Saturday, June 30, 2007


Thoughts on the Supremes

The recent decisions of the Supreme Court exhibit a mixture of pure "movement conservative" and "pro-authority" beliefs. The pro-authority beliefs are shown in the decision about the "Bong hits" sign and the "right" of a manufacturer to set a minimum price for its product sold by an independent distributor. The movement conservative belief is shown in the two school desegregation cases.

I've been having a running discussion, argument, or debate with some conservative friends, one of whom I would call a movement conservative. He argues, for example, that there is nothing about our health care system that government ought to change. The overload in emergency facilities in cities that have high concentrations of illegal immigrants is not a consequence of any government action regarding the health care system; hence, government should not undertake to modify the system. Instead, government should take steps to get rid of the illegal immigrants who are causing the problem and who are present because government hasn't enforced the existing laws regarding immigrants and their employment. I would summarize the movement conservative belief as including the theorem that government is not responsible for problems that government did not create. The storm that damaged New Orleans was not caused by government; hence, government has no responsibility to repair the city or do anything for its dispossessed citizens. Schools that happen to be segregated as a result of residential segregation should not be desegregated by government because government was not responsible for the segregation.

You'd think that I, after 84 years on this planet, would have learned by now what conservatism is all about. Yet, the mind set of the movement conservative still astonishes me.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007


It is Sweet to do Nothing

I have an ongoing discussion (argument, debate, word fight) about universal health care, or UHC. I favor it. My conservative friends H, M, and R oppose. H and M tend to advance arguments or anecdotes to show that UHC either doesn’t work or works very poorly in countries that have it. R argues that health care is not one of the services government should provide. He agrees that government should provide military protection, postal service, and sound money. Health care, along with free food, free housing, and free clothing, is a service that government should not provide.

I presented the argument that countries with UHC (e.g., Britain, France, Germany, and Canada) spend less per person on medical services and have better outcomes in terms of longevity than the United States. R does not dispute my claim that we spend more on health care than these other countries. He argues instead that the longevity in various countries is not related to the existence or absence of UHC. Longevity in the United States is lowered because of the high incidence of murder and other crime here. Costa Rica, which does not have UHC, experiences longevity in the same range as Britain because the Costa Rican people have a naturally healthy life style.

I could not argue with nor disprove R’s statistics. After stating that I believe that government on some level (federal, state, or local) should provide basic health care for all I presented the emergency room argument. Emergency rooms are overburdened and some have closed because of the large number of uninsured patients who get all their medical needs provided at hospital emergency rooms. R stated that it is not true that emergency rooms have been closed because of overuse by the uninsured. I stated that many have indeed been closed here in Los Angeles.

Rather than concede that he had been mistaken, R’s response was that the situation in Los Angeles and Tucson was the result of large numbers of illegal immigrants who use the emergency rooms. San Francisco and other cities farther from the Mexican border do not have the problem and do not have hospitals that have had to close their emergency rooms.

R is arguing that none of my reasons have any validity. UHC is not a solution for emergency room overloads; the solution is, by implication, to get rid of the illegal immigrants. In R’s world, UHC is unnecessary. There is nothing wrong with our medical care system that can’t be fixed by getting rid of frivolous malpractice lawsuits. There is nothing else that needs to be done. Dolce far niente, as the Italians say.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007


To see ourselves as others see us

American pundits are making so many suggestions as to what our future policy toward Iraq and the Muslim world shuld be. Some of these suggestions contradict others. We all seem to agree that Muslims are a mysterious lot, who have an irrational hatred of us (in the West). Why is it so difficult for them to see that we are virtuous and have only good intentions when we try to intervene in their lands? Why do they reject the precious gift of democracy and freedom of speech that we want them to share with us? Why are they such religious fanatics? Why do they try to impose rules of behavior and punishments described in a holy book written in the seventh century on people living in the twenty-first?

Of course, you must have guessed my intent. I complain about American ignorance, conceit, and failure to see ourselves. We also have our religious fanatics. We have people called fundamentalist evangelical Christians who would impose rules of behavior and punishments described in a holy book written several centuries before the Muslim holy book. We disparage the "Islamic Republic" of Iran because we understand it to be not a republic but a theocracy, in which the will of God is interpreted by the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. We have our own ayatollahs who insist that the Christian holy book is the highest law of the land and all other laws, including the federal constitution, are derived from it. We have our own ayatollahs who tell us that wives should submit to their husbands, children should always obey and respect their fathers and mothers, individuals should not enjoy the ecstasies of sex before marriage, and individuals of the same sex should not be allowed to live together, and in fact should be punished according to rules laid down 2500 years ago in the Book of Leviticus.

Of course, you will argue that most Americans don't subscribe to such rules. Most Muslims don't either. A Muslim friend tells me that there are at least seventy different kinds of Muslim. There must be at least that many different kinds of Christian. Aside from certain dietary restrictions, there really isn't much difference between Christians and Muslims. Most of them are tolerant of other beliefs. Most of them don't subscribe to literal and severe interpretations of their holy books. Why do some pundits assure us that we in the Christian West are doomed to a horrific struggle with the Muslim East?

One answer is suggested by the title of this post.

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Sunday, June 17, 2007


Is Communal Living a Solution?

I'm still suffering from pessimism (see my post of a few days ago). I am concerned that the "free" enterprise system that we enjoy necessarily consignes a fraction of the population to lives of poverty. There must be a better way. We must find it.

I asked myself, is communal living a better way? One of my daughters and her family live in a cohousing community near Seattle. Each family has money invested in the organization and has shares. Matters are settled by a vote of all the members. Each family or individual member has either a house or an apartment. These houses and apartments are built close together on a tract of land, about five acres. There is a large play area for children. There is a parking lot for cars - each family is allocated one parking space. There is an area fenced off for chickens. There are apple trees. Near by there are blackberry bushes. Blackberries grow wild in Seattle and neighboring towns. In addition to the houses and apartments, there is a large common house which has a large kitchen, a dining hall, apartments for visitors, and laundry facilities. Members of the community may eat one meal a day in the common house. They take turns selecting and preparing the menus. My daughter and son-in-law do their turn about once a month. Members of the community do not own individual houses or apartments; they own shares of the community which entitle them to the use of a house or apartment.

I have visited my daughter several times during the past ten years or so that they have been living in the community. They are pleased with their living arrangements. I am impressed with how well the community works. I would like to live in such a community.

The concept of cohousing came from Denmark, according to my son-in-law. There are several cohousing organizations in this country. There's at least one in California. I imagine there's a web site where you can get more information (there's a web site for everything).

It has occurred to me that co-housing is not a solution for housing for the poor. Poor people don't have the money with which to buy shares in a co-housing organization. Cohousing is for comfortable middle-class people - people with a little extra money to invest in a home. We need another model for the poor.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007


Our Caregiver may be a Republican

I tend to get all worked up about some of the things that I write about in this blog. For example, my previous post was an expression of my deep pessimism about whether we could ever achieve a society in which everyone has enough to eat, has adequate housing, has work that is useful and provides a reward to the worker, and so on. I concluded that a pure, unregulated market economy would never provide such a society and that there would always be a class of people who work for starvation wages.

My wife and I have a caregiver. She is a lady from the Philippines. She and her husband both take care of elderly people. I've found that the best caregivers are Filipinos and Filipinas. They like the work and are not in the least bothered by the fact that caregiving does not provide upward mobility. They are happy to be able to work for decent wages and to send money home to their families in the Philippines.

I started expressing my skepticism about our economic system, but the caregiver interrupted me. She insisted that there is plenty of work in this country and that anyone who is willing to work at the jobs that are available can earn enough money to support a good life.

I've reflected on what she said. There is truth in it. She sees the economic system from the point of view of an individual who looks for work, finds it, and works and earns money. She sees no reason to doubt that anyone can do as she and her husband have done.

I realized that this particular way of looking at society, of seeing how it specifically affects the observer, rather than looking at society as a whole and seeing how many people are left in poverty is characteristic of many conservative Republicans. I don't know whether our caregiver will vote for Republicans if she ever becomes an American citizen. Filipinos tend to become Democrats when they vote. Perhaps looking at society from the viewpoint of your own best interest is not necessarily a defining mark of a conservative. Many conservatives also look at the distribution of incomes and regret the existence of a permanent class of poor people. Their solutions tend to be self-help for young people, to encourage them to follow the example of our caregivers and not give up to discouragement. They tend to distrust attempts by government to provide jobs and support for the poor.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Some Liberal Heresy - the Minimum Wage

I consider myself a "liberal." I favor "liberal" candidates. I almost always vote Democratic. I can name two Republicans that I voted for and, although I greatly admire and revere his memory, I didn't vote for Harry Truman in 1948. The two Republicans that I recall voting for were Charlie Montgomery and Houston Flournoy. In 1948 I voted for the Socialist candidate for President. Charlie Montgomery was a family friend and he was running for the job of Drain Commissioner of Tyrone Township, Kent County, in Michigan. I don't know what a Drain Commissioner is supposed to do, and I'm sure the job doesn't pay much, but I figured that Charlie wasn't going to do much damage in the job and if he wanted it enough to run for it, I'd vote for him.

Alan Cranston was at one time the California State Controller. There was a scandal at one time about the excessive fees that estate appraisers were charging to appraise the estates of well-to-do people who'd died and left small fortunes to their relatives. It seems, now that I think about it, that the scandal wasn't about the fees but rather about Cranston's choice of individuals to be official estate appraisers. The job was a nice political plum and some people were upset that Cranston was rewarding some of his political friends and allies with estate appraiser positions. A lot of us Californians were rather annoyed at Mr. Cranston.

Anyway, when Cranston ran for the Senate, his Republican opponent was Houston Flournoy. I voted for Mr. Flournoy. He seemed like a nice man and hadn't been accused of appointing cronies to nice cushy State jobs. As I recall, Mr. Cranston won the election without my support. Mr. Flournoy eventually faded into complete obscurity. I don't know what happened to him. Mr. Cranston served in the Senate for many years. I remember meeting him more than once at Democratic club events. He made it a point to attend these parties and press the flesh of the faithful.

All of this information about my voting habits is to give you some background as to my liberal credentials, such as they are. I am uncomfortable about the minimum wage, in particular about the periodic adjustment of the minimum wage to correct for inflation. Perhaps part of my discomfort comes about from my own situation of being retired and living on an income that is not indexed for inflation. Anything that encourages inflation reduces the effective value of my savings and the revenue I enjoy from them. I am convinced that raising the minimum wage helps maintain the gradual inflation of our currency. I am also convinced that, in the long run, raising the minimum wage doesn't really provide an increased standard of living for the poorest members of our society.

There's a story that I learned many years ago. When Henry Ford started his factory to produce automobiles in large numbers, with workers who specialized on different parts of the car, he realized that his workers were living in poverty. He gave them a big raise to something like five dollars a day. In the 1900's that was a lot of money. What happened was that at first the workers enjoyed the extra money in their pockets. Then the grocers, the landlords, the barbers, the cab drivers, the bus drivers, and everybody else realized that the Ford workers had all this extra money. The price of groceries went up. Landlords increased their rents. The private enterprise system worked according to theory: everyone with a product or a service to sell charged whatever the market would bear. Soon the workers were again at the bottom of the economic ladder, no better off than they had been before Henry raised their wages.

This story influences me. I know it's not a "liberal" story. I am committing some kind of liberal heresy for repeating it. If there is a Pope of liberalism, I will be excommunicated. I'm sorry about Ford's workers, but I am convinced that the story is true. Our system of individual freedom implies that purveyors of goods and services are free to charge whatever they choose for their products. That's a situation that has existed since before the time of Caesar Augustus. There will always be a fraction of our population that is poor and living on starvation wages.

A British economist once enunciated the "Iron Law of Wages." If there are more workers available than jobs for them, competition for jobs will have the effect of reducing the wages to the level where the workers can barely buy enough food to maintain their strength needed to do the jobs. Couple that theorem with the Henry Ford corollary, in which prices will rise until the poorest people can no longer buy, and the result is the permanent creation of a poor underclass, barely able to survive.

At various times compassionate men and women have tried to create different models for society in which this underclass of extreme poverty would not exist. Some models were based on religious belief. Individuals formed communes, like the Shakers. The Mormons today have a social order within their religion that takes care of the poor and provides them with food, jobs, and housing. Monastic orders are examples of such models. Monasteries and the Mormons are examples of religious societies that have eliminated extreme poverty. Another model, socialism, was enunciated about 150 years ago as a way to organize an entire society in a way that eliminates extreme poverty. Socialism has been tried in several places with varying degrees of success. Where it has failed the failure was partly due to corruption and the creation of a privileged class within the society. Pure socialism has not yet succeeded in any society. Some countries, particularly in Scandinavia, have elements of socialism in their economic structures. Because these countries are also open and democratic, the bane of corruption and favoritism has not brought down the society in the way that the communist experiment in Russia eventually collapsed. However, the Scandinavian countries are not purely socialistic. Their economies are a mixture of private enterprise and socialism. Their experiments continue; the future will tell how successful they are.

I would despair completely our present American society if I could not look to Scandinavia for hope. Perhaps I am prejudiced; my Grandfather came from Sweden in 1853.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007


The Ethics of Rent Control

As I have noted before, I have a running discussion, debate, or argument with several e-mail friends. I identify them by initials of their first names: H, M, R, S, etc. Recently we stumbled into a heated argument about rent control. M and R have experience with owning and operating rental housing. They both vehemently oppose rent control. R argues that rent control is unethical because it amounts to penalizing or taking from the landlord, who is trying to make a living by offering apartments and houses for rent, and giving to the tenants, mostly themselves middle-class, and hardly deserving of such favoritism.

I was astounded by the argument that rent control is unethical. I can agree that it may be counterproductive; it probably will have unexpected consequences; and in the long run it is an unworkable solution to the problem of providing housing for people at prices they can afford. I still can't agree that it is unethical.

Reductio ad absurdum: Rent control is a limit on the money that a property owner can charge for the use of his property. Cab fare is limited by city ordinance and is a limit on the money a cab owner can charge for the use of his property. Charges for electric, gas, and water utilities are limited by State regulatory commissions and these limits are placed on the money that the owners of these utilities can charge customers for the water, electricity, and gas that they supply. If rent control is unethical, all of these other legal limits on profit must also be unethical.

M and R will immediately argue that electricity, gas, and water are provided by monopolies, in some cases by municipal-owned firms. There is no competition among competing providers and therefore it is reasonable to limit the charges to what is reasonable. That is, the monopolies are to be allowed to make roughly the same profit that they would make in a competitive situation. Housing rent, on the other hand, is competitive. If you are dissatisfied with your landlord's charge for rent, you can move somewhere else.

My counter argument is that times are changing. At one time we had in this country a large area of unused land. Even in cities, land for residential use was cheap. Houses and apartments were built as fast as the need for housing grew. If a landlord charged too high a rent, he would find that he couldn't find any tenants. There was a competitive market in renting and in buying housing.

That situation no longer exists in many of our largest cities. Land alone can amount to one-fourth the cost of housing erected on it, especially single-family units. A person seeking to buy or rent a house or apartment or condominium in Los Angeles or San Francisco will find few units available, mostly at prices that may be out of his reach. Because of the increase of population, there is no longer an effective competitive market in housing. Housing is becoming de facto a monopoly. Limiting the profit of a landlord is no more unethical than limiting the profit of the cab company or the electric utility company. Utility companies are allowed to set rates high enough to enable them to make a profit and to set aside funds for future repairs, maintenance, and improvement. They are not allowed to set rates at the level determined by "as much as the market can bear." I think it is ethical to establish the same regime on landlords in cities where housing is limited by the limited land area available for it. Just as in the case of the utility, the landlord must be allowed a reasonable profit, enough to provide for maintenance and improvement and investment in new construction.

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Sunday, June 10, 2007


An Afterthought about Fences

In my previous blog I seemed to be agreeing with those Americans who insist on "controlling the borders" before attempting to do anything about the millions of immigrants who have come without papers. The position of stopping them at the border sounds simple and logical. The problem is that it is very expensive and probably impractical. It may be one of those simple solutions to complex problems that are popular, logical, and wrong.

I think a more practical solution is to enforce the law regarding the hiring of an illegal alien. If this approach is taken, every worker should be required to present evidence to an employer that he or she is legally in the country and entitled to work. A Social Security card would seem to do the job.

Of course, this approach runs afoul of the dislike that Americans have for any requirement to carry identity cards with them. There will be the argument that it is easy to counterfeit a social security card. To forestall that problem, our government must create a social security care that is very hard to counterfeit and which can be verified quickly by a computer connection to a federal database of social security number holders. We believe that we have instant verification of the right to purchase a gun. Why not instant verification of the right to have a job?

I await comments.

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Saturday, June 09, 2007


Immigration Reform - a Failure?

Apparently two notions have stalled, if not killed, the Kennedy-McCain Immigration Reform Bill in the Senate. Words to express these notions are (1) FENCE and (2) AMNESTY.

About the FENCE: Conservative bloggers are touting the claim that a majority of the public wants some sort of control established over immigration before doing anything about the immigrants who are already here without papers. They argue, and I can't dispute it, that it makes no sense at all to claim to be controlling the immigration process as long as we have such leaky borders that hundreds of thousands of individuals can enter the country each year without visas. Hence, conservative and moderate Senators were unwilling to bring the bill to a vote with the existing provisions. If any bill passes the Senate, it must be one that places control of the borders as the first priority.

One of the problems is that Americans always try to solve a difficult problem on the cheap. We want to build a fence so impenetrable that no human can get through, under, or over it without being detected and captured. Such a fence will be difficult to design and expensive to build and maintain. We American taxpayers, being a bunch of skinflints, may choke at the bill for a high-tech fence. You see, there are animals that migrate between the United States and its neighbors on the South and the North. The fence will have to permit this migration and still prevent the human migration that now occurs.

Another approach is to place guardhouses along the border within sight of each other all the way from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean (in the case of Mexico) and to the Atlatic Ocean (in the case of Canada. I estimate that there would have to be at least five guard houses per mile. I'll leave it as a simple exercise for you to figure out the number of guard houses, the number of guards, the salaries of the guards, the maintenance of the guard houses, and all the rest that contribute to the cost of making the borders impenetrable.

Neither the fence nor the guard houses would achieve a perfect solution. Fences can be cut, tunneled under, climbed over, flown over, etc. Guards can be outnumbered and overpowered. Individual guards can be bribed. Nothing is perfect. However, either approach might suffice to calm the anxiety of our citizens over the threatened flood of immigrants who come with a different language, a different set of cultural beliefs and customs, and a different skin color.

About AMNESTY: This is a framing word. People have conducted opinion polls and found that a majority of the public favors providing the illegal immigrants who are here already a path toward legality and citizenship if they want it. The path would include a fine, payment of back taxes, learning to speak and write English, and other appropriate punishments. However, if you ask the same question, include all the fines and back taxes, etc., but include the word "AMNESTY," the public is opposed. Paying a fine and back taxes, including penalties, studying a difficult language, and so on, is acceptable as long as it isn't called "AMNESTY." Perhaps the question should be phrased to include fines, back taxes, and learning English but not giving them AMNESTY. Perhaps then the public would accept the proposition.

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Saturday, June 02, 2007


Liberal vs. Conservative: a Personal View

My friends H, M, R, S, and I have a lively and continuing debate or discussion going by e-mail. Recently R and M started using the term "liberal elite." They are Conservatives and to them the term refers to "liberal" elected officials in the federal government (e.g., Ted Kennedy) who, they say, impose restrictions on the use of federal land. In particular, the "liberal elite" are opposed to drilling for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR). They, the Conservatives (specifically H, M, and R) are eager to have drilling proceed so that the oil will be available to us Americans who otherwise must buy petroleum from the Arab sheiks and emirs and the Persian ayatollahs.

R in particular has recently pointed out that local people in Alaska are very much in favor of drilling. I am concerned about possible damage to the delicate ecosystem of northern Alaska. Besides, I believe that we Americans should turn our attention to expanding renewable and not-carbon sources of energy, such as geothermal, solar, and wind power rather than searching for and exploiting new sources of petroleum. However, I recognize that we do need other sources of petroleum in the immediate future and I don't have any strong objections to drilling for oil in ANWR. It's not a life-or-death matter for me. My indifference to the project seems to annoy H and R, who seem particularly eager to let the drilling begin.

However, drilling or not drilling in ANWR is not the point of this essay. I am more interested in teasing out what R, H, and M really mean by "liberal elitel." I had an interesting exchange with R on the subject.

R is disturbed by government reglations and limitations that impose a burden on local people and about which local people have no say. These limitations are, according to R, part of the "liberal agenda," which involves imposing rules on people that are supposedly good for them even though they are not popular. He argued that local people ought to have a vote on these rules and regulations.

It is no surprise that I agree with him. I think that preserving the environment is something that has to have support of the local people affected. If logging is to be prevented or limited in Montana, the people of Montana who make their livings by logging must, in the long run, support the limiting rules. Otherwise, some different administration in Washington will change the rules to gain a few thousand votes in Montana. I argue that we can not depend on the federal government to be a permanent protector of the environment. The Bush Administration has taught us that much. I wrote as much in my e-mail reply to R.

I went on to give an example of local control that is stymied by a State or federal limit: rent control. Local voters in, say, Santa Monica, impose rent control on apartments. The State associations that look out for the interests of landlords and others who obtain revenue from the use of land try to persuade either the State legislature or the public at large to enact a law or an amendment to the State constitution to prevent local voters from imposing rent control.

R and M went ballistic at my example of local control. R's response was that rent control is "unethical." It took a couple of e-mails back and forth to find out what he meant. Finally he and M wrote that it doesn't work. Rent control puts landlords in such a bind that they may have to burn down their apartments and build new ones to get out from under a rent control ordinance that forces them to rent their apartments at below market rates. M cited his own experience as a landlord and concluded that only an idiot would seek to own and rent apartments if rent control is imposed.

My response was to concede that rent control alone doesn't solve the housing problem. The problem is that in cities such as Los Angeles the inflation in housing prices have pushed rents to a level that many people who work in the city can not afford to live in it. Many of our policemen live outside the city, or even outside the county where they can find affordable housing. The problem is more severe for poorer workers, those that can't afford cars with which to make the long commutes between home and workplace. We Angelinos need to create a program that will provide housing for low-income people that they can afford. I asked my Conservative friends to suggest some things that might be done.

The responses were telling. My Conservative friends have no interest in discussing a low-cost housing program. M suggests that I, who have a fairly large house in Woodland Hills, should invite several poor people to live with me, rent free. My previous suggestions about subsidies for builders to build low-cost housing and for landlords to charge rents below market rates went past him like a whiff of air. We are talking past each other. Conservatives look at the situation in terms of its effects on them personally. In addition, they tend to identify with the landlord. Their advice to the tenants who are faced with high rents and low-paying jobs seems to be like that of President Coolidge: work hard and save your money.

How does all of this relate to the title of this essay? Liberals and conservatives both look at how a situation affects individuals. In the example above, conservatives look at how the landlord is affected; liberals look at how the tenant is affected. Conservatives think of solutions to such problems in terms of what individuals can do for themselves. Poor tenants should find cheaper housing or better-paying jobs or go somewhere else to live. Liberals think of collective action by society, acting through a representative government, to deal with the problem of an inadequate supply of housing that low-income people can afford.

This is not to say that conservatives are greedy and heartless. Many of them would urge churches and other non-governmental organizations (e.g., Habitat for Humanity) to undertake projects to help people find affordable housing. They don't like the idea of government doing it and forcing them to pay taxes to pay for it. They may be willing to contribute generously to their churches and their benevolent organizations, but they are not willing to pay higher taxes. It is also not to say that liberals are altruistic and generous. They believe that history has shown that private charities have not been able to do all the things that should be done to improve the living conditions of the poor. They are willing to have government try, to experiment, to fail and try again. They don't believe that private charities will be completely free of bias or prejudice. Private charities may be more willing to undertake projects that benefit "white" people (people of European extraction) than "colored" people. Government should be free of such bias.

When I write "liberal" I am, of course, writing for myself. I do not attend any church regularly and I do not make generous contributions to any religious or fraternal or benevolent organization. I favor public welfare rather than private charity. I regard Habitat for Humanity as a useful private organization, one whose projects should be emulated by government.

My friend, the late John Crowe, would tell me, if he were still alive, that the differences between me and my Conservative friends depend on whose ox is gored. If I owned a string of rental houses, I might share M's distaste for rent control. Since John is not here to respond to my argument, I have to concede that he may be right.

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