Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Stupid in America -- in case you missed it

Posted by Craig Westover | 3:03 PM |  

Thanks to the Partnership for Choice in Education for passing along word that South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford has made John Stossel's program "Stupid in America" available without charge on the following website:


(The link will work if you have Microsoft's Media Player. If not, you may go to http://sanfordforgovernor.com and follow the link in the right hand column.)

Category: Education, School Choice

Now all the Libertarians need is a candidate . . . .

Posted by Craig Westover | 2:46 PM |  

or maybe they have one.

Libertarian Orphans

(WSJ: January 31, 2006; Page A14)

The Gallup Poll's annual survey on government found that 27% of Americans are conservative; 24% are liberal, up sharply because the poll was taken after Katrina, which boosted support for the proposition that "government should do more to solve our country's problems." Gallup also found -- this year as in others -- that 20% are neither liberal nor conservative but libertarian, opposing the use of government either to "promote traditional values" or to "do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses." Another 20% are "populist" (supporting government action in both areas), with 10% undefined. Libertarian support, spread across demographic groups, is strongest among well-educated voters.

So where are the libertarians in politics and the media? Since the Clinton impeachment and the Florida recount, there's been a polarization: Congressmen and TV pundits define themselves as red/blue, pro-/anti-Bush, partisan Democrat/Republican, and take rigid liberal/conservative positions on Iraq, tax cuts, Social Security reform, gay marriage, abortion. But polls tell us that Americans aren't quite so partisan.

With big-government conservatives spending money like Imelda Marcos in a shoe store, and big-government liberals supporting the Patriot Act, even pro-government populists are represented in D.C. It's the libertarian voters who are orphans. Democrats stand like a wall against tax cuts and Social Security privatization. Republicans want to ban abortion, gay marriage and "Happy Holidays." It's not just Congress -- in Virginia's recent elections, all the Democrats were tax-hikers and all the Republicans were religious rightists. What's a libertarian to do?

The worst aspect of all this is the oracles who appear on TV. You'd think they'd be thoughtful, independent. Yet they're as partisan as the pols. The typical cable show brings viewers two guests, a liberal and a conservative. You can count on conservative writers to defend everything President Bush does, and on liberal editors to denounce the GOP -- no matter what.

Of course, it could be that most Americans are, in fact, liberals and conservatives. Maybe Gallup is wrong, every year. But the exit polls on election day 2004 offer some confirmation. According to those polls, 17 million voted for John Kerry but did not think the government should do more to solve the country's problems. And 28 million Bush voters support either gay marriage or civil unions. That's 45 million who don't fit the polarized model. They seem to have broadly libertarian attitudes. In fact, it's no secret that libertarian voters make up a chunk of America. But you'd never know it from watching TV -- or listening to our elected politicians.

Mr. Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute.

Category: 2006 Elections, Libertarians, Local Politics

Alito confirmation vote a sad commentary

Posted by Craig Westover | 1:55 PM |  

That Judge Alito's 58 - 42 confirmation was along a virtual party-line vote is a damning indictment of Senatorial quality.

That Democrats during the confirmation hearings forwent the opportunity to examine Alito’s conservative jurisprudence in favor of a partisan stoning was to be expected. That Republicans succumbed to responding to Democrat dribble rather than contrasting conservative jurisprudence with the “active liberty” theory of the liberal wing of the court is regrettable. Both parties can take some credit for turning advise and consent into the tossing of a pearl before swine.

Category: National Politics

Letter from Iraq

Posted by Craig Westover | 1:39 PM |  

I am honored to be a member of the "Antient and Honourable John Adams Society," Minnesota's conservative debating society (is there such a thing as a liberal debating society?). From a fellow member serving with our forces in Iraq --
Dear John Adams Society Members:

I am currently stationed at Camp Victory in Baghdad, working on issues affecting the Iraqi people and their governemt. Here is an update for you from the front lines of the War on Terror:


As the news media will tell you, terrorist attacks continue in Iraq. What they won't tell you is that a significant number of attacks on our Coalition forces are being prevented due to tips from Iraqi people.

Last week, a phone tip from a young Iraqi girl, southeast of Baghdad, resulted in the disarming of a roadside bomb and the capture of five terrorists.

The same day, a joint patrol by U.S. Marines and Iraqi Army soldiers in the "Sunni triangle" of western Iraq, uncovered a large weapons cache, consisting of artillery and mortar rounds, rockets, and ammunition.

Over 4000 pounds of high explosives were destroyed, just one example of the operations we are conducting here every day.

There are indications that the Al Qaeda terrorist organization in Iraq is being seriously disrupted, for several reasons. First, operations by U.S., Iraqi, and other Coalition forces (there are 27 countries with troops in Iraq) have killed or captured much of the terrorist leadership.

Second, their targeting of innocent civilians has turned the Iraqi people strongly against them. Finally, Al Qaeda's strongest base of support has been among Sunnis who feared being excluded from the political process. The latest election results have given them an alternative to supporting murder and mayhem.


In the past year, the Iraqis have made great accomplishments on their road to freedom. There were elections for the Transitional Parliament last January 30, the writing of a constitution, a popular referendum on that constitution on October 15, and elections for a new parliament on December 15. That's three successful national elections in one year, in a country which had known only tyranny for the past 40 years.

On Friday, January 20, the Independent Elections Commission of Iraq released the preliminary results of the December 15 elections for the Council of Representatives (COR), which is the Iraqi parliament. The Unified Iraqi Coalition, a political group dominated by Shia Muslims, won 128 seats (out of 275 total), short of the 138 needed for a majority. Kurdistani Gathering, the primary coalition of the (generally pro-American) Kurds, won 53 seats, while the Sunni-dominated Tawafoq Iraqi Front took 44 seats. Other contenders include the secular National Iraqi List (25 seats), and the Hewar National Iraqi Front (11 seats), a coalition which includes the Iraqi Christian Democratic Party among others. (Details at www.ieciraq.org/English/)

The result is, the Shia will not be able to run the government alone. In the past year, they joined with the Kurds to establish a coalition government, but even that will not give them the 2/3 needed to elect a President in the first round of balloting. It is expected that they will bring in the Sunni coalition as well. A joint Shia/Kurd/Sunni government will be a major setback for the terrorists, reducing their support in the "Sunni triangle".

America's goal in Iraq should not be withdrawal, or a reduction in troop numbers. Our goal must be VICTORY. Any news showing further setbacks to Al Qaeda, or Iraqi success in setting up their government, will indicate that we are on the road to victory.

More news later...

Major Charles Erickson
Sometime Chairman, John Adams Society
Camp Victory
Baghdad, Iraq

"One year ago this week, the Iraqi people reminded the world about the power of freedom. Despite acts of terrorism and intimidation, millions of Iraqis lined up to vote in the first of three historic elections in 2005. By exercising their right of self-government last January, the Iraqi people started down the path to a free, prosperous, and democratic Iraq. I commend them for their courage.

"Since then, they have proven their dedication to the cause of freedom by taking further steps down this path. Despite calls by some of America to cut and run in Iraq, the difficult work we are doing to keep America safe is succeeding and the enemies of freedom now know they cannot prevail."

-- Rep. Mark Kennedy

Category: Iraq, National Politics, John Adams Society

More on Minnesota's fiscal house

Posted by Craig Westover | 12:20 PM |  

Gov. Pawlenty’s senior advisor on innovation and former chief of staff Dan McElroy refutes Sen. Dick Cohen’s Pioneer Press opinion piece -- "Minnesota's fiscal house needs some structural repairs" -- from a different perspective than I addressed it in my column.

Category: Column, Local Politics, Tax Policy

The Patriot Insider -- Smoking Bans

Posted by Craig Westover | 11:31 AM |  

During the second hour of Saturday’s “Patriot Insider,” in-studio guests were Penny Steele, Hennepin County Commissioner opposing smoking bans and St. Paul City Councilman, Dave Thune, champion of the smoking ban in St. Paul.

As noted in the first hour, this segment on smoking bans was a continuation of the theme that government has legitimate authority in the areas of eminent domain (first hour discussion) and public health and safety, in this instance smoking bans, but that unless specific criteria are established, government will expand legitimate authority beyond acceptable boundaries.

I introduced the topic of smoking bans noting that in all the emotional debate and testimony that has been given on this topic, it has never been addressed in a straight-forward logical progression from what is the risk to what are the consequences to what ought to be the policy. That was the outline for the discussion.

I started the discussion by asking Dave Thune what evidence convinced him that secondhand smoke was indeed so dangerous that it rose to the level of necessitating government intervention. He responded with the non-answer that although he favors less government intrusion into private lives, it is the duty of government to protect people’s health.

Couldn’t let him get away with that, so we tried again -- that government has a duty to protect public health is not at issue. What is at issue is whether or not secondhand smoke is a danger that rise to that level. What is Thune’s evidence.

I was hoping for just one study, one example, one piece of concrete data from the “mountain of research” cited by Bob Moffitt of the ALA from which he cannot produce one study that he can defend. But Thune also went with the "avalanche" citation and common sense citing “every real research study” supports the “extreme dangers” in the work place, especially when an employee breathes it for a whole shift.

My pleas for just one study, one discussable fact went unanswered. But more discouraging was that as a policy maker, Thune apparently felt no obligation to question data he was fed. He noted he was not a scientist and flunked that “numbers course” (“Statistics?” asked Steele.) Thune noted he played music in bars and had to breathe the smoke all night (although he’s also a smoker). It’s just "common sense" that that is bad for you was his argument.

In answer to the same question, Steele jumped ahead a bit as well, noting the government has the obligation to protect public health when people can’t judge a risk. She used food regulations as an example. However she asked, why should people regulate what people do on private property. She was okay with smoking bans in court houses and public places. Steele said that was her starting point on smoking bans, but that she had also read some of the studies on secondhand smoke, and found most of them were mainly hype.

Patriot Program Director and co-host Patrick Campion noted that virtually all statistics on secondhand smoke go back to a study done by the National Cancer Institute, an institution with a vested interest in making secondhand smoke seem as dangerous as possible.

Thune argued with that, using the analogy that people that think secondhand smoke is not dangerous are like people that believe the world is flat and are asking others to prove that it isn’t.

Patrick made the point that no study shows how bars specifically contribute to the problem. Thune argued that the data comes from international studies not just one study, but again, could not cite a single example from the “mountain of data.”

My brief point was how can policy makers use data if they don’t understand it.

The board was full, and we took some calls. The first caller -- Kerry -- set a theme for the show by noting that Thune’s position seemed to be 10,000 Elvis fans can’t be wrong. His question was why Thune felt that economic loss from the smoking ban was acceptable including the unemployment that was indirectly caused.

Thune responded that some bars have already closed and are blaming it on the ban, which hasn’t taken affect yet. We tabled the question until we had a chance to get into the economic issues.

Phil from New Brighton, a regular caller ranted about being tired of liberals butting into to private lives and said smoking bans hurt business. Patrick challenged him for his empirical data and Phil said it was just “common sense.” I noted Phil must have read the same books as Councilman Thune and we moved on.

Caller Jeff disputed that Thune was against government intrusion. He said his neighbor complains when he smokes a cigar in his backyard and did Thune want to ban outdoor smoking. Thune said no, Jeff had a “God-given right to smoke in his backyard.” I noted that California is moving in the direction of banning all outdoor smoking.

At this point, I made the point I made in the post here -- that the issue for a policy maker was looking at the extent of the risk and the consequences before making policy. Data from the California EPA study making a case for banning outdoor smoking showed that while there is a correlation overtime between secondhand smoke exposure and lung cancer, that it is decades before there is a statistically significant risk.

The question for a policy maker is does a risk voluntarily accepted over decades and then producing a minimal danger justify a policy that creates significant economic harm and tramples private property rights and individual choice?

A caller -- Quentin -- questioned why a minority favoring a smoking ban should be able to impose it on the majority that don’t want it.

I noted that smoking bans are popular and Thune added that the St. Paul ban is widely supported. That 10,000 Elvis fans favor, however, I noted, did not make it right.

Patrick asked a key question of both Steele and Thune, how the popularity of smoking bans affected their votes on the bans.

Thune said that he considers that he was elected to represent the beliefs of those that voted for him, but he recognizes that some of the worst government policy is made by sticking a finger in the air to see which way the polls are going. Nonetheless he contended, you only have one chance sometimes to get things right, and he believes he is right on the smoking ban.

Steele agreed with Thune that you have to vote what you think is right. She voted against the ban before she stood for reelection. She noted that liberty is a big deal and she simply could not step away from that and cast a vote that might have been expedient at the expense of property rights..

A caller -- Lance -- said that there could be no good secondhand smoke studies because it was nearly impossible to have good control groups.

Because Thune admitted having trouble with statistics, I took that question and noted that there were studies with good control groups that showed correlations between disease and secondhand smoke, especially the effects on infants and young children. But again, I noted, policy makers ought to be looking at data relative to bars and restaurants, and that data -- same methodology -- showed no statistically significant effects even after decades of exposure.

We then moved into a discussion of economic impact of smoking bans. That dealt with aggregate statistics (it is unfortunate Thune didn’t do better in that class).

Steele, who’d read the various studies noted that a lot of the detail on liquor sales had to do with off sale numbers -- people buying liquor and drinking at home where they could smoke. She lamented that people didn’t look at the facts and look for the truth instead of the hype.

Steele noted how over time the testimony of the health community shifted from being about public health to being about protection of workers. Yet in the testimony made before the Hennepin County Commissioners, it was workers testifying how the ban threatened their jobs and incomes. She noted that some hospitality workers had to sell their homes others testified in front of television cameras about the disarray of their personal finances -- some were older people that had worked hard all their lives and were now telling the world about losing their businesses. She said that in addition to herself, Peter McLaughlin, who cast the swing vote on the Hennepin County rollback, was moved by that testimony. The ban was suppose to protect workers, but it was the workers that kept coming back to testify. (She also noted she was a muscian, like Thune, but by choice she played in church where smoking was not an issue.)

Thune’s response was that 99 percent of the testimony he listened to was emotional and subjective. He admitted not being scientific and questioned if any of us had a scientific background (for the record, I studied that "numbers stuff"). His point was we have to believe the experts and when health experts say that secondhand smoke kills, he believes them. The same with economics. He judges who has the best knowledge -- he believes that a lot of the talk about economic harm is fed to the media by “Big Tobacco.”

I counted to ten while Steele responded that the Big Tobacco argument was nonsense. She went back to her point about being honest. If Thune wanted to make the case that public health trumps liberty, then make it, but don’t try to hide the fact that a lot of small bars are economically hurt by smoking bans.

Caller Mark brought up the St. Louis Park air quality standard study that found the air quality in bars with ventilation equipment (and allowed smoking) to be 15 to 500 times safer that OSHA standards.

Thune responded that OSHA has no standard for secondhand smoke, revealing the danger of relying on experts. That’s the mantra of health groups. As I pointed out to Thune -- who apparently hasn’t read this study either -- OSHA does have standards for all of the toxic chemicals found in tobacco smoke. Nicotine is the only chemical marker for secondhand smoke that is not found naturally in the environment. To test for any other chemical would confuse the results with ordinary environmental exposure. But that’s science for people that read not for people that believe science is whatever the ALA says it is.

I noted that Mark’s point is really that if the question were about public health from a policy perspective and not a social engineering experiment, then we’d be talking air quality standards and not behavior change.

So, I asked our guests , what criteria do they use to determine when a risk rises to the level of a public health issue necessitating government intervention.

Steele said that good science and solid evidence id necessary before trumping private property rights. You must show that people have no opportunity to deal with health risk. She agreed with what Rep Johnson said at the end of the first hour, that there is a big risk of abuse when government tries to protect adults from themselves.

Thune responded with the bunker positions of smoking ban proponents -- bars and restaurants are public places, secondhand smoke is a proven health risk, hospitality workers don’t have a choice about where they work, the only reason the Minnesota Clean Air Act allows exceptions is politics and the world has caught up.

Patrick closed out the show asking if either supported a statewide smoking ban. Steele, no; Thune, yes.

There’s really not much to add by way of summary. I think Penny Steele said it best -- if Thune wanted to claim that secondhand smoke was a health risk (for which he could not produce a specific piece of evidence to support his view or demonstrate an understanding of the statistics that were fed to him) and that it trumped private property rights and economic harm (which he’s admitted happens) then be honest about it. Don’t try to make it seem like you’re being noble and doing it for workers that don’t want it.

I’d add, don’t claim you’re making a policy decision when you’re really trying to appease the non-smoking majority. If the issue were really about public health and not shifting the failure of health groups to get people to stop smoking onto the taxpayer, we’d be talking air quality, not behavior change.

Bottom line -- we get whom we vote for.

Category: The Patriot, Smoking Ban, Public Health

Monday, January 30, 2006

The Patriot Insider -- Eminent Domain

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:37 AM |  

For a hobby columnist turned hobby radio host for a day -- I hosted the “Patriot Insider” on AM 1280 Saturday -- it’s more than a little unnerving to listen to tapes of oneself. (Files here.) Like reading one’s column in the Pioneer Press, listening one finds all the places one could have done better. It’s at those times I imagine myself a liberal and grade myself on motivation.

How’s that for a segue? The motivation behind yesterday’s show was living up to the Patriot’s slogan of “intelligent talk radio.” The two-part show dealt with eminent domain and smoking bans, but from the common theme of the need to curb even legitimate power of government.

Government does have the legitimate authority to use eminent domain to obtain private property for a public use and government does have the authority (and responsibility) to protect public health and safety. The question yesterday’s program attempted to address was what are the criteria necessary, if any, that ought to ensure that such authority is not abused.

In the first hour, guests were Tom Grundhoefer, general counsel for the League of Minnesota Cities, which represent municipalities that have eminent domain in their authority tool bag, and Rep. Jeff Johnson (R-Plymouth and candidate for attorney general). Who along with DFLer Tom Bakk has introduced legislation that would set some limits on when and how eminent domain might be implemented.

The eminent domain debate arises from this past summer’s Supreme Court decision in Kelo versus the City of New London where the Court ruled that New London did not violate Connecticut law by using eminent domain for purposes of “economic development.” In other words, “economic development,” even if it meant the trasfer of property from one private party to another, was not an unconstitutional interpretation of the “public use” language of the 5th Amendment.

However, and to me this is the most relevant passage in the Court’s decision, justice Stevens writing for the majority stated “that nothing in our opinion precludes any state from placing further restrictions on its [eminent domain’s] exercise of the takings power. States may limit eminent domain through state constitutional law or state statutes.”

That statement was a wake-up call for state legislatures, and the genesis of eminent domain legislation in a number of states, including Minnesota.

But are there negatives being generated by the sudden spotlight shining on eminent domain?

Grundhoefer says the answer is “yes.” He points out that in effect, Kelo precipitated no new law. The debate he said, wrongfully criticizes the tool rather than examining the important public policy that results from its use -- building of roads, bridges, schools and other public assets. Nobody wants to use eminent domain, he noted, but sometimes for the public good it is necessary, but almost always as a lat resort and with just compensation, which is often better than market value and includes relocation expenses and tax benefits.

Grundhoefer cited a survey conducted by the League that eminent domain was rarely used by cities.

Both Johns and I countered that last claim. Johnson noted that the statistic that eminent domain was only used in five percent of all takings was ’accurate, but misleading. The threat is always there, which influences negotiation.

Johnson highlighted four key points in his legislation --

1) and attorney’s piece that provides payment of attorney’s fees for a property owner that successfully fights and eminent domain taking. “Success” is defined as prohibiting the taking or receiving in excess of 20 percent more than the municipality’s last offer.

2) An evaluation piece that when a business is taken, “just compensation” must include the value of the “going concern,” not just the value of property and assets.

3) Burden of proof would shift to the municipality to provide convincing evidence that the taking was for a public use.

4) The heart of the bill from Johnson’s perspective, is the limiting of “public use” to traditional interpretation of roads, schools, parks -- takings where the result is something actually used by the public. Exceptions are when property is blighted, opolluted, or creates a nuisance.

Grundhoefer responded that (1) attorney’s fees have been implemented in several states and simply makes the eminent domain process more expensive by removing incentives to reach an agreement and precipitating litigation.

2) “Going concern” compensation is already in law, but Johnson’s bill shifts the burden of proof by making the assumption that the business’s valuation is correct and it is up to the city to prove otherwise. Government doesn’t have the resources to make that dispute.

3) Shifting the burden of proof, says Grundhoefer, takes puts eminent domain in the hands of courts, and takes power from legislators.

4) He agrees with Johnson that there ought to be a stricter definition of “blight,” but the Johnson/Bakk legislation goes too far.

Johnson’s counter is that it should be difficult for a city to take a persons property, which is why a large coalition of organizations supports his legislation. He noted that just compensation doesn’t matter if a person does not want to sell their property. He noted he is not a big spender, but believes cities should be faced with the possibility of greater expenses when considering eminent domain.

I noted that the expense issue might force cities to look at other alternatives, and Johnson agreed. He also noted that making it easier to contest a taking would avoid “lowballing” by municipalities and the state. As it exists now, the system encourages that.

Johnson also defends the idea that more court cases is not necessarily bad. Property rights, as a fundamental right, should be protected by the courts and not left only to legislatures. That is not done with other fundamental rights.

On the topic of “public use” versus “public purpose,” Johnson believes it is necessary to return to a “public use” perspective. Grundhoefer noted that one doesn’t find grants of power in the Constitution, but limitation of power -- for example, property cannot be taken without just compensation. He further noted that Public use/public purpose has been debated in Minnesota and it is accepted that it is a legitimate public purpose to promote economic development, affordable housing, and the like. The bonding bill includes a lot of money for “economic development.”

Johnson agreed that economic development is an important government function, but that it can be accomplished without using eminent domain. He acknowledged his bill makes economic development difficult in some cases and possibly impossible in others.

Grundhoefer argues that local officials close to the individual situations should have the final say on use of eminent domain. There is final recourse in the courts and elected officials can be voted out of office.

Johnson noted that courts are still a last resort in the Johnson/Bakk legislation, but it is eaiser to get to court for individuals without deep pockets and the government has the burden of proof. Voting is little consolation to someone put out of this.her home -- as Patrick Campion (co-host) noted with just compensation.

Here I noted that perhaps clarification was in order -- a little federalism 101. Eminent domain is a constitutional authority, but it is not a mandatory requirement. As noted in Kelo, states can limit its use. At the state level, the legislature defines the limits of eminent domain use by the state and by all municipalities chartered by the state. Municipalities determine when and how to use eminent domain. Courts do review the viability or necessity of municipality decisions; courts only rule on whether or not a municipality’s use of eminent domain is in accordance with the legislature’s writing of the law.

Grundhofer is concerned that the proposed legislation could leave a city with a good plan backed by 99 percent of the people blocked by a single property owner.

The Johnson legislation makes allowances such as if an area is more than 60 percent “blighted” even non-blighted properties within that area can be taken using eminent domain. But when an area is not blighted, if a person doesn’t want to sell, they should not have to when the purpose of the project is economic development.

Grundhoefer asks the question what about the property rights of others. What about the property rights of people living next to blighted or polluted areas. He fears that Johnson’s bill is so narrowly defined that it undermines the ability of cities to deal with these situations.

Johnson noted that the bill enables cities to deal with “blight” -- it simple provides a defintion of blight. Grundhoefer responded the local officials are in the best position to make that judgment.

Before the hour ended, I put to Rep. Johnson a question that lead to the second hour. Specifically, I noted that his bill was putting criteria around a legitimate government authority. Was there not opportunity to do so with other often abused government authority such as publich health and safety legislation, which, in the case of smoking bans, for example, goes too far in legislating individual choice?

Johnson agreed, citing smoking bans and other “nanny state” legislation that don’t have criteria. He wasn’t sure what those might be, and thought it would be “World War II” defining them, but agreed it would be a good idea to explore. Right now, he noted, we fall back on public health and safety with “what is good for you” as a default for justifying legislation. The result is we [legislators] argue silly little things.

So, I challenged Johnson, “When you win the eminent domain battle, we can look forward to legislation proposing criteria for public health regulation?”

He laughed, “Give me a week to recover,” he said.

That leads us into the second hour of the “Patriot Insider” a discussion of smoking bans with St. Paul City Councilman Dave Thune and Hennepin County Commissioner Penny Steele.

Category: The Patriot, Eminent Domain, Local Politics

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Required Reading

Posted by Craig Westover | 12:11 PM |  

Swiftee's comment at MOBANGE! should be framed and posted at GOP healdquarters and in the Governor's office.

Category: Local Politics

Thursday, January 26, 2006

First-ever Captain Fishsticks Comment Contest

Posted by Craig Westover | 1:14 PM |  

Our old fiend Bob Moffitt of the American Lung Association posts a link to a Minnesota Daily article in hopes that a little scattershot he said/she said journalism will diminish the impact of St. Paul’s smoking ban. He cherry picks his quotes (I’m shocked!), and misses this one --
Blake Van Denburgh, an animal science junior, said the smoking ban in St. Paul has encouraged him to go to bars more often.

“The smoky environment kept me from going out before,” he said.
Now that single quote proves absolutely nothing, as Bob's selection of randomized quotes proves nothing, but I find it amusing and in a certain sad way illustrative of the theory of unintended consequences.

So, here’s the first-ever Captian Fishsticks invitational Comment Contest -- finish the story.
A chill rain falls on the city but Blake Van Denburgh doesn’t care. Slouching more than sitting in the doorway of O'Gara's Irish Pub, he relishes the rain that washes at least the top layer of dirt and grime that stick to his hair and clothes like the cigarette smoke he vaguely remembers from his youth. It mingles with the human waste in which he sits and pecks at the dried vomit from the night before.

Once a promising animal science major, Blake’s future was snuffed out when St. Paul went smoke free. In the few and frightening moments of sobriety he can still muster, Blake still sees himself as that undespoiled youth sitting home in the fresh-air of his dorm room, soberly blogging.

“If only there hadn’t been a smoking ban . . . . If only I’d never gone to a bar . . . . Didn’t I deserve to be denied freedom of choice for my own good as much as any smoker? Blake shouts the last into an uncaring, smoke-free world. He drops his head into his hands and weeps.

At that moment a tall shadow -- a dark-haired big bird-like shadow -- looms over him. “Why?’ he asks, sensing that this man might hold the answer. “Why . . . What laid me low, enslaved me to this demon rum?”

Bob Moffitt looked down at the pathetic creature at his feet and said . . . . .
You finish the story. Winning entry receives a Fish ‘n Chips special at Keegan’s Irish Pub on Trivia Thursday courtesy of Captain Fishsticks.

Category: Smoking Ban

Banckruptcy -- Medical and journalistic

Posted by Craig Westover | 11:53 AM |  

I am but a humble hobby columnist. Were I a better wordsmith, perhaps if I knew “more stuff,” or maybe the answer is as simple as a drowsy “gatekeeper,” then I too would be able to startle and frighten my readers with such sentences hinting of Bruckheimerian devastation --

“As we learned last fall when Congress tightened the bankruptcy laws for the benefit of credit card companies, about half of the people who file for bankruptcy do so because of illness or medical costs.”
Laura, Laura, Laura (shaking my head sadly).

Let’s take a closer look at that statement from today’s Laura Billings column in the Pioneer Press and see if we might liberate it from the statistical Abu Ghraib where she tortures it to confess the need for universal health care.

The full report on which this statement is based is found here. The Reuters news story found here provides the fodder for a fisk of the little chip of sky that fell on sister Laura.

WASHINGTON - Half of all U.S. bankruptcies are caused by soaring medical bills and most people sent into debt by illness are middle-class workers with health insurance, researchers said on Wednesday.

The study, published in the journal Health Affairs, estimated that medical bankruptcies affect about 2 million Americans every year, if both debtors and their dependents, including about 700,000 children, are counted.
Okay, Let’s apply some logic and calculations to those statistics. Two million is NOT the number of medical bankruptcies. In 2004 there were approximately 1.5 million non-commercial bankruptcy filings in the United States or, according to estimates in this study, about 750,000 medical bankruptcies that AFFECTED two million people, only if one includes dependents of those filing bankruptcy.

That’s an important distinction because it enables us to put the 2 million number in perspective. There are approximately 298 million people in the United States. Thus, medical bankruptcy AFFECTS about 0.7 percent of the population. That’s seven-tenths of one percent of the population.

Certainly bankruptcy is a real problem for that seven-tenths of one percent of the population, but Billings is raising a question of public policy -- specifically she notes that the United States is “the only major industrialized nation that has no universal health care,” fully intending that we, the readers, make a connection here. Looking at the population affected by the problem -- seven-tenths of one percent -- and the proposed solution -- government health care for 298 million people -- is not exactly a split the baby conundrum. The solution significantly exceeds the extent of the problem.

Billings, however, is not the only one with a chunk of sky at her feet.

"Our study is frightening. Unless you're Bill Gates you're just one serious illness away from bankruptcy," said Dr. David Himmelstein, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who led the study.
[A gratuitous aside for a friend -- or one misconceived government policy away from bankruptcy.]

Bill Gates is the only person safe from medical bankruptcy? Let’s look at figures from Himmelstein‘s own study.

Among those whose illnesses led to bankruptcy, out-of-pocket costs averaged $11,854 since the start of illness; 75.7 percent had insurance at the onset of illness."

The average bankrupt person surveyed had spent $13,460 on co-payments, deductibles and uncovered services if they had private insurance. People with no insurance spent an average of $10,893 for such out-of-pocket expenses.

Again, not to minimize the problem for the seven-tenths of one percent of the population affected by medical bankruptcy, but there are a lot more people than Bill Gates that can absorb medical costs that are roughly equivalent to the cost of a mid-range mini-van.

Now grant it, these are costs at the time bankruptcy was declared and the debt could run higher. But let’s not forget that one consequence of declaring bankruptcy is protecting assets. In other words, bankruptcy protects individuals from paying debts to others that cannot be paid because of medical costs. The Reuters article quotes George Cauthen, a lawyer at Columbia-based law firm Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP.

Cauthen said he was not surprised to hear that so many of the bankrupt people in the study were middle-class.

"Usually people who have something to protect file bankruptcy," he said.
In other words, while certainly no fun, especially in the context of serious medical problems, bankruptcy under the circumstances this study covers does not leave people homeless, destitute, out in the street, with no hope of ever having a roof over their heads again.

Let’s look at yet another angle -- bad debt in general, not just from medical bankruptcy, is a cost of doing business and factored into the prices we all pay for goods. But thinking logically, what percentage of the allocation for bad debt can seven-tenths of one percent of the population generate? Especially if we are talking about individuals declaring bankruptcy over unexpected expenses of $13,000. Again, I’m not minimizing the impact of bankruptcy on these individuals, I’m calling into question the connection between the problem, medically-caused bankruptcy, and the solution, universal health care.

Medical bankruptcies hardly justify the call for Universal Health Care. Some quick calculations indicate that the total cost of the bankruptcy problem for individuals ($13,460 average outlay in medical bankruptcy filings times approximately 750,000 medical bankruptcies) means we're looking at about a $10 billion (corrected 1/270 bankruptcy problem. That’s a far cry from the many (added 1/27) billions of dollars that Universal Health Care would cost, not to mention the inflationary effect on medical costs of “free” service.

As a country, we’d be better off cutting checks to seven-tenths of one percent of the population that are (a big leap here for the sake or argument) victims of market failure than we would be to turn everyone’s health care over to the same government implementing a square-wheel rollout of the prescription drug program.

Just to make sure I was on both the right and correct track, I ran my numbers by King Banaian, chairman of the Economics Department at St. Cloud State. King declared my points “dead on,” and managed with a quick read to scope out other flaws in the study.

It’s not a representative sample.
Sampling strategy. We used cluster sampling to assemble a cohort of households filing for personal bankruptcy in five (of the seventy-seven total) federal judicial districts.12 We collected 250 questionnaires in each district, representative of the proportion of Chapters 7 and 13 filings in that district. These 1,250 cases constitute our “core sample.” For planned studies on housing, we collected identical data from an additional 521 homeowners filing for bankruptcy. We based our analyses on all 1,771 bankruptcies with responses weighted to maintain the representativeness of the sample.
This looks OK, but the clusters were selected only because those were the judges who opened their records; the other 72 did not. The districts they used were in CA, IL, PA, TN, and TX. They also had problems reaching almost half of the 1,771 for follow-up questionnaires, and the questions on their actual illnesses were done on a sub-sample under 400. They’re using that truncated sample to extrapolate the other 72.

It’s post hoc fallacious. (CW -- King, King, King. For those of us whose Latin extends only to having lusted after Deborah Kerr in “Quo Vadis,” a post hoc fallacy is an argument that attempts to establish a causal connection based on a false assumption.)
Under the rubric “Major Medical Bankruptcy” we included debtors who either (1) cited illness or injury as a specific reason for bankruptcy, or (2) reported uncovered medical bills exceeding $1,000 in the past years, or (3) lost at least two weeks of work-related income because of illness/injury, or (4) mortgaged a home to pay medical bills.
Lost two weeks?? Suppose I am out of work for two weeks because I went on a bender and during that time I bet the ponies badly. Is that a “major medical bankruptcy”? I can see (1) and (4), and I might quibble about the low threshold in (2), but there’s no way to determine whether those who missed two weeks of work because of injury or illness went into bankruptcy because of that. That’s 21.3% of the bankruptcies. Maybe the problem is low pay, and maybe it’s absenteeism. Note exhibit 2 in the study. And if medical bankruptcies are caused by unpaid debts at $10,000 or more, why set the limit for major medical bankruptcies at $1,000?
King raises a good question, but perhaps the answer can be found here -- two of the study’s authors are on the board of Physicians for a National Health Program.

The point is statistics that use percentages without providing a baseline that indicate the significance of the percentage in terms of real numbers lead to the kind of jumps in logic that Himmelstein intends gullible journalists and drowsy gatekeepers to swallow, report, and scare the crap out of the rest of us.

Laura, Laura, Laura.

A tip of the Sou’wester to King Banaian for his contributions to this post.

Update: Oops, my "gatekeeper" was drowsy -- 750,000 time $13,460 is $10 billion not $10, million. That's a hefty price tag, to be sure, but still not one that justifies inflicting universal health care on the economy and government mandated health care on every individual in the United States. King Banaian adds some additional thoughts.

Category: Journalism, Health Care, Public Health, Local Politics NationalPolitics

If nominated, I will not run . . . .

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:07 AM |  

If elected, I will not serve. Campaign contributions, however are a different matter.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Who says Republicans don't have a sense of humor?

Posted by Craig Westover | 5:06 PM |  

Statement by the Republican Party of Minnesota
on Peter Hutchinson’s Gubernatorial Candidacy

St. Paul - Republican Party of Minnesota Chairman Ron Carey today issued the following statement regarding Peter Hutchinson's announcement of his gubernatorial candidacy.

"Peter Hutchinson is a consistent liberal whom we welcome to the gubernatorial race. While we disagree with his views, we believe him to be unchanging in his beliefs, which is refreshing when compared to the current crop of DFL primary contenders."

Category: Local Politics

Name Dropping

Posted by Craig Westover | 3:26 PM |  

While some men take their families to Disney World for a mid-winter vacation, Pioneer Press Opinion Page Associate Editor Mark Yost with offspring George Patton Yost and lovely wife “Boo Boo” are headed to the world of Ralph Kramden and Mrs. Savino, Brooklyn, New York for the weekend, so I’ll be hosting “The Patriot Insider” on AM1280 this Saturday from 9-11am along with “The Patriot“ Program Director Patrick Campion. Tune in for a day of point/counterpoint.

Saturday’s card features an opening bout on the battle shaping up in the state legislature over eminent domain reform. In the black corner wearing the black trunks will be Tom Grundhoefer, General Council for the League of Minnesota Cities. He’ll go mano-a-mano with Rep. Jeff Johnson (R- Plymouth), co-author of the Bakk/Johnson legislation that would limit use of eminent domain to cases of true public use. But, counterpunches the League, Bakk/Johnson also contains language that will hamper municipalities in the legitimate use of its eminent domain authority.

In the 10 o’clock hour, the black corner pugilist is St. Paul City Councilman Dave Thune, who has doggedly pursued and won a total smoking ban in St. Paul. He’ll square off with Hennepin County Commissioner Penny Steele, pound-for-pound the strongest advocate for the small business owners that forced a rollback of the Hennepin County smoking ban. Thune champions the view that secondhand smoke is a serious health risk and government must step in to protect employees in the work place. Steele's tough questioning of persons making that argument in front of the Hennepin County commissioners promises to make this a lively hour.

[Warning, this program may contain debate not suitable for small children or Bob Moffitt.]

Speaking of smoking bans, Sue Jeffers, owner of Stub and Herb’s on the University campus and one of the first and feistiest opponents of smoking bans announced her candidacy for Governor under the banner of the Libertarian Party. Obvious a long-shot to win, Sue does have a great shot at gaining the five-plus percent of the vote needed to get the Libertarian Party major party status. She’s already pickling up frequent mentions on local talk radio and television and has grassroots support, not just among anti-smoking ban folks. Her big challenges are to prove she’s more than just a one-issue candidate, and that she can translate the principles of the Libertarian into viable policy. Her announcement speech was a good start.

And as long as were on politics, yesterday morning I attended a breakfast for local bloggers hosted by GOP State Chairman Ron Carey. It was an informal session, not unlike some of the editorial board meetings I’ve attended at the Pioneer Press -- except the questions were somewhat tougher.

It was clear from Carey’s comments that the GOP is taking bloggers seriously, both as a vehicle for getting out information unfiltered by mainstream media and recognizing the damage blogs can do putting out bad information. Carey made it clear that bloggers have the same access to party sources as MSM journalists and repeatedly made the point that they should use that access to check out rumors and verify facts before posting. Among those attending, Minnesota Democrats Exposed and Peace Like a River have posted their impressions of get-together. Also present from the GOP were Executive Director Ben Golnik, Communications Director Mark Drake and Research Director Gina Countryman.

Following the blogger breakfast, I had another meeting that included Ron Carey, this one in connection with the Minnesota Autism Center on whose board of directors we both sit. Along with some parents of autistic children, we met with Twila Brase of Citizens' Council on Health Care. The topic was the legislative push for Evidenced-Based Health Care and how that might care and treatment of Autism. The issue, however, is much bigger than that.

Twila refers to the legislation that will be before the Minnesota Legislature as “Bureaucrats at the Bedside.” CCHC is an excellent source for more information on this subject, and I’ll be writing about it more in future columns. Suffice it to say, what Minnesotans are looking at is a one-size-fits-all approach to managed health care. While EBM as implemented by law does not require your doctor to strictly adhere to government-issued treatment protocols makes it difficult for him or her not to.

A note on “objective” journalism. I covered The Center for the American Experiment presentation by Peter Schweizer on his book Do As I Say (Not As I Do) : Profiles in Liberal Hypocrisy. My bias going in was that this was going to be another one of those conservative outreach programs where conservatives served each other dinner spiced by a little liberal bashing. Well, there was a dinner, some spicy liberal bashing, but Schweizer also provided some insightful observations on hypocrisy -- liberal and conservative -- that provided intellectual substance to the event and made it more than just a pleasant evening. If all goes according to plan, I’ll be writing on Schweizer's observations in my Pionner Press column next week -- salvage a little dignity for the MSM.

And speaking of liberal hypocrisy, I'd like to drop the name of the Carleton College alumni that sent me the postage due letter commenting on last week's Pioneer Press column, but he didn’t have the guts to sign his name. Clearly not an English major, the scary thing is this guy is out there advising people on their investments.
“As an investment banker, only an idiot or a liar will deny the existence of inflation, especially in the medical care arena, and increased labor costs drive up government costs DAILY so no new taxes is impossible in the long run. So which of the two are you, the idiot of the liar?”
He had a few unkind words for Taxpayers League President David Strom as well, putting me in good company.
“I had the misfortune of going to college with David Strom at Carleton College. He was the most unpopular and least impressive student in my dorm. He was rude, crude and scorned by the women, thus explaining his hatred of ‘liberals.’”
Well, the liberals’ loss was certainly David’s gain. His radio patter -- “next to me is my lovely and charming wife, Margaret Martin” -- is not mere hyperbole. It’s not politics of those that scorn you that matters, it’s the quality of she who loves ya baby.

Category: 2006 Elections, Eminent Domain, Local Politics, Taxpayers League, The Patriot

COLUMN -- Democrats can't claim mantle of government fiscal responsibility

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:08 AM |  

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

With an Op-ed piece in the Jan. 17 Pioneer Press, state Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, tried to paint the Democratic Party as the party of fiscal responsibility. He misses the mark.

Instead of making a case for Democrats as the party of fiscal responsibility, Cohen reinforces a fundamental difference between Republicans and Democrats: Republicans create bad economic policy when they abandon conservative principles; Democrats create bad economic policy by adhering to liberal philosophy.

Cohen leads his opinion article by taking potshots at the Republican administration and Republican claims of having put Minnesota's fiscal house in order. He notes that the claim of a budget surplus disappears after school loans are repaid and inflation adjustments are made. He points out that the state borrowed from the Tobacco Trust Fund to help balance the budget. He cites the controversy over the legality of the fee/tax on cigarettes.

Cohen piles it on. He further notes that while proclaiming "no new taxes," the governor continued many taxes that were due to expire. Under the Republican administration, repayment of sales taxes bolstered short-term revenue and "fees" collected by the state have risen by nearly half a billion dollars. Reduced spending at the state level, argues Cohen, has spawned local property tax increases.

With some nit-picking here and there, fiscal conservatives have criticized the Republican administration on many of those same points. That Republicans have wandered from conservative fiscal policies, however, does not consequently endow liberal Democrats with the mantle of fiscal responsibility.

Cohen reverts to traditional liberal principle — it's not the increase in taxes that bothers him; his concern is from where the taxes come. "Reform the tax structure" in the liberal lexicon encompasses maintaining, if not increasing, government's revenue stream. Liberal reform does not question the expansion of government interest or the degree to which government spends, only the source of the revenue.

Liberal economic policy is premised on government redistribution of wealth. In this world view, the economic pie is only so big, and a fair and just society ensures that everyone not only gets a piece of the pie, but that those pieces are as equal as government can make them.

Define that policy as "fairness" or "social justice," or the more honest "socialism," but it certainly can't be couched as "fiscal responsibility."

The flaws in liberal economic theory are many. Liberal economics ignores the most fundamental of observations — government produces no wealth. Government can redistribute no wealth until someone else creates it. Wealth is a dynamic resource renewed by private investment in the private sector that produces it.

Dry up private, market-driven investment, and indeed the economic "pie" becomes finite and quickly consumed. Encourage private investment (minimize taxation) and the pie grows. Not everyone gets the same-size piece, but everyone's slice is larger.

When a state's revenue system is based disproportionately on taxes on the wealthiest individuals, a recession disproportionately affects state revenues. When the economy slumps, investment income drops and so, too, does tax collected on that income. Swings in the economy may have little visible impact on the wealthy, but they cause a great deal of disruption to the state budget and the lives of those that rely on the tax dollars of the wealthy.

The point is, if you're going to run the state on the backs of a small numerical tax base, then be prepared for deeper recessions and longer recoveries. Be prepared for an inconsistent tax revenue stream. It's the price of class envy — and the height of fiscal irresponsibility.

While DFLers like Cohen salivate at the fiscal nudity of current economic policy, let's hope that Republican legislators can admit the emperor has no clothes and quickly weave a fiscal policy of sound conservative principles. Sticking to conservative fiscal policy would save Republicans from further embarrassment and Minnesota taxpayers from ill-founded Democrat economic reform.

Category: Column, Local Politics, Tax Policy

Friday, January 20, 2006

Taxpayers League Live! with David Strom

Posted by Craig Westover | 5:51 PM |  

Tune in this Saturday to 100.3 FM KTLK from noon – 2 pm when David will be joined by State Representative Chris DeLaForest (R-Andover and Ham Lake) and Pioneer Press opinion columnist Craig Westover.

Minnesota for Marriage: Iowa lawsuit reveals urgency for marriage protection amendment

Posted by Craig Westover | 12:05 PM |  

Press release from Minnesota for Marriage --
Iowa lawsuit to overturn marriage reveals the urgency to pass a marriage protection amendment in Minnesota.

Minnesota for Marriage calls for Senator Dean Johnson to stop misleading the voter with irresponsible assurances.

THURSDAY, JANUARY 19, MINNEAPOLIS, MN - “The lawsuit in Iowa reveals the urgency to pass a marriage protection amendment in Minnesota,” said Chuck Darrell, communications director for Minnesota for Marriage. “Like Iowa, marriage laws will be challenged in Minnesota, and it is certain that our current laws are vulnerable. Despite this, Senator Dean Johnson chooses to lull voters with irresponsible assurances – and leave marriage vulnerable to the same kind of attack,” he added.

In December, Iowa joined a growing list of states battling marriage lawsuits. New York based Lambda Legal, along with 6 lesbian couples filed suit claiming Iowa’s definition of marriage “draws impermissible distinctions based on sex and sexual orientation…all in violation of the equal protection guarantee of the Iowa Constitution.”

Although 63% of Minnesotans want to vote on the marriage amendment, Johnson doggedly dismisses the need for an amendment because Minnesota laws already prohibit same-sex marriage. Speaking before a group in December at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Johnson assured voters that marriage was safe from activist judges as well. Johnson claimed he knew all the Minnesota Supreme Court Judges and that they had no intention of changing marriage laws. “Johnson’s remarks reveal recklessness towards marriage and arrogance towards the concerns of Minnesota families,” adds Darrell.

The similarities between Minnesota and Iowa are chilling. Like Minnesota, Iowa statutes prohibit same-sex marriage. Anticipating a challenge, the Iowa State House passed a marriage protection amendment only to have it bottled in senate committee. In contrast to Minnesota however, same-sex marriage activists have seized upon the legislative gridlock hoping to score a quick win the courts. “Perhaps by creating gridlock in Minnesota, Johnson too is hoping for a quick score after the elections in November,” says Darrell.

In stark contrast to Johnson’s declarations Bishop Frederick Henry of Calgary Alberta warned Minnesota pastors not to be fooled by the false assurances of politicians. Bishop Henry sited a 1999 statement by Justice Minister Ann McClellan; “Let me state again for the record that the government (Canada) has no intention of changing the definition of marriage or of legislating same sex marriages. The definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman is found in the common law of our country and the common law of our system of law. We the government thought perhaps we could spend our time debating other issues as opposed to that on which there is clarity in law.”

“The people in Iowa and Canada waited until it was too late,” said Darrell. “And if Minnesota waits any longer, the definition of marriage will be decided by judges and homosexual activists as well.”

“Senator Johnson says he is against same-sex marriage. But it’s a safe bet he will continue with his irresponsible assurances while blocking attempts to pass a marriage amendment in the upcoming session; blithely circumventing the will of the people and exposing the definition of marriage to lawsuits and activist judges,” concludes Darrell.
I find a couple of disturbing things in this press release. The first is my usual mantra that if a constitutional amendment is really driven by the fear of activist judges, then limit a constitutional amendment to that issue. Use the amendment process to specifically delegate the authority to define marriage to the legislature. Don't use the constitution as a substitution for specific legislation.

The second thing that I find disturbing is this sentence --
Johnson claimed he knew all the Minnesota Supreme Court Judges and that they had no intention of changing marriage laws.
Having listened to the Roberts and Alito hearings, one can't help come away with the concept that judges simply do not discuss issues that might come before the court. If Johnson did ask such a question of a judge, that is just plain wrong (if the press release is merely fostering that impression, that is just plain wrong and Johnson is owed and apology) and if any Court judges answered that question as Johnson indicated, that is a serious breach of judicial condunct.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

What's the PUNisment for taking the easy headline -- Sue Jeffers lights up the governor's race

Posted by Craig Westover | 4:54 PM |  

From the Blotter at City Pages --

Bar owner butts into governor's race

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty may have a challenger for the Republican Party endorsement in his re-election bid. Sue Jeffers, owner of the Minneapolis bar Stub & Herbs, will officially announce Monday that she is running for governor.

Although Jeffers is seeking the state's top office as a Libertarian Party candidate, she may bid for the GOP endorsement as well. "Let's not give Pawlenty a free pass just because he is our sitting governor," she says. "I think he's let us down."

While the chances of Jeffers actually succeeding in wresting the GOP endorsement away from Pawlenty are pretty much nil, she could prove meddlesome to the Governor's re-election plans. She describes herself as a "lifelong Republican" who has grown disaffected with the party's inability to control spending. "I met with so many Republicans who were trying to get me to run as a Republican," she says. "And I was too embarrassed. The Republicans have let us down."

Jeffers is best known as one of the most vocal opponents of a smoking ban in Minneapolis. But she also cites the government's seizure of private property through eminent domain and high taxes as primary reasons for running.

She argues that the two major parties are largely indecipherable. "You can't even tell who's a Republican and who's a Democratic," she says. "It boils down to is it a faster road to hell or a slower road to hell."

Jeffers acknowledges that her lack of experience in electoral politics could be an obstacle. "I'm 49 years old," she notes. "I don't have the time to start at the bottom. I thought I'd start at the top."

Category: 2006 Elections, Local Politics, Smoking Ban

My God!

Posted by Craig Westover | 11:01 AM |  

Certainly Susan Lenfestey is not the first, nor the most eloquent to question the workings of God. But she certainly joins Pat Robertson among the most opportunist.
The Lord works in mysterious ways and seems to favor no country or religion when it comes to distributing plague, famine and disasters, a fact lost on televangelist Pat Robertson. If there is a design in all this suffering, smite me now, it doesn't seem all that intelligent.

But if we cannot fathom or foil the hand of God, surely we can respond more effectively to his wrath and maybe even spend a little money up front in anticipation of his quirky ways. Contrary to conservative Republican ideology, government does have a role to play in helping its citizens lead healthy, productive lives and in keeping them from harm.
Fortunately, there is a far better source on the question Lenfestey slights in stooping to the errors of him whom she criticizes to make the feeblest of political statements, that being the book of Job.

Job too, but with sincerity and eloquence, questioned the “quirky ways” of God that would, despite the righteousness of Job, inflict such misfortune upon him (16:19-21).
“Also now, behold, my witness is in heaven, and my record is on high. My friends scorn me: but mine eye poureth out tears unto God. O that one might plead for a man with God, as a man pleadeth for his neighbour!”
Unlike Lenfestey citing a religionous tenet she does not believe to be true as somehow relevant to her point, Job’s challenge to God is born of innate human suffering. Job, the man, refuses to accept his friends scornful conclusion that his misfortune at the hand of God is due to some failing on his part, demands a mano-a-mano accounting with God as one would have with his neighbor. He demands a moral God.

Lenfestrey might find God’s answer to Job illuminating. Job 38, 39, 40, 41.

Category: Religion

Caveat emptor when making structural repairs to Minnesota's fiscal house

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:50 AM |  

State Sen. Dick Cohen (DFL - St. Paul) joined the list of Democrats trying to paint his party as THE party of fiscal responsibility with an OP-ED piece in Tuesday Pioneer Press. His logic is somewhat baffling, but let’s give it a try.

First, he takes not altogether unjustified potshots at the Pawletny administration and Republican claims of having put Minnesota’s fiscal house back in order. Cohen notes that the budget surplus disappears after school loans are repaid and inflation is accounted for. To help balance the budget, the state borrowed from the Tobacco Trust Fund. There’s the controversy over the legality of the fee/tax on cigarettes.

Cohen keeps going. He notes that under Pawlenty many taxes due to expire were continued, pre-payment of sales saxes bolstered short-term revenue and “fees” collected by the state have gone up by nearly half a billion dollars. Property taxes are up.

With some nit picking here and there, many conservatives, including the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, have criticized the Pawlenty administration on many of these same points, which reinforces my view of one difference between conservatives and liberals -- Conservatives go wrong when they abandon their principles; liberals go wrong when they follow their principles. Case in point, the money quote from Cohen’s OP-ED:
Finally, through years of painful budgeting we've seen little real reform. Opportunities arise out of crises, and we've missed some good chances. If our state is to be stronger, we need to do more than cut budgets. We need innovation and new thinking. We could start with our tax structure: Until we get reform there, we're doomed to move from crisis to crisis as the economy goes up and down.
In that quote, Cohen reverts to traditional liberal principle -- it’s not the increase in taxes that bothers him, it is where the taxes are coming from. From whom the state extracts revenue is what, according to Cohen, we need to reform. "Reform" is about finding new review to maintain the same or increased levels of spending, not changing how we think about the functions of government. Says Cohen:

It is important to take a clear look at where we are and where we need to go — together — as a state. We should put aside the misleading rhetoric. We should hold an honest discussion about how we can invest wisely so our state will keep its long, hard-earned reputation as a good place to live and do business.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and read between the lines and speculate that Cohen’s idea of “reform” means taking a greater percentage of taxes from the wealthiest Minnesotans. Okay, go for it in the name of “fairness,” “social justice,” or the more honest “socialism,” but don’t call it “fiscal responsibility.” Cohen observes --
Minnesota's economic recovery lags behind the national recovery for the first time in memory. Job growth is slower here than in other parts of the country.
Shouldn’t we ask why?

When a state’s revenue system is based disproportionately on taxes on the wealthiest individuals, a recession disproportionately impacts state revenues. Look at the logic. Much of the taxable income of wealthy individuals comes from investment income. When the economy slumps, investment income drops and so too do the taxes collected on that income.

That’s not a plea of sympathy for the rich. Those of us that find Hamburger Helper quite tasty without the hamburger have little sympathy for those shopping for “Lobster Helper” to see them over the rough times. The point is, if you’re going to run the state on the backs of the wealthy, then be prepared for deeper recessions and longer recoveries. It’s the price of class envy and the height of fiscal irresponsibility.

Simply citing what even many conservatives regard as fiscal slight-of-hand on the part of Republicans is not justification for assuming that Democrats have the answer. In fact, their solutions, because they are based on their underlying socialism perspective, are far worse.

While DFLers like Cohen salivate at the fiscal nudity of some current administration policies, let’s hope that fiscal conservatives in the legislature have the courage to admit the emperor has no clothes and quickly weave a wrap of fiscal policy sewn tightly with sound conservative principles and save Republicans further embarrassment.

Category: Local Politics, Tax Policy

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

COLUMN -- Is it possible to make Minnesota a better place without raising taxes?

Posted by Craig Westover | 5:49 AM |  

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

David Strom, president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, ticks off three scenarios that we Minnesotans face when state government finds itself in a budget crunch.

Minnesotans might pay more taxes and not receive additional benefits. The flip side is no new taxes and reduced services. The third scenario is the political compromise — pay a little more and get a little less.

"Those are three crappy choices," Strom said. "In other parts of your life, choices aren't all bad like that. People pay less and they get more."

In the private sector, the productivity revolution has been under way for some time, and people know it. They're executing it. A major frustration with government is there seems to be no evidence that bureaucrats have gotten the productivity memo.

The Pawlenty administration's "Drive for Excellence" is producing some evidence and the potential for a fourth, "less crappy" scenario for taxpayers — no new taxes and more direct benefit. It is possible to pay for a better Minnesota without raising taxes.

In his 2003 State of the State address, Gov. Tim Pawlenty outlined a vision to make state government faster, better and more efficient. According to Dan McElroy, senior adviser on innovation to the governor, the administration's strategy is three-pronged: break down organizational silos, make better use of technology, and reinvent processes. There is plenty of success to date.

"We envision Minnesota's agencies and services as one enterprise," McElroy said. "The administration is consolidating similar functions performed by many agencies (accounting and data processing, for example) into an efficient, enterprise structure. The result is more resources for providing front-line service to Minnesotans."

Using the Internet to store documents and to enable public access to those documents and allow taxpayers to file forms electronically is saving millions of dollars and shifting resources from backroom administration to direct citizen interaction.

Some of the best reinventing process efforts are taking place at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, where statistical and methodological tools familiar to the private sector are used to improve workflows and better respond to people who must deal with the agency.

For example, permits to discharge treated wastewater into a lake, river or stream should be revised and reissued every five years. Just a few years ago, the MPCA reissue cycle was seven to 15 years with permit requests arriving faster than the agency could process them. A "Discovery" team diagramed the process for evaluating permits, gathered data, improved the process and measured and tracked cycle times. Today the backlog on discharge permits is zero and the agency is approaching its target of 180-day turnaround time.

"We accomplished this service improvement with no new money and no new headcount," said Sheryl Corrigan, commissioner of the MPCA. It's the fourth scenario — no new taxes, better service for taxpayers.

The state's "Drive to Excellence" is off to a good start, but let's hold the champagne, step back and look at two important big-picture questions: Can we maintain the momentum? Improving the efficiency of government is necessary, but is it sufficient?

"Transforming government requires a culture change," McElroy said. "As the enterprise mindset is inculcated in state employees, hopefully it becomes a nonpartisan carryover from administration to administration."

Hopefully — but that's only part of the equation. As Corrigan notes, "Senior leadership must support a continuous improvement effort."

Unfortunately, the bias in election years is grandiose policies. No candidate runs on reducing turnaround time on discharge permits, yet the essence of good governance is motivating the efficient operation of day-to-day government functions that touch people. That, too, is the measure of political candidates.

Make that "legitimate" government functions. Improving efficiency of government is not sufficient to ensure good government. Consolidating backroom functions of the agencies granting some 600-plus licenses required by the state is efficient, but also someone must ask "Are all 600-plus licenses really necessary?"

That brings us back to my conversation with Strom. Unlike private sector businesses, government has no competition and therefore no urgent, external pressure to be efficient or limited. In lieu of competition, the Taxpayers League's much-maligned "No New Taxes" pledge pressures government to be more efficient, which the Pawlenty administration is proving can be done. Pledging no new taxes also forces the re-evaluation of government activities and weaning the state off spending on what the governor has called the "fun stuff." On the latter, the jury on the Pawlenty administration is still deliberating.

Category: Column, Local Politics, Tax Policy, Taxpayers League

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Patriot Insider

Posted by Craig Westover | 12:01 PM |  

Program director at AM 1280 the Patriot Patrick Campion (A Hallway of My Own) has links to last week's "Patriot Insider." They will be up for the remainder of the week.

Category: The Patriot, Local Politics

No Child Gets Ahead -- School choice and the achievement gap

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:27 AM |  

Interesting pair of comments posted here.

Damn, wish I could remember the link to the article I recently read about US test scores vs. the world.

Question to minister of education in Singapore. Your students test exceedingly well, yet American students surpass yours when they enter the job market. explain.

Answer: Our students are trained to test well. They are taught the knowledge to pass their exams. However, they lack the opportunities US students have, and the experiences, combined with education, that make them successful.(very rough transcription from my memory)

Yes, we should always be vigilant regarding our educational system's quality, and but no, the sky is not falling.

Russ 01.16.06 - 12:02 am #

The counterpoint --

Actually the sky is falling if it hasn't already fallen. We have spent the last 20 years dumbing down our education system with multiculturalism, tolerance, diversity, and a thousand other things that have nothing to do with learning. Our schools have been one giant social experiment gone tragically wrong. In the meantime our foreign competitors have raised up a generation of kids who are better educated by far than ours and lack only the opportunity which our economy provides. Unfortunately for our kids the growth in telecommunications technology is nuking that advantage and you see now the outsourcing not just of factory type jobs, but of engineering and technical jobs as well. I just hope that somebody gets mad enough to destroy the education cartel in this country before it is too late.

J. Ewing 01.16.06 - 12:57 pm #
Both writers are correct. Top American students are the equals or betters of any in the world. Coupled with the opportunities driven by our capitalistic economy, their potential is unlimited. More so, their achievements are the fuel that keeps the economic and social engines running and enables the good life for millions of others.

Just as high taxes and over-regulation dampens the American economy but cannot kill it, “multiculturalism, tolerance, diversity” et al isn’t going to stop high achievers from succeeding. We need not worry about our best and the brightest.

The tragedy of American education is while high achievers succeed no matter what obstacles one puts in their paths, those obstacles needlessly hinder and stop others. An effective education system removes barriers to achievement; it does not erect them. The achievement gap between white students and students of color is not just a matter of social justice. The government-run, monopoly education system philosophy is contributing to a permanent underclass of citizens unprepared educationally to survive, let alone compete in today’s world.

Unfortunately, the “No Child Left Behind” approach to education implies and actuates a “No Child Gets Ahead” system. Closing the achievement gap by throwing obstacles in front of high achievers so that the back of the pack can catch up and/or focusing in on the back of the pack at the expense of educational opportunities fo students with high potential are faulty approaches to the problem. Both produce the artificial success of a narrowing gap at the expense of greater achievement.

If we’re going to fix education, we must accept a bell-shaped curve of achievement while recognizing that distribution on that curve has nothing to do with the color of one’s skin and everything to do with the character of students. The shape of the curve is to a large degree the result of students' educational opportunities.

There will always be students at the under-performing end of the curve. However, rather than use those students and their family circumstances as excuses for continuing failure of and continuing funding requests for public schools, can we not provide those on the cusp of the rising curve the freedom to seek educational opportunity for their children regardless of their income level? Why limit the success of the many for the sake of the failures of a few?

A voucher system targeting low-income families, allowing them to escape schools not meeting their children’s needs by attending private schools -- secular or religious -- is not an impediment to high achievers. It simply provides choice options to low-income families approximating those of the modestly well-to-do. Closing the achievement gap is important, but it needs to be done by skewing the bell curve to the right, narrowing the deviation about the center of the curve and pushing the “average” student towards the high achievement tail of the curve.

Closing the achievement gap without sacrificing opportunities for high potential students simply cannot happen in a monopoly education system concerned, not with achievement, but that “No Child Gets Ahead.”

Category: Education, Achievement Gap, School Choice, Vouchers

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Watch Out for Doran

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:13 AM |  

DFL gubernatorial candidate Kelly Doran was the inaugural guest on “The Patriot Insider,“ a new program on AM 1280 “The Patriot” hosted by Pioneer Press Associate Opinion Page Editor Mark Yost (with appropriate sidekick duties performed by yours truly).

Doran is someone Republicans ought to watch. If he can make it out of the always contentious Democrat nomination battles, Doran just could be a guy that can give Gov. Tim Pawlenty a run for his money -- or your money as is perhaps more appropriate.

First impressions first. Like Pawlenty, in person, Doran has the clean cut fresh and fit look of a TV anchorman. In the tale of the tape, he’s a more commanding stage presence than the governor, but not quite as polished; but that’s only a matter of time and practice. Like Pawlenty, he moves easily between banter and seriousness. Coming out of the construction industry, he’s a man’s man, but also a guy that will distract “Desperate Housewives” from the labors of the pool boy. Unlike his Democrat rivals, Mike Hatch and Steve Kelley, you’d want to have a beer with this guy.

History-wise, he’s got the credentials of the always popular political outsider and only Becky Lourey can rival him in the sympathy vote category. Not a “career politician,“ as the head of Robert Muir Company, he grew the construction company from several million in revenue to nearly $100 million since 1991. He makes a big point of being the first builder in the state to enter a multi-year union labor agreement with the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council, which gives him his DFL “union label.” He stresses his ability to bring people together to accomplish big projects.

Doran was raised by a single mother, which motivated him to become involved in in many community organizations including Caring Tree, an early childhood education organization. He attended public schools, has a Twin Cities football championship on his resume, worked his way through college, and with his wife Maria, an attorney, has a Brady Bunch “blended” family. In short, he’s got a background that will resonate with a large part of the population that are outside of and weary of the holier-than-thou interpretation of "family values."

As an outsider, he’s running a “centrist” campaign, calls himself a "moderate." His campaign slogan is “More Principle, Less Politics,” but when pushed, which I did on The Patriot Insider, the slogan comes down to Doran’s cherry-picking popular but binary positions from both the right and the left and packaging them as a move to the middle. Where necessary, he’s staking out compromise positions, not necessarily consensus positions. Essentially, he’s running a third party campaign under the DFL banner. (His Chief of Staff is John Wodele. Coincidence? I think not.)

Two problems with that approach. The first is, when you’re relatively unknown, you have to make news, and that usually means being a little outrageous -- or simply being Jesse Ventura -- which is pretty much the same thing. I didn’t get a sense of the outrageous from Doran. In addition, being outrageous means potentially making the “big gaffe” that can kill an unknown candidate. It’s wait and see if Doran trys to make a big splash early or waits to ride out of the hills and shoot the wounded after Hatch and Kelley slash at their opponents as is their styles.

The second, more subtle problem with the Doran approach is that ‘more principle” necessarily means “more partisanship,” which is what he says he opposes. For example, he regards the Taxpayers League of Minnesota's “No New Taxes” pledge as politics, not principle, when it fact is a very solid reflection of the principle of limiting government. It's very much a principle, just one that Doran doesn’t agree with. Like most politicians, he’s fallen in love with a slogan and hasn’t given it all that much philosophical thought. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time on the program to drive down to what actually are the principles of the Doran campaign beyond the cliche “putting people first,” nor to gain a real understanding of his distinction between “principle” and “policy.”

Nonetheless, whether something is a principle or a policy is, I admit, a somewhat wonkish discussion, and “More Principle, Less Politics” has a ring to. At least in the early stages of the campaign, Doran is coming out of the gate strong -- he’s doing the retail politics necessary to build name recognition, he has one of the most complete campaign press packages I’ve seen and an informative and useful web site, and if nothing else he understands enough about marketing to break out of the clutter of red, white, and blue signage with a distinctive red, black and yellow combination that is already screaming for attention on billboards around the city.

A note to Republicans, I’d keep an eye on this guy.

Update: From Minnesota Democrats Exposed at the DFL Candidate Forum
Kelly Doran came up to me and gave me his card and said I should call him if I ever need information about the campaign. It was a classy move.
I repeat -- this guy bears watching.

Category: Local Politics, 2006 Elections, The Patriot

Friday, January 13, 2006

Canadian polygamy recommendations are irrelevant to same-sex mariage debate

Posted by Craig Westover | 1:59 PM |  

Okay. The comments are going to come fast and furious (and some already have via email) so I’ll put up the target. As Captain Ed reports today --
No sooner than Canada legalized gender-neutral marriage than a new study commissioned by their Justice Department has concluded that the government should repeal the criminalization of polygamy. In a report that the Canadian Press received confidentially, the Queen's University study not only recommends decriminalization but a regulatory system defining spousal support and inheritance rights based on marriage order and other considerations:
A new study for the federal Justice Department says Canada should get rid of its law banning polygamy, and change other legislation to help women and children living in such multiple-spouse relationships.

“Criminalization does not address the harms associated with valid foreign polygamous marriages and plural unions, in particular the harms to women,” says the report, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act. “The report therefore recommends that this provision be repealed.” ...

Canadian laws should be changed to better accommodate the problems of women in polygamous marriages, providing them clearer spousal support and inheritance rights.
Captain Ed rightly says --
Undeniably, though, the advocates for traditional marriage had it right when they argued that redefining marriage would open a Pandora's box for all sorts of other banned behaviors. The paleolibertarian argument will continue ad nauseam until the government will have to allow any combination of consenting adults, regardless of consanguinity, to form whatever sexual relationships they desire -- and then come up with laws that govern the messy outcomes of the failure of those relationships.
I don’t know about “paleolibertarians,” but certainly the liberal argument will continue ad nauseam -- and that has been my point all along in the same-sex marriage debate. A liberal implementation of same-sex marriage, the Canadian implementation of same-sex marriage, definitely creates the situation Ed describes. A conservative implementation of same-sex marriage definitely does not.

First and foremost the conservative approach definitively acknowledges that the authority to define marriage rests with the legislative branch of government, not the courts. The liberal/Canadian approach is to use the courts to mandate changes in marriage laws. Independent of same-sex marriage, the issue is one of separation of powers; arguing the issue based on one’s visceral reaction to same-sex relationships diminishes the importance of the separation of powers issue.

Second, focusing on same-sex marriage, same sex marriage requires no extension or change of marriage laws or benefits. Marriage is still between two people. No new privileges are required for same-sex couples that don’t already exist for opposite-sex couples. Other than eliminating the restriction on gender, there is no required change in marriage law.

To define a “polygamous marriage,” definite changes must be made, as the Canadian study recommends. There must be an extension of benefits. The law must address and untangle multiple partner family relationships. There must be massive changes in marriage law. The prospects for civil litigation increase geometrically.

Moreover, the benefits to society of two-person committed relationships is a conservative reason for supporting marriage. Same-sex marriage extends that societal benefit. Discounting gay activists, who are out to destroy marriage because of their political philosophy not their sexual orientation, same-sex partners that seek the spiritual commitment that comes from “marriage” affirm, not deny marriage tradition.

Polygamy does none of that. It complicates the legal system. Unlike incorporating same-sex couples into the existing marriage construct, polygamous marriage forms a whole new construct. Recognizing that the legislature has the sole authority to define marriage, there is no obligation to recognize polygamous relationships simply because same-sex marriage might be recognized. They are disconnected issues.

Along the same lines, polygamous marriage can be debated right now irrespective of the status of same-sex marriage. It’s a heterosexual activity, that produces lots of children -- something opponents of same-sex marriage argue such relationships cannot -- so maybe it’s a good thing. I am being factious, but the point is valid -- same-sex marriage has more in common with traditional marriage than it does with polygamous marriage.

Liberals and Canadians recommend lots of strange things. That shouldn’t divert Minnesotans from focusing on the basic conservative question -- Is society better off recognizing same-sex couples and providing the benefit of marriage to them and their children than it is by marginalizing them? The polygamy question is irrelevant.

Category: Same-Sex Marriage