Monday, March 5, 2012

Shear Strength

It's always interesting to me when a political race is upended by something so crass, even Rick Santorum won't touch it.  Last week, the pride of Cape Girardeau said something so amazingly coarse, it tested the resolve of nearly all of the Republican candidates.

Sandra Fluke, a law student at Georgetown University, spoke before a Congressional hearing last Wednesday giving a statement supporting the inclusion of birth control and contraception into the proposed Federal health care system.    Now, no matter what your impression of Ms. Fluke's testimony might be -- I admit to being shocked that a year's worth of birth control cost over a thousand dollars  -- you had to figure some snide commentary was going to come from somewhere.

And somewhere it did: Thus spake Rush Hudson Limbaugh III:
"What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute.  She wants to be paid to have sex. She's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception....Can you imagine if you're her parents how proud of Sandra Fluke you would be?  Your daughter goes up to a congressional hearing conducted by the Botox-filled Nancy Pelosi and testifies she's having so much sex she can't afford her own birth control pills and she agrees that Obama should provide them, or the Pope.”
 Wow.  Let's double-check that.  Yep, he sure did say that.  And he didn't stop there.  In fact, he didn't stop until a critical mass of advertisers on his radio program pulled up stakes and hid in a bomb shelter.

Because of my past political tinkering, I must admit to not being shocked.   I'm not a fan of Rush Limbaugh.  I would call myself an occasional listener to the man over the last 20 years, so I am already familiar with many of his tropes, especially "illustrating the absurd with absurdity", which many non-regular listeners miss the point of.  Sometimes it's funny and thought provoking, such as his "phone call abortions" back in 1991, where he would sometimes say, "If I disconnect the caller before I answer it, was it still a viable phone call?" 

Limbaugh has, from time to time, claimed that his statements are cherry-picked by his enemies for maximum shock value, and that in order to understand him, you need to listen to the show for three weeks, and then pass your judgment.  And to some extent, he has a point. I've done the "three weeks" thing and understood what he meant by it.  Anyone in the political public eye is going to say things in certain contexts that would be considered offensive by the rest of us taken alone.  Politicians understand this, and certainly political entertainers (and let there be no doubt: he is an entertainer, not a journalist) understand this.  The shock value of such topics drive the business end of things. 

Limbaugh's problem, though, is that he doesn't necessarily know when to stop.  And that's when the public pins his ears back.  Kinda like now.  This isn't the first time Limbaugh has crossed the line (he probably pays to have the foul lines repainted every so often like a baseball grounds crew) and it won't be the last.  But I predict that very soon, Limbaugh and his lawyers will be learning a lot about libel laws in the near future.

It's a topic none of the remaining Republican presidential candidates want anything to do with.  I laughed out loud when Rick Santorum was asked about Limbaugh's weak apology to Ms. Fluke, and he said, "That's not my business."  Mitt Romney gave a typical Mitt Romney non-answer, "(That's) not the language I would have used, but I'm focusing on the issues that I think are significant in the country today, and that's why I'm here talking about jobs in Ohio."  (Ugh...excuse me while I get some ibuprofen for my whiplash injury).  Newt Gingrich said it was "silly" to suggest that Limbaugh speaks for Republicans.  (Ron Paul, lost somewhere in the Alaskan outback trying to find a state he can win, was apparently unavailable for comment.)

This entire spectacle wouldn't exist unless we, as a country, had some pretty conflicted ideas about sexuality.  The abortion issue is just the small tail-end of a larger problem the Republican Party has: blatant gender bias.  Of course Conservatives would scoff at a national health plan. After all, how expensive can condoms be?  That's their entire argument, right there.  Never mind that effective birth control for women is magnitudes of ten more expensive.  There is also the widespread notion that young men sleeping around are "virile" while women sleeping around were "sluts".  Heck, my dad recognized that quandary when he was in high school.  My Dad was frisky guy in his youth, and it was my mom who ended being the girl nice enough to take home to introduce to his parents. Pregnancy was a women's issue, and too many people still treat it as if it still is. 

Conservatives' entire platform on sex is based on one simple idea:  If you don't want to get pregnant, keep your thighs closed, or at the very least, "lie back and think of America."  Conservative men don't want to pay for sex in any fashion (it's not love, it's one conquest in an admirably long line of conquests), don't want to use condoms (it doesn't feel as good), and don't want to be bothered by whatever women they last had sex with turning up pregnant (they entrapped me for the child support).

Forget the entire health care debate/debacle for a moment.  Of course any Libertarian worth their salt would say, "we shouldn't have Federalized health care anyway" (even though directly unfair, anti-individual laws that would embarrass any Libertarian exist in nearly all states, and that gets no attention from politicians or media; or the widespread fraud in individual health insurance).  If we're going to have it, it needs to work right, equal protection under the law, and all that.  So if women can't have contraception, what can't men have?  Condoms?  Vasectomies?  That anti-sperm vaccine drug companies keep experimenting and failing with?  Antibiotics for venereal diseases (mens' own "morning after" pill)?

And does the Republican Party have the shear strength to endure its own internal debate between now and Election Day?  Pop your buttered popcorn, because this is political theatre at its nastiest.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Woken From My Nap by Iowa

It's 2012.  That means it's Election Season, a whole month earlier than last time because everybody is jealous of Iowa and New Hampshire having dibs.  So where does that leave us?

The Republicans finally started picking people for real in yesterday's Iowa caucus.  The candidates that have emerged all have momentum, and they couldn't be more different.  Mitt Romney is John McCain, just Republican enough to be a credible candidate and earn the "so-called-electable" title.  Rick Santorum blasted into the caucuses, sucking all the air out of the candidacies of Rick Perry (who went home to sulk) and Michelle Bachmann (who quit -- and she should have known in advance that the Republicans would only vote for a woman if there was no other evangelical choice).  It's left Newt Gingrich, the epitome of Beltway establishment, alive but damaged.

Then there's Ron Paul.  Oh my.  What do we do about Paul?  Initially written off as a stunt candidacy, his very real 21 percent has left both the Republican party and the media flummoxed.  Pasting him for his '80s newsletters, which we already knew about from '08) hasn't gain traction, so I'm starting to see negative codewords pop up in the media's reluctant coverage:  Extremist.  Isolationist.  Dangerous.  Beginning the drumbeat of doubt, the media are a bit upset that their favorite, Romney, hasn't had the free waltz into the nomination they were hoping.

On the other end of the candidate race, Gary Johnson finally got fed up with being ignored and jilted by both the media and his own party and has heard the siren song of a campaign as a Libertarian.  That's Big-L Libertarian, as in the Libertarian Party.  I don't know....if Johnson thinks he'll get more attention as a Libertarian, he's sadly deluded.  Remember the last Libertarian candidate?  I bet you don't.  The LP's fate when into more-bizarro-land by throwing Bob Barr (yeah, THAT Bob Barr, the Neo-Con from Georgia) at the wall to see if he would stick.  Okay, so you might have heard of him.  What about 2004?  His name was Michael Badnarik.  Before that?  Financial newsletter publisher Harry Browne, twice.  2000 and 1996 sucked up whatever wealth Browne had accumulated.  Before that?  Eeps, I almost forgot Alaska legislator Andre Marrou in 1992.  I dare you to pronounce it right on the first try.  Before that?

Ron Paul.  Funny how everything old is new again.

2012 promises to be a barn-burner of a race.  I just hope whoever wins doesn't make my life worse.

Monday, October 31, 2011

For Some Reason, I don't Find Occupy Wall Street Compelling

Good evening, dear friends!  It's been awhile since I have spouted off in an ignorant, uneducated fashion about things going on in the country.  When last we spoke, the country was playing chicken with the debt.  That was averted, and at least the appearance of serious discussion has been set in front of the national political stage, a bit like those plastic transparencies we stuck to the screen of our Vectrex video game system to give it color where none existed in its native format.

This Occupy Wall Street thing has been lingering around the edges of my awareness for a few weeks now.  I must admit, the St. Louis Cardinals making their absurd run since the end of August, when they were 10½ games out of the wild card, to now, as 2011 World Series champions, has been much more compelling in my mind than the Occupy protestors.  Now that baseball season is finally over here in Cardinal Nation, I found myself wondering idly earlier today what this Occupy Wall Street thing was actually all about.  I didn't buy the typical dismissal of the Occupy protests by conservatives, and the mainstream media seemed confused as to how to present them.

So I let myself wonder out loud, via Facebook.  I didn't even really voice an opinion at first.  Rather, I had found an article on Yahoo News suggesting that "1 percent" is a matter of perspective.  The article was titled "Attention Protestors: You're Probably Part of the 1 Percent", and it was originally published on The Motley Fool, a prominent Internet-only financial news site.  The article stated what, if we all sat down and thought rationally for a moment, would be obviously apparent to everyone:  Americans have it pretty good, compared to the abject dirt-and-trash level existence suffered by about 50 percent of the rest of world's population.  Now, one could take this a couple of different ways.  You could take it for what it is, which is an article that puts our real economic situation into perspective.  Kinda like the other web site another friend of mine posted to Facebook that purports to demonstrate how many slaves one has working for them (what portions of your lifestyle products feed actual slavery and bonded servitude around the world, which we'll all agree is way worse than nearly everything in America).

The other way to take my posting of the article is to interpret it as an attack on Occupy Wall Street.  (Gee, defensive much, guys?)  Conservatives, after all, have used the economic state of global citizens as a method for telling liberals and progressives to sit down, shut up, and eat their broccoli.  As Garry Trudeau recently had a character say in his comic strip, Doonesbury, "Eat your heart out, Bangladesh".  In the context of the common conservative trope, it is yet another suggestion that we have the richest poor people in the world.

That's not how I intended it, but I think that's how it came off.  A couple other friends replied suggesting this, and I got to feeling a little defensive, so I reminded them that I was just posting the link to the article, not passing judgment.  They said, 'It's all cool, Dave', and so I said, 'Okay, I'm cool'.

Then I messed up and opined.  Here's what I wrote:

I do think it serves as a reminder that we are, in fact, in the US, where it's pretty much illegal to be as poor as the rest of the world. If some slum lord tried to have people living like that, they'd be fined and/or arrested and their property taken and torn down.
The problem with the whole "1 percent" idea is that it's an easily assailable slogan. All slogans are assailable, ultimately, because real life is complex. What do the Occupy protestors want, if anything? For life to be fair? Heh, good luck. To halt government bailouts? I can get behind that one. To introduce more regulation into the financial industry? I can probably support that too. But what *do* they want? I don't really know, myself. Maybe I'm just not paying close enough attention.

Jon Bernhardt of The Lothars (one of the theremin-oriented bands I play on my Internet radio program, Spellbound) pointed to a couple excellent bits.  One, the aforementioned Doonesbury strip.  Two, a very good blog on Rolling Stone explaining the main issues the Occupy Wall Street crowd have, which relate largely to corporate bailouts, something that as a Libertarian I can get behind.  But in my reply to those, I warned about the self-broadening phenomenon that initially focused protest movements suffer:

I agree, that was very enlightening (except the part about capital gains rates, I agree with all of it). Unfortunately, I think that the majority of the protestors out there don't know about even half of that stuff. That Rolling Stone article illustrates the issues with any protest movement. In a sense, it's the same reason why the Tea Party got switched onto the GGG track so quickly: When you have protests, you can't pick and choose who shows up. The ugly truth is, there *are* a lot of people attaching themselves to Occupy Wall Street who are driven by envy and entitlement. Not *all* of them. Probably not the organizers. But when you're protesting, you want a good turnout, and you're probably not looking too closely at what every individual is saying, just like the racist nutcases who attached themselves to the Tea Party and ended up dragging it off to Uber Conservative World.

As for the *real* core issue, it takes a lot of fortitude and maturity for a Libertarian to say this: Sometimes regulation is necessary. TARP was stupid, and yet it was pulled off as a bipartisan effort. The housing bubble was several corrupt schemes and political pies in the sky that conspired to harm everyone. All those bailouts are scandalous. I don't begrudge investors for taking risks, but I am against whining when the risks don't work out. But then, it's not that simple: where did the money they gambled come from? The problem with banks making risky investments is that there's a lot of the *99 percent's money* in there. Then what?

Just like it got too easy to throw rocks at the Tea Party, it's going to get too easy to throw rocks at Occupy Wall Street. And pretty much for the same reasons.
My friend's reaction to this was basically, I didn't know what I was talking about.  He said it in a nice way, of course, saying that unless I'd been to Occupy Wall Street protests to talk to those people, it was improper for me to speculate on what they did or did not know about the supposed reasons for the protest.  That's a fair statement.  No doubt, activist Libertarians are accused of the same type of self-centeredness and self-interest that many attribute to the Occupy Wall Street people. 

Then he ruined it by suggesting the Occupy Wall Street crowd was being slandered by the corporate-controlled media.  I had to consciously let that one pass, because truthfully, the only way you can get a conservative bias out of the mainstream media is if your primary source of news is Mother Jones.

The other suggestion, subconscious or otherwise, is the implication that this movement, Occupy Wall Street, is in no way related or similar to that other "movement".  Everyone at Occupy Wall Street protests are sufficiently educated about the systematic cheating built into the financial sector, and its obscene dance with the government, that there are apparently no hangers-on.  There aren't the "typical" left-wing activists behind it all.  This is a true grassroots movement, no Astroturfing here.

Not like the Tea Party.  Oh no, not at all.

Since I am neither a conservative nor a liberal, I can see the absurdity of this suggestion.  You can't have a protest movement without picking up people around the fringes.  The Tea Party started off noble too, but quickly devolved into ultraconservatism in the guise of a grassroots movement.  The progressives, of course, pointed to the badly-written, frequently racist signs some protestors carried and said that the Tea Party were simply showing their true colors.  I'm not a fan of the Tea Party either.

Although I do find it highly ironic that both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street came from the same place: anger over the financial sector's coziness with the Feds.

We all know what happened to the Tea Party.  Will the same, but opposite, thing happen to Occupy Wall Street?  Another friend posted a link to a document called "The 99 Percent Declaration".  I have no idea if this document is representative of the Occupy Wall Street movement or not, but it does serve to illustrate my point precisely, which is that no matter what you were protesting about when you started, you don't always have control over who joins and where your movement goes after it's too large for you to control.

This "declaration" contains a proposal for a "national general assembly", with three people representing each Congressional district in the nation, for the purpose of "redressing grievances" (this is, of course, from the 1st Amendment -- they're saying that this group will be the vehicle for presenting their proposals to Congress).  The first three sections of the document explain how all this will work mechanically.

Then there is a list of "suggestions" on what grievances might require redressing.  Libertarians will find this a mixed bag.  They include (with my libertarian answer in (parentheses):
    • Banning all campaign contributions and replacing it with taxpayer funding of elections. (No)
    • Reversal of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which held that corporations were people, and therefore had Constitutional rights, and that campaign contributions constituted protected speech (Yes)
    • A "separation of corporation and state" concept, including time mandates on how long public servants must forgo corporate gifts from industries they regulated (Maybe)
    • Term limits for Congress (Maybe)
    • Overhaul of the Federal tax code to be a progressive tax with no loopholes, deductions, credits, and subsidies (Maybe)
So, some of these are things that Libertarians could get behind.  Yes, I know many are likely to chafe at the tax thing, but keep in mind that the tax code is so badly wonked out at the moment that nearly anything would be an improvement, and there have been many thoughtful, well-defended arguments for a progressive income tax, so long as it peaks somewhere reasonable (e.g. 25 percent is reasonable, 70 percent is not). Likewise on the corporation thing:  You can't arrest a corporation, put it in jail, or execute it.  Therefore, it's not a person and doesn't have 1st Amendment rights.  It's made up of people, who individually have rights, but a corporation isn't a person, period.

Then, it just goes off the rails:

    • A single-payer universal health care system
    • Environmental protection
    • Debt forgiveness
    • Jobs for all Americans
    • Student loan forgiveness
    • Illegal immigration amnesty
    • Ending of perpetual war for profit.  That's exactly what is says.  Their words, not mine.
    • Public education reform, including elimination of "tenure"
    • Prohibiting companies from outsourcing jobs
    • A section on banking and securities reform (which actually is germane to the debate), including introducing VAT on financials and taxing capital gains as work income.
    • A moratorium on home foreclosures
    • Abolishing the Federal Reserve
    • Abolishing the Electoral College
    • Ending the War in Afghanistan
What's wrong with these?  Well, except for the bit about banking and securities reform, and possibly the Federal Reserve, these have absolutely nothing to do with what Occupy Wall Street is purportedly about.  Instead, it reads as if someone felt that this "99 percent declaration" looked a bit empty, and copy-pasted the Socialist Party platform into it.

I was told that this doesn't happen.  The Occupy Wall Street protestors are protesting Wall Street cheating.  Perhaps this "declaration" is some rogue document, people using Occupy Wall Street imagery for their own ends.  Which then, alas, proves my point precisely.  Regardless of what the organizers want Occupy Wall Street to be, it will inevitably devolve into a sort of "uber-liberalism". 

Just like the Tea Party, but opposite.  Mark my words.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Democrats and Republicans Play Chicken on the Debt

It's probably a really scary time to be a Congressman.  The Federal debt has gotten to the point where they can't just talk it away for a little while longer.  Everyone with a brain knew we would get to this point eventually.  Sovereign debt is taking down countries in Europe....Greece, Italy, and Portugal are a harbinger of things to come.  China, holding massive amounts of American debt, is getting nervous, and if you're feeling really cynical/paranoid/depressive, the reality of the Fallout universe's Resource Wars and an invasion of Alaska is just a tiny bit less nutty than it was a few years ago.

What's going on in Congress right now should startle just about everyone.  House Republicans are ready to drive the country off the cliff just to prove their point.  Senate Republicans are ready to give Obama a blank check.  Democrats, to their credit, are coming around to reality just in time but running up against the House Republicans' line in the sand: tax increases.

In this deranged calculus, the House Republicans are the most wrong on one thing: closing tax loopholes and eliminating tax credits do not constitute a "tax increase", no matter how much they bleat about it.  Incredibly, they still seem to think that giving away the farm to wealthy corporate interests will magically turn the economy around, when it's plain to everyone with a brain that American corporations only see Americans as fit to buy their crap, not to work to make it, and so as long as the banks are insane enough to keep extending credit card debt to people, American corporations seem content to export all the manufacturing jobs to China and import all their cheap plastic crap for us to buy on credit.

GE is only the worst, most egregious case of absurdly twisted tax policy.  Earlier this year, it was revealed to the world that GE, in spite of making $3 billion in profit in 2010, paid no income tax on it, and additionally received $5 billion in tax credits.  They cleared $8 billion in takehome pay last year.  Let's see, if you made $60,000 last year, then 133,333 households just like you (about a half million men, women, and children) would have had their income covered by what GE took home free and clear last year.  Most corporations didn't make off like bandits this blatantly, but with $1.1 trillion in available tax credits in the Federal tax code, it's safe to say that many did.

It is not my goal to provoke class warfare or hatred of corporations.  Honestly, society doesn't need my help for that anyway.  And in a practically managed world, I would not bregrudge anyone lower taxes.  Taxes, after all, are one of the biggest sins against liberty in the government playbook.  But the world is not practically managed.  Only now, on the brink of economic disaster, is anyone questioning the wisdom of continually driving up the Federal debt.  Except the insane House Republicans.

What are we to do?

First off, the House Republicans must concede one plain fact:  Stop insisting that eliminating a tax credit is a tax increase.  A tax credit is a bribe.  No entity, whether it's a corporation or an individual, should be in a position to pay no taxes and receive tax credits, period.  If taxation is theft, then receiving more back in tax credits than one pays in taxes is theft from all of us.

Once that occurs, everything else will fall into place.  Democrats have already signaled that they will be willing to concede on social welfare spending.  Everything else that the Republicans want -- hard spending caps, a Balanced Budget Amendment, a real debt reduction time line -- is fine by me, so long as it's not bolted onto repressive, bigoted "social riders".  Let gay marriage and abortion go.  It's not important at this point.  To insist on anything more than that is to be irresponsible legislators who deserve to be voted out of office.  

The Tea Party has one last chance to get it right.  Personally, I think they'll blow it.  Then, in the words of Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation, "May whatever God you believe in have mercy on your soul."

Monday, July 4, 2011

Why the Constitution Matters (But States' Rights is a Sham)

As a Libertarian, I value individual liberty.  All liberty, not just the liberty I approve of.  This is what separates Libertarians from Conservatives these days.  You see, Conservatives gleefully adorn themselves with the raiments of liberty when it suits them.  Freedom of "my speech", freedom of "my religion", and so forth.  One of their common rallying cries is "States' Rights".

If people truly valued liberty, states' rights would be a consistently good and happy thing.  In the face of an increasingly powerful Federal government, states' rights is an important check and balance in the application of government.  There are many ways to get things done, and the people in Washington DC don't have a monopoly on smarts.  When it comes to government services, such as Medicare and Medicaid, sometimes it makes sense to leave it to the states to decide for themselves what they are willing to provide to their citizens with their tax money.  

Just cutting out the loop between paying Federal taxes and the Feds giving money back to the states to do things would improve the efficiency of such services.  The main objection to this idea from the Left is that services would not be uniform:  Some states might give "adequate" benefits while others act chintzy and give "less than adequate" benefits, so we need the Federal government to ensure that everyone has the same opportunity to receive aid.  Liberals fear a "race to the bottom" for the quantity and quality of government services, as states with richer benefits bear the brunt of migration of the disadvantaged into their jurisdictions.  This itself is a consequence of a common Conservative response, "if you don't like it, move".  Liberals then point out that the people most likely to need aid are those least able to move in the first place.

This argument is based purely on the basis of equal access, which in itself is a sound government principle, at least in theory.  The 14th Amendment's primary showpiece is the "equal protection" clause:

"No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

What this says, straight out, is that states can't violate people's rights any more than the Feds can.  And yet, we see on a near-continual basis efforts by state legislatures to limit people's rights and liberties.  The argument for it?  Yep, "states' rights".  Where does this idea come from?  It comes from earlier in the Constitution, namely the Tenth Amendment:

"The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

The original idea behind the inclusion of this Amendment was a fear by the Anti-Federalists (folks like Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and George Mason) that the Constitution would contain more power than was prudent for America's central government.  A prescient concept, as we can see from subsequent history.  Even before the ink was dry on the whole thing, we were dealing with limits on freedom such as the Sedition Act, championed by that paragon of liberty, John Adams.  He has the dubious distinction of being just the first of many politicians whose tune changed after being elected to power.

Here are some examples of abridgement of liberty at least partially defended by the "states' rights" argument:

* The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and the subsequent Supreme Court  decision Dred Scott v. Sandford, which held for the protection of Southerners' "property" throughout the country.

* The "separate but equal" principle of state-imposed racial segregation, based on Plessy v. Ferguson.  Several states passed Interposition Resolutions proclaiming that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 violated states' rights.  Those Federal statues also struck down state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

* Arguments for state laws that limit womens' access to abortion frequently cite States' Rights, or conversely arguments against Federal laws preserving abortion rights (e.g. Ron Paul's positions on the issue).

* Blocking the closure or consolidation of National Guard installations during the 1993 Defense rollbacks.  (Of course, this did not inspire states to take over their funding.)

* State laws against consensual sex acts (so-called "sodomy laws"), which were used overwhelmingly to punish homosexuals.  These were struck down by Lawrence v. Texas in 2003.

* Current battles over same-sex marriage in opposition to the Reciprocity Clause.  The Defense of Marriage Act is an example of a Federal law giving states permission to discriminate and infringe rights.

* Many local battles over church-state separation have hinged on pro-church advocates citing states' rights in cases where non-Christian religions are subject to discriminatory legislation.  In her book, Pagans and the Law, lawyer Dana Eilers documents numerous past state and local laws and ordinances denying tax-exempt status to Neo-Pagan congregations.

In his "It's a Free Country" blog, Alec Hamilton quotes Constitutional scholar and University of Texas law professor Sanford Levinson saying,

There is a prevalent paradigm that Democrats like centralized power while Republicans favor states’ rights, but closer inspection does not show this to be always the case. Many of those who favor states’ rights over regulation of marijuana, for example, identify as Democrats. Levinson has an explanation: 'Federalism arguments are often opportunistic. It really depends, often on what the issue is.'

Because of this, I think it is crucial that Libertarians avoid using States' Rights principles in their arguments against restrictive Federal or state laws.  States are no more noble than the Federal government is.  Sure, it's tempting to attempt to address a Federal-level infringement by trying to exempt your state from its influence.  But cannot liberty stand on its own, without appealing to a concept that has been used so many times to take freedom away from people?

If a liberty is worth defending, it is worth doing so on its own merits, not by appealing to an argument so flawed that it can be used with equal ease to take liberty away.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why You Should Support Gary Johnson, and not Ron Paul

Ron Paul has done a lot of good for the Republican Party and for Libertarians.  Of the entire population of Libertarians in the country, he is the only person to be elected to Congress and vote (mostly) like a Libertarian.  Dr. No has voted more like a Libertarian than any other member of Congress.  He is a hero of the Libertarian movement.

And now I am asking you to let him go.  His time is past.

Instead, I'm going to ask you to support Gary Johnson.  A two-term governor of New Mexico, he has talked the talk and walked the walk in a heavily Democratic state, without the fatal fiscal flaws of Mitt Romney, and without the ugly social agenda of most of the rest of the field.  Like Ron Paul, he is a true fiscal conservative, having balanced New Mexico's budget within his first two years of office, and maintained a surplus the other six years.  He reduced the size and scope of state government in New Mexico.  Like Ron Paul, he sees the folly of the War on Drugs, considering it a horrible waste of Federal resources and willing to look for other solutions.  Like Ron Paul, he opposes interventionism in the rest of the world, choosing to win hearts and minds through trade and by setting an example for the rest of the world, instead of treading around the world militarily.  And he has an overriding pragmatism that makes it seem as if he could accomplish what he wants to do.  As a border governor, he has a sane, practical position on immigration.

How does he differ from Ron Paul?  For one, he's younger.  Ron Paul, bless his heart, is now 75 years old.  Simply put, if he were ever to make significant inroads towards the nomination, his age will be made a factor.  Gary Johnson is 58 and an accomplished triathlete.  Nobody would doubt his health.

Two, Johnson has been a state governor.  He has been a government executive, and has experience in leading.  Ron Paul has done an admirable job as a Representative in Congress, but as an outsider in his own party, he has not chaired important committees, led coalitions, or had to sit in the big chair where the Buck Stops Here.  I realize that the debate over governor vs. legislator has been inconclusive in recent years.  But it is worth noting that since Eisenhower (the last military figure to be elected), more presidents have been governors (Johnson, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, W. Bush) than not (Kennedy, Nixon, H. W. Bush, and Obama...not counting Ford, who wasn't elected) and one could argue that they were all more successful presidents (yeah, even Carter, as amazing as it sounds).

Three, Johnson has founded and run a sizable business.  He founded Big J Enterprises, a construction firm, and built it to a major enterprise with over 1000 employees. Sure, Ron Paul has practiced medicine for decades, but that's a far different economic perspective. 

Four, Gary Johnson doesn't (yet) have ugly inconsistencies in his record.  In the 2008 race, it was revealed that some of Ron Paul's newsletters in the 1980s contained some questionable racebaiting.  Yes, Ron Paul addressed that issue multiple times, and most of the people who know him assure us he's not a racist, but it's still sitting out there for him to be beaten over the head with. While Ron Paul usually voted in a non-interventionist fashion concerning social issues, in spite of being personally pro-life, he co-sponsored the Sanctity of Life Act in 2007, seeking to establish at the Federal level that life begins at conception.  He also inserted himself into the same-sex marriage row by co-sponsoring the Marriage Protection Act, also in 2007, which would limit the Federal courts' role in determining the state reciprocity of same-sex unions.  Now, I realize that these issues are divisive even among libertarians, and Paul's stances were the product of a defense of States' Rights, but in my mind, libertarianism is about freedom for all Americans, not delegating loss of freedom to the States.

Finally, there is the ugly business of his endorsement of Chuck Baldwin for president in 2008.  Baldwin was the Constitution Party (formerly U.S. Taxpayers Party) nominee. Initially, he made an "open endorsement of all of the third-party candidates (also including Libertarian Bob Barr, Green Cynthia McKinney, and independent Ralph Nader), but after being pressed by Barr to take a position, chose to endorse Baldwin.  The Constitution Party is an ultra-conservative party that advocates strongly socially conservative positions, including active intervention against civil rights.  Although they profess similarities in fiscal and foreign policy, they are quite plainly interventionist concerning individual rights, especially concerning sexuality issues.  Unlike Paul's professed stances, they support Federal bans on abortion (without exception for rape or incest), same-sex marriage, and assisted suicide.  They support the War on Drugs, a Federal upholding of state laws criminalizing consensual sex practices, and curbs on immigration.  Perhaps Paul meant the endorsement as a "screw you" to Barr (himself not much of a Libertarian), or maybe it was a favor back for the Constitution Party's endorsement of Paul in 2004, but it's still a connection we can do without.

Most of Paul's present support is based on his groundbreaking campaign in 2008, but his time is past and there's a better candidate that many more people can get behind.  Spread the word to all Ron Paul supporters that Gary Johnson is a better Ron Paul than Ron Paul.



Sunday, June 12, 2011

Moving here from LiveJournal

Greetings!  I am David V, and this is my political blog, The Moderate Libertarian.  I've moved here from LiveJournal, after they finally aggravated me too much.  I'll be moving all of my articles from there over to here eventually.  I'm not expecting anyone to read this blog, but if you do, be sure to let me know what you think.  Discourse is what drives constructive change in our society.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

What is in the Federal Budget?

What, exactly, do we spend money on? Many people float from paycheck to paycheck having little idea where their money goes, while others can tell you to the penny exactly where the money goes and when it goes there. What about the Federal government? If you ask most people what we spend money on as a country, you'll find a mixed bag. So just in case you didn't know, here's a breakdown of the 2010 Federal budget.

Here are the top 10 spending categories in the 2010 budget, according to Wikipedia:

  1. Social Security: 19.6%
  2. Dept. of Defense: 18.7%
  3. Unemployment and welfare benefits: 16.1%
  4. Medicare: 12.8%
  5. Medicaid: 8.2%
  6. Interest on the National debt: 4.6%
  7. Dept. of Health and Human Services: 2.2%
  8. Dept. of Transportation: 2.0%
  9. Dept. of Veterans Affairs: 1.5%
  10. State Department: 1.5%

In theory, Social Security should be a self-funding system (it's not in reality, but let's pretend for a moment), so we can debate whether or not to include it in the list. If we choose to leave it off, then #10 becomes the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development at 1.3%.

That up there is $3.5 trillion. Most people can't really wrap their brain around a number like that. The exact number is about $3,552,000,000,000.00. Powerball can't touch that. The Federal income for the same period was about $2.4 trillion. So that's a deficit of $1.1 trillion. We overdrew our bank account by frickin' 60 percent.

How on earth are we supposed to balance that?

Well, for starters, we need to plug the holes in the tax code that permit immensely profitable corporations like GE to receive tax credits of $3.2 billion and simultaneously paying $0.00 tax on their yearly profit of $5.1 billion. That's $8.3 billion in profit, then, actually. If we did that with 1000 corporations, we would balance the budget. I'm *not* proposing raising taxes, or even permitting past tax cuts to lapse. I'm talking about just plugging the loopholes that GE's nearly 1000-employee tax department mines to enrich itself. Of course, GE is extraordinary. Most companies in fact don't make off like bandits that badly. But the bottom line is that if you made a profit, you had better not have gotten back more than you paid in. And I'm specifically not proposing to *cut* taxes. Look: $14 trillion. That's our debt. The majority of it is held by China. Think about that.

Tax credits must go. I'm not talking about tax deductions, which are more like not adding insult to injury. You needed to spend some money on important things, and the government decided not to tax that amount. Tax deductions are okay. Tax credits, on the other hand, are simply bribes from the Feds to induce particular behavior they wish to have occur. I've received tax credits of $1200 for my family to spend to stimulate the economy. Granted, that's money I probably would not have spent otherwise. But that's not always the case. I got $400 back on my taxes because I had to buy new garage doors last summer. They cost $1500 and I would have bought the $1500 doors regardless of whether or not the Feds paid me for it. I also got some money for going to grad school, which again, was money that would have been spent anyway. Yes, I took the tax credits. Nearly all people who are offered them will take them. Corporations will certainly take them.

Some people took the money and put it in savings. Some people took the money and spent it on idiotic things. Corporations do the same thing, but since they have paid lobbyists and know how to work Congress, they can persuade Congress to pass laws that grant tax credits that just happen to be what corporations are already doing, except now they get money from the Feds instead of having to spend their own money, which improves their bottom line to the stockholders. Unfortunately, I can't find a figure for total tax credits paid out to individuals and corporations.

Obviously, there will need to be cuts in unemployment and welfare benefits. There will need to be cuts in Medicare and Medicaid. It will hurt people, but there's simply no alternative. We must also cut the military and defense spending, homeland security, and the War on Drugs. This will also hurt people. There is no way to get through this mess without hurting people. Because if we ever default on our debt, things will get much, much, much worse than they have been and are now, and many, many more people will be hurt.

In reality, every single part of the Federal government will need to be cut. But it needs to be done evenly and without the vindictive "social riders" that advance narrow moral agendas. If we're going to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood and PBS, we also need to eliminate funding for the DEA. If we're going to defund the EPA, we need to defund the ATF too. And we will need to do this for an extended period of time. We can't be permitted to just reduce the deficit. That's not good enough. We can't congratulate ourselves with just balancing the budget. We would need to run a $100 billion surplus for over 140 years in order to pay down the Federal debt.

And that's just the Federal government's debt. That's not counting state and local debts. We've wanted the government to give us stuff to make our lives easier, to soften the blow of bad things happening, or to impose our morality on others. That stuff doesn't come free. But I'm afraid we're all still so deeply in denial that the Federal debt debacle can only end in complete, unmitigated disaster, because we are unwilling to do what it takes to live within our means.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Birthers' Reprise, Budget Battles, and the Hijacked Tea Party

If I was looking for a reason to not vote for Donald Trump for president, he handed it to us all last week, once again jumping into the "birther" conspiracy with both feet. This has been a fascinating, if interminable, debate, one that is important to Constitutional law, but good grief, this has run its course. For those of you living under a rock over the last three years, the basis for the argument is that Barack Obama is not a natural-born citizen, i.e. passed into being in the United States of America proper, and therefore is ineligible to be president. Never before in our nation's history has this ever been brought up with a previous president -- shall I point out, any white president with a white-sounding name. But the prospect of having a black president with an African and/or Middle-Eastern name, whose father was a Muslim? In a post-9/11 America, that's just too much for some people to swallow.

The theory that Barack Hussein Obama was not born in Hawaii has followed a pretty tangled path, and both PolitiFact and FactCheck have attempted to sort it all out in a non-partisan fashion. Both organizations are documented to be scrupulously non-partisan and not, as some folks have suggested, Democratic shills. Part of what seems to be feeding the conspiracy angle on this is that Hawaii is a heavily Democratic state, and that their state functioning would do nothing to undermine their candidate. Whether by being in on the deception, or simply unwilling to look for possibly finding something that would challenge them, the broad suggestion is that the state government of Hawaii is in on it.

So let's quote FactCheck's summary on the issue: " staffers have now seen, touched, examined and photographed the original birth certificate (the birth certificate issued to Obama in 2007 by the state of Hawaii --ed.). We conclude that it meets all of the requirements from the State Department for proving U.S. citizenship. Claims that the document lacks a raised seal or a signature are false. We have posted high-resolution photographs of the document as 'supporting documents' to this article. Our conclusion: Obama was born in the U.S.A. just as he has always said."

They also pat their PolitiFact colleagues on the back, pointing out their summary: "It is possible that Obama conspired his way to the precipice of the world's biggest job, involving a vast network of people and government agencies over decades of lies. Anything's possible. But step back and look at the overwhelming evidence to the contrary and your sense of what's reasonable has to take over. There is not one shred of evidence to disprove PolitiFact's conclusion that the candidate's name is Barack Hussein Obama, or to support allegations that the birth certificate he released isn't authentic."

The remaining doubts not answered here are a combination of unsubstantiated hearsay (Obama's childhood friend recalls him talking about growing up in Kenya or Indonesia) and flat out James-Bond style espionage. I've been told that if an impartial person went into the document archives in Hawaii, they would find a perfectly formed original long-form birth certificate that says all the right things and looks genuine. Of course they would, because the CIA has ensured that will be the case by planting a perfectly forged instrument that says what they want it to say. They also replaced all the microfiche for all the various archives of the Advertiser and Star-Bulletin newspapers -- every little city and school library in Hawaii, most likely -- with similarly doctored pages from August 13, 1961. What, you doubt the CIA could do that? How naive are you? Oh, I'm sorry, I meant the USIA, bet you didn't even know they exist, eh? You spoonfed sheep....

Why, oh why, after all this time, is this still an issue? Why do some otherwise reasonable folks, under the guise of "just wanting to be thorough and sure for the future, because, you know, this could set a precedent", continue to give ear to the conspiracy nuts? And who *are* the conspiracy nuts? I have found, in my casual observation of the movement, that they actually aren't typical straightforward racists who simply want the Black guy out. Nearly all of them are conservative Republicans with a vested interest in keeping the doubt stoked, and others are particularly bitter Hillary Clinton supporters. For partisan purposes, they want all of Obama's presidency invalidated, all that he has attempted to do to be declared null and void. Most of them actually believe it, while a few know better but keep bringing it up anyway because it is politically expedient to do so. A very small handful are of the "overly reasonable" variety, not wanting to say something so rash as to say "Obama is a natural-born American" because only a liberal Democrat would say such a thing with complete conviction.

This was never about the Constitution. It was always about keeping a Democrat out of the Oval Office. It's just that Barack Obama's unique life experience handed his enemies a plausible cover story. The entire hijacked Tea Party movement has always been about one thing and one thing only: Getting Barack Obama out of office, after an election had put him there. Stopping his health care plan. Saving America from the Liberals. Whatever original noble intention the Tea Party had (it was about TARP, remember?), it became an ugly glob of God, Guns, and Gays. The revolt against the bi-partisan financial corporations' bailout became, instead, Republicans on Steroids.

It's an ugly accusation. I don't like making it. Early on, I was sympathetic to the Tea Party. I thought whatever racist overtones existed within it were subconscious accidents. I still think that the vast majority of Tea Party supporters are not *consciously* racist. No, disagreeing with Obama doesn't make you a racist. But I do think that, after all this, if you still carry water for the birthers, you have a racist streak you probably don't want and wouldn't like to face. I know I didn't. Early on, I was hopeful that the Tea Party might bring (gasp) Libertarians to the fore, in a fashion similar to the effect Ron Paul had on the 2008 presidential race.

Instead, the Tea Party favorites are, nearly to a person, darlings of ultraconservative Evangelical Christians (people with mean streaks call them "fundies", but I find that term too explicitly disrespectful -- it's not wrong to be a person of faith). They are, in essence, transplanted Constitution Party candidates. When Ron Paul endorsed Chuck Baldwin for president, a big part of me inside was betrayed. I've since given every telemarketer from Paul's organizations an earful about that betrayal. It turns out, however, that it was simply a harbinger of things to come. By endorsing Baldwin, Ron Paul anticipated the hijacked Tea Party. The Constitution Party simply serves no purpose any longer. The hijacked Tea Party has injected all of who would have been their candidates into the Republican Party.

The new Republican Party, after the 2010 midterm elections that put so many of the hijacked Tea Party into the House, showed its true colors in grand style during the recent budget debates. The deep cuts in the Federal budget were inevitably aimed at social programs (which they assume are only used by valueless sluts and slackers), with a noticeable lack of cuts in military spending and other neo-con causes, and specific potshots they euphemistically termed "social riders" that included that great Satan of American life, Planned Parenthood.

The next budget battle will inevitably get even uglier, as those ultraconservative "Tea Party" representatives gear up to be re-elected, the entire Republican Party gears up to try to knock off the first incumbent president since George H. W. Bush, and the Federal debt threatens to crush us all. At this point, the status of Obama's citizenship is barely a blip on the radar.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Tread Carefully in Libya

The unrest in the Middle East could have gone bad for the U.S. It still could, but at the moment it seems as if the flow of things is in the direction of democracy -- or whatever passes for democracy in that part of the world. Under Bush, no doubt we'd be picking sides and futzing with it to ensure we gain something out of it, but Obama has wisely taken a cautious tack. It's a dangerous part of the world for us. Remember, this is the part of the world that provoked the confrontation between Rudolph Giuliani and Ron Paul in the 2008 presidential debates, where an incredulous Giuliani erupted at Paul's suggestion that we somehow did something to bring 9/11 down upon us. Paul had a good point, though an unpopular one: Our continual poking and prodding of the Middle East, in the name of "national security", has made us few friends there.

Just as during the Cold War, which provoked much hostility towards the U.S., we were supporting dictatorial leaders in the name of our own War on Terror, and turning a blind eye towards those leaders' abuses and excesses. Mubarak in Egypt, Saleh in Yemen, Ben Ali in Tunisia, and Al Khalifa in Bahrain are all leaders who have, on one level or another, seriously provoked the majority of their citizenry. With the wave of revolts now leading to Libya and Syria, we begin to see situations where supporting the rebels is advantageous, but don't think for a moment that Bush would not have jumped in to defend Mubarak et al. because it was convenient to do so.

Leaving well enough alone is a new and welcome change in American foreign policy. It has left the possibility that Egypt and Tunisia could end up with new governments that are still friendly to the U.S. It turned out that Mubarak and Ben Ali didn't have the stomach to kill their own people. Yemen faces an uncertain outcome, as the country's government was weak to begin with, surviving only by Saleh's near-magical ability to compromise with his enemies yet still best them. We already had concerns about Yemen's ability to keep al-Qaida at bay. Bahrain's situation is different. Al Khalifa has used the spectre of Iranian interference to keep the country's Shi'ite majority repressed. We have a large presence in Bahrain, since they host the majority of our military in the Middle East. If their rebels get the upper hand, we'd best allow them to do so and hope another new government doesn't hate us.

It is fiercely tempting to get into the conflict in Libya. Qaddafi has been a bogeyman for a long time in American minds, and we wouldn't mind one bit to see him get thrown out Mubarak-style, or even torn down and executed Ceaușescu-style. Unlike other leaders who have fled revolts, though, Qaddafi has a big enough ego that he had no problems killing anyone who had the gall to rise against him, and he controls more of his military than the other countries' leaders. It now appears that Libya will reach a stalemate, with the rebels holding the east with their capitol in Benghazi, and Qaddafi digging in around Tripoli. Unless more of his army revolts, this is going to take awhile. Fortunately, there's no support whatsoever to send troops to Libya, though there is much discussion about arming the rebels. If they would like to use some of their oil to buy arms for their rebellion for democracy, so be it. At least they'd be paying for it. I'm not so fond of using our aircraft to patrol Libyan skies. Let France and Italy do it, they're willing and have much greater interest in this than we do. What we don't want is a protracted involvement such as we've gotten into in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Conservatives and Liberals have two minds about military interventionism. Conservatives seem to think that we have the right to intervene anywhere we have significant national interests, like Iraq. Liberals, on the other hand, seem to think that we may only invade a country if we have no interest whatsoever, such as in Bosnia. We may only intervene for altruistic reasons. Which is noble, but also silly, because it is no less interfering with the world as Bush's unilateral incursions. Not so long ago, some Liberals were calling for us to send troops to Sudan. Just as with Federal authority over ourselves, it appears that the only difference between Conservatives and Liberals is who to use force against. If we aren't the world's policeman, that needs to be the case *all the time*, not just when it is advantageous or soul-soothing to do so.

If we spent less time supporting unpopular dictators for selfish reasons, we probably would not have so many reasons for people over there to distrust and dislike us. Ron Paul's assertion that 9/11 was the end result of Cold War policies that had us propping up dictators is not without merit. Just looking at what happened in Iran should be lesson enough. Bin Laden's own admitted motivation for going rogue was our presence in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. Sure, there were tough choices to make regarding Israel and the invasion of Kuwait. Maybe those were wise choices and maybe not. But remember that we supported Hussein in Iraq much longer than we opposed him, and things would have been easier for us had we not done that in the first place. It's hard to know how messing with another country's affairs will affect us down the road.

When other countries attempt to meddle in our own affairs, we get all indignant, as if the natural way of things was being violated. And yet we never consider our own foreign actions beyond our own selfish motivations. Conservatives toss the word "isolationism" around every time someone suggests that we, in fact, should not screw with the rest of the world. They, of course, say it as if that was a bad thing. It's not. We can support countries and movements that agree with our values without doing so militarily. The Federal debt has come as much from past military spending (especially under Reagan) as it has from domestic welfare spending. As much as our own interests play a part in our foreign policy, the morals and integrity of the foreign governments we support should play as great a part or even more. If we had done more of that in the past, the world might be a safer place now.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

My Life as a Teacher

The thoughts expressed in this article are mine alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views and interests of my employer. No proprietary information is contained herein. I shouldn't have to state these things, but it seems like all corporations just can't resist monitoring their employee's speech on the Internet, and making "friendly suggestions" as to what is or is not appropriate. As far as my employer should care, I am not divulging any proprietary, confidential, or private corporate information, so leave me alone. I'm entitled to my opinions and viewpoints.

2010 has been a peculiar year for me at my job. I teach at a proprietary post-secondary educational institution -- i.e. a for-profit college. In some quarters, the Federal government and certain other interest groups have been abuzz about how we -- and by extension, I -- do the job of educating students. I think we can all agree, we are not every graduating senior valedictorian's choice of college after high school. That's okay. My school serves the underserved: The housewife re-launching her career after kids. The autoworker laid off from Chrysler. The bright kid who chose the Marines first after graduation. The kid who wasn't expected by anyone to go to college but wanted to try after finding themselves in a dead-end spiral of fast food and telemarketing. In a very real way, we do sell dreams here. It is our hope that we help those dreams come true.

I'll state up front that I have little, if anything, to say about the marketing or admissions side of things. That's not my job, and that's the part of the industry that, if I were to begin to opine upon it, would give my employer the hyper-jeebies. I think that *any* college should be honest, forthright, and square-dealing with prospective students, whether that's a for-profit college, a private non-profit, a local community college, or a major public university. We aren't selling washers and dryers, or cars, or weight loss schemes. We are all selling a service that has a large human element. The philosopher Immanuel Kant considered "using people" to be immoral (the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative) and colleges of all types should be moral in their operations. I cannot speak on the way admissions or marketing are done. I've heard the same stories and read the same articles as you have. I hope that my school operates at the highest level of moral responsibility in that regard. But that's not what I'm about, and so I'm not going to pass judgment.

I'm also not going to talk about other schools. They may or may not be the same. I've only ever taught for this school, and I can only speak on my own experiences. I've read articles in the media concerning Federal inquiries, and I think to myself, "I hope *my* school never does *that*! That would be stupid." If any school of any type, not just for-profit, is acting unethically, immorally, or illegally, they are inviting action against themselves, and regulation of all of us. Of course, sometimes the regulators make crap up (such as in this article on The Motley Fool that dragged one school through the mud very unfairly). Never take a politician's word at face value.

What I really want to talk about is, what is it like to be a teacher? This matters, because a lot of the concern about for-profit schools is about outcomes. Do they teach students? Why do students quit? How many students graduate? How many students get jobs afterward? What if they don't get jobs, what then? This is germane, because the most controversial proposed regulation on for-profit schools, the "gainful employment" rule, all depends on how good a job a school does at what it purports to sell, which is an education. Millions of people depend on Federal backing of their student loans, and so eventually taxpayers become involved in the scheme of things.

I know how many regard us. They don't consider us a real college. Most people who think that are attached to public colleges and universities, who of course see us as a direct threat. I'm sure private non-profit colleges, such as my alma mater, probably just look down at schools like mine and say, how cute, the boys are "playing at college". Hey, my alma mater was a good one. But I'd be lying if I said it was anything like what my school was like. You're not even comparing apples and oranges. You're comparing apples and toasters.

I teach technology courses. My background is in database development and web development, and I've had broad professional experience that is perfect as a background for technical education. I've learned a little bit about a lot in my life, and I have the communication skills and teaching desire to pass that seed on to others. I can only speak on the educational programs I've participated in, which is mostly IT (information technology). So I can't comment on cooking schools or paralegal programs or auto maintenance or whatnot. Just computers, basically.

My programs are both Associate and Bachelor degree levels. I have a Bachelor's degree in computer science from Bradley University, Master's Degree in educational technology from the University of Missouri, and I'm on the cusp of my Master's Degree in information technology from Dakota State University (just gotta survive 2 more classes!). I also have a wide range of other interests that I enjoy sharing. I do computer and web stuff outside of work. I can practice what I preach. So if you're thinking, "those who can, do; those who can't, teach", I've done the do and found it lacking in satisfaction. Teaching, on the other hand, brings me great satisfaction. That's why I'm still here, after all. Sure, there are better paying jobs out there, but a paycheck isn't all there is to life.

Who are my students? Generally, they fall into a few easy-to-identify categories. I see lots of older people who have had it with their current jobs and careers and are re-training. I love these students. They're driven, engaged, and determined to do a good job. Sometimes they miss class because of family demands, but I admire them for doing the juggling. I see quite a few military veterans. Same deal, pretty much. They've learned discipline from the armed forces and are usually very reliable, though we sometimes have to juggle reserve and guard duty. I see younger folks who didn't go to college out of high school, kicked around in service or manufacturing jobs, are sick of it, and want to make something more of themselves. These folks are a mixed bag. I've met solid ones, and I've met plenty who still don't know what they want to be when they grow up. They can be a challenge to engage. Occasionally, I see self-made folks who are just there for themselves, or for the degree. They already have a lot of the skills, but they don't have that magic documentation that says "degree" on it, or they're looking to fill the gaps in their knowledge. I tend to like these students too, since they typically know what they want.

Then I see the young kids who are here because their parents are making them. My god, save me from these people. Parents, don't use school as leverage to get them out of the house. These are the students who struggle the most. Their heart isn't into it, and they do the minimum necessary to keep the privilege of living at home. Do them a bigger favor and just boot them out on their own. Kids have to decide for themselves what to do with themselves. Plus, you're racking up a big bill for your experiment.

There have been -- and please note, it's been rather rare -- students who can't really handle the material. Sure, they passed the entrance exam, and everyone deserves a chance to prove themselves, but some folks just aren't college material. I think in my almost 10 years time teaching, I can count the number of these folks without taking my socks off. So discard the idea that my school is taking in subliterate homeless people and siphoning them for money. Most of our students want to be here. There's no shortage of schools, and lots of programs of study, and they could have gone wherever they wanted to, and they chose to come here. It's my job to teach them.

Unlike some of our competitors, I don't think we have a ton of on-line students. I think that most of our students come to campus. While that may seem old-fashioned and against the trend, that is actually a good thing. On-line education is great, *if* you can make it work. I'm doing my Master's Degree in IT on-line. And yeah, I've gotten myself in trouble a few times being inattentive and unengaged and generally undisciplined. I've gotten a couple of B's that should have been A's. That's most colleges. Though you'll find individual exceptions amongst instructors and professors, generally speaking it's all up to you and they don't really care much either way if you show up or not. Many schools are, in fact, designed to weed out those who they don't feel are up to their standards. That's okay, they can do that, it's their privilege.

But I don't do that. I want my students to learn the skills that I know and are presenting to them. I want them to be as passionate about the topic as I am, and I can be a little deflated when they're not. We call students every time they are absent, to ensure that everything is okay, and to give them an opportunity to get the work they missed. See, a lot of our students, they may not have experienced a ton of success in the past, and rather than weed them out, they need a gesture of faith.

One of the things that we have, that typical community and public colleges don't have, are mandatory courses for learning basic coping skills. How to learn, how to study, how to use Internet resources to help themselves. "Lifelong learning" is the message. Another big thing is time management. Attendance is a huge emphasis. After all, if you show up for school every time, you're more likely to show up for work every time. So it's not just academic skills, it's career skills. It's learning how to be a professional. It's learning how to organize yourself so you can get everything done. Most colleges can teach you knowledge, but they don't teach you how to be successful. A big part of my job is exactly that, teaching my students how to be successful. Did your college do this? Why not? You see, other colleges just assume you know, or if you don't already have it, you won't ever get it. The poster about Achievement reads, "Not everyone gets to be an astronaut when they grow up."

The inevitable question always gets asked, do people actually get jobs after they graduate? Does their degree mean anything? Funny, nobody asks that about Mizzou, or even St. Louis Community College. I consider my students learning, excelling, and getting a job to be a matter of pride. And I do take it personally when one of my students doesn't get a good job in their field of study. But you know what? Those students who show up for class every day, and do all the work, and strive to be successful? They get jobs.

Not everyone does, of course. Why is that? The Feds and the public universities would like you to think that it's because we don't teach them anything, we just take their money. Overpromise and underdeliver. Well, let's just put the lie to that, shall we? Let's see, why do some students not get jobs?

* Sometimes, the economy sucks. Like now. Tough to get a job of any sort at the moment. It's an employers' job market. And my home city has been leaking corporate HQ's for 30 years. That tends to be where IT jobs are.

* Sometimes, when training for a new career, a student who has been in one job for a long time, making decent money in a job they dislike, can't afford to take the pay cut necessary to get the entry level job in their new field. You really need to plan ahead and rejuggle your financial obligations. Taking a $10k a year pay cut, even for a year or two, is too scary for some people with families to support.

* Sometimes, especially in IT, the folks who are forty-something and up face significant age discrimination. While I see a disciplined hard worker who has paid dues and could be a potential leader, some employers see an expensive, stuck-in-their-ways cost sink who will ask for benefits and resist 80 hour work weeks. It's not fair, but it's out there.

* Sometimes, a student goes their entire academic career putting in the bare minimum. You need a GPA of 2.0 to graduate. But seriously, if you were hiring, would you want someone who eked by with a 2.15? This isn't grad school, where a C is basically failing. Show me someone who graduates from Mizzou or SLCC or even Rolla or Wustl with a 2.15 and I'll show you someone who will have a tough time getting a job no matter what school they attended. The school you attend isn't nearly as important as what you do when you're there.

And there's another reality to education: Not everybody graduates. I've often been perplexed as to why a school's graduation rate is significant to their quality. I always figured that if a school graduated half of the students who start, they're probably doing a fair job. You don't want to drive everyone away, but you don't want to just give diplomas to your students either. If a school has a graduation rate of 25 percent (which I believe was the figure for my alma mater, does that mean they suck and people are quitting to go elsewhere? If anything, it's a sign that they're challenging, perhaps overly so. A high graduation rate doesn't mean a school is doing anything well other than retaining students. It says nothing about why they're staying or what their academic success is. A proprietary school has to weigh retaining students (who pay us, after all) against maintaining standards. Let's say a school on the quarter system has a goal of retaining 80 percent of their students per quarter. After 8 quarters, for an Associate Degree, that works out to a graduation rate of 20 percent. That's not how it works in reality, of course. Any school is going to lose more students in the early quarters, and should be fairly stable in the late quarters. Still, bump the success rate up to 90 percent, and you're still seeing a graduation rate of almost right on 50 percent.

Why do people quit school?

* The most common reason is that they simply decide they don't want to be in school anymore. It's nothing against the school, they just decided they didn't want to attend anymore. Maybe they feel family pressures of working and going to school at the same time. Maybe they decided they didn't like computers after all (though many of these students will choose to transfer to other programs rather than drop outright).

* Every so often, the school does contribute, usually by being inflexible. My school gives courses frequently, and will work with students to ensure they get the classes they need. They'll offer classes in the morning and evening -- in fact, the majority of our classes are in the evening, because many of our students work for a living. Occasionally they'll be given the opportunity to complete a course by independent study, if they meet certain requirements, which can be the difference between graduating on time or not. Contrast that with traditional colleges, whose courses are overwhelmingly in the daytime, and are frequently given on a fixed schedule. At DSU, I fell a year behind to graduate because I missed *one* summer course, because classes are scheduled on a fixed rotation, and not because students need the course.

* Many of the students who are being made to go by Mom and Dad, or who are chronically unreliable, end up getting dropped because of lack of attendance. If you're getting Federal aid, which includes student loans, if you miss class for 3 weeks in a row, the school must drop you, no matter what your grade was at the time. If you get dropped from enough classes, you start running up against an accreditation regulation called "Percentage Time to Completion". Roughly, it means you have to complete around 2/3rds of the courses you attempt. This is the Feds trying to protect their investment in you. If you don't deliver, they don't want to keep giving you money. Very rarely, students flunk out. They cannot maintain the minimum GPA to remain in school, 2.0, and after various levels of probation, must be shown the door. In my experience, academic performance strongly correlates to attendance. That's why all of this is under the heading of "poor attendance". Simply put, you can't learn if you're not here.

* Some students get burned out and have to take time off. That's not an ideal thing to do, since the Feds will start your repayment clock -- after six months out of school, you gotta start paying them back -- but I'd rather my students have their wits about them and in a learning state of mind, and come back after they get their head straight, rather than force themselves to go straight through with their head somewhere else. A great many students who drop out because of stress will re-enter school later.

* Sometimes, bad, bad things happen. In my time here, several students have died. At least one was murdered. At least one committed suicide. Occasionally, students do deeds serious enough to warrant imprisonment. It may shock you to know that, yes, these students are counted against our graduation rate. We don't make the rules.

On the whole, a successful student will be a successful graduate and get a job in their field of study. The hope is that even though entry-level jobs usually don't pay well, after awhile, if you do good work, you'll be rewarded. That is exactly why at my school we focus on learning how to be successful, not just learning the academic stuff. I'm frequently amazed that people on the street are surprised that we teach classes on math (at least three, programmers get four), writing and composition (at least two, more on the Bachelor level), working in groups and public speaking, economics, and creating portfolios and interviewing for jobs. My programmers take a business class. We have classes like ethics, environmental issues, and research methods on the Bachelor level. People usually seem to think these "gen ed" courses only get taught at "real schools", i.e. public colleges and universities, but seriously, think about it, would you want to hire someone without basic math and writing skills? And those other colleges can frequently leverage high school experiences. We get people 10 to 20 years after their last math class.

The people I see most frequently be successful as students and then in their career typically do these things:

* Show up at least 90 percent of the time.
* Do most of the work on time.
* Contact me when they will be absent so I can keep them current in the class.
* Do not believe that homework is something that only happens to other people.

Generally speaking, successful students have turned that key inside their head that says, "I'm gonna do this". I can't do that for them. They have to do it themselves. Like someone having a religious epiphany or an alcoholic finally deciding to quit drinking, the student has to make that decision that they're going to do it for real and not just play at it. That, right there, is perhaps the biggest predictor of future success, in my opinion.

So when the Feds, or "public interest groups", begin making noise about whether or not for-profit colleges do their job, ask them why they're not concerned about traditional colleges and universities. They may start to tell you about loan default rates and graduation rates and what-not, but what do those things really mean? Pin them down. Make them explain the numbers. What's the whole picture? If they want to regulate for-profits, would they be willing to regulate *all colleges*? If the answer is no, then be suspicious. Find out who is punching their meal ticket, where their biases are, and what their true motivations are.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Politics and Religion and Science and Truth

Quick, identify the following quote:

"The government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian Religion, as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims."

President Obama? Ted Kennedy? Barney Frank? Nope. Try The Treaty of Tripoli. It wrapped up free America's first war, against the Barbary pirates. In 1797.

Contrast this with the advocacy of the Christian voting bloc of the Texas State Board of Education, who for the last decade have been bringing up educational areas for review, which have a profound influence on not only Texas public schools, but the public school curricula of just about every other state in the nation except California and New York. According to board members such as Don McLeroy and current board chair Gail Lowe, their aim is not to force Christianity upon the state so much as it is to restore it from exile. In their opinion, Biblical ideas dominated the creation of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. While McLeroy et al. have legitimately drawn ridicule for their attempted elevation of intelligent design and the role of neo-Conservatives like Newt Gingrich, it would be a mistake to dismiss their efforts as the exploits of the lunatic fringe. America is a Christian nation, and it isn't a Christian nation. It was founded on the Christian Religion, and it wasn't founded on the Christian religion. It all depends on who you ask, and which Founding Father you examine. The Founding Fathers were devout Christians -- John Adams, John Witherspoon, John Jay -- except for the ones that weren't. The Founding Fathers were Deists -- Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin -- except for the ones that weren't. As it is with any large gathering of politicians, the Founding Fathers were all over the map when it came to religious orientation and attitudes.

One enduring Constitutional principle since the beginning of the country, enshrined as it is in the 1st Amendment, is the separation of church and state. The phrase itself was actually coined by Thomas Jefferson, after his election in 1800, in his response to a letter from a group of Baptist ministers. Back then, most states had state religions, usually Congregationalist in the north (descended from the Puritans) and Anglicans in the south (descended from the Church of England). Most other Christian denominations were minorities, and treated about like religious minorities tend to get treated. Jefferson expressed his belief that the First Amendment’s clauses — that the government must not establish a state religion (the so-called establishment clause) but also that it must ensure the free exercise of religion (what became known as the free-exercise clause) — meant, as far as he was concerned, that there was “a wall of separation between Church & State.” Religion wasn't trivial to early America. In fact, a lot of early domestic policy depended on it.

This seems to have motivated present-day Christian education activists to propose that Christianity be placed in a prominent position in American history. One recurring theme in Christian activists' advocacy is the concept of American exceptionalism, and their firm belief that Christianity was the driving force behind what made America great. This is the point, though, at which Christian activists overreach and begin illegitimately conflating history with present-day domestic policy. If America is no longer great, it must be because Christianity has been removed from its rightful place as the cornerstone of our country. Now, it is beyond dispute that America was and is a Christian-majority nation, but that is no more extraordinary than the Ottoman or Persian Empires being Muslim-majority. The fall of those empires is no more caused by Islam than any future decline of America would be caused by Christianity or our society's lack of it. Correlation does not prove causation, and one could argue that any religion could have been at the center of America's development.

A primary motivation of Christian activists appears to be a reaction to what they see as overcompensation on the part of secular America to even the playing field amongst faiths. I find it amusing, and a little pitiful, to hear Christians bleat about how they are persecuted in America. They desperately grasp a kernel of truth, that the de-religioning of our government has at times gone too far. Searching the Internet, one can find examples of Christian activities and sentiments being shut out of public facilities. They gleefully trot out stories of how Christian student groups are prohibited from meeting in public school classrooms after school, or how Christian students were ordered to remove crucifix jewelry, or how students were admonished for bringing bring Bibles (or, in one bizarre case, a book by Rush Limbaugh) to school.

One massive mistake that I see Liberals make is that they don't seem to know where along the "separation of church and state" spectrum to stop, and they don't seem to recognize when they're being inconsistent. A lot of their attitudes are not so much secular as they are anti-Christian. One common example I see consists of Liberals roundly condemning Christianity as paternal, closed-minded, authoritarian, hostile to women, homophobic, and unyielding to criticism. And don't get me wrong, Christianity is usually all of those things. However, Islam is also usually all of those things, but I seldom see a Liberal characterize Islam in those terms, or denounce them as harmful to society like they do conservative Christianity. If I were to guess why, I think it is because Islam is a minority religion in America, and Liberals consider criticism of minority viewpoints, especially non-white viewpoints, to be rude. (Although I think its noteworthy to observe that this tolerance does not extend to primarily white-male-oriented minority religions like Scientology. In contrast, Wicca is mostly white, but also predominantly female.) Who are we to criticize?, they maintain. Christians attack Islam, therefore Islam must be defended, regardless of any other considerations.

Part of the reason, I think, is that most Americans, not just Liberals and/or Conservatives, are ignorant of other cultures and religions. But we know Christianity. We know their excesses, their prejudices, their past sins and present vices, and to be progressive means to resist those excesses. Most Americans, myself included, just aren't well-versed in the principles of Islam, so we assume that when Christians attack it, it can't be justified. Obviously they're attacking it because they're bigoted. And perhaps they are. But again, correlation does not prove causation. On the other hand, I know Wicca, and most Americans don't, and then from my perspective, Christian Conservatives' attack on it and Liberals' defense of it makes sense, more or less by accident of course, because I know what I'm talking about when I talk about Neo-Pagan religions in general, and Wicca in particular.

I have, in the past, blogged a bit about my attitude toward Islam. We all have prejudices. The most thoughtful among us, though, don't wish to be bigots. We want to find the truth. This pursuit of the truth can only take place when there is not the spectre of government force hovering over it. If we inject Christianity into public schools, for example, we are automatically throwing a wet blanket over its objective examination. Liberals complicate matters by attempting to bleach the religion out of our public lives. We don't permit Christians to ban non-Christian groups from using public facilities. Likewise, we can't ban Christians from using public facilities unless we ban ALL religions from using them. But if it's okay for a Wiccan student group to meet at school, it must be okay for a Christian student group to meet at school. We do not need to behave unfairly in order to "compensate" for any perceived excesses of Christianity. That is exactly the sort of thing that invites Christian activists to push back and emboldens them to make assertions about "restoring" Christianity to its proper place in history.

The separation of church and state is real. The reason we don't see the word "God" in the Constitution, and the reason we see circumspect references in the Declaration of Independence such as "Creator" and "the laws of Nature and Nature's God" (which I could just as easily interpret as an endorsement of Wicca) is because even the most religious of Founding Fathers were products of the Enlightenment, where Reason was frequently given precedence over Faith, even by the most devout of them. We cannot establish state religions, and we must ensure the free practice of religion, and we must prevent a religious majority from suppressing religious minorities. But most people are not atheists or humanists. They have religious faith and they get pissed off when high-minded Liberals tell them they're primitive and deluded. The imposition of no religion is no more correct than the imposition of Christianity on our public institutions.

We need to have faith that, when people are treated as rational moral agents, they will do the right thing. After 11 years, McLeroy was defeated in the March 3rd Republican primary election, and Dunbar is not running for re-election, so it appears that the wheels are coming off the conservative Christians' cart. They pushed too hard, and Texas voters decided they'd seen enough. They'd had enough of being embarrassed nationally over their science and social studies curriculum debates and the Christian activists' pushing of their agenda. I believe that people want balance in their lives, the right amount of secularism and religion, a recognition that both are important, but an unwillingness to enshrine one viewpoint at the expense of others. The Christian activists on the Texas board had made the same mistake as the secularists before them. They overreached. They mistook the desire for a minor course correction for an endorsement of revolutionary overhaul. It is easy for activists to get elected, but difficult for them to keep their elected offices, because they tend to be ideologues first and thoughtful legislators second. When the backlash comes, they're the first ones bounced.

I have little doubt that the Tea Party Republicans will learn this the hard way very soon.

* Key portions of this article were derived from "How Christian Were the Founding Fathers?" from The New York Times Magazine, 2/14/2010,