Category: Public Policy

Blog author: mvandermaas
posted by on Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Now that the crew of Space Shuttle Discovery is safely back on terra firma (along with the entire shuttle fleet, which has once again been grounded over safety concerns), arguments over the future viability of the Shuttle program have resumed in earnest. By far, my favorite swipe at NASA to date has to be today’s Wall Street Journal opinion column (subscription required) by Homer Hickam, a former NASA engineer. Mr Hickam argues that many NASA engineers would like to see the shuttle program shelved in favor of a newer and better vehicle, but they are blocked in their efforts by a “failed culture” within the agency that demands support for the Shuttle.

I love the astronauts, too. They’re brave and they’re smart and some of them are even my friends. Some are even engineers. But there are too many of them (around 100, an awful lot for a program that has flown but once in the past two years) and they are mostly acolytes of the space shuttle. If the shuttles were retired, most astronauts would be very much out on a bureaucratic limb, their training obsolete, their chances of getting into space again, or for the first time, much reduced. Bear that in mind the next time you hear an astronaut support the shuttle even though the U.S. is presently fourth in the ability to put humans reliably into space, behind Russia, China, and Burt Rutan.

touché.

So let’s put the shuttles on the shelf right away and give engineers the gift of designing and building new ships to carry humans into space. These are already on the drawing boards and I believe NASA Administrator Mike Griffin (an engineer) is itching to make them a reality.

I tend to agree that NASA needs to rethink the shuttle program, but the good news is that we don’t have to wait for NASA’s engineers to begin designing vehicles that will launch the next stage of manned spaceflight.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, August 10, 2005

In this week’s Acton Commentary, Dave Phelps looks at the case of Susan Torres, a woman who gave birth while reported to be brain dead. The case was considered by some to be a miracle. Others with a more material bent looked at her as merely a corpse, kept alive by advanced medical technology to incubate the child.

Phelps’ commentary points out that a great many physicians, schooled in the sciences, retain a belief in God. A “surprising” poll indicates that doctors attend church more regularly than most Americans and a majority believe in some sort of afterlife.

Should we really be surprised? Religious faith is capable of making room for God-given talent such as medical healing, as St. Basil the Great pointed out in the fourth century in his Long Rules:

Each of the arts is God’s gift to us, remedying the deficiencies of nature, as, for example, agriculture, since the produce which the earth bears of itself would not suffice to provide for our needs … The same is true, also, of the medical art. In as much as our body is susceptible to various hurts, some attacking from without and some from within by reason of the food we eat, and since the body suffers affliction from both excess and deficiency, the medical art has been vouchsafed us by God, who directs our whole life, as a model for the cure of the soul, to guide us in the removal of what is superfluous and in the addition of what is lacking …

So then, we should neither repudiate this art [medicine] altogether nor does it behoove us to repose all our confidence in it; but, just as in practicing the art of agriculture we pray God for fruits, and as we entrust the helm to the pilot in the art of navigation, but implore God that we may end our voyage unharmed by the perils of the sea, so also, when reason allows, we call in the doctor, but we do not leave off hoping in God.

Read the full text of “Miracles of God and Miracles of Science.”

In a recent post, Jordan Ballor highlighted the efforts of Mr. Armen Yousoufian, who has been seeking public disclosure of records relating to the financing of the new stadium built recently for the Seattle Seahawks largely at taxpayer expense. Mr. Yousoufian has responded to Ballor’s post with the following comment:

In reply to: “They picked on the Wrong Armenian”, which is about my successful and landmark Public Disclosure Act violation lawsuit here in Washington state, thank you for the coverage. The case goes to court again on August 19 for determination of penalties and the amount of legal fees I am to be awarded for my two successful appeals of the original verdict (that will be the 4th round in over 8 years, after I won every step of the way and all the way to the state Supreme Court). If you or your readers would like more information, please visit my website: www.ArmenYousoufian.com or my blog: www.Yousoufian.blogspot.com. Lots of material, including trial briefs at all four stages of the litigation. Or email me at ayousoufian@comcast.net with something in the subect line referring to this comment left at this site.

Armen Yousoufian
Vashon Island, Washington

Those are some websites that are probably worth keeping an eye on.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, August 10, 2005

This Wired News article looks at the practices of various companies committed to reducing manufacturing and industrial waste. Cutting waste makes good economic and environmental sense.

“Anything that’s waste is an inefficiency in the process, and inefficiency is lost dollars,” says Patricia Calkins, vice president for environment, health and safety at Xerox. A cost that is often overlooked is that associated with waste management. “Skyrocketing landfill costs during the late 1980s and early 1990s” helped push companies toward minimization of waste.

Carpetmaker Collins & Aikman, after initiating a carpet recycling program in its plant, reduced its costs for shipping waste to landfills, which “has saved the company an estimated $1 million. It has saved several million dollars more by reducing the amount of raw materials it buys.”

Of course, reducing inefficiencies at any point in the system reduces waste overall. This reality is behind what Hewlett-Packard’s change in “the design of its plastic molding tools, for example, to eliminate a lot of the plastic material that was used between parts as runners.”

“That was all scrap that just went to the floor,” says David Lear, HP’s vice president of corporate, social and environmental responsibility. “The biggest win is not recycling, but engineering the material out of your system so you don’t need to worry about landfilling it.”

The whole phenomena of waste reduction points to the dynamic compatibility of economic and environmental concerns and runs counter to conventional wisdom. Good stewardship of the environment need not be at odds with good economic stewardship.

Blog author: rsirico
posted by on Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Hopeful signs are emerging for the future of economic prosperity in Europe despite some serious opposition. The European Parliament recently moved to scrap the ratification of an informal agreement reached last year by EU member states and supported by the European Commission, that would have made important strides forward in the legal recognition of intellectual property rights.

The Computer Implemented Inventions Directive (CIID), which would protect intellectual property and standardize EU software patent law, now appears dead. This leaves in place a patchwork of national patent laws that effectively stifles a common set of laws and regulations in Europe.

These sorts of delays and backsliding by the Parliament represent serious threats to European economies and could add to a dangerous precedent in light of the EU’s ruling against software company Microsoft. The 21st Century has ushered in the Information Age; computers and software represent the field with perhaps the greatest potential for innovation and wealth-creation in developed nations.
(more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, August 9, 2005

If you’re inclined to praise GE for its “green” makeover, featuring cutesy ads like the one in which the baby elephant dances playfully in the rainforest, William Baldwin has some practical suggestions in a piece in this week’s issue of Forbes.

“Should you show your support by buying a few shares of this ecologically hip company? There are better ways to help the environment,” he contends. These include: opposing windmill subsidies, buying hormonal milk, and not recycling newspapers.

A most worthy piece in The New Atlantis by Matthew B. Crawford, “The Computerized Academy,” examines some of the implications of computerization and technological advance on the traditional liberal education.

Among the important trends that Crawford observes is the application of a consumer/producer relationship model between student and teacher. This trend is facilitated by technological advances, especially the free flow of information possible on the Internet. But Crawford wonders “what education will become—or already is—when it becomes so sensitive to the demands of those who are not yet educated.”

Here’s a key paragraph on this point:

Ideally, a teacher’s judgment about what is good for you is not colored by what is immediately pleasant for you. But increasingly, what is good for the teacher (professionally) is determined by what is immediately pleasant for the student. The career incentives for professors can be managed to some extent by judicious deans and department chairs, for example, by norming a professor’s teaching evaluations against his or her grade distribution and the demands of the course, so that tough grading and a choice of difficult material, even if penalized by students in their evaluations, will not be allowed to threaten a professor’s tenure prospects. Absent such a contrarian, clear-eyed defense of excellence by those in charge, all the pressures on a professor tend toward dumbing things down: giving fewer assignments (less work for him), grading generously (less whining and pleading from students), and choosing subjects that are not too remote from the students’ experience (a sure path to popularity). Since that prior experience is constituted to a large degree by mass forces, there is a certain uniformity of perspective and taste that begins to assert itself in the curriculum.

I have noticed an analogous situation asserting itself in the congregational life of churches. A certain measure of independent authority is necessary for a pastor to properly exercise his ministry. This is true in the same way that “in the more interpretive disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, the initial disorientation cuts at passionately held certainties of the present; a teacher can challenge students in this way only if he has a certain independence from them, and only if he is able to speak authoritatively.”

Crawford gets at many more important developments flowing out of and catalyzed by technological innovation and computerization. One final important point is on the mechanical nature of much scientific research done these days via computer.

Crawford writes that “when our knowledge of nature reaches the limits of our ability to do symbolic math, further advance requires the brute force of number-crunching, which is literally a mechanical process.” The computer that allows such complex calculations to be performed is at the same time a force that pushes towards programming and away from scientific thought. Crawford states, “My point is not to suggest that the use of computers in science is somehow wrong, but rather that those (mostly grad students) who have been consigned to spend most of their time programming are missing out on the full experience of doing science…. one may speculate that in the future the sciences might attract a different sort of student. This student is not so much curious about the world he sees around him (he spends most of his time at his terminal) as he is entranced with the feeling of his own competence at manipulating code. This would be a disposition more willful than receptive, and by that token perhaps more deeply technological.”

Again, with the blessing of technological innovation comes a corresponding threat of and temptation to sloth. Socrates notes this in Plato’s Phaedrus with the innovation of the written word, when he relates the mythical origins of the Egyptian language.

SOCRATES: …when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

Blog author: mvandermaas
posted by on Monday, August 8, 2005
Can a person of faith work here?

In the weeks that have passed since the announcement of the nomination of John Roberts to serve as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, an old debate has moved into the forefront once again: can a person with deeply held religious beliefs (in Judge Roberts’ case, a devout Catholic) hold a high political or judicial office and still abide by the Constitution?

Rev. Robert Sirico made a guest appearance on the Laura Ingraham Show this morning to discuss this important topic. You can listen to the interview by clicking here (3.5 mb .mp3 file).

And if you’re interested in hearing more about Constitutional interpretation from two current practitioners of the craft, be sure to check out the Acton Bookshoppe, where addresses from Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are available for purchase.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, August 8, 2005

This review in the latest issue of Books & Culture by John Copeland Nagle, associate dean for Faculty Research and professor at the Notre Dame Law School, reflects on a book on the environmental history of China, by Mark Elvin.

Nagle begins the piece with a brief personal anecdote of his experience with environmental problems in China:

On the morning of March 20, 2002, I left my windowless office in the Tsinghua University Law School for a short break. Then I saw it: a bright orange sky, which soon turned brown and finally a dusky gray before eleven o’clock in the morning. What I was seeing was dust. Lots and lots of dust. So much dust, in fact, that two days later the United States Environmental Protection Agency reported that the particulate levels established by the Clean Air Act had been exceeded in Aspen, Colorado, because of the millions of dust particles that had been blown all the way from China. I soon learned that it was Mao’s fault…The orange sky that I saw in Beijing that morning was the predictable result of overgrazing and its resulting desertification.

The review is well worth reading. Nagle writes that Elvin’s book

recounts how generations of Chinese have labored to modify the natural environment to better achieve their own ends. Three thousand years ago, China was a land where forests filled much of the landscape, elephants and other wild animals roamed, and rivers and lakes provided abundant freshwater. Today most of the forests and wild animals have long since disappeared, China suffers from some of the worst air and water pollution in the world, and the government is struggling to create the legal and social mechanisms necessary to halt and reverse its deteriorating environmental conditions.

The laundry list of environmental mistakes over the millennia in China, along with China’s classification as a “developing nation,” makes it nearly inexplicable how China is exempt from greenhouse gas emission standards under the terms of the Kyoto protocol.

Nagle ends his review with a somewhat hopeful conclusion that one of the positive consequences of the great numbers of Christian converts in China is that they might help address China’s environmental dilemma. He writes, “The last several decades have produced an extensive literature that explores the extensive biblical teaching concerning creation, stewardship, and our duty to care for the natural world in which we live.”

But this speaks to the need for freedom of speech and the practice of religion. In distinction from a place like the United States, where religious leaders are free to engage in debate over environmental policy, “the challenge is far greater in a country where the practice of religion is strictly regulated, and where the first hints of political activity inspired by religious beliefs are just emerging.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, August 5, 2005

Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky writes about two examples of churches placing the needs of Christians and evangelism in the developing world above their own congregational comforts. In the first piece, Olasky discusses Mount Zion United Methodist Church just outside of Baltimore.

While mid-Atlantic heat can be oppressive, it’s nothing compared that of the everlasting lake of fire. With this priority of the eternal over the temporal in mind, the congregation decided “the sanctuary would get air conditioning only after the congregation built a church in Africa.”

To this end, Olasky writes, “The church came up with the money, and from there, amazingly, everything — personnel, permits, property, governmental approvals, construction — went right. The orphanage opened in 2003 and now provides food, shelter, medical care, clothing and schooling for the children at a cost of about $11,000 per month.” And thus the Children of Zion orphanage in Namibia was founded.

The second story is about Damascus Wesleyan Church, north of Washington, DC, that instead of expanding worship space, “went to purchase a 99-year-lease on 10,000 acres here in Senkobo, 15 miles north of Livingstone and the Zimbabwe border. The land came with a beautiful farm house, 2,700 fruit trees, cattle and other animals, four deep wells, three dams, a tobacco-curing barn that could be turned into apartments, and other farm buildings that could become orphanages and classrooms.”

It’s great to hear about Christian churches taking action themselves, loving their neighbors, and not succumbing to morality melting materialism.