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28.7.05

CAFTA votes more political gain than loss for Louisiana lawmakers

The Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement (better known as CAFTA) has now passed both houses of Congress. Divisions within the state mirrored the close (Senate) and closer (House) vote on the measure.

There is little question that CAFTA will benefit the country as a whole, but the fact is it does remove protections from, in particular, sugar farmers. This was the main impetus behind the nays of three state Republicans when it came to the vote.

It’s no accident that the two Republicans (Reps. Bobby Jindal and Charles Boustany) who voted against it have somewhat sizable sugar interests in their districts. Nor is it unexpected that Sen. David Vitter would cast a vote against it, given the narrow margin with which he won (even if in the primary) his seat – sugar interest votes do count.

At the same time, it is unfortunate that these Republicans had to abandon their principles concerning minimal intervention of government into the economy in order to vote on behalf of the individual interests of a portion of their constituencies. In reality, little in the way of sugar production will be lost and, frankly, if some Louisiana sugar producers go out of business as a result of this agreement, then this means their talents and resources would be better served by going into other lines of business.

Nonetheless, from a political standpoint, the interests of all sitting federal legislators were served by their actions on these votes. Jindal and Boustany will lose hardly any votes for their vote – even if on the losing side, their free trade impulses won – and Democrat Rep. Charlie Melancon, the most vulnerable Democrat in the entire House next year (because Pres. Bush outdistanced him by 8 percent within the district, more than any other successful House Democrat, in 2004) only solidified his credentials to a good portion of his constituents.

Vitter’s vote against it last month (joining Sen. Mary Landrieu) statewide will win him more votes than it loses him, but one must question his zeal in complaining about the defeat. More behavior like that would lead objective observers to question whether he really is as reliably conservative economically as he always has seemed to be, keeping in mind that protectionism, championed by some who call themselves conservative, is not really a conservative position.

27.7.05

Now it's Hightower allies distressed at him over hotel

Shreveport Mayor Keith Hightower has enough problems with conservative critics of building a publicly-owned convention center hotel. Critics from the left now are going to make his political life – and future – more miserable.

With two Republican council members (Thomas Carmody, Mike Gibson) often joined by a third (Jeff Hogan) consistently voting on measures to defeat, or at least reduce the taxpayers’ exposure to the venture which shows every sign of costing the city more than the benefits it brings, Hightower needs all of the support he can get from the four Democrats on the council. But two of them, Calvin Lester and Theron Jackson, now publicly question the project over the “Fair Share” issue.

With his efforts to keep unionized employees from taking excess taxpayer dollars, another commendable set of actions by Hightower during his mayoral reign has been his resistance to instituting a quota system for city contract bid-winning. Legally, this cannot be mandated by law but another method by which this may be put into place is on a contract-by-contract basis, where general contractors get asked to put in such quotas in their subcontracting each time the city negotiates such a contract. Then they must uphold the provisions or face civil penalties.

Hightower well could do this, although surely he realizes that to do so would cause contractors to increase bid prices because the contract would mandate that less-efficient producers be involved (as the typical reason why minority-owned firms are underrepresented in contracts awarded is their quality is not as high as the wining sub-contractor’s – obviously true among all kinds of losing firms – but especially because they are disproportionately smaller which means they are less able to bring economies of scale to bear that would lower their prices). It would also admit that there is some institutional bias against minority-owned firms in Shreveport’s contracting process which no doubt Hightower, and, frankly, any objective observer familiar with the process, does not see present.

Part of these objections proceeds from future mayoral politics. Both Lester and Jackson have an eye of the mayor’s office in 2006 and 2005 second quarter statistics show Shreveport now has a black population comprising 47.14 percent of the electorate while the white portion of the electorate has dipped below 50 percent (49.48). These black politicians, with the hotel going up around them throughout the campaign season, can use this as a campaign issue to mobilize the black vote.

At the same time, publicizing this issue as a shortcoming about Hightower’s tenure can only hurt him if he does run for the state Senate District 37 seat in 2007. He must win the lion’s share of the black vote, 22 percent of the district, in order to have a chance to win the office.

One aphorism of politics states that if you make people on both sides of an issue mad, then you must be doing some right. But given the bridges Hightower has burned with area conservatives and the desire of black liberals to take care of their own political futures, not enough people are going to see Hightower as doing “right,” at this rate, for him to have much of a political future.

26.7.05

Hightower takes correct stand against greedy labor interests

One issue in which Shreveport Mayor Keith Hightower has performed well is labor relations with city employees. His veto of an ordinance to recognize an employee union was perhaps his finest act as mayor.

On the whole, unions in the private sector hurt society because they are able to expropriate wealth from consumers through collective action that skews the labor marketplace. However, at least there is a countervailing force – market competition itself. When labor greed inflates too much, this makes the good or service they produce uncompetitive and, in the end, they price themselves out of a job because other producers with properly-priced labor costs can do the same job or better for cheaper. In essence, unions are parasitic whose supporter have enough audacity to advertise just how much wealth they expropriate from society and, in particular, non-unionized workers.

But in the public sector, where no competition exists in the provision of most government services, unionization is a disaster to the polity. Without market forces to intervene, it becomes a contest of sheer power where government disarms itself considerably by giving away bargaining power (by recognizing unions’ right to strike, for example), allowing more ability to unions to raid taxpayers’ pockets.

When one reads comments such as workers want “[t]o be treated fairly … [l]ike a human being,” the proper response to this situation is not to give them more power over taxpayers’ purses, but instead to remind them that if this is their perception, they have procedures by which to lodge complaints and, if that proves unsatisfactory, they are perfectly free to seek employment where in their minds they are “treated fairly” like a “human being.” A government job to hold in perpetuity is not a right.

The dirty secret, of course, is that a great many of these workers know they could never get paid as much and/or receive benefits as extensive for the amount of work they put in with their present city jobs. Knowing that, instead of calling upon their talents to explore other opportunities, they’d rather reach into somebody else’s pocket to better themselves.

Hightower needs to continue to hold the line here, and his past looking out for taxpayers on this issue, in sharp contrast to his penchant for building expensive things that drain taxpayer resources, is to be commended.

25.7.05

Independence Bowl perhaps a luxury not longer in reach

Slowly and, unless something happens soon, steadily it looks like the life is ebbing out of Shreveport’s Independence Bowl.

That would be a shame because some pretty good matchups have occurred. Several schools with national championships have played in it (Alabama, Army, Auburn, LSU, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas A&M), with perhaps the most prominent having been OU’s 1999 appearance. Not only does OU possess the most national championships in the modern era (since 1949), but the next year after dropping the game to Ole Miss 27-25 they won the national championship where the I-Bowl served as one end defining a 20-game win streak.

It also has some history on its side. It’s preparing to celebrate its 30th year, making it the tenth-oldest contest running among the holiday bowl games.

But the I-Bowl has some unenviable intractable realities to face. It is in the third-smallest metropolitan area to host a game. Worse, it is one of the few bowl games whose city of location does not have a NCAA Division I-A football-playing university in its metropolitan area which boosts local attendance and support. Only three others do not, and two of those (San Antonio and Jacksonville) are large metropolises. In fact, only the other such city, Mobile, is farther from a Division I-A program than is Shreveport (Ruston’s Louisiana Tech). But no host city is farther from a school in a major conference (there are considered to be the “BCS” six) than is Shreveport (Baton Rouge’s LSU).

Combine these with the fact that, of the 2005-06 bowl list, it is hard to argue that the only city considered to be less “resort-like” in terms of winter weather and attractions is Boise (where you can guarantee a big home crowd because, well, there’s not a whole lot else to do in Boise in the winter). This factor is crucial to get fans from the schools competing in the game to travel to it.

This has become reflected in the I-Bowl’s difficulties in finding a title sponsor and with getting two conferences to have tie-ins to send teams to the game (crucial especially if they are BCS conferences such as what the I-Bowl has now because fans of these schools are more likely to travel) and, if so, giving the I-Bowl their least worthy teams. A relatively unattractive winter resort area without much of a natural college football atmosphere means not much travel incentive or hometown turnout.

This impacts the most important aspect of the equation, the payout. Bowls are required to pay a certain amount of money to the competing teams (which then gets divvied up within their conferences). Lower attendance means fewer dollars, making the payout harder to meet, much less going above the minimum. Mediocre teams playing also reduce television ratings, discouraging sponsors and networks for paying more for rights to broadcast. It becomes a vicious cycle into which the I-Bowl regrettably has been sliding.

It has caused the I-Bowl to dip into its reserves to the point that they almost will be exhausted after this year unless a sponsor steps up at this late date (despite Shreveport taxpayers contributing $100,000 and Louisiana taxpayers forking over nearly $360,000 in tax dollars to fund the game – almost $1.4 million of state money goes to the two New Orleans-based bowl games). It may not matter now, with the Big 12 Conference becoming very hesitant to extend its contract past this 2005 game.

As a college football fan and sometimes I-Bowl attendee I consider this unfortunate, but understandable. Way too often we try to have non-essential things we can’t afford in this state, things perhaps affordable if attitudes changed to make the state one where greater economic wealth could be generated. I just hope a sponsor, which could pump in millions over the term of a contract, will step in. But don’t hold your breath – we’re still waiting on somebody, anybody, to buy the Superdome naming rights.

24.7.05

Recognizing "courage" where it exists

It’s not really the content of the column, nor the story in it, but rather the tone of John Hill’s piece that leaves one a little unnerved.

I don’t know what Fox McKeithen’s religious affiliation was, but from the Catholic perspective his situation fell into an area of ambivalence, where, depending upon several factors, either the decision to continue to live or to bring upon death are moral. This is, one the one hand, opposed to murder/suicide, the kind of death visited upon the protagonist in the film Million Dollar Baby, where she merely objected to having to live paralyzed and her death was engineered through lethal injection.

On the other hand, in either the movie protagonist’s or McKeithen’s case, neither were in a persistent vegetative state. Had they been in persistent vegetative states with bodies that would cease to stay alive without some care beyond nutrition and hydration, Catholic doctrine would suggest they should be kept alive. However, if it were a matter of them requiring any life support beyond nutrition and hydration, it would constitute a clear case where those entrusted with this person’s life could reasonably anticipate that they should allow the person’s soul to take its next step according to God’s plan: maintaining life or declining to death on their own.

With McKeithen’s case, a lot of contingencies existed. One could go into minutiae here, but to draw a very general, broad distinction, McKeithen chose to die where there are many who contribute less to society than he did and he potentially could have, and who have far fewer resources to draw upon to sustain their lives, who chose and continue to choose to this day to live.

So when one reads that McKeithen wanted to “die with dignity,” and that his “final legacy is to show us all how to face our own deaths”, quite unintentionally it comes across as a kind of endorsement of his action in all cases, that perhaps anybody who is paralyzed and on mechanical ventilation ought to opt for the same, in order to be “dignified” and courageously “face our own deaths.” Obviously, some do not choose death, a few famous, most not. As I have argued elsewhere, it would be unfortunate if a global attitude emerged to discourage people in this condition from wanting to live or, more perniciously, made others feel excused from an obligation to provide the extra assistance these people would need to stay alive in a dignified fashion.

Hopefully, the one thing that people do not get out of John Hill’s column is that the horrible incident showed “courage.” Facing one’s limitations and mortality in and of itself does not connote courage; it’s the response to recognizing those conditions that demonstrate it. When I think of the decision made by McKeithen and his family, “understandable,” “difficult,” “hard,” and “painful” all come to mind precisely because I see courage in these kinds of lives. And it’s important to be a purist when it comes to defining such a word this way in this situation because otherwise it can become debased very quickly. That is what is so insidious about Million Dollar Baby, where somehow the act of killing the protagonist becomes accepted by many as “courageous” (even “loving”) when in fact they erroneously make it a synonym of “convenient.”

In a world where too many deny there is right and wrong, where some wage a constant campaign to make gray the division between black and white, we must be vigilant to pay heed to and to recognize the true meaning of things in order to properly understand the moral implications that proceed from them.