Archive for November 2011

The tension between government and liberty

November 29, 2011

It’s been a while since I’ve sat in a classroom as a student. On November 7, I went to a panel discussion on “Government’s Role in Protecting Liberty” at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, William S. Richardson School of Law. I felt unexpectedly nostalgic as I sat in a student chair, unfolded the desk, and squirmed in the padded chair that still manages to be uncomfortable.

The panel discussion was presented by the Federalist Society and the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. There was a brief introduction of the panelists: lawyer and International rights advocate Ms. Carole Petersen; attorney Mr. Clark Neily; attorney and ACLU representative Mr. Roger Fonseca; and Hawaii legislator Senator Sam Slom. Moderator Dean Avi Soifer set the agenda: introductory statements from each of the panelists, followed by moderator-led questions, and, time permitting, questions from the audience — with the admonition to treat all comments with respect.

Mr. Fonseca framed the discussion by defining “liberty” as the ability to do what you want as long as you don’t infringe on the rights of others, and “democracy” as the rule of the majority with respect for the rights of the majority. He said that “liberty is great but you have to draw lines.”

In 75 minutes, the knowledgeable and articulate conversation ranged from the right of gun ownership, government transparency, charges of judicial abdication, the evolution of rights, group rights (both corporations and indigenous groups), and the right to discriminate vs. affirmative action. Questions from the audience prompted conversations about natural laws vs. granted rights, indigenous rights, and the right to self-defense.

Here are some highlights from the panel discussion:

* Government as protector or oppressor? Early on, differing views of government emerged. Senator Slom accused our government of failing to protect our liberties and exempting itself from its own laws. Mr. Fonseca mildly censured our government for only “reluctantly” protecting and providing liberties. Mr. Neily declared that “government is capable of appalling abuses of civil rights” and criticized judicial abdication. Ms. Petersen asserted that government protects our rights and that in theU.S. we take government for granted.

* What are rights? Mr. Neily claimed that there is a danger in trying to label rights as “social” or “civil” or “political” – it can be a source of oppression. Mr. Fonseca suggested that “rights evolve over time.” Ms. Petersen took it a step further and asserted that government should provide “a basic sense of human dignity” (she supports tax increases toward that goal). Senator Slom asserted that we have natural rights, rather than rights granted by our government. Dean Soifer asked about the right to discriminate, prompting the general agreement that government should enforce laws against discrimination in public life, but there is a fine line when it comes to private life. Two related issues were raised, with no time for further debate: What is the distinction between a “policy” and a “right” in theU.S. (Social Security and Medicare are policies, not rights), mentioned by Ms. Petersen; and whether rights are universal or culturally relative.

* Rights of individuals vs. groups. Everyone agreed that corporations and groups do have rights, whether as “federally recognized entities” or because, as Mr. Neily said, “the people who form the corporations have rights.” Mr. Fonseca expressed a need for limits on group rights, while Ms. Petersen brought up the issue of transparency in corporations, groups, and unions. During further discussion, Ms. Petersen mentioned tribal land rights in Nicaragua, while Senator Slom criticized the Akaka Bill (Hawaiian sovereignty) as racist and separatist. Mr. Fonseca stated his support of affirmative action for groups that have been historically discriminated against.

* What are our gun rights? Senator Slom adamantly supported gun rights, mentioningHawaii’s recent “Castle Law” that allows for self-defense against intruders in your home. Mr. Fonseca argued that limitations on weapons can be justified, and Ms. Petersen repeatedly called for reasonable limits on gun ownership. Mr. Neily defended the right to own guns, revealed that government does not have an obligation to protect us, and stated that nobody knows how many lives have been saved by guns.

Two issues were not covered, but I think they are worth mentioning: whether the size of government is a factor in government efficiency/abuses; and whether individuals have the right to endanger themselves (an issue of government protecting us from ourselves).

It was a thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion. Thank you for this opportunity to appreciate how much government does for us – while questioning whether we should do more for ourselves.

4 thankful opportunities

November 22, 2011

Thanksgiving can be so much more than a festive meal, spending time with the people we love, and being thankful for what we have. It can also be an opportunity to think about the kind of person we want to be and show our appreciation for others.

On Thanksgiving, let’s take some time to reflect on who you want to be, to share your thankful memories, to be thankful, and to do small acts of thankfulness.

* Reflect. Oprah Winfrey reminds us: “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” Theodore Roosevelt inspires us: “Let us remember that, as much has been given us, much will be expected from us, and that true homage comes from the heart as well as from the lips, and shows itself in deeds.”

* Share. Create an “I am Thankful” book and add drawings or photos and pictures from magazines (the Scholastic website has a nice printable “I am Thankful” book). You can also family, friends, and classmates to each create an “I am Thankful” page on scrapbook paper and put it together in a book. Or take it a step further, and keep a “Gratitude Journal” all year long.

* Be. “The Pillsbury Doughboy has that endearing quality that when you poke him he doesn’t flare up but automatically responds with a friendly, perky, “Oh!” I want to be like him,” writes Dr. Ralph F. Wilson in “Overflowing with thankfulness.” “Not so plump, mind you, but that full of friendliness. When someone pokes me I want my first instinct to be thankfulness rather than anger. I want people to find thankfulness oozing out of me.”

* Do. Small notes of thanks or hand-made cards are a nice and inexpensive way to thank the people around you, from teachers and mail carriers to store cashiers and bank tellers. We can also show our appreciation to American service members, veterans, and their families through the “Holiday Mail for Heroes” program. You can mail holiday cards (please read the guidelines first) by December 9, 2011 to: Holiday Mail For Heroes, PO Box 5456, Capitol Heights, MD 20791-5456.

What are your favorite Thanksgiving memories? How do you show that you are thankful?

Believing in responsible adults

November 15, 2011

I’d like to challenge Hawaii lawmakers to believe that we are responsible adults and trust us to make the best decisions for ourselves.

It seems that every time there is an accident, people call for a new law to save us. But what happens when the laws are trying to save us from ourselves?

Why should the government get involved if reasonable adults choose to disregard their safety, as long as children are not present or involved? Each of us must take responsibility for our actions, and in most cases we should not rely on government to tell us how to live safely and responsibly.

In some cases, public safety laws take away our freedom to choose – or rather, take away our freedom to be irresponsible and live dangerously. These laws redirect police resources away from more urgent safety and criminal matters. Even worse, these laws makes us all feel a little paranoid whenever a police car drives by, instead of feeling a sense of safety because of police presence.

“Libertarianism is the view that each person has the right to his life in any way he chooses so long as he or she respects the equal rights of others,” according to Charles Murray, political scientist and author of “What It Means To Be a Libertarian.”

If we apply the standard of libertarianism to our law-making, we could reduce the number of laws, reduce the role of government in our everyday lives, and reduce the costs of government. We would still educate the public about health and safety, but we would limit the number of laws that use the threat of prison or fines to change our behavior.

For example, these four laws don’t harm anyone except the individual who chooses to engage in that activity:

* Trans-Fat and Sugar Bans: If adults want to eat high-fat and high-calorie foods, even knowing that excessive consumption could affect their health, why should our government force them to eat healthier?

* Helmets Required: If adult bicycle and motorcycle riders choose not to wear a helmet, even knowing that helmets could save their lives, why should our government force them to wear a helmet? Helmets should absolutely be worn by children, but adults should be free to choose.

* No Jaywalking: If adult pedestrians choose to walk across the street, without regard for cars or street signals, why should our government force them to use a crosswalk? Children should always use a crosswalk, but adults should be free to choose.

* Seatbelts Required: If adult drivers or passengers choose not to wear a seatbelt, even knowing that seatbelts could save their lives, why should our government force them to wear seatbelts? Children should ride in car seats or wear seatbelts, but adults should be free to choose.

One last thought: Does law-breaking in small ways, especially ways that don’t make a lot of sense for responsible adults and cannot be fairly enforced, just give us a higher tolerance for law-breaking in other ways? What do you think?

Who will GET taxed or GET exempted during APEC?

November 8, 2011

I thought that it couldn’t get much worse: Hawaii is the only state with a general excise tax (GET) instead of a sales tax, meaning that we pay taxes on everything we buy – including food and medicine – from raw goods to wholesale to retail. This tax is not just on the cost of goods and services – no, it’s a tax on the total amount that businesses collect, including the tax!

It’s a neat trick for the state to collect more taxes than it should, pennies at a time so that we don’t feel the pinch.

But the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Conference in Honolulu, November 7-13, takes tax confusion to a whole new level. To add insult to the injury of the GET, there are four different tax-exempt cards that let people avoid paying the GET (general excise tax) and TAT (transient accommodations tax). Businesses must now scrutinize owls, buffalo, eagles, and deer to determine someone’s tax status.

While APEC is a great opportunity for Hawaii, I think that everyone should to have the pay the GET. We don’t exempt our own Congress members (or do we?), and the mantra today seems to be paying your “fair share.”

Here are four ways that Hawaii could make tax exemptions easier for businesses – and everyone.

1. Reduce the number of tax exemption cards to two, so that all purchases would be 100% tax-free. How about an octopus for official purchases and a snake for personal purchases?

2. Everyone would pay GET and TAT taxes, but tax-exempt individuals and organizations would get a tax rebate from the state. Of course, this shifts the burden to the state to send those rebate checks quickly.

3. Offer a tax credit to businesses (minimum $500 in exempt sales) to offset the costs of tax exemption card scrutiny and record-keeping (though I hate to propose even more paperwork).

4. Give everyone a GET and TAT tax-free holiday during the week of APEC. Or, better yet, give everyone a tax-free month in honor of APEC and economic development!

Are the tax exemption cards fair to businesses and to everyone else who has to pay the GET? Why does government make something pretty straight-forward, tax exemptions, so complicated? What do you think?


P.S. I think that my “confused monkey” is a free graphic, but if you think it’s not, please let me know!

“The Book Whisperer” by Donalyn Miller

November 5, 2011

Since my son was a baby, we’ve read books to him every day. Now that he is in Kindergarten, learning to write and staring on phonics, I look forward to the time that we can read books together. I was excited to read “The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child” (2009) by Donalyn Miller, which started as a blog by the same name on, hoping to learn tips and tricks to encourage my son to read.

Miller is a sixth grade language arts and social studies teacher at Trinity Meadows Intermediate School in Keller, Texas. Miller begins with her journey as a teacher, from compulsively crafted reading units to reading workshops to book frenzies and the 40-book challenge. She focuses on making her students life-long readers, not book reports or tests. She is a champion of free-choice reading and independent writing. She shows teachers how we can create readers.

“Students will read if we give them the books, the time, and the enthusiastic encouragement to do so” (page 177), Miller enthuses. 

I found myself nodding in agreement: Yes, that’s how I felt as a student, let me read what I want! Yes, I have a stack of to-be-read books! Yes, I jot down interesting book titles! Yes, I keep a reading journal!

Filled with anecdotes, student quotes, interest surveys, and reading strategies, “The Book Whisperer” is personal, warm, conversational, and passionate about reading. There are practical tips for teachers and a helpful index with a guide to creating a classroom library (buy your own books — then you can take them with you!), a recommended book list by students, and sample student surveys.

Though “The Book Whisperer” is written for teachers, Miller’s ideas can be used by parents to encourage reading at home. Here are 7 tips that we can all follow:

1. Challenge kids to read 40 books from various genres. It sets high expectations, ensures that they always have a book ready, and introduces them to a wide range of books.

2. Let kids choose their own books and share their past favorites.

3. Make time for independent reading every day – before school, waiting for the bus, and at home.

4. Let kids know that it’s okay to “cheat” by abandoning boring books, choosing short books, skipping pages, reading the end first, re-reading good books, and reading to escape.

5. Start reader’s notebooks, with reading lists, tally-lists, books-to-read lists, and response entries.

6. Be a role model. Show kids that you are enthusiastic about reading and share your love of books with them.

7. Read children’s books as an adult — it clues you in on popular culture, shows kids that you’re interested in them, and reveals their reading levels and interests.

Remember that reading is its own reward. Take advantage of reading incentive programs, but the knowledge and understanding that kids can find in books are the real prizes.

How can we encourage children to read? How can we become reading role models?