Why do we expect stuff to be free?

I don’t like paying taxes. I don’t know anyone who does. However, I also don’t like going to the dentist or getting a tetanus shot. If I indulge these dislikes, my teeth will be horrible and I might die. Shouldn’t we start looking more at what benefits we obtain from tax dollars?

When I taught AP Economics, I joked that Americans paid the lowest percentage of income in taxes, of any country in the industrialized world, but we complained about them more than anyone else. The first part, at least, is pretty close to the truth. There are 34 countries in the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), which consists of the world’s industrialized democracies. The average tax burden among these countries is 34%; the U.S. burden is 26%. Only Mexico, South Korea, Ireland, and Chile have a lower burden than the U.S. Finland, the country with the highest standard of living, has a tax burden of 44%.

I recognize that freedom of choice lies at the root of U.S. attitudes about taxation. Perhaps our greatest strength is the emphasis on this freedom. Volumes have been written, determining that our economic strength and other areas of innovation are derived from it; I’m not about to argue with them. Every dollar spent on taxes is an expenditure that was not freely chosen.

However, no quality exists in a vacuum, nor should it. To paraphrase the late Meg Greenfield, a world with total freedom is chaos, not paradise. All of us understand how that applies to criminal law and property law, but it is not always apparent how that applies to paying taxes. There are at least three major social benefits gained by paying taxes: economy of scale, adjusting for flaws in the economic system (without destroying the entire economy), and the ability to better achieve long range plans.

The first, economy of scale, refers to how all of us benefit when we pool our resources. It is the driving force behind the success of large-scale industry; its two primary determinants are the costs of the natural resources and capital needed for production and the need for a labor force highly focused on a specific task while having more than one person available to fit an individual niche.

Obviously, then, all-but-boutique automakers use economy of scale to make cars that we Americans enjoy and expect; iron and conveyer belts (capital) are very expensive, and laborers must have special skills and workers repeated execute the same series of tasks. In fact, some countries have auto and steel companies that are publicly owned (implicitly, paid for by taxes), although a market-based economy like that of the U.S. would never tolerate such companies. What are the elements, then, that make it desirable for a specific good or service to be paid for by taxes? The four primary questions are:

  1. Is it needed for survival?
  2. Is it something not needed on a daily basis by an individual, but constantly needed by society in general?
  3. Is it something for which innovation is unnecessary, even undesirable?
  4. Is it something that benefits people besides those who are using it at the time?

The more firmly the answer to these questions is “yes”, the stronger the argument that it should be provided by taxes. To clarify, here are two examples that are found at opposite ends of the spectrum: fire departments and fine dining. Fire departments obviously benefit from economy of scale. Just as obviously, they directly save lives. We would hope that no one person would need fire services on a daily basis, but these services are demanded all of the time. While there are periodic improvements in technology and techniques, firefighters are not supposed to improvise away from their routines. Finally, putting out a fire significantly reduces the chances that adjoining buildings will catch on fire. By contrast, fine dining is none of these: restaurants that emphasize economy of scale drop in quality, as luxury goods they don’t fit either #1 or #2, #3 is necessary for all but the most iconic restaurants, and it would be hard to argue that my going out to dinner would benefit you (no matter how hard I try to convince you.)

Most goods and services fall somewhere between those two extremes and, therefore, are the root of most political debates about public, tax-based ownership vs. private. Should prisons be privatized? Should we adopt universal health care? Use the criteria above and see if your answer corresponds to your gut-level response.




Fear is our worst enemy.

In a country where we read and hear about so much public polarization, it is time to remember that there are two things that people from all parts of the political spectrum have in common:  we want what is best for our country, and most of our political behavior is motivated by fear. The more we remember this and use it to drive our behavior, the more rapidly we will return to the civil society that most of us treasure.

A little background: I am not a straight-ticket voter, 5 of my top 8 political heroes are GOP, the men responsible for my involvement in politics were both GOP, and 3 of the last 4 campaigns I worked on were for GOP candidates.
The group first motivated by fear was that consisting of people who identify themselves as conservative, Republican, “on the right”, or some combination of the above. According to one of my favorite authors, Alvin Toffler, this group was hit by, “too much change in too short a period of time.” While I would imagine that those who self-identify as liberal, Democrat, and “on the left” look at the increases in civil rights and environmental protection as wonderful, they often forget that so much change in such a short period of time is very unsettling. The change is unsettling even for its advocates, but much more so for its opponents. Toffler argues that the first reaction to overly-rapid change is fear. No one should be surprised that Trump was much more competitive than predicted, up to and including winning the election; from a conservative’s perspective, if you see that your car is skidding on the road, your reaction is to correct that skid as fast as possible; conservatives saw that our country was skidding off the road.

It is easy to understand why people would vote for Trump. The country was skidding off the road; to continue the metaphor, though, quickly correcting a skid is horrible if it puts you into the path of an oncoming truck. I know that you who are GOP-leaning are outraged at the insults hurled your way since the election of Donald Trump. Those insults are illogical (fallacy of composition) and inexcusable; they need to be dealt with.

The point, though, is that Donald Trump is NOT a friend of the GOP or the USA. I realize that, among my friends, you voted for him because you didn’t want to see Clinton in the White House, not because of the invective hurled at you. But Trump has shown, even in a few days, that he’s antagonistic to the Constitution and to a huge list of genuine Republicans.
Please do everything in your power to block him. Ideally, Mike Pence would become POTUS. The best metaphor I can offer is that he is like a neighbor who finds out that a neighborhood house was burglarized, so he now shoots anyone on sight who he doesn’t recognize as legitimate. It solves the burglary problem, but goes against everything that we Americans stand for.
PLEASE contact your GOP senators and representatives. Our own congressman has already gone on record with his fears of what Trump is doing. It will mean more coming from you than from left-leaners, who are dismissed as being sore losers.

Now, for those who identify with the other side. The fact that Trump has acted so rapidly to reverse what you perceived as progress has caused its own kind of future shock. Just as many conservatives have acted thoughtfully in reacting to current events, many on the left have as well. Lawsuits, petitions, and demonstrations are part of our American fabric that we recognize as being legitimate means of persuasion (even if, to be honest, we tend to be more supportive of those whose views we support!)

But the left has to bear some responsibility. Publishing things such as “Bannon is a Nazi” or “Trump is a fascist” will not win people to your cause. Those are ad hominem attacks and, if I had voted for Trump, my response would be to dig in my heels even more, because these attacks make people feel that you are personally attacking their intelligence and their world views. What was the last time that you changed someone’s mind by using personal insults. (Even worse are those who tar the entire GOP or its voters with the same brush. When I read something like, “all Republicans are (fill in the blank with the insult of your choice),” I feel personally attacked.

Above, I wrote that Republicans need to approach their elected representatives, but that doesn’t let Democrats or other left-leaners off the hook. You still have to carry a lot of the load. Keep contacting all of your representatives, Democrats  and Republicans. Stick to the issues and avoid name-calling. Finally, remember that most of what impacts us in our daily lives, including government involvement, is local. My Republican best friends are all people who care about their communities and work hard to improve them. If you don’t do the same thing, it undermines your credibility when you complain about the world.

To repeat, we all have much in common, especially fear and love of our country. Please remember that, even if you disagree with someone, that person has the same ultimate goal as you; the key is to find a mutually-acceptable solution and to realize that none of us are going to get 100% of what we want. More important, though, is to remember that we are all fearful in some way. Don’t make someone with whom you disagree feel more fearful, or you will be steering your vehicle into the oncoming truck’s path.

Why the arts and humanities need MORE promotion, not less.

Cutting the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities is aiming at low-hanging fruit. I know that a lot of people don’t appreciate what these groups do, and that a lot of Americans find that the grants they award support causes and projects with which they disagree. But, here is a brief list of why I take issue with this thinking:
1. Take a look at the budgets for these programs. Cutting them doesn’t come close to solving deficits. This is especially true when public schools aim their first cuts at these same areas at the local level. Yes, I am a teacher, but I have always taught in private schools that are unaffected by public budget cuts. I don’t want to see a two-tiered society in which young people have to attend schools like mine just to get a fully-rounded education.
2. The United States already ranks at the very bottom when it comes to per capita spending on arts and humanities among industrial nations, and the gap between the US and the second-lowest country is greater than that between the #2 country and the #40 country*. Is this really the sort of American Exceptionalism” that we want to be known for?
3. Promoting the arts and humanities advances our culture and, by supporting ideas that contradict the status quo, make us all aware that there are other possibilities in our thinking. If we are presented with only one line of thinking, how do we develop strategies to change? Given the shift in attitudes that mad the election of Donald Trump possible, I would think that these are areas that he should want to protect.
4. I know that there are a lot of people who complain that PBS is some sort of left-wing conspiracy designed to undermine the majority will of the people, and that these same people would lump in the NEH and the NEA. How many of these people have taken the time to watch the programs that are broadcast, especially the news? Do they conclude that PBS is biased simply because it doesn’t push their point of view on its viewers? I find PBS to be national treasure, in part, because its news shows present information that is ignored or covered up by both the left- and the right-wing media, and they do so with respect for all of the opinions that are raised.
Let us not forget that a major step towards either left-wing or right wing totalitarianism is to silence voices of dissent. In a world in which the oversimplified data we find on social media have become the norm, and are used by all sides to further political agendas, the NEA, NEH, and PBS are more important than ever.
*UPDATE: According to the Arts Council of England, Policy Research

and Planning Department, Research Report, the gap between the U.S. and that of the #2 country (Ireland) is no longer greater than the gap between Ireland and Germany (#40).
 Nevertheless, even with the economic crises in Ireland, far more severe than we have faced in the United States, Ireland still outspends the U.S. by over 250%. In my humble opinion, we should also keep in mind that support for the arts and humanities is considered a patriotic duty in the Republic of Ireland (the only country to feature a musical instrument on its coins) so the demand for taxpayer support is less pressing.

Some random brain droppings…

1 The topic for our Philosophy Club meeting this Friday is, “To what extent should the personal character of a person determine his or her fitness to be President of the United States?”

Now, a lot of people would react by thinking that this is a direct shot being taken at our current president-elect. Perhaps, but the topic itself is much older than that. In fact, I used it first when teaching AP Government in the 1990’s, and the target then was Bill Clinton.

Our awareness of personal character in a president has grown significantly with each passing year. Had we known about the sexual behavior and the friends of Warren Harding, would he ever have been elected, much less retained? Over the years, the vast majority of my students hold that Jimmy Carter was the finest human being to hold the top executive office; he is rarely regarded as a successful president.

The final question is this: if you believe, even before he has taken office, that president-elect Trump should not be our president, based on what you know about his moral character, did you apply the same standard to President Carter. Is it a fair comparison?

2. A few posts ago, I posed the dilemma of why a college game that seemingly should have attracted a large audience instead had only 60% of the viewership of a less-significant professional game. Since then, someone has offered another hypothesis that may have future ramifications.

The hypothesis that, regardless of how anyone felt about relative strengths and weaknesses of the professional teams. They got where they are strictly on the basis of their W-L records. On the other hand, the competitors of college’s national championship were picked by a committee. The Daily Onion parodied this when it declared that Alabama was the National Champion, because the committee decided that it had a superior group of players to Clemson!

This year, the best example happened in deciding which Big Ten team should go to the Final Four (by the way, for those of you who have forgotten, the Big Ten is that league with 14 teams in it.) Ohio State was the team selected, despite the fact that Penn State had won the conference championship. This is not to single out Ohio State for scorn (goodness knows that I have many more personal connections to Ohio State than to Penn State), but it does show what every culture I know of feels: a team earns its way to its awards based on how it plays, period. It is very likely that there is a growing sense of cynicism in the U.S. and it has trickled down to the football audience. Sports journalists love it, because it gives them a built-in lead story to write about in the part of December during which there are fewer items to attract attention. Should the desires of the media outweigh the nearly-20 million viewer gap between the interest in college and professional football?

3. Computers keep becoming more and more sophisticated motivated, in theory, by the desire to make workers more productive. That is a good goal.

Frankly, though, I think most of us would like to see more creative energy devoted to ensuring that the computers we have work. A few years ago, there was a hysterically funny satire that compared our expectations for automobiles to those we have for computers. The conclusion, of course, was that consumers would never tolerate what they have to go through with computers and their peripherals if the same failure rates applied to their cars.

I work in a place in which our IT department is unexcelled. The men who work in it pull off one miracle after another to keep our faculty and staff productive. But why should these geniuses have to visit my room just because (on average) every other week, I cannot log in or I cannot get my projector to display the images on my computer? How would you feel if, every other week, your mechanic had to visit your house to start your car?

Black, blue…ALL lives matter.

I’m getting old enough that there are fewer and fewer things that truly infuriate me. One of them, though, is the argument that supporting Black Lives Matter means that a person is anti-police, or that supporting Blue Lives Matter means that a person is racist.

This thinking is the classic example of the false dilemma fallacy. It is presenting two choices and arguing that they are the only two choices. For instance: “Either you think that Elvis Presley is the greatest musician in history or you are an idiot.” I would hope that Elvis fans know how stupid this would be to argue.

We have heard about tragedies involving the shootings or beatings of African-Americans that were umprovoked. We have also heard about tragedies of police officers being ambushed. There are both horrible. Anyone who believes that supporting one group makes a person an enemy of the other group is a fool, and anyone who suggests that there is a comparative value that makes one tragedy worse than the other is also a fool.

Taking partisanship out of economics

Before continuing, let me say that in some ways I regret that this post is grouped in the category, “Politics and Economics,” because the central thesis is that we need to remove political labels from legitimate economic tools.

There are three major tools that the U.S. government uses to help the economy, either to stimulate it when more jobs are needed or to slow it down when inflation is too high. One of those tools, monetary policy, is a constant that is controlled by the Federal Reserve Board, which acts autonomously. While it has its critics, its autonomy places it beyond the reach of partisan politics and, therefore, is not subject to analysis in this post.

The first tool, historically, is called Fiscal Policy, first applied by Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression. In a nutshell, it means having the government create programs that directly or indirectly put people back to work by spending money. We often hear people proclaim that, “government would work better if it were run more like a business;” however, this attitude contradicts fiscal policy. In times when more jobs are needed, it is unfair to place a burden on businesses to hire more workers and, since the government is not profit-driven, it can create jobs when conditions discourage businesses.

The most recent of the tools is called Supply-Side, first applied by Ronald Reagan. It works by cutting taxes imposed on corporations and the most wealthy. We often hear people proclaim that, “it is unfair to give tax cuts to the people who are already well off;” however, this ignores the basic reality of income. When wealthier people get tax cuts, they don’t need the money to survive, so they can afford to put the money into savings. When lending institutions have more money in savings, they have more money to lend to investors who can create new jobs in the private sector.

Unfortunately, both of these tools are weakened by politics. Democrats, for the most part, are fiercely loyal to fiscal policy, remembering that it was used by the Democratic President Roosevelt to take us out of the Great Depression. But this loyalty makes the economy more and more dependent upon the government to keep it running, at the expense of private companies.

Republicans are correspondingly loyal to supply-side policy, remembering the job creation under Republican President Reagan that came without heavy government involvement. But this loyalty leads to a strong distrust of government regulation, which means that many of the jobs that are created are created outside the United States, plus there is no guarantee that the taxes saved won’t be spent on luxury goods that create few new jobs.

In summary, then, both of the major parties need to stop looking at these economic policies in partisan terms. There are politicians who argue that, if corporations are given tax cuts, they should be forced to invest the money in creating American jobs. There are also politicians who have formulated ways to gradually convert government-created jobs into private sector jobs. The time has come for all politicians to cross partisan lines, follow the aforementioned trend-setters, and do what is best for the country.

Common Sense in Free Speech (continued)

Previously, I identified three problems in the American electoral system that seemed paramount as needing repair:

  1. Follow the example of the United Kingdom, and limit the amount of time campaigns are allowed to go.
  2. Overturn SCOTUS rulings that have broadened “free speech” far beyond the intent of those who wrote the Bill of Rights.
  3. Overturn the SCOTUS ruling that define corporations as being people.

In my previous post, I analyzed the first two. Today, here my thoughts on the third. First, some background.

The concept of “corporations as people” came from the SCOTUS ruling Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company (1886) and, frankly, it was necessary. Without the ruling, corporations would have no legal standing in the courts. This should be welcomed by people of all parts of the political spectrum; for instance, it guaranteed that corporate investments could be done with appropriate legal protection, and it guaranteed that corporations could be sued for environmental damage or other harms. So, how did we get from this sensible ruling to our current dilemma, a dilemma that is the closest thing yet to a unifying factor in current politics?

As much as I am loath to attack anyone who is recently, deceased, the primary blame rests squarely at the feet of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. He led SCOTUS in a leap of illogical thought that would rival the world’s record for the long jump.

Justice Scalia was a brilliant man and, by all accounts, extraordinarily charming and charismatic. During his time on the bench, he was frequently called upon to write majority opinions and even his concurring opinions carried great weight in guiding fellow justices. Unfortunately, he behaved hypocritically in two vital areas.

The first was that he proclaimed his philosophy to be based on upholding the original intent of the Constitution; however, in striking down the McCain-Feingold Act and then siding with Citizens United, he was totally behaving like a judicial activist. Apparently, judicial restraint was to be argued only when it supported Scalia’s opinions.

This brings us to the second hypocrisy, the concept that judges, especially Supreme Court justices, were to set their politics aside when taking the bench (ironically, SCOTUS is the only level in the federal judiciary that lacks written guidelines for ethical behavior, largely because no one ever suspected that anyone on the high court would need them.) Now, this is not to say that having political views should disqualify someone from serving on the SCOTUS; former President William Taft and former California governor Earl Warren were both successful Chief Justices. But Scalia was quite open about his continued political activism; he openly maintained his membership in the Federalist Society and other partisan think tanks, and gave numerous speeches that foreshadowed how he believed that SCOTUS should rule in pending cases. With his intellect and charisma, he would have been a terrific senator, even president, but he had no business behaving this way as a member of SCOTUS.

And so, he proceeded to take the precedent of Santa Clara County and stretched it further and further until we ended up with the designation of corporations as being people. Here is an analogy. In 2015,  national polling showed that 97% of Americans felt that animals needed legal protection, with almost 2/3 favoring stricter criminal penalties for those who abuse animals. I think of my beloved canine and feline companions and am in complete agreement; however, I don’t think that this means that my dog has now turned into a human being.

The good news is that we may be closer to overturning Citizens United than seemed possible. Most people believed that the election of Clinton to the presidency would guarantee the appointment of a justice who would join the original four dissenters in reversing the case. But, there is a distinct possibility that this could still happen under a Trump presidency. Looking at Trump’s list of potential appointees, even the most right-leaning candidates have shown that they disdain political activism and, given that Citizens United is a direct slap in the face to the populists who elected him, it is difficult to imagine Trump appointing someone who would support the ruling. The question, then, is whether the justice appointed would feel bound enough by stare decisis that she or he would be reluctant to reverse the previous ruling.

Frankly, the greatest danger to overturning Citizens United comes from the U.S. Senate, where senators from both parties have benefited from the contributions now legal. Will they vote according to their consciences on the nominee? Will they see the anger that Americans have shown toward “business as usual?”

FOOTNOTE: The Citizens United  case originated from a propaganda film aimed at demonizing Hillary Clinton. If overturned, this would also boost the broadening of free speech to allow virtually no controls on slander and libel against political candidates, earlier addressed as item #2 on the list of possible remedies. And, lest anyone starts feeling smug, there are a number of slanderous websites attacking Donald Trump, as well.