Category Archives: Big Government

Where are the citizens with pitchforks?

We were sitting recently with some neighbors on the stoop in a sleepy central California beach town.  Like most of the state’s coast, this area continues to gentrify; the community combines the long-time eccentrics typical of a California beach town with upscale Californians who live within driving distance buying weekend or retirement homes.  This particular street runs perpendicular to the beach, with great views of the surfers and the whales, and increasing prices as the modest properties proceed down the block from Highway 1 to the ocean.  There are not many better places to live in the world.

One homeowner just completed an arduous years-long process to secure planning permission to build an extension of his back deck on his own property.  The neighbor next door took a long time to secure the necessary permits to knock down the junk house that was there when he bought it and build a new one on a prime lot on a bluff over the ocean.  The neighbor on the other side said, we would like to do the same, but will perhaps remodel instead if we can’t get permission, due to either the whims of some bureaucrat or simply government inertia.  The city has delayed getting back to him for six months, he shrugged, and continued with his drink.

Across the street, a house is completely gutted to the rafters; when we asked why the owner took this approach instead of demolition, we already knew the answer:  it’s easier to get permits for a renovation than for a new construction.

In addition to the myriad levels of local government and numerous departments to navigate for permission to modify one’s own property, one needs to secure permission from the California Coastal Commission even to repaint one’s own house.

We sat astonished as these various property owners—all affluent, civic-minded, taxpaying citizens who are certainly capable of comprehending how government works—shrugged with mild perturbation, yet resignation, at the gauntlets before them.

How can we tolerate this encroachment on property rights?

California is certainly one of the world’s leading lights on NIMBY-ism, also known as, I have secured my comfortable place, and now I am going to pull up the drawbridge in front of everyone else.  And you’re lucky to live here so shut up.  But this is a town of several thousand people; perhaps a concerted effort could replace the entire city council, or county board, although there would always be more bureaucrats standing beyond the reach of accountability and more vested interests that know how to work the system—if for no other reasons than envy, petty power-grubbing, or a vague sense of sentimentality for the status quo.  Many municipalities in the state have layer-upon-layer of restrictions, ranging from days (most days, as it turns out) in which homeowners are not allowed to use the fireplaces in their own homes, to limiting the square footage that a house can expand based on the size of the garage.

We remain astonished at the complacency with which citizens accept the lazy, irrational, often corrupt, machinations of the state.

This is the same California that, due to profligacy and mismanagement, had to issue IOUs in lieu of payments in 2009, including for tax refunds.  That’s right, citizens were compelled to loan the government their money interest-free by over-withholding throughout the year, then when it was time to repay, the state said, don’t worry, we’ll catch you later.  We remember thinking at the time, where are the citizens descending upon Sacramento with pitchforks?  Moreover, nothing has changed via the ballot box since then.

Illinois recently paid lottery winnings with IOUs.  Again, we wondered, where are the citizens with pitchforks?  The lottery is a supposedly self-financing fund; how is it acceptable that the government confiscates the pot and shrugs when beneficiaries come to collect?

In Greece—i.e., the California and Illinois of the future—the government last summer not only refused to let people withdraw their own money from banks, but also didn’t allow them to remove cash and precious metals from their own safe deposit boxes.  Despite media reports of widespread suffering and outrage (usually directed by Greeks at Germany), nothing has really changed in Greece; the voters returned the left-wing government to office and virtually ensured that this crisis will recur in a couple of years.

The western world is in a sickly decadent stupor.  We mentioned earlier that this particular coastal California city is indeed one of the best places one could hope to live; but it does not follow that we should consider residing there a privilege, granted at the pleasure of the state, and we should just pipe down and accept infringements of our liberty.  These examples of what citizens will accept from their supposed “representatives” certainly constitute leading indicators of complete societal collapse.

We know, you’re saying, these are first-world problems compared to what governments in most of the world do to their citizens.  But anyone who has worked hard and participated honestly in society cannot take much comfort in that.

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Lovers of liberty should hope for more Kim Davises when they come for our guns

There’s a thoughtful debate on the right about whether Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who, citing her conscience, defied the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges discovering that the Constitution grants the right of marriage to gay couples.  Davis refused to issue marriage licenses in her jurisdiction and was briefly jailed.

A core tenet of conservatism  is the rule of law.  The Obergefell ruling, absurd as it is, is the law of the land.  Not only was resistance on Davis’s part futile, but arguably inappropriate as a public official.  When one takes a job as a public servant one must uphold the law.  Civil disobedience is only the right of civilians.  The proper action from a public servant would be to resign; perhaps mass resignations would be an effective tool in persuading legislators to change the law.

On the other hand, Americans are rightly proud of their traditions of defying oppression that comes under the color of law.  And such defiance—by government agents—would likely be the only recourse in what this blogger fears will eventually be an attempted government usurpation of our right to bear arms.

It is within the realm of possibility that, one day, Congress w ill pass a law banning and confiscating handguns and the Supreme Court will uphold it under whatever imaginary constitutional logic it can muster.  Fortunately the legislative element remains a formidable hurdle at this point in time, but that is not always certain to be so.  And once Congress passes a law, all it will take is for five liberal Supreme Court justices to overturn centuries of precedent.

At that point, it would be up to the executive branch to implement the law.  Eventually, this would require a door-to-door effort, such as Australia completed for certain types of guns in the late 1990s, much to President Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s admiration.

Noble “from my cold, dead hands” rhetoric notwithstanding, it’s not likely that many Americans would respond to a federal agent’s knock at the door with an armed standoff in which the government would certainly win.  Thus the only barrier to confiscation would be if ATF and FBI agents, and maybe members of the military, that the federal government would send a-knocking were to refuse to follow orders.

Is such a scenario likely?  It would get ugly, leading to calls for martial law by some and secession or outright revolution by others.  We can all hope our last hope is not to rely on government functionaries disobeying their elected leaders, but it might come to that.

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Coming soon: Abolition of cash?

Andy Haldane, the chief economist the U.K. central bank, has brought to the mainstream a scary fantasy held by many liberals:  abolishing cash.  In an era of zero interest rates, and even negative rates in some countries, governments are finding it difficult to continue printing money to stimulate the economy.  When their attempts to induce inflation by printing and spending more money aren’t effective, they may move to more draconian measures.

No doubt our enlightened leaders will point to the supposed obsolescence of physical cash, the costs that cash handling imposes, and the wondrous technology that can be brought to bear to relieve us of these burdens.  They also mutter about tax evasion and money laundering, which is closer to their real agenda of fully controlling the economy’s resources.

There will possibly come a day when all cash is electronic, on which the government can mandate “negative interest rates”—i.e., theft of depositors’ assets, either to prop up banks and/or to go directly into state coffers.  Such totalitarians dream of the scenario in which all assets that you hold are at the pleasure of the government, to be spent as you are told.  This is already true to an extent in the era of fiat money, but many central bankers and government treasurers would be very happy to take away citizens’ freedom to stash money under their proverbial mattresses.

Of course, we have seen plenty of capital controls lately, such as Cyprus “bailing in” banks (i.e., stealing from large customers) and Greece not only refusing to allow depositors to withdraw their own money from bank accounts, but even refusing to allow people to remove cash from safe deposit boxes in those banks.  (Note to self:  buy stock in manufacturers of household safes.)

When a government bureaucrat hears about a bank robbery, he probably laments, “such a missed opportunity.”  Our best advice is to think twice about any whiz-bang technology that ties up your money in a place where the long arm of the state can reach it.

 

 

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I only have one question

Aren’t lotteries supposed to be self-funded?  That is, after a portion of the proceeds go to schools, etc., etc., isn’t the rest reserved for the prize pool?  Via Zerohedge:

Illinois Pays Lottery Winners in IOUs after $30K/Month Budget “Guru” Fails to Produce Deal

If we ever won the lottery, we would sort of prefer to take the annuity instead of the lump sum, but always thought that it would be insane to count on the solvency of the government in 20 or 30 years’ time.  This story reinforces our position.

 

 

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This is how things work in the government

From an article in today’s Washington Free Beacon, “Clinton Aide Worked on UAE Project While at State Department,” we see an amusing account of government bureaucracy in action.  (We don’t feel the need to add to the well-covered, much more important substance of the article—the obvious conflicts of interest and corruption in Hillary Clinton’s State Department.)

We refer to the process in the department for “vetting” (under heavens-knows-what-criteria) paid speeches given by then-Secretary Clinton’s husband:  “On February 17, 2009, Thessin sent a memo to Bill Clinton’s scheduler, recommending ‘To expedite these [conflict of interest assessment] requests in the future, you may wish to forward the request directly to me, with a copy to Waldo (Chip) Brooks, my Senior Ethics counsel … his deputy, Violanda Botet … and Cheryl Mills.'”  (Mills was Secretary Clinton’s chief of staff.)

So apparently there was a process by which James Thessin, the deputy legal advisor at State, had to approve, or at least comment on, such outside engagements.  In any normal organization, the principal’s representative would send a request to the person responsible for taking the action.  But here, Thessin is requesting copies to “his” subordinate (senior ethics counsel to the deputy legal advisor?) as well as his subordinate’s subordinate (deputy senior ethics counsel to the deputy legal advisor?).  (Apparently the legal advisor himself is out of the loop, though we can presume that, as a presidential appointee and the person ultimately accountable, that individual would have to sign off on the deputy legal advisor’s work.)

It strikes us as odd to copy three levels of hierarchy on a request.  Who is ultimately responsible?  In our work in the public and private sectors, it has struck us that this paperwork-volleying is much more the norm in the public sector, where naturally anyone who has a job has a deputy, and it’s unclear who is actually responsible for what.  It’s unclear how work actually gets performed and delegated and with what instructions.  Copy my deputy and my deputy’s deputy, since they’re eventually going to get assigned it anyway and Copy my boss and my boss’s boss so they can track it (or not) without having to rely on progress reports from me are classic bureaucratic tactics that serve quite well to obscure actual responsibilities, inflate the manager’s importance, add exponentially more e-mails to the BlackBerry queue, tee up excuses for delays, and spend extra resources to complete a task.

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We are all technocrats now

The U.S. is pretty much the only country in the world in which some constituency can be found asking, Is this really something that government should be doing? in response to a proposed law at the national or local level.  But our culture is changing, and such inherent skepticism of the government is rapidly moving toward extinction.

We now tolerate a nanny state, which shows up at all levels of government.  To take three recent random examples that we came across:

  • January:  A typical zoning fight about whether an e-cigarette lounge should open on a certain street in San Francisco pits various activists debating whether or not such an establishment fits with their views about whether this is an amenity that the neighborhood wants in light of the other retail available on that street.  No one has suggested that a land owner and tenant should be able to come to private agreement on what to do with their own property.
  • May:  A debate about whether to allow self-serve gas stations in Oregon features arguments about supposed safety considerations, jobs, and various lawmakers’ and bureaucrats’ opinions about the impact on customer convenience.  Again no one seems to be offering the opinion that the government has no right to meddle in a station owner’s business decision to begin with, nor mentioning that perhaps the free market would be better served to sort out issues of customer service and price.
  • May:  Opponents of a proposed ordinance in San Francisco to require warning labels on soda advertising (following the defeat of a city-wide soda tax last year) resort to insisting that sugar is soda is no different from sugar in any other product, and that “education” would be a more effective means of propaganda anyway.  No one at the table is offering the argument that government has no business interfering in consumer choices about a basic product, but rather they are arguing about what tools are most effective to implement the state’s nannying agenda.

The boundaries of these and countless similar local debates is most depressing to this libertarian, not only because we feel for the normal Americans whose livelihoods are chipped away by big government, but also because of the picture they paint about how our citizens apparently want to be governed.  The terms of the debate are so far away from Is this really something that government should be doing? that such questions seem quaint.

We could call these debates “technocratic,” that is, a presumption that a new government program is all that we need to solve some problem or close some gap in society, and we just have to debate what the government program will look like.

The “technocratic” moniker is not that common the U.S.  It’s a familiar (though ought to be derisory) term in Europe, often used to describe some government or individual minister who comes to power in a parliamentary system.  In that sense, it’s roughly a synonym for “socialist,” and simply means that apparatchiks who used to be a step or two lower, or more obscure, in the ranking of the political class assume power as sort of a compromise when the highest-ranking members can’t come to agreement on who will take the top political jobs.

“Technocratic” governments in Europe sometimes come about due to fiscal crisis, and sometimes due to elections that don’t produce clear winners.  In either case, their jobs consist essentially of keeping the big government functioning within the same narrow bounds that it did before, until voters can re-mandate the not-all-that-different status quo ante.  It may seem perplexing to an American audience, but our governments are looking more and more like this too.

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It’s dangerous when religious belief is the only justification for freedom of association and private property rights

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), championed by Congressional Republicans and conservative commentators, represents an important counter-maneuver to the oppression wrought by the cultural left.  Of course, RFRA shouldn’t be necessary, and wouldn’t be if our culture still respected the freedoms enshrined in our constitution and national traditions.  It’s dubious that RFRA carves out liberties defined by religious belief over those that should be protected by the equally fundamental American protections of free speech, free association, and property rights.

RFRA allows a private actor—a citizen or organization—to refuse to comply with a law by complaining that the law substantially burdens his religious belief.  The law requires courts to use a balancing test in weighing the law’s purpose versus the individual’s belief.

The First Amendment is pretty absolute, subject to a few well-defined exceptions and rarely subject to any balancing tests.  It is a profound violation of American notions of liberty to insist that property rights can only be asserted by virtue of religious belief, and subject to a balancing test at that.

In the archetypal scenario that has necessitated RFRA and similar legislative pursuits in the last few years, a baker refuses to decorate a cake for a gay wedding, in violation of a local ordinance or state law barring discrimination against homosexuals.  RFRA would allow the baker to potentially avoid sanction, but would not invalidate the underlying law that he had violated.

Aside from the question of whether refusing to decorate a cake with certain content actually amounts to discrimination against a defined class of people, it seems disastrous for the right to concede the merits of such anti-discrimination laws—or of continually expanding the classes of people covered by them—and leave the private citizen with no recourse other than to grasp onto his religious belief to carve out an exception against the state expropriating his property rights.

That the baker cannot assert a defense of “I don’t like gay people” or “This message doesn’t comport with my taste” or “I don’t want to promote the institution of gay ‘marriage'”—nor apparently “I don’t like your attitude” or “I don’t feel like serving you” or “It’s none of your damn business why I don’t want to make your cake”—represents a profound erosion of freedom.  Moreover, forcing him to publicly assert his religiosity and articulate the details of how that impacts his decisions on how to earn a living–and then subjecting that reasoning to analysis by a court—represents a troubling intrusion into the baker’s freedom of conscience.

Businesses in America used to have signs saying, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone,” but now that statement has no practical implication.  Perhaps there is a new market for signs that say, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone, except racial or ethnic minorities, women, non-Christians, people with disabilities in some cases, military veterans, and maybe homosexuals or ‘transgendered’ people, depending on which state, county, and city we are located in.”

Although people who value individual liberty have always opposed anti-discrimination litigation on principled grounds, they have been lonely in doing so.  We have essentially lost the argument, beginning with Barry Goldwater’s prescient but futile opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But recent debates leading to such laws as the RFRA have taken us even further in the direction of collectivism.  Both arch-leftist Sally Kohn—via one of the stupidest articles ever written—and supposed conservative John Kasich—in a more folksy appeal to common sense—have made what turn out to be similar arguments to defend laws against discrimination, asserting that simply existing in the public sphere requires one to not discriminate.  Although their arguments advance the same concept of “public accommodation” that has prevailed since the civil rights era, they go further in advancing a profound misconcepti0n of what liberty is.  (Their arguments are little different than defending a law prohibiting people yelling in the public square to criticize the government by saying, We have freedom of speech in this country; you are free to say whatever you want in the privacy of your own home, but once you enter a public space, the state has the right to restrict what you say.)

We get it:  true freedom of association and property rights are basically dead in this country, and have been for decades.  And we get that asserting religious freedom may be good politics as a rear-guard action to restore some freedom of conscience in some circumstances.  But the right is not doing the culture any favor by rushing past some core American values to imply that the only people who deserve liberty are those who can claim a religious basis for it.

 

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(Small) moments in the use of passive voice, to obscure government workers’ incompetence

Sort of a non sequitur in an article about firefighter overtime from the Washington Post (emphasis ours):  “District revenue from traffic cameras fell off precipitously during the second half of the last budget year because of failures by city workers to keep the systems running.  Amid an effort to transfer more maintenance duties from contractors to city crews, some red-light and speed cameras and other traffic-control devices stopped working.  In some cases, batteries in the systems went dead, [D.C. City Council Chairman Phil] Mendelson said.”

This throw-away passage refers to another budget challenge in the local Washington, D.C. government that is not the subject of the article.  We can suppose that the inference is clear, though it’s an odd use of a semi-passive construction to suggest that the cameras “stopped working” and batteries “went dead.”  To co-opt James Taranto, why do bad things always happen to the city government workers?

The Post has extensively covered the roll-out of traffic cameras in the city, but seems to have never previously reported on the in-sourcing of maintenance.  A September 2014 article reported that revenue from this boondoggle was lower than projected, according to a spokeswoman for the mayor, “for a variety of reasons, including delays in deploying some new devices, higher speed limits on some streets and more motorists obeying the law.” The spokeswoman went on, “And we don’t view any of this as a bad thing.  As we’ve said all along:  the purpose of automated traffic enforcement is to improve public safety and save lives, not to raise money.”  Naturally, the Post agreed in an editorial, “Automated Cameras Mean Safer Streets in the District,” despite many studies in different jurisdictions showing that cameras do not even improve, and may even harm, safety.

Any big-government skeptic assumes that the main purpose of the cameras is to further tax citizens. So it’s not surprising that the Post would tread lightly in questioning the cameras’ effectiveness or government workers’ competence.  Not surprisingly, the D.C. inspector general found that the abuse of the system runs through the entire traffic-ticket value chain (i.e., racket). Perhaps the scandal of city workers’ dereliction in maintenance is worth some coverage in its own right?

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AP refers to the “higher cost of health care” in passing

The debate about whether Americans will pay more for health care under Obamacare continues in the program’s early days, with the usual liberal chorus claiming that costs will not increase significantly—economic logic, facts, and everyone else’s observations to the contrary.

The Obama Administration yesterday released a study indicating that people covered under the program would indeed generally see their premiums increase in 2015.  (It seems nearly moot yet journalistically necessary here to remind ourselves that Obamacare’s main premise was that it would lower health-care costs.)

Meanwhile yesterday, an Associated Press story, “These Retailers Could Use Some Holiday Cheer,” probably unwittingly characterized the status quo with the following sentence:  “Stores face cautious shoppers who are juggling stagnant wages and higher costs for food and health care.”

Therefore it’s amusing that a reference to the “higher costs for . . . health care” becomes a throwaway line in a humdrum article by AP, that most conventional (and left-leaning) mainstream news source.  Perhaps higher costs for health care will now join turmoil in the Middle East or partisan gridlock in Washington in the journalistic lexicon as one of those mundane default conditions that don’t even need explaining.

If the White House saw the article, they would be advised to get out in front of this as they do so well.

 

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Another comedy of errors when government tries to play venture capitalist

This project, in which the federal government attempts to unilaterally create a manufacturing industry in Oregon to produce politically-correct streetcars, really has it all.

As reported in the Washington Post, politicians, including then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D), descended on Portland to join executives at a politically connected company in DeFazio’s state of Oregon, United Streetcar, to launch a boondoggle “meant to show how federal backing could spark a rebirth in American manufacturing.”  Whoops.  The effort has been a predictable failure for all of the usual reasons.

Most obviously, none of the luminaries seemed to consider whether the business-unfriendly locale of Portland could viably house such a manufacturing endeavor.  The company even had the fantasy to export its machines.  According to LaHood, “These are the first streetcars to be manufactured in America in nearly 60 years.”  No one seemed to wonder why, and apparently David Ricardo was unavailable to advise on the concept of comparative advantage.

Sure enough, the company couldn’t seem to muster the engineering expertise to be able to compete with other domestic and foreign competitors.  It tried the time-honored tradition of spreading out the supply chain—to “300 suppliers in 32 states,” each of which with a Congressman to keep the money flowing—but it backfired.

The politicians’ assumptions about how many people would actually want to ride the trains were inflated (as they always are).  Their assumptions about how many cities would jump on the bandwagon to build streetcars were wildly optimistic.  Their dreams of obviating local buyers’ pesky diverse preferences weren’t realized.  Officials piled on the usual rhetoric about how such mass transit projects would spur economic development along their lines.  LaHood admitted that, thanks to the essentially unlimited flow of stimulus money, cities didn’t really have to worry about prioritizing or managing projects with any discipline:  “we didn’t have to pick and choose.”

Meanwhile, other cities simply ignored better bids from overseas manufacturers to “buy American.”

Another left-wing local Congressman, Earl Blumenauer (D), proposed to double-down on the central planning:  the federal government should just buy a bunch of the cars (from, presumably, the same company in his district that has donated to his campaigns) and then give them to cities.  He lamented, in the Post‘s words, that the Federal government “essentially ceded the market in light-rail cars to big foreign competitors.”  Every aspect of this endeavor has been based on political calculations as opposed to market forces, which is apparently Rep. Blumenauer’s preferred economic model.  The Soviet experiment didn’t teach him any lessons about the likely result.

This episode serves as a potent reminder that when government imposes its utopian vision for how city-dwellers should live, then tries to implement industrial policy to pick winning companies, with minimal resource constraints, the results are always disastrous.  LaHood laments that “maybe our calculations weren’t right.”  When have they ever been?

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