Thoughts of an American Centrist

Monday, June 27, 2005

The GOP loved FDR and JFK. Who knew?

Sorry about not posting more, but things have been pretty crazy around the ol' Centrist stomping grounds lately. Hopefully I'll be able to get back on the horse more consistently in another week or two.

For now, check out this amusing tagline from a GOP email that reminisces and extols the Democrats of old:
Yesterday's era of Democrats like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy brought real ideas and solutions to the table in an attempt to make a better life for the American people. Unfortunately, today's Democrat Party is not the one your parents knew.


Yes, because the GOP has always been the party of FDR and the Kennedys.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Re: Dick Durbin.... I don't care

Sorry I haven't been posting the last couple of days, I've been swamped with work. But, in a brief hiatus from the eternal throb of deadlines, I'd like to take a moment to post about a topic that I don't care about.

Like the Newsweek Koran abuse story before it, I really don't care what Dick Durbin recently said on the Senate floor. Yes, he was out of line. Yes, he was wrong. Yes, he was insulting. He got a good smack upside the head from everyone in the media, the blogosphere, and the entire VRWC. Can we get over it now? Politicians make very bad statements every day. Dick Cheney told a Distinguished Senator to F--- Off a couple of years ago. Just yesterday, Rep John Hostettler accused Democrats of waging jihad on Christianity.

To all these little faux-pas, I say, so what? Politicians say stuipid things. What Dick Durbin said was extremely insulting to our soldiers. Duly noted. The soldiers of Illinois will remember come polling day. Until then, let's move on to something else.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Jennifer Wilbanks is a Sycophant

What a sleazeball. From MSNBC:
ATLANTA - Runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks made a deal with a company that is pitching a movie about her life to networks
If there were ever a time to lecture about taking responsibility for one's actions, now is it. Here is the woman who just two weeks ago entered a guilty plea and agreed to pay only a fraction of the costs she racked up by lying, citing financial hardship.

Wilbanks pleaded no contest earlier this month to making a false statement and was sentenced to two years of probation and 120 hours of community service. She also was ordered to continue mental health treatment and pay the sheriff’s office $2,550.

Duluth spent nearly $43,000 to search for her. Wilbanks has repaid $13,249.

“It’s disturbing to me on a personal basis that she’s willing to profit from this, but there’s nothing I can do about it legally,” said Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter, who pursued charges against Wilbanks.

I'm sorry, but this woman is a parasite. First of all, if she can afford a fancy wedding for 600 people, she can afford to pay for the police offcers who put in overtime on account of her fradulent charges. As if that weren't enough, however, now she stands to personally profit from her lie! Some people have no sense of decency.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

How Conservative or Liberal are YOU?

Wow, I guess I am an American Centrist after all! How about you? I reveal and explain my answers below.









Your Political Profile



Overall: 55% Conservative, 45% Liberal

Social Issues: 25% Conservative, 75% Liberal

Personal Responsibility: 75% Conservative, 25% Liberal

Fiscal Issues: 75% Conservative, 25% Liberal

Ethics: 25% Conservative, 75% Liberal

Defense and Crime: 75% Conservative, 25% Liberal


My answers explained
Given its brevity, I guess this quiz covers a pretty good swath of issues. Still, I have to take issue with the wording on some of the questions. Here's what I answered and why.

1. Protecting the environment is a primary social responsibility we have, regardless of how it effects businesses.
Not exactly
True

I chose "True" on this one not because I believe that environmental policy should be ignorant of business concerns (I don't), but rather because I belive in more stringent environmental laws and knew that the "true" choice would put me on the liberal side of this argument. Obviously we shouldn't put regulations businesses without their input, but I don't think environmental policy should defer to short term business interests either. I stand for a progressive environmental policy that does not cripple industry.

2. Immigration policies
Should be less strict. Immigrants enhance this country.
Should be more strict. Too many people enter illegally.

Hmm, I'd like to choose "both" on this one, but I can only choose one. Here's my take: we're a country of immigrants. In fact, immigrants are some of the hardest working members of society. How can I ask other people to keep out and deny them the American dream when my own grandmother came here for a better life just 50 years ago?

At the same time, illegal immigration is a big problem is this country, and enforcement of existing immigration laws needs to be strengthened. In my mind, each answer is correct because they are in response to two separate questions.

3. Gay marriage
Should be legal and given the same rights as heterosexual marriage.
Should not be legal. Marriage is between a man and a woman.

Here's an easy one. What right does the government have in dictating which two consenting adults can marry?

4. Public education could be improved by
Having a voucher system
Revoking No Child Left Behind

Again, how about "both"? NCLB has done more harm than good, and school vouchers could be a helpful tool to help lift motivated kids out of failing schools. I think they could both improve eductation. Since I'm more of an advocate for the voucher program than revoking NCLB, I chose vouchers.

5. If you smoke marijuana...

You should be punished with a slap on the wrist
It's your business

Yay! Another one I'm very clear on!

6. Affirmative action
Gives minorities and women a level playing field
Is unfair, outdated, and hurts those with the most merit

My views on Affirmative Action are quite different depending on whether or not we're talking about the business world or the academic world. In the business world, Afirmative Action is an unnecessary policy that lets businesses give themselves a pat on the back for being "tolerant" and "diverse" while all they are really doing is bringing women and minorities on board that they probably would have hired anyway.

When it comes to the academic world, I think it is time we moved Affirmative Action away from a racial focus and into an economic one. Anyone who excells in a failing school has serious potential. It's time that admissions boards started revering successful students from bad schools instead of dismissing their accomplishments as the least bad of an inconsequential constituency.

Despite the need for change, I chose the first option because I believe there is still a large racial and gender gap in this country. Until we put in place a viable alternative (such as the economic based solution above), an imperfect solution is better than no solution at all.

7. Carrying a gun is:
Taking responsibility for one's own defense, and admirable
Dangerous and sketchy

I don't personally carry a gun, but there's a pretty strong preference in the Consitution for self defense. This one was easy.

8. Some people have less luck than others
False
True

This question pissed me off. First of all, of coursesome people are born with more advantages than others. Paris Hilton is quite a bit luckier than a crack baby, and I don't think we could attribute her fame and good fortune to anything but the luck of the draw. However, I answered "false" (which is obviously incorrect) because I was trying to answer the question the author meant to ask instead of what he actually wrote. The author was trying to ask whether or not there are some people who are guarenteed success because of their birth situation, and others who cannot achieve greatness because of their birth situation. That supposition I totally disagree with.

For example, take a look at the last presidential election. The two candidates were born with silver spoons in their mouth. They were lucky and wildly successfully. Their two running mates were both born poor, yet were still wildly successful. The difference is that Dick Cheney and John Edwards had to be much smarter and harder-working to get to where they are than their "luckier" counterparts had to be. But the fact remains: they still got there. So yes, some people are luckier in their born station in life than others, but your birth is neither a limit or a guarantee as to how high in this we can go.

9. Social Security:
Is simply a transfer payment that should be replaced by personal accounts
Can easily be fixed by making the rich and employers pay more

Here's another one of those questions where I would have preferred to answer "neither." I think personal accounts are redundant (we already have provisions for 401(k)'s and IRA's), and too costly to be worth it. Not only that, private accounts will do nothing to affect either short term or mid term solvency.

I chose the second answer because my prefferred multi-faceted approach includes, but is not limited to, increasing the salary cap on payroll taxes, which would have the same effect as the second answer.

10. Taxes should be...
Cut to stimulate the economy and give people more of their money back.
Something the rich pay more of. They can afforded [it].

In general, I'm more apt to ask people to keep the money the earn. In our current situation, however, I think we should roll back the Bush tax cuts. Both the deficit and debt are simply too large to justify keeping a tax cut that didn't really do that much for middle America or the economy.

The second check-box is just silly. The vast majority of Americans support the graduated income tax methd over a flat tax. There's nothing decidely liberal about that answer. Again, we have answers to two seperate questiosn.

11. It's more important for our country
Reduce the deficit and national debt
To help the poor and helpless

Again, what a silly question. Who says that the only way to reduce the defecit is by cutting services to "the poor and helpless?" Which poor and helpless are we talking about? Tsunami victims? Darfur victims? How about the homeless, or the injured? It's really a silly and open ended question that can't be answered by a simple radio button.

12. The Fed should be more concerned with
Controllling unemployment
Controlling inflation

Duh. The Fed's job is to controll things like inflation. It really wasn't designed to control unemployment.

13. The only social responsibility of a company should be to deliver a profit to its shareholders.
False
True

I, for one, am disgusted with how eager companies are to slash jobs, cut pensions, and skimp on quality in order to cut costs and artificially drive up share prices. There is a three legged stool of groups to whom companies are responsible: shareholders, employees, and customers. Long term successfull companies focus on all three of those groups.

14. Everyone has a right to health care, even if they can't afford it
False
True

While I don't believe we should nationalize our healthcare system, there is simply no valid answer as to why eligibility for life-saving medical care should be a function of wealth.

15. All authority, by its nature, should be questioned
False
True

That's the nature of Democracy. If our leaders are going to take action, they'd better have a good reason.

I'm sure this question also applies to religion. In that sense, if your faith can't withstand brutally honest scrutiny and criticsm, then it wasn't a very strong faith to begin with.

16. Abortion should be...
Completely legal and available
Restricted, discouraged, or illegal

Now this is sort of an odd answer set. People who answer "completely legal and availiable" under all circumstances are in a fairly small minority. For that matter, so are people who believe it should be illegal even in cases of rape, incest, and danger to the mother.

The main centrist postions ("illegal with exceptions" OR "legal with restrictions") both fall under the "conservative" category in this answer set. I'm on the side that says "legal with restrictions," so I checked the second box. If there's any interest, maybe I'll lay out my full views in another post.

17. Military action that defies international law is sometimes justified.
True
False

I am not well versed on the intracacies of international law. That being said, my generalized view is that American security trumps international law.

18. The war in Iraq is justified
True
False

Our reason for going to war was to find WMDs. They weren't there. We really don't have a good reason left. Sure, Sadam was a brutal tyrant, but there are literally dozens more like him (or worse) in this world. We simply can't afford to overthrow all of them.

19. The problem with the US justice system is:
Too many plea bargains and loose interpretations of law
Not enough rehabilitation and prisoner's rights

I snickered at the thought that there was only one problem with our justice system. I didn't really want to choose either. While I agree that plea bargins get some criminals off way too lightly, I didn't like the reference to judicial activism, where I do not share the views of those trying to overthrow our current judiciary system.

As far as prisoners' rights go, I'm not that concerned with the rights of violent offenders like armed robbers, murderers, and child molestors who all to often serve less than 10 years on the inside when most should be locked up for life.

20. The death penalty
Is appropriate in select cases
Is a violation of human rights

We end with an easy one, how lovely.

Summary
Wow, so that was a quick tour around where I stand on the issues. Each of these questions merit an entire post to be thoroughly considered in any sort of pensive and nuanced way. This was just a 30,000 foot view. What do you think of the issues here? Take the test, and let me know! (The Pew Research Center also has a good test.) If I get enough feedback, I just may break out one of these issues into its own post!

Monday, June 13, 2005

The Downing Street Memo

First of all, I have to get it off my chest. "The Downing Street Memo" is a really dumb term for this scandalous document. All memos coming from the British PM's office originate from Downing Street! Whew, I feel better.

Now, on to more serious issues. Dean's World has some pretty good points about this Memo and what it really means:
Simply apply Occam's Razor here. Which is more likely?

1) Hundreds of intelligence agents and officials and politicians at all levels of the US and British government conspired to forge and falsify intelligence documents in order to justify a case against going to Iraq, and this mid-level guy casually revealed the whole thing in a passing reference in an open, unclassified memo, or,

2) Evidence was being gathered and put into place in support of a proposed policy.
Thanks to The Yellow Line for pointing this one out.

The American Centrist's Thoughts
While I fully agree that the "Bush lied, people died" revelers are patently tilting at windmills, I think it would be a mistake to simply write off the infamous memo as sheer fabrication and fallacy.

Is it possible that the memo is authentic and, if not literally accurate, is at least helpful in trying to get a grip on the mood of people responsible for making the case to go to war. I don't believe that Bush fixed evidence. I have far too much respect for the man. Obviously, the writer of the memo believed so, but we don't know much about his credibility. However, there are still points that ring true. The line that states "There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable," seems to be a likely case. After all, there is a point in the lead up to every war where the President needs to finalize and harden his resolve to commit troops.

I do not believe that any "perceptible shift in attitude" justifies the charge of "fixing" evidence. What I see is a state of mind where the administration felt that they knew the truth, and had entered the stage of building an airtight case for war. When entering into this mode, people have the tendency to highlight supporting facts, while simultaneously downplaying opposing evidence. We all do it, and so did the White House.

The real question is: did the administration enter this stage too early, and therefore dismiss potentially enlightening information about Sadam's true capabilities as mere anomaly? The resulting search for the white stag that was Sadam's WMD stockpiles should answer that question with a resounding "duh."

In Summary
I don't think the administration engaged in a broad propoganda campaign. I don't think the CIA is The Ministry of Truth. What we have is a garden variety case of invalid assumptions. Everyone assumed that Sadam has WMD's; any evidence to the contrary was simply more proof of how good our quarry was at hiding his trove. With that initial mindset at the White House (percolating down into the CIA) crucial facts were missed and objective reasoning was sacrificed. If anything, the Downing Street Memo is evidence of sloppy work, not a grand conspiracy.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Here's a good idea, let's outlaw spanking!

As much as the party's pandering to the religious right has driven me away from the GOP, the Democrats sure are doing their best to keep me from signing up.
Should parents be allowed to spank their children? Massachusetts lawmakers will be debating that question following the filing of a bill that would ban corporal punishment in the commonwealth.

NewsCenter 5's Kelly Tuthill reported that (Democratic) state Rep. James Marzilli, Jr., of Arlington, Mass., is one of the sponsors of the bill, which prohibits everything from spanking to "hot saucing," which involves putting undiluted Tabasco sauce in a child's mouth.

In April, a Plymouth, Mass., father landed on the front page of local papers and behind bars after he used a belt to spank his son Josh, 12.

"He forgot his book. I went upstairs, I got my belt. I came downstairs. I gave him three swats on the rear end, with his pants on, like any concerned parent would do, and scared him, of course, you know. Hopefully I got the point across," Charles Enloe said.

But now, lawmakers are considering making "the willfull infliction of physical pain on children under 18," illegal.

And we wonder why people have a hard time taking Massachusetts' politics seriously. How on earth does Rep. Marzilli believe that he knows what is best for every single child in the Commonwealth? Nevermind that spanking was a universally accepted form of punishment from 30,000 BC until about, oh, 1960. The government knows what is best, and spanking is definitely not it.

I understand that plenty of people out there have deeply held beliefs that reject all forms of physical punishment. I may disagree, but I understand. What I do not understand is how some people feel that their personal style of child-rearing is the only acceptable and moral way, and that, as such, their philosophy must be universally mandated. (I have made the same argument against anti-Gay marriage activists.)

This is the first time I have ever quoted "Right Wing News:"

You know, it's every bit as obnoxious to try to ban spanking as it would be to make it mandatory for all parents to spank their children. That's because whether a parent spanks a child or not is simply none of the government's business.

Parents deserve to be given an enormous amount of latitude legally to raise their kids and, quite frankly, the idea that a widely used and very effective method of disciplining children could be ruled illegal at the whim of some bunch of liberals in Massachusetts is ridiculous to the point of being farcical.

Ditto.

It's all about Abuse
While it is my view that, if passed, this bill will be a grave abuse of majority power, the measure's supporters are claiming that this is all about preventing another kind of abuse: child abuse. "Supporters said it's all about preventing abuse, not prosecuting parents."

OK, let's consider the abuse argument. Child abuse (and, more generally, all domestic violence) is a definite problem. The unique psychological and emotional characteristics of families afflicted by domestic violence make it a particularly difficult situation to correct. It is indeed an admirable goal to stop domestic violence before a woman is so ground underfoot that she cannot leave, or before a tragically ashamed child makes his first appearance at school wearing a black eye. Domestic violence is an affront to every fiber the American Way, and our humanity in general. The family unit is the most fundamental structure of society, and we all recoil in horror when that treasure is abused.

But is an anti-spanking law an effective tool in preventing child abuse and domestic violence? Will a man or woman prone to losing control be at all influenced by this law? After all, it is already illegal to beat your child. If parents are willing to beat their children in spite of the domestic violence statutes, what makes us think that they'd respect this anit-spanking law? (I'm definitely getting echoes of an anti-gun control argument, here.) Can we outlaw a practice that many, including myself, feel is appropriate in order to possibly prevent child abuse by the true criminals? It's grasping at straws.

I honestly don't think that this law would do anything to prevent child abuse. First of all, there's the issue of proof. The best evidence for proving child abuse is documented evidence of physical injury. Bruises, broken bones, and internal organ damage can all be documented and testified to by physicians. What about spanking, where no bruises result? Where is the proof? If a parent wants to spank his or her child in secret, it would be virtually impossible to prove, so how on earth would it be an effective deterrent? If, on the other hand, the father (or mother) does cross the line and actually injure their child, then it is no longer "just spanking," but child abuse (already illegal).

That is the key distinction: pain vs. injury. We, as a society, have an obligation to step in when a parent is injuring his child, but do we have a similar obligation to compel our citizens to be "good parents"? Obviously not. Not only would the task be impossible, but such an undertaking would be the ultimate intrusion by government into family life.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

More Centrist Prerequisites

Previously, I have discussed the need for Centrist minded, issue specific, special interest groups for issues central to the national debate.

Yesterday, The Yellow Line pubished his own set of Centrist specific issues and reforms that despreately need to be enacted in order to create an environment where moderates wield true power. His issues are:
  • Redistricting Reform
  • Universally Open Primaries
  • Reduction of Special Interest Influence (see my earlier suggestion)
  • Strengthen the Congressional Center
  • Change the Tenor of Public Debate
Read the post in full. It's well worth it.

The Wexler Plan for Social Security

The American Centrist applauds the efforts of Reps. Robert Wexler (D-FL) and James P. Moran Jr. (D-VA) for breaking with their party and proposing a solution to the Social Security problem (I refuse to call it a "crisis"):

[The Plan] would address Social Security solvency entirely by raising payroll taxes. Earnings of up to $90,000 are currently subject to a 12.4 percent tax; Mr. Wexler would impose a 6 percent tax (half paid directly by the employee, half by the employer) on earnings above that.

It's not a perfect proposal by any means, but the way the pundits are talking, you'd expect every member of congress to be endowed by their creator with the ability to create a flawless and balanced Social Security plan on the first draft. Here's what the editors of the post had to say:

This plan is both unbalanced and inadequate. It's unbalanced because it seeks to address the Social Security problem solely on the tax side, while making benefits untouchable. But government will face other compelling uses for new revenue; why should the fruit of any tax increase go entirely to seniors? Why in an age of scarce governmental resources should seniors -- whatever their income -- be eternally shielded from having to give up anything in the way of benefits? The plan is inadequate because, by not making any adjustments in promised benefits, it doesn't put Social Security on a sustainable footing. By pouring more money into the program without taking any steps to reduce future costs, it would postpone the problem, not solve it.

OK, I can agree that the proposal is unbalanced. However, what do you expect from the Congressman who represents more seniors than any other House member? Of course this proposal is incomplete: it reflects the interest of his particular constituents. Instead of giving grudging and half-hearted praise to their efforts as an afterthought, we should be heartily welcome these two policy makers into the discussion.

Is there a place for this Proposal?
Just because the plan is unbalanced does not mean that it is without merit. Many people have misleadingly labeled the increasing of the salary cap a simple "tax hike." Of course, increasing the salary cap would be a tax hike for the top 10% or so of individual wage earners. Even then, the burden would not be unbearable. For someone earning $100,000, the additional tax would amount to $300 per year under Rep. Wexler's proposal (approximately $12.50 per pay period). There would be no difference whatsoever for anyone making under $90,000.

I firmly believe that increasing the salary cap should be a part of any final social security fix, but it must not be the only part. I reject the implicit assertion articulated by the editors of the post that we're making our current social security recipients too comfortable. Many of our retirees have paid into the system since Roosevelt's time, and deserve the fruits of their compelled investment. While it is a certain fact that any viable retirement strategy cannot rely solely on social security for income, castrating the program for those who already depend on it is not the answer.

What I do support, however, is the raising of the retirement age. Back in Social Security's hey-day, a man would work until he was 65, retire, and live a happy retirement for maybe 5 or 10 years. Today, thanks to near miraculous advances in the healthcare industry, seniors are outliving their mothers and fathers by and additional 10 or 20 years. The Social Security system is not designed to bear that kind of burden. The American Centrist fully supports a stepped approach to raising the retirement age to 70 over a period of 15 years. A 70 year old man in 2005 is, on average, much healthier than a 65 year old man was in 1950, and his additional years of employment would to a tremendous amount to ease the pressures on the system.

I'm still deciding my opinions on the President's plan for progressive indexing of benefits. My first impression is that while this policy may solve a long term accounting problem today, the actual effects of having a dual policy for distributing social security benefits may prove to be a nightmare in the future. I haven't made up my mind on that yet, so I'd really like to hear your thoughts on the issue.

Monday, June 06, 2005

New "Embryo Friendly" Stem Cell techniques may be on the Horizon

Researchers are working on two new methods of creating embryonic stem-cells without the aid of stem-cell giving embryos.

From Blastomere to Stem Cell Line


Working with early mouse embryos, the team has found that single blastomeres, when cultivated in dishes with embryonic stem cells, can become what appear to be embryonic stem cells themselves. Chemicals secreted by the embryonic cells apparently flip the right genetic switches in the blastomeres to make them act "stemmy."

The article explains that a single cell taken from a blastomere (the eight-cell embryo in the pre-stem-cell stage) does not destroy the embryo, and in fact shows no impact whatsoever on the embryo’s development. This gets us around the stem cell destruction issue. Of course, the research involved in producing this type of technology requires the chemical makeup of actual embryonic stem cells, so the initial research still relies on the controversial method of producing the cells. Once the process if fully developed, however, we’d expect to be able to perform this type of transformation using only a Betty-Crocker cake mix of chemicals.



Fusion Recipes: Not just for Manhattan Restaurants Anymore


Other researchers are experimenting with variations on a second approach. Chad Cowan and co-workers at Harvard University, for example, use chemicals to get an adult human skin cell to fuse with a human embryonic stem cell. The two cells become one with shared cellular contents, including two full batches of genes.

Experiments indicate that something in the stem cell "reprograms" the skin cell's genes, putting the hybrid cell into an embryonic state. The team is now developing ways to remove the original stem cell's DNA after reprogramming is complete. What will be left is an embryo-like cell that can be made to grow into all kinds of tissues -- all of which will be genetically matched to the person who donated the original skin cell.

Now that is wicked cool!

The main benefit behind this technique is that stem cell lines will be able to be tailored to each patient using the patients own genetic makeup. I left the Biology field a couple years ago, but I know that exact genetic matches are a good thing!

Before we get too excited…


As with all good research, these new developments take a lot of hard work and time to produce any useable results. In the meantime, we will still need to make use of the current Embryonic Stem Cell technology. The Centrist renews his call for the Senate to pass (and the President to sign) the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. Wavering Senators, put partisan pandering aside and do what’s right for the country.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

John Bolton: Knee Breaker Extraordinaire

In case you haven't been reading the news, (but, by some bizarre reshuffling of priorities, have been reading my blog), what may turn out to be the most damaging charges yet have surfaced against John Bolton:

John R. Bolton flew to Europe in 2002 to confront the head of a global arms-control agency and demand he resign, then orchestrated the firing of the unwilling diplomat in a move a U.N. tribunal has since judged unlawful, according to officials involved.

A former Bolton deputy says the U.S. undersecretary of state felt Jose Bustani "had to go," particularly because the Brazilian was trying to send chemical weapons inspectors to Baghdad. That might have helped defuse the crisis over alleged Iraqi weapons and undermined a U.S. rationale for war.

Bustani, who says he got a "menacing" phone call from Bolton at one point, was removed by a vote of just one-third of member nations at an unusual special session of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), at which the United States cited alleged mismanagement in calling for his ouster.

Bottom line: John Bolton got a guy fired for trying to learn the truth.

This man is showing a pattern of abuse. If he doesn’t agree with you, he’ll take you down not through informed debate or discrediting your opinion, not even by clever political manipulation to build a majority consensus, but by brute force. Bolton got a guy fired for trying to find out what was really going on with Iraq’s WMD program. This man has been making enemies at the UN for the past 25 years, yet he’s the public face we want to show the world?

As usual, Joe Gandelman has a great roundup, and some pretty bitter comments from Bolton supporters! I’d like to address those supporters now.

The two main arguments the Bolton-boosters have for trying to ram this sociopath into the UN post are:

  • He has tremendous diplomatic experience
  • The UN is in need of a tough nosed reformer.

As to the first argument, yes, Bolton is a lifetime diplomat, and extremely familiar with the trappings and protocol of international negotiations. That still does not change the fact that his very long and impressive resume is completely negated by his complete and utter inability to build consensus, garner respect, or work within a company of equals. Bolton’s long list of qualifications will not amount to a hill of beans when the rest of the UN delegates shut him out of the process.

As to the second point, the American Centrist fully believes that real reform is long past due at the UN. Among which are:

  • There needs to be greater outside oversight and strengthened rules of accountability for crimes committed under the guise of the United Nations.
  • Permanent seats on the council need to be reshuffled (there’s no reason why France should still have a permanent seat while Japan, China, India, and Germany are shut out).
  • There absolutely must be a way to expedite the expenditure of UN capital and personnel to emergency situations such the one going on right now in Darfur, Sudan.
  • A new culture needs to be introduced so that Security Council Resolutions have consequences instead of just rhetoric.

All these reforms need to be enacted, but a narcissistic, stubborn, bullying belittler like John Bolton cannot get the job done. A reformer needs to have the respect of both his allies and his own country; John Bolton will have neither. How can you be the reformer if you are also the UN’s inside joke?

People who agree with me

Friday, June 03, 2005

Applebee's

Shortly after the last election, Clinton veteran Doug Sosnik declared that the Democrats’ new strategy for winning in the South would be… Applebee’s:

“The leadership of our party has a cultural disconnect,” Sosnik said. “Our leaders — particularly Washington, D.C.-based — don’t really have the same life, day to day, as all those people out there in those red states. We don’t eat at the same restaurants. I don’t know how many politicians in town that are leaders of our party who voluntarily go to Applebee’s, unless it’s for work. You look at the swing voters out there, what their sporting events are, the music they listen to, the celebrities, the television programs, it’s just not what the East Coast leadership (watches) — it’s not quite where we are.”

Huh?

Perhaps the bigger problem here is that Democratic strategists are looking at the American electorate as a bacterial population in a Petri dish, or, at best, a primitive South American pygmy tribe to be viewed and analyzed from afar. As a Swing-Voting, ticket-splitting, American who enjoys Applebee’s (actually, I’m more of a Chili’s man, myself), who follows the blandly designated “sporting events,” and who watches (some pretty bad) TV, I’m going to be the first to say that these guys don’t have a clue about what we want to see out of our leaders.

Notice to local candidates: I don’t give a damn about what you watch on TV or who your favorite team is. Neither “The Apprentice” nor the Red Sox keep me up at night, so why should I care how my leaders feel about them? I worry about paying the mortgage, finding a new job if my current one goes sour, affording college for my son, and what on earth I would do if someone in my family had a health-care emergency not covered by insurance. I need a representative who understands these issues not just in an academic sense, but as a result of either personal experience or natural empathy. Call it the “yeah, I’ve been there too” factor. This principle is exquisitely understood by Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln from Arkansas.

…what mattered to Arkansas voters was not just the details of a plan to provide medical insurance for the uninsured, but real-world cultural issues. “They’re thinking, just like I am, when they put their child on the (school) bus, what kind of language are they going to learn? What kind of security do they have at school? What are the things that, God forbid, my kids are going to be exposed to when they go to middle school?”

Thank you, sweet voice of sanity.

Issues vs. Image

One thing for which I will credit Sosnik, however, is the imagery he conjures by invoking the “Applebee’s” illustration. That analogy was brilliant; it was just misused. The Applebee’s title isn’t about issues, it’s all about image. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that no American politician will capture the White House without the ability to project the aura of being at home in every American’s local Applebee’s (or Chilli’s, Friendly’s, Denny’s, Bennigan’s, Cracker Barrel, TGI Friday’s, etc).

Our President is our Brother (or Sister), and we want – scratch that, we need – our Brother to be able to sit down with us in the places where we feel comfortable. Imagine John Kerry (not as Senator or candidate, but just as the man he is) walking into Applebee’s with some of his working buddies, sitting down, ordering a Sam Adams and a cheeseburger with mushrooms, and generally kicking back, taking it easy. Kinda ridiculous, huh? Now take that same scene, and replace it with Bill Clinton. Quite a contrast, isn’t it?

We don’t just want leaders who we can relate to; we want leaders who can relate to us. Even better, we want leaders who are one of us. The principles of our country are based on moving away from exclusivity, and moving power into the hands of us common folk. Never mind that George Washington was one of the richest men in America, he crossed the Delaware shoulder to shoulder with hungry farmers on that cold Christmas Eve while King George was reclining in Buckingham Palace. America as Equalizer.

We need that type of solidarity with our president, be it real or perceived. Deep down inside, all of us believe that, given two hours of exclusive conversation with the President of the United States, we could make the Chief understand our ideas, concerns, and problems, and inspire him (or her) to take action. What better place to have that conversation than over a pair of cold El Presidente Margaritas at Applebee’s.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Affording Harvard: A Case Study

The previous discussion based on David Brook's semi-satirical rant on educational costs has inspired me to think out the problems involved in paying for top-notch university education on a budget. Here is what I have found.

The Problem

Harvard’s website pegs the estimated cost of attendance at a mind-boggling $42,450. Of that sum, $27,448 is the cost of tuition. That is a lot of money, and Harvard could certainly afford to lower its admission.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, my own alma mater, clocks in even higher, at over $45,000 (including the purchase of a $2,300 laptop), of which $31,000 is tuition alone (a one third increase since I enrolled just 7 years ago). We can decry the price all we want, but I also know from my days as a student fundraiser that tuition collected covers less than two thirds of the school’s annual operating budget (hence the need for student donation solicitors).

What would it take to fund everyone? Obviously, we taxpayers cannot afford to pay the tuition of every student that enters the system. Fortunately, we don’t have to.

Even with generous financial aid packages and years of college savings, students who graduate will be saddled with debt. I have no problem with this. Educating our students is expensive, and I have no problem with the people who gain from this education paying for the opportunity to learn the skills we’ll need to be successful in the world. The problem is that there are people who cannot afford college even with grants and loans. Even attaining $20,000 in aid, and living in cheap off-campus housing, eating cheap food with many roommates, and taking a part time job may not be enough for a student with no savings and no expected family contribution. Let’s see if we can make this work.

Case Study
Let’s take the most melodramatic case of a graduating high school senior who is raised by a single mother who earns $20,000 / year, has two younger siblings, and no savings. Obviously, the expected contribution of this student is $0 on the FAFSA. Now, let’s say our senior is admitted to Harvard (hey, I warned you I was using the most melodramatic case). How can our student pay the tab?

First off, let’s get a bare-bones room and board case. Harvard estimates $9,280 / year for room and board on campus. Scrap that. How cheap can we get if we move off campus? Well, I know from personal experience that Cambridge, MA is not a cheap place to live. However, after a 30 second search on rent.com, I found the Homer Avenue Apartments, where a two bedroom, 1100 sq ft apartment goes for as little as $1200 / month. You can (uncomfortably) fit four college students into a two bedroom apartment. That brings each student’s rent down to $350 / month (shared rent + utilities), or $4200 / year ($774 less than Harvard charges for 9 months of student housing). A student can live not-so-meagerly on $50 / week of food (again, I know this from personal experience). That brings a total yearly food cost of $2600 / year. So our total room and board for the year comes to $6800. If we amortize this to the 9 months for which Harvard provides room and board, we get $5,100 per school year: a $4,180 savings.

Now we need to tackle tuition, fees, and “personal expenses,” which Harvard estimates at $33,190, bringing our total cost of attendance to $38,290 per school year.

For starters, high priced schools routinely give out need-based grants that top $15,000 per year or more. Let’s give our student $15,000. We still need to cover $23,290. There are many private scholarships available to students (see “Success Story” below). Let’s say our student is diligent in pursuit of private scholarships, and gets $2,000 / year in aid. We still have to fund $21,290.

Time for a part time job. A college student can find work that pays over $10 or $12 per hour, if he’s lucky. Let’s give our student a job that pays $9 / hour during the school year bartending or some such, and a more lucrative full-time position in the summer involved in construction, or other labor intensive job. Let’s assume a summer break of 15 weeks. Assuming a 20 hour work-week during the school year (I did it), our student makes $180 / week during the school year, and $600 / week during summer break. This gives us a total working income of $15,660 / year. Now, our student will have to pay some taxes, but not much because of his income. Let’s round his yearly income to $15,000. Subtract that from total cost of attendance, and we get $6,290 still uncovered.

In order to give our student at least the threads of a safety net, the federal government should be able to provide him with $8,000 / year in low-interest subsidized loans, covering the remaining gap in expenses, and saddling our student with only $32,000 in debt upon graduation. This loan would result in a payment of only $180 / month, given a 20 year repayment plan and a 3% interest rate.

Of course, our student will not have a comfortable 4 years. He will be poor. He will be uncomfortable. He will be tired. He will be working without the benefit of a safety net. He will be one step away from disaster. Not only that, but we’re assuming an awful lot of contingencies (securing need based scholarships, finding part-time work, getting three roommates, etc). But despite all the problems, he will be working very hard to ensure his future. If he is willing to endure all the uncertainty and hard work, then we should provide him with a chance. Tuition is an attainable goal.

Success Story
In order to close this post on a note of hope, I’d like to point towards the story of Rebecca Perez, the brilliant daughter of immigrants who managed to fund her college education through her diligent pursuit of private scholarships. I realize that stories like Ms. Perez’s are the exception rather than the rule, and indeed could not be applied on a large scale due to resource constraints, but I do want everyone to realize that even in the most dire of situations, there is hope.