Monday, September 10, 2007

Mark Towner's Spyglass Spots: Tim Beagly on School Vouchers

Tim Beagley: Turn! Turn! Turn! the Byrds 1965
Turn! Turn! Turn! the Byrds 1965Brace yourself Utah. The Voucher Media Battles are underway. There likely will be no prisoners taken as both sides appear ready to die on their respective swords over this one. Too bad. In the end this will prove to be one of the biggest duds in recent memory and when the dust finally settles (long about the year 2015) it will be easy to see that nothing was accomplished. Win or lose, vouchers or not, the troubled schools in Utah will not improve.

Read the full story:

Blava speaks on Campaign Finance

Campaign Finance Folly
I'm steamed about campaign finance laws that limit the amount of money people can contribute to political parties or politicians. They are an affront to the constitutional protection of speech. (I fully support mandatory disclosure of donor names and amounts.) People trying to get around the artificial limits on campaign contributions have resulted in a host of undesirable benefits.

Mark Towner's Spyglass Spots: The Ignored Amendment

The Ignored Amendment
by Ralph R. ReilandSeptember 6, 2007
"Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted," states the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Jessica Hodges would almost certainly say that we're no longer paying much attention to the prohibition on excessive fines.
Washington Post writer Jonathan Mummolo describes her case: "The labor pains were coming, so Jessica Hodges got going. The 26-year-old bank teller from Burke (Va.) sped toward Inova Fairfax Hospital, but before she got there, the law got her --- 57 mph in a 35 zone. Reckless driving."
Hodges was found guilty and fined $1,050, plus a judge-imposed $100 fine and court costs.
"It's crazy," said an unrepentant Hodges. "Having a baby's more important. Of course I'm going to speed."
Hodges won't have an easy time paying the bill, as Mummolo describes: "She and her husband, Jeff, a massage therapist, barely go out and are living basically week-to-week to support 17-month-old Madison and infant Alessandra, born July 19. If the appeal is denied, her husband will probably have to work overtime."
If Hodges and her husband end up buying a few six packs because of the three jobs and two babies, 44 percent of the cost of their beer in Virginia will be due to hidden and direct taxes.
The newly increased traffic fines, ranging from $750 to $3,000, were passed earlier this year by Virginia's General Assembly as part of a package to pay for a slew of new transportation projects.
"I'm getting out of here," said Hodges, "before I have to pay for any new roads."
More "excessive" in terms of fines, the penalties for sexual harassment in the workplace under the Civil Rights Act of 1991 include punitive damages of up to $300,000 per incident, i.e., per "unwelcome" joke, flirtation, etc. (Sen. Ted Kennedy wanted the price to be $1 million per incident.)
The $300,000 potential tab per incident can be triggered by an alleged victim's perception of having been subjected to unwanted speech, jokes, gestures, romantic pursuits, looks, attitudes, etc., or by a perception of having been subjected to condescension, defamation or exclusion.
"If traffic laws were modeled on harassment policies," writes Reason magazine columnist Cathy Young, referring to the inherently subjective and changing nature of perceptions regarding what is unwelcome and objectionable, "there would be no stop signs --- you could just be fined for failing to stop when someone thought you should have."
With six jokes and two unwanted glances worth a potential $2.4 million, the legal maneuver to get fines to the "excessive" level is to keep a diary and document each incident, rather than reporting the problem for a quicker and less litigious solution.
Under the rules, businesses and other organizations can be held liable even when they aren't aware that a problem exists.
Equally "excessive," the Federal Communications Commission's maximum fine for indecency just went up tenfold, to $325,000 per incident. The new rules authorize the FCC to fine a broadcaster as much as $3 million per day for multiple instances of alleged indecency.
With the section of the Eighth Amendment prohibiting "cruel and unusual punishments," William James Rummel might well say that we've lost our way.
Rummel was sentenced to life imprisonment in Texas (with eligibility for parole in 12 years, but with no guarantee of parole) for three nonviolent and minor offenses -- the fraudulent use of a credit card to obtain $80 worth of goods and services in 1964, passing a forged check in the amount of $28.36 in 1969, and obtaining $120.75 by false pretenses in 1973.
Citing precedent, i.e., itself, the Supreme Court rejected Rummel's argument that his life sentence was a violation of the constitutional ban on "cruel and unusual punishments" by pointing to a 1912 case, Graham v. West Virginia, in which the Supreme Court rejected an Eighth Amendment claim from a horse thief who had been sentenced to life imprisonment after stealing three horses --- one horse at a time, in 1898, 1901 and 1907.
In 1958, Chief Justice Earl Warren stated that the Eighth Amendment "must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."
The evolution is slow. It wasn't until 2002 that the Supreme Court ruled, 6-3, that executions of mentally retarded criminals are "cruel and unusual punishment," a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Ralph R. Reiland is an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University and a local restaurateur. E-mail him at
This column was originally published in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Reprinted with permission.

Mark Towner's Spyglass Spots: The Price of Risk

The Price of Risk
by Dan McLaughlinSeptember 6, 2007
Some lessons are hard to learn. Going 100 miles per hour may be exciting, but when you miss the curve, you pay the price in broken bones, bruises and large hospital bills, if you are a lucky one. Speeding is a risky undertaking. The faster you go, the higher the risk. Some people like the exhilaration so much that they are willing to take that risk. They have no choice, however, but to pay the price for their indiscretion if things don’t go as planned.
Gambling is also a risky proposition. While you may win big, there is also a chance you may lose big. If you take the risk, you must understand that it may go either way.
In the financial markets, as in most other things in life, risk is usually related to gain. Generally speaking, solid, low risk investments carry a low rate of return. As the perceived risk of loss on the investment increases, the rate of return also rises. It stands to reason that it will take a higher rate of return to induce someone to risk their assets on an investment that may not pay them back.
One of the more risky sorts of investments is sub-prime mortgages. The reason that they are sub-prime is that the borrowers have poor track records for payment. There is a substantial risk that they may default on the loan. When the value of the property securing the loan shrinks, as is happening all over today, the lender suffers a much greater exposure to loss.
Since those types of investments are quite risky, they carry a significantly higher rate of return. That means that the regular high level of income that you would get from investing in them would be somewhat offset by the losses you would take from default and from the loss of market value of the property. Anyone who agrees to invest in that type of loan also agrees to carry the burden of losses when they occur. It is only fair. They get a higher level of income when times are good, when the economy speeds along at 100 miles per hour. They must also take the lumps when the economy runs off the edge of the road.
Over the last number of years, sub-prime lending has been booming as real estate prices have skyrocketed. Monetary policy had been loosey goosey, with the Fed and other central banks keeping rates low, spurring the real estate and stock markets on to ridiculous levels. Lenders have been willing to take on more risk to get a piece of the lucrative sub-prime pie. They assumed that losses would be minimized by high property values. They have reaped the benefits of high returns while people who opted out of risk puttered along, safe and sound, with low rates of return.
Now the economy is hitting a curve in the road. We are hearing the screeching of tires as our hundred MPH friends start to spin out of control. Sub-prime loans are not looking so good. The real estate market has sunk, leaving less collateral to back up the loans. People are panicking as mega-lenders are hitting the guardrails. On one interesting televised investment program, a near delirious broker was literally screaming at the Fed, saying they have no idea how bad it is. He was demanding that they intervene to correct the problems.
Our frenzied friend was ignoring the fact that all those desperate lenders got themselves into the current situation because they chose high risk, and lots of it. That so many people joined them and created such an unstable market is a blame that can fall squarely on the back of the central banks and the incentives they offered. The problem is that now, those investors want us taxpayers and consumers to bail them out of trouble caused by their own indiscretion.
Unfortunately, the central banks have bowed to the crying, pumping in hundreds of billions of dollars of liquidity into the system to help the economy. This amounts to trying to save a drowning man by pouring water on him. Ultimately someone will have to pay for their irresponsible behavior. Once again, it will be you and me paying to save the skin of wealthy, well connected investment bankers.
The Fed created a problem that can only be solved by market adjustments. Brokers and bankers reap the income, they should also pay the severe price of those adjustments, not consumers and taxpayers.
Dan McLaughlin is a former corporate financial officer and is currently a columnist for The Post Journal. Visit his web site at or contact him at

Alienated Wannabe supports vouchers

With regard to my previous post endorsing vouchers, please understand that just because I resent educational practices which undermine "traditional values" that does not mean I therefore want public schools to do a 180 degree turn and begin teaching Christian doctrine. That is not my position at all. I just want Secular Humanists to stop trying to impose their faith and their social agenda upon society by way of the public school system.

The Price of Loony Litigation

The Price of Loony Litigation
by Ralph R. ReilandSeptember 10, 2007
You can't get your oil checked in Sea Isle anymore. Heading back from the Jersey Shore the Sunday before last for the start of another school year, we stopped at Sea Isle's only service station for gas.
With a seven-hour trip ahead of us, I asked the station's attendant (Jersey banned self-service gas pumping in 1949, so every station has an attendant) to check the oil. The station wasn't busy, and he was just standing around, waiting for the gas pump to automatically click off at sixty dollars or so.
"I can't," he said, referring to the oil check.
"Some lady came in here in a junker and broke down on the way home and sued us for $10,000," he explained. "We put two quarts of oil in her car. Her car was worth $1,500 -- tops. Her lawyer said it was our fault she broke down because we were the last ones to look at her car."
He continued the story as I popped my hood and got out of the car to check my oil. "She won. I don't know how much -- if it was the whole $10,000 or not. But the boss says we're not in the business of checking oil anymore."
So now we have a mandated-by-law "full service" station with no service.
It's like what happened to seesaws. "They are rapidly disappearing, going the way of merry-go-rounds, diving boards and other joys of childhood," explained Philip K. Howard in USA Today. "Even the innocent game of tag has been banned in some New Jersey schools because a pupil might end up getting hurt and a parent might bring a lawsuit."
It's like what happened to discipline in schools -- or hugs. "Talk to teachers," says Howard, founder and chairman of Common Good, a nonpartisan legal-reform coalition. "Keeping discipline is hard when students can threaten that any decision might violate their presumed rights. Forget about putting an arm around an upset second-grader -- someone might claim it was an unwanted sexual advance."
Last winter, we stayed at The Breakers in Palm Beach. Henry Flagler, more than a century ago, picked the hotel's location and its name because guests wanted to stay "by the breakers." They wanted rooms where they could hear the sound of the waves at night and feel the breezes coming off the water.
The windows used to open back then. Now they're bolted shut or open only two or three inches. So you're stuck setting the air conditioner at 70 degrees when the fresh air outside is 70 degrees, stuck listening to the hum of a motor instead of the sound of the ocean. They're afraid they'll be blamed if we jump.
It was the same thing in Washington. We were two blocks from the White House, the view was inspiring, the outside air was cool, and the windows were bolted shut.
First thing, before I unpack, I usually call the front desk with a deal: "I just checked in. I'll come down and sign a waiver if you unbolt our windows. It won't be your fault if I jump."
It never works, not in places where there's a "Do not use in shower" sticker on the hair dryers and the hotel-provided shower caps include a bold-type "Fits one head" warning.
Find two electrocuted nuts squeezed into one shower cap, and who can say that a jury can't be persuaded that a deep-pocketed hotel "should have known" about the dangers?
And so we've ended up with baby strollers with "Remove child before folding" warning labels and "Do not drive with sun shield in place" warnings on those cardboard shields that keep the sun off dashboards.
To protect mouths (and protect manufacturers and retailers), cleaning brushes for toilet bowls now say, "Do not use orally," and electric routers for carpenters have stickers that warn, "This product is not intended for use as a dental drill."
For really crazy people, there's now "Do not eat toner" warning labels on cartridges for laser printers and "Not for highway use" stickers on wheelbarrows.
Howard argues that lawsuits are important to prevent abuse but that lawsuits themselves can constitute an abuse. It's about common sense and where to draw the line.
"Lawsuits turn into a weapon for extortion," he says, "if the law doesn't draw the boundaries of who can sue for what."
Ralph R. Reiland is an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University and a local restaurateur. E-mail him at
This column was originally published in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Reprinted with permission.

Mark Towner's Spyglass Spots: That MoveOn Ad

Monday, September 10, 2007
That MoveOn Ad [Kathryn Jean Lopez]

A McCain release:
ARLINGTON, VA — U.S. Senator John McCain issued the following statement on's ad appearing in The New York Times today:
"In today's New York Times, the anti-war group launched a McCarthyite attack on an American patriot and our commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus. This is a man who has devoted his life in service to our nation and has defended America in many battles over many years. Now he is the target of a despicable attack in one our nation's most visible newspapers. No matter where you stand on the war, we should all agree on the character and decency of this exceptional American. I would hope that the Democratic Congressional leadership and Democratic presidential candidates would also join me in publicly condemning this kind of political attack ad and the organization responsible for it in the strongest terms possible."

UPDATE: And Thompson:
" has today, in effect, said that the General leading our brave troops in Iraq is betraying his country. This is the group that funds the Democratic Party. I call upon the Democratic Party and all of the Democratic candidates for President to repudiate the libel of this patriotic American."
09/10 12:47 PM