said al-Zahar in an interview with WorldNetDaily's Jerusalem bureau chief Aaron Klein and ABC Radio's John Batchelor broadcast on Batchelor's national program.

Hamas has targeted civilians in its fight for a Palestinian state, which would make it a terrorist group in the eyes of most. And yet that detail doesn't seem to have bothered a lot of Palestinians.
Hamas last month was largely victorious in local municipal elections in Gaza and the West Bank, and is expected to do well in Palestinian parliamentary elections scheduled for Wednesday.

Analysts expect Hamas will join a coalition government with the currently ruling Fatah party.

The main reason I'm very skeptical of all this is that their mission statement hasn't changed.
The official Hamas charter calls for the destruction of Israel by "assaulting and killing," and rejects all peace talks with the Jewish state.

Doesn't sound like a group interested in negotiations.

Posted by Doug at 12:41 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 19, 2006

Reform Packages Aren't Enough

Republicans and Democrats have each presented their own government reform packages, but according to a watchdog group, neither is good enough.

Democrats on Wednesday declared an end to the "Republican culture of corruption," announcing their own "real reform" plan one day after Republicans announced theirs.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said the Democrat plan is about "real change and has real teeth." It's called the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act.

Democrat leaders said their "aggressive reform package" would "reverse Republican excesses and restore the public trust."

But according to a taxpayer watchdog group, both parties have legitimate criticism to lob against each other's reform proposals.

"The Republicans are right in saying that both parties have complicity in the current ethical mess, where campaign contributions and other gifts are given to Members of Congress in exchange for their support for government largesse for the contributors," said John Berthoud, president of the National Taxpayers Union.

On the other hand, "The Democrats are right that the Republicans' package doesn't go nearly far enough," Berthoud said.
"But the Democrats' package is little better," Berthoud said. "Their lackluster reform package gives lie to their claim that they are not part of the Washington problem."

The problem is that both sides break the law, not that there aren't enough laws. The reason they break the law is because there's so much money floating around Washington because government is just way too big. Fortunately, there are those who are putting forth a real step in dealing with this root cause.

Lobbying reform alone is not enough, said the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW), which has urged Congress to fix the "mangled and secretive budget process."

Tom Schatz, CCAGW president, said, "Bipartisan abuse of the budget process has led to record spending on pork barrel projects and handouts to special interests."

According to CCAGW, total federal spending has swelled 67 percent, from $1.5 trillion in fiscal 1995 to almost $2.5 trillion in fiscal 2005. The number of pork-barrel projects in the federal budget during that same period of time has skyrocketed from 1,349 to 13,997, an increase of 938 percent.

CCAGW supports a bill introduced by Sen. John McCain and Rep. Jeff Flake, both Arizona Republicans. The bill, the Obligation of Funds Transparency Act (S. 1495 and H.R. 1642, respectively), would make earmarks more visible and amendable before legislation is passed.

Transparency with regard to the slinging around of pork is a good first step, and it's just a first step. The more power and money we give to Washington, the more this kind of thing will happen, regardless of the number of "reforms" passed. Lobbying isn't a crime and taking contributions from lobbyists isn't a crime. However, the reason both of these legal actions can be abused is because in a government as large, complex and awash in money and power as ours, humanity's weakness kicks in. Giving Washington more and more to do, especially those things that aren't even constitutionally mandated, is simply an invitation for more abuse, and anyone who advocates for the former while ranting against the latter is ignorant at best and disingenuous at worst.

Posted by Doug at 03:22 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Christian College Enrollment Up

Enrollment at Christian evangelical colleges is on the rise, quite sharply, across the nation. This excerpt from the Grand Forks Herald notes the numbers for Minnesota.

Across the state, and the nation, colleges with ties to evangelical movements are seeing their enrollments soar.

The numbers at Minnesota schools fitting that demographic are up between 28 and 49 percent over the past five years, compared with about 7 percent at other private colleges.

"I wanted to be able to discuss my religious beliefs," said Kristi Rohwer, who is taking classes at Bethel University in Arden Hills. "I feel that you view life and things differently in your education if you can do that. We do discuss our beliefs, and I like it a lot."

The 17-year-old Rohwer, from Forest Lake, is still a student in high school but is taking classes at Bethel through a special academic program. She said she wants to stay at Bethel when she becomes a full-time college student, and she's not alone.

Faith has a strong presence on campuses like Bethel's and Northwestern College in Roseville. Many classes begin with prayer and readily include considerations of faith during discussions about science or mathematics.

Posted by Doug at 02:44 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 18, 2006

Washington Post Twists Reporting on Assisted Suicide

The Supreme Court yesterday upheld an Oregon assisted suicide law in its decision in the case of Gonzales vs. Oregon. The Washington Post tied to twist the decision into an endorsement by the Supreme Court of the practice and a slap at the Bush Administration. Here is how the article leads off:

The Supreme Court upheld Oregon's law on physician-assisted suicide yesterday, ruling that the Justice Department may not punish doctors who help terminally ill patients end their lives.

By a vote of 6 to 3, the court ruled that Attorney General John D. Ashcroft exceeded his legal authority in 2001 when he threatened to prohibit doctors from prescribing federally controlled drugs if they authorized lethal doses of the medications under the Oregon Death With Dignity Act.

The ruling struck down one of the administration's signature policies regarding what President Bush calls the "culture of life" and lifts the last legal cloud over the state's law, which is unique in the nation. It also frees other states to follow in Oregon's footsteps, unless Congress acts to the contrary.

However, it's not until the tenth paragraph that the truth of what the case was really about comes out:

Although frequently described as a "right to die" case, Gonzales v. Oregon , No. 04-623, was not, strictly speaking, about the constitutional right to end one's own life. The court has already ruled, in 1997, that there is no such right and did not revisit that holding yesterday.

Instead, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy noted in the majority opinion that the question was whether Ashcroft acted in accordance with the Controlled Substances Act when he issued an "interpretive rule" in 2001, declaring that assisting suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose" for which federally regulated drugs may lawfully be prescribed. Ashcroft's successor, Alberto R. Gonzales, has continued the policy.

The Post is engaging in reporting that is at the very least misleading. It's also another prine example of "agenda journalism" where stories are used to push an agenda regardless of whether the actual news supports the agenda which in this case is bashing President Bush. Is it any wonder that people don't trust big media anymore?

Posted by Tom at 09:59 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 17, 2006

School Progress Meets Hurdle

Progress is occurring in the Milwaukee Public School System.

Milwaukee schools are still struggling, but progress is obvious. Students have improved their performance on 13 out of 15 standardized tests. The annual dropout rate has fallen to 10% from 16% since the choice program started. Far from draining resources from public schools, spending has gone up in real terms by 27% since choice began as taxpayers and legislators encouraged by better results pony up more money.

How did they do this?

School vouchers. Choice. Making the monopoly compete. The results have impressed even the MPS superintendent.

"No longer is MPS a monopoly," says Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent William Andrekopoulos. "That competitive nature has raised the bar for educators in Milwaukee to provide a good product or they know that parents will walk." The city's public schools have made dramatic changes that educators elsewhere can only dream of. Public schools now share many buildings with their private counterparts, which helps alleviate the shortage of classrooms. Teachers, once assigned strictly by seniority, are now often hired by school selection committees. And 95% of district operating funds now go directly to schools, instead of being parceled out by a central office. That puts power in the hands of teachers who work directly with students.

Mr. Andrekopoulos loves it. The parents love it. The teacher's unions...well, they're predictable.
Far from questioning the public-school monopoly, teacher unions are digging in. They have an ally in Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat elected in 2002 with 45% of the vote (a Libertarian candidate got 10%). Running scared in this election year, he claims he wants to raise the cap on Milwaukee's choice program. But he insists on including side issues in any deal with the Legislature. For instance, he demands choice students take standardized tests and have the results made public. But in 2003 he vetoed a bill that would have done just that because the teachers union wanted to block an objective study of choice.
Teacher unions have their own answer to the collapse of public education in the inner cities: ship truckloads of money to poorer districts in the name of "social justice." But many Milwaukee parents aren't buying that. They have painfully learned that more money spent on a failed system does not produce better education. They want to make their own decisions about their children's future.

Instead of letting more kids take advantage of these better results, the cap on the number of eligible students is going to be interpreted in such a way that it may throw the program into disarray and close some of the schools. The unions would rather hold on to their power and influence rather than give the kids a shot at a better education. "Fix it, don't kill it" is a common phrase heard by folks trying to preserve this monopoly, but the parents know that they don't have that sort of time, and they know that the school system doesn't have that sort of inclination. It's only in competition that things will get better. It works amazingly well in our colleges and universities,which are among the best in the world. It would work for K-12, too, if it were to be given a chance.

Posted by Doug at 01:58 PM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Reading God's Mind. Again.

Pat Robertson's at it again. "God is mad at America," in part because he does not approve "of us being in Iraq under false pretenses." Further, "he is sending hurricane after hurricane after hurricane, and it is destroying and putting stress on this country." Robertson also said that God was mad at black America for not taking care of themselves, their women and their children. He noted that 70 percent of black children are born to one parent.

Expect liberals to get outraged over this in even larger proportion to their reaction to some of his previous pronouncements that weren't as racially charged. This could get ugly.

'Cept it won't.

That's because, in reality, New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin said it. It's OK for him to say this because he's black and because he's a Democrat. If he'd been white or Republican and talked about God being upset with blacks, it would have been considered hate speech. And of course, when people invoke God in the name of liberal ideas, in this case on the war in Iraq, you'll hear hardly a peep. The NY Times covered it only to the point of reprinting the AP wire copy, but that's it. In fact, I heard on the radio this morning (from the generally conservative host, not the news folks) that there had been some concern by a black city official about Nagin's "chocolate city" imagery. He wasn't upset at Nagin (he is black and Democrat, after all), but was concerned that such imagery would be taken in the wrong way. Even that little bit of worry wasn't mention by the AP nor the Times. Calling blacks the dark chocolate of the world and whites the white milk raiseth not an eyebrow.

Nope, this is no big deal to <redundancy> the Left and the Media </redundancy>. At least this time it isn't. Frankly, I don't think it's a big deal either. Call me a Lactose-American; whatever. I don't object to colorful language regarding my race. And if Nagin thinks God had a hand in this, that's his opinion and he's welcome to it. But if Newt Gingrich or Bill Bennett or, indeed, Pat Robertson himself had said this, we'd be treated to news articles galore on reaction from the Left, and op-eds expressing outrage. Instead, a little wire copy is dutifully pushed and the case is essentially closed.

Nagin's trying to read God's mind just as much as Pat was, but little will be said about it, other that mostly right-wing bloggers noting the hypocrisy by <redundancy> the Left and the Media </redundancy>. If only they could move on (.org) as easily all the time.

Posted by Doug at 01:02 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

January 13, 2006

The Rebuilding of New Orleans

SCO's Head Stone (hmm, perhaps I need to give him a better title), Rick Brady, has been putting in a lot of long weeks helping to manage the FEMA effort in New Orleans. (See here for a post from the "front" with pictures.) His initial thought was that he'd be there at least 3 months. Well, those 3 months are up and there's probably another 6 months or so left.

Some of the rebuilding effort is caught up in red tape. While the term "red tape" is typically a disparaging term, some of these obstacles have a good reason behind them. The upside is that rebuilding without knowing future flooding potential is being kept down. The downside is that folks have been waiting for some time to get their homes and businesses back.

Ever since hurricane Katrina washed much of New Orleans away, where to allow rebuilding has been Question No. 1. After months of emotionally exhaustive waiting and wondering, homeowners in the most devastated parts of the city now know the answer: They'll have to wait until late June to rebuild - and, even then, it's not certain their property will be safe from public seizure.

The controversial guidelines in the land-use report issued this week by the mayor's Bring New Orleans Back Commission are putting new strain on residents who bore the brunt of the storm. And it's raising again the sensitive question of whether the city's poor are getting short shrift in post-Katrina recovery efforts.

Congress, which has earmarked $29 billion in Gulf Coast rebuilding, is watching the debate closely. So, too, is the White House and the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) the agency that allocates federal funds.

"There are some very positive aspects of the plan," says Sean Reilly, a member of the LRA. He admits that denying building permits is controversial, but adds, "I would not feel good knowing that someone was applying for a building permit in order to try to beat the clock. We should not ignore safety."

The clock he is referring to is the release of new Federal Emergency Management Agency flood plain maps, which are due out in the next few months. They will show which parts of the city face the most danger from flooding, thus making those areas very costly for flood insurance. The maps could complicate city planning, leaving market forces to determine where building occurs.

The land-use report, meanwhile, gives some residents just four months to prove that their neighborhoods are fit to be rebuilt. It's not yet clear just what standard of proof they must meet, but "neighborhood planning teams" will be created to help residents consider the future of their communities and let city officials know by June 20 what their neighborhoods need and, ultimately, whether they can survive. Some observers say the decision could come down to population: Will enough people return to sustain a neighborhood?

Some of this red tape actually makes the rebuilding more difficult, of course, especially when you get into a hurry-up-and-wait situation, followed by a give-me-an-answer-now situation. Making things worse is what may be a rather unrealistically high bar set by the City Council.
Making the process even more difficult, members of the New Orleans City Council have said they will not back any plan that does not allow immediate rebuilding everywhere in the city.

Mayor Ray Nagin can accept or reject any part of the subcommittee's recommendations, a process that could take weeks. He did not indicate whether he supported the plan when it was presented Wednesday, though he did say that people's property rights should be the ultimate guide in rebuilding the city.

It's the competing plans that seem to be the crux of the issue. Some folks, however, have given up on the whole thing.
That's cold comfort to Angela and Keith Jackson, who are surveying the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood for the first time since the storm.
But he and his wife have finally run out of patience. They are planning to move to Dallas. "Why would you put money into your house if there's not enough people [returning to the neighborhood]?" he asks. "They just need to make a solid plan."

If a city is built on the coast, but no one's there to live in it, does it really exist? I don't really think that NO would be vacant when it comes back, but it's quite possible that it'll be a shadow of its former self by the time all the signatures are affixed to the right paperwork. Stay tuned.

Posted by Doug at 02:41 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 11, 2006

Iran's President Acts Like There's No Tomorrow

Why is Iran thumbing its nose at international organizations with regards to its nuclear program? One reason may be that the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, believes that the Shi'ite "messiah", the Twelfth Imam or Mahdi, will be returning very soon. He's making serious preparations for it, including having a special train line built to a holy city involved in the story of his return. Daniel Pipes has the details. If Ahmadinejad believes that the return is imminent, you can see why he may be inclined to ignore all the urgings, reports and diplomatic words of concern over his nuclear aspirations.

Posted by Doug at 12:46 PM | Comments (22) | TrackBack

January 10, 2006

Belafonte. Again.

Yo, Harry. Please stop saying such silly things. As usual, ScrappleFace nails it.

Posted by Doug at 09:10 AM | Comments (15) | TrackBack

January 06, 2006

Alexander Hamilton on Federal War Powers

This is food for thought, given the current issue with NSA wiretaps. Alexander Hamilton wrote these paragraphs in Federalist #23 regarding the power of a federal government in "the preservation of the Union". It's a long-ish quote so that context is maintained. Italics and capitalization have been preserved, so emphasis by me is shown in red.

The authorities essential to the care of the common defence are these--to raise armies--to build and equip fleets--to prescribe rules for the government of both--to direct their operations--to provide for their support. These powers ought to exist without limitation: Because it is impossible to foresee or define the extent and variety of national exigencies, or the correspondent extent & variety of the means which may be necessary to satisfy them. The circumstances that endanger the safety of nations are infinite; and for this reason no constitutional shackles can wisely be imposed on the power to which the care of it is committed. This power ought to be co-extensive with all the possible combinations of such circumstances; and ought to be under the direction of the same councils, which are appointed to preside over the common defence.

This is one of those truths, which to a correct and unprejudiced mind, carries its own evidence along with it; and may be obscured, but cannot be made plainer by argument or reasoning. It rests upon axioms as simple as they are universal. The means ought to be proportioned to the end; the persons, from whose agency the attainment of any end is expected, ought to possess the means by which it is to be attained.

Whether there ought to be a Foederal Government intrusted with the care of the common defence, is a question in the first instance open to discussion; but the moment it is decided in the affirmative, it will follow, that that government ought to be cloathed with all the powers requisite to the complete execution of its trust. And unless it can be shewn, that the circumstances which may affect the public safety are reducible within certain determinate limits; unless the contrary of this position can be fairly and rationally disputed, it must be admitted, as a necessary consequence, that there can be no limitation of that authority, which is to provide for the defence and protection of the community, in any matter essential to its efficacy; that is, in any matter essential to the formation, direction or support of the NATIONAL FORCES.

The Federalist Papers were explanations to the people regarding a new federal government under the proposed Constitution, and why it was a good idea. What's interesting is that Hamilton is essentially saying that this new Constitution will not, in fact, be a "suicide pact". When the Constitution talks about providing for the common defense, then, it means it, and Hamilton says that it should not be used as shackles to keep what needs to be done from being done.

This passage talks about, I believe, the federal government in its totality. Thus, Congress is as much a part of this as the President. They still hold the purse strings, and if they want to cut funding to the NSA to keep something from happening they don't agree with, it's their prerogative. That, among other things, is a check on Executive Branch power, but according to Hamilton, it's not necessarily a constitutional issue.

Hamilton's words do not have the weight of those in the Constitution, to be sure. However, he does provide a framework for understanding the Constitution as written and intended. It expresses ideas you wouldn't hear much about today. He'd probably be considered a right-wing extremist. Considering these ideas for our omnipresent and over-extended federal government does, I admit, make me wonder whether this concept is such a good idea for the Washington, DC of today. But he was expressing the concerns and intents of those who wrote one of our most important founding documents, and those thoughts should not be lightly ignored or hand-waved away.

Posted by Doug at 02:32 PM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Robertson. Again.

Yo, Pat. Please stop trying to read God's mind. As usual, ScrappleFace nails it.

Posted by Doug at 09:25 AM | Comments (14) | TrackBack

January 04, 2006

The Abramoff Deal

The Abramoff plea deal has obviously rocked Washington, and rightly so. This particular scandal, while it may catch members of both parties, will most likely tilt heavily Republican due to Abramoff's affiliation.

I say "good".

I won't be surprised to find more Republican names than Democrat ones, as the Republicans are the party in power now, and that power corrupts, as all power tends to do. I'd be very happy to see a house-cleaning of the majority party. We need that as a country. What I think we'll see are Congressfolk who are heavily entrenched in the system who thought they were untouchable. With Washington awash in so much money, the lure of it becomes, I imagine, greater than many can handle. These people need to be exposed and removed. I don't want to be passing sentence before the facts are in, but when they do come in, I would like to see the guilty do the right thing and step down rather than put us through a bunch of trials.

This scandal, while it may involve more Republicans than Democrats, actually buttresses a point small-government Republicans have been trying to make for years; government is too big. There's too much money flying around and much of it can disappear without a trace, sometimes into the pockets of politicians, and they'll do things they would not otherwise do to get it. The more a government does, the more we invite this sort of corruption. Those wishing to centralize more and more of our country's operation, and wishing to give it more and more to do, would do well to understand that this very scandal is, in a large part, a result of that. While this particular scandal will, again, likely expose mostly Republicans, I think the problem is not one of party but of human nature. The Founding Fathers understood this and created a decentralized republic; united states.

"...[T]he States can best govern our home concerns and the general government our foreign ones. I wish, therefore ... never to see all offices transferred to Washington, where, further withdrawn from the eyes of the people, they may more secretly be bought and sold at market." --Thomas Jefferson

Keep those who govern us in your prayers for this reason, and for a million other ones.

UPDATE: Peggy Noonan expounds further on the connection between the Abramoff scandal and big government in "The Steamroller".

Posted by Doug at 09:21 AM | Comments (8) | TrackBack