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 Con Artists and Presidential Candidates

There is something disturbing about Barack Obama. I have been trying to put words to it. It is not merely that I disagree with him on his political prescriptions. There are many people, across the political spectrum, with whom I disagree on political policies and programs, even those for whom I used to work. With only a relative handful of them, however, have I sensed the same disquiet that I feel with regard to this year’s Democrat nominee for President.

After the recent presidential debate between Obama and Republican candidate John McCain I found the right words. Obama is a con artist. Fundamentally, he is acting in a deceptive way to get something from you. He wants you to believe that he has your best interests at heart so that he can get from you your precious vote. He pretends to be what he is not, because if you understood what he is all about, you would not vote for him.

Take, for example, his tax policies. Barack Obama promises a tax cut for 95% of the population. He is offering you a financial incentive for your vote. He is offering to buy your vote. He does not tell you that many of those people for whom he promises a tax cut do not pay any federal income taxes. A tax cut to people who do not pay taxes is just a government hand out. And he usually tries to hide the fact that this hand out to people who do not pay taxes is coming from you. We should not be so willing to believe that you can tax just 5% of the people in order to give a tax break to the other 95%—especially if many of the 95% do not pay any income taxes. You cannot get there, even if you try to take all of the money of the “rich,” and once that is gone what do you do for the next act?

If you own your own business, chances are very high that your business is taxed like an individual and that the revenues for that business will be classified as the “rich” that Obama says he thinks need to pay more taxes. Or perhaps you have some investments in the stock market—half of all Americans do. When those rich companies pay the new Obama taxes, that money comes out of the hides of the companies’ shareholders. Moreover, raising taxes into the teeth of an economic decline is a certain recipe for accelerating the decline. That is what Hoover did, and what Franklin Roosevelt did in order to make an economic recession last for a whole decade (eventually history should recognize that FDR was the worst president of the 20th Century—even if he could talk a good game).

A second example follows directly from the tax example. After he is finished talking about tax cuts (on people who do not pay taxes), Obama starts his litany of very expensive new government spending programs. The price tag for these comes to some $800 billion, give or take a hundred billion dollars. Each program is carefully designed to buy votes. Not only do his tax cuts not work as real tax cuts—taken by themselves—they cannot possibly work in the face of $800 billion of new federal spending.

The third example is really the most prominent. Barack Obama says that this is all “change.” He says you should vote for change, because he thinks that you want change and that his promise for change will get you to give him your vote. If you believe that major tax increases and massive new government spending programs are change, maybe he will succeed in getting many votes. But maybe people will say that they have heard that formula before, and whenever it is applied the nation always becomes poorer.

Barack Obama looks good, talks smooth, promises everything. If he loses this race for President, maybe he could try his hand selling used cars.

(First published September 28, 2008)

Of Democracies and Demagogues

The demagogue has ever been the bane of democracies. By definition, democracies rest upon the choices of the people. When wisdom guides, democracies prosper. As history shows, wisdom does not always prevail, and it never does when demagogues do. Since the demagogue seeks his own power by taking power from others, once the people give him their voice they will be hard-pressed to get their power back; the democracy deteriorates into dictatorship, invoked in the name but never the reality of the rights of the people.

Why would a free people yield their power to the tyranny of the demagogue? It is not reasonable to place your own hands and feet in fetters. In every successful democracy there is a balance between reason and emotion. Rather than advise wisdom, demagogues appeal to the basest popular emotions to overcome reason. American Founder, James Madison, drawing lessons from the best known democracy of history, the democracy of Athens, warned Americans of the danger:

In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.
(James Madison, Federalist no. 55, as quoted in John Samples, “James Madison’s Vision of Liberty,” Cato Policy Report, Vol.XXIII No.2, March/April 2001, p.12)

Madison recognized that in groups fiery emotion can make for a more persuasive pitch than cooler reason can. He recommended the Constitution as a defense against demagogues, a structure of fundamental limitations on government and against those who would seek to govern by preying upon the passions of the people. The formula has worked and the Constitution has held—against many trials, including a Civil War—for more than 200 years.

The typical demagogue is a forceful speaker who seeks power by stirring up the people, whom he sees as masses to be manipulated and managed rather than as a body politic of reasonable individuals. It does not particularly matter which emotions are invoked against reason; the most successful demagogues draw upon a variety. Perhaps the emotion most powerful to the ends of the demagogue is fear, but he will also use hatred, avarice, envy, sorrow, vanity, vengeance, vainglory, among others. He will even try to invoke love, though love is hard to make compatible with the demagogue’s message of contention, but it can be used to garner sympathy and to get people to let down their guard against an appeal to baser emotions.

Are Americans and the American constitutional democracy perpetually proof against the demagoguery that has destroyed democracies before? The Founders did not think so. A popular watch phrase among them was, “eternal vigilance is the price we pay for liberty”. They were referring more to internal dangers than dangers from foreign enemies.

How do we keep watch on the threshold of the 21st Century? Here are ten tests to help unmask the demagogue:

• He gives powerful, emotional speeches, as public speaking is one of his most powerful tools. “Facts” will usually play a minor role in the speech, and when used will often either be half-truths or outright lies, sometimes very big lies with passionate appeal.

• As discussed, emotion rather than reason predominates in his arguments, with fear the most prevalent emotion.

• He conjures up apocalyptic dangers and manipulates crises (and creates them when none are readily available). The sky seems to be always about to fall.

• Riding on the wave of crisis, he will offer sweeping “action plans” that would cede to him major powers and authorities and push aside sources of opposition. “Forward” is the frequent cry shouted to drown out objections, “the debate is over.” (In a real democracy, can the debate ever be “over”?)

• He dishonors the Constitution and violates it without regret; the Constitution and demagoguery are incompatible. Neither can survive while the other prospers, to paraphrase J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter formula for her fictional demagogue.

• He accuses others of employing his own despicable tactics. In order to create fog and camouflage, and blunt criticism of his own actions, the demagogue will often claim opponents are lying, fomenting contention, engaging in petty partisanship, and so on, all the while employing those tactics himself. Note that the accusations will usually employ an appeal to sentiment.

• He points to enemies of the people, enemies that his plans will vanquish. These enemies are usually chosen to evoke emotion, such as “big business” to foster fear, “the rich” to stir envy, race or ethnic divisions to feed hate.

• He calls for unity while proposing plans that divide the nation, opponents of his plans being cast as those who would seek to divide a nation that would be unified by agreeing with him. Issues are chosen that find and feed emotional fissures in public opinion. Most effective, the demagogue will propose to take something of value from a group in a minority and “share” it with the group whose favor he seeks, such as targeted taxes or confiscations to provide some popular benefit.

• Following on that point, he develops classes of supporters dependent upon what he promises to give them from the government, benefits that will need his continued care to be sustained. That is what lies at the core of the difficulty in fixing problems with welfare, Medicare, and Social Security, and why the demagogues have a field day when anyone offers reasonable proposals to deal with these very real issues.

• He hates a free and independent press that raises objections of fact and evidence to challenge the emotional appeal, but he loves an obliging press that magnifies his message and drowns out dissident appeals to reason.

It is not hard to recognize demagogues among us today appealing for ascendancy. Democracy in our day demands that we retain our freedom and that we do not yield. More than our freedom is in the balance, but our freedom is in the balance.

(First published August 12, 2012)

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 Presidents and Training for the Job

There are some jobs you just cannot safely do without proper training and experience. Flying an airplane is one that comes to mind. Driving a bus is another. I would put being President of the United States in the Twenty-First Century on the list, too.

President of the United States was a tough job in the days of George Washington. It was even a challenge in the days of Millard Fillmore. It has not become any easier in recent years, and next year it will be a very big job. Considering the global responsibilities of the United States, with several irresponsible oil-drunk regimes threatening peace and freedom (ours and other’s) around the world, can we afford to enroll our new President in a foreign policy on-the-job-training program?

Economically as well, there is little room for error. So far we have gone through a year and a half of the housing market bust without falling into a recession. But our economic growth is anemic. A small false step or two can put us into a full-blown economic decline, exploding banking and financial markets that will then take years to recover. It is important that economic policy next year be led by someone who understands economic growth and how to promote it. The formula for growth—low taxes and steady prices—is well known to those who have learned the lesson; we do not need a novice who does not have enough experience to know that you cannot tax and spend your way to prosperity. We cannot afford his experiments with our jobs and livelihood.

That is why it is breathtaking that a major political party is on the verge of nominating for President someone so inexperienced as Barack Obama. I am unable to recall a single nominee for President, by any major party, less prepared for the office than Barack Obama. Really, there is the challenge for you. Name a nominee—Republican, Democrat, Whig, Federalist—less prepared than Obama.

Barack Obama likes to liken himself to Abraham Lincoln. I cannot claim to have known Abraham Lincoln or assert that he was a friend of mine, but I do say, Barack Obama is no Abraham Lincoln. Even liberal exaggerations of Obama’s undistinguished career cannot make it compare favorably with the long and grueling life experiences that schooled Lincoln for the White House.

In short, Obama does not have the training for the job. It may be that the Democrats’ talent pool is so thin that he will be nominated. But the job of President is too important—to all of us—to be extended to someone so unready.

(First published August 25, 2008)

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