Friday, March 25, 2011

The True Cost of an Entitlement Mentality

Today's Wall Street Journal contained one of the saddest stories I've read in a long time.  It details the horrendous state of the education system here in Portugal, where just 28% of people between 25 and 64 years of age completed high school.

Author Charles Forelle ties the state of education to Portugal's weak economy, as well as to the negligence of her former dictator, Salazar, all of which is fair enough, as far as it goes.  But in doing so, he misses a significant point.  Many of the undereducated people he interviews see no reason to get an education and this, I think is where the story lies.  In a country whose dictator, and now, whose socialist system, tells you that the role of government is to provide for people, there is very little incentive to go to school.

In our capitalist system, with all of its flaws, there is still a strong incentive for investing in one's education.  From high school on, every successfully completed year of school, especially if one chooses one's area of specialization carefully, can pay significant dividends in terms of income.  And although we are rapidly becoming an entitlement society, there are still large numbers of Americans who consider it their responsibility to prepare themselves to compete in a labor market.

Contrast that with Portugal which, although I love it for many reasons, I must say is afflicted with a nearly terminal lack of initiative.  House hunting here is a daunting task, because most landlords cannot be bothered to clean or paint or do much property maintenance until AFTER they receive a deposit from a prospective tenant.  It doesn't matter to them that a cleaner, nicer-looking home could sell or rent more easily.  For the most part, they are unwilling to put forth effort in advance of the payoff.  This, as far as I can tell, stems first from the Salazar regime, where citizens were supposed to look to the dictator as the provider of all good things, and now the government without Salazar, which citizens are supposed to see as the provider of all good things.

If government exists to provide you with housing, food, and healthcare, why in the world would you waste your time in a classroom when the beach is beckoning?  Why learn trigonometry, for crying out loud, when at the end of the road, British tourist girls are rolling towels out onto the sand?  If everything can be had simply by voting the right party into power, or by going on strike, education is for chumps.  This is the true cost of socialism.  By promising everything, it deprives people of incentives for self-improvement.  It may take a generation or two, and its effects vary somewhat depending on the culture in which they are exhibited, but ultimately, the system that promises to provide everything takes away the one thing that matters - the drive to do, or make, or become something. 

At the end of the article we get just a glimpse of this.  A 16 year-old dropout - not in a forgotten rainforest village, and not in a shotgun shack in the Ozarks, but in 21st Century Europe, mind you - is asked if he might someday like to go to college, and study engineering.  "It's never crossed my mind," He said. "I don't know anyone who went." 

I Scooped the New York Times.

But really, that's not much of an accomplishment.

On the 15th of February, I wrote this response to a Wall Street Journal article that had, in my opinion, failed to reflect the dangers inherent in the Muslim Brotherhood's surge to the forefront of Egyptian politics.

Today, the benighted New York Times informs us that Gee, the Muslim Brotherhood is taking over the Egyptian revolution - and that might not be a good thing!  "The Muslim Brotherhood," we are told, "an Islamist group once banned by the state, is at the forefront, transformed into a tacit partner with the military government that many fear will thwart fundamental changes."

Well, better late than never, but one would think that, arriving at the obvious conclusion more than a month later than yours truly, the Old Gray Lady might compensate for her tardiness with wisdom.  Or insight.  Or something.  One would be disappointed, because instead, we are subjected to more of the thoughtless schlock that so effectively raised my ire in the Wall Street Journal article.  For instance, we are treated to the highly ironic, and completely unchallenged assertion that the Muslim Brotherhood, "has never been a revolutionary movement," which would come as quite a shock, I'm sure, to Hassan al Banna, who founded the Brotherhood in part, to toss the British out of Egypt.  It would also surprise Sayid Qutb, the Brotherhood's most prominent theologian during the time that the Brotherhood joined with the Gamal Abdul Nasser and the Free Officers to overthrow the monarchy.  It would surprise anyone, as a matter of fact, who knew the slightest bit about the Brotherhood, such as their motto, which states,

Allah is our objective.
The Prophet is our leader.
Qur'an is our law.
Jihad is our way.
Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.

In an apparent campaign to derive income from stating the obvious, the article trundles on, spewing out gems like, "...there is growing evidence of the Brotherhood’s rise and the overpowering force of Islam."

The Times goes on to explain that the Muslim Brotherhood, comprised as it is of a network of civil institutions, (as I mentioned a month and a half ago) is in a better position to benefit from early elections because it has a base - and access to that base - that newer parties can only dream of.  So when a referendum was offered for early elections, nobody with a brain should have been surprised that the Brotherhood pushed for a yes vote, and couched its campaign in religious terms.  "A banner hung by the Muslim Brotherhood in a square in Alexandria instructed voters that it was their “religious duty” to vote “yes” on the amendments." (Somebody call Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, who famously assured us  the the Brotherhood was "largely secular.")

The point of all this is that nothing here should come as a surprise to anyone who knows anything about Islam or the Muslim Brotherhood.  The Brothers, in building civic institutions and in meeting the needs of their members and their members' families since 1928, have been doing nothing more amazing than putting their motto into practice.  In raising successive generations of Egyptians who are delivered by Brotherhood doctors, grow to attend Brotherhood schools, and are provided with jobs by the Brotherhood, the leaders of the organization are no less revolutionary than were members who used violence to accomplish their goals.  A revolution is no less a revolution if it overthrows the current system quietly, is it?  So now that circumstances have paved a path to power for the Brotherhood, it should be expected that the emergent Egypt will reflect the values of the motto written above.  When someone tells you what they're going to do and then does it ceaselessly in the face of opposition for 83 years, it would be remarkable if they stopped doing it when they rose to power.  I hate to break this to the New York Times, but if you're only just now catching on to all this, you really shouldn't be bringing that fact to our attention.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Enter Euphemism Here__________

The Washington Examiner today explained how "Kinetic Military Action" is now the phrase by which we will refer to our efforts in Libya.  The term "war" has fallen completely out of favor.

I have to agree with idea driving the decision.  This is not a war, because, as has become the unfortunate habit since the Second World War, we disregard the Constitution and don't bother to ask Congress to declare wars any more.  But even while agreeing that it is, therefore, not a war, I have to wonder why we can't come up with a better euphemism to describe whatever it really is.

Kerfuffle?  Boondoggle?  Dustup?  Unpleasant Misunderstanding? 

In order to address this embarrassing shortcoming, I invite you, both of my readers, to suggest phrases of your own to describe how we are "enforcing a resolution that has a very clear set of goals, which is protecting the Libyan people, averting a humanitarian crisis, and setting up a no-fly zone."

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

David Brooks - Irrelevanter Than Ever

Just when I thought David Brooks had consigned himself (and the New York Times) to permanent irrelevance, he proves me wrong by writing an Op-ed that is so vapid and meaningless that it sets an entirely new standard by which drivel will be judged.

I refer to this, his latest sophomoric indulgence, BraveNewWorldishly entitled, “The New Humanism.” You can read it for yourself or, if you believe that life is short and time is precious, you can allow me to summarize it for you. Why not? I have already wasted my time, so you may as well benefit from my mistake.

The essence of Mr. Brooks’ 802 words (802! Doesn’t anyone edit any more?) is that our gravest errors as a nation seem to stem from – prepare yourselves to be dazzled –

…reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature…

A continuing insurgence in Iraq, the failure of our education system, the collapse of banks – all due to oversimplification. Forget a meddlesome Iran, government intervention in the housing market, and teachers’ unions that are more interested in power than in empowering students. Those explanations are so old-humanism. To really understand the fundamental issues, we have to overcome our silly, outmoded notion that,

Reason, which is trustworthy, is separate from the emotions, which are suspect. Society progresses to the extent that reason can suppress the passions.
Mr. Brooks argues facts that are not in evidence. That is to say that he fails to make the case that anyone really thinks this way. He builds his entire thesis on a straw man, and then expects us to pat him on the head when he blows it down. The problem with this approach is that it wears thin very quickly. If you elucidate to any extent, the thinness of your argument becomes readily apparent, and Mr. Brooks is not one to simply make a point and move on. He is compelled to elucidate.

This has created a distortion in our culture. We emphasize things that are rational and conscious and are inarticulate about the processes down below. (Down below?) We are really good (“really good?” Not “really, really good,” or “very good,” but just really good?” honestly – who edits this stuff?) at talking about material things but bad at talking about emotion. When we raise our kids, we focus on the traits measured by grades and SAT scores. But when it comes to the most important things like character and how to build relationships, we often have nothing to say.
Really? Exactly where in our culture these days are we overemphasizing reason and downplaying emotion? Is that what’s happening in the debate over public service unions? Are the discussions of nationalized healthcare characterized by an overabundance of rationality? Are our public schools turning out little machines of logic and reason, or are they scrapping meaningful standards of education in favor of bolstering self esteem? If schools are all about measurable traits, then why, when people hear that my kids are homeschooled, is their first question never, “How much are they learning,” and always, “How will you socialize them?”

If we were enslaved to logic, we would be relieved to know that a new perspective,

is being brought to us by researchers across an array of diverse fields: neuroscience, psychology, sociology, behavioral economics and so on. This growing, dispersed (I think you mean disparate, don’t you David?) body of research reminds us of a few key insights. First, the unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind, where many of the most impressive feats of thinking take place. (Wow. Awkward much?) Second, emotion is not opposed to reason; (Yes, but nobody thought it was; that was just a false argument you concocted.) our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason. Finally, we are not individuals who form relationships. We are social animals, deeply interpenetrated with one another, who emerge out of relationships. (Honestly, I’ve read this sentence several times, and I still can’t figure out what he’s saying. Maybe I’m just getting hung up on “interpenetrated.”)
That would really be enough for one day, but as I mentioned, Mr. B. loves to elucidate, so he goes on to summarize the difference between the French and British Enlightenments (See what agony I have spared you by reading this in your place?) and admonishing us to “educate our emotions,” which will yield “different perspectives on everything from business to family to politics…” This is important, you see, because, “Over the past few decades, we have tended to define human capital in the narrow way, emphasizing I.Q., degrees, and professional skills.”

You may color me surprised. Have you ever measured people in such narrow terms? Of course not. The emotional dimension is always present. It is one of the primary components of a job interview, something with which Mr. Brooks apparently has little experience.

And just to prove he’s a good sport, and not above a little linguistic japery, the verbally flatulent Mr. Brooks (as in Babbling Brooks) lists a few character attributes to which we should all aspire. My translations are in parenthesis.

  • Attunement: the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer. (Stay out of my mind and just listen to me.)
  • Equipoise: the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings. (I thought this had something to do with being able to mimic a horse. Why couldn’t you just say “level headedness?” Is that too rational?
  • Metis: the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations. (Uh, wisdom? Common sense?)
  • Sympathy: the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups. (Sorry – that’s not sympathy. And do we really want to thrive in groups? Why can’t we thrive as individuals?)
  • Limerence: This isn’t a talent as much as a motivation. The conscious mind hungers for money and success, but the unconscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence when the skull line (“skull line?” Have you been drinking with Charlie Sheen again?) falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task or the love of God. Some people seem to experience this drive more powerfully than others. (Ok. You’re on your own with this one. It did make me think of a limerick though.
There once was a fop named David
Whose reputation couldn’t be saved
His outrageous lie
“The senator fondled my thigh
Would have been better unstated.)
But enough frivolity, let us get back to the important work of redefining human nature. Brooks breathlessly assures us that, “…hundreds of thousands of researchers (Who knew!) are coming up with a more accurate view of who we are.” And what will be the effect of this army in lab coats? "… I suspect their work will have a giant effect on the culture. It’ll change how we see ourselves. Who knows, it may even someday transform the way our policy makers see the world.”

Of course it will, David. And the words to Donald Fagen’s song IGY, will all come true. There will be

Just machines to make big decisions,
Programmed by fellas with compassion and vision,
We’ll be clean when their work is done,
We’ll be eternally free, yes, and, eternally young
What a beautiful world this will be, what a glorious time to be free…

Monday, March 07, 2011

ICE Intelligence Chief in Somebody's Pocket?

According to this AP article, James M. Woosley, Deputy Director of Intelligence at US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is a liar and a thief, but that's the good news.

Woolsey, according to documents, emails, testimony, and other evidence, signed off on falsified travel vouchers for Ahmed Adil Abdallat, a supervisory ICE intelligence analyst, and then took a cut of the ill-gotten money for himself.  According to the article, Abdallat, a naturalized US citizen originally from Jordan,
...mailed Woosley checks, wired him money, paid his utility and mortgage bills, and sometimes even traveled to Washington to leave his boss cash in drawers.
Abdallat was under Woolsey's supervision, but the more I read about their relationship, the more I wonder who really worked for whom.  You see, in a situation like this, the moment a guy like Woolsey compromises himself, he's owned by somebody, and that somebody usually blackmails him for whatever he has of value.

Abdallat made eight personal trips to Jordan since 2007, for which he used his diplomatic passport.  (Diplomatic passports are not for personal travel.) In association with those trips, he collected $123,000 in false travel reimbursement.  He's also under investigation for some monkey business involving the wiring of  $570,000 to Jordan, where he reportedly has over a million dollars socked away.  Nobody knows where the money came from. 

FBI Special Agent Shannon N. Enochs said determining how Abdallat obtained the money in Jordan is "a priority," saying "the only thing we're sure of is there is more than $1 million waiting for him in Amman," that country's capital.

Let me recap our story thus far: An extremely high-ranking Immigration and Customs Enforcement Intelligence official bilks the taxpayers out of money via the standard idiot's gambit, the falsified travel voucher.  In doing so, he places himself in a compromising relationship with a naturalized US citizen from Jordan.  Said naturalized citizen is found to have received, not only the money from the fake travel vouchers, but also a considerably larger sum, the origin of which is unknown, in a bank in Amman.   

Now that we've reviewed, let me make things a little more interesting for you.  Apparently, at some point Abdallat had applied for an increase in the level of his security clearance, but was denied.  Why was he denied, you ask? 
because ICE authorities determined he had made misstatements during past routine background checks, including about how he ended his service in the Jordanian Air Force, Enochs said.

So, if the guy is a known liar, how does he manage to continue to find employment with the federal government as a supervisory intelligence analyst?  How does he continue to maintain the clearance he already had, and to make over $100,000 a year AFTER it's been determined that he cannot be trusted? 

Could it be that Woolsey, in prostituting himself for a share of a travel voucher scam, found himself to be Abdallat's get out of jail free card?  What other illicit services might he have performed for that money? Did he help certain people get into the US?  Did he provide information to friends of Abdallat, who might have been interested in the status of certain intelligence matters?  Might he have redirected the attentions of some of his analysts, who might have been looking too closely at enterprises of interest to the providers of Abdallat's million?

And how about this:  Between 2005 and 2007, Abdallat was the ICE attache at the US Embassy in Riyadh.  Was it there that he made the connections that have been pulling his (and Woolsey's) strings? 

So many questions, but only two really matter right now: How much damage has Woolsey done to our national security, and how long will it be until we find out?

Cabo da Roca

This lighthouse marks the westernmost point of the European Continent, which is about 10 miles from where I live.   I know my last several paintings have been of lighthouses.  Don't worry; the next one isn't.

Friday, March 04, 2011

The Taming of the Shrew

Meet my daughter's cat, Kiki.  She's a little small for your average domestic shorthair feline, but what she lacks in size, she makes up for in ferocity.  She's a holy terror on small reptiles, birds, and mammals alike.
Meet your common shrew.  This is the third in two days that Kiki has dispatched and lovingly laid on the doorstep for us to tread on.  It's no fun stepping on a small dead rodent in bare feet first thing in the morning when your brain has not yet begun to function properly.  Still, it's better than what happened to a friend of mine, whose cat wounded a bat in the wee hours of the morning.  She brought it to his bedroom to show off her hunting prowess.  Between the distressed shrieking of the bat and the cat's insistent meowing, he awoke in a not-quite compos mentis state, and stepped on the bat, which promptly bit him.  Somewhat alarmed, but still groggy, he flushed the bat down the toilet and toddled off back to bed.

In the morning he dimly recalled his strange dream, which he confirmed to be reality when he discovered the bite mark on his foot.  Since the bat could not be recovered, there was nothing to do but to submit himself to the numerous and painful battery of rabies shots.

As long as Kiki's killing spree continues, I'll be careful not to go barefoot when I get out of bed.  As a double protection measure, I'll refrain from disposing of any bodies until I am fully awake. 

That's probably a good idea anyway, as I think my son has plans for any future rodent corpses.  He heard that tiny critters can be freeze-dried by taxidermists, and somewhere he got the idea of saving little dead mice and what-not, and having them mounted in attitudes of suspended horror, much as they might have appeared in their final moments, just when Kiki surprised them.  I'll be sure to post pictures...

A Note to the ATF and the Justice Department

Take Care of the Little Things - And the Big Things Take Care of Themselves.  It's a philosophy of mine.  I'm not saying I'm good at it, but I certainly believe it, and I see evidence everywhere that failing to follow it causes big problems.  Take, for example, the small Georgia town where I lived a few years ago.  The mayor's office and the police force were focused on the big issues - so much so that small things, like enforcing stop signs and speed limits in residential neighborhoods, were considered too insignificant to worry about.  As a result, what should have been a nice place to live was a nightmare.  People regularly sped through the blind stop sign by my house because they knew the police were busy with bigger issues.  Neighborhood leaders complained, but nothing was done.  I told the mayor it was only a matter of time until someone was killed.  I wish I could have been wrong. 

The way I see it, if the police had concerned themselves with little things, like enforcing the most basic laws that protect society, the bigger issues, like drugs and gangs, are less likely to be a problem.  After all, haven't we all heard about serious crime busts that ocurred because the criminal couldn't be bothered to stop at a stop sign, or conform to the speed limit?  Won't criminals naturally avoid a town that has a reputation for not putting up with recklessness? 

Instead, law enforcement these days seems to be captivated by the idea of the big bust.  No, I don't mean Jane Russell, may she rest in peace, I mean the big take-down - the capture of Public Enemy Number One, whoever that might be at the moment.  So intent are they on the big score (and maybe the political advantages that would be associated with it?) that they divert resources from the mundane, low-glamour tasks like enforcing the basic laws that keep us safe.

Case in point; CBS News reports that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms was not content with its mundane responsibilities of just keeping US guns from entering Mexico illegally.  Stopping a gun here or a gun there - or a truckload of assault rifles or Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifles, apparently - from reaching the hands of bloodthirsty drug cartel members was just not sexy enough for senior members of the ATF and the Justice Department.  Instead, some jackass decided that it would make a much bigger splash to allow large numbers of these weapons to cross the border in the hopes that they would lead to bigger, more exciting criminals than the low-level dealers who were making illegal sales and the mules who were carrying them into Mexico.

They were right.  The bigger splash was the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, who was shot to death by a gunman using one of the weapons allowed across the border by the ATF. 

Here's a note to the Justice Department, the ATF, and the 1001 law enforcement agencies we've seen fit to surround ourselves with as crime grows in numbers of incidents and levels of violence - Take care of the little things - enforce the laws we've empowered you to enforce - and the big things will take care of themselves.  Fewer laws, fewer enforcement agencies, and a renewed focus on the basics are what we need.  Stop facilitating crime in order to catch the big criminals, and content yourself with doing what you were hired to do, otherwise we have no use for you.  You are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

UPDATE: According to the Daley Gator Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry and his colleagues, when taken under automatic weapons fire by Mexican drug runners, were initially supposed to return fire with nonlethal beanbag projectiles.  So if all this is true, the US government first aids and abets the sale of lethal weapons to Mexican criminals.  Then, when those weapons are used to fire live rounds at the brave agents sent to protect our border, those agents are supposed to respond with nonlethal rounds.  Bottom line: the blood of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry is on the hands of ATF and Justice Department officials, every bit as much as it is on the hands of those bandits.