The need to “do something” isn’t enough.

Robert Samuelson’s column from today’s Washington Post:

If you’re in Asheville, N.C., stop by Biltmore, the vast estate that George Vanderbilt III — heir to a railroad fortune — constructed between 1889 and 1895. You can tour most of its 250 rooms, including 43 bathrooms and an indoor swimming pool. When few Americans used electricity, Biltmore had its own generators. To take the tour is to grasp one of the great advances of the 20th century: The gap between the super-rich and most Americans has narrowed enormously. In Vanderbilt’s time, most Americans lived in filthy slums or on modest farms. Now even the wealthiest among us live more like ordinary people than Vanderbilt ever did.

To better reflect reality, I’d rewrite that last sentence as follows:

Now even the most ordinary among us live more like wealthy people than Vanderbilt’s contemporaries ever did.

Mr. Samuelson goes on to provide various economic details about how “trickle-up economics” benefits only the rich, which “seems un-American.” Meritocracy is decidedly un-American, I guess, but that’s not really what’s useful here. Instead of debating the merits of the potential causes of this supposed economic disparity, including “costly” employer-provided “squeezing take-home pay in the middle,” this passage matters most:

What might government do? The Bush administration’s enthusiasm for tax cuts for the rich could be tempered; to reduce the budget deficit, their taxes could be raised without dulling economic incentives. (For the record: I supported the first Bush tax cut and opposed his cuts on capital gains and dividends.) Equally, liberals and others who support lax immigration policies across our southern border should understand that these policies deepen U.S. inequality.

But many familiar proposals would be mostly symbolic or hurtful. Raising the minimum wage might directly affect only about 5 percent of workers and might destroy some jobs. Protectionism might save a few well-paid jobs but would inflict higher prices on those least able to afford them. Still, no one should be happy with today’s growing economic inequality. It threatens America’s social compact, which depends on a shared sense of well-being.

Of course government must do something. Otherwise, our shared sense of well-being will die. Huh? From what I can decipher, Mr. Samuelson is not saying we should just continue with the same government policies. Good for him. But what evidence does he have for believing that some other government program we haven’t tried, which I believe is his assertion, will save the social compact? He acknowledges the perverse consequences of existing government policy. To the question of what might government do, the answer just might be to get out of the way.

Sen. Allen’s self-inflicted wounds in 2006

I guess I understand the interest in the allegation that Sen. George Allen used a racial epithet while at the University of Virginia. Given other recent and not-so-recent behaviors, his alleged derogatory comments in the early 1970s spark valid character questions. However, I’m not in a rush to damn him over this because I still believe in innocent until proven guilty. Hearsay is not enough. (Someone should ask the Senator how he feels about that.) Also, I don’t need to go into the past to know I won’t be voting for him in November. Consider:

“This story and these allegations are false,” Allen told reporters after a news conference yesterday morning with primarily black pastors in support of the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in Virginia.

This Senate race isn’t really about the proposed amendment in Virginia. Ultimately, Sen. Allen doesn’t need the issue because the amendment will pass without his cheerleading. His support is nothing more than predictable pandering to a small-minded minority of his base who want the appearance of values rather than the possession of values. Demonizing one group of citizens to gain a few votes he’ll receive anyway is a much bigger character issue to me than allegedly using racial slurs in the distant past.

People make mistakes. Those mistakes are revealing and relevant, but what he may or may not have said while in college doesn’t interest me much. The valid question is who the candidate is today. Embracing blacks to attack gays is shameless and not the mark of a statesman. Sen. Allen’s support for Virginia’s bigot amendment, among many other departures from his absurdly self-professed libertarianism, demonstrates that he is not worthy of a continued position in the United States Senate.

Principles may have precise definitions

While listening to Howard Stern this morning, a woman called in claiming that she drinks a 12-pack of beer per day while she’s pregnant. She believes that she should be able to indulge herself because she’s doing the work to carry the child. I won’t discuss either statement because, if true, her selfish irresponsibility is obvious. I found the entire discussion nauseating.

What was interesting is the point about she tried to make about being served alcohol. The woman said bars and restaurants serve her without question, which makes sense to her because “her money is as good anyone else’s.” Perhaps, but if I owned a bar or restaurant and a pregnant woman ordered alcohol for herself, I’d refuse to sell it to her. She can do what she wants, but I don’t have to accommodate her decision. I suspect I’m not unique in my stance.

Plenty of people would smear me as a greedy, profit-driven capitalist pig because I believe in free markets over government control. This scenario demonstrates that thinking in generalizations can lead an individual to incomplete conclusions without basis in fact. Those who would label libertarians as heartless and greedy without exception need to learn that libertarian and unscrupulous are not synonyms.

Abusing language to abuse people

I’m “stunned”:

Republican lawmakers and the White House agreed over the weekend to alter new legislation on military commissions to allow the United States to detain and try a wider range of foreign nationals than an earlier version of the bill permitted, according to government sources.

Lawmakers and administration officials announced last week that they had reached accord on the plan for the detention and military trials of suspected terrorists, and it is scheduled for a vote this week. But in recent days the Bush administration and its House allies successfully pressed for a less restrictive description of how the government could designate civilians as “unlawful enemy combatants,” the sources said yesterday. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of negotiations over the bill.

We don’t believe in enumerated powers or a limited executive any longer, so why bother with descriptions of who qualifies as an “unlawful enemy combatant”? We can trust the benevolence and good intentions of whichever administration occupies the White House to not abuse its allegedly plenary power. It’s worked well so far.

Is it January 2009 yet?

Six months shoved into six games

After last night’s frustrating 5-4 loss to the Houston Astros, the Phillies stand in a tie with the Los Angeles Dodgers for the National League Wild Card.

In a 162 game season, we’re down to a six game sprint for the playoffs. The Red Sox proved how fruitful the Wild Card spot can be when they won the World Series in 2004. If the Phillies make the playoffs, I believe we can duplicate that. But mostly, I want to make the playoffs because, after a thirteen year absence, I’m sick of meaningless (to me) baseball in mid-October. As I wrote at the start of Spring Training in February, in describing the 2001 and 2005 playoff tickets I never used because the Phillies didn’t make the playoffs.:

This year I’d like the opportunity to purchase playoffs tickets AND to use them. And the same for World Series tickets would be appreciated. Spring Training is proof that dreams never die.

This Wild Card race is why I’m an optimist every February. My baseball pessimist, beaten into me by season after season of losing, makes me believe the Phillies are just aiming to drive the dagger through my heart by finishing the regular season tied for the Wild Card, only to lose the one-game playoff against the Dodgers on Monday.

I have tickets to the next three games in Washington because the optimist ignores the pessimist every year. I’m gullible. Go Phillies!

Rethinking parental rights

This is more than a week old, but I’ve finally figured out how I want to make my point. Two unrelated stories demonstrate how I believe we should view parental rights. First, here’s a useful ruling from Nebraska:

A federal judge has refused to throw out Nebraska’s one-of-a-kind newborn blood screening law. Ray and Louise Spiering of Saunders County filed a lawsuit challenging the law in 2004, arguing that the mandatory blood test would violate a tenet of their religious beliefs as members of the Church of Scientology.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf said the law is constitutional.

In Tuesday’s ruling, Kopf said “Nebraska’s program is rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest.”

“It is true that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects the `fundamental right’ of parents to make decisions as to the care, custody and control of their children,” Kopf said. “But it is equally true that a state is not without constitutional control over parental discretion in dealing with children when their physical or mental health is jeopardized.”

Then there is this story about the parents who allegedly kidnapped their pregnant 19-year-old daughter, took her to another state, and tried to force to abort her fetus because the baby’s father is black. I won’t examine the parental right aspect of that crime because it’s obvious. This case and the Nebraska ruling have an impact on the parental rights discussion in relation to circumcision.

Defenders of parental choice for non-medically indicated infant circumcision discuss the surgery’s potential benefits. Whether it’s urinary tract infections, penile cancer, or HIV, few claims are insufficient to allow parents the right to alter their children sons. I’ve argued the opposite side of that debate, stating that the inherent risks and potential complications are enough to protect boys from unnecessary surgery. We expect one standard for every surgery on girls and every surgery but circumcision for boys, but we grant parents virtually unlimited choice in reasons for male infant circumcision. There is no medical validity required. Parents don’t have to concern themselves with that in today’s medical/legal environment.

Anything beyond the medical non-necessity of most circumcisions shouldn’t be required in the discussion. Once that’s established as the default biological scenario for boys, his right to bodily integrity would be enough. Yet, I’ve heard libertarians debate parental choice for circumcision, with the conclusion by some that parents do have the right to impose it for their own reason(s). As a libertarian it makes me angry to hear this logic. My understanding of libertarianism focuses on individual rights. Children have those rights, with parents acting as guardians of those rights. This guardianship does not transform parents into property owners. To permit surgery, the child must need circumcision. Parental preference for any reason is not sufficient, given his right to bodily integrity.

The bits of Judge Kopf’s ruling I’ve highlighted demonstrate why I’m content with demanding the force of law to protect boys from unnecessary circumcision. Surgical amputation of an individual’s healthy tissue is harmful. There is a legitimate government interest in protecting individuals from harm. Libertarian principles as I understand them demand the protection of boys from unnecessary surgery, just as we protect girls. Surprisingly, I’m in the minority in my opinion. A comment on the second story at Hit and Run clarified for me what I believe is the key distinction necessary for parental rights:

I marvel that two people could have the foresight to take their daughter to a state with more liberal abortion laws while completely missing the fact you can’t force an adult to undergo unwanted surgical procedures.

Comment by: QuietReaderGirl at September 19, 2006 02:24 PM

But you can force a child to undergo unwanted surgical procedures. That’s too blunt, since strict enforcement of that as a rule would eliminate medically necessary surgery if the child decided against it. I’m arguing for sane interpretation of what a reasonable person would want. A sane person would choose life over death. But I contend that a sane person would choose a healthy foreskin over no foreskin, which is the right way to assess infant circumcision. (If he doesn’t, he still has the choice, but intact men don’t generally rush to undergo circumcision. My default assumption.) Routine circumcision is prevention without thought. It’s maddening.

The context of the second story provides a useful scenario. What would we think of parents who force their underage daughter to undergo an abortion she doesn’t want? Would a reasonable doctor perform it? Should a doctor perform it, if her parents deem it to be in her best interest based on statistics concerning teenage mothers or for any other reason they choose?

The idea is preposterous. Unwanted and unneeded surgery on boys is equally preposterous. Parental rights are not unlimited.

First link via Hit and Run.

Majoritarian pleas should consider the actual majority

I suppose Mitt Romney, governor of Massachusetts, is now the preferred religious candidate for president in 2008. For evidence, witness John Fund’s glowing review following the Family Research Council’s weekend Values Voters Summit:

FRC officials says they invited Mr. McCain to speak, but he declined. But another potential candidate benefited greatly from showing up. Surprisingly, it was Massachusetts’ Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon with a Harvard M.B.A who governs the nation’s most liberal state. The 1,800 delegates applauded him frequently during his Friday speech and gave him a standing ovation afterward. Mr. Romney detailed his efforts to block court-imposed same-sex marriage in the Bay State and noted that the liberal Legislature has failed to place a citizen-initiated referendum on the ballot. He excoriated liberals for supporting democracy only when they think that the outcome is a foregone conclusion that favors their views. He certainly picked up fans at the summit. “I believe Mitt Romney may be the only hope social conservatives have in 2008,” says Maggie Gallagher, author of a book defending traditional marriage.

I’m left wondering what role Gov. Romney imagines for the judicial branch. Court-imposed seems to predict four more years of “activist judges” nonsense should Gov. Romney be our next president. Me, I’ll pass. I’ve heard the term enough. Court’s interpret the Constitution and the laws that supposedly flow from it. This is not a hard concept, even in disagreement with the decisions.

The “activist judges” is understandable, if not forgivable. Worse, though, is the clear indication that majoritarianism is a reasonable standard for Gov. Romney. The legislature disrespected the will of the minority people. Big deal. This is representative government in our Republic. This is surprising?

The “liberals” restrained government from acting to subordinate the rights of one group of citizens at the whim of another group. That sounds more like responsible government than failure. That it’s also the conservative (i.e., limited government) position in this debate indicates that Gov. Romney has no taste for principle. See Exhibit B

There’s much more worth reviewing, but I enjoy this. It’s where I’ll end:

But Mr. Romney also has many advantages. He is perhaps the only candidate who can plausibly claim a base in several states. He has a contributor base in Massachusetts; a large reservoir of political goodwill in Michigan, where he was born and his father served as governor in the 1960s; and the loyalty of many Mormons in Utah and neighboring states. He has a built-in corps of volunteers and contributors in any state where Mormons, the fastest-growing religion in America, have a real presence.

Contributor base and shared religion. Those sound like the two finest qualifications for the presidency, I wonder why we don’t just anoint Gov. Romney Presidential Apprentice when his term as governor is finished. That way he can learn from the current president, who also happens to be endowed with those two brilliant qualifications.

Why do some people refuse to take their head out of the political sand?

Education strikes out

This weekend, I encountered three stellar examples of how our system of education provides. In order:

  • I heard a college student use the phrase curled up in the fetus position.
  • I heard a fan say ignorantest to describe a poor call by an ACC official in Virginia Tech’s win against Cincinnati.
  • I read this quote by Macho Harris. He’s explaining how he finally made one of the big plays expected of him.

    “I knew it, but I wasn’t pressurizing myself about it,” Harris said. “I knew my chance would come.”

Why bother teaching the English language if these are the results we can expect?

Utah enacts tax code polygamy

Utah implemented an optional flat tax plan for its residents, beginning in the 2007 tax year. Under the plan, residents can choose to pay taxes at 6.98% with deductions or 5.35% without deductions. I doubt this will be the most effective way to win over flat tax dissenters, since “the poor” wouldn’t want no deductions, but the specifics can be analyzed at another time. For now, it’s just interesting that a state is trying. Maybe it makes the government better, maybe it makes it worse. We’ll find out, but residents have a choice. I consider that a good start.

What’s less encouraging is this:

The legislature also approved a local optional sales tax hike to meet transportation needs. …

Utah State Senator Ed Mayne, a Democrat and the minority caucus manager, said the state needs tax reform but said money was taken from public education. “I’m very, very disappointed,” he said.

I’m sure State Sen. Mayne is sincere, but redirecting state tax revenue from public education to public transportation doesn’t mean that education will suffer. Surely local governments can raise additional revenue through tax increases if local taxpayers deem their schools insufficiently funded. In that view State Sen. Mayne’s disappointment seems aimed more at decreased state control than at the potential harm to education within Utah. That seems misguided to me, but I don’t think that unlimited wishes for public expenditures implies that every wish should be funded. That’s especially true when the discussion involves state versus local provision.

Can you tell I’m going to Blacksburg this weekend?

Looking back at an entry from the archives, I thought I’d update something I said about the Hardee’s Monster Thickburger™:

That’s the effect of consumer choice. If the people don’t like it, they’ll stop buying the burger. No amount of public bitching about corporate responsibility or heart disease or obesity, no matter how tender and earnest, is going to change a consumer’s behavior until the consumer wants to change. The progress might be slow, but it’ll happen. And that change becomes more lasting and permanent when it’s a choice, just like the lasting effect of the quality of Hardee’s food at Squires Student Center. That Hardee’s is now an A&W franchise.

That A&W franchise is now an Au Bon Pain, thanks to the painfully awful food served by that A&W, a fact to which I can unfortunately attest. Despite the obesity “crisis” we’re now facing, I stand by my original assessment that choice is sufficient and essential. People aren’t stupid and do not need the government’s help to make them better. Experience is a much more powerful motivator.