Friday, December 22, 2006

Social Security Concerns (Part II)

As I said in Part I, we have several options for improving the downstream solvency of the Social Security program. This assumes, of course, that we believe that this is a worthy goal.

Some deny that any problem exists. For these people, no action is necessary. Many of these people would not be directly impacted during their lifetimes, so for them, no problem exists. However, for those that believe they have at least some duty to future generations, some action must be taken to resolve eventual solvency problems.

I previously discussed the various feasible options (privatization, cutting benefits, raising retirement age, raising taxes, etc.), but I said that each of these options was difficult to implement. I surmised that no meaningful change would likely occur during the 110th Congress.

But why is change so difficult to achieve? Part of the reason for this is the dual nature of the Social Security system itself. It was sold to Americans both as a way to care for the elderly and disabled in our society AND as a retirement investment plan — a pooled investment plan.

Today we are all familiar with 401(k) plans, IRAs, and the like, where we each have an individual account. Back in the 1930s when the Social Security plan was formulated, very few had access to individual investment vehicles. Company pensions were more common, as was the case until a shift occurred about two decades ago. Americans understood the idea of paying into a pension plan that would provide a retirement payout.

For many Americans today, especially those that have entered the workforce in the last decade, this system where the individual is divorced from his/her personal investment seems antiquated and bizarre. Many in conservative circles tout the ideals of pure privatization and individualization of retirement planning.

However, this completely denies the other aspect of the system — the aspect that takes care of those that are less fortunate in our society. Some would very much like to divorce these two elements from each other. They would make retirement investment its own program, and make social care a separate program that is paid for out of the general revenue fund. This would expose the true cost of the social side of the equation.

This sounds reasonable, but splitting the program is not quite as easy as it sounds. What about provisions for the working poor — those that pay into a retirement system throughout their lives, but never generate sufficient to provide a decent retirement benefit? Do we really want to bear the societal costs of leaving a significant group of seniors in a more indigent situation than at present?

While liberals (increasingly joined by those that call themselves conservatives) have long touted the idea of reducing benefits “for those that can most afford it,” this changes the basic nature of the program’s contract as understood by most Americans. It changes the program more into a wealth transfer system.

Some have likened this concept to an insurance pool where benefits are paid only to those that need it, and others that paid premiums are simply happy to have been so fortunate as to not require receiving benefits. But most Americans that pay into Social Security think of it more like a life insurance/annuity policy. They pay a premium and expect a guaranteed payout. Most Americans don’t buy into limiting benefits because they see it as the breaking of a contract.

Reducing benefits also has a very real impact on productivity. As with all social programs, those at the margins are most impacted. I saw this happen when my father discontinued a productive and fulfilling electrical engineering contract because the net effect of the tax increase was very little take home pay. Of course, he didn’t discover this until he filed his income tax return, but it chagrined him that the government made his work essentially of no value.

Raising taxes on current producers to pay benefits to non-producers hardly seems equitable. After running up the tax rate for years, politicians realized that they had pretty much pushed it to its limit. Further increases will only further harm productivity, which may even reduce program revenues.

And it simply galls most Americans that the Social Security Trust Fund consists of government IOUs. The T-bills that represent the program’s funds are “investments” in the same way that giving yourself a loan is an investment. The interest paid on these bills at some point must come from the pockets of the taxpayers.

Social Security is a tough nut to crack because of the dual nature of its contract with the American people, and the way it is funded. No solution that fails to address all of these elements will resolve the program’s future solvency problems. Some of the solutions might push eventual insolvency further down the road a few years without really fixing it.

Our nation has a poor track record of seriously addressing problems until a crisis occurs. We’re not in crisis with Social Security, and we likely won’t be for at least several decades. However, we could resolve future problems now with far less pain than the next generation will face when the crisis looms large.

Will we do that? I would like to think that we would be insightful enough to do so, but due to the politically difficult nature of fixing the problems now, it doesn’t look like it will happen anytime soon.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

A Hopeful History of America

A couple of months ago I wrote about my purchase of Bill Bennett’s history book, America: The Last Best Hope (Vol. 1). I promised a review of the book when I completed it. I actually completed the book a few weeks ago, but events have conspired to keep me from writing about it.

Please refer to my original post for Bennett’s six reasons for writing the book. This first volume covers the exploits of the early European explorers down to the gathering storm that would become World War I. Future volumes are promised.

Bennett says that his book is intended not only to convey correct facts in their proper context, but also to do so in a manner that makes the book enjoyable to read. I am no especial history aficionado. I didn’t particularly care for history during my primary and secondary education. Nor did I have much concern for it during my undergrad years. Interest in history is something that has sort of grown on me during the ensuing years. Given this perspective, I found Bennett’s book quite a page turner. For me, it was very enjoyable to read, so I felt that Bennett had achieved this goal.

The book is 525 pages long. It includes a separate bibliography for each chapter. Bennett spends 29 pages on the early European explorers and 31 pages on the early colonial period, before launching into the American Revolution. While Bennett covers the causes, prosecution, and initial outcomes of the war in only 45 pages, he does a very good job of selecting and assembling pertinent information in a coherent manner that flows very well and provides a well rounded handling of the subject.

Bennett follows this up with a fine 26-page discussion of the framing of the Constitution. In doing so, he provides important insights into the personalities of key individuals, as well as the backgrounds of the competing interests and philosophies that went into the founding of our nation. Bennett does not gloss over the slavery issue, but he put it in its proper context. He explains that the compromise on this issue was very likely essential to the formation of the Union, but that the basic morality of it would chafe until it exacted a terrible price.

Throughout Bennett’s discussion of the Revolution, the founding of the nation, and the beginning years of the Republic, the figure of George Washington looms large. Bennett does a good job of providing insight into Washington’s personality, but Washington himself seemed to have a stoic shell that withstood attempts to get inside.

I found Bennett’s discussion of the development of our two-party system highly intriguing. Bennett keeps this thread running off and on for well over 100 pages, weaving it through a variety of topics. He explores the personalities, ideologies, and the societal issues involved. The roots for two parties developed during Washington’s first term among his cabinet members and inner circle. Washington and Hamilton heading up the faction that eventually became the Federalists, and Jefferson (a truly amazing and unique individual) and Madison heading up the Democrat-Republicans.

With the passing of Washington and Hamilton, the Federalist movement waned to the point that there was only one major party with two factions, with the Federalists more or less as a third party. Eventually the Whig Party arose in opposition to the direction Andrew Jackson had taken the Democratic Party. During this era, Washington politics was dominated by Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. Up until this time, all major parties included slave owners and slavery advocates. Bennett does a masterful job of discussing the variety of events and circumstances that eventually caused public sentiment in the North and the South to divide so sharply over this issue. The Republican Party rose from the ashes of the Whig Party with opposition to slavery as a major platform component.

Bennett makes particular note of the fact that extremists on both sides of the slavery issue pushed matters to the point that the topic was taboo to debate politically. The abolitionists demanded that all slavery cease immediately, although, this would leave slaves economically unable to fend for themselves. They viewed any debate about slavery as a discussion with the devil. Slavery hard liners in the south, known as fire eaters, would not brook any discussion of slavery, because it was obvious that they were on the losing side. Any debate was tantamount to a declaration of war to these people.

Left in the middle were the vast majority of Americans that thought that there could be an amicable way to eventually bring the practice to a close without economical devastation of the South. When a Republican won the 1860 election, despite promises of seeing to the interests of the South, fire eaters took their ball and went home. Unwilling to even risk debating slavery, seven states decided to secede from the Union. (Don’t take these few oversimplified lines as a representation of Bennett’s handling of the secession of the South. Read the book yourself.)

The events preceding the Civil War, the war itself, and the war’s immediate aftermath consume over 150 pages of Bennett’s book. Bennett clearly believes that these events clearly defined (and perhaps redefined) us as a nation, perhaps even more than the Revolution and the founding of the nation. Bennett’s handling of the war is gripping (at least it was to me), but the painful horribleness of it all flows freely to the reader through Bennett’s pen. Throughout it all, the legendary figure of Abraham Lincoln is explored in ways that Washington defied. This great communicator (albeit with a somewhat nasally tenor voice), was repeatedly underestimated by those around him (both his supporters and opponents), but Lincoln understood this and continually used it to his advantage. The fact that we have a Union today is largely due to Lincoln’s single-minded personal commitment to this principle.

Bennett openly laments the fact that Reconstruction was so poorly handled and was stopped well before achieving many of its goals. Part of this was due to Lincoln’s assassination, and the ascension of those that rejected his mild policies toward the rebels in favor of harsh policies. Part of it was due to the fact that Americans were tired of the whole matter and simply wanted to get on with life. The upshot was a century of enforced segregation and Jim Crow laws.

I enjoyed Bennett’s discussion of the Gilded Age. Looming large in this discussion is the larger than life figure of Theodore Roosevelt, whose personal efforts transformed the American political scene for decades afterward. Roosevelt was another truly unique and amazing individual. He believed in the vigorous life and he lived what he believed. He always commanded the center of attention in every situation in which he found himself.

A short time after becoming U.S. Vice President, Roosevelt became President when William McKinley was assassinated. He was elected to a second term, but declined to run for a third. He was a war hawk, but he defined the progressive movement. While he was wildly popular with the public, his progressive politics did not endear him to his Republican Party machine. After a term away, he returned to try to take the nomination from his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft. When he failed to do so, he formed the Progressive Party, splitting the Republican vote and allowing Woodrow Wilson to win. Although the Progressive Party was short-lived and was based pretty much on Roosevelt’s personality, this split permanently changed the GOP.

Bennett wraps up his book by discussing events leading up to World War I. This handling is not as full featured as some of his other discussions, but I presume that he will handle it more fully in the beginning of his next volume.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I very much enjoyed reading America: The Last Best Hope. I heartily recommend it. Bennett does not always delve into detail, but he has a knack for including details that are interesting and that lend well to the progression of the story line. Bennett’s writing style is interesting and enjoyable to read. He promised not to hide America’s warts. Indeed, he explores them because he feels that our handling of them is what has made our nation what it is. But, true to his promise, Bennett promotes an informed patriotism.

Bennett hopes that his book will inspire a love for America. I think he accomplishes this goal. I hope that many people will read this book and treasure it. I look forward to the next installment in the series.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Get Well Wishes for an Ailing Senator

Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) suffered some kind of brain hemorrhage yesterday that resulted from a congenital condition (see here). The 59-year-old senator has spent his life in politics, but he seems to be a behind-the-scenes worker that doesn’t seek out the limelight. He underwent emergency brain surgery late yesterday and is currently in critical condition.

While this type of news would normally be greeted with an outpouring of empathy, the media and political buzzards are circling this suffering man in hopes of grabbing up juicy morsels of carrion. The reason? The Democrats hold a slim 51-49 majority in the incoming 110th Congress.

If Senator Johnson is no longer able to serve, South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds, who is Republican, would appoint a replacement, who would almost certainly be Republican as well. That would make the partisan split in the U.S. Senate 50-50. Since Vice President Dick Cheney casts the deciding vote in such cases (per the Constitution), the Republicans would retain their majority in the Senate.

Let me stipulate that I am a registered Republican. I would very much have liked to see the GOP retain control of one or both houses of Congress, but that’s not how the electorate voted. The spoils go to the victors, and that is as it should be. But we are a nation of laws. We have rules to govern what should happen in cases when an elected official can no longer serve, and those rules should be followed, even if the result seems ironically unfair in the short term.

However, the sick media and political drama surrounding Senator Johnson’s health condition is contemptible at best. Regardless of one’s partisan leanings, we should all hope (and pray, if you’re religious) for the best for this man and his family out of the goodness of our hearts. Besides, if he recovers enough to continue his service, the whole partisan question will be avoided and the media sickos can go back to obsessing about Brittany Spears’ love life.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

True Words

“Few things became the 109th Congress so much as its departure.” (Traditionally conservative Wall Street Journal Editors here).

How Do We Punish Employers That Hire Illegals?

Yesterday federal officials raided six Swift meat processing plants in the U.S., including one in Hyrum, Utah, arresting hundreds of illegal aliens that had obtained employment using falsified and/or stolen documents (see SL Trib, Des News, Logan Herald). While many have clamored for this type of action, its effect is obviously causing some second thoughts in some circles.

In light of very poor enforcement, there have been loud calls for punishing businesses that hire illegals. It appears that the feds are now doing that. Swift has suspended operations at the raided plants. It’s not clear whether Swift will face any kind of civil or criminal prosecution. It would be easy for them to argue that they had appropriate documentation for all of their workers and that federal regulations prevent them from raising residency or citizenship questions once documentation has been provided.

However, it is far easier to penalize the workers that obtained employment through widely used, but fraudulent means. Some that have called loudly for raids on offending businesses are now crying foul. Somehow they seem to think that the illegal workers should get off Scot free. Many of the stories in the MSM also decry the feds as Grinches for performing the raid just days before Christmas (as if we want the government to stop all enforcement operations during the month of December).

The main crux of the punish-the-evil-employer theory is that illegals are merely pawns in a corrupt system, so they bear little responsibility for their actions. Employers, on the other hand, are assumed to be far more culpable, being much higher up the chain of corruption. The theory assumes that stanching the supply of jobs for illegals by punishing offending employers will result in a lower supply of illegals coming across the border to get jobs. Supporters of this type of action include employers (that presumably hire no illegals) that claim that they can’t compete with employers that reduce their labor costs by hiring illegals.

Yet others argue that both the employers and the illegal workers are simply responding to market pressures, and are, therefore, not fully culpable for their actions. Some in this camp feel that borders are inherently immoral and/or that it is immoral to keep people from coming here that simply want to work and improve their lives and the lives of their families.

Our society, however, is also founded on the principle of personal responsibility. Our history shows that we do not like the perception of institutionalized corruption and that we are willing to take stark, but measured actions to combat it when it gets bad enough. However, we tend to hold individuals accountable for their actions and decisions. We are also a fairly forgiving society when individuals are penitent and/or there are mitigating circumstances surrounding a person’s unfavorable actions. But we tend to apply the punishment first and then consider mercy later unless the individual enjoys broad public sympathy up front.

We should crack down on employers that hire illegals. But that does not mean that we should excuse illegals that work for them. Enforcement must cut both ways.

Also, it is important to recognize that some of our own regulations that are intended to prevent discrimination actually provide cover for the employers. If Swift is charged, the case will be very difficult to prosecute, because Swift will likely be able to argue that it fully complied with government regulations.

This is likely to be the case, even if it is suggested that Swift encouraged falsified documentation via a wink and nod hiring process. To successfully prosecute employers, we would have to change our regulations, which would be construed as encouraging discrimination. It does not appear that anyone is willing to do that right now. Perhaps Swift will use stricter hiring practices when it begins operating its plant again, but there’s no guarantee of that.

Swift will suffer economically for hiring illegals, but it will likely not suffer legally thanks to existing regulations. Swift’s illegal workers, on the other hand, will suffer both economically and legally.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Social Security Concerns (Part I)

When it comes to debating what to do with Social Security, it seems that the most vocal sides are out of touch with the American public. But it also seems that the most vocal sides are at least somewhat in touch with public opinion. What is going on here?

Let’s look the history of the Social Security program. The great savior FDR looked out upon his economically disadvantaged constituents, especially the elderly, and said, “Lo, here is a great inequity. Let us make a New Deal to ensure that the elderly and disabled in our nation have sufficient for their needs.”

But support for outright transfer of wealth was hard to be found, and thus, it was necessary to provide incentives to make the program seem good to income producers. And so it was sold as a self investment plan to bolster one’s own retirement. Only those that contributed for a given number of quarters would receive benefits, except that those disabled would also receive benefits. And it seemed good to the princes. And so it was written, and so it was done.

And all was good, for in the beginning there were more than 20 workers to support each non-worker, average life expectancy was less than retirement age, and the tax was only 2% (albeit, with a steady rise to 6% over a 14-year period that was eventually extended to a 24-year period).

But lo, and behold, soon cries of dismay were heard that there were yet other disadvantaged people that were not covered by Social Security. And soon the princes found it worthy to expand the program to cover these poor souls. And there was much rejoicing, especially among those that did not provide for themselves.

But the people did not produce posterity at the rate of their fathers, and with more souls covered by the program, the ratio of workers supporting non-workers fell, causing great dismay. But great fortune smiled upon the people insomuch that their increased productivity rate compensated much for these shortcomings.

Nevertheless, the princes saw fit to raise the tax rate repeatedly until it stood at 12.4%, and the benefit rate was reduced for those with earnings exceeding a basic amount. The retirement age was also raised to reflect an increased life expectancy. Thus there began to be those that had retired and could still work, but refused to do so because working garnered no net gain.

Then lo, a cry from the plan trustees that unless revamped the plan would go broke. But few wished to make any serious attempt to resolve the problem, preferring to leave it as an inheritance to their posterity. And thus the financial status of the plan languished.

And that’s where we are today, folks. Many proposals to save Social Security are bandied about, but nobody seems to be biting. There are even those that use all kinds of high-falutin’ statistical models to make believe that the system is not imperiled. But it is clear that the plan cannot survive simply by continuing with its present structure. Something must change.

But what do we change? President Bush offered to partially privatize the plan to make it more of an investment plan. This modest plan was rejected. Nancy Pelosi has promised that Democrats in the 110th Congress will staunchly oppose any privatization efforts. That leaves only a few options, all of which are untenable to one or more powerful groups.

We could raise the tax on wages. This disincentivizes productivity and income production from working. It’s a hard sell to the workers and businesses that would bear this burden. We could increase the retirement age to reflect the realities of our population’s increased productive life expectancy. Try to get that one past the powerful AARP lobby.

We could cap benefits, denying them to retirees that continue to work or that have been responsible enough to spend their working lives saving for retirement, because “they can afford it.” Never mind the amounts they paid into a system that was promoted to them as a retirement investment. Sure, it was, but for their neighbors rather than for themselves. We could also ignore the problem until it reaches critical mass a generation or so down the road. Now, there’s a great legacy to leave to our posterity.

The problem is that none of these possible solutions are politically palatable. The only one that even approaches political viability is the ostrich approach, where we hide our heads and pretend the problem doesn’t exist. I’m betting that this approach is most likely to be the one that is ultimately adopted by our politicians over the next two years.

I’ll write another post at some point down the road on why I think this is such a difficult problem to solve and how the roots of this problem impact almost all things political in our nation.

Friday, December 08, 2006

National Academic League Follow-Up

I wrote last month (here) about the National Academic League in which my son is involved. My son’s team performed spectacularly throughout the season until the final game. You see this same kind of thing in sports.

My son’s 7-0 team was matched up with a team that was 3-3 (having had a by). My son’s team didn’t take the game seriously. It was their final game of the regular season and they were matched up against a push-over team, so they were in a festive mood. However, they ended up losing 57-53. The other team was hot and my son’s team was not.

Still, at 7-1 they ended up being tied for first place in the district. It was quite surprising to see which team they ended up competing against in the playoffs. They had been sure they would be up against their arch rival, a team they had beat by only one slim point. But they ended up competing against a team they had beat soundly by 10 points. That team had beat their arch rival (which was considered to be a very good team) by 20 points. It was difficult to understand how this could happen.

That is, it was difficult until the playoff game this afternoon. My son’s team played fairly well. However, the opposing team had one very hot player, an extremely quick and smart young man that had not played so well in the regular season game. This boy garnered a full one-third of the team’s 70 points. I don’t know how that team would survive without that one player. It was as if he knew everything and was very fast on the buzzer. My son’s team went down to a convincing 20-point defeat. Ouch. I think my son's team will have a new arch rival going into next year.

I was very proud of how well my son played, although, he wasn’t able to tell the name of the U.S. governmental department that deals with finances. In a way, I must admit that I’m relieved that it’s all over. For one thing, it’s healthy for kids to learn how to deal with disappointment and defeat. Real life is filled with those elements. For another thing, this will free up the 90 minutes my son spent at practice each day after school. It’s very beneficial, but it’s a serious time commitment.

The winning team will now go to the national playoffs. Location is not important in this activity. At the national level, games are played at a local school over a video link (something you can’t do with football). There is no travel involved, so competing teams may come from anywhere in the nation.

I highly endorse NAL. It provides a competitive outlet for academic and communication skills. As with sports, it develops speed, strategy, discipline, and competitive psychology. But unlike sports, it focuses on mental rather than physical skills. (I’ve never seen a player hauled off the field with an injury.) And it is a lot of fun.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

... Or Realism With a Few Flaws

Robert D. Kaplan writes quite favorably of the Iraq Study Group Report in this Atlantic Online article. Kaplan is not your average neocon hack. He has “traveled to and reported on more than 80 countries,” and has great expertise on the Middle East. Kaplan was an ardent supporter of the Iraq war, and worked secretly with the Bush administration “to help develop a case for the invasion of Iraq.” In so doing he damaged his reputation of journalistic independence.

Kaplan calls the report “a tough, intricate policy statement, albeit with serious flaws.” But he’s not ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as he says so many other conservative pundits seem ready to do. This morning, for example, Bob Lonsberry said on his radio show that the report was greeted with equal enthusiasm by the MSM and by terrorists. (Those are code terms conservatives greet with equal disdain.) Kaplan says that in actually reading the document, you discover that it’s no cut-and-run plan.

Kaplan claims some humility about the whole Iraq affair. Having been one to provide key support in getting the mission off the ground in the first place, he now says that it is possible to believe that “the frequency and magnitude of the mistakes [in Iraq] indicate a hubristic flaw in the concept of regime change itself….” He comes off as being angry with the administration for messing up something he helped start, saying that an alternative acceptable belief is that “toppling Saddam Hussein was a wise decision, incompetently handled in its occupation phase.”

The report’s flaws include an unrealistic reliance on Iran, Syria, and others that the group relies on to help accomplish indispensable portions of its blueprint. However, unlike those I cited in yesterday’s post that see nothing good in engaging Iran and Syria diplomatically, Kaplan enthusiastically supports attempting to do so, but with our eyes wide open. He thinks that the study group is engaged in fantasy when they claim to understand Iran’s and Syria’s motivations.

While conservative pundits throughout our great nation roundly blast the study group’s report and call for the Bush administration to immediately chuck it in the round file, Kaplan argues, “The Administration should co-opt this report—with adjustments, of course.” He warns that if the President fails to incorporate major portions of the report into his policies, “he will be truly on his own, utterly isolated.” I guess Kaplan thinks the President’s not already there. At any rate, those are harsh words from a war hawk. Perhaps they contain some wisdom.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


The Baker Commission’s realist take on the Middle East is unrealistic. WSJ editors claim here that Iran’s track record demonstrates that the realist’s Holy Grail of directly engaging Iran diplomatically won’t work.

Washington Times writer Joel Himmelfarb asserts here that the entire basis for the Baker Commission’s deliberations “is absolutely false.” Himmelfarb notes that we have had direct diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria for six decades, but that this has never overcome even our small differences with these regimes, let alone our major differences. Our multi-decade attempt to get these regimes to renounce terrorism has had zero success. In fact, it has had inverse success. (That’s a euphemism for abject failure.)

WSJ Editor James Taranto critiques the Baker Commission’s recommendations here. He believes the plan has some good suggestions, but he also believes that it has major flaws. One flaw is that the realists in Baker’s group conclude that the only way for the U.S. to achieve its goals in the Middle East is to employ all of its capabilities to achieve Arab-Israeli peace.

After noting that we have actually been seriously working on Arab-Israeli peace using the methods prescribed by the realists for decades with no satisfactory results, Taranto asks, “Why is it "realistic" to think that more of the same will magically transform the region now?”

Taranto claims that the “the so-called realists make two unrealistic assumptions.” The first violates principles of realism (i.e. that nations act only in their own self interest). The realists assume “that Arab nations, far from being concerned only with their own interests, have a sentimental attachment to the Palestinian cause.” They do not. They only use it as an excuse. If they were truly concerned, they would open their own borders and work to relieve Palestinians rather than making sure their plight remains desperate.

Taranto writes, “The second goes to a fundamental problem with realism: a failure to distinguish between nations and regimes. It’s obvious that it would be in the interest of Arab nations--especially the currently nonexistent Palestinian one--to coexist peacefully with Israel. But the regimes that rule those nations are concerned above all with self-preservation.”

One self-preservation tactic is to deflect criticism by using Jews as scapegoats for their own problems. (Sound familiar?) Thus, the Arab regimes act in their own interests rather than in the interest of the nations they rule. Regardless of what would be good for the nations they rule, it would be antithetical to the interests of these regimes to actually resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The solution, as Taranto sees it, is democracy. “Democratic regimes are far from perfect, but by providing for popular accountability, they align the interests of the regime with the interests of the nation better than any other system that has been devised.” Thus, Taranto appears to promote the Bush policy of creating a sustainable democratic regime in Iraq.

There has been a veritable love fest for the Baker Commission’s suggestions by the MSM and gushing politicians on both sides of the aisle for weeks. And the report was only released today! I am grateful that the administration has no requirement to actually follow the commission’s suggestions.

I believe it is important for our leaders to get good input so that they can make the best possible decisions. However, they did not run and we did not elect them to merely rubber stamp ideas and decisions made by unelected independent commissions. We hired them to lead and to make the hard decisions. (We also didn't elect them to pass the buck and say that the generals are making all of the decisions. That's not leadership.)

We have gotten into the habit of thinking that independent commissions are good things because they remove the issue at hand from the heat of politics. The MSM assiduously supports unelected independent commissions. We have come to believe that politics is bad whenever there is heated debate, impasse, or power struggles.

But kicking decisions to unelected groups passes the buck and reduces accountability. The Founders intended for us to have spirited debate and even exercise of political power. They felt that this would go a long way toward providing the checks and balances required for good government. Although it might not always be pretty, the decisions should be left in the hands of those that are accountable to the voters.

Let It Die

Utah’s fourth congressional seat is toast for now (see Trib article). I have made it clear (here and here) that I strongly oppose on constitutional grounds the plan to get a fourth seat for Utah now in exchange for giving Washington, D.C. a full voting seat.

Jesse Harris has a pointed post about this. Jesse says that the whole exercise was a waste of time and that it showed how our supposedly conservative state was willing to toss the Constitution aside to score some minor political brownie points. I wholeheartedly agree.

I am not opposed to Washington, D.C. having proper representation in Congress. However, I strongly feel that this must be done according to the rules outlined for this purpose in the Constitution. That is, the Constitution must be amended. The fact that there is insufficient political support for doing this in no way warrants making an end run around the law. The Constitution only means something if its provisions are respected. If we ignore provisions when it is convenient, the document ultimately means nothing.

The Trib suggests here that the fourth seat for a D.C. seat deal is not quite dead yet, noting that incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi supports the idea. So we’re not out of the woods yet.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Who Is Serious About Federalism?

LaVarr Webb of Utah Policy Daily has a post that bears repeating in today’s edition under the heading Monday Musings: Federalism Needed on Agenda.

Republican Party leaders are doing a lot of head-scratching and soul-searching as they contemplate their defeat in November and try to figure out how to win in 2008. Lots of pundits are offering advice, focused mostly on moving to the center or returning to core conservative principles.

It’s disappointing to me that few people are talking about a return to a properly balanced federalist system as a means to deal with the knotty problems facing the nation. In a recent speech to Republican governors, outgoing Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman came close to endorsing proper federalism. The Washington Post reported that Mehlman said that as Republicans built up their Washington power base, “the center of gravity shifted away from the statehouses that had been the traditional laboratories for policy ideas. The result was a vacuum that delivered little of interest to voters, while devaluing the national Republican brand.”

The consolidation of power at the federal level has continued under Republican rule. The result, I believe, is a federal government that is trying to do far too much. The federal job description has become so bloated that it is impossible to execute properly.

We need to leave more responsibility and more resources at the state and local levels where government is more manageable and producing positive results is still possible. While states are not without their problems and some states perform better than others, we’d see more innovation and more real results to the country’s toughest problems if they were addressed at the state level rather than the federal level.

For the most part, states balance their budgets; they don’t engage in financial shenanigans, hiding the seriousness of their financial problems. By contrast, the federal government is hurtling toward financial disaster, taking all of us with it.

It’s true that we live in a complex world with commerce and technology not respecting state boundaries. But we can still follow the Internet model of central coordination and standard-setting, with local control. The Internet is successful because it is decentralized. More and more large companies are decentralizing their operations as they go global. Few successful entities these days operate from a command-and-control, highly bureaucratized, one-size-fits-all organizational structure.

Republicans and Democrats looking for new ideas, for ideas that work, ought to embrace proper federalism as a means to find solutions to problems in 50 laboratories of democracy, in addition to improving the nation’s fiscal health.

Wise words indeed. I agree with Webb that the power pendulum has swung too far toward the central government and away from the states. Yes, I know that we fought a war about whether to have a strong federal government, but that doesn’t mean that all issues regarding the appropriate level for exercise of governmental power are resolved for all matters. Webb makes good sense with his arguments.

Simplifying Mehlman’s corporate speak quoted above, we have a guy that has just lost his job explaining that the strategy he has largely supported of centralizing power in Washington was an abysmal failure. It was bad for the country, and the voters knew it. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it is not in our nature to take advice from a loser.

Still, many conservative pundits thought prior to the election that the only way the GOP was going to really remember its basic principles was for it to spend some time in the doghouse. They’ve got their wish. The cynical side of me, however, doesn’t think this will work out the way they wish, at least in the long run. The party out of power always talks a good game and puts up a good fight. It’s easy, because they don’t have to be held responsible for actually accomplishing anything. But get them back in power and they morph into the same thing over again.

I could be wrong. I hope I’m wrong.