Tuesday, November 30, 2004

And speaking of humor . . . .

Posted by Craig Westover | 3:57 PM |  

Reader Jack Stassen sends along this bit of "breaking news."



The flood of American liberals sneaking across the border into Canada has intensified in the past week, sparking calls for increased patrols to stop the illegal immigration.

The re-election of President Bush is prompting the exodus among left-leaning citizens who fear they'll soon be required to hunt, pray, and agree with Bill O'Reilly.

Canadian border farmers say it's not uncommon to see dozens of sociology professors, animal-rights activists and Unitarians crossing their fields at night.

"I went out to milk the cows the other day, and there was a Hollywood producer huddled in the barn," said Manitoba farmer Red Greenfield, whose acreage borders North Dakota.

The producer was cold, exhausted and hungry.

"He asked me if I could spare a latte and some free-range chicken. When I said I didn't have any, he left. Didn't even get a chance to show him my screenplay, eh?"

In an effort to stop the illegal aliens, Greenfield erected higher fences, but the liberals scaled them. So he tried installing speakers that blare Rush Limbaugh across the fields.

"Not real effective," he said. "The liberals still got through, and Rush annoyed the cows so much they wouldn't give milk."

Officials are particularly concerned about smugglers who meet liberals near the Canadian border, pack them into Volvo station wagons, drive them across the border and leave them to fend for themselves.

"A lot of these people are not prepared for rugged conditions," an Ontario border patrolman said. "I found one carload without a drop of drinking water. They did have a nice little Napa Valley cabernet, though."

When liberals are caught, they're sent back across the border, often wailing loudly that they fear retribution from conservatives. Rumors have been circulating about the Bush administration establishing re-education camps in which liberals will be forced to drink domestic beer and watch NASCAR.

In the days since the election, liberals have turned to sometimes-ingenious ways of crossing the border. Some have taken to posing as senior citizens on bus trips to buy cheap Canadian prescription drugs. After catching a half-dozen young vegans disguised in powdered wigs, Canadian immigration authorities began stopping buses and quizzing the supposed senior-citizen passengers on Perry Como and Rosemary Clooney hits to prove they were alive in the '50s.

"If they can't identify the accordion player on The Lawrence Welk Show, we get suspicious about their age," an official said.

Canadian citizens have complained that the illegal immigrants are creating an organic-broccoli shortage and renting all the good Susan Sarandon movies.

"I feel sorry for American liberals, but the Canadian economy just can't support them," an Ottawa resident said. "How many art-history majors does one country need?"

In an effort to ease tensions between the United States and Canada, Vice President Dick Cheney met with the Canadian ambassador and pledged that the administration would take steps to reassure liberals, a source close to Cheney said.

"We're going to have some Peter, Paul & Mary concerts. And we might put some endangered species on postage stamps. The president is determined to reach out," he said.

If all other efforts fail, Canadian officials say they may be forced give the new liberal immigrants green cards and put them to work busing dishes in upscale Canadian restaurants.

Monday, November 29, 2004

The smell of humor in the morning

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:46 AM |  

If you like a shot of humor with your morning blogging, I heartily endorse subscribing to The Borowitz Report. In the style of the Onion, Andy Borowitz provides a daily “shocker” that you certainly won’t find in the mainstream media. But be forewarned, Borowitz is as likely to skewer GWB and conservative cultural issues as he is the loony left.” Below is a Borowitz sample that ought to appeal to blog readers.


Internal CBS Memo a Phony, Anchor Reveals

Veteran CBS anchorman withdrew his resignation from the network's evening newscast today, revealing that his decision to resign had been based on information that later turned out to be false.

Mr. Rather said that he only decided to resign after obtaining an internal CBS report blasting him for his role in the network's recent "Memogate" scandal, but then later discovered that the report itself was a forgery.

When he made the startling discovery, Mr. Rather said, "My face was redder than my Aunt Mabel's rhubarb pie."

The veteran newsman indicated that he first suspected that the internal CBS report might be bogus when he saw that it had been faxed from a Kinko's copy center in Canoga Park, California, and was typed on Holiday Inn stationery.

But the embattled anchor's attempt to reclaim his nightly newscast may be doomed, one network insider said, because CBS chairman Les Moonves "has already changed the locks."

According to the insider, security personnel at CBS' broadcast facility have been instructed to nab Mr. Rather if he attempts to enter the building and have been warned to "be on the lookout for a 73-year-old white man disguised as a Mujahideen."

While Mr. Rather's days in the CBS anchor chair may be at an end, associates of the newscaster believe that he may begin a new career at the Central Intelligence Agency, where his ability to gather phony information is said to be highly regarded.

Elsewhere, U.S. forces searching a bomb-making factory in Falluja over the weekend discovered the screenplay of the movie "Alexander."

Friday, November 26, 2004

What “moral imperative” for school choice?

Posted by Craig Westover | 4:50 PM |  

In addition to some nice “attaboys” for taking on the education establishment in my Pioneer Press column “The moral imperative for school choice,” I received several responses from public school teachers taking exception to the column.

What is interesting about the teachers' responses is that they ignore the premise of my column (as expressed by Sol Stern) that “if you have a school that is destroying children, then it's morally incumbent on society to provide the opportunity [e.g. vouchers or tax credits] for those children to get out and find a school that works for them.” Instead, the responses attacked my column by claiming my comparison of Catholic school success to public school failure is “too simplistic” -- private schools don’t have the same demographics as public schools; they don’t have to take “problem students”; they don’t offer all the services of public schools, and the like, and that’s why they are so much less expensive.

Jay Greene and Greg Forster of the Manhattan Institute have published a study entitled "The Teachability Index: Can Disadvantaged Students Learn." I quibble with some of their statistical results, but the methodology and conclusion of the study are sound. The study shows that some schools achieve better results with quantifiably more difficult students for less money than some other schools achieve with less difficult students at higher cost. In other words, schools/teachers do make a difference. School choice enables parents to seek out those schools. Why is that wrong?

Education Working Paper 6
The Teachability Index:
Can Disadvantaged Students Learn?

Jay P. Greene &
Greg Forster,
The Manhattan Institute

Other responses shifted the blame for public school failures to parents while at the same time blaming parents for the inevitable failure of school choice -- and in no uncertain terms --

Parents who are homeless, addicted to crack, or who are themselves illiterate or non-English speakers cannot be expected to attend private school open houses, peruse Minnesota Monthly for the latest private school rankings, or assemble Excel spreadsheets of their childrens' [sic] educational options.
In other words, because SOME parents won’t take advantage of school choice, ALL students must be kept in a failing system. The responses also attacked vouchers as discriminating against the poor and conjectured with no proof or logic that a voucher system will destroy public education.

I responded in part to one teacher --

The issue is not a who does better, public or private schools. The issue is not about systems. The issue is children. School choice is a moral issue.

Howard Fuller, among others, calls school choice the last great civil rights battle. You talk about vouchers destroying the "public schools." Mr. Fuller would argue that you've lost site of what "public" education really is. He writes --

"[People] do not make a distinction between public education, which is a concept, and the system that delivers public education. The system that delivers public education, as we’ve structured it in America, is not public education. Public education is a concept that it is in our interest to educate all our children. What makes public education public is that it serves the public’s interests. . . . . What we therefore need to do is to commit to a purpose, not institutional arrangements."
It is unfortunate that the education establishment refuses to acknowledge that. Education is every citizen’s interest, if for no other reason than your tax dollars -- a helluva lot of them -- go to support it. Howard Fuller will be speaking St. Paul Dec.7. I urge any who can -- pro- or anti-school choice --to consider attending.

The sad fact is that not one critical response I received addressed the specific question -- Is it ethical for “public” education to prevent children and parents from having the opportunity to choose a school that meets their needs regardless of their economic situation? The question was not even recognized.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The skinny on the CDC obesity report

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:57 AM |  

CNN Photo Credit

This note from the Cato Institute's Randy Balko regarding the announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that its obesity report was flawed.

"The CDC's announcement that it will lower its estimate of deaths attributable to obesity is some welcome sanity in the obesity debate, but it's troubling that the original number of 400,00 deaths per year was ever published and touted to begin with. According to LexisNexis, that number was used in media reports over 1,500 times. It has been widely cited by anti-obesity activists to call for widespread and intrusive government programs that restrict consumer choice and punish the food industry. Now we learn that critics were right, and the number was grossly inflated, perhaps by as much as 400 percent. The lesson here for the media is to be more skeptical of hysterical obesity research. The lesson for policy-makers is to resist rash reactions to media frenzies. And the lesson to all of us is to be wary of researchers, government officials, and activists who attempt to use junk science to trespass on personal freedom."
The Associate Press is reporting that the widely circulated CDC study, which stated that obesity is about to overtake smoking as the No. 1 cause of death in the United States, contained statistical errors and may have overstated the problem, health officials acknowledged Tuesday. The government is working on a rare correction to the study. From the AP story --

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in March in a study co-authored by its director, Dr. Julie Gerberding, that poor diet and physical inactivity were responsible for 400,000 deaths in 2000, a 33 percent jump from 1990.

Although CDC officials declined to specify the corrected number of deaths, saying they are still determining the correct number, The Wall Street Journal reported that the agency may have overstated the figure by 80,000, representing an increase of less than 10 percent from 1990 to 2000. The errors were first reported by the Journal on Tuesday.
If that doesn't "reinstate your faith" in government management of health issues, perhaps this will (also from the AP) --

The agency also has asked the Institute of Medicine, a federal scientific advisory organization, to hold a two-day workshop next month in Washington to reach a consensus on the proper way to calculate the health effects of obesity. That is because the study also caused disagreement in scientific circles over how deaths can be labeled obesity-related.
They might also want to tackle the methodology for determining how deaths can be attributed to smoking and secondhand smoke while they are at it. The CDC put the number of obesity deaths at 400,000, compared with 435,000 from tobacco.

But the final "feel good about your government" item is this -- the Rathergate defense of the study ("the memos may not be authentic, but their content is accurate") --

But even when the errors are corrected, a [spokesperson] said, "it's not going to change the fact that obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death."
Unfortunately, we'll continue to see the original CDC figures tossed about as justification for more spending on federal and state obesity programs that aren't properly a function of government.

COLUMN -- Moral imperative for school choice

Posted by Craig Westover | 4:02 AM |  


Preparing for a speaking engagement in St. Paul, Sol Stern read about a situation in the St. Paul Public Schools that was described as "nuts."

Stern is a journalist and a Manhattan Institute senior fellow whose curmudgeon-like commentary has alerted parents and politicians to problems with government-run education. But he is, first and foremost, a parent.

Observing some of the "strange things" that were going on in his children's schools started Stern investigating further, seeking the reasons why New York public schools and teachers were not all they should be. His quest begat the book "Breaking Free" (Encounter Books), which combines a parent's heartfelt concern with a reporter's skeptical eye and a scholar's discerning perception to dissect the dysfunction inherent in a monopoly education system.

Stern shared the lessons in his book with Twin Cities parents, educators and business leaders as part of the "Educational Speaker Series" sponsored by the Partnership for Choice in Education, the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Citizens League. He used the lack of text and library books at Maxfield Magnet School in St. Paul as illustrative of the underlying problem with government education.

Sol Stern, Manhattan Institute

"Instead of accountability for the problem being placed where it belongs, on the school administrators," Stern told his audience, "I read that the problem is not enough money — the last refuge of failed policy. I checked. St. Paul educates a student for about $11,000 a year. This situation is not 'nuts' because we're not spending enough on public schools. The situation is 'nuts' because we're not holding the public schools accountable."

To avoid facing the accountability problem, racism, legislative insensitivity and a public refusal to accept that we don't pay enough for the education of our children have all been offered as excuses for government schools. Ignored is the obvious: that here is a St. Paul school spending more than $11,000 per student per year that let a book shortage problem fester for more than two years until it erupted into a crisis. And all the while, the school is spending that $11K per student somewhere. Makes one wonder: What priorities did the school system place above buying books for kids?

Stern, who's documented the success Catholic schools have in educating thousands of children from New York City's poor and minority families, anted this thought: "I bet in the same neighborhood [as Maxfield], you'll find the Catholic schools aren't having this problem."

He was right.

"I can't imagine that situation," Molly Whinnery, principal of St. Mark's, told me. "We receive $62 per student from the state to purchase non-religious books. And we have a line item in the annual budget for classroom books and a separate account for library books."

St. Mark's spends a little less than $4,200 a year per student.

When I asked Immaculate Heart of Mary-St. Luke's principal Mary Mitzuk about books and finances, she replied, "Let me grab a copy of our annual report to parents so I give you accurate numbers."

An annual financial report from a school? For parents?

"Our goal is to be very transparent with our parents," said Mitzuk. "We want to be user-friendly and win the confidence of parents that we're spending their tuition money wisely."

Tuition at IHM-St. Luke's is $3,110 for parishioners and $4,175 for non-parishioners.

How these Catholic schools and others accomplish all that they do with the money they have is the subject for another column. So is conveying the uplifting enthusiasm for educating kids I heard from these principals. Sol Stern reminds us why such an alternative to government education is vital:

"Coming to school choice as a disappointed supporter of the public schools, I believe that if you have a school that is destroying children, then it's morally incumbent on society to provide the opportunity [e.g. vouchers or tax credits] for those children to get out and find a school that works for them."

"I don't think it's 'pounding' on public schools to expect them to do their job" Stern said responding to a question. I agree. Not to hold public schools accountable for basic education functions — like supplying books — that non-public schools are able to do at less than half the cost is, well … "nuts."

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Spirit of America Challenge

Posted by Craig Westover | 6:49 PM |  

"The Elder" at Fraters Libertas alerts us to a worthwhile organization, Spirit of America. Its mission is to extend the goodwill of the American people to assist those advancing freedom and peace abroad. 100 percent of your donation goes directly to the project of your choice.

Many of the organization's projects support requests made by Americans serving in Iraq (Marines, Army, SeaBees) for goods that directly help the Iraqi people. Other projects directly support Iraqis who are on the front lines of building a better future for Iraq. You can donate to this very worthy cause here.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Howard Fuller on School Choice

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:49 PM |  

Dr. Howard Fuller

What -- Howard Fuller speaks for school choice
When -- Tuesday December 7th 11:30-1:00
Where -- Jerome Hill Theater 180 East 5th Street, Downtown St. Paul

For more information, and to reserve a box lunch catered by the Minnesota Business Academy’s Enterprise-based Learning Program, call 651-293-9044 or 651.265.2795

Sponsored by the Partnership for Choice in Education, the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce and the Citizens League.

One might introduce Howard Fuller by the position‘s he‘s held . . .

  • Distinguished Professor of Education and Founder/Director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

  • Superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, June 1991- June 1995.

  • Director of the Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services, 1988-91;

  • Dean of General Education at the Milwaukee Area Technical College, 1986-1988;
    Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Employment Relations, 1983-1986;

  • Associate Director of the Educational Opportunity Program at Marquette University, 1979-1983. He was also a Senior Fellow with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, 1995-1997.
Or by his degrees . . . .
  • Dr. Fuller received his B.S. degree in Sociology from Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin in 1962; M.S.A degree in Social Administration from Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio in 1964, and his Ph.D. in Sociological Foundations of Education from Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1986.
Or his awards . . . .
  • Three Honorary Doctorate Degrees: Doctorate of Humane Letters from Carroll College in 1987; Doctorate of Laws from Marian College, Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin in 1992; Doctorate of Business and Economics from Milwaukee School of Engineering in 1995.
Or his community service. . . .
  • He serves on the Board of Directors Transcenter for Youth; the Crusade to Save Our Children; the Johnson Foundation; the Dorothy Danforth Compton Fellowship Program and is an active member of several other community and national organizations.
But the best way to introduce Dr. Fuller is his through his words. Writing the introductory Chapter in the Cato Institute’s book Educational Freedom in Urban America: Brown v. Board after Half a Century Fuller makes clear why “public” education is failing.

"[People]do not make a distinction between public education, which is a concept, and the system that delivers public education. The system that delivers public education, as we’ve structured it in America, is not public education. Public education is a concept that that it is in our interest to educate all our children. What makes public education public is that it serves the public’s interests. . . . . What we therefore need to do is to commit to a purpose, not institutional arrangements.

“We have to ask why people do not want low-income parents to have choice. The hypocrisy on this point is phenomenal. We have teachers teaching in schools that they would never put their own children in and then demanding that somebody else’s children stay there. We have public school teachers putting their own children in private schools. We have leaders in Congress pontificating against choice who have their own children in private schools. The argument always comes down to ‘If we let these poor parents out, it will destroy the system.” I have a question: Is it about the system, or is it about the parents and the children?”
In these two paragraphs, Fuller nails the problem with public education today. Sol Stern, in a previous Educational Speaker Series presentation attributed the general public’s acceptance of the educational establishment’s opposition to school choice to the “education mystique.” There is reverence for public education, a belief that it is so important that we shouldn’t tamper with it, the hope that with just a little more money it will finally deliver on its promise, which blinds us to the reality of the homogenized mess that what passes for public education has become.

Regardless of race or ethnicity, whether a parent of a k-12 student in public or private school, a non-parent, a former parent of a K-12 student, or a homeschooler, you have a stake in the education for all children. Real public education is essential for preservation of our democracy. Education is a public good, worthy of tax dollar support, but also by necessity, accountable -- not to those who ostensibly run the system, but to all those taxpayers who support the system. School choice is the mechanism to hold the system accountable.

School choice has been called by many the last civil rights initiative left to face. When he speaks of school choice, Fuller’s words reverberate with the ringing rhetoric of that era.

“I understand that our position [school choice] is controversial. But social change is always controversial. It transfers power to people who have never had it and takes power from those who have had it. How can that not be controversial? But you know what? We think it is the right thing to do, and we are willing to fight forever on this point. We understand that the race goes, not to the swift, but to those who can endure until the end. We intend to endure to the end.”

Out of the mouths of no longer babes

Posted by Craig Westover | 11:04 AM |  

It’s amazing how one’s kids mature when they move away from home.

My son, the aspiring actor, is in town from LA and notes that when Kobe Bryant was in the midst of his legal problems, he was being cheered by fans at games and personal appearances. Now that it’s come out that Kobe was knocking Shaqand was the reason Shaq was traded to Miami, Kobe is getting booed.

As the kid says -- “Rape is okay, but don’t knock Shaq. Society is more than a little screwed up.”

Saturday, November 20, 2004

A legal twist on workplace smoking

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:51 AM |  

Stephen Bainbridge, a professor at the UCLA School of Law makes a legal argument against smoking bans.

Bainbridge notes that one justification for smoking bans is that smoking has negative externalities -- legalese for one person’s smoking has a cost to another person. Bainbridge accepts the premise that secondhand smoke can be dangerous, but still questions the justification for banning smoking on private property that's open to the public.

The mere existence of an externality does not justify legislation, however. In a free society, with limited government and respect for private property rights, at least two conditions must be satisfied before government intervention is warranted. First, my actions must in fact produce external costs. Second, there must be a market failure -- that is, people must be unable to solve the problem without government help.
Along with the professor’s two-pronged legal approach, I favor a set of three criteria that can be applied to any “public” health issue to jest justification for government intervention. Using these criteria, a bar and restaurant smoking ban, statewide or local, doesn't pass the test of a public health problem requiring government intervention even if one concedes that secondhand smoke is a health concern.

Public health/government intervention is at issue only when (1) people are exposed to risks to which they have not consented and which (2) pose dangers to the community at large from which (3) individuals cannot realistically protect themselves.

Brainbridge continues --

Because I've conceded the first prong of the test, the merit of public smoking bans comes down to the question of whether the problem can be solved through private ordering. In other words, if we let the owners of private property decide whether people will be allowed to smoke on their premises, will non-smokers be exposed to unreasonable costs?

An affirmative answer is clearly appropriate in some situations. There are some public places in which non-smokers may find themselves a "captive audience" -- that is, situations in which the non-smoker cannot avoid exposure to secondhand smoke. Government offices that serve the public are a good example. If a non-smoker gets a traffic ticket, he may have no choice but to go down to the courthouse. A smoking ban thus might be reasonable in the court building.
I agree with his analysis, here, and his conclusion that smoking bans are justified in some instances is supported by my criteria as well. Using his “captive audience” example, a person going to traffic court, who felt threatened by secondhand smoke, would be exposed to a risk to which he had not consented, the danger would be to the community at large in that no individual person is immune from having to appear in court and there would be no way for an individual called to court to protect himself from secondhand smoke.

Bainbridge goes on --

These sorts of situations are quite limited, however. Let's start with the most basic example: my backyard. Should I have the right to smoke a cigar on my back porch, where the only ones who smells it are my dogs? Presumably so, since I'm not imposing on anyone (my dogs seem to like the smell).

If you admit that a ban on smoking in my backyard is not appropriate, let's turn to restaurants. Smoking bans routinely apply to restaurants, but restaurants are clearly places in which private ordering can work and in which government intervention is unnecessary.

Consider the following case: The 21 Club restaurant had a long history of being a cigar-friendly environment. Non-smokers who ate there did so knowing that they may be exposed to cigar smoke. On what basis can such people complain? Do they not assume the risk of being exposed to secondhand smoke by visiting an establishment that allows patrons to smoke cigars? Conversely, other restaurants -- say, those wishing to attract a family clientele -- may forbid smoking in whole or in part. If I choose to patronize these establishments, I have no right to expect to be able to smoke there.

This is what I mean by a system of private ordering: If the place is one that nonsmokers can readily choose to avoid, then they have no right to insist on imposing their preference for a smoke-free environment on me or (and this is the key point) the owner of the establishment. Absent a showing that private ordering can't work, the owner of private property has a right to decide what conduct will take place on his property even if that property is open to the public. So long as non-smokers are free to decide not to enter an establishment in which smoking is allowed, the necessary prerequisite for regulating private property simply doesn't exist.
While smoking ban proponents make the argument that they are lobbying on behalf of bar and restaurant employees, Bainbridge applies is two-pronged legal argument to make this point --

The same sort of analysis could be extended to a host of contexts. Many argue for a ban on smoking in the workplace. And if, for example, an employer concludes that it is cheaper to hire non-smokers, who could object to his banning smoking on his premises? But if another employer concludes that it is cheaper to hire smokers -- perhaps because they'll take lower pay in order to be able to smoke at work -- why should we object to that choice'? So long as non-smokers have other employment options, if they choose to work for an employer that allows smoking, they have no basis to complain. Indeed, there is no externality, because the employer's decision imposes no costs on the non-smokers to which they have not consented.

Many restaurants and workplaces have voluntarily banned smoking. In view of this evidence that private ordering can work, I see no justification for overriding private property rights by banning smoking in private establishments.
I whole-heartedly agree.

Here's the beef

Posted by Craig Westover | 6:56 AM |  

Except for his sentiment that "This just looks...icky,"

Mitch Berg at Shot in the Dark pretty much echos the amused disdain I have for people like this --
They [Hardee's]would argue they are just giving people what they want. I would say this is beyond the pale," said Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Probably no nutritionist ever imagined that a product like this would be marketed."
We certainly don't need more obesity coordinators.

But damn, Mitch, this really does look good. It's what they serve in heaven on the days the KFC buffet is closed.

Blogging on the West Wing

Posted by Craig Westover | 3:40 AM |  

Jupiterresearch analyst Michael Gartenberg notesthat blogging made another inroad in the mainstream media.

Last night blogging hit this week’s episode of the West Wing. This is the first time I know of where weblogs played part in the storyline of a TV show. It was interesting how the weblogs were portrayed. First, some background; one of the characters was involved in accident, where he crashed a large SUV into a Toyota Prius (which as you imagine might create a bit of an image problem for the West Wing if the story got out).

1. The story is revealed via a political weblog and includes a photo from a cameraphone to back it up. Not just blogging, but moblogging :)

2. When the weblog is dismissed, the character is told that mainstream media all read weblogs and the story will be picked up.

3. When the character calls the weblog author, he tells the author they are off the record and goes into a tirade. To his horror, he sees every word he's uttering being posted in real time in front of him. He's subsequently informed that "these people aren't journalists...", implying that a journalist would be "bound" by his off the record comment and not write about it and a blogger would simply ignore it (and did ignore it).

There are some interesting lessons here. First and foremost is post election, weblogs are firmly planted into the consciousness of the mainstream and have even migrated to popular fictional shows like the West Wing. The perception of them, as illustrated by the show, is that they are quick to respond but lack the ethics and rules that journalists play by. While far from an accurate portrayal, reality often doesn't matter in the face of perception. I think today's bloggers are a misunderstood entity by the mainstream media but it's the mainstream media that shapes public perception.
I’d add not only are bloggers misunderstood, but the potential of the blogosphere for the mainstream media is underestimated. As is always the case when the “invisible hand” starts pushing the imagination, while most mainstream media and most bloggers engage in battling one another, some smart people are going to figure out how the two are compatible.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

READER RESPONSE -- More fuel for ethanol debate

Posted by Craig Westover | 11:59 AM |  

Reader Dallas Eggers sends a link to an interesting article from the August 2004 Audubon Magazine. The title “Drunk on Ethanol” and the subhead pretty much tell you what to expect.

"Our addiction to corn-derived alcohol is not only costing us a lot of money, it's also wiping out fish and wildlife habitat, and polluting our air, soil, and water."
The author makes a good case for that premise, but remember, the Audubon Society has it’s own axe to grind. Nonetheless, and this is the main point of my column today in the Pioneer Press, when politicians like Sen. Coleman ignore the arguments in opposition to their positions, they allow their detractor’s to frame the argument. That may fool some of the people some of the time, but it doesn’t fool all of the people. Some, like Dallas, think for themselves.

But there are, as the article’s author discovered, some “honest” politicians.

“Some Corn Belt politicians are refreshingly candid about why the wasteful, obsolete oxygenate [ethanol] requirement needs to stay in place. "I once asked Governor Tom Vilsack of Iowa at a news conference why Californians and northeasterners should be forced to put ethanol in their gasoline when the science clearly shows it has no environmental benefits," recalls Paul Rogers of the San Jose Mercury News. "Because it helps farmers from my state expand their markets, he explained. 'So I guess you'd support a new federal law to require everybody in Des Moines to buy a computer, to help people in Silicon Valley expand their markets?' I asked. He didn't concur."
In other words, ethanol production is not about reducing dependence on foreign oil or creating jobs or any other general economic benefit. It’s about redistributing wealth from one part of the country to another.

That is more or less, Sen. Coleman’s position. In a portion of his e-mail that I didn’t quote in my column, following his battalion of statistics purporting the benefits of ethanol production, the senator declares --
“With fourteen ethanol plants already having more than a half billion dollars in positive economic impact on Minnesota, imagine the impact on our State alone under this legislation.”
The irony is, that impact is probably negative. The Audubon article supports Jerry Taylor’s preliminary findings on the “Net Energy Value” of ethanol.
“David Pimentel is a Cornell University agricultural scientist (and former Audubon board member) who has exhaustively studied the economics, efficiency, and alleged environmental benefits of ethanol . . . In his latest project, Pimentel calculated the real energy costs of raising corn, including the enormous amounts of fossil fuel required to power irrigation pumps, run planting and harvesting machinery, cook the corn in the fermentation/distillation process, and make the fossil fuel-based nitrogen fertilizer that agribusiness is hooked on. Without even factoring in the fuel that's required to ship ethanol to blending sites, Pimentel found that it takes about 29 percent more energy to produce ethanol than you get from burning it. . . .Then, figuring in state and federal subsidies, Pimentel found that ethanol costs $2.24 a gallon to produce, compared with 63 cents for gasoline.”
[UPDATE: Reader Ernie Melby sends along additional information on the Pimentel study Here's a direct link to the information.]

The final irony is that ethanol production might do more harm to the environment that it ostensibly prevents. Here, I admit, the article wanders a bit into the nether world between sound, scientific fact and genuflecting to our Mother the Earth philosophy, but when one’s argument for ethanol production is based on protecting the environment and the environmentalists oppose it, that in and of itself ought to send the senator back to the drawing board.
“Wetlands—the most productive fish and wildlife habitat there is—consume nitrogen and filter out pesticides and sediments, but wetlands are being drained in order to produce surplus corn. The Corn Belt has lost about 70 percent of its wetlands. In some areas, such as Nebraska, corn has to be irrigated by pumps that suck water from the ground faster than it percolates back in. Moreover, the pumps are powered by natural gas, the frenzied production of which is creating horrendous problems for fish, wildlife, and livestock.”
Bottom line -- there’s more than enough evidence that ethanol production is not the slam dunk that Sen. Coleman’s e-mail would have his constituents believe. Thanks to readers who brought the e-mail to my attention and to the many following up with additional information. I hope you follow up with the senator as well.

UPDATE: Ken Prouty of St. Louis notes that "Early on, ethanol was considered a net energy consumer. However, because of more efficient methods of production, this has changed." He then cites a U.S. Department of Agriculture study that concludes ethanol contains 34% more energy than is used to grow and harvest the corn and distill it into ethanol. He provides a site where this information is found. This site also has a refutation of the David Pimentel study cited by Audubon.

Why the discrepancy? It boils down to the inputs and credits one assigns to the production of ethanol. Unfortunately, most people will tend to believe the study that supports their point of view rather than the study with the most scientific rigor. To be perfectly honest, most of us lack the knowledge to make such a scientific judgment -- and that’s why pronouncements like Sen. Coleman’s are so dangerous.

Without the pricing mechanisms of the free market, with the intrusion of government subsidies, studies of the efficiency of ethanol are just debate fodder. If ethanol is a net provider of energy (that is, it has value over and above the value of its inputs) then the industry should be able to survive and thrive on market prices without subsidies. Government subsidies disguise inefficiencies in the production process and consequently, Americans pay more for energy than they should through taxes and higher prices for other goods if not directly out of their own pockets.

There’s no kissing in politics!

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:20 AM |  

Not exactly the kind of liplock that gets one fumbling for the camcorder, but . . .

. . . we sure have come along way since Star Trek’s Captain Kirk bussed Lt. Uhura in “Plato’s Stepchildren” notching the first interracial kiss on American Television.

One thing for sure -- America’s new Secretary of State won’t be kissing up to any of these guys anytime soon.

Who's part of the problem?

Posted by Craig Westover | 6:49 AM |  

Another poor children "column op"

In the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Nick Coleman laments that there are not nearly enough books of the right mix and reading levels and subject matters for the minority students of St. Paul’s Maxfield Magnet School. He asks, “How did we get to the point in Minnesota that we have a school in a minority neighborhood of our capital city where there aren't enough books?” He scolds, “If you don't find that situation outrageous, you are part of the problem.”

Well, Nick, I do find the Maxfield situation outrageous, but I also “know stuff.” I know that simple outrage is not a solution to problems, no matter how loud you write. Nor does providing more money. Nor does expressing undefined outrage make one part of the solution. Nick, holding poor and minority children hostage in a failing school system for the sake of political power -- now that‘s outrageous.

Why doesn’t Maxfield have enough books? Read your own column, Nick.

First, you say, “When you are trying to teach reading in a climate of spending cutbacks, hostility from political leaders who control the purse strings and public indifference toward the poor, you are between a rock and a hard place.” For the sake of argument, let’s assume that’s a correct assessment of the situation. That’s a problem, Nick, inherent in a government monopoly education system.

A government-run education system is always beholdin’ to the legislature and the pulse of public opinion. Parents and students will always be in a state of uncertainty in the shadow of the next legislative session, the next administration -- regardless of which political party is in power. Live by political favor, die by political disfavor. That’s the nature of the government beast.

Nick, you quote “literacy coach” Debbie Bell, who makes two telling comments. First, she says, "When they test kids, you can't see them sprawled out on the floor with a book. That's not something that shows up on a test.” She’s exactly right. But a government run monopoly can’t make such fine distinctions about intangible benefits ofeducation. You want a government-run system, you’re going to have to live with collective measurements that provide public accountability for public funds. In a government-run system, parental satisfaction is secondary to the accountability of the system -- regardless of which political party is in power.

Bell also wisely notes -- “Our kids [95 percent qualify for free or subsidized lunches] don't have much, but their parents have the same hopes and dreams as everybody.” Exactly right, but their low-income status prohibits them from the same opportunities as the more well-to-do. Middle- and upper-income families have the option of placing their children in private schools or moving to school districts that better meet their kids needs. Poor kids are stuck with their neighborhood school, kept there by those who would preserve the system at the expense of the kids -- people in both political parties.

Nick you say, “former Education Czarina [Cheri] Yecke” never seemed overly concerned about the special problems at a place like Maxfield. You say, “few have shown any interest.” You ask “How else to explain that Maxfield doesn't have enough books?”

You’ve given us the explanation, Nick. You just don’t want to see it. A government-run education system must concern itself with the system as a whole. It must use collective statistics to judge its adequacy. It must homogenize everything from curriculum to funding mechanisms to ensure no one is offended or feels slighted, which also means no one is satisfied.

Inherent problems of bureaucratic management run contrary to the personalized education every parent wants for his or her child. And despite that fact, the education establishment puts preservation of the system above the welfare of students.

We don’t need more of the same failing policies, Nick. We don’t need more polemics, more scolding, and more despicable use of poor children as “column-ops.” School choice is not a panacea, but it is the practical, ethical and moral alternative to preserving an inherently inadequate education system above the welfare of children. The problem is, Nick, when it comes to substantive change, “few have shown any interest,” and you are the ones who are part of the problem.

That, Nick, is outrageous.

UPDATE: A number of people have commented on the obvious hole in Nick Coleman's column, which is the question "Who is really responsible for ensuring there are books for the kids to use?" Someone was managing the school's budget. What budget items were more important than buying books? Speed Gibson (R-Five) does a nice job defining this problem.

It's pretty obvious that there were (are) management problems here. But to focus on that camouflages the real problem -- When kids, especially children from low-income families, find themselves in a poor school, they have little option but to endure it. There are always going to bad schools, government run, charter and private. The point is, when school choice is the norm, when parents have real options, a bad school is merely a speed bump on the road to education, not a brick wall. Sure, we can fix this school, but that doesn’t solve the real problem of providing individual children with the education that meets their needs.

COLUMN -- Let's have both sides of ethanol debate

Posted by Craig Westover | 6:11 AM |  

November 11, 2004

An Opinion Page follower sent me an e-mail he received from Sen. Norm Coleman outlining the senator's position on drilling for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and energy policy in general.

In his e-mail, Coleman states his support for an amendment to the 2004 Budget Resolution that "prevented consideration of oil exploration in ANWR as part of the budget process." He describes drilling in ANWR as "a detour from the road we ought to be traveling if we want to maximize environmental protection, energy independence, and economic development dividends." Coleman supports "renewable energy, including ethanol, biodiesel, wind, and even livestock waste."

The senator's call for renewable energy, ethanol production in particular, in lieu of oil exploration is somewhat disingenuous. His e-mail ignores the scientific debate over whether it takes more energy to produce ethanol than is yielded by ethanol when it is used as fuel and whether ethanol is a "net consumer" or a "net saver" of petroleum.

Sen. Coleman, politician, plays the "seen" versus the "unseen" game. He shows us the observable (seen) benefits of ethanol production, but he ignores the unseen antecedents and consequences of those "benefits."

According to Coleman, legislation he supports would "displace more than 1.6 billion barrels of oil … reduce the nation's trade deficit by more than $34 billion, increase our gross domestic product by $156 billion, create more than 214,000 new jobs, expand household income by an additional $51.7 billion, and increase net farm income by $6 billion annually."

Those statistics can get one's nibblets shaking. Unfortunately, doing the math Coleman ignores the science that ought to, but might not, support his position.
The value of ethanol as a fuel lies in its "net energy value." NEV is derived by subtracting all of the energy consumed in the process of producing a fuel from the energy available after the fuel has been produced. Relative to ethanol, one must consider the amount of energy available in one gallon of ethanol and then subtract from it the energy required to plant, fertilize, harvest, transport, distill, ferment and process the corn required to produce that gallon of ethanol. One then adds back energy credit for marketable by-products of ethanol production (e.g. animal feed). If the resulting NEV is positive, then ethanol is a net energy producer; if the NEV is negative, then ethanol is a net energy consumer.

Determining the energy values for the inputs into ethanol production is necessary to the formulation of fact-based energy policy. The Cato Institute's Jerry Taylor is conducting such a study at present, and although the study is incomplete, he writes: "It is already clear to me that the NEV for ethanol is almost certainly negative and that it probably requires more oil to produce ethanol than is required to produce gasoline. Even if I am wrong about the latter, the amount of oil saved by ethanol is very small indeed."

If Taylor is correct, producing energy through ethanol requires that society consumes more energy resources than it produces and does not significantly reduce dependence on foreign oil. Coleman-supported legislation merely skims resources from various segments of the economy to subsidize ethanol production, albeit for the benefit of farmers in Minnesota and the Midwest. In the bigger picture, however, spending more resources to produce the same amount of energy is a net loss to all non-farm consumers and the U.S. economy in general.

In his e-mail, Coleman states that "renewable fuels offer a lot of promise — a promise I want to help become a reality." Therein lies the problem. A senator is a political animal hunting re-election, career advancement and a legacy. All are hard to obtain by saying "No" to the home-state folks — even when "No" is the right answer for the country.

Good science — good governance — demands more than a one-sided view of issues. The senator owes constituents both the seen and the unseen consequences of policy and only then the reasons why he supports one policy over another. In this constituent response, Sen. Coleman fails to deliver.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Presidential mandate?

Posted by Craig Westover | 2:07 PM |  

Next to the question of secession, the most ridiculous debate stemming from the presidential election is the question of whether or not President Bush has a mandate -- as if an answer to that question somehow makes any difference.

“Question of presidential mandate looms” is the headline of a page-one Pioneer Press article today. “How much latitude does Bush have with 51% of vote? reads the subhead (not available on line). Nonsense both.

The article, over 40 column inches, examines those two questions quoting from Vice-President Cheney to Kerry supporter Dorie Vazquez-Nolan of Macomb, Mich. with equal gravitas. It cites election percentage wins and what presidents did or did not accomplish with them. It parses the word “mandate.” It deconstructs the election into issues to determine if the president has a mandate here, but not there. Irrelevant.

If you read this article, my advice is jump right to the last two paragraphs. Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff Leon Panetta gets it right.

“There’s always a mandate to govern, no matter how much you win by. But if someone says they have a mandate to implement party ideology, that’s a different question. . . . Power produces arrogance. The more power you think you’ve got, the more arrogant you become. The public can always turn on you. It’s smart to understand that there is a short leash here.”
In short, we elect a president, not a king. The president has one purpose -- “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” That, and that alone is his mandate. That should be our guide in judging presidential initiatives.

Coleman responds to MILC program criticism

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:56 AM |  

It might seem that I’m being a little hard on Sen. Norm Coleman this week, but he’s one of “my guys,” in the sense that I voted for him. I can shrug-off when the “bad guys” throw off unfounded opinions, but I take some responsibility when it’s my guy spouting the lunacy. In that context, I have to make mention of Coleman’s response today in the Pioneer Press to its editorial criticizing the Milk Income Loss Compensation program.

In defense of the MILC program, Coleman uses statistics the way Chinese generals use the infantry charge. He keeps them coming, the dead piling on top of the dead. Refute one statistic, and there’s another waiting, equally and so outlandish that it is at the same time indefensible and unassailable. Arguing statistics with statistics is a politician’s game. The bureaucracy always wins a war of statistical attrition.

My objections to Coleman’s response are philosophical. I intend to take several comments he makes out of context. I do so, because in this case, the context camouflages the underlying attitudes of the senator, which are what I find objectionable. To be fair, here is the senator’s complete unedited column. Here are my objections.

In the first paragraph of his response to the Pioneer Press, Sen. Coleman uses the “think-of-all-the-people-we-don’t-kill” Mafia defense. Speaking of subsidies and tariffs he writes --

“The United States uses less than half of the total support authority allowed to us under the WTO.”
Coleman’s rational is an underlying problem of conservatism -- conservatives claim it is a victory when they move to the left if they don’t move as far as liberals would like. Senator, it’s still a move to the left. As the Pioneer Press editorial suggests, we should be questioning the justification for supports, not justifying them on the grounds they are not as bad as they could be.

The senator then adds --

“The unlevel playing field is the whole point to President Bush’s efforts to . . . equalize domestic support so Europe and Japan, for example, do not provide more help for their farmers than we provide for ours.”
Excuse me? Did the senator somehow avoid a mother’s caution “If the neighbor kids jumped off a bridge, would you?” Do we really want to get into a subsidy race with Europe and Japan? Is that really what’s best for our economy? Remember -- this is our “conservative” Senator.

After sending another battalion of statistics into the fray, Coleman makes this comment --

“[W]e have the safest, most abundant, most affordable food supply in the world and … the federal policy that helps make it possible amounts to about 0.5 percent of the total federal budget.”
This is one of the more frightening remarks that a conservative can make -- that federal policy is responsible for private sector success. A half percent of a multi-trillion dollar budget is not exactly chump change, but if it is that small, is it even necessary? That’s the question a conservative should be asking. And if it is necessary, his next question should be how do we eliminate the need, not how do we continue and enhance it.

Once more into the breach, Coleman notes --

“[A]ccording to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, MILC has had little or no effect on milk prices. So, the bottom line is that MILC has provided a critical safety net to Minnesota dairy farm families, while not harming consumers.”
I don’t think that’s economically possible, unless by “no effect” and “consumers haven’t been harmed” Coleman means prices have not dropped as they would if supply were high relative to demand. Unless he means that the country as a whole spending more resources on the diary industry than is warranted doesn’t hurt other areas of the economy where those resources might be better spent. The government can’t spend more in one place without an effect in another -- even if the senator can’t see it.

And finally, here is the senator’s penultimate paragraph -- right out of the “a-good-government-is-one-that-fixes-75-percent-of-the-problems-it-causes” playbook..

“For decades, Minnesota and other Upper Midwest states have faced discriminatory federal dairy policies that have resulted in the wholesale exodus of thousands of farm families. Federal Milk Marketing Orders, which remain in place today, still cling to a system that effectively punishes dairy farmers close to Eau Claire, Wis., while the Northeast Dairy Compact, now defunct, added insult to injury. Today, in contrast, MILC has not only replaced discriminatory compacts with a safety net fair to the Upper Midwest, but MILC also offers at least some compensation to our region's dairy farmers for an Order system still way out of whack.”
Remember those policies the senator touted as helping to make possible the safest, most abundant, most affordable food supply in the world? Well, the Federal Milk Marketing Orders and the Northeast Dairy Compact are among those policies. Essentially the MILC program is fix to previous federal programs that hurt Midwest dairy farmers. It fixes the problem by penalizing other areas of the economy. In other words, let’s play politics with government programs rather than eliminating the government programs that screwed up the natural market order in the first place.

As noted earlier, Sen. Coleman’s approach wouldn’t bother me nearly as much if it were coming from Sen. Dayton. But it’s not. It’s coming from our “conservative” senator. I don’t know what this says about the Pioneer Press (yes I do), but it would now seem that both Minnesota senators are to the left of the St. Paul daily.

UPDATE -- J. Ewing comments: "Actually, it's about $10 billion [0.5% pf the budget], but try to cut that much out of the budget and listen to the screams."

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Odds of maintaining property rights decline or . . .

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:01 PM |  

. . . as the St. Paul Pioneer Press headline reads "Odds improve for statewide smoking ban."

According to Gov. Pawlenty, last week’s election makes it more likely the Minnesota Legislature will pass some kind of statewide ban on smoking in public places. The governor said that if a ban passed, he would sign it into law. That would be a mistake.

Smoking bans, if they are to be passed, are properly a local issue both in principle (the proper division of power between federal state and local governments) and practice (local jurisdictions are best able to deal with local issues). In addition --

  • Individual communities can consider local business climate and hear local voices when debating policy. Statewide enforcement of regional issues, with virtually no local input, disregards vastly diverse geographic, cultural and economic factors.

  • When local policy is made, the losing side has the viable option to campaign, change people's minds and vote into office people sympathetic to its view. Conversely, the costs and logistics of fighting to change a statewide law that disproportionately harms a relatively few people but provides a "free ride" to many is virtually insurmountable.

  • Local implementation makes it immediately apparent whether or not an ordinance has unintended consequences. It's relatively simple to alter policy that goes too far or not far enough. A statewide law with disproportionate impact in diverse communities defies reasonable evaluation, let alone change.

  • But the most important reason to keep smoking policy local is creating local government accountability. If a locally imposed smoking ban damages specific businesses, it is fair and reasonable to expect local taxpayers to compensate those businesses — as they must when government condemns private property for "public benefit."
These arguments are laid out fully in my Pioneer Press column “Smoking ban is properly local issue.”

Conservatives and Pawlenty's casino coercion

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:00 AM |  

In today’s Pioneer Press, professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota David Wilkins has an OP-ED piece that answers all the questions about why Minnesota signed the Native American gaming compact that it did. Working within the constraints of federal precedence and law, Minnesota had very little leverage in the negotiations. One might argue that the $150,000 that the tribes pay for regulation and inspection is too low and that the compacts should not have been signed in perpetuity, but the fundamental restraints on states vis a vis taxation of tribes as laid out by Wilkins are correct.

However, Wilkins errs when he makes this statement --
“Pawlenty's efforts [to coerce funds from the tribes] are deeply flawed on several important grounds: They are constitutionally suspect; they violate the inherent doctrine of tribal sovereignty; they run afoul of existing federal law; they contradict the state's own sovereignty accord that was first announced in 2002 and was reaffirmed by Pawlenty in 2003; and they breach the essential doctrine of federal supremacy in the field of Indian affairs.”
To the contrary, Pawlenty’s threat to establish some form of a state-run casino if the tribes do not fork over 25 percent of their revenue, about $350 million, may violate the spirit of those agreements, but it is in no way “illegal.” In fact, Pawlenty is dealing with the tribes on a sovereign-to-sovereign basis every bit as much as President Bush did with Saddam Hussein.

Bush to Hussein -- disarm or suffer the consequences. Pawlenty to the tribes -- pay me or suffer the consequences. The difference is one of authority to act.

President Bush was acting with legitimate authority to protect the United States. One can debate whether his judgment was good and his action necessary, but not whether the president of the United States has the authority to act to protect the country.

Governor Pawlenty has no such legitimate authority for his actions. The governor of Minnesota has no legitimate authority to exchange legislation for money. The state of Minnesota has no legitimate authority to enter into competition with private businesses by operating a casino. Unfortunately, the state has the authority of power to do both.

It is surprising to me (okay, not really) how professed conservatives responded to my column with the liberalesque-sounding “the state needs revenue,” “Indians should pay their fair share of the burden” or “Indians have an unfair advantage.” Substitute “the rich” or “Microsoft” for “Indians” in those phrases and you’re talking Air America. It seems as if the temptation of $350 million in revenue gain through government coercion is enough to justify, in this case, government intervention as “the lesser of two evils.” On this issue conservatives are eyeing tribal gaming profits the same way liberals look at the estates of the evil filthy rich. They got it; I want it.

Ultimately, the only check on Pawlenty’s predatory grab for revenue is popular recognition that it is contrary to the spirit and principles of limited government. As I also wrote in my column, it is our shame that choosing between $350 million and principled government is not an easy choice.

UPDATE: Another common element of conservative objections to my column is that the Native American tribes are major contributors to DFL candidates. My question for any legal eagles out there is “If the tribes are indeed sovereign nations, like say Indonesia, can they legally contribute to political campaigns?”

UPDATE: Mitch Berg at Shot in the Dark checks in on the casino controversy.

Read "Governor's Brando impression isn't funny"

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

READER RESPONSE -- Sen. Coleman on ANWR drilling

Posted by Craig Westover | 3:04 PM |  

Reader Mark Wernimont sent me a reply he received from Sen. Norm Coleman in response to his request for the Senator’s position on drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

In his e-mail, Coleman is pretty straightforward about his support for an amendment to 2004 Budget Resolution that “prevented consideration of oil exploration in ANWR as part of the budget process.” He couches that opposition by describing the ANWR debate as “a detour from the road we ought to be traveling if we want to maximize environmental protection, energy independence, and economic development dividends.” He throws his support to “renewable energy, including ethanol, biodiesel, wind, and even livestock waste.”

Cato Institute’s director of natural resource studies , Jerry Taylor, thinks Sen. Coleman’s support for ethanol subsidies in lieu of additional oil production is “dubious.” In his response to Mark, Coleman leaves out any mention of a real and ongoing debate over whether it takes more energy to produce ethanol than is yielded by ethanol when it is used, and an argument about whether ethanol is a “net consumer” or a “net saver” of petroleum.

In short, Sen. Coleman is playing the “seen” versus the “unseen” game identified by Frederic Bastiat in the 1800‘s -- one of the good things to come out of France. Sen. Coleman shows us the observable (seen) benefits of renewable energy, but ignores the unseen antecedents and consequences of those “benefits.”

What are the benefits of Sen. Coleman’s proposal? He wrote to Mark --

“ Our legislation would displace more than 1.6 billion barrels of oil . . .reduce the nation’s trade deficit by more than $34 billion, increase our gross domestic product by $156 billion, create more than 214,000 new jobs, expand household income by an additional $51.7 billion, and increase net farm income by $6 billion annually. With fourteen ethanol plants already having more than half a billion dollars in positive economic impact on Minnesota, imagine the impact on our State alone under this legislation.”
Wow! That should get one’s nibblets shaking. Unfortunately, while doing the math, Coleman ignored the science that ought to, but doesn’t support it.

Energy analysts talk about a fuel’s “net energy value” (NEV). It is derived by subtracting all of the energy consumed in the process of producing a fuel from the energy available after it has been produced. Taylor defines the case relative to ethanol production --

In the ethanol debate, one estimates the amount of energy available in one galleon of ethanol and then subtracts from it the energy required to plant, fertilize, harvest, transport, distill, ferment and process the corn required to produce that gallon of ethanol. We can then add in energy credits for certain marketable by products of ethanol production (e.g. animal feed). If the resulting value is positive, then ethanol is a net energy producer; if it is negative, then it is a net energy consumer.”
Determining the values for the inputs into ethanol production is difficult, but not impossible and not unnecessary to the formulation of sound energy policy. Taylor is involved in such a study at present, and while the study is incomplete, he writes me that --

“It is already clear to me that the NEV for ethanol is almost certainly negative and that it probably requires more oil to produce ethanol than is required to produce gasoline. Even if I am wrong about the latter, the amount of oil saved by ethanol is very small indeed.”
The reality of the “benefits” of ethanol production proclaimed by Sen. Coleman is that for the unseen additional cost of ethanol production, society receives roughly the same amount of useable energy that we get today, without reducing dependence on foreign oil or significantly reducing environmental dynamics. All the senator’s legislation accomplishes is transferring prosperity from one part of the economy to another -- from around the country to (surprise!) Minnesota. Overall, spending more and getting the same is net loss to the country’s economy.

Just a word about the Senator’s wind and livestock waste initiatives, which he claims contribute to reduced dependence on foreign oil. This is a more “dubious” proposition than his ethanol legislation.

Only 2 percent of America’s oil consumption goes to electricity generation -- most oil goes to transportation or is used in the production of various chemicals, plastics, and lubricants. Renewable energy is primarily dedicated to electricity production. Even were this market to grow, that growth would have very little impact on oil usage.

In addition, producing electricity from renewable sources is far more expensive than from natural gas or coal. The cheapest form of renewable energy today is biomass. Unfortunately, a comprehensive review of existing scientific literature finds that the environmental impact of biomass fuels is that they impose more environmental damage for every kilowatt of energy produced than nuclear power, about the same as natural gas-fired electricity, and only slightly less than caused by coal-fired electricity.

In other words, as Taylor notes, forcing the biomass issue does neither the economy nor the environment any good.

In his e-mail to Mark, Sen. Coleman notes that “renewable fuels offer a lot of promise -- a promise I want to help become a reality.” Therein lies the real problem. Coleman is after career advancement and a legacy, and no one ever achieved either by saying “no.” Good science -- hell, good governance -- demands that the senator respond to his constituents with both sides of the issue and what convinced him to choose one over the other. In this case, Sen. Coleman failed.

ANWR on eBay

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:51 AM |  

Oh those goofy libertarians! They just want to privatize everything. Next thing you know, they’ll want to sell the ANWR oil reserves on eBay. Well not quite, but Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute, has an interesting, and certainly not modest, proposal for how to decide what to do about harvesting the ANWR oil reserves.

This dispute [oil versus the environment]occurs in a vacuum because we lack price signals to guide our deliberations. Prices reflect how much society values a good or service. Without them, we can't know how much anything is worth or how best to allocate it among competing claimants. If it were otherwise, then the socialist economic collapse would never have occurred.

If we want the reserve's maximum benefits for the American people, we should let market agents, not politicians, decide how best to use the reserve. Economists tell us it doesn't matter how we privatize the reserve or to whom we initially give it to: So long as we put the reserve in the marketplace, its resources will sooner or later end up with those who value them most, and economic efficiency will be served.

How we go about privatizing the reserve, however, will determine who receives the largest windfalls from privatization. We could, for instance, simply auction it off to the highest bidders with the revenue being rebated to every American.

Or the government could issue an equal amount of special vouchers to every American, vouchers redeemable only at auction for the reserve's resources. Each of us could decide whether to buy, sell or donate those vouchers to others, allowing all potential claimants to start the auction on an equal footing.

We could even give reserve lock, stock and barrel to the environmental lobby. The Greens, of course, might decide to lock it away (demonstrating that the wilderness is indeed more valuable to them than the oil revenue), but industry claims that they only need access to a tiny part of the reserve, an area about the size of Dulles National Airport in a reserve the size of South Carolina. There's good reason why conservationists might take, say, $10 billion for that access. They could use that money to buy more land elsewhere and insist upon environmentally sensitive drilling and transportation practices. After all, when environmentalist organizations manage their own lands, they often allow industry access under the right terms and conditions. And if not, then fine; economic efficiency would be served either way.

Any of these privatization schemes would be better then leaving decisions about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the political class. Better to let rival claimants work out their differences freely and privately through market bargaining than publicly through all-or-nothing political warfare where only the best-connected have a chance to win.
Yeah, but if we did it Taylor’s way think of the fun we’d miss watching politicians squirm to appear strong on energy independence and environmentally friendly.

UPDATE: Here's a real world example.

COLUMN -- Governor's Brando impression isn't funny

Posted by Craig Westover | 6:49 AM |  

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

In his latest Godfather-like offer to Minnesota's tribal leaders, Gov. Tim Pawlenty exceeds the authority of state government to a degree that is blatantly defiant of any pretense of limited, principled government and free-market, private enterprise. The governor's predatory quest for revenue presents a challenge to every business, indeed every citizen, of Minnesota.

In his Oct. 12 letter to tribal leaders, Pawlenty bluntly uses the legislative authority of the state as a negotiating weapon. He specifically offers Minnesota tribes exclusive casino gambling rights in exchange for 25 percent of their revenue, about $350 million.

The governor's offer is nothing less than a quid pro quo exchange of legislation for money. Tit for tat. You scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours. Pawlenty, plain and simple, is putting legislative authority up for sale.

"While I have stated a clear preference for keeping casino gaming within its current contours," writes the governor with the subtlety of Brando's Don Corleone, "I have also indicated a desire to obtain a fair financial contribution from tribal casino operators in exchange for some form of continued exclusivity of casino operations and perhaps other benefits."

Neither surprising nor coincidental is that among "other benefits" are means to enhance tribal gaming revenues (consequently government revenue). Astounding is the matter-of-fact manner in which the governor declares it an "other benefit" that agreement to his coercive offer eliminates the "annual battle at the Legislature and the tribes needing to spend significant resources and time trying to maintain the status quo."

In other words, the governor recognizes the need, under the status quo, for the tribes (read "all business owners") to genuflect at the altar of the Legislature and pay the Danegeld of "resources and time" for protection of a consistent business environment free of government meddling. He confirms that it is a better investment for the Native American casinos (read "all business owners") to wine and dine a legislator than put profit back into their communities (or businesses).

Let's be clear. Pawlenty has not framed the debate as whether or not now is the time to permit free-market casino gambling in Minnesota. That would be a legitimate debate to have. That action would not violate the current compacts with Minnesota tribes and might legitimately raise the state's tax revenue. However, creating a free-market gaming industry is not the ace up Pawlenty's sleeve.

Underlying the governor's "negotiation" with the tribes is the threat of a state-owned/privately run casino or a privately run casino under a revenue-sharing agreement with the state — notions that also run contrary to that of principled, limited government.

State government has no legitimate authority to compete with private business for Minnesotans' entertainment dollars.

The state should not go into competition with citizens who pay taxes that the state then uses to operate a casino that competes with those same taxpayers for customers.

Entertainment dollars spent at a state-owned casino are entertainment dollars not spent at privately owned restaurants, movie theaters, bowling alleys and sporting events. These and other businesses are certainly in competition with each other — and with tribal casinos — but none has the state's ability to tax its competitors, regulate its competitors or relax regulations on its own operations. None has the backing of the state treasury and more taxpayer dollars if it runs into trouble.

The state owning a casino is little different from the state opening a department store at the Mall of America that didn't charge sales tax and didn't pay state income tax and consequently used cost advantage to lure customers from private-sector competitors.

Pawlenty's high-handed use of government power must not go unchallenged by Minnesotans. The Legislature — a branch of government separate from the governor's office — must see beyond the revenue issue and resist turning itself into a profit center at the expense of principled government. The rest of us must insist that it do so.

In this regard, Pawlenty has provided a "make-a-choice" issue to decide what Minnesota is to be: A state where legislation follows principle; or a state where legislation is for sale. Our shame is, it's not an easy choice.

Text of Sen. Coleman's e-mail on ANWR drilling

Posted by Craig Westover | 1:00 AM |  

The following memo was sent to a Minnesota constituent of Sen. Coleman in response to a question about drilling for oil in the Alaska national Wildlife Refuge. My comments are here.

"Thank you for contacting me concerning oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

"You should know I supported an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2004 Budget Resolution which prevented consideration of oil exploration in ANWR as part of the budget process.

"Yet, while I supported this amendment, I believe the ANWR debate is a detour from the road we ought to be traveling if we want to maximize environmental protection, energy independence, and economic development dividends. I strongly believe the road leading to these dividends is renewable energy, including ethanol, biodiesel, wind, and even livestock waste.

"Bipartisan legislation that I have cosponsored with Senator Daschle, would require an increasing portion of our U.S. energy supply to be met by renewable fuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel. I have also been working to make sure that my legislation is included in the energy bill. One study suggests that our legislation would displace more than 1.6 billion barrels of oil at a crucial time when foreign oil imports account for 56 percent of domestic oil consumption – a figure expected to climb to a staggering 70 percent in the future unless things change. The same study indicates that our legislation would also reduce the nation’s trade deficit by more than $34 billion, increase our gross domestic product by $156 billion, create more than 214,000 new jobs, expand household income by an additional $51.7 billion, and increase net farm income by $6 billion annually. With fourteen ethanol plants already having more than a half billion dollars in positive economic impact on Minnesota, imagine the impact on our State alone under this legislation.

"In short, renewable fuels offer a lot of promise – a promise I want to help become a reality. I understand that those who support oil exploration in ANWR see it as an opportunity for economic development and energy independence, while those who oppose oil exploration in ANWR see it as important to environmental protection. Yet, while I support the important objectives of both sides, I happen to see renewable fuels and renewable energy as the optimal and most relevant way to advance all three.

"In any event, you should know that the energy bill ultimately agreed to last fall by a House-Senate conference committee does not include ANWR drilling and doubles the nation’s use of renewable fuels. On November 18, 2003 the House of Representatives approved the energy bill conference report with a bipartisan vote of 246-180. Despite overwhelming bipartisan support, the Senate has not been able to shut off debate and have an up or down vote on the bill.

"After months of debate, Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, introduced a new version of the energy bill (S. 2095) on February 12. You should know that this version of the energy bill does not include ANWR drilling. I am pleased that S. 2095 retains important provisions that would encourage the use of renewable fuels and that it maintains a loan guarantee for clean coal technology in Minnesota. In addition, I am pleased that S. 2095 would not provide product liability protection to producers of fuel oxygenates such as methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE).

"Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) have indicated that the energy bill is a top priority for 2004 and expect to consider this legislation soon. Please know that I will continue to work for passage of a comprehensive energy bill.

"Thank you once again for taking the time to contact me. I value your input very much. If I can be of further assistance to you in the future, please do not hesitate to contact me."

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

EDUCATION -- More means over ends

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:44 AM |  

If MPR’s Town Hall meeting on the achievement gap was “painful,” Dr. Gerald Bracey’s presentation on the condition of public education at Hamline University last evening was downright excruciating.

Ostensibly, Bracey is a proponent of the public education system, but he’s also of the ilk that puts the emphasis on “public” as in government controlled rather than on “education.” In other words he is anti-school choice, anti-free market, and anti anything that disrupts the status quo of government controlled education.

We’re talking about a guy who stated his presentation by joking that he might be moving to Minnesota because global warming is going to cause floods on the east and west coast. “Get ready for one-party rule,” he cracked. The presentation ended with a final question (written questions selected by a moderator) “Do you think that the No Child Left Behind Act is a rightwing plot to defund public education by defining it as ‘failing?’” Bracey’s answer -- "maybe."

I’m no fan no the No Child Left Behind Act, and I agree with Bracey that’s there’s no constitutional authority for federal involvement in education (one wonders if he was as adamant in that stand vis a vis Clinton-era Goals 2000), but Bracey’s leap from bad education policy to conspiracy theory is enough to pull a mental hamstring in any thinking person. Unfortunately, it drew only approving head nods from the majority of attendees -- many of whom were next generation teachers from Hamline’s Graduate School of Education.

Bracey’s theory on NCLB is that private companies want education to remain “public” but with privatization of services so they can reap profits at taxpayer’s expense. Earlier in his presentation he connected the “backpack crisis” (heavy backpacks causing back problems in children) with the notion that private companies produce larger textbooks in the United States where government does not control the content.

In fairness, something that he showed very little of in his presentation, Bracey did trot out statistics that are relevant to the discussion of public education and that are frequently ignored by its critics. Simpson’s paradox -- the fact that a collective statistic like test performance can decline or remain flat while all subgroups within the collective improve -- is one such example. Also relevant to the discussion of education is that when comparing international test results, when the universality of American education is factored out, our best students are better or equal the best of any country in the world -- many of which only educate their best.

That being said, the majority of his presentation, a lot of which was pulled from 14th Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education, was a collection of informal logical fallacies, snide remarks about anybody associated with school choice, and Bush-bashing cultural division. While proclaiming the success of government-run education, he spent the majority of his presentation bashing the government that is running education -- never making the connection that it matters not which party is in power, government-run education is always subject to political whims always to the detriment of students and parents seeking some consistency over a student’s K-12 academic career.

Further, Bracey begged the one critical question that government-school proponents always dodge -- Even if one grants that the public school system is working adequately, why is a monolithic, all-our-eggs-in-one-basket government-run system the best and only acceptable system for educating children while a school choice system that provides a diversity of educational philosophies and opportunities is inherently evil?

The validity of this question was inadvertently raised (unnoticed in the myopic mode of the event) in the moderated Q&A. In reference to a slide in Bracey’s presentation (which he used to debunked the notion that testing is the only measure of quality education) that listed intangible qualities that rightly belong to education -- things like community involvement, patriotism, courage, tolerance, compassion and the like -- the question was “How is public education doing in the intangible qualities?” Bracey was somewhat taken aback with no canned answer. He put the slide back up and mumbled about ways one might measure, but he clearly failed to make the vital connection that a monolithic government run school system can never adequately address qualities about which society holds such diverse opinions. Nor should it.

These qualities are exactly why school choice is a necessity. You can’t homogenize ideas like community involvement, patriotism, courage, tolerance and compassion. Individuals have very different ideas about what these are -- that’s the very definition of diversity. And individuals have the right and should have the opportunity to educate their children in these areas as they determine is proper. They should be able to select among schools that best reflect their values as well as their commitment to high academic standards.

In short, Bracey’s presentation was about protecting the means by which children are educated rather than pursuing the end of education. And the saddest part was future Minnesota teachers were lapping it up.