tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Friday, March 31, 2006

D’Souza offers insight into Iraq, American appeal

Dinesh D’Souza, an India-born Hoover Institution Fellow, addressed a business group in Milwaukee recently on a wide range of foreign affairs. Before his think tank gig, D'Souza was a policy analyst at the Reagan White House. He is author of several books, including "What's So Great About America."

D’Souza is a sharp guy and a very good speaker. Telling our group that radical Islamism has replaced Soviet communism as the great threat facing America, D’Souza give us his insight into America involvement in the Middle East.

The reasonable question is what is America doing in Iraq today and what is the prospect for success? Iran is the closest thing to a democracy in the Middle East. The kind of country we like -- like America -- does not exist in the Middle East. There are no countries there with an independent judiciary, free elections, separation of powers, checks and balances, minority rights, free enterprise. And no such country has ever existed. America is taking the grand and risky experiment to see if the alien seed of democracy can take root in the Arab world. And if democratic winds begin to blow to Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, Egypt, you could see the beginnings of a historic transformation that would be more incredible than the old Soviet Union.

Fifty years ago, democracy was a Western idea. But now you see a rash outbreak of democracy in Asia and Latin America. But in the Middle East, it has been nil, and that is what Bush is trying to change, it seems to me.

Many say we can’t win in Iraq and we have to get out but common sense revolts against that. You have a country of Iraq with 25 million people. The Shia are 60 percent, the Kurds are 20 percent, and the Sunni are 20 percent. You will never find a more pro-America population than the Kurds. The Shia are on the American side because they have come to the conclusion that if you have the mathematical advantage, democracy is a good thing. The insurgency is drawing from the Sunnis. But even then, they are drawing from only a fraction of that 20 percent. So you have a fraction of 20 percent against 80 percent and the wealth and power and technological sophistication of the United States. Who’s going to win that war? There is no way the U.S. can lose that war.

There is only one way we can loose. That is to lose the war in the American mind. The war is being fought on the battlefield of the American mind. Walt Whitman said force in a war is a product of your weapons, you skills and you wealth, times your will.

Muslims will argue that American society is based on freedom, but Islamic society is based on virtue. So they think they have a higher calling. They don’t dislike what we have, but they don’t like what we’ve done with what we have. They say freedom can be used well or bad, and America has used it bad. They say, in America you have freedom, you see material prosperity but cultural decadence. You see technological expertise but moral decay. In the Islamic world, we might be poor but we are trying to fulfill the will of God. We might be failing, but at least we are trying. And that makes us a hundred times better than you because virtue is a higher calling than freedom.

The problem with that thinking is there is no real virtue without freedom. Virtue is not virtue if you are forced to act that way. It is not virtuous to wear a burka if you are forced to do so.

D’Souza said people the world over still want to come to the United States.

There is an expectation of opportunity here. More than any other society, America is distinguished by the fact that even more than the countries of Europe, it gives a pretty good chance of success to the ordinary guy. In Europe, you have greater security, protection from cradle to grave, but there is less opportunity and less mobility. If you meet someone rich in France or Germany, the chances are pretty good they come from an affluent family. If you find someone who became rich, that story is striking because it is not normal. In America they are commonplace. In other countries, the rich have an aristocracy, something you cannot buy in the United States. It seems to me a country is judged by the opportunity it gives to the common man. As an immigrant, I am startled to see that the common man has it pretty well in America – a place where the poor people are fat.

In America, a person is the architect of his own destiny. In America, your life is more like a blank sheet of paper and you are the artist.
(In India, he said, his future would have been pretty much laid out before him. He would have had choices, but within relatively limited parameters.) In America, your destiny isn’t given to you, it is constructed by you.

The core idea of America is the self-directed life. This is a clue about what is so appealing about America, especially among young people.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

What will be the impact of all the talk about Polygamy?

Have you noticed all the editorial commentary on polygamy lately? It seems like I couldn’t pick up a newspaper last week without finding an essay about polygamy. There was John Tierney’s column in the New York Times on March 11; Katherine Kersten’s column in the March 15 Minneapolis Star Tribune and Charles Krauthammer’s March 17 column in the Washington Post.

HBO got the discussion going because of the new television show it debuted on March 12 called “Big Love,” about a man in Utah married simultaneously to three women. I haven’t seen the show, but from what I read, the show is unique because it portrays polygamy as normal. The main character goes through the same trials as most other middle-age men in America, the only difference is he moves between three wives and three sets of kids. The HBO web site notes there are 20,000 to 40,000 people practicing polygamy in the country, although it is, of course, illegal.

In Minnesota, I have to wonder what all this attention on polygamy will mean for the prospects of gay rights advocates. Minnesota has a law defining marriage as an institution that can only happen between one man and one woman, but many people (including me) would like to see that definition written in the state’s constitution. The legislature is in session now and many people are hoping lawmakers put the question of a constitutional amendment on the definition of marriage to voters in the form of a referendum this fall. There will be a rally at the Capitol on Tuesday organized by supporters of the amendment.

The vast majority of Minnesotans want marriage limited to one man/one woman, and the state House of Representatives would gladly put the question on the ballot. Senate majority leader Dean Johnson, however, opposes an amendment, although he says he opposes gay marriage. His thinking is that the law is sufficient and that the matter is not serious enough to warrant a constitutional amendment. Laws, however, can be struck down by judges, as happened on the national level with abortion. Those of us who believe traditional marriage is the foundation of our culture would like to see the institution of marriage protected by the constitution.

I am struck by all the talk on polygamy lately because I have long thought that the arguments in favor of gay marriage are the exact same as arguments for polygamy. Gay rights advocates generally talk about marriage in terms of commitment, natural yearnings, and rights to self-determination, which is exactly the same way polygamists talk about marriage. If you talk about broadening the definition of marriage beyond one man/one woman, it seems to me the leap to one man/two women is much smaller than the leap to one man/one man. At least polygamists retain the function of procreation within marriage.

Gay rights activists say the current definition of marriage discriminates, and they are right. If you change the meaning of marriage to include gays, it will still discriminate –- against polygamists, against people who want to marry their siblings, against people who want to marry minors, against people who want to marry animals. When ever you “define” anything, you discriminate against the things not included in the definition. The question is not “are you going to discriminate?” but “where are you going to draw the line?”

Minnesota and the United States are not theocracies, but they are absolutely Judeo-Christian cultures. And law follows culture. The definition of marriage in our law should reflect the meaning of marriage given to us by our Judeo-Christian heritage. It will be interesting to observe what impact, if any, the focus on polygamy brings to the debate over a constitutional amendment on the definition of marriage.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

States should prohibit zoning restrictions which discriminate against small business owners

It is very important in business to have the right office space. This can be a particularly vexing challenge for the owners of very small businesses, but it doesn’t have to be. A simple change in state law would give many business owners a new option for resolving their facilities needs.

Consider the service business with two to five employees. It is too big to be considered a home-based business. Such companies could lease office space but they won’t get the best deal because most owners of office buildings want to deal with 10,000-square-foot tenants, not a business that only needs 1,000 square feet.

Many small business owners really want to buy their office, but commercial space is generally too expensive and too big for small businesses. Unless that business owner is ready to go into the rental business, buying commercial isn’t an option. There are, however, many residential properties that would make magnificent offices for small companies. Unfortunately, out-dated zoning laws in many communities prohibit business owners from using residential property to house their business. This is where I think a change in state law in most states is needed.

I would encourage every state to pass a law that prohibits municipalities from discriminating against people who want to use residential property to house low-impact micro-businesses. One line of language added to the eminent domain legislation that so many legislatures are considering would be sufficient to give small businesses a real boost. The Minnesota legislature, which opened yesterday, will be considering eminent domain legislation and I hope that it will consider this small but important provision.

Businesses that mainly operate over the internet or phone and have no walk-in customers have less of an impact on a home and neighborhood than a typical family of four. Yet many municipalities will write zoning code that prohibits property owners from operating a business in a residence. Code that restricts frequency of deliveries, noise, the exchange of money, parking and signage seem to me to be worthwhile, but a blanket restriction against the “operation of a business” is simply too vague and discriminatory.

In Minnesota, there are 133,000 people who work in firms with one to four employees, and another 120,000 people who work in home offices. I believe many of these people would consider the purchase of a home to use as an office, if local zoning allowed it.

One of the real benefits of owning property, of course, is the opportunity to build equity. For small business owners, who have limited retirement savings options, this could be a significant benefit. A state law that would eliminate discriminatory municipal zoning code would do a lot for small business, the engine that is driving most of the new job growth in this economy.