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Saturday, August 16, 2003

Saudis Stepping Softly 

Voice of America reports a new announcement coming out of Saudi Arabia:
Top Saudi Arabia's top Muslim clerics have issued a religious order condemning terrorism and the doctrine of jihad, or holy struggle, embraced by al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

The Saudi Council of Senior Clerics issued a statement Saturday carried by the official Saudi media.

It says those who carry out murder, sabotage, bombings and destruction of property should be severely punished. It also says those who claim such acts are jihad for the sake of God are ignorant and misguided.

There was plenty of speculation when the U.S. Administration refused to declassify a section of the 9/11 congressional report which touched on Saudi Arabia. Criticized by many, I'm starting to think it was a strategic move. The declaration above is only a very small step in the right direction, but a step nonetheless.

Rehnquist's Dissent 

If you want some very interesting history per the Establishment Clause (aka "separation of church and state"), read this dissent by Chief Justice William Rehnquist in the Wallace v. Jaffree decision. Here is a sample:
The language Madison proposed for what ultimately became the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment was this:
"The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed."
If you are curious what exactly Wallace v. Jaffree was, there is a nice concise summary here. (Thanks to Power Line for the pointer.)

More Valedictorian Woes 

A few months back, the story emerged about a Valedictorian who sued to be the only student with that title. She had excellent grades but was handicapped and was exempted from certain classes. The school considered bestowing the honor on her as well as two other students who also had excellent grades and who did participate in the classes the handicapped student did not. I believe that she did win her lawsuit, but it caused such a negative reaction that she ended up skipping her graduation ceremony.

It must be rough to be a Valedictorian these days. This entry at Number 2 Pencil describes a Valedictorian at a high school in Louisiana, who could not pass the Graduate Exit Exam (GEE) and thus will not graduate. I highly recommend clicking the link and reading the whole thing. (Thanks to The Volokh Conspiracy for the pointer.)

I attribute all my success to my not being named Valedictorian. There were actually seven of them in my graduating class (all 4.0 students), and now I'm curious how they are all doing. Not that it would be possible for me to figure that out...as I cannot remember who any of them were.

Friday, August 15, 2003

Is this the start of Augmented Soldiers? 

Here is a gem from the August 8th issue of Defense Week (not available online but it is here at Free Republic):
Woman Charged Breast Job On Pentagon Plastic

WASHINGTON, August 8--A female Marine Corps staff sergeant was convicted in June of using her Defense Department credit card to buy a car, a motorcycle, furniture, household goods--and a breast job, Defense Week has learned.

Staff Sergeant Sherry Pierre, an active duty Marine who worked for Marine Forces Reserve headquarters command in New Orleans, used her Pentagon plastic to rack up $129,709 in goods, services and upgrades to her physique, a command spokesman confirmed.

Pierre's previously unpublicized surgery may have given her a lift, but the tale is hardly uplifting. It is among the more egregious examples of a military employee abusing a government purchase card that is meant to increase efficiency, not waste...

I have a hard time comprehending that someone would actually attempt fraud at this level. Did she actually think she could do this and not be exposed sooner or later? Aside from that, you should go and read the whole article per the link above. The author did a great job seriously describing a serious issue. But there is also a humorous side to this story and the author did a smashing job hinting at that with his crafty word selection. I had to read the article several times to make sure I caught them all.

Distant Rumblings 

Per this Tennessean article, it appears that reaction to the recent decisions made at the Episcopalian General Convention has begun.
"We have draped our signs in black and covered the word Episcopal as a symbolic way of disassociating ourselves from the actions of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church,'' said the Rev. James Guill, the church's rector.
When the two decisions were made (ordaining a homosexual priest and blessing same-sex unions), I was very curious how the individual churches would respond. The decision was made by the leadership, and as John Maxwell says: 'Leadership is making the tough decisions'. But Maxwell also says "If you think you are leading but no one is following you, then you are just taking a walk."

Thursday, August 14, 2003

All the King's Horses... 

The California ballot is official, and there are a whopping 135 candidates running for Governor.
Among the candidates: 50 Democrats, 42 Republicans, and 32 independents. There are four Green Party members, three Libertarians, two Natural Law Party members, and one candidate each from the American Independent Party, and the Peace and Freedom Party.
Many have criticized the recall and ensuing election as a circus, but is it any more of a circus then California's economy? A 38 billion dollar deficit is unbelievably large. (If you have lots of free time, the state budget is right here for you to read. *Requires Adobe Acrobat)

I'm not convinced that any one of these 135 candidates can resolve the budget situation. I'm not even convinced that they could resolve it if they pooled all their resources and worked together on it. Here is why I think making the right choices will be so difficult. Budgets are balanced by raising taxes (increasing revenue) and by lowering services (reducing spending) or some mix of both. Both control actions act as double-edged swords.

Raising taxes increases your revenue but there is a point of diminishing returns. The amount of increase is predicted based on current tax revenues but there is a point where taxation is too painful and the taxpayers leave rather than stay and pay the tax. This means that a predicted revenue increase from higher taxes may never be realized. I think California is already at or even past this point, as there is evidence that both individuals and businesses are leaving the state due to taxation. In addition, a politician who raises taxes turns voters (at least voters who pay taxes at least) against him or herself. Most politicians prefer taxes which bring in a sizable amount of revenue while alienating the least number of voters. (Sin taxes are the current fad - taxes on cigarettes, etc.)

Cutting services does result in a guaranteed increase in revenues but it also is both painful and risky. As you cut services, those depending on the services that you have cut will now vote against you. There are other risks as well. An example would be reducing the number of firemen. When there is a large fire and property or lives are lost, eventually someone will blame the budget reduction (and probably sue the state).

Either option is a very difficult choice to make because neither endears you to the voter. So for a politician to make a difference and fix the state, he or she must basically commit political suicide. Obviously, this is a very simplified look at the way this works, but I think it is an accurate overview. There are also other critical issues beyond just the current budget that have to be dealt with. I will address the issue that I find the most troubling:

In California, there are positive revenue citizens and there are negative revenue citizens. If someone is positive revenue, it means they contribute more in taxes then they consume in services. Negative is just the opposite, they consume more in services then they provide in taxes. I believe the negative revenue citizen base is growing at a faster rate than the positive revenue citizen base. If people are fleeing the state because of tax reasons, those people are going to be positive revenue citizens. At the same time, a massive influx of illegal immigrants is swelling the ranks of the negative revenue citizens.

How do you solve this? Theoretically, you must reduce the number of positive revenue citizens fleeing the state, reduce the number of negative revenue citizens entering the state (illegally), and find a way to move people from the negative revenue category over to the positive. How do you practially do these things? I sure hope these 135 candidates have some ideas.

A Blast from the Past 

I found a reunion group on Yahoo that had been set up for my high school graduating class. I joined the group with an anonymous email address to see what it was about. It was mildly amusing - mostly pictures from our 15 year reunion. I didn't know about the reunion at the time but I would not have gone anyway as I live far, far away from where I grew up. The pictures were interesting and proof positive that aging is not kind to most people. I recognized less than half the names and fewer of the faces but it was an amusing trip down memory lane.

Then a few days ago, someone from my class emailed me. She lived in the same state as I and wanted to know who I was, as my profile gave no identity clues. So I told her and she actually remembered me.

I totally remember you! You had curly hair and you were fairly skinny... Oh, and I think you were in band...right?
Fairly skinny is a very generous way to describe my build, but she definitely remembered me. And by now it must be obvious to all that in high school, I was about as popular as a fox in a henhouse.

The embarrassing part is I don't remember her at all. Her name sounds vaguely familiar, but I just could not put a face on her. It's not that I didn't try. I searched through my mind for people from that period in my life and finally figured out who I thought she was. I sent an email telling her how I remembered her...but I was way off the mark. Now I have a name and a face which don't go together and I cannot remember who either one is. They say the mind never forgets anything. That may be true (I'm not convinced) but just like the person who saves everything, it doesn't matter what you have but rather how accessible it is. I wonder how accessible my old high school yearbooks are.

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Psychological Syndrome 

A few weeks back, a study coming out of University of California, Berkeley concluded that conservatism is a symptom of a psychological disorder. Does anyone else find it disingenuous to have a group of liberals come to the conclusion that the other side is brain damaged? Over at Power Line, Deacon (Paul Mirengoff) has posted his own thesis on why people move one way or the other (right or left). Here is a summary of what he thinks:
Rather than ascribing personality disorders to one side or the other, I’m inclined to locate the origins of the divergent attitudes towards rules in experience, in most instances, presumably, childhood experience. Conservatives tend to be people who have found it beneficial, or at least not particularly trying, to live with rules. Extreme liberals tend to be those who have not found rules at all congenial. In some cases, this is a rational response to the unjust nature of the rules they encountered early on. Blacks and (to a lesser degree) women of a certain age would be examples. In other cases, it may be a rational response to early experience with the unfair application of reasonable rules. In yet other cases, it may be a rational response to an inability to thrive under reasonable rules fairly applied. Finally, for some the response may be irrational.
I find this idea very interesting and it makes more sense than the psychological syndrome concept. I think there there is some real truth in this concept and it is nice that it deals with both sides of the ideological spectrum. It would also be interesting to do a study on people who have switched from one extreme to the other and what experiences precipitated that switch. Anybody got extra time to do this for me?

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Begging for Hits 

The Volokh Conspiracy is begging for hits:
Pledge break: We don't want your money. (Well, if we thought you could give us lots of money, we would want it, but since we're likely to get only a little bit, it's not worth the hassle of asking, and of splitting the spoils.) But we do want eyeballs! So if you like this blog, and think some friends of yours might like it, too, please recommend it to them.
...
Just remember -- the more readers we have, the better it is for you because . . . . Well, actually, there's really virtually nothing in it for you, but we'd like you to do it anyway.
I appreciate their brazen request...but they are already averaging 60,000 hits per week. I have done my part by linking to them; not because they begged, but because I enjoy their blog. (If I were as bold as they are, I would ask for a link back...but I'm not.)

The Rise of the Blogs 

Great off-topic point by Hugh Hewitt as he discusses the California Recall:
Incredibly, no paper has yet figured out that it ought to be carrying a 'What the Blogs Said' daily report on recall-centric blogs.
You could easily publish an entire newspaper using a small portions of the daily blogs. Except no one would read it because they could just get all the same content on-line. The only problem with the blogoshere is the signal-to-noise ratio, but that is usually overcome by checking out the blogroll of the bloggers you already read (and like).

Camping with the Constitution 

This isn't recent news, but it is as irritating as a fire ant bite between your toes and the itch lasts just as long. About two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Napoleon Jones Jr. made a decision that the Boy Scout's use of Balboa Park land is unconstitutional. From a July 31, 2003 article in the San Diego Union-Tribune:
U.S. District Judge Napoleon Jones Jr. said the Scouts' lease of the 18-acre Camp Balboa in Balboa Park violates provisions in the U.S. and state constitutions governing the separation of church and state.

Jones said the Boy Scouts are a religious organization because the Scouts require members to profess a belief in God.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued over the lease in August 2000 on behalf of a lesbian couple and an agnostic couple and their son.

This decision is a travesty of justice for several different reasons. First, consider the fact that the park was built and financed by the scouts and is open to the public. (Read this article for a brief history of the land in question and its use by the Boy Scouts since 1915.) But more importantly is the precidence that a case like this brings to the judiciary. A precidence which seeks to continue to redefine the constitution.

The honorable Judge Jones feels that the lease violates provisions in both the U.S. and California State constitutions. Here are those provisions:

THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA - Amendment I:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
CALIFORNIA STATE CONSTITUTION - ARTICLE 1: DECLARATION OF RIGHTS
SEC. 4. Free exercise and enjoyment of religion without discrimination or preference are guaranteed. This liberty of conscience does not excuse acts that are licentious or inconsistent with the peace or safety of the State. The Legislature shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. A person is not incompetent to be a witness or juror because of his or her opinions on religious beliefs.
In essense, both constitutions say exactly the same thing: The government will make no law respecting an establishment of religion, and that free exercise of religion is protected. It is important to note that the clause "separation of church and state" does not appear in any form in either constitution. A law which respects an establishment of religion would be a law which elevates a specific religion in the eyes of the government. The primary motivation behind this provision was to insure that the state would not crown a specific religious group or sect as the "state religion". This was critical to many of the colonists who had fled Europe because they did not have freedom of religion there. Although the founding fathers were religious men, they understood that their freedom to practice their religion was dependent upon the freedom of others to practice their own as well.

It is apparent, to me at least, that the intent of both constitutions is to guarantee the right to freely practice religion and for the state not to interfere with that practice. There are two ways for the state to avoid "respecting" a specific religious establishment. They can either avoid all religious contact or they can provide equal access to all religious groups.

The Balboa Park decision is an attempt of the former. However, if government tries to separate church and state by divorcing itself from any contact at all, then the following scenarios must be also be considered (and then outlawed):

Unfortunately, going down this road leads to another crisis. A non-religious group may rent a public facility but a religious group may not. A non-religious group may demonstrate in a park or in front of the state legislature but a religious group may not. At this point, the state is now violating the constitutional right of free exercise of religion. The constitution does not guarantee that religious groups cannot discriminate but it does guarantee that it will not discriminate against religious groups.

I think that the Judge's decision is wrong for several reasons but the key one is because it discriminates against the Boy Scouts primarly because he classifies them as a religious organization. Last time I checked, that was unconstitutional.

Monday, August 11, 2003

Tacit Approval? 

According to this Washington Post article, the self-labeled Texas 11 (11 Texas senators who have fled the state to avoid voting on a redistricting bill) have sent a letter to President Bush. Besides the usual rhetoric, the letter included this comment:
'Your continued silence [on the Texas dispute] is being interpreted by thoughtful Americans as complicity or as tacit approval,' the senators wrote on special stationery bearing the title 'The Texas 11.'
Would my confessing that I don't interpret silence on an issue as complicity move me into the non-thoughtful Americans category? I'm also trying to figure out just how many times I have given tacit approval while just trying to stay clear of a disagreement. Having no opinion is no longer possible, unless you are really vocal about it. Now I need to sure to pay very close attention whenever the Queen (may she live forever) speaks. If I should zone out into space while she is talking to me (completely hypothetical example) and she asks me a question, my silence may be interpreted as tacit approval. I fear the right to remain silent is no more.

The most troubling thing about this revelation is who it affects the most: the Swiss! For years we all thought they were just being stubbornly neutral - but no longer. We know know that they have secretly been complicit and tacitly approving of everything all along.