The SOTU: Steph Responds (Part I)

Okay — now that I have some time, I’m going to go through the published text of President Obama’s State of the Union Address and respond wherever I feel moved to respond. Get some popcorn and settle in.

It’s no secret that those of us here tonight have had our differences over the last two years. The debates have been contentious; we have fought fiercely for our beliefs. And that’s a good thing. That’s what a robust democracy demands. That’s what helps set us apart as a nation.

But there’s a reason the tragedy in Tucson gave us pause. Amid all the noise and passions and rancor of our public debate, Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater – something more consequential than party or political preference.

We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled.

You know, I honestly want to believe this sentiment, Mr. President. I really do. But I learned an entirely different lesson in the wake of the Tucson massacre. I learned that many people who seem perfectly decent – people with whom I’ve had countless pleasant conversations over the past few years – secretly believe that I’m a knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing, violent, racist idiot. That didn’t put me in the mood to be cooperative, nor did it convince me that “we all just want the same things.”

We are poised for progress. Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again.

Yet housing prices remain in the toilet, wages are stagnant, and the unemployment rate is still above 9%. Something’s not computing here. If you can explain this to me, please do.

But we have never measured progress by these yardsticks alone. We measure progress by the success of our people. By the jobs they can find and the quality of life those jobs offer. By the prospects of a small business owner who dreams of turning a good idea into a thriving enterprise. By the opportunities for a better life that we pass on to our children.

That’s the project the American people want us to work on. Together.

We did that in December. Thanks to the tax cuts we passed, Americans’ paychecks are a little bigger today.

Wait — I’m confused. Are you referring to the extension of the Bush tax cuts? First of all, that was not a tax cut; tax rates were maintained, not reduced. Secondly, if I recall correctly, you didn’t agree to sign that tax cut extension into law until we agreed to extend unemployment benefits. Yet now you’re going to take credit for something that was our idea?

Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer.

That solar research facility is run by an American company — Applied Materials. It is true that certain cities and regions in China offer subsidies for green energy, but Applied Materials also elected to set up shop in China because China is a huge market and a great source for cheap engineers.

Moreover, as my co-author pointed out in a previous post, China may be building “green” energy facilities, but that doesn’t mean the Chinese are using those facilities. Why are we holding them up as an example to follow?

Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation. But because it’s not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout history our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need. That’s what planted the seeds for the Internet. That’s what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS.

As the sibling of a scientist, I certainly acknowledge the role of government in funding research. But has that facilitated innovation or slowed it down? Why, for example, is our space program frozen at the shuttle stage? Why have we stopped going to the moon? And why did it take two tries to get the Hubble telescope to focus correctly? Before we “invest” in your favorite industries, I think questions like these need to be answered.

In a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

This sounds great, but where’s the money coming from?

At the California Institute of Technology, they’re developing a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars. At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, they’re using supercomputers to get a lot more power out of our nuclear facilities. With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

We need to get behind this innovation. And to help pay for it, I’m asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they’re doing just fine on their own. So instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s.

Ah. I see the plan now. There’s just one problem, though: the supposed “subsidies” we are giving to oil and gas are, in many cases, not industry specific. The provision that allows oil and gas corporations to defer taxes on income earned abroad, for example, is a provision available to all multinational companies based in the U.S. On the other hand, “green” energy is already getting a lot of targeted government cash. Take a look at the subsidies that are funneled into the ethanol industry, for instance. Ethanol was supposed to be a great alternative biofuel. It has failed to deliver, however, so why not make the cut there? Or are you too afraid to piss off corn farmers in Iowa?

Think about it. Over the next ten years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school degree. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to 9th in the proportion of young people with a college degree. And so the question is whether all of us — as citizens, and as parents — are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.

That responsibility begins not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities. It’s family that first instills the love of learning in a child. Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done. We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair; that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline.

It seems rather insulting for you to start your education spiel with a lecture to parents about their responsibilities, Mr. President. I think most parents take their children’s education very seriously indeed. That’s why urban charter schools have to turn away thousands of desperate families every year.

Our schools share this responsibility. When a child walks into a classroom, it should be a place of high expectations and high performance. But too many schools don’t meet this test. That’s why instead of just pouring money into a system that’s not working, we launched a competition called Race to the Top.

Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation.

If that’s true, that’s very sad. As others have pointed out, the few billion dollars we’ve poured into Race to the Top is a drop in the bucket compared to the funding our schools get from the individual states. And, unfortunately, at the state level, teachers unions still have a lot of sway.

You see, we know what’s possible for our children when reform isn’t just a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals; school boards and communities.

Take a school like Bruce Randolph in Denver. Three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado; located on turf between two rival gangs. But last May, 97% of the seniors received their diploma. Most will be the first in their family to go to college. And after the first year of the school’s transformation, the principal who made it possible wiped away tears when a student said “Thank you, Mrs. Waters, for showing… that we are smart and we can make it.”

Apparently, this miracle came about when Mrs. Waters told the teachers unions to sit on this and rotate. Why omit that fact, Mr. President?

Let’s also remember that after parents, the biggest impact on a child’s success comes from the man or woman at the front of the classroom. In South Korea, teachers are known as “nation builders.” Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect. We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones. And over the next ten years, with so many Baby Boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

I agree 100% with these statements — but do you have any concrete policy ideas? I do. For example, why don’t we end tenure, radically restructure our ed schools so that they focus on content rather than pedagogy, and establish differential pay for math and science teachers? If you’re willing to take on the teachers unions on these issues, I’ll stand behind you.

If we take these steps — if we raise expectations for every child, and give them the best possible chance at an education, from the day they’re born until the last job they take — we will reach the goal I set two years ago: by the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

But will they actually know anything by the time they get their degrees? Standards are creeping downward at our institutions of higher learning as well. In college, kids can learn how to critique television shows from a Marxist perspective, but can they get solid academic instruction that will properly prepare them for today’s global marketplace? Recent news suggests not.

One last point about education. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet live every day with the threat of deportation. Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense.

Now, I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration. I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows. I know that debate will be difficult and take time. But tonight, let’s agree to make that effort. And let’s stop expelling talented, responsible young people who can staff our research labs, start new businesses, and further enrich this nation.

I actually agree that those individuals who come to the U.S. on legal student visas should be fast-tracked through the citizenship process — especially those who study science, math, and engineering. I don’t believe, however, that we should be rewarding open violations of our laws. It’s terribly sad that many young people must be burdened with the consequences of their parents’ decisions, but if you announce to the world that we as a country will educate the children of undocumented aliens with no questions asked, you will almost surely exacerbate what is already a crisis situation at our southern border. That’s the reality.

Our infrastructure used to be the best — but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater internet access than we do. Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports. Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation’s infrastructure, they gave us a “D.”

Over the last two years, we have begun rebuilding for the 21st century, a project that has meant thousands of good jobs for the hard-hit construction industry. Tonight, I’m proposing that we redouble these efforts.

We will put more Americans to work repairing crumbling roads and bridges. We will make sure this is fully paid for, attract private investment, and pick projects based on what’s best for the economy, not politicians.

Really? Can you assure me, Mr. President, that infrastructure projects will not be awarded to your union buddies? Personally, I doubt your promises, especially when you propose projects like the following:

Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail, which could allow you go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying – without the pat-down. As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway.

We Americans have grown accustomed to the flexibility that a car provides — and for longer trips, we generally prefer planes. Amtrak has been propped up by the government for years now because of its piddly transportation market share. High speed rail would have to increase passenger miles by train by a factor of 100 to compete with air travel. Is that really likely? Or is this just another boondoggle designed to put money in your cronies’ pockets?

(Hat tip to Glenn Reynolds)

To be continued tomorrow…

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In science, Virginia’s students are better than average…

… but they still suck. This is according to the results of the 2009 NAEP. Only 46% of Virginia’s fourth graders (and fewer eighth graders) were found to be “proficient” in science. This is awesome compared to the national average of 32%, but still — we have a lot of work to do. And I think we should start by attracting professional scientists to our schools through differential pay. If you have a degree in science and want to teach, we’ll give you some hefty bonuses. We may even set up some fast-track programs to get you the other state credentials you need.

Real Snow!

SABR Matt’s at the AMS conference this week, so obviously he was unable to post his traditional snow forecast for the storm that hit the East Coast last night. Too bad, because my area finally got some genuine accumulation (3-4 inches in my neighborhood, and more north and west):

Recap: Snow, thunder put on a memorable show
@ the WaPo

The Washington, D.C., area’s first major snowstorm since last year’s incredible Snowmageddon winter wasn’t so much a historic one. After all, yesterday’s accumulations (NWS | user submitted) that generally totaled 5-10″ west of I-95 (up to 11-12″ in northern/western Loudoun County and southwestern Frederick County) and 4-8″ east of I-95, while substantial and nothing to sneeze at, do occur every once in a while in the nation’s capital and surroundings.

But it did swiftly and sufficiently fill in the D.C. snow hole, and provided plenty of drama in the form of heavy rain, downpouring sleet, intense snow and numerous reports of thunder – all perfectly timed to make for one of the metro area’s worst-ever commutes. Not to mention the power outages that greeted many once they finally arrived home or shortly thereafter.

We didn’t lose power here, but we did have intermittent brown-outs for a few hours as the wind and snow picked up. I also heard sirens all night long, presumably because of our usual complement of moron drivers.

Anyhow — yay! Snow!

After Action Report: The Mass for Life

If you watched the mass on EWTN, you didn’t see the half of it. After a long subway ride and a several-block walk uphill in a freezing, blustery wind, I arrived at the basilica in the early afternoon (T-minus five hours or so), and the place was already jam-packed full of (mostly teenaged and young-adult) pilgrims. It was like being at Atlanta’s Dragon*Con, only it was Catholic and the pilgrims were wearing normal street clothes instead of anime costumes.

I bought a pro-life t-shirt and bracelet at the gift shop, met a group of Catholic graphic novel writers (as I said, it was much like Dragon*Con), then snagged a sandwich in the crypt-level cafeteria, where I shared a table with a Byzantine Catholic from Chicago. He was not in town for the March for Life – he was actually in DC on business – but he was pro-life and agreed with my assertion that the existence of legal abortion is merely a symptom of the increasing selfishness of our society.

After lunch, I decided it was time to go save a seat in the upper church. No chance. By the time I made my way up there, the seats in the pews had already been claimed and young pilgrims in matching sweatshirts (presumably, they dressed alike so they could identify each other in the crowds) were setting up camp on the floor. I went back down to the crypt level and saved a seat in front of one of the big screen televisions in the memorial hall. At T-minus 2 hours or so, I got to meet Fr. Pavone and shake his hand.

To my left, a group of pilgrims from Illinois congregated on the floor of the memorial hall. A couple from Buffalo sat to my right. Not only was the upper church at standing room only, but every single nook and cranny on the crypt level was full. All the little hidden shrines? Full. The crypt church? Full. The memorial hall? Full. I think ten to twenty thousand people showed up for this mass. It was insane. Some people passed out and had to be carried out on stretchers.

The opening procession took upwards of half an hour; the number of seminarians, deacons, priests, and bishops filing into the church was absolutely extraordinary. Unfortunately, my ankles and knees began to hurt after the first ten minutes, so I had to sit; thanks to my rheumatoid arthritis, I’m just not equipped to endure that much pageantry. By the way, Sub Spike, I’m sure you’ll be happy to hear that they didn’t stint on the “smells and bells” – and they used the long form of the Eucharistic Prayer.

Cardinal DiNardo’s homily focused on the need to present a united front to the larger culture. The cardinal also seemed especially pleased that so many young people were getting involved in the pro-life movement. I privately agreed with the sentiment.

I was very impressed with the team of Eucharistic ministers who were charged with the task of offering communion to everyone in the overflow areas. They were very swift and efficient (relatively speaking – it was still a very long mass). I was less impressed with the AV team, though. We couldn’t hear what was going on upstairs until they were half-way finished with the second reading, which I personally found very frustrating.

Still, even with the aforementioned technical bugs, this mass was a very worthwhile experience — though I think I’d like to return to the basilica on a quieter day so I can do some more exploring.

The National Prayer Vigil for Life

I will be attending the Mass for Life at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in DC tomorrow night. This mass will be shown live on EWTN at 6:30 PM Eastern Standard. Look for me!

(Actually, I’m kidding. I doubt you’ll be able to see me among the thousands of pilgrims in attendance. LOL!)

Another Abortion Related News Item

I’m a few days behind on this one, but Sub Spike reminded me this afternoon that this was going on in his home state:

Philadelphia Abortion Doctor Charged With 8 Counts of Murder
@ Fox News

An abortion doctor who catered to minorities, immigrants and poor women was charged with eight counts of murder in the deaths of a patient and seven babies who were born alive and then killed with scissors, prosecutors said Wednesday.

Williams said during a press conference Wednesday that Gosnell “induced labor, forced the live birth of viable babies in the sixth, seventh, eighth month of pregnancy and then killed those babies by cutting into the back of the neck with scissors and severing their spinal cord.”

The district attorney also said patients were subjected to squalid and barbaric conditions at Gosnell’s Women’s Medical Society.

“There were bags and bottles holding aborted fetuses scattered throughout the building,” Williams said. “There were jars, lining shelves, with severed feet that he kept for no medical purpose.”

The clinic was shut down and Gosnell’s medical license was suspended after the raid.

This is sick. Where were the regulators?

Debating Abortion, Part III

Okay – now that I have some time, allow me to continue the argument begun in part II by discussing Maddox’s second and third criteria for sentience:

Self-Awareness

Picard has a pretty easy time demonstrating that Data is self-aware; all he has to do is ask the android a few questions and let Data’s eloquent responses speak for themselves. But what do you do with a pre-verbal infant — or an emergent talker? Again, a little creativity is required.

One common test of self-awareness is the mirror test. Smear a little make-up on a little kid’s nose and then put him in front of a mirror. Does he try to rub off the rouge? Researchers have found in repeated trials that children generally don’t react to the make-up until about the middle of the second year of life. This doesn’t mean, of course, that infants are completely without self-awareness; researchers have also found, for example, that a days-old baby is more likely to display the rooting reflex when another person touches him on the cheek than when he accidentally touches his own cheek, which suggests that even a newborn can tell the difference between his own body and the environment. Still, the fact that babies fail the mirror test indicates that self-awareness, like intelligence, evolves over time.

In the literature I’ve come across, several stages of self-awareness are recognized. First, there is self-environment differentiation, which is present to some extent at birth but becomes more and more sophisticated throughout the first year. Secondly, there is the development of one’s “body schema” – in other words, an internal map of one’s body – which is demonstrated by those children who pass the afore-described mirror test (18 months seems to be the age at which most researchers observe this ability in toddlers). Third, young children eventually come to recognize themselves at different points in time; in other words, they develop an enduring sense of self. This does not occur until a child is around three or four years of age.

Lastly – and perhaps most importantly of all – young children must learn to understand how others see them. The ability to lie, the ability to understand the actions of characters in story books, the ability to understand why another child may be upset — all of these depend upon the ability to separate one’s own mind from the minds of others (called “theory of mind” in many developmental psychology texts). A workable theory of mind is usually developed during the preschool years, but there are some adult autists walking around today who are still profoundly impaired when it comes to understanding the thoughts, motives, and emotions of others. Are these autists less than human?

After surveying all the information I have on self-awareness, I can only ask pro-abortion activists one question: If self-awareness is going to be our criterion for personhood, precisely where should we draw the line? Even if we declare an individual a self-aware “person” once he’s passed the mirror test, we still run into problems. Some animals can pass the mirror test, after all; should we protect dolphins and large apes and not protect human babies who are younger than the 18 month cut-off? Unless you’re a radical animal rights proponent (like Peter Singer), you should be appalled at the very suggestion.

Consciousness

I’ll be brief with this one, as I feel like I’m repeating myself.

Consciousness, like the previous two criteria, is quite variable. When we sleep, for example, we are largely unconscious. There are also many periods throughout our waking lives in which we are not completely “with it”. Have you ever made a decision to go to the grocery store, but found yourself heading into work instead a few minutes into your drive? In my family, we call that “automatic pilot,” and it appears to be a pretty universal phenomenon among human beings.

In order for “consciousness” (or “intelligence” or “self-awareness”) to serve as a criterion for “personhood,” it has to be clearly defined. And who’s going to do the defining? The powerful. And that’s pretty much the core problem with any definition of “personhood” offered up by the pro-abortion movement. G.K. Chesterton once argued that in order for a society to be truly democratic, it must take seriously the conclusions of previous generations. “Tradition,” he wrote, “means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” I would extend the inimitable Mr. Chesterton’s sentiment this way: The anti-abortion movement not only respects the opinions of our ancestors, but also gives a voice to those who are not yet born. Anti-abortion activists refuse to submit to the elitist oligarchs who self-servingly draw up definitions of “personhood” that favor only those who can speak for themselves.

I think I’ll also echo Louvois here and say that what pro-abortion activists are really questioning is whether an unborn baby has a soul. That’s something we’ll never really know for sure. But this doubt should be a reason to err on the side of life, not death.