Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The root of all evil

Dimitri Vassilaros lays bare the farce that are the U.S. campaign finance laws. My advice: Allow unlimited contributions from U.S. donors. (No foreign donors, and no cash.) The huge advantage that the byzantine fundraising laws give incumbents will be mitigated, the influence of money will be easier to trace and full freedom of expression will return to our political campaigns.

The only other alternative is to publicly finance campaigns, which means that your tax dollars would go to support ideas and politicians that you may find to be abhorrent.

(Thanks to Three Rivers Post & Standard.)

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Peace in our time

I believe in redemption, and I'm opposed to the death penalty, so I have no problem with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenhager possibly commuting a death sentence for the founder of the Crips.

What I do find a troubling, though not surprising, is that the convicted killer was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in stopping gang violence. Given his role in perpetuating gang violence, it would seem the very least he could do. Then again, Yassir Arafat actually won the Nobel Peace Prize, so it probably can't be debased any further.

Of course, those with the greatest capacity to make peace often are those with an equal capacity to make war. Figures like Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr. come along once in a generation if we are lucky. The problem with the Nobel Peace Prize--and I am talking off the top of my head here, the mere act of a Google search being too much work for a holiday weekend--is that it seems to be given out for recent achievements. The Nobel Prize in other areas, such as literature and the sciences, often honor a lifetime of achievement, or for a discovery that has stood up to the test of time.

Had Arafat actually honored the spirit of the Oslo agreements, and become a peaceful leader of the Palestinian people, working toward an equitable settlement with Israel, then perhaps his peace prize would not have seemed such a farce. Instead, in 2000, he walked away from an exceedingly generous settlement and chose instead violence, so that peace became possible only after his death. That's hardly the legacy of a man of peace.

Friday, November 25, 2005

For the record

Bill Richardson's admission that he previously lied about once being drafted by a Major League Baseball team has made me decide to come clean about my own athletic record. Like the New Mexico governor, I also never was drafted by a professional baseball team. I must also go further and acknowledge that I never played on a college team, nor did I play any organized sports in high school. Or junior high.

I did, however, play three years of Little League baseball. I stopped playing when I received a letter from the commissioner of Major League Baseball and a committee of Hall of Fame members pleading that I no longer pick up a bat and glove, lest I continue to desecrate the national pastime. Fearing that their missive would leave me undeterred, they also filed a restraining order that prevented me from stepping within 500 feet of any baseball diamond.

There. Now I feel better.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

As good as any, and better than most

A few weeks ago I discussed prenatal testing for disabilities such as Down syndrome, and considered the implications of being able to eliminate, before they are even born, people who have such conditions. Since then, a test has been developed to identify genetic defects even earlier during a pregnancy, when expectant parents have more time to consider their options--and when abortions are safer to perform.

Given that many parents will decide to terminate a pregnancy if they learn their child will have Down Syndrome or the other problems that can be discovered through prenatal testing, then earlier testing is a good thing. But it only sharpens the moral dilemma: Is it right to abort a pregnancy merely to spare a child--and ourselves--a life that we do not believe is worth living? And if you think it is, how do you explain it to those who already are living with these disabilities? Are you prepared to tell them it would have been better had they never been born?

An article in today's New York Times tackles these very questions, and raises the possibility of a future that we have seen in science fiction, in films and literature, from "Brave New World" to "Gattica":

Some bioethicists envision a dystopia where parents who choose to forgo genetic testing are shunned, or their children are denied insurance. Parents and people with disabilities fear they may simply be more lonely. And less money may be devoted to cures and education.

Is this likely? It's tempting to say no. But consider, as this article does, that $15 million was spent to develop the new test for Down syndrome. That father of one child with Down syndrome asks what else could have been done with that money:

Indeed, the $15 million spent on the new test for Down by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development might have gone instead toward much-needed research on the biochemistry of people living with the condition, said Michael Bérubé, co-director of the disabilities studies program at Pennsylvania State University.

Mr. Bérubé, whose 14-year-old son has Down syndrome, worries that if fewer children are born with the condition, hard-won advances like including them in mainstream schools may lose support. "The more people who think the condition is grounds for termination of a pregnancy, the more likely it will be that you'll wind up with a society that doesn't welcome those people once they're here," he said. "It turns into a vicious cycle."

Which brings me to "Gattaca." It's about a future in which children are genetically engineered to perfection, and in which those who are born naturally or who otherwise develop disabilities are relegated to second-class status. The main character, Vincent, disguises his disabilities, which include a congenital heart defect and myopia. In one memorable scene, after Vincent had to discard his contact lenses, he must cross a busy road, and the movie does a decent job of conveying what it is like to be severely near-sighted. (Believe me, I know.)

When I first saw the film, I was facing what could have turned out to be a serious medical problem, and this movie seemed to ease my fears. Vincent falls in love with a woman named Irene, who is all too quick to believe what society has told her about her own "handicap", a heart defect. As Vincent tells her,

"You are the authority on what is not possible, aren't you Irene? They've got you looking for any flaw, that after a while that's all you see. For what it's worth, I'm here to tell you that it is possible. It is possible."

As humans, we are defined by our limitations, and our ability to overcome them. The irony of Vincent's words, however, is that what is possible is not always what's desirable.

Saturday, November 19, 2005


From Andrew Sullivan:

Here's what strikes me as the salient question right now. Why won't the Republicans force a vote on the Murtha proposal - a phased withdrawal over six months - rather than "immediate" withdrawal? If the GOP wants to demonstrate a backbone on the war, let them force that vote. I'd passionately vote it down, if I were a Congressman. But the GOP's proposal is again not a sign of strength. It's a straw-man: as cheap and tawdry as the current GOP leadership. Let me add something more. How pathetic is the credibility of a commander-in-chief that while he is abroad, all hell breaks loose on the war he is allegedly waging? Bush has lost the country on this. It's not the media's fault, not the Democrats', not the military's. It's Bush's, and his sad excuse for a defense secretary.

The Republicans in Congress and in the White House are bankrupt. They have no idea how to win this war, a war they never should have started and that their opposition should never have supported. Honor, dignity and true leadership are everywhere missing.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Pick your poison

The General Assembly is considering a referendum that would ask Pa. voters to approve hikes in state sales and income taxes in order to lower local property taxes. School districts would receive a portion of the revenues generated to reduce property taxes on a dollar-for-dollar basis, according to the Post-Gazette.

The flaw with this idea is that it treats the symptom, not the disease. Property taxes are high in many communities because the tax base is too low to properly fund local schools. So while it would be good for obscenely overtaxed communities like Wilkinsburg to be able to lower real estate taxes (ignoring for the moment the regressive nature of sales and income taxes) you're not doing anything to address the core problem, which is that many communities can't afford to operate their schools. One possible solution is to use the extra money generated by the state tax increases to raise the state's share of education funding, thus giving taxpayers in poorer communities--and those with few commercial properties--a real shot at long-term tax relief.

I'm just thinking out loud here. But I don't think this proposal is going to cut it.

Trouble in paradise

A few weeks ago I discussed the growing tension between the intellectual and populist strains of conservatism, and you can see those tensions flare again in this George Will column:

The storm-tossed and rudderless Republican Party should particularly ponder the vote last week in Dover, Pa., where all eight members of the school board seeking re-election were defeated. This expressed the community's wholesome exasperation with the board's campaign to insinuate religion, in the guise of ``intelligent design'' theory, into high school biology classes, beginning with a required proclamation that evolution ``is not a fact.''

But it is. And President Bush's straddle on that subject -- ``both sides'' should be taught -- although intended to be anodyne, probably was inflammatory, emboldening social conservatives. Dover's insurrection occurred as Kansas' Board of Education, which is controlled by the kind of conservatives who make conservatism repulsive to temperate people, voted 6-4 to redefine science. The board, opening the way for teaching the supernatural, deleted from the definition of science these words: ``a search for natural explanations of observable phenomena.''

``It does me no injury,'' said Thomas Jefferson, ``for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.'' But it is injurious, and unneighborly, when zealots try to compel public education to infuse theism into scientific education.

Will is no libertarian, but his sentiments, and those he expresses deeper into his column, also reflect the tension between libertarian and small-government conservatives and Republican officeholders. How long can this fragile coalition last, and what will take its place?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Perhaps a Nordstrom's in the French Quarter?

The Post-Gazette reports on Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy's extracurricular activities:

Just back from hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, he'll return there Thursday as a guest of the Urban Land Institute. The institute is working with a mayoral commission on rebuilding that city.

Haven't those people suffered enough?

Monday, November 14, 2005

Pope Alexander

Last night I watched "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" which I found to be a fascinating, complex film that wouldn't quite leave me when it was over. It was written by Charlie Kaufman, who is adept at telling stories in nonlinear fashion, and who seems to enjoy exploring the idea that our inner lives are infinitely more compelling than anything the outside world has to offer. Landscapes, exteriors, are merely stages on which Kaufman's characters can replay the episodes of their lives over and over for perfect effect. When Joel (Jim Carrey) talks to Clementine (Kate Winslet) in his memories--the very memories that are being erased--he says all the things he should have said to her in real life. And when Clementine speaks in his memory, it's as though the real Clementine is speaking--a concept upon which the film's plot turns.

The film featured several excellent supporting roles, but most importantly the kind of nuanced, understated performance that Carrey has always promised he could deliver. Carrey has been trying for years to prove he's more than just a rubbery-faced comic, but few roles have offered the opportunity as "Sunshine." Perhaps he needs to work with Kaufman more often.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Sometimes people pay me to do this

I wrote a book review for today's Post-Gazette.

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Saturday, November 12, 2005

School's out forever

I had mixed feelings when I read that Gov. Ed Rendell signed a bill requiring all of Pennsylvania's school districts to allow homeschoolers to participate in extracurricular activities. On the one hand, I have a lot of respect for people who choose to homeschool their children, even if I don't always agree with their reasons for doing it. Homeschooling has grown increasingly more sophisticated and dynamic, and the parents who do it, the governor rightly notes, pay property taxes that help fund their local schools. It is understandable that they would want to see some direct benefits.

However, choices have consequences, and most homeschool parents do not have to homeschool their children--not in the sense, for example, that many inner-city parents feel they have to send their children to charter schools. Residential property and wage taxes pay only a small portion of the cost that it requires public school districts to operate. School districts receive state subsidies for each child that is enrolled, and they even get to keep a portion of the subsidy for each child who attends a charter school. To my knowledge, they receive nothing for homeschool children who happen to reside within their borders.

Besides, many people, such as the childless and the elderly, pay school taxes without receiving a direct benefit. Public education is a social good, and we all benefit from having an educated populace. Even if you believe, as do many libertarians, that the public school system should be dismantled and parents be given vouchers for use at public schools, education still would require funding provided through taxes--taxes that many people would pay without ever realizing a direct return. So I would to say that I would have preferred to see the state continue to allow local districts to decide for themselves whether to allow homeschoolers to take part in extracurricular activities.

Friday, November 11, 2005

I bet they hate freedom, too

Andrew Sullivan puts Pat Robertson's comments about the good people of Dover, Pa. in their proper perspective:

Before I get emails from conservatives saying that Robertson represents no one in the Republican coalition, let me remind you that he was one of the religious leaders phoned by Karl Rove to discuss Supreme Court nominees. My rule of thumb is that I will trust the good faith of any Republican politician who is prepared to criticize Robertson publicly. Until then, he's their problem.

Can I get an amen?

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Reason knows not why

Pity poor Russell Nigro. The Legislature votes itself and the state judiciary an obscene pay raise in the dead of night, and voters decide to take out their rage on Nigro, who claims innocence. Nigro calls the voters "irrational" for doing this, but it's actually quite rational. Legislators weren't on the ballot this year, so voters used Nigro to send lawmakers a message. Think of it like a bank robber in a movie, killing a hostage to let the cops know he means business.

Now, you want to know what's really irrational? It's voters in the city of Pittsburgh who continue to blindly elect Democrats, even though one-party rule has taken this city to the brink of bankruptcy. And it's a Republican Party that can't be bothered to invest time or money to nominate serious candidates in Pennsylvania's second-largest city.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

I'm not saying I was wrong, but...

Although I do believe, as I said earlier, that Democrats who claimed they were duped into supporting the Iraq war by cooked-up intelligence are being disingenious, I also think that there should some accounting for the administration that built a phony case for war. Thus, perhaps Harry Reid's "cheap stunt", as I termed it, will bring results, or so says this article in the Manchester Union Leader:

Sen. Joe Biden said Democrats received commitments from Senate leaders yesterday that the Senate Intelligence Committee will be able to examine intelligence matters involving the decision to attack Iraq.

The Delaware Democrat said the promises were made during the unexpected closed-door session that Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid forced on the Senate yesterday.

Biden also offers a wake-up call to Democrats about why they keep losing important elections:

He told the heavily Democratic crowd that Democrats have become elitist. He noted that some Democrats have questioned why he wears an American flag on his lapel.

“We’ve become disconnected from where we grew up,” Biden said. “The Republicans, because of our distance, they have convinced a lot of people we ain’t one of them.”

I'm actually sick and tired of seeing those lapel flags. Of course, I also resent having to stand to sing the national anthem during sporting events, and I think that schools shouldn't lead children in the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. But none of those are battles worth fighting.

Unfortunately, Biden panders to the New Hampshire crowd in saying that it should keep its first-in-the-nation primary:

He said he would not automatically support sandwiching caucuses between the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary.

Yes, Iowa and New Hampshire, the states that gave us the John Kerry candidancy. Thanks guys.

By the way, I wonder if Biden is writing his own speeches these days?

Too cool for school

For anyone who cares about the Pittsburgh Public Schools, or has followed the district's troubles these last several years, the Post-Gazette's Joe Smydo offers an informative and well-written analysis of the new superintendent's plans to remove politics from a decision to close several schools.

He's had help from school board member Alex Matthews, who convinced his colleagues to cast an up-or-down vote on the school-closing plan Mr. Roosevelt puts before them. In a break with tradition, board members won't be able to go over the list school-by-school and knock pet buildings off the list for political reasons.

That is huge. No one wants to see their neighborhood schools close, particularly in a city like Pittsburgh that places such a premium on neighborhood identity. Will this guarantee success? No. But it does provide some political cover for board members to approve a plan that will shut down their constituents' schools, and it means that defeating the plan will require the entire board to explain to taxpayers the enormous cost of running a district that, according to Smydo's story, has almost 13,000 more seats than it needs.

Friday, November 04, 2005

He landed on their hotel

The Ralph Buncher Co. has plans to build a 143-room hotel--apparently privately financed--in the Strip District, not far from the convention center, yet officials with the Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau are unhappy. Why? Because it interferes with their plans to throw public money at Forest City Enterprises to expand the Westin Convention Center Hotel. And of course, the Westin management isn't thrilled either, but that's understandable. You look pretty silly feeding at the public teat when a someone else builds a hotel all on his own dime.

For the last time (well, maybe not the last time), the nation's market for convention centers is saturated, and Pittsburgh's convention center is too big. A lack of hotel space has little if anything to do with its failure to bring in conventions and generate revenue. The region already has a high hotel vacancy rate which, as the Trib article notes, would be exacerbated by the expansion of the Westin.

Of course, if someone wants to risk their own money expanding the Westin then they should go right ahead. But the fact that the city needs to bribe someone to do it means that there probably won't be enough business to justify the investment. (Buncher may be anticipating a casino in the Strip District, according to the Trib, but it doesn't matter to me why they are building it, as long as they do it without handouts.) Which leads me to ponder a very good but very naive question from Buncher President Thomas Balestrieri:

"It seems to me that if the private sector builds enough 150-room hotels, it would satisfy the needs of the convention center," he said. "Why anybody would be unhappy about that, I don't know."

Because, Mr. Balestrieri, then they give up control. And that scares the people who run this town more than you can possibly imagine.

Thursday, November 03, 2005


Bullmoose explains why Harry Reid's cheap stunt may do the Democrats more harm than good:

While the war is increasingly unpopular, the Democrats should be careful that they are positioning themselves as a party that is gullible, feckless and indecisive on national security. It may provide immense partisan satisfaction to flummox the Republicans on a procedural maneuver, but beware of the long-term impact on the party which already suffers from a perception of being weak on national security.

Peter Beinart sounds a similar alarm here.

UPDATE: Fester posts his thoughts here. I should add that I do not agree with Marshall Wittman's view that the war in Iraq was inevitable, nor that it was best to "err on the side of vigilance." I do believe that Democrats have zero credibility on foreign affairs right now and that Reid's antics won't help.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Bringing down the house

Pittsburgh's leading policy wonk Fester discusses the proposal to reduce the cap for the mortgage interest federal tax deduction in order to eliminate the alternative minimum tax. Fester favors the idea because the deduction leads to overinvestment in the housing market, but he feels it is a political nonstarter because it will cause too much short-term pain.

I tend to agree on both counts. I think the deduction as it currently stands is an indirect cause of sprawl, as it encourages people to build new homes rather than rehab older ones, and it allows people to build bigger homes on bigger lots than they could otherwise afford. But it has a huge political constituency that would mount a hell of a fight to keep the ceiling where it is.