9.23.2014

USA Today Takes on Service Academies' Admissions, and Fails

It seems the editors of USA Today are not happy with the way the U.S. military academies select their cadets and midshipmen.  It is, in their opinion, too political and "produces geographic balance at the expense of racial diversity."

As we all know, the variations in skin pigmentation are the singular most important aspect of a good education and absolutely essential to preparing young men and women for future command responsibilities.  Nothing else matters more.

Or so USA Today seems to think.

It would be ironic were it not so typical of human beings and politics that we have so distorted and perverted Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream of a society where skin color doesn't matter that we use his dream as the justification for making skin color almost the only thing that matters.

To be sure, because nominations are made by politicians, it can be a political process.  I will point out, however, that my own son was nominated to the Naval Academy by then-Rep. Herseth-Sandlin, as well as by Senator Johnson and Senator Thune.  Apparently my politics were not a stumbling block to either Senator Johnson or Representative Herseth-Sandlin.  And I have never given money to any of them, not even Senator Thune.  The insinuation that such campaign donations are an essential step for those wanting to get a nomination for their children is simply false.

Most delegates to Congress want to make sure the people they nominate have a high probability of selection and eventual success at the service academies.  The screening process is not separated from politics, but neither is it dictated by purely political considerations.  The kinds of suggestions USA Today puts out are in most cases already practiced.  We must also bear in mind that a military commission is also political - one is commissioned by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate, even as a lowly ensign or 2nd lieutenant.  While this is rather automatic at those lower ranks, it is not unheard of to have a senator stand on the process when it comes to colonels, navy captains, and certainly flag officers.  Skin pigmentation, by the way - "racial diversity" - is also a political consideration that is not ignored by those in Congress who make these nominations.

And if you think it should be purely "merit" and not "politics" at all, consider the political implications of the decisions a ship, brigade, squadron, or battalion commander might well be called on to make.  Politics is part of the job, and thus an essential component for determining merit in the first place.  The military is an instrument of state power, and it ought to remain subject to state control lest it become the tool for controlling the state.  The process in place, while not perfect, helps to maintain and emphasize civilian political control of the military, which is a good thing.

Finally, a nomination to the academy does not guarantee either acceptance or success at the academy.  A look at the 2018 class at the Naval Academy - those who began this past June - shows that 6,724 were nominated.  Of those, a mere 21% - 1,398 - were offered appointments (1,191 accepted).  The racial make-up of the class shows roughly 9.6% Black, just shy of 12% Hispanic, and not quite 13% Asian.  The U.S. population as a whole is 13% Black, 17% Hispanic, 5% Asian, but we should expect a slightly higher representation of Asians at an engineering school like the Naval Academy - it (engineering) is a profession to which Asians seem disproportionately attracted.  The others are fairly close for a highly selective student body smaller than 5,000.

The "problems" USA Today thinks it has identified are, it turns out, not really problems at all.  The admissions process in place already does a pretty good job, even on the misguided criteria their editors set for it.

The Governor Answers Satisfactorily for Those Interested in Answers, Not for Those Who Aren't

Governor Rounds has formally answered the questions of the legislature's investigating committee.  The Argus Leader calls the answers "combative."  No, they aren't.  They are direct, yes, and I would also characterize them as impatient.  From Governor Rounds' perspective it seems, this is all so obvious and clear and it's hard to understand why reasonable people give it the time of day.  I'm sure it is clear and obvious - to those who are intimately familiar with how EB-5 and economic development bureaucracies and deals typically work.  The governor is in that camp.  Most of us in the state are not.

His problem is complicated by the fact that the press is eager to have something create at least some kind of tension regarding the upcoming election.  "Governor Rounds Essentially Unopposed Except for a Tired Retread, a Liberal to the Left of Lenin, and a Disgruntled Jacobin with No Money" - that doesn't make for a very interesting story line and so it won't sell newspapers.  Despite all the gesticulating of journalists claiming they're in it for some higher purpose or mouthing phrases like "truth" and "need to know" and "first amendment", the real reason they exist is to sell papers.  Boring doesn't sell.  Democrats can't run on the issues, and the press have nothing else useful to create controversy, so both are using the EB-5 stuff.

So I understand his impatience.  And it is important not to let the opponents set the tone of the campaign.  It is good, then, to have these answers out there.  Any more questions on it, the governor can simply refer people to these press releases, say "I answered those questions already," and move on to what he wants to talk about.  Those interested in truth will check that out and be satisfied (and I encourage you to do so).  The others - well, nothing would satisfy them anyway.

As for that answer, I think this is the most salient point:
To suggest a “conspiracy” the democrats should have the insight…to follow their logic through.  Eight different organizations – including republican and democrat elected officials and appointees have been involved.  If there is a conspiracy – all eight of those entities are either all-together conspiring or all-together negligent…
Governor Rounds is not arguing that nothing went amiss, for it does seem as if some people abused his trust.  This happens.  I remember somebody describing a fellow chaplain in typical colorful sailor lingo, "He's got his head so far up the Admiral's ass, if the boss makes a sharp turn he'll break his neck."  I answered, "I think, probably the most difficult part of being an admiral has got to be sorting out those who are honestly buying into the program from the doting sycophants just trying to hitch their wagons to his star."  It is inevitable that those in authority - governors, mayors, presidents, as well as corporate executives and military commanders - will not always get that right.  Only God knows a man's heart, and this is a question of discerning a man's heart.

So the possibility that Governor Rounds may have made such an error regarding a couple of his employees does not in the least indicate that he is unfit to lead or serve as a senator.  By the way, it is worth calling attention in this context to Governor Rounds' statement in the second letter - Mr. Bollen was never an employee of the Governor's office.  He worked for the Northern State University Board of Regents which does not answer to the governor.  Interesting.

As for the "scandal" labeled EB-5, I think it indicates some shortfalls in the state's mechanism for holding people accountable, and that's about all it indicates.

9.19.2014

Scotland Stays in UK, Cameron Promises Move Towards Federalism

By a 10-point margin, Scotland's voters decided to remain within the United Kingdom.  This is good.  The rosy promises made by the independence party were, and are, illusory.

Prime Minister Cameron is making vague promises about more power for Scotland, but if that does not also entail less power, it will set him up for much bigger problems down the road.  What I mean is, it's perfectly legitimate to give Scotland greater autonomy with fewer decisions being made for them in Westminster where English MPs dominate.  But that must also mean greater autonomy for England, for Wales, and for Northern Ireland which means the influence of Scottish MPs in those territories would diminish.  In short, if this leads to a greater degree of federalism, less centralization, then it will be a good thing.

I'm a big fan of federalism.  I wish we had more of it in the U.S.  It's one of the reasons I tend to vote conservative and Republican.  The Democrat Party is, today, the party of centralization and uniformity.  They speak of "diversity" but diversity in the Democrat Party only goes skin deep.  There is a desire to make everything else the same.  Conservatives are, for the most part, quite content to let Californians do whatever Californians wish to do as long as they keep it in California.  Liberals are not content to let Texans be Texans.

But why should there be a federal minimum wage?  Why can't we let the several states make their own decision on that without prompting from Washington?  Do we really need a "common" core - that is, national education standards?  Can't the citizens of South Dakota and the citizens of Florida figure out for themselves what they want their kids to learn?  Is it really such a terrible thing if South Dakota bans abortion but California doesn't?

There are some things that would need to be worked out at the federal level, such as the "full faith and credit" clause of the U.S. Constitution when it comes to the marriage contract.  If you engage in the contract in a state that does not permit divorce except for specific reasons, would that require another state to honor such provisions?  If one state permits "marriage" between persons of the same sex or - and it could well come to it - between different species, would another state have to grant visitation rights to the "spouse"?  Or could you get out of such a contract simply by moving to a state that didn't acknowledge it?

These are but a few of the vexing questions we'd need to resolve, but I've no doubt we'd be able to do so, and with far less rancor than is generated by the effort to impose a one-size-fits-all polity on a country as economically, politically, culturally, and materially diverse as this one.  I think federalism in the U.K. would have even fewer road bumps.

9.18.2014

EB-5, Used Cars, and Used Governments

There's a news item from David Montgomery in the Argus indicating, according to the headline, that a letter laid out privatization plans for the regional center handling EB-5 in 2007.  Indeed there is such a letter.  It is, however, utterly innocuous.  As Montgomery reports, it shows a pretty standard sort of state government decision-making process.

It also shows that Rounds trusted the people working for him.

And it reinforces the image that those people working for him kept some things from him.  Other regional centers were being privatized and that seemed the way to go.  Okay, EB-5 guy (that would be Mr. Bollen), make that happen.

And Mr. Bollen did make it happen.  He created a private company, arranged for the transfer of responsibilities, signed the contract and had someone else sign for the private company he'd just created.  Was that other person a partner in the business, or just signing as the duly authorized representative of the company - a short-term employee - in order to prevent having Mr. Bollen's signature as both the state agent and the company agent?

Rounds says, and we have no reason to doubt him, that he didn't know Mr. Bollen was the founder of the company Mr. Bollen contracted with to privatize the EB-5 regional center.

Then there's the question of the half million dollars for Northern Beef that ended up with Mr. Benda.

While formerly working for the Governor's office, Mr. Benda left that to work for Mr. Bollen's firm.  Mr. Benda arranged a $1 million grant to Northern Beef as part of the state's program of encouraging economic development (that whole public-private partnership kind of thing that is at the root of this and numerous other problems).  According to news reports, Mr. Benda hand delivered that check, and then informed them they owed Mr. Bollen's firm half of it.  Northern Beef duly cut the check to Mr. Bollen's firm.  That half was for Mr. Benda's salary, it seems.

So was it even illegal?  Attorney General Jackley and a grand jury thought it so and were ready to indict.  It is by no means clear that a trial jury would concur, but before it could be brought to trial, Mr. Benda killed himself.

Whether it was illegal or not, it is certainly of dubious morality.  As I said before, it's a small state and we tend to do things on a hand-shake and a cup of coffee.  A man's word means something around these parts - mostly.  But the fact that it is only "mostly" means the state (and individuals and corporations) are left vulnerable when other structures of accountability either do not exist or are inoperable.  

For instance, why was there no competitive bidding process involved in privatizing the EB-5 regional center?  Who counter-signed contracts with Mr. Bollen?  We're talking contracts involving millions and it doesn't appear that anyone did.  I work in a church and we have at least two people (who are not relatives) review every dollar that comes in and every dollar that goes out, even if it's just a fifty dollar gas card to a needy person.

But these structures of accountability have costs - additional staff (or in our case, volunteers), the time it takes to process things, record-keeping responsibilities, and so on.  So far, it seems the state, and this includes both legislative and executive branches, seems unwilling to shoulder that cost.  Not shouldering it means opportunities to cut corners on both ethics and law are higher than in other states.

Do we want to pay for accountability structures that help us keep people in government honest, or do we want to pay for not having accountability structures when the occasional government employee and/or contractor is less than honest?  Bear in mind that accountability structures do not eliminate these sorts of activities, they just make them a little harder.  If you really want to eliminate them, you have to eliminate the kinds of public-private partnerships that get government involved in trying to kick-start the market or encourage businesses and all the rest.  No favored tax laws, no favored business subsidies, no guaranteed small business or big business loans, no nothing.  The only way to really stop this is to stop all programs where government gives money to private individuals to subsidize their private lives.  As long as government is giving away money, there will be people trying to game the system to maximize their take.

This, too, is a question for the citizens of South Dakota and our elected representatives in the legislature.  It does not indicate either incompetence or dishonesty or law-breaking on the part of Governor Rounds.  He had a system in place, a system that seemed to be working, so he didn't try to fix it.  We only found out it wasn't working and needed fixing after he left office.  That happens.  

We bought a used car for my daughter.  Neither we nor the seller knew the coil on cylinder 5 would burn out just 24 hours after we bought it - it was working fine when they sold it to us.  We called the seller - they paid for the parts, we paid for the labor, and we did it with a hand-shake and a couple e-mails.  We're mostly, as I said, a pretty honest bunch of people out here.  Daugaard, like every governor before him, got a used government and neither he nor his predecessor knew this was broken until it broke.  He and his team are trying to get it fixed and the legislature is looking for ways to make sure it doesn't break again.  Who pays for the parts and who pays for the labor is still part of that negotiation at present.

Fair enough.  So let's concentrate on fixing it, instead of tossing about unsubstantiated accusations based on hearsay and innuendo.

9.17.2014

President Distressed by Failure of His Worldview

The president is distressed.  ISIS publicly beheaded a couple American journalists, got people here all spun up, and now he is in the situation where, politically, he has to do something.

But he doesn't want to do anything.  The whole situation is a huge mess.  You can't tell the good guys from the bad guys.  The good guys, such as they are, are just as corrupt and venal as the bad guys.  Between Iran, Syria, al Qaeda, ISIS, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the whole ugly mix of splinter groups hoping to make the papers by tweaking the Great Satan's eye - the SEALs unofficial motto is starting to look more and more reasonable - "Kill 'em all and let God sort it out."

He can't do that.  He's just thinking about it and Code Pink is already disrupting senate hearings, proving themselves just as irksomely irrational as they've ever been.  Why can't liberal protest groups remember to shut up when Democrats do what Republicans did?  They're supposed to only make a stink when Republicans run the hearings.

So now we've got to do something.  What we need to do is what he should have done 5 years ago - set up a proper SOFA with the Iraqi government, maintain a reinforced brigade or two (about 20,000 personnel) in combat and training postures, and keep a lid on this kind of stuff until the Iraqi government is sufficiently stable and the population sufficiently appreciative of democratic freedoms that something like ISIS would never gain a popular foothold.

He made pulling out of Iraq his big foreign policy achievement the way he made Obamacare his big domestic achievement.  Both are exploding in his face and his own followers are blaming him as much as the opposition.

Of course, his followers conclude he's not liberal enough, so don't count on them to support the GOP, but the real problem is that the world simply does not work the way he and most liberals think it works.  I will grant liberals that, if the world did work the way they think it does, we'd all be better off.  It's not the vision of what ought to be that I find objectionable.  It's the illusion that it's possible to get there without the return of Jesus and the final elimination of sin and death and suffering - and the absurd notion that it's possible to get closer to that ideal through government control - that I find objectionable.

All that said, I feel for Obama's dilemma even though it is, at this point, a dilemma of his own making.  There are no good solutions short of accepting the fact that Islam is by its very nature prone to the kind of militant expression we see in ISIS and al Qaeda and Hezbollah and Hamas, and deciding we need to make sure all such proponents and actors on that militantism meet a rapid, painful exit from this world.  That requires a ruthless determination I don't think either Obama or the American people at present really have.

Scotland Votes on Independence Tomorrow

Scotland votes tomorrow on whether or not to remain in the United Kingdom or become a separate Commonwealth nation.

There are lots of sentimental reasons for doing so.  There are almost no economic reasons for it.  And, politically, it would greatly benefit UKIP and the Tories in England.  Presently Scotland sends 59 MPs (Members of Parliament, not Military Police) to Westminster.  One of them is conservative and another is listed as independent.  Forty are Labor and 11 are Liberal.  The remaining 6 are of the Scottish Independence Party and left of center as well.

At present, there are 650 members of the British Parliament - 307 Conservative, 258 Labor, 58 Liberal, the remaining 23 being various cats & dogs parties, independents, and so on.  Since nobody has an absolute majority (326 seats), the Conservatives are presently governing in a coalition with the Liberals.

Scottish Independence means there would be only 591 members parliament, but 51 of those they're taking away are Labor and Liberal party MPs - only one is Conservative.  That leaves a parliament with 306 Conservatives, 218 Labor, and 47 Liberals that only needs 296 seats to form a majority government.

The Bank of England will continue to be the institution governing - and guarding - the integrity of the UK's currency, too.  The Scottish Independence people think they'll be able to keep that currency and, frankly, if they want to, they can.  But England will run it.  Ask the Greeks how well it works to have other countries manage your currency.  The Italians, and the Irish, too, might also be able to offer some advice on that score.  One cannot be truly independent while dependent on another nation's currency.

There will be other costs, too - costs borne by Britain, among others.  There are major Royal Navy and RAF bases in Scotland that will have to be closed down and their functions transferred to British territory.  That will be expensive to Britain, but it will also mean a not-insignificant number of civilian jobs supporting those bases head south with them.  Scottish unemployment is already higher than the UK as a whole.  Scotland's ability to function in NATO as an independent nation is highly doubtful, as well.

The Scottish Independence Party pushing this bid has visions of replicating the Scandinavian socialism of Sweden or Norway.  The former is finding it increasingly untenable - it's too expensive - and the latter funds their socialism in large part through North Sea oil and natural gas.  Scotland may be able to do that somewhat, but the leftist constituencies are also typically beholden to environmentalist fantasies, too, which makes them more than a little ambivalent about oil and natural gas exploration and production.  If Scotland votes for independence, their celebration will be, I am fairly certain, rather short-lived.

David Cameron has not performed well as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party in England.  He is being quite appropriately criticized for his failure to avert Scottish Independence, his mismanagement of the UK's relationship to the EU, and numerous other matters.  But I can't say it's a total failure to send off to another country 1/6 of the opposition's MPs.  Yes, that's a bit of making-lemonade-out-of-lemons thinking, I know.  Still, it provides an opportunity for those who must deal with the hash Cameron's made of governing the UK.

9.12.2014

Lead Us Into Temptation

An interesting article on the notion of "media effects."  The author asserts, rightly, that the link between media and certain violent behavior is less than solid.  We cannot draw a direct line from a video game like Grand Theft Auto to an increased tendency towards violence.

The discussion is in the context of British Tabloids, particularly, The Sun which has had a "Page 3 girl" for nearly 40 years.  The Page 3 girl is usually topless and the publisher, Mr. Murdoch, was wondering if that wasn't a bit old-fashioned and that having some modicum of clothing might be more attractive.

It is worth pointing out that Murdoch is not particularly interested in whether feminists find the "Page 3" girl objectifying of women.  He just thinks they might be more visually appealing (more attractive) in lingerie than nude.  You can read Mr. O'Neill's piece yourself, though, for his discussion regarding that.  But I do think he misunderstands some things about human nature, however much he may be correct in asserting individual responsibility for moral choices we make.
The agitation against Page 3 is driven by the same misanthropy that has motored every act of censorship in recent times — the idea that the little people will be morally corrupted if they are allowed to see certain images or hear certain words and that therefore they must have their eyes and ears covered by those who know better, whether it’s the Christian who censors for God or the feminist who bans in the name of womankind.
Censorship is not necessarily motored by misanthropy or the idea that sweet, righteous people might be corrupted.  Perhaps the idea is that people are already morally corrupted and that certain things tend to encourage (that is, tempt) them to indulge that moral corruption.  Christianity does not teach, although there are Christians who think, that people are essentially innocent until corrupted by things like The Sun's Page 3.  We teach that we are fundamentally corrupted by sin from the beginning ("...in sin did my mother conceive me" - Ps. 51:5, ESV).  The negative effect of pornography - including photos of topless (or scantily clad) young women on page 3 - is not that it corrupts, but that it feeds a corruption already present.

This is, then, the same danger that a game like Grand Theft Auto presents.  While it may provide a harmless outlet for the corrupt heart of man so that the delight felt by inflicting pain on others is gained virtually, assaulting pixels rather than flesh and blood, it also provides encouragement and support for that corruption.  Venting one's corrupt tendencies may be useful in the restraint of evil, but that does not mean it isn't evil.

The Christian attempt to censor and the times when Christians censure, are aimed at helping us not be led into temptation so that we are better able to resist the corruption within.  Page 3 of The Sun, the titillating ads in almost every publication, Maxim, most of what's on television - these are all designed to say, "Oh go on, give in.  It's just a little sin - what can it hurt?"

I think we'd be better off without Maxim or Page 3.  I don't think these corrupt us and I'm confident that, even without them, the corrupt heart of man will find other temptations.  Though getting rid of them may provide some relief, the cancer remains untouched.  But we don't need to pretend it isn't a cancer or, worse, encourage its growth and I have no problem with encouraging a sense of guilt when we do indulge in actions and habits that lead us into temptation.