Links I liked, August 9-15 (Astrophotography, Brave New World, Biblical Anthropology)

1. An astrophotography timelapse from our East Lansing balcony

You can be in a city and still see a surprising number of stars.  Lasts about 2.5 hours (then our camera battery died), five minutes between frames, note Polaris barely moving down at the bottom middle!  (And, for a brief moment, a Perseid.)

2. “The division between politics and religion, I dare say, is an ideological ploy.”

I am reading this book.

3. The City That Unpoisoned Its Pipes

A happy story about how our beloved (yet often dysfunctional, shh) Lansing has quietly replaced nearly all of its lead water pipes.

4. Brave New World, 85 Years Later

In a post-Fordist economy and a digital age of personalized devices, mass society is no longer as straightforward as it once seemed. Far from being perceived as a threat, for instance, individuality is now deeply assimilated into our economic system, as we’re encouraged to differentiate, identify, and align ourselves through our chosen forms of consumption. The fact we’re all caught up in the same system is less obvious when we all wear bespoke chains we’ve chosen for ourselves.

5. How Global Elites Forsake Their Countrymen

Seemed like everyone passed around this article last week, but if you haven’t seen it…

But there was a fundamental problem with the decision that you can see rippling now throughout the West. Ms. Merkel had put the entire burden of a huge cultural change not on herself and those like her but on regular people who live closer to the edge, who do not have the resources to meet the burden, who have no particular protection or money or connections. Ms. Merkel, her cabinet and government, the media and cultural apparatus that lauded her decision were not in the least affected by it and likely never would be.

6. Reclaiming ‘Redneck” Urbanism: What Urban Planners Can Learn from Trailer Parks

Any discussion of trailer parks should start with the fact that most forms of low-income housing have been criminalized in nearly every major US city.

7. Biblical Anthropology

A lecture Kevin DeYoung gave in South Carolina last week.  Of especial interest to me, he talked about how his kids attend our public schools, and the message they receive at school that he feels he most often has to correct is actually the stuff they hear related to the environment. And the problem is that a model is adopted that portrays humans never as producers, but just as polluters, the Earth as a good functioning system on which humans are basically cancer cells that can only make things worse. The Christian position would be rather – in fact, humans are God’s highest creation, and meant to be creators like him on Earth. We should recycle and be careful how we live and all that – but we aren’t a cancer on the planet. Indeed the planet is a better place today, than it was 4000 years ago, because of our creative works.

8. Randy Travis – Forever and Ever, Amen

You cannot dislike this song.

This week brought to you by good times at the Great Lakes Folk Festival this past Saturday.



Three quick takeaways from a debate on money in politics at the Lansing Center this evening

Attended a highly educational (and respectful) debate about campaign finance at the Lansing Center tonight. No really, it was fun. Debaters were Bradley A. Smith (Center for Competitive Politics) and Rich Robinson (Michigan Campaign Finance Network). Video of the debate is already up if you want to take a look.  Three takeaways:

1. Both speakers were actually agreed on the point that minimum dollar amounts at which contribution disclosure becomes required are ridiculously low – apparently especially in Michigan where the first penny you donate to a political campaign is supposed to be properly reported and disclosed. (Robinson said this law was created in an attempt to break up Democratic bingo games.) One of the practical effects of this is that in low-budget campaigns, where someone running for township trustee might spend $800 in total to get elected, is that they look around, see how complicated it would be to take $5 and $10 donations from their neighbors, and say “forget about it, I’ll just pay for the whole campaign myself”. Thus in one very obvious way these laws discourage public participation in politics – is that what we want? Said Smith, it used to be that you’d announce your candidacy, then pass around the hat and get your first donations. Do that today and you’d be breaking about ten federal laws.

2. At one point came the question, “what would happen if we eliminated maximum contribution limits to political campaigns?”. Said Smith – sounds like a terrible idea, campaigns would be like, why, they’d be like pretty much every campaign in America before 1970. Is anybody out there rejoicing at how much less influence money has in politics today, vs. before 1970 when all these laws didn’t exist?

3. Smith’s opening illustration – nobody likes the idea of the federal government listening in on your phone calls, that’s not right. Suppose it was proposed that the government would keep a record of all your political activities, you would be required to report them, and then the government would make that list available to potential employers, ex-spouses, anybody that might have it in for you could get a look – would you be in favor of that law? But in fact we already have those laws, we call them campaign finance disclosure laws.

Oliver Porter on contract cities at the Lansing Center

A few days ago I had the opportunity to listen to Oliver Porter speak at the Lansing Center. If you’ve never heard of him, you could do no better than watch the following fascinating video from ReasonTV.

Oliver Porter helped preside over the incorporation of Sandy Springs, Georgia, a city of about 100,000 where the only services provided directly by the city government are police and fire. Every other service that is commonly provided directly by city government today is instead contracted out, through one major contract with CH2M Hill and many sub-contracts. And the results are impressive – the city today has no debt and no long-term liabilities whatsoever, and has even built up $35 million in savings (assuming I understood him correctly). And before you think, “OK, but it’s probably a debt-free wasteland” – as the video states, in the first election after incorporation every member of the starting city council was reelected with, at minimum, 84% of the vote. That’s a pretty good sign people are happy.

A few other things I learned from his talk that I didn’t already know from the video:

1. We like to hold up Sandy Springs as a sort of market-driven success story – which it is, but Porter also made the point that they almost had no choice. No new city had incorporated in Georgia in 50 years, so they had no model to follow. The referendum to create the city passed on June 5th, and by midnight on Dec. 1st they had to have a fully operational city. So they had very little time – and in the interim period, nobody had any authority to hire anyone, and no money to pay them anyway. So what are you going to do? Nothing traditional.

I also found it amusing that after the city council did meet on midnight at Dec. 1st, one of their first acts was to adopt the county zoning plan pretty much wholesale – because if they hadn’t, there was nothing to stop some developer from starting up some bulldozers at 12:05 and pretty much doing whatever he wanted.

2. Are employees happy under the new system? Porter said morale was high, and that employees told him that under the old system, when they were government employees, they suggested ways to improve the way their job was done for years to the county, but were always ignored. Working now for a private company, the company is actually quite eager to hear their suggestions because the potential for greater profit gives them a great incentive to work efficiently and well, an incentive lacking in government.

3. One idea implemented in Sandy Springs that could easily be implemented in any city is the work-order. He said that if a citizen notices a problem (pothole, for example), they can call the contracted-with company and let them know. That company has pledged to, within two days, call them back with a work-order number for the problem, which is also passed along to the politician overseeing that part or aspect of the city. So there is accountability – if, a month later, the pothole still isn’t fixed, it’s very easy for either the citizen or politician to call back and say, “so, what is the status of work-order number XXX”. Seems like a great idea. East Lansing, where I live, uses, which is a great way to notify the city about problems – but the city doesn’t pledge to respond (and often doesn’t), and there is no easy accountability mechanism.

4. “Did you hear what that fool said?” – what employees of CH2M Hill said to each other after meeting with Porter and learning that he wanted to contract-out the whole city! He learned later. He said they thought his idea was so off the wall they almost didn’t pass it on to their superiors.

If you’d like to know more, a video of the whole event (featuring the back of my head!) is linked at the bottom of this article from the Mackinac Center.

A few thoughts from the right-to-work protests yesterday

State police in front of the Romney building1. You have to give the unions a hand when it comes to organization. I could probably come up with 50 issues I think more important than right-to-work that don’t generate this level of civic involvement simply because it isn’t organized. (I was going to also write that the conservative personality is simply less inclined to protest – but I remember the Tea Party and, maybe even more remarkably, pro-life protests, which are bigger and occur more often than you’d ever guess by watching the coverage, or lack thereof, that they receive in many media outlets.)

2. Conservatives have been rather mopey lately, but there are two big issues that we’ve been winning – right-to-work, and school choice. (And the latter, I’d say, really is one of the most important issues in America.) Maybe it’s no coincidence that both are state-level issues, and also that both issues are rare examples of when the default language of our society benefits conservatives. “Right-to-work” sounds pretty positive, doesn’t it? And what do you call people who oppose it? Well, sometimes they’re called “pro-union”, but more often it’s simply said that they “oppose right-to-work”. Which doesn’t really sound very good.

3. Was surprised yesterday as I was again reminded that not everyone is a political nerd – I had several students who wondered just what all those people were doing downtown! And even more surprisingly several faculty members, whom you might expect to be more well informed, didn’t seem to really know what right-to-work was about, didn’t know what was motivating the protestors, etc. That might sound like an insult but I don’t really intend it that way – it’s a complicated world, nobody can keep track of everything that is happening, we all pick and choose.

(Some additional photos I took of the protest.)

(Lansing’s “hot dog guy”, who normally sells hot dogs outside of city hall, had his cart destroyed by protestors yesterday. You can donate money to get him going again.)

Should we talk about freedom of conscience instead?

Obama’s healthcare reform law hasn’t been much in the media or on our minds as the election approaches – but maybe it should be. I was reminded last Sunday that the Christian publishing company Tyndale House Publishers, to pick just one example, is facing fines of $26,000 per day if they refuse to pay for abortifacents for their employees. Their president has released a letter about this, and it sounds likely they will refuse to pay for the drugs even if it drives them completely out of business. (h/t Acts 4:19)

But I wonder if, in the interest of communicating better with the populace at large, we should change (or at least add to) the language we use when talk about these issues. Because, while I think freedom of religion is an important principle, an increasing number of Americans seem to have a decreasing amount of respect for the principle. And part of the problem, I think, is that they can’t empathize – they feel like Christians are just sort of following the instructions in some book we have because that’s what we do, by golly.

But, while not everyone has some holy book they can point to, everyone has a conscience, and everyone can imagine what it would be like if someone forced you to violate that conscience. It isn’t just that Tyndale doesn’t want to pay for abortifacents because they’re following, in a detached sense, the instructions of some book they like. No, rather, they believe in God, believe that the Bible contains messages from God, and believe, with their hearts as well as their minds, that it would be a great evil for them to have any personal involvement in an abortion. And the freedom to obey your own conscience is a freedom cherished by everyone.

My very brief thoughts on Michigan’s ballot proposals

Local post! I write too many treatises, so I thought I’d keep this brief (but don’t complain too much that I’m not addressing every subtlety, ’cause that would require a treatise). If you have no idea what the six proposals are, CapCon has a great chart summarizing all of them. If you think I’m wrong about any choice, I’d be happy to be educated in the comments.

Prop 1: Voting “no” replaces the current “emergency managers” of insolvent cities/etc. with the “emergency financial managers” from older legislation. The main difference is that “emergency managers” can recommend that the state amend a local government’s collective bargaining agreements. So who wants you to vote no? Public-sector unions trying to maintain their inordinately lavish benefits and salaries at the public’s expense, of course. Vote yes.

Prop 2: This proposal would overturn 170 existing state laws governing public sector unions and, most distressingly, make passing a right-to-work law in Michigan legislatively impossible. Vote no.

Prop 3: A proposal mandating 25% of MI electricity come from renewables. The only possible argument you can make in favor of this proposal – it will help the environment – I hear almost nobody making. Instead I hear it being touted as a jobs program (how will raising the price of electricity help the economy?), or as a necessity because coal is becoming too expensive (in which case utilities would switch on their own, no new law necessary). J’aime beaucoup the free market, vote no.

Prop 4: The unionization of home healthcare providers. This proposal is nothing but an SEIU grab for more money and power. The Mackinac Center has done some great reporting about how people in Michigan who are doing nothing but caring for disabled family members are being required to pay money to the SEIU, (money they often really need). Vote no, please. Worst proposal on the ballot. You can vote opposite me on the other five, just vote no here.

Prop 5: This proposal would make it harder to pass new taxes. Members of both political parties oppose it. I think gridlock in government is (usually) good. Vote yes.

Prop 6: Seems kind of extreme to place a requirement for votes for new international bridges into the state constitution, but I do feel least-strongly about this proposal. Vote no.

The paradoxes of energy efficiency and car friendly cities

I read a couple interesting pieces lately about how choices we make can set up incentives that end up negating the purpose for which we made those choices in the first place. The first example is from an article entitled “The Paradox of Energy Efficiency” by Ronald Bailey in the November 2012 issue of Reason magazine. He makes a very simple but, I think, often ignored point – when people switch to more energy efficient products, whether by choice or by legislative force, they save money on energy (be it their electricity bill, at the gas station, whatever). They then use this money they saved… to buy products, take trips, etc., that cause them to consume energy. For example,

Lighting efficiency has improved during the last three centuries by many thousand-fold, from sputtering candles to modern LEDs, as Jeff Tsao and his colleagues from the Sandia National Laboratory note in the July 2012 issue of the Journal Energy Policy. But the result “has been an increase in demand for energy used for lighting that nearly exactly offsets the efficiency gains.”

In other words, switching to more energy efficient products doesn’t actually end up reducing energy usage, it just allows you to consume energy by doing some things that you weren’t doing before. Now, if the whole reason you switched to more efficient products was to save money so you could do other stuff, good for you. But, if you’re an environmentalist pushing energy efficiency because you think it will reduce energy consumption (and hence production, and hence pollution) – ain’t gonna work.

The second example is from Jane Jacobs book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In her book, she says that attempts to make sections of cities more accessible to automobiles inevitably makes them less accessible to pedestrians and people arriving by public transit. (I’m not sure I agree that this is always true, but anyway…) For example, if buildings are spaced out by large parking lots, it is harder to walk between them. If roads are wider, they are often harder to cross. Sometimes sections of cities will make themselves more car friendly in hopes of attracting more people to their shops and restaurants – and more people will arrive by car. But less people arrive by foot or by public transit, and (says Jacob) the result is always a net loss of people. Which is not at all what the cities intend.

Former Democratic pollster Pat Caddell on media bias

I don’t normally devote a blog post to a single video, but I guess there is no ~political~ issue that bothers me as much as media bias. Because how can you possibly have a functioning republic if the citizens are being kept ignorant of important facts by the press? Hence the following video by Pat Caddell at Accuracy in Media.

To summarize, he says, first, that before about 1980 politicians of both political parties despised the press corps – and that was a good thing. It was because they were actually doing their job as professional investigators and watchdogs of government. Since then, for myriad reasons (not all malevolent) they have gradually abandoned that role, and now spend much of their time working to protect and elect (usually) Democratic officials.

Secondly, and much worse I think, the way their bias is usually expressed is by simply ignoring or refusing to do further investigation into stories that would make their preferred candidates look bad. I hate this because it means that if you’re getting all your news from traditional media sources, they might actually look objective to you. Because you’re literally not going to know, what you don’t know. There are a huge number of examples of this, and Caddell will go through many in his speech.

The good news, I suppose, is that trust in media is now at an all-time low, so people are catching on. And traditional media sources have more competitors than they’ve ever had before.

This, by the way, is why I cannot understand why Romney/Ryan have agreed to four debates moderated by traditional media outlets. In 2012, there are many other possibilities, we don’t need to do what has always been done. Obviously the moderators cannot control the answers, but they can control the questions, which is very much like deciding what stories they’re going to report in the first place. We’ll see what happens tonight.

Less political post later this week, I promise!

The 1st Amd. doesn’t end at the church’s front door

Above is a photo I took this morning of a new apartment building going up in downtown East Lansing. Note the giant architectural cross built into the facade – I have to say that because I actually saw the building many times without ever noticing the cross! But apparently other people are more observant than me, because an article I read this morning implied that some residents have expressed discomfort with the feature, and suggested to the city that it might perhaps violate the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution. The building is being constructed entirely with private money, and the City Attorney has rightly replied that not only is it perfectly legal for the developers to put a giant cross on the side of their building if they want one, but furthermore that if the city tried to stop them, the city would be in violation of the 1st Amendment.

So that’s all good, but that people even complained in the first place just goes to show, I think, that some people have this idea that you are entitled to a free exercise of your religion, as long as it stays inside the walls of your place of worship or your home. But as soon as it starts leaking out into the wider world, they have a problem, and might even think you have a legal problem. (In fact, maybe you could even say that an amendment that was originally created mainly to protect the rights of religious folk from interference from the government, is now being used by some to try to justify interference from the government. So upside down is the world today.)

Why we love Twitter – some election thoughts from @Slublog

Probably there is a rule somewhere that says you should never blog about serious topics on a Saturday night – and especially not from East Lansing, just before an MSU football game. But oh well, this is timely, so here goes. Last night @Slublog posted some thoughts on the coming election that found an echo in my mind, but were probably put better than I could have put them in under 140 characters, so I decided I would just collect them here with some interpolating comments. If you want to read everything he wrote – go find him on Twitter.

On where we are as a nation

I think we have the best system of government in the world, but it’s still imperfect. One of its flaws is that it is a perfectly viable short-term election strategy to take from a minority of the population, and give to a majority of the population. As long as people are voting in their financial self-interest, and I think they largely do, that will work. Money is a very powerful motivator, and the promise of more “free” stuff is very hard to say no to. And every year there are more people dependent on government.

“Democracies die when people realize they can vote themselves money from the treasury” – we’ve all heard the quote.

In the long run, this kind of strategy hurts everyone – because if you take from the wealthy and take from producers, what you end up doing is modifying their behavior. Maybe they don’t create that new business, or maybe they just move to a friendlier country. But another downside to our system of government is that our politicians don’t think long term – all they need to do is survive two years, or four years, until the next election. They aren’t going to be in power when the full fruit of their ideas comes to bloom in 30 or 40 years.

On the media today

Indeed it has. When I watched the reporting following the attacks on our embassies in Libya and elsewhere… I was just astounded. Even the pretense of objectivity had been dropped by the biggest media outlets in our country. The Middle East was on fire, there were a whole host of subsidiary facts that called into question the policies, promises, and simple competence of President Obama – and with all those big important stories to write, perhaps the dominant story that emerged… was about a Romney gaffe. Incredible. And the gaffe itself was only a gaffe because the media declared it to be so – as far as I know Romney never walked it back, and the White House itself later largely endorsed its content.

The most important job entrusted to the media is to be a watchdog, a questioner of government that keeps it honest and accountable. Plainly they had given up on that role entirely, and replaced it with, as I believe Ace said, “what can I do for Obama today?” The new media, though, is a ray of hope.

On the choice before us