Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Now if you want to criticize Michele Bachmann . . .

Posted by Craig Westover | 1:32 PM |  

Here's an opportunity. "Pay-for-performance" for physicians is not the kind of health care reform that ought to be encouraged. From a Bachmann press release.

(Washington, D.C.) - Congresswoman Michele Bachmann congratulated Fairview Northland Regional Hospital on being named one of the top performers in a groundbreaking Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), Premier Inc. pay-for-performance project that rewards hospitals for delivering
higher quality care in five clinical areas. Fairview Princeton Clinic and Fairview Lakes Medical Center in Wyoming will both receive bonuses.

This is a missed opportunity to educate the public about pay-for-performance, which at its basic level is simply a cost management tool for managed care providers. It’s a further case of bureaucrats inserting themselves in the patient/doctor relationship. It’s substitution of one-size fits most medical care for individualized patient care. Most importantly, it does nothing to reduce the cost of care or improve the health of Americans.

More to come, but while the staff of Fairview may well be deserving of obligatory congressional pat on the back, this trend in health care deserves the other side of the hand.

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COLUMN -- Can a monolithic school system serve the common good?

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:50 AM |  

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

An indication of the problem we face making any kind of real education reform is in the dueling education reports that recently came across my desk.

From the Center on Education Policy comes a defense of the traditional public school system, "Why We Still Need Public Schools." It declares a primary purpose of public education is "accomplishing certain collective missions promoting the common good." It lists six:

• Providing universal access to free education,
• Guaranteeing equal opportunity for all children,
• Unifying a diverse population,
• Preparing people for citizenship in a democratic society,
• Preparing people to become economically self-sufficient,
• Improving social conditions.

The report admits that public schools are not meeting expectations in these areas and reforms are in order. However, the report notes, "Most current efforts to reform public education have focused on increasing students' academic achievement. … But the reasons given for why it's important to improve achievement often stress individual or private economic benefits, rather than public benefits."

The report makes clear the common good is a primary benefit and justification for a publicly funded education system.

The second report, this one from the Cato Institute entitled "Why We Fight — How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict," concludes public schools inherently work against their own collective objectives.

Public school conflicts over intelligent design, freedom of expression, book banning, multiculturalism, mandated integration, sex education, homosexuality, and religion in general are not aberrations. Conflict in a centralized school system is inevitable. Cultural, ethnic and religious groups have no choice but to fight for their values in a system where "unity" is controlled by the politically powerful.

Indeed, community benefit must be part of any discussion of public education — we do spend almost 40 percent of the state budget on education. But the Cato report presents convincing examples in support of an intuitive notion — conflict over who controls policy that governs public schools is inevitable. It creates divisiveness rather than unity. Such conflict diverts time and resources from the mission of educating individual students.

These two reports, read in tandem, raise three linked questions for educators, the governor and legislators.

• How do we reconcile, if we can, the dichotomy of common good versus individual achievement in the making of statewide education policy?
• Is the purpose of public education to serve the individual or to serve society, and if the answer is "both," how do we decide priorities when inevitable conflict arises?
• Can a common good be achieved within a single monolithic education system?

Those are questions neither the governor nor the legislators have wrestled with in public, opting instead for "reform" proposals that are simply new best guesses for achieving politically compromised objectives. We're changing education policy, but not changing the way we make education policy.

Think of our current "obsolete" education system (the governor's word), as a person with a blindfold bumping into a wall. The reform proposals on the table turn the person to the right or the left, give him some walking room, but they don't remove the blindfold. Sooner or later, our guy is going to hit another wall. Therein lies the inherent problem with a monopolistic education system. It is blind to changes in the environment until it bangs headfirst into them.

Reform is not doing different things (turning right or left); it is doing things differently (taking off the blindfold).
If the governor and the Legislature are serious about education reform they will decentralize decision-making — fewer top-down mandates to local districts and schools, more freedom for districts (and individual schools) to respond to local needs (the charter school model).

Beyond reforming the public school system, the governor and the Legislature ought to take a larger view of "public education." Public education for the common good consists of traditional public schools and nongovernmental schools. Policy should foster an environment where private and home schools are healthy complements to the government system.

The more eyes focused on the path ahead, the more likely we can change direction before hitting the wall of obsolescence.

Decentralizing and expanding the concept of public education is a radical approach to reform, but it is also an honest attempt to reconcile two very different perspectives in two otherwise irreconcilable reports. The alternative is the same old debate that inherently produces conflict over who gets final control of education policy. That is not good for children. That is not good for the republic. It's time to be bold.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

President Bush's health care proposal is the right way to go

Posted by Craig Westover | 2:55 PM |  

From the Cato Institute web site comes the best analysis of the best part of the President's State of the Union address.
"Aside from energy, the major focus of Mr. Bush's domestic proposals was an effort to expand access to affordable health insurance, by creating a new tax benefit for those buying insurance on their own rather than through their employer," reports The New York Times. "The new benefit would be part of a sweeping change in the tax code under which employer-provided health insurance, which is how more than half of Americans get their coverage, would be treated as taxable income. For decades, those benefits have been exempt from income and payroll taxes."

Michael Cannon, the Cato Institute's director of health policy studies and co-author of Healthy Competition: What's Holding Back Health Care and How to Free It, comments on the President's healthcare proposal: "The President's health care proposal shows that he is way ahead of both Democrats and many in his own party when it comes to reforming health care. Though economists on the left and right have been screaming it for decades, few politicians understand that the unlimited tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance does enormous damage to America's health care system. The President's proposal to limit that deduction, and to make it available to those without access to employment-based coverage for the first time, is nothing short of revolutionary."

In "A New Prescription for Health Care," Cannon writes: "The president's plan would encourage responsibility by limiting the amount of health insurance we can deduct from our taxes each year. The tax break for employer-provided health insurance is now unlimited, and workers can lower their taxes by demanding unnecessary coverage, which makes them less responsible as consumers." He concludes: "Bush's proposal will be controversial. Opponents will scream that it would destroy employer-based health insurance. What those opponents actually mean, however, is that they don't think workers should be free to choose where they purchase their health insurance."
In my Legal Ledger column this week, in connection with education, I made the distinction between doing different things and doing things differently – Bush’s proposal is a case of doing things differently. It attacks the fundamental cause of a bad outcome.

Unlike his energy and education proposals, Bush calls for no government health care mandates, no target objectives, and he lays out no utopian end game. The proposal simply removes the incentives that have created the system everyone deplores. It opens the door for creative solutions spurred by market forces.

Now, the Paul Krugmans of the world will come with the predictable lament that Bush’s proposal doesn’t address the problems of the uninsured very poor. He’s right; it doesn’t. But that shortcoming shouldn’t stand in the way of the opportunity to provide a choice-driven health care system matching risk to reward for the majority of Americans. The effectiveness of such a system enables us as a society to 1) identify the chronically uninsured as distinct from those people who today are uninsured because they are between jobs or choose not to be insured because of high costs and 2) then provide identifiable people that slip through the cracks with some form of government subsidy that targets their requirements rather than forcing a program on everyone that satisfies no one.

In an otherwise predictable speech, the health care proposal is not just a step, but a giant leap in the right direction.

COLUMN -- Catcalls And Conversation: Seizing opportunities to amplify principles and re-evaluate positions

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:50 AM |  

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

"After reading yet another pro-smoker rant from Craig Westover, I'm beginning to think that he is nothing but a paid spokesman for the tobacco industry … Is that the case, Mr. Westover?" — Letter to the editor

Criticism is part of the game for a columnist, hobby or otherwise. Criticism that flips the switch on an unconsidered point of view or opens up a new line of argument is more than welcome — it is appreciated. Insightful criticism forces one of two things to happen. Each is a good thing.

• One might reject the new line of thinking, but to do so, one must examine his position in light of the new argument. That gives additional credence to one's conviction.

• One might see value in the new insight and consequently modify or even reverse his position. That makes one's new position more rational than his previous stance.

Then there is criticism like the letter to the editor quoted above. The temptation is to simply treat it as an irritant and ignore it. A more productive tack, however, is to regard it as an opportunity to amplify a principle.

For the record: I am not a paid spokesman for anyone. In fact, I'm a nonsmoker who never was a smoker. But neither fact lends moral authority to any argument I make about the wrongheadedness of a statewide smoking ban in bars and restaurants.

The letter writer fails to grasp that when advocating public policy, principle matters more than personal likes, dislikes or even who pays the bills (or casts the votes). In the case of smoking bans, the principle is that in a free society sometimes one has to support the right of individuals to do things he might personally find annoying, morally reprehensible or even stupid and self-destructive. Smoking may be all three, but that alone doesn't justify trumping private property rights and individual choice.

One can legitimately argue (with evidence) against my conclusion that there is little effective danger from secondhand smoke but not by implying some connection to "Big Tobacco." Even if I were a paid lobbyist, while that might raise questions about facts on which I premise my argument, it doesn't alter the validity or lack of credence in my arguments. Ultimately, a policy must stand on its own merits, regardless of who proposes it or what his ultimate motives might be.

Consider another criticism posted on a local Web site following news reports that Minnesota public schools rank among the best in the nation:

"The bad news keeps rolling in for (Westover)… It must be dismaying to have public school excellence, especially in Minnesota, continually rubbed in (his) pinched, sour face."

Another irritant, but the comment is also another opportunity to illuminate principle.

The writer assumes that supporting one position necessarily means hoping contrasting policies fail. He assumes that supporting parental school choice and education vouchers necessarily means regarding any public school success as a bad thing. Not the case — the argument for more parental choice ultimately stands or falls on its own merits regardless of public education's success or failure.

The writer fails to consider that the more choice a system provides, the more opportunity for positive innovation. Conversely, the more monopolistic a system, the less innovative it becomes. When a monopoly innovates, it runs the all-eggs-in-one-basket risk — a single errant innovation negatively affects every student. In a diverse education system, an individual school failure has limited effect; an individual school success can be readily emulated.

I sincerely hope for the success of public schools, but as a monopoly system, public education is nonetheless a couple of bad decisions away from disaster. Choice mitigates that risk and enhances the opportunity for difference-making innovation.

Fortunately, not all critics resort to the personal.

My column last week critically reviewed Stillwater author Tony Signorelli's book, "A Call to Liberty." Mr. Signorelli, whose book forced me to re-evaluate some of my thinking, wrote in response:

"Your article is precisely the kind of thing I would like to see engendered in more of the political dialogue. … Diversity of opinion, does, in fact, make us stronger, more thoughtful and more creative in finding solutions. …. Never once do I feel personally attacked, demonized or diminished by your piece. The point is that we can actually change the nature of the dialogue … with thoughtful pieces … and less with the bitter letters and other disenfranchising work submitted by so many writers today."

Amen, Mr. Signorelli.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

COLUMN -- State of the State fell short on real education reform

Posted by Craig Westover | 12:57 PM |  

Monday, January 22, 2007

Better government, better energy, better health care and better education are part of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s vision of a better Minnesota, but in the governor’s state-of-the-state address, the greatest of these is education. The governor spent almost half his speech on education, detailing very specific proposals, which will be debated, modified, rejected or implemented by the 2007 legislature.

The proposals themselves were the focus of post-speech punditry. Legislators liked some, disliked others and were ready with proposals of their own. That’s a good thing in the sense that the more discussion of more ideas the better. But at the end of the day, parents that have packed their kids off to public school for any length of time recognize the pattern – jump on the latest education fad, run with it for a while until something shinier comes along, then lunge at it.

Never mentioned in the analysis of the governor’s education proposals is the far more fundamental question, why does Minnesota’s education system look the way it does? If we don’t someday tackle the “why” question, we’re doomed to that never-ending cycle of fad-to-fancy education policy. Education “reform,” which is what the governor is shooting for, is less about what we do and more about how decide to do what we do.

The beginning is a very good place to start, so let’s start with “dough.” The governor was absolutely correct when he said that debating the level of funding consumes most of the oxygen in the room, and very little time gets spent on reforms. But his solution – “let me address funding up-front” – is exactly the wrong approach. It puts the proverbial cart before the horse.

The biggest criticism of the state’s approach to education is that all it does is throw money at problems. Starting by throwing money is a bad start. Everyone seems to agree that education needs reform, so doesn’t it make more sense to look first at reform in terms of what it is we are trying to achieve? Then we can determine how to measure what we’re trying to achieve, determine what it takes to get to our goals, and finally determine what that will cost and how we will pay for it.

If education is as important as we make it out to be then we should spend no less and no more than is necessary. Education policy should neither contract nor expand to accommodate an arbitrary budget number.

“American high schools are obsolete,” said the governor. That’s not a policy problem – it’s a process problem. Before we can talk about fixing the current education system, we need to ask how did we get to a point where we’re mandating that our kids attend an obsolete system? How did we let our system become obsolete?

The problem is most certainly an obsolete way of viewing public education.

As long as we view public education as a top-down, expert-driven, one-size-fits-all system that delivers knowledge and skills, we have little hope of any real reform. We’re destined to live with a system that is 75 percent of what anyone wants and half of what anyone needs. Instead of top-down proposals, however well intentioned, we need a bottom-up focus that starts with students.

The governor can tell us, “too many of our high school students are engaged in academic loitering for much of their high school career. In too many cases, our high school students are bored, check-out, coasting and not even vaguely aware of their post-high school plans or opportunities, and they are just marking time.” But only those students can tell us why they are loitering, why they are bored and what would motivate them to check in and make the most of their educational opportunity.

Only teachers, through their local school administrators, can tell the state what each individual school needs to respond to what students want and need. And that will be different for every school district and every school within every district. You want reform education? Turn over responsibility for setting educational objectives and determining and managing budgets to the local school administrator. Make school administrators responsible for justifying their budgets.

You want accountability? Encourage parental school choice so the impact of failing to educate kids is felt immediately at the local level.

Without passing judgment on the worth of the governor’s individual education proposals, what he presented in his state-of-the-state address was an education policy Mulligan, not real reform. Real reform is doing things differently, not simply doing different things.

UPDATE: What Kind of Education Reform Do We Need ? By Tom Neuville, State Senator, District 25.

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Jeffer's over/under number looks pretty good

Posted by Craig Westover | 6:13 PM |  

Back in November, the Pioneer Press ran this little blurb --

Fantasy Budgeting

Maybe it’s her experience with poker-night promotions at her bar, Stub and Herb’s, or it could be her experience running against Gov. Tim Pawlenty in the Republican primary. Whatever her inspiration, the ever-feisty Sue (I’m not done with politics just yet) Jeffers has set the inside betting line on the “over/under” for 2007 biennial budget – $34.5 billion.

Today Gov. Pawlenty issued his budget number -- $34.4 billion. With Democrats in the legislature, the "over" looks pretty good. If the smoking ban kills Stubb & Herb's, Jeffers has a future in the bookie business -- if not state government.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Democrats being Democrats on oil subsidies issue

Posted by Craig Westover | 12:51 PM |  

Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren of the Cato Institute provide what is the best take on the Democratic action to over 10 years cut $14 billion in subsidies headed for the petroleum industry. Their contention is, we free market advocates really have little to get excited about on one hand, but on the other hand, yup, the cuts are just more of Democrats being Democrats.
There is no identifiable market failure that might cause private actors to significantly under-invest in domestic oil production. In practice, however, the Democrats are simply transferring subsidies from one energy sector to another with no net reduction of taxpayer funds going to corporate in-boxes.
Taylor and Doren argue that the argument that the more you subsidize oil production the more you get isn’t very strong. There is just not enough unexploited oil in the United States to greatly affect world crude oil prices. They do the math and come to the conclusion that that eliminating or cutting back on federal subsidies to the oil and gas business is a fine idea. But that's not exactly what the Democrats have in mind.
The most significant part of the bill — from both a budget and political standpoint — is the call for about 40 companies producing oil and gas from the Gulf of Mexico to voluntarily pay a "conservation resource fee" to the federal Treasury. Back in 1998 and 1999, those companies signed leases to drill in certain federally-owned deepwater reserves without any requirement that royalties be paid. If the oil companies in question don't voluntarily agree to pay the proposed "conservation resource fee," the bill would prohibit them from getting leases to drill on federal land in the future. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that almost a third of the bill's savings - $4.35 billion over ten years — would come from those fee payments alone. A similar tightening of the royalty payment rules from other federal lands will bring in an additional $210 million over ten years.

In principle, there's nothing wrong with renegotiating leases. Contracts, after all, are renegotiated in private markets all the time. If Party A refuses to renegotiate with Party B, there is no reason why Party B must commit to doing future business with Party A. If the taxpayer is being unfairly taken advantage of, there's nothing wrong a call for renegotiation.

One might argue, however, that the economy would be ill-served by imposing ever-steeper royalties (taxes) on oil and gas extraction from federal lands, particularly when Exxon Mobil, for example already pays more taxes to government at all levels than they do profits to private stockholders.

The suspicion that the Democrats are primarily interested in taking even more money out of the oil companies' hide and not with any existential concern for tax justice is reinforced by a provision of the bill that would impose a similar "conservation of resources fee" on all non-producing oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico as well. This is a naked tax hike of $1.75 billion over a ten-year period unadulterated by any cover story about equity or tax fairness.
Taylor and Doren conclude:
Surprisingly enough, the Democrats' oil-subsidy search-and-destroy operation is far less brutal than advertised. An ambitious and intellectually rigorous bill would have also targeted the accelerated depletion allowance provided to small oil producers (about another $7.6 billion over ten years), preferential expensing for equipment used to refine liquid fuels ($830 million over five years), accelerated depreciation for natural-gas distribution pipelines ($560 million over five years), accelerated depreciation for expenditures on dry holes (with unclear budgetary implications), and the exemption from passive loss limitation for owners of working interests in oil and gas properties ($200 million over five years).
(Note: Accelerated depletion allowance provided to small oil producers is a pet bill of Sen. Ted Kennedy, whose family trust, held in an offshore bank, just happens to include stock in an oil company that qualifies for the allowance.)
The Democrats' somewhat dodgy anti-subsidy crusade, however, collapses into ashes with the proposed "Strategic Energy Efficiency and Renewables Reserve" tacked on to the bill. In short, all fiscal gains to the Treasury associated with the above will be handed back out again to corporations like GE, British Petroleum, and you-name-the-industrial-conglomerate engaged in energy efficiency and renewable energy businesses. But the same arguments against handouts to "Big Oil" can be as easily marshaled against handouts to Big or Little Fill-In-the-Blank. And with energy prices this high, there are ample incentives for investors to spend money on oil and gas production, renewable energy, energy conservation, or other energy exotica.
After all the math is done – here’s the money quote:
The Republican abandonment of economic principle and subsequent love affair with K Street lobbyists gave the Democrats a wonderful opportunity to launch a politically winning total war on corporate welfare. Pity that they don't seem interested in taking advantage of it.
In oither words, it's same-old, same-old: corporate welfare isn't necessarily bad; it's only bad when your pet corporations aren't getting the welfare.

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Selective smoking ban enforcement

Posted by Craig Westover | 11:03 AM |  

Via email comes this note from Kevin --
See the hypocrisy of the Ontario provincial government and their smoking ban (here).

Thank goodness the State of Minnesota isn't in the casino business.
Coincidently, this is the example I used to argue that Minnesota shouldn't be in the casino business.

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

Ironically, the state could pass a smoking ban for private bars and restaurants that compete with a state-tribal casino in which a smoking ban could not be enforced.

Do we start to see the problem?

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

COLUMN -- Liberty is at risk: Blame the right — and the left

Posted by Craig Westover | 5:31 AM |  

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

I make no bones about writing from a libertarian-conservative point of view. My conservative side bristles and finds an awful lot to disagree with in Stillwater author Anthony Signorelli's book, 'Call to Liberty: Bridging the Divide Between Liberals and Conservatives.' But the libertarian in me finds much to agree with. In a bridging-the-divide spirit, agreement is the place to begin discussing what is an interesting if ultimately unsatisfactory read for the left, right and moderate middle.

A citizen-pundit, Signorelli is a consultant and an entrepreneur who has marched to his own drummer and achieved success. He does not shun the notion of an American dream or that America was founded on enduring principles. Unlike so many authors on the left, Signorelli starts from principles political conservatives heartily endorse (or should).

His argument is straightforward: Private property, the rule of law and individual sovereignty are principles that hold us together as Americans. Considered in historical context, they are "liberal" principles, and the United States is a "liberal democracy."

Principles differ from values; principles are enduring, while values are individualized, changing and the basis of differences. Within the context of "liberalism," progressives, moderates and ("true") conservatives place emphasis on different values, which might lead to different policy choices, but their legitimate efforts are guided by the shared American narrative, the principles that bind us together.

The parenthetical "true" is there because Signorelli extends his argument to define a radical right wing composed of the Christian right, neoconservatives and the corrupt right-wing corporate elites and personified by a Bush administration that has co-opted the label "conservative" and demonized the label "liberal." The right wing covertly espouses a philosophy and policies that are anathema to American tradition.

"The alternatives to liberal democracy are not legitimate to an America committed to emancipation, freedom and liberty," Signorelli writes. "True conservatism cannot be such an alternative because it is itself a creation of liberal democracy. Radical right-wing extremism ultimately becomes fascism or totalitarianism." There is a corresponding radical left (communism and anarchy), but it is the radical right wing that is in power and that we ought to worry about.

America is not yet a fascist country, Signorelli says, but he cites the work of Friedrich Hayek, "a darling of the modern American right-wing movement," to illustrate that the conditions for fascism are present in America today, and their source is the right wing.

Signorelli's book has three main purposes:

• Identify America's liberal heritage and principles.

• Clarify challenges to those principles and identify their source.

• Make suggestions for reclaiming American liberal democracy.

To a large degree, he succeeds, but the success is tempered by the very partisanship that Signorelli seeks to avoid.

The promise of his premise goes unfulfilled. In what might have been an insightful book — a progressive's understanding of how progressive values mesh with a liberalism based on the principles of private property, the rule of law, and individual sovereignty — we get another dose of Bush bashing. Granted, Signorelli bashes more responsibly than most, and some of his observations will sting an honest conservative, but it's not the insight one would hope for, nor insight that Signorelli is in the best position to provide.

A major difference between the left and the right today is that the right of the political spectrum is influenced by limited-government libertarians, who reflect and are actually more aligned with Signorelli's "American Liberalism" than are post-New Deal "liberals."

Libertarians stood against invading Iraq, in opposition to neoconservative principle, not on the basis of whether there were weapons of mass destruction. They argue against wiretaps and infringement of civil rights. They also oppose massive federal interventions in education, health care and crime-fighting legislation — signature legislation in the Clinton and both Bush administrations.

The point is, the right is open to and does engage in internal debate, and the issues raised by Signorelli are not new to the right. There is no equivalent to the libertarian influence on the left. No group on the left questions the legitimacy of the progressive notion of social reform, which John Stuart Mill, part of the liberal heritage Signorelli cites, described as "liberticide."

"Call to Liberty" will no doubt throw many conservatives into denial about the extent to which liberty has been eroded in their name. Unfortunately, many on the political left will seize on the same points to camouflage their own tendencies to elevate progressive values above the principles of private property, rule of law and individual sovereignty.

Neither side deserves a pass on confronting its own reflection in the corruption of power — not the party that is struggling to hold power, nor the party that sees itself with an electoral mandate. "Liberty" means more than the freedom to choose one's master.

Update: Here is the link to a Google Video of Tony Signorelli's appearance at the Stillwater Critical Thinking Club.

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

More on Smoking Bans

Posted by Craig Westover | 11:10 AM |  

Sue Jeffers in the St. Cloud Times.

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Bullsh*t from Americans United

Posted by Craig Westover | 5:30 PM |  

“All boats should rise with the tide – not just the yachts,” said Jeremy Funk, spokesman for Americans United. “For far too long, ordinary hardworking Minnesotans have been denied a livable wage, but the passage of this bill to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour with such strong bipartisan unity is an extraordinarily positive step forward. It’s just disappointing that Rep. Bachmann chose to stand on the side of the corporate specials interests instead of standing on the side of working families and supporting an increase in the minimum wage.”

If one is going to criticize a vote against the minimum wage, let’s criticize it on economic grounds, on policy grounds, or on something substantive and not unmitigated bullsh*t -- trying to create an impression rather than trying to clarify the debate.

Start with this -- “For far too long, ordinary hardworking Minnesotans have been denied a livable wage.” Where did the law “deny” anybody a wage greater than the minimum wage? In fact, it is the new law that denies an individual the right to prove his worth and offer to work for a starting salary less than $7.25 an hour.

As has been pointed out many times, minimum wage has no effect on employers -- they simply pass on the cost to consumers or cut staff and eliminate jobs or hours. Consumers are hurt by higher prices or less service; workers that need entry-level jobs are hurt not having those jobs available.

That’s what Bachmann was voting against. That’s an economic argument that can be debated. Roiling that she stands “on the side of corporate interests instead of working families” is just an attack, not an argument. Of course, argument and debate and truth is not the objective of Americans United. If it were, they'd challenge Bachmann's premise not her character.

It’s indeed ironic that Democrats blast Bachmann for being “anti-science,” but when it comes to the science of economics, Democrats ignore the science and opt for a faith-based trust that they are doing good.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The new mainstream?

Posted by Craig Westover | 5:57 PM |  

According to an Associated Press story, the young adults ages 18-24 of Generation Next are more likely to be Democratic voters than their predecessors, Generation X. That according to the Pew Research Center, which also found that group is less inclined to vote than older generations. Among the other characteristics of the generation that leans toward the Democratic Party:

-- Believes casual sex, binge drinking, illegal drug use and violence are more prevalent among young people today.

-- Says getting rich and being famous are top goals

-- Reads the newspaper and follows the news on television and radio less than those in older generations

-- Keeps close touch with their parents for financial help

-- Is twice as likely to admire entertainers as political leaders

-- Has often gotten a tattoo, dyed their hair an untraditional color or had a body piercing

Oh well, these kids are only 24, mere puppies by today’s standards, which just happens to remind me of a story.

Back in the era of the first President Clinton, Bill was out jogging when he came upon a small boy outside the White House gate with a box of new born puppies so cuddly and cute, President Bill couldn’t help stroking them.

“And they are Democratic puppies,” the boy told the President, which made him beam even more.

That evening he told Hilary about the cute and cuddly puppies.

“And the boy said they were Democratic puppies,” the President declared.

A few days later, Hillary ventured outside the White House and saw the boy with the box of puppies. Just as Bill had told her, the puppies were adorable.

“They are Republican puppies,” said the boy. Hillary was taken aback.

“But you told my husband they were Democratic puppies,” she said.

“They were,” said the boy. “But now they have their eyes open.”

We can only hope.


Camp Baldwin

Posted by Craig Westover | 5:01 PM |  

I'm sure Alec Baldwin's comments about Joe Lieberman will come off better in the major motion picture version when he can run slow motion of the “longhoped-for bullet” entering Lieberman's brain.

A lot of talk about what the Dems should do now that they are at the wheel. Two people this Congress should not let up on. Cheney, obviously. Can't let the opportunity slip away to prosecute Pinochet-ney for all of his crimes. The other is Lieberman. This party needs to send a strong signal, and that is that loyalty matters in partisan politics. (Did Lieberman really think that his colleagues would chuck the entire Connecticut state apparatus just to soothe his ego?) Lieberman needs to go to the shed. For a very long time. Gotta get his mind, right. And when he comes out, ask him, "Are you a Democrat, Joe? Or aren't you?" (Emphasis added)


COLUMN -- Absent exaggeration, scientific case for smoking ban is weak

Posted by Craig Westover | 6:30 AM |  

Following my Pioneer Press column is a column that appeared Monday in the St. Paul Legal Ledger. Taken together, the columns make the case that regardless of the outcome on the statewide smoking ban, the state ought to define limits to it's authority to make individual health issues "public health issues" as it defined limits to its authority of eminent domain.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

In the editorial 'Ban smoking in the workplace statewide,' the Pioneer Press makes an intellectually honest case for extending the statewide smoking ban to include bars and restaurants. It steers clear of misleading exaggerations and attempts an objective view of the science of secondhand smoke. It acknowledges the larger issues of the debate — property rights, economic harm and the limits of government power.

However, eschewing exaggeration leaves the Pioneer Press without convincing scientific justification for a statewide smoking ban. Honestly presenting scientific fact opens the door to questions about if and how government should legitimately be involved. The Pioneer Press sidesteps the most fundamental question: How are the limits of government's public health authority defined?

Anticipating an obesity "crisis," a trans-fat plague and mandatory public health initiatives driven by homeland security, it's critical to define the limits of government's public health activities, regardless of the smoking ban outcome. That's where legislative attention ought be focused.

The Pioneer Press makes thiscase: A statewide smoking ban in bars and restaurants is justified because smoking in public is not a private act. It exposes a roomful of nonsmokers to polluted air. That makes it fair game for public health scrutiny.

According to experts, secondhand smoke is a "powerful trigger" that can cause blood clots in people with diseased arteries. Some diseases, including most cancers, require longer periods of exposure. Nonsmoking employees in smoke-filled workplaces and nonsmoking spouses of smokers are at risk.

The Pioneer Press specifically states it does not want to make smoking in one's home a crime, despite noting that there is stronger evidence that secondhand smoke has negative health impacts on pregnant women, young children and infants, and there is statistically significant evidence secondhand smoke can cause sudden infant death syndrome.

The editorial concedes there are limits to the government's responsibility to protect public health and safety, but it does not define them. The Pioneer Press's ultimate rationale for a statewide smoking ban is its "fear that half-measures, exemptions, city by city rules or voluntary programs" won't change anything. Government, it says, has a responsibility to act.

The debate over a statewide smoking ban highlights a dangerous inconsistency: There are limits on government's ability to physically take private property, but virtually none on its authority to regulate, in the name of public health, what is allowed on private property.

In the 2006 session, the Minnesota Legislature defined limits on the government's authority to use eminent domain to take private property for public use; in a like manner, the smoking ban debate is the opportunity to define when government has legitimate responsibility to limit individual liberty in the name of public health.

The Pioneer Press maintains that possible acute reactions to secondhand smoke and a statistical correlation to increased risk of some cancers is sufficient to necessitate a statewide smoking ban. The acute danger, however, is relevant only to people with pre-existing health conditions. The risk for some cancers correlates (statistically; it is not proven as a cause) only after decades of consistent exposure, and then on the order of two to three additional cases per 100,000 nonsmoker instances. If those levels of risk warrant government action, then some other conclusions follow.

The Pioneer Press says it does not want to make smoking in a private home a crime. Why not? The home is not sacrosanct; government makes it illegal to grow and smoke marijuana in private homes — even if it's recommended for health reasons by a physician. One can drink adult beverages at home, but not if one's intoxication endangers a child. According to the science, any amount of smoke in a house endangers children, spouses and infants. So why shouldn't smoking at home be a crime?

"If public health is the issue, how can we worry so much about smoke blown on adults in a restaurant or bar and so little about infants and children living in smoke-filled homes?" asks the Pioneer Press editorial. It is, however, silent on the obvious answer — public health is not the main motivation behind the statewide smoking ban however much the Pioneer Press would like it to be. It is about borrowing the undefined, unlimited public health authority to ban smoking "as a convenience" for the impatient majority that sees no tyranny when the immediate finality of legislation is chosen over the uncertain results of education and individual choice over time.

Before the Supreme Court's Kelo decision, which Justice Sandra Day-O'Connor opined allowed government to take virtually any person's home for any public purpose, people didn't really mind if government confiscated a car dealership here and there to build a tax-generating corporate campus. Now, the Pioneer Press maintains, although it is unfortunate, some people must bear the economic burden and suffer a loss of liberty and property rights for the public health of a smoke-free state.

It appears it's not government that governs least that is best; the best government governs "them" more than it governs "us." I don't believe the paper on the east side of the river believes that is the position it is endorsing. Unfortunately, without limits on government's public health authority, that is exactly the position the Pioneer Press is supporting.


Monday, January 10, 2007

Last session the legislature faced the issue of whether the state’s authority to exercise eminent domain had limits. The legislature established in law objective criteria defining when the state’s taking of an individual’s private property would be justified – and when it would not.

A proposed statewide smoking ban confronts this legislature with the same legal conundrum – does the state’s authority to protect public health at the expense of private property rights have limits?

Before considering any statewide smoking ban, this legislature ought first set objective criteria, as was done with eminent domain reform, which define when an individual health issue rises to the level of a public health issue necessitating government intervention. Second, legislators must apply those criteria to secondhand smoke exposure to determine if a statewide smoking ban is a necessary government action.

There are three basic criteria that define when an individual health issue rises to a level necessitating government intervention --

1) A person is exposed to a risk to which he does not consent.
2) Every person or any person might be exposed to the risk.
3) A reasonable person cannot protect himself from the risk.

If a statewide smoking ban fails any one of the criteria, it is likely an unnecessary government intrusion on individual rights. Let’s test them --

There are two elements to the first criterion – the first is level of “risk”; the second is “consent.”

Smoking ban proponents are often guilty of exaggerating statistics and making non-scientific statements about secondhand smoke that are false and misleading. Nonetheless, an objective look at raw data does show that over time there is a greater than 99 percent probability secondhand smoke exposure is correlated with an increase in lung disease and other aliments. However, the same research studies show “exposure over time” is measured in decades and even then, secondhand smoke is at best a weak contributing factor statistically insignificant as a causal factor -- even for lung cancer.

There is virtually no risk from secondhand smoke to a casual, healthy bar patron. To put the risk to bar employees into perspective, a person would have to work in a smoking environment for over 21 years to run an increased risk of lung cancer from about 10 in 100,000 (the nominal rate of lung cancer in non-smokers) to 12.5 in 100,000 (based on a 95 percent confidence interval and a median risk ratio of 1.25).

Does that level of risk after two decades of voluntary exposure justify government intervention?

If legislators can answer “yes,” then the issue of “consent” must be considered – to be a public health issue a person must not consent to the risk. A non-smoker patronizing or working in a smoking establishment ultimately makes the choice to be there; he knows and consents to the risk. Even if one believes that secondhand smoke exposure is a health hazard, a smoking ban fails the first criterion on the basis of consent.

To be a public health issue, everyone or any one is at risk of exposure to dangerous levels of secondhand smoke. A smoking ban also fails this test. Only people that enter or accept employment in smoking establishments face the risk. Given the decades of exposure required for secondhand smoke to constitute a health risk, casual exposure does not create a public health issue.

The final criterion of a public health issue is that a reasonable person can’t protect himself from a risk. This criterion incorporates the principle of implementing “least restrictive means” of achieving the state’s objectives.

If the objective of a statewide smoking ban is preventing exposure to secondhand smoke, the least restrictive means is requiring property owners to post warning signs and inform potential employees that smoking is allowed. More restrictive than simple signage, but less restrictive that a smoking ban, is requiring a state-defined air quality level in bars and restaurants. By definition, a “reasonable person” is capable of making an informed decision about risk if given complete and accurate information.

Legislators had the luxury of being on the popular side when they passed eminent domain reform that protected individual rights. Opposing a statewide smoking ban, action that is unpopular but also protects individual rights, is more difficult. Nonetheless, the previous legislature had the intellectual honesty to set limits on the government’s power to confiscate private property. Regardless of the smoking ban vote outcome, the state does not have unlimited regulatory power when it comes to policing public health. Let us hope a few good legislators seize the day and make that clear.

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

If somking bans were really about public health

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:07 AM |  

this is the approach lawmakers would be discussing.


Thursday, January 04, 2007

I like it.

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:42 AM |  

That Keith Ellison chose a Qur’an once owned by Thomas Jefferson for his ceremonial swearing in.

Grant it, Jefferson had a deist’s skepticism of Islamic dogma. And he did wage America’s first undeclared preemptive war against Muslim Barbary pirates. And I can’t speak to Ellison’s motives.

Nonetheless, I like the choice of Jefferson’s Qur’an as a third alternative to the Qur’an/Bible much ado about little arguments; it preserves Ellison’s desire to honor his religious faith and still acknowledges (albeit in a different way) American tradition. It’s the opportunity for conciliation I thought Ellison missed by not using a Bible, but his solution is, I think, more elegant and no less respectful. I’m glad to see he understands tradition, even in the face of inevitable change, is important.


Dark passage into the liberal mind

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:26 AM |  

Like an overly ambitious pup taking a run at the alpha male, Spotty sends me an email whenever he mentions my name in a post, which does remind of his existence. Like this post on Education Week’s “Chance for Success Index” (which ranks Minnesota third in the nation), Spotty’s posts are more bash than bite and not worth more than quick skim. What inspires my post is not Spot’s rant, but his email, which provides a teachable moment in understanding the activist liberal mind.

The subject of the email Spotty sent me was “More bad news for education!” The first paragraph of his post is --
The bad news keeps rolling in for the governor, Captain Fishsticks, and of course, our dear Katie. They so love to bash public education. It must be dismaying to have public school excellence, especially in Minnesota, continually rubbed in their pinched, sour faces.
Spotty assumes that because I argue that parental school choice would improve overall public education, I must regard any achievement of public schools as necessarily a bad thing. I must hope that public education fails, and consequently I‘m willing to sacrifice a child‘s education for the sake of political points. He assumes that the argument for school choice rests solely on public school failure. Nonsense!

Like most liberals and many conservatives, Spotty is locked into the notion that government-run schools and private schools are not both part of a larger system of “public education.” The more choice a system provides, the more opportunity for positive innovation. Conversely, the more monopolistic a system is, the less innovative it becomes and the higher the eggs-in-one-basket risk -- a single bad government innovation affects every student, unlike the failure of a single charter or private school.

I haven’t read the Education Week study, so I can’t comment on what the aggregate numbers really mean, but one doesn’t need to be a statistician to figure out that Spotty is using the same statistical rationale as Education Commissioner Alice Seagren, whom he deplores.

Seagren rationalizes Minnesota’s low proficiency in math and reading scores by pointing out that this year harder tests applied to more rigid standards and given to more students accounted for lower proficiency scores. Well, that may be true, but those scores still indicate that by the standards we’re using today, students are not proficient. Spot on the other hand, says education in Minnesota is great because we are ranked third in the nation in an index that uses the very same proficiency scores to make its ranking.

In other words, an initial skim of the analysis shows that Minnesota is the one-eyed man in the land of the blind. Hardly cause for celebration. The point is “public education,” in it’s broadest sense of government-run schools and private schools among other choices, needs to improve. The more choice, the more people innovating, the better the odds of that happening.

And now for the teachable moment -- given Spotty’s projection -- that because I support school choice I must hope for public school failures -- what does that say about how Spotty views the economy? The war in Iraq? Does Spotty hope for a higher unemployment rate to prove the Bush tax cuts are bad? Does he desire more body bags to discredit the war effort? Is it any wonder that we would think that is so? That we might question his compassion? Activist liberals, like prostitutes, generally charge (tax) more to display sincerity.

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

COLUMN -- Urban grocery gap is a transportation problem

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:31 AM |  

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

So we have another "social justice" problem — the "urban grocery gap." The Pioneer Press reports there are fewer major grocery stores in Minneapolis and St. Paul than in the suburbs. Consequently, urban shoppers pay premium prices for groceries at smaller markets and convenience stores, which generally don't have the variety of healthy foods available at the larger chain grocery stores.

"It makes no sense that people in cities, who are more mass-transit bound, with less income, are subject to the highest grocery prices," the Pioneer Press quotes Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. Pardon me, Mr. Mayor, but it makes perfect sense.

Pioneer Press columnist Joe Soucheray jumped on the obvious angle of this story: The elitist NPR book-bag totin' crowd are raging about the unfairness of the very culture they work so hard to create — a European village of small shops connected by mass transit. He's spot on. However, that doesn't mean the grocery gap isn't a problem. It is, but it's not a social justice problem; it's a transportation problem.

The Pioneer Press reported there are a total of 10 top-five food-chain stores in Minneapolis and St. Paul, compared with 123 in the suburbs. True as far as it goes, but a quick distance search on reveals there are 13 Cub Food stores within 10 miles, measured from downtown St. Paul, and 20 within 10 miles of Minneapolis. That compares to three within 10 miles of my house in Afton – the closest being 6.5 miles away.

The point is there is no shortage of chain stores within reasonable driving distance of urban areas. Rybak acknowledges that people living downtown drive out to the suburbs for groceries. In all likelihood, they drive no farther than I drive to shop. But here's the rub — 44 percent of urban citizens don't own automobiles and require public transportation to and from grocery stores. Rybak's description of these people as "mass-transit bound" just might be the most truthful comment about mass transit ever made by any public official.

The Pioneer Press describes the "ordeal" of mass-transit bound St. Paul resident Leon Davis — a two-hour, two-bus trip to purchase milk and whatever else he can carry, including having to grab a coat (gasp) and "trudge" to the bus stop. Hyperbole (and cynicism) aside, Davis is a great example of what self-interested new urbanists don't think about when inflicting subsidized public transportation solutions on the rest of us.

Public transportation is not just about moving people from point A to point B. It's about transportation that actually serves a purpose. People have a reason for wanting to get to point B, in this case grocery shopping. And whether public transportation gets them there in two hours or 10 minutes, they have the same problems.

• They have to get to a transit stop and wait regardless of the weather.
• They have to adhere to public transportation schedules and routes.
• They are limited in amount and kinds of groceries by how far they have to carry them.
• What do you do with an armload of groceries on a crowded bus or train? (Hint: Don't run out of milk on a Sunday after the Vikings play).

Hybrid buses and shiny trains aren't going to solve those problems. Buses and trains are networked transportation with virtually no flexibility. Yet we continue to spend millions of dollars on mass transit that ultimately subsidizes the convenience of Vikings season-ticket holders from Bloomington more than it makes grocery shopping less expensive and more convenient for a Leon Davis.

Despite Rybak's credulity, existence of a "grocery gap" makes perfect sense, and it is largely the result of utopian policies that ignore everyday realities like grocery shopping via a bus or train. The solution to the grocery gap is not Rybak meeting with executives from Lunds, Whole Foods and Kowalski's markets — not the places to stretch your food budget, unless you're shopping for "Lobster Helper."

The solution is providing convenient transportation from urban areas to existing grocery stores. (How about a jitney service from urban neighborhoods to suburban markets?)

People are "mass-transit bound" only because politicians are bound to their narrow view of mass transit. It's about time we put policy emphasis where it belongs — on people's problems, not the Twin Cities' image. My guess is when a train is finally cruising along University Avenue, Leon Davis will still be grabbing a coat and trudging to the bus stop in quest of a carton of milk. But the train will be really cool.

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