Sunday, July 31, 2011

Passing Thoughts on The Debt Ceiling

Every time a school year draws to a close and I send another class away from the relative safety of a high school environment, I start to despair. I look at those kids with their graduation day smiles and their unending optimism, and I wonder how the hell they're going to survive in the world that they're going to inherit.

The hysteria over the debt ceiling is starting to disgust me. All I see on TV is finger-pointing and political theater as democrats and republicans try to paper over the government's financial problems, stick some future generation with paying for it, and look like heroes doing it. They will succeed on all three counts.

What burns me up the most is the talk about defaulting. The government will default on its debts if the ceiling isn't raised! Something must be done! I have news, folks. The government defaults on its obligations every day. It has defaulted on its centuries-old obligation to maintain our freedom. Freedoms promised us in the Bill of Rights; freedom to make a living how we want; freedom to travel; freedom to make our own choices in what to buy or sell, freedom to plan our own retirements; and freedom from crime, endless war, and rules that regulate nearly every human behavior.

Of course I understand that liberty doesn't mean squat to the average American. But the government does default on its pecuniary obligations as well. It defaults every time it devalues its currency, but it also assures default by making impossible promises which other people are expected to pay for. The tab for these promises grows by the minute, and at some point, that bag will be too big for some generation to be left holding.

Think this will never happen? Do you really believe we can continue like this for another fifty years? Whose problem do you think it will be when our government's creditors stop lending it money? It sure as hell won't matter to guys like Boehner and Obama; they'll be long gone when this happens. No, the rug's coming out from under our children in the form of either crushing taxation, runaway inflation, or promises that will never be kept. And then things are going to get ugly.

We're still at a stage where things can be fixed with a minimum of pain. They could refuse to raise the debt limit, forego their own paychecks, admit that most of the promises government has made are illegitimate, and start having a real transparent discussion about how to renege on those phony untenable promises in the least painful way possible. But that will never happen. Ever.

Instead, all I hear about is some vague talk about debt limit increases, tax cuts over ten years, and bipartisan compromise. It's the compromise that scares me, because all it means is that both political parties get what they want, and government continues to grow. The only thing that will be compromised will be our posterity's standard of living if we continue to elect the same people who've been squandering our resources and labor for decades.

Maybe the lesson to take away from this is that the importance of independence can't be overstated. Turn off the TV, stop taking every political promise at face value, and start looking for ways to be more independent. Let this and future debt ceiling "debates" remind you that the less your fate is in the hands of politicians, the better; and pass this message on to your children as I try to pass it to my students.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Casey Anthony Walks

Where this trial came from or how it turned into some cult news sensation, I have no idea. It's especially peculiar because while some people have been obsessing over it, others haven't even heard of Casey Anthony.

It was usually on TV where I live, so I caught bits and pieces of the trial over the last few weeks. It seemed to be a little ponzi scheme of hype- it was big news because HLN insisted it was big news. Evidently, a lot of people bit.

I don't think there was anything particularly spectacular about the trial itself, aside from the media frenzy (breaking into other programs for updates on this or that) and the media's pronouncing the defendant guilty of murder from the outset. If you watched the trial during one of its breaks or when they cut to the anchors, it was like a nonstop cheerleading session for the prosecution.

I started to wonder how many people even noticed it. I also wondered how much being constantly told someone is guilty might potentially sway someone's opinion. Some say the media has liberal slant, some say it has a conservative slant- I say the media has a pro-government slant, and the Casey Anthony trial is a good example.

The overwhelming consensus of the TV audience is that she was guilty. If you noticed that all of your friends suddenly turned into armchair lawyers in the hour or so following the verdict, it's because in the end, Mrs. Anthony was acquitted on all counts of murder.

I keep my eyes open, and I see more injustice than the average person ever gets to see (anyone who reads Reason Magazine generally does). I've read stories of men serving time for crimes they didn't commit. I've seen men serve out sentences that were exponentially harsher than what their crime warranted. I've read stories of people getting exonerated while sitting on death row (having rotted there for years, and sometimes decades)- and with no compensation after the fact. Name anything about the American justice system, and I guarantee it has its disgraceful elements- from how juries are selected to how laws are written to how evidence is gathered to how due process is afforded the accused, all the way up through how sentences are carried out- and beyond. I could go on for some time. The deck is clearly stacked against defendants when the plaintiff is government.

I don't know the details of the Casey Anthony trial, and I certainly can't say beyond a reasonable doubt whether she did what they said she did (I'm glad I didn't have to). For whatever reason, neither did her jury, and that's why they let her skate. The defense convinced them that the government hadn't met its burden of proof and the verdict made many people unhappy. I'll say this: If the only price we have to pay for sparing innocent people from the jaws of a prison/death sentence is saddling the government with a stiff burden of proof- even if it's the same burden which, this time, let a guilty woman go free- we're getting a bargain. I'd let Casey Anthony walk ten times over if I knew the same judicial process afforded ironclad protections for the innocent.

Note that I do hate the idea of letting the truly guilty go free. But I despise the notion that people could be convicted on a mere probability of guilt, because I understand that the Probable Guilt Standard would inevitably apply to the innocent as well. Better the system be imperfect in favor of the guilty than against the innocent. Let this one slide. Can't win em all, folks.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Gay Marriage: A Special Interest Victory

Yesterday, New York became the largest state to recognize marriages of gay and lesbian couples. Many people haven't thought the same-sex marriage issue through much further than "The government should let any couple get married." But same-sex couples aren't lobbying simply to be granted a marriage certificate or to be allowed to love- they're fighting for special treatment from the government.

Wanting to see what that special treatment was, I came across a New York Times article that summed it up (appropriately in the Business section). It begins:

Couples may marry for love, but the partnership is also an economic one. And now that New York has become the sixth state to perform same-sex marriage, couples who tie the knot here will gain a variety of financial benefits and legal rights.

Note: what same-sex couples are gaining are privileges granted by the state; not rights. I guess without the financial benefits and the extra "rights", same-sex marriage wouldn't even be an issue. I find it pretty funny that what's usually held up as some kind of issue of civil equality is really in large part about tax breaks to the special interest group known as married couples.

The article mentions benefits in the realms of: income taxes, estate and gift taxes, health insurance, inheritance rights, state employee benefits, and parentage. These probably aren't the first words that leap to mind when you think of what constitutes a marriage. But they're what count, and it really goes to show how much presence government has in our personal lives.

Of course, I would say that allowing same-sex couples to marry only makes this situation worse. Why? Because instead of questioning the role of government in these matters and having a debate over what gives it the right to dole out such benefits in the first place, we went ahead and gave it more legitimacy in sticking its hand into our private lives. It should treat all its employees the same, and has no business conferring special legal/financial status on couples. And while creating new rules for a specific class of people seems like a step forward, in some respects it is a step back.

But then again, I'm of those crazy people who think the government should treat us as individuals, no matter what the circumstances. If you disagree, not to worry! Mine is a vanishing minority.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The CNN Republican Primary Debate

If you missed the Republican primary debate last night, you didn't much. It was basically a gameshow where everybody lost- including the audience. Some of the questions were very stupid (Elvis or Johnny Cash?), and the moderator did little to cut off the candidates' rambling answers.

The establishment candidates (Santorum, Bachmann, Romney, Pawlenty, Gingrich) used the platform to substitute boilerplate for specific answers, regale the crowd with their past legislative achievements, and to take cheap shots at the President. Everything about them screamed 'politician'. They embodied all the things the average person doesn't like about politicians by coming off as disingenuous self-seeking replicas of their political ancestors.

The non-establishment had their own problems. I've heard some people talking favorably about Herman Cain, but he lost my interest when he spoke of himself as a man who solves problems. The last thing I want to hear about is a politician who wants to solve problems. Indeed, the state of the nation is the result of politicians trying to save us with their solutions.

Ron Paul was the main reason I tuned in to the debate. I do like Ron Paul, and I wonder whether that's the reason I'm so quick to distinguish him from the other candidates. While people might disagree with him, he at least doesn't come off like a slimy politician who's only trying to aggrandize his own power. What sets Ron Paul apart from the pack is that he sounds sincere and comes with a touch of humility- two qualities rare among people running for office.

I wish Dr. Paul had a better way of making his platform palatable to the average Joe Nobody who just wants a job and to make sure the financial rug's not ripped out from under him when he goes to retire. While I agree with his message, talking about Keynes and fiat currency isn't going to resonate with anyone but the people who already strongly support him. He also needs to keep his answers concise. That alone would be enough.

I would have a comment here about Gary Johnson (the only other guy in the whole bunch with his head screwed on straight), but he wasn't even invited to the debate. I guess CNN thought their lineup was already diverse enough- even with five basically interchangeable candidates making the list.

So on the whole, the debate was an embarrassment. It was a reminder of why people don't trust politicians and a lot of people don't trust the Republican party. It's anybody's guess as to whom will ultimately be selected to run against Obama, but I don't think anyone has a chance to beat him except Ron Paul (from last night's group, anyway). In short, last night was a showcase of why the Republican party is a self destructive combination of hubris and incompetence. It looks like Obama has his second term in the bag.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

What a Real President Sounds Like

I read a book once by a man who was running for president. The following is an excerpt from that book:

The President of the U.S. is the most powerful person in the world. He can personally make your life miserable or he can make it much freer. And when he can't do something personally, he can lead.

On my first day in office, by Executive Order I will:
  • Pardon everyone who has been convicted on a federal, non-violent drug charge, order the immediate release of those in prison, reunite them with their families, and restore all their civil rights.
  • Pardon everyone who has been convicted on any federal gun-control charge, order the immediate release of those in prison, and restore all their civil rights.
  • Pardon everyone who has been convicted of a federal tax evasion charge, order the immediate release of those in prison, and restore all their civil rights.
  • Pardon everyone else who has been convicted of a victimless federal crime, order the immediate release of those in prison, and restore all their civil rights.
  • I will make it clear to federal law enforcement agents and prosecutors that we want the violent criminals off the streets. No U.S. Attorney should waste his time or the taxpayers' money prosecuting people who haven't intruded on anyone's person or property. Every member of the federal criminal justice system should understand that prison space is only for criminals who have hurt someone.
  • I will announce a policy to penalize, dismiss, or even prosecute any federal employee who violates the Bill of Rights by treating you as guilty until proven innocent, by searching or seizing your property without due process of law, by treating you as a servant, or in any other way violating your rights as a sovereign American citizen.
  • I will immediately order that no federal asset forfeiture can occur if the property's owner hasn't been convicted by full due process- and I will initiate steps to make restitution to anyone whose property has been impounded, frozen, or seized by the federal government without being convicted by dur process. Over 80% of such seizures occur when no one has even been charged with a crime.
  • As Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, I will immediately remove all American troops from foreign soil. Europe and Asia can pay for their own defense, and they can risk their own lives in their eternal squabbles. This will save billions of dollars a year in taxes, but - more important- it will make sure your sons and daughters will never fight in someone else's war.
  • As Commander in Chief I will remove all American troops from under the command of the UN or any other foreign organization.
  • As President I will make sure the executive branch stops harrassing smokers, tobacco companies, successful computer companies, gun owners, gun manufacturers, alternative medicine suppliers, religious groups (whether respected or labeled as "cults"), investment companies, healthcare providers, businessmen, and anyone else who is conducting his affairs peaceably.
  • I will end federal affirmative action, federal quotas, set-asides, preferential treatments, and other discriminatory practices of the federal government. [...]

And then I will break for lunch.

After lunch, I will begin removing from the Federal Register thousands and thousands of regulations and executive orders inserted there by previous presidents. [...]

He goes on like this for a few pages. It's one of the most memorable passages from anything I've ever read. The man's name was Harry Browne, and the book is The Great Libertarian Offer. If you notice, it doesn't read like it was written by a politician. There are no platitudes, no clichés, no uncertain terms, and no grandstanding or partisanship. It was clearly written by a man who had a specific plan and who intended on following through with it. It's a prescription for actual change that would affect real Americans immediately- none of that "I'll get to it in six months" or "Within ten years, we'll have X Y Z" garbage we hear from every other politician who rides a wave of empty promises into office. I believe such a platform would be very popular among the American people, but I guess I'll never know for sure; candidates with such views (when they exist) are barred from taking part in national debates. And that's a real shame, because any candidate who doesn't specifically address (and plan to make good on) at least five of those points isn't worthy of the office.

The reason I bring this up is to illustrate how much of a disgrace our current president actually is. He is truly an empty suit who is content to walk in the footsteps of his predecessors and who has absolutely no genuine interest in changing the United States back into the free nation everyone pretends it is. Any of the above bullet points could be executed with the stroke of the President's pen. Why do you think he refrains from doing so?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Case Against Drug Prohibition

I read a Facebook post recently that criticized Ron Paul's stance on ending the (federal) war on drugs. The quote that stuck out to me was (fairly paraphrased):

"People don't have the right to use drugs. Drugs is a social problem, not a freedom issue. They hurt everyone around those using them, destroys societies, etc. This is about the destruction and the aftereffects on society."

He went on to cite an incident where a kid from his neighborhood got himself all coked out and killed a couple of people with his car.

Touché on the anecdote. People on drugs do commit criminal acts and do cause innocent people to suffer. But prohibition causes innocent people to suffer as well- and in similar ways. So, this is my case against drug prohibition. I'll ignore the huge economic benefits of legalization, the unconstitutionality of prohibition, the relative destructiveness of legal alcohol, and the philosophical arguments for letting adults make their own choices in our supposedly free society.

I disagree that legalization is not a freedom issue. We have this terrible habit of criminalizing whatever we find distasteful (smoking, certain foods, certain speech, firearms, etc.) and it's got to stop. All of those things used in the extreme can have negative effects. But in most instances, when these things do affect someone, they might merely be a nuisance or visually offensive- but not so much as to make victims out of the offended parties.

What's more, things that are potentially dangerous can, in fact, be used responsibly. This is where drug use becomes an issue of freedom. Even though drugs are abused by many, they can be used responsibly without injuring anyone, the user included. Such users do not deserve to be treated as criminals. But even though they haven't committed any crime against anyone, they will invariably be casualties of drug criminalization. The penalties can be harsh. If caught, they will be treated as felons and can potentially have their lives destroyed. They're ruined by the law, not the drugs. So I ask: who speaks up in defense of the responsible users, whose crime has no victim?

Almost no one loses sleep over punishing people for victimless crimes, though. Their case for prohibition usually rests on how drugs can harm totally innocent people. People can be dangerous and reckless in any number of ways when they're high, and that recklessness can end up hurting or even killing people. Examples might include a family torn apart by a son's drug abuse, or a child killed by someone who's high and behind the wheel. These certainly do happen, and nobody likes it. But there are innocent similarly people harmed by prohibition, too.

The family affected by drug abuse might just as easily be ruined when the son gets a mandatory minimum prison sentence for a minor drug infraction. Or when some innocent party's property is seized by the government because of trumped up charges from a prosecutor trying to make a name for himself. Or when the SWAT team comes on an anonymous tip and accidentally kills someone because they raided the wrong house (or otherwise acted recklessly, like shooting first and asking questions later, or killing people with flashbang grenades). Prohibition brings the unforgiving hand of the state into the situation, onto the heads of the innocent as well as the guilty. Who speaks up in defense of the innocents harmed by the government as a result of prohibition?

One doesn't need to have a relative killed or property stolen by the government to be an innocent victim, however. One could simply have a legitimate medicine denied or withheld from him because of political hysteria over drug abuse. Got a condition where you need marijuana and a vaporizer to relieve pain or regulate your appetite? Tough break. Your options are to lobby your legislature, quietly suffer, or find a black market. Which do you think is most effective? Innocent people go through this every day. They're in need of medication, but have little choice but to wait it out while politicians dither over the most politically acceptable way of distributing drugs they find appropriate. By means of red tape, greater expense, outright denial, and the threat of punishment for ignoring the law, drug prohibition continues to make victims out of those who want to use drugs for genuine medicinal purposes. That these people are relatively few in number makes no difference.

Who speaks up in defense of these and other victims of prohibition? If you ask the victims themselves, you'll find plenty of people. But those people, myself included, don't matter. We're ignored because we don't have enough political pull. And if there's one thing that trumps reason, liberty and justice, it's political pull. Clearly, there will be victims with or without prohibition. The difference is merely that the victims of prohibition are more politically acceptable.

It bothers me very much to know that some of the money I pay in taxes is used to prosecute people for victimless crimes; to buy the weapons and armor for local police who execute no-knock raids on my neighbors; to pay politicians to keep medicine out of reach of people who need it. But there's nothing I can do about that. It is the reality that has evolved from way back when people thought passing laws to control people's behavior was a good idea.

For those who still think that, I would like to recommend a "good prohibition"- a system that facilitates safe recreational drug use, helps people who have abuse problems, permits everyone access to the medicine they want, and exclusively punishes those who commit crimes against others....but there is no governing body that will punish only the guilty and spare the innocent. Government doesn't work that way, and our current drug war exhibits all the proof you could want. There can never be any such "good prohibition" as I just described; prohibition on the whole needs to end. For we only have two choices: Either we have a free society with some irresponsible people who are hard to control, or we have an unfree society with irresponsible people who are hard to control, plus an irresponsible government which nobody controls.

Which scenario scares you more?

Monday, May 2, 2011

On bin Laden's Death

After I heard of Osama bin Laden's death this morning, my first reaction was to shrug and ask, "So?" I was extremely surprised to find that overnight there were massive gatherings in the streets outside the White House and on college campuses to cheer about it. It was an embarrassing display of what passes for patriotism.

This, of course, changes nothing. Osama bin Laden is dead, but Americans still have to live with his legacy.

We still need to be patted down at airports by government agents. The government still tracks our every financial transaction. We still have security checkpoints inside our borders. Warrantless wiretaps still exist in the United States. Our government still detains people without trial or charge. And worst of all, we're still caught up in expensive open-ended wars which guarantee that our list of enemies will continue to grow. These things have become a permanent part of our lives as Americans- supposedly the most free people on earth.

In short, I don't have time for symbolic victories, no matter what the magnitude. Give me a call when something happens that's worth celebrating. In the meantime, it's the beginning of May, which means we're officially one third into 2011. Since about a third of my income goes straight out the door in taxes, I figure that the four months out of the year I have to spend working to fund the government is behind me now. Perhaps this is a day worth celebrating after all.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Madison Standoff: A Lose-Lose

I've read several articles on the Madison standoff. The general idea is that Republican Governor Scott Walker is demanding wage and benefit cuts and an end to the union's collective bargaining rights. As of this writing, the union bosses have given in to the cuts, but are holding out on the right to bargain collectively. Pro-union legislators have fled Madison in order to block a quorum of votes in the Senate. Schools have been closed, and there are physicians on the streets writing sick notes to excuse the absences of any teachers who might otherwise face disciplinary action. It is absolute lunacy.

Admittedly, my instinct is to side with Governor Walker, only because his propositions would supposedly translate to lower taxes for people who have no dealings with the public schools. But if I'm to be honest, the only groups I can sympathize with are the kids who are missing school and their parents. Everyone else is looking out for himself, and is using some sort of political mechanism to get what he wants. When government is embedded into the fabric of people's jobs and lives like this, clashes like those in Madison become inevitable. But take away the fiery rhetoric of both sides, and the only thing left is an embarrassing public political battle like any other.

The solution is not to curtail benefits or preserve collective bargaining, or anything else that either side in Madison (or Columbus or Trenton any other state capital) is fighting for. The solution is the privatization of education. By that, I do not mean setting up a voucher system or instituting charter schools with permission of the state or any other solution typically offered by politicians and pundits. I mean the total separation of school and state, where the government has no control over anything from salaries to certifications to curricula. This should done from preschool through the highest levels of post-graduate education.

Why? Because teaching is basically a government job, and everything about a public school is, at some level, regulated by government- including what is taught, who's allowed to teach, and how the workers are compensated. It's all funded by taxpayers, and the people calling the shots need only cater to enough voters to win the next election to stay in power. The only way to combat this type of political machinery is either to have it legally dismantled or to unionize against it. Unfortunately, we've taken the latter path, and so have transformed American education into a struggle between governments and organized labor. It is now a game of force against force, of strikes and budget crises, demands and concessions, protests, propaganda, and all other manner of poison fruit that hangs from the tree of politics.

Taking sides in a Wrong Versus Wrong battle is a waste of time. If we're to make any progress as a nation, we need markets in education. We need things like pay, faculty, staff, and curricula determined not by politicians, but by what people want. We do not need government dictates or corporate sponsorship to unions or taxpayer funds to create good schools. What we do need is a radical departure from the status quo; the liberty to experiment with education how we please in an environment unfettered to the greatest extent possible by government red tape. To talk of anything else is to ignore the root of the problem and as such will guarantee repeats of the Madison spectacle in the future.

The ideal transition from government control to private control would likely take decades, but it would be worth it to the generations of children that can be free of today's educational paradigms. Even though it's far beyond today's horizon, it's worthy of public debate- much more so than who should blink first in the contest between state governments and teacher unions. Our children deserve better.