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The Evangelical Rejection of Reason (NYT Op-Ed)

Posted on : 20-10-2011 | By : Dean | In : EN101, Rebuttal Articles, Rebuttal Articles

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By Karl W. Giberson and Randall J. Stephens

THE Republican presidential field has become a showcase of evangelical anti-intellectualism. Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann deny that climate change is real and caused by humans. Mr. Perry and Mrs. Bachmann dismiss evolution as an unproven theory. The two candidates who espouse the greatest support for science, Mitt Romney and Jon M. Huntsman Jr., happen to be Mormons, a faith regarded with mistrust by many Christians.

The rejection of science seems to be part of a politically monolithic red-state fundamentalism, textbook evidence of an unyielding ignorance on the part of the religious. As one fundamentalist slogan puts it, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” But evangelical Christianity need not be defined by the simplistic theology, cultural isolationism and stubborn anti-intellectualism that most of the Republican candidates have embraced.

Like other evangelicals, we accept the centrality of faith in Jesus Christ and look to the Bible as our sacred book, though we find it hard to recognize our religious tradition in the mainstream evangelical conversation. Evangelicalism at its best seeks a biblically grounded expression of Christianity that is intellectually engaged, humble and forward-looking. In contrast, fundamentalism is literalistic, overconfident and reactionary.

Fundamentalism appeals to evangelicals who have become convinced that their country has been overrun by a vast secular conspiracy; denial is the simplest and most attractive response to change. They have been scarred by the elimination of prayer in schools; the removal of nativity scenes from public places; the increasing legitimacy of abortion and homosexuality; the persistence of pornography and drug abuse; and acceptance of other religions and of atheism.

In response, many evangelicals created what amounts to a “parallel culture,” nurtured by church, Sunday school, summer camps and colleges, as well as publishing houses, broadcasting networks, music festivals and counseling groups. Among evangelical leaders, Ken Ham, David Barton and James C. Dobson have been particularly effective orchestrators — and beneficiaries — of this subculture.

Mr. Ham built his organization, Answers in Genesis, on the premise that biblical truth trumps all other knowledge. His Creation Museum, in Petersburg, Ky., contrasts “God’s Word,” timeless and eternal, with the fleeting notions of “human reason.” This is how he knows that the earth is 10,000 years old, that humans and dinosaurs lived together, and that women are subordinate to men. Evangelicals who disagree, like Francis S. Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, are excoriated on the group’s Web site. (In a recent blog post, Mr. Ham called us “wolves” in sheep’s clothing, masquerading as Christians while secretly trying to destroy faith in the Bible.)

Mr. Barton heads an organization called WallBuilders, dedicated to the proposition that the founders were evangelicals who intended America to be a Christian nation. He has emerged as a highly influential Republican leader, a favorite of Mr. Perry, Mrs. Bachmann and members of the Tea Party. Though his education consists of a B.A. in religious education from Oral Roberts University and his scholarly blunders have drawn criticism from evangelical historians like John Fea, Mr. Barton has seen his version of history reflected in everything from the Republican Party platform to the social science curriculum in Texas.

Mr. Dobson, through his group Focus on the Family, has insisted for decades that homosexuality is a choice and that gay people could “pray away” their unnatural and sinful orientation. A defender of spanking children and of traditional roles for the sexes, he has accused the American Psychological Association, which in 2000 disavowed reparative therapy to “cure” homosexuality, of caving in to gay pressure.

Charismatic leaders like these project a winsome personal testimony as brothers in Christ. Their audiences number in the tens of millions. They pepper their presentations with so many Bible verses that their messages appear to be straight out of Scripture; to many, they seem like prophets, anointed by God.

But in fact their rejection of knowledge amounts to what the evangelical historian Mark A. Noll, in his 1994 book, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” described as an “intellectual disaster.” He called on evangelicals to repent for their neglect of the mind, decrying the abandonment of the intellectual heritage of the Protestant Reformation. “The scandal of the evangelical mind,” he wrote, “is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”

There are signs of change. Within the evangelical world, tensions have emerged between those who deny secular knowledge, and those who have kept up with it and integrated it with their faith. Almost all evangelical colleges employ faculty members with degrees from major research universities — a conduit for knowledge from the larger world. We find students arriving on campus tired of the culture-war approach to faith in which they were raised, and more interested in promoting social justice than opposing gay marriage.

Scholars like Dr. Collins and Mr. Noll, and publications like Books & CultureSojournersand The Christian Century, offer an alternative to the self-anointed leaders. They recognize that the Bible does not condemn evolution and says next to nothing about gay marriage. They understand that Christian theology can incorporate Darwin’s insights and flourish in a pluralistic society.

Americans have always trusted in God, and even today atheism is little more than a quiet voice on the margins. Faith, working calmly in the lives of Americans from George Washington to Barack Obama, has motivated some of America’s finest moments. But when the faith of so many Americans becomes an occasion to embrace discredited, ridiculous and even dangerous ideas, we must not be afraid to speak out, even if it means criticizing fellow Christians.

Karl W. Giberson is a former professor of physics, and Randall J. Stephens is an associate professor of history, both at Eastern Nazarene College. They are the authors of “The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.”

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on October 18, 2011, on page A27 of the New York edition with the headline: The Evangelical Rejection of Reason.

How to Stop the Drop in Home Values (NYT Op-Ed)

Posted on : 20-10-2011 | By : Dean | In : EN101, Rebuttal Articles, Rebuttal Articles

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By MARTIN S. FELDSTEIN

HOMES are the primary form of wealth for most Americans. Since the housing bubble burst in 2006, the wealth of American homeowners has fallen by some $9 trillion, or nearly 40 percent. In the 12 months ending in June, house values fell by more than $1 trillion, or 8 percent. That sharp fall in wealth means less consumer spending, leading to less business production and fewer jobs.

But for political reasons, both the Obama administration and Republican leaders in Congress have resisted the only real solution: permanently reducing the mortgage debt hanging over America. The resistance is understandable. Voters don’t want their tax dollars used to help some homeowners who could afford to pay their mortgages but choose not to because they can default instead, and simply walk away. And voters don’t want to provide any more help to the banks that made loans that have gone sour.

But failure to act means that further declines in home prices will continue, preventing the rise in consumer spending needed for recovery. As costly as it will be to permanently write down mortgages, it will be even costlier to do nothing and run the risk of anotherrecession.

House prices are falling because millions of homeowners are defaulting on their mortgages, and the sale of their foreclosed properties is driving down the prices of all homes. Nearly 15 million homeowners owe more than their homes are worth; in this group, about half the mortgages exceed the home value by more than 30 percent.

Most residential mortgages are effectively nonrecourse loans, meaning creditors can eventually take the house if the homeowner defaults, but cannot take other assets or earnings. Individuals with substantial excess mortgage debt therefore have a strong incentive to stop paying; they can often stay in their homes for a year or more before the property is foreclosed and they are forced to move.

The overhang of mortgage debt prevents homeowners from moving to areas where there are better job prospects and from using home equity to finance small business start-ups and expansions. And because their current mortgages exceed the value of their homes, they cannot free up cash by refinancing at low interest rates.

The Obama administration has tried a variety of programs to reduce monthly interest payments. Those programs failed because they didn’t address the real problem: the size of the mortgage exceeds the value of the home.

To halt the fall in house prices, the government should reduce mortgage principal when it exceeds 110 percent of the home value. About 11 million of the nearly 15 million homes that are “underwater” are in this category. If everyone eligible participated, the one-time cost would be under $350 billion. Here’s how such a policy might work:

If the bank or other mortgage holder agrees, the value of the mortgage would be reduced to 110 percent of the home value, with the government absorbing half of the cost of the reduction and the bank absorbing the other half. For the millions of underwater mortgages that are held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government would just be paying itself. And in exchange for this reduction in principal, the borrower would have to accept that the new mortgage had full recourse — in other words, the government could go after the borrower’s other assets if he defaulted on the home. This would all be voluntary.

This plan is fair because both borrowers and creditors would make sacrifices. The bank would accept the cost of the principal write-down because the resulting loan — with its lower loan-to-value ratio and its full recourse feature — would be much less likely to result in default. The borrowers would accept full recourse to get the mortgage reduction.

Without a program to stop mortgage defaults, there is no way to know how much further house prices might fall. Although house prices in some areas are already very low, potential buyers continue to wait because they anticipate even lower prices in the future.

Before the housing bubble burst in 2006, the level of house prices had risen nearly 60 percent above the long-term price path. So there is no knowing how far prices may fall below the long-term path before they begin to recover.

I cannot agree with those who say we should just let house prices continue to fall until they stop by themselves. Although some forest fires are allowed to burn out naturally, no one lets those fires continue to burn when they threaten residential neighborhoods. The fall in house prices is not just a decline in wealth but a decline that depresses consumer spending, making the economy weaker and the loss of jobs much greater. We all have a stake in preventing that.

Martin S. Feldstein, a professor of economics at Harvard, was the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers from 1982 to 1984 under President Ronald Reagan.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on October 13, 2011, on page A29 of the New York edition with the headline: How to Stop the Drop in Home Values.

The Gift of Glib (NYT Op-Ed)

Posted on : 20-10-2011 | By : Dean | In : EN101, Rebuttal Articles, Rebuttal Articles

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By Gail Collins

Right now you’re probably asking yourself, how did Rick Perry do in the big Republican debate in New Hampshire this week?

He did great! It turns out that Governor Perry has a big energy plan, known as “The Plan I’m Going to Be Laying Out.” When he does, it’s going to be the answer to almost everything. We know that because no matter what Perry was asked, he talked about the plan. Which will involve “the American entrepreneurship that’s out there.” And a whole lot more. When he’s ready to tell you.

For the rest of the time, Perry pretty much sat there like a large boulder with good hair, while the remaining members of the gang attacked Herman Cain, the former fast-food chain president turned Republican front-runner, about his economic plan.

This is what we’ve come to. A presidential debate about the 9-9-9 plan.

9-9-9 is the sine qua non of the Cain candidacy. It would scrap the tax code and give us 9 percent corporate, income and national sales taxes. He mentions it every 10 seconds. (Opening statement, he got it in by 5.)

I have never heard anybody discussing the 9-9-9 plan in the real world, but obviously I hang out in the wrong places. The organizers and the candidates felt the need to really get into this, and, as a result, Tuesday night in New Hampshire will go down in history as the 9-9-9 plan debate. (Here is how presidential primary debates go down in history. The tapes are stored in a moisture-proof vault in a civil defense cave in Indiana. If the world as we know it should come to an end, the surviving members of our species will be able to relive these deeply American contests and pass their knowledge on to their children. Soon, they will go forth and repopulate a world in which all the boys sit around looking smug like Newt Gingrich and all the girls sound like Michele Bachmann. That is what they mean by “the living will envy the dead.”)

Among the elite cadre of Americans who have been thinking about 9-9-9, a good number have determined that it won’t raise enough revenue. “The problem with that analysis is that it is incorrect,” announced Cain firmly. I do admire the way he does this. If I could convey that tone, I would win every argument in my family just by saying “The problem with that analysis is that it is incorrect.” And there would never again be a discussion of renting a limo for a family viewing of all the Cincinnati Christmas lights.

Also, Michele Bachmann pointed out that 999 turned upside down is 666, which would make Cain’s tax policy the mark of the devil. Cain seemed to find that amusing, but he looked a little peeved when Jon Huntsman suggested 999 might be the price of a box of pizza.

That, people, was the sum and substance of the wit and humor of the New Hampshire Republican debate. Jon Huntsman also tried to make a joke about gas, but we are not going there.

Cain, in an attempt to pull down his competition, asked if Romney could name all 59 points in his 160-page economic plan.

Now I strongly suspect that Mitt could name all 59 points. I bet he repeats them at night to put himself to sleep. (“lower marginal tax rates … more free trade agreements … mmmmzzzzzzz.”) But he didn’t fall into that trap. He whipped out the seven pillars of Romneyism, which support the 59 points and can, therefore, be packed into one 30-second response. If you ignore Charlie Rose yelling in the background.

The guy has pillars for his points. No wonder he’s winning.

There were other high points — Gingrich accused Romney of starting class warfare by advocating an end to the capital gains tax only for investors making under $200,000 a year. He also said Barney Frank and Chris Dodd should be thrown in jail for their bill to reform Wall Street financial practices. Herman Cain said Alan Greenspan was the best Fed chairman in recent history. Michele Bachmann gave the fact-checkers another great night of error-correcting. It was the usual good time for all, except you do kind of wonder what the heck gives this particular crowd of people the right to be the nation’s official presidential contenders. What do they have in common? Intelligence? Appropriate experience? A large base of followers? Not so much.

What have they got? They’ve all got glib.

Except one. It’s enough to make you feel sorry for Rick Perry. If he wasn’t Rick Perry.

As things stand, the Perry camp is apparently planning to keep their guy in the background during debates and hit Romney over the head with mean commercials. That shouldn’t be too hard. Maybe they’ll include the day Mitt drove to Canada with the family dog on the car roof.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on October 13, 2011, on page A29 of the New York edition with the headline: The Gift Of Glib.

The Milquetoast Radicals (NYT Op-Ed)

Posted on : 20-10-2011 | By : Dean | In : EN101, Rebuttal Articles, Rebuttal Articles

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By David Brooks

The U.S. economy is probably going to stink for a few more years. It is beset by short-term problems (low consumer demand, uncertain housing prices, too much debt) and long-term problems (wage stagnation, rising health care costs, eroding human capital).

Realistically, not much is going to be done to address the short-term problems, but we can at least use this winter of recuperation to address the country’s underlying structural ones. Do tax reform, fiscal reform, education reform and political reform so that when the economy finally does recover the prosperity is deep, broad and strong.

Unfortunately, the country has been wasting this winter of recuperation. Nothing of consequence has been achieved over the past two years. Instead, there have been a series of trivial sideshows. It’s as if people can’t keep their minds focused on the big things. They get diverted by scuffles that are small, contentious and symbolic.

Take the Occupy Wall Street movement. This uprising was sparked by the magazine Adbusters, previously best known for the 2004 essay, “Why Won’t Anyone Say They Are Jewish?” — an investigative report that identified some of the most influential Jews in America and their nefarious grip on policy.

If there is a core theme to the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is that the virtuous 99 percent of society is being cheated by the richest and greediest 1 percent.

This is a theme that allows the people in the 99 percent to think very highly of themselves. All their problems are caused by the nefarious elite.

Unfortunately, almost no problem can be productively conceived in this way. A group that divides the world between the pure 99 percent and the evil 1 percent will have nothing to say about education reform, Medicare reform, tax reform, wage stagnation or polarization. They will have nothing to say about the way Americans have overconsumed and overborrowed. These are problems that implicate a much broader swath of society than the top 1 percent.

They will have no realistic proposal to reduce the debt or sustain the welfare state. Even if you tax away 50 percent of the income of those making between $1 million and $10 million, you only reduce the national debt by 1 percent, according to the Tax Foundation. If you confiscate all the income of those making more than $10 million, you reduce the debt by 2 percent. You would still be nibbling only meekly around the edges.

The 99-versus-1 frame is also extremely self-limiting. If you think all problems flow from a small sliver of American society, then all your solutions are going to be small, too. The policy proposals that have been floating around the Occupy Wall Street movement — a financial transfer tax, forgiveness for student loans — are marginal.

The Occupy Wall Street movement may look radical, but its members’ ideas are less radical than those you might hear at your average Rotary Club. Its members may hate capitalism. A third believe the U.S. is no better than Al Qaeda, according to a New York magazine survey, but since the left no longer believes in the nationalization of industry, these “radicals” really have no systemic reforms to fall back on.

They are not the only small thinkers. President Obama promises not to raise taxes on the bottom 98 percent. The Occupy-types celebrate the bottom 99 percent. Republicans promise not to raise taxes on the bottom 100 percent. Through these and other pledges, leaders of all three movements are hedging themselves in. They are severely limiting the scope of their proposed solutions.

The thing about the current moment is that the moderates in suits are much more radical than the pierced anarchists camping out on Wall Street or the Tea Party-types.

Look, for example, at a piece Matt Miller wrote for The Washington Post called “The Third Party Stump Speech We Need.” Miller is a former McKinsey consultant and Clinton staffer. But his ideas are much bigger than anything you hear from the protesters: slash corporate taxes and raise energy taxes, aggressively use market forces and public provisions to bring down health care costs; raise capital requirements for banks; require national service; balance the budget by 2018.

Other economists, for example, have revived the USA Tax, first introduced in 1995 by Senators Sam Nunn and Pete Domenici. This would replace the personal income and business tax regime with a code that allows unlimited deduction for personal savings and business investment. It’s a consumption tax through the back door, which would clean out loopholes and weaken lobbyists.

Don’t be fooled by the clichés of protest movements past. The most radical people today are the ones that look the most boring. It’s not about declaring war on some nefarious elite. It’s about changing behavior from top to bottom. Let’s occupy ourselves.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on October 11, 2011, on page A27 of the New York edition with the headline: The Milquetoast Radicals.

Desperately Seeking Dalrymple (NYT Op-Ed)

Posted on : 13-10-2011 | By : Dean | In : EN101, Rebuttal Articles, Teaching

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By 
Published: October 5, 2011

I know you couldn’t care less about Sarah Palin bowing out of the presidential race, but let me ask you this: Who wants to spend the next 13 months watching Mitt Romney run against Barack Obama? Can I see a show of hands?

I thought so. All of us, regardless of political persuasion, have a stake in trying to keep the Republican presidential fight going through the winter. These are tough times. (“Sesame Street” just announced it’s adding a poverty-stricken Muppet.) We need diversion.

Plus, it doesn’t look as if there’s going to be a professional basketball season. And I cannot really figure out that many ways to mention that Romney once drove to Canada with the family dog strapped to the roof of the car.

But we seem to be running out of fresh blood, and it’s only October! Surely there’s another Republican governor or ex-governor we can crown Non-Mitt of the Month. George Pataki is definitely available, and I think the country is coming to understand that what it really needs right now is another president named George.

Donald Trump seems content to be an ex-candidate, using his deep political expertise to comment on the remaining field. (“I had dinner last night with Jim Perry. I was impressed with him.”) But maybe there’s another reality TV host we can get into the race. Jeff Probst, the guy from “Survivor,” might be good. On the show, whenever a team loses a competition, he always says something like: “Kaluha Tribe, I’ve got nothing for you.” It’s sort of a signature. Think how useful that would be for a president. (“Future Social Security recipients, I’ve got nothing for you.”)

A spokesman for Probst said he was unavailable to provide extraneous details such as whether or not he is a Republican.

How about Idaho Gov. Butch Otter? I have been promoting him as a possible presidential contender, mainly because I like saying “Idaho Gov. Butch Otter.” But there’s much, much more there to recommend him. For one thing, I’m pretty sure he’d be the first president who was on the board of directors of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.

One of Otter’s big initiatives this year was declaring the gray wolf an “emergency disaster” so people could shoot them. This could open up a useful debate on the hunting issue, which in presidential politics usually involves candidates bragging about their body count. But we could also revisit Rick Perry’s story about how he shot a coyote with his “Ruger .380 with laser sights” while jogging, and pursue a question that has been bothering all of us: Where was he carrying it?

Even better, it would give us an opportunity to relive the moment in the last presidential campaign when Romney was forced to backtrack from his efforts to portray himself as a lifelong hunter. (“I’m not a big-game hunter. I’ve made that very clear. I’ve always been a rodent and rabbit hunter. Small varmints, if you will. I began when I was 15 or so and I have hunted those kinds of varmints since then. More than two times.”)

One small downside to a Gov. Butch Otter candidacy is that he’s already endorsed Romney. But betrayal is one of the high points of any presidential campaign. The more pain, the more they entertain. It’s sort of like Hunger Games for pacifists.

Finally, and this is very important, if Gov. Butch Otter became a presidential candidate, everybody in the media would have to go to Idaho to follow him around for a while. I have never been to Idaho, so I would like that very much. In fact, if we can’t have Gov. Butch Otter, I think we should try to find a Republican governor from another state that I’ve never visited.

Paging Gov. Jack Dalrymple of North Dakota!

North Dakota has so many jobs there’s a labor shortage. And a monster budget surplus. Of course, this is almost entirely because they’ve discovered a huge field of oil up there. But do you remember how Rick Perry keeps bragging about job creation in Texas? If Perry can take credit for oil, Gov. Jack Dalrymple of North Dakota can, too.

“And don’t pooh-pooh agriculture,” the governor mildly chided a TV interviewer.

This campaign needs more candidates who say things like “Don’t pooh-pooh agriculture.”

Now it is true that much of North Dakota’s new prosperity involves hydrofracking, a drilling method that causes environmentalists to genuinely turn green. Also, when they drill for oil, the drillers are so eager to get their hands on it that they don’t bother to capture the byproduct, wasting 100 million cubic feet of natural gas a day. “North Dakota is not as bad as Kazakhstan, but this is not what you would expect a civilized, efficient society to do,” an energy expert told Clifford Krauss of The Times.

Admittedly, “Not as Bad as Kazakhstan” isn’t the best possible state motto. But I think we could work this out over the next 10 or 20 candidate debates.

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A version of this op-ed appeared in print on October 6, 2011, on page A35 of the New York edition with the headline: Desperately Seeking Dalrymple.

When I Needed Help, I Got Propaganda (NYT Op-Ed)

Posted on : 13-10-2011 | By : Dean | In : EN101, Rebuttal Articles, Sources T3, Teaching

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By KATIE STACK
Published: October 5, 2011

DEFENDERS of “crisis pregnancy centers” are converging on Capitol Hill this week to lobby for increased support from the government, brandishing not picket signs, but babies.

The centers portray themselves as nonpartisan health and counseling clinics, but in fact they oppose abortion, and sometimes even family planning, and push a political agenda on vulnerable women. A Congressional investigation in 2006 found that 87 percent of the centers surveyed provided false or misleading medical information. Nonetheless, the government has given over $9.3 million in grants to these centers since 2007 — mostly under the Bush administration. Cities like San Francisco and New York have recently sought to crack down on their deceptive marketing and others have called for an increase in regulations.

Still, supporters of the centers and the “Babies Go to Congress” campaign claim they are promoting a pro-woman agenda.

I am intimately aware of how false that is. Like many young women, I found myself facing an unintended pregnancy. Two years ago, as a junior in college with ambitious career goals, I knew that continuing the pregnancy wasn’t an option for me. I called the local Planned Parenthood and made an appointment for an abortion for a week and a half later. The operator I spoke to encouraged me to spend time thinking over my decision and considering all my options.

I tried to do that. Because my communication with Planned Parenthood had been over the phone and the nearest office was in Iowa City, about an hour away from where I lived, I searched online for somewhere nearby where I could ask questions in person. I found Aid to Women, a center in Cedar Rapids that claimed to provide confidential counseling and abortion information. I knew it didn’t perform abortions, but I still went expecting to get unbiased medical advice.

When I walked in, I knew almost immediately that I’d been wrong. Though the volunteers wore scrubs, none of them were medical professionals. They insisted on calling my pregnancy my “baby” and my “child.” The intake questions included, “What is your relationship to Jesus Christ?”

The “counseling” that I received included the following: I was cautioned that abortions caused breast cancer, even though the National Cancer Institute has found serious flawsin all research that suggests so. I was warned that I would inevitably suffer from post-abortion stress syndrome, even though the American Psychological Association says there is no evidence of increased mental health problems among women who have an abortion in the first trimester. I was told that I would not hear this information from doctors, because doctors make money performing abortions and would lie about the procedure’s risks.

Even as a college student familiar with the abortion debate from studying political science, I left the center with a lot of confusion. I researched what I’d been told, found out that much of it was inaccurate, and got the help I needed at Planned Parenthood. But I can see how easy it would be for more vulnerable women to be manipulated into feeling dependent on these centers.

Since then I’ve talked with dozens of women, including my best friend and my younger sister, about their own experiences with these centers. Regardless of our views on abortion, our conclusion about crisis pregnancy centers is the same — they don’t help women. My sister fully intended to raise her own son, who is now 2, but when she was pregnant and went to a center for advice, all she got was a lecture about the joys of adoption and a pamphlet on eternal salvation. She had to turn to Planned Parenthood to receive any actual prenatal health care or referrals.

Parading babies around as props is only a stunt. While Republicans have made their concern for the unborn clear, the fact that many of them proposed cutting nutrition programs for infants by about 10 percent earlier this year suggests that their concern for babies may end once they’re born. And if they truly want to support women, they should focus on transparent, nonpartisan, fact-based education for those who are facing what is likely to be the most difficult decision of their lives.

Katie Stack is a graduate student in gender and women’s studies at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

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A version of this op-ed appeared in print on October 6, 2011, on page A35 of the New York edition with the headline: When I Needed Help, I Got Propaganda.

The Cronyism Behind a Pipeline for Crude (NYT Op-Ed)

Posted on : 13-10-2011 | By : Dean | In : EN101, Rebuttal Articles, Teaching

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OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

The Cronyism Behind a Pipeline for Crude

By BILL McKIBBEN
Published: October 3, 2011

LATE last month, the Obama administration unveiled a new tool that lets anyone send a petition to the White House; get 5,000 signatures in 30 days and you’re guaranteed some kind of answer. My prediction: it’s not going to stop people from trying to occupy Wall Street. After the past few years, we’re increasingly unwilling to believe that political reform can be accomplished by going through the “normal channels” of democracy.

It’s easy to understand why. In the first few months of the Bush administration, the vice president’s staff held a series of secret meetings with energy company executives to come up with a new energy policy that, essentially, gave big oil everything it asked for. When journalists learned about the secret sessions, they became a scandal — environmental groups complained long and loud, right up to the Supreme Court, and rightly so. Important decisions should be made in the open, not behind closed doors by cronies scratching one another’s backs.

In 2008, Barack Obama promised to turn things around with new ethics guidelines and promises of transparency. But if two batches of e-mails released via the Freedom of Information Act — the first last month and the second on Monday — are any indication, he’s not delivering on that promise.

The e-mails, made available by the environmental group Friends of the Earth, show something just as tawdry as Dick Cheney’s backroom dealing: the State Department working with lobbyists to advance the interests of TransCanada, the company trying to build the Keystone XL pipeline from the tar sands of Canada across the center of the continent. Even as the State Department was supposedly carrying out a neutral evaluation of the pipeline’s environmental impact, key players were undermining the process.

One of the stars of this sordid drama was Paul Elliott, TransCanada’s chief Washington lobbyist for its pipeline project. Back in 2008, he was the deputy national campaign manager of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential bid. Around the time she became secretary of state, he was hired by TransCanada. Why did he get the job? Just ask Marja Verloop, a member of the diplomatic staff at the United States Embassy in Canada who oversaw environmental and energy issues. In one of the friendly e-mails between the diplomat and the lobbyist, Ms. Verloop reassured Mr. Elliott about an article that mentioned his possible conflicts of interest: “it’s precisely because you have connections that you’re sought after and hired.”

And how neutral was the State Department about the plan it was supposedly evaluating? Here’s Ms. Verloop again, in response to an e-mail from Mr. Elliott relaying the good news that he had persuaded Senator Max Baucus of Montana to back the pipeline: “Go Paul!” Clearly, these guys are on the same team, never mind that one of them works for the energy company and the other for the government agency overseeing it.

This comes, in one sense, as no big surprise. In a 2009 cable obtained by Wikileaks, another State Department higher-up was caught advising Canadian officials on how to spin their message to win favorable media coverage of Canadian crude. And when the State Department picked a consulting firm to help carry out the environmental impact statement on the Keystone pipeline, it chose a company called Cardno Entrix that listed among its chief clients …TransCanada. The final report, which came out in late August, decided the pipeline would have “no significant impact” on the nearby land and water resources.

This is laughable — we’re talking about connecting a pipe to one of the largest pools of carbon on earth. Twenty of the nation’s top scientists sent the administration a letter this summer explaining what a disaster it would be. According to NASA’s chief climate scientist, James Hansen, if we tapped the tar sands heavily, it would be “essentially game over” for the climate.

But instead of listening to bright people like Mr. Hansen who know what they’re talking about, our government’s staffers are blowing kisses at lobbyists. That’s exactly why cronyism is such a problem. The people writing these e-mails don’t have expertise — they have connections. If this is happening in the State Department, why should we not assume it’s also going on in the Treasury Department’s dealings with the big banks, and just about everywhere else in government?

It really does seem extra shocking in the Obama administration. Dick Cheney’s sitting down with the energy barons was almost expected — he’d just quit as chief executive of the drilling company Halliburton, after all. But Barack Obama said he would “end the tyranny of oil”; he also said he was going to end back-room dealing. His decision about the Keystone pipeline project, which is expected by year’s end, seems like one last chance to show he actually meant it.

Bill McKibben, a scholar in residence in environmental studies at Middlebury College, is a spokesman for tarsandsaction.org, an organization that opposes the Keystone XL pipeline.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on October 4, 2011, on page A29 of the New York edition with the headline: The Cronyism Behind a Pipeline for Crude.

Hooray for Federal Loans (NYT Op-Ed)

Posted on : 13-10-2011 | By : Dean | In : EN101, Rebuttal Articles, Teaching

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OP-ED COLUMNIST

Hooray for Federal Loans!

By 
Published: October 3, 2011

In the firestorm over Solyndra, three main criticisms have emerged.

The first is that Solyndra wasn’t ready for prime time and that the Department of Energy, which gave it a $535 million federally guaranteed loan, should have known as much. The second is that Solyndra used political influence to land a loan that was destined to blow up. And the third is that Solyndra’s bankruptcy case shows why government bureaucrats shouldn’t be picking technology winners and losers — or making risky investments that the private sector won’t.

I think we can now safely concede the first point. Although what sunk Solyndra was the unsustainably high price of its innovative solar panels, The Washington PostThe Los Angeles Times and Megan McArdle’s blog at The Atlantic’s Web site have all made a convincing case that, internally, the company was a mess.

The second argument, on the other hand, strikes me as utterly bogus. Yes, there are a few e-mails from inside the government that questioned the loan guarantee. And, yes, Solyndra hired — shocker! — lobbyists. But you can always find, after the fact, “bad documents” that can be twisted to make something innocent sound nefarious.

“I suspect that when all the information finally comes out, there will be very little that is scandalous,” said Jonathan Rothwell, who has studied the Solyndra case as a senior research analyst at the Brookings Institution. Although Republicans will surely try to keep Solyndra in the news until, oh, next November, the scandal will eventually evaporate because there is very little there.

The third criticism is the one that really matters: government “is a crappy vc,” as Obama’s former economic adviser, Larry Summers, put it in another embarrassing e-mail that was recently released as part of a Congressional investigation into Solyndra.

“VC,” of course, stands for venture capitalist; the notion is that government is not equipped to play that role. A corollary point, voiced by Holman Jenkins Jr. in The Wall Street Journal, is that solar projects that make financial sense get financed by the private sector and those that don’t are the ones that need federal backing.

But if you spend any time actually looking into how the Department of Energy doles out the loan guarantees, you quickly realize that it’s not acting like a venture capitalist. Rather, it is funding projects that have already attracted private capital — lots of it. The private sector, in other words, is still the one picking winners and losers.

What the program is essentially doing is moving alternative energy innovations to full-scale development. Why is the government doing this? Because this is precisely where the private sector fails. As Rothwell puts it, “The program is supposed to overcome the commercialization valley of death.”

In this country, it is relatively easy to get venture capital for a good idea — and alternative energy has attracted billions in the past few years. What is hard to come by is money to fund the far more expensive process of commercializing the innovation. Andy Grove, the former chief executive of Intel (and still one of the great business minds in America), has been sounding the alarm about this, pointing out that one reason so many American innovations wind up being manufactured in China is that the Chinese are more than happy to finance the commercialization process.

One company that has received three federally guaranteed loans, totaling more than $3 billion, is First Solar. That money is going to help the company build three solar power plants in California and Arizona. The plants already have long-term contracts with utilities. They have locked-in cash flows. The risk is minimal.

Shouldn’t banks be making these loans? Sure, but they are still paralyzed by the financial crisis and don’t understand the economics of solar power. Can you really argue that the government should, therefore, also sit on its hands? Indeed, one goal of the loan guarantee program is to show private capital that these loans make sense — so that the banks can eventually step in and replace the government.

The Republicans know all this, surely. In 2005, when the Energy Policy Act was first proposed by the Bush administration, they made some of these same arguments in support of the loan guarantee program, which was part of the bill. The bill passed the House with overwhelming Republican support. Most Democrats voted no.

Today, the Republican-led Energy and Commerce Committee is investigating Solyndra, forcing its executives to take the Fifth Amendment, and releasing embarrassing White House e-mails. I looked it up: every single Republican on that committee who was in office in 2005 voted for the loan guarantee program that they are now so gleefully condemning.

I wonder why.

 

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on October 4, 2011, on page A29 of the New York edition with the headline: Hooray for Federal Loans!.

 

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