Thursday, February 25, 2010

Politics Inaction

If you tuned in to today's healthcare summit in the hopes of watching anything constructive, I'm betting you were disappointed.

After work, even I gave it a shot just for laughs. Within two minutes, I heard partisan bickering over the semantics about trusting the judgment of the CBO for cost projections. It was like watching a political commercial.

The one thing I know I can count on when watching big government operate is the remarkable display of hubris. What I saw today was a bunch of politicians sitting around in a room and arguing over the best way to manage the medical industry- something they're clearly unqualified to do. If I wasn't already so used to the absurdity of it all, I'd be blown away by it.

Nothing happened today that hasn't been planned in advance, and so the whole thing was a waste of time- like all political games. The President may have started it, but both parties, I'm sure, welcomed the opportunity to try to posture a little harder about their feelings on healthcare reform.

When I say it was a waste of time, it's not because nothing got accomplished. On the contrary, considering how nobody at that summit had any intention of seriously reducing the presence of the federal government in the medical and insurance industries, I'd say ending in a stalemate was the best possible outcome. It was a waste because we already knew what was going to happen.

The only thing I do like about this "debate" is that it showcases the inefficiencies built into the lawmaking process. I'm thankful for a Congress so divided because it limits the damage it can do to the nation. When a single party dominates both the executive and the legislative branches, it's like open season on our freedom.

The White House and Capitol Hill should take a hint from the fact that big government healthcare reform has been difficult to pass. Perhaps it's a sign. Maybe the reason it's been so tough to get what they want is because it was never meant to happen. Maybe the Founders made it that way because they knew that government could barely be trusted with protecting people's rights, much less with managing a major portion of their economy.

But I doubt our legislators will see it that way. More likely, they see themselves as leaders and decision makers. They know what the people want, and it's their duty to provide it. I guess it will take more than a six-hour televised stalemate to convince them they're not the answer the country is seeking.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Pay Them What They're Worth

Background Information: I am a teacher at a relatively affluent private high school. I am not tenured (tenure isn’t offered to us), and I don’t belong to a union. I have a private retirement account. I do not hold an education degree, nor do I hold any state certification. This is my seventh year as a teacher, and my seventh at my current school. My pay is immaterial, because every dollar I get has been paid to me along a chain of people who gave it up willingly (as opposed to through taxation).

I take the position that the government should not be in the business of education. Everyone who works in the federal Department of Education should lose his job, and any real estate currently held by the federal DOE should be sold off to the public. I don’t think many people would even notice the change. Then, the people can begin to reclaim their power over education from the state government, just as the states reclaimed it from the federal government. I can see this taking a long time to accomplish, but it’s a goal worth pursuing.

Teacher Pay
Many people claim teachers are grossly overpaid, and many teachers believe that they’re grossly underpaid. Teaching has many more variables than the average job: teacher ability, years of experience, education level, number of classes, number of courses, types of courses, number of students, types of students, etc.. A teacher’s salary should depend on all of these things, some of which are pretty subjective. It is impossible for any political institution to give it this kind of tailored approach. Teachers are paid closest to what they’re worth in the private sector- where salaries are determined by a market, rather than politics.

Every single thing about our public schools is politicized, A to Z. Be it teacher salaries, when to get tenure, how many hours to work, issues with merit-based pay, pensions, shutting down “failing schools”, the curriculum, what courses to include, who gets the best parking spot, you name it. This is because public education is a government job (I once had a public school teacher brag about this to me). Because everybody’s taxes are on the line, everybody wants things their way. Frustrated by trying to cater to everyone, it should be no surprise that only a few people involved really have their needs met.

With regards to how much a teacher should make, I have a better question: who should decide how much they make? Should it be the relatively small group of people who own and operate the school on their own terms (whose customers are willing to pay for)? Or should it be the government? Teachers throwing a coup over a pay freeze is a natural consequence of government-run education. The politics of education necessitates having a teacher’s union as a way to mitigate political maltreatment and favoritism. They’re combating the force of government with their own force. Now, the government is again trying to respond with force. This is the way politics and power games work. Who knows what the next move will be?

Of course, that’s not how it works in the real world. In the real world, when the boss tells you your pay is getting frozen, you either accept it or you quit and find a better position. You can’t get together with your buddies to force everybody to play the game the way you want it played. It’s sad to see educators reduced to just another special interest group fighting for its piece of the government’s power. They’re likely to say (and truly believe) they’re fighting for what’s fair, but the truth is that without some sort of reference point, nobody in this situation can say what is and isn’t fair. If all that stood in the way of a pay hike for me was threatening a strike or a little lobbying, I could probably fool myself into thinking I was fighting for fairness, too. But being outside the system, I know better.

Unfortunately, I don’t see any of this leading to a discussion of the real problem: how to release American education from an endless political tug-of-war. This soap opera will continue and all we’ll have to show for it in the end will be higher taxes. The argument for less government in education should be championed by every teacher who knows she's worth her compensation (and more). It is the only way to ensure that good teachers get paid what they're worth. Is is also the only way to destroy the black hole for taxpayer money that is a bad teacher's tenure and pension.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Ambiguous Unemployment Statistic

The job market is a shambles. Companies are laying off, people are out of work, and it’s just a bad situation.

Or is it?

Even though it makes good press, unemployment by itself isn’t a good measure of how the economic health of the nation. The focus shouldn’t be on keeping people employed. Here’s an example.

When self-checkout machines were first introduced in the supermarket, I heard a woman remark to someone else that she refused to use it because it caused someone to lose his job. While she was correct in that the introduction of such a machine will indeed lower the demand for cashiers (and thus lead to the hiring of fewer cashiers) and some cashiers may lose their hours because of it, she was grossly incorrect in thinking this was a bad thing.

What the machine does is make it easier for people do get work done. It’s a device that saves time and labor. Imagine what life would be like if we thumbed our noses at every device that saved labor and caused job loss. Farmland would still be plowed by hand. People would still deliver ice to your door. All our clothes would still be sewn by hand. We would be living in a very different world. On the whole, the self-checkout machines are a good thing. Temporarily bad for the individual cashier, but a boon to everybody who goes to the supermarket- not to mention the new productive jobs created at the factory where the checkout machines are assembled and the ones created by when the machines need repairing.

The key is production, not employment. It’s much better to have low employment and high production than the other way around. That way, people’s efforts go further. What if 10% of the world’s population could do all the work to satisfy the needs of everybody? We would have 90% unemployment, but it would be an economic miracle.

Government can create jobs, but it generally cannot create productivity- especially on a national scale. What it gives to B it must first take from A. So the result is usually theft, waste, political favoritism, and a greater dependence on the state.

For these reasons, we should not look to the government to "fix unemployment." The best we can expect from government is to either create more government jobs (almost never a good), or to create another bubble in some industry it decides to favor ("green jobs" comes to mind). This is little more than a complicated form of welfare.

That the government bears the responsibility of being the job-maker is a myth that needs to be dispelled. If the government should focus on anything, it should be production, rather than employment. With an unlimited power to tax and spend, creating employment should be easy. But productivity is harder to come by. The only thing government produces well is more government. If government wants to do something positive, the best thing it can do is remove barriers that inhibit private sector activity.

If we want to set ourselves on a solid economic footing for the long term, we need a reduction in government. Less government means lower taxes, which puts capital back in the hands of the private sector- the only place we will ever see any innovation and productivity.

Just don’t get too optimistic when they say the job market is on the rebound and unemployment is dropping. It may just be a disingenuous way of telling us that growth of government is continuing unabated.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Two Lines in the Sand

I confess it is with some amount of personal shame that I filled out my 1040 this year. Every year during tax season, I have to sit and wonder what exactly would happen if I didn’t pay. When do the letters start? When is action taken through my employer? When do they knock on my door?

Even though I’m sure many people think paying federal tax is patriotic, without a doubt millions more file their taxes out of fear. I certainly fall into the latter category. Wasn’t that Jefferson’s definition of tyranny?

Moreover, it begs the question of where people will draw the line. What would it take for people to openly defy their government and adopt the ‘Come and take it’ attitude? What would it take for you to refuse to comply? With anything. This is an interesting question. I offer you the personal challenge of answering it.

As for me, there are two clear answers. One is the draft. I remember in 2003 when the war started. “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” it was delightfully termed. Remember that? Ah, those were the good old days, back when Saddam not only was minutes away from pressing the button to wipe out the United States’ eastern seaboard, but was somehow responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Remember Bush and the 107th Congress? That madcap bunch of rascals!

I had heard the word “draft” thrown around on TV from time to time. I was 23 and within the drafting age. A lot of people opposed the war, so I was curious as to whether the draft was even politically feasible. But I told myself at the time that if the bugle called, I would resist. You’d see me on YouTube burning my draft card- hopefully, joined by my senior students. I would never let myself be drafted off to war on the government’s word. I opposed it so much that I was hoping they would try it, just so I could see what would happen. I’d rather rot in an American prison than come back in a casket with a flag draped over it. The people are not a tool for the government’s use. As I understand it, the government is a tool for the use of the people.

I find it absolutely horrifying that any parent would willingly submit to having her son sent off to fight a war in which they didn’t believe. It’s almost inconceivable that so many people would just lay down for something like that and let it happen. I guess it was different in the early 70s. But I just can’t imagine people buying into it now. Then again, most people I meet are pretty content to accept things the way they are. Most are happier complaining than taking action.

The other line I decided to draw was with Obamacare. There was a part of me that wanted Coakley to win in Massachusetts. It’s been a blue state and many people expected it to go that way anyway. But if Coakley won and Obamacare passed, I would drop my insurance and refuse to pay whatever fee they arbitrarily decided on. I resolved to join the ranks of the uninsured. And I’d hope that all those picketing tea party people would step up and do the same- along with anybody else who opposed the bill. Come to think of it, it kinds of saddens me to know that everybody really thought so much was actually riding on that election. They can only take from you what you’re willing to give. Was I the only one in the country who was determined to not go along with the healthcare scheme regardless of the election’s outcome? Guess we’ll never know.

Yet, I pay the federal tax. Though it pains me to think of it as an excuse, I suppose it’s not as much of a violation to me because I was born into it. It’s the way things always just…were. Maybe the key to passing legislation like that is to scare everyone into compliance just long enough so that it survives the current generation without revolt. Then they flick the sweat from their brow secure in the fact that the seed has been planted. Your grandkids will be born into it and won’t even think to ask questions until the big bill of their time tumbles down from Capitol Hill. How will they handle it when it’s their turn? Hopefully, better than our ancestry handled the 16th amendment.

But, the question remains. How far could the government push the envelope before you drew a line in the sand and took a personal stand against such tyranny? In light of the American revolution, this is something everybody should think about. What’s your tipping point? When would you put your foot down?

What would you risk to be free?