Thursday, July 11, 2013

Student Loan Debate: What Most People Overlooked

Politics can sometimes become Bizarro world. Short term political points can be scored by one party when the other fails to live up to its rhetoric.

Republicans have Democrats on a spit over student loan rate hikes.  The interest rate doubled on July 1, despite passage of a bill in the GOP controlled House of Representatives.  A bipartisan bill in the Senate failed to pass, leaving the higher rate in place.

The GOP supports the Obama proposed plan of tying rates to the rate of 10 year Treasury notes, which will likely increase gradually over time.  Senate Democrats oppose this measure. So they went up immediately instead of later.

Hyper reactions over the rate hike drowned out those who claim that the hike will have little impact. 

Jordan Gonzalez in American Spectator argues that "the monster doesn't have teeth or talons."  He cites economists who say the increased rate will add $21 per month to the payment. 

Economists also say that the expansion of easy credit has put student solvency in jeopardy while giving colleges no incentive to restrict spending and hold tuition down.  It has created a classic price rising higher than value bubble that threatens those holding degrees that promise lower incomes.

But if you work in the bloated public sector, fear not.  You may get to keep the same old low rates.

Forbes reports that the rates will not double for many federal employees and congressional staff.  Lawmakers still labor under the delusion that federal employees make scanty livings while private sector earners live it up.  In fact a hefty percentage of federal employees take home over six figures.

Beyond that, as the Forbes writer argues, government salaries should be low.  Employees have job security unknown in the private sector.  Also, the public sector role ought to be limited.  Government does too much as it is.  And should our best and brightest be in the world of innovation and production? 

The politics of it all may be lost on some.  CampusReform reporter Kat Timpf located graduates of George Washington University who opposed what they thought were GOP attempts to raise the rates while also advocating for Republican extermination.

A sure sign that for some, investment in college education is money unwisely wasted!

Let's Hear It For Charleston, West Virginia

A few months ago, Business Insider rated Charleston as the saddest place to live.  It displaced last year's "winner" of Huntington, which is now number 2.

Charleston and Huntington topping this list likely indicates some kind of cultural skewing.  Objective judgments of "happiness" are nearly impossible because of the variation in culture from place to place.  People making up these tests can't understand the places they study.  They cannot account for variables.  Using criteria made up hundreds or thousands of miles away proves nothing.

So let's talk about what makes Charleston one of the most awesome cities.

Park Land: How many cities can boast of having two massive parks within easy driving distance?  Coonskin Park to the north and Kanawha State Forest to the south provide residents with easy access to wilderness style leisure. 

Architecture: The State Capitol building is an architectural masterpiece.  Soaring marble chambers, the tallest capitol dome in the United States, brightly colored legislative chambers, and complete access to any office. 

Getting Around:  Four major highways converge in Charleston, giving it excellent access by road to other parts of the state and metropolitan areas in other states.  Within the city, parallel four lane roads along the river speed traffic around and through town.  Kanawha Boulevard, a WPA project from the 1930s, runs past some of the more beautiful old neighborhoods in town.  The trees lining the thoroughfare accentuate the beauty of the river.  It's a beautiful urban drive

The River:  The Kanawha River flows serenely through town, narrow enough to allow bridges of a beautiful structure, broad enough for recreation.  It has carved out a valley of aesthetically pleasing proportions, particularly on the east side of town.

Education:  Charleston's metro area is home to West Virginia State University (a historically black college), University of Charleston, and West Virginia University Institute of Technology, as well as Marshall University Graduate College.  West Virginia University has also established a branch of their medical school in town.

Charleston is striving to transition from an industrial to a digital economy while retaining the Southern charm that it has carried since its 1790s birth.  It has attracted a handful of Hollywood types because of its pace of life and dearth of celebrity seeking media. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Is the NSA America's Stasi?

A protester "defaced" the U. S. Embassy in Berlin last night with a debate provoking message. 

The protester/artist/rabblerouser Kit Dotcom used a projector to put an image of his face on the side of the building under the words "United Stasi of America." 

Invoking the word "Stasi" brings almost as sharp of a response from Germans as "Nazi."  Some may mistakenly assume that the East German secret police force was simply a continuation of the Gestapo under a new regime.  Far from it.

The Gestapo was the political police unit within the Reich Security Main Office, or RSHA in short.  It had a relatively small number of thugs compared to the later Communist states in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.  The Gestapo's reach remained limited due to this shortage (likely brought on by the needs of the war more than Nazi scruples) although those in its grasp felt the full measure of cruel tortures.

The Stasi, on the other hand, built an enormous agency of counterintelligence and surveillance.  Likely no East German family escaped the reach of the Stasi. Those who did not inform were often informed upon.  East Germany preached that good citizens turned in their suspicious neighbors for any number of offenses.  Each report warranted an investigation carefully filed in enormous warehouses. After the fall of the East German government and the opening of the files, it became a point of pride to have been investigated, of shame to have informed.  British historian and journalist Timothy Garton Ash wrote a book investigating the informants who helped to amass the file created on himself.

Has the NSA reached Stasi levels of interference and snooping?  Certainly their technological power to gather and hold information outstrips the clumsy files filled with cards used by the East Germans.  That being said, East Germans had no avenue to protest the widespread collection of personal information, no functional constitution protecting their rights, no legal or democratic alternative to the dictators in control.

Critics of the NSA point to the potential abuse of power.  If officials in general did not have track records going back to Nixon, Franklin Roosevelt, and beyond, of misusing such information, Americans might have trust in it.  Officials have misused information, wrongfully harming innocent individuals as a result.

Around the world, many now realize that the NSA snoops on them as well.  Few can argue that this surveillance has foiled terrorists in many nations, but it still raises questions of sovereign rights and power. 

Like other agencies who have gradually crept more into citizens' private lives, the problems remain in the potential more than the actual.  What happens if a less scrupulous administration comes to power? What if they do use the full range of information possibilities for political purposes instead of national defense.  The Internal Revenue Service back to FDR has been used politically, why not also information gathered by the NSA?

Constitutional safeguards exist because the Founders did not trust future governments to respect rights.  It would be wise to restrain all government agencies in their search for more information and weigh carefully what is done in the name of national security.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Gangs Are Associations of Weakness

Initial reports of the arrest of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez included hints of a dark shadow life.  Certain tattoos on his body may or may not advertise gang affiliations.  The 23 year old Hernandez denies them.  Gang unit investigators have yet to confirm it one way or the other.

If true, it brings a new angle to the disturbing world of gangs.  They are supposed to be creatures of poverty.  Those who do make money in them do so as criminals, making it hard to jump to a legitimate lifestyle.  Even rappers feel the need to maintain some connection "to the streets" to keep up their "street cred", whatever that is worth to those gunned down as a consequence.

Hernandez, again, if he does have affiliations, would be a young man, educated in a highly respected university, who made his money completely free of the gang life.  Yet he still may have found living in that style preferable to finding new friends, new hangouts, and a responsible path forward.

Gang violence increased over a recent  ten year period, but decreased slightly between 2008 and 2010, according to the FBI

Cultural perceptions of gangs, from Italian organized crime "families" to the street variety, range from portraying them as scum of the earth to representatives of tarnished virtue.  Almost nowhere, however, does one see the people involved as inherently weak.

It's hard to blame some kids for getting involved.  Living in dangerous neighborhoods, some kids might seek out a gang to make them feel secure.  If it cannot protect them at all times, it can at least avenge any insult or assault.  But joining for that reason is a decision borne of weakness, even if one cannot blame the kid for being vulnerable in the first place. 

Most gang violence occurs when a large group from gang A finds a smaller group or an individual of a rival gang and attacks.  Sneak, or surprise attacks are common.  The tactic is to stack the odds to reduce the possibility of harm to the attackers.  These reflect modes of fighting common in guerrilla warfare, especially when the number of proven and capable fighters is limited.  Stonewall Jackson, with his usually smaller army, preferred to bring his entire force to bear on an isolated extension of his opponents' lines. 

But these tactics are a reflection of weakness, regardless of the violent results.

Criminal enterprises also confess a lack of strength.  Gangs gain revenues by combining entrepreneurial skill with enough force to create a limited geographical monopoly.

Again, this is weakness.  They fear the risk and reward process of the truly competitive free market.  Being a criminal, rather than a businessman, enables one to bring force to bear.  Being a better businessman is hard.  Killing your competition or threatening their families is relatively easier. 

But it is still, from a business standpoint, a tactic of weakness, a confession that the individual could not "hack it" in the "real world."

Purveyors of popular culture could strike a blow against violence by making sure that movies about gangs and their lifestyle teach that those involved are essentially weak individuals.  Martin Scorcese's Good Fellas portrayed gangsters as anything but good, which gives it a positive message.  How many other films (or for that matter, Bio channel documentaries) about the Mafia or street gangs even include that element? 

If guilty of his crimes, Aaron Hernandez was a thoroughly weak individual regardless of whether or not he was in a gang.  What insult to his soul was worth one or more lives?  What good did it do him to commit one of the most stupidly executed murders in some time?  Despite his physical strength and his football field prowess, Aaron Hernandez was likely a very weak man. 

Just the kind of person perfect for a gang.

Monday, July 8, 2013

West Virginia University Expanding Its Scope

Last week, West Virginia University looked to expand its footprint in widely different ways.

On July 2, Metro News reported that WVU hospitals planned to purchase Potomac Valley Hospital in Keyser from its owner Hal McBee.  It would join several other regional hospitals that recently joined the WVU Hospital system, including facilities in Martinsburg and Charles Town.  Since patients with serious conditions often get referrals from Keyser to Morgantown, this is expected to streamline the process.

It may also cut the number of patient referrals from Keyser to facilities in Cumberland.

West Virginia University also expressed an interest in buying a minority share of the Green Bank Observatory, according to a July 1 press release by Representative Nick Rahall.

The National Science Foundation communicated its possible termination of support over the next five years from the state of the art radio telescope.  While no final decision has been made, the university expressed interest in supporting its operations.

Green Bank's telescope monitors radio wave sources from across the universe.  It can discern valuable information about stars, galaxies, and other energy sources.  Should a transmission from another civilization reach earth, Green Bank, or a similar facility could receive and analyze it.

State institutions taking the place of federal in scientific research and technological advances is a welcome development.  More exciting course and work study opportunities help to make the school even more attractive to possible candidates for study.  It also improves the academic reputation without shutting the doors on many state students.

As the university expands into new fields, however, it must remain mindful to improve its standing as a steward of taxpayer money.  Administrative spending cuts must become the primary option when the university needs more revenue.  At some point the student loan bubble will explode and this will stop serving as academia's cash cow.

All the same, WVU's potential involvement in the Green Bank Observatory is exciting news.  And expanding into rural health should help communities and aspiring medical students alike.