Month: April 2010

Not All Sheep

In “A Nation of Sheep,” I expressed my disappointment that the mail participation rate for Census 2010 is the same as it was for Census 2000. But not all residents of all States were equally compliant. The following table sorts the States by the changes in their participation rates between 2000 and 2010:

Change in Mail Participation Rate, by State (percentage)

State Census 2000 Census 2010 Change

Wyoming 72 68 -4

Colorado 73 70 -3

Montana 70 67 -3

Nebraska 79 76 -3

North Dakota 76 73 -3

Oklahoma 69 66 -3

South Dakota 78 75 -3
Alaska 64 62 -2
California 73 71 -2
New Mexico 65 63 -2
South Carolina 65 63 -2
West Virginia 66 64 -2
Arizona 68 67 -1
Arkansas 68 67 -1
Connecticut 75 74 -1
Idaho 75 74 -1
Iowa 79 78 -1
Louisiana 65 64 -1
Massachusetts 74 73 -1
Missouri 74 73 -1
New Hampshire 71 70 -1
New Jersey 73 72 -1
Ohio 77 76 -1
Wisconsin 82 81 -1
Kansas 75 75 0
Maryland 74 74 0
Michigan 77 77 0
Mississippi 67 67 0
Nevada 69 69 0
Oregon 74 74 0
Pennsylvania 76 76 0
Delaware 68 69 1
Georgia 69 70 1
Maine 65 66 1
New York 66 67 1
Rhode Island 70 71 1
Texas 68 69 1
Hawaii 64 66 2
Illinois 73 75 2
Indiana 76 78 2
Minnesota 78 80 2
Utah 72 74 2
Vermont 65 67 2
Washington 72 74 2

Florida 69 72 3

Virginia 73 76 3

Alabama 66 70 4

Kentucky 70 75 5

Tennessee 69 74 5

North Carolina 66 74 8

Source: Census.gov download.

I have highlighted the States in which participation rates changed significantly (i.e., by more than one standard deviation from the mean). Kudos to the residents of Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. Honorable mention to the residents of the next seventeen States with negative numbers: Alaska through Wisconsin. Scorn for the lamb-like residents of the thirteen States from Delaware through Washington. And a hearty b-a-a-a to the sheep-like denizens of Florida, Virginia, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

Blasts from the Past

I have republished much of the pre-blog (“home page”) version of my old blog, Liberty Corner, in 29 posts at The Original Liberty Corner. (There’s a link to TOLC in the right sidebar, for permanent access.) Some of the material at TOLC is dated; most of it remains current; some of it is prescient.

The preceding post, “First Principles,” is based on one of my early contributions to the pre-blog version of Liberty Corner. From time to time, I will update other material and re-post it at this blog.

Restoring the Constitutional Contract

Introduction

Contracts come in many forms and serve many purposes. They may be as informal and ephemeral as the understanding between barber and customer that the barber will cut the customer’s hair and the customer will pay the barber a certain amount of money for the haircut. They may be as solemn and hopefully eternal as marriage vows.

In the public realm there is no more solemn contract than the Constitution of the United States. But the great national crises of the Twentieth Century–especially the Depression and World War II–fostered the habit of giving illegitimate power (and money) to the federal government. Thus the constitutional contract and the pillars of the Constitution–the States and citizens–have been undermined

The immense, illegitimate power that has accrued to the federal government cannot be found in the Constitution. It arises from the cumulative effect of generations of laws, regulations, and court rulings–each ostensibly well-meant by its perpetrators

The habit of recourse to the federal government has become a destructive cycle of dependency. Elected representatives and unelected elites have vested unwarranted power in the federal government to deal with problems “we” face–problems the federal government cannot, for the most part, begin to solve and which it demonstrably fails to solve many more times than not. The conditioned response to failure has been to cede more power (and money) to the federal government in the false hope that the next increment will get the job done.

There has been much bold talk in recent times about making the federal government smaller and devolving federal power to the States. The bottom line is that the executive branch still regulates beyond its constitutional license, Congress still passes laws that give unwarranted power to the federal government, and federal spending still consumes about the same fraction of economic output that it did two decades ago.

To break out of this cycle of addiction, we must restore the constitutional contract and thus free the States and citizens–especially citizens–to realize their economic, social, and spiritual potential.

The Contract, Its Reach, and Its Principles

The Constitution is a contract between the States. In it, the States cede certain powers to a government of the united States, created by the States on behalf of the States and their citizens. Thus, for example, in Section 10 of Article I, the States voluntarily deny themselves certain powers that in Section 9 they vest in Congress–creation of money, regulation of trade among the States and between the States and other nations, conduct of foreign relations, and conduct of war.

The Preamble lists the States’ reasons for entering into the constitutional contract, which are “…to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity….” These are ends desired, not outcomes promised.

To further these ends, the Constitution establishes a government of the united States, and authorizes it to enact, execute, and adjudicate laws within a delimited sphere of authority. The Constitution not only delimits the federal government’s authority but also diffuses it by dividing it among the federal government’s legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

The Framers knew what we are now only re-learning: A government is a power-hungry beast–even a representative government. More power in the hands of government means less power for individuals. Individuals are better off when they control their own lives than when government, directly or indirectly, controls their lives for them.

Thus the limited scope of the constitutional contract provides for:

  • primacy of the federal Constitution and of constitutional laws over those of the States (This primacy applies only within the limited sphere of authority that the Constitution grants to the federal government. The federal government is not, and was not intended to be, a national government that supersedes the States.)
  • collective obligations of the States, as the united States, and individual obligations of the States to each other
  • structure of the federal government–the three branches, elections and appointments to their offices, and basic legislative procedures
  • powers of the three branches
  • division of powers between the States and federal government
  • rights and privileges of citizens
  • process for amending the Constitution.

The principles embodied in the details of the contract are few and simple:

  • The Constitution and constitutional laws are the supreme law of the land, within the clearly delimited scope of the Constitution.
  • The federal government has no powers other than those provided by the Constitution.
  • The rights of citizens include not only those rights specified in the Constitution but also any unspecified rights that do not conflict with powers expressly granted the federal government or reserved by the States in the creation of the federal government.

The Limits of Federal Power

The Constitution may be the “supreme law of the land” (Article VI), but as the ardent federalist Alexander Hamilton explained, the Constitution

…expressly confines this supremacy to laws made pursuant to the Constitution…[Federalist number 33].

Thus the authority of the federal government–the government formed by the united States–enables the States to pursue common objectives. But that authority is limited so that it does not usurp the authority of States or the rights of citizens.

Moreover, the “checks and balances” in the Constitution limit the federal government’s ability to act, even within its sphere of authority. In the legislative branch neither the House of Representatives nor the Senate can pass a law unilaterally. In his sole constitutional role–as head of the executive branch–the President of the United States must, with specified exceptions, sign acts of Congress before they become law, and may veto acts of Congress–which may, in turn, override his vetoes. From its position atop the judicial branch, the Supreme Court is supposed to decide cases “arising under” (within the scope of) the Constitution, not to change the Constitution without benefit of convention or amendment.

The Constitution itself defines the sphere of authority of the federal government and balances that authority against the authority of the States and the rights of citizens. Although the Constitution specifies certain powers of the federal executive and judiciary (e.g., commanding the armed forces and judging cases arising under the Constitution), federal power rests squarely and solely upon the legislative authority of Congress, as defined in Article I, Sections 8, 9, and 10. The intentionally limited scope of federal authority is underscored by Amendments IX and X; to repeat:

The rights of citizens include not only those rights specified in the Constitution but also any unspecified rights that do not conflict with powers expressly granted the federal government or reserved by the States in the creation of the federal government.

The Rise of Unconstitutional Laws and Regulations

The generations of laws and regulations that have seized the powers and rights of States and citizens are, to put it plainly, unconstitutional. Most such laws and regulations seem to rest on these foundations:

  • the phrase “promote the general welfare” in the Preamble. This was a desired result of the adoption of the Constitution, not an edict to redistribute income and wealth.
  • the power of Congress “to regulate commerce…among the several states [Article I, Section 8].” This power was meant to prevent the States from restricting or distorting the terms of trade across their borders, not to enable the federal government to dictate what is traded, how it is made, or how businesses operate.
  • the authority of Congress “[t]o make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof [Article I, Section 8].” The words “necessary and proper” have been wrenched out of their context and used to turn the meaning of this clause upside down. It was meant to limit Congress to the enactment of constitutional legislation, not to give it unlimited legislative authority.
  • the “equal protection” clause of Amendment XIV: “…nor shall any State…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Amendment XIV was meant to secure the legal equality of those former slaves whose freedom had been secured by Amendment XIII. Amendment XIV became, instead, the basis for Supreme Court decisions and federal laws and regulations that have given special “rights” to specific, “protected” groups by curtailing the constitutional rights of the many who cannot claim affiliation with one or another of the “protected” groups. As the proponents of such groups might ask, is it fair?

Restorative Remedy

The constitutional contract charges the federal government with keeping peace among the States, ensuring uniformity in the rules of inter-State and international commerce, facing the world with a single foreign policy and a national armed force, and assuring the even-handed application of the Constitution and of constitutional laws. That is all.

It is clear that the contract has been breached. Only by restoring it and reversing generations of federal encroachment on the rights and powers of the States and people can we “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

The Constitution itself contains the restorative remedy:

[O]n the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several States, [Congress] shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which …shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by the conventions in three fourths thereof…

Congress has in hand the requisite number of applications for a constitutional convention but has resisted calling one. If pressed, the leaders of Congress would invoke the spectre of the rabble rescinding the Bill of Rights. But what the professional politicians in Congress (and their allies in the executive branch and community of special-interest groups) must truly fear is the reassertion by the citizens and States of their constitutional rights and powers.

Here is a place to begin: “A New, New Constitution.”

More Miscellany

Politicos on Parade

Most politicians — especially but not only liberals — pay lip service to the Constitution but tend not to honor it. They have a passion for laws and regulations that dictate, in the name of “good,” how people will live their lives, run their businesses, and spend their incomes. They seem not to understand or care that such laws and regulations undermine liberty and thus, to borrow a phrase, the general welfare that flows from liberty.

A “do-nothing” Congress is the best kind of Congress. Would that there were such a thing.

Career politician: a person who has succeeded in fooling just enough of the people almost all of the time.

The Presidency in Perspective

As the presidency has gone from Washington to Clinton, so too has it gone from service to self-gratification, from honor to corruption, from courage to cowardice, and from dignity to disrepute. The fault lies not in the office but in an electorate that has tolerated — nay, encouraged — the debasement of Washington’s legacy.

The presidency is as dignified or debased as its incumbent.

The impeachment (and removal) of a President is not a constitutional crisis. Rather, it reaffirms the soundness of the Constitution’s design for the orderly transfer of executive power. Through impeachment and removal the nation may, without recourse to mayhem or insurrection, be relieved of a President who has dishonored his trust.

Legal proceedings against a President do not disable the presidency, only the ability of the incumbent to serve. Amendment XXV provides for such instances:

Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable [for any reason] to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.

Presidents come and go but the nation survives [maybe] and thrives [sort of].

Social-isms

Where is it written in the Constitution that the federal government is a repository for retirement savings?

A “liberal” of the Twentieth Century persuasion is a person who presumes to tell others how to live their lives. This use of the word “liberal” is a corruption of language fully consistent with the intellectual corruption of American politics.

Would those who decry meritocracy replace it with mediocracy?

The culture of “public service” was born in the New Deal, came to maturity with John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier (“ask what you can do for your country”), and continues to thrive, as always, amongst Ivy-leaguers with all the answers, idealistic naifs as yet un-mugged by reality, and lawyers bent on acquiring inside knowledge and cultivating future business.

In Their Own Words…

Newsweek quotes Alan Dershowitz as saying “Yes, I would defend [Hitler]. And I would win.” No matter that justice would lose.

The constitutional balance, as seen by Hamilton and Madison in The Federalist Papers:

It will always be far more easy for the State governments to encroach upon the national authorities than for the national government to encroach upon the State authorities. (Hamilton, No. 17)

[T]here is greater probability of encroachments by the members upon the federal head than by the federal head upon the members. (Hamilton, No. 31)

The State governments will have the advantage of the federal government…in respect to…the weight of personal influence which each side will possess…the powers respectively vested in them…[and] the…faculty of resisting and frustrating the measures of each other. (Madison, No. 45)

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. (Madison, No. 45)

[T]he powers proposed to be lodged in the federal government are as little formidable to those reserved to the individual States as they are indispensably necessary to accomplish the purposes of the Union; and that all those alarms which have been sounded of a mediated and consequential annihilation of the State governments must, on the most favorable interpretation, be ascribed to the chimerical fears of the authors of them. (Madison, No. 46)

Thus is paved the road to hell.

“Cato” foresaw in 1787 that: “the great powers of the president…would lead to oppression and ruin”; the national government “would be an asylum of the base, idle, avaricious, and ambitious,” a “court [with] language and manners different from [ours]“; and “rulers in all governments will erect an interest separate from the ruled, which will have a tendency to enslave them.”

Out with the Old, in with the Older

The punctilious say the century won’t end until midnight on the 31st of December 2000. Meanwhile, the other 99.99 percent of Earth’s denizens (or those who care about such things) prepares to celebrate the end of the decade, century, and millennium on December 31, 1999. Contrary to our custom, we bow here to the popular will, but just long enough to offer this paean to the Twentieth Century. After boldly diagnosing the last 100 years in a few hundred words, we also thrown in a prognosis for the next 100 years.

The American Century?

The Twentieth Century, like any other complex phenomenon, cannot be judged one-dimensionally. Let us begin by comparing it with the other centuries of our nationhood.

Yes, the Twentieth Century has been called the American Century, but that soubriquet reflects one of the least of our achievements as a nation, namely, our dominant role in world affairs. In any event, the American Century was the Eighteenth Century, when the greatest heroes of American history gave us liberty and framed the Constitution to assure liberty’s blessings unto their posterity. (Well, that’s how they talked in those days — you can look it up.)

The Nineteenth Century was decidely less stellar than the Eighteenth. The Nineteenth started well enough, with Mr. Jefferson in the White House, the purchase of Louisiana Territory, and the expedition of Lewis and Clark Then the British burned the Executive Mansion, causing it to be painted white (whence the White House). That was one of the first — but far from the last — whitewashings in Washington.

If the history of the presidency counts for anything in rating centuries, the Nineteenth weighs in with one great (Lincoln) and a whole flock of losers and nonentities: Van Buren, Harrison I (he of the 30-day term of office), Tyler (the “too” in “Tippecanoe and…”), Polk, Taylor, Fillmore (later an avowed Know-Nothing as that party’s candidate for President), Pierce (a New Hampshire dipsomaniac), Buchanan, Johnson I (he of the first impeachment trial), Grant (the bury-ee in Grant’s Tomb), Hayes, Garfield, Arthur (call me Chet), Cleveland (who, unlike Billy-boy, fessed up to his sins before he was caught lying about them), Harrison II, and McKinley.

In the Twentieth Century, there have been three honorable Presidents — Coolidge, Truman, and Reagan — surrounded by a sea of fools and scoundrels: Roosevelt I (a Napoleonic nut-case), Taft (the answer to two trivia questions: heaviest and only one to become Chief Justice), Harding (sex-Clinton I), Hoover and Carter (two humorless engineers), Roosevelt II (our first socialist President), Eisenhower (principle-Clinton I), Kennedy (sex-Clinton II), Johnson II (wager of disastrous wars on poverty and Vietnamese civilians), Nixon (truth-Clinton I), Ford (duh!), Bush (principle-Clinton II), and Clinton (combining the worst of Harding, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, and Bush — oversexed, unprincipled, and a congenital liar).

The Twentieth Century may have been the century of American power, but it has not been a century to be proud of if you still have any principles.

Major Themes of Century XX

The century’s dominant theme was established in its first decade: Capitalism became evil incarnate and — in the name of fighting evil — the federal government began to usurp the socializing roles of family, friends, neighborhood, and church. The second and third decades should have disillusioned the true believers in progress through government, as Wilson led us into the charnel-house called Europe and the sons and daughters of Carrie Nation led us into Prohibition. But prosperity casts a rosy glow on the sordid truth, as attests Clinton’s survival of l’affaire Lewinsky.

The fourth decade — specifically, the Great Depression — legitimated the federal government’s seizure of power in the name of “good.” The President and other elected officials became Santa Claus incarnate, doling largesse and special privileges to the masses in return for their votes, at the expense of the objects of the masses’ envy. Judges briefly and episodically resisted the power grab, then joined their executive and legislative brethren in the rape of the Constitution.

Succeeding decades saw more wars (perhaps only one of them was not a senseless exercise in presidential megalomania), more “social progress” (read aggrandizement of government), more “freedom” (read erosion of moral and ethical standards), more crime, and less civility. More crime and less civility being the direct result of moral and ethical erosion; moral and ethical erosion being a by-product of aggrandized government (the “nanny” state).

Other than that, it’s been a peachy 100 years. Somehow, our high standard of living (which would be even higher were it not for senseless wars and aggrandized government) doesn’t make up for all the rest. But perhaps the prospect of the “grand nanny” of them all — Ms. Rodham-Clinton — lecturing us from the well of the Senate is makes us just a bit peevish.

Inside and Outside

Each decade’s foreign adventures reflected the home front’s view of the world outside. In the 1900s, government could do no wrong: it busted trusts, stole Panama, and sailed the Great White Fleet — all to great acclaim from the masses. A decade later it was time to assuage national guilt and get into a serious war, but only after much vacillation about what side to join. As if in atonement for trust-busting days of the first decade, the Marines were enlisted to the aid of capitalism in the “Banana Republic” skirmishes of the 1920s.

In the 1930s, the hangover from the Great War and the cancer of the Great Depression sapped our willingness to confront the most potent (but nevertheless distant) threat to national sovereignty since 1812. But Roosevelt II, with the unwitting help of the foolhardy Nipponese, managed to drag us into another foreign war. The feat of vanquishing not one but two legitimate powerhouses, awakened the will to power that lurks just below the skin of every politician and policy wonk.

The poobahs on the Potomac — who reap vicarious ego gratification (and perhaps sexual gratification) from the very thought of being at the center of world power — demanded that we stay in the arena so that we could shape the world in the American image. (Well, in the self-image of an all-wise, all-powerful effete stratum of the Eastern establishment and its acolytes, who come from all regions and walks of life to sniff at the seat of power.) Whence the misbegotten Korean War, the utterly tragic Vietnam War, and the various travesties, gunboat diplomacies, and chest-thumpings known as the invasion of Grenada, “peacekeeping” in Lebanon, the bombing of Tripoli, the confrontation with Iran, the seemingly endless Persian Gulf War, the feckless “humanitarian” excursion into Somalia, and the “humanitarian” bombing of Kosovar civilians so that the “good” thugs of the country formerly known as Yugoslavia can take their turn at savagery.

Thus has self-interested isolationism — like constitutional government — given way to the self-indulgent whims of the “wizards” behind the curtain of the ominscient, omnipotent state.

Historical Determinism Revisited

Moralists would say that the Great Depression was the price we paid for the Roaring Twenties. If that is so, think what might lie beyond the turn of the millenium. In any event, there may be something to the theory that what we sow in one decade we reap in the next.

The “gay” 1890s gave way to the “uplifting” 1900s, when such moralists as Frank Norris, Ida Tarbell, and Roosevelt I strode the land. Their moral vigor gave way to the next decade’s Great War and the disillusionment it wrought. What could follow moral disillusionment but the amoral and “immoral” goings on the the materialistic 1920s? We paid for that holiday from reality with the plunge into the Great Depression and the rise of fascism.

Our indifference to fascism led to the next decade’s Greater War and thence to the Cold War. Fatigue set in, and the 1950s became the decade of “complacency,” featuring such entertainments as “Ozzie and Harriet,” “I Love Lucy,” and President Eisenhower’s studiedly incoherent ramblings at press conferences.

“Down with complacency,” said the children of the 1960s. “Up with the people (of all colors), down with imperialistic, paranoic foreign adventures, up with sex and drugs and rock and roll,” they chanted. And they were mostly right — but some of them became what they had hated and…but I digress.

If the 1960s began in hope and ended in despair, the 1970s began in despair and ended in despondency. It was a decade of unremitting bad news, from the presidency and resignation of Nixon to the “oil shock” to double-digit inflation to the seizure of American hostages by Iran. There was nowhere to go but up, and up we went, through most of the 1980s and — with a breather for another foreign adventure and a brief recession — on into the 1990s: ever more prosperous, ever more hopeful of the future — materially if not spiritually.

And so here we are in what should be called — for more than one reason — the “gay” 1990s: where “rights” flourish and responsibilities diminish; where more and more parents neglect their children and blame the schools (if not society) for the tragic results of that neglect; where gratuitous sex and violence pass for entertainment; where reading, writing, coherent speech, and good manners are practiced more in the breach than in the observance; where those who believe in and practice personal responsibility are simply sick and tired of giving a free ride to the indolent and self-indulgent (of all colors, genders, and political persuasions across all socio-economic strata).

Century XXI

Just when you think things can’t get worse, they do. It’s not hard to imagine a United States in which the following new “rights” have been legislated and/or adjudicated:

  • Animals may not be kept as pets without a license from the Department of Animal Rights & Welfare (DARW), whose inspectors may enter any home at any time in order to ensure that pets are being treated in accordance with the Animal Bill of Rights.
  • Animals and their produce (e.g., meat, eggs, feathers, manure) may be raised and processed only on “reservations” controlled by the DARW.
  • Guns may not be kept for any purpose — not for self-defense and (of course) not for hunting — by anyone other than law enforcement officers and members of the armed forces.
  • Because criminals are merely misguided or genetically defective products of society they may not be punished. Rather, society must be punished by turning criminals loose to exact their vengeance on it.
  • Because incessant media attention to every politician’s peccadilloes merely demoralizes the public — and because politicians are merely misguided or genetically defective products of society — the media may no longer report news about politics or politicians without a license from the Department of Happiness. Licenses are granted only to Hollywood producers who agree to produce uplifting “documentaries” of politicians in action (e.g., “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” with James Stewart but without Claude Rains and his cronies).
  • Health care is socialized — no more ifs, ands, or buts; no more half-baked efforts to screw up the world’s best system of health care. It’s socialized and screwed up for good because Republicans — weary of being called “meanies” — give in on the last issue on which they differ from Democrats.

“How,” you ask, “could all of that happen?” Simple…Al Gore is elected President in 2000 and re-elected in 2004, with Ms. Rodham-Clinton as his running mate the second time. Ms. R-C shoots Gore at his second swearing in. She pardons herself (as a misguided product of society) and the Chief Justice swears her in — at gunpoint. In case you’re wondering, Ms. R-C was authorized to carry a gun because, following her unsuccessful Senate race in 2000, she became Gore’s Attorney General. (That’s called “first the good news, then the bad news.”)

And it goes downhill from there…

Economic "Wisdom"

Even though Stephen Jay Gould once accused social scientists of “physics envy,” he did not deter economists’ efforts to practice the dismal science as if it were really a science. Thus, for example, a Robert Shiller of Yale University arms himself with data about the past performance of the stock market and warns us that the Dow will lunge from 8,000 (make that 9,000 . . . 10,000 . . . 11,000) to 6,000 or less. The problem with such analytical exercises is that they tell us what has happened but not what will happen. Statistics predict the past with uncanny accuracy.

Not that Professor Shiller is entirely wrong about the future performance of the stock market. He is almost certainly right, in principle, because the only known monotonic trends in the universe are its expansion and its aging — and a lot of physicists aren’t sure about the permanence of those trends. No, Professor Shiller will probably be right, some day, because — as the old saying goes — a stopped watch is right twice a day.

John Maynard Keynes (created Lord Keynes for his services to economic thought and to some members of the Bloomsbury Set) averred that a government could spend an economy out of a depression. In spite of Keynes, the United States and Great Britain remained mired in the Great Depression for most of the 1930s. Some have argued that Keynes was vindicated by post-World War II prosperity, which they attribute to the the binge of consumer spending spawned by the massive infusion of government spending in wartime. That argument overlooks the inconvenient possibility that the Great Depression, like earlier depressions, would have ended without the benefit of government largesse. The argument also overlooks the fact that, unlike the United States, Great Britain did not plunge into prosperity at the end of World War II.

One could argue that Germany and Japan proved Keynes right because unemployment in those countries vanished in the face of their massive arms buildups. Yes, and one could say that the members of a chain gang are well off because they have “jobs.”

Enough of old feuds. Let us return to the present scene.

Today’s “green economists” advance the notion that free markets are all right in their place — but not when it comes to protecting the environment. Conjuring dire results for humankind if markets continue to cater to the crass demands of consumers, those economists would commandeer the economy in the name of future generations yet unborn. (Sound the trumpets! Wave the flag!) If one reasonably assumes that such economists know that there are market-based ways to solve the problems caused by pollution, what is one to make of their anti-market rhetoric? Answer: Just like any consumer of “political pork,” they’re perfectly willing to have the government aggrandize their own (psychic) income at the expense of the general welfare. That is, they simply don’t like economic growth and don’t care who is hurt by their anti-growth propoganda.

Consider, finally, the antediluvian agitators for antitrust actions against successful companies. The scions of Roosevelt the First seem to be stuck in a zero-sum view of the economic universe, in which “winners” must perforce be balanced by “losers.” Or perhaps they, like their green brethren, suffer a form of success envy.

Whatever the case, the antitrusters forget (or wish not to remember) that (1) successful companies become successful by satisfying consumers, (2) consumers wouldn’t buy the damned stuff if they didn’t think it was worth the price, and (3) “immense” profits invite competition (direct and indirect), which benefits consumers. On the third point, if the USPS — a government monopoly that claims to own my mailbox — can’t stave off competition from alternative delivery services and e-mail, what’s to keep a new Bill Gates from building a better mouse (pun) trap? Only the fear of being pursued by the almighty federal government. Thanks a lot, feds.

All of which underscores another old saying: A sucker is born every minute — and then he moves to Washington.

The Trials of William Jefferson Whatsit

This is a farce in three acts. The first act takes place in the presidential study near the Oval Office — also known as the nookie nook. Act two is set in the presidential boudoir, where the air is definitely chilly. Act three takes place beyond the great divide, that is, when Willie Whatsit meets the Chief Justice of us all.

Act I: In the Nookie Nook

Willie Whatsit: Wow, Veronica, that was great!

Monica Crapinsky: It’s Monica, you schmuck. Get it right. That’s only the fourteenth time I’ve given you a back rub, lard butt.

WW: Well, as leader of the free world, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and first fund-raiser I’ve got too much on my mind to remember a detail like your first name.

MC: You’d better remember it, buster, because I’ve just been subpoenaed to testify against you in a wrongful discharge suit.

WW: But I haven’t fired anyone since I cleaned out the travel office to make room for the meetings of Hillary’s coven.

MC: Oh, I meant to say “paternity suit.” Paternity, wrongful discharge, same thing. Get it?

WW: Yuk-yuk-yuk. You’re as funny as Orrin Hatch eating a sour pickle. Anyway, if I’m the sue-ee, who’s the sue-er?

MC: You have to ask?

WW: Of course I have to ask. It could be almost anyone, couldn’t it?

Act II: In the Deep Freeze

WW enters the presidential boudoir to find Hillary Ramrod — his liberated, emancipated, and constipated spouse — writing his State of the Union speech.

HR: I heard a rumor that you’ve been cavorting with an intern in your private study.

WW: Who told you that? Come on, I need to know so I can figure out how to wiggle out of this one.

HR: Since you’re not going to be able to wiggle out of this one, I’ll tell you. It was our favorite flack, Sid “The Snake” Loveinbloom.

WW: You can’t believe anything Sid tells you. He’s got the hots for you and he’d say anything to tear me down.

HR: Well, you of all people know that he can have all the “hots” he wants, but it won’t get him anywhere with me. I’ve sworn off sex since I discovered witchcraft. Double, double, toil and trouble, send money to Washington, on the double.

WW: I’m glad you have such a laid-back — I mean relaxed — attitude. I was afraid you’d heard about the paternity suit.

HR: What paternity suit?

WW: What do you mean “What paternity suit?” How do you expect me to keep track of them? Do you think I do all that fund-raising, to help elect a bunch of yokels to Congress?

Scream of rage from HR. Blackout. Loud thwack (simulated by striking Arkansas watermelon with baseball bat).

Act III: Beyond the Blue Horizon

The Great Chief Justice in the Sky: How do you come to be here, Mr. Whatsit?

WW: That’s a trick question if I ever heard one. It depends on what you mean by “come.” Where am I, anyway?

CJ: You’re in the land of the final judgment — beyond civil suits, criminal prosecutions, and impeachment trials.

WW: I always thought you had a flowing white beard and wore a blinding white robe. Why are you wearing that silly black robe with gold stripes on the sleeves?

CJ: Shut up. I ask the questions here. And the robe’s not silly, Justice Sandy made it for me. Do you have anything to say for yourself before I pass sentence on you?

WW: I didn’t do it.

CJ: “It” what?

WW: It depends on what you mean by “it.”

CJ: Enough with the clever wordplay, already. Do you take me for some dumb Senator?

WW: You’re about the right age.

CJ: Before I get any older, I’m sentencing you, William Jefferson Whatsit, to eternal community service, in the “other place.”

WW: Is that the best you can do? The “other place” can’t be any hotter than an Arkansas summer, and I’ll be glad to service the community. There must be some hot babes down there.

CJ: Just for that, I’m changing the sentence. Earphones will be permanently affixed to your ears and you will be forced to listen to right-wing talk radio twenty-four hours a day for all eternity.

WW grins broadly.

CJ: How can that sentence cause you to smile?

WW: It could have been worse. You could have sentenced me to listen to Hillary.

CJ: Mmmm….

Lights dim. Drone of HR reading from It Takes A Village Idiot to Know One swells in volume.

Don’t Blame Me

Three years ago one Wendell Williamson wantonly gunned down two strangers in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Purportedly his paranoid schizophrenia bade him to kill in order to save the world.

Now another North Carolina jury has decided that the psychiatrist who had treated Williamson months before his shooting spree should pay Williamson $500,000. This eminent jury seems to have concluded that Williamson might have been cured had the psychiatrist done his job right.

It’s the O.J. defense with a twist. O.J.’s lawyers shifted the blame to the police who caught him. Williamson’s lawyers have shifted the blame to the psychiatrist who failed to cure the purported insanity that triggered the fatal shooting spree.

What happens to people when they become jurors? Does Lamont Cranston cloud their minds? Does confinement to a courtroom and jury room make them temporarily insane?

Whatever the case, consider the defenses that today’s lawyers could mount, successfully, for the villains of history:

Yes, Brutus struck the blow that killed Caesar, but there was a blood-lust in the air that day in Rome. Someone was bound to kill the power-crazed Caesar. Brutus was merely the pawn of fate, swept along in the force-field of hate that surrounded him. If you blame Brutus, you must blame all of Rome.

The South was within its rights to secede from the Union. Lincoln provoked an illicit war in his effort to preserve the Union. Therefore, John Wilkes Booth did not commit murder, he merely killed an enemy who was waging an unjust war against Booth’s homeland. Booth is a patriot warrior, not a murderer.

Aldolf Hitler and Josef Stalin cannot be blamed for the millions of lives they took. Clearly, they suffer from paranoia, delusions of grandeur, and sociopathy. These men are to be pitied, not punished, for they were driven by demons beyond their control to commit acts whose heinousness only normal human beings can comprehend.

Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, and Sirhan Sirhan are victims of unrealistic expectations. As males living in the United States of the mid-Twentieth Century they were expected to rise to the top, to become powerful and famous. When they were unable to fulfill society’s expectations, they could only strike out at those who were powerful and famous. Society must forgive Oswald, Ray, and Sirhan; society itself must shoulder the blame for their acts.

No one expects politicians to be truthful. Politicians are expected to lie and voters have come to rely on the fact that politicians lie. Bill Clinton merely acted in accordance with the ethics of his profession when he lied under oath and encouraged others to do the same. It would be grossly unfair to him and confusing to voters if we were to change the rules in the middle of the game. Leave Bill Clinton alone and go after real criminals like smokers.

Bill and Al’s Egregious Adventure

Once upon a time, as it usually is, there were two early-middle-aged politicians (we’ll call them Bill and Al), who — like many career politicians — had yearned for the presidency since they were in diapers. Bill and Al, like all career politicians, had never held real jobs and had no inkling of what they were doing to real people when they proposed policies, pushed legislation, and published regulations. But, boy, were they “getting things done.”

Bill and Al were of an age when you could get high and later rise to high office. And so they did. (Well, Bill tried to inhale but couldn’t, or “didn’t” as he slickly put it.) Bill was elected dog-catcher and Al was elected deputy dog-catcher.

The small town where they caught dogs — a town called DeeCee — didn’t need dog catchers because all the dogs were well behaved and healthy. But there had been dog catchers in the town since the days when dogs ran wild, and so the townspeople kept electing dog catchers.

Because Bill thought it was important to make a good impression on the citizenry of DeeCee, he began by proposing regulations about how dogs should be fed, how often they should be given their shots, how long they should be walked, and how they should be trained. The voters of DeeCee told Bill where to put his regulations and kept on keeping on with their well-behaved and healthy dogs.

Al had great ideas about how to make the town’s businesses more efficient, and he spent a lot of time pestering business owners with his loony ideas. They nodded politely when he launched into his boring speeches and laughed politely at his lame jokes, then went right back to running their businesses profitably.

Bill and Al grew bored and restless as their jobs proved unnecessary and their meddling in other matters fell flat. Bill began to make up stories about wild dogs so that he could get out of the office to chase young women. Al began dipping into his expense account for trips to luxurious resorts.

One day, Bill’s wife caught him in a compromising situation and shot him dead. Al returned to DeeCee to assume the post of chief dog-catcher, but was convicted of embezzlement as soon as set foot in town.

The moral of the story is this: The best career politician is one who doesn’t do anything, doesn’t say anything, and keeps his hands in his own pockets. If you can’t heed this moral, you shouldn’t run for dog-catcher.

Flunking Out of Electoral College

Oh, what would we do without a President to entertain us? Granted that the entertainment is usually grade-B if not triple-X, but it beats re-runs of “Leave It To Beaver.” Presidents nevertheless come and go (often going more quickly than they had planned to) while the body that elects them — known, appropriately enough as the Electoral College — lingers on.

The College, as I shall call it here, has been picked on for generations, like another persistent nuisance: the dandelion. And, like the dandelion, the College has its brief moment of glory and then fades away to be forgotten until the next time it trumpets its existence.

As an institution, the Electoral College is as useful as the British monarchy, but it doesn’t draw tourists. Perhaps we would not scoff at the College if we could turn a profit on it by selling the TV rights to its proceedings.

Let us consider its merits. How could anyone criticize the institution that twice unanimously elected George Washington to the presidency? And what about the foresighted elector who, in 1960, declined to vote for Richard Nixon, as he was supposed to do, and voted instead for Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr.? You would be convinced, were we to end the story here, to kneel nightly in thanks that the College has not been abolished. But there is more to the story.

One of the serious objections to the College is the fact that it thrice — in 1824, 1876, and 1888 — prevented the election of the presidential candidate who captured the greatest number of popular votes. That’s an entirely negative view of the situation. The College has chosen the winner of the most popular votes in 40 of the 43 elections where the popular vote was tallied. That’s an average of .930, which would be tops in any league. Let us scrutinize the three elections in question.

Andy Jackson got 43 percent of the minuscule number of popular votes cast in 1824, and he received a larger number of electoral votes than his chief rival, John Quincy Adams. But, because Jackson lacked a majority of electoral votes, the election was decided by the House of Representatives, which chose Adams. It was a good thing, too. If Old Hickory had been chosen in 1824, he probably would have won in 1828 and 1832 (as he did), which would have meant another four years of muddy boots on White House furnishings, to the dismay of Jackie Kennedy.

On the other hand, a string of three Jackson victories would have meant, as well, that FDR would not have set a precedent in seeking a third term. Thus the anti-Roosevelt amendment limiting Presidents to two terms would not have been adopted and Dwight Eisenhower might well have served as President until his death in 1969. In which case…the nation would have been spared the Viet Nam War, which Eisenhower kept the U.S. out of while he was President.

Preferring an honorable peace to polished furniture, I regret that Andy Jackson was not elected in 1824, as he would have been if the popular vote had prevailed.

The election of 1876 pitted Republican Rutherford B. Hayes against Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. Tilden won 51 percent of the popular vote, but there were doubts about the returns from several southern States. A special commission was set up to determine how the electoral votes of those States should be cast. By an odd coincidence — there being eight Republicans and seven Democrats on the commission — it voted eight to seven to give the votes to Hayes. And Hayes won the election of 1876 by one electoral vote.

President Hayes and his wife — known as “Lemonade Lucy” — were teetotalers. The air of sobriety emanating from the White House cast a pall over the Washington social scene and give rise to the long-held view of Republicans as party-poopers. Which is probably why the Republican Party was in the minority for so long. With more Republicans in Congress, tax rates would never have risen to the heights that they did under the Democrats, and would be even lower than they are today. Clearly, we would be better off today if the election of 1876 had been decided by the popular vote.

What about the election of 1888? The incumbent, Stephen (“call me Grover”) Cleveland received 90,000 more popular votes than did Benjamin Harrison. The vagaries of the electoral process nevertheless caused Harrison to beat Cleveland by 233 to 168 electoral votes. Not one to cry in his mustache cup, Mr. Cleveland came back to trounce Mr. Harrison in the election of 1892.

Suppose Cleveland had won in 1888, thereby ending Harrison’s political career. Think of the loss to posterity because these two trivia questions could not then be asked:

  • What President served two, non-consecutive terms of office? (Cleveland)
  • What President was the grandson of a President? (B. Harrison, of W.H. Harrison)

The 1888 case favors the College. Without it our store of trivia would be smaller.

The forgoing analysis argues, nevertheless, for the abolition of the Electoral College. Had the popular vote prevailed in 1824 and 1876, we would have been spared a disastrous war and an outrageous tax burden. The legacy of 1888 — the addition of two trivial facts to our abundant store of trivia — is, well, trivial recompense.

Through a Crystal Ball, Murkily

A capsule history of politics in the United States, from 1999 to 2021:

1999–Bill Clinton resigns, hoping that he will receive a Nixonesque pardon from President Al Gore. President Gore, now the target of his very own independent counsel, decides to let Clinton dangle in the wind with Hillary Clinton, Bruce Lindsey, Vernon Jordan, Webster Hubbell, Susan McDougal, and their many co-conspirators.

2000–Gore declines to run for re-election, citing the “vicious political climate of Washington.” (Meaning: unlike Clinton, he won’t be able to stiff the taxpayers for a big chunk of his legal bills, so why stick around?) The Democrats and Republicans rush to the center and jointly nominate Edward Dogooder for the presidency. Dogooder manages to squeak through in a tight, three-way race with Oprah Winfrey and Geraldo Rivera.

2001–Dogooder asks Congress to replace the Social Security Administration, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Interior, and Veterans Affairs with a Commissariat for Public Welfare. Republicans go along with the gag on the assumption that it will be easier to abolish one agency than six of them (hah!). To ensure the success of their plan, Republicans also support the nomination of Ralph Nader as Commissioner of Public Welfare.

2004–Commissioner Nader receives the results of a three-year study of the causes of death from the Center for Cerebral Calculations, a new Washington think-tank whose board of directors includes former Senator Strom Thurmond and former President Gerald Ford. The study reveals that almost everyone who was ever born had died. The authors of the study recommend the banning of births to put a stop to deaths. Commissioner Nader, armed with powers inherited from the Food and Drug Administration, bans births in the United States and urges the United Nations to pass a resolution in support of a world-wide ban on births.

2009–A further five-year study by the Center for Cerebral Calculations reveals that deaths continue (though Strom Thurmond and Gerald Ford still seem to be breathing). A full-scale investigation shows that all deaths recorded since 2004 were among persons born before the ban on births. The Commissioner orders all persons still living to report to government health and oil-change clinics for genetic treatment to suspend the aging process. He also institutes a five-year plan for the perfection of all citizens: by 2014, every American over the age of two must be a full-time student in a government-approved educational institution run by the American Education Association.

2013–Nearly everyone in the U.S. is enrolled in AEA nursery schools, grade schools, colleges, and graduate schools. Most factories and stores are closed, trucks idled, trains on sidings, and airplanes grounded. Heat is supplied by wood stoves; the only air-conditioning is an occasional breeze. (Environmentalists hail the “return to nature.”) The most active citizens are gangs marauding through streets while police are earning advanced degrees in criminal psychology. (Police have no weapons, anyway, because Commissioner Nader had banned them in 2010. Gang members, unable to read, hadn’t bothered to surrender their weapons.)

2014–Organized crime takes over the street gangs. Mob leader and womens’ libber Bubbles Berlitz, noting that “crime wouldn’t pay if da government ran it,” announces sweeping reforms to make crime more efficient. She adds that “stolen money ain’t woith much any more because dere’s hardly anyt’ing to buy wid it.”

2019–The mob’s five-year plan to make crime pay by restoring the economy is successful. Mob-run hospitals do a booming business in baby delivery, and mob-run enterprises employ most of the nation’s clandestine school dropouts. Former President Dogooder — having appointed himself to the more powerful position of Commissioner of Public Welfare — orders the mob to cease and desist from its unlawful activities. He is found in the Potomac River, wearing concrete swimming trunks.

2020–The mob decides it could make more money if it were to allow its enterprises to compete with one another, on the strange assumption that the bosses of those operations which satisfy consumers’ wants efficiently will reap greater profits. The other bosses must shape up or, in the words of Bubbles Berlitz, “get a free, one-way ride into da countryside.” Having found success without any more violence or coercion than had prevailed in the days of John D. Rockefeller, the mob focuses on random crimes perpetrated by independent operators and resuscitates the criminal justice system to deal with them. Bubbles Berlitz basks in her newly found legitimacy and runs for President.

2021–President Berlitz asks Congress to abolish the Commissariat for Public Welfare, and not to replace it with anything because the nation has become so prosperous under the rejuvenated free-market system. Congress is swayed by Ms. Berlitz’s persuasive charm — and by the photos she has stashed in her safe. Life in Washington, D.C., returns to normal.

To Pay or Not to Pay

Was William Shakespeare a tax-protester? Think about the message hidden in the titles of several of his plays:

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is about a man who hopes soon to repay the money he borrowed to meet his tax bill. “Winter’s Tale” follows him through months of overtime work as he struggles to save money for his old age. In “Love’s Labor’s Lost” he confronts the ugly reality that his savings will go to the IRS. “A Comedy of Errors” depicts his travails with Form 1040 and its many schedules. In “Much Ado About Nothing” he discovers, alas, that he owes the IRS even more than he had feared. :

Stunned by the discovery, he decides in “Twelfth Night” (April 12) not to file a tax return and tears it into tiny pieces. He reconsiders, and “The Tempest” recounts his struggle to complete a new return by April 15. “As You Like It” celebrates his triumphal march to the Post Office on April 15, armed with a return that shows him even with the IRS. “All’s Well That Ends Well” is a fantasy in which the IRS finds no fault with our hero’s return.

Then there is the real text of Hamlet’s soliloquy:

To file or not to file — that is the question;

Whether ‘tis nobler in the pocketbook to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous taxes,

Or to take arms against a sea of instructions,

And by ignoring evade them. To file — to pay –

No more; and by not paying to say we end

The headache and the thousand-dollar debts

That Uncle Same is heir to — ‘tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d. To run — to hide –

To hide! Perchance in Bimini! Ay there’s the spot;

For in that sunny isle what dreams may come

When we have eluded the revenue agent

Must give us pause; there’s the reality

That makes mockery of such simple plans;

For who would bear the heat and hard bunks of Leavenworth;

The cell-block bully’s fist, the guard’s glare,

The bagginess of prison garb, the sad children’s tears,

The righteousness of neighbors, and the spurns

That the gray-faced ex-con takes

When he himself might his quietus make

With a simple check? Who would these taxes bear,

To grunt and sweat under a glaring desk lamp,

But that the dread of something after April 15,

The uncelebrated penitentiary from whose walls

No inmate leave, without parole,

And makes us rather bear those taxes we must

Than fly to Bimini or other exotic places?

Thus conscience does make taxpayers of us all….

Ten Commandments of Bad Management

Which of these “commandments” do you habitually obey? Tally your score and check it against the scale at the end of the list.

  • Flaunt the privileges of rank: Spend on frills and perks in the face of adversity.
  • Flout the rules you expect others to obey.
  • Put off hard decisions as long as possible so that rumors can grow wildly on the grapevine.
  • Pepper your staff with meaningless projects and pointless questions — hire consultants to give you the “straight scoop.”
  • Hire outsiders for senior management positions and create make-work jobs for your cronies.
  • Keep your door open to whiners and let them second-guess your managers’ decisions.
  • Promise vision but deliver pap.
  • Talk teamwork but don’t let anyone in on your game plan — keep ‘em all guessing.
  • Talk empowerment but micromanage.
  • Keep your board in the dark, except when you turn on the rosy spotlights.

Score of 0: You lie to yourself all the time; see a psychiatrist.

Score of 1-3: You sleep a lot during the day; see a physician.

Score of 4-6: You’re a normal boss, which isn’t necessarily good news.

Score of 7-9: You could give “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap a run for his money.

Score of 10: So you’re the model for the pointy-haired boss!

Justice in TV-Land

Justice is no longer blind; she carries a TV camera and seeks her verdict from the “person in the street.”

What, you ask, isn’t it a violation of some right to deny “the people’s” prurient interest in the blood spatters and sex lives of the rich and infamous? No, it isn’t.

How can justice be served when lawyers and judges are playing to the camera, as in the O.J. case? When a President can marshal his minions to argue that prosperity and popularity are defenses against indictment and impeachment? Justice isn’t entertainment. It belongs in grand-jury rooms and court rooms, where it has worked well enough over the centuries, not on TV where it distorts the search for truth.

Yes, dear networks, you have every right to cover what you’re allowed to cover, to spill leaks all over us, and to foist platoons of pundits upon us night after night. But don’t you have any taste or manners? (Note: I won’t appeal to your sense of justice.) I know, each of you is afraid to take the first step back from the hysteria you’ve created because you’d lose ratings and advertising revenues to the other networks.

So, here’s an anonymous idea from a nameless network gnome: “Hey, kids, let’s put on a TV show and call it ‘Trials of the Centuries’.” Yes, TV has done mock trials and dramatizations featuring such notorious figures as John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, but most of those shows were done before the emergence of star-quality lawyers. (The earnest, if leftish, Arthur Miller pales before Johnnie Cochrane.) With all of these mediagenic lawyers around, we could have a long-running series. And would it ever grab the ratings! Just picture it:

  • Jerry Spence gets Socrates off by pleading that his client was entrapped by homophobic polis.
  • Marcia Clark, in a role reversal, saves Joan of Arc from the stake by arguing that her client was the product of a sexist society.
  • Louis the Whatever escapes the guillotine because his wealth enables him to hire all of the $1,000-an-hour lawyers in the U.S. — a “super dream team.”
  • Robert Shapiro (no-mercenary-he) salvages Hitler’s reputation by arguing that Stalin was really behind the Holocaust. (A later episode is devoted to Shapiro’s tearful regrets, but he keeps the fee.)
  • Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray are acquitted posthumously when Johnnie Cochrane shows that the arresting officers weren’t perfect human beings.
  • Robert Bennett proves that Janet Reno ordered the Watergate break-in and Paula Jones caused the 18-1/2 minute gap.
  • Bill Clinton escapes removal from office in his Senate trial when Hillary “stands by her man” and is able pin the blame for everything on Vince Foster and Ken Starr.

Far-fetched? Well, if we deserve the brand of leaders we elect, surely we deserve the brand of justice we tolerate. Anyway, it would sell commercials, and isn’t that what really matters?

Righting Wrongs by Wronging Rights

The president of an Ivy League university opined several years ago that to secure freedom of speech on his campus it was necessary to resort to censorship. He tried to dignify the policy, of course, by saying that the university

strives to ensure no member of the community is prevented from full participation in [the free exchange of ideas] by intimidating and abusive racial slurs intended only to wound, rather than to enlighten.

In other words, the university in question — like many throughout this “land of the free” — bowed to pressure from vociferous “victims” and began to suppress and punish speech deemed offensive by said “victims.” Thus “academic freedom” became an oxymoron and the end became a justification for the means (hmmm, sounds familiar).

Rightful outrage and courageous resistance to such Orwellian trends has, in some quarters, muffled the jackboots of the academic Gestapo. But the banner of political correctness continues to wave defiantly on many a campus. And contrary to what you might think about life in this post-big-government era (Clinton says it’s so), government has moved to the forefront of the campaign to suppress freedom of speech. (Maybe that’s why it’s called “government.”)

Take the anti-smoking hysteria, puh-leeze. Yes, smoking is a filthy, unhealthy habit, which was well known long before the government made it official. But why punish the makers of cigarettes for the self-destructive acts of smokers? And why punish us all by carving the right to advertise cigarettes out of the First Amendment, as many anti-smoking zealots would do?

How about the recent verdict by a Chicago jury which found a group of abortion opponents guilty of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO (talk about a politically incorrect acronym!). If you can’t get your political opponents for committing a real crime (e.g., assault), get them for committing a phony one (e.g., a “conspiracy” in the form of a concerted exercise of freedom of speech).

Coming to a court near you — and eventually to the Supreme Court — if the campaign-reform zealots have their way: a test of tighter restrictions on campaign spending. If the right to spend money for or against a political candidate or proposition is severed from the First Amendment, the right to publish and broadcast ideas will be next on the chopping block.

God knows what idiocy will flow from the spate of murders committed by schoolboys. The right answers would be (1) to restore justice to the “criminal justice system” and, congruently, (2) to hold parents accountable for the acts of their minor children. The wrong answer, but one that will hold broad appeal — because individual accountability doesn’t “resonate” with Baby Boomers, Gen X-ers, and the politicians who pander to them — would be to ban all movies and TV shows with even a hint of violence. Stay tuned, at least until TV is banned.

This is getting scarier by the day, if not by the minute. I expect some Senator or Representative to suggest repealing the First Amendment so that the government can get on with the job of deciding what’s best for all of us. Maybe that would bring the special-interest zealots to their senses. On second thought…they’d probably embrace the idea.

Remember when we were afraid of “creeping socialism” and “dictatorial communism”? Well, the creepers have a stranglehold on liberty and the dictators are in the wings. But it’s all in a good cause, of course.

The Cocoon Age

“Ingenius Americanus” has devised and perfected the greatest get-rich-quick scheme since the chain letter and multi-level marketing: When something bad happens to you, sue. Sue someone, anyone, even if your misfortune is plain old bad luck or the result of your own stupidity.

There’s nothing new about this game of buck-passing-buck-grabbing. It became a bigtime sport in the 1970s with the advent of product-liability suits. And it hasn’t let up.

There were some doozies in the ’70s. Item: A small machine-tool company was sued by a workman who lost three fingers while using (or misusing) its product, even though the machine had been rebuilt at least once and had changed hands four times. Item: Another machinery manufacturer lost a case involving its 33-year-old table saw, although the owner of the machine admitted he knew it was dangerous and wouldn’t have used the guard if it had had one.

Recent years have brought us the judgment in favor of a woman who burned herself with hot coffee (what did she expect it was?) dispensed by a fast-food chain, and the award of millions (millions!) of dollars to the purchaser of a new BMW who discovered that its paint job was not pristine.

Why not buy an unrestored 1930 Ford and try to keep up with traffic on the Washington Beltway? (If you haven’t tried it, don’t — unless you live for masochistic thrills.) Then, when you have suffered a severe dislocation of the cervical vertebrae (at best) because the 30-ton rig behind you had no place to go but up your tail pipe, sue the Ford Motor Company because its product wasn’t up to mission impossible.

And so the absurdities roll on in this new age — this “Cocoon Age” — when almost everyone seems to crave cradle-to-grave protection from the merest change in the weather. Even criminals who have been injured while perpetrating crimes have had the gall to sue police departments and victims.

If such nonsense continues its cancerous spread through our legal system, a court somewhere in this land will someday entertain a suit against the Almighty. The complaint? He permitted the serpent to tempt our first ancestors, thus depriving us of the benefits of life in Eden. Worse, through careful judge-shopping, there will be a summary judgment for the plaintiff because the Defendant did not deign to respond. That’ll be the end of that nonsense.


Cutting the Price of Pork

Government has never been economically neutral. The faces of those in power — and of those whom they favor — change over the years, but the rules of the game remain fixed: Tax, legislate, regulate, and spend; spend, regulate, legislate, and elect. Outsiders clamor to get inside, promising that they will change the rules, but if they stay inside for very long they, too, become players in the game called “pork.”

(Pork, for recent returnees from Paraguay, is the annual ritual of sending money to every congressional district in order to pass appropriations bills. This guarantees jobs for the otherwise unemployable and higher taxes for the hard-working.)

Why should we fear and loathe pork when the politically “sophisticated” label it a societal health food? One James Q. Wilson (a professor of management and public policy at UCLA), for instance, writing last summer in the Wall Street Journal (of all places) avers that

Pork is the price a society pays to ensure that each representative of [its many different interests] will have a place at the table.

Professor Wilson’s authority for this irrelevancy is the ghost of James Madison (of all people), who (with Wilson as ventriloquist) says

the Constitution provides that “the private interest of every individual, may be a sentinel over the public rights.” To achieve this it assigned “opposite and rival interests” to each branch of government so that power is given to “so many separate descriptions, as will render unjust combinations of a majority of the whole, very improbable.”

By Orwellian logic most perverse Professor Wilson thus twists Madison’s checks and balances — intended to thwart tyranny by the majority — into a justification for tyranny by collaborative minority interests. Pork, that is.

The superior wisdom of this latter-day Candide confirms our view that the cure for pork is not to be found inside the Beltway. Rather, the very existence of the federal government ensures that pork will always be with us. If you think that the next crop of outsiders will make a difference, you might as well order your Lamborghini Diablo just because you’ve entered the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes.

Where does hope lie for those who wish to shelter their earnings from the pork-loving denizens of Washington? (DISCLAIMER: What follows is descriptive, not prescriptive.)

Hope for the hard-working lies in the infamous BLACK MARKET, that is, in voluntary transactions between consenting adults which escape the maws of taxation, legislation, and regulation. Black markets have a bad name, of course, but their main problem is that they’re thought to be BAD. (Horrors, there are people out there exchanging things of value to make themselves better off! In the upside-down world of Twentieth Century politics and economics, that’s BAD.)

A black market is really bad to a politician or bureaucrat who’d like to tax or regulate its transactions, or to a latter-day Carrie Nation who finds its stock-in-trade immoral. That’s precisely the beauty of a black market: it escapes the dead hand of government and the strictures of moral dictatorship. Black is beautiful!

Can large segments of the economy go underground and flourish? Of course they can. In spite of sometimes earnest efforts contrariwise, booze flowed freely during Prohibition and drugs have been more or less blatantly inhaled, ingested, and injected for decades. (Aside: It isn’t the black market that makes drugs BAD, it’s the BAD-ness of drugs that has driven them into the black market.)

Less epic examples abound: handypersons and house-cleaners working for cash, barter among small businesses that somehow doesn’t get reported as income, gambling in its many forms, and on into the night. It will only get easier as we advance into the age of cyberspace.

In other words, even if you don’t like their stocks-in-trade, you have to admit that black markets get the job done in spite of the law — and better than the law would allow. Sure the T-men, G-men, revenuers, and the rest of those white-shirt guys occasionally pick off a black-marketeer. But like the highway patrol occasionally picking off someone who goes 80 in a 65-m.p.h. zone, it’s a relatively rare event, and it doesn’t stop the majority of drivers from going 74.

They can’t throw everyone in jail, can they?

Whoppers

You probably remember these whoppers from your teen-age years: “I promise I’ll cut the grass tomorrow if you’ll give me an advance on my allowance”; “We’re just going to the movies, and there’ll be lots of other kids there”; “I’ll always love you.”

Our wanna-be Presidents offer similar morsels:

  1. It’s our turn to run the country.
  2. We’ll cut the deficit/streamline the government/make the government more responsive to the people [pick any number].
  3. It’s time to get this country moving again.

The only thing worse than failing to deliver on such promises would be to deliver on them. Let’s take them in turn.

1. Running the country. Who wants a bunch of Harvard history professors or Yale lawyers running the country? These are the people who brought us Vietnam, from which disaster the country still reels. And after barely averting the debacle of Hillary-Care, it seems that the Washington Wizards (that’s Congress, not the NBA team) may opt for creeping socialized medicine instead of swallowing it in one dose. Keep it up, guys and gals, and only the truly rich will be able to afford high-quality health care — by buying it on the black market.

2. Cutting the deficit, streamlining government, and making government more responsive to the people. Lord, save us from the unholy trinity of political panaceas. Right now, with an economy that’s healthy, no thanks to Bubba Bill and the Washington Wizards, the deficit is on the run. But you know what’s next: Let’s spend a little more here and there for the happiness of all of our favorite special-interest groups. Comes the inevitable economic slow-down and guess what will happen? Oops, we’ve made all of these commitments and can’t renege on them; guess we’ll have to raise taxes to fight the creeping deficit.

Of course, it takes more bureaucrats to collect higher taxes and to spend more money. So, forget streamlining because Washington without bureaucrats is like a hamburger without grease.

As for making government more responsive to the people: Why do you think we have deficits and bureaucratic bloat? Making government responsive to people, in practice, means satisfying special-interest groups at everyone’s expense.

3. Getting the country moving again. I guess you didn’t notice this on your way to the White House, Mr. President Du Jour, but the country moves better without your help, thank you. In fact, the administration of Herbert Hoover, abetted by Congress, caused the Great Depression; the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, again abetted by Congress, caused the Depression within the Great Depression. (You can look it up.)

Getting the country moving again really means moving the true believers in big government to Washington — and moving our money there, too, as quickly as possible.

* * *

Let’s get real, folks. Did you believe the whoppers you told as a teen-ager? Okay, you didn’t tell whoppers: Do you still believe in the tooth fairy and Santa Claus? Well, then, why do you still believe they’re alive and well in Washington?

Biz Buzz

The branches of the federal government have, since the end of World War II, abetted and contributed directly to the debasement of standards of conduct — legal, civil, and ethical. The results are evident everywhere, including the “hard-headed” world of business. Here is a brief guide to business-speak; each word or phrase is followed by yesteryear’s fitting word or phrase:

-abled, -challenged…crippled (before handicapped)

analysis…guesswork

associate…employee

business-process or re-engineering consultant…hatchet man

(to) communicate, (to) share…(to) tell

concern (of employee)…gripe

(to) counsel…(to) warn

empowerment…responsibility

(to) give developmental feedback…(to) appraise; as in:

  • walks on water…only Jesus could
  • superior…good
  • excellent…fair
  • good…poor
  • fair…one more chance
  • poor…out the door

expectations…standards

feedback (sometimes “input”)…criticism

holiday party…Christmas party

Human Resources…Personnel

input (alternate meaning)…idea

networking…glad-handing; as in:

  • “Let’s do lunch (not!).”…”(Not) good to meet you.”

management guru…b___ s___ artist

MBWA (management by walking around)…goofing off

mentoring…OJT (on-the-job training)

organizational dynamics…back-biting, back-stabbing

output…work

paradigm…theory

position…job; as in:

  • assistant…clerk (also “gofer” and “flunky”)
  • administrative assistant…senior clerk
  • executive assistant…secretary
  • team leader…supervisor
  • manager…boss
  • executive…manager
  • chief operating officer…general manager
  • chief executive officer…president
  • chairman…Mao

stakeholder…employee or shareholder (but not “customer” or “public-at-large”)

teaming area…conference room, coffee bar, vacant office

teaming, teamwork…cooperation

terminated…fired; as in:

  • de-selected…fired
  • down-sized…fired
  • out-placed…fired
  • laid-off…fired (unless you worked in a union shop)

work space, work station…office, desk, counter

Busy-ness as Usual

Calvin Coolidge — the Ronald Reagan of the 1920s — said “The business of America is business.” Clearly Mr. Coolidge was a man in tune with his times. Therefore, if he were alive today he’d be 125 years old and he’d say “The business of business is America.”

What do I mean by that? The law-makers, social consciences, and management gurus of the New Deal, New Frontier, Great Society, ad nauseum, have decided that the business of business is no longer business.

Business is now an instrument of racial, ethnic, sexual, chronological, and you-name-it equality. Not equality of opportunity — which would require that those equally qualified for a job have an equal chance of getting it — but equality of outcome. The outcome had better be that you hire or promote or keep me regardless of my qualifications or performance or I will have you mired in a “guilty until proven innocent” legal process. Thus forced to act irrationally by the government, many businesses seem to have lost their bearings entirely.

Now we have management gurus and CEOs who want employees to be a “family” — and a happy one at that. Forget that people who gripe do it because they like to gripe (it makes them happy), not because they have a reason to gripe. And another family is the last thing most people want — one is enough.

Management gurus and CEOs who talk about “feelings” and “families” remind me of grandparents, aunts, and uncles who spoil the brats for a day and then go home, leaving the parents to do the hard work of raising their children.

“Empowerment” is another hot one (or it was in the fleeting half-life of these fads). Who knows or cares what it means? It sounds good. Sometimes it seems to mean the freedom to gripe regardless of one’s competence in the matter about which one is griping. “Well, management did it again, they picked a new word-processing system and didn’t ask us what we wanted.” Well, we would have asked you but you were still trying, unsuccessfully, to learn the old system, but we didn’t fire you because we were afraid we’d wind up in court.

Enough of internal matters. Let us also consider business as an agent of “the community.” It’s the “in thing” you know. Many businesses now routinely devote a portion of their profits (which come from what they charge their customers) to the social, cultural, and educational affairs of their communities. This isn’t government taxation I’m talking about. It’s a self-imposed tax inflicted by do-gooding boards and CEOs who want to be “with it” in the eyes of their constituencies.

Who are those constituencies? Not the employees in the “family” whose numbers will be fewer and whose pay will be lower because of the good deeds their bosses pursue. Not the customers of the businesses the bosses supposedly run — the customers who pay more than they would if the bosses would stick to business. Here’s who:

  • Other bosses (“My social conscience is bigger than your social conscience.”)
  • Political connections (“Look at me, I’m the kind of guy or gal you want to be your next Assistant Deputy Assistant Assistant Secretary of Good Works and Happy Feelings.”)
  • Their own egos (“I was just a poor boy and I never had anything, but now I can snap my fingers and make people happy. I’m a big deal.”)

I started with Calvin Coolidge and I’ll end with Adam Smith, who touted the “invisible hand” of free markets. Productive as American business is — and it’s plenty productive — it cannot thrive and do right by its workers and shareholders if it continues to be freighted by the legal, social, pseudo-scientific, and ego-centric baggage that it has accrued over the past several decades.