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Saturday, May 31, 2003
SINS OF THE CHURCHMEN
The Episcopal Church has decided to disinvest from defense contractors: specifically, they will not invest in the top five U.S. defense contractors and from any company in the top 50 contractors which receives more than half of its revenues from defense sales. You can read the resolution here.
Do people who do things like this ever wonder: "What would happen if we were successful?" That is, what if they actually succeeded in starting a trend of disinvestment from defense contractors, and thus succeeded in causing companies to exit that field, or never to enter it in the first place?
Suppose that initiatives like this had been successful in the recent past. The disinclination of corporations to enter the defense business would have resulted in a lower quality and quantity of U.S. armaments. Without advanced weaponry, the recent war in Iraq would have been much longer and bloodier. Many more Americans would have been killed, along with large numbers of Iraqis. Or, perhaps the U.S. would have been disarmed to the point where the war in Iraq would not have even been feasible. Saddam Hussein would still be in power; his torture chambers and people-shredding machines would still be in operation. Iraq would still be giving shelter to terrorists like Abu Abbas. Is this an outcome for which a Christian should devoutly wish?
Some people appear to judge actions and issues almost exclusively from the standpoint of preserving their own sense of moral purity and superiority--they are much less concerned about the real impact of the actions on other human beings. The perpetrators of this disinvestment resolution would seem to clearly fall into this category.
(hat tip: Midwest Conservative Journal)
Thursday, May 29, 2003
NO STEAK FOR YOU!
Several months ago, a Federal court threw out a lawsuit in which McDonald's was charged with contributing to obesity. But don't think this is the end of the story. Lawyers are salivating about the potential damages which could be extracted from the restaurant industry. Approaches are being fine-tuned, and new lawsuits are being filed.
Most of these lawyers claim that what they want is for restaurants to do a better job of disclosing ingredients and associated risks. But does anyone really think it would end there? Suppose some of these suits prevail, and the McDonald's menu board is loaded up with nutritional information. The next wave of suits will allege that the type size is too small...or, if the type size is large, that the data is too summarized and not detailed enough. And if a restaurant puts data in their menu that is both detailed and in a large type font, they will be sued for overloading their customers with more information than they can possibly comprehend.
In such a litigious environment, of course, restaurant companies will move to protect themselves as best they can. What form might this self-protection take? Let's skip ahead a few years...you've gone to a favorite restaurant to enjoy a steak.
WAITPERSON: Welcome to Snarfer's Steakhouse. I'm Stacy, and I'll be taking care of you today. Could I scan your smartcard now? (Swipes the card). Now, what would you like to have?
YOU: I'll have the sirloin steak and a baked potato..and a salad to start, please.
STACY: Well, let's see (types on her handheld)...Gee, I'm sorry, sir, but your cholesterol intake over the last month has been kind of high...how about the roast chicken instead?
YOU: I really was in the mood for steak...say, I've lost about ten pounds lately. Doesn't that count for anything?
STACY: It might...if you could just step over to the scale. (You walk over to the scale and insert your smartcard. Stacy checks her handheld again.)
STACY: I'm really sorry, sir...maybe if you're really good for another week...but for tonight, you need to think about the chicken or one of our vegetarian entrees.
Seem improbable? Yes. But many of the outcomes of today's litigation boom seemed highly improbable before they happened.
One point that's often missed is that harm done by tort law excesses isn't limited to economic damage. The fear of lawsuits erodes personal freedom in dozens of ways. It's an erosion for which many civil libertarians fail to show much concern...due in part, probably, to their own preference for lawsuits as a vehicle for social change.
I don't mean to suggest that there are never cases in which a restaurant should be held liable for health effects of menu items. For example: if a restaurant used a cooking process which it knew to be highly carcinogenic, and withheld the relevant information from customers, liability would be justified. But that's something very different from attempting to collect damages for every overweight person in America.
Tuesday, May 27, 2003
EMPOWERING THE PEOPLE
The electrical power situation in Iraq is getting better, but it still isn't fixed. A New York Times article reports that many Baghdad factories are unable to open because of a lack of power. So are many businesses of other types. The problem of repairing transmission lines and getting the total grid back on line is evidently a difficult one.
Two words for the American authorities in Iraq. **Portable Generators**
Why on earth aren't hundreds of these devices being shipped to Iraq and connected up? Yes, the noise and fumes would be unpleasant. But wouldn't it be worth it to put people back to work so that they will have money in their pockets?
When time is of the essence, solutions other than the obvious ones need to be considered. The great drive and creativity shown in the military campaign need to be reflected in the reconstruction effort as well.
Thursday, May 22, 2003
STATE IS OUT OF STEP
I wrote previously about concerns that the U.S. is allowing too many senior Baath Party officials to gain positions of power in the reconstruction of Iraq. The new interim governor, Paul Bremer, has substantially reversed this policy, and is taking a much harder line with the Baathists. But he is evidently being undercut by some of his State Department colleagues. Writing in The Washington Post, Jim Hoagland reports that a State Department officer in Baghdad labeled the move "fascistic" to her colleagues.
What a remarkable idea. Keeping fascists out of positions of power is "fascistic."
This is only one example of the stunning irresponsibility in which many members of State are currently engaging. According to The Washington Times, officials in State became aware on March 31 that North Korea was reprocessing plutonium. But they did not bother to inform the President. "The Pentagon and the White House did not learn of this stunning announcement until Pyongyang told them during previously scheduled talks with North Korea in China on April 18. The State Department intentionally withheld this vital piece of information, fearing that, if the White House knew, officials there might call off the meeting."
And it's also been reported that William Burns, Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, made a remarkable statement regarding the American friends of Israel who have concerns about the proposed Middle Eastern "peace roadmap." According to reports, Burns said that "The common sense of all peoples will override the conservative and Christian viewpoints once they see the road map's potential."
It seems increasingly clear that something is seriously wrong in the State Department. President Bush needs to get to the bottom of it, very soon.
LETTING OSAMA GO
In 1998, the U.S. had a plan to fly forces into Afghanistan and nab Osama bin Laden--but the plan was cancelled by higher authority. This from Jack Cloonan, a former FBI agent who is now a consultant for ABC News. According to Cloonan, the plan was killed by then-Attorney General Janet Reno. "They came to the decision that this plan was probably too dangerous, that the loss of life on the ground would have been significant," Cloonan said. There was concern that people around the bin Laden compound would be killed."
Another report indicates that the decision maker in this case was actually Bill Clinton. MichNews.com says that Clinton referenced the prospective operation in a speech he gave on Feb 15, 2002, in which he said he decided against the operation because of its complexity and the likelihood of civilian casualties, as well as diplomatic factors. MichNews.com also says that major news media did not cover this speech.
If this is all true, then the U.S. missed another major opportunity to forestall 9/11. If the operation had been successful, then the 3,000 lives lost on 9/11 would have probably been saved--as well as other lives lost in other terrorist operations. And much of the momentum of the terrorist movement might have been disrupted.
Yes, it is easier to decide on right action retrospectively, rather than at the time the decision must be made. Reno and Clinton did not know if the bin Laden operation would succeed, and they did not know that 9/11 would occur.
But that's exactly the point. If one wants to act effectively, one must act with less than 100% knowledge of the future. Sometimes, it is necessary to accept a significant risk now to avoid a larger risk later. In the real world, policies to eliminate risk altogether do not exist.
Politicians of the Democratic stripe, in particular, seem generally unable to accept this simple fact. And that's one reason they should not be trusted with national security.
Wednesday, May 21, 2003
In the current issue of Business Week, Marcia Vickers writes about the problems she was having with her son. The problems didn't involve drugs or pre-teen sex...Vickers' son, Christopher, was 3 years old at the time, and the problems involved dinosaur stickers. Christopher was having problems separating the backing from the sticky part. This involves what is called "fine motor control," and is evidently a big deal in certain Manhattan circles.
It seems that 4-year-old Manhattanites, if they are of a certain social class, regularly take an "entrance examination" in order to gain admittance to elite private kindergartens. What would one test on such an examination? Obviously, it can't be calculus or American history. One section on the test emphasizes "fine motor skills," of the sort that Christopher was having difficulty with. And it's apparently common--and natural--for boys of that age to be underdeveloped in such skills. But Manhattanites, frantic to get their kids onto an elite track, are sending the boys to occupational and physical therapists (at a typical cost of $135 per 45-minute session) so that they can pass the test.
There are so many things wrong with this scenario that one scarcely knows where to begin. The thrust of Vickers' article is that this emphasis on "fine motor skills" is unfair to boys. "Boys typically develop fine-motor skills up to six years later than girls. And in the early years, boys tend to be unfairly compared with girls on that score. This can have a devastating effect, say experts. If boys can't draw and color a bunny rabbit or cut simple shapes with scissors, they are subtly made to feel inferior." (Where are the self-esteem types when you need them?)
Vickers is undoubtedly right about this criticism. But there is a lot more to be said on the topic. By putting kids on the therapeutic treadmill at such an early age, one may accustom them to this way of dealing with problems, and encourage them to run to "experts" at the drop of a hat--indeed, to make it likely that they will never be able to function without "professional help." And the costs of this therapy--in addition to the already-high costs of private kindergartens--tend to exacerbate class distinctions.
Indeed, there's something bizarre about high-stakes tests for 4-year-olds. Many Americans have criticized the educational system in Japan, where high school students take a very stressful test that will likely determine their entire futures. But at least those kids are teenagers--these are toddlers.
Why would parents think that it is so vital to get their kids into these private kindergartens, anyhow? In some cases, the explanation may be benign..there may be no good alternatives. But in other cases, the explanation is surely snobbery and/or a virtually hysterical status anxiety.
All in all, a deeply disturbing little vignette.
Friday, May 16, 2003
RUNNING OFF THE TRACKS
The Law of Unintended Consequences never sleeps. But in this case, it seems to have been positively working overtime.
New Federal anti-terrorism rules (made under the Safe Explosives Act which was signed in November) require railroads and other transportation companies to do extensive background checks on employees who will handle or transport explosives. Criminal penalties are provided for employers who violate these rules. In response, America's railway companies are simply refusing to transport explosives--80% of which have traditionally been carried by rail. "The railroads feel it subjects them to potential criminal liability and that's not something they're going to do," said a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads. This situation is most visibly impacting the fireworks industry (23 containers of fireworks are now sitting at west coast ports)--but explosives are used for many other purposes, such as in mining operations.
So what will happen to the explosives that will not be transported by rail? Most likely, they will go by truck. Although the same regulations evidently apply to the trucking industry, this industry is much less concentrated than is rail and contains more relatively-small entities. So shippers are more likely to be able to find a carrier that will accept the legal risk of shipping the explosives.
And when a container of explosives goes by road rather than by rail, what are the consequences? It will cost significantly more (as much as $8,000 per container more, in some cases), and will consume more fuel. And it will involve more security risks. It seems far more likely that a shipment of explosives will be hijacked from a truck than from the tightly-disciplined enviornment of a railroad. Bengt Henriksen of a shippers group questioned the logic of this situation. "The answer is obviously the opposite," Mr. Henriksen said. "If you're looking for safety, you should leave it on rail."
There's a general lesson here. Effective legislation and rule-writing are difficult things. It's not enought to just say, "this is required" or "this is prohibited." One must think through the probable reactions of those affected by the legislation, in the light of their overall incentive structures and the alternatives which they possess. To do this requires legislators with a broad experience of life in many fields. Arguably, a better job of legislating could be done if our legislative bodies were made up of a more truly representative body of citizens, rather than being so overwhelmingly dominated by lawyers and by people who have spent their entire careers in government.
Tuesday, May 13, 2003
MAKIN' MOCK O' UNIFORMS #N
**For twenty years, the entrance to Encinal High School in California has been graced by a decommissioned A-4 (Skyhawk) jet. But now, a group of teachers and parents have started a movement to get rid of the plane. "I'd just as soon see a .357 Magnum blown up and put on a pedestal," said David Olstad, a volunteer who assists on technical support issues at the school. "I mean, there's no difference to me. It's glorifying violence." And Janet Gibson, a school board member and Alameda, said she's long considered the jet an inappropriate emblem for Encinal. "I would think there is a better symbol for the school, something that might reflect education and intelligence," she said. (via Sacramento Bee)
**At the University of Massachusetts, officials want to dump the Minuteman mascot of their school. Too violent--he carries a musket--and too male. (via Joanne Jacobs and masslive.com)
**And at Walden school in Vermont, student Chip Chaffee worked very hard on an essay inspired by the military experience of his father and grandfather, as well as by current events. The story ends with these words: "We were all sad about Capt. Nick's death, but we knew that he would make his family proud of what he was -- a very brave soldier who put his life on the line almost every day for all of us. He was always the one to do the job when no one else dared to. He was always there to back us up. We will never forget him or any of the things he did for us." But the teacher refused to accept Chip's story because it had "violence" in it. "The Walden School discourages students from violent acts, violent language and playing violent games in school," she said. "I take these ideals and use them in my curriculum in both language arts and life skills."
(via Number Two Pencil and Caledonian-Record News)
The perpetrators of these three events probably consider themselves as highly sensitive people who are committed to diversity. But it seems to me that they display a high degree of insensitivity and disrespect to those who have made different life choices from themselves (serving in the military, manufacturing airplanes, etc). There also appears to be a significant element of snobbery, as in the words "a better symbol for the school, something that might reflect education and intelligence." The snobbery is combined with what seems to be a high level of ignorance--does this school board member really not understand that "education and intelligence" are required the build and fly airplanes? Finally, these events display a lack of interest in and respect for the past--something one would think it is the business of educational institutions to inclulate.
These three stories represent only the tip of a very large iceberg.
Monday, May 12, 2003
ARMING AIRLINE PILOTS: UPDATE
A Transportation Security Administration representative was grilled by a Congressional subcommittee last week about the slow pace of the initiative for arming airline pilots. The House passed the Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act last year by a vote of 310 to 113, and it was incorporated into the Homeland Security Act of 2002; however, only 44 pilots have so far been trained and authorized to carry weapons. "The TSA is creating an overly costly, complicated and bureaucratic program," said Congressman John Mica. "And some of the standard operating procedures just don't make sense." Indeed, some of the screening criteria used seem pretty strange.
CNSNews.com "has learned that one of the pilots in the first FFDO class - a former career federal law enforcement officer and pilot for at least two federal agencies - was told approximately an hour before the end of the training that he would not be allowed to graduate.
Although he was offered no explanation, sources tell CNSNews.com that the former federal agent "asked too many questions based on his previous law enforcement training and experience" that exposed flaws in the FFDO training."
Congressman Peter DeFazio challenged the TSA's alleged "progress" in implementing the FFDO (Federal Flight Deck Officers) program.
"It seems that there is an embedded reluctance in this administration regarding this program," he said. "I fear that some of that has become institutionalized in the TSA bureaucracy."
The congressman recalled that Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta had publicly opposed the program and refused to implement it when Congress initially made it discretionary. "It seems that they are adding as many impediments as possible, moving as slowly as possible and implementing some measures in ways that are problematic for operational reasons," he concluded.
I've written about the psychology behind the opposition to arming airline pilots here.
Thursday, May 08, 2003
THE BAATH IS BACK
American officials in Iraq have appointed a senior Baath party member, Ali al-Janabi, to be minister of health. They have also reinstated Mumammad al-Rawl as President of Baghdad University. Mr al-Rawl, who was Saddam Hussein's personal physician, will preside over the graduation of 17,000 seniors who will return to class on May 17.
This is madness.
Unquestionably, American occupation authorities face a serious problem in that most Iraqis holding important positions also have Baath party connections. There will probably be certain cases where it is necessary to put someone who was a nominal Baath supporter in an important position, at least temporarily--if that person has irreplaceable knowledge (such as an understanding of the electric power grid). But this should not be done when it can be avoided, and certainly should not be done when there are symbolic implications in the appointment. The symbolism of allowing Saddam's physician to preside over a major college graduation is particularly malign.
Any experienced executive should be able to run an organization such as Baghdad University, at least on an interim basis, and any experienced executive with a background in health care should be able to run the Ministry of Health. There are certainly many such individuals among Iraqi exiles (and among non-exile Iraqis as well). The problems created by bringing in people without recent ties to the organizations are real; however, they are dwarfed by the problems created by bringing in or restoring those with ties to the Baath party.
These actions raise serious doubts about the judgment of the American occupation authorities who made them. The State Department, with its traditions of support for "stability" and for existing elites whatever their nature, could be expected to commit such folly; what is disappointing is that General Garner's organization seems to be implicated as well.
Sunday, May 04, 2003
Florida may require students at state universities to take a standardized test when they enter school and another before they graduate--to determine how much they learned while they were there. Success or failure on the test would not determine whether or not a student is allowed to graduate; it would, however, have a major influence on funding for each institution.
(hat tip: Number 2 Pencil)
Friday, May 02, 2003
AN ACADEMIC BUBBLE?
Over at Critical Mass, there's recently been much discussion of Brooklyn College. This is the institution at which English professor Frederick Lang was removed from the classroom--evidently in large part due to his hard-nosed grading policies and his unpopular habit of writing honest comments on student papers.
The devaluation of standards in academia has been going on for a long time. Eric, a commenter at Critical Mass, reports on a conversation that took place at SUNY--Stony Brook when he was a professor there. Faculty members were discussing the math final grades:
"What should the minimum D be?"
"180 out of 420."
"No, we'd fail too many people."
They eventually decided on 140 out of 420. At this point, Eric asked:
"Bernie, would you trust someone who got 140 out of 420 to do your taxes?"
"Eric, that's not the point."
"Would you trust him to be your doctor?"
"Eric, that's not the point."
"Would you trust him to build a bridge for you?"
"Eric, that's not the point."
So what is the point?
Of course, we all know what the point really is. The point is for students to obtain a piece of paper--a diploma--which is viewed as a passport to economic success. Increasingly, the perceived value of this diploma is decoupled from any knowledge or accomplishment that it actually represents. It is valued for the circular reason that--it is valued.
This situation is reminiscent of other pieces of paper--stock certificates in certain dot.com companies. At the height of the boom, people were acquiring these certificates without much consideration of the current or potential business results of the companies they represented. ("I don't know what it does," said one investor of a stock, "but I know it's moving.") The hope was simply that a popular stock would become more popular and hence increase in price--that is, these certificates were valued because they were valued.
A bubble is not infinitely sustainable. In the market, stocks will eventually collapse if there are no earnings to support their price levels. And, in academia, degrees will not be valued indefinitely unless they represent genuine knowledge and accomplishment. The collapse may not be as immediately dramatic as a market collapse--but it seems inevitable that it will eventually happen.