Sunday, May 18, 2008

Faux Environmentalism

With the trendiness of environmentalism, many are engaging in what I'm calling "faux environmentalism." Faux environmentalism is when you do something for the appearance of being pro-environment, but in reality your actions have worsened the environment. Here are two examples of faux environmentalism:
  1. Buying a Hybrid Car: Recently, Paul McCartney received a hybrid Lexus. The car was flown to him in a jet. According to NPR, with the fuel used to deliver the jet, Sir Paul could drive the Lexus around the globe 300 times. But even for those who buy a hybrid the usual way, most could do more for the environment by keeping the car they own. Sure, you would be saving energy by using less gas in a hybrid, but have you taken into consideration all the energy used to get the hybrid to you in the first place? Think about all the energy required to manufacture the parts, ship the parts to the plant, construct the car, and ship the car to you. Will your energy savings be more than these energy costs? I suspect that for most hybrid buyers, the answer is no. It only might make sense for those who are really in need of a new car (diesel engines are more efficient for highway driving).
  2. Buying a Solar Panel: Solar cell manufacturers have yet to produce a solar cell that can produce more energy than it takes to manufacture the solar cell. This means that if solar panels are produced at a plant that gets its energy from a coal or oil plant, you are consuming more energy and putting more carbon in the atmosphere by buying a solar panel than if you were to get the energy from the same coal or oil plant through the power lines. Solar cells make sense in certain applications, such as calculators and RVs, but if you want to help the environment, this is not the way to go.
If you really want to help the environment, here are some alternatives that would really lead to less energy consumption:
  1. Keep your car a little bit longer: Imagine how much energy we could save if everyone would keep their current vehicle a year longer than they would normally.
  2. Take the bus: Using public transportation is a great way to save energy. If everyone who currently doesn't use public transportation would commit to using it just once a month, we could have a dramatic impact on fuel costs.
  3. Move closer to work: Instead of buying a hybrid, why not use that money to buy a house closer to work. If it's in walking or biking distance, even better.
Congress has over 200 years of experience at faux policies. It has become expert at activities that are more for appearance than substance and here we have another good example--you can get a tax deduction for buying a hybrid or putting a solar panel on your roof. If Congress wants to have a real impact, however, how about tax breaks for those who take the bus, or live close to work?

Can you think any other examples of faux environmentalism?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Religious Freedom in Russia and Polygamy, Part II

An anonymous reader sent me the following comments regarding my religious freedom post:
It seems to me to be self-contradicting to say that their faith practices should not be regulated by the state and then say that abuse of minors shouldn't be tolerated when that is apparently part of their faith practices. (Note - I'm not advocating their practice. I'm trying to critique your argument.)

Perhaps you could elaborate - which practices should be illegal and based on what standards? In some cultures, 13 is the age of accountability and sex with your 13 year old wife is not considered child abuse. How is it that your standards of behavior are superior to theirs that you can make their practice illegal? Perhaps a "sacrificing rubber chickens" argument might be more tasteful and less emotionally charged, but I think you can see my point.
The Supreme Court under Chief Justice Rehnquist applied a "neutrality principle" when deciding cases involving the free exercise of religion (the First Amendment states, "Congress shall make no law...prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]"). The court argued that if a law is applied neutrally with regard to religion, then it's not a violation of free exercise. For instance, in Oregon v. Smith (1990), Smith (a state employee) was fired after a drug test found peyote (a banned hallucinogenic) in his system. Smith argued that since he consumed the peyote as part of a religious ritual at his Native American Church, he was protected by the Free Exercise Clause. The Court decided in favor of the state, arguing that since the law is applied neutrally (no religious group is allowed to take peyote) it is not a violation of free exercise.

The problem with this line of thinking, in my view, is that it severely weakens the free exercise clause. If our religious freedom doesn't make accomodations for minority faiths, then we don't have much religious freedom. The Court even acknowledged in its Smith opinion that the neutrality principle will be particularly burdensome for minority religions. The NYT article on religious freedom in Russia seemed eerily familiar. Isn't the Russian government making a neutrality argument? "We aren't restricting religious freedom, because we require the same of all religions," is its basic argument.

So, what's the alternative? I consider myself an Accommodationist with regard to free exercise. Accommodationists argue that, as long as it does not place an "undue burden" upon the state, the law should make accommodations for religions that happen to break the law in their religious practice. I realize this isn't as easy to apply as the neutrality principle, for "undue burden" is a gray area (the polygamists, and age of consent, are a cases in point), but it offers our best opportunity to maintain religious freedom for the largest number of citizens.

On a side note: the Supreme Court has been heading in a more accommodationist direction under Chief Justice Roberts, see Gonzales v. O Centro, for instance.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Are College Degrees a Waste of Money? : NPR

Marty Nemko has written a compelling piece about the value of a college education in the Chronicle of Higher Education and The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, or you can hear him talk about it on NPR:
Are College Degrees a Waste of Money? : NPR

His basic argument is that most students who attend college aren't getting their money's worth. He writes:
Today, amazingly, a majority of the students whom colleges admit are grossly underprepared. Only 23 percent of the 1.3 million high-school graduates of 2007 who took the ACT examination were ready for college-level work in the core subjects of English, math, reading, and science.
He also notes that only 40 percent of those who enter college graduate in six years. Additionally, he argues that those who do graduate don't get much out of the experience.
A 2006 study supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 50 percent of college seniors scored below "proficient" levels on a test that required them to do such basic tasks as understand the arguments of newspaper editorials or compare credit-card offers. Almost 20 percent of seniors had only basic quantitative skills. The students could not estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the gas station.
Nemko presents universities as scam artists. They're selling their "customers" a faulty product.

This is a harsh depiction of my chosen profession, so, it may surprise you to find that I agree with much of what he said. I've seen many students in my introductory classes who lack the basic skills required to pass. Since these students were not high academic achievers in high school, they are paying full tuition, but have little chance of ending up with a degree. So the university gets their tuition for one to four years and the students ends up without a degree. Additionally, when classes are full of unprepared students, these classes must move as a slower pace, limiting opportunities to explore topics in-depth. This makes the classes less interesting for those students who are prepared.

If you are considering a university education, you should have full knowledge of the risks and costs of doing so. And, you should be aware of the available alternatives (community colleges and trade schools, for instance). Universities need to do a better job of presenting a realistic view of their product. There are some who would still take a chance on a university education even with this knowledge. Universities should welcome these students with open arms.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Religious Freedom in Russia and the Polygamist Sect

A recent New York Times story about religious freedom in Russia has prompted me to think more about our own religious freedom here in the US, especially in light of the polygamist sect trial in Texas. Religious freedom is waning in Russia. The manner in which this is taking place, however, is of particular importance. Russians have not simply made non-Russian Orthodox religions illegal. Religious freedom is protected in their constitution. Rather, the Russian government has passed laws that make the activities of these religions illegal. Religious groups are required to register with the state and need permission from the state in order to buy property. In other words, they are using the law to place restrictions on minority faiths. In the US, we need to be careful not to fall into a pattern where we use laws to restrict religious freedom even as it's guaranteed in the Constitution. Small, unusual religious groups, such as the one we've seen on the news in Texas, are most in danger. If they did anything illegal, such as the physical or sexual abuse of minors, then punishment is warranted. But this should not lead us in the direction of making the activities of their faith illegal. In 1878, the Supreme Court upheld a law that made polygamy illegal. I think this was a mistake. We need to be careful to not let our disgust of those that are strange to lead us to pass laws aimed at restricting these minority faiths.