Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Live by government handout, die by government's hand

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:09 AM |  

An excellent article in the Business Secition of the Pioneer Press today -- "Biofuel imports anger farmers."
A ship loaded with South American biodiesel pulled into a Florida port this month, and immediately qualified for a new U.S. biodiesel tax break. For the homegrown biofuels industry, it was a shocking notice that their domestic market had gone global.

The American Soybean Association expressed outrage. Angry farm-state politicians vowed to rewrite tax law. And it stunned soybean farmers, who dreamed that biodiesel would become the next ethanol — a corn-fed economic lifeline across Minnesota and beyond, which has turned crops into homegrown fuel, rural jobs and farmer profits.

Ethanol, too, is confronting import challenges. Latin American nations reportedly are ramping up ethanol production for possible export. Suddenly, U.S. farmers are nervous, just when it seemed that the promised land for biofuels was in sight.

"Why would we want to trade our farmers, our jobs, our communities, our tax dollars and our energy security for another dependence on foreign ethanol or biofuels?" said Minnesota Farmers Union President Doug Peterson.
Well, Doug, I'm tempted to say he that lives by government handout will die by government's hand.

Ethanol and biodiesel are industries that provide products at artificially low prices due to government subsidy into a market of artificial demand created by government mandate. Taxpayers have been picking up the tab for years while politicians fool farmers into thinking that the subsidies are all about them.
The issue is passionately felt in rural Minnesota, a state so deeply invested in farm-based fuels that industry leaders jokingly call it "the Holy Land." Minnesota has more ethanol plants, more farmer-investors, produces more biodiesel and buys more biodiesel than any other state.

This autumn, the future of farm fuels looked white-hot: Crude oil prices soared, corn and soybeans were cheap and abundant, a lucrative new tax credit for biodiesel became law, and the polluting additive MTBE continued its phase-out, further helping ethanol sales. Moreover, Congress passed a new law requiring a big increase in ethanol use.

It didn't take long for the biggest players in agribusiness to see opportunity and jump in, first Archer Daniels Midland, then Cargill, then CHS. But farmer groups were excited, too — so many, in fact, that Joe Jobe of the National Biodiesel Board said this month that he'd received "dozens, if not hundreds, of calls everyday saying we want to build a biodiesel plant."

Then came the competition: biodiesel from Ecuador, made from palm oil, not soybeans. EarthFirst Americas, the U.S. importer, intends to import 45 million gallons in 2006, and more than 100 million the following year, exceeding the 75 million gallons the entire U.S. biodiesel industry will produce in 2005.

Most galling to soybean growers, the Internal Revenue Service ruled that the Ecuadorian biodiesel qualifies for the new $1 a gallon biodiesel credit just passed by Congress. That means the U.S. biodiesel market is wide open to all comers.
Gosh, who’d a thunk it? Apparently not the politicians using biofuels as an election platform or the university elite.
"There's no protection there, apparently," warned U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn. "What started last week with Ecuador, I think we're going to see more of that."

Gary Wertish, agricultural aide to U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., said that Dayton is among lawmakers who think the IRS ruling is wrong.

"One of the reasons the energy bill was passed was to lessen our dependence on foreign oil," Wertish said. "It wouldn't be the intent of Congress to apply tax credits for foreign-based biodiesel."

Vern Eidman, a University of Minnesota economist who specializes in biofuels, expected that biodiesel's moment had finally arrived. Then he heard of the Ecuadorian shipments.

"While it's hard to argue against competition, this may be a lot of competition to go up against, particularly if their oils are much lower in price than soybean oil," he said.
That last statement is quite revealing coming from an economist -- competition is good but not too much competition. More concern from Congressman Peterson.
Peterson, the congressman, sees a second threat, this one to the ethanol industry. On his recent travels through Central America, Peterson was concerned to see or hear about dehydrating plants under construction, designed to remove water from Brazilian ethanol.

Under trade rules, watery Brazilian ethanol shipped to the United States must pay a hefty tax. But the if water is removed in Central America, a substantial amount of ethanol can then be imported to the United States with no import tax. Up to 7 percent of U.S. production, or about 280 million gallons next year, could arrive tax-free.

Cargill has dabbled in this practice to a small degree, routing Brazilian ethanol through a plant in El Salvador, to the ire of U.S. farm groups. But with the passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, Peterson sees evidence of someone investing on a much larger scale.
So what have we here? After decades of subsidizing biofuels, non-farming taxpayers might actually see some benefit from competitive pressure, a viable biofuel market that no longer needs to be subsidized, and the battle cry is for government to shut it down.
“The threat haunts some farm groups, which have seen ethanol deliver profits, jobs and rural development. At the Minnesota Farmers Union's recent annual meeting, union President Peterson told delegates: "Stop foreign ethanol and biofuels, and stand up for energy security, stand up for food security, stand up for rural America, and stand up for rural Minnesota."
As they say, no one ever lost an election by creating a crisis and blaming it on foreigners.

Category: National Politics, Ethanol, Biodiesel, Energy Policy, Free Trade, Tax Policy, Local Politics

Oh yeah -- It's also a smoke-free event

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:51 AM |  

Subject: Company Christmas Party Memo
FROM: Patty Lewis, Head of HR
TO: All Employees
DATE: October 01, 2005
RE: Christmas Party

I'm happy to inform you that the office Christmas Party will take place on December 23, starting at noon in the private function room at the Grill House. There will be a cash bar and plenty of drinks!
We'll have a small band playing traditional carols...feel free to sing
along. And don't be surprised if the Chief shows up dressed as Santa Claus!

A Christmas tree will be lit at 1:00 PM. Exchange of gifts among employees can be done at that time; however, no gift should be over £5 to make the giving of gifts easy for everyone's pockets. This gathering is only for Chester House! The Chief will make a special announcement at that time!

Merry Christmas to you and your family.


FROM: Patty Lewis, Head of HR
TO: All Employees
DATE: October 02, 2005
RE: Holiday Party

In no way was yesterday's memo intended to exclude our Jewish employees. We recognise that Chanukah is an important holiday, which often coincides with Christmas. However, from now on we're calling it our "Holiday Party."

The same policy applies to any other employees who are not Christians or those still celebrating Reconciliation Day. There will be no Christmas tree present. No Christmas carols sung. We will have other types of music for your enjoyment.

Happy now? Happy Holidays to you and your family.


FROM: Patty Lewis, Head of HR
TO: All Employees
DATE: October 03, 2005
RE: Holiday Party

Regarding the note I received from a member of Alcoholics Anonymous
requesting a non-drinking table. You didn't sign your name. I'm happy to
accommodate this request, but if I put a sign on a table that reads,
"AA Only"; you wouldn't be anonymous anymore. How am I supposed to handle this?

Forget about the gifts exchange, no gifts exchange are allowed since the union members feel that $5 is too much money and executives believe $5 is a little chintzy.


FROM: Patty Lewis, Head of HR
To: All Employees
DATE: October 04, 2005
RE: Holiday Party

What a diverse group we are! I had no idea about the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which forbids eating and drinking during daylight hours. There goes the party! Seriously, we can appreciate how a luncheon at this time of year does not accommodate our Muslim employees' beliefs. Perhaps the Grill House can hold off on serving your meal until the end of the party - or else
package everything for you to take it home in little foil doggy baggy. Will that work?

Meanwhile, I've arranged for members of Weight Watchers to sit farthest from the dessert buffet and pregnant women will get the table closest to the restrooms. Gays are allowed to sit with each other. Lesbians do not have to sit with Gay men, each will have their own table. Yes, there will be flower arrangement for the Gay men's table. To the person asking permission to cross dress, yes, this is allowed.

We will have booster seats for short people. Low-fat food will be available for those on a diet. We cannot control the salt used in the food we suggest for those people with high blood pressure to taste first. There will be fresh fruits as dessert for Diabetics, the restaurant cannot supply "No Sugar" desserts. Sorry! Did I miss anything?!?!?


FROM: Patty Lewis, Head of HR
TO: All F****** Employees
DATE: October 05, 2005
RE: The F****** Holiday Party

Vegetarian pr**ks - I've had it with you people!!! We're going to keep this
party at the Grill House whether you like it or not, so you can sit quietly
at the table furthest from the "grill of death," as you so quaintly put it,
and you'll get your f****** salad bar, including organic tomatoes. But you
know, tomatoes have feelings, too. They scream when you slice them. I've heard them scream. I'm hearing them scream right NOW! I hope you all have a rotten holiday! Drive drunk and die.

The B**** from H***!!!!!!!!

FROM: Joan Bishop, Acting Head of HR
DATE: October 06, 2005
RE: Patty Lewis and Holiday Party

I'm sure I speak for all of us in wishing Patty Lewis a speedy recovery and I'll continue to forward your cards to her. In the meantime, management has decided to cancel our Holiday Party and give everyone the afternoon of the
23rd off with full pay.

Happy Holidays!

Category: Humor, Political Correctness

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

School choice gets a Texas-size boost

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:17 AM |  

From today's the Wall Street Journal (Page A18)

Texas School Lesson

The Texas Supreme Court did the expected last week and struck down the statewide property tax for funding public schools. But what was surprising and welcome was the Court's unanimous ruling that the Texas school system, which spends nearly $10,000 per student, satisfies the funding "adequacy" requirements of the state constitution. Most remarkable of all was the court's declaration that "more money does not guarantee better schools or more educated students."

Think about that one for a second. To our knowledge, this is the first time anywhere in the country that the judiciary has flatly rejected the core doctrine of the education establishment that more dollars equal better classroom performance. And it is potentially very good news for students, especially those from the poorest neighborhoods, because it shifts the policy emphasis from money to achievement. Better send the paramedics to check for heart failure at National Education Association headquarters.

Even more encouraging, the court endorsed more choices for parents and the state's 4.3 million school kids. It said flatly: "Public education could benefit from more competition." The Texas Public Policy Foundation, which provided much of the academic research for the court, looked at the Edgewood school district in San Antonio, where donors started a privately financed voucher program. The results indicate that not only have the kids with the vouchers benefited, but so have kids in the public schools that are now forced to compete for students.

We hope that courts and school boards across the country study the Texas decision -- including its comments on school financing: "The Constitution does not require a particular solution," Judge Nathan Hecht wrote for the majority. "We leave such matters to the discretion of the Legislature." In other words, it's not the proper role of the judiciary to intervene in the operation or financing of the public schools.

In one of the most notorious cases, in Kansas City, Missouri in the 1980s, a judge issued an edict requiring a $1 billion tax hike to help the failing inner-city schools. This raised expenditures to about $14,000 per student, or double the national average, but test scores continued to decline. Even the judge later admitted that he had blundered.

The hope now is that, as Republican Governor Rick Perry and the state legislature search for a new school financing mechanism next year, they will accept the court's invitation to open up the school system to a wide range of options including charters, vouchers, scholarships and rewards for quality, such as teacher pay for performance. If so, the Lone Star State, once the home of some of the worst public schools in the country, could become the national model for educational excellence.
Category: Education, School Choice

Friday, November 25, 2005


Posted by Craig Westover | 9:43 AM |  

My blatantly partisan (but accurate) link of the week.

Category: National Politics

Thursday, November 24, 2005

READER RESPONSE -- Westover bogs down in moral incoherance

Posted by Craig Westover | 2:37 PM |  

Director of communications for Minnesota for Marriage/Minnesota Family Council Chuck Darrell’s anticipated response to my column on the Grace Church Pastors’ Summit appears in today’s Pioneer Press. It was not unexpected, nor is his position surprising, although I am a bit confused by “moral incoherence” --
Craig Westover's Nov. 16 column, "Same-sex marriage should be a conservative objective," is beset with moral incoherence, ignores the social revolution in Canada and disregards the fundamental rights of children.
I’ll tackle “moral incoherence last, because it is by far the most interesting argument. Canada and children are rehashes of old themes.

On Canada. Chuck makes the point that same-sex marriage has been “devastating.” I might cry hyperbole, but I find myself far too much in agreement with Chuck’s position on same-sex marriage in Canada to convincingly make the charge. Same-sex marriage in Canada is shaping up to be a disaster -- not unlike their healthcare system, but we aren’t about to pass an amendment banning healthcare.

That point is not facetious. Gay conservatives make the point that the two worst things that could happen to same-sex marriage in the United States are a constitutional amendment banning it or a Supreme Court ruling mandating it. Both are “liberal” actions (in the sense of getting government to mandate an action rather than doing the hard work of building public consensus).

Like its healthcare system, Canada’s implementation of same-sex marriage is a “liberal” implementation based on a perverted notion of “equality” as government guaranteed outcomes. It’s not equality based on freedom, and therefore can only lead to tyranny to enforce it. Bishop Henry is right --
"The human rights tribunals have become like thought police," he says. "In Canada, you can now use the coercive powers of the state to silence opposition."

Once same-sex marriage achieves the same legal status as traditional marriage, homosexual activists can then use the courts, anti-discrimination laws and eventually tax laws to intimidate churches that stand for traditional marriage.
That consequence, however has less to do with same-sex marriage than it does with a generalized liberal (in the sense above) attack on traditional society in the name of “equality.” It’s the difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution. The battle we should be fighting is not against same-sex marriage, but against the liberal philosophy that perverts implementation of same-sex marriage as it has ruined healthcare. In that battle, gay conservatives can be a powerful ally.

Chuck’s conclusion on this point is wrong --
By strengthening the legal definition of marriage, the Minnesota Marriage Amendment would help to block this route of attack in Minnesota state courts.
Attempting to define marriage in the constitution -- legislate through the constitution -- would rightly solidify opposition to the fundamentalist political position and ultimately relegate marriage to an institution too weak to stand on its own without government support -- the very sin that conservatives attribute to liberal efforts. A much more effective approach -- and more constitutionally valid -- protection of traditional marriage is an amendment that explicitly makes clear that authority to define marriage is the specific duty of the legislature, not the courts.

Chuck goes on --
Westover also ignores the welfare of children. There is a mountain of sociological evidence that the best environment for children is in a home with a mother and father — male and female. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the urban African-American community.
This is an argument that simply does not stand as relevant to the same-sex marriage debate. The question on the floor is not whether married, opposite-sex, loving parents are the best environment for raising children. Take that as a given. However, if society is not going to, and no one is suggesting that it will, remove children from same-sex households, then the question becomes what is the better situation for children in those households, not what might be the best “what if” situation. The political question becomes is it better for those children to have same-sex married parents or unmarried parents?

My Bible tells me the good shepherd leaves the ninety and nine and searches for the one that is lost. The pastors seem to be saying they are willing to marginalize the “lost” child living with a same-sex couple to protect the ninety and nine in traditional families. I have more faith in both the Bible and in marriage to believe that to be true.

That brings us to this idea of “moral incoherence.” Chuck finds it troubling that I “refused to acknowledge the Biblical foundations of marriage while proselytizing a vague spiritual individualism.”
Perhaps by accident, the column posits its own hierarchy of beliefs by asserting that "fear begets abandonment of spirituality in favor of dogma."

"We don't defend marriage in a spirit of fear, but in loving obedience," says Pastor Gordon Larson of Grace Baptist Church in Austin.
Let’s take that last quote as a starting point to look at "moral incoherence." If one holds that in one’s own church, despite the pressures of society, homosexuality was, is, and always will be a sin, that is loving obedience to one‘s beliefs. When one takes that view to people outside the church and attempts to convince them that homosexuality is a sin, that is missionary work also done in loving obedience. When one asks government to enforce a mandate against that which one cannot convince others is a sin, that’s acting out of fear. There is neither spirituality nor virtue in using the power of government to coerce “moral action.”

That said, let’s look at the Biblical definition of homosexuality as an “abomination in the eyes of the Lord.”

Again, a liberal/conservative distinction is worth noting. This post at clever peasantry fisking Katherine Kersten and taking on the Biblical argument against same-sex marriage exhibits the liberal case as best as it can be presented. I find this argument more than a little shallow and disingenuous, but it must be debunked before one can get to more serious discussion.
It is not enough to simply say that one’s beliefs are protected simply by labeling them “Christian”. Like the penumbras that provide our civil right to privacy, Christianity has its share of blurry edges. For instance, do you think Happy Kate pursues Timothy 1 2:11-12 with the same amount of verve and passion as she does Leviticus 18:12?

For those of you who aren’t familiar with these versus, here they are:

1 Timothy 2:11-12 (New International Version)

11A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.

Leviticus 18:22 (New International Version)

22 " 'Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.

So, by her reasoning, are we bigots for saying that women have no damn place writing columns in major metropolitan newspapers? Are we bigots for saying that Michele Bachmann should heed the words of Timothy 1 2:15 and stay the hell at home?

Would Mr. Sponge be a bigot for demanding that his brother in law’s widow immediately cast aside what she is doing, marry him and engage in sexual relations in accordance with Genesis 38:6-10?

6 Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. 7 But Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the LORD's sight; so the LORD put him to death.

8 Then Judah said to Onan, "Lie with your brother's wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother." 9 But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother's wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. 10 What he did was wicked in the LORD's sight; so he put him to death also.

After all, the main reason for opposing gay marriage is to preserve the great institution of heterosexual marriage; something that many people believe has gone unchanged for 6,000 years. We here at CP are all for the full implementation of biblical marriage laws and traditions. For instance, we want what Abraham, Sarah and Hagar had:

1 Now Sarai, Abram's wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; 2 so she said to Abram, "The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her."

Abram agreed to what Sarai said. 3 So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife.

(On a quick side-note, for those of you in favor of stem-cell research, this verse should be a boon to your position. If you come across anyone who opposes stem cell research in fertility clinics for “religious” reasons, agree with them and demand the legal acceptance of sex slaves.)

We want all women to remain virgins until marriage…or, according to Deuteronomy 22:13-21, else:

20 If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the girl's virginity can be found, 21 she shall be brought to the door of her father's house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father's house. You must purge the evil from among you.

We want what Lamech (2), Esau (3), Jacob (2), Ashur (2), Gideon (too many to count), Elkanah (2), David (once again…many), Solomon (hundreds), Rehaboam (3), Abijah (14) and so on and so forth had: multiple wives.

We want what is coming to us according to Genesis 21:10:

10 and she said to Abraham, "Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac."
That would be Sarah telling Abe to get rid of his whore and illegitimate son.

Say, here’s a biblical version of marriage that our men and women in uniform are sure to support:

11 if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. 12 Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails 13 and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. 14 If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.

But who would Lyndie England take home if not for...ah, that's right, thanks to Timothy, she should never have been allowed out of the house.

Ahhhhhh…the great unchanging institution of heterosexual marriage.

The bible even gives a marriage shout out to rapists:

28 If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, 29 he shall pay the girl's father fifty shekels of silver. [a] He must marry the girl, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.

Where’s the constitutional amendment for that one? Happy Kate? Michele Bachmann? Rick Santorum? James Dobson? Bill Frist?

Folks, Happy Kate wants it both ways on damn near everything. She’s against the extension of civil rights except when she’s not; she’s for the “biblical” view of homosexuality but not the full biblical view of the institution of marriage; she’s for the strict interpretation of the constitution except when she needs to misuse it to make an argument…the list goes on and on.
This line of argument defines “morally incoherent.” Not only does it argue using a source the author believes is false, it uses the fundamentalist reasoning to negate fundamentalist reasoning. It’s an informally fallacious argument that proves nothing. Hypocrisy does not negate values not honored. Internal contradiction does not mean that both of two statements are false. As an argument -- again in traditional liberal fashion -- it tears down a point of view without making a positive case. It rejects objective truth and offers only the emptiness of moral ambiguity.

On the other hand, a conservative and a “morally coherent” argument (in Chuck’s sense of “morally coherent” being based on Biblical foundation) can be made in support of same-sex marriage.

Let’s start with a premise that Chuck would accept -- the Bible is the word of God faithfully transcribed by men as God spoke it to them. From that premise, using the intelligence God gave us, we can draw some conclusions.

We can conclude that when God speaks to man, He speaks so man can understand Him. He uses words, images, and metaphors that men of the time can relate to. We can also conclude by a careful reading of the Bible that there is a distinct difference in the words, images and metaphors between Old and New Testament (although both condemn homosexuality) and within the New Testament among the four Gospels themselves and between the Gospels and remainder of the New Testament, particularly the narrative of the Gospels and the more philosophical letters of Paul.

The Old Testament focused on the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, and how they interpreted God’s law, which distinguished them from the “uncircumcised Philistines.” There was no sense of inclusion outside of the people of Israel, no commandment from God to preach the word to all men and all generations. The latter is the tone of the New Testament -- Paul takes the teachings of Christ to the Gentiles. God’s “chosen people” are no longer defined by race and ethnicity.

We’ll get back to that. Another feature of our premise that God “spoke” the words of the Bible to men -- I don’t know if Chuck would agree with me here -- is that God continues to speak to men today, although many of the pastors at the summit claimed God had "spoken" to them on the subject of same-sex marriage. Indeed, as God warns several places in the Bible, there are many false prophets; however, the existence of false prophets does not negate the presence of true prophets of God. One can also reason that as God’s words, images and metaphors changed between Old and New Testament they might also change as God speaks today -- change not to accommodate man, but so that man might understand the essence of God’s commandments beyond their mere form.

Might, as the Spencer Tracy character suggests in "Inherit the Wind," Charles Darwin be a prophet of God? Might not God have whispered in his ear that evolution is how “literally” God brought forth man from the earth? Might not He be whispering that the principles underlying the law are more important that man’s interpretation; that the sacramental nature of marriage endowed by the Creator is more important than the form defined by man? Or has God stopped speaking to mankind?

Indeed, sorting out true from false prophets is not easy. Did not the Pharisees constantly take the actions of Christ as breaking the old traditions? And did not Christ constantly rebuke them saying he came to fulfill prophecies and uphold the law? Is it not possible that God is speaking to men today in the spirit of Christ, asking men to look beyond dogma to the essence of spirituality? Might not the pastors be like the Pharisees looking at the “laws” rather than God's essence behind them?

As I found the liberal/fundamentalist “Bible Gateway” approach morally incoherent, so to is a reading of the Bible that reads for support rather than understanding, that leads to government mandates rather than the risk implied by a dynmaic faith that seeks understanding rather than refuge in the certainty of dogma.

God gave man reason and the freedom to use it. To refuse to use that reason and enslave ourselves to dogma is what is morally incoherent.

Category: Reader Response, Same-Sex Marriage

Update: The following is from an email I received soliciting contributions to defeat anti-same-sex marriage legislators. Notice the association of anti-gay with “right-wing” politicians. One might be a fiscal conservative, but this literature puts one on the defensive vis a vis homosexuality and by extension all “civil rights” issues. Notice the (mis)use of the word “equality” to good effect. Read these excerpts from the perspective of a conservative homosexual or conservative/libertarian, limited government conservative -- how do you respond as a conservative?
I am fed up. I am tired of right-wing politicians who demonize gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans. I am through with bigoted lawmakers who continue to push for constitutional amendments to deny GLBT people the right to marry. And I'm tired of watching this vocal minority act as though they set the agenda for the American people.

Starting today, you and I can be an integral part of shutting these zealots down. Next November, we have a chance to unseat some of the most vigorously anti-gay legislators and bring fairness and balance back to Congress. . . .

The right wing is already out there raising campaign war chests funded by extremist organizations to maintain their stranglehold on Congress. That's why it is critical that we . . .

Start NOW with a groundswell of individuals who care about equality to take back Congress from the extremists.
The point is, legislating through the constitution as the Pastors’ Summit advocated, rather than a constitutional amendment defining legislative authority over the definition of marriage, plays into this kind of argument. It alienates otherwise conservative individuals and drives the uninformed into the camp of government enforced “equality“ of outcome. It hurts, rather than helps the conservative cause.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

COLUMN --- State government rewards failure

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:35 AM |  

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

You won't hear it in a legislative discussion of School District Integration Revenue, the state program providing funds to school districts to promote racial integration. It's not in any news article or press release. But tucked away in the recently released Office of the Legislative Auditor's evaluation of Integration Revenue is the dirty little secret — the reason government programs that never succeed also never "fail."

"The integration revenue funding formula contains a financial disincentive to fully integrate schools or districts," states the auditor's report. "If districts successfully integrate, they will no longer receive integration revenue. … If a district … achieves racial balance among its schools, the district would no longer be eligible for integration revenue."

Here's the universal lesson we should draw from the specific "nonsuccesses" of integration revenue: Government programs reward failure, not success. They discourage eliminating problems in favor of managing problems. Failure is a major reason to keep the money flowing.

While the auditor finds no evidence to suggest that districts are intentionally maintaining racial inequalities, it also notes that racial concentration has increased in many school districts that receive integration revenue.

Of 22 racially identifiable schools that were first identified in 2000 and still existed in 2005, all but four had a higher concentration of minority students in 2005 than 2000. Government has dished out millions of integration revenue dollars since 2000 — $79 million to just 80 school districts in 2005 alone.

However, there's no reason to suspect conspiracy as cause for "nonsuccess" when incompetence is so evident. After reading the detailed auditor's report, poor results come as no surprise.

"The program's vague guidelines … make it difficult to measure the impact of the integration revenue program," reads the auditor's evaluation. "Minnesota laws governing the program do not require school districts to achieve specific integration outcomes or use measurable criteria when assessing their integration programs. … School districts are not required to use their integration revenue to integrate their students and alleviate the racial imbalance."

The officially vague criterion that justifies funding requires only that a district "create or enhance learning opportunities which are designed to provide opportunities for students to have increased interracial contacts through classroom experiences, staff initiatives and other educationally related programs."

In fairness, an argument might be made that integration revenue funds not directly applied to racial integration have been used for other educational purposes. However, that lame rationale reduces integration money, like the recently passed and equally ill-defined "Alternative Teacher Professional Pay System" (Q-Comp), to simply pumping money into an unaccountable public education system by fooling taxpayers into thinking the funds are going to a noble purpose, to an immediate "crisis."

And who's responsible for monitoring the integration revenue for taxpayers?

"The Minnesota Department of Education has not met its obligations to oversee the integration revenue program," the OLA report says. "While the department has recently increased its oversight of districts' integration budgets, it is still not meeting all of its responsibilities."

Let's see: We have a government program with vague and undefined objectives that is not achieving positive results about which for the past five years no government agency seems concerned. The program is bleeding millions of dollars a year. So what's the solution? Let's fix it with more government. By the way, we're not talking a tweak here and there. The very thorough auditor's report makes a long list of recommendations that amount to nothing short of a Mulligan, a costly do-over of the program.

That brings us back to the universal lesson: Government-run education is neither equipped nor the proper entity to solve racial issues. In fact, government funding contingent on racial disparity gives school districts incentive to simply manage intangible racial issues, not to solve actual problems. The achievement gap leaps to mind.

Let's admit the integration revenue program has failed. Let's take the $79 million, most of which flows to St. Paul, Minneapolis and Duluth, and use it in those cities to fund education vouchers for low-income families to use at schools of their choosing. Measure success using test scores and parents' satisfaction. Let's really try to eliminate the achievement gap, not just mange it. Let's be honest. Let's be smart.

Category: Column, Education, School Choice, Local Politics

Monday, November 21, 2005

Is the Twin Cities a "one newspaper town"?

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:44 AM |  

Fraters Libertas has a couple of interesting posts relative to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Chad “The Elder” relates this comment from a Wall Street Journal analysis of the possible sale of Knight Ridder --
Knight Ridder has been publishing mostly second-rate newspapers for as long as anyone can remember.
Chad notes the writer did say "mostly second-rate" so perhaps his broad brush swipe doesn't include our local KR entity, the Pioneer Press. Earlier in the week Brian “Saint Paul” Ward posted a letter from a Stillwater "PiPress" reader that might dash that hope --
Thursday November 17, 2005, is the day the St. Paul Pioneer Press officially became a shopper -- The Stillwater Gazette with a Sunday edition.

The dominant graphic on the front page of Section A of my beloved hometown paper was of a flock of turkeys. The above-the-fold headline, the grabber that would get people dropping their quarters into Pioneer Press newspaper stands around the city, was "TIME TO TALK TURKEY." Photo and copy took up just under half the total space of the front page.

Was this a story about the threat of bird flu? No. Was it a business piece about the turkey business in Minnesota or the economic impact of the "holiday" season? No. An animal rights story? No. Was it a news story of any kind? No. It was essentially a house ad for an article in the PiPress "EAT" Section. It's no coincidence that advertising-wise EAT is a very profitable section for the Pioneer Press.
Does that make the Pioneer Press a second-rate newspaper? According to the Frater’s reader, that might not be a bad question to be asking --
Is this really what newspapers have to do to survive -- run promos on the front page? If so, sorry, it's not a newspaper; it's a shopper. Does market now determine news "content"? Is the new motto of journalism "All the News You Want to Know?" Is the purpose of the local section to uncover local "news," or is it to make sure that every high school student, athlete and local "personality" gets 15 minutes of fame and the Pioneer Press a place on family refrigerator?

Change, is necessary for the Pioneer Press even if uncomfortable for readers like me but still it ought to be change for the better. Making the Twin Cities a one-newspaper town -- one "news" paper and one shopper -- is not for the better.
Speaking of one-newspaper towns, a Star Tribune article on Saturday dismissed the likelihood that the Pioneer Press might be purchased by the McClatchy Co., owner of the Star Tribune, to eliminate a competitor.
"I doubt that the Justice Department would allow that," said Maryland-based newspaper consultant John Morton. "That would really be stretching any [antitrust] tolerance."
The article also notes that there has been a lot of unpleasant turmoil Pioneer Press staffers, who have been buffeted by staffing cutbacks, corporate changes and other belt-tightening measures for the past five years. Writes the Strib --
In better times, the Pioneer Press was regarded as "the capital ship of the Ridder family," said Jack Finnegan, who worked as executive editor and, later, associate publisher from 1970 until his retirement in 1989. "Most of the Ridder boys went through St. Paul as part of their training before they moved on to other newspapers in the group," he recalled. . . .

Neither Finnegan nor his former crosstown rival Dave Nimmer, managing editor of the Minneapolis Star from 1974 to 1978, want to see the number of newspapers in the Twin Cities shrink further.

"I see value in a two-newspaper town," said Nimmer, a former journalism professor at the University of St. Thomas. He recalled when the Twin Cities had four newspapers vying for readers. "The competition makes the coverage more aggressive. I also think public officials behave differently when reporters are around with notebooks. They're more careful and work harder."

Former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer said he's worried as well.

"For those of us who really value newspapers and the printed word in general, it's very worrisome to imagine a great old town like St. Paul not having a hometown newspaper," he said.
But if the Stillwater reader and the Wall Street Journal are correct, the Twin Cities is already a one newspaper town -- one newspaper and a shopper with a Sunday edition.

Category: Journalism

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Same-sex marraige issue draws comments

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:28 AM |  

Same-sex marriage an explosive issue, and my Pioneer Press column posted here, is drawing thoughtful comments on both sides of the issue, mostly from conservatives, most that disagree with my conservative position on same-sex marriage, some that agree.

What is interesting is that conservatives that join me in support of same-sex marriage support my conclusion with liberal arguments about civil rights, the idea that any two people that love each other have a "right" to get married and the like. Liberals take me to task for not making those arguments and putting the burden of proof on supporters of same-sex marriage to demonstrate that it will not harm the institution of marriage.

Below is my response to one such liberal comment. Perhaps it opens another line of debate on the same-sex issue.
I agree with where your argument arrives, but I disagree with the form of your argument. Let me make this point --

Being conservative or liberal has less to do with one’s position on issues and everything to do with how one arrives at one’s position on issues.

Applying that principle to the same-sex marriage debate, whether or not one supports same-sex marriage does not make one a liberal or a conservative. How one arrives at that position does. In general, you’re making a liberal argument for same-sex marriage that I disagree with.

Your first claim is correct, that the intellectual burden of proving harm to society from homosexuality falls on those who would make it illegal. But the same-sex marriage debate is not about taking the fundamental right of liberty away from homosexuals. It is about extending the existing civil institution of marriage to a group. Marriage is not a fundamental right. In that case, it is the group seeking the extension that bears the burden of proof that no harm will occur to the institution.

I agree with your “simple” solution vis a vis churches are the final arbiters of what is or is not a sacramental marriage. That, however, does not solve the issue of civil marriage and to whom it might be extended.

As a conservative that believes in individual rights not collective rights, my interest is in supporting those that share the view of marriage as a sacrament, regardless of their sexual orientation. Also as a conservative, I recognize that change, drastic change, works only when accomplished through consensus not coercion. I cannot run a double blind scientific test to prove same-sex marriage will not harm society. I can advocate it as a conservative objective that conservatives ought to work toward.

At a breakfast meeting of conservatives the other day, I got into this discussion with one of the people you would describe as a “Christian fundamentalist” with some derision, I with respect. In response to my conservative argument, he noted that he understood the logic I was using because he used it himself on other issues, but marriage was “different.” The discussion ended with his acknowledgment that I have some points, but he simply disagrees with me.

That brings me back to my point -- conservatism and liberalism are philosophies not rubrics over a pro/con column of issues as both the man at breakfast and you would make them. Both sides need to look at where their philosophies lead rather than torturing their philosophies to reach desired outcomes.
Category: Same-Sex Marriage

Friday, November 18, 2005

GUEST POST -- All the Obits Fit to Print

Posted by Craig Westover | 5:03 PM |  

by Mark Yost

There are times when I think our culture and country are truly staring into the abyss, and there are others when we’ve clearly already descended into that dark place and are looking up. The latest example of the latter came in the Obituaries column in the Sunday, Nov. 13 New York Times.

The Old Gray Lady had room for just two obits this week. The first obituary, written by Times staffer Margalit Fox, ran nearly the entire length of the two-column space under a headline that read, “Ruth Clement Bond, 101, Quilter and Civic Leader, Is Dead.” Here are some of the key passages from the obituary that the Times deemed worthy of 19 paragraphs.

“Ruth Clement Bond, an educator and civic leader who in the mid-1930’s, in her first and only foray into quilt design, helped transform the American quilt from a utilitarian bedcovering into a work of avant-garde social commentary, died on Oct. 24 at her daughter’s home in Manhattan. She was 101.”
The Times went on to tell readers how Mrs. Bond was know for a series of T.V.A quilts, designed by her and “sewn in rural Alabama by the wives of African-American workers building dams there for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Visually arresting and contemporary-looking even today, the T.V.A. quilts are considered pivotal in the history of American quiltmaking.”

The quilts were, according to the Times, “dynamic works of modern art” that “depict bold, stylized silhouettes of black people. With their jagged yet elegant lines, the figures have been compared to the paper cutouts of Matisse and to the work of the Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas.”

The quilts have been shown across the country and are featured in several books, including “Soft Covers for Hard Times: Quiltmaking and the Great Depression.”

We also learn that Mrs. Bond, whose husband belonged to the Foreign Service, “taught at universities in Haiti, Liberia and Malawi and worked with women’s and youth groups in Afghanistan, Tunisia and Sierra Leone. After returning to Washington in the 1960’s, she served as president of the African-American Women’s Association.” In the late-1970s, she also was a part of a “fact-finding mission for the National Council of Negro Women that studied the role of women in Senegal, Togo and the Ivory Coast.”

The Times goes on to explain of the landmark quilting project: “Many of the workers were former sharecroppers, and the dam project gave them their first real income. Almost overnight, their wives were buying pianos for their parlors. But to Mrs. Bond’s consternation, they were wallpapering those parlors with the pages of the Sears catalog.”

“These country women were buying things they didn’t need, yet weren’t fixing up their houses,” Mrs. Bond was quoted as saying in a 1992 oral history for the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.

“One quilt depicts a man torn between an alluring woman, tantalizingly glimpsed at one edge of the image, and a solid government job, represented by an extended uniformed arm, at the other,” the Times said. “Another shows a black fist seeming to rise straight from the earth. The fist clutches a jagged red lightning bolt, symbolizing the T.V.A.’s promise of rural electrification. The women called the quilt ‘Black Power.’”

Buried under Mrs. Bond’s obituary, in smaller type, were just six paragraphs devoted to Robert Bush. Since it’s so short, here’s the whole obituary, which ran under the headline, Robert Bush, 79, Who Received Medal of Honor, Is Dead.”

TACOMA, Wash., Nov. 12 (AP) - Robert E. Bush, who received a Medal of Honor for actions in tending to the wounded while under enemy fire on Okinawa, died Tuesday in Tumwater, Wash., outside Olympia, his family said. He was 79.

Mr. Bush was an 18-year-old Navy corpsman serving in World War II when, on May 2, 1945, he was treating wounded marines on Okinawa, the scene of the Pacific Theater’s longest and bloodiest battle. According to the citation for his medal, he braved enemy fire to tend to the wounded and was administering plasma to one wounded officer when the Japanese launched an attack. He kept the plasma bottle in one hand as he fired at the enemy, first with his pistol and then, when his own ammunition ran out, with a discarded carbine.

Though seriously wounded, the citation said, Mr. Bush “calmly disregarded his own critical condition to complete his mission, valiantly refusing medical treatment for himself until his officer patient had been evacuated and collapsing only after attempting to walk to the battle aid station.”

Mr. Bush lost an eye and was shipped to Hawaii for treatment, then sent home.

Mr. Bush was born in Tacoma on Oct. 4, 1926, and dropped out of high school at age 17 to enlist. After returning from the war, he graduated from high school and married Wanda Spooner. That fall the couple traveled to Washington, where he received his medal from President Harry S. Truman on Oct. 5, 1945.”
The last paragraph of the obituary, before listing his survivors, notes, “Mr. Bush had a career building a lumber company into a multimillion-dollar business.”


Of course, the fact that the Times felt the death of Mrs. Bond was far more important than that of Mr. Bush, should come as no surprise to anyone. After all, this is the “paper of record” that has been the megaphone for the anti-war movement in this country and abroad. It’s also the paper that has written nary a word about all the reconstruction projects going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, but plays up every death on the front page. And we don’t even need to discuss the despicable things that have been written on the editorial pages of the Times about George Bush, Dick Cheney, and the war effort.

While coverage of the war on terror has been no better in The Washington Post, it at least had the decency to accord proper space to mark the death of an American hero from a war that not even the vehemently anti-war media would argue was unjust. The Post devoted 15 paragraphs to Mr. Bush’s life, written by staff reporter Adam Bernstein.

In the Post obituary we learn that Mr. Bush was the youngest sailor to receive the Medal of Honor during World War II.

“On May 2, 1945, Mr. Bush was serving with a rifle company in the 1st Marine Division and met resistance from Japanese forces on Okinawa in the Ryukyu Islands,” read the Post obituary. “He darted among the artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire to care for casualties. While feeding plasma into a fallen Marine lieutenant with a dire chest and shoulder injury, he refused to leave his exposed position on a ridge in the midst of a Japanese counterattack.

“Mr. Bush held the plasma bottle aloft with one hand while he took the officer’s carbine with his free hand, then fired at the charging Japanese. He reloaded his gun and maintained point-blank fire on the foe, killing six at the cost of his right eye as hand grenades exploded around him.

“‘They got me,’ he told a reporter in Aberdeen, Wash. ‘The first grenade took my eye out, and I put my arm up to hold it off, and got some fragments in the other eye. Got a lot in my eye and shoulders. They hit me with three hand grenades in a matter of seconds. I was firing on them with [the lieutenant’s] carbine. Every time I saw a Japanese head pop up, I could see the star on their helmets, I'd fire one round a foot below where I saw that head come up, because I knew I couldn’t miss, I’d get ‘em on the way down.’”
The Post noted that Mr. Bush was “one of 482 Navy corpsmen at Okinawa and one of six who received the Medal of Honor.”

The Post also reports that in 1951 Mr. Bush bought a lumberyard in South Bend, Wash., for several hundred dollars and turned it into a multimillion-dollar business. And despite the fact that he had only one eye, he spent years earning his private pilot’s license. He used it to fly his friend, Jimmy Doolittle, the leader of the famous 1942 raid over Tokyo, to a remote retreat to fish for salmon.

“This medal wasn’t given to me because I’m the greatest guy who came down the pike,” Mr. Bush was quoted as saying. “We had thousands who lost their lives who were certainly equally identifiable as being able, in their mind or the minds of their compadres, to receive the Medal of Honor. But perhaps it wasn’t properly documented. So, I look at it as though I’m a custodian for those who died.”

Would that The New York Times – and the other media outlets that largely ignored Mr. Bush’s death – felt the same way.

Yost is associate editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press Opinion Page.

Category: Guest Post, Journalism

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Yahoo and Knight Ridder

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:36 AM |  

According to the Wall Street Journal on speculation about the sale of Knight Ridder --
Conventional wisdom holds that Gannett, the largest newspaper company, might be a good suitor for Knight Ridder. Others think a consortium of private-equity investors is more likely, since newspapers are considered cheap, but remain good cash-flow vehicles that would help finance a leveraged buyout. Some think a new-media company such as Yahoo Inc. or eBay Inc. might be interested.

Newspapers still dominate local news and advertising in many markets. That could attract a company such as Yahoo, which has moved increasingly into original content and would like to develop its local reach. Meanwhile, Google Inc. has expressed interest in entering the classified-ad market, where newspapers have deep relationships and continue to play a dominant role. Knight Ridder is part-owner of CareerBuilder Inc., the online classified Web site that competes with

In a previous life, I worked for a company that created small business web-sites. In business lingo, our core-competencies were a great telemarketing organization and a client base in six figures. This was a major appeal to Yahoo, and we signed a partnership agreement with Yahoo that placed our clients web sites (local businesses) in the Yahoo Yellow Page Directory. In addition, we set up a local sales force to sell local adds directly into the Yahoo Directory.

The point is, when considering just who might be a suitor for Knight Ridder -- or specific properties within Knight Ridder -- don’t underestimate the interest of Yahoo. It’s pretty easy for Yahoo to go into a major national account and sell a advertising deal on their online properties. It’s virtually impossible, from a corporate level for them to sell local advertising and impossibly expensive for them to set up their own local ad sales organizations.

Now imagine Yahoo ownership of, say, the Pioneer Press. You’re a Pioneer Press ad sales rep and when you walk into Wally McCarthy’s you can not only offer him an ad in the Pioneer Press -- something he’s familiar with -- but you can offer placement in the Yahoo Yellow Pages, placement on Yahoo Maps, display ads correlated to specific searches in Yahoo Search and the like.

Whereas as a newspaper entity, to another newspaper publisher the Pioneer Press has a value limited by some multiple of its potential earnings as a newspaper, to Yahoo the value of its local sale force is virtually unlimited in terms of pumping local revenue into Yahoo products. From an advertising standpoint, it’s like adding millions of subscribers and unlimited ad pages without a nickel's worth of added expense.

Newspaper publishers like Knight Ridder have made a pretty good business out of their own Internet networks, but in keeping advertising in house (that is not looking for partnerships with companies like Yahoo), they have made the classic mistake of thinking 100 percent of relatively small revenue (gained at considerable expense) is better than some percentage of huge revenues. Given stiff competition from Google and eBay for Internet dominance, don’t count out a bold move from Yahoo.

Category: Journalism

A few thoughts on the Hennepin County Commissioner's Meeting

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:31 AM |  

Watching people march to the podium at Hennepin Country Commissioners’ Meeting last night, I observed that smoking ban proponents dress better than those that oppose the smoking ban. Therefore, I concluded, one’s commitment to the idea of property rights and individual choice must be inversely related to the cost of one’s wardrobe. My conclusion carries as much validity as the statistics being trotted out in support of the smoking ban.

Ostensibly the hearing was to take testimony on Commissioner Mark Stenglein’s amendment to Hennepin County Ordinance 24, which would permit exemptions from the Henneping smoking ban for bars that met specific criteria. In reality, it was a rehash of the same arguments both for and against the ban. The difference was, this time smoking ban proponents did not go unchallenged.

Freed from the constraints of running for mayor, Commissioner Peter McLaughlin joined Commissioner Penny Steele in repeatedly challenging smoking ban proponents that trotted out aggregate numbers to support the dangers of secondhand smoke and the notion that there is no economic harm from smoking bans. They repeatedly challenged testifiers to relate secondhand smoke exposure to bars and restaurants and relate aggregate economic harm specifically to bars. The questions left ban supporters stuttering or promising to “get back on that.”

Firm ban proponents commissioners Gail Dorfman, Randy Johnson, and Linda Koblick were far less aggressive questioners. At one point Koblick made the general comment that it while the commissioners might ask questions for clarification, she did not see it as the role of the commissioners to “debate” with testifiers. Commissioner Steele quickly jumped in noting that in the past the commissioners have not challenged claims made by speakers and that tough questioning was necessary to understand exactly what claims were being made. Neither she nor McLaughlin relented in their questioning.

A prime example was Steele’s question to a county environmental inspector. The women noted that as part of her job she was required to inspect smoky bars and did not have a choice to avoid secondhand smoke. Questioning from Steele arrived at the fact that the women spent at best, 40 hours per year, spread out over the year, inspecting “smoky” bars.

What was not raised at this point was the question of when does an individual health issue rise to the level of a public health issue requiring government intervention. Should all bar owners and all bar patrons be denied individual choice to spare one woman 40 hours exposure to secondhand smoke in the course of a year? By what criteria?

A side note of interest, Koblick was the only commissioner that voted opposed to extending testimony past the set end time of 9 PM when there were still 20 people that wanted to speak. Debate is not something ban supporters seem to favor.

The crew filming “Devil’s Weed” was also present at the hearing, taking advantage of open meeting rules to try and get smoking ban proponents on camera to make their cases for a smoking ban. Health organization officials, MPAAT representatives, and pro-ban legislators have been reluctant to take part in the documentary.

It is notable that Bob Moffitt of the American Lung Association was quick to complain to meeting security about the presence of a film crew at an open meeting. Two-sided arguments are not Moffitt’s forte. He did not testify, his comments would have been subject to questioning, but he managed to get himself quoted in the St. Paul Paper making the argument that people were “clamoring for smoke-fee establishments.” That argument was lanced by Commissioner McLaughlin when made by a more courageous ban supporter in public testimony. Like most of the suited ban supporters, Moffitt left before all the testimony was heard.

It should be noted that despite the lack of local participation of ban supporters in the “Devil’s Weed” project, producer Curt Johnson notes the crew has interviews set up with epidemiologists, cardiologists and medical professionals around the country to provide the public health point of view. Among the criteria in choosing these professionals was that none have any connection to tobacco companies.

A personal note -- leaving the meeting I could not help but be depressed by the lack of understanding by physicians, healthcare professionals and politicians of the underlying issues. It was not that these people had considered the property rights issues, the issue of individual choice, and the proper role of government in public health and could make an argument for a smoking ban that considered those issues. No, they simply ignored them or rejected them out of hand.

The commissioners as well had no context for making a public health decision, although Steele and Stenglein seemed to understand there was an issue. McLaughlin is more the politician. He repeatedly noted he wants a statewide ban, which would make his life a whole lot easier in that he wouldn’t have to make a decision. (What ever happened to federalism? A letter from former Gov. Arne Carlson was only the first of several allusions to the benefits of not just a statewide, but a nationwide smoking ban.) To have the fate of Hennepin County’s smoking ban rest on the vote of Mike Opat is hardly a victory for good government.

Not to mention St. Paul's Dave Thune.

Categories: Public Health, Smoking Ban, Local Politics

COLUMN -- Same-sex marriage should be a conservative objective

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:14 AM |  

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

One man and one woman embraced. Another woman wept rapturous tears. A man bowed his head, his lips moving in silent prayer. Others, with arms uplifted, swayed to processional piano music as 250 clergy members — men and women, black and white, Protestant, Catholic and Jew — filed forward pledging to protect God's definition of marriage with man's constitutional amendment — one man, one woman.

The closing tableau of last week's day-long Pastors' Summit at Grace Church in Eden Prairie symbolized the unifying strength of faith in a higher power. In that time, in that place, a rare bond existed among people diverse in race and religion. At such moments, America is at its best — and its most terrifying.

"When thou goest out to battle against thine enemies... be not afraid of them: for the Lord thy God is with thee," was the afternoon session opening scripture.

Like a house built on sand, the pastors' combative view of same-sex marriage is built on a shifting foundation of fear and misconception. Fear begets abandonment of spirituality in favor of dogma. Absolute fear misconceives the nature of its enemies. Degrading marriage to legal formality destroys the very sacrament the summit pastors pledged to defend.

Governments do not ordain sacraments. In rejecting insertion of the name "Jesus Christ" into the Virginia Bill for Religious Liberty, James Madison argued not from disbelief, but that "better proof of reverence for the holy name would be not to profane it by making it a topic of legislative discussion." Ought marriage in His name be regarded less?

To their credit, speaker after speaker at the summit emphasized that the Marriage Amendment — defining marriage as between one man and one woman — is a defense of traditional marriage, not an anti-homosexual declaration. Indeed, if those attending the Pastors' Summit were the bigots and homophobes that their detractors paint them as, they could be easily dismissed. But they are on to something, these pastors; there is a "cultural war" in this country. Before touching off the cannons, however, one ought know allies from enemies.

The pastors may not see "homosexuals" as the enemy, but "gay activists" are in their sights. "The Battle for Marriage," a DVD produced by the Minnesota Family Institute, sounds a call that sets Christian soldiers marching.

"Once [same-sex marriage is] granted," gay activist Michelangelo Signorile is quoted, "we need to redefine the institution of marriage completely and debunk a myth and radically alter an archaic institution."

Is destruction of marriage a uniquely homosexual view? Is it the view of all same-sex couples? Making such assumptions, the pastors abandon a New Testament and politically conservative emphasis on the individual. Fear of "gay activists" promotes a monolithic view of the "homosexual lifestyle" that confuses enemies with allies.

In a breakout session at the Pastors' Summit, Minnesota Family Council President Tom Prichard spoke about the devaluation of marriage, lumping same-sex marriage with no-fault divorce and abortion on demand as symptomatic of the decline in the value of marriage.

But, he doesn't carry that thought far enough, failing to ask a significant question: Why in a society that makes no demands and imposes no sanctions on their behavior would a same-sex couple want to impose upon themselves the difficult obligations of a committed relationship? Perhaps for the same spiritual reasons Prichard does.

To attribute marriage-destroying motivation to all same-sex couples is as misleading as to paint all conservative pastors as bigots and homophobes. Same-sex couples living the essence of marriage — a committed, spiritual, family oriented relationship — affirm, not devalue, marriage.

Why would conservatives marginalize such couples? Why would conservatives not want children in same-sex relationships protected by the social and legal obligations imposed upon married couples? Why would conservatives not want as allies in the cultural war couples so committed that they already suffer the slings and arrows of public abuse for their affirmation of marriage?

Why were pastors who believe the spirituality of marriage is superior to its legal form marching outside Grace Church instead of inside, creating a bond not only unified but inclusive?

Regardless of one's moral view of homosexuality, same-sex marriage ought to be a conservative objective. It's an issue that matters. It is a cause that is right, embracing, in the best American tradition, all men and all women.

Category: Column, Same-Sex Marriage

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

A fresh look, but not at "school choice"

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:06 AM |  

The headline is somewhat misleading: “A fresh look at school choice.” Today’s lead editorial in the St. Paul Pioneer Press is less about school choice and all about transportation within a “public education” school choice program.

The gist of the issue is that children in the cities 32 elementary magnet schools, for example, receive free bus transportation no matter where they live. A citywide transportation plan would give all schools the same advantage -- that would also increase the transportation budget by as much as $3.5 million each year as reported by the PiPress.

The recommendation is dividing the city into three educational regions and providing free transportation within each region. This plan would save approximately $2.6 million in current transportation costs. The PiPress concludes --
If gasoline were cheap and plentiful, we might see a strong argument for keeping the system the way it is. But given the rising cost of transportation under the current school-choice program, changes are imperative.
Agreed. Changes are imperative, but in typical bureaucratic fashion, the public school system is looking at the problem in silo-like fashion. Transportation costs too high? We obviously have a transportation problem. Ain’t necessarily so.

Earlier in the editorial the writers dismissed the idea that “transportation costs shouldn't drive a family's school choices.” That’s really the crux of the entire issue.

The problem being talked about in the editorial is choice within the government school system, not the misleading “school choice” verbiage of the headline. I’ll bet everyone of the kids abandoning their assigned schools to attend a magnet school or a school in another district walks to the bus stop within a couple of blocks of a private school, probably (gasp) with a religious orientation that might meet their educational needs. Yet these educational resources are not part of the plan.

Perhaps one could explain how kids benefit by getting up a hour or so earlier in the morning to catch a bus to attend a school outside their neighborhood with other children that they see only in school (not in their neighborhood) when they might be attending a private neighborhood school within walking distance of their homes.

If you want to talk school choice, talk meaningful school choice -- school choice that is really “public education” in the sense of in the public interest, not just reducing the costs (a welcome effort to be sure) of public school transportation costs, once again, at the expense of families and children.

Category: Edcuation, School Choice

More: Also of interest on the school choice front is the opinion piece by Linda P. Campbell in today's Pioneer Press. She gets it right and so did the 9th Circuit Court when it dismissed parents claims that sexually-oriented questions on a public school survey violated the constitutional right to privacy and parents right to control when and what their children learn about sex. No such right in the constitution, despite the fact that the ruling goes otherwise than conservatives might like.

The point is, if universal public education meant "vouchers" allowing parents to choose schools, this issue goes away. If parents have the ability to vote with their feet, choose schools that reflect both their educational desires for their children and cultural environment, problems Campbell raises are easily resolved on a school-by-school basis.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

COLUMN -- It takes courage to tell mercury story

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:28 AM |  

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

In 1988 the St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. "AIDS in the Heartland" chronicled an AIDS patient from diagnosis to death. Setting the Pioneer Press apart was more than simply the passionate writing of reporter Jacqui Banaszynski. Great journalism has an attitude.

Banaszynski wanted a focus that "would go a step beyond the informational coverage of AIDS, a story that would not only humanize the AIDS crisis but enlighten and, perhaps, nudge society towards a more compassionate understanding of this stigmatized killer."

Yesterday's "AIDS in the Heartland" stands in sharp contrast to today's media coverage of another "stigmatized" cause — the battle of "zealot" parents to raise understanding of the plausible connection between thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative in some childhood vaccines, and autism.

"The thimerosal question — scientifically, politically, and emotionally complex — is proving to be a test for journalism," writes Dan Schulman in the November issue of Columbia Journalism Review. Steeped in controversy and intrigue, the thimerosal debate has all the makings of a compelling news story, yet it has been cautiously approached by news media, and if covered at all, is generally not portrayed as a legitimate scientific debate.

Locally, proposed legislation to limit the use of thimerosal in childhood vaccines prompted brief coverage on television news programs. The Minneapolis paper ran a single article that framed the controversy as parents versus experts. The Pioneer Press has not run more than a handful of stories on the topic on its news pages.

In the mid-1980s, AIDS was no less scientifically, politically and emotionally complex, especially when pursued to provide understanding, not just air the issue. Many readers were not happy with the detail or depth of "AIDS in the Heartland." Some accused the Pioneer Press of glorifying homosexuality, trading on death, exploiting a family's private pain. Managing Editor Mark Nadler defended the series as lifting the shroud of ignorance from AIDS.

"Ignorance breeds fear, and a search for culprits rather than cures," he wrote. "His (the patient's) is a story worth telling."

A story worth telling?

About the time "AIDS in the Heartland" was appearing in the Pioneer Press, the number of children diagnosed with autism was one in 10,000. Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pegs the number at one in 166. During that time, the number of immunizations on the childhood vaccination schedule more than doubled, raising the dosage of mercury, a known neurotoxin, far above federal safety standards.

New York Times contributor David Kirby's book "Evidence of Harm," released in April, presented both sides of the thimerosal controversy in a documentary manner, allowing evidence (or absence of comment) to speak for itself. The resulting picture is that of knowledgeable parents and independent researchers challenging a stonewalled government and scientific establishment that relies on after-the-fact epidemiological studies, not before-the-fact safety data, to deny the autism link.

However, it has been establishment sources, journalists' go-to guys, framing the debate, often portraying parents as crackpots, conspiracy theorists or zealots, and researchers as junk scientists and charlatans. That perception, notes Schulman, has seeped into the collective consciousness of the news media.

There are as many reasons for news media not to cover the thimerosal controversy as there were for the Pioneer Press to back off the Pulitzer-worthy "AIDS in the Heartland" and go with a noncontroversial and "balanced" story. The difference is attitude — a willingness to take a risk to find the truth.

Beat reporters, notes Columbia Journalism Review, risk losing health sources by calling their judgment into question. A reporter told Schulman that covering the thimerosal controversy was nearly "career-ending." His superiors regarded treating the issue as a two-sided debate as legitimizing a crackpot theory and influencing parents to stop vaccinating their children or to seek out experimental treatments.

Real career challenges, to be sure, but what of responsibility to readers?

It took journalistic courage to face up to the AIDS epidemic and attack the story, to nudge society in the direction of understanding. Today, the autism epidemic could use a little less fear, a little more nudging and a little less fostering of ignorance.

"Whether the thimerosal theory is proved right or wrong, there will be consequences," writes Schulman, "for the public health apparatus and vaccine manufacturers, for parents and their children, even for journalists. But with science left to be done and scientists eager to do it, it seems too soon for the press to shut the door on the debate."


Westover is an Afton writer who blogs at He sits on the board of the Minnesota Autism Center, which has not taken a position in the thimerosal controversy and does not provide biomedical autism treatment. E-mail him at

Category: Column, Autism, Vaccines, Thimerosal

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Doug Grow -- "Government's largesse exposes small hypocrisy"
Response -- Political opportunism reveals moral hypocrisy

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:06 AM |  

I wish I could be so confidently righteous about condemning Doug Grow’s Star Tribune column on the use of state funds to treat autistic kids as are some on the right side of the blogosphere. Yes, I agree that Grow definitely takes the low road, but partisan and vulgar motives don’t necessarily invalidate a person‘s position.

Grow’s column is based on stories in the Star Tribune about controversies surrounding the Minnesota Autism Center. Ron Carey, recently elected chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota and vice-chairman of the Minnesota Autism Center board of directors has an autistic son that receives treatment through the Center. The Center receives funding from public sources. Behavioral therapy as provided by the Center can run to more than $100,000 year.

“It's so easy to have a philosophy,” writes Grow. “But so hard to live it.”

Yes, living a philosophy is hard and often presents conflicts. Grow’s philosophy reflected in his column would seem to be "C'est la vie" -- principles are not meant to be taken all that seriously -- unless there‘s a political point to be made.

Take the case of Ron Carey, who became chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota in June because many party activists feared that Gov. Tim (No New Taxes) Pawlenty was becoming too big a spender.

Philosophically, Carey is very conservative on the issue of government spending.

But then there's life. . . .

[I]sn't there a conflict between Carey, the leader of a party so resistant to government spending, and Carey, the parent of a child who benefits from public spending?
I can’t speak for Mr. Carey, but I can speak for myself, and the answer is “Yes, Grow is right -- there is conflict.” And as a conservative that believes in principle, I cannot dismiss that conflict with Grow's flippant “se la vie“ attitude nor counter with the obvious statement that Grow is being an ass. The conflict needs to be addressed, not merely deflected because Grow’s motives are less than honorable. And it can be addressed.

By way of background and full disclosure, I was recently asked (and accepted the invitation) to join the board of the Minnesota Autism Center as part of a reorganization of the Center’s board. Having been an outspoken critic of government spending, that I've joined the board after the issues raised by the Strib were resolved and that I don’t have any personal connection to autism doesn’t exclude me from Grow’s criticism. If Carey is being hypocritical, then so am I.

I take Grow’s column personally. Wrestling with the notion of public funding of the Autism Center was no idle task for me. And I can make all the rationalizations that others have and more.

Grow fails to the mention that the funds follow children served by the Autism Center. Autistic children are “disabled Americans” and qualify for Medical Assistance; Medical Assistance is not provided to the Autism Center or any other service provider that provides treatments for other disabilities. Medical Assistance is made available to families for approved treatments regardless of affliction. This assistance is neither autism specific, nor Minnesota Autism Center specific.

Grow also fails to note that parents make a co-payment to the state when they receive Medical Assistance funds. The co-payment is on a sliding scale based on ability to pay. Although Carey is certainly getting a good value in service for his co-payment dollar, his family‘s co-pay is 12.5 percent of family income. That is on top of the standard tax rate paid by all Minnesotans and does not include what it might cost to raise and care for an autistic child outside of therapy service provided by the Autism Center.

The point is, providing even minimal care for an autistic child can be financially devastating for any family regardless of income level. As noted later, the fact that anybody can be victimized by the consequences of a health issue is one neutral criteria that necessitates government intervention and elevates individual health issues to “public health“ issues.

Nonetheless, at the end of the day, Grow implies that the issue still seems to come down to the state collecting taxes from the many to benefit the few -- what Grow would have people believe is that is a hypocritical position for a fiscal conservative to hold.

So how can I justify serving on the board of the Minnesota Autism Center?

In a perfect world the Minnesota Autism Center would be funded entirely from private sources and donations. It’s not a perfect world, but that is the direction the Center is moving. Grow erroneously states the Autism Center receives about 70 percent of its funding from public sources. That was true in in 2003. The Center’s 2004 990 filing shows government revenue down to 59 percent of total funds as the burden of payments shifts to private insurers.

In fact, Carey sued his own insurance company, joined by the State of Minnesota, in an attempt to force it to cover his son‘s ABA costs, rather than put the burden on taxpayers. As a result, Carey’s insurance company did reimburse the state six figures for treatments paid through Medical Assistance although future therapy will be paid by public funds.

Challenging private insurers is a start to move away from government funding, but it’s still not a perfect world. Conservatives still need to meet Grow’s challenge. “Isn’t there a conflict?” The answer to that challenge is not found questioning Grow’s obvious partisan motives; it’s found by applying conservative principles to the underlying question of when do multiple individual health issues rise to the level of a public health issue that necessitates government intervention and does funding therapy for autistic children meet that standard.

I have long argued in the case of smoking bans that government requires neutral criteria before passing “public health” legislation. Without criteria there is virtually no limit on what government might regulate. The same criteria-based approach, if not the same criteria, can be applied in funding situations as well.

These are the criteria that figured into my decision to accept a position on the Minnesota Autism Center board, and which I believe justify Medical Assistance funding for autism therapy.

First, Medical Assistance pays for therapy received by the child. It is not given to the Minnesota Autism Center to set up its infrastructure and provide operation and cash flow funding. The Center receives funds based on the number of children that voluntarily enter its programs. The Center must be run both efficiently and effectively like any business. If it doesn’t provide service, it won’t draw clients, and it doesn’t receive funding. It can fail.

This criteria is in sharp contrast to many government programs that Grow might favor where funds flow to the provider and there is no correlation between funds and outcome. They are not allowed to fail, no matter how poorly they perform. In fact, as is the case with public education, the worse an organization performs, the more funds it demands and the more funds it receives. The incentive is to fail.

Second, Medical Assistance is not exclusive to the Minnesota Autism Center or to autism. Parents are eligible to treat their autistic children in other programs by other providers. Medical Assistance covers a broad range of childhood disabilities. There is competition for funds, which ensures that the Autism Center provides real service. As far as the Autism Center is concerned, the funds are not an entitlement; they are earned. Ultimate evaluation rests with the Autism Center’s customers -- parents of autistic children.

Third, there is no political partisanship involved in the funding. Although many of the Autism Center’s board members are Republicans, the program targets families, not the Autism Center. Autism targets neither Democrats or Republicans. Therapy does not benefit the children of Democrats of Republicans based on party affiliation.

That contrasts with many government programs that are clearly established for political benefit by serving one party’s or the other’s favored constituency. Here, that is not the case. Anyone can have autism strike his family; anyone can benefit from the program.

Fourth, to Carey’s point that “a dollar spent on therapy saves $10 down the line,” there is a large neighborhood effect, if you will, from Medical Assistance for autistic children. Carey notes (and this is typical for children in therapy) that due to progress resulting from therapy, the cost to taxpayers for his son’s treatment will decrease 80 percent from 2004 to 2006. As a result of therapy, a day will come when his son contributes to the tax base rather than taking from it. That outcome is visible and can be tracked.

Like public education, treating autism has a residual value to society as a whole. Think of it as more intensive public education in the broadest sense of public education -- education in the public interest. As mentioned before, however, unlike public education there is parental choice and the Minnesota Autism Center is ultimately accountable to its customers for the outcomes it achieves or fails to achieve.

Do my rationale completely obliterate Grow’s points? Maybe not, but they do start us down the road on a path for justifying public expenditures in vague areas of government legitimacy like healthcare funding. They do affirm that philosophy and values matter and that even the smallest conflict ought to be addressed. Conservatives do not give up on questions just because they are difficult.

Grow’s comment that “It's so easy to have a philosophy, but so hard to live it,” expresses the false logic that, ergo the philosophy must be wrong or unimportant. It’s that logic that enables people on the left to subscribe to relative values and a rejection of objective truth. Living consistent is difficult, and Grow’s implication is that it simply isn’t worth the effort.

Grow criticizes Carey and by implication me for struggling with the idea of government providing funding to provide therapy for autistic children while his notion of a liberal moral dilemma is an environmentalist driving a pick-up truck. I suggest those two moral conflicts are not quite on the same scale of significance.

Conservatives ought to embrace conflict between philosophy and practice as the opportunity to examine and reaffirm what they believe in. By simply taking umbrage with Grow’s below the belt tactics, conservatives miss that opportunity. Conservatives can do better.

Disclaimer -- This post represents my personal views and my reasons for accepting a position on the board of the Minnesota Autism Center. Neither in total nor in part does this post necessarily represent the views of the Minnesota Autism Center board or any individual member of that board. The views expressed herein are entirely mine.

Category: Autism, Public Health

Friday, November 04, 2005

What don't they understand about "cosmopolitan"?

Posted by Craig Westover | 2:01 PM |  

Note Jackie Cherryhomes’ comments about Escape Ultra Lounge made in Doug Grow’s column lamenting the addition of Hooters to Block E --
"Hooters wasn't part of the vision," admitted Jackie Cherryhomes, former president of the City Council and a person who pushed for the development. "I agree with what [Council Member] Lisa Goodman says about it. It's tacky. The vision was more like Bellanotte [a successful nightclub in the project]. Or a club like Escape [also in the development]. There's an energy in these places. They're cosmopolitan."
Escape Vice President Charles Gilbert was one of many bar and club owners that sat down to be interviewed for the “Devil’s Weed” documentary on the impact of the smoking ban in Minneapolis and the tend toward smoking bans across the country.

Gilbert did not talk about “energy” and being “cosmopolitan.”

He talked about a decline of 40-45 percent in business since the smoking ban went into effect. How “big” nights dropped from 900 people to less than 600. He talked about how the club was not just losing its smoking customers, but the friends of smoking customers. He talked how a prime upper floor location over-looking the city becomes a liability when people are forced to go outside to smoke -- especially in a cold climate city.

He talked about laying off nearly 30 people. He talked about the Catch-22 of not having funds to advertise. He wondered where all the promised non-smoking customers were. He noted that “no dominos fell” and surrounding communities that didn’t follow the Minneapolis lead are garnering all the business from smokers (and their friends).

As for the Minneapolis City Council? Well it seems they don’t give two hoots for Gilbert’s problems.

Category: Public Health, Smoking Ban

Just how cold was it in Hell today?

Posted by Craig Westover | 1:36 PM |  

I agree with Nick Coleman.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

READER RESPONSE -- Here’s what I mean: Why "Devil's Weed" is a good thing

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:43 AM |  

In response to my column this week on the documentary “Devil’s Weed” opening up the debate on the smoking ban, I received an email from a reader. He wrote --
Lots going on with the smoking bans. I've been reading your columns. That one with all the numbers and formulas was way above me, but my position is firmly in support of the bans. But, I've been reading and listening. So, tell me if my thinking is naive or not. I'm not a writer, so bear with me as I try and get my points across.
He then listed six questions about smoking bans that touched on the idea of majority rule, whether a “ban” was really a ban at all or merely an “inconvenience,” and why bans were being discussed in so many places if secondhand smoke wasn’t a health hazard and other equally perceptive questions.

In other words, unlike the paid professionals supporting smoking bans, this reader was was willing to engage in a discussion. He was willing to question his his own position and test it against another opinion -- just like this blog does when it opens for comments and links to opposing opinions. I owed it to him to respond, not by preaching to him, but by responding directly to his points. Here is his reply.
Thank you for taking serious time to write back, that itself is pretty impressive. You bring up points I had never really thought about before. The bar owners are so emotional over this, they can't get the message across like you do. Many thanks, I'll keep reading. no response necessary
Did I convince him? Maybe, maybe not, but if I didn’t, his position in favor of bans is stronger and more solid because he’s taken what I said and incorporated it into his thinking, addressed my points and come up with arguments that he feels are stronger. He hasn't just bought into a bunch of unsupported statistics. He has real arguments, not simply obstinate resistance.

This is the kind of debate that the attitude “the smoking ban has been debated enough” would stifle. That was the point of my column. This reader response is further evidence of why something like “Devil’s Weed” is healthy for the intellectual environment.

Category: READER RESONSE, Smoking Ban