Monday, February 28, 2011

Barack Obama & Chris Christie - First & Other Impressions

How often have you heard someone say “I don’t see color” when they are trying to prove that they are not racists? “I only see people” usually follows. Unless that person is colorblind or actually blind, he or she is an idiot. Observing that someone is black or white or somewhere in between does not make someone a racist. It merely demonstrates that they are using one of the many tools that God gave them to help make sense the world around them. It is what they do with that information that determines if they are in fact racist or not.

Skin color is but one characteristic we see when we observe people. Whatever the physical characteristics a person has, the reality of the world is that they are going to be judged in part by those characteristics, particularly at the beginning, as in the form of first impressions. Physical characteristics are not the last word however and first impressions can be wrong, and often are. It is understanding that first impressions may be wrong that give us the capability to use some of those other senses to get a deeper picture of someone. Today we have living proof that first impressions can be wrong and recognizing that proof will be very important in the next election.

Barack Obama is from start to finish a great political package. He’s tall, good looking, confident, athletic and has a great smile. If he were not a politician he could be a cover model for GQ. Indeed, his attributes were not lost on Joe Biden during the 2008 election cycle: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy, I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” Biden is right, Obama had it all. Thanks to the left leaning media in the United States, this idol-like first impression of Obama is about all many Americans saw. (There were other perspectives out there however, if they had bothered to look…)

We’ve now had two full years to see if that first impression of the Solomon / Moses like leader we were shown was backed up by substance. Sadly for America, not so much. He doesn’t think very well on his feet and he has a difficult time completing a coherent thought without his teleprompter. Most importantly however, he’s proven that he’s wedded to a leftist philosophy that has failed everywhere it’s been tried. From spending trillions of dollars we don’t have to socializing 1/7th of the economy to nationalizing the US auto industry, he has demonstrated he clearly has no clue about how the United States became a successful nation.

On the other end of the first impression spectrum you have New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. He’s fat. (as John Corzine highlighted during his campaign to retain the Governor’s mansion) He’s acerbic. You probably won’t find any women fainting at his rallies and if he was a doctor no one would ever say he has a good bed side manner.

We’ve now had a full year to see if his less than striking image is backed up by anything of substance. Here, he is nothing short of breathtaking. In a little less than one year he proposed a cap on local property taxes, vetoed countless bills that sought to increase a variety of special interest programs and feckless agency budgets, and he signed a 2011 budget that closed an $11 billion deficit without raising taxes.

Despite physical characteristics that might lead someone to be less than open to Christie initially, he has quickly won over significant portions of the GOP and has many people talking about him as a 2012 presidential candidate. Hmm… To imagine what an Obama / Christie campaign might look like, compare how each performed when talking to citizens at two different events.

Obama took questions from the audience at an event in Charlotte last April. A woman in asked: “In the economy times (sic) we have now, is it a wise decision to add more taxes to us with the healthcare (bill)?” In attempting to answer Obama rambled all over the map for 17 minutes but never actually gave an answer to the question itself. He went from “We have up until last week been the only advanced country that allows 50 million of its citizens to not have health insurance, and the vast majority of those folks work...” in the first minute of the answer to “We had to spend $787 Billion on the Recovery Act to all the things like unemployment insurance, COBRA, what’s called F-Mat – which is essentially helping states keep their budgets afloat…” near the 15th minute. All together Obama spoke 2,500 words but said almost nothing of substance.

Compare that to Christie as he participated in a town hall meeting last month in Middletown, NJ. A policeman upset about Christie’s proposal that government employees be forced to pay up to 1/3 of their healthcare premiums asked the following: “With a 2% cap on a raise per year, how am I going to afford to pay $8,000 for medical benefits?” Christie’s answer: “You’re not. You’re not going to afford it.” He went on: “What’s going to happen is you’re going to have to make choices amongst medical plans, and have more choices than just three choices which you have now, and only the Cadillac plan. You’re going to have to make choices. Like everybody else is going to have to make choices in this economy. Everyone’s having to make those choices.” When the questioner asks how he’s supposed to live in the state with a paycheck that increased by $4, Christie responds “Here’s the difference… You’re getting a paycheck, and there are 9% of the people in the state of New Jersey who are not… And if their property taxes continue to go up to pay higher and higher salaries in the public sector, they will lose their homes… I have to tell you, I understand your frustration about not getting a higher raise, but you go around this room and talk to people in the private sector who haven’t gotten raises for years, if they’ve been able to keep their job at all. So this is the economic reality we live in today. I wish it were different, but it isn’t.

Christie’s answer took less than seven minutes and when he was done every single person in that room understood what he was saying and knew that his logic was unassailable. Such clarity and substance are foreign concepts to Barack Obama.

While many conservative political junkies know and love Chris Christie, he is far from a household name to most potential voters. Given his girth and his propensity to speak his mind, the mainstream press in the United States will likely paint a less than flattering picture of him if he chooses to pursue the White House. Thankfully however, as Peggy Noonan points out in the WSJ this weekend, the Internet has freed Americans from the tyranny of the sound bite and the leftist media. As we move closer to the 2012 election cycle we can expect that there will be many more videos that highlight exactly why first impressions can be wrong. Maybe in 2012 we can get back to substance over style.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Scott Walker channels JFK... except for that 10988 deal

We are at the beginning of the most consequential domestic conflict the United States has fought since the Civil War. Like the battle between the Blue and Grey, this one is for the continued existence of the country. Today’s weapon of choice might be the legislative pen and the protest sign and there may not be blood flowing in the streets, but make no mistake, the stakes are exactly the same: The survival of the nation as we know it. If that sounds like hyperbole, think about the German inflation of the 1920’s or Zimbabwe today. At some point taxpayers will have nothing left to give, the Chinese will stop buying our debt (or worse...) and our creditors will begin calling in loans that Uncle Sam is unable to pay. We might survive, but America would be a decidedly different nation.

While Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was the speech that defined that war, another president’s words define this one. “Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.” Today, one does not need to look far beyond Wisconsin to recognize that the party of JFK has long abandoned his challenge.

The fight that is going on in Wisconsin right now, the fight that took place in California six years ago, and the fights that are on the horizon in places like New Jersey, Ohio and Michigan are at the front lines in the coming war. The lines in this conflict are crystal clear: On the one side you have the Democrat Party, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Unionistas (a great word taken from Rush) and on the other side you have a GOP being dragged, kicking and screaming, into becoming an advocate for fiscal responsibility by the Tea Party movement.

Six years ago Arnold Schwarzenegger went through the much of what Scott Walker is experiencing today. Faced with perhaps the most left leaning legislature and population in the country, the Governator eventually took down his reform shingle and became just another GOP speed bump on California’s march to economic suicide.

To understand what is at stake in Wisconsin and the rest of the country, at both the state and federal level, one need think about one name: Bernie Madoff.

Bernie Madoff spent a quarter of a century wooing investors into his Ponzi scheme. As dupes were encouraged to “invest” and others were smiling all the way to the bank, the Keystone Kops at the SEC never recognized the problem. Everything was sugarplums and cherries until the day the fraud was exposed – by Madoff’s sons, not by the government.

Over the same quarter century the exact scenario has played itself out in statehouses across the county with governors and legislators playing the role of Bernie Madoff. In this case however the taxpayers were the dupes and the public sector unions the ones cashing the checks. Now that the schemes have been exposed for exactly what they are, the unions want to keep cashing the checks, regardless of whether or not there’s actually money available to cover them.

Where Kennedy challenged citizens to recognize that the role of government was not to be a trough from which pigs feed, today’s Democratic Party is willing to bankrupt states and the federal government for the enrichment of the public sector unions. Rather than recognizing the challenge at hand, the Democrats have instead chosen to seek to play on the public sympathies by suggesting that they are merely seeking to protect vulnerable worker rights.

In an interesting contrast to the pollyannaish voters of California who believe they can continue their spending binge even as employers flee the state, Wisconsin voters, when facing similar dire circumstances, decided instead to put a stake in the heart of the Democrat machine and handed the GOP the House, the Senate and the Governor’s mansion. Now that the elected officials are seeking to do exactly what the voters sent them to Madison to do, the Democrat / Unionista parasites have cried foul and are seeking to bring the state to its knees.

They should not be surprised when they discover that their clarion call inspires few followers beyond their own cabal, and in fact results in a strengthening of the GOP. In a state with 7.7% unemployment – up from 4.3% two years ago – a sea of red ink and an economic competiveness ranking of 40 out of the 50 states, Wisconsinites are not particularly sympathetic to state workers who earn 33% more than private sector workers, have extraordinarily generous health and retirement benefits, and all of that while enjoying almost iron clad job security.

The battle going on in Madison is nothing less than the battle for the future of America. Scott Walker is leading the charge with guys like Chris Christie and John Kasich at his side. Americans of all stripes – with the obvious exception of Democrat Unionistas & Californians – seem to finally be waking up to the fact that public sector unions are nothing but a cancer on the body politic. (JFK doesn’t escape unscathed in this disaster as he unleashed public sector unions on the federal government in 1962 with Presidential Order 10988.)

Like any cancer patient, if the country wants to survive the cancer will have to be cut out or somehow rendered benign. Ronald Reagan understood that and it seems that Scott Walker does as well. Hopefully Madison will be the first in a line of battles that culminates at the ballot box in 2012. If enough battles are won America may yet avoid a Madoff like meltdown.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Certification bonanza - Industry uses state's police powers to line their pockets...

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.

10th Amendment to the United States Constitution

I constantly write about the evils of government unbound. Most of that time those comments are directed at a federal government that has ventured far beyond the constraints imposed by the 10th Amendment.

Although the federal government’s excess is often the easiest to see, Uncle Sam is far from the only offender in terms of governments growing too large and too powerful. On the contrary, state and local governments can be (and often are) equally guilty. Local governments use various devices such as zoning ordinances, arbitrary fees and various inspection regimes to impose their power the citizenry. One of the most dubious of those devices is called “certification”.

As bad as a government seeking to control its citizens is, even more pernicious is an industry using the police power of government to line their pockets and stifle competition. This is the true fount of the plague of certification.

Just as the most conservative amongst us understands that there must be some government or society will collapse into anarchy, most Americans understand that there are a number of professions where certification is necessary. For those professions where your life or liberty are at risk, one can make the argument that the state can play an important role in maintaining standards. As such, most states have a variety of certification regimes with which most of us are familiar: Doctors, lawyers, dentists, etc.

The problem however is that certification is not limited only to critical specialties… unless you consider interior design, hair cutting or florists as critical.

Perhaps not so surprising, this “certification” gauntlet is often instigated by the
practitioners of the regulated industry themselves. Seeking to sustain unwarranted pricing power and stifle potential competitors, a cabal of practitioners of a particular profession or industry will form an unofficial governing body for that industry. That body will then lobby state legislators to create a certification regime. That regime will typically include education in the form of schooling or apprenticeship, limits on advertising and may involve regulations about what equipment may or must be used as well as restrictions or requirements as to vehicles or square footage that are allowed.

While these certification requirements typically involve fees paid to the states, in reality the regime is more often than not controlled by the industry cabal. Although the industry’s captains often suggest that their industry requires regulation for public safety reasons, in reality their goal is to protect their members by limiting competition, resulting in higher prices for customers. In practice these governing bodies operate like unions in that they use government regulations to limit the ability of new entrants to compete in the marketplace. What makes this situation particularly noxious is that the advocates of this government intervention typically exempt themselves from having to meet any of the new requirements by including a grandfather clause in the legislation.

The increase in industry certifications has been going on for much of the last half century. The Wall Street Journal reports that in 1950 less than 5% of American jobs were subject to licensure by states. Today that number stands at over 23%.

The result of this industry / state regulatory straitjacket is higher prices for customers, less innovation in industry and higher unemployment across the board. Industry experts often claim that certification protects consumers by keeping unqualified practitioners out of their trades. The question is however, upon what basis does one decide what is a qualified practitioner, and who gets to decide? If flowers are not arranged properly are consumers harmed? If an unlicensed barber takes too much off the top are you permanently scarred? If a bartender pours Grey Goose instead of Absolut is there some permanent pain and suffering?

While the Constitution gives state governments far more latitude than it does the federal government (at least that’s the way it is written…) that does not mean the states should regulate everything simply because they are not barred from doing so. One must ask the question, what is the state interest in certifying masseuses, dog groomers or interior designers?

To the degree conservatives pillory the federal government for its intervention in our lives and economy, we should not ignore state governments and the fact that America’s success was built on free markets, not via a command and control economy.

Free markets work because they are the equivalent of a straight line between two points… i.e. the shortest distance between producer and consumer. Free markets create an environment where consumers are responsible for where they spend their money and entrepreneurs and capitalists are responsible for offering services for which they hope consumers will be willing to pay. To introduce government regulations into that equation is to turn that straight line into a series of unworkable knots.

Without state certification roadblocks, eventually an equilibrium would emerge where consumers choose providers based on various factors such as price, reputation and skill. Certainly some consumers will be unhappy and some merchants would fail, but that’s the beauty of market discipline, it forces both sides to pay attention to the consequences of its actions. Where necessary various private organizations would emerge that would or could provide objective criteria to help consumers make their choices: Consumer Reports, Underwriters Laboratory, Angie’s List, Tripadvisor etc.

This certification plague has interfered with that market discipline and added well over $100 billion a year in inefficiencies to consumer expenditures. Freeing our economy from it’s strictures would not only free up a trillion dollars over a decade, but it would generate a great deal of innovation and dramatically increase consumer choices at the same time.

Now that’s a real stimulus program.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Is a government any less despotic simply because it has not yet chosen to send stormtroopers to your door?

In the absence of government, anarchy sets in. In the presence of an all powerful government you have totalitarianism. In both cases a man’s attention must be focused on attending to the immediacies necessary for survival. In the former, dangers can be found around any corner as everyone fends for themselves. In the latter, dangers can be found around every corner as the government controls and sees all. When your entire existence is focused on surviving one day to the next, it’s difficult to focus on things like science, leisure or any of the myriad other things we take for granted in civilized society.

As such, the natural condition of human interaction demands governance of some sort in order to have more than simple survival. Government typically starts as a result of groups of individuals seeking to bring order out of chaos who form a governing body of limited power. As time goes by, governments tend to move from one side of the control spectrum to the other as they slowly begin to accumulate more and more power. Eventually a government will become sufficiently oppressive that its subjects revolt. How that revolt plays itself out can take many forms. In some cases it’s an even more brutal regime – think Iran – in some cases it can bring a return to anarchy – the French Revolution – or in others it brings about something in between – the signing of the Magna Carta.

It is from this cauldron of constantly morphing social and governmental forms the United States was born. After the misstep of the Articles of Confederation, the nation found its footing with the Constitution. The beauty of the Constitution was that it was written specifically to limit the power and reach of the government while giving that same government sufficient power to accomplish the tasks delegated to it. Unfortunately, over the last seventy five years the government has blasted through many of those fundamental limitations.

The result has been far too much regulation. When a statist like President Obama says as much in the Wall Street Journal, it must be obvious. Today there are more government regulations than at any point in our history. (Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama are not solely to blame for this however; after all, Richard Nixon gave us the EPA...) Indeed, before Obama FDR was the patron saint of regulation. Imagine, in 1934 alone the federal government generated over 10,000 pages of new law, four times what had been generated during the combined history of the country’s first 150 years of existence! Today laws with thousands of pages seem to be as common as the Sunday paper.

The problem with all of this? It’s the polar opposite of what our country was founded on in the first place. When it comes to the foundation of the United States, the Declaration of Independence is the why and the Constitution is the how. When government expands across the control spectrum to the point where it regulates (read: controls) everything its citizens do, then the ability of the citizens to pursue the original intent of the founders (Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness) is lost. And it’s not necessarily the laws themselves but their breadth and incomprehensibility. When one has a tax code that is 60,000 pages the sheer uncertainty of what is legal and the fear of penalty for making the wrong guess can be debilitating.

At what point does a government cross the threshold to be considered totalitarian? If it stops you from speaking? If it stops you from reading or writing books? If it stops you from practicing your religion? Most people would answer yes… obviously. What about if it decides it can tell you how and where you must spend your money? What if it seizes citizen’s property on a whim without providing you with just compensation? What if it suggests you might be a threat to national security simply because you once served in its military? What if it makes laws then exempts its friends from obeying them? If the government can do just about anything it wants, is it any less totalitarian just because its stormtroopers are not yet kicking down your door?

Americans have been bequeathed the greatest gift that any nation has ever been given. Our Constitution, albeit imperfect, provides an unparalleled framework for a nation to grow while almost perfectly sheltering its citizens from the chaos of anarchy or the choke-hold of totalitarianism. Over the last 75 years however, as Americans have been beguiled by the siren song of government protection from all manner of risk, the Constitution has been allowed to fade into a quaint anachronistic set of guidelines rather than a solid foundation for the rule of law. A constitution is merely words on a piece of paper. It can’t stop bullets, it can’t make you happy and it can’t feed your family. Our Constitution is only as strong as those who believe in its words and understand that it is a framework for letting citizens pursue happiness within the balance between anarchy and dictatorship.

Have we as nation become so enamored with government largesse and “protections” that we are unable to see that the distance between a government that recognizes no limits on its law making is not so far from a government that will use its police powers to enforce the resulting legislation? The Tea Party movement suggests that there remain some people who recognize the value of a strong constitution and a limited government. Let’s hope the energy from 2010 can be sustained through 2012 and beyond.