Thursday, March 30, 2006

Dining with Lobbyists

Politicians have the unique ability to steal money from some people and give it to others. Regular people like myself don't. I've never been asked to disclose my dealings with lobbyists. It should be no surprise to anyone that a lobbyist has never invited me to dinner. Lobbyists have never given me thousands of dollars or expensive gifts. In fact, it shouldn't even surprise you that lobbyists have never given me as much as a dollar.

Politicians are approached by lobbyists constantly. Politicians can get lobbyists what they want.

Yet in recent news, politicians are trying to pass laws that limit their relationship with lobbying groups: "The Senate lobbying bill bans accepting meals from lobbyists, require lobbyists to make quarterly reports of their contacts with lawmakers, and force lawmakers to wait two years before accepting jobs lobbying Congress, up from the current one-year moratorium."

Regarding the new bill, "Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said this increased openness would 'make a big difference' in enhancing public confidence. 'We cannot tackle the big issues facing our country if the public does not trust us to act in the public interest,' said Collins, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee."

The public just might be able to trust politicians to act in the 'public interest' if politicians renounced their ability to make some people better off at the expense of others, not by passing finance reform measures, disclosing lobbyist ties, or creating new ethics committees. Congress is certainly willing to create a few regulations here and there and give up a few of the perks of the job in order to retain this, their most important ability.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Indoctrination Education

High school teachers in New Jersey and Colorado have used public classrooms as a forum for expressing their political views. Those who agree with their viewpoints applaud their teaching and those who disagree state that a classroom is not the proper forum to express political opinions.

The New Jersey high school teacher, Joseph Kyle, decided to hold a war crimes trial in which President Bush was the defendant. John Gibson, a Fox News commentator, noted that such a trial assumes that war crimes have been committed and that President Bush is a likely suspect. Meanwhile, Kyle had the support of local school officials and the school principal, who believed that there was nothing improper about the mock trial.

Many of Kyle's supporters think his idea for a mock trial of Bush for war crimes is ingenius, although I might note that it is certainly not original. Aljazeera had already reported about a mock trial of President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair for war crimes back in January of this year, stating that "International activists and lawyers involved in the defence of Saddam Hussein say they will hold a mock trial of George Bush, the US president, and the British and Israeli prime ministers for alleged war crimes committed in Iraq and the Palestinian territories."

The debate has focused on whether the teacher's actions are appropriate in the public classroom setting. This is certainly the wrong focus. Can we ever expect unanimity on what topics should be approached, how subjects should be taught, or how rules should be enforced? Any reasonable person would have to admit that short of teaching absolutely nothing at all, such unanimity is unattainable. Regardless of which side is taught, parents and students will scream 'indoctrination!' This is why parents should be free to choose the type of education that is suitable for their children. This is why the costs of education should be borne solely by those who choose it, so that they can rank their preferences in order of importance and pay for the quality and kind of education they deem appropriate. Trying to create a one-size-fits-all public education system inevitably becomes a struggle to provide an education that no one absolutely hates, rather than an education that people truly love. In the end, we've created a public school system that fits no one.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Reinventing Katrina

Just what did they know and when did they know it? That seems to be the never ending question posed by the media in regard to Hurricane Katrina. Until now. The Associated Press obtained a video containing a briefing of the president on the day before Hurricane Katrina struck. In it, the president assured all that "We are fully prepared."

But the federal government does not prevent hurricanes. Nor can it assure us that everyone is "fully prepared." All government can do is take money from those who chose not to live in hurricane-prone areas and give it to those who did.

But in the news media's quest for a good story, they've ignored such realities.

Preferring to believe that government is God, the media has characterized its response as that of an emperor fiddling while New Orleans drowned. They write about Bush "at his vacation ranch in Texas" and a "relaxed Chertoff, sporting a polo shirt." This month's issue of Popular Mechanics has a great article entitled "Debunking Katrina Myths," in which the authors shed light on many of the exaggerations put forth by news sources. One myth is that government response was the slowest in history. However, this is not the case. "In fact, the response to Hurricane Katrina was by far the largest--and fastest-rescue effort in U.S. history, with nearly 100,000 emergency personnel arriving on the scene within three days of the storm's landfall."

Another pervading myth is that Katrina was one of the strongest hurricanes in history. This is also simply untrue, as Popular Mechanics points out, "it was in fact a large, but otherwise typical, hurricane. On the 1-to-5 Saffir-Simpson scale, Katrina was a midlevel Category 3 hurricane at landfall. Its barometric pressure was 902 millibars (mb), the sixth lowest ever recorded, but higher than Wilma (882mb) and Rita (897mb), the storms that followed it. Katrina's peak sustained wind speed at landfall 55 miles south of New Orleans was 125 mph; winds in the city barely reached hurricane strength. By contrast, when Hurricane Andrew struck the Florida coast in 1992, its sustained winds were measured at 142 mph. And meteorologists estimate that 1969's Category 5 Hurricane Camille, which followed a path close to Katrina's, packed winds as high as 200 mph."

While the Popular Mechanics article lists a few suggestions for lessons to learn from Katrina, many of which still utilize tax dollars but with an emphasis on local rather than federal response, it missed the most important lesson: Government is not God. It is this lesson that allows us to shed the belief that government knows best and can make our decisions and provide for our every need. It is this lesson that allows us to refute policymakers who claim, as Mayor Nagin did, that rebuilding New Orleans is "too important to be left to the market." It is this lesson that allows us to prosper.