Monday, November 9, 2009

Dereliction of Duty

I’ve asked myself many times over the last decade how is it that Americans could be so cavalier in protecting the gift we’ve been born with, the foundation of the greatest country that has yet existed on the planet: The Constitution of the United States. How is it possible that we went from what was established to be an explicitly limited government to a point where there is practically nothing in our lives that we do that the imperial federal government does not somehow impact or control, from eating our breakfast cereal to driving home from work to what we watch on TV? Now as if to put a cherry on top of a sundae made of molasses, we have Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi’s nightmare healthcare bill. Where in the Constitution does it say that the government can force Americans to buy health insurance under penalty of prison? I’ve read it many times and I can’t say it jumps out at me.

My answer to the question of how we got from there to here came in the form of a recent epiphany that involved Cyrus McCormick and Neil Boortz, who, like Mao & Mother Theresa, make something of an odd couple. McCormick is the man who invented the first practical reaper – a machine for harvesting grain. In 1831, the year McCormick invented the reaper, farming had not materially changed for 5,000 years. Just as it had been in ancient Egypt, in 1831 a man could harvest approximately 2 acres of grain per day. As a result, between 85 & 90% of the American population of 15 million people were either directly or indirectly involved with farming. To put this in some perspective, in 2009, with a population 20 times as large, 300 million, we actually have fewer people working in farming, both in terms of numbers, 10 million vs. 12 million and percent, 3%, than we did 180 years ago. Despite that, we feed far more people and America has become something of the breadbasket for the world.

Here’s where Boortz comes in. He has a refrain he often uses. He calls the US the United States of Entertainment. What he means by that is that we are so busy with various forms of entertainment, from watching American Idol to reading People Magazine to playing Wii, that we have lost focus on the things that are important.

He is exactly right. Think about this, according to Nobel Prize winning economist Robert Fogel, in 1875 Americans spent 74% of their income on three basic things, food, shelter & clothing. That means that they spent 26% of their income on everything else, entertainment, healthcare and transportation. Shift ahead to 1995 and Fogel suggests that those numbers have basically flipped with Americans spending less than 20% of their income on food, shelter & clothing and 80% on everything else, over 3 times what they did in 1875, despite the fact that we live in much bigger, better furnished homes, eat far more food with much greater variety and we often have wardrobes that would have turned kings and queens of centuries past green with envy.

To see where these pieces fit together, one merely has to step back and look at the big picture. In McCormick’s day, or even a century ago, the overwhelming majority of American daily life was dedicated to taking care of the basics of life, food, shelter etc. People went about their lives actually living, making choices and decisions that were necessary for the safety, security and happiness of their own families. They understood that it was their responsibility to make good choices about how they used their land, how many children they could support, what they wanted to eat or what they needed to do to start a business. They understood this because they understood that the consequences of bad decisions would clearly fall on their shoulders.

What has slowly occurred over the last 100 years (and picked up steam in the last 40 years) is that the connection between choices and consequences has been eliminated and we have hardly noticed it because we’ve been so busy enjoying our various forms of entertainment. According to Neilson, the average American watches 37 hours of television a week! That’s out of a 168 hours in a week, 56 of which we spend sleeping. And that’s just TV. Add to that watching movies, surfing the Internet and going out to dinner there is almost no time at all dedicated to the Constitution.

That probably sounds like a strange segue, but the truth is, that’s the point. The way we found ourselves in this mess is because Americans of all stripes have for the large part contracted out their government to whoever the highest bidder is (i.e. which politician promises to give them the most – which by definition means taking it from someone else) so that they can play some more video games or watch another episode of the Simpsons.

As such, it should be no surprise that by subcontracting out our government to people who promise to steal from someone else to feather our nests, that we now discover that these same people have not only usurped all of our powers, they have abrogated the very document that gave us the Republic in the first place. Decide for ourselves what medicines we’d like to take? No, the FDA gets to decide that for us. Decide for ourselves what companies we want to invest in? No, we’re not smart enough for that, so the SEC gets to decide where we can invest. Decide how much we want to pay our employees? Not a chance, the Department of Labor and the Pay Czar get to decide that. How about listening to our favorite talk show on the radio? Not for long, soon the FCC will be telling us what we can listen to and who can talk. Even if we wanted to do something specifically political like deciding on how much of our own money we can give to a political candidate, do we have a chance to decide for ourselves? Of course not, the FEC and McCain Feingold are there to protect us from ourselves.

Many things in life involve slippery slopes that require vigilance in order to ensure things work as they should. We as a people have been derelict in our responsibility when it comes to the actual foundation upon which this City on a Hill was built, the Constitution and our representative government. Like a crack in a windshield that slowly grows until it threatens the integrity of the window itself, our government has become a leviathan that threatens to strangle the very thing it was established to protect, our freedom and our ability to pursue happiness. We have no one to blame but ourselves, but at this point that is inconsequential. What is very consequential however is that we recognize this Borg we have created and decide that we are going to save ourselves before resistance truly does become futile. As some friends of mine are fond of saying, “The time is Now”. 2010 may indeed be the last opportunity we have to save the Republic. In the world of Xbox and YouTube and ESPN this might sound like so much hyperbole, but the truth is, all of those things and so many more are products of a dynamic free market built by the sacrifice and toil of a free people. If you think I’m off base here, ask yourself where those things and everything from elevators to planes to nuclear power to cell phones to super computers to air conditioning were developed. It’s no coincidence that they were all invented in a country that had at its foundation individual freedom, private property rights and the fundamental freedom to fail. Once those freedoms are gone, so too will follow the Internet, freedom of speech and finally the reality of happiness, nevermind its pursuit.

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