Friday, October 23, 2009

We've Moved!

I'm now hosting the blog at my own domain. The new url is The layout is new, easier to navigate and the blog has some new features. I'll also be unveiling an essay contest at the new site in the coming weeks so make sure to check it out.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Students Have No Future in Ravenstahl's Pittsburgh

The following column was recently published in The Pitt News.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s proposal to tax students and hospital patients as a partial fix to the city’s pension crisis lacks specifics. But one thing is clear: Another Ravenstahl administration will cost students hundreds of dollars.
The proposed tax has escalated in recent weeks from a flat $100-per-year fee to a 1 percent tax on tuition, and the mayor said he will not release a specific proposal until November 9 — six days after the mayoral election.
The mayor’s refusal to propose specific new taxes before the election demonstrates the political opportunism that you’d expect from a man running as both a Democrat and a Republican, and it’s this crass opportunism that defines Ravenstahl’s relationship with young people in the city.
The problem is that the mayor knows we don’t vote with any regularity the way unions do and we also don’t give thousands of dollars to his campaign the way that prominent development companies like the Forza Group and the Rubinoff Co. do.
Coincidentally, we are much more likely as a group to be gassed and shot with rubber bullets than members of unions or corporate executives.
Ravenstahl mocked the post-G-20 Summit grievances of students at “Off the Record IX,” the Post-Gazette’s annual variety show, on Oct. 1. The Pittsburgh City Paper reported that Ravenstahl appeared on stage in riot gear and said, “I heard we’re going to face a free-speech lawsuit. Well, I have some free speech for you: F*ck you, Vic Walczak.”
Ravenstahl’s tirade against Walczak, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, was not just childish and crude but demonstrative of the contempt the mayor has for civil liberties and the men who defend them.
One of the few voices publicly condemning the mayor’s behavior, independent mayoral candidate Kevin Acklin, said Ravenstahl’s appearance was “offensive and inappropriate.” I contacted the mayor’s office to get his side of the story but my request for comment was declined.
Acklin said that it sent a message to students and others affected by the G-20 Summit that Ravenstahl isn’t waiting for a trial and that “he’s already made up his mind that it’s okay for the mayor’s office to militarize Oakland, to abuse students’ rights and then to use those offenses as a punch line for a cheap laugh.”
But Ravenstahl’s vulgar outburst was more than just a cheap joke, it was a jab made by a man who thinks he exists above civilized discourse in a city where very few institutions or individuals have the power to stand up to him.
Indeed, Ravenstahl seems to be right, as it took two weeks for the story of his conduct to even appear in the press. The Post-Gazette, at whose event he made such crass remarks, endorsed him on Sunday as the only candidate who “can handle the job” of mayor.
Clearly, the mainstream institutions of this city have failed to hold the mayor accountable and would rather remain on his good side than demand that he shape up and articulate a viable future for the city. This is the crux of the matter: the Ravenstahl Administration has never articulated a vision of the city’s future, but has instead devoted its energies to getting even with the mayor’s enemies and enriching the mayor’s campaign contributors.
Remember, this is the mayor that tried to cut City Council’s staff over a budget disagreement and an Administration that has overseen the awarding of lucrative contracts to campaign donors even when they aren’t the lowest bidders.
The mayor’s approach to students is simply one aspect of his inability to transcend daily politics and lead the city — young and old — toward a better tomorrow. By arbitrarily taxing students and ignoring their legitimate grievances about the city’s handling of Oakland during the G-20 Summit, Ravenstahl is ignoring the very people who are going to be part of this city’s future.
As Acklin said of the mayor’s plan to tax students, “It’s no way to treat the young people so vital to our city, and it’s no way to roll out the welcome mat to tens of thousands of our most eligible future residents.”
And that’s what many of us are: potential future residents of Pittsburgh who should be courted rather than penalized. Many of us work here, we pay taxes, we’re a vital part of the city’s economy and it’s time that we vote in local elections to secure this city’s future and our place in it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Columbus Day a Losing Battle for Libertarians, Conservatives

TThe Pitt News just published this piece on the recent controversy among libertarians, objectivists and conservatives over Columbus Day:
Scattered across the country in small towns and large cities are countless statues of Christopher Columbus.Once an Italian-American icon and renowned explorer, Columbus’s power over the American consciousness has waned in the past decades. But this year’s Columbus Day saw a resurgence in support for the largely disgraced adventurer.
Surprisingly, the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights has spearheaded this revival on the national level with an article by Tom Bowden entitled “Let’s take back Columbus Day.” In the article, Bowden writes, “By effectively abandoning Columbus Day, we’ve cheated ourselves out of an opportunity to celebrate the core values of Western Civilization: reason and individualism.”
But Bowden’s identification of Columbus as a representative of Western civilization who brought reason and individualism to the Western Hemisphere ignores the historical record.
Far from Bowden’s construction of Columbus as a Promethean figure who brought liberty and reason to the Americas, contemporary records and Columbus’s own writings depict him as a savage governor, representative of two anti-liberal pillars in Western history: fanatical Catholicism and the government of Ferdinand and Isabella.
It’s easy to put a positive spin on the grand impact of Columbus’s actions because, after all, none of us would be here today and the United States would not exist if it weren’t for Columbus’s “discovery” of the Western Hemisphere in 1492. That being said, it’s much more difficult to defend Columbus as a man rather than a historical idea because his personal conduct reveals a profound barbarism.
Not only a mariner and adventurer, Columbus was the governor of Hispaniola — modern day Haiti and Dominican Republic — where he presided over the enslavement of the indigenous people. Columbus’s treatment of the natives was so harsh that, according to Yale’s Genocide Studies Program, only 32,000, of an estimated pre-Columbian population of several hundred thousand to 1 million, survived by 1514.
Columbus’s journals reveal his intent to enslave the natives of Hispaniola when, upon observing them for the first time, he wrote, “With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
Indeed, Columbus’s rule was considered so savage during his own time that Ferdinand and Isabella had him arrested, brought back to Spain and imprisoned. Whatever his supposed role in the expansion of Western civilization, Columbus was understood during his own time as a barbaric tyrant and his actions, as recorded by his contemporaries, reveal him as a savage man who instigated countless atrocities in the new world.
In spite of the historical record, Bowden’s defense of Columbus resonated across the country and found supporters among conservatives and libertarians everywhere. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review published an editorial entitled“Columbus Day still worth celebrating” that directly cited Bowden’s argument.
The Trib also published a glowingly pro-Columbus news article entitled “Columbus honored as brave beacon of hope for Italian-Americans,” in which Pittsburghers like Councilman Bill Peduto laud Columbus as a symbol of identity and pride in the Italian-American community and a historical figure representative of America’s immigrant spirit.
It is fascinating that support for Columbus has emerged nationally from an objectivist think-tank that’s reasoning was adopted and echoed by a local conservative publication. For some reason, elements of the libertarian Right have adopted their hemisphere’s first slave-trader as a symbol of Western civilization’s “reason and individualism.”
By picking a fight with the historians who did so much to discredit Columbus and the indigenous movements that continue to identify Columbus Day as an inappropriate celebration of genocide, conservatives and libertarians are staking out positions in a cultural struggle that should never be fought.
It puts rational, secular elements of the Right in a position where they’re defending a man whose personal record is indefensible and whose motivations were more the spread of violent Catholicism than of liberal Western civilization. The Ayn Rand Center should leave such battles to the religious Right that Ayn Rand herself so disdained and continue to do good work in the service of individual liberty rather than shoddy historical revisionism in the service of Italian-Americans.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Students for Justice in Palestine Seek $4,000 to Hold Anti-Israel Conference at Pitt

Displaying a profound disrespect for the educational process, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) joined local anarchists in calling for students to “disrupt schools” in response to the G-20 Summit and now they’re asking SGB for $4,077.51 to fund an anti-Israel conference at Pitt.
Scheduled to begin October 23rd, the “BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) conference” is a collection of workshops including “How to research corporations profiting from occupation and apartheid” and “Academic and Cultural Boycotts.”
Organized with the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, the conference will host the usual speakers condemning Israel as an apartheid state and a general force for evil in the Middle East. 
I’m not writing to discuss the comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa nor do I think that that is the most pressing issue raised by the upcoming conference.
Putting aside our different positions on Israel, I think we should all be outraged that a student group that called for the disruption of schools around the country three weeks ago is attempting to appropriate more than $4,000 of our money in order to further its fringe agenda on campus.
Now, I fully support SJP’s decision to have this conference at Pitt. In fact, I’d encourage people to attend it and witness the farcical logic that underpins the divestment movement.
However, it would be unconscionable for Pitt’s diverse student body to have to pay for such a conference. The student activities fee is levied against every student and it would be wrong for anyone but SJP and its supporters to fund a conference that hosts speakers who support terrorist organizations.
For instance, the conference is scheduled to include poet Remi Kanazi as a speaker. A man who claims that Hamas is not a terrorist organization, Kanazi wrote in his Twitter feed, “Wow, a marine recruiter just called me! [I] told him, ‘You probably don’t want me with a gun in the Middle East.’”
Kanazi’s suggestion that he would be some sort of danger to the United States or its interests if he were armed and in the Middle East is troubling and particularly revealing of his character and politics; both of which no student at the University of Pittsburgh should be forced to fund.
His support of Hamas demonstrates a callous disregard for the facts. Objectively, Hamas is an anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying terrorist organization with a history of carrying out suicide bombings.
Kanazi has a right to defend them if he wants but no student at Pitt should have to subsidize a conference that includes a man such as this among its speakers.
The allocations committee recommended that SJP receive $1,748 but neither the University nor SGB should spend a single cent to bring friends of Hamas such as Remi Kanazi to our campus.
SGB will make the final decision Tuesday night at 8:45 in room 837 of the William Pitt Union. Students should attend this meeting and make it clear to SGB that no student group that calls for the disruption of schools should receive student activities fee dollars nor should any conference that hosts the like of Remi Kanazi be paid for by students.
Make your voices heard; attend Tuesday’s SGB meeting. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Independent Alternative to Ravenstahl

The column below was recently published by The Pitt News.

Eschewing the typical ideological identity and principled policy positions that identify a politician as either a Democrat or a Republican, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is running for reelection as both a Republican and Democrat.
Ravenstahl, a life-long Democrat, finagled this by defeating a challenger in the Democratic primary and winning the write-in contest for the Republican nomination with 607 votes from Pittsburgh Republicans.
With the two-party system successfully broken to Ravenstahl’s will, two independent challengers, Franco “Dok” Harris and Kevin Acklin, emerged to contest the election.
Acklin, a business lawyer who grew up in South Oakland and holds degrees from both Harvard and Georgetown, said he launched his campaign “to wrest control of this city from the Machine.” Acklin said that this election is about bringing stronger leadership to the mayor’s office and eliminating the corruption that has flourished during the Ravenstahl Administration.
Acklin’s got a point. Ravenstahl’s tenure in office has been dogged by unexplained no-bid contracts, the awarding of city contracts to campaign contributors when they’re the highest bidder and Ravenstahl’s personal misuse of city resources such as the SUV purchased with Homeland Security dollars that he took to a Toby Keith concert.
It’s hard to disagree with Acklin when he says, “[the Ravenstahl] Administration is being run for the benefit of a few.” And just in case you think you're one of the chosen few who benefit from the Ravenstahl Administration, remember that Pitt students are Ravenstahl’s new cash cow.
Ravenstahl recently proposed levying a $100 fee against undergraduate students in order to help resolve the city’s pension crisis. Both independent candidates came out strongly against this fee with Harris characterizing it as a cynical attempt to extract money from a constituency without the political clout to contest it.
Harris said that it made no sense to saddle students with an extra fee when students are prevented by their studies from holding down fulltime jobs. The city should instead look to wealthier non-profits like UPMC and others that own large amounts of land throughout the city but pay no taxes, Harris said.
Like Acklin, Harris said that he’s running to bring leadership to the mayor’s office and described himself as a social progressive, economic liberal and fiscal conservative. Harris will appear on the ballot as a candidate of the “Franco Dok Harris Party” and he said that Ravenstahl’s decision to run as both a Democrat and Republican reflects poorly on his personal character and demonstrates that he’ll do anything to win.
But the same can’t be said of Harris whose campaign has imposed caps on contributions of $2,400 per individual and $4,800 per household. Harris said that these caps are necessary because it’s impossible to show voters that you’ll bring change to the city if you don’t change the way campaigns are run in the first place.
Neither Ravenstahl nor Acklin have joined Harris in this self-imposed campaign finance reform and Acklin said that it simply isn’t feasible. Acklin said, “we’re running to win” and Harris’s contribution caps would make it impossible to defeat Ravenstahl’s well-funded campaign.
Although Acklin and Harris disagree on this question of campaign contributions, both candidates said that the best way to keep young people in the city is to promote small businesses and help start-ups establish themselves in local neighborhoods in order to create jobs for college graduates.
Harris said that the role of the mayor should be to forge public-private partnerships investing in start-ups and encouraging entrepreneurship. If elected, Harris said he would work to rebuild business districts and help connect entrepreneurs with free legal and business help from local schools.
Acklin is equally focused on creating jobs for young people and he stressed the importance of competition and entrepreneurship in rebuilding the city’s economy. As a business lawyer, Acklin said he worked closely with start-ups and green job providers who he thinks are key to the city’s future and its ability to keep young people in the area after graduation.
Acklin said that, if elected, he’d make the mayor’s office a “one stop shop” for entrepreneurs where they could be connected with local resources that would help them build a business and create jobs.
One thing is clear: There is no room for young people in Ravenstahl’s version of Pittsburgh where business deals are tied to campaign contributions and students are treated as an easy source of revenue in times of crisis.
Instead, we must look to the independent candidates because their vision of Pittsburgh’s future includes students not as a $100 a year revenue source to be exploited but as partners in creating a more vibrant city.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Obama Engages Dictators, Abandons Pro-Democracy Movements

The column below was published in The Pitt News today. Enjoy, read and comment:

Two nights of clashes between students and police have stolen the local media spotlight in the aftermath of the G-20 Summit but the major story for the international community to come out of Pittsburgh is the disclosure of Iran’s second nuclear facility.
Located on a military base outside of the holy city of Qum, Iran’s second uranium enrichment facility raises the stakes in tomorrow’s talks between Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia.
These talks, to take place in Geneva, constitute the fulfillment of one of Obama’s key campaign promises to engage Iran diplomatically and it is a promise that Obama has adhered to in the face of Iran’s June 2009 coup, its continued funding of terrorism and its recent missile test.
Indeed, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has done everything in his power to communicate his regime’s intransigence to the world. He even appointed a wanted terrorist to the cabinet position of Defense Minister, thumbing his nose at international norms and laws.
Ahmadinejad is closely following the North Korean playbook of outrageous international provocations and his conduct is a clear indication that he cannot be trusted.
Instead of recognizing Ahmadinejad’s government as the illegitimate and brutal farce that it is, Obama has blindly adhered to his vague foreign policy of engagement. This policy is not only harming the interests of this nation but also damaging the Iranian people whose pro-democracy movement has been largely ignored by the Obama Administration.
Rather than denounce the Ahmadinejad government and materially pressure it to abandon its nuclear program, Obama has handled Iran’s leaders with kid gloves and granted them international legitimacy by engaging them diplomatically.
Obama should recognize that the Iranian government thrives on illusions and requires international sanction in order to exist. For instance, every time that Obama refers to Iran as an “Islamic Republic,” he is participating in the Iranian illusion of representative government.
To call Iran a republic is to ignore the fact that an unelected religious despot known as the “Supreme Leader of Iran” and his council of Medievalist mullahs control the foreign and domestic policies of Iran. This Supreme Leader appoints the heads of the military, media and judiciary as well as the 12 members of the Guardian Council tasked with deciding who runs for president and what laws are ratified.
It is impossible to treat this government as representative of the Iranian people but Obama continues to do just this in his desperate attempt to placate the American Left and its nonsensical belief that Iran can be engaged diplomatically.
Not only is this policy of engagement a dramatic betrayal of American principles, it is an insult to the Iranian people who have taken to the streets in support of democracy. We should be engaging with these pro-democracy activists and aiding them in their attempt to establish a true Iranian republic not actively undermining them by treating their dictators as legitimate rulers.
Indeed, a democratic Iran unfettered by the tyranny of theocracy would have no need for nuclear weapons and would pose no threat to the United States or our allies in the region. Promoting democracy in Iran is the only sure way to prevent nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of Ahmadinejad and being used in his genocidal plans to wipe Israel off the map.
But what’s most troubling about Obama’s engagement with Iran is that it’s part of a larger foreign policy that fails to delineate between democracy and despotism, right and wrong. Obama has shown a remarkable propensity to reach out to dictators and treat them as legitimate rulers and potential partners with the United States.
He has warmed American relations with the Castro dictatorship in Cuba, reached out to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and sent high-level American politicians to meet with despots in Myanmar and North Korea.
Dictators crave international legitimacy and whether it’s shaking Chavez’s hand in a photo-op or trading meetings with powerful American politicians for the release of hostages, Obama has consistently delivered this legitimacy to some of the world’s most despicable rulers.
It’s time for Obama to tell the truth about despots in Iran and throughout the world and to stop treating them as trustworthy diplomatic partners. Only by standing with the oppressed, pro-democratic elements of nations such as Iran can our nation secure its national interest. 

Friday, September 25, 2009

Interns Deserve Pay Too

This column was published in The Pitt News today. After considering the issues in greater depth, I'm not sure I fully stand by this published position any longer but that's a post for another day.

Internships are a popular way for students to learn valuable work related skills while also getting their foot in the door at a corporation of their choosing. While many interns are paid for their work or at least granted a stipend, the unpaid internship is a fixture of college life.
Students in the social sciences flock to unpaid internships working at non-profits, political offices and news publications because they perceive the experience of working for these outfits as vital not only to their college experience but also to their future career.
In this process of working for experience rather than money, students are harming themselves and the labor market.
First, by working for free, students are telling employers that their labor is not valuable. Remember, internships vary from five to 40 hours a week and many approach full time employment.
Working these kinds of hours without any compensation except for “experience” signals that students don’t take their skills and time seriously in the context of a capitalist free market. Keep in mind, we function in an economy where hiring and pay are largely determined by skill.
Certainly, nepotism and affirmative action skew this metric but in a majority of situations it is an applicant’s ability that secures them a paying job. And the fact that it is paying is important because exchanging your skills and time for nothing but a letter of recommendation is a reflection on how you view yourself in a job market.
Remember, if companies weren’t able to dupe a student into photocopying, answering phones and writing internal memos for free, they would have to hire a paid secretary to perform these tasks. In any other economic system, this demand would give the applicant leverage to secure meaningful compensation for their time.
But this isn’t only about the individual college student and the fact that they’re getting ripped off by corporations. No, college students accepting and even clamoring for unpaid internships affect everyone by devaluing labor and making it impossible for students in some areas to trade their skills and time for compensation.
For instance, a political science major would be hard-pressed to find a paid internship in a political office and it is almost impossible to find one on Capitol Hill. Instead, there’s intense competition for unpaid internships in politics making it almost impossible for a student to find a paid position.
These unpaid internships may teach students the ins and outs of the political system, but they make a political education almost impossible for students who have to pay their own way through college. Without income through the internship, students have to take on second jobs, rely on family or go further into debt in order to gain a firsthand political education in the nation’s capital.
This trend is repeated throughout many disciplines as students who have to pay their own way are priced-out of internships. This turns a job market based on merit and ability into one based on wealth and connections.
Of course, in some instances, unpaid internships may be necessary for a particular field of study such as law but as an overall trend in education, unpaid internships should be discouraged.            

The difficulty is that many colleges and universities have incorporated unpaid internships as part of their curriculum, encouraging students to basically perform volunteer work for credit. But while a student’s labor can teach them many things through work experience, employment should be considered primarily an economic question and only secondarily as an aspect of education.
Treating work as an economic issue rather than an educational one will prepare students for the reality of their time after college, when securing a job is based on your skills rather than your willingness to work for free.
On the whole, unpaid internships distort the job market, price many students out of positions in competitive fields such as politics, and reinforce an unrealistic understanding of post-college work. Universities should encourage students to secure the greatest monetary gain possible for the skills they possess, rather than support the exchange of hundreds of hours of labor for little or no material gain.