Tuesday, September 30, 2008

I wish McCain would shut up about the bears

At last Friday night's debate, Senator John McCain did it again. He griped about the money the federal government is spending to study bear DNA. Here is a fine article detailing why this is NOT a waste of money.

But more to the point, I am at a total loss to understand why this is the government expenditure McCain scowls at when the feds provide so much money to Planned Parenthood. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachman has recently made an issue of this; declaring "Planned Parenthood pays no taxes and they receive over $300 million per year in grants from the federal government."

I think Bachman makes an error here, lumping all government funding with that provided by the federal government. Planned Parenthood's balance sheet from the 2007 fiscal year states that they received 336.7 million dollars in funding from "government grants and contracts;" but some of that funding has come from the states. (One might think Planned Parenthood's balance sheet would divide public funding into "national" and "state and local.")

Anyway, as a zoologist I disagree with McCain on the bear studies, and since he has expressed pro-life sentiments I don't understand why he doesn't make Planned Parenthood a target instead of Yogi and Boo-Boo. Remember, Senator, people like bears; they're quite cute and endearing as long as you observe them from a distance. On the other hand, people generally don't like abortions. That's why it was so smart for the government to create Smokey Bear. You think people would be as careful to put out their campfires if advised to do so by Smokey the Abortion?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Fifteen duties

Trivia to ask your friends: according to the Constitution, exactly how many duties does the President of the United States have?

By my count, it's fifteen. Twelve of the duties of the Oval Office are specified in Article II, sections 2 and 3. For the life of me, I don't know why the framers split this into two sections. It's not as though one section has mostly his domestic concerns and another his foreign policy charges, or that one has things he can do himself while the other is things he needs to consult with Congress on. Reading sections 2 and 3, it simply appears that the division was based on style.

I'll summarize here the President's dozen duties; all are from Article II sections 2 and 3 unless otherwise indicated. In the order that they are listed:

1. Signing or vetoing legislation (Article I, section 7)

2. Commander in Chief of the armed forces

3. Asking his cabinet for written opinions

4. Pardoning people who commit offenses against the United States

5. Making treaties

6. Nominating ambassadors, judges, etc.

7. Filling vacancies in the Senate with recess appointments

8. Giving State of the Union addresses and recommending legislation to Congress

9. Convening both Houses in an emergency

10. Telling Congress when to adjourn if they can't decide themselves

11. Receiving ambassadors and other foreign dignitaries

12. Taking care that the laws be faithfully executed

13. Commissioning all the Officers of the United States

14. Nominating someone for Vice-President if there is a vacancy (Amendment XXV, section 3)

15. Telling everybody the operation was fine, the anaesthesia has worn off, and he's ready to serve as President again (Amendment XXV, sections 3 and 4).

You could argue the President has more duties than this. Article 1, section 9 provides that the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended unless there is a rebellion. It doesn't specify who does the suspending; Abe Lincoln assumed he could (see Farber, Lincoln's Constitution, 2003, p. 158). I left that out, because I wanted to limit this article to things it is obvious from the Constitutional text that he has the authority to do.

Anyway, I decided that as a little exercise I was going to take those duties and make my own subjective list, ranking them from... well, I don't really want to say least important to most important, because you know me, I don't want to imply that anything in the Constitution is unimportant. What I'm getting at with my list is this: which duties are things that if you are the most partisan person in America you really don't care if it's somebody in the other party handling? How, in other words, are the fifteen responsibilities ranked from the least you'd care if either McCain or Obama gets elected, to the most you'd care one way or another?

So this is my list; I encourage you to make your own if you disagree. From least anybody is concerned about to the most anybody is concerned about, I rank them as follows:

15. Telling Congress when to adjourn if they can't decide themselves. Did you think in the list above that I was joking with this one? It's actually in the Constitution; if the House of Representatives and the Senate cannot agree on a time of adjournment, the President decides. Personally, if I was the President and the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate called me and said they couldn't agree on when to stop giving C-SPAN live programming, I'd give them two choices: rock, paper, scissors, or flip a damn coin.

14. Receiving ambassadors and other foreign dignitaries. I presume that if Larry the Cable Guy was the President, even he would know that one doesn't pick one's nose or fart when shaking hands with the French President. Unless the Frenchy does it first.

I do need to acknowledge, however, there is a potential for great significance in isolated cases, as "receiving" ambassadors is tantamount to recognizing the validity of a country's regime. (See page 568 of the annotated Constitution maintained by the Government Printing Office ;
"The recognition of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1933 was an exclusively presidential act.")

13. Commissioning all the Officers of the United States. Remember on the TV series MASH how Radar would shove papers in front of Colonel Blake, or later Colonel Potter, and they would have no idea what the hell they were signing? This is the Constitutional equivalent of that.

12. Filling vacancies in the Senate with recess appointments. Senators often serve a long time, but most of them at least have the sense to retire before they die. Anyway, these recess appointments expire at the end of the next session.

11. Asking the cabinet for written opinions. This is kind of funny, in that if the Constitution did not expressly say that the President had this power, would anybody seriously doubt he did? Why else would he have a cabinet in the first place, if not to get their professional opinions on things?

I hope it's obvious by this point that I'm discussing the importance of the duty itself, not the difference in who possesses the duty. That a Secretary of the Interior under McCain might well give a completely different opinion on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to one issued by a Secretary of the Interior under Obama is significant, but not really germane to the matter I'm concerned with here. There are tens of thousands of business managers in this country that ask subordinates for opinions; this is not a duty we would think particular to the Presidency.

10 and 9. Nominating a new Vice-President if the old one dies or gets arrested, and taking the reins of the Presidency again if he had to briefly give them up. "What if," Akhil Reed Amar ponders, "instead of dying within minutes of being shot in the head, JFK had in fact survived, drifting in and out of consciousness, with uncertain prospects for a full mental recovery? What if the bullet had badly impaired his cognitive functions but in a way that he himself did not understand and refuse to acknowledge?" (America's Constitution: A Biography, 2005, p. 448).

That's why the Twenty-fifth Amendment was ratified, to deal with presidential disability. But it also has the two duty provisions mentioned here: that if the President is unable to discharge his powers for a short period of time--like if he's under anaesthesia getting operated on--he can turn over control of the Executive branch to the VP and get it back once the gas wears off. Plus, the amendment has the provision that the President gets to nominate someone to fill a Vice-Presidential vacancy, subject to approval of both houses of Congress. I highlight the word "both" because this is in contrast to the President's other nominating powers, spelled out in Article I, in which he only needs the support of the Senate.

I can't rate either of these two things any higher. As far as nominating a new Vice-President is concerned, that's come up once since the amendment was ratified, when Nixon traded Spiro Agnew for Nelson Rockefeller. It will probably come up about twice a century, so it's not a major deal. As for what I like to call the anesthesia provision, well, maybe that's important, but we'd had a constitution for 180 years before that was added. Besides, how difficult is it for the President to say, "My gall bladder is out and I'm wide awake!"

8. Taking care that the laws are faithfully executed. This would include everything from giving tickets to litterbugs at the Washington Monument to prosecuting people who cross state lines to bomb abortion clinics. You could argue that this should be rated higher, but as long as the President is a good cop who makes sure everybody under him knows they have to enforce laws whether they agree with them or not, I presume not too many folks would get worked up whether the President is a Republican or Democrat. This is enforcing law, not making or changing it. You've heard the line about cabinet members serving at the pleasure of the President; this is a duty in which the President serves the pleasure of the people.

7. Convening Congress in an emergency. Very important, but again remember the criteria for my ranking. If some country declares war on the US in the middle of the summer when Congress has left Washington, any competent Chief Executive, regardless of his party, is going to know to call them back to the District.

6. Giving the State of the Union address, in which he implores Congress to do this and that. No matter who the next President is, there will be a night in January that regular programming is preempted for a long speech, and the network's ratings will go down correspondingly. The Prez will get a lot of polite applause from everybody on both sides of the aisle, and the cameras will catch a couple of old Senators appearing to nod off. Really it's not the delivery of the address itself that anybody is concerned with, it's that customarily at this time the President advises Congress what he thinks they should legislate on. (I thought about dividing this into two duties, but they are separated in Article I by a comma and not a semi-colon, so I left it at one responsibility.)

This is the duty some of you may really think I'm off base on; that it should be in, say, the top three because the President's word carries a lot of weight. Maybe you're right, but remember: the President can't pass legislation; he can only recommend it. And even if 150 Congressmen and 30 Senators agree, that's not enough to get it done.

5. Nominating ambassadors, judges, American Idol finalists, etc. (Okay, I made up that last one.) Years ago I saw a W.C. Fields movie--I don't recall the title--in which he and another character, as I recall, fall off a cliff. The other character remarks that they are plummeting a thousand feet and Fields remarks that 999 feet are harmless; it's just the last foot that's going to hurt.

That's kind of the way this Presidential duty is: 999 nominations for people like the guy who will serve as ambassador to Luxembourg, or the intrepid soul who will sit on the bench of the federal court for the Middle District of Georgia so he can preside over a lawsuit determining who is responsible for defective rebar sent from Montgomery to Macon--and once in a blue moon a nomination for a Supreme Court Justice that ties everybody's BVD's into a knot.

Now that we're in the top five, maybe I don't have to justify why I haven't ranked this higher, but in case I do, remember that the Senate has to concur in the nominations, and that while you may be able to name all nine Supreme Court justices, I'd be really impressed if you could name a single ambassador.

4. Making treaties. Again, the Senate must concur. You can switch this with #5 if you prefer.

3. Issuing pardons. Am I rating this too high? After all, how often is there a pardon of significance? I'm putting this in the top three because there is absolutely NO Congressional oversight, as there is with treaties and appointments. When Gerald Ford reached into his Monopoly set, pulled out a "get out of jail free" card, and handed it to Nixon, there was no Constitutional power for Congress to object. Interestingly, the one limitation is that the President cannot pardon in cases of impeachment. So by leaving office voluntarily, Nixon avoided impeachment and left his successor power to pardon him for offenses that might have gotten him impeached! If we ever scrap the Constitution and get a new one, I'd bet you anything you want there will be changes made to the Executive pardoning power.

2. Commander in Chief. I think everybody would put this in the top two; some of you might rank it first. No discussion should be necessary; suffice it to say that if the President did not have this authority, Code Pink wouldn't know who to be mad at.

1. Signing or vetoing legislation. Actually signing legislation isn't that big a deal; the President is just giving his approval to whatever Congress did. It's that veto pen that makes the office of President of the United States so damn powerful. If he vetoes a bill, it takes two-thirds of Congress to override it.

From time to time you'll hear people talk about features of the Constitution that are rather undemocratic. Usually the conversation centers around how there are the same number of Senators for millions of Californians as there are for several hundred thousand folks in Wyoming; or the matter of Presidents getting elected even though they lose the popular vote, thanks to the electoral college, as happened in 2000; or that there are 99 state legislative houses in this country (Nebraska has just one) and it only takes thirteen of the 99 to block a constitutional amendment. Very well. But arguably the veto power is the least democratic constitutional provision of all--one man (or woman) can subvert majority rule unless a pretty extensive super-majority of Congress stops him. That's why I'm ranking the veto power ahead of the military authority, even though people rarely die from a botched veto operation.

Anyway, that's my ranking. What's yours?

Friday, September 12, 2008

James Madison and the almighty hand

In response to this post, I received a note complaining that I should have quoted James Madison. The implication was that if I had fairly quoted Madison instead of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, it would have been apparent to me that the Saddleback Forum was a dreadful idea.

This note came with a link directing me to this website, which lists quotations by James Madison that support the argument that Madison was an avowed advocate of total separation of church and state.

Predictably, the list of Madison's statements does not include this one:

"The real wonder (of the success of the Constitutional Convention) is that so many difficulties should have been surmounted, and surmounted with a unanimity almost as unprecedented as it must have been unexpected. It is impossible for any man of candor to reflect on this circumstance without partaking of the astonishment. It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution."

No separation of the divine from government here; Madison is actually saying that the Almighty helped create the U.S. government.

And where in Madison's works can this quotation be found? A private letter to Thomas Jefferson? A speech made to a small body of politicians?

No. It's from The Federalist No. 37. You're probably aware that these were the essays written by Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay and published in newspapers of New York, urging citizens to support ratification of the Constitution. Accordingly, Madison and the others were writing for a large audience; one would expect that under such circumstances they would be particularly careful in choosing their words. Even so, Madison basically wrote that God is on America's side.

My critics: AH! GOTCHA, YOU IDIOT! DON'T YOU KNOW THAT THE FEDERALIST WAS WRITTEN ANONYMOUSLY? Madison's words can't be taken too seriously since he wrote under a pen name which gave his reputation cover.

Wrong. Let Robert Scigliano, editor of the Modern Library edition of The Federalist, speak on this point:

"Although The Federalist's writers were not identified in the newspaper series or in the published edition, word as to who was involved in the project got around pretty quickly, aided by hints dropped by the writers themselves. Hamilton and Madison each told Washington early on of his own involvement, and Madison told Edmund Randolph, the governor of Virginia, about himself and Hamilton... A French translation of The Federalist, published in Paris in 1792, merely confirmed what most people knew by then when it carried the names of the three authors on its title page."

Madison meant what he wrote in Federalist No. 37.

The Separation of Church and State Homepage also has a list of "flawed quotes" which they define as "quotations we've seen advanced by accomodationists (sic) to suggest that the framers did not believe in separation." Naturally I looked there to see if Madison's words from The Federalist were there; they were not. Nor was the remark by Benjamin Franklin that I quoted in my earlier post; recall that Dr. Franklin said at the Constitutional Convention that "God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?"

The authors of the Separation of Church and State Homepage admit their list of "flawed quotes" is incomplete, but one might think that given the significance of Franklin and Madison, as well as the importance of the forums in which they made their remarks, that the website would address them and tell us why they think these are not evidence that the framers weren't dogmatic on separation of church and state.

More troubling is that according to the website, a quote is "flawed" if it comes from somebody who was "not a framer of the Constitution" or if it comes from somebody who was "an antifederalist (sic)." If you think a home run is significant only if it was hit by a member of the New York Yankees, it's then easy to prove that no home run hit by Ted Williams or Ernie Banks was of any consequence. So for every "flawed quote" by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Samuel Adams, or Daniel Webster, the offending words are preceded by the number 1 to remind us that none of these fellows was at the Constitutional Convention. As though because Jefferson was serving his country in Paris, and John Adams doing likewise in London, their thoughts on religion and state were of no value!

As for the idea that a quote has no bearing on the concept of separation of church and state if it was made by Patrick Henry or some other Anti-Federalist--well, that's utterly laughable. The Separation website says:

"If you want to find out how the Constitution was understood in 1787, quote people that supported the Constitution, and not those who thought the Constitution was evil. Patrick Henry, for example, made a number of statements suggesting that our nation was founded on belief in God, and that it was important to acknowledge God in civic affairs, but Henry lost the battle to put religion in the Constitution. More to the point, Henry was an anti-federalist, and vigorously opposed the Constitution when Virginia discussed ratification. Quoting Henry to prove things about the constitution is like quoting the chairman of the Republican National Committee to prove things about the platform of the Democratic party."

Nonsense. Quoting Henry is NOT like quoting the chairman of the RNC to prove things about the Democrat's platform. Instead, it's literally as if someone said that nothing Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi says about the war in Iraq matters because the war is being conducted by a Republican administration. People respond to their critics, consciously or not. As anybody who has read anything on the period knows, the Federalists, like Madison and Hamilton, originally did not want a Bill of Rights. Hamilton, in fact, wrote The Federalist No. 84 in which he expressly argued that a Bill of Rights was a bad idea. The very reason we even have a Bill of Rights, which includes the First Amendment and the concept of separation of church and state so dear to the folks who run this website, is because the Anti-Federalists snarled loudly that the Constitution as written lacked one. Here are a couple of scholars on Patrick Henry speaking at the Virginia Convention for ratification of the Constitution:

"Henry wondered aloud why the Philadelphia convention had not proposed a bill of rights along with the Constitution and argued that one must be added now. He noted sarcastically that a 'Bill of Rights may be summed up in a few words. What do they (the Federalists) tell us?--That our rights are reserved--Why not say so? Is it because it will consume too much paper?" --Richard Labunski, James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights, 2006, p. 105.

"Henry... warned that 'the Necessity of a Bill of Rights' was 'greater in this Government, than ever it was in any Government before' because without it Congress would violate one right after another." --Jack Rakove: Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution, 1996, p. 323.

Madison, a Federalist who originally didn't want a Bill of Rights, was swayed by the arguments and wound up being not only the primary advocate of a Bill, but the main author of the one we eventually got (see generally Labunski). If it wasn't for the Anti-Federalist outcry, chances are good that the First ten amendments to the Constitution wouldn't be there.

So to recap: we've got a Bill of Rights, which includes the clause preventing an establishment of religion, largely because of the complaints of men like Patrick Henry, but the Separation of Church and State Homepage pooh-poohs anything said on establishment of religion.... by Patrick Henry! Amazing, isn't it? Perhaps these folks will consider founding another website in which they list flawed quotes about Darwinism made by Darwin.

Anyway, I stand by the earlier post. Several of the people responsible for establishing this great country figured there was an almighty deity directly involved in its well-being.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Lincoln: Gone With the Wind. Buchanan: Police Academy 4. Obama? Who knows?

"With forty years of experience in the House, the Senate, the foreign service, and the cabinet, (James Buchanan was)... one of the best-trained men who has ever occupied the presidency." --David Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1976, p. 297.

"(Buchanan) certainly did not lack relevant experience when he assumed the Presidency. For nearly forty years he had served almost continuously as Representative, Senator, Minister to Russia and Great Britain, and Secretary of State." --David Currie, The Constitution in Congress: Descent Into the Maelstrom, 2005, p. 255.

"James Buchanan worst President, scholars say." --Headline of this article.

As the debate gets more and more heated over whether Barack Obama has sufficient experience to be Commander-in-Chief, or whether Sarah Palin has sufficient experience to be a heartbeat away from the Presidency, it's instructive to pull back from the present for a moment and jump into history. That way, we remind ourselves that the guy sometimes cited as the Chief Executive with the most experience upon assuming the post is also the one often cited as the most torridly awful President ever. Let alone not being carved into Mount Rushmore, you will notice that James Buchanan's visage does not appear on stamps, coins, or even bobble head dolls.

And who replaced him in the White House? Abe Lincoln, arguably the man least experienced for the job, but often hailed as the best President. You just never know who is going to grow into a job and who isn't.

In 2008, as in 1860, a skinny lawyer from Illinois without an extensive resume is a leading candidate for President. Michael Medved has written an article on the comparison between Lincoln and Obama; since Medved first achieved fame as a movie critic I thought I'd incorporate that into the title of this blog entry. You will notice that Medved omits a few pesky little details when they don't correspond to his theory that Lincoln was much better qualified than Obama. Most especially this is apparent when Medved writes:

"(Lincoln) ran again for the Senate in 1858, challenging the nation’s most prominent and powerful Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, electrifying the public in every corner of the nation with their famous debates. By contrast, Barack Obama waged his one U.S. Senate campaign against a carpet-bagging embarrassment and fringe candidate (Alan Keyes) who took the Republican nomination after the formidable prior contender withdrew in a divorce-related sex scandal."

No mention of one significant point: Obama won. Lincoln lost. You can't use the results of these elections as evidence that Lincoln was more experienced than Obama unless you take the old saw that one learns more in defeat than in victory to absurd levels.

Since we're jumping into history here, let me just note that Obama would have won the Senate seat in 2004 even if the rules had been the same as they were in 1858. Article 1, section 3 of the U.S. Constitution originally provided that each state's two U.S. senators were to be chosen "by the Legislature thereof." This was changed by the Seventeenth Amendment, ratified in 1913, holding that each state's two U.S. senators were to be chosen "by the people thereof." It's easily forgotten today that Illinoisans in 1858 didn't actually vote for Lincoln or Stephen Douglas; they voted for legislators who would select the man to represent them in Washington. (There was a new wrinkle in the process that obviously was a step towards popular democracy: the Republicans selected Lincoln as their candidate for senate at the party's state convention before the legislature met to select nominees, as had been the prior custom, see Simon, Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney, 2006, p. 142.)

What if Obama had run for U.S. Senate in 2004 and the rules were still as they were drawn up in 1787? That is, what if it was Obama vs. Keyes but the Illinois legislature and not the voters at large did the choosing?

Assuming a party line vote, Obama would have prevailed under those circumstances as well. The 95th Illinois General Assembly featured 37 Democrats and 22 Republicans in the state senate, and 67 Democrats and 51 Republicans in the house.

But there is a much larger historical issue suggested by the Medved article that I wish to address. He writes:

"No contemporaries questioned Lincoln’s candidacy on the basis of lack of experience while all impartial observers of the contemporary season note Obama’s absence of preparation for the world’s most challenging job."

When we consider the historical difference between Lincoln's times and Obama's, this is silly on a number of levels. Lincoln, as we hopefully remember from high school, spoke against slavery and advocated keeping it out of the territories. That alone was reason for voters in the South to reject him; they wouldn't have had a different opinion of Lincoln if he had served eight years as Illinois governor plus twelve years in the Senate. Medved's remark is like saying that if your friend fixes you up a a blind date with a woman who looks like John Madden, you're not going to be mad at your buddy until you find out the girl can't cook.

But never mind hostile Southerners, what about contemporaries not questioning his lack of experience who were more in line with Lincoln's way of thinking--other northern Republicans, in other words?

Again, remember the difference between running for President in 1860 and doing likewise in our time. Lincoln wasn't standing in front of fire houses in New Hampshire in two feet of snow shaking hands and begging for votes so he could get the Republican nomination. Back then, delegates didn't go to their respective conventions already knowing who the nominee was, they went to the conventions to select a nominee.

The 1860 Republican Convention, which lasted only three days, is covered in great detail in The Impending Crisis. "As the clans gathered," David Potter writes, "it was clear that (William) Seward stood far in the lead over all the other candidates... The basic question... was whether Seward would gain the nomination by virtue of his great initial strength before the opposition could unite. It appeared to be Seward against the field" (p. 422). One could say that the position of Seward on May 16, 1860, when the convention came to order, was similar to the status of Hillary Clinton among the Democrats last December.

But there was a mammoth difference between Seward and Clinton. Seward needed only to hold his place as the presumptive nominee for three days in a hall in Chicago among a handful of people. Clinton had to compete in caucuses and primaries all across the nation over a period of six months and among millions of voters.

Neither one of them succeeded, of course. For the record, Seward had a commanding lead on the first ballot of the 1860 convention; he received 173 ½ votes, to 102 for Lincoln, with three other candidates getting between 48 and 50 ½ votes. Alas, Seward's impressive first round tally still wasn't enough for him to receive the nomination, and as other candidates dropped out, their votes went mostly to Honest Abe. Lincoln got the amount of support required on the third ballot (The Impending Crisis, pp. 428-29).

The point is: what happened to Hillary Clinton earlier this year also happened to William Seward--but it happened in only three days. Now if the 1860 political process had been the same as today, if Lincoln and Seward faced off in primaries and caucuses across the land spread over half a year, don't you suppose Seward would have done the same thing in almost every single stump speech that Clinton and John Edwards did once the Obama ball got rolling? That is, wouldn't Seward have declared almost daily that Lincoln was too inexperienced to be President?

So even if Medved is right that Lincoln wasn't publicly labeled unqualified by his contemporaries--and I don't know enough about William Seward, Salmon Chase, or any of the other prominent early Republicans to say if it is or not--the statement totally misses the point. In the first place, there wasn't time for Seward or anybody else to decry Lincoln's inexperience. And in the second place, Lincoln prevailed among his party's voters in spite of his inexperience, just as Obama has. A few dozen people in 1860 and a few million in 2008 said, in effect, "We don't care that there are other candidates with more experience, this is the person we want to hold up for election in November."

I can't end this without pointing out an irony. The second quote I offered at the top of this entry is from a book by David Currie. The liner notes inform us that he is a Professor of Law at the University of Chicago. And who else was a professor of law at that esteemed school for twelve years?

See Article II, section 1 of the Constitution: "Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:— 'I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.'"

That's the thing about experience: a person may lack it in one relevant area but possess it in spades in another. Yes, Barack Obama is unusually unqualified to be President of the United States if you consider only the political positions he's held. But on the other hand, who is better qualified to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States than a guy who taught it at an elite law school for a dozen years?

I've focused here on Obama, but Sarah Palin is also young, and thus also lacking the experience one might expect from candidates one or two decades her senior. But neither Obama nor Palin is clearly disqualified from the office they seek. The debate should focus on the issues, not the resumes.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The terrorists of mid-September

In mid-September, we observe the anniversaries of two cruel, tragic incidents in which heartless, vicious terrorists killed American citizens. One incident, of course, took place in New York City on September 11, 2001.

The other terrorist act occurred in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15th, 1963. Three girls, ages eleven to fourteen, were killed by a dynamite blast set by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, the four girls who lost their lives, were eulogized by Dr. Martin Luther King. Here is King's oration; it is quite stirring.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The largest illicit transfer of wealth

"But though labour be the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities, it is not that by which their value is commonly estimated. It is of difficult to ascertain the proportion between two different quantities of labour. The time spent in two different sorts of work will not always alone determine this proportion. The different degrees of hardship endured, and of ingenuity exercised, must likewise be taken into account."

--Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 5 (emphasis mine).

You may have seen T. Boone Pickens on television commercials touting his energy plan. In those ads, and on his website, this statement is made:

"Projected over the next 10 years the cost (of imported oil) will be $10 trillion — it will be the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind."

This statement, alas is not followed by a citation. One of the things I try to do here on my blog, is whenever I make a declaration of fact of something that isn't readily apparent, I let you know where I got the information. (I say "something that isn't readily apparent" because I figure I can write "two plus two equals four" without being challenged.)

There are two reasons I cite sources. First, you might be interested in learning more, and by giving you a reference I've helped you start your own quest for knowledge. Second, and far more important, I would lose credibility if anybody thought the things I write as fact are simply matters that seem logical in my own head, where they aren't challenged as thoroughly as theories are in the marketplace of ideas.

So, I must say I'm disappointed that this assertion that the money we pay over the next decade for foreign oil will be the largest transfer of wealth in man's long history is not followed by some reference. I'd like to know how, when, and where this tidbit was determined so I can evaluate its authority. Personally, I'm suspicious. That's because I always assumed the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind occurs whenever T. Boone Pickens withdraws cash at his local ATM.

Seriously though, in thinking about what Adam Smith wrote of labor being the "real" measure of the value of commodities, plus the old Scotsman's assertion that we must take the degree of hardship of that labor into account, I wonder if the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind wasn't the taking of human beings from the African continent and forcing them to work for others in the New World.

Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World by David Brion Davis is one of those "bucket list" books everybody should read before checking out. On page 106 of his tome, Davis, summarizing the studies of others, presents a map showing where the slaves originated, where they wound up, and in what numbers. The figures are just rough estimates, of course, but they are quite staggering. There were around 224,000 slaves imported to Mexico and Central America, four million taken to the West Indies, and 4,675,000 carried to mainland South America. Oh, and another 480,000 were brought to the United States.

That makes a total of well over nine million people forcibly removed from Africa to work in the Western Hemisphere as uncompensated labor.

But remember: we're not talking here only about the actual slaves imported, but also their descendants. As I noted in a recent post, the 1860 U.S. census--the last one before the end of slavery--counted 3,950,511 slaves in the country. That's over an eightfold increase between the number of slaves ever imported into the United States and the number we eventually wound up having. No doubt there were millions of slaves in the US who were neither imported themselves nor counted in 1860 because they had died before that year. The point is, it's mind boggling to think just how many individuals there were in the New World between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries who earned no money, but were responsible for vast creation of wealth that was transferred to their owners and others.

I'm no economist, but it seems to me that this might well have been the "greatest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind." I could be wrong, but I'd like to see some figures from the Pickens people showing me how sending Saudis ten trillion bucks for oil is a bigger transfer of wealth than two centuries of slavery.

At least sending money to the Arabs, bad as it is, isn't anywhere near as disgusting.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The teen pregnancies you don't hear about

It seems to me that with all that has been written and said about Sarah Palin's teenage daughter being pregnant, an important fact is being left out. Namely, Bristol Palin's baby is one of the lucky ones. The child is going to be born into a stable situation with not only parents, but grandparents committed to his or her welfare. The Palin family also has the financial resources to assure the kid's well-being.

Babies born to the typical teenager? Not so fortunate. According to this article, in 2006, one hundred thirty nine thousand girls in the United States, ages fifteen through seventeen, gave birth. And often the infants don't get a very good start in their young lives:

"Pregnant teens aged 15 to 19 are less likely to get prenatal care and gain appropriate weight, experts say. They are also more likely smoke than pregnant women aged 20 years or older...

"'The numbers also say something about the health of these teenagers' children, who are more likely to have a low birth weight,' said Sondik, which is a 'cause of concern.'

"Low birth weight infants, defined as less than 5 pounds 8 ounces, are at increased risk for infant death and such lifelong disabilities as blindness, deafness and cerebral palsy. The report also showed an overall increase in low birth weight infants."

I'm sure over the next few days we'll continue to hear much talk about whether Bristol Palin's pregnancy is a political liability or not, or whether it's even fair for the media to address the subject. But it certainly would be beneficial if all of us would pause for a moment to think of the staggering teen pregnancy figures, and to pray with all our hearts for the health and security of those other 138,999 babies. Infants born in America deserve love and caring, whether their mom is a thirty-five year old with a six figure salary or a fifteen year old who's feeling lonely and scared.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Snooty on the schools

In Maureen Dowd's column mocking John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate, the New York Times columnist wrote this:

"Obama may have been president of The Harvard Law Review, but Palin graduated from the
University of Idaho with a minor in poli-sci..."

You will note if you read the whole thing that Dowd is being sarcastic. Meanwhile, have a look at what Susan Reimer of the Baltimore Sun had to say:

"Barack Obama was the editor of the Harvard Law Review, for heaven's sake. And the best McCain can do is a woman who minored in poly-sci at the University of Idaho?"

Well, at least Dowd, unlike Reimer, knows what exactly it is Obama did at Harvard Law Review that was noteworthy--that he was it's first African-American president. Reimer incorrectly declares that Obama was "the" editor of the publication. In fact, it has lots of editors; just count all the ones for the latest volume.

You may wish to take note of the difference between being "the" president of the Harvard Law Review and "an" editor of it, because I'll bet Reimer's misstatement isn't the only time you're going to hear or see this error. As we see from this article posted on the Harvard Law Review website, this significant difference means that the correct answer to the inquiry "Who was the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review?" is not "Barack Obama" but "Charles Houston, back in 1922."

Anyway, that's just something I stumbled into when I first noticed the similarity between Dowd's statement and Reimer's, which led me to such a minute dissection of how they are different. But it's the similarity between the statements that I really want to address.

I graduated from Southern Illinois University; the main campus in Carbondale. Since I live in America, somebody isn't better than me simply because he has an Ivy League pedigree. It's fine to tout Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, Northwestern, etc. as elite schools, but when you do so it's best not to mention other universities in the same sentence with an air of condescension.

Well, it certainly seems to me that this is what Dowd and Reimer have done. Obama, now, he's Harvard! Palin? She's just from the University of Idaho! How dreadful; she probably doesn't even know which fork to use for the escargot at a formal dinner!

I know, I know--you're going to say I'm being too sensitive about this. After all, it's not just that they are contrasting Harvard with the U. of Idaho; they are also highlighting the difference between being on a law review and being a poly-science minor.

But why bring up Palin's minor instead of her major? What strange thing could the Governor have been majoring in there in picturesque Moscow, Idaho?

Take a look at Governor Palin's biography:

"She received a bachelor of science degree in communications-journalism from the University of Idaho in 1987."

Perhaps the reason neither columnist mentioned Palin's major is that to do so would cast aspersion on what Dowd and Reimer do for a living themselves.

Hmm.... maybe Palin isn't qualified to be vice-president. After all, who wants someone to be a heartbeat away from the presidency when in college she actually wanted to go into journalism like Maureen Dowd and Susan Reimer did?