Friday, March 25, 2005

Consistency is hard, but not impossible

Posted by Craig Westover | 2:41 PM |  

Two days after opining this about the Red Lake shootings . . . .
It would compound the fractures if opportunistic politics were to intrude. The shootings that left 10 dead and seven with physical wounds must not be allowed to accelerate politics of guns or gaming, of economic development in a needy community or poor security in schools. This case is about a troubled youth who, for reasons unknown, could not contain his troubles short of fatal violence.
. . . my hometown paper, under a banner "Red Lake Shootings," runs an OP-ED piece by Dan Gartrell, a professor of education at Bemidji State University and Head Start Teacher at Red Lake, in which he writes --
What will it take for our schools to teach for social competence and authentic citizenship, instead of feeling the pressure to teach only for academic performance?

It will take the state actually learning from the spiritual dignity shown by the grieving but courageous residents of Red Lake.

It will take weighing the need for new taxes against the lives of all Minnesotans lost in schools and finally recognizing that new taxes are indeed needed.

It will take reducing state emphasis on academic test scores and fundamentally realizing that schools are here to educate our children for life in a complex, culturally diverse democracy — a multi-dimensional citizenship of which narrow academic skills are only a part.

It will take replacing the current political accountability some officials cling to with a more enlightened 21st century educational accountability.

We believe Minnesota educators would willingly accept this more valid accountability: to optimize the chances of every student to succeed not just in the "academic classroom" but also in everyday life. The hard lesson of the tragedy in Red Lake is that what happens in school is life. Let us hope our political leaders can become more open to what so many citizens now so painfully understand.
I’m sorry, but if that is not accelerating the politics of the issue, I guess I really don’t “know stuff.”

Earlier in the OP-ED piece Gartrell makes a good point about the value of early childhood education and makes some valid criticisms of the No Child Left Behind Act. The point is his remarks about ECE and NCLB stand on their own, and there is no need to drag in the Red Lake shooting to make his points -- unless of course it is to accelerate the politics of the situation.

One would think adherence to the Wednesday editorial philosophy would have sent this one back for a draft where the ideas were presented for their own sake. Not the case. Once again, I feel embarrassed and obligated to apologize for the (diplomatically) inconsistency shown by my paper.

Reluctant word on Terri Schiavo

Posted by Craig Westover | 12:02 PM |  

Some times -- make that most times -- it’s difficult for people to separate the morality of individuals from the amorality of public policy, the passion of personal involvement from the dispassionate legalism of government, dogmatic certainty from dynamic faith. All three are in play in the Terry Schiavo case.

Like Peggy Noonan, I understand and sympathize with the those that believe in the sanctity of life. Like James Lileks, I have nothing but disgust for people that would turn the case into an opportunity for mockery or a political opportunity. Aside from being flat on my back with an alien bug for the better part of a week, I’ve stayed out of Terry Schiavo fray because, frankly, I did not have a dog in the fight -- until Congress decided to act.

Acting as the founders predicted it would, attuned to the passions and politics of the present, Congress (with or without the will of the people) acted out of passion to overturn eight years of judicial rulings in a specific case and open the floodgates of unforeseen and unintended consequences.

There is no doubt that Michael Schiavo faces a moral decision; there is also no doubt that there is a moral reality to the decision apart from what he decides to do. In other words, morality is not relative. Nonetheless, that decision is between Michael Schiavo, his doctor and his God (or THE God, depending on one’s point of view). The decision is not mine, and it’s certainly not Congress’s.

In simplest terms, this is the policy issue at stake -- In a free country, do we allow a spouse to make (legal and recognized) medical decisions for a partner, possibly decisions we may find immoral or are all spousal decisions subject to legislative action and reversal? Are we willing to bet on the basic goodness of humankind in most cases, or would we rather put our trust in the insight of those humans who happen to be in power?

It’s an inevitability -- if Congress has the authority to deny a spouse’s legally-made decision, then it also has the authority to compel a decision -- such as Justice Holmes argued in Buck v. Bell in support of mandatory sterilization of the retarded.
"that Carrie Buck is the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring, likewise afflicted, that she may be sexually sterilized without detriment to her general health and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization….It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
In the Schiavo case, conservatives are using the Holmes logic -- It is better for all the world, the welfare of society will be promoted, if government determines who should live and who should die. The underlying theme is the same; government, not the individual is in the best position to make these collective decisions for “the good of society.”

The point is, it is better for society to have individuals using their freedom (constrained by due process of law) to do things one finds morally reprehensible than to consent to government the authority to mandate that which the one group (only when in power) might deem the moral alternative. In a free society, all have the right to speak up and try to change someone’s mind -- none have the right to force another person to a specific conception of moral and immoral (within the constraints of law).

As conservatives make the case that there is no virtue when government coerces compassion by redistributing wealth, there is no virtue when government coerces ethical actions according to the morality of the majority. It is precisely the freedom of others to pursue morality different from our own that challenges and strengthens (or changes) our beliefs.

Bottom line, Congress had no authority to issue special legislation. In that, I take exception to Doug at Bogus Gold when he writes --

First is the argument that the federal government has no role here; that this should be a private matter among the family. Big problem here. In this case the family is divided. Actually, they’re not terribly divided. There is one and only one family member who wants Terri killed; Michael Schiavo. Ask yourself this question: should guardians be granted the authority to decide whether their wards live or die? Also, since the right to life is a civil right recognized by our Constitution, upon which basis state sentences of capital punishment are routinely appealed to federal courts, why the exception here? Why are Terri’s federally protected civil rights less important than convicted murderers?
Doug makes three points, that from a personal perspective are all true, and should raise some questions for Michael Schiavo, but they are his to answer and ours only to consider.

First -- yes, he is the only family member that wants Terri’s life ended (“killed” if you prefer; I don’t). He is also the only one with the legal authority and the sacramental authority granted by marriage to make the decision. If everyone in the family wanted her “killed” and he alone were holding out, would it change the morality or the legality of the situation? It would not.

Second -- “Ask yourself this question: Should guardians be granted the authority to decide whether their wards live or die?” I am going to assume “within the constraints of law,” answer yes and re-ask “If not the guardians, then who?” Who is qualified to define the moral lines between withholding food and a do-not-resuscitate order? Or no order at all?

Third -- the difference between capital punishment and the Schiavo case is that no one, even by an act of breaking the law, consents to the state the power to take his life (which as discussed above is the authority consented to the state by allowing it to interfere in a spousal decision). The sacrament of marriage -- where two individuals leave their birth families to form their own union -- is a consensual agreement. One may disagree that Michael Schiavo is fulfilling his end of the bargain, but again, there is One more competent than I (or Congress) to judge that.

The Schiavo case is one that is particularly challenging to conservatives because it forces us to put our political philosophy against a moral outrage. If we sacrifice the former to coercively rectify the latter, then we must give up as well all pretense of integrity.

Back in Business

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:06 AM |  

After a bout with some alien bug, posting will resume soon.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

A Rank secondhand analysis of secondhand smoke

Posted by Craig Westover | 12:05 PM |  

I will be the first to admit it’s a fine line easily blurred where science plausibility becomes fact. I have been wrestling with that issue as I explore the growing body of scientific evidence supporting a connection between the mercury content in childhood vaccines and the epidemic increase in autism and childhood neurological diseases.

Despite knee-jerk criticism from physicians that for the sake of their patients ought to be more responsible in their criticism, as does David Kirby in his book Evidence of Harm,” I make a good faith effort not to push the growing body of scientific evidence of harm beyond what it is -- evidence-- to a false certainty for the sake of propaganda. That is as unconscionable as the knee-jerk criticism that resorts to ad hominem speculation about motivations instead of examining and refuting the facts.

That being said, one can possibly understand why I find columns such as that by Brian Rank in today’s Pioneer Press (Statewide smoking ban is a public health priority) so galling. It is not his premise; while I disagree with his solution of the necessity of government intervention, I am willing to debate the scientific plausibility of some of his contentions.

No, what galls me about this Rank column is the way he distorts his science and extends it beyond the bounds of truth. He trots out the criticism-worn Helena, Mont., heart attack study -- calling it a “landmark” study -- without any context, without any discussion, using it solely as a scare factor.

Were a politician to do this, one with legislation to promote, an agenda to serve, an election to win, it’s sloppy but understandable as an act of ignorance. But Mr. Rank is not a politician. He is medical director of the HealthPartners Medical Group and chair of the Cancer Plan Minnesota Steering Committee. He is in a position of authority and credibility. Given his position of power, Mr. Rank’s abuse of science is as inexcusable as it is inaccurate. To wit: he writes --

In April, the Centers for Disease Control advised anyone with heart disease to avoid indoor settings where smoking is allowed. The CDC issued the advisory after a landmark study revealed evidence that even short-term exposure to secondhand smoke can trigger heart attacks. The study, published in the British Medical Journal, found the number of heart attacks reported in Helena, Mont., fell by 40 percent during a six-month period in 2002 when the city's comprehensive smoke-free law was in effect.
The paper referenced is “Reduced incidence of admissions for myocardial infarction associated with public smoking ban: before and after study,” by Richard P. Sargent and Robert M. Shepard, attending physicians at St. Peter’s Community Hospital in Helena, Montana. A third author is Stanton A. Glantz, professor of medicine at the University of California in San Francisco.

Without delving deeply into scientific methodology, which can be found here for those interested), the rationale for this study was that St. Peter’s is the only hospital in the Helena area and therefore conducting a study of patients admitted for specific medically defined set symptoms that we layman lump under the heading “heart attack,” would yield data abut the affect of the smoking ban instituted in Helena in June of 2002 (ruled unconstitutional and discontinued Nov 2002). As Mr. Rank states, among the results was a 40 percent decrease in the number of “heart attacks.”

Again, let’s be clear. What is galling about Mr. Rank’s designation of this study as “landmark” and the conclusiveness with which he asserts those findings far outstrip the extent and validity of the study, which again is inexcusable for a man in Mr. Rank’s position.

Consider these comments, also appearing in the British Medical Journal , from Terry F. Pechacek, associate director for science and Stephen Babb, coordinator, secondhand smoke work group of the Office on Smoking and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Although the results of the study by Sargent and colleagues are consistent with the literature on the risks of acute myocardial infarction associated with secondhand smoke, the study has some important limitations. Among those limitations, Pechacek and Babb not that the study contains no data on actual exposures to secondhand smoke among residents or cases. Despite reduced exposure created by the law --

Some proportion of non-smokers would still havebeen exposed in their homes, cars, or other enclosed places not covered by the ordinance. Thus, without more data, the proportion of non-smokers in Helena among whom exposures were significantly reduced during the six months that the ordinance was in effect cannot be known.

A second concern is that the geographical isolation of the city, while making this type of study feasible, also resulted in a small number of admissions for acute myocardial infarction. As reported elsewhere, the typical number of acute myocardial infarction events per month before the ordinance was only about six or seven and was highly variable, with the actual number per month ranging from none to about 10-12.

Although conservative statistical analyses were applied to these data, due to the small number of events and the lack of data on changes in active smoking, random variation and factors other than secondhand smoke exposure may have contributed to the findings.

Finally, the observed effect (a decline of an average of 16 admissions for acute myocardial infarction for a six month period)was substantially greater than what might be expected [using statisticalprediction techniques]. Even assuming that the proportion of acute myocardialinfarction cases among smokers was fairly constant across time, that allnon-smokers were frequently exposed to secondhand smoke in public places, that virtually all this exposure was eliminated by the ordinance, and that allcoronary heart disease risk related to this exposure was immediately reversed among non-smokers the maximum impact on admissions for acute myocardial infarction would be predicted to be about 18-19% during the six months that the ordinance was in effect. Taking all of the above assumptions and issues into consideration, a more conservative estimate of the predicted reduction in acute myocardial infarction events might be 10-15%. [Not 40 percent.]

The small number of acute myocardial infarction events in this study produced a wide 95% confidence interval in the analysis that includes the conservative estimate of a 10-15% reduction. The width of the confidence interval underscores the importance of additional, larger studies that could replicate the findings of the Helena study and provide more stable estimates of the effect size.

But nonetheless, Mr. Rank chooses to hail this study as “landmark” and use it as scare tactic, something even those with the same objective as Mr. Rank, but more integrity, cannot abide.

Also from the British Medical Journal is this response to the Sargent et. al. study from a New York epidemiologist that values the integrity of his profession more than the temptation to misuse scientific data.
As a cancer researcher who has published extensively on the harmful effects of smoking, I am in favor of vigorous smoking bans and feel there is no justification for nonsmokers to have to breathe air polluted with tobacco smoke. However, the study by Sargent et al. claiming that the 6 -month smoking ban in Helena, Montana was associated with a drop in heart attacks must be viewed with skepticism.

The authors reported that the number of heart attacks within the city of Helena dropped by 40% immediately following the initiation of the ban. They claim that this is powerful evidence for an effect of exposure to secondhand smoke on heart attacks. But if we look at their data we see just how questionable this claim is.

First, the researchers only had information from hospital records on where a person lived. They did not interview the patients, so they had no information on whether their exposure to secondhand smoke changed as a result of the ban. They also did not present any information on whether smoking habits were affected by the ban. The fact that they had no information on exposure is a major deficiency.

Second, the drop in heart attacks is based on very few cases: 4 per month on average during the ban compared to 7 per month before. Due to these small numbers the reported difference could easily be due to chance or to some uncontrolled factor. The number of heart attacks in the area outside Helena was even smaller. It should not be surprising that, given these small numbers, there are fluctuations of the magnitude seen in this study.

Finally, the “immediate effect” and its magnitude really should make anyone stop and question the connection the authors are asserting. There are few interventions in public health that have such an immediate effect. Even if all active smokers in Helena had quit smoking for at least a year, one would not expect to see such a dramatic effect. No previous epidemiologic study or community smoking cessation program has ever shown that a reduction in smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke causes an immediate decline in heart disease incidence or mortality.

A rigorous study would have involved collecting information on a population of adequate size and interviewing individuals to assess their pre-existing risk for heart disease as well as how their behavior was affected by the ban in order to make a plausible connection between the two phenomena.

The attempt to make claims about the effects of smoking bans based on this very weak ecologic study raises disturbing questions about our ability to distinguish between sound science and wishful thinking.
That last sentence bears repeating lest Mr. Rank miss the point -- there is a distinct difference between sound science and wishful thinking. A city councilman can plead ignorance when citing bad science; people of Mr. Rank’s prestige have no such excuse.

[For a rebuttal of the Sargent et. al. study from a anti-ban activist, click here. For an alternative look at the science of secondhand smoke, click here.]

Mr. Rank then goes on to use other statistical slight-of-hand by trotting out the aggregate statistics that show no overall loss of business when a smoking ban is imposed. Of course, by "loss of business" Mr. Rank means that state tax revenues remain constant. He is not concerned about the small taverns and restaurants that are put out of business by smoking bans and don't show up in aggregate statistics.

And finally, he totally ignores the central argument in the smoking ban controversy -- the fundamental right of people to engage in a legal activity on private property with the permission of the property owner. He offers no criteria for when an acknowledged personal health issue becomes a “public” health issue demanding the intervention of government and damn, I get tired of repeating myself to people that keep bringing up the same issues, ignoring the same issues and refusing to engage in any reasonable debate.

But it’s all here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

COLUMN -- Objective look taken at vaccines, autism

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:03 AM |  

Posted on Wed, Mar. 16, 2005

Objectivity is the first principle of journalism. Presenting a balanced view of all sides of an issue defines a simple (and simplistic) measure; "balanced" is not equivalent to "accurate."

Therein lie the conflicting reactions of praise and condemnation for New York Times contributor David Kirby's new book "Evidence of Harm -- Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic, A Medical Controversy."

"Objectivity is something I grappled with the whole time I was writing the book," Kirby told me in a phone interview. "Books have a point of view. But a point of view is different than advocacy.

"The title emerged from the text itself," Kirby said. " 'Evidence of harm' actually appears about 17 times in the book. 'Evidence' is the proper word for the title. There is a growing body of evidence of harm from vaccines containing mercury. 'Proof of harm' uses a very loaded word, and I didn't want to go quite that far."

Interest in Kirby's book (pre-release orders place it No. 78 in the sales ranking) are driven in part by the unprecedented rise in autism rates. Before 1980 the historical rate of diagnosed autism was four to five cases for every 10,000 live births. The CDC pegs the current autism ratio at one case in every 166 live births.

Kirby notes that those figures have compelled officials, however reluctantly, to consider another biological component to autism besides other prevailing genetic theories. There is no such thing as a genetic epidemic. What is that biological cause? That's the question Kirby addresses.

On one level, "Evidence of Harm" encapsulates the controversy over the use of the mercury-based preservative thimerosal in childhood vaccines.

Kirby does his journalistic duty and presents the conflicting evidence over whether mercury in childhood vaccines contributed to the unprecedented rise in cases of autism. Often he uses the advocate's own words. Sometimes those words -- or lack of them -- are damning.

"Many of the public health officials who discount the thimerosal theory were unwilling to be interviewed for this book (or prohibited from speaking by superiors)," Kirby writes. "Readers are invited to reach their own conclusions on the evidence."

On a second level, "Evidence of Harm" is the inspiring story of a handful of parents of autistic children challenging the powers-that-be with evidence supporting the scientifically plausible theory of a mercury-autism connection and demanding that it be properly investigated. Pursuing the truth, they dare go where establishment business, science and government fear to tread.

The notion that vaccines might cause harm, even to a minority of kids, "threatens the very core of what these bureaucrats believe in," Kirby quotes the father of an autistic child as saying. "The whole apparatus is there to do good. . . .The notion that [vaccinations] are harmful is unthinkable [to them]."

But the parents' fight is more than just another David versus Goliath story. There is a third level on which one can read "Evidence of Harm." Regardless of one's belief or even interest in a mercury-autism connection, "Evidence of Harm" is a devastating picture of ineffectual bureaucratic response to urgent concerns of the very people the system is intended to serve.

So is "Evidence of Harm" an objective examination of the mercury-autism connection?

If one expects a balanced view that considers all arguments equally valid, the answer is no. Kirby points out the misrepresentations and overstatements of each side in the debate, but, as he should, he makes no apologies for nor creates camouflaging cover for weak arguments in the name of "balance."

But if one expects, as one should, that the author has unflinchingly followed where the research led and rendered an accurate account of what he found, then the answer to the objectivity question is undeniably yes.

"Evidence of Harm" is an important book.

It is an information source for parents with autistic children and for prospective parents concerned not only that their children are vaccinated, but that they are vaccinated safely.

It is an important book for politicians and policy-makers lest they forget that theirs is to protect those who put their trust in them; theirs is not preserving a system at the expense of those the system is meant to serve.

And it is an important book for everyone else, for it reminds us, yet again, that securing individual welfare is not to be found in blind trust of bureaucratic systems — however well-intentioned.

That is my objective opinion.

Monday, March 14, 2005

I screwed up!

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:59 AM |  

Saturday the NARN Crew celebrated their one-year anniversary on AM1280 the Patriot. As one of "the usual suspects," I was scheduled to call-in with an over-the-top "testimonial" about the way that the Saturday morning NARN show has changed my life. I just plain forgot.

I got absorbed in working on Wednesday's column, setting up a phone interview, and didn't even realize I'd missed the NARN event until I ran into the Atomizer at a secret, undisclosed "palatial estate" on Saturday night. Duh!

I thought I had a pretty good bit lined up, too -- aspiring mainstream media columnist who finally got a regular gig with the local MSM only to find out that all along happiness was to be found in his mother's basement with a computer and a plate of fishsticks -- that kind of thing. But I blew.

So, with no pretense that I can eliminate my unjust slight of NARN, I'll try to assuage it somewhat beyond a simple apology with a serious testimonial that NARN has had an affect on my my brief career in journalism and my life.

It was Brian "St. Paul" Ward that first "discovered" my column in the Pioneer Press and publicized it to the blogosphere. Mitch and Captain Ed treated me gently on my virgin venture on the radio, and Mitch has been supportive in booking guests on the show -- even liberals -- involved in issues that are important to me and that I've written about in the paper. It was Captain Ed that got me interested in blogging, and Chad "The Elder" that first invited me to Keegan's -- where bloggers "with no social lives" tend to gather -- and where hours of serious discussion has passed mixed with trivia contests and talk of trivial local columnists spiced with adult beverages.

So, belated congratulations to NARN, as I lay myself exposed for the flagellation that is sure to follow. I hear conservatives are without mercy.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Light blogging

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:51 AM |  

The pursuit of truth, economic enhancement and adult beverages has consumed and will consume the better part of my time for a bit. More than the usual number of confabs on the schedule where "wing nuts" sit around sipping the tepid tears of orphans and discuss ways to undermine democracy.

I shall return.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Is this a good thing?

Posted by Craig Westover | 12:17 PM |  

From City Pages:
Strib to hire conservative columnist

Kersten (or Janacek) the frontrunner

Here's a bit of breaking news: City Pages has learned that the Star Tribune has posted an opening for a conservative columnist in its Metro section. Katherine Kersten, the longtime right-wing op-ed writer affiliated with the Center of the American Experiment, is visiting the paper for a day-long series of interviews this Thursday; Sarah Janacek, a moderate (pro-choice) Republican, will do the same later. One source claimed to City Pages that the decision to hire Kersten has already been reached; another said the office buzz is that Janacek will get the post. Neither woman is a journalist by trade.

Is the move a concession to all the paper's right-wing critics, who have been especially noisy in recent months? One Strib staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity doubts that was much of a factor: "I think it's market-driven. Whether it's Gyllenhaal, California, or Moyer [behind the move], I think they're responding to a feeling that we're missing out in the suburban areas because we don't connect there politically."

There is no word on when an announcement will be made.
I've known Katherine for sometime, although not on a personal basis, and I just met Sarah at the most recent Patriot event, so I don't have a real good feel on this one, but I do have a couple of observations.

First, as the post notes, neither of the candidates is a journalist by trade (which must be driving Coleman bonkers). The Strib gig would fall into the major market category; that there isn't a conservative with journalism credentials for such a position would say something about the prevailing bias of the press, would it not?

Second, Kersten and Janacek represent opposite ends of the bell-shaped curve of conservatives. That being the case, does either represent the "average" conservative, if there is such a voice?

I'm open for comments on this one.

Too little, too late, too liberal

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:56 AM |  

Were I a clever MSM columnist with no sense of self awareness, I might come up with a clever nickname rivaling "Captain Fishsticks." Alas, I am but a "hobby journalist" cursed with a modicum of pride.

City Pages writer and blogger Paul Demko brings too little to late to Hugh Hewitt’s apparently aborted attempt to organize a “Swarm the Strib to Reform the Strib” blog to police the paper’s liberal bias. Most Minnesota bloggers are unexcited by Hewitt’s idea if not outright hostile too it.

Demko’s article on the City Pages Web site [funny hat tip to "Mrs. Paul -- it's not what you know but whom you sleep with] restates many of the feelings I posted and that I’ve heard from other bloggers that are rightly critical of “Swarm the Strib” idea. But he also is a case in point of the liberal bias in the media in that he a) makes no mention of the conservative blogosphere rejection of the Hewitt idea and b) he struggles to spin comments by James Lileks in the worst possible light --
The "Backfence" author isn't completely dismissive of the proposed Strib watchdog website, however. "If people go into this with the assumption that the Star Tribune is trying to manipulate information according to our daily instructions from Lenin's brain, they're going to look like fools," he says. "The issue of bias in journalism is a little more complex than that."

So does Lileks believe that his newspaper skews news to the left? "Do I think that people are writing from the DFL playbook? No," he says. "But people bring biases to this business and it affects sometimes how they frame issues."
I addressed the following email to Demko --

Paul --

I saw where you list my blog on your blogroll, so I'm guessing you read it. But in case you missed it, below is a post from my site regarding Hugh Hewitt's proposal, which I agree was a bad idea. A few additional comments.

When I posted my comments, I thought I might be a lone voice in the Minnesota blogosphere. I gave myself far too much credit. That has not been the case. The Northern Alliance of blogs, while still individually critical of specific aspects of the Start Tribune, have not jumped on board with Hewitt's proposal and were frankly critical of it. From the comments I've received, with but a few exceptions, Minnesota bloggers have rejected Hewitt's call for organized action. To my knowledge, he hasn't mentioned it again on his radio show or posted about it, although I admit I am not a regular listener or reader.

In fairness, I think your article should have mentioned that while individually critical of the Star Tribune, the blogger community in Minnesota as a whole has rejected the tactic of digitally shouting down the opposition.

Craig Westover

UPDATE: In an email Paul Demko makes the point, which I did overlook in my post, that he tried to contact Hewitt for comment, but his attempt was not returned. He notes --

I would suggest the reason it [Hewitt's idea] has not been embraced (if that's the case) is because it would force people to actually put their money where their mouths are. It's much easier to fume about what a liberal rag the Strib is than to actually point out instances in which liberal bias permeates the Strib's news reporting.
No, Paul, I think it was a matter of principle. I think the blogs are generally pretty specific when criticizing the Star Tribune coverage individually. I think his bias is showing. Conservatives are not afraid to question their own on matters of principle.

Demko believes that quoting Gyllenhaal and Lileks and attempting (unsuccessfully) to get some form of comment from Hewitt and Doug Tice and Kate Parry was reasonable due dilligence on his part.

I'd say he covered his bases, but probably missed some others. With his perception of the blogosphere's reverence for Hugh, I might have contacted some NARN blogs for response before assuming that reverence always equates to drinking the Koolaid.

UPDATE: Bogus Gold posts a list of bloggers' responses to Hugh's idea as evidence it was rejected on principle. (In an email to me, Demko noted Margaret's Our House response as "lukewarm.")

COLUMN -- Behind the curtain of 'casino theater'

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:44 AM |  

Wednesday Mar. 09, 2005

Witnessing the theater of government gives one an appreciation for the real power of the state. Reading the news is different from watching news being made. It is the difference between dinner at Kincaid's and watching a cow being butchered.

That said, last week I attended a press conference at which the governor made news.

Using stagecraft and seductive messaging, Gov. Tim Pawlenty served up a deliciously persuasive perception of what is yet another bit of greedy government flummery — his proposed casino partnership with the northern Minnesota Ojibwe bands.
What I witnessed was high theater.

The governor's announcement was made in the regally ornate Governor's Reception Room. Soaring ceilings, deeply stained wooden paneling, heavy draperies and thick carpets speak to the traditional trappings of power.

Coincidently, above and behind the podium hung an ornately framed mural commemorating a 19th century state-tribal treaty.

In preparation for the governor's entrance, his minions arranged his supporting cast from the northern Ojibwe bands, the Legislature and the gaggle of agencies that stand to benefit from this 21st century state-tribal treaty. Propped next to the potted plants behind the podium, they acted a cross between a Greek Chorus and your average high school "B" choir.

Enter the governor.

The bevy of photographers crowded into the room flashed away, faithfully capturing exactly the image that the governor's stage managers had so craftily manipulated.
In his presentation, Pawlenty skillfully combined something a lot people think is very, very bad — an extension of gambling — with something that a lot of people think is very, very, good — helping the poorer Minnesota tribes.

He couched his message in terms of "fairness" — the fairness of redistribution of gaming wealth to a blighted region, the fairness of cutting government a piece of the action.

His strategy worked.

His message has his critics flummoxed.***

The Pioneer Press editorial page remains steadfast against any gaming expansion, but admits that "as a business decision, the appeal to the bands makes fiscal and moral sense."

A group of Minnesota senators that opposes the governor's proposal chose as a spokesman Sen. William Belanger, R-Bloomington, who while opposing extension of casino gambling, supports the "racino" proposal for slot machines at Canterbury Downs.

And therein lies the problem. The governor has focus; his critics do not.
Using the theater of his office, the governor has defined the debate as a contest between the moral high ground of "fairness," plus demonstrable fiscal benefits, vs. the speculative social costs of gambling.

The governor is running a winnable bluff.

Given immediate gratification with only "potential" consequences somewhere in the future, most people will order the dessert, charge up their credit cards, run the yellow light and take the tribal $200 million up-front money as part of the governor's deal.

And that's what the governor is counting on.
So, here we go again.

Like the recently defeated statewide smoking ban, Pawlenty's proposal rests on the notion that government can butcher the principle of limited authority whenever it darn well pleases in pursuit of some perceived collective good.

The deceptively justified smoking ban was brought down when the issue focused on the legitimacy of government authority to pass such a bill.

So will the state-tribal casino proposal fall — but only if its opponents resist getting sucked into the governor's bluff.

Opponents of the Pawlenty proposal must stick to the principle that a state-tribal partnership, even for the collective good, is outside the legitimate authority of the state.

Government should not enter into competition with private businesses for the entertainment dollars of Minnesotans.

A state-tribal casino would not just compete with other tribal casinos; it would compete with private restaurants, private hotels and other private forms of entertainment.

Ironically, the state could pass a smoking ban for private bars and restaurants that compete with a state-tribal casino in which a smoking ban could not be enforced.
Do we start to see the problem?

The prologue is complete. Act I of "Casino Theater" is under way. The governor's deception is in place. Will casino opponents fall into his well-laid trap? Stay tuned.

*** UPDATE: As a matter of policy, the Pioneer Press does not mention the Star Tribune on its editorial page. The Star Tribune has, nonetheless commented on Pawlenty's proposal, and one must assume has some influence in the Twin Cities. One would expect the Star Tribune to be a vocal critic of all things Pawlenty, as I noted here. I also mentioned it my column, but by policy the following was edited out of the coulmn --
One can almost feel the angst in an editorial from across the river that struggles with opposing a plan that benefits the Northern Tribes or supporting a Republican-sponsored extension of gambling.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Clever titles are not arguments

Posted by Craig Westover | 2:19 PM |  

Sometimes my hometown paper does some great things; sometimes it doesn't. An example of the latter is the editorial today ("Where's there's smoke there's no backbone") on the failure of the statewide smoking ban bill in the House.

Let’s put aside that once again a smoking ban editorial is written without one mention of the individual rights issue. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. It was not only brought up, but emphasized in every House and Senate hearing held on the smoking ban thus far. One can only surmise that the Pioneer Press ignores the issue because it cannot argue it, let alone refute it.

Individual rights is what the editorial did not address; what it did address is internally illogical and violates some of the paper’s own journalistic standards. It also shows the short-comings of researching editorials only by reading the paper.

Let’s start with the declaration that the the vote to kill the smoking ban by the House Commerce and Financial Institutions Committee was “chicken-hearted.” Later in the editorial it is said --
Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said he would sign legislation to extend smoke-free workplace law to restaurants and bars. The momentum is with proponents. The blanket argument that bans would hurt business in eating and drinking establishments has been disproved in enlightened states that have such bans. Reducing the harmful effects of smoke is a health care cost issue at a time when runaway increases for the sorts of serious illnesses that smoking can cause are driving up the cost of insurance. Clearing the air saves lives and money.
So if everyone wants this, why is it “chicken hearted” to vote against it? Perhaps, just perhaps, with all the world screaming at you, it takes a little courage to stand up for an unpopular cause that nonetheless represents a fundamental right that shouldn’t be taken away because some writers feel . . .
it is past time for all Minnesotans to enjoy going out to eat without having to plot and plan for a destination that has no blue haze wafting from the smoking section.
As for journalistic principle, look again at this statement --
The blanket argument that bans would hurt business in eating and drinking establishments has been disproved in enlightened states that have such bans.
Where is the attribution for that statement? Journalists are suppose to back up their premises with information the ordinary reader can understand as a source -- either neutral or with a point of view on an issue. Making broad assertions without backup that a reader can see, opens a piece to credibility problems that weaken an argument.

Had there been a source cited, it would contain aggregate data showing no reduction in state tax revenue from the hospitality industry following a smoking ban. It would not have shown the affect of smoking bans on some individual businesses. Even the sponsor of the smoking ban bill, Rep. Doug Meslow, acknowledged in a hearing that some bars and restaurants would lose business following a smoking ban (although he stated that he felt that community health concerns overrode the property rights issue).

Finally the editorial makes the assertion that
as a matter of equity, the same rules should apply whether a restaurant is in Hibbing or Hastings. It's in the public interest for proponents to find a way to advance the statewide smoking ban this year.
Again, in the House and Senate hearings, but unreported in the paper, several greater Minnesota legislators expressed concerns that a smoking ban in their districts would put local establishments in an unfair competitive position with tribal casino operations; some had concerns about activities on border rivers; some had concerns about border towns; others were concerned about small populations with a high percentage of smokers.

In short, many greater Minnesota legislators had reservations about applying a statewide ban based on metropolitan ordinances that were never designed to meet the needs of a rual area.

The smoking ban bill will come up again. Some legislation just refuses to die. Let’s hope that when it does, my hometown paper will be ready to engage in debate and not simply rhetorically stamp its feet at the inconvenience of having to plan a night out.

A great thing about conservative . . . .

Posted by Craig Westover | 1:19 PM |  

Unlike the left of the political spectrum, who like to engage in a lot of irrelevant navel gazing, when the right looks inward, there's usually a purpose. Conservatives aren't afraid to question their own.

Case in point, King Banaian has some excellent observations today on the Academic Bill of Rights idea being floated by Michele Bachmann. King writes --
For truth be told, ABoR is actually a bad idea, and center-right bloggers who want to help keep Democrats a minority party for years to come would do well to keep clear of it.

The question for me comes down to this: Do you want judges and legislators deciding what is “appropriate knowledge of the subjects and disciplines they study” or do you want professionals? Obviously you want the latter, but it requires that we behave like professionals. We are reaping the whirlwind for allowing ourselves to be cowed by political correctness and cries of McCarthyism from evaluating whether faculty are behaving professionally. The courts have been very reluctant to impose their judgment of professionalism on us, but may only continue to do so as long as they see we can police ourselves. Having a statement like ABoR in the student handbook would be evidence that we can.

If we are to have the individual independence described in the document while consuming taxpayer resources to deliver higher education, there must be some mechanism that guards against abuse. If not faculty (or their unions) then who? Who will speak for protection of student rights? Whom would you prefer do so? Campus liberals may think students are protected, but we have ample evidence of conservative students at SCSU being attacked for supporting gun rights, Israeli self-determination, or traditional gender roles.

I understand conservative anger at campuses, but use of the law to get a good policy put in place is wrong. Conservative faculty need to think hard about how to get these protections for students put in place.

If we don’t do it, it’s going to be done to us. It is our job to police ourselves. It’s not the government’s job. But you don’t have to be a libertarian to realize that government seeks to expand its influence when it’s given half a reason to.
If conservatives want to live free to be conservatives, they must recognize that half the time they must acknowledge the right of someone to do somethg they might find morally reprehensible, offensive or that even defies common sense. Sometimes that takes more than a little courage.

King nails it. If conservative professors are too cowardly to stand up for conservative student's rights, then indeed, they will eventually find themselves on the receiving end of the subtle but albeit real censorship they seek to employ.

I don’t even miss the naked women (too much)

Posted by Craig Westover | 12:20 PM |  

Doug Williams is stealing the thunder of the slow-moving mainstream media by pioneering the concept of the blog interview, having expanded from interviewing local bloggers (Mitch Berg, King Banaian) to landing an interview with Attorney General candidate Jeff Johnson.

The “Bogus Gold Interview” may not have the eye candy of the “Playboy Interview,” but Doug’s work is revealing new territory for bloggers and sooner or late somebody is going to let slip the “lust in his heart,” and the blog interview will have come of age.

Doug is doing a great job with his questions. His line of questions with Johnson about the tobacco lawsuits yielded some great insight into Johnson’s approach to the AG’s office. I liked his questioning Johnson about what books he’s read -- that was a question I always asked of people I interviewed for jobs back in my corporate days. I would have liked to see him follow-up “and what did you learn from that book.” A tip -- that question yields some revealing answers.

With a foot in both the blog and MSM worlds, I have a couple of observations for blogger/interviewers.

First, don’t be afraid to insert yourself into your interviews. You’re not just the ears of your readers; you are their eyes. Taking Doug’s interview of Johnson as an example, I got an excellent idea about how Johnson feels about issues and some insight into his character. But I’ve never met the man, Doug has, and I would have liked his observations and perceptions.

What did the man’s office look like? Anything that intimated his answers in the interview, or anything that contradicted them? What was his manner? Was he cordial or abrupt? Nervous or self-assured? The point is, an interviewer is more than a scribe; he’s a proxy observer for the reader. Fill that role.

Second, think about being a blogger. Somebody like Johnson is going be interviewed hundreds of times between now and the election and using the old 80/20 rule, 20 percent of the questions will be asked 80 percent of the time. Think about what questions you as a blogger can ask that the mainstream media can’t or won’t, but that are important.

I thought Doug’s questions about the tobacco settlement vis a vis a contrast with Hatch were on the right track. Not a lot of mainstream media guys would go there that quickly.

Another key point for blogger/interviewers is timeframe thinking. Mainstream media interviews are done for tomorrow’s paper or tonight’s news. Blogs are forever. Doug made a point today that his interview can be resurrected closer to the election when there’s more interest. He’s right -- which implies that a blog interview would best serve providing information with a shelf life rather than (necessarily) immediacy.

That brings me to my main point. In my community columnist days I wrote a column emphasizing that understanding a political candidate’s personal philosophy and philosophy of government is more important that knowing precisely where he or she stands on specific issues. I think that’s an area for blogger/interviewers to explore.

Understanding political philosophy isn’t something MSM reporters overly concern themselves with. It’s important. It has shelf life. And it is something that should a candidate be less than truthful about, can come back to haunt.

Again, kudos to Doug for blazing the trail and to pols like Jeff Johnson (by way of aide Larry Colson) for recognizing blogs as a viable and valuable medium.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

More "liberal education"

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:39 PM |  

From the "Power Liberal in response to a response to this post (my comments in bold)--

Thanks for the reply!I'll post it and see if I can get a little feedback for you. I can tell you right now my gut reaction to your question is that if you take money away from underperforming schools, you are dooming them to even worse failure. And by doing that, you are inherently taking away school choice anyway, leaving private schools as the only viable school option.

Several things. First, the proposed bill doesn't "take" money. A student leaves, a portion of the allocated funding for that student follows her. The school retains a portion of the funding with one less student to teach. Result is more money per student, fewer students to teach. Isn't that what schools are asking for?

Second, students are leaving districts now and no funding remains with the district. Vouchers merely offer that opportunity to low-income families, plus less funding leaves the district.

Third, failure is not relative. What you are asking is for poor kids to remain in a failing school (or a good school that doesn't meet their needs) to subsidize the system. What is the ethical principle that says poor kids must sacrifice their educational opportunity for the sake of a system that is failing them?

Fourth, if your scenario plays out, and people choose to leave public schools in the numbers you suggest, what does that say about the quality of public schools? If all public schools are that bad (and I don't believe they are), why would we want to subsidize and perpetuate the failure?

I can't see private schools as the solution necessary to fixing this problem. Private schools are already beginning to face the same overcrowding and underfunding issues that public schools have faced for decades (Holy Angels is a good example). Plus, you seems to be making a two tier private school system (one the people can afford to go to with vouchers, one that's more "exclusive," as you called it. Why is that better or more efficient than having public and private schools?

Again, couple of points. When private schools face problems they have options. They have individual control. Not all private schools will succeed, just as there will always be good and bad public schools. The difference is in the private school system if a school's situation becomes too bad, parents have the option to leave. There is motivation to address problems. That currently is not the case in public schools that have a captive base of students without that option.

Regarding a two-tier system: Remember life is a bell-shaped curve. "Exclusive" private schools are the minority at the margin. The majority of private schools are going to address the majority of income levels. Private schools are inherently more efficient because they must be accountable directly to parents that have option to take their tuition money to a different school if they are not satisfied. Competition will improve public schools (or kill them). Since the voucher program was implemented in Milwaukee, the graduation rate for both private and public schools has improved.

Since student already have school choice due to open enrollment, I can't help but see this as a way to encourage more funds to private, and primarily religious schools. Well over 3/4s of the schools listed on the MDE website as Private schools were obviously of a religious denomination. I believe religious views should be taught to my children by myself and the pastor of my given denomination, and not taken up by teachers during the school week. And so do the founders of the State Constitution. You state that the amendment was a result of anti-Catholic bigotry, and maybe it was back when it was written, but I have yet to see anyone try and amend the Constitution to repeal it, and I've seen in the last few years that there are many politicians who are zealously into bringing up constitutional changes if they believe the document is wrong.

Open enrollment provides choice within the system, but it is still within the system, which limits the opportunities for diversity. Open enrollment is not a "choice" for a family that hasn't the means (or the desire) to send a child across town to a school. The "voucher" system enables a family to send its children to a neighborhood private school, which is viable in most areas of the Twin Cities, taking into account religious schools.

On the religious school issue: Many religious schools, while sponsored by churches and teach based on the value system of a specific church, do not teach denominational religion per se. Trinity Catholic in St. Paul, for example, has Buddhist children enrolled in the school. Schools like First Trinity Lutheran, where only a minority of students are Lutheran and the majority of students have no church affiliation, are the rule rather than the exception.

Because we are not doing away with public schools, if keeping religion out of the classroom is important to a parent they have that option -- given the choice of a quality education with exposure to religion, other parents might make a different choice. Why prohibit that choice to poor parents?

Third, although the "Blaine Amendment" (1877) is an anti-Catholic measure, it legally serves a purpose. It (rightly) prevents the state from setting up by mandate the kind of system you fear that vouchers will. The state cannot constitutionally fund a public system of education and a "sectarian" system of education, be it Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or whatever. Despite its origins, the amendment serves a valid purpose. The amendment does not, however, legally apply to a "voucher" system where individual parents decide among a diversity of choices where to send their children to school without any coercion by the state.

(Your implication is wrong, however, that the amendment intended to keep religion out of schools. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries many public school teachers were protestant ministers. The protestant Bible was used in many schools as a reading text. Public schools were de facto generic protestant schools, which is why the amendment specifically states "sectarian" schools -- to contrast with and permit "non-denominational" geneic protestantism.)

So that's it in a nutshell. Hopefully my readers will have some more input.

(PS - I couldn't find anything on the PCE site regarding local tuition costs. Could you tell me where on the site that was? I tried all of the Resource Links and School Choice Links.)

The figure was quoted at the press conference announcing the legislation. If it is not on the PCE website and you want verification, give them a call. You might also check with the Minnesota Independent School Forum, the Minnesota Catholic Conference, or Senator Hann's office. From my visits to private schools, I have no reason to doubt the figure.
Let's give credit where credit is due. The "Power Liberal" is demonstrating a wilingness to engage that is extremely refreshing. The questions are the right ones, the kind of intelligent questions a skeptical person should be asking -- the kind that usually aren't asked because name-calling and motive questioning is easier. The Power Liberal, a blogger, is demonstrating far more professionalism than those that claim "professional" is an adjective that automatically attaches to a title.

Dueling gums

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:55 AM |  

He may be good enough, smart enough, and people may like him, but doggone it, Al Franken just doesn’t get it when it comes to re-importation of prescription drugs.

In today’s Pioneer Press in a letter headed “A toothless bill,” Franken responds to a February 25 article, “Franken's campaign target: Norm Coleman's teeth,” clarifying his position on Sen. Norm Coleman’s position on prescription drugs. He writes --
Coleman's spokesman asserts that he [Coleman] co-authored an amendment to allow drug re-importation. That amendment, S.2493, did nothing to stop pharmaceutical companies from clamping down on wholesale supplies to Canada — rendering re-importation meaningless. It was put forward to supplant S.2328, a bipartisan amendment that would have really allowed seniors access to lower-cost medicine. Coleman's was a "toothless bill," favored by the pharmaceutical industry.”
Doggone it, Al, the ability of pharmaceutical companies to “clamp down on wholesale supplies to Canada” is precisely what gives S.2493 its teeth. If, as is called for in S.2328, pharmaceutical companies are prevented from enforcing their legitimate non-resale contracts with Canadian distributors, then the United States is, indeed, re-importing Canadian price controls and effectively crippling pharmaceutical R&D research.

But allow re-importation, which should never have been banned in the first place -- and force the pharmaceutical companies to police their own contracts and you’re going to see the price differential between the United States and Canada moderate -- Canadians pay a a little more, Americans pay a little less.

My column “Senate prescription bill a free market placebo” makes that case, and the post “Mark Dayton -- Free market champion?” refutes a Mark Dayton Pioneer Press column that attacks my position.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Pawlenty's casino proposal -- here we go again

Posted by Craig Westover | 12:07 PM |  

I’ll be writing on Governor Pawlenty’s casino proposal in my Pioneer Press column this Wednesday. I talked my way into the governor’s press conference on Friday and the opposition senators' response. Suffice it to say, witnessing the theater of government gives one a better appreciation for the power of government than simply reading about the details of a proposal in the daily press.

Case in point is this editorial in the Star Tribune under the headline “The gov’s casino/Proceed with caution.”

Unlike the usual line-in-the-sand in-your-face editorials of the Star Tribune, this reads more like the usual institutional fare in the Pioneer Press -- very non-committal, let’s go slow, let’s proceed with caution, let’s take a good hard look, yada, yada, yada. You can almost feel the angst of the Strib editorial writer faced with either opposing a plan that benefits the northern tribes or supporting a Republican-sponsored extension of gambling.
Casino gambling on tribal lands has been, for a few tribes, the best (and, they might say, only) economic development tool available to them in modern America. But for a majority of Minnesota's native people, it's been a cruelly defective tool. In fact, it's been worse: It has become an excuse for other Minnesotans to turn their backs on reservation poverty, out of the mistaken belief that all Indians are now rich.

Making that tool work for all of Minnesota's tribes is in keeping with the resource equalization role state government has long played for rich and poor school districts, cities and counties. That legitimate state function is at the heart of the state/northern tribes partnership.

But close to its heart is the $200 million hole in Pawlenty's proposed 2006-07 budget that he looks to a casino license to fill. The Republican governor's appetite is keen for casino proceeds that he can pump into the general fund while claiming that they did not derive from new taxes, which he has forsworn.

Legislators should try to suppress that gubernatorial appetite, as a bipartisan group of state senators vowed to do Friday. Gambling's easy money is not as defensible a foundation for the services government provides as is general taxation. But Minnesotans should know that since fiscal 1991, the state lottery has sent a share of its proceeds to the general fund, with little ill effect.

Other qualms deserve heed. Legislators should resist pressure to turn the state/northern tribes partnership into the first of many new casinos. They should strive to keep gambling under Minnesota's control, rather than opening the door to Las Vegas interests that have no stake in this state's quality of life. They should assure help for those with gambling addictions. That's a lot to take on with nearly half of the 2005 legislative session spent. Pawlenty's tax pledge may make this a rush job for him, but legislators should proceed with caution.
In other words, the Strib is hedging its bets on this one. The paper that offers definitive views on Hardee’s Monster Burger and how bar and restaurant owners should run their businesses can’t bring itself to have an opinion on an issue that has been hanging in the background since Pawlenty made it clear that one way or another the mob at the state capitol was going to move in a grab a piece of the gambling action.

Pawlenty is already winning. Coming from the Strib, a wimpy editorial is as good as an endorsement. At the very least it validates Pawlenty’s strategy of coupling something a lot people think is very, very bad -- an extension of gambling -- with something that a lot of people think is very, very, good -- helping the poorer Minnesota tribes.

The governor ties “fairness” with “no new taxes” and closing the budget gap (with "no new taxes") and he sends his most vocal media critic into an apoplectic fit of neutrality. That’s what he’s counting on.

As long as the governor can make this a contest between the moral high ground of "fainess" and demonstrable benefits versus speculative social costs, he’s got a winner. Given that choice, people have a natural tendency to gamble. They'll grab the benefit believing that whatever downside, it won’t happen to them.

And the Strib falls into this trap. Reread this paragraph from the editorial.
Making that tool work for all of Minnesota's tribes is in keeping with the resource equalization role state government has long played for rich and poor school districts, cities and counties. That legitimate state function is at the heart of the state/northern tribes partnership.
Sorry, but “resource equalization” is not a legitimate state function. Therein lies the rub. The objective of resource equalizations is appealing, but not a legitimate goal. The state entering into competition with private business for the entertainment dollar is not a legitimate tactic. That’s the fundamental issue and all the economic analysis is so much noise.

In other words, the issue-oriented Strib has no consistent principle of government to apply to pass judgment on the governor's proposal.

In that regard, Pawlenty’s casino proposal is not unlike the recently defeated statewide smoking ban proposal. Initially the debate was about "self-evident" health dangers and obvious offensive qualities of secondhand smoke versus a potential negative impact on some private businesses. Without critical examination, the debate is a clear smoking ban winner.

But ultimately as the debate shifted to a debate about fundamental rights and the legitimate authority of government to interfere with private property owners business decisions, initial issues became less significant to the debate. And the smoking ban failed.

Defeating the governor’s casino proposal is the same debate. The sooner opponents stop beating their heads against the “fairness” argument and “social cost” issue and focus on the fact that the state government has no legitimate authority nor ethical authority to enter into competition with private business, the better the chances of defeating this bill.

Friday, March 04, 2005

READER RESPONSE -- Some children left behind?

Posted by Craig Westover | 11:02 PM |  

I received this email from a reader regarding Laura Billing’s use of the fact that public schools take all comers as rationale for not comparing private and public schools. Self-admittedly harsh, the reader’s suggestion, with some tweaking, may not be as untouchable as it seems at first read.
Today's post re: LB's column hits one nail squarely on the head - government schools take all comers. But that's not the problem. The problem is that they throw all comers into the same classroom.

We used to have slow class for those who couldn't keep up, and detention/suspension/expulsion for those who wouldn't sit still.

The bluebirds could read faster than the robins and THAT WAS OKAY.

Nowadays, we lump every 8-year-old kid in the same class - whether autistic, moronic, brilliant, or average. Obviously, the slowest can't keep up and the smartest are bored to tears. And nobody can figure out why the schools are failing to educate? They are, but only to the lowest common denominator, which is unacceptably low.

The solution is obvious: let private schools skim the cream off the top and educate those kids to their maximum potential, and at little cost. Force government schools to handle the dregs - the handicapped, the discipline problems, the kids nobody cares about - and educate them as best we can.

Either we leave a few kids behind, or we force every kid to stay behind.

Okay, so it's harsh. I didn't create the children the way they are. I'm just pointing out the obvious.
Let’s take a closer look at what the reader is saying.

His premise is unassailable -- kids are born with different abilities, come from different backgrounds and respond differently in school. His conclusion, which I’ll grant gets muddied by some pretty charged language, is that we shouldn’t force a pseudo-equality by lumping kids of all different abilities together. I’ll go with that too, but with a clarification.

Life is a bell-shaped curve, and at either end of the curve lie kids who are very slow or very bright; relative to the whole, they are few in number. The majority of kids group around some average measure.

That leads to where I disagree with the writer. I don’t like the term “dregs,” but if you read between the lines of comments like Billings, that’s what the education establishment thinks of the low-end of the curve. It is always the “problem” kids that are standing in the way of a smooth-running education system. Public school apologists always seem a little envious of what they portray as private school exclusivity, which Billings does.

But in point of fact, private schools like First Trinity Lutheran cater to the kids public schools begrudgingly take but fail to educate. In a real free-market education system, where funds follow the child, you’d see even more of First Trinity-like focus on the margins of the bell-shaped curve.

As the reader points out, the upper and lower ends of the curve are underserved by the public schools. And it’s underserved populations that are first targeted by new entrants into a market. Vouchers for low-income families essentially create competition among private schools to better meet the needs of that demographic.

A more likely “leave behind” theory is that as non-public school options proliferate, traditional public schools will lose students at the underserved margins of the curve and thus be better able to focus on a more homogenous grouping of "average" students, which is the demographic public education is designed to serve.

Again, that should only make public schools better. If it’s not about power, then I just don’t understand why that is bad.

Educating a liberal

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:09 AM |  

I have this philosophy -- I really don’t give a dam what people think about me, as long as their opinions are based on fact. So, a little clarification for “rew” over at Power Liberal who writes in a post about the MOB --

. . . and Craig Westover, a [sic] op-ed at the St. Paul Pioneer Press who wants to be the Anti-Coleman (Nick, not Norm, although we could use a lot more Anti-Norms).
A couple of things.

First I admit that there is a certain pornographic quality to Nick in that he often has no redeeming social value but nonetheless appeals to one’s baser instincts. And like watching Anne Chovey cavort in “Spicy Pizza Girls,” reading and fisking Nick provides admittedly guilty pleasure that falls into the mixed-metaphor category of better to ask forgiveness than never to have loved at all -- or something like that.

But I have no desire to be the anti-Nick. In fact, I usually only read his column when somebody emails me about it. Apparently he spends quite a bit of time reading my blog.

Writing, a point Nick often misses, is about positioning one’s own ideas, not simply tearing down those of others. Irresponsible ridicule is not debate; controversy is not relevance. It was Nick who took the “anti-Fishsticks” tack in “debating” school choice vis a vis Maxfield’s alleged book shortage. Read the exchange here and determine for yourself, who’s making an argument and who’s gyrating for personal satisfaction.

And by the way, when the other Coleman steps out of line, I’ll be there.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

A new antagonist; an old refrain

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:23 AM |  

You're so vain
You probably think this song is about you
You're so vain
I'll bet you think this song is about you
Don't you? Don't you?

Artist: Carly Simon

Okay, I’m so vain. But I do think this “song” is about me --
One of the perks of this position is that I get invited a few times a month to visit a classroom, talk to a high school newspaper staff, attend a third-grade play or write about a really cool teacher.

Since I'm not nearly as busy or important as the people shaping our public education policy, putting out think-tank reports, creating state budgets and crafting editorials, I often have time to stop by.

Artist: Laura Billings
There just aren't a lot of people "crafting editorials" that are challenging the educational status quo.

Pioneer Press PhotoThe gist of Laura’s serenade to the system of public schools in today's Pioneer Press is that visiting a public school, one would see that “the old argument about how private schools do better with less per-pupil funding than public schools holds up about as well as the comparison between apples and oranges.”

Well, duh. That’s the point.

Private schools, especially religious schools, are different than government-run schools. Both have a place in a public education system where “public education” means "education in the public interest" not any one specific method of delivering knowledge and skills. Vouchers are but one method of making private school “oranges” available to kids from families that today have no choice but government school “apples.”

Oh, and by the way, the old “apples and oranges” metaphor doesn’t really apply when contrasting (not comparing) private and public schools. While public schools do differ from district to district, school to school, they are all still basically apples. Not all private schools are oranges. If one were to extend the metaphor, private schools offer a fruit basket of options from the Brecks and SPAs to small religious schools catering to students that the monopoly system says they don't take.

Yes, Laura, there are private schools like the one you recently visited --

The students were bright, the computers were new, and the questions were sophisticated and state-of-the-art. They were familiar with the First Amendment, their parents read the paper, and they preferred Googling to going to the library.
There are also schools like Trinity First Lutheran School in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis.

Tinity's student population is 62 percent African American, 8 percent Native American, 3 percent Hispanic, 17 percent Asian and 9 percent Caucasian. Seventy-five percent of the kids qualify for free and reduced meals. Thirty-three percent receive services through an on-site special education program. Only 13 percent of the students come from families that are members of a Lutheran church and over half have no church affiliation. One hundred percent of students receive some tuition aid.

To put those percentages in perspective, Trinity serves 76 grade-schoolers. That small number makes it easier than it is in a large public school to provide personal attention; it makes economies of scale impossible.

The Trinity Lutheran congregation provides 20 percent of the schools funding, which includes providing rooms in the Church basement. Tuition covers another 10 percent of the school’s costs. The other 70 percent must be raised every year from foundations and individual contributors. Administrators are not to proud to hold bake sales.

Oh yes, there is another difference. The school and staff openly profess that they “believe that a successful life is one led in the service of our Heavenly Father, our families, our community and our country. We are thankful for the blessings we have received and acknowledge that all come from our God.”

Now just what is there about Trinity Lutheran with its 76 students and its willingness to take about 20 more that so scares the public education system? If a student can do better in that environment, why not let him or her have that opportunity -- if it's really about the kids?

Yes. there are public schools like this one Laura visited --
About a mile from there [the private school LB visited] is a public high school almost a world away. There I met with about 40 writing students, most of whom had spent the previous school year in refugee camps in Africa, villages in Southeast Asia and homes in Central and South America. Only a handful spoke English at home. Many were orphaned or living with distant relatives. Some had not been to school in years or ever before. One young man I interviewed asked me what a newspaper was.

There are also schools like the San Miguel Middle School, a primarily Hispanic and Catholic school in Minneapolis where 85 percent of the student body (capped at 60) are English language learners. Suffice it to say not all their families arrived in the Twin Cities on Northwest Flight 1822 from Mexico City. Many of the children are living with relatives and have parents and siblings in Mexico. Many were problem students in their careers in public schools.

What Billings and monopoly-system education advocates refuse to acknowledge is that no one is questioning that public schools face profound challenges everyday. Yes, public schools are mandated to take every student that comes through the door, which magnifies profound challenges. But profound challenges don’t obscure fact that public schools are simply not adequately educating everyone who comes through the door. Private schools are more than willing to help. Why is the public system so afraid to accept the offer?

Under the Hann/Buesgens bill, only instructional costs leave a school district when a family opts for a private school -- $4,601. The balance of the allocated funding (phased out over three years) for a child remains with the district. If the full number of low-income students eligible for a educational access grant under the proposed legislation takes advantage of the opportunity at the full $4,601 dollars, Sen. Hann estimates that school districts will have an extra $300 per remaining student.

More money per student; fewer students. And that is bad because?

Well, it’s bad because it reduces the power of those in education who have it right now. Smaller class size is good when that means more unionized teachers, bigger budgets and expanded administrative authority. But it is bad when it means fewer students, no increase in teachers, smaller budgets, less power and contrastable accountability.

But this is about kids, right?

The public education issue is not, as Billings wants to define it, a win/lose scenerio about supporting the existing school system or destroying it. The task is creating a public education system of diverse choices that doesn’t just strive to serve all students, but actually does -- a system that doesn’t depend on a handful of experts betting a generation of children on the newest educational fad.

Maybe I'm vain, but at least I know the real "song" isn't about me. It’s not really about Laura either. It's not about the system. It’s truly about the kids.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Beyond Byrd

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:13 PM |  

There are plenty of people commenting Robert Byrd’s remarks on the Senate floor comparing Republican political maneuverings to maneuvers of Hitler. Bad comparison. But in rejecting the logical connection Byrd is trying to make, let’s not ignore the premise in his remarks.
"Hitler's originality lay in his realization that effective revolutions in modern conditions are carried out with, and not without, not against, the power of the State. The correct order of events was first to secure access to that power of the State, and then begin his revolution. Hitler never abandoned the cloak of legality. He never abandoned the cloak of legality. He recognized the enormous, psychological value of having the law on his side. Instead, he turned the law inside out and made his illegality legal.”
Compare Byrd’s remarks with the opening paragraphs of Frederic Bastiat's classic work The Law.”
The law perverted! And the police powers of the state perverted along with it! The law, I say, not only turned from its proper purpose but made to follow an entirely contrary purpose! The law become the weapon of every kind of greed! Instead of checking crime, the law itself guilty of the evils it is supposed to punish!

If this is true, it is a serious fact, and moral duty requires me to call the attention of my fellow-citizens to it.
Remove the Hitler card from the deck, and all of a sudden, the cards we’re being dealt, by those holding all the cards, might not always be coming off the top of the deck.

Cross Byrd and Bastiat and you get a pretty frightening picture of the way government -- right and left -- operates today. Could we be just be one charismatic demagogue away from a full deck?

House smoking ban bill killed in committee

Posted by Craig Westover | 6:32 PM |  

My side won. I should be happy. I’m not.

On a voice vote, the House Commerce Committee voted not to pass the house version of a statewide smoking ban bill out of committee.

I wish I could say that the Commerce Committee killed the bill because members recognized that property rights are fundamental rights. I wish I could say that the Commerce Committee killed the bill because it rejected bad science. I wish I could say the Committee recognized that the bill exceed state authority. But I can’t. Hell, I sat through the two-and-a-half-hour session and I haven’t the faintest notion why the committee rejected the bill.

Supporters of the bill trotted out a usual lineup of well-credentialed physicians and medical experts to testify about the horrors wrought on society by secondhand smoke. In many cases they simply reiterated data that has long ago been refuted as exaggerated or dubious.

Of the medical testimony, only Marc Manley of Blue Cross Blue Shield spoke to cost issues that were appropriate for this committee. He made a case for the health care costs associated with secondhand smoke, presenting numbers that only a gullible idiot or a medical/mathematical genius could accept without question. There were no questions from the committee.

Likewise, those opposed to a statewide smoking ban were the not unfamiliar representatives of “Big Hospitality,” Minnesotans Against Smoking Bans and small business and bar owners.

For the first time, I thought those opposing the bill did a better job of presentation that those favoring the bill.

Dave Siegel of Hospitality Minnesota gave the best presentation of the day by skillfully weaving the rights and health issues. James Algeo gave a great presentation on the negative impact of a statewide smoking ban on charitable gambling. Mark Wernimont with Global Air Filtration Systems, Inc., provided the best science of the day disputing the danger of secondhand smoke.

I wish I could say these presentations moved the Committee. I can’t.

Like other Committee meetings I’ve sat through, this one appeared to be settled before the theater of testimony began. Little if anything new was mentioned in the public testimonies, so why was the bill killed in this committee and not before?

Twice during the hearing bill sponsor Doug Meslow got tied up in the illogic of the smoking ban proposition. The first time, he had to hem and haw his way around a rationale for not protecting employees of tobacco shops from secondhand smoke with assumptions about how they chose to work in that industry and were likely smokers anyway but that the same logic didn’t apply to restaurant workers because . . . well . . . just because.

The second time he had to admit that the projection of one of his witnesses that people would quit smoking because of the ban probably wasn’t as great as stated -- this in response to a question about tax revenue for cigarettes going down.

More strange, there was little economic data presented either for or against the bill. At the previous hearing on the bill in the House Health Policy and Finance Committee, Meslow was asked if there was a fiscal note on the bill. When he replied “no,” it was suggested one be prepared. There was no fiscal note offered before the Commerce Committee. One would think the Commerce Committee might be interested in such stuff.

Perhaps I should just sit back and rejoice that for whatever reason, today the good guys won. But without any kind of definitive reason why the ban was defeated, there is no rest.

“Nothing is dead in the legislature until it adjourns,” the bill’s co-sponsor Representative Ron Latz said. Great.

The Pioneer Press afternoon update calls the committee hearing a “setback” for the smoking ban. After the hearing, cameras and reporters crowded around Meslow and Latz to get their reactions. Bar and restaurant owners slipped out of the hearing room unbothered. Who cares what they think?

But it’s not over for those folks. In addition to some resurrection of the House bill, they have to worry about the smoking ban bill working its way through the Senate. And of course, there’s always next year. Not to mention local bans.

So instead of operating their businesses, these small business owners have naught to look forward to but many more fruitless days wandering about the capitol (instead of minding the store) in search of hollow victories like they won today. Doesn’t sound much like the American dream of running your own business, does it?

What are they going to tell the kids?

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:10 AM |  

Demanding more money for Minnesota's public schools, nearly 6,000 parents, educators and students gathered at the Capitol steps Monday for one of the largest rallies in recent years. Pioneer Press photoMonday, I attended the rally for schools at the State Capitol. If as my critics contend, I were out to destroy public schools, the rally would be an easy target.

As Tom Swift notes, the crowd consisted of “mostly teachers, teachers union rep's, public school administrators and their lobbyist's,” most of whom were bussed in on school district buses. There were lots of photo-op kids and a whole lot of homemade signs -- or school made signs -- urging legislators not to ignore kids, along with Crosby-Ironton teachers on strike and other professionally prepared signs.

The speeches -- right out of the louder you yell the more valid your statement school of public speaking -- had little content. The best of the bunch was Hopkins High School senior John Kent’s, which shot some zingers at legislators asking if they had to print bills on both sides of the paper to save money.

But all of that is not the essence of the rally. Regardless of whether they were bussed in or not, regardless of whether they were affiliated with some group or not, regardless of whether the kids were their as photo-ops or not, many of the people that were there are passionate about education for their kids and for Minnesota. It’s a shame they didn’t receive a better message.

I know, a rally is a rally and when the wind is whipping out of the north on a Minnesota winter day, shouting slogans and jiggling signs is a better way to stay warm than listening to reasoned arguments. But nonetheless, as I listened to the speeches and watched the people in the crowd, I couldn’t help wondering what these people were going to tell their kids when they got home?

Tom Keating, Minnesota’s 2004 Teach of the Year, addressed kids directly in his speech, telling them that all the adults present were there for them -- there to make sure kids received the education they deserved; there to assure the children that they wouldn’t be ignored just because they had no political power.

Is that what parents are going to tell their kids? This was a rally about power? That’s what they’d tell them if they were honest.

I arrived early, a little after 4 o’clock and stood on the Capitol steps and watched as yellow bus after yellow bus pulled up and disgorged its demonstrators. Grassroots don’t grow on buses.

This was a demonstration with its roots in power. Forget about the public money that went into planning this rally to ask for more public money. That’s a trivial issue compared to the demonstration of power behind the money. The demonstrators, parents that actually do care about education, were but the unwitting props of the education establishment. The rally was about the system, not about education.

(See the masses we can bring should you not heed our demands.)

I honestly don’t know what the parents who were at the rally are going to tell their kids. I know what I’d tell mine -- Real education teaches you to think for yourself, not just the mechanics for boarding the right bus.