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High Art and the Soul Print E-mail
by Wes Riddle    Mon, Sep 5, 2011, 02:20 PM

One of the things Americans should be grateful for is that most can actually experience arts and entertainment fit for kings.  Indeed we don’t think on it much, but the middle class today enjoys an array of distractions that only aristocracy or so-called idle rich enjoyed for centuries past—not counting our technological advantage.  The poor Count of the Old World never had a big screen TV, not even a small screen black-and-white!  Gad, what deprivation.  Still the upper class (and the Church) managed through the years to patronize high art and to bring into existence high Western culture.  Fortunately they found a few devoted and singular talents, whose efforts they would support and encourage. 

For most of history, the upper class and powerful were the only ones with appreciable separation between existence and mere survival to give money to arts, and quite possibly, they were the only ones with an education to develop critical discernment in taste, to conceive of aesthetics (a branch of philosophy), and—for some—to reach for Heaven.  The sculptures by Michelangelo, the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, like the symphonies of Beethoven and plays of Shakespeare—these are testaments to patrons of the arts, as well as to the great masters themselves.  Governments were neither chiefly responsible for development of high art, nor for its expanding reach out to the public.

As market economies grew and wealth spread, more people would become patrons—that is to say, they at least became consumers.  They cast market ballots for taste.  As education and civility spread, more people sought to behold beauty and to make it a recurring part of their lives, to see the concretization of their highest ideals and values carved into stone, painted on canvass, played by an orchestra, sung by an opera virtuoso.  As more folks finished high school and went to college, more people looked on and listened with appreciation and some understanding. 

The disaster of World War I and its aftermath of spiritual crisis saw artistic sensibilities get out of whack, along with politics.  The Great War shattered the old order, prior institutions and prior standards.  The good and bad went out together, like the proverbial baby with the bathwater.  Abstract art, increasingly vogue, became the dominant form; poetry lost not only rhyme, but also all form—becoming a fine psychotherapeutic device for artists, but subjective nonsense to readers.  Truth and Beauty were rendered entirely notional and relative.  Error could be true if you believed it, and ugly could be beautiful to consciousness that invoked a different standard.  And “different” standards were as legitimate as any, since there really was no such thing as a norm—or normal. 

Gosh, I hope and pray we’ve turned the corner on that kind of horse hockey, and indeed, I do expect a renaissance soon.  At least hope springs eternal.  Now obviously, high art won’t displace baseball and other sports as America ’s altogether proper pastime.  Likewise, opera is great but so is bluegrass.  High and Folk cultures shouldn’t and need not compete.  In some ways they are really complementary, perhaps two turns on the same godly phrase—as perfect in their respective contexts.  Maybe they are like apples and oranges too.  It’s nice to have both fruits and both cultures; and anyway, Americans have never been stuck in a single rut—even if it’s high class.  We enjoy a little of everything, the spice of life.  It isn’t just different strokes for different folks—it’s different strokes for the same folks. 

Increasingly, globalization and high-tech infiltrations may force us to be a bit more cosmopolitan and eclectic than our natural predilections would have it.  But we can also turn it to our personal advantage.  Enjoy Chinese food and still have steak-and-potatoes!  Go to the rodeo and to Broadway too.  It’s one of the better things about modernity and a wonderful aspect of the unprecedented plenty we enjoy in this country.  Having cars and pocket money lets us do things.  We can pick and choose, without anybody’s pretense.  We don’t need to feel out of place; we don’t necessarily have to equate all things either.  We simply choose some things because they are good for the soul, not because they are written by dead white males or live two-toed purple midgets with diversity training.  So try a little high art.  Become a patron if you aren’t one already—it’s the American thing to do.                                      

                                               

__________________________

Wesley Allen Riddle is a retired military officer with degrees and honors from West Point and Oxford .  Widely published in the academic and opinion press, he serves as State Director of the Republican Freedom Coalition (RFC).  His forthcoming book, Horse Sense for the New Millennium is scheduled for release in September (iUniverse, Inc., 2011).  Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 

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Putting an End to Record Long-Term Unemployment Print E-mail
by Tom Pauken    Thu, Sep 1, 2011, 12:19 PM

National unemployment remains stubbornly high with the latest figures for July showing 9.1% unemployment. Even in Texas – which has done better than any other state in the nation in adding private sector jobs over the past decade – saw its unemployment rate increase to 8.4% in July. If present trends continue, our nation will continue to suffer from “structural unemployment” and the hollowing out of our manufacturing vase.

 

Moreover, Americans who have lost their jobs are staying unemployed for record lengths of time.  As of July, the average duration of unemployment for out of work Americans was 40.4 weeks, the highest average on record since 1948 when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking the figure. In fact, the seven highest figures for average duration of unemployment all occurred during the first seven months of 2011. Currently, more than 6 million unemployed Americans have been without a job for 27 weeks or longer. 

 

As upsetting as our current national unemployment rate of 9.1% is, it’s of even greater concern that many of those who are losing their jobs seem to be unable to find new work.  Even in the early 1980s, when unemployment rates matched those of today, the average duration of unemployment barely got above 20 weeks and typically hovered below 15 weeks, less than half of where it stands today.

 

Certain groups are particularly hard hit by the trend. Unemployed men 45 to 54 years old average nearly 50 weeks without a job, while men 55 to 64 stay out of work for more than a year on average. For African-American men the average is 42.6 weeks.  With most new jobs coming from the low paying service sector typically dominated by women, it’s not surprising that they are finding work more quickly than men.

 

That is why it is crucial that we focus on job creation in our private sector in order to get people back to work.  Yet, two and half years into his presidency, Barack Obama has yet to unveil a substantive proposal to encourage private sector job creation.  Instead, since the Obama “stimulus” program began in February 2009, we have lost another 1.6 million jobs. Rather than fighting over a shrinking economic pie, we need to come together with a major initiative to get the American economy moving again.  The best way to do that is to replace our onerous corporate tax system with one that rewards capital investment and employment in the United States.

 

As free trade agreements began governing international transactions in the middle of the 20th century, nations were to drop tariffs that protected their own industries. Though many of the explicit tariffs that existed were indeed eliminated, nations soon discovered they could circumvent these rules with “stealth tariffs.” Starting with France in the mid-1960’s, European countries began adopting border-adjusted VATs that now average nearly 21%.  As a result, U.S. goods carry the full burden of federal, state, and local taxes, plus an added VAT tax when they are shipped to foreign markets. To make matters worse, foreign goods that are shipped into the United States enjoy a rebate from their own government for the VAT they have paid, and yet are subject to none of the taxes imposed on U.S. manufacturers.  

 

Today, all OECD countries, other than the United States, have adopted VATs or their equivalents averaging 18%. We even face these stealth tariffs from countries like China, Mexico, Canada, and India.  It’s no wonder then that in June of this year, the U.S. had a trade deficit with 105 nations. Nor should it be surprising that we are on pace to reach a trade deficit with China alone of more than $266 billion this year.  To foster private sector growth and level the playing field with our trading competitors, the U.S. must adopt its own border adjusted consumption tax, which could replace our current corporate tax system (including the employer portion of the payroll tax) and generate just as much in revenue for the government.

 

It’s time for courageous action and genuine reform.  If we fail to do so, we will continue to set new records for long-term unemployment.

 

Tom Pauken is the chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission and author of Bringing America Home.

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Kids, Don’t Try This at Home Print E-mail
by John Browning    Wed, Aug 31, 2011, 02:51 PM

“Got my first chemistry set when I was seven, blew off my eyebrows, we never saw the cat again.  Been into it ever since.”

                                                          -Stanley Goodspeed (Nicholas Cage), “The Rock”

 

The “chemical super-freak” and FBI agent portrayed by Nicolas Cage in the action movie “The Rock” would have been sorely disappointed had he come of age in the last decade.  The options for budding young scientists are sadly limited, and lawyers and liability concerns are to blame.  Search for a chemistry kit at your local toy store or mass retailer, and you might find something like Elenco Electronics’ Chemistry 60 chemistry set, which bills itself as providing “60 fun activities with no chemicals.”  Yes, that’s right—a chemistry set that features goggles, safety glasses, vials, test tubes, and other lab implements, but no actual chemicals.  Kids are expected to provide those on their own, straight from the kitchen cupboard.  But fear not; lawyers found an element of danger in the kit nonetheless.  The manufacturer’s warning on the box cautions parents about the small magnets that come with the kit, scarily proclaiming “swallowed magnets can stick together across intestines causing serious infections and death.”

 

It’s enough to make me nostalgic for the days of my youth, when chemistry sets for kids were widely available.  Generations of children whetted their appetites for discovery and science with kits from Gilbert, Skil Craft, Handy Andy, and of course Porter Chemcraft.  The Porter Chemcraft “lab in a box” contained enough bottles, beakers, and test tubes to conduct more than 800 experiments.  At the zenith of its popularity during the 1950s and ’60s, the company was the biggest user of test tubes in the United States.  Chemcraft sold over a million of its chemistry sets before going out of business in the 1980s, a victim of an overlawyered society rife with heightened fears of liability.  Don Herbert, the host of the “Mr. Wizard” TV show of the ’50s and ’60s and who starred in the science filmstrips that my classmates and I were still watching in the ’70s, marketed a popular chemistry set for kids as well.  When a company approached him a few years ago about offering an updated version of the kit, they found out it would be a daunting task since “more than half the chemicals were illegal to sell to children because they’re considered dangerous.”  By the time the “Mr. Wizard Science Set” entered the market, it came with balloons, Super Balls, clay, and just 5 chemicals (one of which was laundry starch).  As the head of Mr. Wizard Studios would later glumly admit, “It wasn’t really something you could use to teach kids about chemistry.”

 

Yes, unfortunately, lawyers and the fear of lawsuits are largely to blame for the absence of chemistry sets on the shelves.  One of the few companies that still makes actual chemistry sets, Thames and Kosmos, puts out a top-of-the-line model retailing for $200 with test tubes, beakers, and over two dozen chemical compounds.  Yet even this kit makes it clear that you’ll need a veritable shopping list of other chemicals in order to carry out many of the experiments.  Ted McGuire, the company’s president, says “A lot of retailers are scared to carry a real chemistry set now because of liability concerns.  The stuff under your kitchen sink is far more dangerous than the things in our kits, but put the word ‘chemistry’ on something and people become terrified.”

 

Fear of lawsuits isn’t the only reason why chemistry sets are largely a thing of the past.  It’s a different world in which we live, a legal and regulatory landscape forever changed by a homegrown terrorist who blew up a federal building in Oklahoma, jihadists who converted jetliners into flying bombs on 9/11, and the menace of drugs like crystal meth spreading even into the once-bucolic surroundings of rural America.  In the years since 9/11, government agencies ranging from the Defense Department and the FBI to the Consumer Product Safety Commission have been tracking even small purchases of potentially deadly chemicals.  Acting on fears that terrorists could shoot down airliners with model rockets, a provision in the 2002 Homeland Security Act mandates background checks and licensing requirements for model rocket hobbyists.  More than 30 states have passed laws restricting sales of certain chemicals and lab equipment to help combat the proliferation of meth labs.  In Texas, for example, it is illegal to purchase basic labware like an Erlenmeyer flask or a three-necked beaker without registering with the Department of Public Safety and swearing that they won’t be used for drug production.  Look at the list of chemicals that many police departments have on their “forbidden list” for use in meth production, and you’ll find many that are no further away than your home’s medicine cabinet, like iodine, hydrogen peroxide, or isopropyl alcohol.  In an irony lost on many, the average Mr. Coffee machine that is a fixture of many Texas legislators’ offices has 3 violations of the law built into it: a Pyrex beaker, a heating element, and a filter funnel.

 

Years ago, before our society became paralyzed with fear over lawsuits, the threat of terrorists behind every door, and the proliferation of meth labs, chemistry sets were not just an avenue for childhood discovery but the catalyst for brilliant careers in science and medicine.  Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, fondly recalls the days of experimenting with a chemistry set and turning a family shed into a well-stocked lab—long before he became the father of the semiconductor industry.  David Packard, of Hewlett-Packard fame, tinkered with new recipes for gunpowder when he was a child, while Internet pioneer Vint Cerf was blowing up thermite volcanoes and launching backyard rockets at age 10.  Nobel laureate and Cornell University scholar Ronald Hoffman voices a familiar lament.  “There’s no question that stinks and bangs and crystals and colors are what drew kids—particularly boys—to science,” he says.  “Now the potential for stinks and bangs has been legislated out.”

 

We are paying a price for our fears.  Driven by liability concerns, many schools don’t have chemistry labs anymore, and many other schools limit their chemistry-education to liability-proof teacher demonstrations.  The Journal of Chemical Education calls restrictions on students getting hands-on experience “a problem that has been building for 10 or 15 years, driven by liability and safety concerns.”  According to the National Science Board, thirty years ago the U.S. ranked third in the world in the number of science and engineering degrees awarded in the 18 to 24 age group; now the U.S. is 17th.  Bill Nye, the “Science Guy” who hosted a popular series for children on PBS for years, says “People who want to make meth will find ways to do it that don’t require an Erlenmeyer flask.  But raising a generation of people who are technically incompetent is a recipe for disaster.”

 

My brothers and I grew up with a chemistry set, not to mention a telescope, microscope, and all manner of things with the potential to hurt us, but which also kindled a sense of wonder about science.  There’s a real difference between reading Internet descriptions of chemical reactions and making your own erupting volcano.  Unfortunately, many children growing up now will never experience that difference, thanks to the lawyers and fear-mongers.

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Spending Less Time on Tax Compliance, and More Time on Business Print E-mail
by Tom Pauken    Wed, Aug 31, 2011, 02:38 PM

What is the most productive way for a business to spend its time and resources?  Is it by employing lawyers and tax specialists to decipher the lengthy tax code in order to minimize its tax bill?  Or is it to concentrate on innovation, increasing profits, and growing the business?  If you think it’s the first, then you may have a career as a lawmaker. Year after year, Congress adds more laws to our tax code.  The increasing complexity of the rules results in businesses owners and executives spending more time worried about correctly paying their taxes and less time on running their business.

 

Consider this: The federal income tax code is 3.7 million words long, taking up more than 4,000 pages. And that’s just the laws that Congress passes.  Once Congress is done making the laws, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) goes to work promulgating regulations that add even more layers of complexity to the system.  IRS regulations fill 20 volumes of small print totaling more than 13,000 pages. Intertwined within these millions of words are the rules governing both individual and corporate income tax. 

 

Small businesses suffer disproportionally under this system. They don’t have the resources to hire professionals who can make sure they are paying the lowest amount in taxes legally possible.  Most are just trying to make sure they aren’t breaking any laws.  Those efforts to stay legal impose a high cost.  A joint study by IBM and the IRS found that for businesses with one to five employees, the cost to comply with the tax code is $7,274 per employee.  For businesses with more than 50 employees the cost is $296.50.

 

Nina E. Olson, who holds the title of National Taxpayer Advocate at the IRS, notes that “[s]mall businesses are burdened with a particularly bewildering array of laws. They face a patchwork set of rules that govern the depreciation of equipment, onerous filing requirements for employment taxes, and a vague set of factors that govern the classification of workers as either employees or independent contractors that keep businesses and the IRS battling each other for years with no obvious ‘correct’ answer.”

 

Even if the current code didn’t include harmful incentives to load up companies with debt (because debt is deductable under the current business tax system) while discouraging savings, employment, and capital investment, the code’s bewildering complexity is enough of a reason to implement wholesale reform.  There is actually a simple solution, but not one that the Washington policy makers have, thus far, been willing to support.  Scrap the corporate income tax altogether (along with the employer portion of the payroll tax) and replace it with a revenue-neutral, 8% border adjusted business consumption tax.

 

Such a tax would be very simple to implement and it wouldn’t require tens of thousands of pages to explain.  Let’s allow our businesses, both big and small, to spend less time and money on confusing tax regulations and more time increasing productivity and creating jobs.

 

Tom Pauken is the chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission and author of Bringing America Home.

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Trust Me—I’m an Expert Print E-mail
by John Browning    Mon, Aug 22, 2011, 10:34 AM

In both civil and criminal trials, the legal system depends on expert witnesses to assist the judge and the jury in understanding and ruling reasonably on what may be complex technical or scientific issues.  In courtrooms across the country, expert witnesses offer opinions on virtually any subject.  As a result, with experts on both sides often offering opinions that are directly at odds with each other, it’s hardly unusual for cases to come down to a “battle of the experts” in which the jury decides which expert is more credible or reliable.  The pressure to convince jurors has led to at least some expert testimony that has little basis in scientific fact—what author Peter Huber coined “junk science” in his influential 1991 book Galileo’s Revenge: Junk Science in the Courtroom.

 

In an effort to guard against junk science making it into the courtroom, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded in the 1993 case of Daubert v. Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals that trial judges should act as gatekeepers and determine what expert testimony should actually be admitted.  Courts have to consider factors like whether the scientific theory or evidence has been tested; published or otherwise reviewed by peers; what its error rate is; and whether or not such a theory has been generally accepted in the scientific community.  Both sides have an opportunity to challenge the opposition’s expert testimony in a hearing held before any such evidence comes before a jury.

 

Although holding such “Daubert hearings” have helped keep junk science out of the courtroom, that doesn’t mean that self-styled experts on unusual subjects don’t crop up.  In 22 years of trying cases, I’ve seen a witness who professed to be an expert on walking (I asked him how many miles he had to walk to qualify as an “expert”), a cultural anthropologist prepared to testify about African-American wedding traditions like “jumping the broom,” and even a confessed “witch doctor” who wanted to testify about her “alternative healing” of a personal injury plaintiff.  Criminal cases seem to bring out some of the strangest subjects for expert testimony and recreations in the name of getting at the truth.  In the high profile Casey Anthony murder trial, for example, testimony about whether or not Caylee Anthony’s body had been in a car trunk led to testimony from an expert on the smell of decomposing bodies (I really don’t care to know how one becomes an expert in that field).  The 2008 trial of China Arnold of Ohio, who was charged with aggravated murder when her 3½ week-old daughter died after being placed in a microwave oven, also involved grisly expert testimony.  A prosecution expert tried to simulate the injuries the body suffered using calf brains, chicken torsos, and a doll similar in size to the infant.  Not to be outdone, the defense called an expert pathologist in rebuttal, to point out the lack of reliable studies on what can happen to children in microwaves.

 

Sometimes, the battle of experts is a bit of a mismatch.  Trace Rae and Jennifer Toms of Wasilla, Alaska were each facing multiple drug charges in federal court, primarily for cultivating marijuana.  The charges were supported by the expert testimony of a supposed olfactory “Rainman,” Alaska trooper Kyle Young, who claimed that he was able to smell the odor of marijuana while 450 feet away from an enclosed building.  Trooper Young, who has over 20 years of experience and has seized between 100 to 150 marijuana-growing operations since 1998, said that he “located by smell,” using his “the nose knows” approach to get a search warrant.  A search of the premises revealed 500 marijuana plants.  But was his search justified—could he have actually smelled the marijuana under those circumstances?

 

Not according to the defense’s expert witness, David Doty.  Doty is the director of the Smell and Taste Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.  He pointed out that Young was inside his vehicle, parked at least 450 feet away from the building in question—which had no windows, two doors which were both insulated and sealed, and which was equipped with a large charcoal air filter designed to capture odor.  For Trooper Young to have smelled what he claimed to smell, a perfect storm would have had to occur: a nonfunctional air filter, air currents that carried the pot smell up and over vegetation as well as around a house, and then down to a police vehicle 450 feet away.  Doty opined that there was “zero probability” that Young could have smelled the marijuana that he claimed.  U.S. District Judge John Sedwick agreed, and threw out the seized evidence, gutting the prosecutor’s case.

 

Some expert testimony can be dubious even without a “smell test.”  The gentleman’s club Nite Moves of Latham, New York, contested an audit by New York state tax authorities who ruled that the establishment owed roughly $125,000 in sales tax on private lap dances.  The club appealed to the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division, claiming that the lap dances were “dramatic or musical art performance,” and thus tax exempt under New York law.  The strip club even offered an expert witness—a cultural anthropologist “who has conducted extensive research in the field of exotic dance,” and who testified that the lap dances (or “presentations,” as she preferred to call them) was “unequivocally live dramatic choreographic performances.”  However, the court ruled that Nite Move’s evidence was insufficient, in part because their expert was offering opinions on “private dances” that, as it turns out, she didn’t actually witness (hey, they are private, after all).  Consequently, Nite Moves was stuck with the tax bill.

 

Nite Moves still has a few legal moves of its own; its lawyer, Andrew McCullough, says the club plans to appeal the decision to a higher court.  Barring that, they could pay the tax bill—even if they did so with 125,000 sweaty, crumpled-up singles.

 

Finally, there’s the question of whether the subject is one that even requires specialized knowledge or experience beyond that of ordinary people.  The Iowa Court of Appeals recently confronted this issue when prison inmate Steven Landis appealed his conviction for assaulting a guard with bodily fluid—that is, Landis’ own feces.  Landis argued that while there was testimony about the brown liquid and its foul stench, the state didn’t prove its case since there was no expert testimony confirming that it was actually feces.  The appellate court disagreed, saying that was unnecessary.  Paraphrasing the old adage, it held “If it looks like feces, if it smells like feces, if it has the color and texture of feces, then it must be feces.  No witness with a degree in scatology was required, nor was scientific testing required to establish the fact the substance was feces.”

 

As for the rest of Landis’ arguments, the court felt that they were full of—well, a certain brown substance that rhymes with “grit.”

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