Of Compromises and Congresses

The beginning days of 2015 have brought the convening of a new American Congress. It is fair to say that expectations and skepticism are high.

Both are merited. Our Constitution was inaugurated with high expectations, not that the end to all problems was at the door but that the means were available to deal effectively with the problems of government for the new nation. The people who wrote the Constitution and those involved with implementing it (many the same people) were also deeply skeptical of government, including the one that they had just created. Memorable and personal experiences had shaped their skepticism. For that reason, the adoption of the Constitution had been a close thing, the opposition coming chiefly from those who thought that it imposed too much government on the people. There may have been some contemporary views that the proposed national government would be too weak and light, but I have not found any examples.

No surprise, then, that an early use of the new Constitution was to adopt the Bill of Rights—a set of fundamental rights to protect individual people from their government. If this new government were really self-government (a misconception reflected today in such bromides as, “Don’t worry about the national debt, we owe it to ourselves,” and “we should not fear the government because we are the government,” as well as much similar foolishness), then these first ten amendments would all be unnecessary. They have since proven to be very necessary, sometimes breached by our government, but more often employed to preserve and protect us from government offense.

Much as with the convening of the First Congress in 1789, the 114th Congress convenes after a troubled period of bad government. Hopes and wishes abound that errors can be corrected, freedoms restored, troubles addressed. As then, so today patience is in order.

A great virtue of our Constitution, an intentional feature, is that no one person can do much, for good or ill, in the federal government. It takes a lot of people cooperating together to get things done. Both Houses of Congress, usually with significant majorities, must agree to identical—word for word identical—legislation for it to be sent to the President, who must agree enough to add his signature to make it law. And then the President and his colleagues in the executive branch must actually execute the law, which as we are seeing with this President is no sure thing, despite a solemn oath to do so.

All of that coming together of many people, with varying ideas and backgrounds and interests, seldom happens quickly. For a people who do not need a lot of laws and direction from government to know how to live their lives, that is a fact to be celebrated. As the Founders envisioned, making law requires compromise and accommodation of the many interests of the many who compose our great nation. That takes time, as it should.

It is a mistake to banish the use of compromise from republican government. Those who would eschew compromise in our Republic would doom us to the fate of the Roman Republic. The members of the Roman Senate lost the ability or willingness to compromise. In so doing, they were doomed to inaction—not just slow deliberation—in the face of crisis, followed by reliance upon dictators, whom they fancied they could limit if not control. They sometimes chose wise men, sometimes they trusted their liberties to demagogues, invested with nearly unilateral authority for an entire year. The Republic and Roman freedom regressively devolved into the rule of the Caesars.

I understand the impatience that many have with compromise, people who would wish bold and decisive action in response to the would-be Caesar currently in the White House. To these I would say, do not despair of the strength of the Constitution, even as the chief executive seeks to violate it. In such times strengthening the Constitution and reinforcement of its checks and balances are the orders of the day, not further erosion of accommodation and compromise that have held our nation together (even through a Civil War) for two hundred years and more. It is true that some compromises are bad; despotisms or anarchies are not much good.

One of the most important compromises involves idealism and realism. American legislation requires a marriage of idealism and realism. Idealism can offer the vision of a free and prosperous nation and the inspiration to action to protect and promote our liberties. Realism, when operating in the light of idealism, focuses our work on what can be achieved now, without exhausting our energies and resources on quixotic quests that may do little more than tear the national fabric. Realism would teach that much of the policy errors of years will take years to unravel. With idealism and realism together, we can know what can and should be done today to make things better and get national policy moving in the right direction.

While a realistic view of the doable is essential to good legislating in a Congress of free men and women, the key and fundamental principles of our idealism help us discern a good compromise—one that makes things better and enables further progress—from a compromise that walks us closer to the abyss. President Reagan made many compromises, but he had a vision and knew where he was going, each compromise uniting our nation for more prosperity, greater freedom, and stronger security.

We should rejoice that no one in the Republic by himself can bring about much change, however well meaning. That virtue of our Constitution is why it has taken many steps and many mistakes to come to the many calamities our nation now confronts. In the same way, because of this Constitution, it will take seemingly many steps along the way to optimal answers. Every reason to be about the work and not tire of it.

Of Majorities and Modesty

Perhaps with some weeks enough dust has settled to allow a few reactions to the recent American elections, with more perspective than can be gathered from listening to reporters interviewing reporters. I will offer views that focus mostly on the results of the congressional elections, drawing upon experience from more than two decades of work in the Senate.

I do not, however, wish to minimize the importance of the elections for governors and state legislatures. In fact, I suspect that the next President of the United States will more than likely be a current or former governor than a Washington politico. Most Presidents, historically, have come from the state governments, which I find encouraging for our federal system. Moreover, judging from what we have seen, former Senators do not seem to make very good Presidents. I cannot name one to whom we can look with admiration for what he accomplished in the White House. There seems to be too much Washington blindness in them to govern effectively for our whole nation.

I am straying to an election yet to come, though. Back to this year’s results, I will begin with the view that we should expect, with the media-scorned Republicans holding the majority in both House and Senate, that the finger of blame for all problems—real or imagined—will be pointed at “Congress.” Disputes between legislative and executive branches will tend to be cast as exposing the nation to great danger as a result of congressional intransigence and/or “politics,” as if no real issues of policy—no questions of life, freedom, or wealth—are involved.

It is happening already. In one bizarre report I heard this week on a major network “news” report, some Amtrak railroad drawbridge in the northeast is over a hundred years old and prone to getting stuck when it opens to let ships pass. Amtrak wants a billion dollars or so to fix it, but, as the “news” story would have it, Republicans in the new Congress “are not looking for ways to spend money.” That was the story. Note the nothing new here. The bridge has been around for a hundred years and did not suddenly become prone to malfunction this November. But the election has now made it a story; a problem is arising, not because the President or the Democrats in Congress for several years did not seek to fix it, but because the new Republican majorities are not interested in spending money. The bridge is not the problem in the story, the Republicans are. Expect more of this kind of media “news.”

Second observation: in recent decades Congress has increasingly surrendered more and more authority to the executive branch, including to the regulatory agencies. The Senate, under the misleadership of Majority Leader Harry Read, has given up even more power and authority (perhaps in another post I will expound on lessons from the Senate of Rome, which by avoiding decisions paved the way for the Caesars—who were all too ready to make decisions). The Democrats retain full control of the executive branch. No small thing. In the remaining two years of the Obama Administration look for more aggressive activity from the White House and the regulators as they test just what they can try by regulation and regulatory fiat, without any detours to Capitol Hill. To quote Jacob Marley’s ghost, “Much!”

When it comes to big Republican plans to make major changes, the quidnuncs will be fed explanations of the thinness of the Republican majorities, along with the “responsibility” of Republicans to share power with Democrats that the Democrats failed to win at the ballot box. When it comes to work that needs to be done, the repeated common wisdom will be that the Republicans have the majority, so nothing should stop them from getting on with the job. There will be little mention that the President can veto what Congress passes, and that Democrats in the Senate will likely filibuster anything that the White House threatens to veto, saving the President the trouble—and political risk.

Yet, there are things that the Republicans, even with working but not overwhelming majorities in Congress, will be able to do. Most important, they get to set the agenda. They get to decide what issues will be debated, what hearings will be held, what will be put to a vote, even when they may not have the votes to break Democrat opposition in the Senate. It will be some relief that instead of the familiar series of proposals to curb liberties, raise taxes, or stifle economic growth and opportunity, the agenda will tend toward ideas of freedom and prosperity, though actual accomplishments will of necessity be modest against the strong opposition of the President and his media allies. I will take modest improvements over the calamitous policy fails of the past several years.

Of Elections and Sports

Shortly before the 2012 election I offered an observation about sports and elections, and how one is not like the other. That message may continue to have relevance today.

It is early Fall. That means that we are nearing the end of the regular season of baseball, and the New York Yankees are on course to make the playoffs and another run for the World Series title, number 28. Their chances look good this year, if they can keep their players from injury and the bullpen resumes pitching up to its abilities.

Others are following football. Already the Washington Redskins have gone from having a lock on getting into the Super Bowl, after winning their first game, to being nearly mathematically eliminated from the playoffs by losing their next two. As they say in baseball, though with less justification in pro-football, it’s a long season. And speaking of the Redskins, it has been said that you can tell that someone has been in Washington too long when he begins cheering for the Redskins. Let that rest on your own taste and experience.

Basketball fans know that in just a few weeks, practice begins for college hoops. The college basketball season will terminate several months later in the greatest sporting event that the United States has to offer, March Madness! I don’t know when or whether the professional basketball season ever ends. I suppose it does.

Somewhere someone is playing soccer, where some team is leading another by the insurmountable score of 1-0. But I think that we may be in the only few weeks of the year when there are no hockey games—even as the NHL is haunted again by more labor-management strife.

At his school my son is running on a cross country team, the Trinity Tempest. The motto of the team is not but should be, “Tempest Fugit.” Instead, it seems to be something like, “Pass the weak, hurdle the dead.” Nice so far as it goes. Classical Latin would be better, it seems to me, but I am not a runner and have no say.

Yes, there is much sporting excitement and many sports in the Fall. Elections, however, are not one of them. Electing the leaders of our government, who will wield control over life and death, freedom and slavery, prosperity and poverty, is not a sport. Self-government is one of the most serious activities of life for those who cherish their liberty. Those who do not will eventually vote away their freedom, as we have seen in places like Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia in recent years, and before that in places like Germany of the 1930s.

Of course, you would never know that from the public discourse on television, radio, in newspapers and other media outlets. Presidential, gubernatorial, and congressional races are treated as if they all were games, with little at stake other than whether your favorite team wins. Issues are trivialized, if mentioned at all. The trivializers have even assigned team colors, one side “Red” and another “Blue.” The most important issue in the media after a debate is “who won?” rather than, “what did we learn about what a candidate believes and what he would do if elected?” Points are awarded by press experts for style, poise, rhetoric, and gotcha lines. Panels of talking heads award scores as if they were judges at a figure skating competition.

It is all more than beside the point. It corrupts the process. Rather than true debates, in which candidates have enough time to declare and explain their views and policies on important issues, media celebrities offer trick questions, to which the future President of the United States is given two, three, or sometimes even five minutes to respond as he or she fishes for a soundbite to make it into the 60-second news recap (most of which will again be focused on, “who won?”). Based on this silly exercise, viewers are encouraged to text in (for a small fee) their vote—not for who would be the best office holder—but for who was the winner of the night’s contest.

We should expect and demand better. Through modern revelation we have been given a set of standards. You do not have to be a believer in revelation to recognize the wisdom of the counsel:

Wherefore, honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold; otherwise, whatsoever is less than these cometh of evil. (Doctrine and Covenants 98:10)

Our task as voters interested in preserving our rights and freedoms is too seek out diligently the honest, the good, and the wise. Anything less is evil. In an election, in a campaign, in a debate, I want to discover who is the honest, the good, and the wise, and I am little interest in style points.

That takes careful and diligent effort, for among the honest, the good, and the wise, are the liars, the false, and the foolish intent on deceiving. These latter like to hide in the noise of the sporting contest and often seek to divert attention to the things that little matter, the stray word, the high school prank. We need to keep our focus on a diligent search for the honest, the good, and the wise. With persistent effort, we can find them.

In self-government, we are the players. The issue is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, decidedly not a game. But if we follow these standards and apply them diligently, then in the end We the People will be the winners.

(First published September 26, 2012)

Of Incentives and Jobs

Remember the early days of the recession and its intensification by the policies of Washington? Remember how the politics of envy ended up causing more job losses as the demagogues in the White House and on Capitol Hill lambasted incentives employers offered to successful employees? Good thing that the politics of envy are now behind us, that we have all grown up and recognized how foolish it all is to feel better by pulling other people down. Then again, maybe my blog post from 2009 still has some relevance today.

Weird things happen when we decide by law who should have jobs and who should not and we order how people and businesses should spend money. I am not referring to the legality of telling people who receive money from the government how to live their lives and run their businesses. I am referring to the wisdom of it. And by “weird” I really mean “bad.”

On Friday a press release came across my desk, issued by seven travel-meeting-event industry trade associations. Their basic message was that the public beating up of companies over the meetings they hold and the incentive programs that they have for employees is killing the travel, tourism, and meeting industry and the people who work in it. They estimate that 200,000 jobs were lost in that industry in 2008, and a larger number of job losses are predicted for 2009.

Even the old communist governments figured out that workers respond to incentives. Under the power of incentives people work harder, smarter, and more creatively. They may even enjoy their work more. Sometimes incentives that take the employee out of the normal routine can be very powerful. If left to their own devices, businesses will experiment with different packages of incentives to guide their employees into the most efficient ways to accomplish company goals and objectives. Will they get it right? Often they will not. When they get it wrong, they try something else.

What is the best set of incentives, and should the incentives include travel and recreation programs? I do not know, and neither do you. No one has enough information, smarts, or involvement to know. You may know what works for you, but are you willing to say that others should be offered the same rewards or that you should be given the same incentive program designed by someone somewhere else or in some other line of work? Everyone meeting company goals gets a set of golf clubs. That may work fine for Harry, but how about for you?

While it may be lots of fun to rant about businesses sending employees to Florida for a weekend, do we have any idea how that might figure into the incentive programs in those businesses? If you take that option away, what other option will work as well or as efficiently? Again, I do not know, and neither do you.

Up until recently, I did not have to know or pretend to know. We left it for businesses and their employees to figure out. In view of the efficiency of our businesses–which efficiency continued to improve and lead the world even in 2008–American businesses have been getting the incentives much more right than wrong. When we decide to make those decisions for other people, especially when we try do so through government force, we can be pretty sure we will get it wrong. Who wants to explain to the 200,000 travel and tourism industry people who are in danger of losing their jobs why businesses should not be holding meetings in Williamsburg or San Antonio or Nashville? Step up now; a frozen turkey if you get it right.

(First published February 8, 2009)

Of Panic and Complacency

I wrote the following a few days after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. I was not in despair then, and I do not despair of finding some value even today in the thoughts expressed just before the dawn of the Obama Administration.

First of all, do not panic. Second, do not take it easy.

This is in line with another piece of advice I came across a few years ago (attributed to Austrian statesman, Clemens von Metternich): “Let us not consider ourselves victorious until the day after the battle, nor defeated until four days later.” Well, it has been more than four days since the November elections, and I believe that it is safe to say that the Republicans were defeated.

There are other things, however, that are not safe to say. It is not safe to say that the Democrats won an overwhelming victory. In fact, their margin of victory was fairly narrow, less than 7% separating the Republican and Democrat candidates for President, a number that only looks large when compared with closer recent Presidential races. Senator Obama’s percentage of victory was a little less than George Bush’s (the father) over Michael Dukakis, 6.7% versus 7.8%. The Democrats also picked up significant gains in their numbers in the Senate and House of Representatives, but in both cases they fell short of the overwhelming victories for which they had hoped. The results of the election were neither overwhelming nor underwhelming—just whelming.

It is also not safe to say that President-elect Obama and the Democrats do not mean to do what they said they wanted to do during the election. They plan to raise taxes. These higher taxes will be felt by everyone, but they will fall most heavily on businessmen and entrepreneurs, exactly the people whose efforts we need to restore economic growth. So as Obama and his team work to spread the wealth around, there will be less of it to spread, and less and less as time goes by. There are many other like-minded plans of the change team arriving in January.

Elected with the embarrassingly undisguised support of the mass media, the new leadership will continue to rely upon the media, this time to hype the “mandate” from the voters and to try to cower the remaining Republicans in town into timidity. The early effect of this can be seen in the hushed conversations of “people in the know” trying to convince themselves that Obama is really more moderate than he appears, that he will try to “govern from the center.” Maybe that will be true, but there is nothing either in Obama’s brief but clear far left voting record or his statements during the election to support the theory.

There remains powerful virtue in the Constitution (which the President-elect considers to be a flawed document), in which we can take comfort. The founding fathers wisely diffused power, because they were rightly afraid of what concentrated political power would do to individual liberty. While it is frustrating to new politicians in Washington, there is not a lot that one man can do—for good or ill—in our system of government, and that should be more of a source of solace than of worry.

We need not buy into the slogans that we should rise above partisan politics (which usually means that the other party should keep quiet and become politely ineffective) in order to wish the new President and the congressional leadership well so long as they propose to do good. Neither do we need be devotees of political parties in order to speak up when policies are proposed that will make things bad. In the land of “We the People,” it is our job not to be complacent. It is our job to remind the authorities in government who they work for. Otherwise, as we approach the holiday season in 2009, things will be much worse than they are already today.

(First published November 16, 2008)

Of Plumber Joe and Community Organizer Barry

I first published this before the 2008 presidential election. In the years since, President Obama’s community organizer background has faithfully exerted itself.

It took a real life example to give life to the key difference between the two candidates for president. When Plumber Joe met Barack Obama campaigning in his neighborhood, Joe asked the would-be president, why do you want to tax my small business? Actually, more precisely, Joe wants to buy the plumbing business he has worked at, and Obama wants to raise taxes on it, and Joe asked Obama, why? At first, Obama equivocated and mumbled something about getting some tax breaks to offset the tax hikes. When Joe refused to buy into that sleight of hand trick, Obama fessed up. Obama admitted that he wanted to spread the wealth around. In other words, he said that Joe would be making too much money, so Obama wanted to take from him and give to someone else.

Why would Obama want to do that? Because, unlike Plumber Joe, who has a real job, Obama’s career experience came as a “community organizer” (when he was known in Chicago as Barry). Taking money from people and giving it to others is what community organizers do. Barry the Community Organizer now wants to organize a big community, of over 300 million people, and he wants to keep spreading the wealth around. Community organizers like to do that, because they like to get the credit for being compassionate and generous, compassionate and generous handing out other people’s money.

Joe has worked hard as a plumber. Joe has saved and prospered. Now Joe wants to own his own business and provide work for other employees. The employees, these plumbers, would provide plumbing services and get paid by their customers. Barack Obama wants to take some of that money—O.K., a lot of that money—and spread it around to people who would get their money from Barack, people who have not been as “lucky” as Plumber Joe.

Lucky? My guess is that it was not luck that made Joe work hard over the years and save his money to be in a position to own a business and provide real jobs to other people. Under a President Obama, Joe and others like him would become unlucky.

John McCain has been trying to point out for weeks that the change offered by Barack Obama is a big time return to the tired old tax and spend politics of the big government politicians. John McCain is not the most eloquent campaigner, and the mass media has been doing its best to bury his message anyway. McCain finally found a real life example, and that is the most eloquent statement of all. At the last national debate, on a stage that the mass media could not ignore, McCain introduced us to Joe the Plumber (who by the way did not ask for all the attention and is a bit embarrassed by it), and McCain asked, why raise his taxes? Why raise anybody’s taxes going into an economic downturn?

If you do not raise the taxes, you cannot keep spending other people’s money and winning praise for your compassion and generosity. And that is the point of this election.

(First published October 16, 2008)

Of Elections and Consequences

I wrote the following just a few days before Barack Obama was first elected President, in 2008. I am tempted, reading it 5 years later, to congratulate myself on how insightful I was, but, frankly, Obama’s policies were so old and tried and failed, that he made it easy. See for yourself:

Elections have consequences, real, life-affecting consequences. One of the more unfortunate aspects of the mass media attitude toward elections is their approach to them as if they were some kind of game. The running score that they keep of the latest polls, their up-to-date electoral college count, the fixation on who “won” the latest debate, all demonstrate a sentiment that the election is some kind of sporting event, where we all root for one side or another, and when the game is won and the season is over we all go back to business as usual. That is not only wrong, it is dangerous.

After the election in November is over, it will not be back to business as usual. America’s standard of living, our economic welfare, our health, safety, and national security will all be affected. Electing Jimmy Carter meant economic and social malaise, it meant the loss of allies in several parts of the world, it meant civil war in Central America and the rise to power of the Ayatollahs in Iran. It meant a toxic economic brew of high unemployment, high inflation, and high interest rates. It meant increased crime in our cities. It meant an underpaid and undersupplied military, with Navy ships coming into harbor trading ammunition with those leaving port because there was not enough ammunition to go around.

Barack Obama is not quite as good or experienced as Jimmy Carter. His leading economic proposal is a whopping tax in the face of an economic downturn. Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt tried that in the 1930s, which turned a recession into the Great Depression. And Obama lies about his tax increase. He lies that it would not affect 95% of the population. The severe recession that it would cause will affect everyone, even the non-tax payers who are promised a tax cut by Obama.

Obama’s plan for a camouflaged government take over of health care will mean that health services will be provided with the same efficiency of the U.S. Postal Service. That means that sick people will have reduced access to medical services. It means that incentives to develop new medicines and new treatments will melt away. If government runs health care, as Obama wants, that means that political muscle will determine health care priorities rather than patient demand setting the priorities.

Obama’s foreign policies are right out of the Jimmy Carter briefing book. That means betrayal of our friends, appeasement of our enemies, and adventurous use of the military in places and causes that mean little to the national security of the United States. It means preparation always for some other war but inadequate commitment to fight the war we are in (he’s eager to send more troops into Afghanistan, but unwilling to win the war in Iraq). It means further design of the next weapons system, but never deployment of it, a return to starving our military of what it needs to do the job with least loss of life and maximum success. It means that the most important issues for the Obama military will be social engineering of the armed forces rather than a focus on their increased effectiveness and efficiency.

Voting in a republic like the United States is a serious matter. It is not a game. It means far more than bragging rights over whether our team won the World Series. It means that we are responsible for our electoral choices, with a full understanding that the people we elect will mean a difference in our lives and the lives of our families. It is a truism that people get the government they deserve. I firmly hope and believe that the American people deserve better than Obama. I know that my children do.

(First published October 5, 2008)