Sunday, January 25, 2009

School Boards and Objectivist Activism

By Joseph Kellard

Over at the Harry Binswanger List, a subscriber from South Carolina recently raised the issue of Objectivists possibly getting involved in intellectual activism by joining local school boards. I don't think this is a good way for Objectivists to fundamentally fight the good fight.

For years now I’ve covered school boards for the newspaper company I work for here on Long Island. The great majority of items in school budgets are mandated by the state, from high school courses and tests to handicapped-accessible construction such as ramps and bathrooms. I believe that, on average, state mandates comprise as much as 90 percent of school budgets. At least that’s the case in some of the towns I’ve covered.

The school district administrators and board trustees spend their time trying to find ways to reduced school taxes, which here on Long Island are heavily tied to property taxes, by keeping the status quo in terms of course offerings, or cutting services and teacher aides, or by purchasing materials, from toilet paper to bricks for construction of schools, from the lowest bidders. You get what you pay for, right?

If Objectivists want to get involved in activism in public education, I think they would be better off trying to influence the powers at the state level, where they devise and hand down their mandates, rather than run for seats on school boards, where ideological influence is minimal and concrete issues rule the day.

Friday, January 23, 2009

What’s the Difference Between Madoff and Social Security?

By Joseph Kellard

In the midst of our financial collapse, as well as in the wake of the Bernie Madoff case, I keep hearing and reading many people express this basic sentiment: “Can you imagine if we privatize Social Security, like President Bush tried to do, and we all had our life savings invested in the stock market?”

For example, here is commentary from the current New Yorker magazine: “To begin changing the [Social Security] system into one that allowed individual stock-market accounts (can you imagine how *that* would have worked out?) might have made it possible to realize the long-running conservative dream of a truly dominant Republican Party.”

The implication of the question here is that, to leave your life savings to the stock market is highly volatile – as the financial crisis has shown – so it’s good that government taxes us each paycheck and keeps that money safe and secure in the Social Security system, as well as guaranteed when we retire.

The problem with this illogic is that, while the stock market certainly has risks like many human endeavors (crossing the street safely is just one of them), the chance that one may lose their shirt in the stock market is made much more riskier because the government is so heavily involved in regulating the financial industry, including the stock market -- that is, keeping it unfree.

As I have argued elsewhere before, the economic meltdown was essentially caused by government intervention and regulations, not their lack thereof as the state interventionists always argue. For many years now, banking, housing and insurance have been the most regulated areas of the economy, not to mention the financial industry and stock market. While government bureaucrats are busy enforcing all kinds of non-objective laws that actually persecute innocent people, treating them as if they are guilty until proven innocent simply because they are pursuing profit (as any producer does), they actually did little or nothing of what government legitimately is supposed to do: Look out for defrauders. Thus, the Madoffs of America, large like him or on a much small scale, go undetected.

The saturation of government regulation in the economy is what increases the uncertainty and volatility of the financial industries, including the stock market, which greatly increases the risks that investors in it will lose their shirts.

Moreover, this government control over the financial industry is the essence of the Social Security system. If Madoff ran a Ponzi scheme, in which the money of some investors was taken to cover up and pay out the investments of other, usually earlier investors, while Madoff made off with their money, then Social Security, too, is also a Ponzi scheme destined to crash – as it already has.

At least with the stock market, an individual has the freedom to choose whether to invest their life savings in a single stock or a diversity of them. He may also forgo investing in his retirement, say, to pay for a house today that he expects one day to get a huge return on, only to turn and sell it when he retires and use that money for his senior years. In the end, if his choices and decisions work out or not, the responsibility for them ultimately lies with him, and only he gets hurt.

Social Security does not allow for such freedom. Government forces productive people to pay into its system through taxes, that is, by force. And the way the Ponzi scheme that is Social Security is set up, today’s producers who see a good portion of their taxes go to Social Security, are actually seeing it go to pay for today’s retirees whose own Social Security taxes were take out and used up by previous retirees. There comes a point that the money that is being thrown into the system runs out, and requires more and more taxes to keep it solvent.

Inevitably, one day, the Social Security system is going to completely crash, and if the mentality in Washington then remains as it is today, the politicians will seek a massive bailout of the system, paid of course by your taxes, which will only increase and leave you with less money to spend or invest on anything, including your retirement account.

There’s really no essential difference between the Madoff case and Social Security, except that Madoff allegedly committed his fraud without others realizing he was actually doing so. What is the government and American people’s excuse for the open Ponzi scheme that is Social Security?

Joseph Kellard is a journalist and commentator living in New York. Contact him at

Monday, January 19, 2009

Letter on Rand's Detractors

By Joseph Kellard

The Smokey Mountain News in North Carolina published a letter I wrote in response to the newspaper’s Jan. 7 editorial “Who is Ayn Rand?”

The editorial was written to accompany an article, “Who controls what’s taught?,” by Julia Merchant, which begins: “Western Carolina University’s College of Business recently secured a $1 million donation from BB&T — but not before discerning faculty fought to loosen the strings that came with the donation.”

Here’s my letter as originally written and published:

Rand attackers are usually gratuitous

To the Editor:

I’m glad to see that your editorial board recognizes the enduring impact of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism on our culture (“Who is Ayn Rand?,” Jan. 7, 2009).

Of course, it’s no surprise that the modern philosophers Darryl Hale speaks of are antagonistic toward Rand. That’s because her supposedly “lightweight” ideas seriously challenge and rock their philosophies at their very core. When I come across critics of Rand’s philosophy and her novels — “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” — particularly among so-called intellectuals, I find few of them provide any serious grounding for their critiques. Usually, they are outright ad hominem attacks, or mere drive-by gratuitous remarks, such as the one in your editorial: Rand “carried her ideas too far.”

Surely these tactics are signs of lightweights, and are a complete contrast to Rand, who could and did take any philosophy, whether she agreed with it or not, and reduce it to its fundamentals.

Joseph Kellard
East Meadow, N.Y.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Madoff, Social Security--What's The Difference?

By Joseph Kellard

There is a good, terse letter from an unknown writer (that is, I assume a non-Objectivist) in the print edition of USA Today this weekend. It properly compares Social Security to Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme, with the headline: “Social Security the worst Ponzi.”

"The difference between the way Social Security works and Madoff's alleged scam is that the 'investors' in Social Security can't stop or demand a return of their contributions."

Read the letter, and while you're at it leave a supportive comment, at:

Sunday, January 11, 2009

'60 Minutes' Features Flynn Family

DWI tragedy reexamined

By Joseph Kellard

“I wanted that courthouse on top of him, I wanted him buried under the jail, I want him dead," Neil Flynn, of Lido Beach, said on “60 Minutes” last Sunday.

Flynn was referring to Martin Heidgen, the Valley Stream man who killed his 7-year-old daughter, Katie, in a horrific drunk-driving accident on the Meadowbrook Parkway three and a half years ago.

Flynn appeared in the opening segment of CBS's top-rated news show, which focused on Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice and her crusade to more severely penalize drunk drivers, and especially those who kill other drivers. The Flynn-Heidgen case was the centerpiece of the report.

Seated beside his wife, Jennifer, Flynn told “60 Minutes” correspondent Bob Simon, “I relive the crash, I think about it every day, I have nightmares about it every night, and I live my life without my daughter because of it.”

The crash Flynn relives occurred early on the morning of July 2, 2005. Driving north in a Chevrolet pickup truck at high speed in the southbound lanes of the Meadowbrook with a blood-alcohol content three times the legal limit, Heidgen slammed into the limousine that was taking Katie and her sister, parents and grandparents home from a wedding reception in Bayville, where she had been a flower girl at her aunt's wedding. While Heidgen suffered only wrist and ankle injuries, the limo driver, Stanley Rabinowitz, 59, of Farmingdale, was crushed to death, Katie was decapitated, and other passengers were severely injured.

Instead of manslaughter, the typical charge for a DWI fatality, Heidgen was charged with murder. So instead of facing a sentence ranging from probation to 15 years in prison, he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 18 years to life in October 2006.

“The statute under which he was charged required us to prove that, through his actions, he had a completely depraved indifference to human life,” Rice explained to Simon. “His actions made the deaths of Katie Flynn and Stanley Rabinowitz inevitable. It was as inevitable as taking a gun and firing it at an individual who is standing five feet away from me.”

Heidgen's attorney, Stephen Lamagna of Garden City, told Simon that charging his client with murder instead of vehicular homicide was akin to treating him like a cold-blooded killer on a par with serial murderer Jeffrey Dahmer. “Are we as a society ready to water down what murder is and turn our sons and daughters into murderers who go out and drink and drive and cause a fatal accident?” Lamagna said.

“No matter how tragic these cases are ... they're an unintentional act that was caused by the alcohol. But for the alcohol, this wouldn't have happened.”

Rice responded that being drunk should not absolve Heidgen of responsibility for his actions.

“What kind of lawlessness would you have if intoxication excused that kind of behavior?” she said.

Catherine Olian, the producer of the “60 Minutes” segment, told the Herald that the main reason the show's producers decided to spotlight this case was its groundbreaking outcome.

“There are very sad deaths from drunk driving all the time, and that wouldn't make us do a story,” Olian explained. “It was the fact that [Heidgen] was convicted of murder that made us interested in the story. That's when we thought how drunk-driving deaths are treated in the courts. Was this usual or unusual?”

The show began researching the story last spring, Olian said, interviewing prosecutors and defense attorneys in several states and looking into the range of laws dealing with drunk driving. “60 Minutes” staffers found that while some states —most notably, Texas — have tried drunk drivers for murder, no one had ever been convicted on a murder charge.

“I think it's about something that hits most people's lives in some way or another,” Olian said of the story, whose airing was delayed last fall due to constantly breaking news on the economy and the presidential election. “And I think it's a societal problem that people don't really know how to deal with.”

Simon told the Herald that what he took away from the story was that the tragedy had two sides — Katie Flynn's horrific death and her family’s agony over it, and Heidgen's future. “He's also dead because he'll be in prison the rest of his life,” Simon said. “That's also a tragedy and a waste, even though I think he deserves it.”

While Lamagna declined comment on the report, Rice said that the show “did an exceptional job of showing the inevitable consequences of drunk driving. It highlighted a life-and-death issue that's happening in every community across the country.”

Asked why she thinks her campaign to more severely punish drunk drivers attracted so much attention, Rice said she believes that, historically, prosecutors have been reluctant to push the envelope on the issue.

“I think that's because there are still so many people who sympathize with the drunk driver,” she said, echoing a point she made on the show. “That is the mindset we are trying to change here, and that's why I think it has a national appeal.”

On Tuesday afternoon, less than 48 hours after the show aired, Rice said her office had received hundreds of calls and e-mails. “They were thanking us for our leadership on this issue,” she said, noting that the volume of comments was unusually high.

Within 24 hours of the broadcast, there were some 500 comments posted on the “60 Minutes” Web site. Olian said that most were from viewers who disagreed with Rice’s stance.

“People who disagree tend to post more on any story,” she said.

Neil Flynn did not return a call for comment, and Heidgen declined to appear on “60 Minutes” because his case is under appeal.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Peace Process War

I dashed off the following letter, in response to Anne Applebaum’s column “It’s a War Process,” and emailed it to the editor at the Washington Post. A nod must go to commentator Robert Tracinski, who years ago coined the excellent phrase "the Peace Process War."

To the Editor:

[Re: “It’s a War Process,” by Anne Applebaum, Jan. 6, 2009]

Israel’s ongoing wars with her Islamic aggressors can best be described collectively as “the Peace Process War.”

It underscores the theater of the absurd that is this process. It essentially goes like this: Israel’s enemies attack her, Israel retaliates in self-defense, and all outsiders clamor for a cease fire and peace negotiations. And then, after Israel’s concessions are made, this whole process -- this cycle of Islamic aggression -- starts all over again.

In reality, Israel has every right to exist and destroy her aggressors; Hamas, an Iranian-back terrorist group, has no right to exist, let alone exact negotiations and concessions from Israel.

More fundamentally, Israel must destroy the root of this hydra of Islamic aggression: Iran. Israel must utterly wipe out Iran’s ruling clerics, nuclear facilities, military institutions and mosques that regularly chant “death to Israel.”

Only then will peace have a chance.

Joseph Kellard
East Meadow, NY