Saturday, June 19, 2004
Rance (warning: his blog causes an annoying advertising window to open on the left side of your web browser), for those who don’t know, is a blogger who claims to be an A-list Hollywood celebrity. He wrote, “I can tell you what it's like to see your picture on the magazine rack every now and again when you pay for groceries.”
Regarding the question of who he might be, check out this must-read post at the Museum of Hoaxes blog where Alex Boese does an incredibly good job of ferreting out some information about him. Alex reveals that whoever Rance is, he had help with promoting his blog from International Creative Management, a big international talent agency.
Yes, if you want your blog to be “discovered,” it helps to pay an expensive agency to promote it for you! Or maybe the actual blogger is someone who works at the agency?
Whoever Rance is, he’s an excellent writer. I’ve immensely enjoyed reading some of his posts. Read Rance’s post from June 15th (republished here in its entirety):
Postcard from The Hamptons (a.k.a. Long Island)
There are about eight thousand parks and beaches in California alone that are nicer, but when Hollywood goes away for summer vacation, it goes to the Hamptons, a 30-mile-or-so stretch of resort towns in Long Island, two hours from New York City by car (on the handful of occasions per summer there isn’t molasses-like traffic (but hopefully this is irrelevant as you’d be coptering it.)) The non-stop status Show & Tell (cars, clothing, poodles) that is Hamptons main streets, beach club outings and parties has been well-documented. As so much as expressing a predilection for domestic beer in the Hamptonscan all but get you strung up, I don’t do well there. However, I was invited there recently by a good friend from California we’ll call Bill. I was on the fence about going until he mentioned we’d be having three-and-a-half pound lobsters at his dinner party Saturday night. I’d always thought that smaller lobsters tasted better, but Bill assured me, “That is a myth invented by poor people.” Bill fits in very well in the Hamptons, by the way. In any case, as you may have surmised from previous entries, quality has always taken a back seat to quantity for me when it comes to crustaceans. So I hit the Hamptons.
Bill had a few other guests, including his college roommate, whom we'll call Perry. Perry, in his late-twenties, trades derivatives or dirigibles or something like for a Wall Street company. About seven or eight drinks past dinner Saturday, Perry told the story of his journey from Manhattan to Bridgehampton.
Perry sold a lot of whatever it is he sells in 2003. It was far and away the best year of his young career. Consequently, he was anticipating what he called "The Porsche Bonus,” which is to say the first bonus that would enable him to go cross-town to the dealership and plunk down cash for a brand new Porsche, which for him symbolized success. Early this year, the envelope with his check arrived. A half-hour later (to get two miles in NYC by taxi (i.e., not much traffic)), he was at the dealership and, just a few minutes thereafter, had struck a deal with a Porsche salesman. $88,000 for a new 911 Carrera 4.
Unfortunately for Perry, though, a lot of other Wall Streeters had had good years in 2003, so he would have to wait “a couple of months,” according to the salesman, to get his Porsche. But what was two months? Perry had waited two decades already. And he really didn’t need the car until June--specifically, Bill’s annual star-studded lobsterfest, a much-coveted invite as it turns out. In Perry’s mind, the moment he roared up Bill’s crushed clamshell driveway was the moment he would literally and figuratively have arrived.
The problem was the couple of months turned into four months. And that Perry might have to drive to Bill’s in his father’s old Taurus, which began to appear likely, was the stuff of his nightmares. With a week to go before the party, the Porsche had yet to arrive from Germany or wherever. Perry called or e-mailed the dealership three times a day and on the few occasions he got responses, they were questionable--along the lines of "storms hindering shipping."
The Friday before Bill’s party, having failed to receive a returned call from his salesman, a forlorn Perry took the subway home. Without the Porsche, he’d decided, he was better off not going to the Hamptons at all. But when he got off at his stop and emerged from the station, he saw that there was a voice message on his cell. From the salesman. The car had arrived! Regrettably, the dealership had closed by the time Perry got the message.
The next morning, the Saturday of the lobsterfest, Perry got to the Porsche dealership fifteen minutes before it opened. A short while later, he saw his car, an event he related like a father describing the first sight of his newborn son. And not long thereafter, he was roaring Hamptons-ward. Well, not roaring exactly. It took four-and-half bumper-to-bumper on the scalding, channel of exhaust fumes that was the Long Island Expressway. Perry savored every second.
Finally, he arrived in Bridgehampton. As he turned onto Bill’s street, his heart was beating high. He reveled in rehearsing the modest remarks which he would deliver in response to the dropped jaws of his peers at the sight of him emerging from the sparkling new 911 Carrera 4.
As he pulled onto the crushed clamshell driveway, though, his heat nearly stopped. Parked there, beside my rented Pontiac, were two other sparkling Porsche 911s. Bill’s 2004 Carrera $102,000 Carrera 4S (I suspect the S means simply $ as there was no appreciable difference, particularly in the New York area, where you seldom have the chance to exceed 30 MPH). And beside it, a third friend of theirs from college’s 911 GT2, which runs just shy of two hundred grand. Perry quietly parked his car and shuffled inside.
The moral of this Hamptons story: Work hard and make more money than your friends so that you can buy a better car and your self-image will be good.
A well written post chock full of interesting observations about status in upper-class America, with an ironic “moral” that probably isn’t the real moral that Rance intended. And I strongly suspect it’s a work of fiction. Why is it fiction? Because Rance would have no way of knowing the circumstances of how Perry got his Porsche. And because it’s too perfect a story. Perry gets his Porsche on the very morning he needs it? That’s the kind of coincidence that happens in Hollywood screenplays and not real life. In fact, I’d say there’s a pretty good chance that Rance is really a minor Hollywood screenplay writer and not the A-list celebrity he claims to be.
To shed further light on the question of Rance’s identity, I ask the question, why does he blog? I can tell you why most non-A-list celebrities blog. We enjoy writing, and we are seeking some kind of small recognition for our talents by having other people read what we write. If you can get more than a hundred people a day to visit your blog, you have a few seconds of fame in the blogosphere. If your blog becomes A-list, you might actually make money out of it, because the publicity could help launch a professional writing career.
The above reasons for blogging simply don’t apply to an A-list celebrity. He’s already famous. He has 24 hours a day fame, not the pathetic 15 minutes kind that regular people hope for. He doesn’t need a blog to make him feel important.
Furthermore, he doesn’t need publicity to help his writing career. If a real A-list celebrity wanted to write a book of witty essays about life inside Hollywood, all he has to do is have his talent agency work out a deal with a publisher. It has all the makings of a bestseller.
What about the explanation that he wants to write inside stuff that would ruin his career if it got out that he wrote it? Well first of all, I haven’t really read anything that shocking in his blog. And secondly, anyone smart enough to write as well as Rance is also smart enough to know that secrets don’t stay secret very long. Exposing Rance’s identity would be too big of a story for his identity to remain secret forever.
So you see, I’m not convinced that a real A-list celebrity would have an adequate motivation for keeping an anonymous blog. But I can think of many reasons for why a Hollywood screenwriter or a frustrated talent agent working at ICM might want to perpetuate a hoax. In fact, his motivations would be the same that motivate all regular bloggers. He’s frustrated that only a handful of people read what he writes, and he wants a greater audience. The stuff he writes for money is pretty boring and doesn’t demonstrate his true talents. The blog is an intentional publicity stunt designed to spotlight his writing talent to book publishers who would otherwise ignore him because he’s far too minor a Hollywood insider to otherwise bother with.
These are all very plausible motivations. Much more plausible than anything that might motivate a real A-list celebrity to keep an anonymous blog.
According to research by Hewitt Associates, an alarmingly large percentage of people have too much money in their 401k accounts invested in company stock. (Link to press release)
Employees' commitment to company stock remains significant. On average, employees holding company stock had 41 percent of their balances in that investment, essentially unchanged from 2002. More than one-quarter (27 percent) of employees held 50 percent or more of their 401(k) plan balances in company stock, which may be attributable to years of accumulation of company match and profit sharing.
"What's particularly sobering is that more than a quarter (30 percent) of workers age 60 or older has the majority of their money in employer stock," Lucas added. "Whether it's due to company loyalty, lack of investment knowledge, or a desire to 'swing for the fences' with their investments, older employees are subjecting their retirement portfolios to considerable risk at a time when retirement is just around the corner."
After the collapse of Enron, many of Enron’s employees whined about their retirement savings being wiped out. My take was that it served them right for having all their 401k money invested in Enron stock. And I thought that if any good came out of it, it would be that people at other companies would learn the dangers of keeping all their eggs in one basket.
Apparently the lesson has not sunk in. Thirty percent of workers 60 or older have the majority of their 401k money in company stock. These people should have 100% of their money invested in a safe money market fund.
In fact, with all asset classes overvalued right now, people of all ages should have 100% of their 401k money invested in a money market fund, unless they really know what they’re doing.
An exception would be if your 401k plan allows you to invest in an oil and natural gas fund, because I am bullish on the long term profitability of companies with good oil and gas assets, because of the coming decline in world oil production.
But most 401k plans only allow you to select from a group of non-sector specific stock funds, so therefore my advice to such 401k participants is to play it safe and invest in the money market fund, even though it pays a pathetically low interest rate.
For more investing advice, visit my Contrarian Investing Blog.
“The [New Jersey] Assembly voted 78-0 to approve a bill making it legal for bar owners and others to offer special promotions such as charging women different prices for drinks. The measure was designed to specifically overturn [a] June 1 [administrative] ruling.” (CBS News: Jersey: Oh Yes It's Ladies' Night)
But it’s still unconstitutional. The state of New Jersey can overturn its own administrative courts, but it can't overturn the United States Constitution.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not prohibit discrimination against women in places of public accommodation. The relevant sentence is: “All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, and privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.” § 201 (a). It doesn’t say anything about sex.
The Supreme Court, however, held in Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71 (1971), that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits state actors from “arbitrarily” favoring one sex over the other. And more on point is Craig v. Boren, 429 U.S. 190 (1976), where the Supreme Court held unconstitutional an Oklahoma statute that allowed 3.2% beer to be sold to women 18 or older but not to men unless they were 21 or older.
But those are state actors, you say, and bars are private establishments? In the somewhat famous Seidenberg v. McSorleys' Old Ale House, 317 F. Supp. 593 (SDNY 1970), case, there was a bar in New York City that was only open to men. The court ruled that bars were so heavily regulated by the state that they became state actors, and thus it violated the Constitution for bars to discriminate based on sex. There was a similar set of facts and the same ruling in Bennett v. Dyer’s Chop House, 350 F. Supp. 153 (N.D. Ohio 1972).
Although McSorleys’ was only a District Court case, because it has been cited favorably by many other courts, including the Supreme Court in the Craig case, it has a much stronger weight of precedent than your average District Court case.
The conclusion is clear. Given the existing legal precedents, ladies’ nights at bars are unconstitutional. All we need is someone to challenge a bar in federal court so we can get the practice abolished.
Yes, I’m aware that there are various sociological and economic reasons for why bars have ladies’ nights. Men like to drink where there are women around, and women get into the bar for free and/or get less expensive drinks, so it’s a win-win situation for both sexes, right? Well yes and no. Men who can’t afford the higher prices lose. Men who are just going to the bar to have a drink and not pick up any women lose. Maybe the men would be better off if they stayed home and read a book instead of getting drunk at a bar and ogling women?
In the end, it doesn’t really matter if it’s a win-win situation, because it’s important that the laws be applied consistently, and it has consistently been held that sex based discrimination in the sale of alcohol is unconstitutional.
Friday, June 18, 2004
The Saudi Arabians have already killed Abdulaziz al-Moqrin, the leader of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. (CBS News: Saudi Al Qaeda Chief Reported Dead)
As I said in my previous post, "I suspect that if the Saudi Arabian authorities catch the terrorists, the terrorists may wish they were in Abu Ghraib instead of in Saudi custody."
When the Israelis take that kind of action, everyone in the Arab world screams and complains, but I doubt that there will be a peep from the Arab street about the Saudis doing the same thing. The hypocrisy from the Arab/Islamic world is loud and clear.
* * *
Meanwhile there's been a lot of debate in the blogosphere about the propriety of posting the Paul Johnson photos to blogs.
According to the Commisar, "these huge waves of publicity encourage the terrorists." If true, this would be a compelling reason not to post such photos. I have no desire to encourage terrorists. But I doubt that the terrorists are reading blogs. They are getting their news from Al Jazeera, which has no qualms about showing grisly photos.
At A Small Victory, Kathy from On the Third Hand left a comment where she wrote, “Most Americans don't get scared, they get angry. The enemy's tactics will backfire. But only if they are known.” Kathy is correct. The terrorists don’t understand us if they think these beheadings will cause us to retreat. They will have the opposite effect, but only if Americans know about them.
These photos encourage Americans to have the willpower to take decisive action against the terrorists, instead of blaming America for all the bad in the world and second guessing our invasion of Iraq when, just today, we get news that Russian intelligence warned us that Saddam was planning terror attacks against the United States.
According to Reuters, "Putin said Russian intelligence had been told on several occasions that Saddam's special forces were preparing to attack U.S. targets inside and outside the United States."
Captain Ed has an excellent rant about how the news media hasn't given this story the coverage it deserves. After all, it's a very strong justification for our war against Iraq, and the liberals in the media are opposed to the war.
Captain Ed has done an excellent job discussing the issue, so there's no need for me to say anything else.
Dad was also a deeply, unabashedly religious man. But he never made the fatal mistake of so many politicians wearing his faith on his sleeve to gain political advantage. True, after he was shot and nearly killed early in his presidency, he came to believe that God had spared him in order that he might do good. But he accepted that as a responsibility, not a mandate. And there is a profound difference.
Those are the words of Ron Reagan that people have been talking about since he said them in his eulogy at his father’s funeral.
Ron Reagan is presumed to not believe in God. According to The Celebrity Atheist List:
Ron had a short lived talk show a few years ago. On one show, he interviewed Charles Manson at Manson's current cell of residence. Manson began "preaching" his "message". During it, he turned to Reagan and asked, "Do you believe in god?" "No, I do not," Ron responded.
Yet Ron’s non-belief did not prevent him from evoking religious images in his eulogy. For example, he began his eulogy:
He is home now. He is free. In his final letter to the American people, Dad wrote, "I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life." This evening, he has arrived.
And at the end of the eulogy he gave a detailed and beautiful description of what his father’s final “home” might be like. It was truly a brilliantly written eulogy in which he artfully evoked images of Heaven without being the least bit overtly religious. It was in marked contrast to Michael Reagan’s bible-thumping eulogy.
Ron Reagan’s remarks are assumed to be anti-Bush. The New York Times reported in an article published June 15:
[A] friend of the Reagan family, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mr. Reagan, who did not return a call seeking comment on Monday, was deeply uncomfortable with the way the Bush administration intertwined religion and politics and felt compelled to say so at the burial of his father, a ceremony watched by millions.
There has also been speculation that Ron Reagan is especially annoyed with George W. Bush’s opposition to stem cell research. His mother, Nancy Reagan, has been publicly advocating for stem cell research. Presumably, Bush’s opposition is based on religious grounds, because the only real opposition to such research comes from the anti-abortion Christian Right.
The jab in he eulogy was a pretty minor rebuke considering the disdain that Ron Reagan has shown for Bush in the past. According to the same New York Times article, at the 2000 Republican convention, Ron Reagan said about George W Bush, “What's his accomplishment? That he's no longer an obnoxious drunk?” I bet that Ron Reagan isn’t going to be invited to speak at the 2004 convention.
There is a 2003 Salon.com interview in which Ron Reagan is extremely critical of Bush, and he also blasts Republicans who are opposed to stem cell research.
Ron Reagan said that he doesn’t wish to enter politics because he dislikes the fund raising process. And then he slammed Bush when Salon asked a follow-up question:
What if a group of concerned citizens approached him and helped raise money for his entry into politics -- would that make a difference? "You mean like they did with George W.? 'Hey, you've got name recognition, that's all that matters -- we'll give you millions of dollars to run!' Imagine coming to a man with just two years' experience in public office, and a ceremonial one at that. Imagine installing such a blank slate in the presidency of the United States! This is a regency, not a presidency.
Bush was asked about Ron Reagan’s remarks at a June 15 press conference:
Q -- Ron Reagan's remarks at the former President's funeral –
PRESIDENT BUSH: I didn't hear them.
Q He said that politicians should not wear religious faith on their sleeve. And a lot of Republicans interpreted those remarks as being critical of you and your position on stem cell. I'd like to ask you about that.
PRESIDENT BUSH: Whether or not a politician should wear their -- I've always said I think it's very important for someone not to try to take the speck out of somebody else's eye when they may have a log in their own. In other words, I'm very mindful about saying, you know, oh, vote for me, I'm more religious than my neighbor. And I think it's -- I think it's perfectly -- I think it's important for people of religion to serve. I think it is very important for people who are serving to make sure there is a separation of church and state.
I guess that clarifies Bush’s views on this issue.
Lest this post be interpreted as being strictly anti-Bush, I would remind people that Clinton also made a big deal about being religious and carrying his Bible with him and going to church. It is my opinion that liberals didn’t mind that because they thought that Clinton was just pretending to be religious in order to get votes. Liberals dislike Bush’s genuine belief in Christianity.
Additional commentary in the blogosphere:
Click this link for additional commentary at The Moderate Voice.
Ron Reagan was interviewed by Chris Matthews on Dateline NBC only a few hours after I wrote this post. (Link to transcript)
Reagan: "Well, what I find interesting about it is that everybody assumes that I must be talking about George W. Bush, which I find fascinating and somewhat telling. If the shoe fits—"
Matthews: "Were you?"
Reagan: "Well, I said many politicians. If he's lumped in that group then fine, fine. That's all right. There's a lot of-- I think there's a lot of false piety floating around Washington."
American hostage Paul Johnson was beheaded today. I thank the Drudge Report for making the photos public (click on the link to see the other photos).
Unfortunately, the photos probably won’t be shown on the regular news media, even though the news media has no problem showing over and over again the photos from the Abu Ghraib prison. As we know, there was a media blackout with regards to the pictures of the Nick Berg beheading.
The newsbabe on MSNBC said today that the “pictures are far too graphic to be shown on television.”
The photo displayed here may be disgusting and repugnant, but you should see what our enemies have done to our fellow citizen. If the actions of the terrorists are too horrible to even look at, what does it say about what our policies should be towards them?
I suspect that if the Saudi Arabian authorities catch the terrorists, the terrorists may wish they were in Abu Ghraib instead of in Saudi custody. What the Saudis will do to them is far worse than what we did to the Abu Ghraib prisoners.
Paul Johnson was a 49 year old civilian employee working in Saudi Arabia. The Associated Press had the following to say about him:
People in Paul Johnson's tight-knit hometown are remembering a smart, polite kid.
. . .
He grew up in a small New Jersey town, where people still recall a clean-cut young man with varied interests -- including running track, playing chess and driving fast cars.
One neighbor describes Johnson -- who went by the nickname "Eagle" -- as "one of the greatest kids" she knew.
I've posted more detailed thoughts on this beheading in the following post: Paul Johnson beheading: was it justified? (The answer, of course, is "no.")
Also, I have some brief thoughts about the propriety of posting the photo of Paul Johnson: Saudi justice is swift.
Thursday, June 17, 2004
Blogger, as many of you already know, is a free web-based blogging application that’s now owned by Google. Blogger not only gives you the blogging application for free, you also get free web hosting for your blog. So how does Google make any money if they’re giving away the product for free?
Where’s the revenue?
It was easy to see how the old Blogger was supposed to make money. Blogger offered you a free service that had a limited feature set, but then you had to pay a recurring fee to upgrade to the more powerful Blogger Pro. And it was the same story with the web hosting. If you wanted more bandwidth and to get rid of the banner ads, you had to pay money to upgrade.
But then Google bought Blogger and Blogger went to a totally free pricing model. Currently there is nothing to buy at Blogger. How is there any money in it if it’s free?
The only obvious source of income is from the ads that appear at the top of Blogger hosted blogs.
Advertising is how the Google search engine makes money. But the advertising revenue per page view is surely a lot lower for Blogger than for the Google search engine. People using the Google search engine are searching for something specific, so it’s probably about ten to twenty times more likely that they will see an ad at the top or right side of the screen that they will be interested in. I have ads on my blog, so I know how little interest there is in them.
So how much money might Google be making from those Blogger ads? Well I did some calculations, and I assumed that Blogger has 1.5 million blogs, but only 300,000 of them are active, and that the average active blog gets 25 page views per day (most blogs don’t get very many visits). With these numbers, Google might be making $2 million per year in advertising revenue. It might cost Google $500,000 per year for the storage space, servers, bandwidth, and personnel to host all those sites and run the Blogger application. So Google is making a $1.5 million profit.
Now that we’ve calculated that Google is making $1.5 million from the advertising, we must subract the cost of programming and marketing Blogger. If there are 20 employees in the Blogger division (there were only six when Google bought Blogger, I’m assuming there was some expansion), and the average employee is making $100,000 per year (these are high paid computer programmers we’re talking about), that’s another $2 million in expenses. So now Blogger is losing $500,000 per year. Or maybe there are fewer employees or more ad revenue and Google is breaking even.
My conclusion is that Blogger in its current state is not a big source of profit for Google, and that chances are better than even that Google is losing money on Blogger.
Other purposes of Blogger
If Blogger is not profitable, then what’s its purpose? Well here are some theories.
(1) Delayed profits. Google wants Blogger to be to blogging software as Microsoft is to operating systems. Once Google controls the entire blogosphere, suddenly they will start charging money for the service, and there won’t be any other place to go because all the competition will be out of business. After all, it’s hard to compete with a free product.
(2) Synergy with the Google search engine. Maybe by searching through all the Blogger posts, Google can use this mass of information to enhance its search engine results? Critics to this theory have pointed out that Google can already spider these pages, so what additional value is there to controlling the database where the Blogger posts are stored?
(3) Another synergy theory. By owning Blogger, Google has access to the referral logs for hundreds of thousands of active blogs. Google normally can’t see the referral logs for the websites it spiders. Maybe Google’s computer scientists think that the referral logs might contain information that could be used to produce better search engine results?
(4) The clueless theory. Google’s management figured that blogs were the next big thing, and they wanted a piece of the action even though they have no clue how it will actually bring profit to the company.
I do not know
After all this analysis, I’ve come to the conclusion that I still don’t know how Google thinks that Blogger will make money. If anyone has any ideas, feel free to comment.
This post at SCOTUSblog ponders whether Justice Scalia will recuse himself from future cases involve the Pledge of Allegiance. And I might add that it seems likely that such a case will once again rise up to the attention of the Supremes.
I certainly hope that Scalia doesn't recuse himself in future cases. Even though I suspect that he will vote in favor of retaining "under God," and in my last post I explained why I thought the phrase should be removed, I don't think it's right for him to recuse himself from future cases.
Scalia's public remarks about Newdow may have been in violation of the custom of the Supreme Court Justices not to talk about future cases, but it's ridiculous to think that he therefore wouldn't be able to adjudicate the case fairly. Or that he doesn't have opinions about cases bubbling up through the Circuit Courts.
There are probably few people in the United States who are more knowledgeable about constitutional church and state issues than Justice Scalia. If people who have never read a court decision in their lives feel qualified to give their opinions, why do we expect that Scalia, who surely read the Ninth Circuit's opinion in Newdow and has not only read many other court opinions but has actually written many of them, would not have some kind of opinion?
I suspect that Scalia's take on a future case will be very similar to what Justice Thomas wrote in his concurring opinion. That state legislatures should be given more deference in this arena, because the Establishment Clause was originally meant to apply only to the federal government and not to the states. (For those who haven't read the First Amendment in a while, it begins "Congress shall make no law . . . ." It says nothing about what state legislatures may do. States are only mentioned in the Second and Tenth Amendments.)
Wednesday, June 16, 2004
The Pledge of Allegiance has been a big topic of discussion in the blogosphere since the Supreme Court non-decision came out. And school vouchers are a topic which often brings up talk about the separation of church and state. This rant contains my opinions on both these matters.
Those opposed to school vouchers commonly complain that they violate the principle of separation of church and state.
In Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925), the Supreme Court held that parents have a right to send their children to religious schools, and this is not a principle that has received much question since then.
Indeed, the free exercise of religion must allow parents the right to raise their children according to their own religious beliefs. We may not agree with their beliefs, but the very nature of a society that values the freedom of religion means that some people will have religious beliefs that you don’t hold yourself.
School vouchers enhance the free exercise of religion because it gives parents the economic ability to send their children to a religious school that they may otherwise have been unable to afford.
The argument that this creates an establishment of religion seems like nonsense to me. Parents are freely choosing where to send their children. The voucher really represents a return to the parents of the money they are saving the state by not sending their children to a public school. This is money that they have already paid, or will pay, in taxes during the course of their lives.
No one seems to have a problem when federal government loans and grants are given to students attending religious colleges, such as Georgetown University, so I fail to see any distinction between college aid and vouchers for the attendance of primary and secondary schools.
The Pledge of Allegiance
Because we don’t have a system of school vouchers, most parents are forced to send their children to public schools. They don’t have enough money to afford a private school and the law requires their children’s attendance.
At the public school, the child is forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which contains the words “under God.” And let us not pretend that a young child really has any choice in the matter. Or that it’s a theoretical choice of silence that’s important, rather than the fact that the public school teacher, an authority figure who represents the state, is leading the class in reciting the pledge.
The pledge implies that to be a citizen loyal to the United States, you have to believe in God. This is the reason why “under God” was added to the Pledge in 1954, “to contrast [our] country’s belief in God with the Soviet Union’s embrace of atheism.” Elk Grove Unified School Dist. v. Newdow (2004) (Rehnquist, C.J., concurring).
But this is wrong, the United States is not a country that believes in God, it’s a country that believes in the free exercise of religion. People are free to believe in God, and they are free to not believe in God. The Government is not allowed to officially state that atheism is inferior to belief in God.
Of course, in a country where 90% of the people are Christians who profess belief in God, one can’t expect to go through life without viewing other people’s affirmations of faith. Nor is it reasonable to expect that official government ceremonies will deny the importance of God in the lives of the majority of Americans. Thus the Supreme Court has carved out a reasonable exception for what Justice O’Connor calls “ceremonial deism.”
The Supreme Court previously concluded, in Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992), that a benediction given at a high school graduation violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. And this is a decision that I find myself disagreeing with. There is a long tradition of benedictions being given at graduation ceremonies. I don’t see how it’s much different than the national funeral ceremony for Ronald Reagan in which various members of the clergy offered prayers. These ceremonies reflect the religious beliefs of the majority of their participants, unlike the Pledge where the purpose of “under God” is to identify the United States as nation that believes in God.
The Pledge of Allegiance interferes directly with people’s free exercise of religion. It is extremely offensive to a parent who is trying to raise his child to be a non-believer, to have his child recite the Pledge in school every single day. The child, after hundreds of recitations, will eventually get the idea that the school doesn’t agree with the beliefs that his parents are teaching him.
This is why the Pledge is different from other instances of ceremonial deism. I doubt that children spend much time reading the words on our currency, and after five minutes of watching Reagan’s funeral they were probably bored out of their minds. The high school graduation is a one time event that occurs when the child is old enough to know what’s going on.
The Pledge is different because it forces the young child, every day, to focus on the words that the Pledge contains. Pro “under God” people may say “but the words are meaningless to young children anyway.” Well, if the words are really meaningless, why bother to have children recite the Pledge at all? They could be doing something more useful instead. If the words are meaningless, why are they fighting so hard to have the words “under God” retained in the pledge? If the words are meaningless, the Supreme Court’s decision wouldn’t have been the number one news story two days ago.
Imagine how offended most Christians would be if their children were forced to recite a pledge that affirmed non-belief in God! It seems to me that pro “under God” people just don’t care about the rights of non-believers. They secretly hope that children of non-believing parents will come to see the True Path as a result of being forced to say “under God” everyday. And they don’t care how offensive it is to non-believers that the Pledge implies that one isn’t a true patriotic American unless one believes in God.
It is ironic indeed that a Pledge which proclaims this a country of liberty directly interferes with the liberty of parents to raise their children to not believe in God. The action required by Congress is simple. Remove “under God” from the Pledge so that the Pledge can revert to its original non-religious affirmation of patriotism.
Tuesday, June 15, 2004
One of the unfortunate side effects of the recent Supreme Court ruling in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow is that now, everyone thinks they’re an expert in federal jurisdiction. If you’ve never read Article III of the Constitution, have no idea what’s in the Eleventh Amendment, and have no clue about Erie R.R. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64 (1938), then you’re not qualified to discuss issues of federal jurisdiction.
At the bare minimum, you have to have actually read the Newdow opinion to be even the least bit qualified to say whether you agree or disagree with it, and unfortunately most commentators, both in the blogosphere and in the news media, are too lazy to read the 57 page opinion. (Click on the following link to download it: 2003 Term Opinions of the United States Supreme Court.)
The biggest idiocy award goes to Bill O’Reilly of Fox News. He ranted about how wise the Supreme Court was for ruling that Newdow didn’t have any standing. Did he not know that the three most “conservative” Justices said that he had standing? He lambasted the Ninth Circuit for being a bunch of loonies, but did he not know that Justice Thomas, probably the most “conservative” Justice, wrote very eloquently explaining that the Ninth Circuit made the correct decision given Supreme Court precedent?
Does Bill O’Reilly not know that Circuit Courts have to follow precedent set by the Supreme Court? In the case of the Ninth Circuit ruling in favor of Newdow, the court followed precedent and therefore was acting with proper judicial restraint. Only the Supreme Court should overturn its own precedent, and even then only reluctantly.
Monday, June 14, 2004
The murky jurisprudence of the Establishment Clause becomes even murkier today with the Supreme Court’s weird non-decision in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow.
The Supreme Court previously ruled in Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38 (1985), that a minute of silence in public schools in Alabama violated the Establishment Clause. If silence violates the Establishment Clause, how does a verbal affirmation that our nation is under God not violate the Establishment Clause?
In Lee v. Weisman, 505 U. S. 577 (1992), the Supreme Court ruled that a benediction given at a high school graduation ceremony violated the Establishment Clause.
I would also point out that it apparently violates the Establishment Clause for the Ten Commandments to appear in a state courtroom, even though no one is forced to read from the Commandments, and the people in the courtroom are adults and not impressionable children.
Today’s decision is a non-decision because five justices said that the federal courts had no standing to hear the case. Students of constitutional law know that the Supreme Court has a long tradition of not deciding controversial cases through the excuse of lack of standing. In the most infamous Supreme Court decision ever, the Dred Scott case, the Court ruled that it didn’t have any authority to adjudicate the case because the plaintiff lacked standing. [EDIT: I meant to say that the Court lacked juristictional grounds--the plaintiff did have "standing" because he had a personal stake in the matter, but the federal courts nevertheless had no authority under Article III to adjudicate the case. But the point was and still is that the Court didn't adjusticate the merits of the case.] This is a fact that most people who haven’t read the Dred Scott decision don’t realize. Even my textbooks in law school omitted this fact.
Chief Justice Rehnquist did a very good job of explaining why the majority’s decision that the plaintiff had no standing was stupid. I am in complete agreement with Rehnquist on this one. When I first heard about the decision, I thought that maybe there was some long established federal principle that a parent has no standing to sue on behalf of his child if he doesn’t have custody. But I learned that federal courts look to state law to determine this stuff. The courts in California conluded that Newdow, the plaintiff, had a legally recognized interest in his child’s upbringing, and therefore had standing to bring the case. This decision otherwise by the Supreme Court is just a big cop out.
So now we have a big mish-mosh of dicta that’s confusing to everyone. The Ninth Circuit says that the Pledge is unconstitutional. Five Supreme Court justices say there is no standing. Justice Scalia recused himself. Chief Justice Rehnquist says “under God” is okay because “our national culture allows public recognition of our Nation’s religious history and character.” Justice O’Connor says “under God” is okay because it’s “ceremonial Deism.”
Justice Clarence Thomas is the only one who makes any sense in today’s decision. He writes, “I conclude that, as a matter of our precedent, the Pledge policy is unconstitutional.” Thank you Justice Thomas for being the only member of the Court who has any honesty. With the Ninth Circuit having received so much flak for its decision that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional, people should take note that the Justice who is considered one of the Court’s most “conservative” members agrees that the Ninth Circuit decided the case correctly based on established precedent. (It should be noted that Justice Thomas would overturn the precedent and not apply the Establishment Clause to the states—a very interesting idea, but one that goes beyond the scope of this blog entry.)
Additional blogosphere commentary:
The Bonassus (suggests a political motivation for why the Justices didn't decide the merits of the case)
Outside the Beltway
Captain’s Quarters (happy that "under God" remains in the Pledge)
The Volokh Conspiracy (includes some commentary on Justice Thomas’s concurring opinion)
SCOTUSblog (detailed commentary)
INDC Journal (argues in favor of "under God" being removed from Pledge)
Sunday, June 13, 2004
Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek observes that it's customary for everyone to drive a few miles per hour faster than the posted speed limit, and this custom is accepted by police officers who don't seem to ticket people unless they exceed the limit by at least 10 mph. (What Part of "Speed Limit 65" Do I Not Understand?)
The real law on U.S. highways is something like the following: if weather conditions are decent and if traffic is not too heavy, then you can drive between five and ten miles per hour over the posted speed limit. No one legislated this rule; it's not written down in any official statute book; it's certainly not posted along highways. It evolved spontaneously from everyday practice and is now part of the expectations of all drivers -- and, importantly, it is also part of the expectations of highway patrol officers.
But the problem here is that the police officers can pull you over and ticket you for driving 66 where 65 is posted, or 56 where 55 is posted. This means that the police officer can arbitrarily decide who to ticket and who not to, because everyone is violating the law. We live in a police state because legislators have created laws that everybody disobeys.
I have studied speeding law quite extensively. Arguments like "everyone was going faster than 55" hold absolutely no weight in court. The posted speed is the real law in Virginia, and if you drive faster than that (which everyone does), then you're a criminal. Driving even a single mile per hour faster than the speed limit is considered a "criminal" violation in Virginia.