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)

Of Washington and the Life of the Nation

Washington, D.C., is a strange place. I speak from experience. My whole working career has been in Washington. In many meetings with people visiting Washington I have explained to them that Washington is not America. Few have been surprised by the remark. In many visits away from Washington (and in connection with my work I accept nearly every invitation to leave town and be among those whose lives too many in Washington try to run) I am ever and powerfully reminded how different the rest of America is from Washington. I have not been surprised. Kansas City is much closer to America than Washington ever was or will be.

In support of the point I offer a few painful examples. I see one each day that I drive into the city. Looking at the cars around me I note that very few are more than a few years old. At the same time I am impressed by how many of the cars are foreign luxury models. It is typical, when paused at a stop light, to notice that many of the surrounding cars are BMWs, Mercedes, Lexus, Acuras, Audis, and not an insignificant number of Jaguars, high end Range Rovers, and Porsches. I also see a lot more Prius cars and other hybrids. This is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with driving any of these or any other late model high-priced cars. I merely note it as very different from what I see when paused at a typical traffic light in other cities and towns in America.

As an aside, I am grateful to the people who buy and drive a Prius or other model of hybrid, because they subsidize my purchase of gasoline. Their cars do use less gasoline (though not enough less to compensate their owners for paying so much more for their cars), leaving more for people like me who drive regular gasoline-consuming vehicles. That reduction in gasoline demand helps reduce the price.

The Prius drivers might be offended were I to tell them, however, that I am entirely unimpressed by their conspicuous token of environmental sensitivity. Their purchase and operation of a Prius, after all, is very likely more harmful to the environment than is my more conventional automobile. First of all, they pay $10,000 or more extra to buy their hybrid, and if the price system works at all efficiently that means that making a Prius or other hybrid consumes far more in resources than making a conventional car. Second, the hybrid car fans and their coteries in the D.C. area have convinced the masters of the highway networks to create special less-traveled commuter lanes that the hybrid drivers are permitted to use, meaning that they reduce the efficiency of the highway infrastructure. So, to the Prius drivers of the world I say, thanks for the subsidy, but save your enviro lectures for when you are looking in the mirror.

The automobiles of the nation’s capital region are a sign of an even more painful reality of how Washington is different from the rest of America. It is also the wealthiest part of the nation, by far. On April 25, 2013, Forbes magazine published an article about the richest counties in the United States in terms of average income (Tom Van Riper, “America’s Richest Counties”). Six of the ten richest counties are in the Washington, D.C. region, including the top two and one more out of the top five. While recession lingers in the rest of the nation, Washington and its suburbs are doing rather well, with unemployment down to 5.5%, well below the national average.

I will also say that I am not opposed to wealth and wealthy people. I wish all of the world to be wealthier and rejoice that it is far wealthier today than people of just a few generations ago could have dreamed. But we could all live so much better still. I ache that the policies of governments around the world stifle economic growth and development and hold so many of their people down in poverty. The poor nations of the world are not poor because their people are less talented and intelligent than others, but because their governments are so oppressive and have been for generations.

Therein lies my beef with the wealth of Washington and its environs and the key to its estrangement from America. That wealth is hard to explain from the perspective of value added to the rest of the nation. Washington is basically a one-company town. Unlike other one-company towns, however, it produces little that adds enough value to the lives of others that would allow it to prosper in open competition in free markets. The product of Washington instead is forced upon the rest of the nation, whose productive income is confiscated to keep the Washington wealth-eating machine going.

Try to name an economic product or activity that is not somehow subject to special handling by or permission from someone in Washington or controlled from Washington. After the Dodd-Frank Act, for example, all financial activities have become more subject to direction by Washington bureaucrats than ever before. Today, a bank has to pay more attention to its regulators than it does to its customers. Who gets the best attention out of that arrangement? The same is true for energy producers, communications firms, health care providers, and you can continue the list. All that special handling comes with a toll, payable in taxes, or borrowed from the financial markets, or layered upon private incentive and individual initiative. Today in Washington the most convincing argument for new rules and laws is to announce that something is “unregulated.” When you regulate liberty, how much liberty survives? How much of America survives?

Next year, 2014, will mark the 200th anniversary of the burning of Washington by the British in the War of 1812. The curious thing about the burning of Washington was that it did not make a lick of difference. The rest of the nation went on about its business, little harmed or even affected. The same was true during the Revolutionary War when the British occupied Philadelphia. Rather than end the war it did nothing to bring the British victory. In America the nation was not run by its government, and in fact government was mostly irrelevant to the daily life of the people. That was very different from European experience, where nations were so dominated by their rulers that capturing the capital was tantamount to beheading the country.

Washington is strange to America. That can be tolerable, but only if it is smaller and less significant. Let the real nation draw its life from the people and live where they live their lives without direction from their rulers. Let us have a Washington whose disappearance would not mean much to the rest of the nation.

(First published May 18, 2013)

Of Limited Freedom and Limited Government

I live and work near the belly of the beast, and I can report that these days he is not happy. His belly is rumbling. He has eaten more than he can digest. Watch out, he may throw up. He is already belching.

The federal government is not working, we know and see. Not only is it not working as was intended when it was created by the States, it is not working as designed and over designed in subsequent years. The federal government cannot manage the national parks, the welfare system is breaking down, the national transportation infrastructure takes in more money and yet the signs of dysfunction and decay on roads, rails, and bridges are increasingly apparent. Banks are regulated with thousands of rules while the banking industry continues to shrink: we have fewer banks today than we did in 1891, and their share of the financial markets has been dwindling for decades. So much of what the federal government touches turns to rust and ruin.

Yet the federal government keeps reaching out for more, undeterred by its failures. The Environmental Protection Agency aggressively imposes restrictions on the air we exhale, the Food and Drug Administration announces plans to control the fat in our foods, the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection has decided what kind of mortgages lenders can make and what kind of people can get them (acknowledging that many who qualify today will be outside the boundaries of federal standards in 2014).

You can augment this brief sampling of a longer list from your own experiences. This is nothing new, other than perhaps in frequency and intensity. If there is a virtue in Obamacare it may be that its unworkability and its increasingly universal hurt are demonstrating broadly what many have been feeling individually.

Demonstrating the hurt is not the same as redressing it. The beast, however ill, will not cheerfully surrender its prey. During the debate over ratification of the Constitution, one commenter, writing in the Philadelphia newspaper Independent Gazetteer (October 12, 1787), observed, “People once possessed of power are always loth to part with it”, and then warned that the Feds could not be counted on, by their own volition, to do “any thing which shall derogate from their own authority and importance . . . or give back to the people any part of those privileges which they have once parted with”. If that was predictable in 1787, it is painfully apparent today. Perhaps the clearest example is how the Washington power elites have exempted themselves and their cronies from the application of Obamacare while continuing to inflict it on the rest.

And yet, Obamacare is the hurt that keeps on hurting. People will not get over it or get used to it. Its pain and suffering will be felt again and again with each new illness, every new tax, as its strictures reduce availability, affordability, and quality of wellbeing. Wave after wave of new harm will come, astonishing its supporters and augmenting the ranks of its victims until it is addressed.

Americans, much like other people, will put up with much before they are roused to action. Unlike for many other people, our Constitution gives us avenues for action. The Constitution embodies the concept of continual redress within the rule of law to make appeal to extremities outside of the rule of law unnecessary and unthinkable, so long as the principles of the Constitution retain their vitality.

The core principle of the Constitution is limited government, designed to protect the growth and expansion of human freedom. Increasingly, for about a century, the “progressives” in Washington have turned public affairs on their heads. Human freedom has been the focus of limitation, while government enjoyed constant growth and expansion. The end seems approaching, either of the ability of government to manage what it has taken on, or perhaps (and hopefully) when the holders of power can no longer convince enough people that it is all for their own good. Limitation on government may return in vogue as promises of government solutions to feed the beast ring ever more hollow.

The Philadelphia writer of 1787, whom I cited above, was a critic of the Constitution, because he believed it impossible that the power gathered in by the federal government could be wrested from its hands. I remain hopeful that it still can be. Nothing else will work.

Of Dysfunction and Governing the Nation

It seems that no more evidence is needed.  The establishment press, normally loathe to criticize the federal government, has at last become even fond of proclaiming that “Washington is dysfunctional,” although they do so as if announcing something worthy of being “news.”  The Senate has not passed a budget in some four years.  The House of Representatives regularly passes budgets that the Senate will not even consider.  The President—who has no budget-proposing role under the Constitution—proposes budgets that are routinely disregarded while declaring his intent to govern without the Congress.  At the same time, people feel more alienated from their government than ever before, in ever increasing numbers considering the nation headed in the wrong direction, regardless of the party in control of national policy.

In the most recent demonstration of the Washington breakdown, the Congress this year failed to pass the annual appropriations bills before the current ones expired.  Or, better said, the House passed appropriations bills, the Senate demurred, and the President announced that he would veto any appropriations legislation that offered either more or less than what he wanted.

The establishment press, amplifying executive branch efforts to promote panic and stampede the public, announced that “the government would shut down,” and yet 83% stayed open.  Some prominent public operations (that do not require any appropriations to operate) were closed at the President’s bidding, like the Lincoln Memorial and the various veterans and war memorials, but the President seemed to have enough money to travel to various campaign-style rallies to complain about the government shut down.  There was national confusion and consternation.

Perhaps what is news is that there is, at last, general agreement, and the President has helped demonstrate, that the federal government has become dysfunctional, by which we may mean, not doing what it needs to do.  I also notice that this condition has not been getting any better.  In addition to the recent, visible indicators, I would offer some longer-term measures.

Economic growth is depressed and has been declining for decades; employment is also down, with millions leaving the work force.  Government welfare rolls have expanded dramatically, suggesting that a very large portion of the population is either not able to take care of itself or has surrendered its responsibility to do so.  The federal balance sheet approaches ever closer to insolvency.  To avoid being gloomy and doomy, I will not recount dismal education trends, eroding family formation patterns, the precarious condition of national infrastructure, or our worsening international relations (with allies and opponents).

Yet, the federal bureaucracies are far larger, taxes—visible and hidden—are higher, red tape has become ubiquitous, and federal subsidies have fallen behind promises even as they outdistance the ability of the federal government to pay for them.  If government is the solution, then why is more government not making things better?

How could this happen?  Have we as a nation lost our ability to govern ourselves?  Have “partisan politics”—as though something new rather than part of our national intercourse since 1796—frozen the ability to consider, set, and follow national priorities?  Have the problems of modernity exceeded the ability of policymakers to resolve them?

A case could probably be made for each and all of the above explanations.  I think, however, that they are all symptoms of a more fundamental problem, one recognized long ago, at the founding of the nation.

As early as 1787 the Founders recognized that a central government would not work for the United States.  Even with just the original 13 states and 3 million people, the nation was too vast to be governed in detail from one capital.  That is why they created a federal system, under which the few, truly national concerns—such as national defense, trade, international relations, national standards of measures and sanctity of contracts, preservation of freedom and the rule of law, together with the means to fund these activities—would be handled by the national government.  All else was reserved to the States.

Note that I did not say given to the States.  Remember, the States and the people in them created the national government.  The States and the people in them gave to the national government its authority and power.

Today, the United States stretches across a continent and reaches to the isles of the sea, with over 300 million inhabitants.  It is even more impossible than ever to govern from a single capital, by a centralized government.  We all have seen the evidence, in addition to the growing dysfunction of Washington.  Everyday, people all over the nation struggle with rules made by the federal bureaucracies, rules that are often nonsensical where people live and work and play, rules governing the volume of water in our toilets, the content of our children’s food, the gasoline in our cars, the content of our communications, the form of our financial affairs, and many other elements of daily, personal life.  Even worse, they have become too vast and complex to be administered faithfully or complied with loyally. 

We could fault the executive branch bureaucrats who make them or the Congressmen and Senators who write the laws, but these people are no smarter or dumber than the rest of us, and just as well meaning.  They just have an impossible job.  No one can know enough to run so many things from Washington.

Consider the big issues that seem to have Washington all tied up in knots—in turn afflicting all the rest of us.  The new national healthcare systems are breaking down even as they get started.  National rules for farmers have Congress stuck over who should get subsidies and who should not.  National tax plans designed to take from some to give to others divide the people into winners and losers.  Environmental regulations impose costs on some in order to subsidize someone else.  National education programs follow each other in rapid succession, each with a new and high-sounding name, none of which do much to stem the continued decline in education.  And ever present with all of these national rules are unintended consequences that were not and probably could not be foreseen but which crush people’s businesses, destroy jobs, and disrupt lives.

These are all issues that the Founders never intended for the national government, issues that if governments should address at all should be left to State and local governments, where decisions can be made closer to the people who have to live with the results.

We have at hand a better, competent government, or at least its blueprint.  It is found in the structure of our Constitution that created a federal system.  Our Constitution is the recognition that only through a system that keeps governing as local as possible can a great nation exist in union and harmony.

What we are seeing play out before our very eyes is that our nation not only should not be governed by a central authority, but that it cannot be.  The sooner we recognize that and return to the federal plan of the Founders the happier, and the sooner Washington will be able to function as it should for the benefit of all rather than frustration for all.  The task is too big otherwise and doomed to failure.  It will not be a pleasant failure.

Of Hope and Just Getting By

Working in Washington, D.C., and living in the D.C. suburbs as I do, I am fond of saying that I eagerly accept opportunities to get away from the Capital region and spend time in real America. That has always been a bit of an overgeneralization, expressing a usually correct but not unerring description. Washington is not real America, but there are parts of this nation that have already gotten ahead of where the smart people of Washington have been able to take the nation. Those places are not what I mean when I refer to real America.

Our large, industrial states are examples of misrule by those who assume that their ability and right to rule, and the inexhaustibility of the wealth of their cities and states, are given and immutable. Wrong on all assumptions. These states, once beacons of progress, growth, and development, are wastelands of decline: economic, social, moral, and even demographic. Millions of people—those who could—have been leaving these states for decades.

The recent bankruptcy of Detroit is a prominent symbol of where this misrule leads. At its prime a bustling metropolitan center approaching two million in population, Detroit has been steadily falling from its prime to a dilapidated city of barely 700,000 who remain to wonder where have the productive people gone, and what is to be the future?

I recently returned from spending several days in such a place, mixing with, talking with, associating in the daily lives of the ordinary people living there, people with whom I had lived as a wide-eyed teenager a generation before. I am not referring to the urban center of the state. The region I visited has been for 150 years a mixture of industrial and rural economies, and as I recalled, a happy mix. Now the villages and towns are actually smaller than in my youth and shrinking. The number of productive enterprises is fewer and those that remain, smaller. The schools have remarkably fewer students and struggle with how to keep their programs going with declining enrollments. The largest employers are the instruments of government welfare services—as well as a couple of new state prisons—and the local hospital network.

The people were friendly and pleasant, yet something did not feel right. I understand the wisdom that “you can never go home” if you expect to find all the same. I expected change. New technologies were present, hand-held electronic devices ubiquitous, a fair number of new cars, if not the foreign luxury models so common in Washington. It was not, though, a happy place of happy people. Why?

It was only near the end of my stay that I recognized the ailment. The region has become a land of small hope, particularly small hope of progress. People there were not living their lives to get ahead, to advance, to build a better future (I cannot recall seeing a single new house in the several days of my visit, though the dump north of town is working on its third mound). Most of the people in these formerly vibrant communities, with what I remember as bright expectations for the future, were now living their lives to get by, just to get by, to get on from day to day, holding on to what they have.

Taxes are high, so it is not easy to keep what you earn. Regulation makes it hard to do anything new. For those reasons, businesses have been leaving, and so have the talented youth. Talk with the people about their daily lives, and not long into the conversation the problems of wrestling with this or that regulation or working with some officious government apparatchik will come up. And yet so many of the people expect the solution to their problems to come from some new government program or service rather than from their own effort.

I say “most” of the people are so ailing. There are a few exceptions, and interesting ones. Two religious groups seem to be growing—and not the establishment churches, whose places of worship, grand and beautiful buildings, eloquently testify to bygone days of prosperity but now show signs of neglect. The two groups are the Latter-day Saints, whose Church was founded in the area nearly two hundred years ago and whose membership is growing steadily, and the Amish/Mennonites, who in recent years have moved in strong numbers to take advantage of neglected farm land. There are also some very prosperous farm businessmen, also gathering up land and putting it into obvious productivity. Finally, I would mention the growth of mini-wineries, although this latter movement seems after about 25 years to be approaching maturity.

Hope is an essential ingredient in happiness. Hope comes from the belief that a desirable future is attainable, so much so that it draws out extra effort to realize its promise. Genuine hope in your own effort can be contagious, and those who have it can help revive communities. You cannot do much to give hope without that personal effort, but hope comes naturally with that effort and the opportunity to keep the fruits of one’s efforts. Our nation’s founders were filled with hope and with it created the greatest nation on earth.

There is no hope, though, in just getting by. In the end, you cannot get by if getting by is all there is to your hope. No future there, only decline. For hundreds of years people have been leaving their lands where they struggled to get by and have been coming to America, to them a land of hope and the freedom that feeds hope. When I leave Washington to look for America, that is what I am looking for. I hope to find it ever.

(First published July 20, 2013)

Of Liberty and Breaking the Rules

Sometime in the 1990s, before the days of YouTube, I received a homemade video from a man who owned and operated a small business near Dallas, Texas. He ran a landscaping company, had a handful of employees, and, according to the video, was in violation of some rule or regulation of the federal government every day. He did not intend to be in violation. He did not want to be in violation. As he explained, it was just impossible to comply with all of the requirements.

The video began with the owner sitting behind his desk, explaining the problem. He stood up and took the camera with him as he walked through different parts of his operations, pointing out what was required of him, his business, and his colleagues.

In the main office he described the employment rules, the tax laws, the related mandates and regulations that applied because he had hired other people. He walked over to the equipment and described the numberless “safety hazard” regulations, from warning notices that had to be glued beneath the seats of garden tractors, to how he and his workers used, carried, and stored their tools, gear, and machines, and what they were supposed to wear while using them. He discussed the multitude of formal requirements for managing and applying the fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals that are commonly used in his business, including their handling, storage, clean up, and their transportation. Speaking of transportation, because his company used trucks and other vehicles, there was another long list of rules and regulations that applied to that part of the firm.

Added to all of this, there were numerous reports, applications, notices, and other papers to be filed with a variety of agencies on a regular basis. When he was through, he sat down again behind his desk and said, “I break the law every day. I don’t intend to, but I cannot avoid it. I can’t keep up with it all as long as I stay in business.”

How did we get here? Is this America? Is this the land of the free and the home of the brave? Is this a land of freedom sustained by law? It is an unknown America, too unknown to most but too familiar to people who run a business, especially the people who own a small company. The rest of us see little of it, though perhaps we suspect it is there. Some of us catch glimpses.

In a large business it takes longer for the regulatory burden to become overwhelming. For a while the boss can hire more people to help carry the load. In the large firms of America there is a host of employees who produce no goods or offer any services to any customers. They spend their careers complying with their slices of these federal rules, laws, and mandates so that some of the other employees can be involved in what the business is all about, providing something to a customer for which the customer is willing to pay.

The customer may not realize that a large share of what he pays for he never receives; it goes to pay those people who work to keep the business in compliance with the government rules. More than businessmen would be wealthier without this heavy, dead hand clamped on firms, factories, and farms. The necessities and luxuries of life would all be a lot cheaper. Or, another way to say it, we would get more of the goods and services we pay for, less of our money sunk into these hidden costs for unproductive activity.

America’s Founders sought to create a land of freedom, not dominated by government and the officiousness of government functionaries. To them “unregulated” was a goal, not a criticism. They also knew the danger of what could happen, even in America. James Madison wrote, “It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood. . .” (James Madison, Federalist no. 62)

And yet here we are. What the Texas businessman faced in the 1990s has not become any lighter since. When was the last time that you read the full text of a law? Who has read the Obamacare statute, the Dodd-Frank Act, or any of the other voluminous, incoherent laws recently enacted, each written on more than a thousand pages? For each page of law enacted by Congress today government bureaucrats write ten pages of rules and regulations, all of which are enforced as law though never voted on by anyone who himself has been voted into office by the people.

In the land of the free, whose founding document begins with “We the People”, why do we tolerate it? One of the complaints against the king of England in the Declaration of Independence reads, “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.” And yet we have done the same to ourselves. The Dodd-Frank Act alone created several New Offices and has already stimulated the hiring of more than a thousand new officers.

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”

Scrooge trembled more and more.

“Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!”
(Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

There was a time when the chains had to be broken to restore the rule of law.

(First published August 8, 2013)

Of Claiming Good and Doing Bad

A very good book was published this month. Ostensibly, it is about our economy and the recession. It is actually about much more. It is the first book about the current American economy written by a philosopher, and it is perhaps the best book I have read yet about all the recent unpleasantness. Some might say that the economic trouble still continues, more like a long, slow convalescence from a serious illness than a healthy recovery. For many whose financial condition stagnates, for those who have replaced a full-time job with one or two part-time jobs, for graduates who have a degree in hand but no work in the field for which they have trained, and especially for the millions who remain out of work, talk of an economic turnaround can seem like a mockery.

For those and others, Infiltrated, by Jay W. Richards, can help make some sense of what hit us. The book does not suggest that there was a massive conspiracy to drive our nation into economic turmoil. It explains how turmoil came nevertheless as national policymakers followed the prescriptions of people who claimed to be doing good but tried to cheat the laws of economics and markets to impose what they might call “benevolence” on the rest of us.

It was their idea that in order to help more people own homes lenders should ignore such things as ability to repay a mortgage, strong history of employment and steady income, and having some equity in the value of the house so there would not be an incentive to walk away if prices dropped. They also agitated for the government to expand its guaranties for mortgages to people with poor credit histories and loans where lenders cut corners. And they badgered builders to keep building more houses.

Their plans horribly miscarried, and yet those people have even more control over us and our economy today and are more able and determined to try again. The recession, rather than educating and deterring them, has made them bolder.

I am reminded of what the late Louis Rukeyser, the very popular host of the PBS program Wall Street Week, wrote in the 1990s:

Washington has been taken over by an impregnable mob of short-sighted, power-hungry megaclowns.

They try their worst to micromanage every detail of the economy, but succeed only in whipping the markets back and forth, up and down in spastic patterns. They despise the gentler forces of a free market, which would moderate swings far more predictably.
(Louis Rukeyser, 1993 advertisement for his financial newsletter)

The people to whom I refer and whom Richards exposes in his book do not like the markets. They trust themselves more and think that you should trust them, too. They seriously do believe themselves smarter than the markets, and that is the problem. No one, other than God, is smarter than the markets. A large part of economic history, the tragic part, is a chronicle of the disasters caused when a small coterie of people are able to enforce their wishes and preferences on the rest of us in contravention of economic reality. It never works.

That was the story of the Great Depression, and it was entirely the story of communism, where whole societies were based upon the now well-proven fallacy that any group of people, no matter how smart or well intentioned, can gather sufficient data and know and understand enough to run a national economy. It is just far too complicated, with billions of economic decisions being made by millions of people all day and all night long. The markets make it all work, because the markets are the sum combined total of all of those economic actions and decisions interacting with each other. No human five-year plan for economic control has escaped failure.

What is worse, as well intentioned as such people may start out, all too often, as Richards’ book exposes, their efforts not only fail to do what they set out to do, they fail to stay virtuous and instead become enlisted in the service of private gain at the expense of the rest of us. The Soviet system might have worked pretty well for the party owners of the dachas along the Black Sea but only by impoverishing the workers their leaders claimed to be serving.

Do not let yourself be put off that Richards is a philosopher. His book is remarkably readable, one that you can take with you to the beach and actually enjoy, and feel that you have learned something—a lot—in the reading. Richards mixes real life narrative with hard facts and good research, unified by sound reasoning to expose a nasty and growing problem in American government today. The problem is a big part of why government is expanding and becoming more intrusive in all aspects of our lives, including our financial affairs, education, healthcare, energy use, the products we buy, the food we eat, and the entertainment we enjoy, and even the breath we exhale.

That is to say that the story told by Jay Richards, in Infiltrated, is actually a longer story, a story that began long before the recession, and continues afterward, a story that is bigger than his book. The recent economic events and their painful aftermath illuminate Richards’ core message, the human wreckage caused when some people are able to harness the coercive force of government to impose their personal notions of “benevolence” on the rest of us.

Roger Kimball, writing in 2011 in The New Criterion, warned that such efforts are “intoxicating, addictive, expensive, and ultimately ruinous.” (Roger Kimball, “Liberty versus benevolence,” The New Criterion, February 2011, p.6) Richards offers several well-described examples, well illustrating the truth of Kimball’s observations.

A valuable lesson for policymakers and for the people they would govern: the more discretion you give to government, the more you create the opportunity for abuse of that discretion for private gain. Europe in the 18th century was lousy with the practice. Our forebears sought to escape it and fought a revolution to get out of its grip. The men who threw the tea into Boston Harbor were acting in protest of the partnership between the British Crown and the British East India Company.

Beware the public-private partnerships. Jay Richards explains how some public-private mortgage partnerships went bad, very bad, for the partners and for all of us caught in the dust and debris of their collapse. I am reminded of the warning by former Congressman Dick Armey, that when you enter into a partnership with the devil, you are always the junior partner.

I conclude with the words of New York City Democrat Congressman Bourke Cockran, delivered 110 years ago:

That Government only is good, that Government only is great, that Government only is just, which has neither favorites nor victims.

(W. Bourke Cockran, speech given before the National Liberal Club of England, London, July 15, 1903, in W. Bourke Cockran, In the Name of Liberty, p.190)

Our government should be that government.

(First published August 18, 2013)

Of Politicians’ Words and Deeds

A neighbor friend once asked me during election season how to tell the difference among the candidates. She pointed out that it was difficult from their messages to find enough difference on which to base a judgment. I cannot recall exactly what I told her, but if asked again today, this is how I would like to answer.

It is true that in the course of many political campaigns it is hard to tell from what candidates say who would serve better in office. With the candidates competing for the same office seeking the votes of the same electorate, a certain sameness can creep into their message, particularly if principles do not play a significant role in the campaign or in the mind of one or more of the candidates.

Far more important than what politicians say, however, is what they do—and where available, a record of what they have done. Many candidates for public office have served in another public office before. Most candidates for Senate were once a congressman, a governor, a mayor. Viable candidates for President have always had a history of prior service in public office, usually a fairly long history. Check into this history and trust it.

I do not know of any President whose service departed from the pattern of his prior service in other offices. I know of many whose campaign rhetoric did, but once in office they acted as they did before. While he talked a different game on the campaign trail, President Clinton served very much in the style of Governor Clinton. President George Bush has not acted very differently from Texas Governor Bush.

That brings us to the 2008 presidential election. Both major candidates have served in prior office. Both are Senators, Senator McCain having served for several terms. I have no expectation that a President McCain would act differently from Senator McCain.

Senator Obama’s record is much shorter. Four years ago he was a rather undistinguished member of the Illinois state legislature. Now he is a freshman Senator. Although he has not accomplished much while in office, he does have a voting record in the Senate. That brief record is even more eloquent than the Senator himself. While Senator Obama’s speeches may be rich in vacuous platitudes—however well delivered—his record is very clear and deep with meaning. It is the record of an ordinary partisan Democrat.

That record shows a strong adherence to the doctrine that problems need to be solved by government, by government rules, regulations, and funding. It is a record that is deeply mistrustful of individual choice and initiative. It trusts markets the most when they are the more guided by government and is fearful of them the freer that they are from governmental control.

Senator Obama’s record is short, but it is consistent and clear. You can trust it as a reliable testament of how a President Obama would act in office.

(First published August 12, 2008)

Of the Constitution and the States

It must be the least employed part of the Constitution. In fact, “never used” may be a better description. I am not sure but that it may be the one part of the Constitution not only never used but never really tried.

I draw your attention to Article V, which offers procedures for amending the Constitution. Article V has been successfully invoked 27 times–25 or 26 times if you reconcile the count for the fact that the Twenty-first Amendment repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, the prohibition of intoxicating liquors.

So why do I refer to Article V if it has been used on more than two dozen occasions? I have in mind an important but neglected part of Article V. Article V provides two methods for amending the Constitution. Only one method has been used. We might call that the Washington Method, since it relies upon the Federal Government to propose amendments and send them to the States. The other, unused method I would call the State Method, as it relies upon the State legislatures to initiate the amendment process.

Article V is short. Here is the text in full:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate. (Emphasis added)

Constitutions are foundational documents and so should not be changed any more often than you would consider changing the foundation of your house. Change the foundation and a lot of other things change, too, and if you are not careful you can weaken the whole structure. But the Founders of the nation knew that they were not omniscient and that the need for adjustments or even corrections to the basic plan of the government would surely become obvious over time.

For example, the original process for counting electoral votes for President and Vice President almost put Aaron Burr in the White House instead of Thomas Jefferson in 1800. Jefferson was the candidate for President, Burr the running mate, and both received the same number of electoral votes, but the electoral college ballot under the Constitution did not distinguish between President and Vice President. The two were tied, and Aaron Burr got the notion that maybe he should be President instead of Jefferson. The House of Representatives had to sort it out. Afterwards, this flaw in the Constitution was corrected by the Twelfth Amendment.

The first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, were made almost immediately and were demanded by several states as essential conditions for their ratification of the Constitution itself. We could very appropriately consider those ten amendments as part of the original Constitution since it would not likely have been ratified without their promised addition. In that view, the Constitution has subsequently been amended little more than a dozen times in over two centuries.

It is also worth noting that Congress has proposed amendments that the States have subsequently and appropriately turned down. One such proposed amendment that never got past the States was approved by Congress in 1861, denying Congress the power to interfere with slavery. The Constitution does not, however, limit the power of the States to only considering amendments that come out of Washington. It provides to the States the power to initiate amendments of their own.

Mark Levin, in his recent book, The Liberty Amendments, argues that it is important for the States to exercise that authority. He offers some suggestions for amendments that the States might consider, designed to restore the balance between Washington and the States that the Founders envisioned when creating our federal system.

It is a sign of how distorted things have become that using the word “federal” today almost always leads one to think of the government in Washington. Yet our federal system was designed specifically to preserve State authority and limit the power of the national government. Levin argues that those limits have been dangerously eroded, especially over the last century.

Consider the many aspects of our daily lives that are determined one way or another by Washington laws and regulations rather than by the States whose representatives are closer to the people whom they govern. The list would include the fixtures in our bathrooms, the design of our cars, the food offered to children in school lunch rooms, the subjects that they are taught, the products and services offered by banks, and now the healthcare that we can receive.

A major consequence of the problem is that the power appetite of Washington has taken on more than it can handle and is seriously threatening the health of the nation. Regardless of which parties are in power or whether power is divided, Washington is becoming increasingly dysfunctional. But the professional politicians in Washington will not let go of the power that they have taken from the States, even as they sink under the weight.

What has tied Washington up in knots this fall? It is conflict over Obamacare. Would that even be a problem if healthcare were left to the States to regulate? Congress is having trouble passing a farm bill because of apparently unbridgeable differences over food stamps. Would Washington be stuck in the mud—and at the same time affecting all the rest of the nation—if farm and nutrition policies remained in State hands? At the same time, many States are facing major budget problems coming to grips with paying for programs forced on them by the national government.

The State Method for amending the Constitution was put into the Constitution specifically for the time when the national government was the problem and would be incapable of solving its own problems. Surely that time has come. Washington has gotten tied up in a Gordian knot of its own devising. The wise Founders of the nation apparently knew that things could come to this. It is time for the States to exercise their constitutional power to cut the knot.

(First published September 22, 2013)

Of the World Bank and Washington Parties

Last evening and this afternoon I was in Washington, D.C. That would be an unremarkable statement, since I work in Washington. But I am not often there in the evening and even less often on a Saturday afternoon. I was in Washington at those unusual times because my son, I’ll call him Peter, was participating in a choral program at a church in the city.

I write this to explain why in the world I would be in Washington not only on a Friday night and a Saturday afternoon, but of all weekends, on the weekend when the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are having their annual meetings. Two out of every three years they hold their joint meetings in the capital of the Free World, the third year somewhere else. They like holding their meetings in the capital of the Free World because they are very much interested in the capital of the Free World.

Finance ministers, government economic development experts, and related hangers on from all over the globe gather to talk about poverty and economic hardship in the poor countries and how the rich countries have an obligation to channel more money in the direction of the poor countries. They have been doing this for something over 65 years. And yet, with a few exceptions, the poor countries seem to remain poor, the most notable growth being in the number of poor countries.

Early in my career in Washington, back in the early 1980s, these meetings used to be a lot of fun. The world’s largest commercial banks would hold lavish parties. In those days the big banks, encouraged by the IMF, the World Bank, and their own governments, were big into lending money to the poor countries, billions and billions of dollars. That money was supposed to fuel economic growth by funding big projects that politicians could take credit for and where they could have their pictures taken at elaborate ribbon cutting ceremonies. The projects were started, some of them built, but very little economic development resulted. The poor nations were not very good at paying back the loans. In the mid-1980s it almost destroyed the banks. Since then, they have gotten out of that business. They stopped holding the parties, too.

Walking through Washington last night and this afternoon I could see nevertheless that lavish parties were still going on. I am not sure who was hosting them. I think that at least some were sponsored by non-profit groups. But they were still lavish. It was very difficult getting past the fanciest hotels and restaurants and some of the popular museums. Stretch limos were packed in as the financial leaders of these poor countries were climbing out and milling around, dressed in tuxedos, evening dresses, and pricey jewelry, to hear speeches from well-paid development experts, delivering their latest reports on the tough financial times and their clever theories about the obligations of rich nations like the United States to send more money to the poor nations.

This afternoon we walked by Lafayette Square, within earshot of a group of protesters in front of the White House. Somebody was bellowing through a bullhorn. I could not quite make out what he was chanting. I think it had something to do with the World Bank and IMF not giving poor nations enough money. As I say, I could not quite make it out. My son said it sounded all the world like,

No more pencils,
No more books,
No more teachers’
Dirty looks.

(First published September 24, 2011)

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