Monday, January 28, 2013

Barack Obama finally embraces Supply Side Economics - but adds just a wee hint of redistribution

Last week the Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report that said that the labor force participation rate (LFPR) dropped to 63.6%, the lowest rate since Jimmy Carter was in office. Essentially that means that of the population of 16 year and older, 37.4% of them decided not to work or not to seek work. That’s 88.8 million people! To put that in perspective, when George Bush took office the LFPR was 67.2% and eight years later it was 1.5% lower at 65.7%. It has dropped 2.1% in Barack Obama’s first four years, the most precipitous drop in workforce participation since they started keeping records in 1948. But percentages only tell you so much. Each of those percentage points represents approximately 2.5 million people. Since Barack Obama became president over 5 million people have simply stopped trying to find a job. If just half of those 5 million people were still looking for jobs, the unemployment rate would actually be 9.4% rather than the official 7.8%. Now some of those are students who chose to go to college because they couldn’t find a job and others are senior citizens who’ve retired from the workforce, but the overwhelming majority of those 5 million are people who have simply given up hope.

And that’s the point, and the problem… Not since the 1970’s have the American people felt so discouraged about the prospects for the nation in general and their individual economic circumstances in particular. For most of American history the notion of having a job, doing something productive for your family and your community was the norm. Barack Obama is seeking to rapidly change that, and he got a good head start during his first term. The President has doubled the number of people on food stamps and he gutted Bill Clinton’s (grudging) welfare reform. That’s his version of Supply Side Economics, he supplies the benefits and people will be happy to give him four more years. Add to this the regulatory nightmare he has unleashed on businesses and four years of demagoguing those who drive American productivity and you have an ever increasing number of Americans who believe they either can’t or don’t have to find jobs.

For much of the 20th century the United States was looked at as the place to come to seek your fortune, to make or do something with your life, basically where anything was possible. Although Hollywood and Coke and Levis brought the American Dream to the rest of the world, far more importantly, most Americans were pursuing it here at home, if not living it. Today something all together different is occurring. As the Gallop poll demonstrated, much diminished is that "Can do" feeling that most Americans had for most of our history, the feeling that prosperity and success were just around the corner and anyone could achieve it if they worked hard enough.  America has become a state of dependence, where half the population pays no income taxes and where 40% of the population suckles at the public tit, either in the form of government handouts or as employees of a bloated bureaucracy.

How long can a population survive when fewer and fewer people are supporting an ever increasing population of non producers? Not long. Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward posited in 1966 that you could overload the welfare system in an effort to bring about a redistribution of wealth. If you read their manifesto, you can’t help but recognize their methods in Barack Obama’s policies.

While it’s impossible to know what the future holds, it’s not difficult to wonder what the situation of the country might be in 4 years if the same policies that brought us to where we are today were implemented during the president’s second term.

If Food Stamp growth were to decline to 25% (vs. 50% over the President's first term) there will be 60 million Americans on the program. If Social Security Disability (which is at its highest level on record) increases by another 25% as it did in the last four years, a total of 13 million Americans will be on disability. (What’s most heart breaking about this programs is that the rampant fraud and bureaucratic incompetence are keeping benefits out of the hands of the truly needy.) Those measures alone would bring the total of people receiving government checks (i.e. money taken from taxpayers or borrowed that will have to be paid back by taxpayers) from 18% of our population today to almost 23%. Add in the 8 million or so people receiving unemployment benefits and the 4.4 million on welfare and you have over a quarter of the population on the receiving end of some wealth redistribution program. On the workforce side, if the LFPR declines another two percent it will sit at 61.6%, a level not seen since 1977. With a LFPR of 61.6% and an unemployment rate that stayed at today’s 7.9%, we would have only 141 million workers supporting a population of 323 million people verses today’s 144 million supporting a population of 313… That’s 3 million fewer workers supporting a population that would have grown by 10 million! Inverted pyramids like that don’t last for long.

At the end of the day, one has to wonder what exactly were those 65 million voters hoping for when they voted for Barack Obama? If it was more of the same they just might be in luck… at least in the short run. It appears that the President plans on doubling down on his policies. He appears to be executing the socialist Cloward Piven Strategy perfectly. While his devotees may be happy with his rhetoric today, they will likely not be happy when his grand strategy succeeds tomorrow. The problem with socialism in America is that it assumes a static nature of the citizenry, i.e. that government can impose whatever requirements on workers and producers and they will have no choice but to comply. Nothing could be farther from the truth. With countries from Australia to Canada to Singapore to Estonia to Denmark offering greater levels of economic freedom, those who fund what the government redistributes have many options available to them. Money, like water, flows to the areas of least resistance and the resistance is increasing in the United States. Eduardo Saverin, Tina Turner and a record number of other American citizens are making it clear that do indeed have options. Lots of companies do too. When all of the producers have finally left the country, all that will be left of Barack Obama’s redistributive state will be those who no longer know how to fend for themselves. Somehow I can’t imagine that being the Nirvana that Obama voters were thinking of.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Life imitates art... Liberals see the world as they imagine it is, not how it actually is

I’ve always been a fan of Van Gogh’s paintings. I similarly like Renoir, and Seurat. Although I like some of Picasso’s early work, most of it I find a bit odd. My favorite artist however is William Adolphe Bouguereau, a 19th century French artist whose works are the polar opposite of the impressionists, literally.

From the 1870s his realistic portrayal of the human form was increasingly seen as passé in an art world increasingly captivated by Impressionism – a style which influenced both Van Gogh and Seurat. By the early 20th century Bouguereau’s work had completely fallen out of favor among cultured art devotees, – i.e. everyone except those uncivilized Americans.

Impressionist art was less precise than that of Bouguereau and most artists who came before him. It began a march that has brought us a century of modern art that is often anything but precise… Think Jackson Pollack or Christo.

A challenge of art is that what the artist is trying to convey (if anything) is often up for debate. Take any three people and ask them what is the artist’s intent behind one of Alexander Calder’s mobiles and you’ll no doubt get three completely different ideas.

Such lack of clarity works well in the subjective world of art. Not so much in the not so subjective world of politics and government. It is perhaps no surprise then that the rise of modern liberalism has evolved over a similar timeline and path as modern art.

Politicians on the left no longer look to objective facts to define the world around them. Rather, they look at the world as they would like it to be and interpret it accordingly. How else could one explain the lunacy that pervades the Democrat party today?

Data clearly show that stricter gun laws lead to more crime but that is of no consequence. President Obama and the rest of the progressives who want to pass gun laws that will magically make the world a safer place... as if there were no knives, swords, cars or anything else that might ever be used as a weapon.

Maybe they forgot about Prohibition? It doesn’t take much looking to see the negative consequences of that. Not only did it not work, but it created a paradise for gangsters to grow rich and powerful. Fast forward 80 years and while smoking is not illegal, per se, many states are trying to tax it out of existence… while simultaneously padding the tattered state coffers at the same time. Surprise… it’s not quite working out the way they had planned. High cigarette locales are seeing their sin tax base actually decline as as much as 60% of the cigarettes sold in their states are illegal. Indeed, even in the face of such failure Chicago is planning on doubling down on its bad bet.

Then there are government schools. Could there be a more crystal clear example of government failure on the planet than public schools? Yet somehow the union backed Democrats continue to fight vouchers and school reform despite the physical and intellectual carnage government schools have wrought on American children.

Of course the most important example of the liberal failing to see exactly what is in front of them is on economics. In 2009, just as Canada was beginning to look at free markets to fix its state controlled healthcare sector Nancy Pelosi was crafting ObamaCare to strangle the American people. Over the last four years, just as Greece, Spain and Italy collapse under the weight of their social programs and confiscatory tax rates, the Obama administration has sought to expand government welfare, increase taxes on those who create wealth and further strangle the economy with regulation.

At some point one has to wonder what exactly liberals are looking at that would cause them to make such illogical choices. It makes you think of a doctor who studies medicine with anatomy books illustrated by Picasso. Do you really want that guy operating on you?

Government is not like art. In art, the artist can paint what he wants, the way he wants. He can imbue it with hidden messages, explicit messages or no messages at all. The beauty of art is that anyone can interpret it any way they want and in doing so they don’t impact anyone else’s ability to enjoy it. With government on the other hand, the realities of life are quite different. Regardless of the author of a bill’s limited intentions, its passage almost always presages a reinterpretation and expansion once it becomes law. Do you imagine when the 16th Amendment was passed Americans expected tax rates to quickly rise to 90%? Do you think when the Civil Rights Acts were passed in the 1960s the writers expected white and Hispanic firefighters to lose promotions because no black firefighters did well on the promotion tests? Do you think when Nixon created the EPA he planned on the agency eventually seeking to regulate milk spills, rainwater and lightbulbs? No, no and no!

None of that matters to liberals however, and that’s the problem with government: Government regulations are rarely limited to benign interpretation or precise application. They have real world consequences, most of which are unintended, and most of those are negative. And the rest of us are stuck with them because they rarely get repealed and almost always grow more restrictive.

Taking a page from the Impressionists, at some point the citizens who drive prosperity in the United States will stop operating in the world of realism – i.e. high taxes and oppressive regulations – and opt to do something altogether different. Maybe they will work a bit less or be satisfied with 40 employees rather than adding a few more. That might sound benign right now, but just as Impressionism began an evolution that led to everything from Robert Mapplethorpe to Willem de Kooning to Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, government regulations have a way of morphing the world in ways that were unimaginable (to liberals) when they were passed. When America is left with only the dependants and bureaucrats, the wealth and job creators either dead or long gone to places like Switzerland or Australia, the legacy of liberal failure will be complete.

As President Obama begins the second leg of his quest to “fundamentally transform America” we should keep that in mind. Thankfully the Constitution limits his time in office to 8 years, unfortunately the shackles of liberal government he leaves us with will likely last far longer and morph into things even he didn’t imagine. The reality of that hell is one that even Monet would have a hard time blurring.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Now playing the role of George Washington... Neal Boortz?

Neal Boortz will be calling it quits this week after 42 years in the radio business. He timed his exit to ensure that if Barack Obama was reelected he (Obama) would not have another dollar of his (Boortz’s) income tax dollars to spend.

As he rides off into the sunset to play golf, drive around in the Boortzmobile, and most importantly, visit Disney World, we are all left to wonder what the future might hold.

If you’ve ever listened to him, you know that Neal can be acerbic, pointed, and frankly, sometimes downright mean. But at the same time he can be funny, compassionate and extraordinarily generous. In other words, he’s a puny human like the rest of us. There are a few gifts he has that most of us don’t however. He is phenomenally entertaining. He has an uncanny ability to distill most issues down to their core elements and clearly articulate what is at stake. And he is a skilled pitchman, particularly for the ideas he holds.

To the untrained ear his pronouncements often sound outrageous at first blush, but when you listen to the rationale behind them he’s usually spot on. The best example I can think of is when he states, as he often does, “The teachers’ unions pose a bigger threat to the security of the United States than does Al Qaeda.” Someone who’s not heard that before might think that he’s nuts, asking “How many planes have the teachers’ unions flown into buildings?” or “How many bombs have the teachers’ unions planted?” However, when you follow his logic about how the teachers’ unions are systematically undermining education in the United States and producing a population made up of “dumb masses”, and how that uneducated public is the road upon which tyranny rides into and then takes over the public square, you recognize he’s 100% right. His cheering when an intruder is killed by a homeowner can also seem callus, but only until you realize what he is really cheering is the fact that some criminal will not be around any longer to pose a threat to the life of other, innocent, less empowered citizens.

At the end of the day, Boortz, like Limbaugh, Levin, Hannity and others, makes his living entertaining people while informing them. One has to wonder however, is that really enough? Why do I ask that? Because a quick look at the last quarter century will reveal that the country has continued to march left. If not in name certainly in action, particularly as it relates to the representatives we send to Washington.

For four decades Boortz has railed against big, incompetent, unconstitutional government, yet over that time we’ve gotten nothing but more of exactly that, other than a small respite during the Reagan administration. In a nutshell, it appears that Boortz, like the others, has been a failure in achieving his overarching goal. Now, he’s obviously been a phenomenal success in his primary goal, which is to entertain fans and generate advertising revenue for his stations. By that measure Neal, Rush, Sean and a number of other conservative radio hosts have been spectacularly successful, something liberals never seem to be able to accomplish.

On the larger goal of saving the country from the stultifying leviathan of progressivism however, Neal et. al. have failed, and failed miserably. This does not suggest that Neal and friends are somehow responsible for this shift. On the contrary, it’s happened despite their efforts… and that is the key. Neal is retiring. Rush is doing the same show he’s been doing for years. Mark Levin is pretty angry, but the truth is, he’s been angry for a while.

The question I have is, do these hosts actually believe what they say or is shtick to sell advertising? If it’s shtick that’s fine. It’s like watching Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock; you know the guy is a schmuck in real life but it’s fun to watch him as Jack. If however this message is more than that, if he and they really believe what they say, are they prepared to do something about it?

Neal has been saying for months that he thinks the country is almost lost, and that defeating Barack Obama was the best opportunity to save it. Today he says that he thinks we are probably doomed and that the 2014 elections are likely our last chance. I think he’s probably right. In 2008 it was only speculation that Obama would rule as an anti-capitalist big government statist. Today we know he was worse than any of us had expected. Yet somehow the country knew that and still reelected him.

We face a different future today than the one we did in January 2009, or even in October 2012 for that matter. We have an economic fascist in the White House with no fear of having to ever win election again. We have a more progressive Senate than we did after the 2010 election and we have a house that is nominally Republican but can’t seem to bring itself to deny President Obama anything. President Obama seeks to destroy the private sector and the motivation any person might have to work hard and seek their fortune. Four more years of unbridled Obama may indeed end the Constitutional republic that is the United States.

Today the United States faces the biggest threat to liberty since World War II… Which brings us back to the question above: Do Neal and his brethren actually believe what they say or is a defense of the Constitution merely shtick to sell advertising? If it’s something more than shtick, then now is the time to do something more than merely chat on the radio for three hours a day.

What exactly should they do? I’m not sure, but there is a vacuum in the country and who better to fill it than someone who is experienced in making cogent points compellingly? Maybe create a cable network dedicated to capitalism, entrepreneurship and free markets. Maybe begin a lecture circuit about achieving the American Dream. Maybe start a barnstorming tour to invigorate the Tea Party movement. The conservative movement in the United States is lacking a leader, lacking a voice of someone who can inspire its adherents and convert its opponents; someone who can rally Americans to get off of their couches and do something to fix a broken country. For two presidential election cycles the GOP has fielded milquetoast candidates who wouldn’t know conservatism if it walked up and hit them in the head. Now are now paying for those decisions.

A quarter century of conservative talk has been entertaining, but it’s not been enough. Today we need something more. We need engaged citizens who are willing to put aside American Idol, shopping, football, and Facebook and learn what made our country a success and evangelize the message of free markets and limited government. But who will lead them?

Everyone deserves a retirement, and Neal has certainly earned his. But sometimes there’s something bigger than retirement. Sometimes there is something worth putting off retirement for. A reluctant George Washington recognized that: A month before his inauguration in 1789 he wrote in a letter to his friend John Knox: “In confidence I can assure you -- with the world, it would obtain little credit -- that my movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.'' Neal’s future certainly doesn’t lay in politics, but it’s possible to change the world from outside the sphere of government. Just look at the impact of men like William Randolph Hearst, Martin Luther King, Ralph Nader, and even Mark Zuckerberg. Retirement can wait… the country needs to be saved, now.

Monday, January 7, 2013

If the government can share your gun permit data with the public, why not your tax and income data too?

In the wake of the tragedy in Connecticut last month a newspaper serving the New York City suburbs, The Journal News, decided to post to its website the names and addresses of all of the legal gun owners in Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam counties. Gun owners were outraged. In response a blogger posted the names and addresses of the key players at the newspaper’s editorial staff. The Journal, a unit of USA Today publisher Gannett, accessed the names and addresses via a Freedom Of Information request which makes most government data available to the public.

This is a blatant misuse of government data and the government is complicit in that misuse. The state of New York requires that all handguns be registered. That means that in order to exercise their 2nd Amendment rights, a law abiding citizen must request permission from the state of New York, something they don’t have to do with the freedom of religion, speech or anything else in the Constitution. (This doesn’t apply to owning a rifle, only handguns.) Bad enough that citizens must ask, but what’s worse, New York is a “May issue” state, which means that the state has the right to say “No, you are not allowed to exercise your 2nd Amendment right”. A denial can only be overturned in court if the denial is shown to be arbitrary and capricious. And don’t forget, in the case of New York City, the people making that decision are part of the same government that thinks it’s reasonable to ban large sodas.

If perchance the government deigns to allow you to own a gun in New York, and if you then want to carry that gun outside your home, you’ll now have to request permission for that separately – and that does apply to long guns as well. The state or local authorities then get to decide if you have a good reason to carry one. It doesn’t matter if you believe you need it for self defense, what matters is whether or not you can convince them that you need it for self defense.

So now that the government of New York has forced its citizens to beg for permission in order to exercise their Constitutional right to bear arms, it then keeps all their names and addresses in a database that it then shares with just about anyone who asks.

Of course this is a bonanza for criminals. Now they know where they can go to steal guns. Or they can know in advance which homes will require extra firepower or more men because the owner may be armed. What’s more, criminals are now able to use the database to harass and threaten police and prison guards and their families. At the same time victims who have fled domestic abuse and who have successfully navigated the gun licensing maze now have their names and addresses published for their tormenters to find.

This is a clear example of an abuse of government power. If a citizen is law abiding, and has gone through all of the hoops that government has established in order to exercise their 2nd Amendment rights, (as unconstitutional as they may be) does the government then has the right to provide that citizen’s information to the public? That is a circular argument: The government imposes severe restrictions and registration requirements in order for a citizen to exercise their rights, then because they have collected that data they say their hands are tied and they must provide it to the public.

Well, if that’s the case, then shouldn’t income and tax information be made public? The government forces people to pay taxes and keeps tax information on every person. Shouldn’t the government make that data available to anyone who asks? Of course not. That would be ludicrous. The question is however, what makes tax and income data any more privileged than the notion that someone feels a need to protect their home and family? Losing your personal information is no doubt a bad thing, but worse is losing your life because some newspaper gave a criminal the heads about what to expect when they broke into your house. Just as there is no compelling reason for the government to open up its tax database to the public, there is no compelling reason for the government to open up its gun permit database to the public.

It’s situations like this that make gun owners weary of registering their weapons in the first place. Government collects massive amounts of data on its citizens, from driver’s licenses to arrest records to the medicines you take, the government at all levels has a plethora of information on every citizen. Because the government has that data – often coercing citizens to provide it – does that automatically mean that that information is available to the public? Obviously not. Freedom Of Information Act and government sunshine laws provide an important tool for citizens who seek to monitor government activity. Those laws should not be used to invade the privacy of law abiding citizens, whether it has to do with taxes, gun ownership or any other law abiding activity. As despicable as the Journal’s actions were, they were enabled by a government that misunderstands its responsibilities as they relate to protecting the information it collects on the citizens. Which simply demonstrates that the more power government accumulates the more opportunities it will have to negatively impact the lives of its citizens. Or put another way, small government = big freedom while big government = small freedom.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Newtown, gun regulations, sexy employees and the folly of "doing something"

Two very different news stories stood out for me recently. The first was the story of the killing of 26 innocent women and children at the school in Connecticut. The other was a story out of Iowa where a panel of judges said that a dentist could fire his assistant for being too attractive.

At first blush the two stories couldn’t be more different. On the one hand you have a story of depraved indifference to human life, a real world example of pure evil. On the other you have a story of a dentist who’s not disciplined enough to guarantee he won’t hit on one of his employees. By any measure they are as different as night and day… except when they’re not.

Immediately after the Connecticut shooting the anti-gun cries began. Anybody with a brain and a heart had to feel for the families of those 20 small children and the 6 teachers who tried to save them. The natural inclination is what can we do?

Similarly, when the story of the all male panel’s decision in Iowa became public, many people looked at that and said, that’s wrong, that’s discrimination, how can we fix that?

These very different stories share one thing, they engender calls for someone to “do something”, or more accurately, for the government to “do something”. Those calls dovetails with the very modern American notion that there must be a cure for all evils. The unfortunate thing about that is, that while it’s always possible for the government to do something, it’s rare that the government doing something actually solves the underlying problem.

Take the calls for more gun laws. While looking at pictures of the little children in Connecticut juxtaposed with images of the hardware the shooter used, one would have to have a stone heart not to want to do something about those guns. But the reality is that the state already had some of the strictest gun laws in the country and it didn’t stop the carnage. In addition, history is replete with examples of mass murders via weapons other than guns. From fertilizer to planes to knives to Tylenol, it’s clear that if someone seeks to do harm, weapons are available. Indeed, between 1994 & 2004 there was an assault weapons ban in the United States but somehow Columbine occurred right in the middle of it.

The reality of life is that bad things happen to good people, and when government seeks to “do something” to solve problems, it invariably makes matters worse. Including with gun control. Look at Washington, DC, Chicago, Detroit, Newark, and Oakland. These cities have some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country yet few people feel safe walking their streets. Government action has essentially eliminated an honest citizen’s ability to protect themselves and their families.

What’s worse, government “doing something” about guns flies in the face of the Constitution. Contrary to popular belief, the 2nd Amendment was not written to protect a hunter’s ability to shoot Bambi or Daffy Duck. In 1789 the memory of a tyrannical British government was fresh in the minds of George Mason, Patrick Henry and other anti-federalists. The 2nd Amendment was intended specifically as a counterweight to an overarching centralized government. It was intended to allow an armed population to deter a government from usurping the liberty of the people. Indeed, even James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, understood the challenge the 2nd Amendment sought to eliminate: "Oppressors can tyrannize only when they achieve a standing army, an enslaved press, and a disarmed populace." The problem of an unarmed population was clear in the 18th century, just as it is today. In the not so distant 20th century tens of millions of people were disarmed and brutally murdered in places like Russia, China, Cuba and Cambodia amongst others.

In the way that minimum wage increases and other government regulations intended to “help” the poor result in higher unemployment amongst those least equipped to compete for jobs, or just as government banking regulations intended to “help” minorities buy homes resulted in wiping out a quarter century of minority wealth creation, government restrictions on law abiding citizens owning or carrying weapons will result in far more crime and deaths at the hands of criminals for whom gun laws are of little concern.

And the problem is not reserved for just guns. Government does very little well, and most things badly. As such, the default sentiment that the government must “do something” each time something goes wrong somewhere is a recipe for disaster.

Imagine the Iowa legislature were to pass a law saying “It is unlawful to fire an employee because the boss finds them too attractive.” What would be the outcome? Would it be beautiful women wearing short skirts and revealing tops because they know they can’t be fired for attracting the attention of their boss? Maybe, but the more likely outcome would be less jobs available for women who might be considered attractive. Why? Because bosses would not want to open themselves up to litigation if they hired and attractive employee but she turned out to be incompetent. While they might win the suit eventually, it would likely not be worth the trouble or the cost. The logical solution would be only hiring employees that are… less than attractive.

That scenario is obviously ludicrous. But the same thing plays itself out every time government rolls out new regulations, whether they have to do with hiring minorities, education standards, prohibition, securities manipulation or virtually every other aspect of normal human life. Failure and negative unintended consequences are hallmarks of government regulation.

In a country of 310 million unique, flawed, and sometimes spectacular human beings, the trials and tragedies of life are difficult enough without having to deal with government bureaucrats seeking to control every aspect of life. Whether George Orwell’s fictional 1984, the very real disasters of Greece and California, or the soon to be real catastrophe of Obamacare, the results of government overreach are always bad for virtually everyone involved other than the bureaucrats.

While events like Newtown are tragic and doctors like James Knight are regrettable, neither should be used as the fulcrum upon which Congressional levers can foist more regulations on the American people. Life is full of tragedies, but it is also full of triumphs. 19th century Theologian William Shedd may have put it best: "A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for". Ships are for sailing and life is for living. As bureaucrats seek to obviate all risks from life, be they related to guns, employment law, bicycle helmets, trans fats or carbonated beverages, they slowly eviscerate the freedoms that make life worth living in the first place. Tyranny rarely comes to power marching under the banner of tyranny, but rather under the banner of seeking to “do something” to improve the lot of the people. History is full of people discovering too late that government “doing something” for us is really just another way of saying government “doing something” to us instead. One has to wonder if Americans will learn that lesson before it’s too late.