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Saturday, September 21, 2002
 
Why the GOP is like the Mets, or
The Failure of Republican Domestic Policies


With regard to domestic policy, the Republican Party is like the New York Mets The Mets played very well in the second half of last season. If they could have made a few good moves, they looked to be in position to challenge for a championship. They went out and acquired the likes of Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar and others. On paper they looked very formidable. Some picked them to be in the World Series this year. Championships, however, are won on the field and not on paper. After suffering a season of underperformance, injuries, dissention and a lack of leadership, the Mets are currently 72-79, reside in last place in the National League East and are whopping 24 games behind the Braves. No one is talking championship now.


The Republican domestic agenda is similar. Republicans craft policies that, on paper, look good. Those policies, Republicans reason, will negate Democratic issues, please key supporters and constituents and help them win elections. Once those policies are tested in the marketplace, however, they play like the 2002 Mets. Three examples of such policies are Social Security, Medical Savings Accounts and school vouchers.


1) Social Security

Social Security has been one of the great political and social policy successes. As a political issue it was regarded as the “third rail” of politics. The Democrats have always owned the issue. Traditional Republican strategy with regard to Social Security was to change the subject as quickly as possible and never, never even hint that benefits would be cut. Touch the third rail and you will die was the conventional wisdom.


As the baby boomers approached retirement, the long term financial soundness of Social Security began to be questioned. Like Mets management, the Republicans figured that if they could just make the right moves, they could negate a major political advantage of the Democrats.


Thus, from the think tanks, focus groups and political contributors was born the idea of privatization. The idea was that workers would be permitted to put 2% of their payroll into a private account that could invest in stocks instead of that same 2% going into the Social Security system.


The marketing of the plan was brilliant. Everyone would have more money in retirement by participating in the magic of a rising stock market. The financial soundness of the system would be saved. No taxes need to be increased. Most importantly, no benefits would need to be cut (don’t touch that rail). In essence, the Republican marketing strategy was to shout “FREE MONEY FOR EVERYONE” as often and as loudly as possible.


Important Republican groups were elated. The free marketers preferred any private system to any public system regardless of the details. The Republican Wall Street financiers salivated at the prospect of making billions from investing Social Security tax revenues. The politicos thought they had found the way to negate the Democrats’ advantage on a major issue. Nearly every Republican signed on to the plan. Then the actual games began.


Paul Krugman and others began to explain that the premise of FREE MONEY was a lie. The Republicans were engaged in Enron accounting. The money that went into private accounts would not also be available to also pay current retirees’ benefits. Thus, either taxes would have to be raised or benefits would have to be cut. The Presidential Commission on Social Security Reform could not reach consensus on any one plan. Instead they presented three options. Each option required increased taxes, benefit cuts or a combination of both. Money, it turned out, was not free.


Next, the stock market bubble burst. That had two effects. First, the realization that retirement could approach during a bear market began to frighten people. Secondly, as 401k accounts became 201k accounts, the idea of a guaranteed safe retirement income came back into vogue.


The Wall Street scandals were the last straws. People began to feel that they did not wish to bet their retirement years on the honesty of the likes of Ken Lay and Bernie Ebbers.


The focus groups and polls began to reflect those changes. Republicans now deny that they ever supported a plan to privatize Social Security. They tried to intimidate the media into not using the language that the Republicans had previously championed. The Cato Institute, a leading proponent of the privatization plan, removed the word “private” from its web site. In sum the Republicans are now running from their own Social Security policy like scalded dogs. The games are not won on paper.


2) Medical Savings Accounts

Medical Savings Accounts follow a similar pattern. Health insurance rose to prominence as a political issue in the early 1990 with Harris Wofford’s election to the Senate. Employers, faced with rising costs were reducing benefits and voters were afraid that an illness could ruin not only their health but also their finances. The Democrats owned the issue and it contributed to Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory.


Despite the failure of the Clinton healthcare plan, the Republicans felt they needed a health insurance policy they could support. Once again, they formulated a plan that on paper looked like a winner.


The Republicans' plan would allow individuals to create special tax advantaged Medical Savings Account. Those accounts worked like an IRA for health related expenses. Money could be placed in those accounts tax-free. The money could be withdrawn to pay medical bills. MSA’s could be combined with lower cost catastrophic health coverage. Then when medical bills arose, the MSA could be tapped for the high deductible and the catastrophic coverage would kick in above the high deductible.


The Republicans sold that plan as a free market reform that would allow the uninsured to get coverage. The free marketers once again cheered. The tax cut wing of the party approved. Major financial backers of the Republican Party (Wall Street and insurance companies in general and Golden Rule Insurance Company in particular) were elated over the possibility of making millions investing MSA money or selling the new catastrophic coverage policies. Once again, the MSA approach was widely endorsed and loudly promoted by the Republican Party.


The MSA plan, like the Mets, looked good on paper but suffered from real world problems. First, if widely instituted, the MSA model would increase health insurance costs for the rest of the population. The selection of MSA + catastrophic coverage would be rational only if the buyer of such coverage was, in general, healthier than the public at large. People with the expectation of medical bills would hardly chose a plan that required much larger out of pocket payments. Thus, if widely used by the healthy population, those remaining in traditional plans would have relatively higher medical bills. Health insurance premiums for that population would therefore rise.


The second problem was that the MSA plan would not do much to reduce the number of uninsured people. Most folks without health insurance do not have a lot of disposable income to put into an MSA and in the event that such people get sick, they do not have the resources to pay the large deductibles.


The real failure of the MSA however, was that people just did not want to use them. The Republicans pushed through a pilot program that would allow up to 750,000 people to enroll in an MSA plan. The industry, despite a great deal of promotion, was only able to sell 100,000 plans. In the parlance of the advertising industry, the dogs just would not eat the dog food.


Health insurance costs are once again rising rapidly. The cost and availability of health insurance is once again an important issue to voters. Despite the rise in the profile of the issue, we may hear Mets fans talking championship before we hear Republicans again touting MSAs as the solution to the health insurance problem.


Once again, a team that looked like a champion on paper played like a cellar dweller.


3) School Vouchers

School vouchers will soon follow a similar pattern. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court in Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris approved a Cleveland, Ohio voucher plan that allowed government funds to help pay for tuition for private schools including religious schools. Like Mets fans in early spring, voucher advocates were ecstatic and were sure that widespread success would soon follow. We believe, however, that as spring turns to fall, vouchers will be in last place.


The school voucher issue seemed like a political winner for Republicans. First, it greatly pleased the religious right, many of whom send their kids to private Christian Academies. Secondly, it would be a blow to a significant Democratic constituent, schoolteachers. Third, the Republicans marketed the voucher program not as a way to subsidize white, suburban Christian academies but rather as a way of helping poor black kids escape from failing inner city schools. That marketing, the Republicans hoped, would not only build their support in the minority community but might also split the Democratic Party. We predict that voucher advocates will not win wide spread implementation programs for reasons founded on law, economics and politics.


The legal problems remain despite the Supreme Court ruling in Zelman. The first legal problem is the strength of the Zelman decision. It was a 5-4 decision and the opinion makes clear that that the analysis was very fact intensive. Thus the victory in Zelman may not validate other voucher programs with different rules and different circumstances.


An even greater constitutional problem is that many state constitutions have “Blaine Amendments” that specifically prohibit state support or aid of any kind, directly or indirectly, to religious schools. One Florida court has already struck down a voucher program based on a violation of Florida’s Constitution.


The second reason that vouchers will fail is economic. Cities like Cleveland have a large network of parochial schools that, as a result of the exodus from the city to the suburbs, have excess capacity. Those parochial schools have empty desks for voucher students to fill. Many states, such as Georgia have never had a large Catholic school system and do not have excess capacity in the existing private schools. There simply are not empty desks in private schools waiting for voucher students. It is also unlikely that new private schools will be built to accommodate voucher students. The establishment of a private school is capital intensive, time consuming and many regulatory hurdles must be overcome. It is unlikely that all of those obstacles will be surmounted in the hope that some students might bring a $2000 voucher to the school.


The political problem is that the voucher program is unpopular in the politically swingy areas of white suburbia. Most schools in white suburban areas work just fine as they are. The parents in those school districts do not want their schools to change. The suburbs are also very anti-tax increase. The funding necessary to implement a voucher program can only come from tax increases or from reductions in existing education programs. As tax increases are a political loser in the suburbs and as the suburban parents do not want their existing school budgets cut, they oppose voucher programs. One voucher advocate has been quoted as saying that implementation of widespread voucher programs will take “twenty years, minimum.”


The voucher program, like the Mets, showed great promise in the off-season and in the early spring. Like the Mets, vouchers will fade in the summer and when the pennants are handed out, vouchers will trail the field.


Thursday, September 19, 2002
 
A Matter of Perspective


Oliver Wendell Holmes was one of the great American jurists. Born in 1841, he was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1902. Justice Holmes served on the court until his death at age 91 in 1932. Justice Holmes, in addition to having written some of the most influential opinions in history, also understood that one’s perspective determines one’s view. One story of questionable authenticity demonstrates the point.

One spring day in 1926, when Holmes was 85, he took a lunch break from his work at the Supreme Court. Holmes was walking with a friend on a Washington, D.C. street when he was passed by a very attractive young lady. The lady was dressed in the provocative attire of the 1920s. Holmes smiled at the lady, nudged his friend and remarked “Oh, to be 75 again.”

Holmes’s comment was brought to mind by this ABC News story.

Jersey City, New Jersey planned a September 11 anniversary event. As part of the event, 80 white birds were to be released to soar off into the sky.

In order to save several hundred dollars the organizers of the event did not use homing pigeons, as is customary, but rather purchased the 80 white pigeons from a local poultry market.

When released, the pigeons did not soar majestically off into the sky. Some flew into windows of office buildings. Some fell into the Hudson River. Some got entangled in the hair of the crowd. Some, presumably, did what pigeons do.

How one looks at that story depends on one’s perspective. A local teacher at a bird hospital saw it as “reprehensible.” “That’s not how it is supposed to work” she is quoted as saying. From the organizers’ perspective, they saved several hundred dollars. From the crowd’s point of view, they cleaned pigeon droppings from their hair.

The pigeons’ perspective is clear. As one organizer is quoted as saying, “They’re all free. They’re not soup.”



 
Guest Post


PLA has long been in favor of testing of students. We have always believed that testing allowed accurate assessment of student performance as well as comparisons across schools, school districts and states. A recent letter from a good friend and PLA reader, Greg Gault, has called our view into question. Below is Greg’s letter. He has vast experience on the front lines of public education and his views deserve to be heard.


Testing, Testing, Testing


Before we begin - I am a retired schoolteacher and administrator who spent 38 years in the public schools. I am NOT, therefore, viewed by the education establishment or business (yes - it is certainly now a business) as an "expert!" I do, however, humbly submit that I know "stuff."

Our nation, all 50 states, has now committed itself to comprehensive testing programs for students K-12 to judge their progress in the schools. Of course, it did not take long for the "experts" to misuse the test results to judge schools and school systems. Apparently the powers that be think education is a competition, much like the Olympics, and there are winners and losers to be identified. The LOSER, folks, is every kid, teacher, school, and school system in the United States!

Once we accept the notion of winners and losers, a Pandora's Box opens up. Testing companies, university education departments, school committees, private tutoring "specialists," concerned parents, paranoid superintendents, and last, but not least, politicians, start jumping up out of that box! And here's the kicker, not one single kid, not one, gets a better education because of those testing programs!

One primary goal of a test is to teach. The standard methodology is to test students on that which you taught them and then go over the test results pointing out where they went wrong and can do better next time. This is best done by teacher-made tests and evaluation by the teacher who taught the material. Of course, you have to trust that most teachers are good at that (they are), and not adopt the attitude that the schools are infested with idiots. The problem with state and national tests is that no one - not the student, the teacher, or the principal ever sees a specific result, only the total score. The tests, once taken, are as secret as CIA classified material.

One of the most disturbing results of our national testing mania is the ever-increasing idea that a standardized test actually tells us something. Quick -- True or False: The sky is blue. If you are an average dolt, like me, you answer true. The thinking fourth grader reasons thusly: is it cloudy, is it night, am I in space (it’s black up there), am I blind? This fourth grader now knows that he or she knows more than the person who wrote the test -- and now they are in trouble because they do not trust any of the other questions.

Another problem with "testing" to learn something about the learner is that it is rigid dogma among standardized test writers to "aim at the middle." This means questions cannot be so hard no one can answer them or so easy that everyone can. As a result, we often see " thought provoking" questions designed to ferret out - what? This is why the typical U.S. History test will never ask, "Who is Martin Luther King, Jr.?" Instead we find, " Is inflation or deflation more likely to cause a recession?" Trust me! If the public knew the nonsense going on in most of the tests their kids are taking, we would have a major run on Pepto Bismol or Valium, or both!

Money! Do I have your attention? These testing programs are making a lot of people and companies very rich. Do you know who they are? Do you know any of their qualifications? Do you know what "compromises" they would make to keep making that money? How much of that money might go to smaller class size, more books or computers, more special programs, or more art and music classes? Testing has become a true growth industry with little or no controls. It is costing billions and returning peanuts - or worse!

And finally, though the subject deserves a book, there is the very real question of stress. It is estimated by some that half the nation's kids suffer from test anxiety and have stress related symptoms. We have achieved the Nirvana of having third graders crying at home and school about their results on upcoming end of grade (EOG) tests. They are drilled with practice tests over and over until they truly believe the result of one test is the most important thing in their life! If parents did that, there are some social service agencies that would bring them up on charges! Some high school students - my area of experience - get suicidal over end of course (EOC) tests and, of course, the ultimate indicator of knowledge and talent ----- THE SAT!

Enough is enough! Testing mandated from the state and national level must end. No President, governor, or other politician may speak of education or the schools for at least ten years. No school or school system's test results can be published, period. No more comparisons of this year's eighth grade class to last year's eighth grade class. The SAT, ACT, or any other test with an initial in it is barred. Mel Gibson said it best at the end of Braveheart --- " FREEDOM!"

Greg Gault



Tuesday, September 17, 2002
 
Autism and Siblings


Our seven year old autistic son, Bobby, has an older brother who is almost nine. The effects of Bobby’s autism on his brother are a matter of continual, deep concern. Bobby can be an attention sponge. He can consume the entire attention of two parents. We have to work hard to make sure that his brother gets adequate care and attention as well. We also have to explain Bobby's autistic behavior to his older brother.

Autism prevents kids from being able to interact well with others. Bobby has great trouble with interactive play. We try to arrange things so that Bobby can play in parallel with other kids but without having to interact with them. For example, Bobby cannot play any game that requires sharing and turn taking. He just doesn’t understand that other kids should get a chance as well. His brain is not structured to look at the world from other people’s perspective. That inability to share led us to have to explain to our older son that, yes, he had to share toys with friends and take turns. No, it is not nice to refuse to share. No, although you have to share with your brother, he does not have to share with you. That is a very difficult chain of logic for a four year old. We were never sure he understood.

Several years ago when Bobby was four and his brother was six, his brother had two friends over to play. Bobby was obsessing over a certain toy, holding it up and spinning it over and over again. One of the friends went over and grabbed the toy away from Bobby. Bobby expressed his displeasure in the traditional manner; he shoved his brother’s friend and retrieved his prize. I gently intervened, explained that Bobby was unable to share the toy and restored order.

The two friends, seeing that taking the toy from Bobby would provoke a reaction, did so again. Again I intervened, slightly less gently, and restored order.

When the two friends took the toy from Bobby the third time, Bobby was headed into full meltdown tantrum mode. I rose from my chair but had no opportunity to intervene. Bobby’s brother took the toy, returned it to Bobby and turned to face the friends. “If you pick on Bobby,” he said, “you can’t stay in this house. He can’t share the toy. So either stop it or call your mommy to come pick you up.” They chose to stay. Order had been restored.

I settled back into my chair trying not to show the pride welling up inside me.




 
The Spread of a Meme


Robert Wright has decribed a "meme" as a type of virus of the mind, an idea that spreads from one person to another. Last Saturday, we posted "The Law and Politics of the Second Amendment: A Liberal View". In that article, we argued that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to own a gun but does not prohibit reasonable gun control measures. We then argued that liberal recognition of those facts would result in good policy and better politics.

Today Liberal Oasis has a very good post on the so called NASCAR Democrats. In that post, Liberal Oasis writes as follows:

What do gun owners want? To be able to protect themselves, and to uphold the Constitution.

What do liberals want? For people to not get shot, either in crimes or by accident.

These are not necessarily contradictory goals.

If a Democrat running for president wants to garner some respect among gun owners, here’s a game plan:

-- Organize town hall meetings throughout America with typical gun owners, screening out extremist gun nuts.

-- Talk about what concerns them.

-- Explain why you think registration, gun locks, limits on assault weapons, and background checks will save lives without taking guns away from law-abiders.

-- Say that as President, you swear to uphold the Constitution and that includes the 2nd Amendment.

-- Promise to respect the choice of Americans to own guns in order to protect themselves and their families.

Not everyone will walk away completely satisfied, but most will appreciate being heard. The sense of a sinister government looking to take people’s guns away would diminish. The bridging of the Yankee-Dixie gap would move forward.

Dems can win in the South. Liberalism can even become accepted. But not if we turn our back on large segments of the country.


Well put. The meme is spreading.




Monday, September 16, 2002
 
Blogging and Libel Law


NRO in an article by Rob Dreher notes a potential libel case arising out of material posted on a blog. Dreher says that many bloggers do not have the background in libel law that many media outlets require of reporters. Dreher quotes Sandra Baron, a lawyer and executive director of the Libel Defense Resource Center in New York as saying that there has been an "astronomical" increase in libel suits arising out of the Internet in recent years.


Instapundit weighs in with advice to try to get things right, have some evidence to back up your claims and retract quickly if you were wrong. That is all good advice. The Volokh Conspiracies also comments.

We have experience in the litigation of libel and slander claims in Georgia. The most important fact to understand about libel litigation is that even if you win the libel suit brought against you, you lose. People who say that they would like to experience everything once never were involved with litigation. It is costly, time consuming and emotionally draining. And that is if you win. Losing is much worse.

Our law partner says that it takes a fool to write about law on the Internet but that it takes a complete idiot to give advice about libel law. So here goes.

The definition of libel is a false and malicious writing tending to injure the reputation of the person against whom it is directed, and exposing him to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule. The essence of a libel case is damage to reputation.

People file libel claims when they are deeply offended and angry about something someone said about them. To avoid generating that anger, here are some general rules for blogging:

1) Blogging, like disciplining children, is best not done when angry;

2) Attack the ideas, not the writer;

3) Retract errors quickly and at least as prominently as the original posting;

4) Ad hominem attacks not only hurt your argument, but can get you sued;

5) Let the quality of your ideas instead of the level of your rhetoric attract the attention and traffic you so richly deserve;

6) Comparing others to Hitler, Stalin, bin Ladin, the KKK, Bull Conner, Nevile Chamberlain, Jane Fonda (unless it is a comparison to her looks) or Benedict Arnold does not improve the quality of your argument;

7) Snarky does not equal smart;

8) You are not your traffic. Do not give in to the temptation to create traffic by stepping over the line.

If you follow those rules, you will improve your writing and your logic and you will vastly decrease the possibility of being sued.

In addition to those general rules, every blogger should be aware of the basics of libel law. Here are a few of the basic concepts:

1) Truth is a defense. If what you say is completely accurate, you are not at risk. The first element to be proven in any libel case is that the statement was false. If you can back up what you write with evidence of accuracy you will not only forestall many suits but you improve your chances of winning should you be sued. Having evidence to support your assertions also helps win the debate.

2) The second element of a libel case is malice. A false statement made without malice is not libel. Malice is a matter of your intent. Research showing that you, in good faith, attempted to discover the truth, and that it was reasonable to rely on your chosen sources for the accuracy of the statement, go a long way to disprove malice. Malice does not have to mean that you have personal animus towards the target of your writings. If you make false statements about another, not for the purpose of hurting them, but for the purpose of drawing attention to yourself, a jury could find that you acted with malice.

With regard to public figures, malice is shown by proof that the statement was made with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of the statement. We do not know if any court has yet ruled on whether or not you become a public figure within the Blogosphere simply by creating a blog and posting to the public. We would assume that you do but we have not done the research.

3) Statements of pure opinion are not libelous. Statements of pure opinion are difficult to prove false. If someone writes that a blog that contains overly long musings on such subjects as the Second Amendment, the use of hubris as a tactic, or autistic children is boring, that is a matter of opinion and does not form the basis of a law suit.

4) Certain types of charges are more serious than others. The most serious charges are called libel per se. In Georgia, libel per se allows a suit to proceed to a jury for a possible award of damages even if the person allegedly libeled has suffered no economic loss. As most blogs are a hobby and the bloggers generate no income from their writings, this is a critical distinction. If you avoid the four types of libel per se (at least in Georgia) no action may be maintained unless the plaintiff shows an economic loss. The four types of charges to avoid are:

a) Charging a person with criminal conduct;
b) Charging a person with having some contagious disorder;
c) Charging a person with being guilty of some debasing act which may exclude him from society; and
d) Charging a person with misconduct with reference to his trade, office or profession calculated to injure him therein.

The first three categories pose no special problems for the Blogosphere. Do not call a person a thief or a murderer. Do not falsely accuse someone of being HIV positive (or even if true, what is the purpose of such a charge?). Do not call someone a pervert.

The fourth category is more difficult. Some bloggers are writers by their trade or profession. A recent situation arose in which some made the suggestion that a certain professional journalist used song lyrics in a blog without proper attribution. We did not follow that controversy closely. We found it boring. We do not know if a charge of out and out plagiarism was made. If such a charge were made, against a professional writer, it could constitute a charge with regard to the trade or profession of the writer. A charge of plagiarism could be found to be calculated to injure the writer in his or her trade or profession. Thus, in such situations, one should choose words carefully. One can say that a song’s lyrics were used but not attributed without assigning motive.


The second difficulty is with sites that have PayPal or other methods of seeking contributions. If a blogger could show the other elements of libel, the fact that some income was received could be considered as evidence that blogging was a trade or profession. Alternatively, a site with a PayPal button could, perhaps, show actual economic loss as a result of a libel. In either case a claim of libel would be viable.

5) The fact that you do not mention a person’s name will not protect you from a libel charge if it can be shown that the libel was directed at him or her. If instead of using Andrew Sullivan’s name, we make false, malicious charges against a right wing, gay Catholic who is fond of testosterone and beagles, we may not hide from our conduct by claiming that we didn’t name him.

We hope that the above is helpful.

Disclaimers:

1) The above is very general. If you have a specific circumstance, get specific advice from a lawyer;
2) Laws are different in different places and we do not claim to know them all;
3) Please do not rely on the above; and most of all
4) We are not your lawyer!





 
Good Reading


While we work on some thoughts about school vouchers, regime change v. disarmament, and the legacy of Bruno Betelheim, please take a look at the work of some of the best in the Blogosphere:

Jeanne d’Arc points out a couple of prominent Methodists and quotes a United Methodist Church official :
Our church categorically opposes interventions by more powerful nations against weaker ones. We recognize the first moral duty of all nations is to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among nations.


Ann Salisbury on the military becoming concerned over the mental health of soldiers returning from Afghanistan.


Elton Beard at Busy Busy Busy has a hilarious parody of CNN


Demosthenes on the Bush foreign policy planning memo.

Zizka has an interesting post on non-Arab, non-Muslim, suicide bombers in Sir Lanka.

Instapunditwatch on how little things add up.

Please read and enjoy.