Sunday, March 28, 2004

Where have I been...and where will I be.

Well, it's that time of year. Work is busy, school is busy and I expect that blogging will be light for the next month or so. I have a paper and two seminar presentations due in the next four weeks. I have one, possibly two, business trips and a few other commitments. I'll pop in now and then, but I won't be writing any extended pieces as I have been doing recently. Nonetheless, I'll keep my eyes open, and if something piques my interest, I'll be here. If your interested in the views of another conservative in Rhode Island, I encourage you to go to Justin Katz's Dust in the Light blog. Heck, you probably came from there anyway. See you around.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Another view of Zinn

A few weeks ago, a mini-controversy occurred in South County when the far left historian Howard Zinn appeared at a local high school to speak, and no opposing speaker was in attendance, or planned. I attempted to bring to light some of the problems that I have with Howard Zinn's methodology, but a new article by Michael Kazin written for Dissent Magazine is a tough, critical analysis of Zinn's historical style, and much better than my quick, top of the head post. In this article, Kazin mentions that Zinn is updating his People's History to include a reference to 9/11. If you are familiar with Howard Zinn, ou had to know this wouldn't be good.
"The latest edition of the book includes a few paragraphs about the attacks of September 11, and they demonstrate how poorly Zinn's view of the past equips him to analyze the present. 'It was an unprecedented assault against enormous symbols of American wealth and power,' he writes. The nineteen hijackers 'were willing to die in order to deliver a deadly blow against what they clearly saw as their enemy, a superpower that had thought itself invulnerable.' Zinn then quickly moves on to condemn the United States for killing innocent people in Afghanistan. "

Kazin starts with this introduction:

Every work of history, according to Howard Zinn, is a political document. He titled his thick survey "A People's History" (A People's History of the United States, 1492-Present [NY: Perennial Classics, 2003]) so that no potential reader would wonder about his own point of view: "With all its limitations, it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance."

That judgment, Zinn proudly announces, sets his book apart from nearly every other account of their past that most Americans are likely to read. "The mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction-so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people's movements-that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission."

His message has certainly been heard. A People's History may well be the most popular work of history an American leftist has ever written. First published in 1980, it has gone through five editions and multiple printings, been assigned in thousands of college courses, sold more than a million copies, and made the author something of a celebrity-although one who appears to lack the egomaniacal trappings of the breed. Matt Damon, playing a working-class wunderkind in the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting, quoted from Zinn's book to show up an arrogant Harvard boy (and impress a Harvard girl). Damon and his buddy Ben Affleck then signed with Fox to produce a ten-hour miniseries based on the book, before Rupert Murdoch's minions backed out of the deal.

But Zinn's big book is quite unworthy of such fame and influence. A People's History is bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions. Zinn reduces the past to a Manichean fable and makes no serious attempt to address the biggest question a leftist can ask about U.S. history: why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live?

His failure is grounded in a premise better suited to a conspiracy-monger's Web site than to a work of scholarship. According to Zinn, "99 percent" of Americans share a "commonality" that is profoundly at odds with the interests of their rulers. And knowledge of that awesome fact is "exactly what the governments of the United States, and the wealthy elite allied to them-from the Founding Fathers to now-have tried their best to prevent."

I could excerpt all day, just read the piece. If you don't have the time, here's the conclusion, which includes references to many "left" historians who are more trustworthy than Zinn.

No work of history can substitute for a social movement. Yet intelligent, sober studies can make sense of how changing structures of power and ideas provide openings for challenges from below, while also shifting the basis on which a reigning order claims legitimacy for itself. These qualities mark the work of such influential (and widely read) historians on the left as Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Gerda Lerner, C.L.R. James, and the erstwhile populist C. Vann Woodward. Reading their work makes one wiser about the obstacles to change as well as encouraged about the capacity of ordinary men and women to achieve a degree of independence and happiness, even within unjust societies. In contrast, Howard Zinn is an evangelist of little imagination for whom history is one long chain of stark moral dualities. His fatalistic vision can only keep the left just where it is: on the margins of American political life.

This last prompts me to emphasize that "laypeople" who read history should always read it with a bit of skepticism. I didn't say cynicism, I said skepticism. More formally, it is called "critical reading." Just because a historian wrote something doesn't mean that it is fact. Nuances abound in history. As such, I would recommend that you do read Zinn's work, as long as you have a similar work, such as Eric Foner's The Story of American Freedom (which is also a bit left-leaning, but also referenced in Kazin's piece) handy to counter Zinn's cynical, anti-establishment, conspiracy-theory laden work.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Fukuyama in Tel Aviv

The historian Francis Fukuyama was in Tel Aviv over the weekend to share a stage with PM Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu. In 1989, Fukuyama wrote a piece, "The End of History," in which he explained that liberal democracy was being established around the world as the best form of government. Shortly thereafter, the Berlin Wall came down and with it, communism. His timely piece catapulted Fukuyama into the intellectual stratosphere. The above linked Daily Standard reports on the event. According to this report:
The key question thus far posed by the 21st century, Fukuyama observed, is whether there is a Muslim exception to the end of history. Fukuyama doubts it. He pointed out that the real democracy deficit is not in Muslim or predominantly Muslim countries but in Muslim Arab countries of the Middle East. And there the problem, he suggested, was not Islam, though he indicated it still awaits its Luther, but bad government and dismal economic prospects that produce an angry alienation on which purveyors of radical Islam prey. What is necessary on the part of the liberal democracies of the world, according to Fukuyama, is the right kind of politics, one that knows that individual freedom is the long term goal but which takes careful account of, and learns to work with, the distinctive culture of Arab and Muslim societies.

Simply put, this is something we must keep in mind and this is what the Bush Doctrine is attempting.

Liberals, Conservatives and Tradition

Keith Burgess-Jackson has an insightful piece at Tech Central Station about Liberals, Conservatives and Tradition. His explanation of differences in presumptive reasoning is straight forward and concise.

Conservatism is not committed to the proposition that every tradition is respectable and valuable, and therefore worth conserving. It is committed to a presumption in favor of tradition. Presumptions by their nature are rebuttable. Law is filled with presumptions. There is a legal presumption that the husband of a woman is the father of her children. There is a legal presumption that a person who has been missing for seven years is dead. There is a legal presumption that people accused of crimes are innocent.

To a conservative, traditions are innocent until proved guilty. Liberals should be able to understand this concept. Why do we presume innocence? Imagine how things would be without such a presumption. The burden of proof (production, persuasion) would not be on the prosecutor, as it is now. It would be borne equally by the prosecution and the defense. Think of a presumption as putting something on one side of a scale. Unless something as weighty (or weightier) is put on the other side, the presumption prevails.

Joel Feinberg, a philosopher at The University of Arizona, has defended what he calls a presumption in favor of liberty. Liberty (understood as the absence of constraint) is the default position. Unless there are good reasons to limit individual liberty, such as prevention of harm to others or prevention of serious, unavoidable offense to others, individuals should be free of coercion by the state. Not all reasons are good reasons. Feinberg argues that it is never a good reason to limit liberty that the act being constrained is intrinsically immoral or that it threatens harm to the agent. In other words, Feinberg rejects legal moralism and legal paternalism.

Feinberg is a liberal, not an anarchist. He believes that the presumption in favor of liberty can be -- and sometimes is -- rebutted. (Lawyers prefer "rebutted"; philosophers often say "overridden.") But if liberals can endorse a presumption in favor of liberty, why can't a conservative endorse a presumption in favor of tradition? The logic is the same. And just as it's no criticism of Feinberg's liberalism to say that sometimes the presumption in favor of liberty is rebutted, it's no criticism of conservatism to say that sometimes the presumption in favor of tradition is rebutted. In the case of human chattel slavery, the presumption is clearly overridden.

I do disagree with his analysis that:

Ultimately, I think, the difference between liberalism and conservatism is one of attitude. Liberals have a dismissive attitude toward what came before. They are confident that they can do better. That something has always been done a certain way is, in their view, no reason whatsoever to continue doing it that way. Conservatives, by contrast, have a respectful attitude toward what came before. They view the present as a link between past and future and society itself as a contract between the dead and the unborn. (I get this latter idea from Roger Scruton, from whom I have learned much.) That something has always been done a certain way is, in their view, a reason to continue to do it that way.

Liberals look forward, believing that peace, justice, and happiness are just around the corner, if only we let reason be our guide. Conservatives look backward, believing that if we tinker with tradition, even with the best of intentions, we are as likely to get war, injustice, and misery as their opposites.

Here, I think he relies to heavily on a conflation of those who are traditionally, even stereotypically called Christian Conservatives with those conservatives who don't primarily define their idealogy based upon religious belief. Nonetheless, it is a good article.

Friday, March 19, 2004

Time Magazine "Discovers" Motherhood

Rich Lowry at National Review Online has a couple comments on a Time Magazine cover story regarding mothers who are leaving the workplace to stay at home with their children!
In a cover story headlined 'The Case for Staying Home,' the magazine reports, without sneering or condescension, the trend toward more new mothers leaving the work force. This is an important cultural benchmark, because until now, the media, feminist leaders and other opinion-makers have tended to portray stay-at-home moms as a regrettable throwback to what should be a long-gone era of child-rearing. Now, perhaps, we are ready to honor the full range of choices made by women struggling with how to balance career and family.

Yes, perhaps. Or there will now be a reflexive backlash against this story, but I somehow doubt it. In my experience, when told that my wife works negligibly and is essentially a "stay at home mom," many of my colleagues and friends respond with a "you're so lucky" - type of comment. Yes, we are lucky, but we also don't drive a new car, have top of the line wardrobes or groceries. In short, we, particularly my wife, work at it so that we can life a better quality life. There's no SUV parked in the driveway, but our kids sure know who we are. Justin Katz saw the Lowry piece as well and was particularly struck by this:
According to Time, it has mostly been well-educated white women over 30 who have accounted for the drop in working moms. Twenty-two percent of women with graduate or professional degrees are at home with their kids. One in three women with M.B.A.s is not working full time, in contrast with just one in 20 men. These women have the resources to eschew a paycheck. A generational shift has also taken place, as young women are less interested in taking orders from the feminist "sisterhood." According to one survey, 51 percent of Gen X moms were home full time, compared with 33 percent of boomer moms.

Well, Justin offers up this pithy, and mostly accurate, observation:
Although I would never tar women with the sins of their mothers, so to speak, it doesn't seem presumptuous to suggest that this is the same class of women who pushed their peers out into the workplace to begin with. One consequence of that push was to create economic and cultural pressure making two-income households just about a necessity. Now, that same class of women is sufficiently wealthy to return to the lifestyle that is no longer an option for many others.

While Justin is correct in a certain sense, I think in his zeal, he missed an important fact that I interpolate from the aforementioned statistical breakdown. The trend is for younger mothers, despite their education level, to choose staying at home. This is probably a result of holding onto the ideal of one parent working/one parent at home, which results from either the fact that that is the type of home the GenX mothers grew up in or its the type of home they wish they grew up in. With this ideal in the back of their mind, I'm guessing that most worked for about a decade, made some money, met the right man and then wanted to start a family.

These women proved that they could make it in the career world, but some realized it wasn't all that it was cracked up to be. Thus, when they took their first maternity leave and realized that being "just a mom" is really quite fulfilling, they were reticent to jump right back into the work force. The fact that these younger moms were also familiar with the misery of the older, boomer moms also probably contributed to a desire to not want to make the same mistake. So they juggled, they took out the calculators and coupons and have resolved to somehow make it work. They've eschewed the Chevy Suburbans for the six year old Saturn, they eat no-name brand peanut butter, and they wait for sales, combined with coupons, before shopping for clothes. Materialistic desires have been put on hold. The women of my generation, yes, GenX, have gone to school on their predecessors. They've seen that, while it was fun to roar in the asphalt jungle, it's more satisfying to settle in the den and to care for her cubs.

Justin Katz has amplified his point a bit, though, as he states, we're really not that far apart on this. I guess my point is that couples need to realize they don't really "need" all of the toys that Justin seems to think society has convinced us we need, though I'm not sure that's what he's saying. In general, I think we're talking about two kinds of couples. I'm talking about those who marry at about the average age of 25, work in their careers for a bit, get a little of a nest egg, and then starting a family. Justin is talking about men and women marrying at thirty. Both of these groups are in the same demographic, but they will undoubtedly have different experiences.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

More on Spain

Lee Harris proposes the following thought experiment:

Suppose that last week's attack had not been the work of terrorists, but the work of the United States. Suppose American jets had flown over Madrid on Thursday morning and dropped a scattering of bombs on the commuter trains, killing and maiming the exact same people who were killed and maimed in the terrorist's attack. Suppose, further, that President Bush had subsequently announced that Spain would be subjected to further attacks if the Spanish voters did not vote as he wished them to vote.

Had the Spanish people docilely obeyed such a brutal command, and voted as the United States bid them vote, the world would be left in no doubt who really ruled Spain. The election would have clearly been understood as an act of collective capitulation and an abject abandonment of all claims to national sovereignty. Henceforth Spain, with good reason, would have been looked upon as a puppet state of the USA -- in the exact same way that Soviet tanks in the streets of Prague in 1967 proved to the world who really ruled the Democratic Republic of Czechoslovakia.

The Spanish people did vote, which is what we do in a democracy, though we may not always like the results. Unfortunately,

The Spanish people elected to blame the massive act of terror on the USA, and not on the men who murdered their fellow citizens. They elected to abandon their own national dignity, in order to appease fanaticism. They elected to turn their democracy into a tool of terrorism. In sum, they cast their vote for the forces of anti-civilization, and in doing so handed these forces their greatest and easiest triumph since Hitler ordered the German army to occupy the Rhineland in 1935, at the cost of not a single life.

From this he wonders about democracy, especially in Europe's parliamentary system. A system he claims is:

. . . an illusion that depended upon the peace and stability that the Pax Americana brought to that region of the world. But once the Pax Americana is shattered, the illusion will come to an end; and European politics will rapidly become the plaything of terrorist sects bent on forcing democracies to do their will, until the point is inevitably reached when democracy will no longer be an option in Europe.

Americans should be aware of this, Harris warns. Additionally,

Democracy will not save us from terrorism; democracy is rather one of the many infinitely precious things that must itself be saved from terrorism. Americans who are willing to die to bring democracy to people who lack it, must ask themselves after last Sunday what is the point of their immense sacrifice if a democracy like Spain's can be so easily intimidated by an act of catastrophic terror into betraying the cause of civilization, and rallying to the side of its enemies?

Is Harris being too pessimistic? It's safe to say that many, especially in Europe, don't view Spain as as a puppet state of Al Queda. To do so, one must accept that this is a War and not a law enforcement issue. Further, he may not be giving enough credit to Britain, Italy, Poland and others who may not wither in the face of the scare tactics of Al Queda so easily. The important point is that it is time for leaders to lead. These are the perils of democracy. The people get what they want, no matter whether it is good for them in the long run or not. The Spanish electorate will live by their decision and suffer any consequences. Or maybe there will be none, which will, in turn, buttress their belief that they acted in the proper way. Regardless of their flawed logic, pure chance may prove to be the determinant. I don't doubt that Al Queda, or whomever, purposedly targeted Spain in hopes of influencing the election. Given this, should we doubt that they would be cagey enough to leave Spain alone to show that the electorate acted in a proper manner?

Perils of Law Enforcement approach to Terrorism

Lisa Myers of NBC, no member of the VRWC (Vast Right Wing Conspiracy) I must add, has a report on about Osama bin Laden and missed opportunities under the Clinton Administration. Apparently, NBC will be airing portions of a CIA videotape that contains clips of Bin Laden at the Al Queda terrorist camp in Afghanistan in the fall of 2000.

In the fall of 2000, in Afghanistan, unmanned, unarmed spy planes called Predators flew over known al-Qaida training camps. The pictures that were transmitted live to CIA headquarters show al-Qaida terrorists firing at targets, conducting military drills and then scattering on cue through the desert.

Also, that fall, the Predator captured even more extraordinary pictures — a tall figure in flowing white robes. Many intelligence analysts believed then and now it is bin Laden.

While the tape proves that the Clinton administration was engaged in pursuing Bin Laden, it also points to a flaw in their approach.

A Democratic member of the 9/11 commission says there was a larger issue: The Clinton administration treated bin Laden as a law enforcement problem.

Bob Kerry, a former senator and current 9/11 commission member, said, “The most important thing the Clinton administration could have done would have been for the president, either himself or by going to Congress, asking for a congressional declaration to declare war on al-Qaida, a military-political organization that had declared war on us.”

It's worth remembering that this is exactly the kind of method that Sen. Kerry has proposed he would follow. As far as those in the Clinton administration?

NBC News contacted the three top Clinton national security officials. None would do an on-camera interview. However, they vigorously defend their record and say they disrupted terrorist cells and made al-Qaida a top national security priority.

“We used military force, we used covert operations, we used all of the tools available to us because we realized what a serious threat this was,” said President Clinton’s former national security adviser James Steinberg.

One Clinton Cabinet official said, looking back, the military should have been more involved, “We did a lot, but we did not see the gathering storm that was out there.”

Hm. I guess so.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

RE: Europe, Lost.

Jack Birnbaum at Tech Central Station has written an eloquent bit about the aftermath of the Madrid bombings. Simply, it's titled "Europe, Lost". Birnbaum starts with a quote from Churchill:

"Britain and France had to choose between war and dishonor. They chose dishonor. They will have war."

-- Winston Churchill after the Munich conference, 1938.

He then goes on to elaborate upon the memes that have found their way around the world. What is a meme? From Birnbaum:
A meme. A unit of cultural information, transmitted around the world, from media outlet to politician and back again, until it has permeated the collective consciousness so that it is just known to be true, a starting point for thought rather than something to be questioned.

Some Examples are:

Bush is the problem. (A convenient stand-in for America, which is more uncomfortable for some to criticize.)

The war in Iraq brought this on. (Not the war on terror, that we all agree on. Just that particular mass-murdering dictator removed, just that particular crooked oil-for-food program exposed.)

(Fill in the blank) lied! (And how long did it take for that part of the meme to start circulating after the carnage in Madrid?)

If only not for Bush and Iraq, they would leave us alone. If not for that, our children would be safe.

Birnbaum concludes:

So they have their amulet, the Spanish. They can take their comfort in the meme they share with so many others. I wish them well, from the depth of my being, and I hope they never again have to see the body parts of their loved ones scattered around their cities like so many Israelis. And I know it isn't all of them, but just enough of them to turn an election. But they have made this clear to the world: the threat of indiscriminate terror can affect the outcome of a democratic election. This is not a small thing. This is a major defeat in the war for civilization.

They have chosen dishonor. And I fear what we will all have.

Monday, March 15, 2004

Iraq a year later

Iraq, one year later, is summarized by Bruce Chapman in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

During World War II, when the 1944 presidential election came around, Republican candidates targeted Franklin D. Roosevelt's competency and motives. They unearthed government procurement scandals and corporate "war profiteering." Some even hinted that FDR was complicit in the war's outbreak.

But they could not oppose the war they had voted for and the public approved. They whooped up political excitement, but Roosevelt won re-election on a motto of "Don't Change Horses in the Middle of a Stream."

Unlike what Kerry is doing today. Lest we forget:

Recall, in contrast, what critics predicted. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi deaths. The "Arab street" was going to rise up. Hordes of new terrorists would be recruited and descend on us. Friendly Moslem governments in the Middle East would fall and unfriendly ones become bellicose.

Instead, what he have is:

The Arab street, for the first time, is learning that democracy is possible in their region. Press freedom in Iraq is the envy of other Arab countries. Women's civil rights have increased. Friendly governments were not destabilized; rather, unfriendly ones, including Syria and Iran, have come under new pressure. With Saddam gone, Iraq no longer finances suicide bombers in Palestine.

The United States, meanwhile, showed its lack of imperial ambitions by removing its troops from Saudi Arabia and the Saudis finally are cooperating in eliminating al-Qaida-affiliated cells in their country. Destroying such cells is crucial to preventing the funding and training of terrorists who could mount new attacks on the American.

While the war has not yet uncovered stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it did help reveal them in Libya, Iran and Pakistan.

Finally, in light of the recent Madrid bombings, especially:

Election-year spin and shrill name-calling won't change the reality that global terrorism still threatens America. Bush realizes that the threat cannot, as Sen. John Kerry suggests, chiefly be handled by "intelligence and law enforcement." Sometimes, it has to be confronted militarily. In non-political moments, both parties and three administrations have grasped this truth. So, I believe, do most Americans.

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Friday, March 12, 2004

State interferes with Cranston (and a couple unrelated things)

I had given a more substantial treatment to the ridiculous actions of the State Legislature involving themselves in the local issues of the City of Cranston, but Blogger is having problems and I lost my post. In a nutshell, the City Council approved having this independent report created, the Mayor, Steven Laffey favored it, the recommendations have been made, but neither the Council nor the Mayor have completed reading the report much less committed ot following through with all of its recommendations.

Regardless, the State Representatives of Cranston, all Democrats, brought a resolution to the House floor to oppose cutting any firefighter jobs as a result of the findings of the report. They implied that such cuts were being proposed by the City, particularly the Mayor, when it was not the case. In fact, as I already mentioned, no debate over the report has taken place, though it is on the calendar, according to Cranston's Mayor Steven Laffey, who was on Dan Yorke's radio show yesterday afternoon. In other words, the Cranston Democrat legislators put the cart before the horse and asked their Democrat colleagues in the House to pass a resolution to pressure Laffey into refraining from cutting firefighting jobs. These legislators made no mention of the reports similar recommendations concerning the Cranston Police force. Interestingly, the Mayor and the firefighter's union are in the middle of a contract dispute. Coincidence?

Predictably, the resolution passed, though it was eloquently defened by the few Republicans (such as Warwick Rep. Joseph Trillo) in the House. This blatant political ploy is unconscienable, yet not surprising. Is this the same governmental body that we want to oversee a statewide property tax for education?

On to other things...

First, I wrote a few days ago about the misuse of history by RI Superior Court Judge Stephen J. Fortunato. Apparently, the Judge has a certain bias from which he approaches the Church/State issue. What a surprise.

Justin Katz continues his watchdog role on Andrew Sullivan.

Today's ProJo has a hopeful piece by Robert Holland, Now there's competition in teacher certification. Competition is good, and it also will enable potential career switchers, such as myself, to make said switch a bit easier.

Lee Harris at Tech Central Station reminds us that academics must remember to laugh and puts forth Socrates as an example.

Victor Davis Hanson attempts, yet again to put to rest the Left's Iraq deceptions.

Finally, I had no idea that one of the Ramones was a Republican!

Are Job Growth Numbers Antiquated?

In his Washington Times column "The confused constituency", which is chiefly about John Kerry's attempts to confuse the electorate, R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. explains the problem with the way job growth is being reported.

. . . the Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes data declaring job growth is low, only 21,000 new jobs in February as opposed to the forecast of 125,000.
Are these statistics sound? Mr. Kerry does not ask that question, but some economists are asking it. One, Brian Wesbury, a man distinguished for his reading of economic trends and business achievement, has looked carefully at the economy and found job growth where others have failed to look.
Mr. Wesbury claims that in the New Economy, invigorated as it is by developments in software and technology that make founding small businesses more feasible, job creation is missed by the old way of measuring it. The old way was through the job survey called the Establishment Survey. The new way is through the survey called the Household Survey.
The Establishment Survey takes into account business establishments nationwide by measuring payroll employment. 'But,' writes Mr. Wesbury in the April issue of the American Spectator, 'payrolls are not where the action is today. The real growth is entrepreneurial. Self-employment and Limited Liability Corporations (LLC) are growing like weeds, and these types of employment do not fit into the normal payroll.' They do fit into the Household Survey.
Whereas the Establishment Survey tells us that, since the end of the recession in November 2001, payroll jobs have declined by 718,000, the Household Survey indicates 1.9 million jobs have been created. Naturally, Sen. Kerry, the candidate of confusion, relies on the Establishment Survey. I doubt he has ever paid any attention to the Household Survey.
Mr. Wesbury believes he should. It not only calculates job growth more accurately than the other survey, it also has tracked a trend. For two decades, self-employment has represented an ever larger percentage of post-recession job growth. In the months following the 1982 recession, self-employment accounted for 5.4 percent of job growth. In the months following the 1991 recession, it accounted for 9.3 percent of job growth. "Since the recession ended in November 2001," Mr. Wesbury writes, "total household employment has climbed 2.1 million and self-employment has grown by 644,000 ... 31.1 percent of all job growth in the Household Survey."
Is it possible to have the healthy growth we now have and a decline in jobs? The understandably confused are confused by this, as well they should be. If Mr. Wesbury is right, the confusion is caused by economic statisticians' failure to keep up with our dynamic economy. The economy is growing, and so is the job market.

This is something that I have intuitively suspected and have heard of, though this is the clearest presentation that I've seen. Kudos to Mr. Tyrrell for bringing this to light.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

South County Parents Angered Over Radical Zinn's High School Lecture

I wrote last week about my indignation regarding Howard Zinn's visit to South County High School. In short, Zinn is a far-left, anti-Bush polemicist who, in my judgement, should not have been allowed to speak to high school students without someone of an opposite viewpoint present to offer alternative points to Zinn's characterizations of the history of the United States as well as politics in general. I also wondered if any parents would be upset by the visit. Well, it took a week, but it seems that Zinn's visit has caused a ruckus in South County.

From the piece by Katie Mulvaney:

Politicians yesterday weighed in on the furor surrounding an anti-war protester's lecture at South Kingstown High School.

The town and state Republican parties promised to find a conservative speaker to counterbalance the words of Dr. Howard Zinn. Activist, author and historian, Zinn addressed about 300 high school students last Tuesday.

"I'm just recommending [that] a Republican speak," said Patricia Morgan, chairwoman of the Rhode Island Republican Party. "Right now, I'm trying to find a good speaker."

Joslin Leasca, secretary of the South Kingstown Republicans, contacted Morgan yesterday morning after receiving about 20 e-mails from parents concerned by Zinn's message.

"They need to see the opposite ... they're still learners," she said. Dr. Zinn and an opponent should have shared the stage, cultivating a respectful, healthy debate, she said.


Two parents objected to Zinn's lecture at the School Committee meeting Tuesday night.

Town Republicans did not oppose Zinn, but rather that his talk went unchallenged, Leasca said. She also wondered who gave the final OK.

"Whose making decisions to feed high school children a particular point of view?" she said. What's next, she asked, the KKK, anti-abortionists, atheists?

And why, she said, were some students excluded from Zinn's lecture?

According to administrators, teachers and students involved in bringing Zinn to the school, senior Molly Little asked Zinn to come to the school first last fall, and again in January. He agreed and told her that as a policy he did not charge a speaking fee when he addressed public schools, Little said.

Sophomores, juniors and seniors in honors classes as well as students whose studies touched on international relations and global issues were invited to attend. Space was limited because the auditorium seats only about 650, administrators said.

"Kids were given an option to attend, or not attend," said Principal Kevin Sheehan.

Yes, let's blame a student for inviting Zinn. What courage! Dan Yorke of Providence's WPRO AM 630 had Bob Tingle on his radio show during the 5 0'clock hour. Tingle's daughter attends South County High and was at this lecture. Unfortunately for the South County School administrators, Tingle is also a well known South County conservative (he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2000) and he made sure that the school board found out about his concerns. Tingle also told Yorke that Principal Sheehan justified Zinn's appearance by alluding to the fact that Rush Limbaugh is on the radio all of the time. Huh? Sheehan did admit to Tingle that the ultimate responsibility for Zinn's appearance did lie with him. But, then we have this:

Sheehan balked at the suggestion that parental permission slips should have been required. "I can't get parent permission for every discussion in a classroom," he said. "It's unfair to even ask that."

At least two students challenged Zinn's views, Sheehan said. He added that it would be a shame to remove politics from school.

"Our country has been founded on politics. To take that out of schools is a mistake," Sheehan said.

"We don't have the right to impress students with our personal agenda. It's our job to provide students with opportunities. That's what we do," he said.

It doesn't appear as if anyone wants Sheehan to take politics out of school, rather, a desire for an airing of opinions across the political spectrum is being voiced. As to Sheehan's assertion that no one has the right to "impress students with out personal agenda," well, isn't that exactly what just happened? Is Sheehan saying that even parents don't have a right to "impress" their own "agenda" upon their own children? Or that parents shouldn't be informed when political speakers, especially those as radical as Mr. Zinn, are to be lecturing their kids? It seems so, if only because it would be inconvenient.

Now, Supt. Rober Hicks did say that the school intendended to have a speaker with views different than Zinn's address the students.

But back to Sheehan:

Sheehan said he had no regrets and disagreed with the portrayal of students as blank slates.

"If that's going to brainwash them, then we haven't done or job as educators and as parents," he said.

Sheehan is apparently working overtime here to confuse the issue. No one has been accused of brainwashing the students. Again, equal time is all that is being requested. Tingle told Yorke that, until parents had protested, there had apparently been no plan to offer a counterpoint to Zinn. How does this square with Sheehan's earlier claim of not trying to impress an agenda on students? Quite simply, educators like Sheehan have a different world view than many parents, and, as such couldn't foresee that there would be a problem in offering up a radical historian such as Howard Zinn to the student's without informing the parents. They know what's best for the students, the parents don't. Isn't that right in line with the liberal worldview? They know what's best for the rest of us, so we should just shut up and let them do it?

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

About those Crossing Guards in Warwick

I was so angered by the Crossing Guard contract negotiated between Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian and said Guards, that I wrote an email to the Mayor. He replied and I re-replied. See below for the full dialogue.

My initial email:

"Mayor Avedisian,

As a taxpaying citizen of Warwick, and a registered Republican who voted for you, I feel compelled to voice my disappointment regarding the recent School Crossing Guard contract. While the dollar amount may be a relative pittance in the overall city budget, this contract exemplifies everything that is wrong with contract negotiations between the city and a union. I realize that money may have been saved in the long run because a legal battle, similar to that in Cranston, may have been avoided. Nonetheless, to be held hostage by a union because of the threat of a lawsuit is not a display of strong leadership. I do not mean to belittle those who work as crossing guards, but the job cannot seriously be classified as a skilled profession. As such, to pay them, including benefits, the equivalent of $128 per hour is an egregious example of fidicuary irresponsibility. It also shows irresponsible use of the taxpayer's money for the city to pay into the legal defense fund of the union as well as to allow the accumulation and cashing out of sick days.

The days of public employees receiving markedly better benefits packages than the taxpayers who foot the bill should be over. I understand the purpose of incentives, but these are simply ridiculous perks. It seems as if the union did little or no comprimising and the city seems to have just been happy to have saved a pittance over the three year span of the contract. It simply isn't enough. This kind of contract should be put out to bid. I cannot help but think that a private contractor could operate for at least half the cost to the city and still make a tidy profit. At some point, negotiations such as these need to be approached with the interests of the taxpayers in mind over those of public union employees. Regardless of threats of lawsuits or feel-good mantras about the value of these union employees as community members, it is still the taxpayers money. It is my sincere hope that you and the city approach future negotiations with the idea of better utilizing the public's money. If you lead in the fight against irresponsible fiscal policy, Mr. Mayor, others, including myself, will follow."

The Mayor's Reply:

"Dear Mr. Comtois:

I share your frustration regarding the Crossing Guards. I, too, believe that, in some respects, they are overpaid for what they do. However, they do perform a valuable service for the citizens of this City by protecting the lives of our children on their way to school.

As all of us are aware, the cost of living is increasing all the time. All employees and retirees can feel the pinch that rising prices can cause. But most people, including social security recipients, receive modest annual increases in income. It is the same with the Crossing Guards. Therefore, in order to both protect both the interests of taxpayers like you, as well as the concerns of the Crossing Guards, the City instituted what I consider to be a win/win solution.

We offered the Crossing Guards a slight cost of living increase and in exchange we decided to abolish five positions. The combination of these layoffs, coupled with some other concessions we got from them during contract negotiations, will result in a net savings to the City of over $259,000 over the next three years. This is a considerable savings to the taxpayers of the City and is a far better deal than if we had just not given them any increases at all. Another important portion of the contract that we implemented is a new "Management Rights" clause that will help us to contain costs by allowing us to layoff, re-organize and even privatize in the future.

I would also point out that this is the first time in the city's history that an administration has received agreement, from any union, that its members will pay toward the cost of their health care.

By the way, the Crossing Guards receive far less than $120 per hour. They receive about $40 per day and they must be available for both morning and afternoon assignments, as well as the requirement of being on-call all day in case the schools should close early due to inclement weather.

Should you have any other questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me again.

Scott Avedisian

My final reply:

"Mayor Avedesian,
Thank you for your response. I concede that this negotiation shows some progress and was a first for the city, as you mentioned. I also am heartened to hear of the "Management Rights" clause. I still find it hard to accept the benefits package that these workers receive, especially in light of my own situation as a full-time employee for a small business who has payed substantial insurance co-pays for a lesser plan for a few years. This is not mere jealousy, simply a desire to have public, government employees recognize, and be required, to live in the same world as the taxpayers. I realize that progress has been made on this front, perhaps I'm just impatient and wish that it would happen faster and to a larger degree. Nonetheless, I appreciate your response. While I may quibble with the particulars of this agreement, I still hope for your success and urge you to continue to apply a sense of fiscal responsibility to contracts in the future. Thank you for your time.

Best Regards,
Marc Comtois"

Comment: OK, perhaps my response is a little to wishy washy on second reading, but the guy did answer me so I had to throw him a bone or two. I'll continue to watch this issue and I certainly have my antenna up for future negotiations. Now that he's on record, I aim to hold him to it.

Science vs. the Humanities

A bit of a brouhaha has developed as the result of a post by Michael Williams in which he questions whether those who pursue careers in scientific fields could just as easily have chosen a career in the humanities, but the reverse is not true. William's was prompted by an article, "Science for Smart, English for Dumb," by Eli Lehrer. Justin Katz has taken on the task of debating Williams, and the two have gone back and forth on the matter.

I think I can bring a unique perspective to this debate. I have a B.S in Engineering, currently do a lot of database management and am currently pursuing and M.A. in History. So, you see, I have a foot planted firmly in both camps. To properly discuss this, I'll use "ME" as an example. So let's crank up the way back machine, shall we?

I did well in high school, regardless of subject matter, generally. However, I was more proficient in the Humanities than in Math and Science. Why? I simply enjoyed them more, particularly History. But guess what. . . History didn't pay. Here's where I agree with Williams. I decided to pursue an Engineering degree and did so. I went to an fairly industry specific school, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, and took extensive classes in Mechanical and Electrical engineering. Both obviously heavy on "science," and being familiar with both types of engineering required to be an adequate shipboard engineer. Yet, in which classes did consistently receive better grades? You guessed it, the Humanities, in this case English and History.

The course load at the Academy was heavy (averaged about 20 credit hours/quarter) because one year is spent at sea, training and working for slave wages as a "cadet." But I stray from my point. With at least 15 credit hours a quarter centered on science, and only 3 or so in the Humanities, the focus was obviously on the former. Given the goals of the school, it seems obvious that the Humanities Dep't. existed to provide the bare requirements for undergraduate education. Regardless of their relative unimportance in the overall realm of the Academy's educational manifesto, I embraced these courses and did appreciably better in them than in my harder, science based courses of my major. This could be because I liked them more, or because they were simply easier. Looking back, it seems like both would apply.

Why is this so? I think it's because the Humanities, especially at the undergraduate level, can lend themsevles to liberal levels of interpretation for student work. However, I also think that, as in my case, if students are interested in the topic, have decent reading comprehension and writing ability, then they will succeed. I guess I can say that I found humanities courses easier, but that may have more to do with me being more intrinsically interested in the subject matter than in any "intelligence" on my part.

Moving on, I've worked in the Engineering field now for 13 years. I started out applying my skills by working on ships, making beaucoup dollars and living life large. I then met the right girl, got married, and "came ashore," taking a job at a small engineering consulting firm in Rhode Island. I have since picked up computer skills, including a smattering of C++ and Delphi along with healthy doses of database administration skills. But this isn't a resume, merely an illustration of the point that I continue to enhance my scientific background. While still working, I decided to pursue my first love, and am currently striving for an MA in History. It is going well and I have come to appreciate the amount of thought and intellectual dexterity and depth required for a career in this particular branch of the humanities.

Given this as background, I think the essential point is that Humanities at the undergraduate level are not held to a high standard. The nature of subject matter results in a testing apparatus that leaves much open to interpretation, especially in these days of Literary Criticism (the bastardization of it, not the concept) and Post-Modernism that, though the latter is slowly fading away, still are firmly entrenched in the Ivory Tower. Conversely, the structural nature of the sciences and the fact that there is generally only one answer to any specific problem does not lend itself to such interpretation. Those who can learn the rules and apply them as they solve problems, succeed. This kind of structural intelligence is probably different than that required of the humanities. Neither is better, but the former is more measurable and quantifiable, thus trusted, while the latter's lack of measurables can lead to skepticism of quality.

Today's society offers more opportunity for immediate financial gain for those in scientifc fields as the results speak for themselves. The sciences all have nationally recognized standards. To be confirmed as qualified, a student or professional must pass a test. The test is, generally speaking, the same regardless of whether you graduated from Colgate, MIT or the University of Rhode Island. There are no similar, standard tests for the Humanities fields, to my knowledge. There is no way to quantify and compare. All qualification relies on reputation on the institution from which one graduated. There are no cold, hard facts to say "qualified," it's all based on perception formed by institutional reputation and subjective analysis of scholarly work.

Speaking now of the field of History in particular, to attain the highest degree, a PhD, requires one to basically sacrifice all life for a decade. After taking a year or two to get an MA, a PhD candidate must jump through the hoops of a particular program, usually embarking on independent study, serving as a lackey for his "advisor" by "assisting" him in teaching undergratuate courses, attending mandatory seminars and generally becoming indoctrinated into "the way we do things." All for about $10000 a year. Then it takes anywhere from 3-10 years to complete a Doctoral thesis. Gee, how could one resist? Obviously, money cannot be the motivating factor here. As a working man with a family, it is simply impossible for me to pursue a PhD after I receive my MA. That's OK and it's not really the point of this piece.

What is the point is that perhaps what is needed is for more "science" guys like me to cross the Rubicon and enter the Humanities, especially after we have put some years between our undergrad work and our current careers. In my courses, I have come across many students, either just out of undergrad or current teachers, who have never left the Academy and have a particular, often shared, view of the world. They don't realize that academia isn't the real world, and people who have worked, particularly those who have attained a level of professional success, can do a vital service by infilitrating those ivory towers, knocking down a wall or two and allowing in some fresh air. I've tried to do so, without stepping on toes and I think it is a necessity.

The Humanities aren't simply about being well-read or informed, more importantly, they help to hone skills of critical thinking. I don't mean logical thinking here, as can be found in the sciences, I mean critical; there is a difference. It's not about cultural snobbery, it's about better knowing ourselves as humans. It's about getting beneath the MTV/short attention span society and refusing to take everything at face value based on an image or conventional wisdom. It doesn't allow you to make assumptions about anything. Critical thinking doesn't have to be deconstructionist, it's most valuable contribution to society is that it can help to strengthen valued themes or institutions and the like. Once subjected to rigorous analysis informed by 2,000 years of Western Civilization and, now, Eastern and even Aboriginal if you wish "Civilization," cherished ideals such as religion or national history can emerge stronger. The Humanities are the certification societies of our culture. It's members just don't print out and send you a certificate. Yes, there is no concrete standard of measure or a priori concept. The Humanities deal with us, with Humans, and how we manifest what and how we think. Human is the root of the term, after all, and humans have Free Will, the great unknowable variable. No science has yet calculated a value for it.

My Impressions of The Passion

I finally saw The Passion the other night, and have now spent over 24 hours, off and on, thinking about it. Before I get to my thoughts, I thought I'd pull a couple comments from two disparate sources. . . Harry Knowles of the Movie Geek site Ain't It Cool News and William F. Buckley from the National Review. Why these two, I don't know, maybe because they are the latest to come out with their own reviews. First, Mr. Buckley:

"The film by Mel Gibson is moving because of its central contention, namely that an innocent man of high moral purpose was tortured and killed. It happens that the man in question, Jesus of Nazareth, is an object of worship, and that harm done unto him, in the perspective of those (myself included) who regard him as divine, is especially keen because it is not only inhuman, it is blasphemous. . .

What Gibson gave us in his Passion is the most prolonged human torture ever seen on the screen. It is without reason, and by no means necessarily derivative from the grand hypothesis that, after all, the crucifixion was without reason, as Pontius Pilate kept on observing. One sees for dozens of minutes soldiers apparently determined to flog to death the man the irresolute procurator had consented merely to 'chastise. . .'

. . . improvisation is headlong in Gibson's Passion. Still, the film cannot help moving the viewer, shaking the viewer . . . The suffering of Jesus isn't intensified by inflicting the one-thousandth blow: that is the Gibson/Braveheart contribution to an agony which was overwhelmingly spiritual in character and perfectly and definitively caught by Johann Sebastian Bach in his aptly named Passion of Christ According to St. Matthew. There beauty and genius sublimate a passion which Gibson celebrates by raw bloodshed. The only serious question left in the viewer's mind is: Should God have exempted this gang from His comprehensive mercy? But that is because we are human, Christ otherwise."

It seems Mr. Buckley, a noted conservative was rather uncomfortable with the level of violence in Gibson's film, though his final point is right on.

Now, for Harry Knowles:

"When I saw the film all the comments about the film being a “Jew Bashing” spectacle went away for me, because the message I saw being conveyed could not have been further from the mark. TO ME – “THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST” is an astonishingly powerful work of cinema that’s overwhelming purpose is to show the lengths of personal hell one could endure without losing one’s purpose or love for one’s fellow human beings. I found in the film that Jesus wasn’t in the end asking for violent retribution, he wasn’t “pissed” at the Romans for whipping the flesh from his body, nor was he not wanting retribution visited upon those that set Anthony Quinn free instead of him. It was his fate. It was what he was “sent” here to do. From the moment he steps on that serpent’s head, through the end credits… Jesus is accepting his fate. It will not be a pretty one, but he does accept it. In fact, I’d even say that he does things to ensure that it will be his fate. He doesn’t defend himself. He doesn’t make excuses. After he’s “caned” badly by the Romans, he rises in defiance to press them into further action. This was HIS decision, because he needed to be a martyr. That was his purpose.
This wasn’t supposed to be a happy story. What possible message was Mel Gibson trying to convey? I’m not positive, but the message I found in the film. The reason for showing all that horrible violence and personal atrocity… it wasn’t for exploitation or out of his own perverse sense of bloodlust. To me, that violence was to illustrate in excruciating detail the lengths one could go through and suffer through without raising a hand to defend ones’ self, to not cry for revenge, to not curse those that torment you. That in your dying moments you pray for those that would see you dead, not hurl a curse upon them. Not inspire your believes to save you, but to go knowing one’s place and embrace the inevitable end.
I find the film an amazing tribute to pacifism."

Harry Knowles is a self-described hippy, peacnik, liberal. Hardly what could be called a member of the religious right.

What these two reviews show is that different people will take different things out of the film. To a great extent, the thoughts and preconceptions with which they enter the theater can markedly affect their experience in viewing the film. Some have their faith re-affirmed, or restored (as in the case of Harry Knowles). Others come away disgusted, feeling that Gibson has relied on pornographic violence (scroll down a bit) and his film missed the point of Jesus' life entirely. Finally, those wary of anti-semitic undertones, will often find them. With these points in mind, why kind of baggage did I bring with me into the theater?

Well, first, and obvious, I'm a conservative, and I'm also a historian, so I'm inclined to value tradition and to critically approach historical works. Be it Western Civilization or the Bible, I see the inherent value of our past and what it can teach us when it is portrayed accurately. Add to this an upbringing as a Roman Catholic and you have an individual with a pretty strong, traditional, Western-style mind with a moral conscience. That's not to say that I'm necessarily a biblical scholar, in fact, far from it. Yet, I purposedly refrained from "boning up" on the Bible so I could go into the film with what I thought would be more of the mindset of the "average" movie goer. I also dispensed with any desire to keep my eyes open for historical innacuracy. (I don't really care if it's 2nd or 11th century Latin being spoken, for instance). As far as the religious aspect, in essence, I'm aware of the general theme of scripture, though not really familiar with exact portions.

Rather than delve into details, I will give my general impressions. The first thing that comes to mind is the role of Satan. I found the inclusion of Satan as an observer interesting. To me, while Satan mocked Jesus and attempted to goad him into action against his fate, I also believe that Satan was fascinated by Jesus. It seems as if he was asking "How could any man go throught this when he clearly had the power to stop it all?" The final scene of Satan screaming when he realizes that the pain and torture which Jesus endured and that Satan had been enjoying actually resulted in hurting HIM was important.

I can honestly see how some would think this film anti-Semitic, so long as they identify being Jewish with the hierarchy only. However, to claim such and not notice that at least two Rabbi's were kicked out of the Sanhedrin for challenging Jesus' "trial" as well as the many JEWISH supporters of Jesus is disengenuous.

The portrayal of the Roman soldiers as brutish barbarians left no doubt in my mind which "side" enjoyed torturing and punishing Jesus more. I was struck by the moment when the Roman soldier spat the word "Jew" at Simon after he had helped Jesus carry the Cross. It is clear that the Romans regarded all of the Jews, whether they followed Jesus or Caiphas, as little more than worthless "rabble."

Pilate's role was played perfectly and, to me, he seemed to be what he probably really was; a Roman politician who was concerned for his job and willing to do anything, albeit with regret, to keep the peace. I'm not sure, however, whether I approve of the portrayal of his wife. That was a new one to me, and I think it may have gone too far in casting a sympathetic light on the Romans.

The torture scene was tough. Was it necessary for Gibson to go that far? I have mixed feelings, though I have theories as to why he did. Could it be that in today's culture, so inured to scenes of violence, that Gibson felt he had to raise the bar to convey the degree of savagery to a contemporary audience? Could the over-the-top torture and pain be simply there to make us wonder how any man could endure it, only to realize that Jesus was more than man? I'm not really sure. I don't know if I'll ever be sure, but it is what it is. I can understand why people would not agree with Gibson's approach on this, though ascribing nefarious or perverted motives to him is to go way too far.

Finally, I noted that when Jesus was taken down from the Cross, it was by his mother Mary, Mary Madgalene and an disciple as well as two Roman soldiers and a Rabbi. All of the factions took him from the Cross and cared for his dead body, just as all of the factions had a hand in putting him on the Cross. The Romans and Jewish leaders role were obvious, but the rejection of Jesus by Peter as well as those disciples who fled from him in the Garden also contributed to his death. Of course, the most obvious contributer was Judas, the fallen disciple. All had a part in Jesus' death and elements of all cared for his body after he died.

In my opinion, Gibson succeeded in that he has the nation talking about faith. Put away the nuance and politics of it all, and that is the basic result of the movie. Religion isn't necessarily a conversational taboo anymore. To my mind, that's good. It certainly has made me think about faith again and, combined with my ongoing education in history, could lead to some interesting internal intellectual debates for me. I urge all to see it, whether you think you'll like it or hate it, or whether you will feel the same after seeing it. It is not a movie to like, anyway; it is a movie to make you think and we need a lot more people in this country to start thinking.

As an epilogue, I would like to add that it is interesting that Gibson has essentially put forth a form of Evangelism, which relies on eliciting an emotional response from people, that has prompted intellectual debate between religious and secular. A similar occurence happened in the mid 18th century during the Great Awakening, though the debate was between Evangelical Christians and Rational Christians (Enlightenment influence Christians, if you will). Historical parallel? Perhaps. The result was a further splintering of Protestantism, with some moving toward secularization and others toward more fundamental, even dogmatic, religious belief. Ultimately, it firmly entrenched religious thought, of one form or another, into the fabric of American society. I did a presentation on the American Enlightenment recently that touched on this subject. If you have the inclination, you can find it here. (Download it if you want, I was too lazy to convert it to html).

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Thomas Sowell On Gay Marriage

I have to link to this column by Thomas Sowell, a logical and deliberate dismantling of several arguments made by the proponents of gay-marriage-by-judicial-fiat. While others, such as Rhode Island's own Justin Katz, have done a fine job of arguing against the executive/judicial implementation of gay marriage in opposition to those, such as Andrew Sullivan, who support the idea, Sowell is a thinker extraordinaire and his opinion on anything is worth a read.

Would you like a job for $126 per hour?

Then become a crossing guard in Warwick! Ok, you won't actually make that much, but the city will be spending that much on you, according to Edward Achorn in today's ProJo. And to show just how much power the public employee unions have in this state, Warwick Mayor Scott Avidesian is actually happy (though "relieved" may be the proper term) to have struck such a deal. Here are the particulars, according to Achorn's piece:

1) The guards will trim back their force from 28 to 23.
2) They will give up their $310 clothing allowance.
3) Guards hired in the future will have to pay 10 percent of their health-insurance premiums
4) Taxpayers will save a three-year total of $200,000 over the previous contract.

Wow, that was pretty nice of the how come I don't feel satisfied. As Achorn says:

". . . I find myself questioning the very premise of lavishly rewarding crossing guards with our limited resources. This is not because I don't love crossing guards. It's because I place a higher priority on repairing school buildings, replacing outdated textbooks, exposing children to art and music, and helping the neediest in our society. And it's because I can recognize that dollars come from real people. High taxes in Rhode Island do more than drive off business development and force young people to look for jobs elsewhere; they make it hard for most of us to make ends meet."

Here's what the crossing guards "settled for," again, from Achorn's Piece:

1) The health insurance co-pay (#3, above) applies only to hires after July 1, 2003. Those hired before will continue to receive free health insurance.
2) The City of Warwick will pay into the union's legal fund.
3) Guards receive 9 paid holidays and 10 paid sick days per year, with the ability to accumulate and cash in the latter.
4) The city's contribution to the guards' pension fund will rise from about $26,000 to $34,000 a year in 2005.
5) Warwick pays for a "Medigap" policy for retirees, giving them extra protection after they start receiving Medicare.

The Result? "Warwick is spending an average of $128 per hour per crossing guard. That's more per guard than Cranston is paying under its existing, absurdly plush contract."

Why did Mayor Avedesian feel like this was such a good deal? Achorn hypothesizes that since a similar situation in Cranston led to the demonization of Mayor Laffey and legal battles, it was probably cheaper and more politically amenable to receive limited concessions and proclaim a deal than to really take on the union over these jobs. As Achorn says: "It is easier for a public leader to be 'realistic,' to fine-tune the degree of mutual back scratching, than to step back and ask: Is this the best we can do for our state and, especially, for our children?"

That these are unionized jobs is ridiculous in the extreme, to begin with. These should cost $128/week, not per hour. I never thought that you could have a career as a crossing guard. It really sounds like a bad joke, but we've already established this as the norm and are left with a situation of having to either negotiate with them or endure the threat of a legal battle should we decide to not negotiate. The practical approach, as suggested by Achorn, and to me is obvious, would be to put these jobs up to bid by private contractors.

I have nothing against these crossing guards. Heck, I can see why they'd want such a plum job. Yet, this is Rhode Island in a nutshell, isn't it folks? We all can see the outrage of paying people this kind of money, our tax dollars, for helping the kids cross the street. But the problem lies in that, here in this little state, the local impact of such matters can lead to difficult, tense situations. After all, that local crossing guard is so-and-so who lives down the street and how can I be so mean as to begrudge him his living. Everyone does know everyone else and are naturally reticent to do wrong by their neighbor.

There are a disproportionate amount of people in this state who work for the state (or city) or know those who do. Any attempt to reduce the size of government naturally affects a certain amount of a states citizenry. In Rhode Island, this would probably be a proportionally larger amount than in most other states. After all, the biggest business in Rhode Island is government. Given this, change is difficult. Governor Carcieri is touring the state trying to wake up the residents, and politicians, to the fact that money doesn't grow on trees. We have to stop spending on such ridiculous luxuries as crossing guards with medical plans and vacation time. We have to support our Governor and those politicians who will stand up to the proponents of the the "business as usual" mindset. We have to support those who would and do stand up to these forces, such as Cranston's Mayor Laffey. Most of all, we have to try to change the attitude of our fellow Rhode Islanders away from "that's just the way it is" to "it doesn't have to be like this." It's difficult and all such efforts to this point seem to have produced marginal results at best. But the cause is just, as they say, and I intend to keep on fighting. Maybe this is a quixotic battle, but it is worth fighting, nonetheless.

Friday, March 05, 2004

Judge Fortunato: Secularist Supreme

Stephen J. Fortunato Jr., Rhode Island Superior Court judge, took issue in today's ProJo with Attorney General Patrick Lynch and Rhode Island Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank J. Williams. Lynch presided over, and both spoke at, an interdenominational convocation at the First Baptist Church in America to honor former attorneys general on Feb. 23. Religious leaders also spoke at the event, and both Lynch and Williams spoke about the Judeo-Christian influences on the founding of our nation. Additionally, both seem to talk about this influence fairly regularly, according to Fortunato. To him, these actions reveal that "judicial officials were becoming improperly entangled with a religious ceremony and religious proselytizing."

Fortunato seems especially disturbed by Lynch's statement that "the three great monotheistic religions -- Christianity, Judaism and Islam -- form the basis of the criminal-justice system." He believes that they tread into "dangerous territory" and that "they breach the 'hedge or wall' that Roger Williams said must separate church and state." Further, he qualifies that "[l]iberty of conscience permits anyone to hold any faith they wish, but judicial officers should not proclaim their views from a church pulpit provided to them solely because they hold public office." As Fortunato points out, it would be hard to believe that either Lynch or Williams would have been invited to speak at the event had they not been prominent statewide offices.

Fortunato uses Roger Williams, "a man ahead of his times", to buttress his argument about the separation of church and state. Williams believed that such a separation would be beneficial to both, that much is correct, but Fortunato implies that Williams conception of the separation of church and state was the equivalent of what Fortunato believes today. He also charges that secular officials have historically attempted to pander to the their constituents by using religion for political gain and have misinterpreted history, purposefully or ignorantly, in the process.

While he correctly points out that the myth of "the Founding Fathers huddled over the Bible or other religious tracts in designing our government" is inaccurate, he goes to far in downplaying the role played by Judeo-Christian traditions. He is correct in pointing out the influence of "pagans" like "Plato, Aristotle and Cicero" and the "philosophers of the Enlightenment, who were committed much more to reason than to faith." Yet, he errs when he concludes that, because they did not necessarily subscribe to the mainstream views of religion in their day (namely, they were Deists), that they discounted or minimized the role of religion in their thinking. One of the great early thinkers of the Enlightenment, John Locke, wrote an essay regarding the importance and rational basis of Religion. Many of the leaders of the Enlightenment in America were themselves preachers. Rational Religion was a major result of the combination of Religion with Rationalism. Thus, while the founders were heavily influenced by reason, even they, the leaders of rationalism, believed in God and that without an ultimate, moral being - without God - their rational theories and concepts could not be sustained.

However, Fortunato's true point of view is revealed in the following harangue:

"However, one can fairly inquire as to what Judeo-Christian principles justified the theft of land from Native Americans, allowed slavery and later Jim Crow, denied the vote to women, permitted child labor and justified the locking up of Japanese-Americans for no reason other than the color of their skin and the land of their ancestors. More currently, what Judeo Christian principles allow the incarceration of human beings without charge, without trial and without counsel. What Judeo-Christian principles support laws that let some people accumulate vast fortunes, while others work for substandard wages?"

Fortunato accuses Judeo-Christian principles of falling short in many areas when, in fact, the opposite is true. The abolitionist movement was firmly rooted in New England churches and eventually brought an end to slavery. Need I remind Fortunato that Dr. Martin Luther King was a Reverend? I'm not going to attempt to counter all of Fortunato's attacks, but all of the examples cited by Fortunato have been addressed, one way or another with varying degrees of success, in an attempt to correct past misdeeds. Americans have a conscience, this conscience isn't a result of some rationally and humanistically moral "immaculate conception." Rather, it is based on the Judeo-Christian beliefs of our country's founding generations, the same beliefs that Fortunato chooses to belittle and downplay.

The above paragraph indicates to me that Fortunato does not approach this topic from some idealistic belief in the separation of church and state. Rather, it seems clear the he is antagonistic to religion, especially that of the Judeo-Christian variety, and that he takes an idealist, anachronistic view of history. He seems to be conflating Judeo-Christian beliefs with the failure of its practitioners to uphold its ideals. This is a common error made by secularists, the non-religious, or the historical idealists. They assume because the application of moral, religious ideals is not always successful, such is in marriage, than the authority that prescribes these ideals is itself flawed. To use a tired old phrase, they "throw the baby out with the bath water."

No person and no law in our democracy can stop anyone, including Attorney General Lynch and Chief Justice Williams, from worshipping as he or she pleases and holding any religious views they wish. Moreover, if the attorney general and the chief justice wish to share with a group of scholars, or any interested members of the public for that matter, the beliefs and experiences that undergird their political and legal viewpoints, they are free to do so -- but not from a pulpit at a religious, quasi-religious or pseudoreligious ceremony.

Finally, Fortunato states that everyone, including Lynch and Williams, can worship as they wish. He even says they can discuss their beliefs and how those beliefs influence their professional thought without being subject to criticism of the sort Fortunato has engaged. Instead, the problem Fortunato really has is that they did so "from a pulpit at a religious, quasi-religious or pseudoreligious ceremony." This last bit is a throwaway. This is merely the legal side of Fortunato speaking; the real Judge Fortunato was revealed in his accusatory paragraph quoted in full above. That someone so antagonistic towards the belief system of the majority of our nation is a Rhode Island Superior Court judge is disturbing. I wonder how he feels about person after person coming into his courtroom and swearing on the Bible to tell the truth? It seems that, according to Fortunato, such an act is merely symbolism and is worthless. Perhaps he should remove this religious relic of a ceremonial vow from his courtroom. After all, it really doesn't mean anything, does it?

Thursday, March 04, 2004

About that Statewide Property Tax . . .

A Statewide property tax is being sought for schools, according to todays ProJo. Yikes! was my first reaction, right along with "here we go again." However, after quelling my knee-jerk, yet well-earned, cynical reaction to the news of another tax idea being floated around the state house, I proceeded to read the article. Below are the highlights (in italic) with my comments:

Seven municipal leaders have joined forces with a nonprofit public policy research organization to put forth a new way of paying for public education that they say would not only control costs but reduce spending gaps between rich and poor communities.

The plan, which wouldn't take effect until 2008, would do two things: create a state property tax that would apply equally to all 39 cities and towns, and establish the same minimum per-pupil spending level. The existing portion of the local property tax earmarked for education would be eliminated.

The goal is admirable, we need to figure out a better way to fund education in this state. That much seems obvious. If this was any other state, the idea of a state propery tax would seem to be an option I'd consider, especially given that the current local taxes earmarked for education would be eliminated. But this is Rhode Island. The Legislature in this state simply can't be trusted with our tax dollars as it is, and now we are to believe that we should send our local tax dollars earmarked for education to the State House for statewide dispersement? I'm suspicious.

The group is asking for a constitutional amendment that would require the legislature to guarantee "an equitable, adequate and meaningful education to each child." Under current law, the legislature must only "promote public schools"; there is no mention of providing equal education to every child in Rhode Island.

According to the coalition, the current method of financing public education is broken because school districts never know in advance how much state aid they will receive, which wreaks havoc with the annual budget process.

I don't have even close to a "legal mind," so I don't know if a consititutional amendment is necessary. Regardless, to me it sounds like flowery, feel good language. Equitable seems to be easily maintainable, but how does one judge what is adequate and meaningful. Vague, very vague.

Meanwhile, the cost of public education continues to climb. During the past 10 years, state and local spending on education has almost doubled, to $1.8 billion, according to RIPEC [Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council ], a business-backed organization.

And as the cost of education has soared, so has the burden on the local taxpayer. In Rhode Island, 65 percent of the total dollars spent on education comes from the property tax, compared with 45 percent nationally. In Rhode Island, the rest comes from the state's general revenue including income tax, sales tax and gambling proceeds.

Under the existing system, those districts with the neediest children -- Providence or Woonsocket -- are often the least able to pay for the extra services those students need.

The last point is an old, and recognized, problem. How to pay for the education of urban students, soley based on local property taxes. I don't think I need to delve into this old argument too much here. As for the soaring cost of public education, no mention is made of the state being in the top 10 of teacher salaries and benefits. It seems the focus is on how to pay for a ballooning education bill without looking into the root causes of the expansion. Classic financial liberalism.

RIPEC says the new funding formula would address all three issues by distributing education dollars fairly, establishing a predictable funding formula and reducing dependence on the property tax to fund education.

First, the legislation would address the following question: What should we as a state spend to educate a child?

The plan would guarantee that each district receive a minimum per-pupil spending level, or "foundation level." The coalition has not, however, decided what that number would be. The number would be established by municipal leaders, educators and members of the legislature. They would then identify the ingredients that contribute to a quality education, such as the cost of textbooks, new technology or early childhood education.

"The goal is to make sure that a child living in North Providence has the same resources as a child living in East Greenwich," said RIPEC's policy director, Peter Marino.

It's obvious that a lot of hashing out will have to be done, but the goal seems admirable and "fair." A minimum spending level seems logical and the point made by Peter Marino is as concise as need be.

Under the formula, a district would receive extra credit or "weighting" for a child who needs additional help and therefore costs more to educate -- the special-needs child, the child living in poverty, the child with limited English skills. The formula recognizes that it costs more to educate a child who has a signficant learning disability or who speaks very little English.

The goal, Marino says, is to send more dollars to those districts with large numbers of children in need.

Again, the coalition hasn't decided what the categories or definitions of weighted students will be or what weight would be assigned to each of those students.

Now we're really getting into the murky waters. Can anyone else see the possibility that school districts will suddenly report explosions in the number of Learning Disabled, Dislexic, or ADD kids, fully realizing that this means more dollars? I certainly can. As far as the students who speak little English, their should be a cap on the number of years that a school is qualified to ask for extra dollars on a per student basis. I think that 4 years of education in an English speaking environment should be more than enough. School districts can't be allowed to report a child in this category for an entire 12 year scholastic "career." By putting a cap on the number of allowable years per student, and probably some sort of English testing with say a "performance" bonus for the district based on the number of students who pass the English test, perhaps the State can provide enough incentives to actually get these kids up to par in the language of their country. (As politically incorrect as that may sound).

But the proposal would take the guessing out of the annual budget-setting process. A district would set its budget like this: each district would take its total student enrollment, including the additional number of students it gets through the weighted formula, and multiply that total by the state's per-pupil spending figure.

"The budget is predetermined," Marino said. "That's how towns will be able to control costs."

RIPEC offered the following example:

A district has 100 students. Each district gets $1,000 for each student under the state minimum per pupil formula. Of that total enrollment, 50 children also have special needs. Each special-needs student is counted as another "child."

Therefore, under the "weighted" formula, the district could claim funding for 150 students, which means it would receive $150,000 instead of $100,000.

The way local aid works now, the governor proposes one figure and then, in May or June, the General Assembly usually throws additional money into the local aid pot.

The new formula would establish how much money cities and towns get in advance, making it impossible for the legislature to tinker with the numbers at the last minute.

However, the legislature does have the authority to adjust the per-pupil spending figure as well as the state property tax, if, for example, the state is facing a deficit. But, under the new formula, any change would be borneequally by all districts.

This is all pretty self explanatory. Good, clear example! It also shows what a mess the current system is.

The legislation also establishes a state property tax for education, something that has been done in 35 states. Currently, each city and town sets its own property tax rate, but the proposal would create one statewide rate. Again, RIPEC hasn't determined what that rate would be, but the rate would depend on what portion of education costs local communities would absorb. Cities and towns would still set a tax rate for the municipal side of government including services such as police, fire and garbage pickup.

A community with a strong tax base would be able to cover most of its school budget from revenue generated by the state property tax. However, in communities such as Providence or West Warwick, the state would have to contribute a larger share.

How would the state pay its share of public education? From the same sources it does now, Marino said.

The devil, however, is in the details. The legislature, working with other interest groups, will have to balance the need to generate enough revenue to pay for the state's share of education against the need to hold the line on property taxes.

Sounds like the taxpayer would see little difference. The money would go to the state instead of the local community. 35 other states do it. But their not Rhode Island and don't have a similar history of Legislative malfeasance. I'm still very suspicious of putting even more money into the hands of the House on the Hill. Never mind trusting them to hold the line on property taxes!

There is one final twist. A district may want to augment what it spends on education. For example, Barrington might want to finance a gifted and talented program or East Greenwich might want to add another foreign language to its high school curriculum.

This proposal would give those communities the option to spend more than the state's per-pupil minimum. Any increase would have an annual cap to prevent wealthier districts from outspending its less fortunate neighbors, which would lead to the kind of spending disparities that currently exist between rich and poor communities.

Ah yes, there always is a twist isn't there? A spending cap?! Why should the state want to or be able to tell any community that it can't spend as much as it wants on education? It really is a communist-style idea. This is what conservatives mean when we speak of how we see the liberal state attempting to lower the bar to satisfy some perverted conception of equality. Instead, they should look to raise the bar. This is a case of subtle class warfare. The rich towns of Barrington or East Greenwich won't be allowed to provide for additional programs at their own expense? What right does the Legislature have to limit local spending in any area? I have a hard time believing that this concept is Constitutional.

It is this final twist that should start the warning bells ringing. Even with the mere floating of a proposal, members of Rhode Island State Government can't wait to dictate to localities what they can and can't do. How long before the Legislature, with full control over not just the budgeting, but now the actual money, will begin witholding money from programs it decides aren't spending said money "the right way?" Perhaps the best way to prevent such oppresive "oversight" would be to give communities the opportunity to opt out. But then towns, like East Greenwich or Barrington couldn't be compelled to send their tax dollars to a general education fund, which in turn would be sent to needier communities like Providence and Woonsocket.

The concept seems good, but I wouldn't trust this Legislature with my paper route money, much less the property tax revenue of the entire state. Regardless, should this plan move forward, the one crucial element that must be removed is the spending cap. It is not proper for the State to limit local spending to such a degree on the basis of "fairness."

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

A Visit from Howard Zinn

So, historian Howard Zinn lectured at South Kingstown High School yesterday. Hm. Before reading further, and only if you have the time, take a look at this excerpt from Zinn's A People's History of the United States: 1492 - Present. (This chapter covers the period 1945-1960). The conclusion to be drawn from this lengthy sample of Zinn's writing is that Mr. Zinn is essentially a Marxist. I don't mean to use that as a derogatory label, rather, I use it in the historical sense. (Of course, let me now contradict myself by pointing out that Zinn has admitted to being a member of the Communist Party of the USA in his youth). He believes in studying history "from the bottom up." An excerpt from the ProJo piece (only available in the South County Edition) confirms this:

Raised in a working-class family, Zinn said his political views were formed in the shipyard where he went to work after high school.

While there, he first became aware of class consciousness, of two distinct Americas -- rich and poor -- and of a lack of a cohesive national interest.

"If you want to understand what's going on in this world, you have to do so with a class consciousness," he remembers thinking.

It was a basic life discovery with far-reaching implications. It was the passing of a boy and the birth of an activist.

Like many in his generation, Zinn soon found himself in the last place any budding activist would choose to be, on an Air Force plane, dropping bombs on the enemy as a bombardier in World War II.

By the end of the war, Zinn said, his political leanings were sealed. He selected academics as a means of shedding light on world affairs and what he called a frightening American foreign policy.

This makes him sound like a working class historian of some sort. In truth, Zinn is a historian of the oppressed, which is different. He mostly ignores the middle class as he contrasts the wrongfully oppressed with those who are in power. The result is a false impression of society; a canonization of the downtrodden simultaneous to a demonization of those in power. As is obvious, when it comes to America specifically, most of those in power were the oft ridiculed and stereotyped "white males." Zinn was in the vanguard of those who created this stereotype.

As a Marxist historian, Zinn is enamored with "people," often forgetting that those people often held views similar to their "oppressors." In fact, they could be just as oppressive as their "masters." For instance, Zinn would focus on how the Spanish decimated the Aztec kingdom, ascribing racial motivations to the Spanish mindset. The validity of Spanish racism towards Native peoples is not in and of itself the point. That Zinn fails his reader by giving short shrift to the fact that the Spanish were assisted by other tribes who disliked the Aztecs for all sorts of reasons, like being human sacrifices, is to be noted.

Finally, Zinn's problem is that he consistently views history through the prism of the present. This anachronistic measuring stick almost always finds well-known historical figures coming up short in one form or another. Zinn's work is good in that he brings to light the past of many forgotten or historically under-represented groups. It suffers from his insistence that in order to properly illuminate these forgotten pasts, he feels the need to cast the shadow of doubt upon the historical reputation of those who held power over the "people." For Zinn, history seems to be a zero sum game. Is this the kind of person that parents want lecturing their children in school? Especially without someone else providing a counterbalance? I'll be interested to see if any parents react to this or if it will just simply pass by with nary a blink.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

More of My Stuff is Up

Added a few things to the "My Works" section of the site. They are, "Bibliography of Works in Historical Method," a "Brief Essay on concept of 'People's History'," and "The American Enlightenment (Lecture notes with Bibliography)." All are copyrighted, but if you're desperate enough to feel the need to plagiarize my work, then you have some problems.

Patting Myself on the Back

Hey, I made the ProJo! I mentioned earlier that I had sent a letter to the editor of the Projo reacting to a column by Joseph M. Reynolds called "Crushing discourse -- Taste of power corrupts Bush." After much editing (and paring down), the Journal saw fit to publish the letter. It's not much, but it's a start.