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FUZZY MATH INVADES WASHINGTON

Welcome to George W. Bush's world of fuzzy policy thinking. If you find yourself confused, befuddled or confounded by his recent proposals, don't worry about a thing. You understand them perfectly. They just don't make much sense.

Let me see if I can help with some of your questions:

What, you wonder, does drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have to do with solving California's energy crisis? Absolutely nothing, so don't waste time trying to find the connection. Less than 1 percent of California's electricity comes from oil.

Will allowing power plants in California to pollute more help solve the energy crisis there? No, Bush is just misinformed on that point, according to environmentalists, California state officials and energy-industry spokesmen.

Is there anything that the president can do about the California crisis? Yes, he might impose a temporary cap on wholesale electricity prices, but he has already announced that he will not, thus foreclosing (if nothing else) a useful threat.

Will, you ask, giving a huge tax cut to the wealthiest people in the country help prevent a recession? No. Isn't this the same tax cut Bush tried to sell us during the campaign on the grounds that the economy was so good we needed a tax cut? Yes.

And then, of course, there is one of Bush's faves: Let's use the churches to provide social services. (In W.'s policy world, churches are always "faith-based institutions." The words "church" and "religious" are never used.)

That is not, actually, a totally terrible idea, except that it's unconstitutional and guaranteed to get screwed up in the execution. We've already tried it here in the National Laboratory for Bad Government - aka Texas - and that's what we learned.

Bush's "faith-based" proposal includes a series of tax changes to encourage charitable giving to religious and other community organizations. This is a good idea, but isn't it at cross purposes with his other proposal to eliminate the estate tax, which now provides a major incentive to recycle money into the nonprofit sector?

Yes, indeed, these two policies will cancel each other out, except the nonprofit sector will lose more by repeal of the estate tax than it will gain by the other tax changes. In other words, the net effect of Bush's proposals moves in the opposite direction from that which he says he wants. You will find this often happens with Bush. It could be fuzzy math.

Bush is especially pushing religious programs that work at rehabilitating inmates on the grounds that it will encourage such splendid programs as Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship. What is believed to be the largest religious program for prisoners? The Nation of Islam, headed by Louis Farrakhan, the noted loony and racist.

This is why the "faith-based" proposal does not work. It's because the government has to keep deciding what's legitimate religion and what's not.

Trying to keep money given to religious organizations from being used for proselytizing is hopeless; money is fungible, a wonderful word meaning "interchangeable." If you give money to a church for one purpose, that in turn helps fund the church's other purposes since, obviously, it has more money.

Those of you who know "Christians afire" - those who cannot stop witnessing - will not be surprised to learn that they will, in all good faith, set up, say, an employment training program based on the premise that once you have been born again, you're automatically more employable. I'm sorry to say this, but anyone who reads the newspapers regularly and notices the number of religious figures accused of child molestation and other abuses will not be surprised to learn that religious social service programs are like other social programs: Some are good, and some are not. Pretending that they are all somehow superior to state social services doesn't help anything.

Religious conservatives are correct to question this Bush program. The government will inevitably have to draw lines about what is acceptable and what is not, what is preaching and what is not.

And this is the policy record that has been pronounced a triumph by the Washington press corps.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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