Friday, December 31, 2004

Final post of 2004

From me anyway. This is always supposed to be that time of the year when we sit back and reflect, but GipperClone has already done a pretty good job of that, and I have little to add. I suppose there is a reason he may have forgotten about the Sox, especially their great comeback against the Yankees.

Instead of looking back I choose to look forward. 2005 promises to be an eventful year politically. Not only will we surely have a contentious Supreme Court confirmation battle or two, but Republicans seem ready to charge full steam ahead with lower Court appointments. Judicial fights rarely are sexy enough for lots of coverage, but this could be much different. I think most people have caught on with the idea that there is a deep ideological schism when it comes to judicial philosophy. The left is largely out of power legislatively (though it does have a two-seat advantage in counting up all state legislative seats), and it needs to protect the judiciary in order to maintain some semblance of power. the right recognizes that now is the moment to reshape the third branch and halt judicial activism. This could be the biggest issue of the year.

The other issue of monumental importance is Iraq specifically and foreign policy more generally. Iraq will presumably be holding elections within a month, and how they are conducted and what results from it will go a long way in shaping how we deal with the Middle East. All eyes will be on Iraq in thirty days, for these elections might determine the future of out Middle East policy. God willing all will go well (or reasonably so), and we can build to building something stable in that region of the world. If not, well . . .

I also think 2005 will witness the continuation of what began after the election: Intra-party squabbling. Both parties came out of the election somewhat bruised and battered, though the Democratic party obviously more so than the Republican. But conservatives are also re-evaluating their position. While most of us glady supported President Bush and are extremely happy that he won, we remain wary about many of his domestic policy stances, in particular immigration (which David Frim predicts will rend the party more than any other issue). Moreover, conservatives are beginning to get antsy over neoconservative foreign policy, and though we appreciate the idealism therein, we hope to steer the foreign policy of our Nation in a more prgamatic direction. Don't get me wrong, I think the Iraq war was the right war at the right time, but we must be remain pragmatic and cautious. Before we extend our mission to Iran, Syria, or some other Middle East locale, we must internally explore what we hope to accomplish militarily and why. There has been some debate in the past few days between Michael Ledeen and others on the one hand, and Ross Douthat on this very score. Both sides seem to want the same thing, but have very different ideas about how to go about it. Democratization is a noble goal, but will it do what the neoconservatives think it will do to bring about stability in the Middle East? I think Douthat's skepticism is warrented and welcome. Look for more intra-ideological debate on both sides in the year ahead.

Of course the fight over Social Security, taxes, and spending will continue apace. Both intra- and inter-party battles over immigration will be faught. There will be some new reality shows, maybe someone will finally die on one of these things and networks will pause and consider putting something worthwhile on the air. The Patriots will win the Super Bowl, some team other than the Yankees (though definitely not the Braves) will win the World Series after Randy Johnson blows out his hip in the first round of the playoffs, and I will finish my dissertation. Okay, the last one is wishful thinking.

So that is all from me for the new year. It has been a year that for me was filled with many ups and some unfortunate downs. I hope that the next year brings us all much more happiness and security. God bless all of you, and see you in 2005.


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Thursday, December 30, 2004

Top Stories of 2004

Well, it is that time of year again. Another calendar year is about to come to an end, and a new one is about to unfold. Many of the stories that headlined in 2004 are long forgotten, and one can only guess what 2005 holds in store.

I would like to do a quick review of some of the biggest stories of 2004 -- the good, the bad, and the ugly -- and also give my take on what we can expect in 2005.

Terrorism Writ Large. Perhaps one of the greatest lessons of 2004 was that it became painfully apparent that al Qaeda does not represent the extent of the threat from radical Islam. The common refrain from Bush Doctrine critics was that (c'mon, sing along with me) al Qaeda, not Iraq, was the threat, and that we should have been addressing Osama's terrorist organization instead of wasting our time with Saddam. Post-invasion revelations have shown, however, that despite the claims of the American Left and other Saddam apologists, Iraq did in fact have ties with terrorist organizations, and with al Qaeda in particular. The 9/11 Commission, the Senate Intelligence Committee, and British Intelligence officials all issued reports confirming that Osama bin Laden was in frequent communications about possible joint efforts, money and personnel were frequently shared, training was provided to al Qaeda members by the Iraqi military, and terrorists were time and again given safe haven within Iraq's tightly controlled borders.

Iraq's de facto sponsorship of, and involvement with, terrorism was far from unique: Iran, Syria, and others revealed themselves to be friends of al Qaeda and other regional organizations, as well as determined to get their hands on their own stockpiles of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. Their shenanigans have for the most part evaded the spotlight in 2004. The biggest challenge of 2005 will be to show the nations of the world just how much of a threat these Middle Eastern dictatorships really are, and convincing them that it remains in their best interests to deal with them now instead of later, when it might be too late.

United Nations Corruption Revealed. For those of you who (foolishly) thought the United Nations -- and Germany, France, and Russia -- were fighting the good fight in 2002 and 2003 to keep the United States from going to war with Iraq, and that their motivations were pure as the wind-driven snow, 2004 revealed all too clearly that financial interests and self-preservation were at the heart of their efforts. The most significant (but perhaps not shocking) revelation to emerge this year was that U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan was somehow involved in the skimming of funds from the multi-billion-dollar Oil-For-Food Program, which allegedly existed to provide humanitarian relief to oppressed Iraqis (who, by the way, are no longer oppressed -- you're welcome). His precise role has yet to be understood, but my guess is his involvement falls into one of two broad categories, both of which are problematic for him and his organization: either he was intricately involved in the embezzlement, in which case he is criminally liable and should be removed; or he was unaware of the ongoing fraud, in which case he is ill-equipped to run the global body and should be removed.

I am willing to bet that 2005 will be a pivotal year for the U.N. Either the membership of this international body will start accepting responsibility for its improper conduct, will start policing itself, and will reassert itself as an organization that is willing to fight for a free and democratic world; or it will continue on its path of corrupting self-delusion and see its influence wane. Will power shift to other organizations like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Organization of American States? Will this century be marked by a shift away from international cooperation and a shift toward pro-sovereign isolationism? If the U.N. does not shape up, those questions will have to be answered.

Afghan Elections. While it got very little attention at the time (because there were more important stories like, oh, you know, Scott Peterson and Paris Hilton), perhaps the most positive story of the year was the one about Afghanistan's successful national elections, which also saw Hamid Karzai elected as that country's president. The Afghan people, having endured years of brutal Islamist Taliban rule, dispelled the ridiculous notion (which has gained a frightening amount of traction among people of varying political stripes) that people who follow the Islamic faith are incapable of making democracy work. To the contrary, the Afghans were willing and able to choose their own leaders, and for the most part did so in an orderly fashion. More has to be done, but the global democratic community would be wise to work with Afghanistan rather than dismissing it as a temporary fever of populism.

In 2005, other peoples will be looking to us for similar help. May we have the foresight and wisdom to help their dreams of democratic rule become reality.

The Bear Awakens? For close to a decade, we have taken Russia's silence for granted. In the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 (thanks again, Gipper), that part of the world came to be dismissed as no longer a problem. The last 13 years have shown, however, that decades' worth of totalitarianism cannot be washed away with talk of capitalism and free markets alone, and that only true reformers can make democracy a permanent way of life.

If anything, the current electoral debacle in Ukraine illustrates quite vividly that Russia's current president Vladimir Putin might not be all that opposed to a return of Soviet-style dominance. Putin actively campaigned for the pro-Russian hardliner Viktor Yanukovych and against the pro-Western liberal (I use "liberal" in the classical sense) Viktor Yuschenko. (This alone is problematic. Imagine if Jacque Chirac had come to the United States and campaigned for John Kerry.) When the first run-off election was thrown out by the Ukrainian Supreme Court because of pro-Yanukovych voter fraud, a second run-off election was held, and Yuschenko prevailed. In the days since, old-style Soviet rhetoric has been pouring out of the mouth of not only Yanukovych, who has sworn he will "never" recognize Yuschenko as the victor (wow, sounds like a big fan of democracy to me), but also Putin, who has said he will not recognize Yuschenko's government. The reason for Putin's obstinence is simple: Yuschenko's victory is a blow to Putin's ultimate goal of surrounding himself with strong, pro-Russian satellite states that might not object to a return to olden days (in spirit if not in letter). Yuschenko has made it clear that one of his first priorities will be getting Ukraine into both the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. That is something the Russian bear cannot and will not stomach.

Look for Ukraine and its political direction to be a hot topic in 2005. I would also keep my eyes peeled for Putin's approaching demise as a political figure in Russia. For all of his anti-democratic consolidation of power, he grows increasingly unpopular among people who see him as responsible for Russia's loss of influence in its corner of the globe. Will Russian voters say nyet next time around? Will they even be allowed to? Stay tuned.

Bush: The Sequel. One cannot discuss 2004 without addressing the 2004 presidential campaign. It was a brutal campaign in many ways, marked at times by an interminable primary season, unprecedented campaign spending, and a heretofore unseen level of pro-Democrat media bias (Dan Rather, are you listening?). When all was said and done, the American people re-elected President George W. Bush over Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry.

Everyone has their own take on this historic election, so I would be remiss if I did not throw my two cents in. In retrospect, what happened on November 2 really should not come as much of a surprise. There have been other points in our history where Americans have had to make tough choices during times of war, instability, and uncertainty. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln had to convince voters that preservation of the Union was worth the exorbitant cost, all while his opponent (former Union general George B. McClellan) was talking retreat and relations with a Confederate States of America. During World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to first assuage fears during the worst financial crisis in the country's history, and later rally the American people to the cause of world freedom when the Axis Powers were on the move and America's resources were stretched thin. In both of those periods, Americans opted to be strong in the face of peril rather than choose an easier path, the path of least resistance. Because of both of those periods, America -- and the world -- are stronger and better off.

Bush's re-election fits the above mold. In the face of wars abroad and terror threats at home, Bush had the unenviable task of convincing the American people that it was in their best interest to deal with continued pain in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other theaters as they emerge. He faced an opponent who lacked vision, talked an awful lot about having plans without providing any, eschewed strength in the name of political expediency, and tried desperately to be everything to everyone. In the end, Bush won (and Kerry lost) because Bush was able to put forward a positive vision for a second administration and out-detail his pie-in-the-sky opponent. Not bad for a dunce, eh?

It would be easy to say that 2005 will be a cakewalk for Dubya, but we should all know better. Bush has called for continued vigilance on the foreign policy front, ambitious overhauls of the tax code and Social Security, and a more conservative judiciary. Realistically, he has two years to do all of the above. A GOP-controlled Congress is not all it is cracked up to be, and the Democrats have made it clear they are not going anywhere. The only thing we are guaranteed in 2005 is that people will start talking about the next presidential campaign very, very soon.

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Well, that's pretty much it. I hope you all have a Happy New Year. (On a related note, one of my New Year's resolutions will be to post more often.)


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Is US Foreign Aid Stingy?

In the wake of the unthinkable tragedy that has befallen much of Southeast Asia, it is remarkable to me that one of the largest stories, after the ever rising death toll, is the critique of the United States’ financial contribution to the relief effort that is, by many accounts, already a success. For those living in a cave for the last few days, here’s a recap: after the storm the US, via Secretary Powell, pledged approximately $15 million in disaster aid, much of which to my understanding was in addition to the discretionary funds that embassies in the affected countries had already made available for relief efforts. This number was later more than doubled, and now stands at approximately $35 million in foreign aid. Yesterday the President indicated, as many US officials have, that even larger this number is likely to rise over the coming weeks and months as a better, more accurate assessment of what exactly is needed becomes available.


All that said, the UN, more precisely a specific UN official, Jan Egeland, Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief, was quoted as saying after the initial figure was released that "if, actually, the foreign assistance of many countries now is 0.1 or 0.2 percent of the gross national income, I think that is stingy, really. I don't think that is very generous." Granted he didn’t name specific countries, but I think the implication was clear he was talking about "western countries," specifically the US with our close to $9 billion annual gross national income. The focus turned immediately to a inquiry as to whether the US is a "stingy" country or whether we are generous.


Before crunching numbers, let’s first describe what we are talking about. The $35 million is "government" pledged aid, and doesn’t represent the millions of dollars raised an donated by private individuals and charitable groups. In addition, I don’t believe it includes the costs of sending the USS Lincoln and other military related assistance to the region. Battle-carriers and carrier groups are expensive to maintain and those costs have to be factored in. Second of all, our contribution appears to be on par with what the majority of other "developed western countries" have pledged. According to the Washington Post, only Spain with its $68 million pledge has contributed more in real dollar terms. Other contributions include: Japan $30 million; Britain $29 million; Australia $27.6 million; Germany $27 million; France $20.5 million and; Denmark $15.5 million.


Given the real dollar comparisons we don’t seem so bad in terms of what other nations have contributed, however, that is only one way of looking at the numbers. If you compare the numbers in percentage of GDP terms, you would of course get a much bleaker picture of US government generosity. Given our much larger GDP than the other countries on the above list we would likely rank much closer to the bottom of the list as our number is considerably smaller in percentage terms than the other contributions. 35 million is a drop in the bucket for a 9 trillion dollar economy or so the argument would go. I don’t happen to think this is a fair way of looking at the numbers, nor do I think it actually or accurately represents a measure of a countries generosity, but it is not an unreasonable measure to use if one wanted to criticize our government’s efforts.


Another way of looking at the numbers is relative to what we are spending in other countries. According to Se. Lehay (D-VT), "[w]e spend $35 million before breakfast each day in Iraq," now I don’t know if that’s true or not, seems a bit steep to me, but military operations are expensive and the Iraq bill has totaled more than $200 billion so far with no foreseeable end in sight. Thus, it seems that relative to our expenditures there our $35 million contribution to a massive natural disaster is a bit small. That being said, the comparison to Iraq is at best ludicrous, and at worst, well, it's political rhetoric in its poorest form. Comparing the Iraq war with the humanitarian relief effort is worse than comparing apples and oranges, as the saying goes. Simply put, it needs to stop post haste. Regardless of whether one agrees with the war in Iraq or not, the money spent there should not be used to justify or excuse other government expenditures, especially those unrelated to military, national security, or international interests.


Yet another comparison I have seen is one to other similar disasters. For example, the Post reported today that "[a]fter Hurricane Mitch in 1998, when about 9,000 people were killed and 3 million were left homeless in Central America, the United States provided $988 million in relief assistance." In other words, in a disaster with approximately 8.5 times fewer casualties, we spent approximately 28 times more money. This, in my opinion, is a comparison with some merit, however, as indicated above, were not done spending money in Southeast Asia yet, so it’s still a bit premature to critique our performance.


Oh, one last one, I promise. Several people have compared our relief efforts to the $3-5 billion pledged to Florida this season after the devastating hurricanes that swept through the region. To people who think this way, I have two words, SHUT-UP, NOW. Of course the government will spend whatever it takes to repair Florida, they are our citizens, its our country, and our tax dollars. The fact that this has to be explained is itself appalling and really requires no further commentary. While I don’t subscribe to the theory that an American life is worth more than the life of another person with different citizenship, in fact, I think they should be considered equal, nevertheless, when allocating government resources, which are scare, the priority should always go to taking care of your own first and then with what is left being generous to others. No exceptions, no questions asked. Spend whatever it takes of US money to repair the US then and only then look to the rest of the world.


All this is by way of saying that its not the amount of money that’s important, but the efforts being undertaken by those on the ground providing aid and comfort to those affected. My thoughts are with the people who have been harmed by this tragedy and I fully support the efforts of our government in providing any and all assistance possible.




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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Random Musings

Back in New York for the X-Mas holidays (hey, I'm not being PC. Evidently the X stands for Christ in Greek, so X-Mas is pecfectly appropriate). Anyway, some random musings as they have popped into my mind while vacationing.

-I never watch the local news. Simply put, local newspeople are morons that make Maureen Dowd look worthy of a Pulitzer. In fact, I rarely even watch any news at all, except for maybe a few minutes of Fox News here and there (Yeah, I said Fox News, big whoop, wanna fight about it?). Anyway, I unfortunately walked by the television Sunday night as the Stepford people were broadcasting the local NBC newscast. Roughly the population of Delaware died in a natural disaster in southeast Asia, but the big headline news these modern day not Einsteins were running with was the natural disaster brewing in New York: almost an inch of snow was crashing to the ground in New York City. AN INCH OF SNOW?!?! In the northeast? In December? Stop the freaking presses. How can we deal with such an impending disaster that might make someone shiver in lower Manhattan? 100,000 dead Indonesians? Eh, who cares? The local newsbabe might need an extra coat of hairspray.

-Speaking of my blessed hometown, I was reminded of this city's disgraceful behavior during the Civil War. I have just about completed Carl Sandburg's tremendous biography of Lincoln, and he chronicled the draft riots which took place in '63. Anyone familiar with this city's history remembers how the kind citizens of New York didn't take too kindly to the calls for more enlistments, and proceeded to burn mansions, cause mass havoc in the city, and hang black people from lamposts. Plenty New Yorkers in fact wished to secede from the Union themselves, and many was the daily newspaper, especially the Daily News and others which regularly lampooned President Lincoln and lent aid and comfort to the southern rebels. But of course we have heard modern commentators mock the current south for its behavior of a century and a half ago. Little do they note the equally offensive behavior of the supposedly enlightened city folk who did as much as to wreck the Union cause as any Johnny Reb.

- Well, that's really all I wanted to say. Yeah, it's a crappy random musings column when you have two items, and one of them relates to events 150 years old. But I am back home, and I have been away from the computer, so there's not much to kevetch about. Well, I could call out Jets' offensive coordinator Paul Hackett for his completely unimaginative play calling, but it is the holiday season, and why trouble someone who's about to get canned anyway?


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Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Federal Sentencing Guidelines

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent article, as ususal, (I’m a big WSJ news fan, I can stand their editorial page, but I have often said for news it is by far the best paper currently printed) regarding the national confusion among federal judges over the constitutionality of the federal sentencing guidelines. Since the Court last term decided Blakely v. Washington, there has been disagreements both within the Federal Circuit Courts and even within the Federal District Courts as to how to proceed with sentencing criminal defendants pending the outcome in the soon to be decided Booker and Fanfan cases.

The article (the WSJ doesn’t grant free access to their web site, if you have Factiva you can get it there, but if not I’m afraid you have to buy the paper. If anyone has the link please let me know and I’ll post it) highlights some of the disparity that has resulted from the Circuit split over whether the reasoning in Blakely applies to the federal guidelines. While that is an interesting topic, I’m fairly certain that the Court will apply the Blakely reasoning, however, the open question, in my mind, is whether the Court will find the entire Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which created the guidelines, unconstitutional, or will the Court simply find a way to separate out the guidelines from the statute, thereby preserving many of the 1984 reforms (including, for example, the end to parole in federal sentencing). Assuming the Court preserves the statute, the WSJ article, I think highlighted one of the many problems with the federal sentencing procedure, namely, that like tax policy, a fair amount of social policy has entered into criminal sentencing, which is skewing the results.

For example, the WSJ article details two cases that highlight one of the many problems I see. In the first case the defendant was accused of and convicted of "bilking banks and investors by presenting false financial figures." In other words, fraud, or whatever the technical banking related, white collar crime word is for intentionally misleading people into believing something that isn’t true. Now, granted fraud and other white collar financial crimes are notoriously complicated and difficult for juries and judges to sort out, but that being said, the bottom line was that the District Judge determined that based on the juries findings the defendant received a sentence of only 6 months not the more than 8 years that the prosecutors were requesting. Let’s not, however, dwell on the actual sentence received, but rather on the possible sentence of 8 years. 8 years for high level fraud, costing individuals and investors probably (I don’t have the facts) hundreds of thousand, if not millions of dollars. 8 years, sufficient? Maybe, but regardless of what you think the time indicates a policy decision by members of Congress and the members of the Sentencing Commission who write the guidelines.

Now contrast that with this second case. Again, according to the WSJ, a 19 year old kid who pled guilty to participating in a drug distribution scheme, and according to judge played only a minor role in the overall scheme (he was supposed to simply package the drugs for street sale, he played no role in actually procuring the marijuana or later attempting to sell it) was sentenced to 3 years 10 months, the "low end" of the guidelines. While the article doesn’t specify what the requested sentence was, I think the dichotomy is pretty clear. Nearly 4 years for pot (probably the minimum) and only 8 years (probably the maximum) for high level investor fraud. Interesting, at least to me. I know, understand, and fully support the "war on drugs," but come on, a kid makes a mistake, get involved with the wrong people and gets nearly 4 years in federal prison, while the person engaged in a complex, multi-party, financial fraud scheme gets a recommended sentence of only 8 years (remember he actually only got 6 months). There is no question that we have made the policy decision to effect tougher, significantly tougher penalties for minor drug offenses than we have imposed on financial crimes.

All this is by way of saying that trying to effect social change through the sentencing system isn’t working. Just like redistributing wealth and income via the tax code isn’t working. All the mandatory minimums and enhanced sentences for drug users isn’t acting as a deterrent, and there appears to be rise in the amount of fraud and white collar crime being investigated and prevented. While the latter may be explained by a renewed effort in a post Enron/WorldCom world, that theory doesn’t account for all of the disparities. Regardless of where the Court comes down on Blakely, it is clear to me and many others that there needs to be some reform of the federal sentencing guidelines. By all means, punish criminals, but the punishment should in some way fit the severity of the crime. Drugs are bad, but are they twice, or in some cases 10 times, as bad as some white collar crimes, or violent crimes? I personally don’t think so. Recently, a criminal in Utah was sentenced to approximately 85 years on charges of possession of marijuana and carrying a firearm during the commission of a crime. The judge, Judge Cassell, no fan of criminals or criminal’s rights, was constrained by the guidelines to impose such a harsh sentence. The Judge pointed out, correctly, in my opinion, that the sentence he was required to impose was incredibly more harsh than the one he had imposed earlier that day on the double rapist and therefore, presented some potential 8th Amendment issues. More to the point, this 25 year old drug dealer received more time than a convicted terrorist may be eligible to receive. Are guns and drugs bad? Absolutely. Should people who are caught be punished? Of course. Should they get 85 years? I don’t think so. Should they get more time than perpetrators of violent crimes, especially violent sexual crimes? No.

Fight the drug war in the schools, neighborhoods, parks and streets where it can be won, not in the courts and prisons where it has already been lost. Reform the sentencing guidelines, reduce mandatory minimums for drugs and increase them for violent crimes and permit judges to use their ingenuity and creativity in imposing sentences that actually may act as a deterrent. We may all like the results.


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Monday, December 27, 2004

Posner on Religion, God, and Public Policy

Since the intersection of religion and politics is a topic of much interest among the people who write and view this blog, I thought I would take a minute to point out that Judge Posner has an excellent post regarding this subject here.

Judge Posner begins with an excellent observation regarding debating religion and the existence of God. While, for anyone who knows me knows that I'll debate this anytime, anywhere and with anyone (this of course isn't limited to God, but almost any subject) I agree with Judge Posner, at least to a point, when he says that "[y]ou cannot convince a religious person that there is no God, because he does not share your premises, for example, that only science delivers truths. There is no fruitful debating of God’s existence."

Judge Posner goes on to distinguish 6 cases of religion and public policy in a very objective, forthright and legalistic way. While I happen to agree with him for the most part, I wonder if when he gets to his discussion of "secular moralitiy" complete with references to J.S. Mill, Jeremy Benthem, and John Rawls, if he isn't oversimplfying just a bit. For instance, I'm not sure if Rawls would say that religious beliefs should have no influence on public policy, but rather if he would try to limit their influence by subjecting them to the same principles that all political decisions are to be limited to. Rawls believed, in part, that a policy should only be enacted and pursued if it benefits the least advantaged in a society (this is a massive oversimplification of a complicated political philosophy, but I think it will make my point). To me, it seems that should a policy motivated by religion or religious observation, as long as it doesn't require religious obesrvation to be fulfilled, were to meet the above criteria, Rawls would have no basis for rejecting its enactment. Religious ideas often do serve the least advantaged among us and really shouldn't be rejected simply because they are religious ideas, or have their basis in ideas of faith. Of course the distincition between promoting religion and merely being derived from religion may be a sticking point, but nevertheless, even as hostile as I am at times to religion, I recognize that its ideas are not all bad or incorrectly motivated and I think that Rawls and other "liberal" thinkers do as well.

Read Posner's post, it is by all means excellent (as one has come to expect from him) and, as always, I look forward to the comments.


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Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The Education of Our Youth

This was going to be a much different post, specifically concerning the recent movement in various school boards to have the so-called "intelligent design" taught right along side or in lieu of evolutionary theory, but recent comments concerning the "public school system" have made a more general education post more relevant, though I may return to the intelligence of the pro-"intelligent design" folks by the end.

First, some background, I am a publicly educated child. K-12 were spent in public schools in California. I didn’t attend a private school until college, and even then had a choice between public and private schools. To round out my credentials, my mother and grandmother were both public school teachers, and in addition, were both "card carrying" members of their respective teacher unions.

Second, as was pointed out to me by a very well-respected female reader of our blog, (who is also a product of public schools) regardless of what our inner city brethren might think the vast majority of schools in America are "public schools," in large part because a vast majority of America is not (despite what I, and others like to think) urban or even suburban, rather it is rural and home to many productive public schools that educate thousands and thousands of children every year. Thus, the first proclamation with respect to education, public schools are not bad schools, in fact many, if not most of them consistently academically outperform private schools in the same geographical area. (I know mine did for the 4 years I was there, as I have the held the awards plaque and have the pictures to prove it.)

Third, paying top dollar for education does not ensure that anyone gets it. For instance take the members of this blog, several of which went to private schools. Now it is my contention that each of you would have accomplished exactly the same academically (by this I mean graduated at or near the top of your class, gone to the college of your choice, and continued on to the graduate programs of your choosing) had you gone to public school. This fact, of course, is due to your own personalities and work ethics as well as the supporting cast of parents, family, and friends that have made you successful. The fact that your elementary and secondary school educations cost thousands of dollars in addition to what was paid in taxes did not give you a "better" education, it may have given you a different one (like having included religion), but it cannot be said to be objectively better.

Fourth, lumping together all "public schools" and claiming that they teach mediocrity and are the product of a bloated teachers union whining about the amount of funding or lack thereof is just plain silly. Teachers are by and large dedicated public servants who are paid far below their fair market earning potential and yet continue to work as hard as they possibly can because they believe they may make a difference in the lives of their students. The fact that they may belong to the "teacher’s union" and may support the union activities is a small part of their lives and doesn’t in any way detract from what they do in the classroom. Is the union perfect, of course not, no entity is. For what it’s worth, the other labor unions have serious flaws as well, but the union debate is another post and has little to do with education or the educational system. I will, however, say this with respct to labor unions: the objective of unions was to level the playing field between labor and management, prior to unionization of the labor force, non-management personnel could be considered to be price takers, while management could be arguably considered a firm with monopoly power. Despite some of the ire over labor unions, they did accomplish their goal, which was to make labor-relations more akin to a free market situation, where you had actual bargaining for wages and a give and take system that produced happier, more productive employees and as a result more profitable business. Has much of this been lost due to bad union leadership and competition from the largely non-union services sector, most definitely, but unions in their pure, non-political, non-corrupt forms are not negative entities at all and in fact are in my opinion a necessary part of a productive, profitable manufacturing-based economy (which I would argue the United States no longer is, but rather we have become a services-based economy and thus, unions are by and large no longer as important as they may have once been).

Fifth, we need to stop looking at the schools and blaming them for the problems with our youth. Even a freshman sociology student is smart enough to figure out that a school is successful not because it’s private or public, but because of the surrounding community. Take any school in the country, regardless of its location, give it a dedicated staff, teachers, properly functioning buildings, up to date materials, and most of all a supportive, disciplined student body with a strong, determined parental support unit and I guarantee that the school will thrive. Bottom line, charging tuition and fees has nothing to do with whether the school succeeds. The problem with inner city schools is that they lack almost all of these requirements, except for the dedicated staff and teachers. Suburban and rural schools are large, technologically advanced, fully stocked, and well-equipped places to learn, it’s obvious why they succeed. On the other hand, many inner-city, largely failing schools are often in low-income areas and do not have the physical space, materials, or community support required to have a thriving school system. The answer to better urban education is better urban areas, not tuition charges and privatization. Furthermore, lumping in the problem urban public schools with the largely successful suburban and rural schools doesn’t accurately reflect the public school problem or its population. Schools are not parents, nor are they baby-sitters or primary care givers, and we should stop treating them as they are. Parents still are the number one influence on a child’s life and should take that role seriously and should stop complaining when the school teaches, or fails to teach something they hold dear or think is crucial (for example, if you want your child to have religion, teach it to them yourself, take them to church, or pony up the extra money and send them to parochial school. Conversely, if you disagree with the school on an issue, teach your child the opposite and explain to them that they don’t have to believe everything that is taught in school every day.). Bottom line, don’t expect the school to fill all the voids or be the second parent.

Sixth, some potential solutions. I don’t disagree that we need to be pro-active and creative when it comes to education problems and potential solutions. What I do object to and strongly disagree with is the line of reasoning that says education should be subject to the free-market and therefore privatization is the solution. Education is (or should be considered) a public good, just like national defense, and thus, should be provided by and large by the government. Does that mean that people should be required to attend public school, no, an opt-out is always to be available and for many people it has served them quite well. However, I don’t think that we should treat schools like we do fast-food chains, or consumer goods. In other words, while it may be acceptable for fast food chains to compete over price, speed, and quality of food to see who can provide the best for less, that is not what we ought to be doing with education. More schools will not make for more education. We have plenty of schools as it is, what we need to do is ensure that every child who wants and is willing to work for a good education gets one. The potential "race to the bottom" that may eventually arise if you privatize education can’t possibly achieve this goal, and the natural evolution and order of markets is to have some winners, some in-betweens and some losers that eventually are merged with or subsumed by the winners or in-betweens. No child can ever afford to be a loser in the education market even for a short period of time and it is to the benefit of all of us if we ensure that this never happens. Much of my own opinions on how to strengthen schools, especially urban schools, would not be directed at the schools themselves, but rather at the surrounding communities. As I said before, strong communities make strong schools. That being said, a good place to start is with the foundations, namely, make sure all schools are structurally sound, properly stocked, technologically equipt, and have the most effective teachers and staff that can be afforded (this will mean paying teachers more than $25,000 starting salaries). If we accomplish that then at least we can say that everyone starts equally and what they do from that point on is up to them. Strong oversight by local school boards and assistance by the Department of Education is critical to this effort, but more importantly the community must support the changes and be willing to shoulder many of the costs. Fixing the education problem is going to be expensive, very expensive, but the long run benefits greatly outweigh the short terms costs.

Last point, we don’t get anywhere by vilifying the public schools. Private schools are fine, many are wonderful, and all of them should be supported and continue to thrive, but they are not the be all and end all of education. Fact is there are far more public school kids than private and those of us who went to public school have done and will continue to do just fine. I’ve rambled on for long enough so I’ll save the "intelligent design" post till later.


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Tuesday, December 21, 2004

It's Back!

Back from the brink of oblivion, it looks like Baseball will indeed be moving to DC next year.
After an amendment was passed Tuesday calling for Washington and baseball to share the cost for insurance limiting the city's liability on cost overruns and completion delays, the council voted 10-3 to repeal the so-called "sunset" provision. The council then voted 7-6 to approve the revised law.

Well, I believe this is very good for the city. The stadium has the potential to bring business to a part of the city that is in dire need of rejuvenation. I look forward to attending Nationals games in the future.


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Government as Business

I know this has been a well worn topic of late, but as I was flying home from CA last week and was delayed at the Denver airport, I picked up a copy of this month’s Atlantic Monthly, which contained an interesting article about former CEO’s who had become Governor of their respective states. The article cites Mitt Romney (R-MA), Brian Schweitzer (D-MT), Craig Benson (R-NH), and Mark Warner (D-VA), all of whom have successfully made the jump from the boardroom to the Governor’s office. The article focus on how the fact that none of these people were seen as "career politicians" may have actually aided their quest for office, but I want to focus on a slightly different aspect, specifically whether it’s a good idea to think of the government (whether it be local, state, or federal) as a business or even as a corporation. As I see it there are several flaws with the government as business/corporate model.


First, business’s/corporations are created to make money, government isn’t. In other words, business is supposed to be profitable, corporations are designed and structured to invest capital and provide a significant rate of return on the investment. CEO’s are entrusted to lead the business/corporation, made decisions and report a profitable year for all of the investors. There isn’t anything wrong with this model at all. The laws of economics dictate that profitable business stay afloat, while non-profitable businesses close shop or become subsumed into other businesses. Government, however, is exactly the opposite. At best Government is supposed to break even. Remember, government capital is mostly taxpayer money, hence, the goal is to take as little of that capital as possible, while still providing the maximum services possible. Governments that are profitable, or run a surplus, are often required to give the excess money back to the taxpayer. Unlike businesses there is no reward for surplus or excess. Pres. Clinton was hailed for running projected surpluses, but at the same time was vilified for wanting to reinvest the excess into new services and expanded government programs. Instead, Pres. Bush was elected in 2000 largely on a platform of returning the projected surplus back to the taxpayer. Government isn’t like business, because any CEO that merely broke even would be automatically fired at the next meeting of the board of directors and replaced by a more aggressive profit maximizing person. Of course the converse is also true, in business too much debt is bad, while in government as we have seen multiple times in history (post-Revolutionary War, post-Depression, 1980's Cold War Era, and post-9/11) government debt is at time encouraged and supported (recall the VP Cheney’s statement to then Treasury Sec. Paul O’Neil: "Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.") Any CEO that ran a company from projected surplus to projected deficit in 3 and half years would summarily be dismissed (likely in a Donald Trump from the Apprentice type manner. Picture wealthy obnoxious chairmen of the board saying "You’re Fired") in favor of a more fiscally sound person. In government, however, deficits are agenized over publically, while privately they are ignored in favor of public works projects and other "pork barrel" spending disasters.


Second, governments are not like business because business is supposed to be efficient, while government is supposed to be deliberative and slow. This needs little explanation, but I’ll say this, over the last three years we have seen three distinct instances where government has tried to be efficient and each time has resulted in what can only be described as legislative disaster. Example 1 the Patriot Act, which hardly anyone understands and few continue to support in its entirety (now there are some good parts to the Patriot Act, but for every "good" provision there are about 10 "heinous" provisions that should make any freedom loving American pause and hope they are never subjected to a search or seizure that is authorized under this law.). Example 2: The Homeland Security Act of 2002. Almost three years later and no one knows exactly what this agency does or how it does it, moreover, we can’t even find someone who wants to take control over the damned thing. Bernie Kerik was a walking PR disaster, and I don’t see a line of people actively campaigning for the job. Example 3: Intelligence Reform Act of 2004. This recently passed monstrosity is a perfect example of what happens when Congress responds to public pressure. Delaying action on this bill until the 109th Congress would have been the right thing to do, because I promise no one has read all 257 pages much less understands the implications and effects of what is contained within them. But hey, Congress was efficient and responded to national issues in a timely fashion. The fact that they will likely in the long run do more harm then good, well who need to be concerned with that inconvenient fact. It’s one thing for Microsoft to rush out a new version of Windows as when there are flaws (as there always are) they can simply provide a patch free of charge. When government rushes through an important project, the ability to change the results if they end up different from what was intended is very difficult to say the least.


Finally, government, unlike business answers to all the people, not just the group of investors that put up the capital. If a corporation makes a bad decision and loses money it only has to answer to a relatively small number of affected investors. Even in large, publically traded corporations, the number of "individual" investors is small, (growing but still small just take a look at the millions and millions of shares available of Microsoft, Citibank, or any other Fortune 500 company) especially given the size of institutionalized investors (mutual funds, hedge funds and other large corporate players), When government, on the other hand, makes a costly decision or error everyone is affected in some way. Even those people who don’t actively pay into the system in the form of taxes. (I’m not even talking about welfare recipients or the elderly, but of children who don’t pay taxes and yet attend/benefit from institutions be they public or private that are affected by the decisions of government).

In sum, while I understand to a point the loathing of career politicians, I’m not yet convinced that business acumen is the necessary tool to being a successful Governor or President. George W. Bush may be the first "MBA President," but I doubt he’ll be the last, and I’m not so sure that’s a good thing, regardless of whether the person is a Democrat or Republican. The keys to running a successful business and the keys to leading a prosperous nation are vastly different, we shouldn’t pretend that being good at one means being good at the other. The skill set may arguably be similar in some respects, but governing is so much more than profits and losses, it is about vision, vision for the whole of the country, vision of the prosperity of future generations who will inherit both the positive and the negative of what this generation and my generation accomplishes. Business isn’t a bad model for vision and prosperity, but it shouldn’t be applied to the government.




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'Tis the Season

For Unto Us a Child is Born

In this season of yuletide joy there shall be no political ramblings from me.

This has always been my favorite time of the year. Of course as a child it meant presents were on the way, be they from Santa or mom and dad. But even as a child Christmas meant more than presents, it meant lots and lots of food on Christmas Eve. And it meant being with my entire family.

Actually, the family part wasn't that significant, and not because family was unimportant. It's just that it was easy to take being with the whole family for granted. After all, we all basically lived near each other. My brother Joe got married when I was eight, but he lived only a few miles away. My sister moved out when I was eleven, but also only moved a few miles from us. My other brothers sort of came and went, but they were always nearby.

But then I went to college and Christmas took on a whole new meaning. Of course it was always great to escape for a few weeks from the barren wasteland called Atlanta, especially for three weeks. But Christmas Eve - not Christmas Day - was especially important. It was a time to see my family, to have my brother's baked clams, to eat the octupus. It's the one night a year that we could all be together and enjoy each other's company.

Eventually my family members started moving further away from my hometown, out into Long Island, and the opportunities for us all to be with each other grew sparser. Then I moved down here for graduate school, and there was really no chance for us all to be together except for Christmas. The last two years I was in a far off land of Fargo, North Dakota, however, so even that one special night was not to be.

This year I go home again. Though the circumstances of my being in New York this year for Christmas are somewhat sad, I am exceedingly happy to be with my family for the second most important religious holiday of the year. I have yet to see my two-month old nephew, have not seen another newphew in almost three years, and have missed one other niece's growth spurt. It's tough being so far from them all, but at least for one night we can sit down, talk, and eat ourselves silly.

Yesterday Mass closed with "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," my favorite Advent hymn. It harkened back to my childhood days, and for the first time in a while I really felt that Christmas spirit come upon me. It also reminded me of what this holiday is all about. Yes it is about family, but especially of a family that found itself in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago. It's easy to forget that. Heck, even when we cranky Christians complain about some uptight ninny moaning about a creche outside of City Hall, or when we groan upon hearing "Happy Holidays," or criticize the materialism of the holiday - I think that even when we do all that we ourselves still truly forget that this is a time to celebrate the most wonderful gift ever bestowed upon humanity. And God became man. Reflect on that for just a moment. God so loved us all that He lowered himself - He emptied himself and took the form of a servant. Makes getting a dvd for Christmas seem like a real cheap gift, don't it?

At any rate: Merry Christmas to all.


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Monday, December 20, 2004

The New Junior Varsity

Remember the days when the NFC rolled off 14 consecutive Super Bowl victories? Mighty teams such as the Bears, Giants, Redskins, Cowboys and 49ers dominated the league. Even the Eagles, though they never even made it to an NFC Champoinship game, fielded some great teams in those days. I remember growing up and watching some classic games between the Giants and Niners, or Giants and Redskins, or Giants and Eagles. And then there were those bloody battles between the Niners and Cowboys in the early 90;s; Steve Young vs. Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith running it up the gut. I remember Smith single-armedly (literally) leading the Cowboys to the NFC East division title against the Giants on the final day of the 1993 season. It was a tough loss for the men in blue, but it was an epic showdown. Truly the NFC was the varsity to the AFC's junior varsity.

So what in the blue blazes has happened to the NFC? As it stands now the Eagles are 13-1, the Falcons are 11-3 (though not as good as their record suggests), and the Packers and Vikings are 8-6. Everyone else in the conference is .500 or worse. What's more, the NFC has gotten absolutely shalacked by the AFC in head-to-head matchups. No NFC wild card team will sport better than a 9-7 record, and in fact at least one wild card team could be 7-9. The Seattle Seahawks, a rather pathetic team that has no defense to speak of, currently leads the NFC West with a staggering 7-7 record. Today I even heard serious talk on the radio here in DC of the 5-9 Redskins making the playoffs. You know what? They're right. If the Skins win their next two games, not an altogether outrageous proposition, then they have a pretty good chance at making the playoffs. Heck, the freaking Arizona Cardinals - THE ARIZONA CARDINALS - have a shot at the post-season.

Outside of the Philadelphia Eagles, there is simply not a dominating team in this conference. Even the Falcons have many weaknesses. In fact the best team in the conference outside the Eagles may be the Carolina Panthers, a team that started the season 1-7.

Switch to the AFC, and you see a completely different picture. Two teams, the Steelers and Patriots, are 13-1 and 12-1 respectively, and exhibit no glaring shortcomings other than the fact that the former has a rookie starting quarterback - a rookie that has yet to lose a professional game. The Colts and Chargers are each 11-3 and are currently sizzling. There is no better player in the game right now than Peyton Manning, who is simply unconscience at qb. He's got three - count them, three - receivers who will end the season with over 1,000 yards receiving and ten touchdowns each. Oh, by the way, they've also got the league's reading rusher in Edgerrin James. And did I mention the Jets are 10-4? In fact, if the Jets win out - again, not unlikely - the AFC may very well wind up with five teams with 12 or more wins. And with four 8-6 teams, there might very well be a team or two that finishes with 10 wins and still fails to make the playoffs. Not to mention a couple of very tough non-playoff teams such as the Bengals and Chiefs, and the AFC is quite simply whooping the NFC's butt this year.

So, my question is, what the hell happened? How did the NFC become the NFL's version of the NBA's Eastern Conference? How can an entire conference absolutely suck so bad? Okay, that's three questions. Still, truly disheartening for an NFC fan.


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Friday, December 17, 2004

Social Security scare-mongering

Jonah Goldberg has a column up on National Review online about Social Security. Truth be told it is not one of his best, but he does make this fair point:
It seems every time I turn on the TV or the radio, I hear some opponent of reform whining that we're tinkering with FDR's "legacy." Who gives a rat's patoot?
I have heard this refrain more than once, and he's right. Just because it came from the over-mythologized New Deal era does not inherently make the social security system good. If the status quo ought to be maintained, make reasoned arguments as to why.

Here is how one reader responded to Jonah:
When you get over attacking liberals maybe you can get around to disccusing some of the details of reforming Social Security. Such as transition costs of 2 trillion, when we have huge deficits. Or how can you trust the Bush administration to administer the reform when they have made a mess of everything they've done, especially in Iraq. And why would any adult listen to your propaganda when you and your ilk were so criminally wrong about WMD.
I find this response quite illuminating because it is quite indicitive of the liberal response to efforts at reform. It does appear that the main liberal talking point on social security is to bring up the red herring of WMD. "Bush lied to us about WMD, and now he's lying about social security." I normally dislike using overbroad caricatures of the left, but many of the left-wing blogs have expressly stated their intent to use this argument to discredit the administration. Josh Marshall blew a gasket earlier this week, taking a moment away from his Bernie Kerik obsession, to call Bush, essentially, a lying liar.

Even more amusing is the lead sentence:When you get over attacking liberals maybe you can get around to disccusing some of the details of reforming Social Security. It would be nice if liberals would be willing to do the same. Other than Michael Kinsley and our very own mouldfan, it appears as though the left is disinterested in engaging is substantive debate on the issue, and instead are in the midst of starting an emotion-based pr war. Even Publius, someone I generally respect a great deal, revealed the essence of the Democratic strategy. While I normally try to be rational, as a matter of political strategy, there's a very simple strategy that the Democrats should adopt - DEMAGOGUE THE HOLY SHIT OUT OF THIS PROPOSAL. Scream. Accuse. Attack. Crush them with it. Do as you have had done unto you. Maybe you might win something. He is not alone. Far from it. There is a concerted campaign to draw attention away from the real issues and play on people's fears. Funny, as this was what the left accused the Bush campaign of doing.

There are perfectly rational arguments against reform, and Kinsley and mouldfan have made them. There are also perfectly rational arguments that reform is necessary - one example being here. Hopefully we can have a healthy debate on this topic without resorting to blatant demagoguery. And that of course applies to both sides.

If I have to keep pumping 12% of my paycheck into some system, it would be nice to know I might actually get that money back. If the system as currently constituted cannot continue, then we need to scrap it, or at least reform it, pure and simple. But we will not be able to make that decision until we have a rational debate on the topic, and we will not be able to have that debate if one side so frightens the electorate that a discussion can't even get started.



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May the Force Be With You . . .After reading this

There are simply no words to describe this. I think I may have heard about the Star Wars Holiday Special, but thought it was just a joke. Oh no, it was real, and from this description, quite horrible. Evidently Lucas lost his mind before inventing Jar-Jar.

Update: Forgot the "equal" sign last time. Link should be working now.


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Wednesday, December 15, 2004

A conservative I'll miss (sometimes)

While those on both sides of the aisle would not doubt agree that he's exhibited a tendency to wander off the reservation in his old age, I think Safire's op-ed today offers a fairly well-reasoned look at on the all-too-controversial stem cell debate:

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/15/opinion/15safire.html?hp=&adxnnl=1&oref=login&adxnnlx=1103137742-W7U/oVFa6tUqu6VF4ELfnQ




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It was fun while it lasted

Well, so much for DC baseball, at least past 2005. The DC city council, in their infinite wisdom, decided at the last second to drastically alter the agreement they had with Major League Baseball.
The legislation was amended to require private financing for at least half the stadium construction costs, a provision not contained in the September agreement between baseball and Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams.

In all honesty I am not quite sure what to think of this. On one level, it is fair to request that half of the money come from a private source. Major professional sports' extortion of cities has got to come to an end. Surely these billionaires can dig into their own pockets in order to construct these stadiums.

On the other hand, it is fairly unethetical to change an agreement at such a late juncture. Moreover, Linda Cropp is doing nothing more than engineering a cheap political stunt in order to boost her mayoral prospects. Unfortunately for her it will blow up in her face as it costs the city a baseball team and it also derails a project which could be a major benefit to an area that is in desperate need of development.

Critics of public funding often cite studies which purport to show that these stadiums do not generate the economic benefit their supporters claim. While I am certainly skeptical of the notion that stadiums have an enormous economic benefit, I am also skeptical of these studies, none of which I have ever seen. If anyone can lead me in the direction of one of these reports it would be most appreciated, for I would be interested in studying their methodology. It seems preposterous to me that sports venues built in a non-developed area do not provide at least some long-term economic benefits to the community. All one needs to do is look at the MCI Center and its environs to note the positive affects of such development. Further, I assume most of these studies look at stadiums constructed in cities which already have a professional sports franchise. But DC currently does not have a major league baseball team, and they will not get one long-term if this plan remains altered. How many millions in tax revenue does the city plan to gain in income taxes on the players, the mangers, and all other employers of the team? It seems that alone over the years would cover the cost of the stadium. If I'm off in my estimates, then would not the added economic activity in the area also boost revenue?

Look, if I'm wrong on the above, show me. Let me see these studies. One thing I have learned is that quantitative studies are often highly flawed and contain many shaky assumptions.

But this is all besides the point. The city council has severely bungled this entire deal, showing itself to be the incompetent body we all knew it to be. Statehood? Yeah, right.

Of course Major League Baseball is not blameless. If they had not waited so damn long to name Washington as the new location for the Expos then we would have had much more time to iron out the details and look for sources of private funding. But first it had to placate Peter Angelos, and they dithered away precious time.

This whole affair is sickening on so many levels. Such is life being a major league baseball fan living in DC.


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Natural Law and the Constitution

Feddie over at Southern Appeal has what promises to be the beginning of an interesting discussion regarding the role of "natural law" in interpreting the Constitution. As I am sure that several of my co-bloggers would like to join in this discussion, I'll point out what I know. From what I can glean at this point, Feddie is arguing that the Ninth Amendment incorporated natural law principles into the Constitution and thus, any constitutional interpretation ought to take that philosophy into consideration though what he terms "Natural Law Originalism" (it may be that others, as he points to Justice Thomas, have coined this phrase, but I don't know if Thomas has ever used this exact phrase). Take a look at the post, because some of the comments thus far are quite interesting and should spur some heated disagreements. Feddie promises more on the subject, and I for one will eagerly wait for what he has to say before providing any of my own substantive commenting.



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Tuesday, December 14, 2004

State v. Peterson on appeal

First, I like Bashman's take on media idiocy over the Peterson sentencing jury recommendation: "I recall recently having heard a legal commentator remark on television that a death sentence might be good news for Peterson because it would increase the likelihood of reversal on appeal. Of course, on the other hand, it would also be bad news, in the sense that it increases the chance Peterson would be put to death by the State of California for having committed the crime of murder."

But, on a subject that could produce more conversation, I must first ask mouldfan's help with California law. (Beats looking it up myself.) My understanding is that Peterson was eligible for the death penalty because of the multiple victims: wife and unborn son. Is that right?

If that is correct, then his appeal could squarely present the issue of whether the state can criminalize the murder of a fetus by someone other than his mother and her abortionist. Now even pro-lifers should admit that there are obvious differences between a crime committed against a pregnant woman (yielding two victims) and your run-of-the-mill abortion. But how would the issue be presented? Would the argument be that Roe limits the kind of victim that could qualify as a "homicide"? That sounds like more of a common law argument (homicide being the killing of a human being by a human being), with Roe more in the background. Thoughts?


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Kerik's Immigration Flop Renders Him Unfit to Serve

Since former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik withdrew his nomination to be the next Secretary of Homeland Security on Friday, we have seen a lot of dirt fly. Indeed, much of what is now coming to light on a national scale -- rumors of Kerik's misuse of police resources, shady business deals, links to organized crime, and so on -- has been known, or at least has been alleged to be known, by journalists in the New York area for years. Those who have never liked Kerik have seized the moment to paint the man as a monster, and they are enjoying their fifteen minutes.

Let us assume, however, that the above allegations against Kerik are untrue -- call them a figment of a zealous press imagination. Let us further assume that the only thing Kerik technically did wrong was that he had hired an illegal alien several years ago as a live-in nanny and housekeeper. (This remains the official White House line. We shall see how long it lasts.) Let us also assume that it is true, despite some of the rumors that there is no housekeeper, and the mention of a housekeeper is a carefully crafted smokescreen to avoid the bigger problems. In my opinion, this alone should be enough to prevent Kerik from being placed in charge of this Nation's homeland security.

I'll bet some of you think that is a bit harsh. You probably think it is no big deal that he hired an illegal alien, since so many others do it. You probably think the American economy would grind to a halt of immigration laws were actually enforced. You probably also think something so minor as a violation of federal law should not prevent people from holding executive branch posts. And I will bet you also believe that no one should suffer the same fates as Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, the first two women who were nominated by Bill Clinton in 1992-1993 to be his Attorney General, but, like Kerik, were ultimately forced to withdraw their nominations because of previous illegal hires.

On all of the above, you would be wrong.

There is no more important duty of future homeland security officials than t0 strengthen and enforce this Nation's immigration laws. There is a growing undercurrent of realization among Americans that immigration is not only a part of the homeland security framework, but is in fact the single biggest issue within that framework, and that it needs to be addressed. These same Americans understand that (if I may make the point by analogy) you can have the fanciest state-of-the-art home security alarm system in the world, with all sorts of bells and whistles, but it is destined to fail if you do not keep your doors closed. (If you think I'm exaggerating about a growing nationwide sentiment in favor of enforcing immigration laws, check out this year's electoral battle over the anti-illegal immigration ballot measure in Arizona, or Congressman James Sensenbrenner's recent attempts to include immigration reform in the intelligence reform bill.)

Kerik's hiring of an illegal alien to (literally) do his dirty work speaks more about his lax view of current immigration policy than a thousand speeches on the subject. By hiring an illegal alien -- whose first official act in this country was to break the law -- Kerik essentially endorsed illegal immigration, and in so doing rendered himself unfit for service in this particular post (in much the same way Baird and Wood rendered themselves unfit to be the predominant law enforcers of the land by hiring their own illegal workers). Hopefully, the Bush administration will nominate someone on the second pass who not only thinks immigration issues are relevant to homeland security, but understands that they are essential to ensuring homeland security.


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Monday, December 13, 2004

Monday Night Ramblings

Mmmmm, 64 slices of American Cheese. 64 . . .63 . . .
. . .2 . . .1 . . . none

Homer, did you stay up all night eating cheese?

I think I'm blind


Some random thoughts they be a coming across this old cranium

Women's shoes: Look, I don't usually notice women's apparel. I could spend an entire day conversing with a member of the opposite sex, and at the end of the day if you asked me what she wore, I would probably respond, "Ummm, black?" But a few days ago I looked down and noticed that this woman was wearing a pair of shoes that looked like something the Iron Sheik would wear, save the toes were straightened out. Several days later I looked down again - and mind you this has nothing to do with a foot fetish I may or may not have - and noticed a similar pair. I swear these things had points so sharp they could kill a man a la Single White Female.

Sure enough, several months or days of exhaustive examination, and this seems to be some sort of fashion statement. A cursory examination of women's footwear reveals that your modern woman likes to wear:
a) shoes with points several inches long, indicating that perhaps women are some form of elfin creature. Perhaps Liv Tyler wasn't really acting. (BTW, Return of the King out on DVD tomorrow/today).
b)something resembling bowling shows. I had a college friend who liked to wear a pair she swiped from a Long Island bowling alley, and now six years later they seem to be all the rage.

This indicates, well, I am not really sure. Perhaps nothing more than that women are fucking insane. But we all knew that already.

John McCain:Well it looks like the famed Senator (R-Media) is at it again, criticizing the Secretary of Defense for God knows what. It's been about a month since he has said something that ticked off the party, and the distant light of some camera began to fade, so he needed to say something outrageous. McCain of course has given new definition to the phrase "making love to the camera" over the past several years. Some think this represents a brave independent streak, and perhaps there is something to that. After all I voted for the guy in the New York primary back in March of '00. Of course I instantly regretted the vote - but unlike my dad, the schmuck I voted for didn't win (ah bless my father, he went to the grave knowing the last person he voted for was William Jefferson Clinton. At least he knew it was a mistake).

There's something to be said about Congressmen acting independently of the President, even if he is a member of their own party. Yet Senator Blowhard seems to take exceptional joy in sticking the knife in (now I know who they got for the back cover art of the The Final Cut). And yet the man can hardly be considered a RINO. After all, he's more hawkish than George C. Scott's character in Dr. Strangelove. One gets the distinct impression that if you said the wrong thing to this man you would instantly be greeted with the cool edge of a knife at your throat. He's also reliably conservative on social issues and is a budget hawk. So what is up with this man?

Perhaps this in ingenious ploy to sucker a bunch of moderates voting for him. Oh yeah, act like some maniac independent, but when elected throw the gauntlet down and say, "FOOLED YOU!!!"

Senator Rodham: Which flows nicely into my next point. While McCain is sucking up to the left, suddenly the Senator born and raised in Illinois, who attended law school in Connecticut, lived as the governor's wife in Arkansas, and then as the first lady in Washington, DC, and then finally somehow got elected to the Senate in New York, has positioned herself to the right of Pat Buchanan (and damnit I thought of that comparison before anyone else) on immigration "I am, you know, adamantly against illegal immigrants." Holy crap!!!!!!!! Even I only oppose illegal immigration. Evidently Mme. Hillary would have us round up all the brown-skinned people and have them sent through that machine they used in the Another Brick in the Wall Part Two video.

In all seriousness, this is all part of the "Hillary Rambo Clinton for President" campaign. Of course she has declared that she is undecided about 2008. Excuse me I have something caught in my throat, coughcoughhorsehitcoughcoughdamneddirtyliarcoughcough.

Ahhh, better.

But of course a Clinton campaign gears up the Democratic party to recapture the White House.

Why I love Bill Clinton: Which leads me to my final point. Mention the name Clinton around your average Democrat, and they reach a semi-orgasmic state. (Seriously, some people are now having trouble with their keyboards). Whether centrist or left-wing socialist, Democrats are united in their undying admiration for the man (and wife) from Hope. All this party needs is a dash more Clinton, and all will be well.

This, quite simply, baffles me. This is like a Met fan pointing to the Juan Samuel trade as the salvation of their organization. Let's recap. Democratic party BC (Before Clinton): 38-year majority reign in the House, 32 of which they also had a majority of the Senate. A super-majority of state governorships, control of most state legislatures, and majority status in party id in the electorate. Democratic party after Clinton: what I just said, in reverse. But more than that. We all know that the party has taken a bit of a hit since the golden age of Clinton, but more importantly, the liberal ideology has been left for dead.

Where is Hillary running? To the right. Why? Because she has not a snowballs chance of winning the White House otherwise. The best chance the Democrats have of winning back the White House is someone who proclaims, "I am, you know, adamantly against illegal immigrants." And at that your prospects are at best 50/50.

More deliciously, the hero of the Democratic party is someone who once boldly declared that "the era of big government is over." And it is to this that the left turns for their last shot at glory.

Of course the conservative movement could do better. After all, it's not very encouraging when the president declares that it is government's responsibility to act whenever someone is hurting. But at least we don't have to ritually cleanse ourselves after defending our man and/or woman.

So you see, there's reason to be optimistic about this life after all.


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Welcome to Shea

All reports indicate that Pedro Martinez is set to sign with the New York Mets. All I can say is

YES! YES!!! YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Laugh if you will you lousy curs, but the Mets now have an absolutely solid pitching staff. For the love of God Victor Zambrano is the fifth starter - not too shabby.

Now all we need is a bullpen, and we're set. And a left-fielder than doesn't get hurt every day. And maybe a first basemen.


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Que triste!

http://www.cnn.com/2004/LAW/12/09/pickering.retires.ap/index.html


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Who the Devil Really Was

Good article today from Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek on the upcoming elections in Iraq. I generally share most of Zakaria's viewpoints on the Middle East, and his criticism of the handling of the Iraq war's aftermath has provided some interesting food for thought (he generally remains a supporter of the war, just not of some of the White House's policies). Anyway, he closes with this bit:
The current issue of Foreign Affairs has an exchange between two scholars, Tony Smith and Larry Diamond. Smith accuses Diamond, a longtime supporter of human rights, of making a "pact with the devil" by working (briefly) for the United States in postwar Iraq. Diamond, who had opposed the war, responds: "I do not regard the post-war endeavor as a pact with the devil. Let Smith and other critics visit Iraq and talk to Iraqis who are organizing for democracy, development, and human rights. Let them talk to the families that lived under constant, humiliating, Baathist rule. Let them see some of the roughly 300 mass graves of opponents of the regime who were brutally slaughtered in the hundreds of thousands. Then they will find out who the devil really was." I can't say it better.
Neither can I.


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The Politics of Personal Destruction

Just a quick note on the withdrawal of Bernard Kerik's nomination to Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), if everyone believes the story that he is withdrawing due to some "nanny issues," (I have no reason to believe this is not true, but some media outlets (CNN, FOXNews) have added "Iraq issues" to the reasons. For now, I'll stick to Kerik's own comments, which specifically mentioned only the unpaid nanny taxes) I think that demonstrates the shortsightedness of the 1993 GOP as they were in the midst of the quest that ultimately brought them to power in 1994. The same "scandal" that brought down Clinton AG nominee Zoe Baird, has now cost the nation arguably the leading candidate for what many consider the most important cabinet post in the United States. We may never know if Zoe Baird would have been a good AG, but Kerik's track record in high profile security related positions, in my opinion makes a pretty good case that he would have been an excellent Secretary for DHS.


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Friday, December 10, 2004

Conservatism on the firing line

That's the title from this op-ed piece from Robert Robb in today's Arizona Republic. It's a critical piece about the shape of the modern conservative movement, especially as it relates to the distinction between philosophy and practical tactics. There are a few points worth noting.
One of the main pillars of Buckley conservatism was a limited role for the federal government in domestic affairs.

George W. Bush openly professes to be a conservative. But rather than a limited role, Bush favors an activist federal government, only harnessed to serve conservative purposes.
This is true, and most conservative commentators have expressed their concerns about Bush on such matters. But then he quotes George Will:
George Will flatly says that we smaller-government conservatives are dinosaurs. And you get a sense of resignation in the air.
It's a bit odd to use Will when he has been one of the few conservatives seemingly willing to defend Bush's brand of big government conservatism. Perhaps Will has simply resigned himself to accepting Bush-style conservatism, but other than David Brooks, no other man of the right has so clearly defined Bush's effrots to utilize the government to achieve conservative ends.

At any rate, Robb goes on to critize the rise of pragmatism in conservative ranks.
In the current issue of National Review, the magazine Bill Buckley founded, Ramesh Ponnuru argues that conservatives shouldn't press too hard on tax reform. Success is doubtful, he maintains, and pushing for too much would be bad for the cause.

When conservatism was still learning to walk politically, National Review was hardly restrained by the art of the politically possible. If it were, it would have had nothing to say, since nothing was very politically possible for conservatives in those days.
Several points must be raised in regard to Ponnuru's story and its ramifications. First, it should be noted the Ponnuru has been one the staunchest conservative critics of Bush's domestic policies. Late last year he wrote a cover story that lambasted big government conservatism as practiced by George Bush, and called for a reduction in government spending. Second, Ponnuru adequately made the case that the sort of drastic tax reform that some conservatives seek to achieve is simply not possible under the current circumstances. It is better to attempt a milder bit of reform now in the hopes of doing something more at a later date - and the little bit now is not exactly insignificant.

It's also strange that a conservative should criticize other conservatives because of pragmatism. After all, is not conservatism a more pragmatic philosophy? Further, is there nothing to be said about conservatives not seeking a radical reform?

Finally, the line "When conservatism was still learning to walk politically" seems to acknowledge the fact that conservatism has indeed come to age, and now we are given the responsibility of actual governance. While I would hardly advocate abandonning our principles, we are now charged with a greater duty of practicing the art of what is possible. Of course Robb is right when he criticizes Bush for overreach, but can Bush be expected to do the complete opposite and attempt to radically re-shape the government? If he does so, Bush threatens to cost the conservative movement dearly.

It can be objected perhaps that Robb is talking more about conservative intellectuals, but even those not in the government cannot be faulted for offering pragmatic real-world advice. While it might seem attractive to sit on the mountain-top and offer fantastical advice about how to obliterate the administrative state, it's also a good idea to open one's eyes and realize that the public at large is not quite ready for such a transformation. It seems conservatives are charged with carrying out a two-pronged assault. We should of course attempt to sway more voters in the hopes of being able to eventually enact the more wholesale reforms that we desire. But it also seems we must accept current realities and encourage smaller reforms in the present age that will enable greater successes in the hopefully not-too-distant future.

We've come a long way, baby. That we can have such arguments in the conservative movement signifies that we are no longer the extreme minority, but we are not quite a majority yet either. Idealism is good, but a heavy dose of realism is also needed at this time.


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Thursday, December 09, 2004

Modern Journalism is the Pitts

As a conservative, I love talking to liberals, partly because I find their view of the world amusing at times. Invariably, our discussions of this and that brush on the topic of liberal media bias, which those same liberals, of course, adamantly deny exists. "No, the media are not biased. Why, they're probably more conservative than not. I mean, the New York Times is a conservative paper." Riiiight. Have you picked up your copy of Pravda West lately?

I think media bias against conservatives and Republicans (in that order) has almost reached a level of ubiquity that it is no longer a question of is there media bias, but how bad is it on a given day, or how many individual instances can one spot in a 24-hour timespan. It reached a heretofore-unknown crescendo during the recent presidential campaign, but it would be a mistake to think the left has taken its ball and gone home just because President Bush was re-elected. Far from it.

This week's flap over Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's answers to soldiers' questions is an example of the type of bias that many like myself view as pervasive. The veneer of the story is straightforward: an enlisted man stationed in Iraq asks Rumsfeld about an alleged shortage of vehicle and body armor, and ignites a firestorm about troop preparedness in the process. Simple enough, right?

The bias shines through if you are willing to scratch through the veneer. An e-mail sent by Edward Lee Pitts, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter embedded with the 278th Regimental Combat Team in Iraq, reveals that the question asked by the 278th's Specialist Thomas Jerry Wilson was a question given to him by Mr. Pitts. Far from being a spontaneous news occurrence that was promptly made available to readers and viewers the world over, it was a journalist brush fire that was lit by one reporter and fanned by others. In the strictest of senses, it is not really news; rather, it is what one reporter made happen because he wanted his interest of the day to be the story. It is real news in the same way that a fire started by an arsonist is a naturally occurring fire. It is a joke, and a violation of the journalist code to report what is.

Lest you misunderstand, I am not criticizing investigative journalism. I am generally in favor of honest, in-your-face investigative reporting because I think it keeps everyone on the up-and-up and serves as a hedge against corruption, laziness, and other shenanigans. But there is a distinction between reporters who report stories that are out there and need to be told and reporters who insist on making themselves the story. Our friend Mr. Pitts opted to do the latter, and in so doing did a little bit of damage to his field today.

Full lid, everybody. Have a good weekend.


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California Dreamin

Greetings and salutations from the "left coast," where the weather is warm and the people are beautiful... Anyway, cheers to Paul for picking up the posting slack. While I haven't had time to read all the posts and comments (damn dial-up connection), I did want to point out for everyone's enjoyment the new Judge Posner- Professor Becker blog. I think everyone is familiar with Judge Posner, but for those of you not up on your economics, Professor Gary Becker is a Nobel Laurate and one of the best there is. The blog looks very promising (early posts on Preemptive War) and hopefully I'll provide a perma link to the sidebar soon.


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Straussianism

This is a somewhat dated article (originally published in National Review in 1989) brought to my attention by a fellow Southern Appeal blogger. It still is a fairly good piece that attempts to put together the various pieces that make up conservatism, with special emphasis on the influence of Leo Strauss. And now that I've got unconfirmable's attention, enjoy.


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Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Paleoidiots

As if we need more proof that "paleoconservatives" have offically left the reservation and need be shunned, there are these charming missives from Samuel Francis and Pat Buchanan (the former via Volokh.) First there's Francis' words of wisdom on race in light of the Sheridan-Owens intro on Monday Night Football and the Jackson-Timberlake Super Bowl fiasco:

Like the Jackson-Timberlake performance, the Owens-Sheridan ad was interracial and brazenly so—if only morals and taste had been the targets, the producers could easily have found white actresses who are less obviously Nordic than the golden-locked Miss Sheridan, but Nordic is what the ad's producers no doubt wanted.

For that matter, if you only wanted to take a swipe at morals and taste, you could find a black woman to rip her towel off or replace Mr. Owens with a famous white athlete (there are still a few).

But that wasn't the point, was it? The point was not just to hurl a pie in the face of morals and good taste but also of white racial and cultural identity. The message of the ad was that white women are eager to have sex with black men, that they should be eager, and that black men should take them up on it.

So far only one voice has mentioned the ad's racial meaning and denounced its "insensitivity" (to blacks)—that of black Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy.

Blacks are permitted to notice race. Whites aren't.

But the ad's message also was that interracial sex is normal and legitimate, a fairly radical concept for both the dominant media as well as its audience.

Nevertheless, for decades, interracial couples of different sexes have been sneaked into advertising, movies and television series, and almost certainly not because of popular demand from either race. The Owens-Sheridan match is only the most notorious to date.


And then there's this from Buchanan on the Ukraine situation:
But, on election day, Yushchenko, like Kerry, lost by three, as the populous eastern Ukraine delivered the same huge margins for favorite son Yanukovich as did western Ukraine for Yushchenko.

Into the streets came scores of thousands of demonstrators, howling fraud and demanding that Yushchenko be inaugurated. Engaging in civil disobedience, and backed by the West, the crowds intimidated parliament, President Kuchma and the judiciary into declaring the election invalid.

John Laughland writes in the Guardian of the double standard our media employ:


Enormous rallies have been held in Kiev in support of the prime minister, Viktor Yanukovich, but they are not shown on our TV screen ... Yanukovich supporters are denigrated as having been "bussed in." The demonstrators in favor of Yushchenko have laser lights, plasma screens, sophisticated sound systems, rock concerts, tents to camp in and huge quantities of orange clothing; yet we happily dupe ourselves that they are spontaneous.


Laughland is saying the Yushchenko demonstrations may be as phony as that U.S-Albanian war in the Dustin Hoffman-Robert DeNiro film "Wag the Dog." He calls Pora "an organization created and financed by Washington," like Otpor and Kmara, which were used in Serbia and Georgia to oust leaders Washington wished to be rid of. Pora's symbol, writes Laughland, depicts "a jackboot crushing a beetle."

Racism, conspiracy theories, anti-Americanism, support for Russian authoritarianism: these are the hallmarks of paleoconservatism.

But yeah, we are the apostates.


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Sitting back and doing nothing

It's not often that a person objects to something they themselves wrote, but I think Ishould amend something I said a couple of posts back on my MNR. In it I subtly criticized Jefferson for sitting on the sidelines during the Revolutionary War, and that is unfair. It's the same criticism applied to conservatives who supported the war but do not in fact have to do the fighting. The fact is that, say what you will about Tommy Jeff, he served an important purpose during the war. Some people are cut out for military service, and others are not.

Having said that, my criticism of Jefferson's romantic view of revolution still stands. Again I could be called out for hypocrisy on the current war, but I do not revel in the bloodshed as does Jefferson. While my support of the Iraq war remains firm, it does not stem from an abstract desire for revolution.

It is said that we who support war are chickenhawks - meaning we are willing to send others to die for a cause when we are unwilling. This is a tough argument, and not completely unfair. After 9/11 I briefly flirted with enlisting, but chose not to because, well, let's just say I am not altogether fit for military service. I envisioned accidentally getting myself killed in basic training, and decided to leave the fighting up to those who actually can climb fences. It also strikes me as cold when we compare highway deaths to current combat deaths in Iraq to justify the deaths of over a thousand servicemen and women. I think it is fair to say that most of those who support war do not relish it. We do not have a bloodthirst that craves war. It is an unfortunate necessesity, but it is action that we believe justified. Now there has already been much computer ink spilt over whether this particular war was justified, and that is another debate. The question is whether we who pushed for the war are hypocrites for sitting back while other Americans die.

The simple fact of the matter is that our military men and women are volunteers who chose to enlist in the military. If war becomes necessary, it is they who have tacitly agreed to put their lives on the line in order to defend the Nation. Those of us sitting in our cushy couches can do nothing but thank them for performing this duty, acknowledge their heroism, and do what we can to support them. That we support the rationale for war does not imply that we (or most of us) relish war, or the deaths that result. We are not blind to the casualties that may result from the military action, but we think that the consequences of not taking action would be worse. Again, you may disagree with the assessment, but do understand that we do not take these decisions lightly.

Hopefully that clarifies the difference between Jefferson and his eagerness for bloodshed, and our reluctant acquiescence to the reality of war.


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Give me that old-fashioned morality

Lileks has a particularly on-target bleat up today. Some excerpts:
I am the last person to roam the streets in my Cotton Mather costume, and I've lost my enthusiasm for the adolescent glee that comes from pointing out other people's hypocrisies. All I have are my pathetic attempts to draw a distinction between private and public – that is, Howard Stern saying those oh-so-naughty! words on the public airwaves vs. Stern saying what he wants on subscription radio, or Hustler Honey sex-shows in the Superbowl half-time vs. private rentals from the satellite hot-mama feeds. I suppose it comes down to this: you should have to seek these things out instead of having them come to you. Otherwise the coarsening of the public arena continues unabated, and the good & decent fathers who fought hard for Howard Stern’s right to say shit – literally – find themselves without an argument when the billboard across from their kid’s elementary school uses the same words. Today’s crusading moderate is tomorrow’s prude.

. . .Anyway. From the most recent Entertainment Weekly, a review of “Wife Swap”: “Any show could force a vegan mom to live with a gun-toting dad . . . but this one does it with love. Adding to the fun of playing Who’s Crazier? (this week it’s tattooed punk rockers who take their kids for piercings vs. Southern Baptists who punish their daughter by making her write Bible verses) . . .”

Is it too late for me to vote for the family that takes the kids to a shop to have needles driven through their skin as slightly crazier. The proper response – and by that I mean the one right-thinking moderns are supposed to have, automatically – is that whoo-boy, they’re both nuts! Bible verses? Eww. Piercing the kids? Eww too, although, you know, ear piercing used to be considered odd, and, whatever. As if getting Junior an eyebrow ring is somehow as peculiar as making your daughter write “Love thy neighbor as thyself” a few hundred times
Gotta love it when he gets on a roll. Read the whole thing.


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