Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Government "Economics"

I was struck by a recent article in a regional newspaper here in southern California regarding a hike in bus fares by the local public transit authority. The NCTD, like just about everybody else on the planet, faces a financial future with uncertainty and constricted revenues as well as rising costs. Ridership is relatively flat, but with unexpectedly rising employee pension costs as well as rising fuel costs, the NCTD board decides to break the law of Supply and Demand, and raise fares in an attempt to close the budget gap.

This seemly minor matter in a small coastal city in suburban southern California hardly seems like it ought to even be noticed, but it is a perfect example of "economics, government style". In the private sector, a business whose product cost is rising either accepts lower profit margins, or offers incentives or product improvements to make its product more attractive to consumers, or to justify a price increase to maintain profit margins. For example, if an auto dealership wants to improve sales, they will offer pricing inventives to bring in consumers. Sometimes they have pony rides and balloons, or free pizza or give away radios or free maintainence. But the LAST thing they would ever do is tell their customers, that" since our costs are rising, we have to increase our prices to you." They make their product—in this case a car—more attractive to consumers to increase sales to cover rising costs.

In the case of this transit company, however, they do the opposite. Their explanation of rising costs is employee costs, especially employee benefits. They also note that fuel costs are higher, as they are for everybody, but instead of trying to INCREASE ridership with incentives, maybe LOWER fares, etc., they choose to RAISE fares! Assuming they don't add new employees or routes, but increase ridership on existing routes, revenue will increase. A prudent business would work to make their product—in this case mass transit— more attractive to consumers.

If the bulk of the increased costs is indeed employee costs, then by increasing ridership they could recover that cost. By raising fares, however, they continue to drive away all but those who have no other choice but to ride public transit.

It is hard to imagine that anyone with even the most basic economics understanding could think that raising fares is a good way of raising revenue. But this is the way government, and more particularly, most government employees typically address issues of economics. They so often lack even the most basic understanding of economics, and yet all of our tax dollars are "managed" by these same people every day.

This is a perfect example of why social welfare programs so very rarely ever work. The people who run them have no idea how free-market economics work, and should give us all pause as we consider whether the government is the best caretaker of our retirement funds, or whether we as individuals should be allowed to manage our own retirement nestegg if we so choose.

This post also appears on Blogger News Network.

Friday, May 27, 2005

There Is No "Wall Of Separation Between Church And State"

When the history of the 1st Amendment is reviewed and the decisions on 1st Amendment cases by the courts are considered, reasonable people can only conclude that the obvious goal of many atheists and progressives—the complete elimination of all religious symbols, traditions, and references from government—has no legal foundation.

Here in southern California, a cross located in a war memorial on formerly city-owned property at the top of Mt. Soledad in San Diego has lead to a protracted legal battle pitting atheists against those who believe the cross is an appropriate symbol in a war memorial. Recently in Georgia the placement of the Ten Commandments in the state house lead to their removal via federal court order. However, the display of religious symbols in and around government property is nothing new and continues widely today.

In recent decades, however, the concept of “the separation of Church and State” has been increasingly used by atheists and their allies to undermine the religious underpinnings of our traditional holidays and to remove all references to religion from public schools and curricula, government facilities and documents, and all religious symbols from public property.

What was the intent of the behind the drafting of the 1st Amendment, and what were the Framers of the Constitution attempting to ensure? A look at the history of the 1st Amendment is a good start at answering this question:

James Madison, 4th president of the United States, and often referred to as “The Father of the Constitution” originally drafted, in June of 1789, what eventually became the 1st Amendment to the Constitution:

“Fourthly. [Madison’s proposed 4th amendment] That in article 1st, section 9, between clause 3 and 4, be inserted these clauses, to wit: The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.”

The House Select Committee reported for debate on July 28th, 1789:

"Art. 1, Sec. 9--Between Par. 2 and 3 insert, No religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed."

On August 24th, 1789, the House of Representatives passed the amendment that read like this:

Congress shall make no law establishing religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, nor shall the rights of Conscience be infringed.”

The US Senate passed the amendment on September 9th, 1789 in this form:

Congress shall make no law establishing articles of faith, or a mode of worship, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition to the government for a redress of grievances.”

On September 25th, 1789, after the reconciliation of the House and Senate versions of the amendment, the Congress of the United States passed the amendment in these words, which were then referred to the States for ratification:

“Article the third . . . Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

(Of the twelve articles originally referred to the States for ratification, ten were ratified, which caused the renumbering of the Amendments such that the 3rd Article became the 1st, etc.)

It was thirteen years later that the phrase “separation of church and state” was coined by Thomas Jefferson (then president of the United States) in a letter to a Baptist congregation in Connecticut, wherein he sought to assuage their concerns over rumors that Congregationalism was about to be named the National Religion. In it, he wrote,

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state."

It is clear from the operative passage above when considered in context that Jefferson’s primary intent was to illustrate that he believed that the 1st Amendment was written to protect religion from government, not government from religion. He believed that religion was a matter between “man and his god [sic]”, and believed that government cannot and shall not impose religion and religious rules and restrictions on the people.

In addition to protecting religion from governmental interference, and the prevention of the establishment of a national religion, he wanted to be sure that it was also clear that government cannot and shall not interfere in any way with the right of the people to practice whatever religion they chose.

These two concepts have come to be known in legal parlance as the Establishment clause and the Free Exercise clause of the 1st Amendment.

The Establishment clause, therefore, simply prohibits the federal government from enacting laws which would establish a national religion. Nowhere does the Establishment clause, nor did the foundational principles behind the Establishment clause suggest that religious activity and government are incompatible. Indeed, the courts have routinely held that government and religion can co-mingle under certain closely defined circumstances, as described in some detail below.

We can gain further insight into what the author of the 1st Amendment, James Madison, intended for the Establishment clause in reading his veto message to Congress in 1811 for a bill to incorporate a protestant church:

“The bill enacts into and establishes by law sundry rules and proceedings relative purely to the organization and polity of the church incorporated, and comprehending even the election and removal of the minister of the same, so that no change could be made therein by the particular society or by the general church of which it is a member, and whose authority it recognizes. This particular church, therefore, would so far be a religious establishment by law, a legal force and sanction being given to certain articles in its constitution and administration.”

Likewise the Free Exercise clause prohibits government from enacting laws which would prevent the free exercise of religion, and nowhere does it, nor the foundational principles supporting it, suggest that religious activity and government are incompatible.

It is important to remember that at the time of the adoption of the 1st Amendment, and indeed one of the primary reasons for many of the original settlers in North America to brave a treacherous North Atlantic passage was the pursuit of religious freedom. Whether it was the Church of England or the Catholic Church, or one of the other state religions of Europe, all of which were extremely powerful forces at the time—arguably more powerful than the European governments with whom they were so closely intertwined—most of the people who came to America prior to the Declaration of Independence came because of the promises of personal and religious freedom that the New World held. That they and their progeny sought to prevent the establishment of a national religion and to prevent the government from interfering with the free exercise of religion and religious activity in the enacting of the 1st Amendment should surprise no one. They wanted no part of a national religion, and wanted to ensure that all could practice freely whatever religious faith—or no religious faith—they so chose. The 1st Amendment guarantees these freedoms. This sentiment is also noted in decisions (2) of the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court has issued numerous rulings on the application of the 1st Amendment, too many, in fact, to recite here. However, there are several themes that emerge while reviewing these decisions.

In Walz v. Tax Commissioner of the City of New York the court outlined in Section I of its decision some of the history and meaning behind the 1st Amendment, including,

“It is sufficient to note that, for the men who wrote the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, the "establishment" of a religion connoted sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the sovereign in religious activity.”

The Court's Opinion in Walz further declared,

"The course of constitutional neutrality in this area cannot be an absolutely straight line; rigidity could well defeat the basic purpose of these provisions, which is to insure that no religion be sponsored or favored, none commanded, and none inhibited. The general principle deducible from the First Amendment and all that has been said by the Court is this: that we will not tolerate either governmentally established religion or governmental interference with religion. Short of those expressly proscribed governmental acts, there is room for play in the joints productive of a benevolent neutrality which will permit religious exercise to exist without sponsorship and without interference."

In its decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman, Chief Justice Burger, writing for the majority, wrote in Section III,

“Our prior holdings do not call for total separation between church and state; total separation is not possible in an absolute sense. Some relationship between government and religious organizations is inevitable. Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 312 (1952); Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 422 (1963) (HARLAN, J., dissenting). Fire inspections, building and zoning regulations, and state requirements under compulsory school attendance laws are examples of necessary and permissible contacts. Indeed, under the statutory exemption before us in Walz, the State had a continuing burden to ascertain that the exempt property was, in fact, being used for religious worship. Judicial caveats against entanglement must recognize that the line of separation, far from being a "wall," is a blurred, indistinct, and variable barrier depending on all the circumstances of a particular relationship.” [Emphasis added]

Most Supreme Court decisions on Establishment rely on the Lemon Test, a three-part test developed by the Court over time to determine whether a statute violates either the Establishment or Separation clauses of the 1st Amendment. In Lemon, the court held that,

“Every analysis in this area must begin with consideration of the cumulative criteria developed by the Court over many years. Three such tests may be gleaned from our cases. First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion, Board of Education v. Allen, 392 U.S. 236, 243 (1968); [p613] finally, the statute must not foster "an excessive government entanglement with religion." Walz, supra, at 674.”

Obviously, the Lemon test is open to interpretation, but the key issue here is that the Court has clearly shown that the lynchpin of the argument of the anti-religion crowd—the “wall of separation between church and state” argument—is clearly invalid. The idea that there should be no interaction between church and state is completely wrong and has no Constitutional support. Interaction and even “entanglement” is allowed so long as it is not “excessive”.

Therefore, is a cross placed by private individuals on public land (since sold to private entity) excessive entanglement? Does it “advance” or “inhibit” religion? Given the facts laid out above, I don’t think anyone would successfully argue that to reasonable people.

This post also appears on Blogger News Network.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

OK, so I've been Busy...

Haven't had time to blog, but I am working on a long post about the 1st Amendment.

Look for it very soon!

Saturday, May 07, 2005

A Proposal To Reform How We Choose Legislators

We need to return government to the people, and the best way to do that is to get rid of ALL "elected" legislative bodies. That sounds like a radical, undemocratic proposal, but first listen to the rest of it:

First, though, some background. The problem with politics is politicians. Without the interference of politicians, politics wouldn't be so dirty, underhanded, partisan, and corrupt. As I laid out in an earlier post (here or here) the framers of the Constitution intended that the legislative branch be a part time body, that meets "at least once each year". That clearly suggests that they intended that those who serve as legislators should do so in addition to their 'real' job, not as their 'real' job.

So how, then, do we rid ourselves of professional politicians? I have always been impressed with our jury system. We have judges who ensure that a trial is conducted fairly and within the law, and we have attorneys who prosecute and defend the accused. But we reserve to the common people—plumbers, secretarys, engineers, shipwrights, welders, bartenders, window installers, housewives, etc.—the right to render judgement on guilt or innocence. Jury pools are selected from the population in different ways, but usually it is from voter registration records, driver's licenses, etc. If such a system works for the criminal justice system, why can't it work for selecting legislators as well?

My proposal, then, is to select a pool of potential legislators each year from a similar database of potential legislators, or possibly from a new database created just for this purpose. This pool would be selected randomly by lottery, and once selected for the pool an individual would not be eligible for some period of years hence to ensure a good cross-section of potential legislators if freshly available.

This pool would meet, perhaps in smaller, local conventions to debate and select those from the pool who will actually serve as legislators. The selection process would be something like the way a jury deliberates, with some rules about eligibility such as willingness to serve, availability to serve, family obligations, critical work responsibilities, convicted felons, etc. Once the actual legislators have been chosen, they would report for legislative duty at the appointed place and time set aside for the legislative body to meet.

There would have to be laws requiring that employers hold open the jobs of those who serve, and continue to pay their salary, but government would reimburse employers to some level for the employee chosen to serve.

A system like this would be radical, I know. But it would also have many benefits. Most importantly, it would eliminate professional politicians. We'd all be legislators, or potentially be legislators, and we'd all bring our own personal experiences, beliefs, and biases to the process of legislation. I trust the people who actually live under and sometime stuggle under the laws passed by the legislature to have the better judgement than professional politicians who do not.

When a piece of legislation is up for debate on plumbing, for instance, I would trust the people who have made plumbing their life to best decide than a professional politician. I trust the retired stock broker to render the best judgement on whether new securities laws are necessary.

I trust the people over politcians.

This post also appears on Blogger News Network.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Leftism Further Defined

Dissecting Leftism's Of Interest (2) sub-blog has a brilliant post today of a reader's email on leftism. I have shown it here in it's entirety:

"Why I distrust liberalism:

By Jason Depew

At a brief glance, liberalism appears very noble and altruistic. I believe that people who are liberals truly do elicit genuine concern for humanity. Some common topics of liberal interest are concern for the environment, concern for the welfare of all members of a population, and a hope that all people of the world can have access to certain things in life(food, shelter, education, health care, opportunity, etc..), and be protected from certain things in life(oppression, physical danger, etc..). They believe that in order to improve things as a whole, it is necessary for us to try to correct the injustices, inequities, and dangers that plague mankind and the world. Let me state that many policies that have benefitted the world have arisen from the liberal and progressive political movements. However, I have noticed some glaring weaknesses in some of today's liberals that I cannot ignore.

There are various types of liberals. I have decided to narrow my descriptions to the slight, moderate, and extreme liberals with the hopes that most of the other liberals that populate the world will fall somewhere in between. My descriptions of "liberal" behavior are not confined to views on economic ideas. I think they are applicable to liberal stances on other topics of concern(racial issues, the environment, etc..).

Slight liberals have beliefs that hover more towards the center of the political spectrum. They espouse all of the standard liberal centerpiece beliefs. Ironically, the most recognizable trait of the slight liberal is apathy. They believe in these things and would like to see them instituted so that people may benefit from them, but they usually don't do anything about it. Most of the time their beliefs are purely aesthetic things which please their sensibilities
and idle concerns but that are not powerful enough to elicit concerted and significant action.

As someone gets more towards the moderate and extreme liberal beliefs they have a tendency to impose what I call the "Oppression Dialectic" on their observations of the world.

The moderate liberals use a more muted version of the "Oppression Dialectic". They examine situations and often seperate the participants into two groups; the party that is "on top" who are the winners(who possibly have unfair advantages) and the party that just couldn't succeed in the said situation that deserves pity and sympathy. Moderate liberals don't like to see disadvantaged parties experience disappointment, failure, and hardship(strangely enough they sometimes take pleasure in seeing people fail that they construe as being "on top".). They have a tendency to disapprove of success, because when one party wins there is at least one party that didn't win. Invariably, they side with the perceived loser; the poor downtrodden party.

There are things that I can admire about moderate liberals. They are more energetic than slight liberals and less myopic than extreme liberals. They also tend to be well-informed and optimistic about what they want the world to be like.

I can understand the moderate liberal's desire(which arises out of empathy) to shield people from hardship and to root for the underdog. But, attempting to eliminate failure from the human experience is not natural. I think that failure is a valuable part of life. It has the capability of teaching important lessons such as humility and wisdom. If looked back upon with a clear head, failure can help a person determine what they need to do or change in order to succeed. People were not meant to float through life while experiencing no disappointments. If all that everyone experiences is a rigged and controlled success, where failure is abolished and everyone is equal, it is not true success; it is a sham. You are taking a person's right to pursue what they want and what they want to achieve and you are relegating them to a forced equality with their fellow man. Sure, you raise some people out of the depths of failure, but you also limit other people's access to success and its fruits. This gagging of the human spirit; in the name of politeness, equality, and civility disheartens me. I can think of nothing that is more unnatural, restricting, stifling, and insulting to ambition and self-determination.

Of all of the forms of liberalism, I think I am most qualified to talk about extreme liberalism because I used to be heavily influenced and controlled by it. To put it bluntly; I was young, naive, and I didn't thoroughly question the tenets that I excitedly embraced. Nowadays, this brand of liberalism merits the most scorn from me.

Extreme liberals usually fall into one of two categories: The first contains people who are woefully misinformed and who engage in a slogan-filled, jingoistic, and bombastic exercise of their beliefs. These first types have an avante-garde penchant for conforming to rebellion (the irony here is obvious), and as a result appear pretentious and comical. The second group contains people who are usually educated beyond their intelligence. This second group is filled with people who are sincere but misguided sophists that engage in esoteric and pedantic intellectual masturbation as they immerse themselves in their ideas and theories. They are so enamored with their ideas (that have grand implications and that concern injustices that are often far-off) that they usually fail to objectively observe actual people. When no injustice can be seen they will exaggerate or invent one.

The extreme liberals utilize the "Oppression Dialectic" in a much more shrill and audacious way than the moderate liberals do. They frame every occurrence to fit their ideological tilt and are so eager to correct perceived inequalities that they engage in hyperbolic action and speech. They will examine a situation and seperate the participants into two parties; the power-hungry oppressors who sadistically and tyrannically pursue and wield absolute control and the victimized and oppressed group who have to live under such humiliating and inhumane circumstances. They always disapprove of the people they view as the oppressors and use every chance they have to discredit them. They exaggerate every mistake, shortcoming, and failure of the oppressors. They always side with the perceived underdog and oftentimes sympathize with, attempt to justify, or outright ignore any innappropriate behaviour of the members of the perceived oppressed community. They also exaggerate every hardship endured by, and every accomplishment of, the oppressed. If an extreme liberal determines themself to be a member of a disadvantaged group, they cling to a sense of victimhood(which is oftentimes exaggerated and self-righteous). If the extreme liberal is not a member of the disadvantaged group, they will go out of their way to coddle members of the disadvantaged group. This coddling usually manifests itself in a prostrating and obsequious politeness(which I find to be absolutely nauseating).

They preach a sanctimonious tolerance for everything and everyone. Ironically, this tolerance is almost always selectively applied to ideas and groups of their choosing. All too often, extreme liberals are possessed by a vitriolic, derisive, and arrogant elitism that commands them to become enraged at anybody who deviates from their views. They laud the ideals of freedom of expression and independent thought and they are disdainful of close-mindedness and people blindly following a cause, yet they consistently fail to achieve the things that they espouse and they consistently succumb to the traits that they despise.

The more extreme a liberal gets the more pronounced their simultaneous acerbic pessimism and hopeless idealism is. They have a tendency to view their fellow humans(especially people who happen to not hold their beliefs) in a condescending manner, yet they have undying hopes and dreams for humanity. These hopes and dreams usually translate into obsessive utopian yearnings for Mankind. As with all extremists, they think that only they know what ails the world and only their beliefs provide relief for it. Their unrealistic assessments of the world are followed by unrealistic prescriptions for its improvement. They think that if only the institutions, attitudes, and policies that they deem are self-serving, exploitative, and ignorant would melt away, the world would magically become happy, free, and idyllic. This will never happen and the following paragraph explains why:

For a society to work you need a majority of participants who agree to live their lives in a certain way. In a utopian society where there is no hunger, everyone recieves a basic level of material sustenance (even those that are not physically or mentally capable of producing anything), and there is no greed or vice, people would need to put forth a remarkable effort and sacrifice personal interest. This will never happen. No matter what system people live under, no matter what they strive for, and no matter what they think the world should be like, they will never be able to live up to these unattainable dreams for humanity. Mankind is not capable of making a perfect world. There has never been an idea that originated from Man that was able to lift the human race completely out of its depravity and there never will be. Human beings are too enslaved by their whims. People will always exhibit every possible emotion and motive, from the most caring empathy to the most despicable selfishness. It has happened since the beginning of time and will happen until the end of time. No amount of "enlightenment" will ever change the fickleness and unpredictability of Man's behavior.

The only way to ensure the complete safety, equality, tolerance, tranquility, and "enlightenment" that extreme liberals crave would be to control Mankind mercilessly (which ironically is something that they claim to abhor). I would rather eat dirt and live in my own filth than to live under a system or a mandatory communal attitude that dictated what I should think, how I should act, and what I should be.

We of course must strive to make things as tolerable and as much to our liking as is possible. But, it is pointless to ignore reality and to attempt the impossible; especially if you are armed with something as pathetic as a hopelessly idealistic philosophy. It is like trying to leap up to the top of a mountain in one jump. But, extreme liberals who think that their beliefs contain the answer for mankind attempt it again and again. How can perfection arise from, or be expressed by, such an imperfect creature as Man? Extreme liberals never have an answer for that simple question and as a result their efforts and rantings are nothing but dogmatic exercises in futility.

Extreme liberalism can be summarized as a militant, warped, and misguided egalitarianism that is brought about by disaffected cynicism. It is a belief system that is often (but not always) confined to young people because the impetuousness and irrationality that taint it are also common symptoms of youth. On a certain level, I can admire and appreciate the energy, rigor, and determination of extreme liberalism. But, it is hard to ignore the lack of wisdom and open-mindedness that mark it. These people who seek to impose their ideological whims upon their fellow man are nothing but tumors."

Monday, May 02, 2005

The Weaning of America

Unless the program is significantly reformed, Social Security (SS) will become insolvent by 2041. According to Dictionary.net, "insolvency" means "one who is unable to pay his debts as they fall due". In 2041, SS will no longer be able to pay promised debts and will be insolvent, as obligations will by that year exceed income to the fund, as the trustees of the SS Trust Fund recently reported.

If nothing is done to correct this impending insolvency, the program will by 2041 be able to pay recipients of SS only 74% of promised benefits. According to the SS trustee's report, one solution to the impending insolvency of the program is the "immediate increase of 15 percent in the amount of payroll taxes or an immediate reduction in benefits of 13 percent (or some combination of the two)." I am confident that almost no one would want to see their taxes increased or benefits reduced by that much to protect a system so fundamentally flawed as SS. What is needed, therefore, is a gradual weaning from the current pay-as-you-go, federally controlled system to an ownership-based system, as broadly outlined by the president in his news conference last week.

A system where individuals have control of their own retirement money, and have choices for how the money is invested, will align the retirement goals of all Americans with the continued success of our market-based economy. The money put away for retirement will be put back into the economy where it can be used by business to create jobs, provide goods and services, and build a better, more financially secure America.

For some people, the idea of investing in the stock market is very intimidating, but there can easily be selectable portfolios with varying degrees of risk and reward to protect those with little or no investing experience. The system would need to be gradually phased-in starting with younger workers, where their investment time-horizon to retirement is long enough that any market fluctuations will both teach them how to invest, and won't hurt them long-term. Finally, as one approaches retirement the system could restrict the type of investments available to minimize risk and protect the retirement nest egg from sudden market changes just before retirement. And of course, there would still be a 'safety net' to ensure the dignified retirement for the poor and those who, for one reason or another, simply cannot provide for themselves.

The key to this system, though, is the alignment of retirement goals with the overall economy. We all participate in the economy, and when our retirement funds are invested in and count on the future success of the economy, it will put us all in the same boat rowing in the same direction. It will lessen the tax burden on Americans, and will make the public funding of retirement for the poor easier for the taxpayer and more fullfilling for the recipient. Remaining tax dollars can go to funding other priorities, such as the even more urgent Medicare crisis. Best of all, we won't have to revisit this same argument again to try to "save" a system that is by its design destined for failure.

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