Friday, August 31, 2007

Representative Rob Bishop Town Meeting 2007

Last year I reported on attending a town meeting held by my Congressional Representative, Rob Bishop (R-UT). Last night I attended another town meeting held by Rep. Bishop. This time I hauled my 9th grade son with me. The meeting was slated to last one hour. Due to other commitments, we had to leave about 40 minutes into the meeting.

This year’s meeting had about two-thirds the attendance of last year’s meeting. I think two factors probably contributed to this. Last year was an election year and this year’s meeting was held later in the evening than last year’s meeting. As with last year, I was among the younger attendees. The average age of the attendees was probably quite a bit higher than my age. There was one other youth beside my son in attendance.

As with last year’s meeting, Rep. Bishop started off talking for about 15 minutes, trying to hit the hot button issues. He also took a couple of jabs at the Senate, although, these were milder than last year. He said that the House has passed 12 of its 13 appropriation bills to fund the federal government for the next fiscal year, but that the Senate has passed only one. Bishop admitted that he had voted against all but two of the House’s appropriations bills because all of them, except for the defense bill, appropriated far more money than President Bush requested, and Bishop argued that the President’s requests were already way too high.

As far as the defense bill goes, Rep. Bishop expressed extreme displeasure with the House leadership in giving the Armed Services Committee, of which he is a member, far too little money. He praised committee chair Ike Skelton (D-MO) and several other committee members, both Democrat and Republican, for their honest hard work in developing a good bi-partisan bill. He was disappointed that they were forced to cut some programs and underfund others due to House leadership priorities.

When it came to the question and answer period, I was very gratified that the one rude lady that kept butting into others’ questions last year was not present. The first guy to ask a question was a feeble older gentleman that asked the exact same question as he asked last year, part of which was about the general Social Security program, and part of which applied to a small subgroup that has been griping for years that Social Security shorted them a couple of thousand Dollars years ago. Rep. Bishop answered the question pretty much the same way he answered it last year.

A number of citizens brought up immigration issues. It was obvious that some of these folks were pretty hot under the collar about illegal immigration. Some made what I would consider to be rather absurd statements. Rep. Bishop’s answers were balanced. He said that there is no way we could deport 12 million people, but that even if we could, it would make no difference unless we first secured the border. He favored passing legislation to address specific problems and actually implementing existing legislation, rather than attempting a huge compromise bill, such as the one that failed in the Senate a few weeks ago.

I don’t know how many of the people at the meeting realized it, but one older distinguished looking gentleman in attendance used to be a rather influential Democratic politician in Weber County. I knew some history here, and I knew that he and Rep. Bishop had been on opposite sides of the aisle in the Utah State House of Representatives years ago. (Bishop served as speaker of the Utah House for eight years.) I doubt many in the room realized it, but when this man asked a couple of questions meant to agitate in favor of universal health care and federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, he was having some fun with his former colleague.

In turn, Rep. Bishop had a little fun with his answers. This gentleman asked if Rep. Bishop had seen the movie Sicko. Rep. Bishop responded that he saw no need to watch what amounted to propaganda, which is Michael Moore’s stock and trade. This man said he wasn’t surprised because he hadn’t met a Republican that had seen the film. Rep. Bishop responded that he chose not to watch pornographic films either.

Up to this point in the meeting, the discussion had been fairly polite, even though, some citizens had made extreme statements. One guy never asked a question, but simply rambled on about how he had lived in Canada for 25 years, that the Canadian health care system wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be, and that his wife had obtained her U.S. citizenship legally, etc. But everyone had been rather subdued. When Rep. Bishop made the comment about pornographic films, a small number in the audience vocally protested, a few people acted clueless, and most of the audience laughed out loud. I had to leave at this point, so I didn’t get to see if the meeting got any juicier.

One thing I noted about both this town meeting and last year’s meeting is that no active local politicians attended either meeting. I am left to wonder why that is. Is there some agreement that local politicans don’t attend these kinds of events? Is there concern that they would taint themselves by appearing? Is there a concern that they might upstage the congressman? If they’re supposed to be leading by example, the example they are demonstrating is that attending a congressional representative’s town meeting is not very important. Can anyone shed more light on this?

Although I sat quietly at the meeting and didn’t say anything, I think that it’s good for our elected officials to occasionally come down from their ivory towers and directly interface with the unwashed masses. Rep. Bishop is in a secure district. That is, unless he does something really stupid, a la Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID), he can probably be re-elected as often as he wants.

Rep. Bishop could probably get away with rarely having to talk with constituents in unscripted meetings. He could likely get away with treating constituents condescendingly. Although Rep. Bishop had some fun with a couple of questions, he treated each citizen with respect while being fairly forthright about his positions and where he disagreed with people. While people may have differing views, this kind of approach earns their respect.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Making Political Hay From Sub-Prime Loans

What lessons did we learn from the Savings and Loan crisis that came to a head during the 1980s? Please bear in mind that this whole fiasco directly cost us taxpayers about $125 billion. Other indirect costs, including funding of the resulting federal deficits of the 1990s pin the total cost at a much higher figure. But did we learn anything from it?

I hope the S&L crisis hasn’t dimmed or become fuzzy in the minds of Americans, because one of the lessons we should have learned is that government intervention to rescue lenders from poor business practices causes far more problems that it solves. The S&L crisis was made worse by several orders of magnitude by government meddling that prevented the market from appropriately responding. But it seems that today we are on the threshold of wanting to repeat some of the same mistakes that significantly contributed to the S&L crisis.

S&Ls had a long history of performing well in the mortgage industry for a century. During the 1960s more Americans bought homes than ever before, financing them at rates of 5% and less. Life was good. And then we experienced rampant inflation and skyrocketing interest rates in the 1970s. To be competitive with other investment instruments, S&Ls had to offer higher rates to their investors than they were receiving from their debtors.

It was obvious that in the long haul this business model was completely unsustainable. How did S&Ls end up in this situation? After WWII, the government implemented regulations intended to increase home ownership. While this produced many salutary effects, it also led to S&Ls being too deep in fixed low-rate assets, and therefore, insufficiently flexible to deal with market changes. In effect, S&Ls were encouraged to act as if the economic conditions of the late 50s and early 60s would go on unchanged forever. S&Ls ignored common business sense by accepting this wonderland scenario.

When interest rates went up in the 1970s, S&Ls started writing mortgage loans at the higher rate, but the bulk of their assets were locked up in 30-year mortgages written at much lower rates. Investors naturally expected to earn interest at the new market rates immediately. S&Ls could either figure out ways to keep investors on board or risk losing enough investors that they would go out of business. Either way, insolvency was going to be the end result. It was only a question of how much time would transpire before that happened.

Seeing the looming problem, politicians came to the rescue in an attempt to save the floundering S&Ls. Over the next few years, laws and regulations were passed that artificially kept failing S&Ls in business. Had the market been allowed to deal with the crisis early on, there would have been pain, but ultimately the market would have corrected itself. Politicians put off the pain — and made the crisis many times worse — by intervening and shielding S&Ls from natural market pressures.

But all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t stop the S&L Humpty-Dumpty from falling, nor could they put him back together again. By the time the S&L collapse could no longer be stopped by politicians, Humpty-Dumpty was much larger and sat much higher, so his fall was much greater. Once again, Congress rushed in to pick up the pieces and save the market from dealing with the natural consequences of bad business decisions, resulting in the taxpayers forking out many billions of Dollars. Players learned that if business mistakes are big enough, they will ultimately not have to bear the full cost. Thus, Congress ended up encouraging riskier business behavior.

Fast forward to 2007. In recent years, mortgage lenders have climbed over each other in an effort to attract increasing numbers of Americans to their loan products. Home builders have been in on the take as well, working hard to attract buyers that have marginal repayment capacity. This has led to a significant increase in sub-prime lending. But common business sense dictates that making high risk loans will inevitably lead to a high default rate. This all hit the fan recently, when there was a sharp rise in the number of foreclosures in the sub-prime mortgage market between 2006 and 2007, resulting in what is being called the 2007 sub-prime mortgage crisis.

Politicians, ever eager for votes and ever eager to expand power, are licking their chops and planning increased regulation that would have the effect of overreacting, punishing some, and shielding the market from the natural consequences of shoddy lending practices. As Jerry Bowyer reports in this NRO article, mortgage lenders are not lending at the moment because they fear the congressional backlash that is about to be unleashed, even as the market is effectively responding to correct the excesses that led to the “crisis.”

The ironic thing is that, as Bowyer notes here, this whole issue is really just a tempest in a teapot. He cites the fact that “only about 0.6 percent of U.S. mortgages are currently in foreclosure. That’s up a hair from roughly 0.5 percent last year.” But since these additional 35,000 foreclosures are ostensibly for lower cost homes, “the recent increase in sub-prime foreclosures amounts to 0.01 percent of net U.S. household wealth.

In other words, the sub-prime “crisis” has been blown way out of proportion, making headlines in a slow news cycle. The market is already correcting the problem. But none of this will stop politicians from grandstanding on and trying to make political hay with this issue. And just about anything they are assaying to do will only make matters worse. Here’s hoping that Congress will take its most usual course of action and end up blathering a lot while doing nothing. Sometimes it’s good when politicians can’t accomplish anything.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The FairTax: It's Fair, but Is It Good?

My parents always told me that if it sounds too good to be true, it is. With very few exceptions, that advice has proven to be extremely valuable throughout my life. A few times I have ignored this advice, only to end up learning a lesson the hard way. The very few exceptions to this rule that I have seen are more like flukes; like someone winning the lottery.

Economist Bruce Bartlett makes a strong argument in this WSJ article that the FairTax is one of those things that is just too good to be true.

For those that are new to this debate, the FairTax is a type of flat tax proposal that would exchange the current federal income tax system for a national sales tax. Unlike value added tax (VAT), where taxes are levied at every exchange between initial producer and final consumer, the FairTax would be levied only at the final exchange. This is an important point, because VAT tends to hide taxes, while the FairTax would make taxation more transparent.

The main selling point of the FairTax is the claim that it would get rid of the IRS and government intrusion into the lives of individuals. Proponents argue that taxes would be collected through the same mechanisms that currently collect state and local sales taxes. They note that these organizations work directly with retailers and rarely directly interface with consumers.

While this sounds nice, Bartlett asserts, “Perhaps the biggest deception in the FairTax, however, is its promise to relieve individuals from having to file income tax returns, keep extensive financial records and potentially suffer audits.” What is he talking about? He is talking about the fact that the FairTax is not, in fact, a flat tax, but is a progressive tax. The progressive nature of it is applied at the back end rather than at the front end, as occurs in our current system.

The whole argument behind progressive taxation is that a flat tax is not fair. A tax of 10% of a poor person’s income creates a much greater burden on that person than is created on a rich person by a tax of 10% of his/her income. The FairTax realizes this. Since everyone would pay the same percent of taxes on their purchases up front, the FairTax would send out monthly rebate checks to every household based on household income. In other words, some agency would still be collecting information — and performing audits — on personal income. FairTax proponents can argue that this agency would not be as intrusive as our current IRS, but there is simply no way they can prove this would be the case. The IRS by any other name ….

Bartlett goes to great length in his article to criticize the FairTax’s proposed 23% tax rate. He shows how this is a smoke and mirrors deception that hides the actual 30% tax rate. Bartlett demonstrates that the only way the proposed rate could work is for government spending to be simultaneously cut by a whopping 60%. I’m a small government type, so I think government spending should be cut. But does anyone reasonably think that cutting spending 60% is realistic?

The alternative is a tax rate of about 57%. Bartlett notes that it could be as high as 89% in a worst case scenario. He purposefully points this out because “public opinion polls have long shown that support for flat-rate tax reforms is extremely sensitive to the proposed rate, with support dropping off sharply at a rate higher than 23%.”

Bartlett includes a number of other criticisms, including the fact that the tax would be levied not only on goods, but also on services that have traditionally been exempt from sales tax. Imagine your medical bills immediately increasing by 30%. Bartlett discusses the fact that federal government would also pay the tax. FairTax proponents include in their calculations the revenue this would generate, but ignore the added expense to the government, as if it simply wouldn’t exist. Bartlett says that FairTax proponents ignore the costs of collecting the tax and distributing welfare checks to a huge percentage of the population.

FairTax proponents will say that Bartlett’s criticisms are over the top, fail to consider the economic growth that would result from the program, fail to consider the overall reductions in prices that would result from fewer taxing points, and/or ignore answers that have already been provided. That’s OK. They can say that. But frankly, their economic growth numbers are simply too good to be true.

Bartlett is not the first to point out shortcomings with the FairTax proposal, but I have yet to encounter cogent arguments that would satisfactorily counter all of the criticisms he raises. Perhaps more cogent posts will be forthcoming, but as of post time, the only FairTax proponent arguments I could find to specifically counter Bartlett’s contentions were devoid of substance but filled with ad hominem attacks. And many of these came from “esteemed” economists.

What we know for sure is that flat tax proposals play well with many audiences throughout America. Flat taxes play particularly well with conservative audiences. At least they play well at first blush. A broad swath of Americans also wants to make sure taxes are not too oppressive for those that can least afford it. Many people are in both camps. The FairTax seems to fit the desires of both camps — until you look under the covers and see all of the problems with the program.

FairTax proponents do not want to hear criticisms of the program. I’ve had too many discussions where proponents act like the three monkeys that can hear, see, and speak no evil of the proposal. They don’t care about the counter arguments; they simply feel that the FairTax should be enacted anyway. I suppose you’d call this faith-based legislation. That is not a good formula for creating national policy.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

United We Stand, but Can We Stand United?

KGB-trained former Romanian intelligence officer Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa defected to the U.S. in 1978. It was a serious blow to the communist Romanian government, and particularly to President Nicolae Ceauşescu, to whom Pacepa had been serving as adviser for national security and technological development while simultaneously acting as deputy chief of the Romanian foreign intelligence service. Following his defection, Pacepa spent years with millions of Dollars in bounties on his head, sponsored by Ceauşescu, Yasser Arafat, and Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Pacepa writes of his gratitude for his adopted nation in this WSJ op-ed article. “During these years I have lived here under five presidents--some better than others--but I have always felt that I was living in paradise. My American citizenship has given me a feeling of pride, hope and security that is surpassed only by the joy of simply being alive.”

But the gist of Pacepa’s article is the assertion that President Bush’s harsh critics are following the old KGB game plan for beating America, and that they are doing so very effectively. Pacepa is talking about “top political leaders [that] can dare in a time of war to call our commander in chief a "liar," a "deceiver" and a "fraud."” His basis for this claim is his observation that “international respect for America is directly proportional to America's own respect for its president.”

Let me point out that in our democratic republic, we are completely free to criticize our government and our political leaders. We encourage debate about the issues of the day as a way of working out acceptable courses of action. The idea that we should remain mum about perceived leadership deficiencies is … well … un-American.

But has the rhetoric gone too far? It’s interesting to read Pacepa’s recounting of various KGB-sponsored efforts to discredit whoever happened to be our president at a given time in order to discredit America. For example he notes with sorrow the communists’ success in using propaganda during the Vietnam War to convince millions of Americans “that America's presidents sent Genghis Khan-style barbarian soldiers to Vietnam who raped at random, taped electrical wires to human genitals, cut off limbs, blew up bodies and razed entire villages.”

While Pacepa is enthusiastic about competition, he asserts that “unity in time of war has made America the leader of the world.” For example, he notes, “Republican challenger Thomas Dewey declined to criticize President Roosevelt's war policy [in 1944].” He parallels this with today’s situation:

“Now we are again at war. It is not the president's war. It is America's war, authorized by 296 House members and 76 senators. I do not intend to join the armchair experts on the Iraq war. I do not know how we should handle this war, and they don't know either. But I do know that if America's political leaders, Democrat and Republican, join together as they did during World War II, America will win. Otherwise, terrorism will win. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi predicted just before being killed: "We fight today in Iraq, tomorrow in the land of the Holy Places, and after there in the West."”

While I believe that Gen. Pacepa’s observations are highly valuable, I can’t help but think that he’s comparing apples and oranges. We did not get directly involved in World War II until Congress formally declared war against Japan and Germany. It took a lot of sacrifice, but we won the war decisively. Since that time our nation has avoided direct declarations of war, opting instead for resolutions such as the one that authorized the president to use “necessary force” to combat terrorism that threatens the U.S. or its interests.

Oh, we’ve done alright in some small military actions, such as Grenada and Panama, but other larger actions haven’t been so successful. The Korean War ended in a draw. We allowed ourselves to be defeated in Vietnam. We won decisively in Gulf War I, but failed to eliminate the threat, resulting in a decade and a half of problems. A dozen years after starting to bomb, we’re still hanging around in Kosovo keeping people from killing each other. It’s not clear if we’re going to ultimately achieve a stable situation in Afghanistan or in Iraq.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX, current GOP presidential candidate) contends that the U.S. tends to win when it formally declares war and tends to lose when it takes military action without declaring war. (I’m not sure how he thinks the War of 1812 fits into this assertion.) While Paul was opposed to war in Iraq, he “introduced legislation in October 2002 for Congress to declare war on Iraq. He said he would not vote for his own bill, but if his fellow members of Congress wished to go to war in Iraq, they should follow the Constitution and declare war.”

Paul understood that declaring war requires more than a simple majority; it requires a relatively broad consensus. When a consensus of this nature exists, political leaders and citizens are willing to line up behind the effort and make the sacrifices necessary for success. When a declaration of war can be achieved, then the unity that Pacepa observes with respect to WWII is a natural result.

Congress would have voted overwhelmingly to declare war on Afghanistan. But does anyone think that it would have declared war on Iraq? Although 296 representatives and 76 senators effectively voted to allow the President to invade Iraq, this move afforded members of Congress that were lukewarm to the idea cover for their ambivalence. It gave them flexibility to be fluid in their support of the war. But the main point is that a declaration of war could not have been achieved because there was no broad consensus among the American people to do so.

When Ron Paul wanted an up or down vote on declaring war on Iraq, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) responded, “There are things in the Constitution that have been overtaken by events, by time. Declaration of war is one of them.” There are people on the other side of the aisle that also believe that some elements of the Constitution are outdated. They might disagree with Rep. Hyde on what those elements might be. But the point is that leaders in both major political parties are willing to toss the Constitution aside whenever its provisions seem inconvenient.

We have, for example, Senator Hatch (R-UT) who is willing to ignore constitutional provisions so that Washington, D.C. can have a full voting seat in the House of Representatives. He notes the injustice of the District’s plight, and makes convoluted arguments suggesting that the plan is actually constitutional. Like Rep. Hyde, he is willing to ignore the Constitution when its provisions seem inconvenient.

Constitutional injustices or inadequacies should be repaired per the provisions in the document. That is, the document should be amended. Yes, it’s almost impossible to amend the Constitution. The Founders purposefully set a very high bar for achieving amendments. That is one of the Constitution's great strengths, but only if we actually honor it in deed.

Back to Gen. Pacepa’s point. Regardless of how we ended up in Iraq, the fact of the matter is that we are there now. We have to deal with the situation we have rather than the situation we wish we had. Pacepa is surely correct when he opines that if political leaders from both sides of the aisle line up behind victory, we will win. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that we’re suddenly going to get the President’s opponents to stop their anti-Bush rhetoric. While their gnashing may diminish our nation’s stature abroad, the fact is that this is a natural result of going to war without sufficient consensus to achieve a formal declaration of war.

But we can’t go back to what should have been. Since we are now at war in Iraq, political leaders should ask themselves what outcome would truly be best for America. They should approach this question with a blind eye as to who controls the White House, because in a little over 16 months it will be somebody else and we will still likely be in Iraq. And then they should consider how to best achieve what is best for our nation. Is it too much to ask that politicians put the welfare of their nation ahead of their own political careers?

Friday, August 17, 2007

Lobbyist In Chief?

Fred Thompson campaigning in Iowa defends his tenure as a Washington, D.C. lobbyist (here). And he has a point. Lobbyists represent actual people. The inside workings of the political system would take these people years to learn. Lobbyists already know the ropes and can help these people get some traction on their issues. That’s admittedly a very solicitous view of the lobbying profession.

While Thompson has a point, Americans are going to ask themselves if they want a former lobbyist as president. My guess is that people that might not object to lobbying as a profession per se might balk at electing a lobbyist to be their president.

Outrageous Excuses

A week and a half ago I wrote about a gang shooting less than three miles from my home. Last Sunday the Standard Examiner included an article about a two-hour jailhouse interview with the 19-year old gang banger that is accused of being the shooter in that incident.

Reporter Tim Gurrister expertly includes statements from the interview that are intended to elicit an emotional response. Realizing that Gurrister’s 810-word article can only include a minute portion of the interview, I have waited a few days to write about this in order to hopefully achieve some objectivity. However, rather than becoming calmer about the gang banger’s statements, I find myself increasingly outraged.

Like almost all criminals, this 19-year-old waste of skin has his ‘story’ and blame casting techniques meant to justify his nefarious activities and to show that he has been incarcerated unjustly. But he stupidly tries to play both sides of the issue.

On one hand, “all he wanted to be was a gang member;” specifically a member of the same gang his father and grandfather belong to. Now, isn’t that special? Most Americans raise their kids to go to school, get a decent job, buy a home, and raise a family. Not these guys. They raise their kids to join gangs. Isn’t that sweet?

On the other hand, this creep blames the police for his gang involvement. When he was 13, his cousin was killed in a gang shooting that the police never solved. This injustice caused him to become more deeply involved in the gang. This is so screwed up on so many levels that it seems unnecessary to discuss it further.

Oh, and it’s also the fault of the police that gangs are using more guns rather than just fists and knives like they did in the good ol’ days. The creep asks, “Why don’t they do something to get all the guns off the streets?” It seems lost on our little banger that among the things they are doing is putting him behind bars. The police can’t turn off all the gangsta rap that idolizes gun violence.

But wait, he now says his confession was coerced and that he isn’t the real shooter. He admits he was in the car from which the shots were fired, but he says he didn’t pull the trigger. However, he’d rather go to prison than violate his gang’s code of silence by ratting out the real shooter. He is hoping to beat the rap and resume his regular life. I guess he’s never heard of being an accomplice to murder. Prosecutors feel confident enough of their case that they have filed aggravated murder charges, which could lead to the death penalty.

Of course, this dirt bag says the shooting would never have happened had not somebody at the post-wedding gathering insulted his gang. Naturally, this warranted spraying the crowd of 30+ people with bullets. The culture of honor that was once prevalent, particularly in the South and on the American frontier has been receding as a culture of law has taken precedence and society has come to understand the value of civil rights for all. But gangs relive this old culture of honor.

For example, it was once socially acceptable (and even socially demanded) that a man defend an insult to his family even to the death. Today, you can verbally insult my family and I will simply think you’re a jerk. I wouldn’t think about retaliating. If you do something illegal against my family, I will appeal to the legal system to resolve the issue. But I’m not going to shoot you. In gang culture, however, if someone says, “Your gang sucks,” you are obligated to kill him. What kind of screwed up culture is that?

Although he now wants to move away from the gang, the filthy little banger says that gang life is great. He touts his gang’s ethnic diversity. He makes it sound like a church, something one reader found quite objectionable (see here). His gang has family barbeques, for example. I enjoy taking my family to my local church cookouts, but I certainly don’t expect any of the attendees to be packing heat, nor am I worried that somebody from a rival church is going to drive by and start shooting at me and my kids.

This 19-year-old piece of human trash says that he has sired two children with his girlfriend of six years, and that they have a great life together. Perhaps copulating and creating a teen welfare queen has been this banger’s most significant income producing activity. Maybe second only to burglary. Are taxpayers subsidizing gang activity?

I realize that this guy needs to have his day in court and that it is imperative that appropriate legal standards be applied to his case. But this punk’s expressions are nothing short of outrageous. Prosecutors have told his defense attorneys that their client would do himself a favor by curtailing his public statements. In other words, get a clue, boy, and shut up. Besides, the guy is a gang member. How much of what he says publicly can be trusted?

Meanwhile, creep boy sits in jail, where he rubs shoulders with other gangstas and learns how to be a better filth bag. His homies on the outside, cruising around in their low riders with their guns in their waistbands hail him as a hero.

We cannot outlaw gangs. They have a constitutional right to gather and associate. But they have no right to perform illegal acts. Although they may have family picnics, crime is the main goal of gangs (see here). This warrants keeping an eye on them so they can be caught when they cross the line of legality.

Some experts argue that using a heavy hand against gangs has proven to be counterproductive because gangs thrive on rebellion. The more they feel the authorities push, the stronger they become and the more they push back. These same people cite studies showing that prisons are gang factories, where gangstas earn their badges of honor and become harsher criminals. These criticisms are perhaps well founded, but ignoring gang activity doesn’t work either.

The question is how to achieve a cultural shift. How do we make a culture of rebellion less enticing to those that currently go in for that kind of thing?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Glass Is More Than Half Full

For five years in a row, polls have showed that 65% to 85% of Americans have thought we were in a recession or were about to enter a recession. For five years in a row, the American economy has grown at an unprecedented pace. Unemployment is low, wages are up, and wages for the lowest earners are up the most. Strangely, the percentage of Americans that presently think their personal financial situation is good, very good, or excellent is almost exactly the same as the percentage that think the economy is in the tank or is about to tank.

Why this disparity? Why are Americans so incredibly gloomy about the economy when it is very robust and their personal economies are doing well? Brian Wesbury of First Trust Portfolios thinks he has at least part of the answer in this WSJ article.

In order to get bigger audiences, which translate to advertising income, broadcast economic discussions usually present both a bull and a bear view of the economy. Not only is this done in the name of fairness and balance, but as Wesbury points out, it creates a more lively broadcast that brings in a bigger audience. He opines that “having two economists debate about whether GDP will grow 2.1% this year or 2.4% is downright boring.”

The problem with the pro-con debate scenario, claims Wesbury, is that it “leaves an impression that the experts are split 50/50, when in reality it's more like 80/20, or 90/10.” He says that “if all the public sees is an endless stream of 50/50 debates, then it is really not that much of a surprise that people think the future is basically a coin toss. And a coin toss, especially in a time of war and terrorism, is not very good odds.”

This is a very interesting argument, and Wesbury certainly makes a valid point. He says that “people gather knowledge about the rest of the economy, the part they cannot see, from watching news.” So if the economic news comes across as gloomy, people tend to adopt that view themselves. But I am left to wonder how many Americans actually tune into the kind of programs Wesbury is talking about.

I get some economic news from radio programs. I rarely get news of any type from TV programming. I get most of my news through print media and online print media. Do the same economic debating tactics Wesbury describes appear in print media as well? Not so much in the stuff I read.

Perhaps Wesbury believes that the percentage of the population that does get their economic news from broadcast media become the opinion leaders which poison the opinions of the masses. There could be validity to this assertion, but I’d like to see some empirical data on it.

I’ve got to believe that there is more going on here than unbalanced broadcast economic reporting. If you go to Gallup Poll’s list of topics and start checking out recent polling results, you will find that Americans are pessimistic about a lot of things. In fact, just about any topic that is viewed through a nationwide lens has Americans seeing it pessimistically. The general mood of the country polled in July with 74% dissatisfied and only 27% satisfied.

It seems to me that what these polls show is that we are cranky and unhappy about anything that has to do with our nation as a whole. We are more prosperous than any nation that has ever existed in the history of the earth, but this brings us no joy. We are dour, ungrateful, and dissatisfied when it comes to our nation.

Certainly part of this could be the steady diet of bad news that we get 24x7x365 from more information sources than have ever existed. News purveyors know that we don’t pay much attention to good news, but that we love tabloid-style reporting.

It seems that we have come to lack faith in ourselves as a nation. Why is that? Does it have anything to do with the fact that we can’t seem to militarily and diplomatically manage and control a regional conflict? (Heaven forbid that we should have to face a major global conflict.) Perhaps. Or perhaps this is merely a symptom of our lack of national faith. We also seem to lack faith that our nation can effectively absorb immigrants that want to come here.

Richard Lyman Bushman described the two-pronged American dream in this Pew forum. He said that the individual American dream is “the promise that in America, everyone has a chance to prosper and to achieve respectability.” “But,” he says, “there also is a corporate dream, whether we like it or not, and that is of a righteous America, a people who are blessed of God” (corporate meaning the American people as a whole). “This corporate American dream includes a virtuous political leadership with the unselfish purpose of seeking, without regard for personal good, the public good – not just to manage the varying interests of society but to bless people.”

Bushman says that this corporate dream is not simply a relict of a bygone era; it exists today. He says, “Americans do hunger for an idealistic statement on the nation's purpose and destiny.” The panel of journalists interviewing Bushman agree with him. And I think he’s right. Most Americans hold a belief in their psyches that America should be a benevolent and good force in the world, or even the preeminent human-based source of good in the world.

We are prosperous, but I believe that the perception is widespread that we’re not living up to this ideal of the benevolent America. The individual part of the American dream is working, but the corporate part is dying (at least in the minds of the people). And yes, I believe that part of the cause is the constant barrage of news that makes us believe that America is bad, or at least isn’t as good as she should be. Like a bunch of gossip column readers, we’re ever prepared to snatch up the latest unsavory news and to believe the worst.

I’ve got several suggestions for revitalizing the corporate American dream. The first is to look around and count your blessings. Count your individual blessings. But also count the endless blessings that devolve upon our nation. Think about the blessings that are yours because you are an American. Think about the blessings your neighbors have because they are Americans.

My second suggestion is to squelch the bad news. I’m not saying that we ignore problems that we should work to resolve. I’m saying that we should place these issues in proper perspective. Exercise your freedom to switch off the radio, the tube, the print, or the Internet channels that equate to flowing troughs of anti-American sludge. What do you expect a steady diet of that stuff to yield? To paraphrase, “For as [a nation] thinketh in [her] heart, so is [she]” (Proverbs 23:7).

I believe it is imperative (see June post) that all Americans need to learn better what it means to be an American. Since our nation is founded on ideals rather than on atavisms, we must teach and learn those ideals much better than we do at present. Not only do we need to learn civics, we need to do our civic duties.

Finally, I would suggest that we follow Ronald Reagan’s old campaign slogan, and get to work making America great again. Start with doing what you can do yourself and then reach out to others. Moral equivalence practitioners will disagree with me, but I believe that America is more than simply a great country. I believe that the United States of America is the greatest nation on the face of the earth today. She isn’t perfect and she never will be. But she is great. Stand up and be proud to be an American. Let’s get to work making America an even greater nation than she is today.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Gassing to the Nines

Ever since I was a kid, I have wondered why gasoline prices always end in 9/10ths of a Cent. What’s up with that? Nobody is permitted to pay their bill in fractions of a Cent. Why are gasoline purveyors permitted to charge in tenths of a Cent?

Wisegeek explains here that despite all of the folklore (about price wars, taxes, etc.) behind this longstanding practice, the fact of the matter is that consumers are more psychologically disposed to spend more when a product’s price ends in the number nine. He says that raising a price from $9.99 to $10.00 causes a significant drop in sales, but that raising a price from $5.00 to $5.99 results in almost no change in sales volume.

Gee, are we really that gullible? Well, yes, apparently we are. This principle works for just about any kind of product or service. Wisegeek says, “Ads for the best laptop under $600 (sold for $599.99), or the best car under $10,000 (sold for $9,999), actually do fool consumers into thinking they're spending less money.”

Perhaps I’m less susceptible to the psychological impact of nines pricing because my first career was in accounting. The actual price of something means a whole lot more to me than the perceived price.

I’ve got to believe that the practice of 9/10ths of a Cent pricing probably benefited gasoline retailers more in the days when prices were 47.9 Cents per gallon than today when prices push over $3 per gallon. How many people would really pump less gasoline if the price was $2.72/gallon instead of $2.719/gallon?

Wisegeek includes a fun discussion of how much money gasoline retailers make by charging 9/10ths of a Cent on each gallon ($1.7 billion annually). But this presumes that the entire 9/10ths of a Cent is merely extra fluff that would otherwise not be charged. Given my understanding of economics and of the gasoline retail industry, I seriously doubt this would be the case. Retailers today would be more likely to charge the extra 1/10th of a Cent than to cut the price 9/10ths of a Cent.

Not that it will do any good, but for the record, I think that setting gasoline prices to end in 9/10ths of a Cent is completely ridiculous and is rather noisome. I wonder what would happen if one national chain made a big ad campaign out of dumping this practice and telling customers that they’re not going to insult their intelligence with silly pricing games. I figure that it wouldn’t be long before everyone else followed suit. I would like this scenario, but I’m not expecting it to happen in my lifetime.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Our Sports Culture

I didn’t care for sports as a kid. My oldest brother loved sports. The next brother in line seemed to enjoy sports as well. By the time I hit little league age, my parents assumed they had the pattern for boys all figured out. I was enrolled in baseball and then football. Somehow, I escaped basketball. Many homes in my neighborhood had driveway basketball standards. I pretty much avoided having anything to do with those things.

Unlike today, when kids can be involved in a very broad variety of sports, we had three sports available in my community: baseball in the spring-summer, football in the fall, and basketball in the winter. Everyone played baseball. If you didn’t play baseball, there was nobody to hang out with while all of the other boys were playing baseball.

I spent three seasons playing baseball. I didn’t much care for it. I was always placed in right field, because few little leaguers hit balls out there; thus, my chances of harming the team were minimized. I was bored out of my skull. At practices and at games I’d stand (or even sit) in right field and swat at gnats, daydream, pick dandelions and clover, imagine shapes in the clouds, and other similar activities to pass time. And time seemed to pass so slowly. I was rarely aware of the score. I frankly didn’t care much.

Then we’d line up to bat. I paid attention to where I came in the batting order. During my three-season little league baseball career, I occasionally managed to get on base. Usually that was when a bad pitcher walked me. On a few rare occasions I managed to accidentally hit a ball.

I think my experience as fourth string right offensive guard when I was eight years old pretty much assured that I would never play little league football again. I never missed a practice or a game. Yet I only played in a single game during the season: four plays in the last five minutes of the last game of the season. My dad was sitting in the car in the parking lot overlooking the field. But he had fallen asleep and hadn’t seen me play.

My lack of athletic acumen as a child didn’t stop with league sports. Throughout my school years I was consistently one of the last picked for playground or gym games of dodge ball, kick ball, and even four square. To this day, I have nothing but contempt for dodge ball. What is the positive purpose of a ridiculous game that is designed to injure and humiliate people?

My experience as a kid left me pretty bitter about sports. I could definitely agree with Orson Scott Card’s assertion in this article that team sports are a “system of establishing hierarchies based on your degree of skill in a meaningless pursuit.” I’m not sure if I failed to excel in sports because I could see no value in doing so or if I found no value in sports because I failed to excel at them. Perhaps each fed into the other.

Card takes exception with the idea that some important life lessons can be learned only through sports. Teamwork? Card suggests trying to put on a play, or joining an orchestra or a chorus. Learning that enduring hard work pays off? Card says, “I suggest the clarinet or violin. Or poetry.” Sportsmanship? Try Monopoly. “Strategy? Chess. Eye-hand coordination? Videogames.”

You can sense Card’s bitterness about sports when he writes, “You want to spend your later life crippled by injuries you got in grade school or high school or college? Well, I guess sports beats all the other activities.”

By the time I was a young adult, I would have been happy to never have anything to do with sports for the rest of my life. And then I got married and we started having children. Oh, how perspectives change. My kids started showing an interest in sports. Regardless of my feelings about sports, I didn’t want to deprive my kids of opportunities they desired.

So when my oldest son turned five, we signed him up for AYSO soccer. He made it two seasons, and then decided it wasn’t for him. He played baseball for a few seasons and did OK, but he eventually dropped that as well. In fact, he’s pretty much sworn off team sports of any kind. He has become excellent at pencil drawings. I marvel at his art, especially since I’ve always been lousy at that kind of thing.

My second son found that he rather enjoyed soccer. But he excels in so many other arenas as well, including academics and music (he plays a number of instruments and composes music). Unwilling to limit some of his other pursuits, he has avoided competition leagues. He still plays AYSO soccer. He’s never been a star player, but he is always a very strong member of his team. He dropped baseball a couple of years ago.

My third son tried soccer twice, but decided it wasn’t for him. Basketball was fun one season, but he didn’t want to sign up the following year. He has played baseball for a number of seasons, and he’s OK at it. But he has a sportsmanship problem. He acts badly when his team is losing. He tells me baseball is the sport he dislikes least. He’s pretty good at drawing for his age. He also just composed his own piano recital piece.

All three older boys did karate for a while. We dropped that program when their interest diminished as progressive levels became increasingly demanding.

My fourth son quit soccer just as I thought he was starting to get the hang of it. Practices were OK, but it turned out that games always conflicted with Saturday morning cartoons, which is a sacrosanct ritual for him. He has played baseball for a couple of seasons. He’s not very good, but he’s not the worst kid on the team either.

My daughter has been too young to start in formal sports. (Many families start their kids younger; we don’t.) But she seems very athletic, especially when matched up with other girls her age in the neighborhood. I’m guessing that she will enjoy team sports, but only time will tell.

I’m glad that my children have had the sports opportunities they have had. I am a die-hard supporter of my kids’ sports efforts and I attend most of their games, but I still don’t like engaging in sports myself. My wife is the one that plays catch with the kids.

While Orson Scott Card thinks non-organized sports are fine, he writes, “I don’t think Little League is playing. It’s work. It’s a job. Maybe you like your job, but you’re answerable to a boss and you can lose your job — your position — if you don’t compete and win.” He has a point. But much the same can be said for taking part in a play or joining a musical group. And learning that kind of thing at an early age is not all bad.

Card is particularly unhappy with the status that high achieving athletes are accorded in our society. “[W]hat I hate about sports [is that] these physical games get treated, by kids and adults, as if they mattered more than activities that are just as valid, just as competitive, just as rewarding — and maybe more so.” He continues, “For every kid whose life is saved by sports there’s a kid whose life is damaged by the way we handle sports in our culture.”

I don’t know that this cultural tendency is going to change anytime soon. Professional (and collegiate) sports demand a huge following. They obviously offer a significant entertainment value to a lot of consumers. It’s a massive industry. The effects of this cultural valuation filter all the way down to the little leagues.

Being somewhat of a sports agnostic, I’m not eager to push my kids into organized sports or to pressure them to excel at it. I’m happy to be supportive. But I’m equally happy to be supportive of other efforts that can help teach important life lessons. Different people have different talents. They excel at different things. Our approach has been to give our kids varied opportunities so that they can find where they have interest and talent, and then to encourage and help them pursue the areas they find most fulfilling. Sometimes that includes sports; sometimes not.

Having experienced little league sports as a parent, I am not as negative about it as I once was. While I might have agreed completely with Card two decades ago, today his article seems a bit over-the-top. Sports can be a valuable part of a child’s development, but they don’t have to be. I’ll never pressure a child of mine to play a sport, but I will support him/her if they choose to do so.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Gang Violence Close to Home

In the wee hours of the morning on Sunday, I was resting peacefully in bed, as were my family members. 14 blocks away about 30 people were having a post-wedding party in front of a house. They were taking it easy, listening to music, socializing, and drinking beer when a car drove up. Suddenly shots rang out as occupants of the vehicle fired a number of .22 caliber rounds into the crowd.

A few hours later, some of my family members got up, folded newspapers, and delivered them throughout our neighborhood and some adjoining neighborhoods. We got cleaned up, went to church, and returned home; unaware that 14 blocks away two people had been shot dead and two others had gone to the hospital with gunshot wounds.

The police say that the crime is gang related. They are still looking for the assailants (see here). Residents of the neighborhood where the crime occurred are understandably freaked out. Parents are not letting their kids out to play in the yards. But this is not the first time gang violence has erupted in the neighborhood.

My parents moved into a home another couple of miles away from where I now live when I was a toddler. That neighborhood is still a respectable middle class setting. Many of the homes in the violence riddled neighborhood a few short miles away were built in the same era as was my parents’ home; some in the decade before that. They are all single-family units rather than apartment complexes.

Yet even when I was a child, the area was not considered a good place. The homes were built deliberately small with lower-cost materials. As long as I have been alive, the area has been a haven for lower income residents. Even when I was a kid, the neighborhood had a reputation for being a very rough place. We avoided it like the plague. Everyone in my high school knew that it was unwise to drive through the area after dark.

Residents reeling from Sunday morning’s violence say that there was a significant amount of gang violence in the neighborhood about a decade ago (see here). Some say that activists got a neighborhood watch group going, and that this significantly improved the situation. But as people have moved away, the watch group has become inactive. Perhaps the group’s leaders were able to improve their lots in life and have moved to nicer neighborhoods. It’s time to get residents involved in neighborhood watch once again.

I have frankly been very blessed in life. I grew up in a decent middle class neighborhood. Most of the homes there still have single carports instead of double or triple garages. It was a great place to live. There were lots of other kids in my age range. There were hoards of busy adults (with jobs and young families) that sacrificed their time to provide constructive activities for the kids in the neighborhood. We felt safe. We spent the summer months in the saddles of our bicycles riding around the neighborhoods and even in the nearby foothills (which are covered with subdivisions today). People cared for and watched out for each other.

I’ve lived in my current home for about 19 years. Our subdivision is a decent middle class neighborhood where all houses have two-car garages. Most homes have lots of aluminum siding. There are still plenty of younger kids, but there aren’t nearly as many as there were in the early years of our residency in the area. We only hand out about half of the amount of Halloween treats as we used to. We are far more restrictive of our kids’ activities than were my parents and the parents of my friends. But kids wander quite freely and safely through the neighborhood. People care about and watch out for each other.

Less than three miles away, families live in fear that a stray gang banger bullet might fly through the windows of their homes. And it’s pretty much been that way to one degree or another for decades.

We sit in our relatively safe enclaves and read about or hear about the gang violence not far away. The pictures we see and the associated names often denote cultural backgrounds that differ from ours. We figure that as long as the bad guys are injuring and killing each other, there’s not much we can do about it. As long as the violence doesn’t impact us, we’re pretty apathetic about it.

But this is an issue that we cannot afford to ignore or treat with aloofness. In our democratic republic, improper infringements on the liberties of any citizen harm the entire republic and diminish the overall freedom of our society. A crime against a single citizen is a crime against all. Gang violence and other nefarious gang activity needs to be dealt with decisively. It seems that police agencies increasingly throw up their hands at the futility of attacking the expanding problem. What is required is citizen involvement.

It may seem unfair, but the residents of crime ridden communities must necessarily bear the lion’s share of this burden. Not only are they the ones most impacted by the problem, but they are also the ones most capable of attacking the problem. Neighborhood watch programs have proven to effectively deter gang problems in neighborhoods. Police agencies feel that their resources are better and more effectively used when area citizens are engaged in working to remedy the problem.

Does that mean that those that live in relatively safe communities have no responsibilities? Police agencies can only do so much. They can lock up those they catch that have committed crimes, but they cannot keep kids from joining gangs. Many areas with serious gang problems have found that simply having and strictly enforcing a curfew on teenagers suppresses a surprising amount of gang activity.

But it needs to go beyond this. Kids at risk — potential gang members — need viable alternatives to gang membership. Scout groups, church youth groups, and sports programs can appeal to and help some. These don’t often offer the level of excitement and appearance of ease that gang membership offers, but they can satisfy the need to belong. Kids often become at risk for joining gangs when their family situation is failing. Helping dysfunctional families, helping single mothers, and helping parents strengthen their marriages can improve home environments so that kids find less need to seek rebellious outlets for solidifying their identity.

My church calls empty nester couples to spend time in these rough neighborhoods to help people in just this way. The church provides resources and training for at-risk families. This is admittedly insufficient to help the broad array of families in these areas with problems, but every little bit helps.

A side effect of this, however, is that those that improve their lots in life tend to move out of the crime riddled areas and into better environments. There seems to be an unending supply of people with problems to backfill behind those that move out of these neighborhoods. Thus, efforts must be ongoing.

We cannot force people to choose a good path in life. But by a coordinated effort, we can make bad paths seem less appealing and less viable by helping people see the viability and desirability of choosing a good path. It takes caring enough to spend your own time and resources helping people at risk.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Did Earmarking Cause the Bridge Collapse?

There are many unknowns about the collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minnesota, but some things are absolutely certain. One of them is that Congress will rush to spend more money on road projects. But what if Congress’ road funding habits actually contributed to the bridge’s demise?

Here’s an interesting question. What has increased 63,710% in 14 years? Nope, it’s not federal highway spending. It’s earmarks in federal highway spending bills. The 1981 highway funding bill included 10 earmarks. As stated in this WSJ article, “A decade later there were 1,850, and by 2005 the earmarks had multiplied to 6,371, or nearly 10% of total spending.”

Of course, the 2005 bill occurred under GOP control. Now that Congress is controlled by Democrats, those earmarks are all going away, right? Well, no. At first, Democrats “got rid of earmarks” by simply calling them something else. That worked until people caught on. At present there are more than 32,000 earmark requests pending in legislation under consideration. As noted in this Standard Examiner editorial, Congress “went soft on earmarks” when it negotiated last week’s ethics reform bill.

Let’s first clarify what an earmark is. The basic budget process is for Congress to determine the amount that will be allotted to a given department to accomplish its mandated tasks. In this case, we’re talking about the Transportation Department. But this leaves all of that money in the hands of whichever administration is in the White House. Legislators have sought to control some of the ways the money is spent by adding earmarks to spending bills. Earmarks mandate that specific amounts be spent on specific projects.

Now this might sound like a fair give and take between the legislative and executive branches of government. But let’s further consider the methodology behind earmarking. Earmarks are never directly discussed or debated during the legislative process. Members work behind the scenes with appropriators to include earmarks. Earmarks are usually intended to benefit a specific congressional district and are used chiefly to buy votes for certain measures. We can thank Democrats for passing a rule that legislators must attach their names to earmarks and must state that they have no financial interests in the provisions (as if such was not already illegal).

But the real problem is that, as the SE Editors note, the earmarking process is “disgusting…. [Earmarks] crave privacy, preferring no notice of their odious presence.” The SE Editors go so far as to state, “The practice is filthy and corrupt to the core. If legislators want pork for their districts, they should put it to a vote, not attach it, parasite-like, to another piece of legislation.” In other words, it’s not the legislative spending directive they deplore; it’s the entire earmarking process, which is employed as the currency for purchasing influence.

But what has Congress wrought with the earmarking process, at least as far as transportation? According to WSJ Editors, “A main problem with these earmarks is that they often supersede the more urgent repair and replacement needs identified by state and local officials.” You see, politicians just don’t believe that maintenance projects will garner as many votes as new construction or pet projects that satisfy a core of well heeled donor constituents.

WSJ Editors also note that most earmarks require some matching funds from the state. Earmarked projects are often low priorities for state governments, so states end up not even taking advantage of the funds. As states scramble to figure out how to maintain the transportation infrastructure they’ve got, more than half of all federally earmarked transportation funds go unclaimed and unspent. Federal legislators get the best of both worlds. They happily report to donors and constituents that they have secured federal funding for pet projects, and then the federal government doesn’t ever have to cough up the money for them.

I might hasten to add that state and local governments don’t help the matter much either. They often hire lobbyists that practically guarantee a federal earmark that will fund some project they desire. That’s why some of the earmarked spending actually does get spent. Voters get in on the game by thinking that Representative X or Senator Y deserves our vote because he/she secured federal funds for some project at home.

And lest you think that the executive branch is a hapless victim of this process, consider the fact that when the media reports that the administration is twisting arms on Capitol Hill, it means that promises are being made for funding of a legislator’s pet projects. Besides, a president that really didn't like earmarks could bring the whole process to a halt simply by vetoing every bill that includes earmarks.

It seems that the basic problem is the struggle between the legislative and executive branches over who gets to direct how budgeted money is spent. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is that earmarking is nothing more than peddling and purchasing of influence. The problem would not be so severe if we demanded that the federal government stick to its constitutionally enumerated responsibilities. A small central government would not control the vast amounts of money it does at present, so the impacts of influence peddling would be less.

The WSJ Editors assert that “more local spending, less cynically allocated, combined with private investment, is far more likely than current habits to replace bridges before they collapse.” (Here is an interesting article on how private investment could help our ailing transportation infrastructure.) While the WSJ Editor’s claim is surely true, the likelihood of their suggestion coming about anytime soon is approximately nil.

But perhaps other factors play into this mess as well. In this WSJ article, John Fund discusses the current dysfunction in Congress, noting specifically the extreme problems in the House of Representatives. But what he describes sounds more like a long-term systemic issue. He cites, for example, “gerrymandered districts that have led to the election of more fierce partisans and fewer centrists.” Only a small fraction of congressional districts are truly competitive, in part, thanks to gerrymandering that purposefully disenfranchises some voters to ensure desired partisan outcomes.

I would like to see a drastically smaller federal government. I would like to see earmarking and legislative micromanagement diminish substantially. I would like to see any remaining legislative spending directives voted on specifically, rather than buried and used as a tool for buying votes. But all of that is very idealistic and utopian.

Since utopia is not going to happen as long as imperfect humans are in charge of the government, we need to be concerned enough to demand that the marvelous disinfectant of sunlight be shined on every nook and cranny of every earmark. Americans have a right to know about every single dark backroom vote purchasing deal. Over time, this would bring a different kind of politician to Washington. But since federal legislators are not about to vote to cut their own power, pressure to do so will have to come from grassroots efforts.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Ron Paul Will Not Be Elected President

In this NRO article, columnist Todd Seavey calls on conservatives to dump their concerns about pulling out of Iraq too early, forget their pro-life leanings, and support GOP libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) for president. Seavey claims that Paul would have no problem winning the general election against any Democratic candidate. He says that Paul’s real problem is his current inability to gain traction in the Republican primary race.

Rather than supply us with boring statistical measures to support his main point, Seavey supplies an array of wild suppositions. Here’s how it goes. If Paul could win the GOP nomination, all of the conservative base would, of course, support him rather than support a Democrat. He would also pick up all of the libertarian swing voters that dumped the GOP last November. Seavey seems almost giddy as he claims that Paul would get “a huge share of the bourgeoning antiwar vote to boot.”

This is all highly speculative and wishful thinking that bears little resemblance to grounded reality. I am grateful that Ron Paul is in the presidential race. He has a good track record of sticking hard to his libertarian principles and not being swayed by political machinations. He has an opportunity to influence the debate and help remind other GOP candidates of principles of liberty.

But he has absolutely no chance of winning the GOP nomination. Nor is it likely Paul’s name would even appear on the eventual nominee’s list of potential VP running mates. Let’s face it folks; Ron Paul will never be elected president or vice president. Despite Seavey’s enthusiastic cheerleading, Ron Paul will never be the GOP presidential or VP nominee.

Check the History Books
How can I be so sure? Let’s just say that I think history is a fairly accurate guide; although, as they say in the investing world, past performance is not necessarily a reliable indicator of future returns. The fact is that we simply don’t elect congressional representatives as president, except under unusual circumstances. Americans generally demand high-level executive experience. We prefer elected executive experience, but we will occasionally accept a military general that has a reputation as a war hero.

Of our 43 presidents (counting Cleveland twice for his two separate terms), 28 have had high-level elected executive experience (governor, VP, or president). Of the remaining 15, eight had significant executive experience as military generals. Four of those generals (Washington, Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower) enjoyed reputations as popular war heroes. Of the remaining eight, four had served as U.S. Senators (J.Q. Adams, Buchanan, Harding, and Kennedy). The remaining four (Madison, Lincoln, Taft, and Hoover) are special cases.

Congressional Representatives
Like Ron Paul, Madison and Lincoln had served as congressional representatives. Madison is a special case because he is considered to be the father of the U.S. Constitution. He had executive experience through his service as Speaker of the House of Representatives, and as Secretary of State. At the time of his service, Secretary of State was second in line to succeed the President (behind the VP). It was held in higher esteem as a political position than it is today.

Lincoln is the only former congressional representative to achieve the presidency without high-level elected or appointed executive experience. But the election of 1860 was unusual. Lincoln had been a major player in the rise of the newly created Republican Party from the ashes of the old Whig Party. He had little opposition to his nomination. Democrats contentiously split their vote over the slave issue between Stephen A. Douglas and John C. Breckenridge. John C. Bell, who had attempted to keep the Whig Party together, came in fourth place. Lincoln won 59.5% of the electoral vote with only 39.8% of the popular vote. The two Democratic candidates together garnered 47.6% of the popular vote.

No Executive or Legislative Experience
Neither Taft nor Hoover had held a high elected office or served in the military, which makes their cases very unusual. Taft had long been Theodore Roosevelt’s right-hand man. He had executive experience serving as the appointed Governor-General of the Philippines. He was, in effect, elected to the wildly popular TR’s third presidential term. Although he never really wanted to be president, this explains his election. Oddly enough, he lost his second election thanks to TR’s meddling.

This leaves Hoover. He was a world-famous mining engineer who had made a fortune and he was known to use that fortune generously for humanitarian means. Although he didn’t need to work, he turned to public service, serving as Secretary of Commerce under Harding and Coolidge. He leveraged this relatively minor position and into a high-profile job where he often overshadowed the presidents under whom he served. In the 1928 election, Hoover had little opposition in gaining the GOP nomination. He faced Democrat Al Smith, who suffered from a certain amount of anti-Catholic prejudice (which Kennedy later had to overcome). Smith also unfortunately sounded like the stereotypical gangster portrayals popularized in the newfangled radio programs of the day. The country was prosperous and Coolidge was popular. These factors all contributed to Hoover’s landslide victory. His popularity took a dive as the Great Depression took hold and deepened, leading to his landslide loss to FDR in 1932.

None of the factors that favored the four outliers listed above apply to the 2008 presidential campaign. Not meaning to imply any disrespect, but Ron Paul is frankly no James Madison. Paul did not help found and build the GOP, as did Lincoln. Unlike Lincoln, Paul cannot count on being the shoo-in party nominee. Nor are the Democrats likely to split their vote between two or more candidates, as occurred in 1860. We do not have a popular president, let alone a wildly popular president that is willing to anoint Paul as his successor, as was the case with Taft. Nor are the political conditions today anything like those of 1928 that produced Hoover’s nomination and electoral victory.

Competence Required
Here’s the deal. Americans want their president (and presidential candidates) to have a track record of a certain level of executive competency. Jim Geraghty argues in this NRO article that the problem conservatives today have with George W. Bush is not necessarily his less conservative ideals, but “what is now incontrovertible evidence that Bush is a poor manager.” Geraghty discusses five specific factors that are meant to highlight Bush’s managerial incompetence. It’s worth the read to consider his arguments.

History shows that the resumes of our presidents are replete with high-level executive experience. What about those that lost to these presidents? Not so much. 27 of 54 runners up had no previous high-level elected or military executive experience.

We have only elected two presidents that had no national legislative experience, had held no high-level executive office, and had not served in the military. Neither faced any serious primary opposition within their party. We have elected only two presidents who’s highest elected position had been congressional representative. Both of these were highly unusual cases. And we have elected only four former U.S. Senators who had no high-level executive experience. What does this say for the nine (maybe 10) senators (and former senators) that are running (or planning to run) in next year’s election?

Senator John Quincy Adams won the presidency in 1824 by a vote in the House of Representatives after no candidate received a majority of the electoral vote. Adams had received 30.9% of the popular vote and 84 of 261 electoral votes. However, Andrew Jackson had received 41.3% of the popular vote and 99 electoral votes. The remainder of the votes were split between William Crawford and Henry Clay. It is notable that Jackson came back in 1828 to beat Adams in a landslide victory. So, Adams’ 1824 victory can be considered a fluke.

Democratic Senator James Buchanan won in 1856 with 45.3% of the popular vote and 174 of 296 electoral votes when the Whig Party was dying and the Republican Party was brand new, which split the opposition vote. Republican Senator (and former General and explorer) John C. Fremont pulled in 33.1% of the popular vote and 114 electoral votes. Whig Former President (and VP) Millard Fillmore came in third with 21.6% of the popular vote and only eight electoral votes. We have nothing like a three-way split going on now.

The GOP nominated Harding in 1920 after 10 rounds of hard fought balloting at its convention. The GOP had no heir apparent, and Harding came out of the first round with less than 7% of the vote. After much back-room wrangling and much convention floor maneuvering, Harding finished the 10th round with over 70% of the vote. Harding won the 1920 election in a massive landslide victory that was a hostile response to Wilson’s management of WWI and its aftermath. Wilson had become extremely unpopular and the economy was in a serious recession. Harding also outspent his opponent by a ratio of eight to one.

Finally, in 1960, Vice President Nixon faced Senator Kennedy. Nixon had national-level elected executive experience, but Kennedy did not. Nixon was the VP to a fairly popular President Eisenhower. He faced little primary opposition, while Kennedy had to work hard for his party’s nomination. All of these factors seemed to give Nixon the edge. But Nixon was unlikable, while Kennedy was charismatic. Eisenhower provided little support for Nixon and even made statements that suggested that Nixon had garnered little executive experience from his two terms as VP. Kennedy understood the new medium of television while Nixon did not, which harmed Nixon in their first nationally televised debate. Nixon squandered valuable campaigning time in states he had no chance of winning. The November vote was very close. Some still claim that voter fraud in Texas and Illinois tilted the electoral vote to Kennedy. Nixon saved the country from controversy by choosing not to contest the outcome.

Of the four who had no high-level executive experience and whose highest office had been U.S. Senator prior to becoming President, one was a fluke and one benefited from a three-way race. Don’t look for a duplication of either of those situations next year. We’re unlikely to see a repeat of 1960 in 2008. We already saw something similar in 2000. However, we could see something like 1920 next year. We’ve got an unpopular president and an unpopular war, and neither party has an heir apparent; although, our economy isn’t in the toilet like it was back then. Perhaps the situation is right for another senator with no high-level executive experience to win the White House. While it doesn’t look good for the senators statistically (9.3% chance), the history of 2008 is up for grabs.

Back to my original point. If we exclude the unusual circumstances of the 1808 and 1860 elections, a person such as Ron Paul who has no high-level executive experience and whose highest elected office has been congressional representative has a statistically zero percent chance of winning the presidency in 2008.

Just for argument’s sake, let’s toss aside history and statistics. Look carefully at the array of GOP voters that are or will be part of the primary and nominating process. Then look at the array of GOP candidates, including their respective levels of executive competency and political prowess. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but the stars and planets would all have to align perfectly and reality would have to take a vacation for Ron Paul to rise to the top of the heap and win the GOP nomination. It’s just not going to happen.

Some pundits would just as soon have the lower-tier candidates drop out of the race and reduce the noise. I’d rather have them in the race giving voice to issues that would otherwise be ignored by the top-tier candidates. It is within the realm of possibilities that one of these individuals could win. But it’s highly improbable. I think it’s great for people to cheer on their favorite lower-tier candidate. But let’s not delude ourselves, folks.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Tribalism vs. Democratic Pluralism

I am proud of my Norwegian heritage. I speak, read, and write Norwegian. I have lived in Norway. I once belonged to a Norwegian cultural group called Sons of Norway. If I were to run for public office, there would be no reason for this information to be private or off limits. But if I were to attempt to leverage this information to attract voters, I would be working against the goals of democracy.

I can see you scratching your head. You’re thinking that using my Norwegian ancestry as a campaign feature would be counterproductive to my campaign, but you’re wondering how it would counteract democracy. In my defense, let me note that there are about 4.5 million U.S. citizens that have significant Norwegian ancestry. They tend to be highly concentrated in certain geographical areas (the Dakotas, Minnesota, some parts of Utah, etc.) So, it is conceivable that in the right location, I could leverage my heritage to my benefit.

Of course, this all seems completely absurd. But stick with me through this thought exercise. Even in rural Minnesota, my Norsk-centric approach would likely alienate the Swedes living there. Thus, my focus on heritage would probably backfire. It would certainly backfire with a certain percentage of the population because it would be exclusive rather than inclusive. This is called an atavism, which in this case denotes a group identity. It denotes membership in a tribe. I would be appealing to those that shared my noted atavism; those that are members of my tribe. Others would necessarily be excluded. If you weren't born with Norwegian heritage, there's little you can do to change that fact now.

Why do I even present this silly idea? I do so because we have people in the current presidential campaign that are focusing on atavistic traits of some candidates. Both the MSM and the blogosphere have been enamored of the idea that this next presidential election might be the first time in history we elect as our Chief Executive a woman, an African American, or a Mormon. Is there anything wrong with noting this or discussing these matters? Not at all.

We appropriately hail positive cultural breakthroughs that diminish misguided prejudices that have been socially acceptable. For example, it was good when Jackie Robinson’s entry in to major league baseball “ended approximately eighty years of baseball segregation….” These types of events diminish the significance of atavisms — of tribalism. They cause our entire society to become more humane and to comprehend the humanity in each of us, regardless of our notable differences.

But there is a danger when we go too far and seek to use atavisms as platforms for getting gain; for accruing money or power, etc.

It is not possible, nor is it desirable, to completely disavow atavistic traits. We have seen the problems that have come to societies that have worked hard to suppress such. However, we have also seen the horrendous problems created when atavistic traits have been used to gain power. Throughout history, rights have often been suppressed based on atavisms. Some of the most obvious examples from relatively recent history include the Nazi Aryan Race program, black slavery, suppression of the rights of women to vote and to freely labor, and repression of Native Americans.

Four years ago during the last presidential campaign, Shelby Steele argued in this article that there is a fundamental conflict between atavisms and democracy.

“Embracing atavistic identities too strongly leads to three great sins: asserting the inherent superiority of one's group over others, excluding others as inferiors, and invoking an enemy to fight in the name of one's superiority. White racism, black separatism, Islamic extremism and Nazism are all atavistic identities gone too far, gone to where one's superiority is confirmed only by the denigration and even annihilation of an enemy. Whenever power is pursued in the name of an atavism--my blackness, your whiteness, his Catholicism, her gender--enemies arise and our democracy of individuals is injured. This is true even when oppressed minorities pursue power in the name of their atavism rather than in the name of freedom.”

It is fine to hail atavistic breakthroughs. When we elect a woman as president, we will rightly note that a previously accepted social prejudice has fallen. Likewise, when we elect a black or a Mormon as president. But it does not necessarily follow that those atavistic traits should be significant motivators for selecting leaders (or employees, etc.). This is illiberal. It is of a piece with segregation. It differs from Nazi racism and Jim Crow only by degree.

Steele notes that classical liberals reject “atavistic power as illegitimate because it always steps on individual freedom.” If I vote for Mitt Romney significantly based on our shared religion, or vote against Barack Obama significantly based on the fact that he and I have different skin color, or vote against Hillary Clinton partially because she is a woman, I have stepped over the line of democratic principle and have moved toward tribalism, which is the enemy of democracy.

Successful democratic societies must be based on pluralism. They must work to balance the maximization of individual freedom against the needs of society. When we assay to select a political leader based on atavisms, we are strengthening tribalism and working against democracy. We purposefully exclude the interests of those that are not members of our same tribe and either cannot join the tribe or could only do so through difficult means.

None of this is to imply that we need to ignore a candidate’s race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, etc. But it does mean that when we use those atavisms as a basis for gaining, awarding, or denying power, we are necessarily damaging the principles upon which our democratic republic is based.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” This high ideal should be the basis of our selection of political leaders. Rather than casting our vote based on some atavistic trait or tribal membership, we should instead focus on the character of the candidates and vote accordingly. We should focus on whom we think will best serve our republic in the position at issue rather than on what ‘tribe’ a candidate belongs to.

This is how we go about selecting leaders that support the pluralism upon which our democratic republic is based. It is how we encourage power in the pursuit of freedom rather than power in the promotion of tribalism.