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7.4.05

Committee slaps Odom's hand; he still wants to keep it in your pocket

Well, I can’t always be fully right, like I was in yesterday’s post about the post previous to that. Guess I’ll settle for being half-right regarding what the Legislature’s Agriculture Committees would do concerning Agriculture Secretary Bob Odom’s attempt to become czar of gasoline prices and affect a neat transfer of wealth from consumers to certain sellers of retail gasoline.

I thought there was no chance either committee would vote to deny Odom rulemaking power he asserted over enforcing the ridiculous law that says retail gas must have at least a 6 percent markup. Believe it or not, the Senate version actually rebelled, and even Odom stalwart Chairman Mike Smith went against his patron (only Butch Gautreaux chose not to rescind). By contrast, the chairman of the House version Francis Thompson, who with his brother is all about boondoggles to help his allies at the taxpayers’ expense, said his gang would have voted for it (not surprising since this committee has almost all Democrats on it). Thompson’s son, of course, works for Odom (isn’t it great how the Thompson family all sticks together in trying to run this state into the ground?).

The way it works now Gov. Kathleen Blanco has the chance to allow this to stand by not choosing to override the committee vote no later than 14 days from yesterday. But Odom won’t give up, essentially telling the governor to do something anatomically impossible and he’s going to go running to Attorney General Charles Foti to get confirmed that he has the authority to do this. Even though Foti’s own subordinate testified at this hearing that Odom had exceeded his authority, so don’t expect that gambit to work.

Just when I’ve thought I’ve seen it all in defining arrogance, Odom manages to bring it to new heights. He uses the emergency rule procedure in state law, coupled with a change in another law introduced last year, to create this whole new, unprecedented power for his office. And then he fights his own committee, the governor, the attorney general, and common sense and logic to keep it.

Odom is just too perfect as a caricature of a good old boy politician. If he didn’t really exist, this blog would have to invent something like him for entertainment value.

6.4.05

Caddo schools paint stripes on a horse, call it a zebra

That was quick; as I wrote yesterday’s post, the Caddo Parish School Board revised its admissions policy (at least temporarily) for magnet schools. It did exactly the right thing for Middle Magnet – got rid race or anything else entirely for admissions after things like the sibling exception.

But it stumbled when it came to the magnet elementary schools. In order to maintain “diversity,” rather than go with the Middle Magnet standard (which it does for half of the applicants), now it is reserving half of the places for students that meet a minimum cutoff that historically has been well below the average white student score for successful applicants, who would ordinarily be attending a “high poverty” school.

I’d like to know what qualifies under the guidelines as a “high poverty” school, but it’s almost certain that most of these children are going to be black. Using reduced and free school lunch programs as a surrogate measure for poverty based upon qualifying students in a school for the school to receive Title I funding (because Title I status automatically qualifies for the lunch program), blacks (who comprise five-eighths of total enrollment) comprise about five-sixths of children in poverty in Caddo public schools.

Caddo Superintendent Ollie Tyler argues that the non-merit standard half would be split about half white and black. But that seems unlikely unless Tyler creates a very broad definition of what is a “high poverty” school. Let’s say she goes a somewhat below the Caddo average of around 58 percent in the free/reduced lunch program and puts it at 50 percent. Of schools that have at least 50 percent of their students in the program, only about a fifth of their students are white, meaning for Tyler’s math to work at this level four times the number of white students would have to qualify among white students than qualifying blacks among blacks.

Is it true that four-fifths of those hitting the minimum score among all of these schools are white? If not, then blacks will be disproportionately assisted by these rules and it still makes it a quota system – a diluted one, but still one designed to favor applicants of one race.

But let’s say Tyler is right about this. The new rules still discriminate, but now on the basis of income and geography, and thereby indirectly by race. The fact is, a white student from wealthier east Shreveport can score higher on the entrance exam than a black student from north Shreveport yet the latter will take the former’s spot in a magnet elementary school because the former goes to the wrong school where there aren’t enough poor students.

And how can an appeal to “diversity” justify this? Let’s say the percentage of “disadvantaged” children in a typical magnet elementary school goes from 10 to 20 percent as a result of this. Is this doubling from this base really going to “broaden” a non-disadvantaged student’s horizon beyond what it already was?

You can paint stripes on a horse and call it a zebra, which is what the Caddo schools have done in reference to their quota-based admissions policy to magnet elementary schools. Sounds like something that may have to be taken to court, unless the “permanent” rules that should come out in the near future correct this inequity.

5.4.05

Race rather than merit part of Caddo's education problems

Yesterday I gently rebuked John Hill. As an opinion writer, he draws upon a vast knowledge and makes logical arguments so I respect him even when we disagree. On the other hand, some opinion writers display rather an incomplete grasp of the issues about which they write but, worse, their argumentation is specious if not downright illogical.

That’s what we have here with Gregory Hudson’s lame attempt to criticize the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that forces a lower court to consider that a race-conscious admissions policy by Caddo Middle Magnet School, and thus any such policy for any school admission, is unconstitutional.

Let’s begin with this model of discombobulation:

While most people agree every child deserves the very best education possible, it shouldn't be achieved at the expense of another child. That I agree with. However, that is not truly the case. Just because a black child is admitted into one of the "desired" magnet programs, that doesn't mean a white child's place is being taken. I say "desired" programs because there have been career-related magnet programs established at Booker T. Washington, Green Oaks and Fair Park and there has been virtually no white interest.

This is convoluted, but it appears he’s trying to advance the argument that because not many whites take places in magnet programs at majority-black schools they somehow are voluntarily “forfeiting” their chances at a magnet program and therefore, even if higher scorers than blacks wanting admission into majority-white magnet programs/schools, they should be denied entrance to those program/schools in favor of the blacks.

If so, notice the lack of credibility in this by comparing to job-seeking in the private sector. Assume that there are two employers, but one is considered to offer a much more desirable job and workplace to prospective applicants. Just because the worse of the two offers a white applicant a job doesn’t mean this applicant automatically loses the opportunity to get a job with the better employer, assuming both are basing hiring criteria solely on merit and this applicant is assessed to be a high-quality candidate. If you are truly admitting by merit, his argument makes no sense.

But that’s because “merit” isn’t a part of Hudson’s plan:

Part of the problem with the public perception of this issue is that somehow black students who are enrolled at schools such as Caddo Middle Magnet, Eden Gardens, South Highlands and Caddo Magnet High do not deserve to be there …. Contrary to the accepted myth concerning affirmative action-type policies, black children are just as qualified to be admitted as any other student.

Notice how he tries to shift the argument towards “desert” and “qualification” rather than what the court sees as the constitutional imperative, merit. In his view, you get admitted because you meet some kind of minimum standard, not because you rank high enough relative to all other applicants. This is a standard trick of defenders of affirmative action in how it has evolved: redefine “merit” to mean it specifies an arbitrary level, and then if too many applicants are there for too few spots, use other criteria such a race to decide who gets in, rather than acknowledging the competitive aspect that the X most meritorious applicants take the X number of spots regardless of other factors.

Of course, the admissions policy in Caddo Parish to the magnet schools is more complicated than this, but also is more blatantly discriminatory by race. Before any decisions are made on the basis of merit, other non-merit factors shape the eligible pool. But once those are out of the way, the school district very openly creates a double standard where whites for admission are forced to get higher scores just because they’re white with no mitigating circumstances whatsoever to justify this. (And the Court ruled even if Caddo Middle Magnet’s policy still were under the consent decree, the discrimination was so blatant it still would have found it unconstitutional.)

None of this makes a difference to Hudson who in fact is bothered that anybody would see a problem with this at all:

Some people recklessly suggest that for every black child admitted to these schools, some deserving white child has to look elsewhere for education. That is not true, but that is part of the perception problem perpetuated by some.

Again, he tries to push forward this “desert” standard rather than the appropriate concept of merit. And while a turned-away applicant can go to another school, the simple fact is, on the basis of merit, this rejected white applicant had a greater moral claim on the slot but was refused it only because of his race. That is not perception nor reckless; that is fact and perceptive.

Trying to salvage the argument, Hudson presents a pair of pieces of evidence to show that, miraculously, no anti-white discrimination occurs by this admissions policy:

The school at the center of the court challenge is 82 percent white in a school district that is more than 60 percent black. Do those numbers really suggest discrimination against white applicants?

This is specious: if there were no double standard, the proportion might be 90 percent white. (The Court calculated a 10 percent bias in favor of nonwhites.) And,

Contrary to the accepted myth concerning affirmative action-type policies, black children are just as qualified to be admitted as any other student. If they or any other student can't cut the curriculum they will not pass.

Of all the illogic in this column, this may be the prime example (again note a third attempt to equate “qualify” to “merit”). The point of a merit-based, rank-ordered admissions program is to create the highest possible quality pool of students because then, in the aggregate, they have the best chance of passing the curriculum. It’s a waste of resources to admit less-capable students who therefore have a greater likelihood of flunking out and thereby perform a disservice to the rejected applicants who would have passed. It squanders the educational function’s full potential, deprives worthy students of the opportunity, and sets up unworthy students to fail where they would have succeeded if lesser demands were placed upon them. Rather than demonstrating the argument, it reveals the bankruptcy of it.

While Hudson’s Swiss cheese argument replicates received wisdom among the fuzzy-thinking, disingenuous defenders of policies such as the one in controversy, at least the justices of the Fifth Circuit saw clearly through that. And we wonder why Louisiana's educational system has ranked so dismally? With Caddo Parish 35th in Louisiana?

4.4.05

Minimal government means maximal protection of life

My friend John Hill is a bit upset at state Sen. James David Cain for his introduction of SB 40. I think he’s creating a tempest in a teapot.

Essentially, the bill makes the denial of food and water for those in a terminal and irreversible state medically unable to procure it themselves and to communicate impermissible aside from medical exceptions or the explicit wish of the person involved that no such sustenance be given when that person is in that condition. Or, as its text neatly describes:

It is the policy of the legislature that human life, including those individuals with disabilities, is sacred and should be afforded dignity from birth to natural death. When a person's condition is terminal and irreversible, any ambiguity should be interpreted to err on the side of life.

John argues that this bill exemplifies government meddling as part of “one of the new battle cries from some in the religious right” which “will be, in effect, injecting politics into the a patients' treatment rooms, which should be as private a sanctuary as one's own home.” But state government already does that – extensively, which this law tweaks.

If government is going to “inject politics,” a great place to do it is when the state as the power of life and death over an individual as in this case. And let us never forget that “politics” itself is what governments choose to do or not to do, so when government chooses to respect life in a world where it is so disrespected (with abortion on demand being the lead indicator), that can only be positive.

To make this intervention even more effective, government can promote efforts to execute living wills such as the one John describes. Already, at the federal level states are required to make available, in the provision of certain services, voter registration cards, so why couldn’t Louisiana also have available this form at these venues?

Minimal government always is preferable (which makes humorous, if not hypocritical, objections to this bill when far greater expansions of government into areas it has no constitutional authority occur with nary a peep) and it the true purpose of its existence. Thus when involved are the least of us who cannot speak for themselves, who have not stated a different intent previously, government’s obligation is to protect one of the things the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence identifies as integral to man and supremely obligating government to provide – life.

3.4.05

Odom reaches into your pocket; says he's putting money there

Can Agriculture Secretary Bob Odom make things any worse for himself? He’s wanting to take more tax dollars from Louisianans to build superfluous sugar mills while simultaneously injuring employees and increasing the state’s risk. Now, as if gas prices aren’t high enough, he’s looking to push them even higher.

While minimum markup laws sound good in theory by preventing monopsonistic forces from controlling a marketplace, this politically-inspired belief is way short on facts showing this actually happens. In reality, competition in retail gasoline (and practically every other business) is so open with low barriers to entry that the real impact of these laws is to aid those in the business, not consumers.

Which makes Odom’s support of such a law unsurprising. His political style is to operate in the shadows of the public view, in areas that are of vital concern to special interests but (normally) uninteresting or obscure to the public even if the activities have a direct impact on it. The building of sugar mills in Lacassine and Bunkie are perfect examples. Only a few sugar processors benefit from these deals directly, the state operates them a below market cost to put private mills into distress, and when competition has been reduced, ownership passes to the processors who are currently in league with Odom.

Concerning retail gas, Odom’s tactic is similar, if not more insidious. With this, he takes advantage of emergency rule-making powers that receive little publicity. Here, Odom is trying to help out this sector that he partially oversees. The payoff? Campaign contributions that gives Odom nearly half a million dollars in his campaign fund (most, tellingly, invested in noncurrent assets) – and this is after he spent nearly $150,000 in a nonelection year of 2004. As long as he keeps these interests happy on a regular basis, he can get access to their money.

At the same time, he needs to fool the people every four years into reelecting him, and with all of the bad publicity about the mills, this move he tries to sell as fighting for the public welfare:

Presently there exists within this state advertisements, offers to sell and sales at retail of motor vehicle fuels below cost, which advertisements, offers and sales are unlawful. The advertisements, offers to sell and sales at retail of motor vehicle fuels below cost tend to reduce competition through the elimination of competitors, thereby threatening the free and fair distribution and sale, and thus the supply, of motor vehicle fuels. Maintenance of competition in the sale of motor vehicle fuels is critical to the free and fair distribution and sale of motor vehicle fuels throughout the state. The reduction of competition and harm to the free and fair distribution and sale of motor vehicle fuels constitutes imminent peril to the public welfare.

Obviously, there is no proof whatsoever that any of this is happening. Only Odom would have the audacity to help others expropriate wealth from the public and claim it’s all in the interests of that very same public. And, once again, this is a classic backdoor move, trying to use the state’s emergency statutes, behind the scenes.

Of course, this situation is of the state’s own making. An operator like Odom succeeds only when we let him. First, we put him into office – again and again. Then there’s our other elected officials. His authority to claim power enforce this law is at the sufferance of the legislature; his 90-day review period before permanency of these regulations will occur will be up Apr. 20 and both chambers’ Agriculture Committees have first crack at refusing to countenance this. Given that Odom has legislators like committee chairmen state Sen. Mike Smith in his back pocket and mini-Odom (lake-building version) Rep. Francis Thompson, don’t count on anything happening here.

But at least state Sen. Robert Barham sounded the alarm, and so the odds are slightly better the legislature as a whole might veto the move with a concurrent resolution. Still, with so many good old boys in the Legislature that’s by no means a given. Better yet would be to get rid of the bad law which given its populist appeal may be too unlikely.

In the end, it may all be up to Gov. Kathleen Blanco. The law gives her the power to alter new rules 30 days after their permanency, or May 20, by executive order. If she’s serious about taking charge not only of her party but the state, if she’s the last option, it’s a move she has to make.