Sunday, July 31, 2011

Juan Williams on School Choice

I have a lot more respect for Juan Williams now than I did prior to the NPR incident.  I thought of him as a parrot of the Leftist talking points for NPR, but when that happened, it made me realize just how iconoclastic he can be.  Hence the reason I show the clip at the bottom of this blog entry.

Before I continue with looking at Williams' comments on school choice, I might as well give my abridged take on school choice.  I find that considering the other indicators of the overall greatness of a given nation-state, America's quality of education is by far lacking in quality.  The monopolistic nature of the education system eliminates any need for competition, which thereby stymies most, if not all, potential for innovation and growth.  Many conservatives propose the concept of school vouchers, which entail the usage of tax dollars to provide students with school choice.  I would rather not have the government intervene in education, just as a libertarian ideal.  It has the potential to have just as much out-of-control spending as current entitlement spending.  However, if I had to choose between the current system and providing school choice [in the form of vouchers], I'd opt for the latter.  School choice has been implemented in places such as Milwaukee, Canada (particularly in Alberta), and Sweden with a relatively large amount of success.  Even though some in Chile are stirring up a ruckus regarding school choice and are being overtly critical of the education system, America should nevertheless give it a go.

That being said, I will move on to the comments provided by Juan Williams.

Williams brought up the point that one of the primary reasons why he became passionate about the issue of education is because of the drop-out rates in high schools.  Although the drop-out rate has dropped on the national level, it remains to be seen as to whether that applies to the inner cities, particularly since that would have to be measured on a district-by-district level.  Knowing the quality of inner cities, it is not a stretch of the imagination that the quality of education is suffering, as well.

Williams then continues to say that education reform is the civil rights issue of our time, particularly because of the "soft bigotry of low expectations."  This "bigotry" has its origins in a Bushism.  I don't like how it was used in the context of No Child Left Behind, but the concept remains the same.  Although it might be controversial to say, this bigotry is quite similar to the problem indicative to affirmative action.  Hispanics and African-Americans are two ethnic groups who are recipients of affirmative action.  Unfortunately, they disproportionately live in inner cities.  The problems overlap here.  Affirmative action subtly says that certain ethnic groups are unable to sustain themselves without [government] help.  Asians, Indians, and Jews are minorities that did not need help (e.g., affirmative action) to establish themselves in American society, and have worked their way up the socio-economic strata in spite of the stigma.  These successes tell us that minorities can succeed in American life.  When one says that a certain minority cannot succeed in this country, that does indeed turn this scenario into a "soft bigotry."  The fact that the "soft bigotry" permeates into the education system is all the more appalling.

Williams then proceeds to say that the parents need to be reached.  The parents, much like the teachers, feel a degree of self-defeatism.  In spite of this, I have to agree with Williams.  Parents need to stand up for their children.  They need to demand more from the status quo.  In short, they need to be parents.  If nobody is protesting the status quo, it will most certainly self-perpetuate.

Speaking of perpetuating the status quo, Williams brings up the point that unions heavily support the Democratic Party, which, looking at the quantity of donations, is largely true (not quite 100%, but is pretty close).  From that perspective, Democrats are more "classical conservative" (i.e., preserving the status quo) than the Republicans are.  How can school reform occur when the teacher unions are preserving the status quo?

The final point that Williams brings up is that in a globalized world, you need something beyond a high school education.  However, as he brings up, many are being told that one does not even need a high school education.  According to a recent Brookings Institute study, education is one of the major factors in the decrease of median wages amongst the male population in America.  The Pew Center shows that getting a college education (i.e., a Bachelor's Degree) is worth it.  However, what good does that do if you are already being told that you shouldn't even pursue a high school education, let alone a post-secondary one?

In short, you know the extent of the problem is bad when the New York Times is reporting on the corruption of public schools.  Something needs to be done to remedy the quality of education in this country.  The status quo is clearly not adequate.  Whether it is a call for school vouchers or otherwise, I simply hope that the United States government makes true education reform while cutting back on the amount of governmental intervention.


Thursday, July 28, 2011

Why Biblical Literalism Is Folly

Biblical literalism is the claim that presents Scripture as the explicit, literal, inerrant word of G-d.  It is the hermeneutics most commonly associated with Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.  Such a reading of Scripture has brought about phenomena in American society such as the Moral Majority and the Creationist Movement, amongst others.  It seems straightforward and to the point.  What can possibly be wrong with it?


1) Translation issues.  The Hebrew Scriptures were written in Biblical Hebrew.  The Christian "New Testament" was written in ancient Greek.  When Christians read the Hebrew Scriptures, they are reading the translation of the Sepuginant, which is a Greek translation of the Hebrew.  That means that the Christian rendering of the Hebrew Scriptures is a translation of a translation.  As any linguist will tell you, translations are inadequate at best and shoddy at worst.  Why?  It's much more than worrying about any biases the translator might have.  It's because there are certain words that do not translate well [or at all] into the English language.  Chabad points out three such examples: צדקה ("charity"), תשובה ("repentance"), and תפלה ("prayer").  It goes without saying that there is hardly any Christian [in this country] that has some sort of working knowledge, let alone an awareness, of these linguistic intricacies.  That being the case, how can any Christian assert that they have the "literal, inerrant word of G-d?"  To close this point off with an anecdote.  I brought this point up with a Christian once.  His response was that "if English was good enough for Jesus, it was good enough for me."  I brought up that Jesus spoke Aramaic, not to mention the fact that English did not exist as a language during Jesus' time.  This did not shake the Christian's assertion.  Enough said!


2) Inevitability of interpretation.  What Biblical literalists do not understand is that even if you have a divine text, once humans get their hands on it, it is going to be subject to interpretation.  At the very minimum, you have to ask whether a verse is to be read broadly or narrowly.  What do I mean by that?  Does the verse apply to a specific context?  Does the verse apply to all peoples for all times?  Are we able to extrapolate a lesson, moral, or value out of a verse, whether it is in context or not?  


Furthermore, what do you do when two values are in direct conflict with one another?  Just to give an example, this is what one would try to figure out what "Honor thy mother and father" means if one's father is smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.  Do you respect your father's wishes, even though he is being self-destructive, or do you stop him from partaking in such behavior?   


Also, there are many verses that are ambiguous in the Bible.  A verse can offer multiple interpretations, and there can very well be some interpretations upon which we have yet to stumble.  In Jewish thought, we call this "eilu v'eilu."  In Jewish exegesis, there is an acronymic concept called pardes, which encompasses multiple forms of interpretation, including the surface reading of the text, the homiletic, the allegorical, the philosophical, and the mystical.  Being able to interpret a given verse with context allows for such diversity of opinion to exist.  For Christian fundamentalists to say that "this is the meaning of the verse" is as limiting as it is inaccurate.  


3) Scientific Issues.  The most prominent issue from a scientific standpoint would be the Creation story.  Literalists claim that G-d created the world in six 24-hour periods, even though science begs to differ.  This causes Christians to do anything from denying the scientific findings to opining that G-d planted dinosaur bones in the ground during Creation to "test our faith."  This literalism has caused a dialectical relationship between science and religion in this country, which creates the illusion that one or the other is correct.  As scientist Gerald Schroeder illustrates, the Torah does not have to conflict with scientific findings.  Maimonides even went as far to say that if a scientific claim is demonstrably true, then we are not to read it with its plain meaning (i.e., we read it allegorically).  This would mean that science becomes a significant measure for how we interpret the Torah.  Science does not have to negate religion, and vice versa.  It is all a matter of how we interpret the text.    


4) Textual inconsistencies. There are differences between the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures that cause multiple contradistinctions between the two religions.  Just to name a few: One, Christianity believes that sin rules over man, whereas Judaism believes that man can rule over sin (Genesis 4:7). Jews believe that Satan is an "adversary" that can be overcome. Christianity believes that Jesus died for our sins, whereas Judaism believes that the individual has the ability to atone for his sins through his actions, prayer, and sincere devotion to make sure that the sin doesn’t repeat itself. Christianity believes in a triune deity (Matthew 28:19), whereas Judaism believes that G-d is One (Deuteronomy 6:4). Christians believe that man is G-d (John 10:30), whereas Jews believe that G-d is not a mortal (Numbers 23:19), as it would diminish His divinity and eternality. For Christians, Jesus is an intermediary. For Jews, G-d is accessible 24/7 (Psalms 145:18).  For a Christian looking at this honestly, the quandary is whether to either deny the claims of Hebrew Scriptures or those of the Christian New Testament.


In addition, you can find inconsistencies within the Christian New Testament itself, most notably in the story of the Resurrection.  This is telling because Jesus' sacrifice and resurrection is the cornerstone of Christian theology.  No resurrection, no Christianity!  Literalism is a problem with the Resurrection story because there are literally four different versions of the story.  The discrepancies of these versions do not have to do with emotions or any other facet of personal perspective.  They have to do with dates, times, and places.  Literalism is problematic here because no less than three of the Gospels are lying.  If the text is lying in this aspect, how are we able to trust Christian Scriptures as inerrant or "the literal word of G-d?"        


5) Moral Issues.  Reading certain verses literally is morally problematic from a Christian perspective. Jesus said that he was brought here to not bring peace [to earth], but to bring the sword (Matthew 10:34).  At least one of Jesus' followers took him literally and took up the sword (Luke 22:49-50).  Jesus also says that you have to hate your family in order to become a disciple of his (Luke 14:26).  The story of the fig tree is no less flattering of a depiction of Jesus.  If we were to take the story literally, Jesus comes off as an impudent child throwing a tantrum rather than a deity.  Another intriguing passage comes along in Mark 1 (verses 4, 9) where Jesus is baptized.  If the purpose of baptism is to wash away sin (Acts 22:12-16), then what sin did Jesus commit?  Does that not mean that Jesus himself, being a man, was imperfect?  


Postscript: Christians who subscribe to biblical literalism adhere to some non-existent disclaimer that the Bible has to be read their way.  They are incapable of explaining any of the aforementioned issues away without an inordinate amount of theological acrobatics, all of which are inexplicable to the rational mind.  And believe me when I say that many more examples can be cited to point out issues with biblical literalism.  So why would a Christian succumb to such a mode of interpretation?  Because it's simplistic and easy to do.  It does not involve much thought or work since all that the individual is doing is accepting the verse "at face value," whatever that may mean.  Interpretation actually takes time and effort, not to mention grappling with all sorts of realities that come from questioning and inquiring.  And since the premise behind being a good Christian is unquestionable faith in Jesus and his sacrifice, questioning and inquiring are anything but strong suits of Christianity.  


Biblical literalism is a product of the black-and-white thinking of fundamentalist thought.  One of the alluring facets of any fundamentalism is that it simplifies everything and gives the false notion of "having all the answers."  Biblical literalism is an attempt to insulate oneself from reality because with biblical literalism comes certitude.  Certitude is such a nice feeling to have in an uncertain world.  Escapism is easier than dealing with reality.  The desire for this level of spiritual comfort robs us not only of our senses, but of our rational faculties.  Biblical literalists, along with any other fundamentalists, will cling to their belief system, no matter what facts are presented, much like those presented here today.  Deluding reality is ultimately the folly of biblical literalism.       

Monday, July 25, 2011

Stop Calling Them Occupied Territories!

Every time I hear the West Bank referred to as an "occupied territory," it brings about a great deal of frustration.  This frustration is not simply because it is the MO of the pro-Palestinian side to inaccurately paint Israel as an oppresive, power-hungry, Satanic colonizer.  It's due to the fact that the argument is not based in historical facts and evidence. 

Israel's claim to the land, at least in terms of international law, goes all the way back to the Balfour Declaration after the British took over the Ottoman Empire.  Keep in mind that under the Balfour Declaration, Israel also had the East bank of the Jordan River in addition to the West Bank.  But compromise was something Israel did in order to have a state of their own. 

Both the League of Nations and the United Nations (see UN Resolution 181) have confirmed the legitimacy of Israel's right to statehood.  If the international community has given Israel the permission to have a state of their own, then what's the issue?  During the 1947 War for Israeli Independence, Jordan stepped in and occupied the land, even though nobody recognized the legitimacy of its claim.  After the war, there were armisitice lines that were drawn because the territory of the West Bank was in dispute.  Just to clarify, "pre-1967 borders" is such a misnomer.  Rather than calling the West Bank an "occupied territory," it would be more accurate to call it a "disputed territory," even though the Palestinians have no legal legitimate claim to the land since there was no Arab nation-state called Palestine at the time.

Below is a video by Knesset member Danny Ayalon.  Short from the misspelling of the word "Lebanon," I thought it was a great primer on the issue:





 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

One Year After Dodd-Frank: Are We Better Off?

Last Thursday was the one-year anniversary of the signing of the Dodd-Frank bill.  The Dodd-Frank bill was a regulatory overhaul of finance reform and regulations that, according to the bill, is supposed to "promote the financial stability of the United States by improving accountability and transparency in the financial system, to end 'too big to fail,' to protect the American taxpayer by ending bailouts, to protect consumers from abusive financial services practices, and for other purposes."  After a year of signing this bill into law, the question at the moment is whether the bill has brought more stability and security to our financial institutions. 

I wanted to see what the Left had to say on the issue since they love regulating the economy so much.  In typical NYT fashion, The New York Times said that the reason why Dodd-Frank hasn't been able to get off the ground is because the Republicans are blocking nominations of certain key posts at financial institutions.  That might have to do with something that the bill was not bi-partisan and Mr. "I'm Going Reach Across the Aisle" Obama didn't help with transcending party lines, as if that were a shock.  CNN also stuck up for Dodd-Frank.  They pointed out the provisions that have already gone into effect, even though they pointed out that the Republicans are blocking funding efforts to get most of the initiatives going.  I couldn't find anything from Left-leaning think tanks on the one-year anniversary, although I found an article from last March from the Center of American Progress.  As those on the Left do, they blamed the recession on a lack of regulation, which is why they think Dodd-Frank is a good bill. 

Even the Centrist think-tank Brookings Institute favored the bill.  Since the bill is so complex, Brookings Institute fellow Douglas Elliot opines that we will have to wait another year for the benefits of the bill to fully take in effect.

Since I'm libertarian, it should be no surprise that I am not happy with the largest amount of financial regulation that this country has experienced since the Great Depression.  The bill has done nothing to end "too big to fail," which was one of the primary goals of the bill.  Larger banks normally have to pay more to borrow.  But since the passage of Dodd-Frank, the large banks pay less because according to Section 204(d) of the bill, the FDIC can buy out the debt of the bank, which is another way of saying "bailout."  If the bill gives the ability to bail out banks, I guess that banks are still "too big to fail."

Diane Katz from the Heritage Foundation points out a few reasons why this bill hasn't worked.  The first is that the bill does not address the causes of the "Great Recession," mainly being that of Big Government having its hands in the housing market by creating regulatory incentives that distorted the market.  The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) also concurs that it was government housing policies caused an unusually high number of risky loan practices that caused the housing bubble to burst.   Secondly, much like with Obamacare, when you bite off more than you can chew, you will fail with trying to regulate so much.  Plus, since when has excessive governmental regulation fixed anything?  Third, the bill has done nothing to improve the state of the economy.  As Katz emphasizes, "the unemployment rate stands at 9.2 percent. The budget deficit tops $1.3 trillion, and federal debt has hit the ceiling at $14 trillion. Consumer spending is tepid, wages are stagnant, and prices for energy and food are rising."

Even the Cato Institute found that Dodd-Frank did not mitigate much. According to Cato Institute Director Mark Calabria, the bill might have actually exacerbated the financial situation.  Calabria outlines that Dodd-Frank has aggregated risk in the derivatives market, doubled the ceiling for insured bank deposits, and thereby doing what it essentially can to make sure that Big Banking doesn't fail.  This bill has created uncertainty, which is part of why this recovery is lagging.  It hasn't done anything to increase confidence in our financial institutions, which is why the University of Chicago's Financial Trust Index shows no discernible change in financial confidence.   

I'll end this entry with Calabria's overall take on Dodd-Frank:

Credit is the lifeblood of an economy, facilitating both investment and consumption. While the economy faces several headwinds, the unavailability of credit is a major problem. Rather than fix our financial plumbing, Dodd-Frank has largely clogged up the channels of credit further. The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau could likely represent a massive litigation risk for lending. The result is both a higher cost of credit for consumers and reduced availability. Hardly a recipe for economic recovery.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Is There a Way Out of Giving Tzedakah?

From a Jewish standpoint, whether we can justify our avoidance of giving tzedakah seems to be strange at the least, if not down right immoral.  The Talmud (Baba Batra 9a) states that giving tzedakah is greater than all the other mitzvot.  Deuteronomy 15:7-11 tells us that it is our responsibility to give enough to the poor to the point at which poverty no longer exists [in the Land of Israel].  However, it is anything but easy to adhere to the well-established custom of giving ten percent of one's earnings.  People give all sorts of explanations as to why they avoid giving tzedakah. 

In R. Elliot Dorff's book Tikkun Olam (p. 108-110), he actually gives such explanations as to how people shirk on giving tzedakah.  Are the reasons people give justifiable or are they petty excuses to perpetuate their selfishness?  Upon examining the reasons giving in Dorff's book, we can better answer the question.  

1) "It's my money.  I've earned it.  Why should people who didn't work for it get any of my money?  I'll do what I want with it."  Having a job is a huge indicator of whether one is in poverty.  75% of America's poor are currently unemployed.  Since a large percentage of the poor in this country don't work, resentment from those who work is not uncommon, and on some level, is understandable.  Although Judaism comes with a healthy does of property rights and capitalist ethos, it also comes with a more distributive sense of justice than that of libertarianism.  In Jewish thought, we find a middle ground between aestheticism and obsession with physicality (i.e., hedonism).  Judaism takes the mundane and elevates it to the holyMoney is no exception.  Rather than take the self-absorbed route of unadulterated greed, Judaism asks that a certain portion of one's assets are used to help out those in need.  Judaism calls the individual to transcend the self, hence the more communal call of justice.

2) "It's demeaning to accept tzedakah."  It depends on the situation.  Begging, especially if "done for a living," is innately humiliating.  It erodes self-worth and what it means to be "created in His image."  However, if the tzedakah given is used to help an individual get back on his feet during his temporary stint, then it's much more acceptable.

3) "I might reinforce physically harmful behavior."  If you give the poor cash, you very well could be perpetuating a drinking or drug problem.  This is more of a common occurrence than we would ever care for, but it's no excuse to not give.  If you find this potential to be disconcerting, you can always help out by either giving food or clothing.  

4) "Giving tzedakah will encourage the poor to stay poor."  This is one of my major gripes with tzedakah as a practice.  If the premise behind giving tzedakah is to alleviate poverty, then it does not adequately, as an institution, perform its function since it is not addressing root causes.  Giving money disincentivizes poor individuals to look for work and stand on their own two feet in order to escape poverty.  With the ever-prevailing mentality of self-entitlement in this country, it becomes all the more difficult to have this not be a worry.  Any tzedakah [program] should entail incentives to get poor people to find employment and stand on their own two feet.  The Talmud (Baba Batra 116a) states that if you had fifty plagues on one side and poverty on the other, poverty outweighs the other fifty plagues.  We should do our utmost to get people out of poverty, which is why the highest of Maimonides' Eight Levels of Tzedakah (MT, Laws of Charity, 10:7-14) is giving someone a loan in which they can be self-reliant.

5) "I might be duped into giving to a fraudulent case."  Rabbi Chayim Halberstam, better known as the Sanzer Rebbe, said that he'd rather give to a hundred fraudulent cases for every legitimate case rather than deprive that one legitimate poor person.  I find that attitude to be highly counter-productive to the purpose of tzedakah.  The primary purpose is to help the poor, which is why giving tzedakah even for an ulterior motive is still acceptable (Pesachim 8a-b).  If this is of concern, I would advise the following.  On an individual level (e.g., a single beggar), give non-cash options such as food or clothing.  On an institutional level, do your research prior to giving so you can avoid giving to an institution that does something like give an exorbitant amount on fundraising or salaries for the higher-ups (see here and here).  Skepticism about fraud makes one more cautious, but it's no reason not to give at all.  

6) "I might get mugged if I give to a beggar."  Especially if it's at night, a beggar can take advantage of your giving nature and decide to rob you, especially if they are on drugs.  To avoid this scenario, either give in a safer zone (e.g., with people around) or give tzedakah to foundations that help with the poor.  

7) "I don't know to whom I should give.  There are too many people in need."  Pirke Avot 2:16 says that you are not going to finish your task, but that does not mean you should desist from it.  We are individuals with limited spheres of influence and limited resources.  Just because you single handedly does not negate one's responsibility to give tzedakah.

Conclusion:  A large majority of these concerns are valid, and should treat them as such.  Although they give us reason to hesitate or limit the scope, it does not absolve us to give tzedakah.  The current way we approach tzedakah can use some re-vamping.  We first need to give tzedakah not just with the intention of doing good, but actually doing good, as opposed to giving to fraudsters.  While we need to worry about providing poor people with food in their bellies or a roof over their head so they can survive the next day, we more importantly need to focus on why poverty exists in the first place.  By creating programming that focuses on root causes (e.g., employment, education), we can head in a direction in which the amount of poor people decreases to the point of non-existence.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Problems of Using Entitlement Programs as Poverty Relief

I don't think anybody would consider themselves as pro-poverty.  On a national level, poverty holds back economic growth.  Individually speaking, abject poverty impedes on life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.  Let's face it!  Poverty isn't fun, and no decent person wouldn't wish it on anybody else.    However, does sympathy for the poor justify the continuation of entitlement spending by the government?

This was the question I was asking myself while reading a study from Brookings Institute Senior Fellow Ron Haskins that is entitled Figthing Poverty the American Way today.  I was looking at the causes of poverty that Hasking had outlined in his work, mainly those of work rates, family composition, and education.  If we are to assume that his root causes are correct, then entitlement spending would not be conducive to mitigating the problem, especially when we see the trends spelled out by Haskins.

With work rates, Haskins shows that 75% of people who are in poverty do not have a job.  If you want to reduce your probability of poverty by 75%, get a job.  In this sluggish recovery, that would be easier said than done.  But again, joblessness is a huge indicator in poverty.  It would also help if job creation were encouraged rather than punishing the rich (i.e., the people who have the capital to create jobs).
 
Education is another big indicator.  The higher level of education you have, the higher the median income.  This causation makes sense.  Education measures level of intelligence and human capital.  More education leads to higher potential to contribute to society, which means a higher salary.  This discussion would obviously merit a discussion on education reform, a discussion which is too long to have at this time.  Although there are many reforms that one can discuss to better the education system in this country, it is safe to say that entitlement spending does not encourage the pursuit of higher education.  As I had outlined in a previous blog entry, entitlement programs such as Social Security creates shorter working life spans.  As such, the incentive to get a higher education wanes.

Family composition was an interesting argument because it would be something I would expect from Heritage Foundation, not the Brookings Institute, which is a centrist think tank.  Essentially, the argument goes like this: marriage creates stability, and in this specific argument, marriage creates economic stability.  The argument makes sense when looking at the statistics.  Poverty exists in 11% of households with two partners.  In households with single mothers, on the other hand, was at 44.3%.  That means that if you are in a household with a single parent, you are four times more likely to be in poverty!  This problem of single-head households because more pronounced when we see the number go from 6.3% in 1950 to 23.9% in 2010.  That is also an increase that is nearly fourfold. Since I have not considered family composition as a root cause of poverty prior to today, I have yet to dwell on solutions from a family composition standpoint.  The solutions that Haskins provides (e.g., tax incentives for married couples, sex education with government funding) are not libertarian in nature.  Being a libertarian, I would find it difficult to find a way to incentivize individuals to enter a [marriage] contract without it coming off as coercion.  Another blog entry for another time, I suppose.

Aside from not attacking the root problems of poverty, my main issue with these entitlement programs is that they are insolvent.  The crux of the debt ceiling debate that Congress has had lately is that spending exceeds revenue to a point where America will be unable to recover.  The big programs in question are Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.  The spending on these programs is no small matter.  According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Left-leaning think tank, 20% of the federal budget goes to Social Security and another 21% goes to Medicare, Medicaid, and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).  If you want to add in the additional 14% for other safety net programs, the total of entitlement spending in this country is 55% of a $3.5 trillion budget!

There is clearly an issue with the rapid increase in expenditures, and it is common knowledge that the numbers will only get higher if left to their own devices.  A majority of Americans do not want a reduction in benefits, but they want the same benefits that are straining our economy further and further each day.  You can't have your cake and eat it, too.  Would tax hikes work?  I'm sure a majority of Americans are not susceptible to that idea, either.  Yet Americans want reform. 

The only reform that would actually work without bankrupting the economy would be a trend towards privatization of these services.  As I explained a couple of months ago, putting retirement funds in a private retirement account (PRA) would actually gain you more money in the long-run.  The Cato Institute outlines the issues involved with the centralization and price control of Medicare and how that can also be reformed through privatization.  If we are to alleviate poverty and assure that the American economy goes down the tubes, we need to find solutions that involve less government, not more.  

Friday, July 8, 2011

Concealed Carry Law: A Victory for Wisconsin

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R) signed a bill this afternoon enacting legislation to legalize conceal and carry.  I was enthused when the bill was passed both in the Senate and the Assembly because I knew Walker would have no problem signing it.  However, my liberal friends didn't share my enthusiasm.  I heard an earful about how the passing of this legislation was going to regress Wisconsin back "to the days of the Wild West."

This sort of hyperbolic emotionalism is why it's difficult to have an honest debate with gun control advocates.  Is this bill going to plunge Wisconsin into some pre-conceived notion of anarchy that existed in 19th-century America?  I honestly don't think so.  This is no mere conjecture.  The most exculpatory evidence of that is in the precedence set by the other states in the Union.  There are forty-eight other states that permit non-law enforcement citizens to carry concealed weaponry, and in thirty-five of those states, they have passed "shall-issue" laws.  These laws have been in full force for quite a few years now.  If concealed carry were so terrible, not only would we have seen a huge rise in crime, but we would have also seen states be so troubled about it that the government would have overturned any concealed carry legislation previously passed.  You haven't seen any of that.  As a matter of fact, the trend is that we have seen over the course of the past couple of decades is that of even more states passing concealed carry legislation.  If gun-induced chaos were to ensue, it would have happened by now. 

The fact that it hasn't happened still doesn't silence the "guns kill people" crowd.  How many people have been killed by concealed gun carriers?  According to the Violence Policy Center, which is a pro-gun control organization, the total from May 2007 to the present is 319.  It should go without saying that any murder is abhorent.  However, from a statistical standpoint, is this number high?

According to FBI homicide statistics (most recent compiled being 2009), there was an average of approximately 16,000 homicides per annum.  Multiply that by four years and you have about 64,000 homicides within the timeframe of the Violence Policy Center Statistics.  Divide the 319 by 64,000, and the odds that a concealed carrier is a part of the 64,000 murderers is 0.49%. 

Even more convincing is the probability that a concealed carrier is to actually commit a murderer.  Let's assume that the 318 murderers were each committed by different carriers.  Let's also use the MSNBC statistic that six million Americans are registered for concealed carry because their bias is going to report the number on the low end. What does "319/6,000,000" equal?  0.0053%!  Using numbers that are in the favor of gun control advocates, for every person that commits homicide with a permitted concealed weapon, there are 20,000 law-abiding indiviudals that will not commit homicide!

There is no reason to punish 20,000 individuals for the actions of one schmuck.  After all, it is their Second Amendment right.  The two recent Supreme Court cases of District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago both reaffirm an American's rights to bear arms.

The reason why so many Americans own guns and feel that this legislation is necessary is for the purpose of self-defense.  Guns are a great equalizer.  When someone pulls out a concealed gun, the criminial will simply retreat 55% of the time.  Concealed carry won't increase violence.  No study has proven that.  The best that the naysayers can come up with is that it has no discernable effect.

Even if you're a peacenik that hate guns, they even experience an unintended positive externality.  With concealed carry, criminals don't know who's packing.  This uncertainty creates a deterrent effect.

In short, this law is a victory for the citizens of Wisconsin.  Wait, scratch that!  Not quite everybody.  It's not a victory for Wisconsin's criminals.  They're going to be deterred from committing more crimes.  So to rephrase, the bill is a victory for Wisconsin's law-abiding citizens.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Is America the Greatest Nation on Earth?

I find that asking whether America is the greatest nation on Earth during the Fourth of July season is a most appropriate topic question.  When is a better time to ask it than when our awareness of our nation's ideals is most heightened with the patriotic fervor of the holiday spirit?  If you haven't noticed, I have been using Pew Center polls a lot lately, and I do so for two reasons.  One is that the Pew Center has no discernible bias, something that I cannot say for just about every other media outlet in the nation.  My second reason is that it the intrigue of the frequency in which many of the opinions of those who are polled do not jive with reality.  I would consider this drôle if it were not for the fact that these people actually have clout in public policy.

That set aside, I was taking a look at a recent poll done that asked the question at hand: Is America the greatest nation on Earth?  Even in spite of post-9-11 patriotism, I was surprised to see the results of the poll.  A majority (53%) believe that America is one of the greatest nations, but is by no means superior.  I find the question to be problematic for a couple of reasons.  The first is that politics gets in the way.  The Far Right is obsessed with an unwavering sense of "American exceptionalism," whereas the Far Left is hung up on blaming America for everything.  The second, and by far more important reason, is that the question is so loaded that it's not even funny.

"I love my country" is an emotion.  Every country has their patriots, and each country's patriots will say their respective nation is the greatest on Earth.  That's the very essence of pride.  However, pride is not an objective measurement of greatness.  That being the case, how can we measure America's greatness?  The answer is not simple simply because we would need to measure multiple factors that play a role in answering that question.  Let's take a look:

  • Military/Defense: America is the most technologically advanced military in the world.  America's military prowess is well-known.  Also, in absolute dollars, the US spends $607B (2008 figures), more than any other nation, although that is a smaller portion of our GDP than one would think.  "Don't mess with the U.S." still rings true as America has the most powerful military on the planet.  In terms of spending and being involved in pointless endeavors such as Afghanistan, debate on military efficacy should be an ongoing process as it would be great to see the American military spend as little as possible while being efficient in terms of accomplishing its goals.
  • Economic Freedom: Co-sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal, the Economic Freedom Index measures economic freedom throughout the world.  Even though economic freedom has dropped during the Obama administration, America is still measured to have well-above average economic freedom.
  • Economy: In spite of the recession, America has the largest GDP, and largest GDP per capita based on Purchasing Power Parity (PPP).  We have a convoluted, progressive tax system that stymies economic growth. We are also dealing with a massive debt on which we are having a hard time paying back.  Entitlement spending and heading towards the status of a welfare state does not help with any of this.  A reversal of this trend would help ensure that America's economic growth doesn't end up like that of the European Union.           
  • Education: For being a developed nation that is allegedly the "greatest nation on Earth," I find the education system in this country to be mediocre at best, and at worst, a sad state of affairs if we are to lead the world in a forward direction this century.  According to the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA), which evaluates academic progress of fifteen-year old students worldwide, the scores of American students did not exceed those of many of the other developed nations.  Even though the expenditures for K-12 schools have more than tripled (inflation-adjusted), SAT test scores have received moderate increases.  Although this can be a much longer commentary,  bloated school budgets, teacher unionism that doesn't incentivize teachers to improve their teaching methods, the Department of Education, and dumbing down the curriculum (both in K-12 and many undergraduate colleges) all further erode the education system in this country.        
  • Religious Freedom: It was the theme for my blog entry for last year's Fourth of July.  I am so grateful that as a Jew, I have such ability to practice Judaism.  Religious freedom is one of those impetuses that brought the colonialists to America.  I am glad to see that America has done a superb job at maintaining religious freedom that has been unprecedented in the Diaspora.
  • Health Care: The answer depends on whether you want to focus on equity (i.e., universal access) like the Left or overall quality like the Right does.  At best, one could argue that countries have socialized health care have immediate access to certain prescriptions and other basic forms of health care.  As for more complicated medical procedures, that's another story.  Do you want to be waiting in line for months for a live-saving procedure like they do in Canada,  or do you want to pay a bit more for quality that could mean the difference between life and death?  Last time I checked, a long waiting line is not access to health care.  Also, America has the greatest medical research facilities in the world, which means access to more complicated procedures.  This means increased prices in health care costs, which is why America has the highest health care costs in the world (#1 in absolute dollars and #2 in terms of percentage of GDP.....East Timor is #1).  Proponents of socialized health care gripe because increased costs don't lead to increased life expectancy.  That would be more due to the obesity brought on by the American lifestyle than it is a statement of the quality of American health care.  Even though Medicare and Medicaid dominate a good percentage of the medical industry, whatever has been untouched is still of great quality. Our health care system is by no means perfect, and there are viable solutions that don't involve aggrandizement of Big Government. However, I can guarantee that if Obamacare actually becomes law in 2014, we will be having a completely different discussion about the overall quality of American health care, one that will not be by any means flattering.
  • Immigration: The United States has the largest net migration on the face of this planet.  What does that indicate?  There is a much larger flux of people wanting to get into the United States rather than leaving it.  It would indicate that there is something wonderful about America that would cause such a flux.  Even though America is great at attracting immigrants to this nation, there are improvements that can be made in our immigration policy to make it more comprehensive than "guard the borders" to account for the complexities of America's immigration situation.  Canada's immigration policy would be a good model for improvement.    
  • Civil Liberties: Even though this country has a ways to in terms of offering civil rights to homosexuals, not to mention the Patriot Act or Real ID Act, the United States is overall sound when it comes to civil rights.  As Freedom House illustrates, America has a constitutionally protected free press, a good freedom of assembly, a high level of autonomy, women's rights, and even more notably, high levels of access to economic and social advancement.  In short, we have some of the best civil rights offered on this planet.        
Postscript: Did this help figure out whether America is the greatest nation on Earth?  It depends.  Do you prefer to emphasize America's strengths or weaknesses?  Which indicator(s) do you find to be more important?  It should go without saying that America is not without problems.  We're a nation composed of human being who are, by definition, imperfect.  As such, we're bound to have problems.  Regardless of how you view the overall direction of America, let's do two things today.  Take pride in that which America excels.  But let's also realize what America needs to focus on so that as a nation, we can work towards making this country better than it already is.