A financial ledger has two sides, debit and credit – or more simply, spending and revenue; you either put into it or take out of it; debit (debt) is the difference, when spending is greater than earning.
So we look at the current problem with government; if spending exceeds revenue, we have debt. So if there is debt, what is the cause? Duh! spending is greater than revenue: outflow>inflow. So when the government is experiencing a debt situation, what is the cause? outflow>inflow. So if we wish to balance the budget, what do we do? make outflow=input. In this case outflow is spending; and input is revenue, gained through taxing taxpayers, who might be citizens or businesses, or whatever is being taxed however it may be collected. So when there is a debt imbalance we must either increase income or decrease expenditure. QED, finance 101. Not too difficult. Although borrowing for long range expenditure, such as Defense and incurred obligations for Social security do add complication we won’t go into that; both are planned and funded (supposedly) debt.
Why does government seem to have such a problem dealing with that concept? They do not want to decrease expenditure and they are afraid to increase taxes; why? Economics 101 or maybe 201 suggest that increasing taxes, has to introduce a third factor to do it: the third factor being revenue for the entities paying taxes; if it remains the same – that is, if the amount of money available to tax payers remains the same, individual tax rates remain the same; but if tax rates are increased, tax payers will be making less after the next round of higher taxes.
What would generate a boost in GDP (Gross Domestic Product)? More revenue for the economy, them what are taxed, and also spend. Let’s assume it stays the same. If GDP remains the same, there is no additional revenue for taxpayers, and they pay the same taxes; but if GDP stays the same and there is a tax increase, they will have to pay more taxes from the same amount of revenue, meaning more for the government and less for them. Taxpayers take a dim view of that; taxpayers vote AND tax payers also donate money to political campaigns, and when taxes go up, and what’s left after taxes go down, they tend to resist. Also not too complex, if simplified. Of course it is more complex when one brings in business lobbying and political action groups, but lets’ keep it simple; lobbying and PACs are another matter for discussion elsewhere.
Government has incentive not to increase taxes, so what does it do? quandary. Duh. Decrease spending? Oh, no; why not? That is also a rather weighty question, with lots of discussion needed, so let’s just keep it simple and say because those citizens who do not pay taxes, due to insufficient income to require them to do so, do not want to see the income they do receive, that which comes from government payouts to them (spending), to decrease. Bring in tax breaks, favoritism and lobbying and it comes much more complex, so let’s not go there.
What is different about that and a personal ledger of accounts: income, spending and debt? There are some differences, and they also can become complex: individuals may have cash, checking accounts and savings accounts and they look at them differently, although they are all parts of the same pot, even if they don’t look at savings in quite the same way. But they also might have investments that for convenience we will lump together with savings. Is that all? No, they might also have individual debt vehicles, the most familiar of which are credit cards and loans, both of which require payment of interest during the time that it takes to pay them off; so payment of interest on credit cards and loans is expenditure and interest payments are income.
In addition to that, of course, individuals also have money coming in from whatever other other source they might have; and the difference between total income and total expenditure is either excess (call it savings) or debt (when it comes up short). But, and here is the big modern but, we have credit cards that we use as if they were revenue; actually we spend it as if we had it: money; it isn’t. The key words are as if, because it is actually expenditure (spending, paying for the privilege of having the credit card and paying interest). We can’t have it both ways, but we can forget that spending done on a credit card logs on the ledger as debt. Suddenly the check book looks fine until the bill for the credit card comes due; but one can pay it off in increments, that is, only a partial payment. So to know the true ledger situation one must keep credit card expenditure (which becomes debt and builds with interest for amounts not paid) in mind, adding unpaid balances to any check book deficit. But who even has check book deficit (or lack of money for that matter) when all one has to do is buy with a credit card?
There really is no difference between government debt and individual debt if credit care debt is factored in. Government debt is usually in the form of bonds sold (which are loans to the government) and therefore debt owed to investors, but including interest that have to be paid on them to the investors, which becomes income for them. So when government takes on debt (bonds) investors receive income (bond interest) and that drives up GDP that results in higher income for government through higher gross tax revenues. Everyone is happy – until the government debt and the credit card debt start to grow – and grow. So individuals let credit card debt grow with little regard, and government lets its debt grow as taxes, not due to tax rate increases, but due to higher tax revenue from investment income. Sort all that out and the government is ok (until someone notices its growing levels of debt) due to higher tax revenues and investors are ok because stock prices are going up and interest returns are high, even though there are also higher investor taxes as a result; and the rest of us are screwed; that is, those that do not have higher and higher investment income. Raise tax rates and the little guy gets just a little more screwed. So the GDP goes up, investors get rich and when tax rates or prices go up there is squeeze in the middle that results in lost jobs. But then lost jobs results in higher welfare payments AND less revenue among workers for spending, resulting in stagnant or lower GDP.
Add to that add the fact that much of what makes BIG money investment possible is zero rate exchange rates between lenders (Fed exchange rates), which results in very low interest rates on BIG investment loans that fuel the stock market rise – until the amount of market-place spending begins to drop and shows up as reduced GDP with generated calls for higher tax rates; that, of course often results in job losses. But then lower interest rates on bonds come about for the same reasons, and bonds investment interest for the little guys who buy government bonds goes down too.
And this doesn’t even take into consideration the possible gaming the system games that can be played among the BIGS, including BIG government and BIG business in the process, which have all kinds of ramifications. And this is the simplified version. If I haven’t missed something it is something like a ponzi scheme. But they tell us the result is that a higher tide floats all boats higher. Maybe though, just maybe, that comes about through inflation. And inflation ends up screwing everyone.
If you can get your mind around all that, and if I haven’t missed something, there really is much to think about.
I am a big fan of The Constitution and Federalism; because The Constitution is a statement of principles, much as the significant parts of the New Testament are a presentation of important principles; and Federalism is diffusion of power, with emphasis on community and more direct government at the local level (other than that defined in The Constitution) seems to me a better and more effective way to go.
This is a point of disagreement today, where bigger government adherents take a different view. But then, and I have written this before: elites in general tend to become more comfortable with their judgments, because they consider themselves better informed; and they are, but that doesn’t always make them right, particularly since right can vary among constituencies, is often situational, and not even always agreed upon among elites. That’s why the founders opted for checks, balances and separation, not because it’s more efficient, but because it forces consideration, particularly among citizens, who, although not always fonts of wisdom, often have perspectives that bear listening to. Compromise is messy and disruptive, but necessary to maintain balance among constituencies and factions, if effectively administered. That, of course, is the challenge, and it’s not met easily; it takes time and careful development of institutions such as rule of law and free enterprise to bring to fruition.
But people are not patient, and they are highly opinionated, short sighted and argumentative; which is why democratic republicanism is messy. And history, recognizing that, has sided with aristocratic (however defined at the moment) elite who prefer to dictate the way things should be, and by-pass the messiness; although history also shows that often those same elites generated their own kind of selfish messiness that often ended up being even messier. We are currently seeing the worst of both kinds of messiness, as tribal entities fight in the Balkans, Africa and Central Asia; and within democratically elected nation states to see whether order or chaos ensues. The outcome is not obvious in either scenario.
But that is only preamble to what I wish to address, and that is need for emphasis on friends, family and community which is the ultimate mix, or intended mix, of Federalism as well as the fodder of The Constitution. It is apparently a challenge upon which we have been slipping, or a concept we are having trouble keeping in focus. Nor is it an easy challenge to confront effectively. Bigness, complexity, mobility and rapid technological development are working against us. But by the same token, is complexity, mobility and rapid technological development something possible to deal with at a national level that generates it? There is argument. I side with managed Federalism, managed via The Constitution, as opposed to centralized control of that which is, in my opinion, beyond reasonable expectation of being within the realm of reality.
I take this position because I think I see the seeds of our dissolution in attempts to try and dictate all things with detailed rules at a centralized level for all people. And I defend it by pointing to what is happening to friend, family and community, which I see as the critical aspects of effective governing.
Confusing? Friends, family and community are what holds it all together, and the larger the crucible in which this is intended, the more difficulty we experience in being able to do that, which is the problem being confronted all over the world. Note the extremes, however: a small group, family or tribe for example, is easier to make into community but makes for a larger mix of groups when brought together in a larger whole; whereas a larger whole shifts the challenge to having a larger number of communities to form into the community that comprises the larger whole. So at the world’s inception small independent community groups were what developed, and for the most part maintained, for a long period of time. But as those communities were melded into larger entities there was likely to be more friction between communities within the larger entity. So, we just keep the communities small and separated? that doesn’t work because they won’t stay separated as each encroaches upon its neighbors. And growth is inevitable; growth within many small communities or growth due to consolidation among the smaller communities? It doesn’t really matter because either kind of growth leads to friction; besides, smaller communities have trouble in maintaining themselves against the greed and power of larger communities, as long as the larger communities can remain cohesive. And here is where we are: break up large states into community pieces where they can get along, or let them coalesce and then make them get along? Either can work if all can work together, but that’s not human nature: they cannot and will not, in either format; or that has been what history shows us.
Democratic republics were thought to be the answer, and could be if each was cohesive and all were equal. But they aren’t, and even if they started out sorted that way they wouldn’t stay that way, for all kinds of reasons that are not difficult to discern. One we are seeing is break ups of larger states into their smaller community entities; that takes us back to the opportunity for bigs to gobble up the littles. The other we see is when the littles are brought back together to become big again the basic problem is not solved, and it starts all over again.
The problem, of course, is people and definition of what makes community from groups of families and friends; what brings them together to make community? We immediately see the propensity of people to want to sort themselves into homogeneous groups, by race, ethnicity, interests or income, to mention but a few. We seem to prefer to sort into groups that are all like us, and that inevitably takes us back to where we started, and even if it were possible, it is not practical.
So we have to deal with both different size states with various degrees of internal congeniality. And trying to sort them back out, however it is attempted is both challenging and contentious, especially when there is intermarriage and the different groups become unsortable. So what do we do? What we have done, with difficulty. What is the answer? For everyone just to live together in peace and community! Yes, community is the answer, but as we have seen, building communities in the world of reality, with different realities is very, very difficult, and always will be; it is human nature.
Our Constitution and the Federalism it embodies is the best solution yet found, for obvious reasons – the same reasons we began with: but even if we could sort effectively, people don’t stay sorted. Federalism within an integrated whole governed by a constitution allows the best change, but doesn’t ensure it. It is an effective grouping of communities that have chosen to be so, that are small enough to be governed as such, by principles and separation of powers between what the communities control and what is required to control the communities.
Which I why I began with a heading of friends, family and community. But which is why it is the challenge that it is. The mix of community changes because people move, and change. The challenges of sorting our what is community responsibility and what is central control responsibility also changes, continually, with movement, both physical and commercial among the communities; as well as dealing with all the inevitable disagreements that will ensue. Read the history of the development of the world’s most effective democratic republic, what it entailed and how it is changing, and you will begin to see first why we have problems today, and second the difficulty of evolving it – and then realize how it continues to evolve, and probably will always.
And we expect other groups of communities to emulate this over night, by creating “democracies” based solely on voting for their leaders? We can’t even agree to how our own should continue to evolve, with some apparently content to go back to where it all started, either as autonomous communities or highly controlled (but no less contentious) centrally controlled conglomerations of subjugated individuals. Neither police state nor anarchy can work effectively – or be acceptable to the governed. So where is the moderate mix? We came close for awhile, perhaps because we were smaller, and more homogeneous, but seem to be drifting away from that, mostly because of people, selfish interests and desire for power. The people, selfish interests and desire for power are not going to go away, nor will an optimum homogeneity of community ever exist again, if it ever did exist, as our world and our nations necessarily change. So whence?
We must beware, because it is not obvious that we know how we got here, even where we are, or understand the ramifications of making great changes that could easily result in unintended consequences; and we are not good at seeing into the future to glean what those unintended consequences might be and how they might arise, especially in a world that is changing about us rapidly – and full of people who have forgotten or no longer care about what friend, family and community even is.
The challenge is obvious; the solution is less so. It will never be easy.
Things used to be fairly simple “back then” – or at least seemed so. They are certainly not now. Self- interest still ruled, as Professor Tytler, and others, assured us it would, and it still does and always will, but today there is a growing question of whether “we” even know what our own self interest is. Complexity has much to do with that. Big propaganda, backed by special interests and Big media fan the flames, but then today self-interest is more often intrinsically associated with special interests and media, because that’s where people get their information – propaganda? Hey, nothing new, just more complex. Ignorance is surely nothing new, and complacency has to do with an over supply of information: too much to assimilate and understand, so don’t bother me; what can I do about it anyway?
This is not a new theme for me, but I think I am beginning to understand it more. Case in point: I have seen my weblog statistics for views increasing; interesting; not, I was sure, because of any great contribution I might have suddenly made, so why? Turns out that about half the “hits” come from a site named Semalt. And what is that? Turns out it is a data mining site that collects “hits” to pump their value to commercial websites vis a vis advertising potential; they are allegedly based in the Ukraine, but may have studios in the Netherlands. Is that complex enough? What they are interested in collecting data on is not me, as I have no advertising potential and sell no products for that matter. But the commercial websites are not happy because it skews their data, so they are seeking advice as to how to change code to block out Semalt; not happy, they claim, because it is screwing up their data by exaggerating hits. Talk about complexity. And talk about big….and well, I have made that point.
But it doesn’t stop with that; I have also seen lists of links on Big Internet searches change such that the ones I am looking for are not always in the same place. Why? I surmise that it must be to entice me to click on links THEY want me to click on, so as to take me to new “opportunities” for them to display products to buy; some of which are influences by paying Big money to get it done. And stores moving merchandise around? Could that have similar motivation? We are, after all, creatures of habit, and forcing us out of habit might, just might, create new sales opportunities – for the stores, or whatever.
So how does that relate to the subject with which I began? Is is not a different aspect of the same phenomenon? It seems so to me, but then I am a skeptic, and feel an increasing need to be, because with increasing complexity and BIG influence I feel I need to do everything I can to minimize my ignorance and avoid complacency – to protect myself and that in which I believe. I am learning that being more aware is the place to begin.
Might I suggest that this is the direction our economy – our culture – is taking? Complexity, Big, Ignorance and Complacency. And what can I do about it, is part of the challenge: we first have to begin with self. And the place to begin is understanding what is happening.
So here is another aspect with which I was recently hit: friendship. What is that worth? A great deal, and with the increased complexity and bigness friendship is becoming more and more illusive; we understand that more as we grow older and understand the real meaning of friendship, not only at the family level, which is important enough, but at the social level, where sincere exchange of ideas are important, and opportunities for it, though nominally expanding exponentially, are shrinking in reality. That is becoming more and more challenging, for many reasons, of which bigness is one, but a growing dissipation of community is another. We all need friends, but some of us don’t even realize what that means anymore, and it becomes more and more acute as people move away; and the most important friendship we have, our compact of marriage partnership disappears, either through death or disruption, for which there are more and more causes, and increasingly problematic results. We need friends to deal with new reality, and family, all levels of it are critical, and increasingly being threatened.
So what really is the new reality? We all have our own understanding, deal with it differently and are variously effected. It is just another of those many things we need to think about – and confront. Our future, individually and collectively, will depend on how effectively we do it.
I am no expert on power, nor do I purport to have any earth shaking insight regarding it. I am merely an observer, and rather than trying to absorb what I am writing you should think about it, weigh it from your own vantage point and think about it. Has power changed? everything has changed, and will continue to do so. Has power remained the same? yes, it has, power, and the hunger for it is what it has always been.
So, one might ask, power for what? Whatever. There are as many power lusts as there are……….name something, anything. There is power everywhere, even among children on the playground, and go on from there. Power for what? To dominate, to influence, to coerce, to lead, to cause others to do whatever the power seeker might want them to do. And the flip side is that there are those, many, who respond to it, and allow themselves to be pushed, pulled, driven, enticed in the direction the wielder of power would have them be pushed.
When we think of power, political power, military power, even industrial power come to mind. But what of economic power? the power to entice consumers to consume. Isn’t that what advertising is designed and employed to do? I have been intrigued by the soft power I have recently experienced in the field of consumer “pressure.” I seldom answer the telephone unless I recognize the caller; but what of the caller who begins with your name, calling it out in such a way as to make you think it is someone you know? Is that not application of soft power? It has been brought to my attention that stores even continually move their displayed merchandise around; is that not a veiled attempt to wield power? And I think I have seen links moved around on line, almost continually, to entice me to click on one the location of which I have habituated, to make me access something else that THEY want me to access. Power, the very word, brings visions of strength, even explosive strength; but power need not be so. Much of the power of propaganda is quite the opposite. Power can be exerted in many ways – and is.
And propaganda is a good example of the use of power, both in commerce and in other areas of trying to convince. Political campaigns come to mind; and of course what they attempt to do is power targets to accept the message, and vote the way propagandists want them to vote. To what end? To bring big P power to their candidate of course. And so what is big P power? That which when wielded can achieve big R results; which are? whatever the wielder wants them to be. But in the end, and you can argue with this, what the wielder wants is always something important to him, or her. More power? More influence? Something for friends and companies, voters and taxpayers, posterity, reputation – or self? Power always has an objective, and there are no ends to the objectives to which they are employed.
So why is power, and the desire for it, so ubiquitous? because that is us; we have a desire, a need, to wield power over others. And that’s bad? Not necessarily, some such power is necessary to get anything done, even to get the kids to wash their dishes and make their beds. And how that power is wielded also takes many forms, as many forms as their are people wielding. But some wield and some succumb, right? That’s too simple. Some are more effective wielding, and some are more willing to yield to it, but we all attempt to wield power in our own way, at our own level, in any way we can – even in peer discussion; is not argument attempting to wield power? Even recommending is an attempt, albeit soft, to wield power.
It is everywhere you choose to look, and in everything we do. Governments? schools? clubs? families? businesses? the work place? Even babies try to wield power, in their own way, don’t they? Is whining an attempt to wield power? Scowling? O.k., you might say, too much. Perhaps, but it is useful to understand the ubiquitous of the quest for power.
And having once understood that, think about how that only increases with the level of the power gained and being sought? Big Power? Bog results. Big ambition? Big risks? Big opportunities. And having said that, think of bigness as it applies to power application.
Power, one might say, is what is what life is all about. Even, I might add, in the application of the power for good. When we lead by powerful example is that not attempt to exert soft power for good? That is not only positive, it is necessary, if our lives are to achieve the level of which they are capable.
We talk of the democratic republicanism that is America as power of the people; it is, but I suggest it would be more appropriate to call it the responsibility of the people to keep power of the governing elite within bounds. The elite, as history constantly shows us, loves power, and think they deserve it, as, we must admit, most of us do. But most of us do not have the ability to achieve overwhelming power; those in elite positions of governing do, and sometimes allow themselves license in that regard; the old saying, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Power of the people is keeping that from happening. We have corrupted that concept to something we bandy about as equality; what it was intended to be is equality before the law, or more simply, sharing of power.
Shared power, of course, is complex, as people are complex; that is why our form of government is such an important experiment for mankind: just what does it take for man to share in governing himself, without devolving into anarchy? We have done far better than most, with attendant difficulty, and backsliding; there will be more as we constantly adjust to managing power among us. It is a challenge the enormity of which too many of us do not even understand, since we have trouble even managing power at much lower levels – even one on one individual levels. Power is heady stuff, and takes continual management – at all levels, including that which must exist at the very top, if we are continue at least the level of success we have so far enjoyed. THAT is power of the people.
Renewing the American Idea
U.S. House of Representatives
PAUL RYAN is the United States Representative for Wisconsin’s First Congressional District, where he was first elected in 1998. He is the chairman of the House Budget Committee and a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee. A lifelong resident of Wisconsin, Ryan holds a degree in economics and political science from Miami University in Ohio.
The following is adapted from an Independence Day Address delivered on July 15, 2014, at Hillsdale College’s Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, D.C.
You might think it’s a little late to give an Independence Day address, but New York’s delegates to the Continental Congress didn’t vote to approve the Declaration of Independence until July 15. So I’d like to think I’m fashionably late—or as they’d say in New York, “right on time.” But the topic is always timely, because the Declaration of Independence remains the defining statement of the American Idea and the greatest political statement of human liberty.
We all know the stories about how the American Revolution was a difficult and often desperate struggle. But we forget in hindsight how unlikely it was that our forefathers would succeed. Many times defeat seemed all but inevitable. Yet that small band of patriot-statesmen achieved victory against a long-established ruler of seemingly unlimited power and authority. They did so by remaining dedicated to America’s cause and to each other . . . fighting hard at every turn . . . knowing that their success or failure would determine whether they, or possibly any people, would ever fight again for the great cause of self-government.
America has survived many great trials, and it has prospered and endured. I believe we are in a period of great trial again. Yet I am confident that our country can survive, prosper, and endure for generations to come. But all this depends—as it did in the spring of 1776, and in the fall of 1860, and at the end of 1941—on how we act to shape the course of events.
On the surface, the problem seems obvious: Our current president treats the rule of law like a rule of thumb. But look more closely, and you’ll see the problem isn’t this president—or at least not only this president. When he leaves office, there will be plenty of politicians like him ready to take his place. All he’s done is continue to empower a certain governing philosophy—one at odds with our Founding principles. This governing philosophy has been gaining ground for a very long time, and continues to do so. The point is, the opponents of American conservatism see politics as a long-term project; we conservatives need to do the same.
In everything we do—in every policy we propose—we need to renew the American Idea. Conservatism in our nation is not about the past. It’s not a misty-eyed nostalgia for a world that’s come and gone. And it’s not a skittish disposition to “go it slow”—to tinker around the edges. Nor is American conservatism about blind opposition to government. For sure, government today is too big, bureaucratic, inefficient, and unaccountable. But we must not jettison the very rule of law that shields our liberty. No, American conservatism is about conserving something—principles that are timeless because they are true—to be renewed and applied in our time.
What is the American Idea? In short, it is self-government under the rule of law. It is rooted in our respect for the rights with which we are each endowed, a respect that shapes a society where every person can work hard, achieve success, and advance in life. For almost all of human history, a very different idea reigned supreme: the idea that people are fundamentally unequal, some born to rule and others to obey. Almost all were subjects or serfs—shorn of all distinction and with no ability to move up in the world or to provide a better future for their children. America’s Founders rebelled against this. They declared that human beings are created equal, with unalienable rights that come from God. They declared that government is legitimate only if it secures these rights. They were the first to announce to the world—and then to prove by their example—that the best government rests on the consent of the governed.
Proving it by example wasn’t easy. The Founders’ first attempt at organizing a government—under the Articles of Confederation—failed. So they produced a new Constitution that both strengthened and limited the federal government. It gave Congress power to legislate for the common good. But it also gave the president and the courts power to push back when Congress overreached—and vice versa. The very structure of the federal government was a vindication of self-government—the three branches would control each other so that none of them could control the people. Limiting the powers of government and allowing the associations of civil society to flourish would make safety and security, self-government and liberty, comfort and prosperity accessible to everyone.
So in addition to our birth certificate, the Founders gave us the blueprint for a free society: a set of unchanging principles, as well as a framework of government for a growing nation. But it was more than a set of abstract ideas and a procedural code of law. Our Declaration and our Constitution define nothing less than a way of life for a people—a free people of good character, who would labor for themselves, their families, and their communities, grateful to the Creator for their rights, and committed to providing the blessings of liberty to their posterity.
The Founders disagreed among themselves about many particulars in the Constitution. No sooner had it gone into effect than they added a Bill of Rights. Each generation struggled with different issues. Could Congress create a bank? Could the president buy Louisiana? Could the federal government build roads and bridges? But there was one thing on which they all agreed: The Constitution was our guide and the Declaration our North Star. And the Constitution endured because it allowed prudent statesmen to make wise decisions that preserved self-government under the rule of law.
There was one massive injustice left unsolved by the Founding generation: slavery. All the leading Founders knew well that slavery was wrong. But they also knew they couldn’t end it there and then and still hold the Union together. That work fell to Abraham Lincoln. He accomplished this not by departing from the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution, but by returning to them. In the struggle of the Civil War, the Declaration defined the high ground, and the Constitution proved powerful enough to reunite a shattered nation. Completed with three postwar Amendments, the Constitution emancipated and secured citizenship for millions.
Having endured for over 100 years, the Constitution was a victim of its own success. As our cities grew more crowded—and our economy more prosperous and unpredictable—some came to believe the Constitution was obsolete. For the first time, it was said that we needed a wholesale change. The Founding project was over, some argued, and the age of “administration” had begun. Newer and more complicated times called for a “living” Constitution, one whose meaning did not rest on fixed principles but changed according to the prevailing winds of time. In this Progressive vision, self-government should give way to technical expertise, to professional bureaucrats governing according to centralized plans.
The Founders believed in the ability of men and women to govern themselves and distrusted unchecked power, which is why they limited government and promoted a robust civil society. Progressives believed in a much larger and more active central government that reaches further and further into our lives and shrinks the scope of civil society. Unfortunately, through fits and starts over the course of the 20th century, the Progressive view came to dominate the modern Democratic Party—and to cloud Republican thinking as well. This is the core problem we face today.
The American Idea has not been rejected. Far from it: The Progressive counter-vision has never commanded a settled majority. Americans embrace some programs first championed by Progressives, but reject others. They accept many aspects of modern government, while still insisting on individual rights and constitutional forms. They have never consented to have their lives micromanaged by bureaucrats.
So how should American conservatives proceed? We must begin by recognizing practical reality, but at the same time move—sometimes coaxing, sometimes pushing—toward the enduring principles to which we are dedicated. Maneuvering in the sea of politics, we will sometimes be forced to tack—but must always be guided by and steer toward our fixed North Star.
Self-government under the rule of law—which rests upon the fact that we are endowed equally with fundamental rights—is the touchstone of American conservatism. Keeping it always in mind will allow us to identify measures that conform to the American Idea, as well as those that weaken or conflict with the American Idea. It provides us a sure guide for reform.
Here’s a practical distinction: There is a difference in principle—a clear bright line—between two kinds of government programs. On the one hand, there are those that can be repaired and restructured within the bounds of limited government. Let’s review those, and seek to reform and upgrade them, making them more efficient through market mechanisms, more decentralized and transparent, more fiscally sound and more conducive to self-government.
On the other hand, some government programs require massive bureaucracies to direct large segments of our society and economy through arbitrary regulations that increase uncertainty and insecurity. These programs, which have resulted in a hodgepodge of boards and commissions with uncertain responsibilities and unaccountable decision-making, undermine self-government. The way they operate also creates relationships between government and money that encourage cronyism and breed political corruption. More and more Americans are right to see these programs as threats to their freedom. They are incompatible with the American Idea, and they must be rejected.
The American Idea imposes a duty to oppose programs that subvert popular government and impose bureaucratic rule. These programs and their administrative forms—leading examples are Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial apparatus—cannot be reformed and restructured, but must be ended or, if we choose, replaced by something completely different and consistent with popular consent and self-government. No reform is possible without recognizing this problem. No reform is worth pursuing that does not turn against this rule and take us on the path of renewal.
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Now, the Progressives were right about something: The country was crying out for a national safety net, especially following the Great Depression. Americans agreed that we should pool our resources to protect hardworking families. And yes, they wanted smart, talented people to run the federal government. But they didn’t want those smart, talented people to run their lives. They wanted to enlist the federal government in the service of self-government. They didn’t want to turn over the keys.
Progressives didn’t respect this distinction. Once they got their foot in the door, they kept pushing. First there was the New Deal, then the Fair Deal, then the Great Society. In 2008, they saw another opening. This was their chance to cement the Progressive philosophy into place. They characterized what they were doing as a logical extension of the safety net. If you liked Medicare, they said, you’ll love Obamacare. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, the people resisted. And the Left is baffled.
Here’s the difference: Everybody understands the safety net, and everybody benefits from it. Take Social Security. We all know how it works—or at least how it’s supposed to work. When you’re working, you pay in. And when you’re retired, it pays out. It’s the same thing with Medicare—simple, straightforward. Everybody gets old. Everybody gets sick. And so everybody contributes in exchange for a secure retirement. Most people think that’s a fair trade. And I agree.
The Affordable Care Act is a completely different kind of program. Nobody understands it, and it makes everyone anxious. If you listened to the sales pitch, it seemed simple enough: Every business with over 50 full-time employees must offer health insurance—period. Or, as it turned out, maybe not—maybe you can get a delay . . . or a waiver . . . or an exemption. How do you get these things? Nobody knows. The administration makes decisions on the fly, so the law changes every day. Under Obamacare, an autonomous board called IPAB decides what kind of care those on Medicare will receive in the future. Bureaucrats are calling the shots and running the show.
Or take Dodd-Frank. Some say it’s like deposit insurance. But deposit insurance protects the little guy. Dodd–Frank protects the big guys—the biggest, most powerful financial institutions in the country. The result is predictable: Big banks get bigger and small banks get fewer. More insidious is that this law vastly expands the power of bureaucrats to take over the daily operations of any large financial institution they deem to be in trouble. Thus the skepticism.
In short, the difference between the safety net and the Progressive bureaucracy is the difference between fair play and playing favorites.
The safety net jibes with self-government; the Progressive agenda does not. The safety net gives people more control over their lives, while the Progressive agenda takes that control away. And there’s a key underlying principle: The reason you have more control with the safety net is that you earned it. You paid in. You made the difference. That’s the very heart of self-government: We the people are the masters of our fate. We can improve our lot by dint of our own efforts—by working together of our own free will. Nobody has to force us or oversee us. Earned success and earned security go hand in hand.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Everything wasn’t hunky-dory until this president came to town. Social Security and Medicare have been going broke for years. Politicians have made promises they couldn’t keep, and the bill is about to come due. We conservatives must be committed to strengthening these programs—because that’s what hardworking taxpayers have expressed a desire for in election after election, and it is what they deserve. Limited government with popular consent is the principle we’re trying to uphold.
Every idea I’ve proposed would give people more control over their future. They paid in all these years so they would have health insurance. Why not let them choose their health insurance? More choice means more freedom. The conservative argument isn’t just that reducing bureaucracy is more efficient—it’s that it increases self-government. And the argument against the Progressive agenda isn’t just that it’s more expensive—it’s that it undermines self-government.
This is a key distinction—one we need to keep in mind—because there’s another fallacy popular among conservative ranks. Just as some think that anything government does is wrong, others seem to think that anything business does is right. But in fact, they’re two sides of the same coin. Both big government and big business like to stack the deck in their favor. And though they are sometimes adversaries, they are far too often allies.
Bureaucrats favor big business over the upstarts. Large companies are more predictable—and easier to control. So government tips the scales in their favor, instead of letting competition sort things out. And big business is a willing accomplice—because regulation keeps the competition out. Many times, large corporations don’t oppose new regulations; indeed, they help write them. The point is, crony capitalism isn’t a side effect—it’s a direct result of big government.
We can see the consequences throughout our economy. It used to be that only the success stories were household names. Now the failures are: Solyndra, Fisker, Tesla. Big businessmen spend less and less time hustling in the marketplace, and more and more time lining the halls of government. And of course bureaucrats as well as businessmen take part in this culture of double standards. Consider the IRS. It requires every family to keep seven years’ worth of tax records, but it can’t keep six months’ worth of emails. It’s a disgrace.
The American Founders would not recognize in this stratified system a truly open market of commerce. It isn’t open. It isn’t equal in opportunity. It isn’t producing equitable profit growth or hope for those at the bottom of the ladder. It isn’t driven by markets seeking to satisfy people’s needs—it is driven by experts, calculus, wealth, and preference.
Congressman Jeb Hensarling has recently launched a great challenge against the crony capitalist economy, and in particular against the Export-Import Bank. This bank is just one example of how bureaucratic government is corrupting free enterprise. Conservatives must stop defending it. Cronyism is the Progressives’ tool for economic control. Let them defend it.
Finally, there is a temptation among conservatives to ask courts to intervene and solve our problems for us. Some of us think of judges the way Progressives think of bureaucrats: technical experts with the solutions to constitutional conflicts. But we can’t rely on the courts alone to defend our rights. Judges, like bureaucrats, are often the problem. It is true the Supreme Court can be an ally in conflicts involving the Constitution; but it can also be an adversary. So let’s remember that under our Constitution of self-government, the court that really counts is the court of public opinion, where the American people hand down their verdict each election day.
To bring the argument full circle, let us never forget that a people who claim the right of self-government are always on trial. Out of our first trial, during the Revolutionary era, we adopted the greatest and longest surviving Constitution ever written. We were tried in a great Civil War, in two World Wars, during depressions and inflations, and we survived and prospered. Every effort to stamp out American self-government has been defeated . . . so far. Will we now prevail again?
Nothing in history is inevitable. If we are to get through our current trial, as we have done in the past, it will be by the use of our wits and through tremendous effort. In this sense, the Constitution isn’t a living document so much as a life-giving document. It gives purpose and direction to our way of life as a free people. Let us remain committed to the American Idea. With the inherent good sense of the American people, we can, we must—and I believe we will—get through this great trial together, freer and stronger than ever before.
The Problem of Big
President, Heritage Foundation
Former U.S. Senator
Hillsdale College President Larry P. Arnn and Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint sat down to discuss Senator DeMint’s new book, Falling in Love With America Again, at the College’s Kirby Center in Washington, D.C., on April 21, 2014. The following is an excerpt from that book.
So long as there are only two ways to get ahead—the legitimate way, which leads to earned success, and the illegitimate way, which leads to unearned success or, if things go wrong, to jail—the system of freedom and responsibility we call democratic capitalism works very well.
As a rule, people who make good choices (who work hard, play by the rules, and live within their means) succeed, and people who make bad choices (who don’t work hard, don’t play by the rules, and live beyond their means) fail.
This goes for institutions large and small, and for people powerful and weak. The rules for all of us start with the law and, ultimately, the U.S. Constitution.
One of the problems of Big—a Big is an organization that has reached such a size that its continued existence and success is no longer contingent upon its quality of service; this dubious distinction finds its highest manifestation in our bloated government—is that it creates a third option: neither obeying the rules nor breaking the rules, but changing the rules as you go. That’s what happens in cronyism, which is in effect legal cheating. Emphasis on the legal.
That is one of the most frustrating aspects of the crisis of Big: Most of the time there is no crime to prosecute. The institutions change the rules, so what would have been cheating, and what many people see as cheating, is actually blessed by the state. The transactions of crony capitalism—campaign contributions on the one side, policy changes on the other—are all perfectly legal.
This is why so much of the criticism of special interests as such is incomplete, or even misdirected. Attacking special interests for accepting government favors is like criticizing a four-year-old for eating ice cream for breakfast. The proper targets of criticism are not the beneficiaries of the bad policy, but those in charge who acquiesce to their requests—the government agencies that provide the favors; the parents who allow their kids to eat whatever they want.
When government officials change policies to benefit special interests, the responsibility for the “cheating” lies with the officials, not the special interests. They, after all, are only playing by the rules the government sets. As long as politicians effectively put the rules of the game up for sale, it’s hard to fault people for trying to buy or rent them.
. . . Despite all the promises you hear from politicians, big government does not really help the little guy. Big government fosters big business, big unions, and big costs to taxpayers. Big government and its big partners rob individuals and our nation of freedom, opportunity, and prosperity.
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Remember that ancient old concept? Shows you how long I have been kicking around; and how out of touch I am. What is merit? To some I think it smacks of unfairness. To others it is adequately addressed with the word entitlement. But then there are college degrees; are they not prima facie evidence of merit? And those that think it all ought to be addressed by government jobs, and that they ought to be available to all. Unfair? I am the first to admit it; there are many out there that still understand and appreciate merit, and associate is as they should with initiative, motivation, effort and all that entails; there are even many, more than one might think, who take pride in and identify themselves with what they can do and how well they can do it. But how many of them today are being looked down upon, or even look down upon themselves, today, because they don’t make ENOUGH money doing it, or it lacks enough “prestige” or just doesn’t provide an ADEQUATE life style? Am I exaggerating; perhaps I am; but what of those being looked down upon?
Meritocracy used to be associated with what an individual, including his/her family of course, did for themselves, to prepare themselves for the challenge of life. Some of that meant looking inward and finding out what was possible, and what fit; we are all neither the same nor adapted to doing the same things, and must find what works for us. I contend that too often in these modern times “we” just sit back and wait for it, expectantly, to come to us; even thinking that perhaps it is the responsibility of the government to find it for us. Is that not what some of our expectations of school are: just showing up and getting our heads full of whatever it is we might need? And without any particular EFFORT on our parts?
Merit does not just happen. Let’s check Oxford: ah, the first half of definitions have to do with the value of SOMETHING; ok, that’s one meaning; finally, merit system: a policy of hiring and promoting (esp. public) employees based on their abilities rather than political favoritism, seniority, etc. on its merits with regard only to its intrinsic worth.
Worth, value. But how does one achieve worth – or even ability? Was a regal prince “worthy” merely because of the accident of his birth? History suggests that he was. How about the son of the owner of a company that created and brought it to success? History favored that too. So what is different with meritocracy?
I suggest that the difference is that we, in our democratic republic, with liberty, freedom of choice, free enterprise and initiative could achieve it through hard work and diligence. Is that still the case? Do we even see it in those terms? The key word is achieve; how does one go about “achieving?” It was once said that success (achievement?) is one part inspiration and 99 parts perspiration; so we still believe that in our technology dominated culture? Perspiration? What a crude concept. No wonder meritocracy has lost so much of its significance; perspiration is GROSS. Achieving does not just happen, it results from building upon one’s capabilities, whatever they might be, and they vary widely. First we have to figure out what they are, both our own and those of for whom we might be responsible for nurturing and teaching; then we have to nurture and teach: both those for whom we are responsible and ourselves. Responsible is a big word on many levels; without it, truthfully, not a great deal is accomplished – or achieved.
Is there really all that much that goes into meritocracy when seen in those terms? So what’s wrong with meritocracy? Ah, it takes responsibility, initiative to build experience through studying and DOING; studying only prepares us to do; experience in doing is what develops ability to do, and skill in doing. And a little perspiration? Ok even mental perspiration if one can conceive what that might entail. Sweat equity.
It was a very good concept – and can be still.
Third world – chaos? Clutter? More important is lack of trust – justifiable lack of trust. So we are paragons of trust? Ain’t no paragons of trust, trust is always a concern. So what brings trust?
That’s a tough one: what brings trust? Trust brings trust, or maybe trust brings mutual trust. And what generates the feeling of trust? Responsibility, honesty, reliability, even consistency. But realization that trust begets trust partly comes from the fact that development of trust is self-serving, meaning that good things come to those that generate trust. That’s the way commerce began on the Silk Road in Central Asia during antiquity; they found that without trust there was no trade, no trade, no money, no money and….well, we all know about that.
So what’s happened to trust? Complicated. Bigness is part of it; trust comes from knowing and understanding those with whom we are dealing, and as community is severed and strangers take its place it all becomes more difficult. Mobility does too; not only are they not community, strangers may not even be around when we turn around to look for them. But the information, that chaotic rush of continual information, also breeds mistrust, first because we don’t know who to believe, but second the reliability of the information is becoming more and more suspect; the word propaganda comes to mind. Too many people selling too much they don’t understand, or don’t even believe? for power, for gain, for whatever reason, and some are obscure.
How about our out of control legal system where law suits are drop of a hat regularity; I’ll sue!! and they do, and there are always lawyers around to take it on – for a contingency fee. But take law suits and proliferation of information and something else takes form; call it expectation, if you like, or call it contagion, but what it really comes down to is when ignorant or impressionable people see it happening, and see it working for others, they take the bait. Consider any uprising, demonstration, whatever term might apply; how much growth of the conflagration can be laid to a combination of rapid dissemination of information and a willingness to want to get involved, due, more often than not, to a feeling of shared anger, whether real or contrived – and ability to get there quickly?. Agitators count on all of that.
Of course we have to recognize one other: a feeling of discrimination. Take your pick: racial, ethnic, economic, sexual, maybe even difference in height and weight; if that’s not here yet, it’s coming. Just as we have become quick to express negative opinions to whatever we don’t care for, we are becoming quick to being insulted, and almost anything can be taken as an insult these days. Add to that the excitement – yes excitement – of getting involved in such a mix. It’s almost as if we are looking for trouble; but then with all the “advertising” of it it’s there for all to see, and get roiled up about, with help from the agitators, professional and accidental – and we are enabled to do so.
So there is environmental preparation, technological support and emotional readiness to jump.
As well as lack of trust that has already built up due to all kinds of moral degradation that has spread among us with similar rapidity. We’re ready!
When will we realize the ultimate negative implications of all of this for all of us? When we learn to control emotions? Or perhaps when we learn to resist letting OTHER people control our emotions, and learn to be responsible for ourselves, and recognize our destinies ARE in our own hands, if we just realize it and DO something about it – whatever IT is – for ourselves, by ourselves, and through helping each other instead of convincing ourselves we should have what they have, just because.
Only then will we regain trust – and bring chaos back under control, to the point we CAN bring it under control.
If you haven’t noticed, there is a listing to the right of my blogs named “blog storage” that lists batches of log history by monthly periods. I spent some time yesterday going through a number of them and found them interesting in that they haven’t changed all that much – also, I might add, that I found errors, despite spell checking and efforts to do some editing; I will try to do better. But, as I have written before, the purpose of these blogs is to sharpen my thinking and expression thereof – and, frankly, to just have an opportunity to explore thoughts as they come to me. There is little research, save from my memory, which dwindles slowly these days, naturally; and often little attempt to go back and start over, making it, often enough, a kind of run on thoughts. So be it. It’s not for everyone, obviously.
I have also recently read through my book, Avoiding Armageddon – Preserving Our Culture; and found out that the thinking that went into it hasn’t changed all that much either, with one notable exception. That exception is that I suggested we might pursue term limits, but since read an article that made a great deal of sense to me, that to do so would result in even less experience of office holders and greater reliance on staffers, something that just might not be progress. I internalized that, and am no longer a fan of term limits per se; I do learn. Incidentally Avoiding Armageddon (Booklocker.com) is now included in a category that previously did not exist, and that Booklocker.com established at my request: culture. Booklocker also added access to this blog through my page in their catalog, now accessible through that category at my request.
I thought about this while reading Shaun Trende’s The Lost Majority, which I am still reading; in it he discusses, among other things, the radical changes in political trends, particularly coalitions, that have occurred over the past one hundred plus years. Why so much change there, I wondered, and so little in my thinking since 20005? Simple answer: one hundred plus years versus six. And this reminded me of the immediate and short horizon nature of both politics and coverage of it and “news” in general.
Things do change “rapidly” over the space of time, but rapidly is relative. Trende’s one hundred plus years is an indication of how rapidly things can change even during our recent modern era. Of course dramatic events, such as wars and depressions, exacerbate such change; but there is less change over shorter periods – usually – and so the media concentrate on what they see on a very short term basis, and milk it to death, often obscuring the broader underlying changes that are taking place at the same time. Which, of course, is why reading broader and more deeply researched books, and articles, by knowledgeable writers and researchers is of so much value: we see emotionally oriented sound bites where they see trends. So if one wants to stay abreast of “what’s happening” it is more than useful to stand aside from the immediate and take a broader, and more professionally guided view; it is very helpful.
Understandably, few of us do that. As my daughter has told me more than once, dad, all of us don’t have the TIME to sit around and read all day; but, I reply, you do have time to catch TV news. Touche, although she doesn’t really see it that quite that way. And the fact that we do not; can not, perhaps, at least at the depth that I attempt to do it; is part of why our political situation has become so convoluted and contentious: because we are easily propagandized due to lack of in-depth knowledge on subjects being addressed, beyond emotion and sensation. Of course there is more, and I have addressed it from time to time elsewhere; and that is mostly a lack of motivation to WANT to know more of the details that would lead to that level of understanding. But that is another subject that we need no go into here.
I think my point is, or so it seems to me, is that day to day life at the national and international level changes but slowly, with many little events, often of little historical consequence, often obscuring the larger changes that are evolving under the surface, and requiring more in depth analysis. And that is why the big changes tend to surprise us. I was interested, on the one hand, at how consistent my overall thinking over time had been, but yet, on the other, at how the things I was seeing, such as debt impact for example, but also how they had developed in ways I saw coming, but didn’t really understand. Do not read that as prognostication; very little in terms of predicting what is going to happen and when is worth much; but spotting trends and explaining them is useful, if only for self, and I need a lot of help in that.
So I guess what I am saying is that if one wants to know and understand, a longer view than the daily news is essential; that and THINKING about it, and gaining informed insight to guide that thinking. To be effective voters, that is something to which we all dedicate too little effort, and often because of lack of motivation to do so; but I have beaten that to death, often and continually. And, alas, I shall likely continue to do so.
I collect quotations, and am overwhelmed by them. I blogged a couple of pages worth, but gave up on adding more, at least for now; too many, and they are overwhelming.
But I do have three favorites I should like to share. In a way they kind of say it all: little bits of wisdom, philosophy, but they come from sources that might surprise; all philosophy is neither ancient nor all that deep.
One I have noted before, and it is a long-time favorite, and a centerpiece of my own philosophy:
Anton Myrer; Once an Eagle
“Read, think, disagree with everything, if you like – but force your mind outward.”
Another, I had once thought was attributed to Abraham Lincoln, but the source actually is Harry S. Turman:
“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”
Finally there is one that might really surprise you; it is from the words of a song by none other than Glenn Campbell:
“Let me be a little kinder; let me be a little blinder to the faults of those around me; let me praise a little more.”
While rushing through our increasingly busy and frustrating “new” world, I became increasingly convinced that we are becoming “more third world.” But what does that mean?
It seems more like Cairo than even New York used to feel, but New York has been heading that way for a long time: crowded, hectic, but more? Crime ridden? Well, that’s debatable; statistics show that crime is down, even though perception is that it’s out of control; maybe it depends on the focus; maybe it depends on what type of crime; maybe it depends on media hype. But if crime is down, it does not appear that criminality is; so what is criminality? Honesty, perhaps? Difficult to measure. But what of things like driving recklessly, too fast, with apparent abandon and apparent disregard for others? Is it that apparent disregard for others that makes it feel third world? Maybe it has more to do with a decrease in what used to be community spirit, or just communality. But, heaven knows, we have even more organizations, groups, and certainly social “connections,” isn’t that communality? Is it? Maybe our third world is different from other third worlds.
Can third world just be big?
What about the feeling that everything is for sale and everyone is selling something? Is that third world? Is it even new? A feeling of frustrations perhaps, or depression? That was around in the thirties, was that the same or different? It is difficult to say, since it’s just a feeling I got, maybe more due to me than the environment; maybe; but it’s still a feeling.
Things are definitely changing.
Hey, how about chaos? Is that it? Intererstingly we started with our history with chaos, then slowly moved out, albeit through dictated order; are we now moving back into chaos? Was “democracy” the new introduction back into new chaos; it is surely chaotic, but is it becoming more so; and even returning to the chaos of ancient tribalism?
If order is good and chaos is bad, what is order imposed by dictatorship? What is that worth? But then is chaos trough democracy tolerably good? Maybe it depends on how much chaos; when does good “democracy” become bad chaos?
Is Internet chaos? Does too much information constitute chaos? Perhaps too much unmanaged information constitutes chaos; but then what of managed information? information too managed?
Maybe too much order, if imposed is as bad as too much chaos.
Maybe what we need is moderation in all things. My my my. And if too small (tribalism) is chaos, and too big (third world) is chaos, what would be moderation? Do we even know?
We sure are hell bent on finding out, and will probably be doing so forever. Does it matter? Ohhhhhh, it matters.
And what of third world? I guess I don’t know, but I don’t like what I think it feels like. And I think it feels like chaos.