Archive for July, 2005

You’re luckier than my classmates

July 31, 2005

I attended my high school class reunion Saturday night. For some reason, they asked me to be the guest speaker and talk about veterans. Here it is (Download my_speech.pdf), if you care to read it. The all-caps stuff is what I planned to emphasize by tone or inflection. Don’t know if I actually did — just be glad you didn’t have to listen to my sweaty-palms, stammering performance.

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The rules of the game

July 31, 2005

We’ve had another week of speculation about how the Senate hearings on Supreme Court nominee John Roberts will go, which means another week of incoherent nonsense from people who either don’t know what the Constitution is supposed to be or don’t care.

The opposition to Roberts seems to have coalesced into two major talking points:

1. Yes, it’s true that he was overwhelmingly confirmed for his appointment to the appeals court, getting the votes of Republicans and most Democrats. But the appeals court, after all, must deal with settled law. The Supreme Court, on the other hand, makes law; so it wasn’t important before to know Roberts’ judicial philosophy, but now it is a vital necesssity.

2. Yes, John Roberts is obviously qualified to be on the court; who would better understand both the Constitution and the workings of the court than someone who has argued 39 cases before the court and, by all acccounts, done it better than just about anybody? But that doesn’t tell us what he’d do on the court. Does he care about justice? Will he side with workers or management, polluters or the environement, the poor or the priveleged?

The court is not supposed to make law, of course, merely interpret it, but the fact is that many of Roberts’ opponents like the fact that the court has operated as a kind of super-legislature. Those who haven’t been able to get their agenda through the legislative process have been able to get it through the courts, without all that messy stuff about political debates and having to convince elected representatives to act. And if you believe that this de facto creation of law is the court’s job, then naturally you think it should pick sides and assign losers and winners in the disputes that come before it. How has our notion of justice evolved, and what do conditions today require us to do?

What the court was meant to do is fairly simple and straighforward (and if it sounds downright bug-eyed out of the mainstreaam, it’s an indication of how far we’ve drifted from the original concept):

1. The court accepts a case involving a duly-enacted law that has been challenged.

2. The court tries to determine, as much as it can, what the intent was of the people who passed the law and what the effects of the law will be.

3. The court rules on whether the law’s intents and effects are consistent with the dictates of the United States Constitution.

Period. End of duties. It doesn’t matter which side will win or lose in the dispute. It doesn’t matter whether the law suits our current notions of what is right or what is wrong. It matters only what the rules are, and whether those rules are being followed.

I’ve heard economics professor Walter Williams use the analogy of a baseball game. You do not want the umpire to decide which team should win and which should lose. You certainly don’t want him changing the principles of the game in the middle of the game. "Well, I know that it’s always been three strikes and you’re out and four balls and you walk, but I think for today’s game, we’ll make it four strikes and three balls, because one team has really weak hitters, and we want to give it a fair chance." We ask — demand — simply that the umpire understand the rules of the game and apply them, as best he can, fairly and consistently for all players each play of the game.

(I’ve been a lifelong poker player, so I’ll use that game as an analogy as well. Most decks of cards come with a little chart showing the rank of poker hands, from high-card only all the way up to a royal flush. As a poker-party host, how many people would I get to play with me if I said, "Never mind the chart; in most hands, a flush will beat a straight, just like the rules say; but in some hands, a straight will beat a flush, and I’ll tell you which ones after all the betting is over"?)

Consider our life in a republican democracy a baseball game. The Constitution comprises the rules of the game. The Supreme Court is our umpire, making sure the same rules apply to the same people in the same way all the time. Anything else would be chaos — come to think of it, it IS chaos. The players come and go, the teams move from city to city, the salaries go up. But year after year, a player goes onto the field and knows he will be judged by the same rules as everybody else. But don’t the rules change? There wasn’t always a designated hitter for the pitcher. But that’s not the umpire’s concern, is it?

I’ve been a board member of several nonprofit organizations, which have both bylaws and operating guidelines that govern, for example, how meetings should be conducted (mostly coming from the most straightforward, common-sense book of rules ever devised). If we didn’t like the meeting rules, we changed them, as long as the changes were consistent with the bylaws. Otherwise, we went through the tougher challenge of changing the bylaws. The bylaws might, for example, define a quorum as "one person more than half the membership" and also permit us to increase the number of board members from time to time. If our board went from 22 people to 24 people, that would change the quorum from 12 to 13, as dictated by the bylaws. If we kept having trouble conducting meetings because not enough people showed up, and we wanted to change the meaning of "quorum" to "at least a third of the membership," that would require a bylaw change. Only by keeping faith with the bylaws could we be sure of conducting legitimate business in a coherent way, with rules everyone understood and followed.

The same rules applied to all in the same way; that’s the only rational definition of fairness I know. I think a useful way of judging any proposed law is to ask, "Does it apply to all of us," or just to a speficic, legislatively designated group. If it’s not for everyone, it is suspect.

Here’s what I would urge a senator to ask Judge Roberts at his confirmation hearings: "A challenged law comes before the court. You determine what the legislative intent was and what the probable effect of the law would be. In determining the constitutionality of that law, what proportionate weight would you give a) amendments to the Constitution, b) the language of the Constitution itself, c) the intent of the drafters of the Constitution, d) the Supreme Court’s own precedents, e) the state of the common law as it has evolved to this point and, f) your own sense of what is needed for American society at this point in history?"

That doesn’t make the baseball analogy hold up very well, I realize. You wouldn’t ask an umpire to detail his "philosophy of baseball." His opinion of that is of no consequence. But we have so many conflicting viewpoints of what constitutes the rules of the game for the law in America that such a query seems legitimate, especially for someone like Roberts, who has left no lengthy paper trail of opinions letting us know his bedrock principles.

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We don’t need no stinkin’ books

July 29, 2005

Virginia Postrel notes one sign that our love of the digital world can go a little too far.

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No place to run, no place to hide

July 29, 2005

I’m all for economic development and bringing in businesses and replacing buildings and moving things around and not being complacent and embracing change and all that. But, come on, rural development? Can’t we leave one place alone that stays the way it always has, just so we have a retreat when all this city agitation we’ve been creating starts to get to us?

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Dear constituent: Buzz off

July 29, 2005

OK, I’ve told you about turf, those interest-group mass-produced letters to the editor disguised as the individual efforts of real readers, and how newspapers look for them to prevent them from getting published. What do you think about this? A libertarian interest group is asking its members to bombard members of Congress with automatically generated "constituent letters" so the legislators get the idea that a lot of voters care about this or that issue. Our own Sen. Evan Bayh is apparently refusing to accept such input, saying it is "third-party-generated mass mailings" rather than legitimate constituent input. This is ticking off some of those constituents, who say it doesn’t matter whether they phone or write a personal letter or fill out a form on-line — they still feel the way they do, and he should pay attention to it. Now, the group is urging its members to fight back. Here is a small portion of one of its e-mails:

Starting right now please call the office of Senator
Bayh of Indiana at 202-224-5623. Fax Senator Bayh of
Indiana at 202-228-1377. Ask him to stop deterring
and discouraging constituent messages received via
DownsizeDC.org.

If Senator Bayh is allowed to block messages from
constituents, others in Congress will do so too. But
compel him to change his policy and others in
Congress will take note, and not want to test us.

My initial reaction is that there is a difference between editorial pages blocking turf and Sen. Bayh blocking mass e-mailings. Letters to the editor involve a debate, a give-and-take among readers that should advance discussion of an issue. Cutting-and-pasting opinions adds nothing to the conversation. A senator should want to know what his constituents think, no matter how their expression of it reaches his office.

But maybe I’m too close to it. Am I using a double standard, criticizing Bayh for doing something I also do?

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No miracle on 34th Street

July 28, 2005

Well, we knew this was coming, but it’s still a sad day. If you like the idea of Fort Wayne having an L.S. Ayres, an Indiana mainstay forever, too bad; start getting used to the absence of the name. In fall of 2006, Federated Department Stores is dropping the L.S. Ayres brand and renaming all those stores Macy’s. We’re luckier than Indianapolis, at least. Federated is closing the Ayres at Castleton, which I think has (or at least has had) a tea room just like the multi-story Ayres that graced downtown Indy for so long.

A lot of people today probably only think of Ayres as just one of many stores at Glenbrook, and it won’t make that much difference if the name changes or if a slightly different set of merchandise is sold there. Stores come and go at malls, and it doesn’t have quite the same emotional impact as the loss of a retailer downtown.

That’s what a lot of people will be thinking about when they hear this news — the glory days when Ayres, the Grand Leader, Murphys and Wolf & Dessauer made downtown Fort Wayne a thriving and vibrant gathering place. It’s not, I suspect, just nostalgia for a bygone era, but a deeper sense of loss. Big department stores once added character and distinction to city blocks. Now they’re just places to buy stuff, and that probably symolizes, for many people, the decline of a lot of other things, too.

Showfr This really will be the end of an era. Almost every city has a legendary department store deep in its collective memory — the sort of place grandparents tell their grandkids about, as in: "Why, there’s nothing like it today;I remember one Christmas . . . " Wolf & Dessauer was that store in Fort Wayne. When the people who owned Ayres bought it in the ’60s and changed the name, the building was still there, so people felt some continuity. Even when the company closed the downtown store, it kept the Ayres stores in Southtown and Glenbrook, so that was a link, however, tenuous, to the glory days of downtown. It also helped that Ayres was a famous Indiana name. A lot of people went on shopping trips to Indianapolis that consisted mostly of going to L.S. Ayres and Blocks.

That link to downtown will be gone, now, I suspect. But who knows? Maybe in 40 years, people will be talking about the glory days of Macy’s in Fort Wayne. "Well, kids, believe it or not, it was in a giant building with all these other stores. I tell you, there’s nothing like it today."

(The photo is from The News-Sentinel’s files– click on it to see the larger version.  The wooden replica of Wolf & Dessaur was one of a series of replicas of famous Fort Wayne buildings sold by the preservationist group ARC a few years ago.)

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It’s a blog world after all

July 28, 2005

If you’re reading this, I presume you’re comfortable with the idea of checking out a few blogs every day just to keep up on what the world is up to. If you’re looking for some good sites to bookmark, no matter what your interest is, check out this list of blogs, by category, reviewed by Forbes.com. Opening Arguments does not seem to have made the list as yet.

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We here in ——– are outraged

July 28, 2005

How you can have input when President Bush nominates a nut like ——— for the important position of ———-. If you have read my earlier post on turf, this parody will seem too realistic to be funny.

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And Wayne Newton could be the principal

July 28, 2005

I love the Daily Rant we had in last night’s paper:

Maybe the state of Indiana should put Cherry Masters in all the schools so we could afford to educate our children. I don’t know who we expect to run this country when we are all old.

Not as far out a suggestion as you might think. I spent a lot of time my first year at IPFW playing hearts in the cafeteria, and a lot of us at Central High School suspected some of our teachers had a hot poker game in the lounge on occasion. Personally, I’d rather see craps tables, especially in the elemetary schools. They require the kind of social interaction that’s good for the development of young minds.

Wouldn’t Cherry Master be a great name for a stripper, by the way?

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Boy Scouts 98, ACLU 0

July 28, 2005

Speaking of the Civil Liberties Union (national division), at least suing on behalf of teens who want to stay out at night is an interesting social question. The ACLU spends so much time and energy on its obsession with driving all religion out of the public square that it’s sometimes hard for me to take it seriously on other issues. The idea that the founders, in trying to prevent the establishment of a national religion, somehow meant to keep Bibles off teachers’ desks and the 10 Commandments and Boy Scouts off government property, is preposterous. At least now the the U.S. Senate is sticking up for the Scouts, in a big way, so maybe the tide is turning. But, really, who’d have ever thought anybody would have to stick up for the Scouts, and that we’d consider it a major victory in the culture wars.

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Go home and play Grand Theft Auto, kid

July 28, 2005

After a car-egging incident late at night that led to a teenager being shot and killed, the city of Indianapolis is vowing to tighten enforcement of its teen curfew law. The law isn’t all that tough to begin with — it has exceptions for parental permission, going to or from work or school-related events, "exercising First Amendment rights." All those loopholes were put in because the city was named as co-defendant one of those times when the Indiana Civil Liberties Union sued to end the state teen curfew. I haven’t kept up on the issue lately, but I think the state finally gave up on being able to pass a law that met constitutional muster. Since Fort Wayne and Allen County always used the state law when it wanted to get kids off the streets, the lack of a state law pretty much leaves us without a teen curfew.

Nothing wrong with that. That’s one of those issues that cry out for home rule. Let Fort Wayne and Wabash and Indianapolis debate, through their city councils and citizens interacting, how much control to put on teens’ nighttime wanderings, and pass ordinances accordingly. At least until the ICLU sues them.

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Wordy QWERTY, Ya’ll

July 27, 2005

If you love language, check out this for a debunking of some popular myths. Eskimos DO NOT have 200 words for snow. People in Appalachia DO NOT still talk like Shakespeare. The Chinese character for crisis DOES NOT combine "danger" and "opportunity." Lots of interesting stuff in the comments, too, including a thorough discussion of the origin of the QWERTY typewriter keyboard.

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Signs of the (Sun-)Times

July 27, 2005

When you’re zipping through newspapers, don’t forget to stop by the letters to the editor. Here’s a bit of clever observation from, of course, a Hoosier in the Chicago Sun-Times. I would add to his list of stupid signs the ones in buildings everywhere, "Thank you for not smoking." Oh, I have a choice?

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Get around, get around, we get around

July 27, 2005

I know you probably think traffic here is just awful at times. But, really, count your blessings.

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But they don’t have a secret handshake

July 27, 2005

In their efforts to find something — anything! — to use against him, those opposing John Roberts’ nomination to the Supreme Court have zeroed in on the fact that he belongs to the Federalist Society. No, he doesn’t! Yes, he does! Stay tuned. And just what is this evil cabal of constitutional scoundrels? Well, its members want the "principles of limited government" to have a fair hearing and "believe and trust that individual citizens can make the best choices for themselves and society." Those monsters! Don’t tell anybody where you heard it, but there’s a rumor going around that Roberts is a Catholic. And he once actually matriculated.

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Stand for something, ’cause we won’t fall for just anything

July 27, 2005

Indiana U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh is the outgoing chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, the group made famous by Bill Clinton for trying to move the party back to the center from the extreme left. That group has been meeting (site also includes video), and there’s lots of talk about "finding a message" that the nation desperately wants to hear from Democrats. But they also talk about "appealing to the middle," so I’m not sure they get it yet. The point should not be to find a message, then try to sell it, but to, you know, actually stand for something. "The middle" might be looking for something, but I don’t think they want a con job.

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Better change that bed attitude

July 26, 2005

While we’re watching for the big signs of the end of the world as we know it, like drug usage, teen pregnancy and the fact that we seem to have only two families in this nation from which to choose presidents, civilization will probably slip away a little bit at a time, with the small things. First, it was a glass of water in restaurants — you can have it, but you have to ask for it. Now, it’s sheets. I can perhaps accept three days or even four, but a week? The story doesn’t say, but I presume they do change them between guests. Gross thought, what? Glad I don’t travel much. When I do, I admit, I’m fussier than I am at home. I’ll use the same towel for a week in my own house. But if there aren’t fresh ones in the hotel bathroom every morning, it absolutely freaks me out. Maybe Gov. Daniels can get me a good deal on an RV.

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Baghdad Jane

July 26, 2005

Since I seem to be in the middle of a mean streak this morning anyway . . .

. . . Could I please have a Jane Fonda exception to the First Amendment? Go ahead and violate her constitutional rights; just shut her up. On second thought, let’s have the treason trial that’s 30 years late, and put her in prison where she belongs. Unless we want her help to find Osama. Just give her a camera crew and point her to the east.

I love the part about how she’s going to go on this "Get out of Iraq" tour in a vehicle powered by vegetable oil. Lord, the woman is amazing — against war and for the environment on the same trip! She should go for the hat trick and announce she’s going to promote animal rights by eating nothing but the vegetables whose oil her vehicle runs on.

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I’ll show you mine if you show me yours

July 26, 2005

Knowing they’re fighting a lost cause, Democrats who oppose putting John Roberts on the Supreme are grasping at straws by seeking something they know they can’t get  — the work product of attorney-client privilege. Note in this story that the first one to ask for "full disclosure" was John Kerry. Wasn’t he recently in the news a lot for, oh, let’s see, wanting to be commander in chief but refusing to release his full military records?

Hidden bonus for those who are disgusted to see the presidential campaign brought up again but waded through the post anyway.

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Please manage to know your subject

July 26, 2005

Nope, nope, nope. County Assessor Pat Love says it’s no big deal that, because math isn’t her strong suit, she has flunked the state-required test for assessors three times. She’s good at managing people, and that’s what really matters. Where have we heard this before?

Love apparently has about a year to pass the test and keep her job. But even if she does, that won’t mean much. She will have discovered what to study to answer enough questions correctly. That really won’t make her any more knowledgeable about the fundamentals of the work done by the people she manages.

I’ve had some bosses in my time — not just in journalism, I hasten to add — who didn’t have the first idea about how to do the basic functions I had to perform and they had to rate me on. It was even a point of pride for some of them: Look at me, I’m in charge of this here chain gang; I don’t have to dirty my hands with the actual liftin’ and totin’. Guess what was true about those bosses? They were so easy to fool; you could screw off all day long and lie to them about it, and they wouldn’t have a clue. When I had a chance to actually become a boss, I became a big believer in cross-training, for "workers" and "management" alike. We can all back each other up, and ain’t nobody getting away with nothing.

There is a whole cadre of middle managers these days who move from town to town, managing this or that group of people without any appreciation for what those people actually do (let alone an understanding of the towns they’re in for a year or two before moving on). You’ve been selling insurance for 30 years? You’ve made furniture at the same location for two generations? You repair fire-engine hoses? Never mind all that, fill out these forms. And there is now a select group of executive superstars who take their bottom-line, please-the-shareholders philosophy to the highest bidders. If you want to know how that’s been working out, just check the business pages.

I could do about five paragraphs here on how public education has been diminished by universities that instruct budding teachers too much on how to teach and too little on the subjects they will be teaching, but I’ve already drifted a bit from the original subject. So let’s bring it back.

There have been many good arguments made in recent years for making some of the more technical offices in Indiana — assessor, auditor, clerk — appointive instead of elective. I think the case for that change is now stronger. 

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Pedaling the plucky story

July 26, 2005

Now that Lance Armstrong has won his seventh big-deal bicycle race, is it OK for me to say I was really getting tired of it, and I hope he really does retreat to a cabin in the woods somewhere for a few years and assess his future, quietly? I admire pluck as much as the next person, but that "perseverance of a cancer survivor" life story started wearing a little thin after the fifth win. Call me mean. I can’t wait to hear his platform when he comes out of that cabin and announces his reasons for seeking public office.

Since I’m on the subject of sports, what are we to make of Ricky Williams, who "retired" from the Dolphins at 27 and went off to pursue his odd quests, only to come back and apologize to everybody? Back in my day, by God, when we dropped out to become hippies and tell The Man that we weren’t going to put up with his regemented crap any more, we had the decency to stick it out for a few years before we came slinking back to our parents to confess that we had run out of money, which made trying to cope in the real world really suck. Why, you couldn’t have gotten us back just because there were millions of dollars for playing a silly game waiting for us.

Say, wait a minute . . .

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The chips have fallen

July 25, 2005

I’ve been staying away from the Valerie Plame/Karl Rove story in part because it’s just politics as usual and in part because it’s so convoluted it’s hard to fathom. People who have followed it far more than I have admit to not understanding it. So I have just been content to watch the investigation go where it goes and let the chips fall where they may.

Rove But it occurred to me that others might like to actually know where the chips will fall, so I did a little experiment. I drew two rectangles on a paper towel. In one I wrote, "Rove smelling like a rose," which means the summer game of political gotcha will just go away. In the other I wrote, "Bush caves," which means Rove will be thrown to the wolves and administration critics will score a big victory. Then I stood over the paper towel with a handful of my official World Poker Tour poker chips and let them drop.

So there you have it. Scientific proof that Rove comes out smelling like a rose.

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Spend, spend, spend

July 25, 2005

Following is another dispatch from libertarian correspondent Mike Sylvester:

I am looking at government spending as a percentage of gross domestic product — what percent of all money in the United States is spent by federal, state and local governments combined.

According to my research:  In 1920, government spending was 12 percent of GDP. In 1947 (After WW II), government spending rose to 22 percent of GDP. Today, government spending is about 40 percent of GDP (I found that government statistics range from 36 percent to 43 percent).

As a note of comparison, the socialist German government spends about 51 percent of its total GDP.

I graduated from Snider High School in 1985.  If I had been asked this question in 1985, I would have said that the government was about the right size.  Today I feel much differently.  I think the government should spend about 25 percent of GDP. 

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Weather I’m right, weather I’m wrong

July 25, 2005

Did it seem to you that the weather forecasts were wrong far more often than they were right last week? If you were trying to plan your activities around when the rain was or was not going to be here, too bad. The dirty little secret of meteorology is that 48 hours is about the limit of any kind of accuracy; beyond that, they’re just making it up as they go along. And I thought editorial writing was the only profession in which we got paid to express outrageous opinions without even having to be right.

I once asked someone in the weather business what the difference was between "partly cloudy" and "partly sunny." It’s simple, I was told: "Partly cloudy" means "mostly sunny," and "partly sunny" means "mostly cloudy." Thanks for clearing that up. And someone asked me recently the difference between "isolated" and "scattered" thunderstorms. I didn’t know, so I looked it up. It has nothing to do with where the storms will hit, but how likely they are (which is a whole other category).

If sports and politics are the No. 2 and No. 3 issues about which so much is written and said that is of no long-term usefulness (and they probably are), then weather is No. 1. As George Carlin says, "Tonight’s forecast: dark."

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Only bumper stickers can prevent war

July 25, 2005

Saw a bumper sticker on the car in front of me Friday, "You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war," attributed to Albert Einstein. Guess he wasn’t the smartest man in the world about everything.

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