Sunday, November 28, 2010

Freedom is more than just Speech and Religion - but there's not that much left!

Freedom is one of those words that we use a lot in this country. It’s one of those words that many use assuming that we’re all talking about the same thing, when in reality we are probably not. Many people will argue that one of the great strengths of America is the Freedom of her people. That is about as far as the consensus goes however.

As a touchstone, here is how Webster’s Dictionary defines Freedom:
The quality or state of being free: as
a : the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action
b : liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another : independence
c : the quality or state of being exempt or released usually from something onerous

On the most basic level Freedom fundamentally means the ability to do something or a variety of things unrestrained by external forces. (While we may be restrained by internal forces from doing something, the necessity of exercising that restraint suggests we have the freedom to do otherwise.)

If one were to ask Americans today whether or not if they are free, i.e. if they have freedom, most would likely say yes. They might suggest they have Freedom of Speech which allows them to say almost anything they want. Absent most college campuses this is largely true. They might suggest that they enjoy a Freedom of Religion and can worship whatever god they choose or choose not to worship at all. This too is for the most part true. Unfortunately, however, if one were to dig just below the surface of Speech and Religion things become murky quite rapidly.

Fundamental to the founding of this country and enshrined in the 9th Amendment to the Constitution is the notion that the rights of the people are boundless: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people. Basically, while the freedoms of Speech, Religion, Press etc. are explicitly stated, the people have many more and the absence of their explicit inclusion in the Constitution does not mean they don’t exist.

Why does any of this matter? Because many of those other freedoms are being diminished each day slowly but surely.

How? It’s not as blatant as Congress or state legislatures passing a law that says “Americans no longer have a right to do XXX”. That might spark a rebellion. No, it’s far more subtle, but the result is the same. And the tool with which government slowly takes your freedom? Regulation. Make no mistake about it, regulation means control. And their control means less freedom for you. Of course the regulations themselves rarely highlight the freedoms they are diminishing. A perfect example is the 822 page 2007 Energy Bill signed into law by President Bush. The legislation doesn’t explicitly outlaw regular incandescent light bulbs, but it sets energy requirements such that for all intents and purposes they are outlawed by 2014. You might say, what freedom is being limited there? Well, for one your willingness to pay $.50 for a light bulb rather than $2.00. A manufacturer’s freedom to continue to use their current facilities to manufacture incandescent light bulbs (and ideally return profits to shareholders) verses having to invest tens of millions of dollars in R&D and building new facilities for the new bulbs, resulting of course in reduced dividends to shareholders.

Light bulbs… how often do you buy one? Not too often, and in the big picture it’s not that much of an expense. True enough, but unfortunately light bulbs represent but one tiny filament in the regulatory straitjacket Americans find themselves wrapped in. Mileage standards for cars. Ethanol regulations. Minimum wage laws. Happy Meal bans. License requirement in Texas for the right to call oneself an Interior Designer. The 1099 requirements in ObamaCare. ADA. McCain Feingold. Forced unionism.

Individually any one of these laws might be tolerable. The problem however is that they do not operate individually. They all operate simultaneously. Layer upon layer. What’s worse, each of these regulations has a bureaucracy behind them who’s main purpose in life is to grow its power and serve its constituency. The Texas Board of Architectural Examiners exists to serve the Texas chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. The Ethanol bureaucracy (Departments of Energy & Agriculture) serve the desires of the environmentalists and farmers. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors was serving the “We know better what’s good for your kids than you do” cabal when they passed the Happy Meal ban.

The problem is that there is a degree of separation between many of the industries and the citizens themselves. The EPA would be loathe to pass a regulation that says “We are going to force Americans to pay $100 billion more for electricity over the next six years.” They did however issue C02 regulations that will have just that impact, only the regulations focus on industry. This way, when the public sees their bills rise the utility companies get to feel their wrath… not the regulators. Perhaps the energy companies can tell the public why their energy bills are increasing? Not likely. When insurance companies tried to do just that with ObamaCare the administration thugs threatened their very livelihoods.

If freedom means anything, it means more than just being able to say what’s on your mind and attend church of your choice. How often are any of us called on to stand on a soapbox with an
impassioned plea in support of some divisive issue? How often are we forced to defend our worship of God in whatever form we think he takes? How often are newspapers threatened by censorship? Not so often. On the other hand there are myriad things we do each day where our freedoms are impacted by a plethora of regulations, from who can sell us lemonade to what we can earn to the cost of both our car and it’s gasoline to what our kids learn in school. More regulation means less freedom.

The fight against overregulation will be neither easy nor short but the first step in taking on that battle is understanding what’s really at stake. Regulation means control – control means fewer choices – fewer choices mean less freedom in our lives. Today it’s just the Happy Meals in San Francisco. Before long McDonalds and the rest of the obesity inducing profiteers will be put out of business and we will all be eating tofu burgers garnished with organic tomatoes on pita bread. Yummy!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

What is America? A country, an idea or both?

I heard someone remark this week that Barack Obama did not share the values of the United States because he didn’t grow up here. While initially that sounded plausible, the more I thought about it, the more I disagreed with it. The truth of the matter is that growing up in the United States is no guarantee of sharing values with America. A few examples might be Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, Michael Moore, the late Howard Zinn and many others.

The thing that President Obama and so many on the left do not understand is that the United States is indeed a unique animal. Not only is it a country, but it’s also an idea. People around the world don’t just dream of coming to America, they dream of becoming Americans. Many have and continue to risk their lives to do so. It’s one thing to risk your life escaping the Soviet Union, Communist China or even Communist Cuba. Those people were or are running from something, trying to go anywhere else. It’s another thing altogether to risk one’s life to come to a place… And that place is more often than not, America.

America is somewhat unique in the history of mankind – or at least in the last 2,000 years. People may dream of moving to Paris for the romance and the food, but they don’t dream of becoming a Frenchman. Many Hong Kong Chinese moved to Canada before the Communists took over, but they weren’t expecting to become Canadian. Someone might move to Singapore for its economic opportunities, but they don’t expect to become Singaporean. Throughout history one has examples of people choosing to move to a different locale to take advantage of economic opportunities or various freedoms. The British Empire offered certain advantages but few Indians or South Africans or Egyptians expected to move to Britain and become British. While they may have been British subjects, they were not actually British. One almost has to go back to the Roman Empire to find something similar to the idea of America. There, outsiders not only dreamed of living in Rome, they also dreamed of becoming Roman… and could do so. The idea of becoming a Roman citizen actually meant something beyond just living in the Empire or being subject to its laws.

Barack Obama misunderstands what it means to be an American. When he says that America is just one amongst equals on the world stage, he misses the point. Most Americans feel like America is indeed a better country than the rest of the world. That doesn’t mean that Americans believe they are genetically superior to anyone else or that we are by definition smarter than anyone else. It doesn’t even mean that the United States is infallible – a point President Obama is more than happy to point out. Rather, it is a recognition of the unique combination of freedom and opportunity that makes the country great. The United States may be filled with mortal men, but the expectation for 200 plus years is that those mortal men can achieve the impossible… that anything is possible. That sense of can do spirit, of American Exceptionalism has a long history going back to the pilgrims who carved out a place to call home and the rag tagged army that defeated the most powerful empire in the world. There is so much more with explorers, inventors and innovators. From McCormick feeding the world to Edison lighting it to Rockefeller revolutionizing energy and medicine. There’s also flight, winning two world wars, putting a man on the moon and the micro processor. There are even more mundane things like vulcanized rubber, the elevator, air conditioning and the Slinky.

Where Barack Obama and much of the left make their mistake is that they think the United States is synonymous with Uncle Sam… the federal government. They think America began to be great when the progressive agenda began to fall into place. They think of America as a place where the government makes people equal, where the government provides or guarantees everyone healthcare, welfare, education and income. America is great because the government protects the little guy against the modern robber barons. In essence, America is great because Uncle Sam is there to look out for everyone. In their zero sum game universe the government is there to adjust the down markers and move the goal posts so that everyone gets their “fair share”.

Barack Obama and the left are simply wrong. There’s an old saying about someone being born on third and imagining they hit a triple. They have the luxury of imagining the government is what makes America great precisely because for so long the government largely heeded the Constitution’s bounds and America prospered. It is only because the private sector was so successful, it is only because so many entrepreneurs risked everything, it is only because so many millions of Americans worked hard and created so much national wealth and prosperity could the progressives find an opportunity to think up things for the government to do. From Teddy Roosevelt attacking the robber barons to FDR paying farmers to kill pigs and let fields go fallow to Barack Obama pouring a trillion dollars in stimulus money down a rat hole, it is only the success and wealth created by the American people that made such folly possible.

One does not need to have grown up in America in order to appreciate what America is. (Read Paul Johnson’s History of the American People and you’ll see it on perfect display.) Anyone can look at a map and find the United States nestled between two oceans. It’s another thing altogether to know what the country is about, what its people are about, what the source of its greatness is and what makes it unique. Barack Obama and the Democrats can probably find the country on a map. Unfortunately it’s the other things, the more important things that they can’t see. That’s too bad for them, and as long as they making the rules, too bad for all of us.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Uncle Sam: Paying for #$%@& you would never consider... at the point of a gun

I’ve always been an advocate of English Only as the law of the land. It’s not jingoism that drives that but rather the need for communication. People have a difficult time communicating in the best of circumstances. How many times have you heard a husband or wife who have been married for a decade say about their spouse “He (or she) simply doesn’t understand me?” Or have you ever been involved in a political or religious discussion when at some point you think the person across the table is simply speaking a different language, despite the fact that both of you are using the King’s English. A common language is a starting point for communicating with one another, not the end in itself.

In a similar way, political discussion often looks like people trying to talk to one another using completely different languages. Take the Bush tax cuts for example. If nothing is done in the next month taxes will rise for everyone in America – or at least for those who pay income taxes. Democrats accuse the Republicans of wanting to give tax cuts to the rich. The GOP says they don’t want to raise taxes on anyone, rich or middle class. Same situation, two different takes.

This might sound like a simple question of semantics, but actually it’s anything but. The left frequently uses language to try and hide what is really being said – not a surprise coming from a party that is heavily supported by trial lawyers. They crucified George Bush as trying to gamble senior citizen’s retirement money on Wall Street when he sought to reform Social Security. Nothing could have been farther from the truth, but it played well enough in Peoria that the proposal never made it out of the gate. Such is the language of government: Lots of words, little communication and even less truth.

Every time some Democrat talks about the government doing this or that good thing they are not referring to some Xanadu where the government only does wonderful things for the citizenry, where there is plenty of everything to go around and where things work like a well oiled machine. Rather, they are using illusory language to talk about something quite different. They are at the most basic level talking about the government making choices for you… at the point of a gun. Make no mistake, that is exactly what government does. If you decide not to pay income taxes this year, the government will send you some correspondence seeking to get you to pay up. If you ignore them you will likely have your wages garnished or your bank account emptied. If that does not work or if you try flee, the IRS will send federal marshals after you and you can be sure they will be carrying guns. It happens every day. You don’t see the guns, but they are implied.

Now, once the government has your money they get to spend it on all the things they want… not what you want. Here are just a few examples of things the government decided to spend your money on last year thanks to President Obama’s Stimulus Bill:
  • $389,000 to pay 100 Buffalonians $45 each to record how much malt liquor they drank -- and how much pot they smoked each day.

  • $762,372 to fund the development of computer technology at UNC Charlotte to digitally record the dance moves of performers.

  • $1 million dollars for three Arizona graduate students to study how ants work.
Those three projects cost a total of $2,151,372. In the current environment that might sound like much. Looked at another way however, it takes on a bit more consequence. The average individual or family who filed a tax form in 2008 (the most recent year for which data are available) paid, on average, $7,366 in federal taxes – and that doesn’t include Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid taxes. That means that $2,151,372 represented the entire federal tax bill for 292 families across the country. That $7,366 the government took from each of those families and used to pay for the Buffalonians to write down how much beer and pot they used couldn’t be used to pay for school supplies for their children. Couldn’t be spent on replacing their old car. Couldn’t be spent to take the family to Disney World. Couldn’t be spent catching up on their mortgage. Couldn’t be given to their local church or charity. If that’s too obscure or disconnected for you, take a look at your own checkstub or income tax return. Whatever you paid, $7,366 (or everything up to it) went to support one of those programs above. What could you have done with that money?

Unfortunately for America, this $2 million is only a tiny slice of the money the government forcibly takes away from Americans to spend on things they would never spend their own money on. And it’s not just the Stimulus. It’s virtually the entire government. Farm subsidies. Welfare payments to recipients with enough money to buy cell phones, video games and big screen TVs. Thousands of dollars in bribes to buy electric cars few people want. Hundreds of millions of dollars to fund public broadcasting in the most diverse media market in the world. $123,000 salaries (and benefits) for federal workers who operate the dysfunctional government in the first place!

And what’s worse, it’s not just the money. The government increasingly is taking aim at the choices you should be making for yourself: How you can pay for college. Whether or not you must be a member of a union – and of course pay union dues, which are then spent on Democratic politicians whether you like it or not. What doctors you can choose. The kinds of cars you are allowed to buy.

Democrats (and too many Republicans) try to dress up this travesty in governance in innocuous or paternal sounding language: Insurance for children or A right to own their own home or Fairness in education. Behind every compassionate sounding phrase is the reality of dysfunctional government programs and regulations that take money out of the pockets of workers and take liberty and choices away from everyone.

At the end of the day government exists to provide citizens with an environment where they can enjoy their liberties and pursue happiness. Not sure? Let’s go to the source:
    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
The Declaration of Independence is why we have a government. The Constitution is how we do it. The Constitution describes a variety of government responsibilities such as providing for a national defense, limits on abridging individual rights and liberties as well as a role in areas such as interstate commerce, patents, roads and few others. It was limited by design. Somewhere in the last century that limited design was shunted to the side and is rapidly becoming a distant memory.

As 2010 comes to an end and the newly recalibrated Congress begins its work, the country is likely at something of a tipping point. Will it be omnipresent government that decides how we can live our lives and takes our money to spend on beer and pot diaries or will it be individual freedom where citizens are free to pursue happiness and benefit their families and communities prosperity resulting from ingenuity and hard work?

Such basic questions sometimes get lost in the language of politics but we allow that to happen at our own peril. Indeed Barack Obama and the Democrats won in 2008 with the vacuous language of “Hope and Change”... but lost because of "poor communication". As 2012 comes into focus conservatives must move the conversation away from simple platitudes and towards the consequential implications of government policies. If they speak plainly in a language that voters can understand and paint a crystal clear picture of exactly what the choices are, they will surely take the day. The question is, are they equipped to speak that language? Maybe some of them should register for English 101 in the spring just to make sure.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Can Michigan show the country how to save itself?

One of the great things about the United States Constitution that few people realize and even fewer understand is the idea of federalism. On the most basic level federalism is the notion that there are distinct spheres of influence and responsibility between the federal and state governments. James Madison thought that that notion of federalism was crystal clear in the original document itself that he originally opposed a Bill of Rights. He believed the federal government was already limited by the fact that it could do only those things explicitly detailed in the document. John Hancock, Patrick Adams and others insisted and eventually the Bill of Rights was added with the federal perspective enshrined in the 10th Amendment.

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Aside from limiting the powers of the federal government – at least in theory, as Obamacare demonstrated – the federalist system does something quite extraordinary, or at least it’s supposed to. What is that thing? Experimentation! Fundamentally federalism has given us 50 different testing grounds for new ideas. The notion being that when one state does something - good or bad - the others will notice and act accordingly.

A big part of the problem with the federal government becoming involved in so many areas of our lives is that it kills one of the great legacies left to us by George Mason and friends. They understood that in most cases it is the people closest to problems who are best equipped to handle them. As true as that was with a population of 4 million people it is exponentially more so with one of 310 million.

As such, now that the elections are over and the march towards 2012 is on, now is the perfect time to take to experimenting. And in our center ring I would like to suggest Michigan step up and take a page out of Rahm Emanuel’s book that says “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste” and take a shot at leading the country in a different direction.

Why Michigan? Because the state is a basket case. Detroit has gotten so bad that the government is considering turning a quarter of the city into farmland! Importantly, unlike the brain dead voters in the People’s Republic of California, the people of Michigan have shown themselves to recognize bad ideas when they see them. After eight disastrous years of Jennifer Granholm, Michigan’s citizens voted 2 to 1 to make businessman Rick Snyder their Governor. In addition, they gave Republicans the majority of seats in the state legislature and they made the GOP the majority of their Congressional delegation.

Michigan is one of those states that is in the middle of the pack in terms of freedom – economic and otherwise. According to the Mercatus Center at George Mason University the state is #17 out of 50 states in terms of overall taxes although on corporate taxes it’s #48. It’s #22 on government spending and believe it or not, #1 in regulatory freedom. Overall, the state comes in at #15 overall in the Center’s 2010 Economic Freedom rankings. Given that middle tier of economic freedom, Michigan should be somewhere in the middle of the economic road relative to the rest of the country.

Alas it is not. The state has lost an average of 500,000 jobs in the last five years and today it sits with an unemployment rate of 13.5%, behind only real estate ravaged Nevada. As bad as Michigan is right now, it would have been exponentially worse had not Barack Obama’s imperial federal government taken billions of dollars from non-Michigander's to give to General Motors and Chrysler and then in turn give the UAW unearned ownership in the companies they ruined - of course at the expense of secured creditors. Without Obama Michigan under the Democrats would have made some third world countries look like Germany by comparison. It may actually be the worst state in the country in terms of economic prospects. It is this chaos that creates the opportunity that Governor Snyder has in front of him.

He should seize upon this morass to demonstrate exactly what can be done when you let people vote with their feet. The first thing he and the new GOP legislature should do is eliminate all state and local income taxes. The second is to make Michigan a right to work state. Immediately after doing so the state should auction off all of that abandoned real estate in Detroit. (There are five states with no income taxes that are also right to work states: Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. Florida and Nevada have surging populations but have been decimated by federal housing policy. South Dakota has the second lowest unemployment rate in the country, Wyoming the 8th and Texas created more jobs over the last decade than all of the other states combined.)

Doing these things would immediately make Michigan a kind of job magnet – to the extent any company in America wants to create jobs given the Federal government’s leftist policies. The state’s relatively low level of regulation, combined with a reasonably priced (aka non-union) skilled labor force, low real estate prices and no income taxes would make for a very compelling locale for investors and corporations.

Governor Snyder has an opportunity to do for Michigan what Rudy Giuliani did for New York City in the 1990’s. He has the opportunity to take a state that has been turned from arguably the most powerful economic engine in the country into a banana republic by decades of mismanagement and turn it around. By essentially turning the state into an Enterprise Zone he will give companies a reason to invest in the state, he will give citizens a reason to stay, and like Giuliani’s New York, a Michigan turnaround can become a shining example for other states as they seek to climb out of their own economic swamps. The Founding Father’s federalism is alive and well and one can only hope that success in the Wolverine State will show Washington what might work on a national scale.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Enough with the Lawyers in Congress!

How many times have you been watching a commercial for this or that medicine with images of a couple strolling through a bucolic meadow or scenes of a depressed woman who’s suddenly happy again only to be bombarded with a rapid-fire litany of potential side effects so scary that they would have kept Atilla the Hun from ever leaving the neighborhood.

And there are other examples. Credit card agreements come with pages of small type that takes a microscope to read. A contract for a house can be as thick as a phone book with language with all of the clarity of a dense fog. Then there is of course the 70,000 page tax code that God himself could not understand even if he had the help of the guy in charge of writing it (Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee – Charlie Rangle) and the guy tasked with enforcing it (Treasury Secretary – Tim Geithner). As the former is under investigation for tax evasion and the latter didn’t pay his taxes for years, with both suggesting they misunderstood the code, you begin to understand how complex it is.

All of this is thanks to lawyers, lawsuits and plaintiffs seeking easy money or to impose their will on others. But mostly the lawyers – not the least of whom are the slip an fall type who are willing to use the courtroom to harass and extort money from companies both big and small. They are of course a big reason that health care is so expensive, as doctors feel the need to do a phalanx of unnecessary tests to protect themselves from malpractice suits. They are also the reason that thousands of communities around the country leveled their playgrounds and filled in their pools over the past two decades. They are the reason the Corps of Engineers had not strengthened the levees in New Orleans in 30 years despite the danger and the money having been allotted. They are also the reason that a wheelchair bound 80 year old grandmother is seen by the TSA as potentially an equally dangerous flyer as a 30 year old Muslim man traveling with no luggage.

A recent example of the damage lawyers (and their professional plaintiff accomplices) can do involves a wheelchair bound California man who sued Chipotle Mexican Grill because he could not see the ingredients being put into his burrito while standing customers could. He lost the case initially but won on appeal. The company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars defending itself and faces potentially the same or more in costs associated with complying with the judge’s order.

As bad as lawyers are in the private sector, there is an even bigger problem – lawyers in the Congress. Currently almost two thirds of the Senate is made up of lawyers while in the House it’s one third. Given they make up about one half of a percent of the population, that seems a bit excessive.

While being a lawyer shouldn’t disqualify one for serving in government, there is something to be said for voters limiting their influence. Almost by definition lawyers do not produce anything. While they may become successful and hire a large staff, they by their very nature operate in a legalistic environment where government and its laws are the driving force. Contrast that with an entrepreneur, a businessman, or a farmer, who, in addition living having to run a daily gauntlet of government regulation and taxes, has to also run a good business or farm. And do so profitably. While lawyers make their money off the paperwork involved with interpreting or arguing what laws say or don’t say, the productive class of society have to actually make things, grow things, invent things and innovate processes in the universe where most people live.

Unfortunately for America, Congress is dominated by people who have little knowledge of, and less experience in, actually doing anything productive. And I mean productive in the sense of creating wealth aside from using the legal system to take money out of someone else’s pocket. They simply don’t understand what it takes to start a business, what it takes to sustain and grow a business, or, most importantly, what impact the yoke of government regulation has on business. Having cut their teeth in a universe where laws and regulation are simply words on a page that must be adhered to, they don’t understand that government does not make a successful society, economy or country. Christine O'Donnell may be a flawed candidate but on her worst day she would make a better legislator than that erstwhile slip and fall Democratic VP candidate John Edwards. Doctor Rand Paul may have an abrasive personality, but he’ll understand far better the actual impact of ObamaCare on citizens and doctors than Harry Reid and the 34 other Democrat lawyers in the Senate who helped push that travesty on the country.

One of the great outcomes of the Tea Party movement has been the reemergence of the citizen legislator, candidates who have actually lived lives outside the velvet glove of the courtroom and government. They may be flawed, they may have made mistakes and led imperfect lives, but that is because they were busy living lives rather than prepping themselves for office. They understand that government is not the reason the country is great. They understand that the role of government is not to protect us from every negative outcome, to take from the rich to give to the poor, to tell us what we can eat or who he must hire or how we must manufacture our widgets. They understand that by lessening the burden government places on the citizenry they can help America become once again a shining example of freedom and prosperity.

The question is of course is: Will the citizenry give them the chance to make those changes?