Category: Public Policy

Abner Ramos, an alumnus of Acton’s September 2005 Toward a Free and Virtuous Society conference, experienced a change of heart not so long ago. In his work at the the East Los Angeles College Intervarsity Fellowship, he was seeing how some people displayed a sense of entitlement on matters of charity and financial assistance (like the students who were using financial aid checks to buy fancy wheels for their cars). And Abner, as he tells it on the El Acceso blog, came to the conclusion that some were simply taking advantage of his good will.

I’ve had to learn the hard way that in the ghetto, saying “no” is sometimes the best thing that you can do for people. I’ve had to learn the hard way that sometimes the poor aren’t as poor as they seem, and that they will sometimes take advantage of you once they figure out that you’re weak and have no discipline. I’ve had to learn that sometimes the poor that we work with are, well . . . lazy. Not only that, they’ve learned how to play the system to their advantage. I’ve learned that in my Christian desire to help people, I’ve actually enabled them to stay in poverty.

Abner credits his Acton education for helping him understand the problem and formulate a more effective response. Read his entire post here.

Not directly, of course, but the implication of a recent story from NPR’s Future Tense is that video games have a positive stimulative effect on doctors who are about to perform surgery.

A new study is out, and according to FT, “Surgeons who played games for 20 minutes immediately prior to performing surgical drills were faster and made fewer errors.” The study focused on a particular type of surgery, specifically “laparoscopic” procedures. Again, from FT, “The results supported findings from a smaller study in 2003, which showed that doctors who grew up playing video games tended to be more efficient and less error-prone in laparoscopic training drills.” You can hear the story in RealMedia here.

The increase of dopamine associated with playing video games can help establish learning patterns. You heard it here first: students who play video games for 20 minutes immediately preceding quizzes, tests, midterms, and exams will perform better. Video games could “augment” educational achievement.

This latter claim would need to be studied and proven, of course. It seems to me that today’s youth already play significant amounts of video games. It may well be that long-term and extended durations of video game play might have adverse effects on learning patterns as wel. This means that we’d need to look for a mediating time frame, within which the brain is stimulated and activated but does not suffer from more adverse effects.

Maybe the circumscribed use of video games can be part of the solution to the problem Anthony Bradley identifies.

Update: “The Brain Workout: In praise of video games,” OpinionJournal, by Brian C. Anderson: “Video games can also exercise the brain in remarkable ways.”

Rodney Dangerfield is famous for saying, “I don’t get no respect!” This complaint is shared in the laments that I often hear from academics, that electronic journals are not afforded the same respect as print journals. I explored some of the reasons for this as well as some of the results that have implications for journal publishers in an article published last year, “Scholarship at the Crossroads: The Journal of Markets & Morality Case Study,” Journal of Scholarly Publishing 36, no. 3 (April 2005).

The basic argument in favor of affording electronic journals the same prestige and status as print journals is that they both are based on the same fundamental quality-control process: peer review. In reality, however, all peer review is not created equal. There are practical differences in what various journals call peer review, how they exercise it, and the self-imposed rigor and depth of external reviews. But even if all peer review were qualitatively equal, there are other factors that contribute to the perception that electronic journals deserve less respect.

The fact is that there are very few, if any, practical constraints on the number and length of articles that could be published by an electronic journal. A print journal has a definite maximum number of pages per issue and volume that can be printed. This creates scarcity, and thus a perception if not the reality of increased value, since only a select number of articles can be printed. No such limits exist in the digital medium, so that such constraints must be voluntarily and rigorously enforced by electronic journal publishers if they are to mimic the dynamics of this aspect of traditional journal publishing.

One other observation I’d like to make is that the advent of e-journals has really sparked the proliferation and diversification of journal publishing. This mirrors and catalyzes the increasing specialization of academic disciplines. For example, the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) lists 90 titles under the subject heading “History”. Some journals are focused on narrow geographical areas and historical periods, such as The Heroic Age: A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe.

To be sure, some academic disciplines, such as literature and gender studies, lend themselves to greater fracturing and diversification, so that Cervantes or Flaubert have their own dedicated e-journals. It’s entirely likely, for example, that the typical tenure review board member is going to value an article published in Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality somewhat less than one appearing in the American Journal of Sociology. In addition, peer review takes on a different shape if there are very few scholars who are true specialists in a particular area of research.

Certainly many scholars will argue that this embodies the democratization of education and academics, in that fields are no longer monopolized by a few traditional and academically conservative journals. But at the same time scholars must realize that the obscurity and extreme specialization of some of e-journals contributes greatly to their lack of prestige.

One concrete way for electronic journals as a medium to gain respect, especially in the humanistic fields, would be for major, established, respected journals to make the move from print to digital. Otherwise, electronic journals that are almost always less than a decade-old will struggle to get respect.

Writing in the San Diego Union Tribune, Ruben Navarette explains how the Mexican economy and corruption are related to the U.S. immigration problem. After talking with a Mexican born, U.S. citizen, Navarette observes:

In Mexico, the elites take pride in the fact that Mexicans abroad send home nearly $20 billion a year. But for González, that figure is a national embarrassment – an advertisement of a government’s failure to provide sufficient opportunity for its own people.

So Navarette presses him:

Doesn’t Fox deserve credit for reaching out to Mexicans in the United States? Before Fox came along, these castaways had long been ignored by Mexico’s ruling elite. Not so fast, González said. If Fox really wanted to help the estimated 6 million to 8 million illegal immigrants from Mexico living in the United States, he said, the answer is to create jobs at home so that Mexicans don’t have to leave their country and families to search for work.

Mexicans are not your typical immigrants, it seems.

“We’re not here for the American Dream,” González said. “We’re here to survive.”

When Navarette asks him what he would do if he were Presidente for a day, his companion sounds a lot like an Acton Institute grad:

(1) Tackle police corruption; people have no incentive to be productive if they’re constantly being fleeced and robbed by those who are supposed to protect them.

(2) Stop penalizing employers and small businesses; cutting licensing fees would allow companies to create more jobs and pay higher wages.

(3) Clean up the environment by punishing companies that plunder natural resources and lay waste to the countryside and waterways.

Can we sign this guy up for one of our seminars?

“Last week, the Department of Education reported that science aptitude among 12th-graders has declined across the last decade.” Anthony Bradley explores some of the root causes for why science education continues to falter in schools across the country. Bradley asserts that the typical American now views education as a means for a comfortable lifestyle rather than a means to knowledge about the world. The purpose of education, instead of producing knowledge and insight into the workings of nature and society, is now to teach everything you need to know in order to enter the work-force. The results of this distortion of the purpose of education is the decline of interest in less “practical” fields including science.

Read Anthony Bradley’s full commentary here.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, May 31, 2006

I have to admit I was skeptical myself of Gregg Easterbrook’s self-proclaimed “long record of opposing alarmism” regarding global warming. To be sure, a bit of my own research showed that Mr. Easterbrook has long opposed alarmism, just not of the global warming variety.

In this June 2003 Wired magazine article, “We’re All Gonna Die!,” Easterbrook debunks a number of apocalyptic myths, including the dangers of germ warfare, runaway nanobots, supervolcanoes, and shifting magnetic poles. He does include “Sudden climate change!” (#9) as a myth, but in this Easterbrook doesn’t disagree with the many scientists supporting the notion of manmade climate change. Such scientists were among the first to decry the alarmism of The Day After Tomorrow and the attribution of increase in strength and quantity of hurricanes to global warming, for example.

To the question, “Could an abrupt climate change really happen?,” the Pew Center on Global Climate Change answers, “Scientists have just begun to study the possibility of an abrupt climate change. But when scientists talk about abrupt climate change, they mean climate change that occurs over decades, rather than centuries. It’s too soon to know for certain whether abrupt climate change could occur, but if it does, it’s not expected to happen within the next several decades.”

In this article Easterbrook is really addressing the idea that a sudden climate flip “could happen as rapidly as over the course of a few years.” He himself acknowledges that “it’s reasonable to expect that global temperatures will get warmer, owing at least in part to artificial greenhouse gases.” That doesn’t sound like a skeptic to me, and that’s from a piece written almost three years ago.

If Easterbrook was a skeptic regarding climate change on a relatively lengthy time scale, then he was a rather private one on this point. The Commons Blog has picked up and expanded on this skepticism regarding Easterbrook’s supposedly “long record.”

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, May 30, 2006

According to published reports, market mechanisms, and specifically competition, are accomplishing what many decriers of the “digital divide” have long contended only big government could do. The AP, via, reports, “Middle- and working-class Americans signed up for high-speed Internet access in record numbers in the past year, apparently lured by a price war among phone companies.”

The study, provided by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, found that broadband subscription “increased 40 percent in households making less than $30,000 a year. Among blacks, it increased 121 percent.” The “digital divide” is beginning to close, as market forces help divergences in broadband access to collide: “Among the $30,000-$50,000 households, 43 percent now have broadband, compared to 68 percent for those making more than $75,000.”

This has been accomplished despite the barriers to competition that have traditionally existed. In many areas, including my own, only one cable company offers its services in a particular area. This means that the competition is coming not only from within a single form of telecom service, but also from among various methods of delivery, such as DSL, cable internet, and satellite/wireless.

The innovation of new delivery methods has raised the prospect of even greater competition, as broadband delivery over power lines (BPL) and increased wireless access become available.

The Pew study also references the dominance of higher wage earners, particularly among whites, who are responsible for the majority of user uploaded content to the Web. This points to a fundamental truth about the creation of wealth and technological innovation: it allows for leisure and productive activity that otherwise would be spent simply laboring. Filming, editing, and uploading digital videos, for instance, is a time and labor-intensive activity, and one that can only be undertaken by someone with the time away from work and luxury to afford both the necessary time and equipment.

But these recent developments point to the potential for a digital collide, in which internet access and the leisure time necessary to take advantage of the Web become a reality for more and more Americans. And these trends point to a measure of this already becoming manifest, as people who don’t have time or energy to surf the Web, for example, are unlikely to voluntarily pay for broadband access. In this way, the digital collide is the result of increasing wealth and prosperity across the economic classes of American society.

I have argued on this site that the last thing America needs is European style government-by-demonstration, and that the massive street demostrations over illegal immigration perhaps were a sign of the Left’s intention to import exactly that style of guerilla theater politics into America. Now Mexico seems poised to illustrate that point: the free market candidate for president is leading the pack. According to the WSJ, but the two leftist parties are threatening to disrupt society and dispute the election if he wins:

On July 2 Mexico will hold the most closely contested presidential election in its history. That in itself wouldn’t be a problem if all the candidates were committed to the democratic process. But in recent weeks two of the three main campaigns have jointly pledged to challenge election results in the streets with massive unrest if their candidates don’t win. If that happens, Mexico will be thrown into chaos and Mexicans will be the losers.

A poll by Zogby International last week gave Felipe Calderón a five percentage point lead over Andrés Manuel López Obrador and 12 points over Roberto Madrazo.

That’s good news for Mexico. Mr. Calderón of the National Action Party offers the best chance to deepen the market-oriented economic reforms necessary for strong growth and job creation and to ease the exodus of Mexicans abroad. Mr. López Obrador of the hard-left Revolutionary Democratic Party, on the other hand, would return the country to nationalist populism and a closed economy. Mr. Madrazo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party is marketing a mixture of both, publicly siding with the left while privately pledging support for centrist reforms.

Yet even if Mr. Calderón can hold the lead, Mexico may be heading for trouble. The PRD and the PRI have announced that they are forming a united front to reject the election results if neither one wins….

This situation would weaken the country’s institutions, raise uncertainty and fears of anarchy, with potentially serious financial instability and economic disarray. Emigration would mushroom. The long awaited Mexican miracle of fast growth and job creation — stemming migratory outflows — would be lost for at least another six years, if not for much longer.

This would be a disaster for the entire hemisphere. Americans can only hope and pray that Calderon wins by a wide margin. As Hugh Hewitt is wont to say, "If it ain’t close, they can’t cheat."  Let’s hope it isn’t close.

In a recent interview with Giant magazine (June/July 2006, “Citizen Gore,” p. 56-57, text available here) about his new movie “An Inconvenient Truth,” former Vice President Al Gore answered a few questions. When asked what he would say to President Bush about climate change if he could:

I’d say that this climate crisis is really a planetary emergency, and that he ought to take it out of politics altogether. The civil rights issue really took hold when Dr. King defined it as a moral and spiritual issue, and this crisis must be redefined as a moral and spiritual issue because it involves who we are as human beings. Do we care about our children and grandchildren? Are we content to just look the other way when 100 years of science overwhelmingly points to the destruction our current pattern is causing? Most people, when they finally open their eyes and look at the truth of this, say, “We’ve got to change.” To make it a political issue is wrong and the current White House is doing that.

Of course, Mr. Gore’s campaign to popularize his message about global warming has everything to do with turning this into a political issue. This goes a long way in explaining what Heather Wilhelm calls a “strange bedfellows” phenomenon. When Ms. Wilhelm asks NAE Vice President for Governmental Affairs Richard Cizik about whether “evangelicals concerned that they’re putting too much faith in government,” he responds, “You know, I don’t hear that very often. I don’t think that’s a huge concern among most people. I think they’re enthusiastic about the progress we’re making.” Those evangelicals who have been “converted” to the global warming cause are providing that veneer of moral authority, which helps make this into more than a “political issue.”

When asked why some people still won’t accept the scientific evidence, Gore replies:

A lot of people don’t want to accept the truth so that they won’t have to take on board its moral imperatives. You may already know this, but there is an interesting way that the Chinese write the word crisis. They use two characters side by side, but the first character standing by itself means danger, and the second character by itself means opportunity. When you put them together, they mean crisis. In English, crisis means a sense of alarm or danger, but it doesn’t automatically communicate a sense that in danger there is always a sense of opportunity. I try to make a point when I talk about global warming that there really is a lot of opportunity. There will be new jobs, new technology, new improvements in our lives, and more importantly, there will be an opportunity to have a shared moral purpose. We would be able to speak to our grandchildren and tell them we did something on their behalf that was tough but we found a way to accomplish it.

Victor H. Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, explodes the myth about the Chinese words for danger, opportunity, and crisis. But that may not be the only fiction that Mr. Gore is peddling in this interview.

Since Mr. Gore is engaging economic concerns to buttress his argument, let’s have a look. His basic economic argument is that political intervention into energy policy, specifically with regard to climate change, will have positive economic benefits, because of the opportunities provided by new research and technology. This is the same basic argument that Andy Crouch makes in a Christianity Today piece. It’s somewhat ironic that one of the major economic arguments against radically preemptive action against climate change is that of opportunity cost. This is a point made by Vernon L. Smith, a Nobel laureate and professor of economics and law at George Mason University. He speaks of a “rule of optimality,” and argues:

If we ignore this rule of optimality and begin abatement now for damages caused by emissions after 100 years, we leave our descendants with fewer resources – 100 years of return on the abatement costs not incurred – to devote to subsequent damage control. The critical oversight here is the failure to respect opportunity cost. Each generation must be responsible for the future effect of that generation’s emission damage. Earlier generations have the responsibility of leaving subsequent generations a capital stock that has not been diminished by incurring premature abatement costs.

The government could create “new” jobs by having people dig holes and fill them in again. The mere creation of jobs is an ambiguous phenomena. We have to ask whether these new jobs contribute something greater to the common good of society.

Mr. Gore and Rev. Cizik emphasize the moral and especially religious aspects of environmental stewardship, and in this they are right. And a basic element of Christian morality is a commitment to the truth. Rev. Cizik contends, “For those of us who oppose the hegemony of the naturalistic worldview, we should strongly consider spending less time debating one another over who is right about climate change and collaborate together to conquer the real enemy.” But who is right about climate change is of the utmost importance!

Gore is right (and Rev. Cizik is wrong) in recognizing that the truth about the reality, cause, and solution regarding global warming has a foundational significance for the shape of the debate. It’s not just about Christians versus naturalists. But Rev. Cizik is right in this sense: the truth about global warming should not obscure our commitment to the One who is Truth.

Seven years after the United Nations assumed control of the Serb province of Kosovo, talks are underway about its future. Orthodox Church leaders for the minority Serb population, which has been subject to attacks for years by Muslim extremists, are hoping to forestall mounting pressure to establish an independent state. Is the Church headed for extinction in Kosovo?

Read the complete commentary here.