Good intentions just aren't enough

January 26, 2009
Two weeks ago in this space, I offered an over-the-top column about online networks. Many readers failed to recognize the tongue-in-cheek approach to linking up with others. Instead, they interpreted that hyperbolic diatribe as an attack on computers, the modern age, progress and humanity. Your author was described as an isolationist doomed to a lonely old age, rather than a poor imitation of W.C. Fields.

This brings us to the Obama administration. It has introduced the "Citizen's Briefing Book," www.citizensbriefingbook.change.org. This is "an online forum where you can share your ideas, and rate or offer comments on the ideas of others. The bestrated will rise to the top." I see the virtue of being open to the public's concern. I cannot imagine that the president will give attention to issues based on their popularity. I want to believe that he has a clear sense of which problems require resources and their appropriate urgency.

This Web-based popularity poll is "American Idol" in public policy. And who is winning? As of this writing, and this stuff changes by the quarter-hour, there are 91,370 points for Ending Marijuana Prohibition. Actually that is a bloated figure; each positive or negative vote is worth 10 points.

Is ending the prohibition on the use of marijuana the top concern of this nation? Is an end to government-sponsored abstinence education the fourth-most-important issue? Should we end "economic slavery" by getting rid of the Federal Reserve?

Inexpensive communications are a step forward for society, but they open the door to popular nonsense. Now every idle nutcase may spend hours at a public library computer terminal expressing his/her marijuana-induced views and voting on the worth of ideas submitted by others.

Barack Obama was elected for his leadership skills. Do we want him to take time each night (as promised on this Web site) to read the communications of people with no better use of their time than to empty their mental sewerage tanks? Of course, this is the direction in which some newspapers are going, following the path pioneered by talk-radio.

Fortunately, our new president understands the importance of requesting input from others, even those who disagree with him. He also is a constitutional scholar and understands that this is a republic with representative government, not a democracy run by popularity contests.

As long as we are focused on misguided efforts, consider this: Indiana State Sen. Johnny Nugent (R-Lawrenceburg) has offered State Bill 12, which "prohibits a state college or university from regulating in any manner the ownership, possession, carrying or transportation of firearms or ammunition." The senator says students should be able to protect themselves from killers of the sort seen at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois.

Nugent has been in the state Senate since 1978, and yet introduces bills that have no chance of passing. There is no support for this bill among educators. They understand that more guns on campus provide more opportunities for tragedy.

This bill opens the door for more disturbed students to kill other students. A teacher who gives a failing grade could be signing his/her death warrant. Administrators who disappoint applicants, parents, students, staff, alumni or faculty are put at risk. What happens to the coach who fails to have a winning season?

Every bill that is introduced clogs the system if it is assigned to committee. It also costs taxpayers money. For example, the Legislative Services Agency has to provide a legal analysis and a fiscal impact study of every bill, no matter how worthless. Not only is the bill a serious error of policy, it is an example of irresponsible pandering to pernicious special interests.

The current drive to reform government should not start with local government, but with state government. The best place to begin is with the circus that does not entertain, the Indiana General Assembly. 

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Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.

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