Category: Public Policy

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, October 19, 2005

I received an email today from the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, an independent outreach of Prison Fellowship Ministries. It seems the iniative is facing rising program costs due to legal battles over the legitimacy of its Christian makeup. And constant critics of the program, like Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, seem rather incredibly cold-hearted to the plight of today’s prisoner.

The InnerChange Freedom Initiative is one of the few elements in prisoners’ lives that has the ability to give them hope. And this hope is not just hope for release from physical bonds, but hope for release from the spiritual bonds of sin and corruption. Here are some of the key facts about the initiative:

  • The corrections system in America is broken. More than 600,000 people will be released from U.S. prisons and jails this year, and 52% of those ex-inmates will be return to prison within three years.

  • Departments of Correction are seeking help, asking for proposals for values-based prisoner rehabilitation alternatives.
  • The InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a biblically based, round-the-clock prison program works. An independent study by the University of Pennsylvania showed that only 8% of prisoners who graduated from our IFI program in Texas were reincarcerated within two years of their release.

This final point gets at the heart of the prison problem in America. For a system that is supposed to be based in large part on “rehabilitation,” recidivism rates are disturbingly high. This remains the case because the root issues are spiritual, and the state is spectacularly incapable of addresses such concerns. Johnny Cash, a Christian who had to push to record Gospel albums, recorded a hit song in 1968, “Folsom Prison Blues.” The lyrics of this song attest to the spiritual nature of criminality (emphasis added):

I hear the train a comin’; it’s rollin’ ’round the bend,
And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when.
I’m stuck at Folsom Prison and time keeps draggin’ on.
But that train keeps rollin’ on down to San Antone.

When I was just a baby, my mama told me, “Son,
Always be a good boy; don’t ever play with guns.”
But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.
When I hear that whistle blowin’ I hang my head and cry.

I bet there’s rich folk eatin’ in a fancy dining car.
They’re prob’ly drinkin’ coffee and smokin’ big cigars,
But I know I had it comin’, I know I can’t be free,
But those people keep a movin’, and that’s what tortures me.

Well, if they freed me from this prison, if that railroad train was mine, I bet I’d move on over a little farther down the line, Far from Folsom Prison, that’s where I want to stay, And I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away.

We’ve discussed textual interpretation a bit on this blog here before (here, here, and here). Paul Ricœur, who is famous for his “attempt to combine phenomenological description with hermeneutic interpretation,” passed away earlier this year.

One of Ricœur’s important contributions involved an observation about the nature of textual interpretation in distinction to personal dialogue. He writes, for example in his book Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences,

Dialogue is an exchange of questions and answers; there is no exchange of this sort between the writer and the reader. The writer does not respond to the reader. Rather, the book divides the act of writing and the act of reading into two sides, between which there is no communication. The reader is absent from the act of writing; the writer is absent from the act of reading. The text thus produces a double eclipse of the reader and writer. It thereby replaces the relation of dialogue, which directly connects the voice of one to the hearing of the other.

Ricœur notes some effects of this “double eclipse” and formulates a theory of the “sense of the text” to norm textual interpretation. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates makes a somewhat similar observation about the nature of writing:

I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

Of course, general agreement with Socrates and Ricœur does not entail a necessary acceptance of a kind of “sense of the text” radically disconnected from any authorial intent.

Even so, the inherent limits to written communication form an essential point of reference for articulating any coherent interpretive scheme. Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, in his 1993 Wilde lectures, published under the title Divine Discourse, makes a key point in his critique of Ricœur on the pervasiveness of the “double eclipse” problem:

It is not only the temporal endurance of texts but also the spatial transportability of texts which grounds the difficulties of interpretation to which Ricoeur calls attention. But our technological ability to broadcast utterance, as well as record it, has the consequence that we are forced to interpret even “live,” non-recorded, utterance in situations spatially distanced from the originating situation. Thus what Ricoeur attributes to writing is in fact equally true of recorded and broadcast utterance. Ricoeur conducts his discussion as if we were living in a pre-Edisonian age!

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, October 17, 2005

On the heels of a proposed city-wide tax on quickservice restaurants in Detroit, a state bill has been introduced in the Michigan House to implement a 2% tax on fast-food establishments. The “Fast-Food Restaurant and Food Service Tax Act” (HB 4804) would apply only to cities with a population over 750,000…and to the best of my knowledge the city of Detroit is the only one in the state that meets that criterion.

A key provision of the bill in its current form: “The treasurer shall remit, upon appropriation, all proceeds in the fund to the eligible city from which the proceeds were collected.” Given the negative reaction to Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s proposed fast-food tax of 2%, this House Bill seems to be a way to circumvent the city’s own policy-making mechanisms. If the people of Detroit decide for themselves they don’t want such a tax, it seems unjust for the state to impose it upon them. The House Fiscal Agency does note, “The city council would also have to approve, by resolution, the imposition of the tax,” but resorting to a state bill seems to be a back-door way of achieving the tax hike.

In any case, it looks like one way or another Mayor Kilpatrick is committed to getting his tax increase. And if the city ever passed its own measure in addition to the state bill, fast-food restaurants in Detroit would be subject to an additional 4%. These sniggling little tax increases can add up quickly.

My take on the fast-food tax is available here.

Economic reality is finally catching up with the big American automakers and their suppliers, as noted by Thomas Bray in Wednesday’s Detroit News:

Around Detroit, the bankruptcy of giant auto parts maker Delphi Corp. is seen as a precursor of what’s in store for the entire American auto industry. More fundamentally, it confirms the bankruptcy of the industrial welfare state.

The powers of denial ensure it may be some time before our politicians, unions and even corporate leaders catch up to that fact. Exhibit A was the knee-jerk rant by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who pronounced herself “angry” at Delphi. She then went on to blame the usual catalog of left-wing villains: “globalization,” “outsourcing,” “upper management,” “lack of support from Washington for the industries that made our country great” and “so-called free trade.”

Oh yes, and not enough government spending on health care.

I must pause here to note that Governor Granholm seems to be of two minds on the issue of globalization. Sure, international trade and investment are great when German and Japanese corporations partner to open a new engine plant in your state, or when you go on a trade mission to Japan in order to urge Japanese companies to outsource their jobs to… (ahem) …”invest in Michigan.” But when Delphi feels the heat of international competition? Well, that’s another story.

But I’ve gotten off-topic. Returning to Bray’s article, we see that all of the reasons listed by Granholm for Delphi’s struggles lose their punch when faced with cold, hard reality:

But no amount of foot-stamping is likely to change facts. Among them: Delphi’s 33,000 unionized workers in the United States, like those of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, still earn far above the national average in wages and benefits long after it was clear that this was no longer sustainable.

Touché.

Bray closes with an observation that we would do well to take to heart:

Globalization isn’t the enemy. It’s simply the messenger, exposing the rotten structure of the industrial welfare state for what it is, a lumbering dinosaur that can’t see 20 feet ahead of itself. Like the broader welfare state, to which it is so closely tied through labor, tax and other laws, the industrial welfare state of the 20th century is badly overdue for a rethinking.

Related: Suspension of Davis-Bacon Act in hurricaine-ravaged areas leads to higher wages for workers.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Friday, October 14, 2005

I can’t vouch for the validity of any of the claims made in this new book from Laissez-faire Books, but I confess its publicity material piqued my interest. It argues that inordinate fear of radiation leads to unnecessary and even counterproductive energy policy. As one none-too-keen on radiation in general (stand away from that microwave!), I’m nontheless intrigued by this book’s argument.

Blog author: jspalink
posted by on Friday, October 14, 2005

An article appeared in Wired News today on the unintended consequences of wind farms. One of these consequences — among many others, I’m sure — is “an astronomical level of bird kills.”

Thousands of aging turbines stud the brown rolling hills of the Altamont Pass on I-580 east of San Francisco Bay, a testament to one of the nation’s oldest and best-known experiments in green energy.

Next month, hundreds of those blades will spin to a stop, in what appears to be a wind-energy first: Facing legal threats from environmentalists, the operators of the Altamont wind farm have agreed to shut down half of their windmills for two months starting Nov. 1; in January, they will be restarted and the other half will be shut down for two months.

Though the Altamont Pass is known for its strong winds, it also lies on an important bird-migration route, and its grass-covered hills provide food for several types of raptors. “It’s the worst possible place to put a wind farm,” said Jeff Miller, a wildlife advocate at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s responsible for an astronomical level of bird kills.”

In July, Anthony Bradley wrote a piece for Acton News and Commentary titled “The Answer is (not) Blowing in the Wind,” which touched on this point. While wind farms can provide a somewhat less polluting energy source, environmentalists now desire that they be placed in areas with the least biological and ecological impact. Good luck. Nature is all around us and it will never be possible to generate energy without impacting the environment. This has been true since cavemen discovered fire. And while the levels of impact vary (I think we can all agree that destroying the ecosystem of a river by dumping heated water from a powerplant is worse than some dead birds), there will always be an impact.

All of this (various examples from the Wired article included environmental impacts on sheep, bats, birds, marine animals, …) begs the question: If we’re going to have to shut down wind farms every other month to protect the environment, is it wasteful stewardship? While wind power may provide some (and by some, I mean very little) alternative energy, if it’s not a consistent source, shouldn’t we be investing in more efficient means of energy production rather than wasting time and space on wind power?

As a side note – another article in Wired suggests that nuclear power (cleaner and more cost effective than coal) can pave the way to efficient and economically driven power generation for the United States.

Blog author: dphelps
posted by on Friday, October 14, 2005

For a succinct article on governmental processes versus private processes, see this nice little report by Bill Steigerwald. It focues on responses to Hurricane Katrina by private companies and by the city, state, and federal governments. Stories like these need to be circulated more widely.

A man’s home is his castle, unless of course government officials need his property for a new strip mall or a hotel. Since June, when the U.S. Supreme Court dramatically expanded government’s eminent domain powers, some three dozen states have formulated measures to protect property owners from the Kelo v. New London ruling. Sam Gregg looks at the potential Kelo has to “violate basic norms of justice concerning property.”

Read the full commentary here.

In between dire warnings from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) about the evil neo-liberal economic order and calls for more money from its member denominations, this gem arrived today via Ecumenical News International:

Church bank says its loans are at forefront of anti-poverty fight

Utrecht (ENI). Thirty years after its launch, a church-backed international development bank says it has become a world leader in providing resources for small loans for poor people to set up in business. The Netherlands-based Oikocredit agency announced it had approved record funding in the first nine months of the year for what is called the microfinance sector, which among other things offers small microcredit loans to cash-strapped borrowers.

According to its website, “Oikocredit believes that poor people can build themselves a better life, if only given the chance, if only given credit.” Beyond the cliches and PC buzzwords, there’s some clear economic thinking going on here.

“Throughout our years of operations, Oikocredit has proven that small poor entrepreneurs, cooperatives and others in developing countries are credit-worthy partners indeed. In fact, the demand for loans offered by Oikocredit steadily increases as the effectiveness of this credit for development is broadly recognised. Thus our loans are directed at groups: cooperatives of small-scale coffee farmers, for instance, who need their own coffee mill for increased income. Or microfinance institutions that split up our loans into thousands of small loans to very poor people.”

It’s not perfect, but its a far sight better than many other half-brained church schemes to “end poverty now.”

This interview with Charles Sandmel, a veteran of the municipal bond market, gives us some insights into current trends in the ethical investing movement. Some key points:

  • The leading market sectors over the last few years are in areas that “most of them [ethical investors] avoid, such as energy.”

  • Ethical investors don’t buy “Big Oil because of the pollution problems.”
  • Examples of ethical investments: wind turbine farms and facilities.
  • Examples of unethical investments: government bonds for nations with standing armies.
  • Sandmel likes bond funds for ethical investors because “going to the companies that are borrowing gives you a much greater chance to engage them on your social issues than simply buying their stock.”

Mark Cuban, billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, opines on his blog about the difference between “investing” and “speculating.” He says, “The difference between the two is very simple. If you spend the money and the only way you can earn a return on that money is by selling whatever it is you have purchased. You are speculating.”

With respect to buying bonds, Cuban writes:

If you give your money to a mutual fund or hedge fund that puts money into public stocks and bonds, that’s super speculation.

Why Super Speculation? Because there is a 99 pct certainty that you are 3rd in line to get paid with whatever earnings the fund generates with your money.

First the fund itself has to get paid. They take money off the top.

Then the person who makes the investment decision has to be concerned about keeping their job. You see if the fund doesn’t outperform its peers or comp indexes, then the person who is responsible for the fund is out of a job.

Do you think that person cares more about putting a roof over his family’s head or you? Which means when push comes to shove, unless there are strict limitations, that fund manager is going to take the chances necessary to outperform his comps. And I can tell you that its par for the course to “go down swinging” than it is to take a called 3rd strike. Meaning, they risk your capital in hopes of keeping their jobs if that’s the only way to keep their jobs.

For Cuban, the “the problem is when the balance between the two shifts from heavy in investing to heavy in speculation.” This is because an emphasis on the former, “when money goes to create commerce, that’s capitalism at its best. Money going to smart people to do smart things. If it has good results, everyone makes money. The economy grows. Expectations are based on the prosperity of the company, typically over a longer term. New ideas create new wealth. It’s not a zero sum game. It can be an everyone wins game.”

But when there’s an emphasis on the latter, and while “speculation isn’t a bad thing. It can serve many purposes,” even so “it primarily just results in redistribution of wealth. If I speculate better than you, even if you are investing in apples and me in oranges, then its just a contest to see who does a better job. The winner gets the cash. Across all the different levels of speculation, the trillions of dollars, its a zero sum game.”