Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Fundamental Difference

There's one point in American politics that almost everyone misses, yet it is the single most important aspect of our country that separates us from the rest of the world. I've alluded to it in one way or another in just about every entry in this blog so far, and I really want to drive it home today before we go any further. Any guesses as to what this SUPER IMPORTANT distinction is?

The distinction is that the Federal Government answers to the States, not the other way around. The Bill of Rights, particularly the 10th Amendment, ensures that. Here is what that means: the Federal Government can only legally (note I said LEGALLY) do what the States allow it to do. The States, on the other hand, answer only to their citizens and have the right to pass the laws they feel are appropriate without asking permission of the Federal Government.

Why did the Founders do this? Well, as I've already pointed out, early Americans identified first with their home State and were distrustful of powerful central governments. They had just fought a bloody war and they were going to be hanged if they were going to allow another tyrant to take over their lives. But they also knew something else that seems to have been forgotten over the years: the concept of ACCOUNTABILITY.

You see, the Founders realized that a Federal Government was necessary in order to handle matters that spanned the whole country, such as defense, interstate commerce, interstate infrastructure, etc., but they meant to keep those responsibilties as limited as possible. Never did they intend that the Federal Government should tax the people directly, implement social programs, get involved in education, healthcare, or anything else that it does today. Does that mean that they were against charity, community, and helping your fellow man? Of course not! They believed these things were of the utmost importance, but NOT AT THE FEDERAL LEVEL.

How many of you donate to charities? I do, and I bet quite a few of you do, too. Wouldn't you rather donate to a charity where you can be sure that your money is actually going to help the intended beneficiary instead of having the majority of your donation go to "overhead?" Wouldn't you like to see and perhaps even get to know the people you are helping, maybe even receive proof of their progress? Wouldn't you be much more likely to invest in that kind of charity, or even start one of your own, than one where you have no idea where your money is going?

Well, this is what we refer to as "accountability." And it is much easier to achieve at the State or local level, where it might be your neighbor, a member of your congregation, or a fellow classmate who is the beneficiary, the benefactor, or the politician implementing the program or voting to pass the law. Besides, if you were down on your luck and were getting government help, what would better motivate you to go out and look for a job: a nameless, faceless hand sending you a check from who knows where, or your neighbors checking on you all the time, knowing that the money was coming from their pockets? At the Federal level, there is no accountability. Some guy sitting in Washington, D.C. does not know (or care!) what the local needs are in your community in Montana, New York, or Indiana, and it's certainly not fair to take money from the taxpayer in New Jersey so that someone he's never heard of in Illinois or Georgia can get paid.  Or watch while the money just disappears into politicians' pockets, because it can't really be tracked by the average taxpayer.  And when I say politicians, I mean not only the ones in D.C. but those from half the nations of the world getting paid off by the U.S. in the form of "foreign aid."

What's more, in a State, once a law is obsolete or a program is no longer needed, then it is much easier to terminate it than it is at the Federal level, where you need a majority in Congress at least, and the absence of a veto from the President. As Ronald Reagan famously said, "No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth!" At the local level, if politicians get out of line and cross the boundaries, it is much easier to organize the people of a single state or locality to change things. Try that at the Federal level, where you're dealing with people from all the States, all economic situations, regions, and opinions, many of whom are easily influenced. Oh, wait, we already have...

So, whether you think people should fend for themselves, or that the government should get involved and lend a hand, doesn't it make much more sense that it should be the LOCAL government, where there still is some accountability, and not the Federal Government? The Founders certainly did, and emphasized this sacred right of the States in the Bill of Rights, especially that infamous 10th Amendment. (Read it, people, I've referred to it so many times that really, by now you should be curious, if you haven't already. You can find the text here.)

Isn't it funny how we all know the name of the President, but if I asked most people today who their local elected officials are, I would probably get a blank stare?

The issue of States' rights (and the limitations of the Federal Government) is going to be a very important one as I go into the next topic, which is a hairy one on many levels. Stay tuned!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Gateway Drug

So, here we were, plugging right along. We had helped win the greatest war in the history of the world and were now a world power. Herbert Hoover was in office and despite the income taxation laws and other alarming changes to the Constitution, we were still a greatly productive, creative populace of self-sufficient, independent, proud Americans. There was nothing from which we couldn't recover, no obstacle we couldn't overcome. We valued our individuality, our independence as such, and our reliance on no one but ourselves for our livlihoods.

There are too many theories for what happened on Black Tuesday, or why, to get into them here. The point is that it happened. The market turned upside down, and our nation plunged into the greatest catastrophic economic depression it had ever seen. Jobs were lost at unmentionable rates, wealth disappeared into black holes, and poverty was suddenly a mainstream problem for America. There is no doubt something went awry.

Since every ill of the country is ALWAYS the fault of the President, it's no surprise that Hoover was promptly replaced in the following election by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who then was elected to five (!) consecutive terms (more on that later.) In his very first term, FDR, an aggressive liberal President, proposed and passed with the blessing of (a completely popularly elected and Democrat-controlled) Congress, a series of new government "solutions" to the Great Depression. These were collectively called The New Pyramid Scheme.

Did I say that? Oops, I must have been stream-of-consciousness writing. I meant to say The New Deal. Yep. What a deal. Here are some highlights:
  • The Social Security Act - we ALL know this one
  • Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 - set maximum hours, minimum wage
  • Wagner Act - to promote labor unions
  • Works Progress Administration relief act - everyone gets a job, doing nothing. The first bailout!
  • FDIC - To make sure the government protects our money.
  • SEC - government regulates companies to prevent another crash
  • FHA - Federal housing regulation
Let's not forget the change from the Gold Standard to floating currency, in which the value of our money depends on expectations rather than hard metal.

OK, let's have a Reality Check. People were desperate, I'm sure. But let's look back again to how our nation was formed. This is REALLY important. We were a nation where you had freedom. Freedom to win, and freedom to LOSE! Being created equal has never meant that all will end up equal. It just means you have an equal shot.

The Founders never gave the Federal Governmment the right to regulate the economy this way. Many of the social programs could easily (and should) have been the right of each State to implement if necessary. In fact, many of the programs in the New Deal were struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The big ones that have stuck to this day, such as Social Security, started off as optional. Now they are mandatory, an entitlement, and many people use them as their primary income source!

This is what FDR said when he accepted his nomination for President: “Throughout the nation men and women, forgotten in the political philosophy of the Government, look to us here for guidance and for more equitable opportunity to share in the distribution of national wealth… I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people. This is more than a political campaign. It is a call to arms."

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? It was the beginning of the "entitlement mentality" that plagues us to this day. "Distribution of national wealth?" Where does that wealth come from? It comes from the taxpayers. The taxpayers that until the 16th Amendment, didn't have to give up money from their own incomes. The problem, readers, is that not everyone voting was actually paying into the "national wealth," as is the same situation today. No wonder FDR got elected five times! So many people were getting "free" services that others paid for, hey, this really WAS a great deal! (Incidentally, that's why we have the 22nd Amendment, which sets term limits.)

The worst part is that no one is more inept at handling money than the government! Social Security? It's worse than a Madoff scheme! They take our money, put it in the fund, then borrow from it to spend on other things. We owe money to ourselves! Seriously? The money is safer in a 401K, even in a recession. If you're a GenXer or younger, don't think you'll see a penny of your Social Security when you hit retirement.

Government dependence as an entitlement changed the American way of life in ways no one could have foreseen. Our sense of independence and perseverance changed into a view of the government as a "fix-it-all" entity. Rather than get ourselves out of our own issues, we look for a handout. This has opened the doors for government controlled healthcare (Medicare, Medicaid, insurance regulation), various federal welfare programs, government bailouts of industry, and everything we are witnessing today.

The New Deal was the Gateway Drug...

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Continued Neutering of States' Rights

Why, oh why, did the States continue to allow themselves to be neutered? First, they take taxing out of their own control with the 16th Amendment (see my discussion here) then as if that wasn't enough, right after that, they ratify an Amendment that takes away their influence in Washington. Were they nuts?

You see, Congress was designed in the following fashion by the Founding Fathers: the Senate represented each State, regardless of population, equally with two representatives from each State. This was because the Republic had respect for each region and its sovereignty, not just population concentrations. These Senators were appointed by the State Legislatures. Thus, candidates for the Senate had to be keenly aware of the politics in their home State and had to interact with their respective State governments, be respected by them, and act in their best interest. The House of Representatives was supposed to be the part of Congress elected by popular election in each State, and each State sends a number of representatives according to its population. This created a nice balance in the Federal Legislative Branch between a body that represented the State governments and one that represented the people of each State. To this day, when a new bill or act is proposed, and both the Senate and the President approve it, still nothing gets passed until the House agrees to fund it, because it controls the Treasury. That's why something like going to war is a totally joint venture between the Executive Branch, the Senate, and the House.

So, you can see why State governments would want to be directly represented in these kinds of very important decisions. Why would they give that away? Well, in the early 20th century, several States were coming to a stalemate in their legisatures over who to send to the Senate. You know how it goes: Legislator Harry wants to send his good buddy and colleague Tom to the Senate, but Legislator Richard over there doesn't like Tom and wants to send George, and so time drags on and nobody can come to a decision that everyone likes, so the Senate seat stays unfilled. So, someone had the bright idea of having popular elections instead, for ALL the States, through a Constitutional Amendment. And it got ratified in April 1913. WHAT????

Let me say this again. The State Legislatures of several States couldn't figure out whom to send to the Senate, so instead they decided to give up and have all Senators elected by popular vote. Through an Amendment to the Constitution.

My answer would have been: tough noogies. If your State Legislature can't make up its mind and get its act together, then your State can sit out of Senate decisions until it does. The 17th Amendment simply punished all the States and left them out of the Federal loop because some couldn't figure out whom to appoint. That seems ludicrous.

The consequences? Now Senate candidates can appeal to the masses for votes, and neither body of Congress represents the States. Senators have no accountability to their State governments and therefore no reason to act in their best interest. If we think back to how our Republic is supposed to work (see here), I can't figure out which was worse, the 16th or the 17th Amendment.

Next up, the Federal Government gets even bigger! (Surprise...)

Friday, June 4, 2010

And Then...BLAM! Income Tax!

So, things were moving right along in this great country, with the Industrial Revolution changing industry the world over. Railways, factories, interchangeable parts, and trade across the Atlantic with the British Empire, France, Germany, and others kept our nation profitable and our citizens productive. The framework designed in our Constitution ensured that free trade continued unobstructed in the United States.

(Don't think that I'm forgetting the Civil War. That's a whole other can of worms that we'll get to really soon. It encompasses so many issues that I figured I'd skip it for now and come back to it when our discussions have matured a bit more.)

Then, BLAM! It happened. Over on the other side of the world, the Great War (or as we know it today, World War I) broke out. So, what did that have to do with us? Why did we get involved? Well, as I pointed out here, our Federal Government was tasked with making sure it provided for our common defense, infrastructure for trade, and matters that spanned several states or the nation as a whole. So, was a war happening on the other side of the world a matter of national security? Well, no, it wasn't an immediate threat to the USA, as in we weren't being attacked. But, Germany was over there kicking Britain's butt! Remember that Britian was one of our primary trading partners, probably the biggest, so American commerce was being threatened. Germany was also conquering the other European countries and threatening to upset the balance of power and status quo in Europe, especially if they succeeded in taking over France. Those darn Germans just couldn't keep to themselves, and they had the potential to exert great power, as we saw again in WWII.

Woodrow Wilson, then President, couldn't justify direct entry into the war based on those reasons. In fact, the American people were pretty divided in their sympathies; much of the population supported Germany. Anyway, Wilson started to secretly ship arms to Britain on passenger ships from the USA. Germany caught wind of this and publicly warned the United States, in our own newspapers, that they would sink the next ship carrying arms to Britain. They even knew the name of the next ship slated to carry arms, the Lusitania, and warned passengers that if they got on this ship, they would die. Apparently Wilson thought they were joking, because he ignored the warnings, and out sailed the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, full to the brim with passengers and arms for Great Britain. Oops. The Germans sank it! And, off the USA went to war on the side of Britain, with the blessing of Congress.

Our entry into World War I had several consequences.

The Good: We emerged a World Power, maintained the status quo in Europe, preserved our trade and commerce overseas, and trained a previously green military.

The Bad: We ignored George Washington's philosophy that we should not become involved in foreign wars, and also ignored the Monroe Doctrine, that stated that our sphere of influence was North America, Latin America, and the Caribbean, and that we should not get involved in anything beyond. These are good points of debate. When do foreign events become a direct threat to us?

The Ugly: The blight on our Constitution known as the 16th Amendment, or, the Federal Income Tax, which was ratified in 1913, shortly before we entered the war, because Congress claimed that taxing goods like tobacco, alcohol, chewing gum, etc., like it had for the Spanish American War, was not sustainable. Now, why did we need a Constitutional Amendment for this? Well, as I've stated before, the Constitution kept the Federal Government on very tight reins. Only the States could tax their voting citizens (the property owners) and they would pay the Federal Government out of those taxes. The Federal Government could not touch the people, except on direct taxes on goods as stated above. Every time Congress had tried sneaking one past, the Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional. Why the States would get together and ratify an Amendment that would give Congress the right to tax the people's income directly is beyond me. This changed the whole spirit of how our Constitution was written, and now the Federal Government had direct access to our pockets, information on how we made our income, our daily lives, etc. Form 1040 and the IRS were born. Didn't they have any better ideas? Granted, the tax was in the works before the war (sticky government fingers) but now that the war was on, they were ready to go, and they had the means to do it. Boy, did they do it.

Did you know that the Federal Income Tax was supposed to be temporary, and it was never supposed to exceed 2% unless you made more than $1.5 million? Take one look at your paycheck today, almost 100 years later, and laugh (or weep...)

While this certainly wasn't the first violation of our Constitution, it was one of the biggest. I'll sign off now and let all of you process that and its implications...

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

So, About Those Rights...

I hope everyone had a really nice Memorial Day weekend! I am always grateful for the sacrifice that our men and women in the military have made to protect the way of life we have as American citizens. I thought today would be a good day to talk about some (particularly one) of those rights they have fought and died to protect. We're still on the historical part of my blog, so keep reading and I promise we'll get to some really good debate topics as I get past the basics...

Last week I started with the structure of our federal government. This week, I wondered, why would a bunch of men from many different backgrounds lock themselves up in a hot, stuffy room for weeks on end, away from their respective families, businesses, farms, and other responsibilities, to figure out down to the very tiniest detail, a Constitution and government structure that would be just right for everyone involved? It wasn't like they were all best friends getting together for drinks; they were from all over and they had very different points of view: some were farmers, others were statesmen, others were academics. Some were rich, others were not. They got into some heated arguments, apparently. However, these men would rather have died than allow themselves to be subjected to tyranny again ("Give me liberty or give me death", anyone?) So that's why they did it. Their lives, that of their families, and the future of their new nation depended on it. They were going to get it right, or else! But all had one common goal, all were educated (formally or otherwise), and they had some very important common beliefs that allowed them to get the job done, and done so well that they created the framework for the greatest country in history!

What were these beliefs? Well, most of us know this offhand: that we have certain rights, endowed by our Creator (God) that cannot be taken away by man. Most of us know these rights as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But did you also know that these were not the only ones? Oh, not by a longshot! That's just the Cliff's Notes version, and that's why the State of Virginia would not ratify the original Constitution. They wanted the most important rights spelled out, and any rights that weren't HAD to be implied somehow. That's how the Bill of Rights came to be.

Among those rights in the Bill of Rights, one of the rights that the Founders held most dear was the God-given right to own PROPERTY. In fact, this right is arguably the one right that sets us apart from every other nation on earth. So important is this right that it is covered in 3, if not 4, of the first 10 Amendments: in the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments, and arguably in the Second depending on how you interpret it.

So, wait, you must be saying. How is having things a God-given right? Well, things, especially land, are what give humans a sense of security. Our founders believed that every citizen of the United States deserved a chance to actually have possessions he could call his own, and ultimately, a place to call home where no one could kick him out. Now, don't get me wrong. The fact that we have a right to property doesn't mean that everyone is going to actually own property, just like a right to life doesn't guarantee that you're not going to die. But it means that the government can't take away your property if you have it, and also that the government is supposed to protect that right.

Think about this for a minute. Now compare it to the monarchies that the Founders came from in Europe, where only the nobles were property owners, and everyone else worked the land but didn't own it. Also compare it to countries where the government could, and did, just seize your property for no reason. You can see why they wanted to guarantee that if a person owned land and/or other valuables, they had no reason to be afraid of their seizure. No bogus legal charges where your stuff is taken without due process, no soldiers using your house as "lodging", no searching or seizing without a detailed warrant, no taking of land for public use without satisfactory compensation, etc. AND, if you take into account the second amendment, then you can infer that we have the right to protect our property with arms, should our property rights ever be violated. It also made for a very productive citizenry when people knew they could actually keep what they produced and obtained for themselves.

Property ownership also gave citizens an additional right: suffrage, because before our tax system changed, they were the only taxpayers, and hence the only stakeholders. I will expand on this very soon, because taxes are a very hot topic today. This, combined with how we vote (see May 25th entry), should really put things in perspective (and generate some great discussions!)

Anyway, the God-given right to own property, and the fact that it was as dear to our Founders as the right to life and liberty, is a fundamental piece of information, which will be a central point in topics to come. Stay tuned!