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Deer Hunts and Dirt Bikes (NYT Op-Ed)

Posted on : 23-09-2011 | By : Dean | In : EN101, Teaching


Published: September 19, 2011

Paul Ryan may not be running for president this time around, but if you have any doubt about his ambitions for a long, prominent future in government, just look at his comments in a Q. and A. published in Sunday’s Times. They’re a minor masterpiece of image calibration.

In the span of two dozen sentences, Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, mentioned the Bible, or rather a beginner’s version of it, which he said he was reading aloud to his 6-year-old son. He mentioned his truck and his appetite for hard rock, thus establishing automotive and musical affinities that balance his wonkier, number-crunching bona fides. He mentioned hunting — with a bow, no less.

Then came the capper. He mentioned his talent for what I’d like to call venison charcuterie, just because he so clearly wouldn’t. “I butcher my own deer, grind the meat, stuff it in casings and then smoke it,” he said, making clear that Sarah Palin in all her moose-eviscerating glory has nothing on him.

And thus his self-portrait as an outside-the-Beltway guy’s guy with grime (and maybe guts) under his fingernails was complete, and he had discharged one of the more ridiculous obligations of the contemporary politician. He had asserted that he was just like the rest of us, even though there’s no such thing as one uniform us and if there were, it would be buying its Bambi sausages in bulk at Costco.

Will American politics ever get away from this crazy contest in which the players strive to out-ordinary one another, distancing themselves from any whiff of privilege and trying to project a woodsy, folksy, flannel essence?

The relationship between lifestyle and political priorities is at best oblique: you really can’t judge how politicians will govern by whether they hunt or windsurf, frolic in the Texas brush or the Martha’s Vineyard sand, favor corn dogs or arugula. And that was suggested by another, different glimpse of Ryan on Sunday. He appeared on Fox News to defend millionaires and decry President Obama’s proposed tax increase on them as “class warfare.”

Still, candidates labor mightily to come down on the fried and unfussy end of things, lest they seem out of touch and be deemed unable to relate.

Remember that sequence of Jon Huntsman ads? The ones counting down the days to his presidential announcement? They showed a helmeted man zooming on a dirt bike through Monument Valley and introduced him as someone who “rides motocross to relax” and played in a rock band called Wizard. Not a word about Huntsman’s considerable wealth, a legacy of the family business. Not a word about his ability to speak Mandarin.

Meanwhile supporters of Mitt Romney have found themselves in the awkward position of insisting that the expansion of his reportedly $12 million beach house in California — not his primary residence — isn’t an extravagance, because the house has just two or three bedrooms, depending on how you count. Those must be some bedrooms.

Romney shuns neckties and hones a populist touch. He joked with voters in Florida that inasmuch as a presidential campaign is a surreally drawn-out job application, he, too, knew something about being unemployed. And he has taken to Twitter to inform the electorate that he had breakfast at Subway and flew Southwest Airlines.

While such atmospherics are almost compulsory, they’re also sad. Romney’s affluence largely reflects his business success, which is more asset than liability and needn’t be played down. And his principal flaw isn’t the thread count of his sheets. It’s the high count of his ever changing positions over time.

His advantages in life don’t mean he can’t think about social welfare. It was Romney, remember, who in Massachusetts spearheaded the template for federal health-care reform.

For that matter, Obama’s childhood disadvantages don’t mean that the less fortunate will flourish under him. That certainly hasn’t happened so far. The downturn has taken its greatest toll on the poor. And while the lion’s share of blame for the dismal economy rests with circumstances he inherited, there’s mounting evidence that he made mistakes early on in his administration and was in over his head.

Having a modest background, a knowledge of hardship or a kinship with the so-called common man doesn’t correlate with competence. Or with compassion. Rick Perry could certainly use more of that, and he started life in a house without indoor plumbing.

Over the next 14 months, we shouldn’t be impressed by someone who can imitate ordinary. We should figure out who promises to be extraordinary. And that determination should be guided less by what candidates eat or drive than by what they’ve done with the reins of power, whether holding them with chapped or manicured fingers.

Find the original article at The New York Times

Our Hidden Government Benefits (NYT Op-Ed)

Posted on : 23-09-2011 | By : Dean | In : EN101, Teaching


Published: September 19, 2011
Ithaca, N.Y.

DON’T take at face value the claims that Americans dislike government. Sure, a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 56 percent of Americans said they wanted smaller government and fewer services. Tea Party activists, the most vocal citizens of our time, powerfully amplify those demands. Yet the reality is that the vast majority of Americans have at some point relied on government programs — and valued them — even though they often fail to recognize that government is the source of the assistance.

A 2008 poll of 1,400 Americans by the Cornell Survey Research Institute found that when people were asked whether they had “ever used a government social program,” 57 percent said they had not. Respondents were then asked whether they had availed themselves of any of 21 different federal policies, including Social Security, unemployment insurance, the home-mortgage-interest deduction and student loans. It turned out that 94 percent of those who had denied using programs had benefited from at least one; the average respondent had used four.

Americans often fail to recognize government’s role in society, even if they have experienced it in their own lives. That is because so much of what government does today is largely invisible.

Individuals’ political views partly account for their perceptions. In the Cornell poll, a respondent who self-identified as “extremely liberal” was 20 percentage points more likely to acknowledge using a government program than someone who used the same number of programs but was “extremely conservative.” Also, those who believed that the nation spent too much on welfare were less likely to admit that they had used a “government social program,” perhaps because that term had pejorative connotations.

Besides political ideology, the design of policies also influences awareness. The most visible policies are those that require people to interact frequently or intensively with public officials to qualify for benefits, like food stamps, disability payments and subsidized housing. Another set of programs, including Medicare, Pell Grants and Social Security retirement benefits, are also fairly visible, though each contains characteristics that can camouflage government’s role.

The man at the town hall meeting in the summer of 2009 who angrily told his congressman, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare,” might have been in less of a state of denial than many believed: last year, one in four Medicare beneficiaries got their benefits through a private insurance company.

In the case of Social Security, checks are sent directly by the government, making it clear why 56 percent of beneficiaries in the Cornell poll acknowledged the use of a social program. But the denial by the remaining 44 percent is also understandable, given that individuals contributed directly from their paychecks to help finance the program. President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted on this arrangement, knowing the benefits would be understood as an earned right. That way, he said, “no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.”

The final group of policies, what I call the “submerged state,” is largely invisible because its benefits are channeled through the tax code and subsidies to private organizations. These include the home-mortgage-interest deduction and the exemption from taxes on employer-provided health and retirement benefits. Using “submerged” benefits is nearly as common as using more visible policies.

Even personal encounters with the submerged state fail to make most people recognize that they have benefited from government. The greater the number of visible policies an individual had used, the more likely he or she was to agree that “government programs have helped me in times of need,” but greater use of policies of the submerged state had no comparable impact.

Likewise, the greater the number of visible policies used, the higher the rate of agreement that “government has provided me opportunities to improve my standard of living”; by contrast, those who had used more submerged policies were more likely to disagree. The hidden policies left beneficiaries with the false impression that their economic security was owed merely to their own efforts.

The submerged state obscures the role of government and exaggerates that of the market. It leaves citizens unaware of the source of programs and unable to form meaningful opinions about them.

Until political leaders reveal government benefits for what they are by talking openly about them, we cannot have an honest discussion about spending, taxes or deficits. The stipulation in the new health care reform law that W-2 forms must indicate the value of untaxed employer-provided health care benefits is a step in the right direction. The government should also provide “receipts” that inform people of the size of each benefit they get through the tax code.

The threat to democracy today is not the size of government but rather the hidden form that so much of its growth has taken. If those who assume government has never helped them could see how it has, it might help defuse our polarized political climate and reinvigorate informed citizenship.

Suzanne Mettler, a professor of government at Cornell, is the author of “The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy.”

Original Source: The New York Times

The Misuse of Life Without Parole

Posted on : 15-09-2011 | By : Dean | In : EN101, Teaching


Published: September 12, 2011

The Supreme Court ruled last year that it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a juvenile to life without parole when the crime is short of homicide. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that life without parole shares “some characteristics with death sentences that are shared by no other sentences” in altering “the offender’s life by a forfeiture that is irrevocable.”

The sentence is no less severe when applied to adults. Yet life without parole, which exists in all states (Alaska’s version is a 99-year sentence), is routinely used, including in cases where the death penalty is not in play and where even an ordinary life sentence might be too harsh.

From 1992 to 2008, the number in prison for life without parole tripled from 12,453 to 41,095, even though violent crime declined sharply all over the country during that period. That increase is also much greater than the percentage rise in offenders serving life sentences.

The American Law Institute, a group composed of judges, lawyers and legal scholars, has wisely called for restricting the use of the penalty to cases “when this sanction is the sole alternative to a death sentence.”

In capital cases, life without parole is a sound option. Public support for the death penalty, a barbarity that should be abolished in this country, plummets when life without parole is an alternative. In many states, juries are instructed that it is an option. But the use of the sentence has gone far beyond death penalty cases, even as violent crime rates have declined.

In the last decade in Georgia, one of the few states with good data on the sentence, about 60 percent of offenders sentenced to life without parole were convicted of murder. The other 40 percent were convicted of kidnapping, armed robbery, sex crimes, drug crimes and other crimes including shoplifting. Nationwide, the racial disparity in the penalty is stark. Blacks make up 56.4 percent of those serving life without parole, though they are 37.5 percent of prisoners in all state prisons.

The overuse of the sentence reflects this excessively punitive era. But as the institute’s report explains, an “ordinary” life sentence is “a punishment of tremendous magnitude” whose “true gravity should not be undervalued.” In the past 20 years, the average life term served has grown from 21 years to 29 years before parole.

Interestingly, even the institute’s approach to sentencing reflects the times. In 1962, when it last revised its Model Penal Code on sentencing, which is a blueprint for states to follow in shaping their laws, the group called for prisoners sentenced to life to be considered for parole after 1 to 10 years. Now the group calls for them to be reviewed by a judge within 15 years, with the expectation that many will “never regain their freedom.”

Still, the group’s view about the proper relationship between crime and punishment is dispassionate and correct. A fair-minded society should revisit life sentences and decide whether an offender deserves to remain in prison or be released on parole. And a fair-minded society should not sentence anyone to life without parole except as an alternative to the death penalty.

Read the original article at the New York Times Online

NYT Op-Ed (Privacy)

Posted on : 15-09-2011 | By : Dean | In : EN101, Teaching



Protect Our Right to Anonymity

Published: September 12, 2011

IN November, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that could redefine the scope of privacy in an age of increasingly ubiquitous surveillance technologies like GPS devices and face-recognition software.

The case, United States v. Jones, concerns a GPS device that the police, without a valid warrant, placed on the car of a suspected drug dealer in Washington, D.C. The police then tracked his movements for a month and used the information to convict him of conspiracy to sell cocaine. The question before the court is whether this violated the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures of our “persons, houses, papers, and effects.”

It’s imperative that the court says yes. Otherwise, Americans will no longer be able to expect the same degree of anonymity in public places that they have rightfully enjoyed since the founding era.

Two federal appellate courts have upheld the use of GPS devices without warrants in similar cases, on the grounds that we have no expectation of privacy when we are in public places and that tracking technology merely makes public surveillance easier and more effective.

But in a visionary opinion in August 2010, Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg, of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, disagreed. No reasonable person, he argued, expects that his public movements will be tracked 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and therefore we do have an expectation of privacy in the “whole” of our public movements.

“Unlike one’s movements during a single journey,” Judge Ginsburg wrote, “the whole of one’s movements over the course of a month is not actually exposed to the public because the likelihood anyone will observe all those movements is effectively nil.”

Judge Ginsburg realized that ubiquitous surveillance for a month is impossible, in practice, without technological enhancements like a GPS device, and that it is therefore qualitatively different than the more limited technologically enhanced public surveillance that the Supreme Court has upheld in the past (like using a beeper to help the police follow a car for a 100-mile trip).

The Supreme Court case is an appeal of Judge Ginsburg’s decision. If the court rejects his logic and sides with those who maintain that we have no expectation of privacy in our public movements, surveillance is likely to expand, radically transforming our experience of both public and virtual spaces.

For what’s at stake in the Supreme Court case is more than just the future of GPS tracking: there’s also online surveillance. Facebook, for example, announced in June that it was implementing face-recognition technology that scans all the photos in its database and automatically suggests identifying tags that match images of a user’s friends with their names. (After a public outcry, Facebook said that users could opt out of the tagging system.) With the help of this kind of photo tagging, law enforcement officials could post on Facebook a photo of, say, an anonymous antiwar protester and identify him.

There is also the specter of video surveillance. In 2008, at a Google conference on the future of law and technology, Andrew McLaughlin, then the head of public policy at Google, said he expected that, within a few years, public agencies and private companies would be asking Google to post live feeds from public and private surveillance cameras all around the world. If the feeds were linked and archived, anyone with a Web browser would be able to click on a picture of anyone on any monitored street and follow his movements.

To preserve our right to some degree of anonymity in public, we can’t rely on the courts alone. Fortunately, 15 states have enacted laws imposing criminal and civil penalties for the use of electronic tracking devices in various forms and restricting their use without a warrant. And in June, Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, and Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah, introduced the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act, which would provide federal protection against public surveillance.

Their act would require the government to get a warrant before acquiring the geolocational information of an American citizen or legal alien; create criminal penalties for secretly using an electronic device to track someone’s movements; and prohibit commercial service providers from sharing customers’ geolocational information without their consent — a necessary restriction at a time of increasing cellphone tracking by private companies.

It’s encouraging that Democrats and Republicans in Congress are coming together to preserve the expectations of anonymity in public that Americans have long taken for granted. Soon, liberal and conservative justices on the Supreme Court will have an opportunity to meet the same challenge.

If they fail to rise to the occasion, our public life may be transformed in ways we can only begin to imagine.

Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University, is an editor of the forthcoming book “Constitution 3.0: Freedom and Technological Change.”


The original article can be found that the New York Times Online

An Op-Ed (Considering Authority)

Posted on : 13-09-2011 | By : Dean | In : EN101, Teaching


From the New York Times:

During the summer of 2008, the eminent Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith led a research team that conducted in-depth interviews with 230 young adults from across America. The interviews were part of a larger study that Smith, Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, Patricia Snell Herzog and others have been conducting on the state of America’s youth.

Smith and company asked about the young people’s moral lives, and the results are depressing.

It’s not so much that these young Americans are living lives of sin and debauchery, at least no more than you’d expect from 18- to 23-year-olds. What’s disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues.

The interviewers asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life. In the rambling answers, which Smith and company recount in a new book, “Lost in Transition,” you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so.

When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all, like whether they could afford to rent a certain apartment or whether they had enough quarters to feed the meter at a parking spot.

“Not many of them have previously given much or any thought to many of the kinds of questions about morality that we asked,” Smith and his co-authors write. When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,” is how one interviewee put it.

The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”

Rejecting blind deference to authority, many of the young people have gone off to the other extreme: “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.”

Many were quick to talk about their moral feelings but hesitant to link these feelings to any broader thinking about a shared moral framework or obligation. As one put it, “I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.”

Smith and company found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism — of relativism and nonjudgmentalism. Again, this doesn’t mean that America’s young people are immoral. Far from it. But, Smith and company emphasize, they have not been given the resources — by schools, institutions and families — to cultivate their moral intuitions, to think more broadly about moral obligations, to check behaviors that may be degrading. In this way, the study says more about adult America than youthful America.

Smith and company are stunned, for example, that the interviewees were so completely untroubled by rabid consumerism. (This was the summer of 2008, just before the crash).

Many of these shortcomings will sort themselves out as these youngsters get married, have kids, enter a profession or fit into more clearly defined social roles. Institutions will inculcate certain habits. Broader moral horizons will be forced upon them. But their attitudes at the start of their adult lives do reveal something about American culture. For decades, writers from different perspectives have been warning about the erosion of shared moral frameworks and the rise of an easygoing moral individualism.

Allan Bloom and Gertrude Himmelfarb warned that sturdy virtues are being diluted into shallow values. Alasdair MacIntyre has written about emotivism, the idea that it’s impossible to secure moral agreement in our culture because all judgments are based on how we feel at the moment.

Charles Taylor has argued that morals have become separated from moral sources. People are less likely to feel embedded on a moral landscape that transcends self. James Davison Hunter wrote a book called “The Death of Character.” Smith’s interviewees are living, breathing examples of the trends these writers have described.

In most times and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit. A shared religion defined rules and practices. Cultures structured people’s imaginations and imposed moral disciplines. But now more people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.

By David Brooks. Original article: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/13/opinion/if-it-feels-right.html?_r=1&ref=todayspaper

President Obama’s Jobs Speech

Posted on : 11-09-2011 | By : Dean | In : EN101, Teaching



Here’s a link to the full video of the president’s speech on jobs. I’d like to use it as part of the ongoing discussion we have this semester, so please take the time to watch it.

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