Thursday, September 28, 2006
On this day:

More on corporate welfare

According to the Huntsville Times:

Verizon Wireless plans to build a $44 million, 152,000-square-foot Alabama headquarters and customer service center in Thornton Research Park in Huntsville.

The center is scheduled to be completed late next year and is expected to have about 1,300 employees by the end of 2008. ...

The City of Huntsville, Madison County, the State of Alabama and the Tennessee Valley Authority pitched in $1.25 million in cash, said Neal Wade, director of the Alabama Development Office. Of that amount, $850,000 is coming from the state, he said.

An estimated $1 million in training through the Alabama Industrial Development Training is also part of the incentives package.

Also, the company could receive up to $15 million in tax breaks over 20 years. State law provides for a capital credit to be applied to the income-tax liability generated by income from an approved project, and the capital credit is available each year, for 20 years. It is calculated at 5 percent of the total capital costs of the project.

Verizon Wireless looked at "a lot of different communities" for the center, Riley said, but what sold the company on Huntsville was "your quality of life. ... It's not incentives."

Well, if it wasn't the giveaways that attracted Verizon to Huntsville, then why give them away to begin with?

Let me be clear. I know that liberals have developed the annoying habit of calling tax cuts "giveaways," regardless of how they are structured, but I'm no liberal, and by "giveaways," I don't mean business-friendly tax policies and tax cuts that are broadly applicable to all. I do mean special tax credits that are available only for those activities designated by government as "approved projects." And I do mean cash incentives paid directly out of tax revenues to businesses to cover the costs of construction, employee training, and general business operations. Those types of interventionist government policies define corporate welfare.

Allowing companies to keep more of their own earnings by lowering the burdens of taxation and regulation is a worthy objective. Filling corporate bank accounts with the earnings of taxpaying citizens is obscene.

Tobacco juice

So, does tobacco juice help chigger bites? I've heard it's good for bee and wasp stings, so why not chigger bites?

And if indeed it is good for all those things, then why doesn't someone market it? They'd have to improve the process of actually producing tobacco juice, of course. The thought of hundreds of snuff-dipping grannies sitting around all day and spitting into industrial-sized spittoons wouldn't be too appealing to the modern consumer. Not to mention the fact that any company based on such a business model could scarcely afford the cost of health insurance for its cancer-prone employees.

No, we'll need something better. Unfortunately, I'm not too familiar with the properties of tobacco in its raw state, so I can't help much, but I do think it would be a good idea. It would create a new market for tobacco and maybe even help wean tobacco farmers from the federal subsidies that our Congress distributes so freely. It would also be great PR for an industry that is looked upon with such disfavor these days. A natural remedy for common could anyone object to that?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006
On this day:

Bush in Alabama Thursday

He'll be in Birmingham, helping raise money for Bob Riley and discuss (government-subsidized, taxpayer-stiffing, and outrageously expensive) alternative energy options.

Incentive or giveaway?

From the Mobile Press-Register:
Local and state agencies approved incentives agreements Tuesday with Northrop Grumman Corp. and EADS North America meant to help finance an assembly center in Mobile that would produce military refueling tanker aircraft, if the Northrop team can win an Air Force competition against Boeing Co.

The dollar value of the incentives known to the Press-Register Tuesday exceeds $110 million. ...

The agreements pledge a cash payment of $82 million to the companies over five years, intended to pay for the construction of plants at the Brookley Field Industrial Complex, according to officials with the city of Mobile and the Mobile Airport Authority. EADS would get $52 million, and Northrop would get $30 million, according to a summary of the contracts released by the city.

The companies have said they plan to create at least 1,150 direct jobs and as many as 3,000. But they only have to create 300 apiece, or a total of 600, and maintain that total for five years to fulfill their contracts with local and state agencies, the city summary said.

Officials said Northrop and EADS wouldn't get any of the money or tax breaks if the team does not win the Air Force competition. ...

The structure of the Northrop/EADS incentives appear to differ from some of those offered by the state in the past.

In deals with big automakers, state and local governments have spent large amounts of cash to buy and prepare industrial sites.

In this case, though, the Mobile Airport Authority already owns the land, and only about $10 million is set aside for site preparation, roadwork and port improvements.

Northrop and EADS are not obliged to use the $82 million in cash incentives to pay for their plants, although [Airport Authority Executive Director Bay] Haas and [Mobile city attorney Larry] Wettermark said they are expected to. Haas and Wettermark said the cash payments could help the team deliver a better price to the Air Force in the bid competition.

This amounts to an awful lot of government involvement in what is essentially a private venture. Using taxpayer money to pay for infrastructure improvements is one thing, but using it to contribute directly to a corporation's bottom-line, as appears to be the case here, borders on obscene.

Handing out state revenues to large corporations so that they can build assembly plants, train workers, and pay their executives is simply not a proper function of government. Due to their arbitrary, "government-picks-the-winners" nature, incentive packages like this one are even more unjust than the income redistribution programs that conservatives have so often rightly condemned. This level of government meddling is an affront economic liberty and, more importantly, to the principles of limited government. Not too long ago, there would have been plenty of politicians - including many conservative Southern Democrats - railing against this kind of "incentive" package as a giveaway to big business. Today, the only reactions our elected officials seem to offer are either support or silence.

"You know, I really should blog...nope, never mind, scratch that"

In case you haven't noticed, I've been saying that a lot lately. And I've meant it quite literally, too. Somehow, I've managed to get about a thousand chigger bites on my ankles and legs. OK, so it's more like fifty, but a thousand is about how many of the little red bastards I would like to kill in retaliation for having made life so miserable over the last three days.

If you live in the South, and especially if you spend a lot of time outdoors, you know what nasty little creatures chiggers are. They love to hang out in high grass and pine straw, waiting for some unlucky host (like me) to come by. They then latch on with their evil little mouths and begin turning your skin cells into a great big Slurpee. A day or so later, the chigger may be long gone, but you've got an itch that just won't quit. Kinda gross, I know, but I guess it's part of the price to be paid for living here in God's country. Which raises one question: are chiggers really more common in the South, or are the ones that live here (species chiggerus itchyum Alabamae) just particularly fond of/in closer proximity to humans? Or maybe it's just that Yankees don't taste good. I could believe that.

Anyway, that's enough of my whining. I suppose I should be glad that the critters weren't in a more amorous mood when they attacked. (If you know what I mean.) Talk about unpleasant!

(For more about chiggers, see here and here.)

Tuesday, September 26, 2006
On this day:

Gas drops below $2 a gallon in North Alabama

Whoo-hoo! Crank up that SUV!

I come to the garden alone

Yes, but whose dime is it on?

From the Decatur Daily:
CADDO, Ala. (AP) — Lawrence County will soon be home to one of the largest faith gardens in the United States, giving area residents a 2-acre retreat to meditate, pray and reflect.

Jerry Chenault, a regional agent with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, is designing a garden featuring plants found in Scripture for the East Lawrence Memorial Gardens on Lawrence County 434.

Faith gardens, sometimes called biblical or ecumenical gardens, are a fairly new concept, said Chenault, but are being designed across the United States as more people recognize their spiritual value. ...

Sounds nice, except that the "tree of life" in this garden will be watered by a generous flow of public funds.
Chenault is part of a team through Alabama A&M University charged with educating people about the benefits of faith gardens. The program receives state, local and federal funds.

The state gave a $1,000 grant for the faith-garden project in Lawrence County, but the majority of funding will come from the memorial gardens and private donations.

Thursday, September 21, 2006
On this day:

Big Spring Jam weekend in Huntsville

Looking for something to do this weekend? Head to downtown Huntsville for the 14th Annual Big Spring Jam . Food, music, and beer. What more could you ask for? Never mind...don't answer that. I'm just hoping the rain holds off.

Anyway, if you're interested, you can download a schedule of performers here. Headline acts include Jo Dee Messina, Clint Black, Boyz II Men, Kool and the Gang, Casting Crowns, Bo Bice, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts (they're still around?), John Anderson ("Just a' Swangin'"), Tracy Lawrence, Cowboy Mouth, Gin Blossoms, Sister Hazel, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, and Nickel Creek.

The #1 question asked about Big Spring Jam is this: why is it called "Big Spring Jam" when it's held in the fall? The answer: the festival is centered in Big Spring International Park, which is named after the Big Spring, a stream running through downtown Huntsville.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006
On this day:

Bush responds to Chavez's remarks

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez delivered a speech at the United Nations yesterday in which he called President Bush "the devil" and complained that the podium still "smelled of sulfur" following Bush's speech there on Monday.

Today, responding to a reporter's question, the President addressed Mr. Chavez's remarks:

To the best of my knowledge, I am not the devil. Sure, there was that time in 1980 when I supported my father for President against Ronald Reagan, but I have since realized my mistake. Besides, the Bible says to honor your father and mother, does it not? That's what I did. Still, if anyone would know the devil's voice when he hears it, it's Hugo Chavez. Since he may know something I don't, I have no choice but to concede that there is some small possibility - however remote - that I am, in fact, the devil.

One thing I know for certain, though, is this: there was no "smell of sulfur" at that podium when I stood there. In fact, the only person who has complained about it so far has been Hugo Chavez.

There's a reason for that. Word has it that Mr. Chavez, upon his arrival in New York, was seen at a local diner eating a huge bowl of chili con carne y con mucho frijoles. He also ordered a second bowl on his way out, telling the waitress that he would have it for breakfast the next morning before he went over to the U.N. Now, Mr. Chavez says he smelled something, and I have no reason to doubt the man, but I've eaten a few bowls of chili in my lifetime, and I am well aware of its effects. Mr. Chavez isn't fooling anyone here; he should 'fess up and stop blaming other people. As we say in Texas, "whoever smelt it dealt it."

Thank you all, and may God bless America.

Alabama's August unemployment rate at 3.5%

From the Birmingham News:
Alabama's unemployment rate fell in August to 3.5 percent, the second-lowest figure on record, Gov. Bob Riley said Friday.

The rate was down from 3.9 percent in July, matching the figure from a year ago. Alabama bested the national average of 4.7 percent, which dropped slightly from 4.8 percent in July and 4.9 percent in August 2005. ...

The jobs report shows a strong labor market for Alabama, where the unemployment rate fell in March to a record low of 3.3 percent. But it has made finding qualified workers more difficult for area employers, said Toni Gilmer, human resources director at Birmingham-based Western Supermarkets.

"The pool we're pulling from is getting shallower and shallower, which means we're having to offer higher salaries and being more creative in recruiting," said Gilmer, whose chain has seven area stores.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only eight states had lower unemployment rates than Alabama in August. They were: Hawaii (2.8%), South Dakota (3.2%), Utah (3.2%), Florida (3.3%), Idaho (3.3%), Nebraska (3.3%), Wyoming (3.3%), and Louisiana (3.4% !!). Montana, New Hampshire, and North Dakota tied Alabama's rate of 3.5%.


I have developed more productive pastimes this, for example.

Ant wars

When you grow up in the country, you are constantly searching for new ways to entertain yourself. So, when I came across this story, I was reminded of one of my favorite childhood pastimes. It went something like this:
Needed: One shovel, two ant beds

Step 1: Identify two suitable anthills, separated by a distance of about 50-100 yards.

Step 2: Using the shovel or a stick, "stir up" the ants in bed #1. Your goal here is to piss 'em off real good. Place the displaced dirt from the mound such that the disturbed ants remain concentrated as much as possible in the area nearest to the mound.

Step 3: Go to bed #2 and shovel off as much of the mound as possible, keeping the dirt and ants in the shovel.

Step 4: Take the shovel and its contents and quickly go back to bed #1.

Step 5: Unload the dirt and ants from bed #2 onto bed #1.

Step 6: Take a (big) stick and mix everything up as much as possible. Be careful not to get bitten. If ants crawl up the stick and approach your body, either shake them off or get a new and bigger stick.

Step 7: Once you have given the two sets of ants the best possible chance of making each other's acquaintance, go find something else to do. For instance, if you have a string of firecrackers available, you might go find another ant bed and position them throughout the base of the mound, making sure that their fuses touch...then light them and enjoy the spectacle. Add a small amount of gasoline, and it can be even more fun.

Step 8: Return to bed #2 at hourly intervals, taking note of the number of dead ants.

Step 9: The next day, return again to bed #2, and note how the ants have stacked the dead in piles surrounding the bed. (Scientists have found that these ant "cemeteries" are arranged in patterns. See here.)

Step 10: Consider the implications of this experiment for American foreign policy. (Just kidding!)

Tuesday, September 19, 2006
On this day:

What the Pope reallysaid

Richard John Newhaus discusses Pope Benedict's recent remarks today in First Things. Here are a few excerpts:

As many commentators, Muslim and other, do not know because they manifestly have not read the lecture, it was not chiefly about Islam. It was a considered reflection on the inseparable linkage of faith and reason in the Christian understanding, an incisive critique of Christian thinkers who press for separating faith and reason in the name of “de-Hellenizing” Christianity, and a stirring call for Christians to celebrate the achievements of modernity and secure those achievements by grounding them in theological and philosophical truth.

I have had the opportunity of many extended conversations with Ratzinger-Benedict over the years, and he is a man of great gentleness and deliberation and extremely careful to say what he means. What he said at Regensburg he has said many times before. Contrary to many reports, he has not apologized or retracted his argument. He has indicated sincere regret that many Muslims have reacted to his statement as they have. The response of those who are properly called jihadists is, “If you don’t stop saying we’re violent, we’re going to bomb more churches, kill more nuns and priests, and get the pope too.” In short, the reaction has powerfully confirmed the problem to which Benedict called our attention. ...

[M]any of our influential commentators in the West are in deep denial, believing that candor in the quest for truth is dangerously provocative, and we must therefore conform to the violent demands that we say nothing to offend Muslim sensibilities. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, to surrender in advance. ...

In his Regensburg lecture, Benedict was siding with today’s besieged Muslim thinkers who are trying to articulate an Islamic way of breaking the connection between faith and violence. That can only be done by Muslim thinkers.

Benedict’s responsibility is to set forth clearly and uncompromisingly the Christian understanding. At Regensburg he said: “God acts with logos. Logos means both reason and word— reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John [the Evangelist] thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God.”

As history is turning out, this theological truth is at the very core of what is likely the greatest political and cultural struggle of this century, and maybe beyond.

A new Crusade?

Thomas E. Madden, author of A Concise History of the Crusades, commented on Pope Benedict's speech today at National Review Online.

Monday, September 18, 2006
On this day:

Mitt Romney

He's one of my favorites for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, and he was in Tuscaloosa today.

Sunday, September 17, 2006
On this day:

Where are the rampaging Protestants?

From Pope Benedict's speech:

In all honesty, one must observe that in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit [of metaphysical truth as determined through reason and inquiry] and the Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas [i.e. St. Thomas Aquinas], there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which ultimately led to the claim that we can only know God's voluntas ordinata [i.e. the ordained or established will of God]. Beyond this is the realm of God's freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done. This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazn and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God's transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.

As opposed to this, the faith of the [Catholic] Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language (cf. Lateran IV). God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos [Greek for "word" or "reason"] and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. Certainly, love transcends knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone (cf. Eph 3:19); nonetheless it continues to be love of the God who is logos. Consequently, Christian worship is worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason (cf. Rom 12:1).

This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history-– it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.

The thesis that the critically purified Greek heritage forms an integral part of Christian faith has been countered by the call for a dehellenization of Christianity-– a call which has more and more dominated theological discussions since the beginning of the modern age. [What event at "beginning of the modern age" was devoted in part to dehellenizing Christianity? Read on.] Viewed more closely, three stages can be observed in the program of dehellenization: although interconnected, they are clearly distinct from one another in their motivations and objectives.

Dehellenization first emerges in connection with the fundamental postulates of the Reformation in the 16th century. Looking at the tradition of scholastic theology, the Reformers thought they were confronted with a faith system totally conditioned by philosophy, that is to say an articulation of the faith based on an alien system of thought. As a result, faith no longer appeared as a living historical Word but as one element of an overarching philosophical system. The principle of sola scriptura [i.e. the belief of most Protestants that the "scriptures alone" constitute the sole rule of faith], on the other hand, sought faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word. Metaphysics appeared as a premise derived from another source, from which faith had to be liberated in order to become once more fully itself. When Kant stated that he needed to set thinking aside in order to make room for faith, he carried this program forward with a radicalism that the Reformers could never have foreseen. He thus anchored faith exclusively in practical reason, denying it access to reality as a whole.

It seems that Pope Benedict's speech is just as "offensive" to the theological views of fundamentalist Protestants as it is to that of fundamentalist Muslims, if not moreso. But, you don't see any Christians out in the streets burning the Pope in effigy and threatening holy war. Just something to keep in mind the next time you hear someone making absurd comparisons between two very different versions of fundamentalism.

Me likum this popum

The full text of Pope Benedict's speech - the one that has led to such a violent reaction from oversensitive Muslims the world over - is here.

One major theme of the Pope's speech is the reasonableness of faith: the harmony between reason and the message of the Gospel. As Benedict said, it is "only if reason and faith come together in a new way" that a "genuine dialogue of cultures and religions" will be possible. It's too bad that some people have used this occasion to prove that such a dialogue may currently be impossible.

Thursday, September 14, 2006
On this day:

Felon voting revisited

The state constitution says that certain felons - those whose crimes involve "moral turpitude" - are ineligible to vote until their voting rights have been restored in accordance with state law. Specifically, Amendment 579 states:

No person convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude, or who is mentally incompetent, shall be qualified to vote until restoration of civil and political rights or removal of disability.

Last month, Jefferson County circuit court judge Robert Vance, Jr. ruled that the state can no longer enforce that restriction until the legislature defines which felonies involve "moral turpitude." I gave my opinion on the Judge's ruling here, and applauded Attorney General Troy King for appealing to the Alabama Supreme Court.

In the time since my original post, Judge Vance has delayed imposing much of his ruling until after the November election. From this AP report:
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - A judge has delayed his ruling allowing felons to vote until after the Nov. 7 general election and until the state Supreme Court can review the issue.

Circuit Judge Robert Vance Jr. agreed to stay much of his order, which held that felons could vote until the Legislature clarifies a law that bars voting by felons convicted of a crime of "moral turpitude." His ruling last week said the state law does not define what crimes involve moral turpitude. ...

Vance's ruling came in a lawsuit filed in Jefferson County by Richard Gooden, who lost his right to vote in 2000 when he was convicted of felony driving under the influence.

The attorney general's office had asked for a stay of Vance's entire order.

But Vance let stand his instructions to county voter registrars to allow people to register if they have been convicted of a crime that past attorney general opinions or court decisions have said do not involved moral turpitude.

Those include such offenses as driving under the influence or possession of small amounts of illegal drugs such as marijuana.
Now, the Attorney General is asking the Alabama Supreme Court to delay all parts of Judge Vance's ruling. From the AP today:
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The state attorney general has asked the Alabama Supreme Court to delay all parts of a judge's order allowing felons to vote in Alabama.

Attorney General Troy King's motion argues that the entire ruling last month by Jefferson County Circuit Judge Robert Vance Jr. should be shelved until the high court can rule on an appeal.

Vance had ruled last month that felons must be allowed to vote until the Alabama Legislature clarifies crimes of "moral turpitude." At a Sept. 1 hearing, Vance agreed to stay much of his order until after the Nov. 7 general election and until the Supreme Court could rule on the appeal, but he allowed felons convicted of certain offenses to vote.

The judge let stand a portion of his order that allowed people to register to vote if they have been convicted of a crime that past attorney general opinions or court decisions have said do not involve moral turpitude. Those include such offenses as felony driving under the influence or possession of small amounts of illegal drugs such as marijuana.

Ryan Haygood, an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund representing Alabama felons in the class-action lawsuit, said Tuesday that portion of Vance's ruling was important because it was telling "state and local officials to follow the law."

The approach taken by the attorney general in his motion "ignores the reality" that voter registrars are not allowing eligible people to vote, said Haygood.

The judge's ruling came in a lawsuit filed in Jefferson County by Richard Gooden, who lost his right to vote in 2000 when he was convicted of felony driving under the influence.

When Gooden completed his sentence and tried to have his voting rights restored, he was told that the Alabama secretary of state's office had ordered no felons be registered until the attorney general issued an opinion on what crimes do not involve moral turpitude.

Gooden has since been allowed to register to vote in Jefferson County, and King's motion Friday cited the Gooden registration in arguing that Vance's order be put on hold.

"There was no evidence that any registrar in Alabama was denying all felons the ability to register to vote without regard to whether the felony involved moral turpitude," the motion said.
The trouble is...contrary to what AG King says, it is plainly evident that prior to Judge Vance's decision, at least some registrars were denying all felons - not just those whose crimes involved moral turpitude - the ability to register. For instance, Mr. Gooden was convicted of DUI, a felony which both Alabama courts and the AG's office have agreed does not involve moral turpitude. Nonetheless, he was not allowed to register to vote. Mr. Gooden's case may have been an isolated incident, but that's not at all clear.

Additionally, as stated in the AP article quoted above: "[Judge Vance] let stand a portion of his order that allowed people to register to vote if they have been convicted of a crime that past attorney general opinions or court decisions have said do not involve moral turpitude."

So, why is the Attorney General's appeal necessary? The constitution says that only certain felons - those whose crimes involve moral turpitude - are to be denied the privilege of voting. Judge Vance has said that registrars must refer to previous court decisions and AG opinions when determining who is ineligible to vote under that constitutional provision. I don't see the immediate problem, and I don't see the need for this particular appeal. What am I missing here?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006
On this day:

Come October, this is where I'll be on Sunday afternoons

Great news! Huntsville is getting a new Cracker Barrel! For lunch, the turnip greens are a must...everything else is optional.

Lucy Baxley: Mother of prosperity?

Ronald Reagan used to say that the nine most terrifying words in the English language were "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help."

Well, it appears that Lucy Baxley could learn a thing or two from the Gipper. While she was visiting Huntsville last Saturday, she managed to give voters a valuable clue into her philosophy of government. Speaking to supporters here in town, she said, "How are we going to make Alabama prosperous? That's why I'm here."

That's a pretty bold statement; in it, Mrs. Baxley seems to claim that government is suited not only to the limited role of securing our prosperity, but also to the expansive role of providing for it. One only needs to read through Mrs. Baxley's campaign platform to see how neatly this statement summarizes her views about the proper size and scope of government power.

Her proposals include raising the state's minimum wage; making it easier for citizens to purchase computers, printers, desktop software, and internet access through government subsidies and/or coercive incentives on business; "using every resource available to investigate [non-existent] consumer price gouging by big oil"; and creating incentives (i.e. subsidies or privileged tax treatment) for the local production of renewable fuels. All of those ideas represent big-government solutions to problems that the private sector is better positioned to solve, and is solving, on its own.

I'm glad that Mrs. Baxley wants to make Alabamians more prosperous, but the real route to prosperity requires limiting the size and scope of government power and freeing the private sector to flourish in the always-fertile ground of economic liberty. It also requires that political leaders possess a certain humility about their role in contributing to economic progress. A would-be leader who says, "How are we going to make Alabama prosperous? That's why I'm here," does not possess that kind of humility.

Davis: Discriminatory lending practices keep black middle class behind

Rep. Artur Davis (D.-Birmingham), the only Harvard graduate in Alabama's congressional delegation, repeats an old, discredited allegation. From the B'ham News:

WASHINGTON U.S. Rep. Artur Davis said Friday that Congress is not doing enough to address the needs of the black middle class, which he says is economically fragile because it is less able to accumulate wealth and assets. ...

Usually, conversations about race and economics focus on poverty. Davis, one of the more moderate members of the all-Democratic caucus, said he was not dismissing the plight of low-income blacks.

"I in no way minimize that issue, but it occurs to me we have not spent nearly as much political capital, time or energy talking about the significant number of African-Americans who got up to work this morning, who are making between $60,000 and $200,000, who still have to ... look at their bank account every 31st to see exactly what's there," Davis said.

Davis cited discriminatory mortgage lending practices as an example of why blacks in the middle class have a harder time accumulating wealth than whites in the same income bracket. A recent study found that black home buyers tend to pay more for their mortgages than whites with similarly flawed credit scores. And home values, normally the single largest asset for a middle-class family, tend to be lower among blacks.

I'm guessing that the study Davis is referring to is the one recently conducted by the U.S. Federal Reserve. It is the subject of this CBS News report, which adds:

The report doesn't provide interest rates charged to the different racial groups. It also doesn't include information, such as the borrower's credit history, which is an important factor in pricing a home mortgage.

Given that, economists and other experts said one should be cautious about drawing any conclusions from the Fed information about discriminatory lending.

Jay Brinkmann, a financial economist at the Mortgage Bankers Association, said the price of a mortgage is based on risk. The rise of high-priced loans in 2005 — the last year of a five-year housing boom — may be related to "borrowers in general having a somewhat higher risk profile on average," he said. "In a sense, the best credit customers stepped in early" in the housing market boom, he said.
So, certain important factors like the borrowers' credit history weren't even considered in the Fed study. That minorities pay more for home mortgages seems to be a fact beyond dispute, but to imply that that is due primarily to discrimination is simply not supported by this study or any other.

In a column from last year, Thomas Sowell commented on two similar studies, both of which noted the same racial gap. Here are some of his remarks:
One of the things that happens when you get old is that what seems like news to others can look like a re-run of something you have already seen before. It is like watching an old movie for the fifth or sixth time.

A headline in the September 14th issue of the New York Times says: "Blacks Hit Hardest By Costlier Mortgages." Thirteen years ago, virtually the identical story appeared in the Wall Street Journal under the title, "Federal Reserve Details Pervasive Racial Gap in Mortgage Lending." ...

Both stories are based on statistical studies by the Federal Reserve showing that blacks and whites have different experiences when applying for mortgage loans -- and both stories imply that racial discrimination is the reason.
Sowell concludes that the studies do not support the contention that discrimination is the culprit for the racial gap in mortgage lending, precisely because they fail to take factors like credit history and net worth into account - just as the study that Davis cited failed to do. You'd think that a Harvard grad would have learned to do his homework.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006
On this day:

The AG race: King vs. Tyson on the death penalty

Mobile district attorney John Tyson, Jr., a Democrat, is taking on Republican incumbent Troy King for the office of Attorney General. The Democrats could have done worse - much worse - than Tyson when they selected their AG candidate. As you may remember, Tyson's opponent in the Democratic primary was Holocaust-denier and all-around-wacko Larry Darby.

Tyson's main campaign theme is that he is a seasoned prosecutor, in contrast to Troy King, who has little courtroom experience and had never prosecuted a case before he became Attorney General. I have a hard time being persuaded by that argument. The Attorney General represents the state's interests in a wide range of cases to which the state is a party, including those in which the constitutionality of state law is challenged. Prosecutorial experience may be helpful in exercising those duties, but it is not required; he rarely argues cases in court.

More important is the Attorney General's willingness to enforce the laws of the state and his basic philosophy on how the law should be interpreted and applied. On both those counts, I think that Troy King has performed superbly. Maybe not as well as his predecessor, Bill Pryor, but that's a bit of an unfair comparison. Before his appointment to the federal bench, Pryor set a new standard for Alabama Attorneys General that will be tough for anyone to meet.

None of that is to say that Tyson isn't a good guy. Based on everything I've read and heard, I think he probably is. And I'll bet if you sat him and Troy King down in a room, you'd find that they would agree on most of the issues. With at least one exception. Last week, the Birmingham News reported that the two candidates differ on whether the death penalty should be expanded.

One of King's proposals sheds light on a sharp difference in the two men's public stances on how to fight crime.

King wants the Legislature to change the law to impose the death penalty on people with multiple convictions for rape or molestation of children.

Tyson said that would be a mistake and would lead to more killing.

"I don't like serial rapists, either," Tyson said. "But as soon as serial rapists realize there's no additional consequence for killing somebody, they're going to do it. An experienced prosecutor would not have proposed that."

A better way to fight sex crimes against children, Tyson said, would be to provide more money for child advocacy centers. There are about 25 centers in the state, some serving more than one county. They are used to interview and counsel children who are suspected victims and to gather evidence for prosecutions. State funding for the centers has been cut in recent years. Tyson said he would work to reverse that and to open more centers.

King said the centers do important work and need more money, but he said Tyson's suggestion shows that he wants to fight crime by "expanding social programs."

"If you want to prevent that rapist from hurting a child, you let him know there's going to be a harsh penalty to pay," King said.

Tyson said serial rapists are already subject to life without parole and that the death penalty should be reserved for those who kill.

I'm actually sympathetic to Tyson's position on this. I also think that it may be the most "conservative" position. While many criminals may deserve death, there's a lot to be said for reserving the death penalty for only the most heinous crimes. There is a distinction of degree between murder and rape. The crimes committed by serial murderers and serial rapists are horrible - too horrible to think about, really - but punishment should reflect the degree to which a crime upsets the moral order; in other words, the punishment should fit the crime. Isn't "rape plus murder" more heinous than rape alone? If so, then shouldn't it be punished more severely? Assuming that torture and other "cruel and unusual" punishments are prohibited, isn't the severest of punishments death? Where do we draw the line between those crimes which merit a punishment of life without parole and those that qualify for the ultimate punishment that a civilized society can impose?

It is perfectly natural to react to those who commit these types of crimes with cries of "Let's hang 'em all." It is tempting, and even defensible, to advocate imposing the death penalty for a wider range of crimes. We do our best to defend civilization against the savagery of its enemies, but in carrying out that duty, it sometimes seems that even the sentence of death is inadequate. Unfortunately, as human beings, we are incapable of imposing perfect justice. We are often stuck defending familiar cliches like "make the punishment fit the crime," even when we know in our hearts that none of our punishments could possibly fit the crime. Under those circumstances, our only consolation comes through our faith that the final appeal will be heard by an authority higher than any man.

Poll: Republicans lead Democrats in statewide races

The Birmingham News had an encouraging report over the weekend:
Republican Gov. Bob Riley has a lead of 21 percentage points over his Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, according to a new statewide poll.

Riley, who narrowly defeated incumbent Democrat Don Siegelman to win the governor's chair in 2002, was the choice of 55 percent of the 500 surveyed voters. Baxley was the choice of 34 percent, while the rest said they were undecided. ...

The question posed to the voters was, "If the election for governor were held today, would you would for (Riley or Baxley)?"

In response to a similar question about the candidates for lieutenant governor, 47 percent of the voters said they would choose Republican Luther Strange and 38 percent opted for the Democrat, former Gov. Jim Folsom. The rest said they were undecided.

For attorney general, 46 percent of the surveyed voters said they preferred Republican Troy King, whom Riley appointed to the post in 2004, while 28 percent were for the Democrat, Mobile County District Attorney John Tyson. For secretary of state, 41 percent were for the GOP nominee, state Auditor Beth Chapman, and 34 percent said they would vote for Democratic incumbent Nancy Worley.

Speaking of classy ladies

That post on Natalie Maines made me think of this great tune* by Patsy Cline, who would have turned 74 years old last Friday.

*Link to YouTube excerpt from The Patsy Cline Story, starring Jessica Lange.

Out of the Maines stream

From Entertainment Weekly:

The international press won't get their first look at the documentary Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing until its gala premiere at the Toronto Film Festival tonight. But got an early look at the sure-to-be-controversial doc in Los Angeles and can attest that the film will continue to bring the (ex?) country trio more plaudits from progressives and further condemnation from conservatives. And if you think singer Natalie Maines had some harsh words for President Bush in public, wait till you hear what she had to say about him behind the scenes.

In one memorable scene, Maines watches news footage of the president being interviewed about the furor that followed the singer's on-stage comment that she was ''ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas,'' which resulted in the group being dropped from most radio stations, as well as protests and plummeting sales. ''The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind,'' Bush told Tom Brokaw at the time, adding, ''They shouldn't have their feelings hurt just because some people don't want to buy their records when they speak out. You know, freedom is a two-way street.''

After watching this footage, Maines repeats the president's comment about how the group shouldn't have their ''feelings hurt,'' incredulous, and then says, ''What a dumb f---.'' She then looks into the camera, as if addressing Bush, and reiterates, ''You're a dumb f---.''

Classy lady. Maybe after she's done washing her mouth out with soap, she can clean up the mess she's made of her career.

Friday, September 08, 2006
On this day:

Baxley criticizes Riley on taxes

Here's Lucy, quoted in the B'ham News:

"I have a better vision for the future that will make Alabama work for everyone by overturning Riley's property tax increase (annual property reappraisals) and raising the minimum wage," said Baxley in a written statement.

"This is just one more example of Bob Riley saying one thing when he campaigns and doing another as governor. Riley says he opposes taxes, but he proposed the largest tax increase in the state's history in 2003 and when voters rejected it at the polls, Riley increased our property taxes with the stroke of a pen by ordering annual reappraisals."

Riley may deserve to be criticized for his support of the Amendment One back in 2003, but Lucy Baxley is hardly one to be casting stones. She has previously stated that even though she didn't actively campaign for the amendment, she voted for it on election day because "we have needs that need to be addressed." If you vote for something at the ballot box, doesn't that mean that you support it?

(It should also be noted that Mrs. Baxley hasn't really campaigned for anything during her term as Lieutenant Governor. If she had a position on any of the major issues that the state has faced over the past four years, she did a good job of keeping it a secret.)

As far a yearly reappraisals go, Lucy Baxley only announced her position on the issue last month, in spite of numerous opportunities to do so before then. Her opponent in the Democratic primary, Don Siegelman, spoke out against annual reappraisals throughout his campaign, and at one point accused Baxley of supporting them herself. Baxley's response to Siegelman's accusation was characteristically evasive. From the Decatur Daily:

On Monday, gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley denied she supports annual property tax appraisals as her Democratic opponent Don Siegelman contends. ...

Baxley said she never supported annual reappraisals for Alabama property tax purposes.

"I resent Mr. Siegelman's comments that would attempt to characterize my position as having done so," Baxley said.

"It is apparent he is willing to say or do anything to be elected, including playing fast and loose with the truth. If, as I believe the people want, this campaign is about honesty and integrity in government, Mr. Siegelman once again fails to meet the standard."

Baxley said the appraisal should follow state law.

She asked state Attorney General Troy King for a legal opinion, but he refused to issue one.

In a letter written on King's behalf, Assistant Attorney General Brenda Smith told Baxley that state law doesn't authorize the attorney general's office to issue advisory opinions on actions already taken. ...

"Gov. Riley interprets the law one way, and other state officials interpret differently," Baxley said. "I am not in favor of raising property taxes on Alabama citizens already struggling to keep up with the rising costs of living."

She said court rulings require consistency in taxation in all counties, but not all counties are complying with the existing order to appraise annually.

"Therefore, it's not fair to taxpayers in those counties who appraise annually," Baxley said. "As governor, I will see that property tax appraisals are conducted according to the law. If changes are needed in the law, it will be up to the state Legislature to do so."

There's not much daylight between that position, which Baxley stated back in November of last year, and Gov. Riley's position today. Nonetheless, Baxley now says that as Governor, she will reverse the Governor's decision. You have to wonder: is Mrs. Baxley's new-found opposition to annual reappraisals evidence of principle or political expediency?

Thursday, September 07, 2006
On this day:

Riley proposes more tax cuts

And why not? State tax collections are going through the roof, the economy is still growing, and the right kind of tax cuts will contribute to future growth by leaving money in the hands of those who provide the jobs and produce the labor.

So, are Gov. Riley's proposed tax cuts the "right kind" of tax cuts? It's a mixed bag, in my opinion.
(Mobile Press-Register) MONTGOMERY -- Alabama Gov. Bob Riley on Tuesday unveiled his economic plan for a potential second term, promising expanded tax cuts for individuals, families and retirees, along with a series of tax incentives for businesses.

Riley proposed raising the income tax threshold -- the amount at which a family starts paying income taxes -- to $15,000 for a family of four. The increased threshold would apply only to households with taxable income of $100,000 or less. The governor said that would give more than 90 percent of Alabamians a tax cut.
This expands on a tax cut bill that Riley signed into law earlier this year. It was a good idea then, and it's a good idea now. Riley's proposal would cut income taxes for all households earning less than $100,000 a year, with low-income workers seeing the most significant reduction, as a percentage of income. I would prefer for the tax cut to apply to all taxpayers, but politics is politics.

The governor also proposed exempting the first $10,000 of retirement income from
personal income tax, regardless of the source and the amount a retiree earns.
This proposal would primarily benefit low-income retirees, many of whom rely on Social Security and corporate pensions for their wellbeing. It applies equally to all retirees, without regard to income. Another good idea.

Riley called for businesses with 25 or fewer workers to be able to deduct double the amount they spend on health care coverage on employees who earn $50,000 or less. Those workers, in turn, would be able to deduct double the amount of their individual premiums when figuring taxable personal income.
Insofar as this would make it more affordable for employees of small businesses to get health care coverage, I think it's probably a step in the right direction. It's encouraging that it allows employees to deduct their insurance premiums, not just employers. Why limit it to businesses with 25 or fewer workers, though?

While offering few specifics, Riley also proposed tax deductions for workers and businesses paying for some kinds of training.

I'm not crazy about this particular idea because it seeks to use government tax policy to influence the "proper" allocation of company resources - something that is essentially a management decision.

In a nod to a contentious issue that has dogged the governor in recent months, Riley repeated his call to change Alabama law that the governor argues requires annual reappraisal of property.

I agree with Roy Moore and Lucy Baxley on this one. Annual reappraisals are not required under Alabama law; Governor Riley was the first to interpret it that way. If he wants to return to four-year reappraisals, he could do so with the stroke of a pen; no change in the law is needed.

Other tax-cutting measures Riley has proposed are to:

Establish a $500 tax credit (a dollar-for-dollar reduction of a taxpayer's bill, as opposed to a deduction, which reduces taxable income), renewable for up to three years, for each job a business creates in the 25 Alabama counties with the highest unemployment rates.
Encouraging economic development in Alabama's poorest counties is a laudable goal, but giving favorable tax treatment to businesses who locate in those counties is not the best way to do it. Why address economic inequality by writing more inequality into the tax code? Every county in the state benefits from a tax and regulatory environment that is conducive to economic growth. What applies to one should apply to all.

Offer a tax credit to businesses who hire workers from high-unemployment sectors, such as enrollees of federal public assistance programs. The amount -- a percentage of the qualified employees' wages during the first year of employment -- would be tied to a similar federal tax credit.
Why not reduce the taxes and regulations that impede hiring - period? Government has no business using the tax code to influence basic business management decisions. It adds unnecessary complexity to the tax code, and it treats some workers more favorably than others, only because they are part of a "high-unemployment sector." If you are detecting a trend here - that I don't care much for government-directed "incentives" that serve to distort the natural operation of free markets - then you've figured me out.
Allow corporate taxpayers to deduct 20 percent of what they spend on certain research and development programs that qualify for a similar federal deduction.

Ditto. Why should spending on R&D get favorable tax treatment over spending on employee wages, or capital investment, or even office supplies? The allocation of resources is a decision that should be made according to the specific needs of individual businesses, not the desires of government.

Review all existing statutory incentives for existing and new industries.
Finally...something I support. No "incentives," no playing favorites. Unfortunately, I don't think that's what the Governor has in mind.

Create a "Rural Alabama Action Commission," modeled after the ongoing Black Belt Action Commission. The Black Belt panel has brought together civic, business and political leaders to assess programs and identify ways to improve the quality of life in one of Alabama's most economically depressed regions.
This proposal involves not a tax cut, but rather a useless waste of taxpayer money. But, hey...politics is politics.

Strong economy continues to boost state revenues

The good news: it occurred without a tax increase. The bad news: the government gets to spend the money.
(B'ham News) MONTGOMERY - State tax collections continued their strong growth in the first 11 months of the government's budget year, according to state Finance Department reports released Tuesday.

Tax collections and other revenue for Alabama's Education Trust Fund, which supports public schools and colleges, totaled $4.96 billion from Oct. 1 through Aug. 31, an increase of $462.9 million, or 10.29 percent, compared to the same period a year earlier.

The state General Fund grew at an even faster rate, 12.5 percent, than the larger Education Trust Fund. ...

The trust fund gets about 87 percent of its money from state income-tax and sales-tax collections.

Personal and corporate state income tax collections totaled $2.83 billion from Oct. 1 through Aug. 31, an increase of $290.7 million, or 11.5 percent, compared to the same period a year earlier.

State sales tax collections for the trust fund totaled $1.48 billion from Oct. 1 through Aug. 31, an increase of $106.0 million, or 7.7 percent, compared to the same period a year earlier.

The fast growth in the trust fund so far this budget year continues a trend from last year. The Education Trust Fund in the year that ended last Sept. 30 grew by 11.5 percent compared to the previous year.

That growth, and the 10.29 percent growth for the first 11 months of this fiscal year, both are well above the trust fund's long-term average growth of about 5 percent. ...

The state General Fund, which supports Medicaid, prisons and other non-education programs, grew by an even faster rate.

Tax collections, interest payments and other revenue for the General Fund totaled $1.45 billion from Oct. 1 through Aug. 31, an increase of $160.9 million, or 12.5 percent, compared to the same period a year earlier. ...

Interest payments on state deposits totaled $187.2 million from Oct. 1 through Aug. 31, an increase of $60.6 million, or 47.9 percent, compared to the same period a year earlier.

Oil and gas production taxes raised $131.2 million from Oct. 1 through Aug. 31, an increase of $34.6 million, or 35.8 percent, compared to the same period a year earlier. ...

The General Fund also enjoyed strong growth in the previous budget year, growing by 9.5 percent in the year that ended Sept. 30, compared to the previous year.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006
On this day:

Call it the "Starve the French" bill

From today's Birmingham News:
WASHINGTON - A proposed ban on slaughtering horses in the United States is scheduled for a vote Thursday, and Alabama's congressional delegation is divided between the arguments of animal welfare groups for the ban and the opposition of farm groups that fear a dangerous precedent.

Three plants in Texas and Illinois process horse meat for human consumption overseas, but the legislation pending in the U.S. House would make it a crime to transport or sell horses for that purpose.

Are Alabamians as poor as they say we are?

Last week, the Census Bureau reported that Alabama has the eighth highest poverty rate in the nation.

Regarding those numbers, the Mobile Press-Register asks the same question I asked four months ago (with a follow-up here):

Every time the U.S. Census Bureau issues a report on poverty, Alabama finds itself labeled one of the poorest states. It makes no difference to the Census Bureau that the state's economy is growing and its unemployment rate is well below the national average. It's irrelevant that some surveys show the state's per-capita income also is rising.

State officials can only shake their heads and mutter to themselves, "Thank God for Mississippi and Louisiana." Those two states are even poorer than Alabama, according to the Census Bureau.

But what if Alabama really isn't that poor? What if the Deep South states don't deserve their reputation as the Third World of the United States?

An intriguing study released in May by the Public Policy Institute of California provides evidence that the nation's most populous states, California and New York, have a greater percentage of people living in poverty than Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. ...

The Census Bureau does not adjust its poverty figures to reflect regional differences in housing costs, utility rates and other living expenses. Ms. Reed applied a cost-of-living analysis to the poverty figures and came up with a list that had Washington, D.C., New York and California in first, second and third place, respectively.

More on poverty

Nicholas Eberstadt had an excellent column in Sunday's Washington Post regarding the inaccuracy of federal poverty statistics.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006
On this day:

"The silver lining of high oil prices"

Exploration and discovery.

B'ham News: Few Hispanics registered to vote

From Friday's News:
While Hispanics are a growing part of Alabama's population, they make up less than 1 percent of the state's registered voters, state figures show.

According to the secretary of state's office, Alabama has nearly 2.7 million active registered voters. Nearly 2 million are white, according to state figures. More than 657,000 are black. The listed total of Hispanic voters is 7,187, about 0.3 percent.

Overall, Alabama has more than 4.5 million residents, more than 100,000 of them Hispanic, according to U.S. Census estimates. The Hispanic population has jumped more than a third since 2000.
A crisis? Evidence of discrimination and intimidation directed against Hispanics? Hardly.

While the state's listed number of registered Hispanic voters appears low, interviews with some county boards of registrars indicate the registration figure is higher because officials in some counties, such as populous Shelby and Mobile, have listed Hispanics in the "other" racial category. ...

Officials offered several explanations for the state's low number of Hispanic voters. One reason is that it takes time for any new arrivals, particularly with another language and culture, to become politically active and vote. But to be a voter, one must be a U.S. citizen, and many Alabama Hispanics are not. ...

Ann Moore, a member of the Franklin board of registrars, said there was a primary reason for the low figure: "Because they are here illegally and they know if they try to push anything, they're going to be sent back."

The News wastes considerable space on this story, but still fails to ask two questions that may have made it newsworthy: Of Alabama's Hispanic citizens, what percentage is registered to vote? How does that number compare to the numbers of whites and blacks who are registered to vote? Since the News doesn't provide answers to those questions, I'm left wondering what the purpose of this story was. The tone is one of "'s a problem!" but the only "problem" I can see is that non-citizens aren't allowed to vote. That's a problem I can live with.