Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Modest Proposal

Because of a congressional walkout here in Indiana over a number of issues, including school vouchers, I thought I'd republish my voucher proposal from many years ago. The exact dollar figures are of course out of date, but the ratios are still valid; just adjust for inflation.

This is the proposal that started it all, as heard on the Hot Seat segment of the Greg Browning Show (NewsTalk 1430 AM, Indianapolis), April 20th 2004. Following this original text I have included supporting text and extra material too detailed for a radio show. For those outside of the state of Indiana, ISTEP is our skills test each grade must take. The figures related here apply only to Indiana- but I'm sure the principles are the same in your state, whatever that state is!

Dear Editor, The editorial in the Sunday Star, March 28, about controlling rising college tuition costs, combined with a number of articles and letters recently about Charter schools inspired a comprehensive plan covering grade school through college that will provide a free college education for every Hoosier child without a tax increase!

The first step in this four-step plan is to take the money we’re already allocating from all sources to each student, approximately $8,700, (source: The Star, 3/29/04), and put $3,700 of it into a savings account (more about this account later). Take the remaining $5,000 and issue it as a school voucher. As this is more than the average private school tuition, and more than double the cheapest, there will be no difficulty finding the child a school for this amount.

The second step is to discorporate the various public school systems, and turn the facilities over to the teachers who already work there, letting them function as independent, employee-owned private schools. This should result in big pay increase for most teachers. Consider: multiply the average class size of 25 students by that $5,000 voucher, and you get $125,000per classroom! Subtracting that one room’s share of the utilities and the mortgage (assuming there is one- the average public school mortgage was paid off some time ago), and there’d be plenty left for the teacher!

The third step starts when the child graduates high school or passes the ISTEP. Remember that savings account from step one? $3,700 per year times twelve years of grade school and high school is $44,400, not counting interest. (more about the interest later) That $44,400 is issued as a voucher good at any state supported university! That’s enough for a four year degree at any of the state supported colleges, with enough left over for books and incidentals at most of them!

Step four takes the interest from those savings accounts- a very substantial sum- plus the accounts of those children who die, move out of state, or cannot qualify for college even when it’s free, and the excess from the accounts of those who opted for two-year degrees, and uses that money to cover all the administrative expenses of the new system! Odds are there’d be money left over to return to the general fund.

The results: as a grade school student, the child’s parents have freedom of choice. The teachers get a raise. All the state colleges get a huge influx of cash and students, allowing them to bid on the best professors from all over the world and build the finest research facilities. Business would be anxious to relocate to Indiana- indeed, their employees would demand it! And all of this without spending an extra penny!

All we need to have a world class education system for Indiana is the courage to change a system designed in another century, for another century. Our educational system was originally designed to serve pre-industrial farmers; and unless we change it, that's what our children will become. Joel Monka

EXPANSION Financial notes I had said in step 1 that $3,700 of the per student allocation would be put in a savings account. We all know that in real life this would never happen: no politician from either party can bear the sight of money just sitting there, not being spent to buy votes. (excuse me, of course I meant to provide public services) But what if we DID put it into a savings account, letting the total ride, compounding annually for 12 years? Interest Rate/Amount of Interest 5.0 % = $17,438.10 5.5 % = $19,561.90 6.0 % = $21.763.40 Remember... that’s per student!

Can you really educate a student for $5,000? Any professional educator will tell you that you cannot run a modern school system for $5,000 per student, and they’d be right- you can’t run a school system for that price; but you can run a damn fine school at that rate.

In a story in the Indianapolis Star 4/23/04 about budget woes in Pike Township we find figures to support this. It mentions a $63 million budget for 10,000 students- $6,300/student. It also says that 85% of this is salaries- a commendably high figure, actually. But then it mentions that makes up 700 teachers and 650 non-teaching supporting staff! That’s 50% staff! I’ve been in those schools, and just like the schools I attended they do NOT have a staff member for every teacher- those positions are needed to run the system, not the individual schools. Let’s say a reasonable number of staff members for a school is one for every two teachers (and most schools have fewer than that): cutting half of 85% of $6,300/student yields $5,000/student! This confirms the private school averages of $5,000 per student or less.

Put it this way: what does a school system that operates ten schools do that ten independent schools without a system don’t do? School systems do not train the teachers, they do not license the teachers, they do not write the textbooks, they do not even control the curricula- the ISTEP test does.

The school systems say they set uniform standards- but the wildly divergent results from one school to another within the system forces one to believe that either it’s application is less uniform than claimed, or that a one-size-fits-all approach is the problem in the first place.

The school systems cannot even be trusted to decide which children go to which school without oversight; their long history of racial segregation resulted in the Federal government having to intervene. What does a school system do that is worth the high cost?

OBJECTIONS You cannot eliminate the public school systems- the state has an obligation to educate the children. Yes, the state Constitution says so- but it doesn’t say what form that system must take. We feed the hungry, but we don’t have government run farms, butchers, bakers, and grocery stores; we issue AFDC and WIC vouchers. We provide shelter with section 8 vouchers, we provide medical care with MEDICAID and MEDICARE vouchers- in fact most government services take the form of vouchers; why should education be different?

Voucher systems only help the rich. In past plans, this was often true; the amount offered as a voucher was only a fraction of the amount the public schools got per student, and was not enough to cover tuition. Under this plan, however, every child gets the same allocation, which is enough to cover tuition.

Voucher systems have been tried before and failed. No pure voucher system has ever been tried before- it has always been public schools plus limited vouchers. Under such a system, the government allocates $8,000-$10,000 or more per student to the public schools, but if the child goes elsewhere he only gets $500-$1,500 in vouchers. It is true that $500 will not buy the same education that $10,000 will.

A pure voucher system would only encourage economic, racial, ethnic, and religious stratification. Which is exactly what we have right now- are you saying the Carmel schools and the Center Township schools are equal? The greatest stratification exists between the ruling classes who go to private schools and the rest of us who go to public schools. Bill Clinton opposed vouchers; his daughter went to private schools. Jesse Jackson opposes vouchers; his children went to private schools. Do yourself a favor; ask any politician who opposes vouchers where their children went to school- it’s very enlightening.

How would you handle busing for racial balance? Busing for desegregation was intended to redress past racial segregation by the public school systems. If there is no public school system, there would be no organization having a history of racism, and no past offenses to redress. The situation would be analogous to using a MEDICAID voucher- the government wouldn’t bus you from Wishart to St. Francis for racial balance. If an individual school practices racial discrimination, there are already laws on the books to address that.

The First Amendment prevents any government money going to religious organizations- including schools. That’s not exactly true- for example, MEDICAID and MEDICARE vouchers often go to hospitals run by religious organizations, and the courts have upheld their doing so. When a religious organization is only one of many possible choices, and it’s the consumer making the choice rather than a government official, such payments have always been upheld. The problem arises when you have a public school system on one hand, and private schools that are 90% religious on the other; this means that the voucher choice is not really public vs. private, it’s secular vs. religious. But under my plan, with the formerly public schools now being independent private schools, the secular choices will actually outnumber the religious, and this will restore Constitutionality.

Who will pay for transportation- the school the child wants to go to may not have buses. Even public schools do not always provide free transportation- due to budget cuts, some school districts are now charging for the bus rides- regardless of ability to pay! (, 4/20/04, ‘Budget cuts stalling school buses‘) To add insult to injury, they’re having to pay for rides to go to a school they had no choice in choosing! If there is no public transportation, (in the old days, many children rode city buses to school), and there are no schools within walking distance, and the family is below the poverty line, I’m sure some provision could be made. Remember when couples used to choose where to live to be close to the schools they wanted to send their kids to?

QUESTIONS How would the local school boards be able to oversee dozens of independent schools? School boards exist to give the parents a voice in how the school systems their kids go to are run. If there are no school systems, and the parents have control via the voucher system, then schools boards- and their attendant budgets- would be eliminated as unnecessary and redundant. We would still need a state Superintendent of Public Instruction to set ISTEP standards and such, however.

Don’t charter schools already give us choice in schools? This isn’t just a choice issue- it’s a question of economic efficiency and opportunity as well. But remember that the public school system still runs the charter schools- isn’t that like saying Microsoft gives you choice because they have Windows XP AND Windows NT?

What about the home schooled? The home schooled would be covered by this plan. As long as they’re passing ISTEP, all reasonable education expenses should be voucher eligible. Then if they passed the high school ISTEP, they would get college vouchers like everyone else. In fact, without the need to save for their kids college educations, I would expect a lot of two-income families could afford to have one of them quit their job and stay home with the kids- I would expect to see a huge growth in home schooling.

What about problem students? There wouldn’t be much of a change that I could see. If the problems are physical, what we do right now is mainstream when we can, and institutionalize when we must; those are pretty much the only options under any system. If the problem is behavioral, there are limits to what even public schools will tolerate, and beyond that the kids receive tutoring in juvenile detention. Again, what other options are there? At least this way, if he cleans up his life while in detention, and can pass ISTEP, he’ll get a college voucher when he gets out.

If there’s no public school system, how can you guarantee that small rural districts will have schools? The public schools make no such guarantee; rural students are bused to consolidated school systems. Under the pure voucher system, at least there’s a chance a local school would open. Especially if restrictions on who can teach are eased; then someone home-schooling their child could take in a neighbor’s, too. The entire system of licensing teachers should be re-examined. Under Indiana law, Stephen Hawking is not qualified to teach high school physics and Andrew Lloyd Webber is not qualified to teach music; but someone with a generic degree in education can teach either one. Why? I figure that licensing is unnecessary. If a teacher can’t teach, the school will fire him rather than risking de-certification for vouchers for flunking ISTEP. If the teacher can teach, the job is secure; he’s bringing home the bacon. Either way, the license is meaningless.

ONE LAST TRY... I know that even after reading all the above there are still those saying “I don’t know why not, but it still can’t work.”, so let me make one last attempt. Let’s make this really simple: we’re currently spending $8,700 per year per student on education. That makes the total obligation for the twelve years through high school, in constant dollars, $104,4000. If we divided that total by sixteen years instead, to reflect the extra four years of college, that would be $6,525. Can you buy a year's tuition, at any level from first grade to college senior for $6,525? Hell yes- there are grade schools charging as little as $2,500, and Vincennes University charges less than $3,000!

So why didn’t I say it that way in the first place? Because nobody would read past that simple sentence; half would just run off and tell people this guy says you can run the school system for $6,525 per year, and the other half would say we can afford $6,525 vouchers without ever mentioning that the school systems have to be dismantled before that is possible. Anyone saying that can be easily proven wrong, and that would be the end of the story.

Until you have it firmly in mind that the traditional style of school systems, for all the good they have done for the past- and they really have- are obsolete, nothing else can be done. We are running our schools in the least efficient manner possible because “that’s the way it’s always been done”. Can we really afford the high price of this nostalgia?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Coda to "Why I'm Not A Universalist"

Well, to a lot of my posts, really. I've been loading programs into my new computer, and a little while ago loaded my CD collection of Mad Magazines- every issue up through December, 1998. Naturally, I had to test the installation by reading a few of my favorites. For those not familiar with the Mad Magazine of yore, it was quite the literate magazine for the first 25 years or so- gonzo, yes, but not juvenile. The contributors also had a keen understanding of the American zeitgeist- that's what made their satire so funny. Even when you knew their portrayals were twisted, you knew they were the conventional wisdom. So check out this piece from nearly 40 years ago.
Mad Magazine, September 1972

The Mad "Religion In America" Primer

Chapter 8 The Minister

This is a Baptist Minister.

He is delivering a sermon.

It is a very important sermon.

It is all about non-religious people.

He tells about people who worship idols.

He calls them Paganists.

He tells them about people who aren't sure there is a God.

He calls them Agnostics.

He tells about the worst people of all.

People who don't believe there's a God.

People who are threatening to destroy religion as we know it.

He calls them Unitarians!

My watching the President’s speech was interrupted...

…by someone at the door. I answered the door prepared to unleash a curmudgeonly blast at whoever it was, and had my guns spiked when I opened the door- it was uniformed boy scouts collecting canned goods for the poor. If you've ever wondered why I talk about my neighborhood so much, that's an example... Norman Rockwell's ghost lives here. And hey, I can always get the speech online.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why I am not a Universalist part 2

Continued from the previous post
I set ground rules for my religious quest: First, anything I discovered had to pass the gut check; the whole reason for the quest was my visceral rejection of the story as I understood it. Second, it had to make sense intellectually; it had to result in something I could understand and use in my daily life, or else what was the point? I also decided to start with all the basic schools of Christianity I could find, in case it was just the church I had been raised in that was the problem, not Christianity per se. I was in a good position to do this, as the Indianapolis suburb I lived in- Irvington- had more churches per capita than most any place on Earth. It had been the home of Butler University, and within a five minute walk of my front door were five giant Gothic Cathedral type churches, from Catholic to Christian Scientist, (to this day, on a Sunday morning one can hear dueling carillons); the international HQ of a Christian mission, the home convent of an order of nuns, and another half dozen storefront churches.

Two in particular caught my interest. First was Calvinism, which taught that belief itself was impossible for flawed humans, and was the gift of God. What you had to do was to behave as if you believed, and prepare yourself for when the gift was given to you.* It would certainly explain why I couldn't believe. But upon closer examination, it didn't make sense either- how could belief be the test if you had no control over your belief? Under this doctrine, the only part in your control was your behavior, which made it salvation by acts, rather than by belief- a direct contradiction to John 3:16 and 18.

The second to catch my interest was Universalism, the doctrine that Jesus' sacrifice paid for all of mankind's sins, and so salvation was universal.** This was on all fours with John 3:17, and at least the first clause of 3:16, although a contradiction of 3:18. Nobody goes to Hell.*** This seemed better at first, but it still required belief in the rest of the story, if not in damnation; could I do that? No. Universalism didn't make sense either... yes, it's nice that everyone gets saved, but it did nothing to address the issue of why we needed salvation in the first place.

We needed salvation because one must be perfect to enter Heaven, and no human being is capable of achieving perfection; the Bible makes that abundantly clear. The effective result is that we're born damned; we are going to be judged by a standard that we cannot meet. That is so patently unfair as to be irrational; you cannot condemn a quart jar for not holding a gallon- especially if you're the potter that cast the quart jar! God knew full well the risks of giving his creations free will when he made Adam and Eve- he'd gone through that scenario before with the angels... But okay, let's assume for a moment that it makes sense; after all, the story isn't all that well told, and maybe I'm missing something. What's next?

*16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. 17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. I don't get it. If God loved us that much, why didn't he just change the rules? I actually asked that one; I learned the meaning of "doubletalk" that day. But okay, we've got to be purified, and that takes a blood sacrifice. Says who? Didn't God make the rules? Never mind... So he gave his only begotten Son... "Only"?? So, what, is the rest of the human race chopped liver? We're all his creations; are some methods of creation more precious than others?

Sorry; I digress. To make a long story short (Too late!), I could not believe that we needed to be saved; I could not believe that salvation required a blood sacrifice; I could not believe that Jesus was the only son of God- and I could not believe in the Trinity. I could not be a Christian Universalist, by the standards commonly understood forty years ago. There are newer versions, like the Christian Universalist Association that I could live comfortably with- but I'm already a Pagan; why change names?

*Yes, I know this is an oversimplified and somewhat flawed explanation. This is a memoir, not a doctoral thesis; I'm relating what I took from how it was explained to a young person.

**See the first footnote.

***I had problems with Hell as a concept, aside from the question of who deserved to go there. Reread John 3:16- do you see any mention of Heaven or Hell in it? The choice was not between Heaven and Hell, but between eternal life and eternal death. It is stated that way very explicitly in quite a few places in the Bible. "I am the resurrection and the life." But if you do not believe, well, "...let the dead bury their dead." So how can you suffer eternal damnation if you don't have eternal life? At what point did God decide that stripping you of eternal life was not punishment enough, that he had to resurrect you and punish you again?

Why I'm not a Universalist (part one)

I'm coming late to the discussion of Universalism that was sparked by Rob Bell's new book. The reason is that I wasn't sure I wanted to write this, but my own hesitation convinced me that I needed to write it. Then having written it, there was the question of whether I should publish it. My fear in publishing was because I thought that some would read only a couple paragraphs and decide it was yet another Unitarian criticizing Christianity and the church he was raised in. But it is not- I never felt oppressed by Christianity, never had any church related trauma... but it never connected with me, either; it was no more real to me than the Greek and Roman mythologies. What follows is not a bitter criticism of Christianity, but the description of one person's religious journey- a journey that passed through Universalism.

But a failure to connect with Christianity did not make me an atheist- I very definitely felt a connection to God. Please understand how utterly bewildering this was to a young child in the 60s, raised by fundamental Christians. As far as I knew, had been taught, (and who questions their parents when all grownups you know agree) this was a contradiction in terms: there was the God of Abraham, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and there were false gods invented by Satan to confuse people and separate them from the Holy Trinity. Period. I knew all these things well; I had gone to Sunday School, I had been given explanations by my parents. I knew that everything boiled down to a simple binary: either John 3:16-18*, or the lies of Satan. I knew it, but I couldn't accept it. It was wrong. Understand that I was preteen at this point; I had no rational arguments to make, no list of grievances, no 95 thesis- I simply knew. I could no more have accepted the story than I could have prevented my knee from jerking under the doctor's hammer.

The natural reaction was to wonder what was wrong with me. I remember well laying awake at night- sometimes all night- wonder why I couldn't see, couldn't believe what was so obvious to everyone else. I knew I wasn't dumb; I was in all the accelerated classes in school. And I knew how important it was- John 3:18 states quite clearly that belief is the test- if you don't believe, you are condemned, no matter how you lived your life. My obstinacy was suicidal- I spent many hours searching for the flaw in my mind or my soul that was risking my eternity.

I was put on a new track by a book; not a religious text, but a science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein titled "Revolt In 2100". It was about a future America that had become a theocracy in the early 21st century, and the revolt that restored democracy. What excited me was that one of the protagonists had had the same problem as I. He decided that if he couldn't believe what he'd been told, he'd better find out for himself what he did believe. This was a stunning concept- it had never occurred to me that you could do that. Regular people didn't create belief systems; religions were handed down to you from above, by God or Satan. I couldn't do that- how would I know what was right? After all, if I didn't have faith in the Word of God, how could I have faith in anything else I found?

That's when I had my first breakthrough: I realized that when I was asked to have faith in the Bible, I was being asked to have faith in men, not God- and that was true even if the Bible really is the word of God! After all, how did I know the Bible was the word of God? Because I had been told that it was by men, some of whom I knew (though I didn't dare say) were not as smart as I was. When I carefully broached the subject to my elders, I was told to pray, meditate, and sleep on it, and I would see the truth. Well, I had been doing exactly that for a couple years at this point, and either God hadn't spoken to me, or he had- in which case Christianity, at least in the way it had been explained to me, was wrong. This gave me the courage to start my religious pilgrimage.

*16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Anti-war, or merely anti-Republican?

We've seen many times in the last two years the...ah... flexibility of former Senators Obama and Biden's deeply held principles...

But now I'm wondering about the UU blogosphere- aside from my previous two posts, a search through UUpdates shows that a lobster could count on one hand the number of UU bloggers who have even mentioned the attacks on Libya. This strikes me as very odd. It's a stunning attack- the British are actually running out of cruise missiles, and a single US B2 Stealth sortie dropped 90,000 lbs of bombs, and we've flown hundreds of sorties. And yet the UU response could be described by Paul Simon- "...And my words, like silent raindrops fell, and echoed in the sounds of silence..." Could you understand why the casual observer might conclude that we base our religious principles on our political principles?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Saturday, March 19, 2011

So we've gone to war again

A couple hours ago, Saturday 3/18, the US went to war without a Congressional vote, against a country that had not committed any act of war against the US, nor had any weapons of mass destruction, nor initiated any terrorist acts against the US since 1988.

Given the way US wars have been blogged about the last ten years, and the recent debate on making the UUA an official peace church because of those actions, I expect UU bloggers will be ripping into the President with a vengenge. I can't wait to see it.

Any minute now.

UPDATE: If you had some kind of fantasy that it was going to be okay with the Arab League for American forces to bomb Libya just because they asked us to, read this Reuters story, dateline 03.20.11, 21:45 : "The head of the Arab League, which supported Libyan no-fly zone, said his organization had not endorsed attacks on ordinary Libyans. "What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians," Amr Moussa said, announcing an emergency Arab League meeting to discuss Libya.

Moussa's comments followed a demand by Russia to stop the "indiscriminate" use of force it said was killing civilians in Libya.
The air strikes exceed the mandate of the UN Security Council resolution, which approved a no-fly zone and authorized all necessary measures to protect civilians, Russia Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement."

The Arab League cannot pretend it did not know what is involved to enforce a No-Fly zone; the scenario has been played out many times in their neighboring countries. But by pretending not to know, they can use us to rid themselves of a dictator they didn't like, and simultaneously gin up outrage against us for domestic consumption- for doing what they asked us to do!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

KSA syndrome

Since Christmas, my beloved has developed a syndrome that I understand many people are showing signs of these days: KSA, or "Kindle Separation Anxiety". Symptoms include planning one's wardrobe around being able to secure the Kindle to one's person; panicking at the first sign of malfunction, dashing to get dressed and drive to Staples quick before they close; and an eerie LED glow emanating from under the covers late at night.

Kindles are selling so quickly, and are so addictive once owned, that physical books may soon go the way of 8-Track. Which means that the next generation could hear a whole new set of clichés...

The judge threw the Kindle at him.

"Kindle 'em, Dano!"

He was making Kindle on the side, but he wasn't a full time Kindlee.

The crooked accountant was cooking the Kindles- at least, that was no form of Kindlekeeping I'm familiar with.

The acts Kindled for tonight are...

He was clever, but not much for Kindle learning.

The minister read from the Kindle of Common Prayer.

One of the main attractions at Dublin's Trinity University is the Kindle of Kells.

How many Kindleable hours do you have this month?

He's quite the Kindleworm.

Who wrote the Kindle of love?

He does everything strictly by the Kindle.

There were no receipts or certificates; it was a Kindle transaction.

"Waste not, want not," as the good Kindle says.

I've cast the hexagrams; now to consult the Kindle of Changes for their meaning.

At least, I hope this is the kind of clichés we'll be seeing. If Borders beats Amazon despite Amazon's early lead, I'll have to rewrite this list with permutations of "Nooky".

Friday, March 11, 2011

Cats are smarter than Sith Lords

We have a new kitty in the house. Last week an intruder cat entered the house, which normally would have been shooed back out, but he was too pitiful to shoo. An orange tom, scrawny, (How scrawny? We later found out from the vet that he weighs 6.9 lbs. He stands the same height at the shoulder as our Simon, who weighs 12.4 lbs.) he had a bad paw and several owwies on his face. (At least one of which I'm sure our kitties inflicted as he entered the house) Upon closer examination, we could tell he was only half grown, and must have been living hand to mouth. (Paw to maw?)
He was yowling quite piteously, and there was no way we could turn him away when he had risked so much to come in.

After he ate... and ate... and ate... all the while making the funniest noises as he tried to simultaneously purr at us, growl at the other cats, and swallow kibble. In fact, he made a lot of noise; he's by far the most vocal cat in the house. Which immediately suggested a name; he's vocal, he was in Dire Straits- clearly his name was Knopfler.

What's all this to do with Jedis? I'm getting to it, I'm getting to it. When we got Knopfler back from the vet, and he'd had a day to sleep off all the medical attention, he started exploring the house. In the course of this, he discovered the joys of napping in the overstuffed living room chair. Now, this is much disputed turf in our house; he hadn't been in the chair thirty seconds before Simon noticed the fact and tried to hiss him off it. A kitty conversation ensued, and it struck me as very familiar, but I didn't know why- then I realized I was thinking of the third Star Wars movie. The scene I'm thinking of is the end of the battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin, on the high sloped bank of the lava river; they had the same conversation, but with a different ending:

Simon/Anakin, "I'm going to come up there and kick your ass."

Knopfler/Obi-Wan, "Don't try it- I have the high ground."

Simon, "Oh- yes, I see that; I'll be moving along now." Anakin, "Hah! Watch while I... oops... fall to the ground in four separate pieces."

Cats are smarter than Sith lords.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

In Video: NPR Exec Slams Tea Party, Questions Need For Federal Funds

From The two-way,'s news blog has an updated-every-few-minutes story on ex-executive Ron Schiller, who was wee tad indiscrete on tape- most recent update from CEO Vivian Schiller: "In no way shape or form do they reflect what NPR does and who NPR is," NPR' chief tells Folkenflik in his report for today's All Things Considered. "I find it affront to the journalists that we have around the world — including in hot spots — in harm's way. This is NOT what NPR stands for." Here's the highlights video:

The full version, with context, is here. It should be understood from the beginning that NPR acted properly in trying to vet the organization, and refusing to accept their donation when it looked hinky. What's upsetting people is the personal views expressed by the NPR executives.

UPDATE: Two new items this morning- an update from The two-way, and the Washington Post reports that NPR CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation to Ron Schiller) has resigned.

Stunning artistry

If you're a Michael Jackson fan, you know that "Smooth Criminal" was one of his more challenging pieces- would believe the whole thing can be performed on just two cellos?


Monday, March 07, 2011

UUA President Rev. Morales endangers the human race!

I was just told that Rev. Morales recently met with Daleks! Now, I'm as accepting and welcoming as the next UU, but Daleks are evil, bloodthirsty, mechanized mutants! If you try to meet them as equals, they will ex-ter-mi-nate all life on- huh? What do you mean I've got it wrong? Haven't you seen- it wasn't Daleks, it was Dalits? You mean the oppressed people of India? Oh.

Not Daleks, then?

Oh. Well, meeting with Dalits is a good thing.

Never mind.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Questioning the moral authority of the UUA and leadership

Sunday's post on "Boy in the Bands" begins, "I’ve had many misgivings about the UUA over the years: its direction, its leadership, its poor service providence, its continuing exclusion of Christians, its culture of preciousness, its old boys and girls networks, its relevance in today’s world." What moved him to write was a guest post on Musings and Essays by the former District Executive of the Clara Barton District, describing how she'd been forced out of her position. Coming as it did after the controversial firing of the Pacific Central District Executive- over the objections of the PCD board- it's easy to understand why Scott says, "...but now we have the suggestion of a plan."

I imagine that Scott was reminded, as I was, of the way Boston mishandled the disaffiliation of the Independent Affiliates, something that has left lasting resentment and bewilderment... and they seem to have learned nothing from it. It's especially ironic when you consider how we try to lecture our political leaders about transparency in governance, even to the point of our previous Association President praising Iranian President Ahmadinejad for meeting with him and answering questions, something he presumed that our own President would not have done. (Not that he had actually asked) And yet our own Association leadership is scarcely a role model to emulate.

When you think about it, "Do as I preach, not as I do," seems to be our motto. We are busy right now lecturing everyone through open letters and a "Standing On The Side Of Love" campaign about how collective bargaining for public employees is a human right, and yet this summer we will, for the fifth time in sixteen years, hold our General Assembly in a state where it's forbidden by law. We are always lecturing others about class, race, and racism, and yet our own experience with racial issues begins with the Black Affairs Council walking out of the 1969 General Assembly, and disaffiliating from us the following year... and since then, we've been the only mainline church in America to actually get whiter and richer over the years. We are always faxing Washington about wages, immigration, even minutia like transportation policy, and telling them that our policies are the way to future growth and national prosperity... and yet our five decades of stagnation and failure to thrive have resulted in Association layoffs recently. It's a wonder that every Congressman we've emailed hasn't replied with a link to this song:

I may start referring to such things as "mote" issues in the future- as in, " canst thou say to thy brother, Brother, let me cast out the mote that is in thine eye, when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"

Saturday, March 05, 2011

UU, Alzheimer's, and politics

"Plaidshoes" really struck a chord with me with her Tuesday post, Tired of Defense. If you haven't read it, you must- and read the comments also. I was caught from the beginning, "I had a bit of a disturbing parking lot conversation today. I mentioned to a friend that I had seen her friend at my UU church. I thought of it as a positive. Another way that the world is so small that we all seem to run into each other. Well, my friend stated that she was not happy about this. It caught me completely by surprise. She flat out said it like that. I asked her why, and she stated that it would mean her friend was no longer a Christian." It reminded me of my wedding- and my mother.

That may sound strange to you- if it does, the explanation will be stranger still, but it's true. You see, in the months before my wedding there had been disagreement among we four brothers about our mother. She had been deteriorating of recent months, and several doctors had said she had Alzheimer's. We were split, 2-2, on whether she really had Alzheimer's, or whether this was one of her manipulative schemes. (Fred Sanford was a rank amateur in the manipulation business) The question was settled when she came to my wedding- at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church. Everyone agreed that she had to be genuinely out of it to set foot inside the temple of the Antichrist.

So I understand plaidshoes' irritation at her friend's comment, and why she feels tired of being on the defense. In fact, I have an extra layer she does not- a political one. When I joined All Souls, a friend of mine had said, "I thought you were a Republican." I said yes, I was. His puzzled reply: "But you know they're a communist front organization, don't you?" Mind you, he wasn't trying to be derogatory or insulting; he was simply stating common knowledge- just as plaidshoes' friend had.

Both of these misunderstandings raise a question that plaidshoes does not address in her post: Why did her friend think that UU was not a religion? It would be easy enough to blame Mad Magazine, The Simpsons, Garrison Keillor, but none of their jibes would have stuck had there not been a kernel of truth in them. That's why stereotypes stick- Scandinavians really are often blonde; they really do eat lutefisk. If you tried to create a new stereotype that didn't reflect what people see in their daily lives- oh, like all Scandinavians eat grits and collard greens- it wouldn't stick, and people wouldn't repeat it. So clearly, the general public doesn't see us doing the things that a religion does; the question is, are we just poorly communicating what we do, or is their perception better than ours?

Thursday, March 03, 2011

It's a long and winding road...

... that public school administrators must take to get rid of a bad teacher. In a previous post I mentioned job security as a benefit of public employ, one that all in the private sector envy. To illustrate my point, the Chicago Tribune ran a story entitled Why Bad Teachers Survive It has a flowchart, with timeline, of what's required to fire a tenured teacher. The process takes 27 separate steps and not less than two years, but can run as long as five years- during which the teacher is still being paid with full benefits.

Think that's bad? It's only average- look at the flowchart for firing a teacher in New York that one of the Tribune commenters posted- it covers two full pages. But in real life, I'm told, it never goes that far. Unless the teacher has made it easy by committing a class A felony, they usually just find a way to live with the bad apple, whatever it takes. If they really, really want the teacher gone, they offer a cash buyout* instead.

Now how does one account for that level of job security when comparing private and public sector wages? What's the cash equivalent of tenure? In the private sector, one would give up a lot to have those kinds of protections. In most states, absent gender or racial discrimination, the firing process is just one step- the one trademarked by Donald Trump. The appeals process consists of saying, "Oh, dude, come on... please?". But in the public sector, one gets the protections outlined above and wages comparable to the private sector.

So think about that next time you see a statehouse protestor with a sign claiming to be the poor, oppressed last bastion of the middle class. Think about it, but don't bother asking the protestor carrying the sign; odds are, at least here in Indiana, and I have to believe in Wisconsin and elsewhere as well, that the protestor is not a teacher at all, but a paid surrogate.

*This used to be called "Danegeld"- but as the Danes actually have a much better public school system than we do, I don't think it's appropriate.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

How far can you chop logic before you've made hash of it?

Almost everyone has asked the following question: "If God answers all prayers, why didn't he answer mine?" And if you asked an experienced Christian apologist, you received the following answer: "He does answer all prayers- 'No' is also an answer." If you were a child when you asked and received that answer, do you remember how betrayed you felt? If you were an adult, do you remember how frustrated you were with the "Heads I win, tails you lose" logic? Hold on to that for a while...

Judge Gladys Kessler has just handed down a ruling on the Constitutionality of Obamacare. By my count, that's five rulings so far, three upholding the law, two upsetting the law, with about twenty more suits in line unless the Supreme Court intercedes. I find the logic used in the decision... interesting. To explain why I find it so interesting, we'll have to backtrack a little to show how we got there; this will include recycling a couple paragraphs from a previous post from a year ago, in which I predicted that this would happen.

When the Constitution was written, the Supreme Court was to consider only certain types of cases, among them being cases involving interstate commerce. Those were simpler people, living in more primitive times; they innocently believed that words meant what the dictionary said they meant- for example that "interstate commerce" was, well, commerce, that was conducted in kind of, you know, an interstatey sort of way.

But that was then; this is now. Today, we live in a post modern, Alice In Wonderland world where words mean what we say they mean, and dictionaries be damned. "Interstate Commerce" no longer means what a dictionary might say that it means; this was established in WICKARD v. FILBURN In that case, a farmer had been charged with growing more wheat than the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 allowed. The farmer claimed that the wheat had not been sold, it had been used to feed his own family; no commerce was involved. Since the Agricultural Adjustment Act dealt with commerce, and none had occurred, it wasn't any of the government's business what his family ate. To counter this seemingly reasonable argument, the court invented a new legal doctrine called "Total Incidence", which in layman's terms means "What if everybody did that?" If everybody grew their own wheat to eat, that would depress the price of wheat, which would have an affect on the whole wheat market; therefore the bread on his table, despite having been neither sold nor bought, nor ever crossing a state line, was involved in interstate commerce.

The irrationality of this argument means nothing to the law. Of course "everybody" isn't going to grow their own; growing wheat is an expensive, difficult, time consuming process that few would undertake- that's why wheat farmers exist in the first place. Hells bells, I once killed an air plant. But I digress.

This bogus expansion of the commerce clause was taken a step further with GONZALES, ATTORNEY GENERAL, et al. v. RAICH et al. In this case, the federal government overruled California's medical marijuana laws, which allowed citizens of California to grow marijuana for their own consumption. California argued that as there is no interstate commerce in marijuana, the commerce clause did not apply, so the 10th amendment rules. But, of course, there was no way such a reasonable argument was going to be allowed to stand.

The court said "The similarities between this case and Wickard are striking. Like the farmer in Wickard, respondents are cultivating, for home consumption, a fungible commodity for which there is an established, albeit illegal, interstate market... Here too, Congress had a rational basis for concluding that leaving home-consumed marijuana outside federal control would similarly affect price and market conditions." Did you catch that? "fungible commodity" means something that can be transported, and doesn't have anybody's name on it. Which means that it's physically possible for a California cancer patient to carry his joint across state lines, and once there, sell it. So despite the fact that the smuggling and the resultant sale are both already illegal, he is, by the Wickard precedent, involved in interstate commerce, and the government has a legitimate interest in regulating the price and market conditions even of a market that has no legal existence. And inherent in the logic is the government's right to assume that capability implies intent; a new precedent in its own right, in my opinion.

To any rational person, this argument too is bogus. It is tantamount to saying that the Constitution gives the federal government the right to regulate your sex life because since you can carry your genitals across state lines, you might then indulge in a little prostitution, which would then be interstate commerce. But again I digress.

So now we come to the Kessler decision. In the quotes you're about to see, there are ellipses- these do not represent missing words; the text is complete in each quote. But court decisions include references to precedents, with names and long series of numbers I find confusing and irritating to read; I presumed you would too, and deleted them. if you're the type who actually enjoys that sort of thing, the entire decision is here.

There were two classes of plaintiffs involved in this suit. The first were people who had never bought health insurance, nor ever intended to do so in the future- they intended to self insure. That being the case, they asked, by what Constitutional authority can they be required to buy private insurance? When did not engaging in commerce become commerce? Judge Kessler had an answer for them: "As previous Commerce Clause cases have all involved physical activity, as opposed to mental activity, i.e. decision-making, there is little judicial guidance on whether the latter falls within Congress’s power...However, this Court finds the distinction, which Plaintiffs rely on heavily, to be of little significance. It is pure semantics to argue that an individual who makes a choice to forgo health insurance is not “acting,” especially given the serious economic and health-related consequences to every individual of that choice. Making a choice is an affirmative action, whether one decides to do something or not do something. They are two sides of the same coin. To pretend otherwise is to ignore reality."

I can certainly agree that Judge Kessler had "little judicial guidance" in her decision! She is making the same argument that the Christian apologists make regarding the answering of prayers... to conduct interstate commerce, one must decide to do so, and so the act of making the decision is part of the commerce; since "No" is also a decision, you've just made a decision, and therefore engaged in commerce! With that kind of convoluted logic, one might have expected her to be a theologian- but the second half of her decision kind of precludes that possibility.

Remember I said there were two classes of plaintiffs? The others- names Lee, and Seven-Sky, belong to faiths that believe God provides, and that prayer is the only medicine they will ever use. To buy health insurance is to demonstrate a lack of faith, that you're making provisions for God's failure. By what Constitutional authority, they asked, could they be made to buy insurance that they do not need, will never use, and even the owning of which is blasphemy?

The judge began her answer by doubting their resolve, saying that it's one thing to claim you'll never use the doctor, and another to actually refuse the care in the face of an actual illness. But she had a back up argument just in case someone objected that questioning one's faith is not a legal argument: "Even assuming for the purposes of this Motion, however, that Plaintiffs Lee and Seven-Sky do remain committed to refusing medical care throughout their lives, Congress may still regulate the larger class of individuals when it “decides that the total incidence of a practice poses a threat to a national market.”... Consequently, the Court looks not to Plaintiffs’ particular situation, but must ask instead whether the practice of the broader class of uninsured individuals threatens the national health care market. However, “when it is necessary in order to prevent an evil to make the law embrace more than the precise thing to be prevented it may do so.’”... Because this Court has determined that the practices of the broader class of uninsured individuals substantially affects the health care market, Plaintiffs’ own individual activity may be regulated pursuant to Congress’s Commerce Clause power."

Ah, the "total incidence" argument again- you remember, "what if everybody did that?" If everybody asked the ambulance to take them to a Christian Science reading room instead of the hospital, that would affect the insurance market; therefore nobody can be allowed to do so. And the blasphemy? Well, we're not requiring that you use the doctor, only that you pay for him!

So to sum up: I can be forced by the government to buy a commercial product from a for-profit company because by virtue of not previously buying that product, I had in fact been involved in that industry; the service or product involved need not be traded across state lines or even legally exist at all to be interstate commerce that the government can regulate; and that any action which, if done by everyone everywhere, would have some effect on some type of commerce, whether or not that commerce currently legally exists, is behavior the government can legally control- and this vast authority trumps religious objections.

It took 146 years to get from writing the Constitution to Wicard, only 67 years to get from Wicard to Gonzales, and only six years to get from there to Kessler. If you can't see a slippery slope, you need to buy an inclinometer.