Archive for February, 2012

A Different Thought on Government Regulation

According to a recent article in the Economist, the United States has become “America the Overregulated,” and that’s quite a claim, especially from a British publication. There’s been a great deal of rhetoric about the amount of “unnecessary” federal regulations, particularly from the far right, but also across the political spectrum.  Given the opposition to excessive regulation, why does it continue?

The simple, and largely accurate, answer is because there’s political pressure for more regulations to protect everything from workers to threatened and endangered species.  Personally, I believe the majority of that pressure comes because of real concerns, but that raises another question.  Why do we need regulations to deal with these concerns?

That’s where matters get interesting.  One reason often cited is that, in a world economy, goods are purchased largely on price, and companies will do anything they can to keep costs down – unless effective regulations preclude practices that are unsafe, unhealthy, polluting, or environmentally degrading.  Yet… over the past two years, U.S. corporate profits have soared, while wages have remained largely stagnant.  At the same time, more and more wealth and income have gone to the top 1/10th of one percent of the U.S. population.  People – those who have jobs – are working harder and longer, and usually under more stress, just to keep what they have… but the rich get richer.

Maybe… just maybe, we’ve been looking at only part of the problem.  Would all of those regulations be necessary if there weren’t so much pressure to be more and more profitable?  And that such profitability depends on lower costs and greater productivity?  What if those at the top of the pyramid, and I’m talking about the 1/10th of one percent, not the top one or two percent, didn’t get to keep over 85% of their income?

Would investment bankers and CEOs be quite so inclined to push everything and everyone to the wall to get their $100 million bonuses if the government took 90% of everything over, say, $10 million?

A study from the University of Southern California found that a high percentage of young investment bankers who worked 80-120 weeks developed a wide range of stress-related illnesses and conditions that would likely reduce their life expectancy and that such conditions contributed to the high rate of burn-out in the field. We’ve also seen a huge growth in the use of steroids and other substances that build muscles in young adulthood, especially for young men seeking a professional athletic career, but such artificially enhanced muscular abilities almost invariably result in early death among those who wish to be professional athletes.  Would the temptation be quite so great, if 90% of those $10-$100 million contracts went to the government? Would all the outsourcing take place if there weren’t so much pressure to be more and more profitable?

It seems to me that a great deal of the excesses in our society have been driven by greed… but if government were the beneficiary of the greatest excesses of that greed… would the pressures be so great to cut all the corners?  Would regulation after regulation be so necessary to curb the excesses of the financial sector?  Or to protect workers from greater and greater pressure to produce more and more with less and less?

Just a thought.


Specific Theology as the Basis for Public Policy?

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum recently declared that President Obama’s acts as President were about “some phony theology… not a theology based on the Bible.” Frankly, I find an assertion such as this incredibly disturbing, because what Santorum is effectively saying is that public policy should be based on his reading of Christian theology.  As I’ve noted before, as have Constitutional scholars for more than a century, while the Founding Fathers did mention the Deity, they made it very clear that specific theologies – or theological belief systems – were not to be a part of government.  Yet Santorum is apparently attacking the president – and anyone else who doesn’t believe as Santorum does – for failing to base their policies and acts upon specific doctrinaire theological points.

Like it or not, the President of the United States and the Congress are responsible for the health and welfare of all the people of the United States and for allowing all of them the same freedoms, as set out in the Constitution and as interpreted, again, like it or not, by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Now, according to the best figures I can find, 75% of Americans define themselves as members of faiths considered Christian by most theologians.  Fifteen percent are atheists, and the remaining ten percent belong to other faiths.  Of those considered Christian, 25% are Catholic, 15% Baptist, and 4% evangelical or Pentecostal Christians, meaning that, in rough terms, essentially half of the American people, assuming they follow the theological guidelines of their faiths, might agree with Senator Santorum’s theological beliefs. The problem with Santorum’s position is that as much as half the population might well not agree, and fully one quarter of all Americans are not believing Christians at all.

In addition, a study conducted by Baylor University, based on interviews with 35,000 people, definitely a healthy sample, showed that more than 40% of the people had changed their faith and belief at least once in their lifetime, which also suggests that “faith” is far less constant than the protections in the Constitution.

Even more to the point, Santorum is not talking about freedom of religion, but about imposing restrictions on all members of society, restrictions based on his theological biases, and restrictions with which tens of millions of Americans do not agree.  Those who agree with the senator are not precluded from following exactly, and with no persecution whatsoever, the dictates of their own conscience insofar as their own property and bodies are concerned.  Under the Constitution and current law, however, they are precluded from imposing those beliefs on others, and effectively limiting the rights of half the population [women]. The senator clearly wants to change this.

It’s taken a long time to reduce discrimination based on color, creed, or gender… and Santorum’s use of religion, whether intended or not, would essentially turn the clock back to a time of greater discrimination under the guise of “true religion.”

Putting power in the hands of religious true believers has been a disaster wherever it’s happened, whether in the time of the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, the ayatollahs in Iran, the Taliban in Afghanistan, or any other number of instances.  Doing so here wouldn’t be any different… and it would be a betrayal of the Founding Fathers that all so many of those of Santorum’s stripe quote so much when it suits their needs… and ignore when it doesn’t.






Religion and the Constitution

From the considerable amount I’ve read about the early history of the United States, one of the goals of the Founding Fathers was to protect the government – and the people – from the heavy hand of religion… and to keep organized religion from infringing the rights of the people.  So, it’s with a sense of irony that I find so many religious zealots of so many types complaining essentially about what the Constitution was designed to do – to stop government from being a tool of religion.

When the Supreme Court decided in Roe v. Wade that women had a right to abortion, the Court essentially came down on the side of individual freedom, asserting that the “right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or, as the district court determined, in the Ninth Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.”

Under the Constitution, that sort of finding is the Court’s to make, and unless Congress and the states see fit to amend the Constitution, or the Court extends, modifies, or reverses its ruling, that ruling is the law of the land.  Period.

When a state legislator proposes laws to forbid schools from teaching about birth control unless it’s abstinence and only abstinence, that legislator is attempting to restrict the freedom of information, and to determine exactly what information is to be conveyed, for religious purposes. This is particularly heinous because it restricts an individual’s knowledge.  When legislators oppose civil unions for same-sex couples, they’re effectively declaring that the state sanction such a legal union only on the basis of religious traditions and practices.  When states or legislators require businesses to close on Sunday – as many did at one time – that is imposing the requirement of Christian religions on commerce.  Why not require closure for the Jewish Sabbath… or on Saturday for Seventh Day Adventists?

One of the founding principles underlying the Constitution of the United States was an understanding that there’s a significant difference between freedom of religion and state imposition of religious requirements on everyone. It’s one thing to allow someone to close their business on their holy days.  That’s allowing individual freedom.  Requiring everyone to close on Sunday is using government for religious purposes.  Several years ago, here in Utah, constituents pressured local lawmakers to forbid civic functions on Monday nights because that interfered with the LDS practice of Monday home evenings.  Thankfully, such prohibitions weren’t imposed.

Virtually all widely accepted ethical, moral, or religious beliefs agree that such acts as theft, assault, forgery, fraud, murder, rape should be prohibited, and their practice punished.  The obvious conflict between freedom and legal codes lies in the gray areas where various beliefs and religious codes disagree.  But under the U.S. Constitution, as articulated by the Founding Fathers, personal freedom of action or speech should not be restricted unless it poses a clear and present danger to others…. And all too many “religiously-associated” attempts to restrict freedom of action and of speech have little or nothing to do with preventing such clear and present dangers, and far more to do with imposing restrictions on others in furtherance of one religious doctrine over another.


The Blame Game…

It’s official, or at least semi-official:  the United States has the highest rate of incarceration of any industrialized nation in the world… and by a huge margin.

Why?  Obviously, there’s no one single cause, but the largest factor is our drug laws, which criminalize possession of small amounts of drugs and the use of marijuana.  One of the associated problems with criminalizing marijuana is that the drug is ubiquitous and widely used, and that means prosecution and incarceration for use, possession, or distribution is in most cases highly selective, and selective enforcement is anything but just.  On the other hand, busting everyone who uses marijuana is essentially physically impossible.

As a matter of practicality, it’s becoming clearer and clearer, not that it hasn’t been so for a long time, if anyone really cared to look, that the massive criminalization of drug use is anything but healthy for the United States.  Prisons now cost most U.S. states more than they spend on all forms of education, and those costs are rising.  The massive amounts of money and profit from illegal drugs are fueling gang violence in both the U.S. and Mexico, and, in general, police efforts have a modest effect, at best, on even holding that violence in check.

So what if we changed our approach to drugs?  What if we just legalized their use for adults over 21?

Immediately, the outcry is likely to rise – What about all those poor drug victims?

Well… what about them?  What about handling the issue the way we generally deal with alcohol?  We tried outlawing alcohol for everyone, and that was a disaster.  The compromise was to forbid its use and consumption by people under 21 [or sometimes 18], and to prosecute those who supplied it to underage drinkers.

The anti-drug legalization forces tend to focus, whether they realize it or not, on saving people from their own worst impulses. This is, unhappily, a selective approach, in our society, applied in some areas and not in others, and it’s an approach that works in some cases and not in others.  Seatbelt laws work as well as they do, I’m convinced, because in a very real sense, they’re really not more than a minor change in behavior.  As a matter of fact, in a car, in any car, you really can’t move around that much anyway.  A seat-belt law restricts that movement slightly… and saves tens of thousands of lives annually – and it doesn’t lead to the development of a trillion dollar underground economy in seat-belt cutters, or the like.  The same sort of argument can be made for many [but not all] health and safety regulations.

What we might better consider is legalizing drugs, requiring standards for them – and holding drug users totally responsible for their actions.  In other words, if someone chooses to use drugs and commits a crime either under the influence or to obtain funds for such drugs, the penalties should be even tougher… because they made the choice to use drugs, knowing the possible consequences.  Likewise, penalties for pushing drugs to those underage should be extraordinarily severe.

But, of course, none of this will happen, because no one really wants to hold people responsible for their actions, whether those people are students who want good grades without working hard and without studying, or politicians who haven’t the nerve to tell constituents that they can’t have more government services without more taxes, or Silicon Valley internet companies who want free content without paying for it, or Wall Street financiers who escape prosecution for what was essentially fraud and misrepresentation….

No… someone else is always to blame.


“Local Control” Politics

An earlier blog talked about “code” in political speak, and several incidents that have come to my attention recently caused me to think about one particular form of “code” that’s always been a part of American politics, but is now making a resurgence, particularly with the more right-wing elements – although it’s certainly not absent from the far left, either.

That’s the specter of “local control.”

For years, “local control” was used as both a justification and a means for maintaining segregation of elementary and secondary schools across the country.  Today, combined with “states’ rights,” it’s become a rallying cry for those who dislike federal laws and mandates that are contrary to local practices. Western states who would rather fund their governments through mineral severance taxes claim that federal environmental laws and land use regulations restrict the use of “their lands” and demand greater local control.  “No Child Left Behind” regulations are cited as an example of infringement on local rights. Religious organizations that wish to deny employees health insurance that covers birth control manifest another form of local control. The government or the state isn’t mandating birth control;  it’s mandating the opportunity, and it’s up to the individual as to whether that opportunity is used.

And all too often, the push for local control is both a hypocritical protest against federal actions, often those designed to increase personal freedoms, and an attempt to restrict those freedoms. For example, here in Utah, the governor and state legislators rail against federal control, but they attempt various ways to curtail the sale of liquor, to mandate the longest waiting periods for women to have abortions, to require mandatory marriage counseling before allowing divorce proceedings to be filed, to allow local school districts to opt out of providing sex education classes, and to restrict the distribution of federal funds for programs they dislike.  Right wing legislators demand that people have the right to bear arms, even though weapons kill tens of thousands of people, while railing against abortion and contraception on the grounds that life is sacred.  If life is that sacred, why don’t they try to ban weapons as well as birth control and contraception?

So-called “local control” also pops up in other ways.  Some thirty years ago, Brigham Young University, which is essentially owned and operated by the Mormon church, used to have faculty who were not of the LDS faith, and full-time faculty were either tenured or on tenure track, allowing them at least a modicum of protection if their public views were at variance with those of the church. In more recent years, BYU has abolished tenure, and, from what I can tell, all faculty must be members in good standing in the LDS faith.  The combination of lack of tenure and the need for standing in the Mormon Church allows the church total control over the faculty.

Interestingly enough, a Utah state legislator has proposed, in two sessions running, legislation to abolish tenure at most state colleges and universities, ostensibly to make it easier to get rid of “bad professors.”  What’s interesting about this is that the state’s Board of Regents implemented a post-tenure review system over five years ago, which has been tightened considerably in recent years… but that’s apparently not enough.  Given that the majority of faculty and administrators at the affected institutions are LDS, what would be the likely impact of this increased “local control”?  Might it just be a far greater reluctance of non-LDS faculty to even want to teach in Utah?  Might it just be, in effect, to turn state colleges and universities into institutions more “in line” with local, i.e., LDS, values?  Wouldn’t that possibly in practice effectively violate the idea of separation of church and state?  And wouldn’t that be essentially antithetical to one of the fundamental purposes of higher education – to broaden a student’s exposure to other values and cultures?

From what I can see, in most cases, people advocating more “local control” are really saying, “We want to do things our way, even if it tramples on the rights of others, because our way is right.”


Mine! Mine! Mine!…. Ours! Ours! Ours!

This past Sunday a former Utah resident, Josh Powell, turned his Washington state residence into an inferno, killing himself and his two young sons, aged five and seven. While the exact reasons for his actions may never be fully known, what is known is that his wife, now presumed dead, vanished slightly more than two years ago under mysterious circumstances, leaving everything, including ID, car keys, and wallet, at home and that the now-deceased husband was a definite “person of interest.”  What is also known is that the courts awarded custody of the boys to the missing woman’s parents, and the husband had fought this tooth and nail, declaring that the courts had no right to take away his children.  Unhappily, this is certainly not the first time events such as this have occurred, but, to me, it’s symptomatic of a certain mindset, usually more prevalent in males, but certainly not limited to them, which regards far too many aspects of life as theirs exclusively.

Although English common law of two hundred years ago did in fact make women and children – and all they possessed – possessions of the husband, the law in both the United Kingdom and the United States has changed considerably, to the point that, at least legally, women are not the possessions of their husbands, and courts regard parents as guardians and custodians of children – and not owners.  And the U.S. Civil War resulted in the abolition of slavery, a practice that was a legally accepted way of allowing a slaveholder to declare that intelligent human beings were “Mine! Mine! Mine!”

In some countries, of course, men can still insist that women and children are their personal possessions, as witness the news story about the Afghan man who killed his wife because she had the effrontery to bear him a daughter rather than the son he had demanded.

Unfortunately, the “Mine! Mine! Mine!” mindset doesn’t limit itself to just spouses and children, but seems to be making a resurgence in other areas as well even in the United States. This is why we have, at least in Utah, state legislators breaking the law by riding ATVs across roadless areas and declaring that those federal lands don’t apply to them – because “it’s my right” to have access any way I want. It’s also “my right” to own and employ assault weapons and fifty caliber machine guns.  And “my right” to insist that the government force women to have children forced on them by rape or incest.

There is, of course, the other extreme – those who claim that essentially everything is “ours” and that government exists merely to decide how much of “our” stuff each of us gets to keep and use. Over forty years ago, in “The Tragedy of the Commons,” the ecologist Garrett Hardin pointed out how, when everything is held in common, almost never is it cared for, at least not without a great deal of social control and regulation.  In short, true “communism” or “communalism” has never proved to be workable.

The upshot of all this is that no rights can be absolute in any civilized society, especially the rights to insist that other people are “Mine!  Mine! Mine!”  or that everything belongs to everyone. And the first tragedy of the Powell case is that an ultra-possessive father and husband could not bring himself to understand that.  The second tragedy is that most politicians, especially those on the exteme fringes, don’t understand either… or choose not to in order to court political favor.


More Problems with “Simple” Solutions

President Obama has apparently now decided to try to punish universities and colleges, even state universities and colleges, who raise their tuition by “excessive” amounts.  This is, pardon my language, absolutely asinine.  It’s also addressing a very real problem with a simplistic approach that shows either no understanding of the problem or no intention to really address it, if not both.

To begin with, he doesn’t have the leverage to do this directly, but only through the threat of withholding direct federal funding, which doesn’t include federal loans and grants made directly to students, and which amounts to less than 3% of total federal funds going to students and institutions of higher education. The real reason for the increase in student tuition, particularly at state colleges and universities, is the significant decline in the funds provided by the state legislatures over the past several decades. In just the last year, state support to state universities and colleges dropped more than 7%.

Over the last 30 years, tuition for an undergraduate degree has increased roughly 600%, while the cost of living has increased 250%

Why and how did this happen?  It happened because, over the last twenty-five years, the number of students pursuing an undergraduate degree increased by almost 45% at a time when the percentage of state spending on higher education declined, resulting in a huge decrease in the percentage of tuition costs subsidized by state governments.  So, although total state funding of higher education did initially increase by some twenty percent [until about ten years ago], that increase was overwhelmed by a huge influx of additional students, and without additional state funding the only way the state colleges and universities could cope was by increasing tuition.

My wife’s own university is a good example.  The number of students enrolled has almost tripled in the last twenty years, while the faculty has increased by less than forty percent.  Faculty salaries have been frozen for at least six years out of the last eighteen, and yet tuition increases have averaged roughly 7% for the last three years, and an 11% increase is budgeted for next year.  On average, faculty pay has averaged increases of 3-4% per year over the last 20 years, and that includes rank and merit raises.  Over the same period, in real dollar terms, despite an outstanding record, and two promotions, in real dollar terms, my wife now makes only about 10% more as a tenured full professor with an incredible record of achievement than she did twenty years ago as a newly-hired untenured assistant professor.

These numbers are similar for virtually every public university in the country, as study after study shows.  The problem is not, despite popular beliefs, high-paid professors and wasteful spending, but simply a massive increase in students coupled with a lagging of state support – and President Obama’s threat to colleges and universities totally ignores the basic economics.

One of the more disturbing results of this funding crisis is that, on average, the salaries of tenured or tenure-track assistant, associate, and full professors at state colleges have dropped from being roughly comparable to those at private colleges and universities twenty years ago to being 20% lower than those at private schools today.  Add to that the fact that professors at public institutions generally teach larger classes [represented by the fact that the student-teacher ratio is almost 50% higher at public institutions], and the discrepancy becomes effectively larger.  What this also means is that, over time, a larger percentage of the best professors will migrate to private colleges and universities, and not only will students at state institutions have the problems of larger classes, capped enrollments in classes [because classrooms are only so large and in specialized classes, professors are limited in the number of students they can effectively educate], but also fewer of the very best professors, particularly in the years ahead, when senior tenured professors, who have remained in state institutions because they’ve established roots there, retire.

And the threat of withholding $3 billion in federal funds does nothing to address the problem.



“Selective” Politics

The governor of a state I know very well just delivered his state of the state address, which seemed to consist largely of state boosterism and a blistering attack on the federal government.  Needless to say, both were well received, given that the state is one of the “reddest” in the nation.  Of course, much of what he said distorted economic statistics and political reality, not to mention the Constitution, which is possibly the most misinterpreted United States government document.  This governor, alas, is not unique.  He may be a bit more extreme in his distortions than others, but all politicians do it, whether they are on the right or the left.  They select and distort, and seldom are they called on it directly by the media.

Oh, there are political cartoons… sometimes.  There are thoughtful articles… that few read.  And any politician who’s truly direct and honest… most don’t stay politicians long.  I can still remember, and this dates me, the violent abuse that President Carter took [and I didn’t vote for him] when he made a direct and simple statement:  “Life isn’t fair.”

So why do governors and other politicians continue such misrepresentation?

Because they judge that it’s what the majority of the voters who elected them want to hear.  No one wants to hear that their state has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country, more than three years after the housing bubble burst.  No one wants to hear that their state ranks fiftieth out of fifty states in per pupil spending on elementary and secondary education, and that it spends roughly half as much as the state that ranks forty-ninth… or that the socio-economic make-up of the school age population disguises how poor that education is, so much so that, on average, only about half the students who do attend college can manage to graduate in six years or less, and that close to half require remedial work in some field or another before they can even begin true college work.  Nor do these so highly principled opponents of the federal government ever mention that for every dollar the state spends on Medicaid, which they oppose, the federal government kicks in three dollars… or that while they’re bashing the feds, they’re also lobbying ferociously to keep open federal facilities in the state, and spending taxpayer dollars in conducting such lobbying.  And of course, no governor dares to tell his legislature to stop wasting time on passing resolutions condemning the federal government for programs and laws that the Supreme Court has found constitutional time after time.

Why… if he did that, he might not get re-elected.  Or he might actually have to address the real problems.

So why do the majority of Americans put up with this sort of idiocy from their state and local elected officials?  Is it because they feel they’ve lost control of their lives?  Yet, is electing and re-electing self-serving demagogues the way to regain that control?  From what I can tell, the more honest, the more pragmatic, the more realistic a candidate is in assessing and presenting the situation facing the country and government, the less chance he or she has of being elected, regardless of party.  And yet… voters are polarizing along party lines, even as both parties select candidates who are the least likely to come up with workable solutions.

And historians thought the “know-nothings” and “yellow dog Democrats” of the nineteenth century were bad?