Archived Posts 2006 - Page 69 of 71 | Acton PowerBlog

The long wait is finally over. Federal vouchers are coming!

Before you get too excited, however, I have to inform you that the vouchers are not for education. You can’t use these vouchers to send your child to the school of your choice.

Instead, because of the government-mandated switch for broadcast TV from analog to digital bandwidths, set for Feb. 17, 2009, upwards of 20 million television sets will be obsolete, only able to receive the then-defunct analog signals.

“To avoid a consumer revolt, Congress has set aside about $1.5 billion to smooth the transition. Owners of outmoded TV sets will be eligible for two vouchers, worth $40 each, to help buy converter boxes that will enable today’s analog TV sets to receive digital signals,” Fortune magazine reports.

The government argues that the move will open up huge new areas of bandwidth for greater technical innovation and delivery. Once broadcast TV is moved to the digital spectrum, the old analog bandwidths will be auctioned off, and the government stands to make a pretty penny on the deal. “The sale of this valuable, scarce real estate is expected to bring in about $10 billion, maybe more. That will help reduce the federal budget deficit,” writes Marc Gunther.

Of course, those companies buying up the newly-opened space will be better off too: “With the new auction, we will finally become a broadband nation,” says Blair Levin, a Washington analyst with Stifel Nicolaus. “Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Intel, Dell — these companies will all benefit. The more broadband pipes you have, the more applications will come along, the more often you will upgrade your device.”

The interesting thing about these digital tuner vouchers is that one argument for their issue is that the poor will be disproportionately affected by the switch. Gunther writes, “But for consumers with one of those 70 million sets — many of whom are likely to be poor, elderly or uneducated, being forcibly switched from one technology to another will be a nightmare.”

Gunther goes on to describe the “nightmare scenario,” in which “people who depend on free, over-the-air TV for news and entertainment will lose their access, or have to pay more for it, so that the rest of us can get faster service on our Blackberries and ESPN on our cell phones.”

Last I checked, news and weather information on which people depend is still freely available over the radio. And maybe some of us would be better off with less access to TV. AC Nielsen reports (PDF) that “During the 2004-05 TV season (which started September 20, 2004 and just ended September 18, 2005), the average household in the U.S. tuned into television an average of 8 hours and 11 minutes per day.”

We’ve all heard the stories about families on federal assistance in the inner city with big screen TVs, or living in trailer parks with satellite dishes. Nowadays, Marx might say that TV is the opiate of the people rather than religion, or better yet, that TV has become the religion of the people.
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Blog author: mvandermaas
Monday, January 9, 2006
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Monopoly #1: I was somewhat shocked the other day when I heard a strong critique of the much-vaunted Canadian national health care system on NPR. I wasn’t dreaming – here’s the link to prove it. The report notes that “after 50 years, the Medicare dream has turned nightmare for many” – something that many advocates for socialized health care in the US would do well to take note of. It also takes note of the recent precedent-setting court decision in Quebec which gives residents who are on waiting lists that jeopardize their health the right to opt out of the public system. (You can listen to the report in Real Audio format by clicking here; previous posts on the topic here, here, and here.) Government health care in Canada seems to be teetering on the brink.

One facing a judicial red light; the other, green.

Monopoly #2: The same can not be said for the governmental education monopoly in Florida. Last Thursday, the state Supreme Court struck down Florida’s statewide voucher system.

In a 5-2 ruling, the high court said the program undermines the public schools and violates the Florida Constitution’s requirement of a uniform system of free public education.

This is unfortunate, for the simple reason that the introduction of vouchers has been an effective education reform measure in Florida. The Wall Street Journal noted the positive effects of the program back in June:

The saga began in 1999, when Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law the first money-back guarantee in the history of public education: the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Under the program, whenever a public school receives two failing grades on Florida’s academic performance standards, state educational officials come into the school with a remedial program, and the students are allowed to transfer to better performing public schools or to use a share of their public funds as full payment of private-school tuition.

Six years later, only 750 children are attending private schools using opportunity scholarships. But their footsteps have reverberated across the state, prompting failing public schools to reform. Steps taken by failing schools have included spending more money in the classroom and less on administration, hiring tutors for poor performing teachers, and providing year-round instruction to pupils.

Defenders of the status quo insist that such reforms were already under way. But a freedom of information request by the Institute for Justice from school districts that lifted schools off the failing list revealed ubiquitous reference to the dreaded V-word: Without such measures, school officials warned, we wind up with vouchers. The rules of economics, it seems, do not stop at the schoolhouse doors.

The results have been stunning. Even with tougher state standards, nearly half of Florida’s public schools now earn “A” grades, while a similar percentage scored “C’s” when the program started. A 2003 study by Jay Greene found that gains were most concentrated among schools under threat of vouchers.

Most remarkable has been minority student progress. While the percentage of white third-graders reading at or above grade level has increased to 78% from 70% in 2001, the percentage among Hispanic third-graders has climbed from 46% to 61%, and among blacks from 36% to 52%. Graduation rates for Hispanic students have increased from 52.8% before the program started to 64% today; and for black students from 48.7% to 57.3%. Minority schoolchildren are not making such academic strides anywhere else.

And so we revert to the status quo. Sadly, the ones most harmed by the status quo are the ones most in need of the reforms that school choice would bring – the poor.

My predictions: As Canada introduces more market oriented solutions to its health care problems, the quality of care that Canadians recieve will rise and fewer Canadians will have to head south of the border to obtain it; and until American public schools face genuine competition, the quality of the education they provide (especially in inner city and poor areas) will increase negligibly if at all. (more…)

It took place this morning in the Vatican. Click here for the text from the Vatican’s website.

Blog author: kjayabalan
Saturday, January 7, 2006
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Despite his many writings, scholarly expertise and long service to the Church as Prefect of Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, there’s still much of an unknown quality surrounding Pope Benedict XVI.

In the last two weeks, three reputable commentators made some informed guesses about what to expect from the new pontiff.

The National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen wrote a piece for The Spectator (U.K.) entitled “The Pope won’t back Bush” (no longer available on-line to non-subscribers). Although he takes issue with the way The Spectator’s editors presented the article in his most recent column, Allen tells us that Pope Benedict is not a conservative, especially when it comes to economic questions. Here’s a quote:

Recent popes have also been among the sternest critics of the international economic order that the United States and Great Britain have had a significant role in creating. Some right-wing Catholic intellectuals, aiming to reconcile free-market logic with Catholic teaching, have tried to bring the popes along, without much to show for the effort. Though papal statements on economic matters have occasionally been slippery enough to give spin doctors hope, at the end of the day papal social teaching is much closer to democratic socialism than to Adam Smith.

Papal biographer George Weigel penned an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times addressing some of the challenges Pope Benedict will face on the governance front, i.e. reform of the Roman Curia and appointment of bishops:

More than a few of the cardinals who rallied to support him in one of the shortest conclaves in modern history did so because they believed Ratzinger, having spent more than two decades in the Curia, would know what was broken and would fix it.

That may yet come. The pope is a careful, prudent man, not given to impulsive action or premature decisions. At the same time, it was precisely because he was not a product of the current Curial system, but rather a scholar who had to struggle to get things accomplished within it, that his supporters expected him to bring to the papacy a well-developed sense of where changes, even dramatic ones, need to be made in both structure and personnel. Those supporters are waiting, now a little anxiously, for serious change to be implemented.

Then there is the question of the appointment of bishops — and the volatile but unavoidable question of whether the church ought not devise criteria and processes for removing bishops who are manifestly incapable of leadership. Whether Benedict XVI undertakes a far-reaching reform of the Catholic Church’s Roman bureaucracy or not — and my bet remains that he will, although perhaps slowly — his papacy will be judged in no small part on his shrewdness in choosing bishops and his courage in facing questions of episcopal failure. With half a dozen major appointments coming in the next three years in the United States alone, the stakes are very high.

Finally, Fr. Jospeh Fessio, a student and long-time associate of Cardinal Ratzinger, was interviewed for one hour by Hugh Hewitt. The transcript is availabe here. Fr. Fessio draws attention to where Benedict want to draw our attention: Jesus Christ, and he even compares home schooling to monastic life:

[H]e’s been clear what his papacy is supposed to do. And number one was fidelity to Jesus Christ, that we must serve Jesus. He’s our Lord. He’s our master. Everything else is secondary, which was beautiful for him to say that. Secondly, he wanted to work on conjunction with, with the prayers and support of all his fellow bishops and cardinals. Thirdly, that he wanted to help the Catholic Church go into the future by understanding properly the II Vatican Council, which was all the bishops in the world getting together to try and chart a course. But then, when he came to the content, he said the very first thing we have to do, and make sure we do well, is to praise and worship and adore the Lord in a proper way. If we do that, then everything else will follow from that.

[…]You don’t, nor do I, have much control in this country, or the world, or even the city we live in. But we have control over our own hearts, and our own loves, and our own lives, and our families. And I think we just have to follow the Lord and wait on His call.

[…H]ome schools are the monasteries of the new dark ages. That is…and you non-Catholic Christians have a lot more of them than we Catholics do, but we’ve got a lot. And I think that is where families are having children. They’re passing on the faith to their children. They’re giving them wisdom and the knowledge of our culture.

All in all, a lot of engaging commentary on Pope Benedict. And much anticipation in Rome over what comes next.

Blog author: mvandermaas
Friday, January 6, 2006
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George Weigel

Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico appeared today at the January Series of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan to introduce a lecture by theologian and author George Weigel. In his address, entitled “Revolutionary Papacies: John Paul II, Benedict XVI,

Rev. Robert A. Sirico

and the Future of the Catholic Church,” Weigel touched on 10 areas in which Pope John Paul II made important contributions to Catholic teaching, ecumenism, and world politics, and also described some of the major challenges facing Pope Benedict XVI, especially relating to the cultural and demographic decline of Europe.

Audio of Weigel’s January Series address will be available online at Calvin’s website. If you’re interested in hearing more from Mr. Weigel, you can purchase a copy of his biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope, along with a recording of his Lord Action Lecture Series address from 1999 on his experiences writing that book, by visiting the Acton Bookshoppe.

Blog author: jcouretas
Friday, January 6, 2006
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Theophany of the Lord

Today, Orthodox Christians all over the world are celebrating Epiphany, one of the great feast days of the Eastern Church.

Epiphany is, for the Orthodox, the manifestation of the Lord’s divinity and the mystery of the Trinity, the inauguration of the sacrament of baptism, and the beginning of the preaching of the Kingdom of Heaven. For the Orthodox, Epiphany is also a profoundly ecological moment. Churches hold Blessing of the Waters services which commemorate Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River, an event that transformed not just earthly Creation, but the entire cosmos.

In a 1991 article, Bishop Irineos Pop of the Romanian Orthodox Church wrote, “The blessing of the waters shows us the sanctifying and redemptive power given to an element of creation through the invocation of the Holy Spirit by the Church. What is important for us, however, is that the baptismal water represents the matter of the cosmos, the world as life of man. And its blessing at the beginning of the baptismal rite acquires thus a truly cosmic and redemptive significance. God created the world and blessed it and gave it to us as our food and life, as the means of communion with him. The blessing of water signifies the return or redemption of matter to this initial and essential meaning. By accepting the baptism of John, Christ sanctified the water – made it the water of purification and reconciliation with God. It was then, as Christ was coming out of the water, that the Epiphany – the new and redemptive manifestation of God – took place, and the Spirit of God, who at the beginning of creation “moved upon the face of the waters”, made water – that is, the world – again into what He made it at the beginning.”

The Armenian Orthodox writer Vigen Guroian observes that “the Orthodox rites of blessing show how closely ecology is related to the theological notion of oikonomia in Eastern theology. The object of the divine economy is the oikoumene — the whole inhabited Earth. For, as the Psalmist says, “The Earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof, the world, and those who dwell therein (Ps. 24:1, RSV). Orthodox theology founds this cosmic scope of the divine nurture and restoration and renewal of creation in the Incarnation.”

His All-Holiness Ecumencial Patriarch Bartholomew is in Tarpon Springs, Fla., today to celebrate Epiphany. Information about his visit, including a live Webcast of the Partriarchal Liturgy, is linked here.

Today the grace of the Holy Spirit, hallowing the water, becomes co-worker (with Christ our God).

Today the heavens gaily bedew from above with the dew of grace, and today shone forth on us the sun inextinguishable, and all the world is radiant with light.

Today the moon beams forth with a great light, and withal the world is filled with splendor.

Today the light-clad luminaries work hearty good unto all that dwell on earth.

— From the Armenian prayer for Epiphany

Topping today’s Science/Nature section at BBC News, “Population size ‘green priority'”, by Richard Black. The article focuses on the thoughts of Professor Chris Rapley, Director of the British Antarctic Survey, who contends that the “current global population of six billion is unsustainably high.” This is to say nothing of the growth rate and future generations.

Based on a column Rapley wrote for a new BBC feature, The Green Room, the article presents the view that “humankind is consuming the Earth’s resources at an unsustainably fast rate,” based on “a number of studies.”

The basis for Rapley’s concern, as you might expect, is carbon emissions, but he writes, “Although reducing human emissions to the atmosphere is undoubtedly of critical importance, as are any and all measures to reduce the human environmental ‘footprint’, the truth is that the contribution of each individual cannot be reduced to zero.”

He concludes, “Only the lack of the individual can bring it down to nothing.”

Rapley laments that there is a paucity of opportunities to discuss population growth, since it is not often discussed at global environmental summits. “Rare indeed are the opportunities for religious leaders, philosophers, moralists, policymakers, politicians and indeed the “global public” to debate the trajectory of the world’s human population in the context of its stress on the Earth system, and to decide what might be done,” he writes.

Rapley does seem to overlook the UN’s World Population Day, which is little more than a campaign for population controls. And the myth of humanity as a plague species has been fodder for London’s “The Human Zoo,” as well as happening to be the view of Agent Smith in the Matrix movies.

As we saw in a recent commentary by Acton research fellow Jay Richards, Rapley is certainly not alone in his concern. A letter to Richards about his book on intelligent design from a prominent scientist read in part: “Still, adding over seventy million new humans to the planet each year, the future looks pretty bleak to me. Surely, the Black Death was one of the best things that ever happened to Europe: elevating the worth of human labor, reducing environmental degradation, and, rather promptly, producing the Renaissance. From where I sit, Planet Earth could use another major human pandemic, and pronto!”

Perhaps some individuals have imbibed such a view, as birth rates in the developed world are not growing. A 2004 UN report showed that “because of its low and declining rate of population growth, the population of developed countries as a whole is expected to remain virtually unchanged between 2005 and 2050.” Most of the countries in the developed world which will account for the decline in birth rates belong to the EU. The US, on the other hand, is one of the eight nations that will “account for half of the world’s projected population increase.”

But part of the reason that Rapley’s concerns aren’t getting much attention beyond pop culture phenomena and some macabre colleagues is that the population explosion myth has been rather thoroughly debunked. The case of carbon emissions is simply the latest hook for population control advocates. For more on population and the environment, check out Acton’s policy section, which links to a number of helpful resources.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Friday, January 6, 2006
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The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on the closing of a federal housing loophole. The full article is accessible only to subscribers, so I’ll summarize. College students for a number of years have been taking advantage of Section 8 (federally subsidized housing) rules to live in “projects” while they go to school. Such housing is, obviously, supposed to be for the needy, but decidedly un-needy students have been benefiting. The Des Moines Register originally investigated the story (described here) and Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa initiated the legislation to close the loophole. One student living at the expense of taxpayers was the son of the Univeristy of Iowa’s football coach, who earns $2 million per year.

So kudos to Harkin for addressing the issue. But the deeper and more intransigent problem is that massive government programs to help the needy will always be vulnerable to abuse. By necessity they must be subject to complicated and cumbersome bureaucratic rules, which cannot be adapted by administrators on the ground level making reasonable judgments. The existence of federal dorms for middle and upper class collegians over the last decade is only the latest example of the absurdity invited when the principle of subsidiarity is ignored.

Blog author: jcouretas
Thursday, January 5, 2006
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Market Day in Romania

The new Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal report on economic freedom is out, and the findings couldn’t be more straightforward. “The countries with the most economic freedom also have higher rates of long-term economic growth and are more prosperous than are those with less economic freedom,” the report says.

Overall, the world is economically freer than it was a year ago, according the authors of the report. Of the 157 countries graded in the 2006 Index of Economic Freedom, 99 improved their overall scores, compared to 51 whose scores worsened and five that remained unchanged. Overall, 20 are classified as “free,” 52 as “mostly free,” 73 as “mostly unfree” and 12 as “repressed.”

Hong Kong and Singapore finished 1st and 2nd in the rankings for the 12th straight year. Ireland overtook Luxembourg and Estonia and moved up to No. 3, and Iceland moved up three spaces to No. 5, where it is tied with the United Kingdom. The United States improved enough to re-enter the top 10 after falling out last year for the first time ever. It’s tied for 9th worldwide with Australia and New Zealand.

The links between countries that embrace economic freedom and prosperity are long established. Those in countries with “mostly unfree” or “repressed” economies earn 70 percent less than those in countries with “mostly free” economies, the Index editors say. And those in “free” economies enjoy a per capita income more than twice what those in “mostly free” economies earn.

The countries that showed the most improvement were led by Pakistan, Romania and the Kyrgyz Republic. Iran, Italy and Guinea showed the biggest declines.

Blog author: kwoods
Thursday, January 5, 2006
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With a gracious spirit, let’s say that [url=http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/F?c109:1:./temp/~c109UcVNaR:e173273:]Section 317[/url] of [url=http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?c109:1:./temp/~c109UcVNaR::]Senate Tax Relief Act of 2005[/url] was penned with the intent of fostering honest accountability in the charity world. And, furthermore, let’s graciously allow that the legislation was designed to send the message that the Internal Revenue Service is vigilantly watching over the donation of tax-deductible clothing and household goods.

A [url=http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/29/AR2005122901503.html]recent article[/url] in the Washington Post justifiably underscored the importance of providing goods to charities that actually have value. Too much of what is given to charities today winds up in the local dump.

But Congress was not thinking clearly when it included a “Limitation of Deduction for Charitable Contributions of Clothing and Household Items” in Section 317. This measure requires the Secretary of the Treasury to annually create a list that places ‘market values’ on all household goods or items that would potentially be donated to a charitable organization. For a contribution in excess of $250, the donor would be required to secure a receipt from the charity that provided an itemized list “of number of items contributed, an indication of the condition of each item, a description of the type of item contributed, and a copy of the Secretary’s valuation list or an instruction on how to obtain such list.”

If the donated item is not in a “good used condition or better,” the charity would then need to value the contribution at 20 percent of the market value as deemed by the Secretary’s list. Or no value at all if the charity said it was worthless to the organization.

The [url=http://www.cpjustice.org/cprf]Coalition to Preserve Religious Freedom[/url] argues that Section 317 generates serious operations and accounting burdens for rescue missions and small nonprofit organizations. That is a polite response.

For more than two years now, the IRS has been telling Congress — and the Senate Finance Committee in particular — that it doesn’t have the resources to get its charity oversight work done. Now the IRS wants to get into the clothing and household goods valuation business?

Maybe the Beltway crowd has missed the private sector solution to this issue — one that you can simply order onlilne. The [url=http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0970323077/qid=1136406966/sr=8-1/ref=pd_bbs_1/002-5327901-0168046?n=507846&s=books&v=glance]2005 It’s Deductible Workbook[/url] is now significantly discounted, but even last week, you could get a copy online for $14.95. Called the “Blue Book for Donated Items,” this private sector product is fully compliant with IRS code.

So, first of all, we should all agree that the IRS doesn’t need to “reinvent the in-kind donation pricing wheel.”

What’s more, we need to ask why the responsibility for finding the value (whatever the source) of donated in-kind goods is put on the receiver of the goods instead of the giver.

Section 317 has the potential to create a classic “unintended consequences” scenario. It may result in the government spending millions of tax dollars to generate information that already exists in the private sector, which by the way, is based on market values. Then the agency that receives the donation has to go through the red tape of providing an itemized list, value, and condition report for each item. That should go a long way toward further burdening and possibly eliminating scores of smaller charities, thrift shops, and rescue missions — groups that are already stretched by the basic tasks of receiving, sorting, and selling donated goods.

Is this all by design? Officials in Washington have been quoted as saying that there are too many small charities in this country. That means, to their way of thinking, that these charities are too difficult to regulate. If the true intent of charity regulation reform is greater accountability for all, let’s find a better way. Section 317 is neither the effective nor efficient way to accomplish this objective.