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Public Theology: Who Will Tell the People?
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Who Will Tell the People?
William Grieder writes about cost benefit analysis and other technical tools.

The following is an excerpt from William Grieder's 1992 book "Who Will Tell the People" which is an excellent introduction to the power of community organizing. This excerpt was taken from the Barnes and Noble website, where you could buy the book.

While the use of cost-benefit formulas originated in the Executive Branch, every legislative debate is now fought out on this murky technical ground. Cost-benefit calculation is the highest art form in the realm of persuasion by information and the most deceitful. Its purpose is to construct ostensibly scientific benchmarks to justify what are really political judgments. The results are anything but scientific.

To construct cost-benefit equations, for instance, economists must first decide how much a human life is worth since the supposed economic benefit of saving a life will be measured against how much it costs to do so. The government has produced many godlike answers to that question. The Federal Aviation Administration put a value of $650,000 on a human life lost in an airplane crash. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the Labor Department decided a dead construction worker would be valued at $3.5 million. The Office of Management and Budget countered that a dead construction worker was worth no more than $1 million. Across the government, nearly every federal agency and department has played Solomon, coming up with wildly different judgments.

The use of these technical tools aside from the ludicrous biases and inconsistencies leads to conclusions that offend public morality as well as law. In essence, property rights (and profit) are being assigned a higher value than human rights. Human lives are discounted, quite literally, by government economists, as they decide whether it is worththe cost of saving them. Not surprisingly, their supposedly scientific methods are usually biased in favor of not doing anything.

When agencies concoct statistical life values, for instance, they typically include the economic benefit of preventing a death caused by industrial hazards or pollution, but not the benefit of preventing long-term illness and injury, since that is more difficult to quantify. The omission automatically skews the equation in favor of the industrial polluters by reducing the potential benefits of action. "We all know it's much cheaper to bury someone than it is to treat them on a long-term basis," David Vladeck, a lawyer with Public Citizen, observed.

The cost-benefit approach, more fundamentally, obscures the elemental questions of justice that are present in much of what Congress debates who must pay and who will suffer if they aren't made to pay? Cost-benefit theory pretends that everyone in the society will share the economic cost of protecting the environment or eliminating occupational dangers, but that is only tree in some distant economic sense. In the here and now, the bill has to be paid by particular parties, usually the offending business enterprises, their owners and customers.

That is why businesses lobby so strenuously to escape the costs it's their money. Victims, on the other hand, are mostly unknown and in the future, unable to write their congressman because they don't yet know they will be the victims.

The triumph of the cost-benefit logic is perhaps the starkest example of how professional expertise has overwhelmed the public's sense of political values, in the name of economic efficiency. If American lives are only worth what they produce, then some lives should logically be treated as more valuable than others, since obviously some people will produce "more" economic return measured by dollars. Naturally no one would articulate that premise directly, but it is often reflected in which life-threatening problems the government decides to take seriously and which ones it chooses to ignore.

When all the technical complications are stripped away, these economic calculations assume that citizens exist, not as free-standing creatures leading their own lives, but merely as agents of the overall economy. The implicit premise has a faint odor of fascist thinking: that people belong to the state and its larger purposes, not the other way around.

In legislative debate, the economic argument regularly prevails over the human values, not solely because politicians are enthralled by economists, but because the economist's dry statistics are often accompanied by a powerful threat the company will close the factory if it doesn't get its way. If the standards are set too high, if the taxes are too onerous, the business enterprise will be shut down, destroying jobs and livelihoods. The threat is often bluff and artful exaggeration. In an earlier era, American industrialists warned that there would be economic chaos if children were prohibited from working in coal mines and garment factories. But the economic threat can also be actualized.

Information politics crystallizes the threat with "facts" and a nervous politician, confronted with elaborate studies, may not be able to tell which is bluff and which is real. During the clean-air debate, the National Association of Manufacturers distributed a "Jobs at Risk" map purporting to show the job losses in every legislator's home state if Congress enacted a tough measure. The data was extrapolated from EPA technological studies in a most dubious manner, but it had a wilting effect on congressional enthusiasm for a tough clean-air measure.

Politicians dwell in the middle of this contest caught between public "emotions" and uncompromising "economics" or at least that is how most politicians see themselves. But elected officials, unless they are very sophisticated, are not much better equipped than average citizens to judge between business threats and the popular sense of the right thing to do.

Unless one imagines a society in which everyone goes to law school or gets a Ph.D. in economics, the average citizen cannot be present in the contemporary debate, often cannot even understand what it is about. The various public-interest organizations that field lawyers and other experts in their behalf help to compensate for the absent citizens, but that is not the same as democratic representation.

Democracy is about aggregating the collective power of citizens to speak in their behalf. That process requires strong mediating institutions that are loyal to their adherents, that will listen to them and translate their values into technically plausible language, that will defend their claims and not forfeit them because the other side has hired better economists or more lawyers. That linkage is a large part of what's missing in contemporary politics.

The underlying contest is not just the tension between values and facts, but also that between personal loyalty and disinterested rationalism. Loyalty is another word that has fallen into disuse in politics the other side of trust. Trusted representatives are rare because the public senses that too few of the people they send to Washington will remain loyal to their untutored opinions, when confronted with the information army. Loyalty and trust are not easily established in politics and certainly not by the manipulative techniques that invent artificial public opinions. The familiar routines of modern government only sow more popular distrust because these are the methods that disparage and dismiss the deeply felt expressions from citizens at large.

The better-educated classes perhaps find it difficult to understand that there are real limits to "rational" information politics. But this is not a mystery to those who lack professional credentials or privileged status. At any neighborhood bar or lunch counter, when citizens talk about politics, they do not talk about the governing process as a rational search for "responsible" policies. They see it, plain and simple, as a contest ruled by power and they know that they do not have much.

Copyright 1992 by William Greider

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Date Added: 6/6/2002 Date Revised: 6/6/2002

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