Thursday, June 01, 2006

A Spectator of Events

Well, it's time for the party of linkin'. Weekend impends. Tranquility beckons. The easy chair, the tall glass of something chilled, the feeling of utter relaxation: the perfect mood for a Jay Homnick column.

What did the old boy cover this week? Well, over at the Spectator he was bemoaning and bewailing the weird transmogrification of the '60s crowd into a bunch of killjoy spoilsports whose nouveau secular religion prohibits anything with a modicum of risk.

He used Al Gore's film as the foil. This new bit of cinema purportedly documents our sin against Ma Nature, bringing her to a slow boil with our excess. (Sad to have to criticise a movie directed by Elisabeth Shue's husband.) Well, we have moped enough about the mo-ped. It's his Democratic Party and he can cry if he wants to: count Jay out.

In his humor-in-events column over at Human Events, he chuckles at the chuckleheads of Right and Left who were all still gung-ho about collecting the phone tax, a relic of the Spanish-American war of 1898 that managed to function in three centuries. Finally, the courts tossed most of it out, saying it could only be applied to long-distance calls billed by the minute, which are becoming increasingly rare. So the government agreed to stop collecting it.

Although Jay does not go into that level of detail in the column, this is also a case of the arrogance of power. There has been no repeal, but because it has had its wings clipped, the Executive branch decides that it's just not worth the hassle. All in all, the workings of government, seen lately in a series of close-ups, have emerged as markedly unpretty.

An Excellent Aphorism

Chicago Tribune sports columnist Sam Smith, a very talented and imaginative writer, came up with a classic bit of satire in his column of today. Here it is:

An unscientific survey, by the way, is usually where we make up the results. That differs from a scientific survey, in which professional pollsters make up the results.

Funny and true.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Return to a Familiar Theme: The Natural Law

Friends, neighbors, TRC'ers, I have returned. Your faithful correspondent was back in Waco taking his doctoral preliminary exams.

I can report two things.

First, I have now equalled one Dick Cheney in terms of progress toward the Ph.D. He is ABD and so am I. (Cue the Bentsen-tribute where a ghostly voice reminds me that I'm no Dick Cheney.)

Second, the subject of the natural law came up in a talk with a friend. She is very passionate about the rights of illegal aliens, border issues, etc. I happened to know prior to the conversation that she considers herself a "nontheist." If I understand correctly, the word nontheist is being used by some to get away from the highly negative associations attached to the word atheist.

Anyway, I listened to her talk about the rights of various people and finally had to ask: "Where do those rights come from?"

She thought about it and said, "I think I'd go with the Constitution on that." (This would strike some as a bad response, but it isn't so wrong. Just because one doesn't have all the constitutional rights as with a youth, prisoner, or illegal alien, it doesn't mean one has no constitutional rights.)

I replied, "Those are just words on a piece of paper. They could easily say something else."

She then returned, "I can't see the answer being natural law."

Me: Why not? I have a friend from Nigeria and we agree on the essentials. Lying is wrong. Stealing is wrong. Murder is wrong. Unprovoked assault is wrong. Yet, we are on opposite sides of the globe. These notions seem to be built into the structure of reality.

She: But there have been people who sacrificed virgins!

Me: That doesn't do anything to undercut natural law.

She: Huh?

Me: The people who have sacrificed virgins have offered justifications for doing so. In fact, they offer an ultimate justification -- to satisfy a god. What would damage natural law thinking would be if they thought it wonderful to sacrifice virgins for no reason at all. They may be wrong about the justification, but they aren't wrong that one must have a good one before murdering innocent people.

And at that, we had to switch the subject because she did not wish to be converted to natural law any more than to Christianity.

The Work Americans Won't Do

Last week, the normally able and perceptive economist Thomas Sowell published a series of three columns claiming to debunk the myths of immigration bill proponents. I do not disagree with his entire analysis: I do believe there that crass political opportunism is shaping large areas of the congressional debate, and the worries about unassimilated immigrants isolated by tongue and economic status need to be openly addressed.

However, I find it puzzling that a serious, thoughtful economist like Sowell makes this kind of mistake:

Even in occupations where illegals are concentrated, such as agriculture, cleaning, construction, and food preparation, the great majority of the work is still being done by people who are not illegal aliens.....(T)he highest concentration of illegals is in agriculture, where they are 24 percent of the people employed. That means three-quarters of the people are not illegal aliens. But when will the glib phrase-mongers stop telling us that the illegals are simply taking "jobs that Americans won't do"?

Professor Sowell knows full well that the level of aggregation used to construct large industry categories like "agriculture" and "construction" empties this statement of analytic content. He also knows, I would have thought better than I, that economic decisions are not about averages, but about what happens at the margin. The U.S. arguably has the freest labor markets in the world, yet the burden of regulation still affects hiring and production decisions at the margin. The use of illegal, off-books and grey market labor has for years been the safety valve that excused our politicos from having to confront the real costs imposed by the absurdly low levels of legal immigration permitted by our current laws.

We do not need illegal immigration; in fact, it is a national shame that we have looked the other way while it has gone on unabated ever since Simpson-Mazzoli. What we do need is greatly increased legal immigration. There should be no attempt to ration access to the U.S. labor market for any reasons other than criminal background or public health threat. Because there is one job Americans won't do, and haven't done for thirty years or more. Americans will not do the work of begetting and raising children.

The total fertility rate of American women fell below replacement in 1971, and although it has increased slightly since the rate hit bottom in 1976, Americans still do not replace themselves through reproduction. Even more telling , the percent of American women who age beyond childbearing without having borne a single child has, over the same time period, doubled -- from 10% to nearly 20%.

There are many adjustments an economy makes in the face of fewer, and therefore more expensive, workers. One, of course, is to replace labor with capital. The American economy is adept at such realignments, and if we insist on halting illegal immigration without substituting the legal kind, economic actors will make those adjustments. But there are some professions, and some industries, where there is a limit to how much a machine can do.

Thomas Sowell and Tom Tancredo and James Sensenbrenner may not think we need more workers to pick the strawberries, build the roads, or cut up the chickens. But who is going to drain their catheters, swab their bedsores, and spoon feed them Jello when they are too old and frail to blockade the borders?

Movies and Whether to Obsess

Being as we have young children about the house, we don't get out much. Heck, we don't even get to do all that much at home. But having joined the Netflix cult, we watched Mad Hot Ballroom last night, a movie about kids in NYC public schools preparing for and competing in the city's ballroom dance competition. To tell the truth, I was a bit disappointed in the documentary. It really dragged - too many shots of NYC streets and kids sort of playing, too little about the kids and how dance was fitting into their broader lives. You saw glimpses of their homes, their families, their neighborhoods, but that's it, just glimpses. One of the instructors disappeared from practices for about 45 minutes of the movie without any explanation. Some nice moments, but just got the feeling that the whole thing was a missed opportunity for the filmmakers.

It got me to thinking, though, about how we structure our kids' education. There is a part of me that thinks the most important thing is to try and help your kid become "well-rounded," exposed the variety of art, sports, literature, etc. that the world has to offer. Who doesn't want to be well-rounded, after all? But there's another part of me that thinks the thing to do is to help the child find the thing that really engages him and let him embrace that almost obsessively. The problem with being well-rounded is that, unless you're a polymath, you end up being mediocre at lots of things, and I think the obsession model (if I can put it that way) has the virtue of really engaging children in the pursuit of "excellence." Once you learn what excellence really feels like and have a desire to be excellent, whatever else you want to do flows thereon. Or so I muse...what say ye?

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Bob Kerrey and The New School Commencement

Bob Kerrey defends (sort of) his rowdy students' rude treatment of Sen. McCain at The New School's commencement:

I now speak in defense of the behavior of my students – the minority who protested and the majority who did not. On the surface, some of the tactics of the protest were rude, noisy, and disrespectful. Less obvious, however, was the self-restraint that prevented the protestors from behaving in a fashion that would have shut down the commencement or made it impossible for Senator McCain or me to continue. Though many in the audience – including Senator McCain and I – were offended by the heckling, at no time were we in danger of not being able to proceed. By the end of the program, we had awarded five honorary degrees and graduated 2,630 students in The New School’s 70th Commencement ceremony.

More importantly -- and also lost in the charges and counter-charges -- is this fact: student protests are a necessary and essential part of democratic free expression. Did we not love the brave and disrespectful students at Tiananmen? Did we not applaud the determination of the student led movements that helped bring down the dictators that ruled Eastern Europe in 1991? Have we forgotten the critical difference students made in reversing an unlawful election in Ukraine or in driving the Syrians from Lebanon or who still seethe in discontent under the religious law of Iran’s mullahs?

So, let's see. The students are to be commended because they didn't upend the ceremonies or prevent McCain from speaking. Talk about low expectations. Then, we should embrace student rowdiness because....well, because students have been important in the overthrow of noxious dictatorships. So Sen. McCain is comparable to noxious dictatorships? And what's so special about students anyway? Sometimes they're on the side of liberty and sometimes they're on the side of the dictators (as they were in the 1979 Iranian Revolution).

Better to say that they just acted immaturely.

The Christianity Today Book Awards

Christianity Today has their book awards out. I've read two of them (Jacobs' book on C.S. Lewis and Christian Smith's book on teenager spirituality). Some good stuff there.