Friday, December 30, 2005

A few musings on "The Plague of Success"

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:28 AM |  

David Strom of the Taxpayer’s League sends along an essay from the National Review Online (subscription link) entitled “The Plague of Success.” Its thesis paragraph --
Apparently due to the success of George Bush at keeping the United States secure, he, not Osama bin Laden, can now more often be the target of a relieved Left — deserving of assassination in an Alfred Knopf novel, an overseer of Nazi policies according to a U.S. senator, a buffoon, and rogue in the award-winning film of Michael Moore. Yes, because we did so well against the real enemies, we soon had the leisure to invent new imaginary ones in Bush/Cheney, Halliburton, the Patriot Act, John Ashcroft, and Scooter Libby.
The author, Victor Davis Hanson adds --
The same paradox of success is true of Iraq. Before we went in, analysts and opponents forecasted burning oil wells, millions of refugees streaming into Jordan and the Gulf kingdoms, with thousands of Americans killed just taking Baghdad alone. Middle Eastern potentates warned us of chemical rockets that would shower our troops in Kuwait. On the eve of the war, had anyone predicted that Saddam would be toppled in three weeks, and two-and-a-half-years later, 11 million Iraqis would turn out to vote in their third election — at a cost of some 2100 war dead — he would have been dismissed as unhinged.
“What explains this paradox,” he asks, “of public disappointment when things turn out better than anticipated?” He cites three.

First, is the demise of history. The past is either not taught enough, or presented wrongly as a therapeutic exercise to excise our purported sins.
We of the present think that we have reinvented the rules of war and peace anew. After Grenada, Panama, Gulf War I, Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and the three-week war to remove Saddam, we decreed from on high that there simply were to be no fatalities in the American way of war. If there were, someone was to be blamed, censured, or impeached — right now!
Second is a sort of arrogant smugness that has taken hold in the West at large.
Read the papers about an average day in Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Detroit, or even in smaller places like Fresno. The headlines are mostly the story of mayhem — murder, rape, arson, and theft. Yet, we think Afghanistan is failing or Iraq hopeless when we watch similar violence on television, as if they do such things and we surely do not.
Third, our affluent society is at a complete disconnect with hard physical work and appreciation of how tenuous life was for 2,500 years of civilization.
Those in our media circus who deliver our truth can't weld, fix a car, shoot a gun, or do much of anything other than run around looking for scoops about how incompetent things are done daily in Iraq under the most trying of circumstances. Somehow we have convinced ourselves that our technologies and wealth give us a pass on the old obstacles of time and space — as if Iraq 7,000 miles away is no more distant than Washington is from New York. Perhaps soldiers on patrol who go for 20 hours without sleep with 70 pounds on their back are merely like journalists pulling an all-nighter to file a story. Perhaps the next scandal will be the absence of high-definition television in Iraq — and who plotted to keep flat screens out of Baghdad.
Hanson concludes --
Precisely because we are winning this war and have changed the contour of the Middle East, we expect even more — and ever more quickly, without cost in lives or treasure. So rather than stopping to praise and commemorate those who gave us our success, we can only rush ahead to destroy those who do not give us even more.
Although arguable in details, the fundamental premise of his arguments are valid. If there were a clever liberal writer out there, he or she might take Hansen’s themes and highlight conservative failings on social issues, but I suspect the thrust of those comments will be to find details to nit-pick, which brings me to my point.

Hanson notes in the beginning of his piece --
After September 11 national-security-minded Democratic politicians fell over each other, voting for all sorts of tough measures. They passed the Patriot Act, approved the war in Afghanistan, voted to authorize the removal of Saddam Hussein, and nodded when they were briefed about Guantanamo or wiretap intercepts of suspect phone calls to and from the Middle East.

After the anthrax scare, the arrests of dozens of terrorist cells, and a flurry of al Qaeda fatwas, most Americans thought another attack was imminent — and wanted their politicians to think the same. Today's sourpuss, Senator Harry Reid, once was smiling at a photo-op at the signing of the Patriot Act to record to his constituents that he was darn serious about terrorism.
That’s all one really needs to read to understand the failure of Democrat politics. Whenever Democrats have the opportunity to seize the moral high ground, they retreat in favor of the politically popular. When the politically popular succeeds, they have to find ways to discredit it without casting blame on their own initial support. Thus, we get “Bush Lied. People Died.”

The sad fact is, that Bush’s veracity is not the moral standard for the invasion of Iraq. The real question was (and should be going forward) whether or not regime change is a justifiable reason for the United States to instigate a war. That is the high ground the Democrats should have seized, accepting the associated risk that we might be attacked again because of our principled stand. That they were unwilling to risk. Passing on the moral high ground, they compounded their lack of values by then refusing to support the action they authorized. They got it ass-backwards.

Regime change is not a valid reason for going to war. “Violence,” wrote Isaac Asimov, “is the last resort of the incompetent.” I think that’s true. The United Nations inspection wasn’t working in Iraq, but by using that as an excuse for invasion, the United States, my opinion, was simply admitting its incompetence at finding a peaceful solution. Not just Bush Administration incompetence, but the incompetence of the opposition to offer any alternative but continuing a policy that clearly was not working. Incompetence may result in war, but it is hardly a justification for war.

That said, once the decision is made to go to war, the moral citizen must decide are we the good guys or the bad guys? There can be no question that toppling Saddam Hussein makes us a good guy. Arguing the details of could we have done it better and faster or whatever is just so much noise. Supporting the troops means once the decision is made to go to war, once one has decided that we are the good guys, then support becomes unconditional. Criticism is justified, but only that which is premised on how can we accomplish the goal better, not questioning the goal.

Thus Democrats failed the ethical test on two levels. In the face of popular electoral sentiment, they retreated from the moral position that regime change is not a valid reason to go to war. In the face of success of Bush actions, Democrats have resorted to criticism of the objective they supported.

Hanson’s essay is excellent. Unfortunately, conservatives are likely to ignore application of his principles to social issues, which might prove enlightening to them. Democrats will attack it rather than reflect on how glaringly it points out their lack of ethical values. (If you doubt that, simply look at the electoral pressure opposing gay marriage and at how fast Democrats running for election are running from what they tout as one of their diversified constituencies.) But that’s what make political debate so much fun, isn’t it? It’s a lot less difficult than say, learning to weld.

Category: National Politics Iraq

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Quote to ponder

Posted by Craig Westover | 2:26 PM |  

"The role of government is to provide for the basic needs of its citizens, but also to assure that the needs of one doesn't take away from the needs of another." -- Lynda Boudreau, Deputy Commissioner, Minnesota Department of Health from the summary of her presentation at a Citizens' Council on Health Care conference on "Evidence-Based Medicine."

GUEST POST -- A plan that's rife with abuse

Posted by Craig Westover | 1:41 PM |  

This column orignally appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

by Lee McGrath
Institute for Justice, Minnesota Chapter

In its recent editorial "Eminent domain fears are exaggerated" (Star Tribune, Dec. 10) this newspaper tried to persuade Minnesotans to trust tax-hungry governments and land-hungry developers when it comes to the future of their homes, farms and small businesses. If you want to know whether this is good advice, ask Cha Fong Lee.

Lee planned to redevelop his thriving Hmong-American Shopping Mall in Brooklyn Center into a "Little Asia," with town homes, retail space and an open-air celebration area. To do so, Lee sought to work with the city's Economic Development Authority in 2002.

Not only did Brooklyn Center refuse, it took his property last April using eminent domain. And the city now plans to let another developer build a similar project on Lee's former property.

Like many Hmong immigrants, Lee saw combat against the North Vietnamese. He said, "I fought for America because the U.S. government told me the Communists would not respect my rights." After the war, he came to this country to fulfill the American Dream. But a big part of the dream has evaded Lee because Brooklyn Center took his property.

"Nearly 35 years ago, I fought for people's rights to keep what is theirs," Lee said. "Brooklyn Center ignored my rights and took my property. I can't tell you how betrayed I feel."

Minneapolis, St. Paul, New Brighton, St. Louis Park, Richfield and others also have used eminent domain to rain favors on the politically connected and crowded out what might have been real private development. And the Hmong community is not alone in having property taken.

The NAACP has documented that the history of eminent domain is rife with abuse specifically targeting minority neighborhoods. The displacement of African-Americans and urban renewal projects were so intertwined that "urban renewal" projects in the 1950s and 1960s were referred to as "Negro removal." One scholar estimated that 1,600 African-American neighborhoods were destroyed by such takings.

Minorities aren't the only people subject to eminent-domain abuse. Earlier this year, St. Paul threatened to take the land of 79-year-old Olive Taylor, a white woman with a modest house near Loeb Lake. Her home was saved when her story was brought to light and the private developer changed his mind.

No one is safe from eminent-domain abuse. Minneapolis used its powers of eminent domain in 2001 to condemn two small businesses at 50th and France. To do so, the city declared the area "blighted." It's outrageous that state law lets Minneapolis declare blighted a fine neighborhood filled with tony shops. If 50th and France is blighted, so must be the entire state of Minnesota.

Cities know that most property owners don't have the resources to defend their homes, farms or small businesses from eminent-domain takings.

As the Star Tribune stated, property owners threatened by cities with eminent domain often sell without a fight because of the high cost of lawyers. Such takings don't go through the complete condemnation process and don't show up in the Minnesota League of Cities' dubious statistics the newspaper cited. (The league's statistics don't even include Richfield's forcing the sale of 70 homes to benefit the Best Buy Corp.)

In its decision in Kelo vs. City of New London, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that cities can take land for economic development. But the court also invited residents in Minnesota and elsewhere to reform their states' eminent-domain laws. Minnesotans across the economic, ethnic and political spectrum are demanding that the Legislature reform Minnesota's eminent-domain laws in the coming session.

Cha Fong Lee wants to be part of the solution and change the state's bad eminent-domain laws. It is just another of his many battles for freedom.

Lee McGrath is executive director of the Institute for Justice, Minnesota Chapter.

Category: Guest Post, Eminent Domain, Institute For Justice

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it fall . . .

Posted by Craig Westover | 12:17 PM |  

Whom should we send the disaster relief to?

File this under things I don't understand, but if a snow and ice storm in Minnesota in the winter is a "major" disaster, then what the hell was Katrina?

~Letter sent in response to blizzard and ice storm in late November ~

St. Paul – Saint Paul –Governor Tim Pawlenty recently sent a letter to President Bush in which he requested that nine Minnesota counties affected by the blizzard and ice storm that took place from November 27 though November 29, 2005 be declared a major disaster area. The affected counties are Big Stone, Clay, Lac Qui Parle, Lincoln, Norman, Stevens, Traverse, Wilkin, and Yellow Medicine.
Near as I can figure from the documentation attached to this release, the damage estimate is less that $20 million -- not chump change, but certainly something manageable for a state with a multi-billion dollar budget and a multi-million dollar surplus. Seems to me this is the kind of thing a "rainy-day" fund should cover instead of using it as a slush fund for budget over-runs.

The point is, before there was FEMA, Congress had to vote individual appropriations like this. There was some electoral control. Now, it's just assumed that if something bad happens, the federal government is going to pick up the tab. And following the Katrina fiasco, FEMA is motivated to respond quickly, rather than deliberately, resulting in even less discretion. Oh, did I mention it’s coming up on an election, and there’s nothing like a little federal money to bring out the vote?

I know, silly me for thinking that the federal government should be the last resort instead of the first when bad things happen to good people. Silly me for not realizing that some of that $20 million is Minnesota tax dollars and some Minnesota tax dollars were sent to New Orleans and we’re entitled to get it back.

Yeah, that’s probably right -- we’re entitled, just like everybody else.

Category: Local Politics

The $250 ashtray

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:15 AM |  

Interesting comment on a previous post.

Update: As long as you're reading my blog, Bob, why not stick around and address the questions asked of you. That $5 billion dollars is the cost of treating lung cancer has nothing to do with the validity of your claims about the dangers of secondhand smoke, the trampling of individual choice and property rights and the fact that government bodies and organizations like the ALA offer no neutral criteria for when a health issue rises to a level that necessitates government intervention. I'm perfectly willing to entertain any criteria you would care to suggest.

Category: Smoking Ban

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Another lesson in editors and context

Posted by Craig Westover | 12:17 PM |  

Two of the points I made in this post about the Pioneer Press story on blogs and the 2006 elections were that blogs and the mainstream media have, and could have, a greater synergistic effect and MSM reporters don’t always have context for the issues they are covering. Blogs can often provide that context.

Case in point. On December 15th the local section of the Miami Herald (a Knight Ridder Newspaper) ran this story “Mercury-free flu shots are now available for children.” Given my interest in the autism/mercury connection, I picked up the story the next day and posted it here, along with links to the broader thimerosal controversy. Today, the Pioneer Press picked up the Knight Ridder story.

My point is, a Pioneer Press Health editor had the news sense to run the piece, but not the curiosity to ask “so what?” Why is mercury in flu shots even a concern? Today's space is filled, but will we see a follow-up on the larger story? If a person just reads the Pioneer Press, does he know why he should be concerned about flu shots containing mercury?

And if you still want to talk about editors, information in the picked up story about the availability of mercury-free flu shots, which is highlighted by the Pioneer Press in a culled quote, relates specifically to Miami. It may or may not be true in Minnesota, but either the Miami-specific nature of the information should be noted or a little reporting done to verify that such is the case in Minnesota.

Kudos to the Pioneer Press for running this story, but once again, here’s an example where having editors does not always equal the best information for readers.

Category: Journalism

Hang in there, Brady

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:20 AM |  

Call me a sentimental old fool charmed by a young, pretty and intellectually curious intern (or simply a dirty old man), but I’ll cut Brady Averill a little slack on yesterday’s Pioneer Press article on bloggers and the 2006 elections.

Brian “Saint Paul” Ward of Fraters Libertas, as usual (and especially when he writes nice things about me), does an entertaining and precision slicing of the article that cuts right to the apt criticisms. Mitch Berg at Shot in the Dark takes a more strident and partisan critical path, but arrives at the same interpretation -- the article essentially reiterated the same old media talking points about blogs.

As Mitch notes, “And did you think we could get through an article about blogs without the traditional grump about "no editors?" Of course not, and that’s the irony -- it was probably a mainstream media editor that ruined what could have been a good article.

I was interviewed by Brady back when Dante Culpepper was still the Vikings’ quarterback and the only buttocks he was fondling belonged to Cory Withrow and Melvin Fowler. That leaves a long time for an article to fulminate, especially for young reporter, actually an intern, fresh from the Minnesota Daily. She came to the story with pretty much zero knowledge of the blogging scene -- no context of who’s who, a point well made by Gary Miller at Kennedy vs. The Machine.

We talked over coffee for about a hour -- about 20 minutes of interview and the balance a little pontification by the captain on journalistic objectivity. And an “objective” media story is exactly what the Pioneer Press ran. But I don’t blame Brady -- seldom do I blame any reporter for a lousy story.

The mainstream media touts its priest-like editors as what separates them from the uncircumcised Philistines of the blogosphere. When they are good, they are very, very good, but when they are bad, they are horrid. In this case, run with horrid -- some editor insisting on journalism where style as defined by non-committed “objectivity” takes precedent over substance -- a judgment by a competent observer -- probably deserves blame for ruining the story.

My warning to Brady was that “objectivity” as demanded by the mainstream media dictates a “he said/she said” kind of reporting where not only are both sides of story presented, but they must be given equal weight. Having been on the other side of the note pad in a few situations now, I find that original ideas aren’t likely to be included in articles; my speculation is this is so because there is no counter point to balance an original thought.

The best blogs, on the other hand, speak in conceptual arguments -- logical arguments supported by evidence that confirms the writer's point of view. The best blogs are not concerned with media-like “objectivity,” but with objectively examining a situation (all sides) intent on arriving at a conclusion supported by what is seen and consequently reported. In the end, that approach better serves the reader.

Unfortunately, the blog story did not serve Pioneer Press readers. As Gary and Mitch note, it did not even provide the best sources to check out that readers might form their own opinions. The whole notion that blogs and the mainstream media depend on each other for information and exposure (and gasp, the MSM might benefit from incorporating blogging), a major part of my discussion with Brady, was sacrificed to “he said/she said” point counter point journalism. The “if” question was explored to the exclusion of the “how” question, the more interesting of the two.

Bad article, yes. More sadly, a missed opportunity to inform.

On the plus side, I enjoyed coffee with Brady.

(No prize for the first comment that begins "Not so fast, Westover.")

COLUMN -- Local uprisings don't argue for Minnesota smoking ban

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:34 AM |  

Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2005

When Peter McLaughlin, the swing vote among Hennepin County commissioners, voted to support the amendment providing a smoking ban exemption to private clubs and some bars, the business owners encamped outside the boardroom whooped and cheered — even those still under local restrictions in Minneapolis and Bloomington.

A word of caution: When you make a deal with the devil, don't be surprised if it goes to hell.

In a carefully parsed statement, McLaughlin expressed empathy for bar owners who for months had testified the ban was hurting their businesses while a vote on the ban rollback was delayed for months until after McLaughlin's failed mayoral run. Not to confuse leadership with politics, McLaughlin opted to use his post-election sensitivity to serve his own end.

McLaughlin made clear that his vote was not a flip-flop from his previous position in favor of a statewide ban. He saw that vote, at that time, as the best means to achieve a greater purpose. The dominos, however, did not fall, he noted; a statewide ban didn't happen. His rollback vote is but another strategy for getting to a statewide ban.

Give the devil his due. A statewide ban limiting smoking to establishments that make more than 50 percent of their revenue from liquor is finding favor among struggling tavern owners. At a St. Paul City Council hearing, prominent city tavern owners lobbied to delay implementing a total smoking ban in the city, allowing time to push for statewide 50/50 legislation.

Jim Farrell, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, one of several local business people I met with at O'Gara's Bar and Grill, didn't mince words about the ethical bind a 50/50 proposal imposes on St. Paul and Minneapolis business owners.

"Supporting a 50/50 solution forces people to make bad ethical decisions," Farrell said, shaking his head. "I have to go to legislators from rural Minnesota and ask them to pass a law that will kill mom and pop restaurants and coffee shops in outstate Minnesota to save my guys in the Cities. I have to go to Republicans and ask for a ban that violates the core principle of local control. We're in a position where for my guys to survive, I have to ask legislators to vote against their values and their constituents' interests."

That's what government has become, the cause of what Hans Lofgren of Eastside Beverage Distributors labeled a civil war among tavern owners and communities. Lacking support for a statewide total ban, groups backed by state tobacco money and foundation grants attempted to pick off communities one-by-one, pitting community against community and business against business. To some extent, that renting of government power is succeeding.

"Level playing field" is the most common phrase heard from bar owners dealing with smoking bans. One need look no further than Northeast Minneapolis, adjacent to ban-free Anoka County, to see the negative impact of a hodge-podge of smoking ban legislation. But does the chaos of local control argue for implementation of a statewide smoking ban?

Absolutely not.

That's easy for me to say. I'm not looking down the barrel of a government gun threatening my livelihood. Perhaps it's a bit selfish of me to hope that tavern owners refuse to capitulate and stand up for liberty-loving Minnesotans. But now is not the time to go quietly into the night.

The Hennepin County rollback vote is frightening to those who would use big government to further their own ends. The rollback demonstrates the power of local politics. The chaos caused by local regulations makes it immediately apparent that an ordinance has unintended consequences. It provides opportunity for local interests to rise up and fight ill-conceived laws as was done in Hennepin County.

I have been a strong supporter of business owners hurt by the smoking ban, but I cannot follow them to the dark side of the debate. A statewide smoking ban in bars and restaurants — 50/50 or total — is as wrong on principle today as it was last year. Unless the smoking ban debate is pushed to its logical conclusion — establishment of issue-neutral criteria for determining when a health issue rises to the level of a public health issue necessitating government intervention — then all the struggle will have been in vain, and the devil of big government will come calling again, and again and again.

Pulling the wool over our eyes . . . again

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:07 AM |  

Must be something in the eggnog. Yesterday in a comment at MNSpeak, Bob from the ALAMN betrayed one of his fundamental communications principles -- don’t criticize the person that buys your lunch. In today’s Pioneer Press, City council Member Jay Benanav reveals one of his principles of tax policy.

About a proposed fee plan that would tack a $25 fee onto the tuition bill to cover the cost of city services associated with colleges and universities within the city limits, Benanav noted the fee is modest when compared with the annual costs of education.
“I don’t want to say it’s nothing, but it gets lost in the shuffle,” Benanav said.
As every good poker player knows, you can shear a sheep forever, but you can only skin it once.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

More tarnish on the American Lung Association image

Posted by Craig Westover | 4:54 PM |  

Well, Bob Moffitt from the American Lung Association reveals once again why I don’t have any respect for him as a professional communicator (aside from the fact that he does not understand irony).

Based on the article in the Pioneer Press, MNspeak has a comment string going on the impact of political blogs. Bob takes the opportunity to lift my comments from the Pioneer Press article and add his spin -- with a total disregard for reality.
Westover, as is his wont, fails to detect the rich irony of using a newspaper interview -- the same newspaper that publishes his column, no less -- to declare the MSM lazy and obsolete.
Craig Westover, who blogs at craig and contributes to the Pioneer Press opinion pages, says he and his fellow bloggers are outworking the traditional media outlets on this big story, devoting more time and attention.

"They're going to eat the newspapers' lunch,"
If this happens, Craig, who is going to PAY for your lunch?

First, I never called the MSM “lazy” or “obsolete.” Blogs are out working the MSM on the Senate and District 6 races, but that doesn’t make the MSM “lazy.” They have neither the staff nor the dedicated time to commit to the races that blogs do. Consequently, they are being outworked on that story. Nor did I say that the MSM is obsolete. Far from it. Had Bob followed the link from the article on the PiPress Web site, he’d have found the complete context of my quote --
"They're going to eat the newspapers' lunch," he said. Blogs are outworking the newspapers and will own the 2006 elections. "What blogs can do is that blogs can push a story back in the mainstream media," he said. "That's how blogs affect the elections."
So what is the gist of Bob’s comments?

First, he spins my language by attributing words to me that I did not use -- like labeling a non-smoker “pro-smoke” or calling anyone that presents objective data a "minion of Big Tobacco" as if those were logical arguments. Second, he does incomplete research so that he doesn’t get the whole story -- like reading the executive summary of a scientific study and not the raw data.

But most interesting of all, Bob finds fault with me for not putting my pay check above the truth. Apparently, Bob’s idea of professional communication is to say what your're paid to say regardless of what the truth might be. That explains a lot about the way he communicates about the smoking ban and his inability to defend his position with more than the utterance -- “Nevermore.”

Category: SmokingBan

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Off the grid

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:00 AM |  

Mrs. Paul and Captain Fishsticks will be spending the Christmas holiday at a secure, undisclosed location off the grid. We can, however, be traced through the NSA or the New York Times.

I hope all my regular readers have a happy and joyous Holiday, with a special "Merry Christmas" for Peg Kaplan, because she gets it. To my liberal readers coming over to rant, try to have as happy a time as you can without chemical enhancement.

Best card of the season.

COLUMN -- Smoking bans have hurt individual businesses

Posted by Craig Westover | 6:35 AM |  

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Hans Lofgren of Eastside Beverage Distributors noted the obvious — there was not one smoker around the table. In addition to Lofgren and I, the smoke-free seven included Bob Pacyga, also of Eastside Beverage; Tim Tuuri, with Capitol Beverage Sales; Pat Fleury of Shamrock's Bar; Jim Farrell, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association; and Dan O'Gara, third-generation owner of O'Gara's Bar and Grill.

On the table the folded Pioneer Press blared "Smoking ban fears prove unfounded." But just whose fears were unfounded?

Not tavern owners like Fluery and O'Gara, who feared a smoking ban would hurt their businesses. Not service clubs with charitable gambling concessions that predicted the drop in receipts resulting from smoking bans. Not Lofgren, Pacyga and Tuuri, who forecast the falling volume seen by businesses supplying bars and restaurants.

My fears are not relieved. The most vital smoking ban issue still goes unaddressed — What are the neutral criteria that determine when a health issue rises to a level that necessitates government intervention? We might never get to that question.

With the ethics of a bus station pimp, smoking ban proponents are seducing honest business owners into whoring for a partial statewide smoking ban, a Faustian pact effectively avoiding supporters' accountability for the harm — civic and economic — caused by their advocacy. But I'm ahead of myself.

The over-eager Pioneer Press analysis used aggregate data to "prove" that smoking bans cause no individual economic harm. Aggregate data is a tool of economists and tyrants. Economists rightly use it to track macroeconomic trends; tyrants wrongly use it to hide microeconomic consequences on individuals within a larger group.

King Banaian, chairman of the Economics Department at St. Cloud State, obtained the raw data used by the Pioneer Press and noted that "it is indeed a set of totals for taxable sales of food and liquor by zip code, along with the number of establishments. That tells us nothing about individual harm."
The guys at O'Gara's got specific.

Eastview's total volume is off 8 percent in Hennepin County (total ban), off 4 percent in Ramsey County (partial ban) and unchanged in Anoka County (no ban). In Northeast Minneapolis, adjacent to Anoka County, Eastview's on-premise volume is off 40 percent.

"Folks up there aren't walking to the neighborhood bar to have a drink and a smoke with their buddies," said Lofgren. "They're driving over to Anoka." (Sit next to a smoker and drive after a few beers.)

In St. Paul proper, Capitol Beverage's volume is off 2 percent for the year. That's over the summer when outdoor patios minimized the effect of the Ramsey ban. Moreover for Capitol Beverage, October-November sales were flat — virtually no increase over last year when the hockey strike was a "crisis" for downtown bars and restaurants.

About 80 percent of Eastview's and Capitol's volume comes from taverns that today qualify for a smoking ban exemption. With a total ban, both are considering changes that will cost jobs.

Tavern owners like Fluery and O'Gara note they increased prices to compensate for lost business and the higher minimum wage. That raised prices for their customers, didn't put new money in their pockets, but did preserve tax revenue for government, as reported by the Pioneer Press.

Ahh! It was government's fear of losing revenue that proved "unfounded."

"Council members tell us to just raise prices," said O'Gara. "There's only so much you can charge for a bottle of beer."

And there's only so much a tavern owner can do. Paying public tribute to the courage of the business owners who testified in favor of the ban rollback in Hennepin County, Commissioner Penny Steele teared up recalling businesses closed, life savings gone, homes sold and jobs lost.

"Our politicians admit that bans hurt businesses," said O'Gara. "They don't care. We can argue. It doesn't matter."

At a council hearing, St. Paul City Councilman Dave Thune justified the start date for the full ban by acknowledging the hurt — March 1 the weather is warmer for outside smokers — as if winter never comes to Minnesota and a two-month delay constitutes caring.

Government shouldn't work like that. Nor should a compromise of principle be required to remain in business. Next week more from O'Gara's and a look at the push for a statewide smoking ban. When one makes a deal with the devil, one shouldn't be surprised when it goes to hell.

Category: Column, Smoking Ban, Local Politics

Update: Must Read -- David Strom's post on the court decision that the "health impact fee" on cigarettes was illegal and unconstitutional.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

When will they ever learn . . . .

Posted by Craig Westover | 1:07 PM |  

Coleen Rowley, Democratic candidate for Congress in Minnesota's 2nd District, asks the right question in a commentary on today’s Pioneer Press Opinion Page -- “Where have all the conservatives gone.” (I can almost hear “long time passing” blowin’ in the wind.) However, her contention that the Democrat party is the place to look for real conservative thought is ludicrous.

For in almost every sense — but certainly in the principle areas of fiscal responsibility, applied federalism, adherence to the rule of law, conservation of natural resources and national security — extremist elements have seized control of the so-called "conservative" (Republican) party and turned it 180 degrees, leaving most true conservatives behind and more than a bit confused.
If liberals could ever make a point without the ranting, they might be a force. Would that extremists had seized control and inflicted the turn that Rowley asserts. The solution would be easy.

However, it’s not extremists that Republicans need worry about, but the mainstream that has no problem supporting pork-laden programs for the homefolks, sliding to the left and jerking at the knee more than occasionally in response to real social issues. Rowley stumbles across some real Republican departures in areas of conservative concern.

Nonetheless, wading through the balance of Rowley’s piece it’s pretty obvious she has no idea when she hits and when she misses. She has no more concept of conservative principles than she has of her own party's collective predilection. (It’s more than a little symbolic that Rowley credits performer, Pete Seeger with the “gone to graveyards everyone” line rather than lyrist/composer Bob Dylan. She also misquotes it -- soldiers not flowers "gone to graveyards everyone." )

So true conservatives and independent-minded thinkers are increasingly abandoning the radical Republicans. Democrats, whether or not they fully appreciate it, in many ways have become the new conservatives by advancing fiscal responsibility, steadfast allegiance to the rule of law, environmental conservation, a return to federalism and sounder principles of foreign policy.

Where have all the true conservatives gone? Since our collective security hangs in the balance, let us hope they have not, like Pete Seeger's flowers, "gone to graveyards everyone." We need true conservatives to rise up and help lead us out of this Orwellian nightmare.
No Coleen, the Democrats are not the answer. Republicans make bad policy when they depart from conservative principles; Democrats make bad policy when they adhere to liberal principles.

When will they ever learn . . . .

Category: Local Politics

Monday, December 19, 2005

Common Sense from an MSB

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:01 PM |  

I admit I don't read Power Line has much as I once did. Like the Star Tribune Editorial Page, it's become pretty predictable, sort of a mainstream blog, I guess you could call it. Nonetheless, Paul has an excellent post on the "all the President's spies" controversy.

At the end of its long piece about President Bush's use of his wartime powers, the Washington Post quotes Michael Woods, former chief of the FBI's national security law unit, as follows:

[W]e ought to be past the time of emergency responses. We ought to have more considered views now. . . . We have time to debate a legal regime and what's appropriate.

He has a point. History tells us that nations sometimes react to a surprise attack by implementing overly aggressive internal security measures. This is an understandable response, but with the passage of time it becomes possible, and indeed imperative, to better calibrate security policy so as to better protect civil liberties.

It may be that the Bush administration over-estimated the threat of another terrorist attack. Or it may be that the threat has diminished due to the successes of the administration's policy. In any case, one can hardly disagree with Woods that this is a proper subject for debate. . . .

The debate over domestic surveillance issues turns on balancing our security needs against our need to protect individual rights. If the president is incorrectly analyzing the security side of the equation, Congress should tell him so. If he is analyzing the security side correctly but erring in other respects, Congress should tell him that.

Indeed, that's the point that our liberal friends are missing. As Paul writes --
But don't hold your breath. The Democrats aren't much interested in a genuine debate about the difficult trade-offs between security and privacy, and they certainly don't want to go on record one way or the other about the nature of the security threat we face. In truth, the Democrats are mostly interested in taking pot-shots at the president pursuant to whatever attack item the MSM is pushing during a given week.
Update: And common sense from the mainstream media. Check out today's insitutional editorial in the Pioneer Press. It's right on target.

Category: Nationa lPolitics

Conservatism is a philosophy, not a laundry list of issues

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:39 AM |  

The difference between knee-jerk conservatism and issuses-based litmus tests and thoughtful conservatism that regards conservatism as a philosophy, a way of reaching a conclusion, not defending a prejudice.

Category: Local Politics

Friday, December 16, 2005

A note on flu shots

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:42 AM |  

The availability problems mentioned in the article relate to the Miami area. The other information is right on the mark. Note, that the author is NOT anti-vaccine and NOT recommending that people forego flu shots.

Mercury-free flu shots are now available for children
RICHARD HARKNESS Knight Ridder Newspapers

A recent letter-to-the-editor in the Washington Times said that a 6-month-old baby getting a flu shot would be receiving 12.5 mcg of mercury. Is this true?

The heavy metal mercury is neurotoxic at certain levels. Some kids may have an inborn vulnerability to mercury toxicity.

What the letter-writer said would be true only if the baby received the flu shot from the multi-dose vial, which contains thimerosal, an ethylmercury-based preservative.

In this case, the pediatric dose (0.25 ml) would contain 12.5 mcg of mercury and the adult dose (0.5 ml) would contain 25 mcg of mercury.

However, Sanofi-Aventis makes a mercury-free version of its Fluzone, the most commonly used flu vaccine in the U.S. It comes in single-use, prefilled syringes in either the pediatric dose (for those 6-35 months old) or the adult dose (for adults and children 3 years and older).

But there may be a potential catch with the pediatric dose. A source informs me that the parent or caregiver may need to specifically request the mercury-free vaccine. If not, the shot-giver may draw the dose from the aforementioned multi-dose vial instead of using the pediatric prefilled syringe.

The solution is to request the mercury-free vaccine, specifically the pediatric-dose prefilled syringe (it has a pink plunger rod). (Don't assume your shot-giver is informed about the mercury content of the vaccines. Mine was under the mistaken impression that this season's multi-dose vial was mercury-free.)

Though the pediatric prefilled syringe seems to be readily available, readers say they're having trouble finding the mercury-free adult-dose prefilled syringe.

Apparently, many providers, including county health departments, do not have these on hand. One pregnant woman said it took her four days to locate a provider who did.

Chiron and GlaxoSmithKline make adult-dose prefilled syringes with only a trace amount of mercury (Fluvirin, Fluarix), but these vaccines also seem to be out of the loop.

It might be just a temporary shortage problem. However, if these adult-dose prefilled syringes are available, providers ought to be stocking them as an option for those concerned about mercury.

In the meantime, a mercury-free workaround might be to administer two pediatric-dose prefilled syringes. That's equivalent to one adult dose. The flu season typically peaks in February and March, so there's still time get vaccinated.

Category: Thimerosal, Vaccines

Thursday, December 15, 2005

READER RESPONSE -- Your kids are s*%t

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:43 PM |  

I’m really at a loss for words on this one, but let me frame it by saying these two guys are NOT typical teachers, but they are typical of the emails I’ve been receiving on my Q-Comp column and apparently those being received by Pioneer Press Associate editor Mark Yost as well.

The first is from an ex-teacher criticizing my column.
I remain baffled by this insistence of evaluating the performance of teachers based on the performance of their students. I left teaching exactly because it wasn’t enough that my own behavior and performance were exemplary, which they were, may I add; I was evaluated on the performance of people whose behavior and performance I had little to no control over, namely, my students. I’m not talking about being evaluated for my pay (I was on the much-maligned seniority system, of course), I’m talking about being evaluated as a professional. I had no credibility in the public’s eye based on my own merits… all anybody seemed interested in was how my students did. I do not know of any other position in the Minnesota workplace where an individual is evaluated on the performance of *somebody else*! You might say that head coaches on professional sports teams get fired when their players do not perform up to expectation. I guess I’m not sympathetic because I don’t know any teacher who makes what Mike Tice makes, and I don’t think teachers should make that much money anyway. Business managers may be evaluated on the performance of their subordinates, but they have the power to hire and fire. Teachers don’t hire and fire their students.
I did say ex-teacher, right? Misery loves company, so I shared this email with Mark, who forwarded to a teacher critical of Mark’s column. Here’s the response he received.
Bravo to that teacher! You guys sit in your little heated offices with all the amenities and have no clue what goes on in the classrooms. There is no respect, no fear and no retribution for the shit today that we label as students. Their motto (and their parents) "Give me instant gratification even though I have done nothing to earn it." A perfect example was today in my Concert Band dress rehearsal. After the second number....... I looked at them and asked "Are you proud of that?" Thank God it snowed and the concert was cancelled and we spared the public of another flogging of the ears.
A regular Mr. Holland, that guy.

So we have parents giving up on the education system, unmotivated students and teachers that regard their students as s*%t. Tell me again why we won't provide vouchers to the apparently very few interested parents so they can escape the hellholes these teachers describe and place their students in schools where there's a little more optimism?

Update: Another party heard from --
yeah, if we only had school vouchers the kids whose parents are smoking meth all day would get a quality life....
Category: Education, School Choice

Billings and butts

Posted by Craig Westover | 12:46 PM |  

I can’t really blame Laura Billings for her column today commenting on the smoking ban. Another Twin Cities’ columnist might criticize her for not getting off her duff and driving the 10.1 miles between her desk and the Hennepin County Government Center to observe the public hearings and the vote to roll back the smoking ban, but surely not I.

Had Billings, however, made the trek she would have observed the testimony from business owners that six Hennepin county commissioners heard and Penny Steele listened to -- with both ears and her heart.

In the discussion prior to a vote on the amendment to roll back the Hennepin County smoking ban to exempt “bar bars” from the smoking ban, three commissioners pontificated (Dorfman, Koblick and Johnson), two were pragmatic (Opat and Stenglein), one was self-serving (McLaughlin). Penny Steele wept.

Paying tribute to the courage of the business owners that came before the council, appearing on television, and opening themselves up, Steele herself choked up as she recalled testimony about businesses closed, life-savings lost, homes sold, and jobs lost. Government should not do that to the citizens whose rights it is suppose to protect.

Penny Steele gets it. Laura Billings does not.
While this is considered a coup for smokers, Hennepin County's flip-flop might also be a sign of how far the issue has strayed from its initial framing, as a way to improve public health and cut down on the $2.6 billion the state loses every year on tobacco-related health expenses and lost productivity.
Billings is among those people that have berated Americans to challenge authority when it comes to the war in Iraq or refusing to increase funding to public schools. But questioning authority should only go so far. It’s not right to question the authority of good guys like the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society, and doctors and public health officials over their unsubstantiated claims about secondhand smoke.

In refusing to state the public health case for secondhand smoke for the “Devil’s Weed” documentary, Bob Moffitt of the ALA stated that the subject had been debated enough -- or in the case of the Hennepin country rollback, perhaps it was debated too much.

On Tuesday I spent over an hour on the phone with an internationally published epidemiologist and cancer researcher, who by the way supports the idea of smoking bans in bars and restaurants because it motivates people to stop active smoking. In addition to supporting smoking bans, his published research has debunked much of the so-called science surrounding secondhand smoke. He doesn’t want his name used because he, frankly, is tired of being called a “minion of big tobacco” by the ALA, ACS, et al despite the fact he hasn’t taken a dime of tobacco money and supports smoking bans.

This epidemiologist's general opinion -- Certainly over time secondhand smoke can cause health problems taking into account a host of other environmental and personal health factors. But it is nowhere near as dangerous as ban supports make it out to be. There is no way to scientifically or statistically justify the body count attributed to secondhand smoke, especially where there is no direct biological connection (like inhaling to lungs); for example, there is no way to attribute cardio-vascular deaths specifically to secondhand smoke. His professional integrity is more important to him that his personal opinion.

So kudos to those that challenged the authority of people that thought a degree substituted for a scientific argument. Stripped of the dangers of secondhand smoke, the next step of the powers that be is attacking the economic argument.

Like Democrats running away from their affirmations that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when Clinton was in office, smoking ban supporters are abandoning the comments they made that no other state with a smoking ban suffered economic loss and there would be no economic loss in Minnesota. Backed into a corner by the testimony at the Hennepin County hearings, smoking ban supporters have fallen back on aggregate statistics to make the testimony disappear.

I posted on this in regard to the recent Pioneer Press article that claimed fears of economic loss from a smoking ban were “unfounded.” Aggregate date is the data of economists and tyrants; it is safe to assume Billings, Moffitt et al are not economists. When the issue was still public health, "Big Bob" didn't think economics was worthy of discussion.)

What I really wanted to post about was Peter McLaughlin’s stand on the smoking ban. When McLaughlin read his statement prior to the vote (“read” is the operative word; as they say in the oldest profession, “sincerity costs extra”) and announced his intention to vote for the roll-back amendment, the assembled bar owners applauded and cheered. A word of caution -- When you make a deal with the devil, don’t be surprised if it goes to hell.

While Penny Steele listened to the testimony of bar and restaurant owners, McLaughlin was merely exploiting them. He has no sympathy for their plight. His stated goal is a statewide smoking ban, and he doesn’t particularly care what it looks like. As long as it takes the monkey of making a decision off of his back, he’s fine. If a statewide ban kills bars on the Iron Range or mom and pop coffee shops in out-state Minnesota, I don’t think Commissioner McLaughlin is going to get too upset. He openly stated he still favors a ban, and his vote was not a flip-flop but a strategic move to more easily accept a statewide ban.

I’ve also written about why bans, if we must consider them, should be considered, as we are doing, at the local level. Among the examples I give to support my argument (a novel concept) is precisely what happened in Hennepin County. A group of business owners hurt by government action were able to bring their claim before the governing body, present evidence, and have the bad law rolled back. There is little or no chance to do that at the state level. How are mom and pop restaurants across trual Minnesota to unite and bring any influence to bear at the state legislature to say “Hey, you’re killing my business with a smoking ban.”

That brings me to my final point for now. The debate over the ban has moved from a phony public health position to a very real economic argument. But we haven’t reached the end of the line. I’m not going Scientologist here, but “the Final Battle” will take place when we strip the smoking ban argument of irrelevancies and get down to the real issue -- Just how much government involvement do we want in our daily lives, and just how free a society do we want to live in?

As many of the Hennepin County commissioners noted, protecting public health is their proper function. But what none of those commissioners offered was a definition of the criteria by which they judged when a public health issue rose to a level that NECESSITATED government intervention. Those same commissioners justified a ban “because people liked it.”

BTW -- I made the public health criteria argument to the epidemiologist. He hadn’t considered it before. I didn’t convince him, but we’re going to talk again. He wants to think about it. People that are intellectually honest, whether dealing with science or politics, aren’t afraid to challenge their thinking.

That, Laura, sounds very good, even in the original “American.”

Category: Smoking Ban, Local Politics

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

READER RESPONSE -- So who really is delusional?

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:14 AM |  

In a quick response to my column in today's Pioneer Press, comes this season's greeting --

After teaching a couple years long ago and having two boys in public schools here in St. Paul, I know the problem with falling scores, parents. Yes, for every one parent actively involved with their child’s education there are ten that are not. It is easy for a parent to show up at one meeting and complain, it is hard sitting down every night to see what your child is doing in school. It is hard to turn the TV, Gameboy or whatever off and make your child do the homework or read a book.

A teacher in middle school on up has your child for maybe fifty minutes along with 30-40 other children a day, do the math for how much attention can be given to any one student. I found in a discussion about education with my colleagues at work that the voucher proponents spent less time with their children than the public school proponents. So long as parents rant and rave about their "schools" and fail to even moderately follow their children’s DAILY progress schools will do poorly. Parents are responsible for seeing their children do their work and they have a responsibility to the community's children to financially support our schools.

Also wake up and smell the coffee, it is easy for a family making $100,000 to be involved but by a large margin they are not involved, so how does a family of long hours and modest means have the luxury of time and money? Social and economic ills effect education despite the belief by the public school bashers, but the same bashers are most likely clueless to their own children’s education because they care more about their money than they truly do about their children's education. So who really is delusional?
My response --

What you seem to saying is that because parents aren't involved in their children's education, public schools face a hopeless situation. Social and economic ills make it impossible for schools to do their jobs.

Although your contention flies in the face of numerous studies that have identified excellent schools -- both private and public -- that do improve performance of students in some of the most economically deprived districts in the country (how do they manage to do it?), I’ll accept for the sake of argument that everything you say is true. My question is then -- why should we continue to sink millions of tax dollars into a system that you are admitting cannot do the job?

Why have programs like Q-Comp if more effective teachers won’t make any difference given poor parenting and social and economic ills? Why, if your defeatist attitude (which I have yet to see in any private school I’ve visited) is the prevalent public education attitude, wouldn’t a system that really cared about kids support vouchers and allow families to search out better educational opportunities for their children? Why trap families that are interested in their children’s education in a system that can’t educate them?

As noted before, why can some schools make it work in conditions far worse than average while others can only place blame on parents, economics and social ills as the reason they don’t succeed?

Category: Reader Response Education School Choice

COLUMN -- Teacher pay overhaul won't work

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:20 AM |  

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

I am a severe critic of Minnesota's attempt to make a transition from seniority-based teacher compensation to a "pay for performance" model not because I oppose the idea, but because the Q Comp bill passed in the Minnesota Legislature is little more than a taxpayer subsidy for vaguely defined teacher development. Q Comp plans I read justified that impression. To confirm my judgment, I ventured into the belly of the beast.

I met with Deputy Commissioner of Education Chas Anderson and Linda Trevorrow, director of the Q Comp program. I came away with a greater appreciation for the Minnesota Department of Education's task, but more convinced that despite the department's tough, intelligent approach, Q Comp won't live up to expectations. Less, not more, centralization of education is the formula for better education of all Minnesota children.

The Department of Education takes Q Comp oversight seriously. It is implementing Q Comp in keeping with Gov. Tim Pawlenty's original vision rather than a gelded program the imprecise legislation might have allowed. The department has specific criteria for accepting and rejecting Q Comp plans. Plans have been rejected.

Some school districts have not evaluated a teacher in 20 years, noted Anderson, and the Department of Education's tough-love interpretation of the Q Comp program is "creating tension" with districts. That is a good thing.

The Department of Education is enforcing the connection between "professional development" and student performance. It is recommending that no more than 50 percent of performance pay be based on teacher evaluations. Some districts went as high as 80 percent teacher evaluation with only 10 percent of performance pay based on standardized testing. One plan identified 73 individual criteria of teacher performance. "Safety and Arrangement of Furniture" in the classroom and the teacher's handwriting carried the same weight as "Knowledge of Content."

"We have to teach districts what a proper objective is," Trevorrow said. "School districts can plan to be competent or plan to efficacious. Q Comp is not about competence. It's about making teachers more effective."

The Department of Education is re-evaluating some approved plans and making adjustments. Trevorrow and staff are cutting back fluff evaluation criteria and focusing on solid instructional practices. The department is forcing on-site meetings to review individual student performance goals. It's interpreting the legislative language "reform steps and lane" to mean Q Comp must be a new pay structure, not simply a bonus program.

A year-end review of district accomplishments is integrated into the Q Comp evaluation process.

"If teachers are all getting high evaluations but students are not showing improved performance, that tells us something is wrong with the district plan," Anderson said. "Changes have to made."

In short, the Department of Education is doing everything right to make Q Comp work — which is precisely why one should question the wisdom of Q Comp specifically and increased centralization of education in general.

Q-Comp is a $79 million program — $2 million and change for some participating districts. District participation is voluntary and minimal. Only five districts were ready to take part in the first year of the program. Given general public education neglect of teacher evaluations and goal setting relative to student performance, it's going to take a lot of tax dollars and a lot of time for Q Comp to precipitate even modest increases in student performance.

Performance goals in Q Comp plans are hardly aggressive given the millions of dollars being spent. Goals have a narrow focus. In some cases, levels of student performance are determined by a need to meet No Child Left Behind requirements, not by presenting a challenge to teachers and students.

It's inescapable — Q Comp increases district accountability to the state, not to parents and children.

That is a problem inherent in a centralized education bureaucracy that the Department of Education cannot hope to solve. At best sustained oversight by the department coupled with dedicated district leadership will produce some outstanding teachers and outstanding schools. But from a systemwide perspective, Q Comp remains a lot of tax dollars supporting a lot of unchallenged mediocrity.

Former Milwaukee Superintendent of Schools Howard Fuller notes, "School choice is not the single answer to creating a world-class education system, but a world-class system will never develop without it."

Feeling that programs like Q Comp will significantly improve public education is delusional. Until all schools are challenged by families, regardless of income, seeking out the best schools for their children, we are merely feeding the beast — with our tax dollars and the futures of our children.

Category: Column, Education School Choice

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

I couldn't have said it better myself . . . .

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:46 PM |  

I'll post later on my impressions from today's Hennepin County Commisioners meeting that by a 4-3 vote rolled back the county smoking ban. In the meantime, this is a pretty funny read.

Synthetic Stupidity

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:52 AM |  

Found this sidebar item on an interesting site written by a guy that gravitates to "people I can learn from, and to waitresses who leave the empties on the table." Nice image -- fun little time waster.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Grab your yellow jumpsuit

Posted by Craig Westover | 3:50 PM |  

Just in case there is any doubt that smoking ban legislation is less about public health and more about a utopian vision of the perfect society, here’s some of the criteria used by GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare to rank Minneapolis-St. Paul as the "friendliest" major metropolitan area for people trying to quit smoking..
The analysis included a variety of factors, including smoke-free laws and cigarette taxes, as well as the number of parks, yoga studios and other outlets used to exercise and reduce stress. The survey looked at cities in the 25 largest media markets.
Everybody grab your yellow jumpsuit. Calisthenics in the park at six.

GUEST POST -- Oh Christmas Tree

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:33 AM |  

Respecting religious diversity during the holiday season

By J. Brent Walker
Executive Director
Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty

Are “Christian haters” and “professional atheists” engaged in an all-out war on Christmas, as FOX News’ anchor John Gibson claims? I don't think so—unless one is prepared to say that President Bush and the First Lady are leading the effort. This year's White House greeting card extends “best wishes for a holiday season of hope and happiness.” No mention of “Merry Christmas” from the First Family.

About a dozen holy days are observed by various religious groups between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. For decades we have been confronted by that "December dilemma" of how to acknowledge and celebrate winter religious holidays, usually in the context of the schools, in a way that is constitutional and culturally sensitive. People of good faith, including the Baptist Joint Committee, have worked long and hard to develop guidelines that comply with the Supreme Court's interpretation of the First Amendment's religion clauses, and respect the amazing religious diversity in this country.

There is widespread agreement that:

1. Holiday concerts in the public schools can and should include religious music along with the secular, as long as the sacred does not dominate.

2. Religious dramatic productions can be presented in the public schools as long as they do not involve worship and are part of an effort to use religious holidays as an occasion to teach about religion.

3. Free standing crèches, as thoroughly religious Christian symbols, should not be sponsored by government, but Christmas trees and menorahs are sufficiently secular to allow their display without a constitutional problem.

Having settled many of the legal issues, some are now bent on fighting battles in a culture war against an enemy that does not exist. Some on the religious and media right lament political correctness run amok by calling a Christmas tree a “holiday tree” and extending “seasons greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas.” In fact, they have threatened lawsuits to rectify such indiscretions and, in the private sector, encouraged a boycott of merchants that fail to use the right words.

What irony and how sad—to be picking a fight over what to call a season that for many celebrates the coming of the Prince of Peace. We would all do well to take a deep breath and exercise some common sense as we think and talk about this season.

Christmas is Christmas and a tree is a tree. There's nothing wrong with calling it what it is: a Christmas tree. And it is perfectly appropriate to extend a specific holiday greeting such as my Jewish friends do when they wish me a “Merry Christmas,” and I return a “Happy Hanukkah.”

But often it's quite appropriate to wish another “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings.” It's just a matter of good manners and common courtesy. If I am talking to a person whose religious affiliation I do not know, I will employ the more general greeting. And the same goes for merchants who have advertised goods to Americans of many religious traditions who may or may not celebrate Christmas.

None of this disparages Christmas one iota or diminishes my enjoyment of it in the least.

Then why are these culture warriors bound to start a brouhaha in the midst of the love, joy, peace and hope of Advent?

It's part of a concerted effort to affirm the mythical “Christian nation” status of the United States. (By the way, the Puritans and many other religious people well into the 19th century refused to celebrate Christmas because they thought it was unchristian and not supported by Scripture). So, in the words of the title of the Beatles song, “I, Me, Mine,” it’s all about ME and the brash assertion of MY supposed right to impose my religion on others. Moreover, and I hope it is not a too jaded thought, these bombastic diatribes about a war on Christmas attract publicity and make for good fund raising. (Truth be known, the Christmas spirit is threatened more by runaway commercialism—beginning just after Halloween!?—than by any supposed cultural hostility to a holiday that more than 90 percent of our citizens celebrate.)

No, we do not need government promoting our religious holidays to the exclusion of others. Nor do we need a corps of purity police trying to dissuade our efforts to respect the religious diversity that is the hallmark of this country.

To all of our readers, then: Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and a Joyous Kwanzaa, Martyrdom Day of Guru Tegh Bahadur, Bodhi Day, Maunajiyaras Day, Beginning of Masa'il, Nisf Sha'ban and Yalda Night, Yule and Shinto Winter Solstice, and Ramadan! Or, happy holidays!

Friday, December 09, 2005

Mark Kennedy on elimination of wasteful spending -- Let George do it

Posted by Craig Westover | 11:35 AM |  

From Congressman Mark Kennedy’s office --

Kennedy Urges Support to Eliminate Wasteful Spending
Support the Line Item and Reduction Veto Amendment

Washington, D.C. - Congressman Mark Kennedy sent a Dear Colleague to Members of the House of Representatives today, to urge support for the Line Item and Reduction Veto Amendment that he introduced. Kennedy released the following statement:

"Increased spending has been a theme all too familiar with Congress in recent years. Take for instance, the rise in the number of appropriation earmarks from 958 in FY1996 to nearly 14,000 in FY2005. These earmarks have become a vehicle for wasteful spending and unnecessary federal pork projects.

"Particularly egregious examples of waste are easy to see: $2,000,000 to relocate a kitchen in Fairbanks, Alaska; $950,000 for the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia; and $150,000 for the Therapeutic Horseback Riding Program at the Lady B Ranch in California. With earmarks such as these becoming commonplace, it should not be surprising that projections for FY2006 spending will reach an all-time high of $23,638 per U.S. household, of which $3,800 will be borrowed.

"While there are priority programs and projects that should receive strong consideration, clearly this excessive rate of increased spending cannot be sustained. That's why I have introduced H.J. Res. 63, the Line Item and Reduction Veto Amendment. This Constitutional Amendment would provide the president with a proven mechanism to eliminate egregious spending in appropriations bills.

"In addition, H.J. Res. 63, unlike the 1996 Line Item Veto Act, allows the president to reduce objectionable spending items contained in the non-legislative text of conference reports. This mechanism, currently used by 11 states, reduces the lump-sum accounts that contain hundreds of individual items that are often hidden in legislation and committee reports.

"Americans shouldn't tolerate passing along burdensome government debts to future generations, just so that Congressmen can claim credit for their individual pet projects."
So, this is why I could never be a politician. Kennedy makes good points, and his proposal is better than the status quo, but if I strip away my “Kennedy’s my guy” blinders, this proposal is not exactly bold leadership. It’s passing the buck.

If a bill comes before the House with $2 million for a project as silly as moving a kitchen in Fairbanks, Alaska, a bold politician votes “no” -- even if the bill includes something as worthwile as, say, a $2 million subsidy for an ethanol plant in rural Minnesota.

In a conservative gathering recently, two representatives from the offices of Minnesotans in Congress (not Kennedy's) explained to naïve little me how the system really works. If the “Gentleman from Alaska” is seeking $2 million dollars to move a kitchen, he meets with “his esteemed colleague” and agrees to trade his vote for the $2 million ethanol subsidy for a vote to move the kitchen. Wink, wink, nod, nod and the deal is done. Sometimes bad legislation is required to achieve good legislation.

Kennedy’s plan does nothing to discourage that kind of horse trading. It simply dumps the problem into the President’s lap. Congress can continue cutting its deals hoping that the President has the "good sense" to veto the bad legislation they approve for the sake of their own pet projects. The President is expected to take responsibility for decisions that Congress should be making.

Kennedy's right, "Americans shouldn't tolerate passing along burdensome government debts to future generations, just so that Congressmen can claim credit for their individual pet projects." But it's Congress, not the President that is accountable to the American people for their actions.
Quite frankly, Kennedy’s proposal asks the President to do the job that Congress doesn‘t have the guts to do itself.

Category: NationalPolitics

Update: Via Kennedy vs. The Machine comes a post from the official blogsite of the National Taxpayer's Union that makes my point --

Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-MN) did finally vote for the Deficit Reduction Act (H.R. 4241), but his vote certainly did not come cheap. Before agreeing to support the legislation, Kennedy forced House Leaders to pull drilling in ANWR, weaken the food stamp reforms, and promise an extension of the MILC program (payments to milk producers) and further increases to the LIHEAP (low-income energy assistance) program in conference.
To this argument, the merit of any of these particular measures is irrelevant. My point is, if Kennedy feels the Deficit Reduction Act is worth voting for, then he should vote for it without expecting something in return. If it’s a bad piece of legislation, he shouldn’t vote for it no matter what is offered.

I will grant that such idealism is not always pragmatic, but it is the ideal and not the pragmatic that we ought to honor even if we lack the character to observe it.

Update: Rregarding the Deficit Reduction Act, Kennedy vs. The Machine notes --

Mark Kennedy is a solid conservative who occassionally parts company with the party line when it best serves his constituents. This, in the Congressman’s estimation, is one of those times.
Isn't that the point? Can't the same be said of building a rainforest in Iowa? Isn't that something good for the constiuents of Sen. Grassley? How about the "bridge to nowhere"? Isn't that good for the constituents of Sen. Stevens? When "best for his constituents" means a government subsidy at the expense of the rest of the nation, what should be the priority?

Again, Kennedy's my guy -- the alternatives are so much worse -- but I still want him to be as good as he can be. I don't think Minnesotans are "best served" by pillaging the national treasury for their own benefit.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

A black eye for the "bad neighbor"

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:58 PM |  

On his trip to the state fair last year, blogger David Downing was approached by WCCO TV reporter Terri Gruca. She said she was doing a story about slow fair attendance. Dave reported at the time that he and his family were selected to appear on camera, even though in his off-camera interview he told her his family’s reasons for selecting bargain day to come to the fair didn’t really fit her story, but she insisted.
We repeated what we had said off-camera. Gruca also asked if we thought prices were going up, and we said yes, they were, and rising prices for admission and at the concessions might keep some people away. She asked if we noticed the final day bargains. My wife said no, except for the reduced rates on carnival rides. Gruca asked if we thought higher gas prices were keeping people away. I replied no, because it's little difference for people in the metro area, and for people outstate, the Fair is an event that's been on their calendars all year, and they are coming regardless. (Remember, I grew up on the farm; I was once one of those people.)

We sure didn't fit the template of the story Gruca said she was working on. I wondered, would we not appear in the final story, because we didn't fit what she wanted? Or would she reshape the story she initially thought she had, to reflect what we had told her?
Well, Gruca put the Downings in her story, editing it so their comments fit her premise of gloom and doom. Dave contacted WCCO, but got no satisfaction regarding the misrepresentation so he took his case to the Minnesota News Council. Today they handed down their opinion.

December 8, 2005


News Council finds WCCO-TV misrepresented
St. Paul family in story on State Fair attendance

The Minnesota News Council voted 11-1 today to uphold a complaint against WCCO-TV by a St. Paul family who said the station misrepresented them as unable to afford to attend the Minnesota State Fair except on a Bargain Day.

David Downing, a graphic designer and writer, said he and his wife told the WCCO reporter before they were videotaped that they were attending the fair only one day last summer because that was all the time they had and not because they could not afford to go more than once. He said the reporter ignored his remarks and then on camera asked leading questions about finances and edited the answers to support the premise that money-strapped fairgoers had no option besides a Bargain Day.

The News Council also voted, 10-2, to state its view that the television station’s response to the family’s complaint was inadequate and unprofessional. The only responses Downing received, he said, were one e-mail from the reporter saying, “I’m sorry you feel I misrepresented you and your family,” and another from the news director saying, “I appreciate you writing WCCO-TV. I have thoroughly reviewed your concern. I am confident that our story was accurate and did not misrepresent anything you or your wife said to us.”

Downing told the News Council that he was disappointed that the news director did not invite him to meet at the station to acknowledge his concerns and discuss the editing so that, if the discussion established that the story did misrepresent the family, the station would make itself accountable and take steps to avoid such a mistake in the future.

“It makes a person wonder how many other stories are inaccurate,” Downing said.

Council member Benno Groeneveld, a freelance journalist, said the WCCO story was not the result of reporting, but of the work of someone who goes into an assignment with a story already in mind and then finds victims to flesh it out.

Council member Nancy Conner, former reader advocate of the Pioneer Press, said: “This is the kind of thing that chips away at the credibility of the news media and the trust people have in them.”

WCCO-TV did not participate in the hearing. Participation is voluntary, and the News Council does not permit the fact that a news outlet chooses not to attend to affect the determination on the merits of the complaint and response.

Half the complaints heard since 1971 have been upheld and half denied. The News Council is an independent nonprofit agency whose mission is to promote fair, vigorous and trusted journalism.
Kudos to David.

Category: Journalism

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Illusion of democracy -- St. Paul City Council smoking ban public hearing

Posted by Craig Westover | 11:28 PM |  

Fifteen minutes. I attended the St. Paul City Council Pubic Hearing on the smoking ban ordinance tonight. Each side had 15 minutes for testimony. As one aid noted, “If we let everybody speak as long as they wanted, we’d be here until midnight.”

Probably longer. And the council probably wouldn’t have heard any information that hasn‘t been hashed over before -- although there is the off chance, which is what a public hearing is all about. After all, the council will be voting on an ordinance that wipes out a market niche, puts the livelihood and jobs of a lot of people on the line, and does so on some pretty flimsy science and even worse civics.

I got to city hall a little early, but Bob Moffitt of the American Lung Association of Minnesota was already around with a rolled up copy of yesterday’s Pioneer Press in his hand chasing any reporter with a microphone, looking for all the world like a dark-haired Big Bird trying to show Maria the letter Q.

It was not a good day to be with the Pioneer Press, by the way. The goal of the Pioneer Press, as it is with any newspaper, is to be talked about, and in that the Pioneer Press succeeded with its article saying fears about lost hospitality business from the smoking ban were “unfounded.” I’m afraid, however, when the dust clears and people understand what the Pioneer Press data shows and what it doesn’t show, the study is going to go the way of the infamous “landmark” Helena heart attack data that ban supporters said conclusively proved smoking bans prevented heart attacks -- until the scientific community pretty well-dunked it.

The smoking ban supporters have latched onto the Pioneer Press article like they’ve previously latched onto every secondhand smoke study that they’ve commissioned, drawing wild conclusions from basically the same numerical data that is found in every secondhand smoke study whether done by tobacco companies, independent researchers, or big government or big charities. The Pioneer Press data is aggregate data, incorporates factors not related to the smoking ban, and as all aggregate data studies do, hides the impact of what is studied on specific subgroups.

Another digression before getting back to the hearing. Over a year ago, the Pioneer Press editorial board dismissed out of hand the economic and individual rights issues around the smoking ban with a typographical foot stomping -- "It's a public health issue. It's a public health issue. It's a public health issue." Today, they jumped on the bandwagon of economics -- as in no economic harm. Perhaps we may yet see an pro-ban editorial with the courage to engage on the most important issue surrounding the ban -- the question of when a health issue rises to the level NECESSITATING government intervention.

The anti-ban crowd got its 15 minutes of fame first and led off with a three-minute slide show of photographs of St. Paul bars as music played in the background. If I were a pop music buff I might have recognized the song, but suffice it to say the last line was “pray for me,” so you get the idea what the objective was. I admit, I thought it was somewhat hokey, but as slide after slide slipped by, the inescapable fact was that St. Paul has a lot of neighborhood bars. St. Paul is a lot more neighborhood-oriented city than Minneapolis. The take-away from the slide show was a smoking ban in St. Paul might have even greater negative impact than the ban had in Minneapolis.

I got ahead of myself a little. Before the show, Dave Thune -- only slightly less popular with the assembled bar owners than the Pioneer Press -- read into the record some minor changes in the bill and noted a March 31 implementation date. Councilman Hengen, a quick-fingered eminent domain guy (yes, that was a gratuitous link but went to establish a pattern of behavior, your honor), asked why the March 31 deadline. Thune’s response was that a March 31 implementation would provide bars with time to plan for the transition, AND the weather would be milder.

Now one can accuse Dave Thune of many things, but “finesse” is not one of them. His “milder weather” comment was pretty much an admission that the ban was going to have economic impact so better to implement it during the summer when smokers could go outside and the economic impact of the ban would be less, which coincidently corresponds to the time period studied by the Pioneer Press.

Thune and Helgen then got into a discussion of how the council might help bar owners make the transition, perhaps seek their input. This conversation had all the sincerity of Meg Ryan’s restaurant orgasm in “When Harry met Sally,” and drew about as many laughs from the bar owners as that scene did,” a metaphor by the way that ties in nicely with the world's three biggest lies -- “the check’s in the mail,” “I promise I’ll pull it out,” and “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

Back to to the hearing. The point was made that charitable gambling is down considerably in Minneapolis since the ban, somewhat less in St. Paul. That fact appeared in the Pioneer Press article, but was not given much play or any analysis. It’s a good indicator of the types of establishment -- neighborhood bars -- that are indeed being hurt by the smoking ban, not to mention the charity provided by the clubs that sponsor charitable gambling are general individual acts of compassion that slip through the cracks of big government programs. I doubt you’ll see the ALA step up an buy a TV set for a veterans hospital despite Mr. Moffitt’s John Kerry-like hubris in his military service.

The disappointing -- very disappointing -- aspect of the anti-ban testimony was the resignation of some of the most influential bar owners to the fact that a full ban is inevitable. The consensus, which is also supported by my favorite Irish pub, Keegan’s in Northeast Minneapolis, is that a statewide ban is necessary to level the playing field. That’s a misguided notion on two fronts.

First, smokers aren’t coming back in any great numbers, and if they do, their behavior patterns aren’t going to change. I’ll get anecdotal for a moment, but I figure I’m spending about $6-10 less every Thursday night at Keegan’s, where Thursday night trivia is a blogger weekly event. I’m getting there later because the “gang,” many of whom smoke are arriving later, and I’m leaving earlier. I’ve generally eaten before I get there. I have one less beer, and I usually leave, with the rest of the crowd, shortly after the trivia.

The other night I hung around until about eleven -- Bogus Gold and I were embroiled in conversation plus there was a pretty good blues band. The bar cleared out long before then, and there were maybe a dozen or so people still there. During the summer (outdoor smoking patio), leaving after 11, I had to wind my way through a pretty good crowd to the door.

Second reason a state ban is not the answer is, the state is never satisfied. Turn to today’s Pioneer Press and read the “no fat” article. It’s downright scary. And I know it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, but a statewide ban doesn’t level the playing field for bars adjacent to Indian reservations, especially up north. A statewide ban kills those guys.

Were I a punster, I’d say the anti-ban side ended with a “Fleury” -- Pat Fleury of the Shamrock Bar gave a fiery speech challenging Mayor-elect Coleman and the city council as the Ghost of Christmas Future. He declared that the Pioneer Press article was “untrue,” and I’ll be talking with him to see his “proof.” Unlike the ban-supporters, he wasn’t at all hesitant to show where his numbers come from -- even to a guy from the Pioneer Press.

When Fluery finished, he received spontaneous and sustained applause from the bar owners. It took several gavel bangs to restore order.

I don’t know if the ban supporters orchestrated their presentation, but the first several speakers were all from minority communities. All spoke movingly about what they were doing in their communities to curb smoking. Although “ community activists,” these people spoke with a humility that would have been effective had they spoken to any issue relevant to a smoking ban in bars and restaurants. A very well-spoken African-American teenager mentioned that kids first jobs are generally in restaurants. A Hispanic woman, who did have that in-your-face-activist attitude (the smoking ban is a “social justice“ issue), noted that a lot of kitchen help are Latinos, which justified her speaking, but neither the teenager or the woman addressed the choice issue involved.

At times, the pro-ban people tried to generate some enthusiastic clapping, but just couldn’t get it going. The “Hallmark moment” came when an African American man related the story of his father, a club musician for 35 years, never smoked, and died of throat cancer. You can’t really knock a story like that, but again, is it really the role of government to protect people from the choices they make? In today’s smokeless jazz clubs, one wonders if the man’s father would even get work.

The ban-supporters were able to squeeze in one nurse to throw in 3,000 lung cancer deaths from secondhand smoke and 38,000 deaths from heart disease caused by secondhand smoke. I’ve explained the 3,000 number and why it’s irrelevant to the smoking ban question; I’ve asked “Big Bob” to explain the 38,000 number -- where it comes from and how it is arrived at -- but he’s never seen fit to adress questions like that (not in his job description as a communications director). He’s more interested in dropping unchallenged quotes to the media.

That about summarizes the night. For an exercise in democracy, it was a pretty sedentary evening.

Category: Smoking Ban, Local Politics