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Welcome to STop, the Seattle Times Opinion blog where our editorial writers and editors share their evolving thoughts on a variety of issues. STop is a place where opinion writers and readers can exchange views and readers can learn more about how editorial positions are formed.

The opinions you read below are those of the individual writers, not necessarily views that will become formal positions of The Seattle Times. Respond to STop
(Please be aware that your name and comments may be published here, unless you specify otherwise).

Currently, STop cannot automatically post readers' comments on the blog. However, the editorial staff will regularly post readers' comments. Your comments are sent directly to the individual editor or writer.

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Jim Vesely
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Jim Vesely
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Lee Moriwaki
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Lee Moriwaki
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Joni Balter
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Joni Balter
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Eric Devericks
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Eric Devericks
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Lance Dickie
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Lance Dickie
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Bruce Ramsey
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Bruce Ramsey
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Kate Riley
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Kate Riley
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Lynne Varner
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Lynne Varner
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Ryan Blethen
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Ryan Blethen
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March 28, 2005

Digging a Credit Hole

Our story about a bill to regulate credit-card marketing on public college campuses begins with an anecdote about WSU student Brea Thompson. She said she got her first credit card just before she left home for college. “Now a senior,” the story says, “Thompson said she spent thousands of dollars on various cards before realizing she was digging herself into a hole of debt.”

Really. Here is a college senior--who happens to be WSU's student president--who spent thousands of dollars before thinking about paying back the debt.

State Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, sees it as a political issue. She has introduced a bill that would require colleges to adopt a regulatory policy for credit-card marketing on campus. The bill says the colleges should consider banning giveaways like candy and T-shirts, and that it would have to include efforts to “inform students about good credit management practices.”

Probably these things wouldn't hurt. And yet there is a whiff of the nanny state about them. Here are students above-average in intelligence and at least age 18—an age at which one can work at an adult job, vote, join the Army and buy cigarettes. At 18, one can sign a contract and be bound by it. That someone could sign up for a credit card, spend thousands of dollars, and not realize she was creating a debt problem—well, that sounds like her problem.

Handling credit is a problem for a lot of people, not just college students. It has little to do with adding numbers and a lot to do with controlling wants. For the most part it is not something the Legislature can manage.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 01:11 PM


March 24, 2005

Who Believes in States' Rights?


Conservatives contradict their doctrine of federalism—the common name is states’ rights—by pushing for federal intervention to save the body of Terri Schiavo. Several have pointed this out in our own pages. Today David Broder of the Washington Post says so, and Wednesday our own Danny Westneat said so in a column that I thought was more on point than Broder’s.

The conservative response to this argument has been to say, yeah, we’re violating states’ rights, but life is more important, and, second, that the liberals who raise this argument don’t believe it themselves. Here is Rich Lowry, editor of National Review. Lowry concludes his column with this: “One suspects that as soon as they are considering anything other than the fate of poor Terri Schiavo, liberals will lose their newfound suspicion of federal action.”

In other words, liberals are hypocrites. Of course, the whole argument we’re analyzing is that conservatives are hypocrites. I think both sides share that distinction.

States’ rights is an argument about process. Most people don’t care about process. If they can use an argument about process to get the result they want, they use it; if not, then not. When liberals control the federal government, which they mostly did when I was growing up, the conservatives resent it. Roe v. Wade, the abortion decision, took away a right of the states. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, and a conservative federal authority is trying to impose its will on such matters as gay marriage, medical marijuana, the right to die and Terry Schiavo, liberals raise the issue of state’s rights. Rich Lowry says they don’t really care about that—and he’s right. Most of them don't. But he doesn’t, either.

I do. I think states’ rights are an important check on federal power, and that in the long run the greatest danger to individual freedom is unchecked federal authority. I think the state of Florida reached the wrong decision in the Schiavo case, and that it ought to have sided with the parents. But I oppose the federal usurpation: Outcome bad, process good. I agree with the policy reasoning in Roe v. Wade, but I think it should have been left to state legislatures to decide: Outcome good, process bad. I don’t see my view supported either by mainline liberals or conservatives. Each cares about other things than federalism.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 10:46 AM


March 23, 2005

ANWR and Fungible Oil

A reader responds to my column advocating drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge:

Possibly I missed something, but what ensures that the oil will flow to US consumers? And in any event, since oil is a fungible commodity, won’t this simply be more supply for the market, and its source irrelevant to the market? It will be no different than if an additional filed is opened in Iraq, Russia, or anywhere.... save perhaps for its relative stability. But the oil won’t rebound to US consumers any more than it would to European, Japanese, anyone, though it is our Wilderness Refuge that it costs...

I wrote back:

I didn't take on the international dimension. Well, one can only say so much in 750 words, and I was trying to rebut my old colleague Joel Connelly. Oil is fungible. [i.e., it is interchangable with other oil, and goes into One Big Market.] The producer benefit would go to Alaskans and employees and stockholders of BP or Alyeska, or whomever, and maybe a bit to all Americans through a stronger dollar. The consumer benefit (in peacetime) would be spread worldwide. Certainly American consumers have benefited from oil production in Arabia, Nigeria, Venezuela, Canada, Mexico, etc. Maybe we owe Nigeria and Mexico--or Bangladesh and the Philippines--not to sit on this oil. If gasoline goes to $5 a gallon, or $10, it's the poor countries who will suffer most. Yes, it is our Wildlife Refuge. You have to ask how much it really costs that refuge--as a habitat for animals and as a trophy place for humans. Does a 21st century extraction effort wreck it? I don't think so.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 02:08 PM


Drill in ANWR?

Some reactions to my latest column:


I gotta tell ya, if the coastal plain of ANWR is a church, it is one where the members of the congregation likely go just once in their lives. It is cold, desolate, marshy and at times swarming with mosquitos. And a directional drilling presence there in winter couldn't bother the wildlife if it tried. (wouldn't bother it in the summer, either). [From a former Alaskan.]

I think drilling in ANWR is a distraction because it does nothing to reduce our oil dependency. Attractive alternatives exist, and I think you are far too dismissive of these advances in energy technologies and efficiencies. I'm sure you are familiar with Amory Lovins and his lifelong work on energy technology and economics. He is consultant to many of the fortune 100 and the Pentagon on energy alternatives. His most recent book, "Winning the Oil Endgame," describes how we can stop importing oil within the next 20 years (or sooner) using existing technologies that are equally or less expensive than current practice. His analysis is rigorous and, aside from the engineering, focuses on how a few changes in government policy and regulation could spur earlier adoption of these technologies.

Did you perhaps happen to attend the Svend Auken lecture last Friday evening, March 18th at Meany Hall? The room was at nearly 100% occupancy to hear Mr. Auken, Danisih minister of Energy and Environment, talk about how Denmark went from being 98% dependent upon foreign oil/energy in 1975 to being an exporter of energy today. That is a big change in just 30 years!
You are right that no one thing will solve our energy problems, but drilling in Alaska still seems a short term proposition to me--and one that only delays the development of energy policies and programs that Denmark has been so successful at.

More important to the energy problem is to reverse the insane chase after horsepower in the automobiles sold in America. Additionally, a lot of the heavy duty trucks pounding the interstate highway system to pieces should be on railway trains (TOFC Trailer on Flat Car) thus reducing the fuel burn of these dangerous monsters that do not pay their share in taxes for the damage they do to the highways.

If you have never seen what oil drilling does to the land, sea life,animals, people who live or have lived on those lands, parts of Texas is a really good example. You will not see it in the big cities, but in the oil fields themselves. The land is fenced off and signs that say "Keep Off!" The oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, oil spills have caused a great deal of problems. [From a former Texan.]

Drilling for oil in the refuge is one more step on our path to global warming, and I don't think you can deny that. The pandora's box we're opening with each new oil well could very well destroy the world as we know it. The Times recently published a letter to the editor from a UW paleontologist (or perhaps geologist -- can't remember for sure) who mentioned that historical atmospheric CO2 levels are well recorded within our geologic record. Not all that long ago, palm trees grew in Washington (my wife and I picked up some small palm fossils just a couple weeks ago, in fact), as a result of extensive volcanic activity which produced increased CO2 concentrations. We're currently on track to equal those historical concentrations in the next 50 years. The only thing holding us back is the thermal inertia of the oceans before we change the world forever as a result of our addiction to fossil fuels.

Next time someone proposes setting up a "wind farm" covering hundreds or thousands of acres in a "pristine" environment, ask them how this differs in substance from what is proposed for ANWR.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released its study of the energy efficiency of ethanol production. The report, "The Energy Balance of Corn Ethanol: An Update," concludes that ethanol production yields 34% more energy than is used in growing and harvesting grain and distilling it into ethanol. The report can be accessed on USDA's web site at www.usda.gov/oce/oepnu/aer-813.pdf.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 11:58 AM


March 21, 2005

Discriminating Dobermans


A state legislator argues that the refusal of insurance companies to insure owners of certain dog breeds is “discrimination.”

Literally, that is exactly what it is. It is discriminating between dobermans and, say, dachshunds. But so what? Discrimination itself cannot be wrong. We discriminate all the time: between the diligent and the sloppy, the ugly and the attractive, the old and the young, etc. The issue should be whether the factor underlying the discrimination really matters. With breeds of dog, I think it does. Otherwise we deny the difference in risk between a pit bull and a wienerdog.

It may be that someone has trained a pit bull to be gentle. I don't know; I have never had such an animal. But the insurance company, I think, should have the right to make decisions regarding animal breeds without the interference of legislators who have no financial stake in the risk contract.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 04:55 PM


March 18, 2005

Schiavo, Baseball and Conservatives

Today's stories on Schiavo and baseball have something in common. Both involve an appeal to the federal government to exert power that, under the Constitution, it doesn’t have. That is, both involve states’ rights—i.e., federalism.

Conservatives are the supposedly the guardians of federalism. In practice, many of them are for it only when it gets the results they want. Consider today’s stories. A brain-damaged woman, Terri Schiavo, has been unconscious for 15 years. A judge, representing the state of Florida, rules that she can be allowed to die. Conservatives rally to her defense and call for federal intervention.

The other story is that Sen. John McCain holds hearings on the use of certain prescription drugs in professional baseball. This is less a conservative-liberal issue, but Sen. McCain is a Republican and a conservative on many issues.

McCain has said, "Major-league baseball players and owners should meet immediately to enact the standards that apply to the minor leagues, and if they don't, I will have to introduce legislation that says professional sports will have minimum standards for testing."

My question: Why are either of these federal issues?

Baseball is an entertainment business. Whether its performers enhance themselves with legally available drugs should be an issue for baseball to decide. They have, in fact, decided it: the use is forbidden. I think that’s probably a good decision, but it’s their decision. It’s a private decision.

The case of Schiavo is different, but it still involves the question of who decides: Schiavo’s parents or her husband. That question should be up to a court—and a state court has decided. I would also add that there should be some rights by the payer of the medical bills. If the public is paying for her to be on a feeding tube in an institution for 15 years, the public authority may decide that it is not a wise use of public money. If the parents want her on the feeding tube, maybe they should pay for it.

Conservatives may disagree with me on this, but just because they feel strongly about a certain outcome does not justify an appeal to federal power.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 12:17 PM


March 17, 2005

A Response on State Employee Raises

I am a retired tugboat engineer and WE didn't get a raise for 10 years, then scabs took over some of our jobs, then I quit, so, given the present political and monetary climate, I'd say the state employees should start counting thier perks and appreciating them.

I am all for pay increases, but Washington state has many previous committments, INCLUDING health care for little children, that are yet unfinished.

Joe, Ocean Park

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 11:21 AM


March 16, 2005

Blaming the Bulldozer

The crushing of Rachel Corrie by an Israeli army bulldozer on March 16, 2003, is sad, but surely it is not the fault of the U.S. company that manufactured the bulldozer.

The young woman's parents have filed a lawsuit—you can read the complaint here--against Caterpillar. The complaint asserts a number of things, including that the woman was “intentionally killed” by the soldier driving the bulldozer, making the incident an example of “extrajudicial killing as defined by customary international law and the Torture Victim Protection Act.” Further, it asserts that Caterpillar was guilty of the killing because protesters had notified the company that they considered it responsible for what the Israeli government did with Cat bulldozers.

I’m no lawyer, but that argument does not pass the smell test with me. It is not a matter of who’s side you’re on in the Middle East, because I consider myself mainly on the Palestinian side. But let’s be realistic. Here’s a 23-year-old student from Evergreen State College who goes to a part of the world where she is a foreigner, and where there has been fighting for more than 50 years, and attempts to block an army bulldozer with her body. She steps in front of it, daring the driver to stop. He is a solider under military command. He doesn’t stop. After the fact comes an argument about whether he intended to run her over. All of which seems academic. They’re playing chicken here. That’s what can happen when you protest that way in that place. Whether you blame it on the soldier or the girl will depend on your politics. But to blame it on Caterpillar? Ridiculous.

Respond to Bruce.


Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 02:42 PM


Deja vu at Seattle Schools

As anyone who read my column today can guess, I find the Seattle Public Schools' inertia over school closure unsettling. Listening to debate on the issue, I feel like the Bill Murray character in the movie "Groundhog Day." The same conversation keeps happening over and over.

In recent months, Seattle Schools Superintendent Raj Manhas has promoted school closure as a way to lower costs and usher in an era of efficiency. But some members of the School Board remain skeptical.

We've been here before.

In January 2000, the Weighted Student Formula Committee pleaded with a different Seattle School Board to close or combine small schools that cost more money to operate. The committee was made up of principals, central administrators, union leaders and other educators.

"One of the reasons we're having such a difficult time in Olympia is they look at those numbers. They say, 'You have money you're not using wisely. Until you use it wisely, don't ask us for more money,'" said one committee member, Hajara Rahim, principal of Van Asselt Elementary.

Respond to Lynne.

Posted by Lynne Varner at 01:39 PM


March 15, 2005

State employee raises

A reader sends a link to this page, which has the salaries of many of the government workers in Washington. We are all used to hearing about the top salaries and how small they are—and it is true, if you look at the salary for mayor or governor and compare it to CEO in the private sector. But if you go down in the organization, the comparison is different. Some of the government salaries are not bad—and these are only the cash salaries, not the medical benefits and pensions, which are substantially better than the average in the private sector.

Consider that the state employees have negotiated pay and benefit increases on top of these salaries—and that the state cannot pay them unless it raises tax rates.

Are the raises justified?

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 03:09 PM


March 14, 2005

No Birthday for Tibet

A supporter of Tibet writes:

March 10th was the Tibetan National Uprising Day commemorating the March 1959 Tibetan uprising in Lhasa to protest the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Chinese troops brutally put down the uprising and Lhasa was littered with corpses of Tibetans. Yet there was not a single reference to this in the Seattle Times of the 10 March. Not even the "Today In History" column in The Odds and Ends section mentions it. I find this omission bad -- I'm sure the Chinese would be happy though.

Similarly Tiananmen Square is often mentioned in the Western press but never the Lhasa riots in the 80s when, again, hundreds of Tibetans were slaughtered. After more than 50 years the Chinese still a have brutal grip on the Tibetans. However, we do not see much in the Western press about conditions in Tibet because Beijing keeps visiting journalists under strict control or out of Tibet altogether.

I replied to him: "That's the first I've heard of Tibetan National Uprising Day, and I imagine there are more reasons for not hearing of it than that China keeps journalists out. I haven't seen much in the way of Tibetan exile protests (except at the WTO in 99). I haven't heard of any guerrilla movement or terrorist program or Gandhian resistance. No country next to China is going to act as a base for a nationalist movement and the Tibetans are not renowned as fighters. Wasn't it the Brits who invaded about a century ago and beat them on their own ground? If there were another uprising, China would crush it and no one would intervene--and everyone knows that. I think the Tibetans have a lost cause, at least for my lifetime."

Probably this was taken as a callous reply--that I don't care about the Tibetans. I was trying to explain a news editor's thinking. A thousand things come across his desk, and he has to decide, quickly, Who needs to know this? Who cares about this? Who will this affect? A thousand foreign causes vie for attention in the small segment of the American press devoted to international news. Wars and disasters come first, particularly those involving Americans. There is not much room for the nationalist yearnings of a people who are quiescent. An anniversary is no more than a "peg" for such a story; it is not a story itself unless someone does something to make it a story.

I recall an article the Times editorial page ran that was critical of Israel. A reader wrote in, furious, claiming that we had deliberately insulted Jewish people by printing that article on Adolf Hitler's birthday. She knew it was Hitler's birthday; none of us did. I doubt if anyone on the paper knew it was the anniversary of an uprising in Tibet 45 years ago.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 11:47 AM


March 11, 2005

Erasing the Stalin Connection


For years, King County has been giving out the Paul Robeson Awards to scholar-athletes. To honor athletes who are also scholars is a good thing, and I’m for it. But…Paul Robeson? The county’s mini-bio of this man says he was an African American singer, actor and political activist, but skims over just what sort of political activist he was. Part of his activism was for racial equality, and that part is good. But at the outbreak of the Cold War, when Stalin was imposing Communism on Eastern Europe and Mao was imposing it on China, this man was publicly siding with them against the United States. He accepted the Stalin Prize from the Soviet government. You can read about it at this non-political source.

The King County web page omits this. It does say the U.S. State Department took away Robeson’s passport for most of the 1950s, but it doesn’t say why. It doesn’t mention that he was called in front of a Congressional committee and asked about his Party membership. He refused to answer.

I don’t know if Paul Robeson ever said he was a Communist, but the Communists claim him as one of theirs: look here, here, and here.

When the Bush Administration put Robeson on a postage stamp, they left that part out. (Ditto for Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, another stamp Stalinist.)

Well, so what? Can’t we celebrate a Communist for his other achievements? Yes, particularly his non-political achievements. But if we’re celebrating Robeson as a political activist, it does matter what he was an activist for.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 03:19 PM


March 10, 2005

Harem? No way.


On our editorial page today, Froma Harrop extracts this lesson from the Romance that Sunk the CEO: That it’s the CEO’s fault. To him she says, “The world is not your harem. Your love life says something about how you regard your female workers and consumers.” She refers to the Boeing CEO “marauding the female office pool.” To her, she says… nothing. Because the woman is of lower corporate rank, she is not criticized.

I say they both go or they both stay. In my book, they’d both stay unless it was affecting the company—and affecting the company should be something more substantial than “embarrassing” it. The management works for the stockholders, and what do they care about a romance unless it affects their investment?

My view is much closer to that of Richard Cohen of the Washington Post.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 03:29 PM


Rwanda Response

George Conard, who is working in Rwanda, replies to my post on the Rwandan genocide:

Whether the US has a moral obligation to intervene unilaterally...is a tricky question: you're right that it may not be a specifically US concern but if the US has the capacity to stop the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people I think that it's reasonable to ponder whether they should...

I understand that this is, perhaps, promiscuous and it's not a simple issue to muddle through. I wish I knew the right answer. In general I do agree that the UN is the right organization for interventions, but that requires strong support from member states like the US - and that didn't happen with Rwanda. At the very least, it would have been nice to see the US provide tangible support [to the UN effort] rather than urging delays and restraint and sending vehicles that were essentially useless.

On the issue of Belgium, [there is] a convincing case that the Belgians were exactly the wrong people to intervene. There was a lot of animosity toward the colonial power in Rwanda, and a Belgian intervention would likely have made things worse as they would have likely been seen as heavily biased toward one side in the conflict.

Discussions like these, of course, have been going on for years. The problem is that when something happens like the genocide in Rwanda in '94 or the current genocide in Darfur, the world continues to debate and discuss while people die in massive numbers.

As an aside, while normally a Seattle resident I'm currently working in Kigali (Rwanda) for 3-6 months. I have to say, driving past a church and having a colleague point out that 3000 people were massacred inside and knowing that it's one of hundreds of locations like this really drives home the reality of the situation. We should be careful about making emotional decisions, yes, but we also shouldn't remove our humanity from policy decisions.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 01:59 PM


March 09, 2005

It's About Management

That's it. My esteemed colleague, Bruce Ramsey, and I have been having hallway skirmishes over the wisdom of Boeing's ouster of Harry Stonecipher because of an affair for two days. Instead of taking it outside, I'll take it to the blog.

In his entry below, Ramsey would have fired neither. But he says, if he had to go, so should she.

This isn't about treating two colleagues fairly. It's about shrewd management and judgment.

Put me in the camp that believes Boeing's investigation into l'affaire de coeur uncovered more than just evidence of an affair. There are reports of Stonecipher's lurid email to the woman. Duh!! Does anyone in this day and age believe your company email is private? Or your phone calls.

Also, that Stonecipher was well above her in the corporate food-chain (although she was not a direct report) puts more culpability on him.

But, I digress. I really don't think this was about morality (adultery) or about sex in the workplace. It was about judgment.

I also don't think this will be too costly for the company. Stonecipher, at 68, wasn't expected to stay past summer 2006, and a low-grade CEO search was ongoing. And, judging from speculation about possible successors, the bench is pretty deep.

With Stonecipher's requested resignation, Boeing can make a splashy statement about its commitment to ethical leadership and not miss too many beats.

Respond to Kate.

Posted by Kate Riley at 04:50 PM


Gender equality at Boeing

Harry Stonecipher’s lover is identified: a 48-year-old divorced woman, with an M.B.A. from the University of Washington School of Business. Should she have to leave Boeing, too? If the affair was the only reason for canning Stonecipher, then I think the answer is yes.

But as my colleague Danny Westneat points out, some prominent companies have excused both sides in such matters.

What do readers think? Is this an embarrassment to the company, and, if so, does that make it the company’s business? Does Stonecipher’s status as married but separated make it more embarrassing (and more of the company’s business?) And should an exit be enforced on both partners?

My opinion: I probably would have enforced it on neither, but if it applies to him it should apply to her.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 01:26 PM


Cato likes Locke

The Cato Institute’s favorite long-serving Democratic governor of 2004, measured in terms of taxing and spending, was Gary Locke.

Cato’s libertarian agenda is toward less taxing and spending, and its annual ranking of governors generally favors Republicans. In its 2004 report, two among the country’s long-serving (‘senior class’) governors, Bill Owens of Colorado and Judy Martz of Montana, both Republicans, were graded “A.” Of the five graded “B,” four are Republicans. The other is Locke, who was rated highly on keeping taxes down, though the study also credits Washington voters.

Among newer (‘junior class’) governors, Cato’s favorites in the taxing and spending league were Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Craig Benson of New Hampshire, both Republicans. The highest scoring Democrats, with grades of “B,” were Bill Richardson of New Mexico, John Baldacci of Maine and Phil Bredesen of Tennessee.

Of all governors, the worst in Cato’s view was Bob Taft of Ohio, Republican.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 01:05 PM


A response from Zillah

A reader of my column , Michael Libbee, sends this response:

Four years ago my wife and I purchased a run-down historical farmhouse in the Zillah wine country. Our intention was to restore the home and open it as a very discreet Bed and Breakfast serving wine country visitors "by referral only." The area desperately needs such lodging to support wine tourism. We have about $450,000 invested in this endeavor.

One "neighbor" has virtually declared war on us. First, a four page legal document whereby he would "permit" a B&B next door to him, but only if "all disputes" would be resolved in favor of the "neighbor." After we refused to sign, a campaign of harassment and attempted intimidation began, to include daily forays around our house in his pickup truck, honking his horn (which plays the first few bars of "Dixie") as he guns his truck up our common access driveway, malicious trespass, erecting No Trespassing signs on our property, driving through our gardens and side yard, frequent verbal assaults, filing a ludicrous lawsuit to take adverse possession of our front yard, amending that lawsuit to complain that our 20 and 50 watt tree accent lights were attracting insects to his orchards and that we were somehow stealing his irrigation water, and harassing our employees and visitors...

I have no doubt that if we ever bring this project to fruition, he will harass our guests to the point of making the business not viable. This is one neighbor.

And I thought it was different in the countryside, where people are not pushed so close together. Maybe not.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 11:30 AM


March 08, 2005

Social Security Quick Calculations

A defender of Social Security who keeps emailing me (and everyone else on the editorial page here) argues here that the retirement income is a good deal:

The average salary in the US is $30,000 per year. At 6.2%, the average person pays $1,900 per year in Social Security taxes. Let's say this is your average salary for 45 working years. 45 years X $1,900 = $85,500. I know, I'm not adding compound interest… When you retire at 65 years old, you will get roughly $1,200 per month. 12 months X $1,200 = $14,440 per year.

- If you live to 75 you get $144,400
- If you live to 85 you get $288,800
- If you live to 95 you get $433,200
- If you live to 105 you get $577,600

Even if you only live ten years into retirement, you do pretty darn well on your $1,900 per year investment….

What to say of this? First, the average salary, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is more like $37,000. In adding the tax rate, you have to include the other 6.2% the employer pays, because it is part of his cost of employing you. So the tax is really 12.4%, or $206,460 over 45 years, or five and a half years' of income. On the other hand, the tax pays disability benefits in addition to retirement income.

According to the quick calculator on the official Social Security web page, the expected benefit of a worker born in June 1965 earning $37,000 and planning to retire at age 67, in 2032, is $1,318 a month in today’s dollars. That’s $15,816 a year—but it’s an amount that is not sustainable, because when that worker is 75 years old, Social Security is going to run about one-quarter short of money, and his benefits will be cut.

A according to the quick calculator at the pro-privatization Cato Institute, if that worker were allowed to invest his half of the Social Security tax in a portfolio that was 60% stock, 20% corporate bonds and 20% Treasury bonds, and his returns were 6.5% on the stock, 3.5% on the corporates and 3% on the Treasuries, minus transaction costs of 0.25% a year, he would retire in 2032 with a nest egg of $264,455, which at today’s interest rates would buy him a lifetime annuity of $21,551 a year.

How good these numbers are I don't know. What persuades me is simply this: The government's system is mostly pay-as-you go: taxes in one pocket and out the other. A bit is put in a "trust fund" but the interest is from the taxpayers, and so that is a hustle also. The private system, in contrast, puts your money to work. Over 45 years, it's bound to be a better deal.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 07:06 PM


March 07, 2005

Three strikes and you're out

Ever since the Boeing brass divorced Seattle, they seem to be stepping into ethical embarrassment.

First, it was the chief financial officer, Mike Sears, who cooked up a private deal with a U.S. Air Force procurement officer. Sears brought down himself and Boeing’s CEO, Phil Condit. For the past year, the company has been run by Harry Stonecipher, the former McDonnell Douglas CEO who abandoned retirement for the chance to be Boeing's undisputed top dog. Now, at 68, he has been fired for a secret affair with an employee.

Chicago seems to have an effect on people. The Republican candidate for U.S. Senate had to drop out of the race after it was disclosed that he had made a proposition of gross indecency to his own wife.

The Windy City has many attractions, but the top people at Boeing apparently find it difficult to distinguish the good ones from the bad ones. Perhaps, like travelers, they let out their inhibitions when far from home. Maybe the nation’s premier aerospace company would do better to come back where it grew up, and find its CEOs among the people who grew up with it.

Three years, two CEOs and one CFO. How much is enough?

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 04:26 PM


March 03, 2005

Padilla and Presidential Power

It may be late, but I don’t want to pass up the ruling Feb. 28 in the Padilla case. At issue is whether President Bush, under the “authorization to use military force” resolution of September 18, 2001, can order an American citizen on American soil seized and held as an “unlawful combatant.” If the president can seize Padilla, he can seize anyone, because he has had Padilla held in a Navy brig without trial since May 8, 2002.

The judge said clearly and forcefully that the president can’t do that. The president executes the laws. No law of Congress authorizes detention without trial, and one law, the Non-Detention Act, specifically forbids it. “The detention of a United States citizen by the military is disallowed without explicit Congressional authorization,” the judge wrote. “This is a law enforcement matter, not a military matter.”

This is not a wimp decision that says let the terrorists go. When Padilla was seized by the military, he was already in jail, under civilian arrest and being held as a material witness in a civilian grand jury investigation. The civilian grand jury issued a warrant for his arrest. Padilla was taken out of the civil justice system and put into a Navy brig.

In arguing that it could do that, the Bush administration cited the case of the German saboteurs landed on the Atlantic coast during World War II. But they had been tried according to a law. More to the point, was the Steel Seizure case of 1952, in which President Truman seized privately owned steel mills during the Korean War in order to stop a strike. The court—and it was mostly a New Deal court, too—said he could not do it. And the reasoning the court used then applies to the case of Padilla today.

Of course the Steel Seizure case was about property rights, and the Padilla case is about human rights. These are two aspects of the same thing, and if the President can take away one he can take away the other.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 07:00 PM


No Child Left Behind

In a March 2 column I took special interest groups to task for spending more time bemoaning the federal No Child Left Behind Act than helping to implement its worthy principles.

To refresh everyone's memory, federal education reform sailed through Congress with applause rippling down both sides of the political aisle. Lawmakers have since remembered who keeps their campaign coffers full and recriminations of NCLB now flow like water.

The bill isn't perfect. As I've written, NCLB needs more funding, more flexibility and a departure from the one-size-fits all approach all too common in federal laws. However, NCLB's spotlight on the mediocrity passing for education these days is without question, the strongest governmental stance on our schools in a long, long while. The law places sharp scrutiny on the achievement levels of students who are low-income, minority or enrolled in special education. This is appropriate because those groups were most likely to be academically left behind.

Most superintendents and principals that I talk to like the federal law's high standards and tough accountability system. But among teachers there is widespread fear. Only two years into its implementation, one in every ten public schools nationwide is facing sanctions under NCLB's tough provisions.

We can let this frighten the heck out of us or we can realize how much work there is to be done in our schools.

Teachers and others in education do themselves a disservice by seeing the federal law as a detriment. If they discourage these and other efforts as intrusive, parents will continue to flee the public schools for private and parochial ones. Vouchers and charter schools will continue to resonate with segments of our population.

A response from a smart reader bears repeating:

Education is like law and medicine; it's too important to be left in the hands of those with the greatest self-interest in keeping things quiet and the same - the educators.

Respond to Lynne.

Blog written by Lynne Varner.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 05:13 PM


March 02, 2005

McKenna on I-776

Initiative 776, passed in 2002, ordered the repeal of the car-tabs tax (MVET) collected by Sound Transit. The agency sued, and the courts ruled that it could collect the tax as long as it had bonds outstanding, because it had promised the bondholders it would collect the tax to pay them.

That was reasonable, because a public agency cannot break its contracts. But the court also left open the door to Sound Transit to pledge the tax to pay for new bonds, and that wasn't so reasonable. This issue was addressed in a call-in show with the new state attorney general, Rob McKenna. The transcript was printed in the Olympian.

Tim, calling in from Mukilteo: [Eyman, no doubt:]

Voter-approved I-776 said that Sound Transit should retire its outstanding bonds with its huge surplus and other existing revenues. Will you take a different direction than Gregoire did with the courts on I-776 and make Sound Transit pay off its debts?

McKenna: I am urging the state supreme court to accept on direct review an appeal of the King County Superior Court's decision that allows Sound Transit to continue collecting the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax not just for bond retirement, but for new bonds. Sound Transit should not be allowed to spend MVET revenue until those bonds are retired. Once those are paid off, they are not allowed to continue collecting that tax.

I think McKenna is right. The current bondholders can preempt I-776 because the promise to them was made before I-776 was enacted. But after they are paid the tax should be gone.


My columns on I-776 are here, here, here and here.

Reply to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 04:27 PM


The Rwanda Question

I missed Paul Rusesabagina Tuesday night, but like a lot of others, I saw “Hotel Rwanda,” the movie about him. I recommend it. It is the best political movie I’ve seen in a long time. It reminds me of one of my favorites, “The Killing Fields,” which was about the Cambodian holocaust.

Both of these stories raise the issue of the responsibility of outsiders to intervene. I think we should be careful about making emotional decisions. It’s one thing to say, “Somebody should stop this,” and another to say, “You should stop this.” I think there was a better argument for UN intervention than U.S. intervention—because these were not specifically U.S. concerns. Of course some say, “We have the power to intervene,” and therefore we have the responsibility to do it, but that is a promiscuous argument. It justifies too much. Other nations have the right to say, “This is not our problem,” and we respect them for that. America should not have any lesser rights than they simply because we are bigger.

If any particular foreign power felt an obligation to act in Rwanda, it might have been the former colonial power—in this case, Belgium, or, before that, Germany. But the best choice would have been the United Nations.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 11:39 AM


March 01, 2005

Segregation of Prisoners

The U.S. Supreme Court recently decided that if California officials want to segregate prisoners by race, they have to justify it by the same legal standard as segregating non-prisoners by race: that such segregation is necessary to achieve a “compelling state interest.” The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had used an easier standard: that such segregation is “reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest.”

The interest we’re talking about is safety, including safety of life and limb. The practice in question is the housing of new prisoners in two-man cells. For their first 60 days only, men new to a prison are not put in with men of other races. Certain ethnic groups, including Japanese and Chinese, are not mixed. The reason, the state says, is that so many prisoners are associated with racial gangs such as Nuestra Familia, the Black Guerrilla Family and the Aryan Brotherhood. California says its policy reduces violence.

The Court did not rule whether California could do this, but it set a difficult-to-achieve standard for judging it. I wouldn’t have, for this reason: these are prisoners. Their rights have been taken away. The state tells them when they can eat, when they can exercise, and otherwise puts them in steel cages. Surely the state can take race into account in an effort to protect them from violence.

But if the practice has to meet the higher standard, I’d say it meets that standard. The Court has said the need for racial diversity on university campuses meets the “compelling state interest” standard. Is this not at least as compelling as that? (A lot more, I think.)

Washington does not separate prisoners by race, said the acting secretary of corrections, Eldon Vail, last week. “We don’t do that,” he said. “We try and focus on behavior.” He said the policy seemed to work all right, but allowed that Washington’s policy was “perhaps riskier” than California’s.

Respond to Bruce.

Posted by Bruce Ramsey at 12:37 PM




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