Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Jobs Of Government - Part 1

Another of our ongoing current political controversies is the role government should play in the economy, and what should be its proper scope of responsibilities.  Some would have the government do virtually nothing at all; others see government as a principal player in our American economy.  Some feel that our economy would be just fine “if government would just get out of the way.”  Others have grave doubts about the outcomes and track record of an economy left in the hands of unrestrained businesspeople to direct.  Implicitly, the proper role of government in the economy will prove to be a major deciding point in this upcoming election.  In deference to the constitutional literalists among us, let’s start to try to resolve this disagreement by going back to our Constitution and reminding ourselves what our Constitution mandates that our government does.

There are 18 statements regarding the powers granted to Congress, and by extension to the federal government, in Article 1 section 8 of the Constitution.  (Some of those 18 statements contain multiple assignments of power embedded in one paragraph, for some unknown editorial slight-of-hand!)  The reality is that these powers are specific statements regarding a general responsibility whose details are as broad and varying as one chooses to read into them.  The truth is, the powers of the government are not in the narrowness of the words, with all the many limitations of language that are inherent in the use of words.  The true powers are in the spirit and interpretation of the Constitution in response to the needs of the people as they emerge.  That is what is so maddening about the nonsensical “strict constructionist versus living constitution” debate that permeates many constitutional discussions.  That is why we have a Congress to write specific laws to effect those broadly defined powers, an executive branch to create rules and mechanisms for translating those laws into everyday realities, and courts to determine whether the end result is still in reasonable and consistent conformity with the original constitutional guidelines.  Those 18 statements are:

(#1) “The Congress shall have the Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.”  So Congress defines and collects taxes and tariffs, and is expected to pay the debts of the government.  (Sounds reasonable today, but obligating the federal government to paying the country’s debts was a big new commitment in 1787.)  “Providing for the common Defence” means keeping us as a group reasonably safe from potential harm.  That means not only in the obvious times of war with others, but also from those who today would harm us in other equally destructive ways.  Which is why we now have such things as the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Center for Disease Control CDC) and the OSHA workplace safety act.  These are agencies I have no interest in eliminating (though their processes used should always be subject to oversight discussion) because unscrupulous people and our complex retail systems today have the capacity to commit great individual as well as widespread harm to the citizenry.  And as an individual I have minimal defenses against such mass attacks to my safety as can now be perpetrated.  But it is that “general Welfare” thing, and the possible governmental roles and responsibilities that it enables, that keeps our discussions lively – an eight-lane expressway through the narrow countryside of the “limited role” viewpoint.  (More about this later.)

(#2) “To borrow money on the credit of the United States.”  Obviously we do that well, if not to excess, precipitating the “raising the debt limit” fiasco of this past August.  (#3) “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.”  So our commerce Department seeks out international trade agreements, with mixed success; our Interior Department has made treaties and overseen the Indian tribes and their reservations with continuing dismal and immoral failures; and regulating trade “among the several states” – the interstate commerce clause – opens quite widely a legal door to be involved in all business crossing state lines, which includes most of today’s business environment.

(#4) “To establish an uniform Rule of naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States.”  Bankruptcy laws are fairly clear, in place, and without major controversy.  But in this age of illegal immigration, rules governing immigration and naturalization are rife with controversy.  Especially as some states try to pass their own laws against illegal immigrants, and Congress cannot come up with a reasonable common sense plan to deal with the 12 million illegals already in the country.  But it is clearly Congress’ job, not the states, and Congress is abrogating that responsibility on all fronts.

(#5) “To coin money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign coin, and fix the Standards of Weights and Measures.”  Plus (#6) “To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States.”  No one seems to debate much about who should be coining and protecting the integrity of our money, though over the years it has continually precipitated a number of arguments about central banks and the Federal Reserve System.  We do not think much about standardized weights and measures anymore, but it was a hot topic about business honesty in 1787.  An attempt to switch to the metric system 20+ years ago was an unfortunate failure; coming up with “unit cost” posting in the grocery store was a helpful step forward to promote honest price information by requiring “truth in bulk packaging.”

(#7) “To establish Post Offices and Post Roads.”  Ben Franklin did such a good job creating the first postal system in America, and an effective communication infrastructure was deemed so important to the successful running of the country, that a postal service and the roads by which to deliver the mail was written in as a Constitutional responsibility.  As much as some business people and politicians may complain about our post office, eliminating it is not a legal option.  And the Fedex / UPS private business model is not an alternative; who thinks these companies  have any interest whatsoever in delivering my daily mail up a back dirt road in the remote mountains of North Carolina?  And UPS already now pays the US Postal Service to deliver their packages to such remote locations!

(#8) “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”  The need, the right, to copyright and patent protection was clearly understood by these educated framers of our Constitution in order to advance the progress and learning of society.  Protecting those rights from international piracy is critical.  Trampling on Internet freedom by arbitrarily shutting down web sites by government prerogative as is currently proposed is a well-intended but really lousy idea.  (In the interest of full disclosure, I am saying this as a copyright owner.)

(#9) “To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court.”  We have an extensive multi-layered system of federal judicial review in place.  What we do not have is a Senate that exercises its responsibility to approve/disapprove presidential appointments to that judiciary on a timely basis (as well as with executive department heads) due to political infighting and personal ego, thereby crippling these same Tribunals.  One of the numerous current disgraces of Congress.

(#10) “To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high seas, and Offenses against the Laws of Nations.”  Even in this day, piracy still exists (Thank you once again Seal Team 6!).  And Offenses against the Laws of Nations still occur (terrorists attack; dictators still flourish; people revolutions, and sometimes wars, are still needed, however messy and confused they may be in the short term).
(End Part 1 of a 2-part posting.)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Election 2012 - Surveying The Field

Barack Obama has to be enjoying the benefits of the current confusion within the Republican Party.  Congress spent 2011 accomplishing virtually nothing but convincing the American People of their incompetency.  Frozen in place, nothing of substance passed.  The fiasco of debt ceiling brinkmanship last August; the complete breakdown of the “Super Committee” that was supposed to save the economic day; the political theater of the end-of-year budget battle over Republicans’ refusal to extend unemployment compensation and Medicare vendor payments and tax cuts for the middle class that handed Democrats a big Christmas gift for use this Fall.  No wonder only @15% of Americans think Congress is doing a good job, and 75% want the whole bunch of them replaced – most of them including their own congressperson!

But Congress’ ineptness pales when compared to the pre-primary race for the Republican nomination for President.  June through December 2011 was one long circus – great for entertainment value; weekly content for Saturday Night Live; not so good on substance and leadership potential.  It is amazing to many people that these are the best we could come up with as hopefuls to be President of the United States and preeminent world leader.  To wit:

Chris Christy, Mitch Daniels, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee: all surveyed the scene and said, “no thanks, at least not this year,” in spite of entreaties for them to run.

Donald Trump: Really?  A “candidate?”  Trump continues to show that he is the master manipulator of the news media, with the least amount of real substance, laughing at all of us in the privacy of his office.  The never-serious candidate found many ways to keep himself in the headlines he so dearly loves.

Tim Pawlenty: Never even made it to the first vote before he bailed out.  Given the way it has played out, he probably should have thought twice about that decision.

Michele Bachman: Won the meaningless Iowa straw poll in August, and within weeks sunk out of sight as other candidates took her thunder.  Has not been a real factor for months.  Her lack of depth was fully exposed by her inaccurate and outlandish statements which finally thankfully pushed her from the stage.

Herman Cain: Three accusations of sexual harassment were two too many; a decade-long affair finally cleared away the smoke and exposed the fire.  His momentary 15 minutes of fame was fourteen too many, and showed how little capability is required to become a celebrity these days.  90-year-old Henry Kissinger as his proposed Secretary of State?  Really, Herman?

Rick Perry: He was 2012’s version of 2008’s Fred Thompson.  The supposedly “true conservative” with deep pockets rode in on his white horse to save the Party from a [gasp] “moderate” frontrunner.  And just like Thompson, Perry got up on center stage and ran a totally inept campaign featuring lackluster personal skills.  Perry became the late-night talk show joke and never recovered.  Too many GWBush “everyman” comparisons.

Newt Gingrich: Too much baggage; too disorganized; his time has passed.  John Bolton, the archetypical neo-con Middle East war hawk, as his proposed Secretary of State?  Worse than Cain’s Kissinger proposal; Newt lost me right there.  Tons of ideas, maybe the most creative thinker in the field.  But once he decided a  few years ago to come back into political racing, his creativity gave way to “afternoons at the Tea Party” / Fox News verbiage; just another political panderer.  Always entertaining, and done a better job of controlling his tongue.  But he’s shown that he is still incapable of leadership.

Rick Santorum: Surprised everyone in Iowa.  But it was probably just his turn in the rotation, the last one left to take center stage for non-Romneyites to turn to.  Darling of the social-agenda Right, the man is unfortunately a spokesperson for the “dividers” in this country.  No doubt a decent, well-intentioned person, but he lives in a na├»ve, narrow slice of the world, unaware of how the rest of America lives.

Ron Paul: The most principled candidate in terms of being consistently true to his deeply considered ideas.  Refuses to change his message to fit the audience of the moment.  There are some parts of his message that I am comfortable with, especially in rethinking war and foreign policy.  But his radical change for government’s role and services has no transition plan.  It would shock this country to far/too fast to absorb.  Nevertheless, the dismissal and ignoring of his candidacy by the news media throughout 2011 was despicable.

Mitt Romney: The darling of the “establishment” Republicans.  But I do not like his opportunist candidacy in 2012 any more than I did on 2008.  He is the artificial man of no core political principles, the complete opposite of Ron Paul.  As David Letterman remarked, “Mitt has changed positions so many times he’s going to start running attack ads against himself!”  Mitt claims all his “business experience and job creation history” as the answer to America’s economic woes.  Truth is, Mitt has not really run any businesses.  His experience has been all in buying, restructuring and selling struggling or under-valued companies, with likely as many jobs lost as gained.  Regardless, any job creation would have been an afterthought, not an intention.  Romney’s business experience has been about “flipping” companies the way people buy up depressed homes, make cosmetic changes, and flip them over to a new buyer at inflated pieces; just another form of a pyramid scheme.  No long-term ownership; no personal investment in the outcome; just companies as “tradable commodities,” a view of business from the 1990s that has caused serious damage to our economy.  And that is how he is approaching his candidacy – the presidency as another commodity to buy, rework, sell and then move on, just as he did as Massachusetts Governor.  It is not about public service; it is just another corporate takeover.  If I am looking for business experience in a candidate, this is not the experience I am looking for.  75% of Republicans do not want him; how someone that has never had greater than 25% support can be anointed “the front runner” is beyond me.  He is the richest candidate to ever run for office, and like Santorum the most disconnected from the reality of the breadth of the American citizenry.  It is completely incomprehensible to me how evangelical and Tea Party Republicans could ever pull that lever.

Jon Huntsman: Which leaves us with a near invisible candidate who will likely be gone from the race by the end of January, yet is the best man in the field but with no chance at the nomination.  If it is all about picking “who can best beat Obama,” Huntsman would provide the most challenging battle.  He is a very straight talking candidate who does not tolerate the usual media and political silliness, and has some very thoughtful and supportable ideas.  But he is a “moderate Republican,” a disappearing anachronism in 2012 Republican Party politics.  Look for him potentially in 2016.

Depending on how South Carolina and Florida results turn out, the Republican primary season could be realistically all over by the end of this month.  That would be another sad, but perhaps fitting, commentary to this year’s election process.  That would make “establishment Republicans” very happy, but where is the near-invisible Tea Party movement that was so dominant in 2010?