Sunday, February 27, 2011

On the General Welfare and Establishing Justice

The Constitution has been growing in the public mind over the last few years. As our government careens farther out of control, men and women with an eye for history and philosophy have searched back into our early history to seek wisdom and counsel from our Founding Fathers. Notable among those people are the Tea Party. This has caused a great deal of consternation among statists who recognize the propaganda value of the document, even if they fail to respect its Articles.

To counter those pushing the limitations of government into the limelight, some statists have tried to claim the Preamble as their own and in opposition to the limited government state of mind. In particular, they like the phrases "establish Justice" and "promote the general Welfare." These phrases are taken to mean the mission of our government is to establish positive liberty, to take an active role in our lives for our betterment.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The best way to both establish justice and promote the general welfare is to take the use of force and destruction out of the hands of men and let them go free to build; it would be most foolish to replace the destruction of violence and theft of individuals with unchecked theft by the government! It is not justice to take from the productive to give to anyone else. Even if it were just to redistribute wealth to the poor (a proposition I highly disagree with), we know that the government cannot be trusted to responsibly spread that money. Government is made up of men with the same human failings as all other men; indeed, the power of government likely corrupts men into worse beings. Justice, Welfare, Tranquility, and Liberty are not promoted by such men. Government should have only as much power as to stop individuals from being a likely threat to such goals but not enough to become the greatest threat itself.

The members of the Tea Party hold these lofty goals dear to their hearts; they believer that the Constitution, with its limited powers and individual liberties, is the best method for achieving these aims. We do not "worship" the Constitution. We do, however, see it to be the best guarantor of liberty and the current rules that the government must obey. Those who believe in the "positive" viewpoint forget that government is made up of fallible, imperfect humans; there is no wisdom in handing them greater power, for they are not greater men.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

An Open Letter to the State of Wisconsin

To the People of the State of Wisconsin:

I must be candid with you. Today, your state embarrassed itself before the entire Union. In the face of a crisis, many of your public "servants" acted in a manner unbecoming of officials charged with protecting the public's welfare. Yes, 14 of your Senators (all belonging to a particular party recently removed by a free election) fled your state, an act of sheer cowardice that justly became a source of derision throughout the other 49 states. Whereas Democrats in some other states, notably Andrew Quomo in my own state of Ne York, have had the courage to face facts and propose the tough measures necessary to counter them, your party of the Left literally ran away from the problem.

This will be the story largely seen on the news, but a far worse tragedy is occurring. Many of your schools were shut down today, not due to any physical factor but because thousands of your teachers put their own needs before those of their students. As a man seeking a position teaching history, this leaves me thunderstruck. Supposedly, these protests are "about the children!" How are your students better served by the public funding teacher pensions? How are your students better served by collective bargaining? How are your students better served by not dealing with the $3 billion in debt hanging over their heads?

Everyone knows the answer: the students are not served. Of all people, those educating our children should be aware of the financial situation most Americans and their governments find themselves in. Millions have lost work or taken part time jobs; very few have seen raises; almost all have taken huge hits in terms of their retirement. For any public employee to complain about having a public paid pension at this juncture is unacceptable behavior. Public employees should be grateful to have a job, a pension, and health care; many, many of their fellow citizens lack these necessities. To demand more from those who have so little to begin with is surely not the message we should be sending your state's children. Public employees live off of the work of their fellow citizens via taxation; when the citizenry faces tough times, public workers need to understand this and make appropriate accommodations, always keeping in mind their privileged position concerning pay and benefits.

I humbly offer my services to any Wisconsin school district seeking a dedicated history teacher who understands the privilege of teaching and the responsibility of collecting a paycheck from taxpayers. So long as school is in session and I am physically capable of educating, you will find me in the classroom eager to teach. History is my passion; I try to teach even without a paycheck due to my belief that only a citizenry educated in history will be capable of maintaining freedom and a democratic form of government.

There are such educators out there. If the union rules can be removed, such teachers can replace those only dedicated to the paycheck and the pension. That would best serve the needs of your students.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

An Extreme Proposal Concerning the Budget

It is no secret that I do not trust the government with spending our money. My reasons are many and can be found throughout this blog (though many others have done a better job than myself). Redistribution of wealth is immoral, impractical, and most importantly, dangerous to a nation's financial stability, in particular in democracies. We are witnessing that clearly in the United States. Our deficit has been over a trillion dollars per year for a few years now and will be so again in the future; indeed, it may be the new "normal." Politicians will not, under any circumstances, remove "free" perks from the people, meaning spending almost cannot be reduced and that there is always an incentive to spend more, not for economic reasons but for political considerations.

As I said in the very first blog post nearly two years ago:

The programs like "Utopia"[hypothetical government program] still exist; they are still insanely expensive; and no politician in the world is going to even hint at reducing them, much less removing them entirely. Massive debt is only a stopgap as the programs never become less expensive and those bearing the load continue to be whittled away by taxes and emigration. Eventually, the government will be forced into drastic measures, either issuing fiat currency or defaulting on its loans; in either case the result is catastrophic failure.
Our deficit spending has increased eight fold in the last five years. This does not include the cost of quantitative easing, which has pumped even more money into our system. Interest rates set by the government are near zero percent. With all of this additional money being pumped into the system, inflation or even hyperinflation becomes a threat. Incredibly, the government denies that inflation is going on. To admit otherwise would be to admit that continuing to fund spending programs is disastrous for the average citizen. The government does not want to remove spending or pay for it or admit the damage done via inflation as all of those options are politically damaging.

But inflation is most certainly occurring. If you buy food, you know that. If you buy gas, you know that. Mony Perelin at American Thinker has made the case pretty well. Those numbers from the Financial Times are disconcerting. They track the price of 27 commodities over the last year. Only three have seen prices drop despite the economic recession reducing demand. In fact, 24 of the 27 commodities are up by double digits and five of those (silver, palladium, corn, coffee, and cotton) have risen by 90% or more. Money is like any other commodity. Its value is largely determined by supply and demand. If supply jumps up, the overall value of the monetary unit drops.

This situation will never improve until government spending (in particular its debt) is brought under control. Massive increases in spending and debt did not work for Japan over the last 20 years and there is no reason to believe it will help us, either. But as I mentioned, politicians will never risk their careers. Cuts in general may be popular, but opposition to specific cuts by those losing benefits will always be louder than support from those who do not immediately gain by such cuts. So what can we do?

I have a proposal in mind that is by my own standard extreme. It may not be worth it, but if hyperinflation is a real threat, we have to deal with it before it manifests itself; once that ball starts rolling, it will be too late to stop it. Given the role of the United States in the world economy, the instability of the Euro, and China's reserves being based in the American Dollar, a serious threat to the dollar, however remote, is in effect a threat to the entire global system. With our current debt, inflation, and the upcoming threat from failed entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, the time has come for us to reduce our debt.

The measure I am proposing is, as I said, extreme. It will mean putting fiscal decisions into the hands of officials who will not be reelected, severing the tie between the will of the people and the officials in control. Via an amendment to the Constitution (we need to preserve the rule of law), I propose creating a 14 man commission not too dissimilar from the President's debt reduction commission of last year. The Republicans and the Democrats will select seven representatives by some method (popular vote, appointed by the respective party structure, etc.). "Independents" are rarely actually independent and there is more than enough research to show that such people tend to be the least well informed citizens. As there is no way of confirming whether an independent is not, in fact, a partisan in sheep's clothing, they will not be assigned a role in this commission.

This commission will be given a one year mandate over the spending policies of the United States. Every cent of spending will be subject to their review. A total of 10 votes will be required to pass their plan and make it law. A 2/3rds vote from both Houses of Congress plus the President's signature would be required to override the commission's decision. Spending may not increase by more than the rate of inflation unless a state of war is declared, in which case only military spending may increase. This situation will last for ten years, after which the Amendment will no longer be operative and the Constitution as we know it will come back into effect.

As I said, it is a proposal far outside of the norm. Proposing such short time changes to the Constitution is inherently dangerous. This proposal is analogous to the Roman concept of a dictator, who temporarily suspended the normal rules to deal with an existential threat to the Republic. Like the Roman Dictator, this extraordinary commission has incredible powers but is short lived; unlike the Dictator, political power (especially the power of the sword) will reside with others. Again, unlike the Roman's, this position is designed to check an inherent and dangerous flaw within the government rather than a threat from abroad.

If we are ever to put our debt in check, some such commission will probably be required. Career politicians will never sacrifice their careers. Ideological commitments will keep others from supporting necessary changes. I would fully expect such a commission to raise taxes quite a bit, much to my own displeasure, but ultimately I believe it would be necessary. A liberal and I both used this interactive from the New York Times to balance the budget. Here are his results and mine. Both of us were willing to make sacrifices we otherwise would prefer not to. The tax to spending cuts ratio is fairly similar in both proposals.

But if you need a reason to worry, check off every available cut and tax increase on that interactive. The total savings for 2015 equal a little more than $1 trillion. That would leave us with a $700 billion shortfall in the upcoming year; a $1.7 trillion deficit wasn't even predicted for the year 2030 and this interactive was created four months ago!

If we will not have an educated and virtuous society that respects the property rights of others and forgo redistribution of wealth, extreme measures like this will be necessary in order to prevent hyperinflation.

The 2011-2 Budgets Are Trainwrecks

Every educated citizen that I mentioned in the last post should look at the President's proposed budget and shudder in fear. $1.6 trillion of debt is just unsustainable. It has become systematic; the deficit over the last three years have all been over the trillion dollar mark.

The deficit this year equals nearly 11% of our entire GDP. Once this year is over, our entire GDP for the year would not be enough to pay off the debt we have amassed.

Supposedly, the deficit for the following year will "only" be $1.1 trillion, or roughly 7% of the GDP. But to be honest, the government shouldn't even be making predictions about the economy that far into the future. The Congressional Budget Office's numbers from January 2009 predicted a reduction in debt for the following year (2010). The predicted debt was $700 billion; the actual deficit for that fiscal year was nearly twice as much, at $1.3 trillion. Hell, the predicted deficit for the current year of that estimate (2009) was off by $200 billion. How much was this year supposed to put us in the hole? $500 billion, less than a third of the projected deficit for this year now.

The budget numbers are atrocious. And horribly enough, they are probably wildly optimistic. If the numbers on Social Security, Medicare, and ObamaCare are equally off, this "recession" might be remembered as the last of the good ol' days.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

What Is An Educated Citizen?

In my latest thoughts on Egypt, I mentioned that republics require educated citizens with the virtue to follow through with that education despite temptations to do otherwise. But what would an"educated citizen" look like? For starters, let's remove the ridiculous notion that completing high school or college qualifies. We seek education, not accreditation.

Perhaps we should ask first what the goal of an education would be. As John Adams wrote to his son, future President John Quincy Adams, "You will ever remember that all the end of study is to make you a good man and a useful citizen." As citizens in a democratic republic, each of us is a ruler of the nation as a whole, along with ruling the state, county, and other levels of our federalist system. Plato rightly calls governing the highest art upon which all others depend; consequently, to rule is a mighty responsibility. Citizens must be knowledgeable in all areas that they rule in lest they rule in ignorance.

What do rulers need to know? For starters, the law is the primary tool of rulers, so a functioning understanding of the law must be obtained. How are rules made, enforced, interpreted, by whom? What are the current laws, in particular those interpreting the Constitution? To understand that latter aspect, a solid understanding of the history of our legal and political philosophy must be had.

Rulers control the national treasury and have vast influence over the economy; naturally, rulers must have a firm grasp of economic theory and current fiscal practices. There are many competing theories here. To best perceive which are most attuned to reality, a strong foundation must be had in philosophy, in metaphysics, epistemology, and of course ethics and political theory.

Rulers also possess the power of the sword. In addition to understanding the ethics of such a power, there are practical considerations as well. The best teacher here is history, which is also important in all aspects of ruling. In human society, there is no laboratory to test our ideas first. The best we can do is study past action, notice the similarities and in particular the differences between the studied situation and the current one, and use that information to make decisions which will most likely lead to the achievement of our goals set out by our ethics.

No man who has ever lived understood all of these ideas and most citizens today barely have any inkling into many of these categories. An educated citizen is one who continually strives to understand these subjects. A day should not pass by when none of these areas are improved upon and an effort must be made to know all of those topics, both in bredth and in depth. To be an educated citizen is a life long pursuit. Merely following current events is not sufficient if those events are not properly understood.

An educated citizen will be frustrated from time to time as they discover the realm of things they do not know expands faster than the sphere of things they do know. The more they know, the more they will realize how small their understanding really is compared to the vast field of knowledge out there. A citizen who does not expand their field of vision will not only believe their small amount of wisdom is huge but will not even be aware of how much they are unfamiliar with. But there is a benefit to the frustration felt by the educated citizen. The educated citizens learn their own limitations. These citizens understand that the less you govern, the less likely it is they will err in deciding on matters not properly understood. An educated citizen will appreciate the concept of limited government more and more as they learn not just new ideas but also as they discover how little of those vast fields of knowledge they have truly explored.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Building a New Pyramid

As the great philosopher Axl Rose (almost) sang, where do we go now, Egypt, where do we go? Yesterday, Hosni Mubarak was forced out of power, an event which was followed by amazing scenes in Tahir Square where hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have protested over the last few weeks. Most revolutions have this glorious moment when some hated leader is ousted by "the people." It is a fairly amazing sight; many protests turn out badly in repressive regimes and the ousting of dictators tends to be the exception rather than the rule. As one who appreciates liberty and democracy enough to study such things, I do hope the best for these people in their efforts, but I am also aware of the dangers ahead. Tearing down Mubarak was actually the easy part. Securing a free nation without falling into anarchy or tyranny (or maybe even both) will be a challenge.

The problem lies in the fact that there is no real plan of action now. For the last three weeks, Egyptians were united by an opposition to Mubarak, a fairly simple and not surprisingly controversial position for most Egyptians to take. But Mubarak is gone now; ironically, the glue that held the protesters together has also been removed.

Now comes the most difficult part of the journey. Egypt must create a new government, but how will they go about doing this? There are no real leaders in a position to create a new constitution save for the Army that produced Mubarak. It seems highly unlikely that they will be willing to give the people much more than they have now, as all concessions would come at the expense of the Army itself. The only other group that seems large enough and well organized appears to be the Egyptian Brotherhood, an option that strikes me as even worse. Can Egypt produce a Jefferson, an Adams, a Franklin, a Hamilton or a Madison right this minute, and even if they can, will they be allowed to create a government? I highly doubt it.

In all honesty, I doubt very much that the interim government will make significant changes. I have been much less enthusiastic about these protests than many others for this reason (though I have to admit I thought Mubarak would play his hand better than this). The fun, romantic revolution is over, but the revolution is not complete until liberty has been secured under a functioning government that respects the rights of all people. Creating such a government is among the most difficult tasks mankind has ever faced. I hope, by the grace of God, that the Egyptians will manage it, but I would not bet on it.

If I was an Egyptian, I am not even certain what I would want. The singular goal seemed to have been the removal of Mubarak. Well, they have their wish. What now? What do the protesters want and will their be such unanimity with the new goals? Many of us have been on pins and needles wondering how the protests would turn out, whether Mubarak would somehow tough it out or be removed. We have the answer, but now the really chaotic part begins. Outside of the really broad strokes I have already said, I don't dare venture a guess as to how the next few months and years will turn out.

Best of luck, Egypt. You will need it.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Atlas Might Shrug

This is mildly bothersome. Atlas Shrugged really does not lend itself to the big screen. It is a wonderful book, but it is a book driven by its philosophical underpinnings rather than the characters. Indeed, when Rand set out to write the book, the goal was to show how the looters in this country are the truly despicable people, not the productive members of society. This was done in a simple way: remove the "evil rich people" from society and see how long society keeps running. Answer: not long. I'm not an Objectivist, but it did continue me down the path towards libertarianism. An audience incapable of reading a book isn't going to respond well towards of a movie based on a book like this. It would be like turning Notes From Underground into a movie; there just isn't enough action to hold a modern audience's attention. Maybe the mystery of who John Galt is will help?

If they wanted to make a Rand book into a movie (something I wouldn't recommend, period), the best bet would probably be The Fountainhead. That book was more character driven rather than as an analysis of a whole system. Toohey is a great evil character. Atlas Shrugged has many despicable people but nobody who can really stand out as the antagonist. Of course, people would not understand the fairly infamous scene between Roark and Dominique, but that is their problem.

This book will not win any converts, so I do hope the producers did not have that as their goal. Hopefully it makes a great visual accompaniment for current fans of the book. I like the look from the trailer, anyway.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Thoughts on Egypt

The riots in Egypt over the last two weeks have laid bare a conundrum in American policy and ideals. We face a situation in which an allied dictator of sorts is threatened by a populist uprising. President Mubarak of Egypt has kept the peace with Israel and ruled over a stable nation for nearly thirty years, but there is clear discontent in his society over corruption and economic failures. I love liberty to an extent that many might consider excessive (libertarians are few and far between in our nation today, though this seems to be changing), but can the protesters be supported in this case? Machiavelli and Hobbes were quite right to pronounce stability a sine qua non to a prosperous society. Yet every dictator loves stability, too. The expansion of liberty must always be won with a wager against stability, but such undertakings are indeed gambles liable to failure.

In this particular case, failure would come at an exceedingly high cost. Egypt, along with Jordan, is one of the few examples of a stable nation with some degree of prosperity not dependent on oil in the Middle East. Moreover, any change in government risks future conflict with Israel, a conflict that certainly would engulf the whole region. We have an image to uphold of supporting freedom, an image of moral and strategic importance, but supporting the rise of chaos (or worse) is counter productive.

Liberty will never be sustained in a nation where the people do not acknowledge the rights belonging to others. The United States was extremely fortuitous to be created by colonists possessing a fierce devotion to such liberty and to have crafted functioning local governments based on this idea by the time independence was declared. Very few places are so blessed, and Egypt is certainly not in their number. Far too often, the people are tempted to disregard the vital liberties of disliked societal groups. A constitution is worthless scrap paper if the people at large do not respect the rights of speech, religion, property, and a host of others. France found this out the hard way after 1789. A people must possess a civic education to know right from wrong in terms of liberties and the civic virtue to abide by it, even if it means forgoing certain pecuniary advantages or the ability to silence critics.

Even with such citizens, the machinery of government must be adequate. If chaos emerges, the most ruthless and least disposed towards liberty generally emerge victorious. France, Iran, and most of post-colonial Africa show this. The people of Egypt could overthrow Mubarak, but they would not be able to replace him.

And this is why liberty must be held dear wherever it may exist already. Free people in stable societies are the rare exception in mankind's lamentable history. The combination of education, virtue, and a fertile political ground to grow liberty seems to be a sparse gift from Heaven; I do not see how those elements could be created but in the presence of the others, a rare condition indeed. The greatest threat to existing liberty comes from within, those who have lost their virtue of lack the proper education.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

On My Writing

Time for a self reflexive piece. I'm a nerd by nature; if you've read anything else at this site, you already know that. History, politics, philosophy, literature, and the like are not merely important but actual sources of entertainment for me. When I'm not reading such things, I'm thinking about them, and on occasion I even write my thoughts down. The problem is, I do not stay focused on any particular subject long enough to write down everything in as much detail as I would like to go into.

Last night, for reasons that elude me, I dug through random notebooks and boxes of crap I've kept in storage since college. Among various letters from Cortland and letters/notes/cards from various old flames (including one I forgot about), I found a surprising amount of handwritten notes on subjects of all sorts, stories, the occasional junk poem (and the even less often good one), and other treasures.

Right now, there are a thousand ideas I would like to put to paper or computer screen, but I don't. The main reason tends to be me wanting to write a book on each subject and not being happy unless I've covered every conceivable aspect in research and in my writing. It then drives me nuts that I don't put any of these thoughts down.

Anyway, this is my half hearted attempt to convince myself to just write down whatever it is I'm thinking about every day concerning those fun subjects I love so much. The corpus of the best writers in the world is still 90% junk; creating anything of value in writing is worth the great amount of trash that is also produced. We'll see how long this actually sticks in my mind before the semi-perfectionist in me returns.