Upper Left Coast

Thoughts on politics, faith, sports and other random topics from a red state sympathizer in indigo-blue Portland, Oregon.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

It's inconceivable to me...

that there are millions of people in this country who have watched every second of every episode of American Idol.

My wife and daughter picked up the habit last season, and I watched most of it because of that, but I missed the early auditions. After watching the last couple of weeks, I now know that was a blessing, because I'm quite certain I've lost several million brain cells as a result of watching people like this:

I realize that the show deliberately picks the most whacky people because it makes good TV, but what is it about this show that brings out such lunacy? And what is it about this show that makes the television-watching public want to endure such ear-splitting drivel?

It must be the legendary inability for people to turn away from a train wreck. They just have to watch. But the collective intelligence of the American public is dropping with every episode.



Saturday, January 27, 2007

Quote of the Day: on Tom Tancredo

On NRO's The Corner yesterday, John Derbyshire noted Congressman Tom Tancredo's call to eliminate congressional caucuses based on race (e.g. the Congressional Black Caucus). Derbyshire went on to say:
Tom's [presidential] candidacy is of course a no-hoper—everyone says so. I'm still looking for some point on which I disagree with him, though.
My head says Rudy, but my heart says Tom.
Five minutes later, John Podhoretz of the New York Post answered:
Derb, you say your head says Rudy but your heart says Tom. My heart says Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, who has a better chance of being president than Tom Tancredo.
Now there's a solid presidential ticket: Buzz & Woody in '08. Think of the slogan possibilities . . .

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The decay of marriage

Kay Hymowitz, a marriage and family scholar at the Manhattan Institute, argues in today's National Review Online that gay marriage is not necessarily contributing to the weakening of marriage. Instead, she suggests that marriage is still valued, but the concept of marriage as a safe haven for raising children has been removed from the equation; the focus has been whittled down to an adult relationship, so any adult relationship is fine.

In the Q&A, NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez asks, "To what degree is same-sex marriage contributing to a weakening of marriage? Is it more a symptom of an institution already decaying?"

And Hymowitz responds (emphasis mine):
I think it’s the latter. The unmarriage revolution[*] of the last 40 years had to occur before gay marriage became a logical possibility, because it was only when marriage had nothing or little to do with children that it made any sense. Pro-gay-marriage conservatives know this. Jonathan Rauch has written in response to the sort of argument I make that “the debate is over about detaching marriage from parenthood — indeed was over years ago;” Andrew Sullivan has said much the same thing. Well, there you have it. Marriage-and-children? That’s so yesterday.

Despite this, Rauch has argued that gay marriage will increase the institution’s standing in American society. But as I’ve already pointed out, the problem is not that Americans don’t value marriage. It’s that they view it as an adult love relationship having little to do with children. That’s precisely the underlying premise for gay marriage.
I hadn't thought about the idea that marriage has become "an adult love relationship having little to do with children," but the idea resonates (and Hymowitz backs it up with data showing how badly the destruction of marriage is hurting our children). That's why same-sex marriage advocates can make their argument with such conviction -- because they know that their social predecessors in the feminist movement have made their jobs easier by excluding children from the marriage debate.

* When she refers to the "unmarriage revolution," she's speaking of "the radical decoupling of marriage and children that began in the late 1960’s and became entrenched during the 70’s," and which was led by the feminists movement. The researchers defending the unmarriage revolution argued that kids are tough and can handle anything as long as mom is happy, but "at least that much has changed," Hymowitz said. "As James Q. Wilson has joked, by now the evidence is now so powerful, even sociologists admit that children growing up with single mothers are at greater risk of just about every problem you can think of — poverty, depression, school failure, delinquency, early pregnancy, and so on."

(Hymowitz has a new book called Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age; the book is a compilation of essays she has written on the state of marriage.)

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Feeling Old

In just 45 days, I will join those who have lived on this earth for four decades. Up until a few days ago, I hadn't given it much thought, but children have a way of reminding you of your own mortality.

My youngest daughter has a blanket that has been her almost-constant companion over her four-plus years. One certain corner of "Blankie," as she calls it, can frequently be found in her mouth, or the blanket can be seen dusting the floors as it trails behind her. The Little Tyke and Blankie even have conversations with each other and (occasionally) with others, especially big sister or the Big Kid's favorite stuffed toy, Lambie.

Somewhere along the line, someone suggested that Little Tyke is the mama to Blankie and Big Kid is the matronly figure to Lambie. So, it's only logical that if Blankie and Lambie are the kids, then my wife and I (as the parents to their mamas) are the grandparents.

And so, the other day, Blankie approached me and (channeled by Little Tyke) said, "Hi Grandpa."

God, I suddenly feel really old.



Thursday, January 18, 2007

Savings to save Oregon's credit rating

According to the state director of debt management, Oregon has one of the three worst state credit ratings in the country -- only ahead of California (land of multi-billion-dollar deficits) and Louisiana (which has been shelling out cash for a little storm called Katrina).

What's the cause for this low rating? The lack of a state savings account, the debt managers told state budget writers on Wednesday. All we have to do is sock away more in a rainy-day fund, and we're on our way to happy days in the eyes of our creditors.

But wait, I thought to myself. When a family gets into financial trouble and its credit rating drops, it's usually because that family is maxing out its credit, paying late or not at all, and losing assets through repossession, foreclosure, legal judgments and/or bankruptcy.

In other words, the family is spending too much.

Sure, a well-stocked savings account would be helpful, but that's not the cause of its credit troubles, only one symptom of the challenges that have contributed to the financial slide.

I realize that it's difficult to compare a family and a state, considering the latter (usually) can't descend into deficit spending. But could it be that the state's credit worthiness is based on a decade of drunken-sailor spending when it had the cash to create a rainy-day fund? Could it be that the credit rating firms are looking for all-around financial responsibility from Oregon, which includes fiscal restraint?

And what do we have instead? The Oregonian's political blog spells it out:
In his budget proposal, Gov. Ted Kulongoski proposed spending all but $145 million of the nearly $15 billion projected to be available for the state to spend in 2007-09, plus raising more taxes and spending them too. He would fatten the state savings account by canceling all $275 million of corporate "kicker" tax rebates and putting the money into savings instead. Doing so would require a two-thirds vote of the House and the Senate, a daunting hurdle.
In other words: spending every penny of tax revenue, increasing taxes, and hoping that 20 senators and 40 representatives will go along with killing the corporate kicker to put that money in savings -- because those corporations (especially the out-of-state companies) need to hire our residents and send their taxes to Salem, but otherwise should shut up.

Don't get me wrong -- I think a savings account is important (for a family, a business, or a government) and I hope the state implements a rainy-day fund in this session.

But maybe, if Ted Kulongoski and the Oregon legislature weren't hell-bent on spending every penny of revenue (and then some), maybe they'd have plenty of money for savings. And I bet the credit rating firms would be just as impressed by spending restraint as by a rainy-day fund.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Doing away with the political primary machine

For almost two centuries in New York City, the political machine known as Tammany Hall played a significant role in the election of Democrats in the city and beyond. However, it gained enough enemies and flouted enough laws that it eventually lost power and dissolved in the 1960s.

Today, the term political machine is used in dismissive (and inaccurate) terms to describe the two major parties, as well as factions within those parties that seek to control the terms of debate. But really, those days are long gone.

Still, remnants linger, and one of those is the presidential primary system. That's not to say that the primaries are controlled by 21st Century versions of Tammany Hall. But their schedules -- in many ways -- are, and the result has been the disenfranchisement of half the nation in the selection of the presidential candidates. It's time for a complete overhaul of the primary process.

As recently as 1976, a party's nomination for president was unclear heading into the nominating convention. Today, the nominee is decided more than seven months before the general election, selected by a handful of states scattered throughout the country.

Oh sure, all the states get a primary election, but by Super Tuesday in March, slightly more than half the states have voted. It's clear who has the momentum, and it's clear that, despite the fact that twenty-some states have yet to voice their opinion, the nominating convention is a mere formality. (John Kerry had the 2004 nomination wrapped up by March 11.)

And those states that have traditionally held the first primaries -- i.e. Iowa and New Hampshire -- insist that it's always been that way and always will. New Hampshire even passed a 1977 law stating it would always be first, which has forced the state to move its primary up by two months since then.

Some have bellyached that the Electoral College disenfranchises voters because it allows a candidate to win a majority of the popular vote but still lose the election. The main problem with their argument is that the Electoral College is written into the Constitution. However, the good ol' boy network that has taken control of the primary system -- which seems to be the same group that refuses to let the Division I football teams play for a national championship -- is not written into law.

Here's my idea: the time has come for Congress to step in and establish a regional primary system. The system would divide the country into 10 regions, with a primary election each week starting in February. This would allow the candidates to focus on five neighboring states, discussing the issues that are important to that region, followed by a vote. A region of neighboring states would allow a deeper examination of that region's issues than a Super Tuesday that included several states scattered around the country.

But this is different than the current system in that the results of each vote would not be released until all 10 regions had voted, which would be in mid-April. In this way, each state would have an equal say in the selection of the candidate. In this way, no candidate could run away with the nomination simply because he'd won a couple of early primaries. Voters throughout the country could still find out what the candidates were saying in other regions, and could base their opinions on what they heard throughout the country, but the candidates couldn't change their story depending on their finish the previous week. This would impact fund-raising only from the standpoint that candidates would receive donations based on their platforms and their personal impact, not because people wanted to jump on their bandwagon.

Are there some holes in my suggestion? Of course. The main ones I see are media-driven: 1) Polls. You couldn't outlaw polling because of First Amendment issues, and a candidate who was first in the polls would likely draw some advantage; and 2) Early leaks. I'm tempted to make one person responsible for the ballots, and make the penalty so severe that that person isn't tempted to leak; but the flipside is that you want some oversight so you know the results haven't been tampered with until they're released.

But those issues (and others I haven't considered) aside, the current system is too good ol' boy and too elitist to let it stand.

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Raise the tram fares!

So, the city of Portland is considering charging $4 per ride on the new aerial tram. The reason, according to city officials, is because construction and operating costs have increased by about 400 percent, and they don't want to subsidize any more than they have to.

(Never mind that they promised the fares would be less than half that amount, and Tri-Met users could show their bus and light rail passes to use the tram. Never mind the irony of being concerned about a $2 subsidy when they city is paying tens of millions of dollars more than it said would come out of city coffers.)

Personally, I say if it avoids further subsidies, they should set the tram fare at $4, if not more. And while they're at it, they should raise bus and MAX fares to erase subsidies. After all, Tri-Met's own numbers (PDF in link) show that they only recover about a quarter of their operating costs through fares.

Because there are different levels of fares, it's difficult to determine the necessary fare increase -- those Tri-Met numbers show an operating cost per boarding ride of $2.58 on the bus and $1.52 on MAX, with passenger revenue of 66 cents (bus) and 80 cents (MAX) per rider. However, if all fares were adult all-zone, the fare would increase to more than $6 per ride.

But they can't do that. It would hurt the poor. Of course, I guess the poor won't be using the tram -- it's just for the rich doctors on Pill Hill.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

What? The mainstream media screwed up?


Friday, January 05, 2007

Quote of the Day: on Oregon education

Rob Kremer writes today about the big three ideas floating around the education community in Oregon -- all-day kindergarten, Head Start, and decreased class sizes.

Kremer, who is the director of the Arthur Academies and an advocate for charter schools, says he would sooner focus on "effective teaching practices" at the elementary level than spend money on any of those three. Why? Because the research shows that none are terribly effective:
  1. All-day Kindergarten becomes nothing more than additional playtime for the kids and additional babysitting for the parents, because Kindergartners can't handle a full day of academics;
  2. Decreased class sizes are only effective when the size drops to at least 15 kids, and no one ever mentions that smaller classes means more teachers and more classrooms and, thus, more money that needs to be spent; and
  3. The gains made in Head Start disappear by third grade.
So, if we have to choose one, what's the best choice? Kremer answers:
...I'd say that the Head Start is the best option. At least it's targeted to the kids who are most in need - and most likely to fail. And it has the added benefit of keeping the dollars out of the education establishment and the teachers union!

This, of course, is the reason why the Head Start option will probably lose. The unions will get their way, and from their perspective, they like both lower class sizes AND all day kindergarten, because they both result in more dues paying members.
One other thing: in Kremer's analysis of full-day Kindergarten, he said that the Arthur Academies do have academic kindergartens that focus on phonics and basic math, but any change in the state's Kindergarten structure wouldn't change the AA focus. He adds:
Oh, by the way, our kindergartners are off-the-charts in academic achievement, which calls the question: if we can do that in a half day, why would a full day be required?
Why indeed?

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Let's ban water!

Penn & Teller play a brilliant gag on a group of environmentalists, beating them at their own game. (HT: The Corner)

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

An era when journalists made a difference...

So many journalism professionals -- those who have been in the business for decades, as well as those who leave today's J-schools after tutelage from those former journalism curmudgeons -- long for the era when the Fourth Estate had the power to sway public opinion.

They pine for the day when a news anchor like Walter Cronkite had so much sway that he could declare the Vietnam War unwinnable, and it would be so. For the time when people believed every word emanating from ABC, CBS, NBC, the New York Times and the Washington Post because those institutions proclaimed their accuracy and independence and because, well, there was little other choice.

Some of them even think they still hold that power, so they grasp at any thread that makes them believe their influence is still waxing, refusing to accept the premise that they are becoming increasingly irrelevant. They're sure the next Watergate is just around the corner.

But the result is Dan Rather's Texas Air National Guard memo; the New York Times' periodic revelation of classified information that helps our enemies and does nothing in our country beyond feeding the left-wing fever swamps; and various episodes of misconduct that usually come to light via other media.

The Oregonian's Steve Duin, writing in the Sunday opinion page, puts himself squarely in the camp that holds old-school journalism as the savior of society's ills. He suggests that the problems of modern-day journalism -- "circulation is down, buyouts are up, newsrooms are aging, news holes are shrinking" -- can be resolved by seeking those stories that make a difference (which, by implication, they aren't currently doing), by being "on the right side of a great story."

Duin's commentary is mostly a review of a book called "The Race Beat," which recounts the role of journalists in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s. It also includes examples (perhaps from the book, but that's not clear) of the bigotry that tried to keep journalists from covering the black angle with fairness. But in pining for "an era when we actually made a difference," by suggesting that the media needs to seek the right side of a great story, he doesn't seem to recognize that this position also puts him and his colleagues in the role of taking sides, of advocacy in place of balance.

He acknowledges the ills of his profession (most notably exemplified in the industry's circulation numbers), but fails to recognize that a significant contributor is the myriad attempts to artificially sway public opinion by focusing slanted attention on a certain story to the exception of the opposite viewpoint.

And it is this role -- in which examples include unequal treatment of Iraq, global warming and politicians from different parties -- that has caused the decline of old-school journalism as consumers realize the deficiencies of the industry; filling the void caused by that decline, new media like blogs and talk radio have shattered the monopoly of old media that could obscure the inconsistencies between journalism's claims of fairness and its record.

The Society of Professional Journalists lists an extensive ethics code, which suggests that journalists should:
  • Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.
  • Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.
  • Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.
But it also says:
  • Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.
I think the former items are clear examples of the industry's desire not to take sides in a matter, while the latter is sometimes used to ignore that standard in favor of trumpeting a certain perspective.

It's clear that journalists like Harry Ashmore overcame the good ol' boy network whose membership included many of his colleagues, and used his position to shine the light on the civil rights perspective that was left wanting by centuries of bigotry. That was not so much advocacy (at least in the news pages) as it was a willingness to cover the side that was receiving no attention. I am in no way suggesting that the press shouldn't have covered the civil rights movement with a wider scope than that given by a journalism industry that Duin called "overwhelmingly white" and "painfully inattentive."

But in Duin's desire to return to the golden era of journalism, he goes beyond exposing the uncovered and into the role of cheerleader. Perhaps Duin is only thinking of his job as a columnist, where he's expected to advocate a position. Perhaps he's simply encouraging his colleagues to focus on all sides of the story and refuse to be intimidated or bought off a certain angle.

But he never says that, explicitly or otherwise. Instead, we're left with Duin's rallying cry to be "on the right side of a great story," which is explicitly not where journalists who believe in fairness and balance should be.

It's one thing to cover different sides of a story, but it's quite another thing to take sides.

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I second the motion

My favorite internet writer, Tony Woodlief, writes wistfully about what should be done with Pat Robertson:
Imagine that you wanted to foster among the public and the press the impression that Christians are ignorant, mean-spirited buffoons. How might you go about it, were you a clever person? Rather than attack Christians directly, you might instead find yourself a puffed-up, theologically ignorant preacher, and give him a nationally televised cable program focused on current events. Maybe you'd even have him run for president a few times, so everyone could enjoy his ill-considered ruminations, delivered in the smarmy, self-righteous tones of a Hollywood actor doing an over-the-top impression of a Christian. You might invent, in other words, Pat Robertson.
He goes on to note that Old Testament prophets who were wrong would be put to death, because it was obvious that God wasn't speaking through them (after all, God is never wrong). Lucky for Robertson, he's living in the 21st century and can be a wacko without fear of being thrown to the lions. Too bad, as Mr. Woodlief says, Robertson doesn't follow the lead of a real Old Testament figure and wait "in silence" for God's counsel.

Good stuff from Tony, as usual.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Iraqis don't get it

They might say it's the other way around, but that's how I see it after reading about the rush to hang Saddam Hussein. The Iraqis don't understand, or choose not to concern themselves, with the impact that their actions have on the United States and its soldiers in the Middle East.

The New York Times described a late-evening meeting involving American officers and officials of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. In the meeting, which happened just hours before Hussein's hanging, the U.S. representatives questioned the need -- and the constitutionality -- of the Iraqi actions. The story quotes one participant as saying of the meeting:
The Iraqis seemed quite frustrated, saying, ‘Who is going to execute him, anyway, you or us?’ The Americans replied by saying that obviously, it was the Iraqis who would carry out the hanging. So the Iraqis said, ‘This is our problem and we will handle the consequences. If there is any damage done, it is we who will be damaged, not you.’
Um, no. Even if the Americans took no role whatsoever, enemies of the United States would interpret the execution as more Yankee imperialism. Witness this quote from Shaul Cohen, a University of Oregon geography professor who spoke to Eugene's KVAL television station:
I think this will be seen as vengeance by America rather than justice. And it's done in the name of democracy, but not in a very democratic way. And so I think that things will continue to spin out of control in Iraq between the Iraqis, but that this does hurt the image of the United States, regionally, and probably globally as well.
I feel that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in midstream would be disastrous for the Iraqi situation and for America's security. However, if the Iraqis can't show more cooperation and recognition of the impact that their decisions have on the lives (and deaths) of our soldiers, it may be time to tell them exactly when we plan to leave. And to leave on that date, if not earlier.

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