Ages ago, when men were men and women were shorter, automobiles inspired the kind of unabashed allegiance and partisan fervor that we now reserve for computer operating systems. Entire families would align themselves behind a giant mega-conglomerate from Detroit and forswear ever buyin’, ridin’, fixin’, or otherwisen’ any so-called cars made by the competition. Dadgummit.

Ford clans would wage war on Chevy clans and Chevy clans would wage war on Chrysler clans, and so on and so on. Well, OK… “war” was hanging a sign with a pithy saying in the garage and maybe buying a pair of branded pair of fuzzy dice. And these were clans with a “c” not a “k.” White sheets were for chamois and not much else. Occasionally things would escalate when that no-good brother-in-law would show up for Thanksgiving in a car made by the Evil Competition, and Dad would mutter under his breath about the godawful indignity of it all until he passed out during the football game and the brother-in-law would change the channel.

In those days, Brothers-in-law were always no good bums and lousy moochers. It wasn’t until they passed of the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Extended Families Act that Brothers-in-law were required to be given equal standing. The Act reads in part, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of a sibling’s marital status, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination by any relation-in-law.”

Aficionados for the various car clans would rally in garages across the country and make up derisive and mocking jeers that they would hurl–always with great relish and while holding a warm can of PBR–at the competition. These jeers were always, always acronyms.

The wittiest (it’s a low bar) were always directed at Ford owners, Found On Road Dead, Fix Or Repair Daily, Ford Owners Recommend Dodge, Full Of Rust Deposits, For Old Retired Drunks, etc… GM came in for its share: General Maintenance, General Mistakes, Generally Malfunctions, and General Misery. But my favorite is one for Chevy: Can’t Have Everything Vern, YaknowwhatImean? Not only is it peculiarly specific, it’s also a wonderfully tortured acronym. Plus, my Grandfather’s name is Vern.

Foreign jeers? There really weren’t any. For a long time, no decent self-respecting American would buy a foreign car (except maybe someone’s no-good, lousy, mooching, bum of a brother-in-law). And by the time foreign cars actually started to become popular, creating an acronym that made sense was kind of hard. Toyota: Runs For a Long Time with Low Maintenance Costs.There’s just no zing to that. It doesn’t flow like Darn Old Dirty Gas Eater does.

Chrysler has recently tried to reinvigorate this lost sense of Americana with the attempted reinvigoration of pseudo-brands. “That thing got a Hemi, Bob? Why of course it does, Earl! I’d no sooner buy a truck without a Hemi than loan money to my wife’s no-account brother!” (So… I actually had to do some research on this one. “Hemi” means that the engine has hemispherical combustion chambers–I suppose instead of those pesky rhomboid chambers. It’s an engine style that was used in 1912 by… wait for it… Peugeot! Peugeot! They’re French!) Aside from insipid product placements in movies and television, “It’s got a Hemi!” doesn’t seem to have caught fire with the public. (Chrysler lost $2.9 billion in 2007. Peugeot made $2.7 billion in 2007.)

My Dad was a Chevy guy. Well, sorta. He has this really cool old 1947 Ford logging truck that’s pretty slick (looks like this). But it doesn’t run anymore. He had a lot of old Chevy trucks over the years too. Most of them ran sporadically. Except for the one with the Ooogah horn. (I loved that horn.) It was a 56 (or a 57 or 58… I can’t remember). It ran for a long time. Had a pinto wagon too. That doesn’t run anymore either–but it also didn’t blow up, which is suppose can be considered a positive in the Pinto. Mostly we were poor so whatever car was actually running was the one we rallied behind.

Me? We have a Jeep Cherokee and a Ford Contour. The Jeep is great. It’s a two-wheel drive Jeep (I know.) so it stinks in the snow, but otherwise it’s great. The Contour on the other hand…. well, it’s Dead in the Driveway right now. It was Dead on the Road a few hours ago, and it’s quite frequently in and out of the shop. It’s loud, it shakes like Lindsey Lohan in rehab if you push it past 45, there’s a broken seatbelt in the back, and it’s once lustrous silver (I’m assuming it was lustrous once) is now the color of dirty road slush ice. It’s a truly craptacular car.

But I’m no car-maker fanboy. If and when we go out to buy a new (heavily used) car from a reputable dealer (Jimbo’s CrazyLot), I’ll do my research and select the car that best matches the family’s needs (is cheap) regardless of who makes it (Yugo). In the meantime, I’ll reserve my allegiances for the contests that my generation finds compelling. I’ve even got some acronyms: Most Annoying Cult, Annoying People Playing with Little Electronics, Defunct Operating System, Vastly Inferior Software To Apple’s, and my personal favorite: Vastly Improved Solitaire Tiling Algorithms.

***Note: I realize that I seem to be picking on Lindsey Lohan a lot lately. Well, in the last two posts at any rate. I’d pick on other people, but the problem is that I need druggie references and I’ve become such an old man that I don’t really know who’s hip and with it (and consequently in and out of rehab) anymore. My wife thinks that the very fact that I use the words “hip” and “with it” means that I’m hopelessly “square.” I was tempted to go with Gary Busey yesterday… I mean, he must be on drugs, right? But he was too scary. Britney might be a druggie, but she also might be insane and, regardless, she just seems kind of sad now. Plus, with Lohan, there’s the added schadenfreude of watching a former child star (and the star of The Parent Trap, for goodness sake!) go all loopy–doin’ the Bonaducci as it were.

***Note: How about Patsy T. Mink joke! I was very proud. (I know, I know.) Look her up. It still won’t be very funny, but at least it will make sense.)

My brief hiatus

It’s been awhile since I posted anything here. What with basketball games, family gatherings, sick little girls, emergency room visits and electro-cardiograms, I just haven’t found the time to write anything. And, of course, there’s all that bad television that so desperately needs to be watched.

OK. That’s a lie. There’s always time. I should just be honest and tell the truth; I’ve written a bunch and it’s all been dreck.

I wrote a long piece responding to an article on 9/11 conspirators that meandered (more than usual!) and wavered and wobbled and ended up both snarky and banal (a combination that’s harder to achieve than you might imagine). I took a few stabs at a platform (I haven’t forgotten!) but there hasn’t been any spark to the writing. When your statement of principles sounds pre-teen protean you’ve got trouble. (America should, like, totally be more free. You know?) I also wrote some background for a site I’ve been thinking about putting up, but it turned out woefully bad. I was going for urbane sophisticate but wound up with a bunch of doody jokes. Also, I read an article on grammar, which is just dangerous. In this case, the article was on semicolons; I think I’m using them too much.

(And speaking of dreck, pre-teen protean? Ugh.)

The past two weeks have been pretty busy. We went to Adam’s Middle-School Mega Concert where they pack everyone into the gym and every group plays one song (sixth-grade band followed by eighth grade chorus followed by seventh grade orchestra followed by silly faculty comedy routine) and it’s really hot and really long and the kids who aren’t performing get bored and sullen. Actually, this one wasn’t so bad. It’s not everyday that you hear a Dona Nobis Pacem followed by the theme to The Simpsons.

I also spent much time laying out class photos for the elementary school yearbook. Since when do elementary school shave yearbooks? I don’t remember getting a yearbook in fourth grade. Of course, I was in Mexico for fourth grade, so maybe I did and I just couldn’t read it. “¡Adios gringo!” Hannah was sick with an intestinal bug that was a real joy. (How much gross liquid can a nine-year old expel at once? More than you’d imagine.) And of course, we’re a family that shares, so Jamie, Pat and I are all now afflicted with the cold/flu/general-winter-miserableness.

We saw Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt in concert (Just the two of them and their guitars; it was great.) American Idol is on, and like every other suburban American, I’m required by law to watch at least sixteen hours of Ryan Seacrest every week. Plus, Jamie and I have started watching Craig Ferguson on the Late Late Show (we tape it and watch it the next day at a reasonable hour). He’s very funny and very zany; we like him a lot. (That was another semicolon; make me stop!) Hat tip to Joshua for the YouTube link that prompted us to start watching.

And on Saturday, the boys lost a thrilling semi-final basketball game by two points. Those games are so exciting; I always think I’m going to have a heart-attack.

Which brings me around to the big reason I’ve been so lax in posting…. emergency-room visits and cardiograms. About a year ago, I learned that I have dangerously high cholesterol levels (in the manner of Mt. Everest or Lindsey Lohan… which is to say, very high). So I started taking medication and getting bi-monthly blood work-ups, and I’ve been a little skittish ever since. (No… Not you! Yes, yes, I know it’s hard to believe… Is there an emoticon for an eyeroll? There should be.)

Anyway, my skittishness reached its zenith a couple of weeks ago when I found myself spending the day in the emergency room with pain in my chest and numbness in my left arm. The diagnosis was “chest pain of unknown cause,” which I took to be good news… sort of. The ER doc guessed that I was probably just fine and dandy, if a bit panicky. “Oh, and by the way, your electro-cardiogram indicated that you have a Right Bundle Branch Block. Which is usually nothing,” he said. “You’re absolutely fine, it’s completely benign, no worries, really. But why don’t you go see a cardiologist as soon as you possibly can?”

So I did. And on Monday I had a “nuclear stress test.” The whole “stress test” thing seems redundant to me, as if being injected with a radioactive gel (that’s the nuclear part) and having giant machines revolve around you and take pictures of your heart isn’t stressful enough. The nurses who administer the test were all very calm and peaceful, but there’s an odd dissonance in the calm and gentle reminder that I shouldn’t handle any infants or babies for 24 hours because I’ll be radioactive. (I’m still waiting for my super-powers to show up. I’m hoping for laser eye-beams, but becoming super-stretchy would be cool too.)

So, I’ve been a bit pre-occupied the last few days. Sitting down to write about whether I disliked Barack Obama more than John McCain seemed needlessly absurd and amazingly pointless; my heart just isn’t in it.

However, the news is back from the doctor and is all good. My heart is where it should be and is doing what it should do and is getting all the oxygen it needs. I need to keep watch over the cholesterol and will probably be on statins for a good-long while, but am otherwise fine and healthy.

Now when I have a two-week lapse between posts, it’ll just be because I’m lazy.

Constraining Leviathan

There’s an excellent article up at Cato Unbound by Anthony De Jasay. The theme, “Is Limited Government Possible?” touches on the inherent problems of attempting to limit the growth of government when every incentive exists for government to grow. De Jasay is European and his analysis seems to reflect a greater familiarity with parliamentary democracy than with presidential democracy (more on that in a bit), but his central point is perfectly sound.

Essentially, De Jasay argues that the structural limits we would like to enforce upon government are no more than speed limits. Constitutional and other structural limitations rely upon the government for their enforcement and are therefore undermined by their ultimate lack of enforcement. De Jasay likens these limits to a lady’s chastity belt. If the lady has the key, then the belt only delays the inevitable.

He says,

…self-imposed rules attempting to limit the scope of collective choices, such as constitutions, are not strong and though they may be observed if they are innocuous and only forbid government to do what it is not strongly interested in doing, they could hardly be expected to restrain government from doing what it is anxious to do or must do to preserve its tenure of power. The general absence from constitutions of restrictions of taxation lends some verisimilitude to this conclusion, though it would still have to be regarded as tentative.

The US Constitution, for example, prohibited an income tax, until it didn’t. It restrained federal spending and federal intrusion into matters unrelated to interstate commerce, until it didn’t. And famously, the Constitution was silent on the sale of alcohol, until it banned it, until it didn’t.

So what does limit the growth of government? De Jasay argues that there are only a few things: The susceptibility of the electorate to panic (The idea that things sometimes get so bad that everybody gets scared and votes for Thatcher or Reagan); Widely held beliefs (Here Jasay offers the universal, pre-Keynsian belief in the evil of deficits); and Campaign financing.

In the United States, it is still largely individuals and not parties that get elected. Party discipline is loose compared to Europe and candidates raise their campaign expenditure to a large extent by personal effort for their personal purposes. To the extent that campaign donations are sought from higher income donors, a candidate’s program must be more “conservative” and less redistributive than if donations came from all income groups in proportion to their income. If elected, a legislator has both a debt of honor to pay to his high-income donors and must establish a record that will help him gather donations on future occasions if there are any such.

Jasay argues that publicly financed campaigns result in more redistributive polices than privately financed campaigns because publicly financed campaigns tend to decrease the responsibility that a political coalition bears for its policies. It’s an interesting position, and certainly points up the problems inherent in publicly financed campaigns (unless of course, we imagine politics should be devoid of responsibility).

Is there nothing we can do to limit the growth of Leviathan? What about checks and balances? The “separation of powers?” De Jasay is not enthused,

One of the dangerously misleading phrases in this context that has penetrated political thought is the “separation of powers.” It is dangerous because it tacitly suggests that such separation can resolve the paradoxical feature of every constitution which the king enforces against himself (or a government against the mandate of its own majority). Montesquieu uses words that do not illuminate the distinction between separate functions of a government and separate repositories of power under separate control that may act independently of one another or even against each other. The latter kind of separation of what ultimately boils down to armed formations and firepower is difficult to conceive of within a single government. It is fairly obvious that Montesquieu did not mean it, and if we mean it when we use the phrase, it is that we do not really think of what the words could mean. The result is a blind belief that the separation of functions among legislature, executive, and judiciary contains within itself a solution to the constitutional paradox of real, though perhaps not logico-legal, self-reference.

This all seems a little bleak. I’m reminded of a particularly depressing conversation I once had with Robert Higgs (author of Crisis and Leviathan) in which Dr. Higgs despaired of the chances for real reform. Unfortunately, I think both Higgs’s and De Jasay’s arguments are compelling. But I’m an optimist, so I’ll keep plowing on, doing what little I can to try and increase the prospects for liberty.

I also think that De Jasay’s continental focus colors his arguments. In a parliamentary democracy, a government is literally “built” with a coalition of different parties, and aside from the entrenched bureaucracy, the ruling coalition oversees all aspects of the government (legislative and executive with the power of judicial appointment or oversight). The coalition is in complete power and is answerable only to its members and constituents. It is only limited by the degree to which it must appease competing interests within its own coalition.

In a presidential system, however, it is possible that different coalitions may control different parts of the government at the same time. (Just as Republicans control the executive branch while Democrats control the legislature.) In practice this can lead to a substantial reduction in the growth of government. Not actual reduction, mind you, just a reduction in the rate of growth. Bi-partisanism is too easy and too common.

And of course, the founders envisioned an even stronger difference: the Senate and the House were intended to represent fundamentally different interests. But that distinction has been lost for some time. Again, the constitution limited government until it didn’t.

Ultimately I think De Jasay underestimates the potential of structural limitations to slow the growth of government. I think growth may be slowed in relation to the extent that government can be divided against itself. Any successful democratic society must learn to balance interests and if those different interests can be set against each other, then we can hope for at least a kind of detente. (Perhaps akin to the adversarial system we have in law?)

We must recognize and acknowledge that the establishment of government is an inherently precarious business; eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. Erecting institutional and structural checks that serve to balance competing interests may not be a panacea, but it should make radical change more difficult.

The challenge is to devise structural limits that put those interests that are least likely to join together at odds with each other. For example, a wealth qualification that would divide eligible voters; the wealthy vote for Senate, the less wealthy for the House, no one may vote for candidates in both houses in the same election. Those limits, of course, may well appear undemocratic (and decidedly materialistic!), but it may be that pure democracy is not the ultimate goal or good. A stable, healthy republic may serve its citizens better than unfettered democracy (That may sound incendiary at first, but really it’s just common sense. Unfettered democracy allows for the will of the majority to trample the rights of the minority; the central purpose and aim of a constitutional republic is to restrict the power of the majority.)

Of course, there are many difficulties inherent in any attempt to set vested interests against each other, not least of which is the possibility that it may not be possible to divide an electorate into stable interest groups. Class conflicts may not actually exist in such substantial force as to qualify as an effective distinction and it should go without saying that demarcating interests along inessential lines–such as race or sex–is deplorable. Furthermore, it may not be possible to effectively prevent cross-interest collusion–even if such stable and competing interests could be identified. After all, the incentives for coalition building would remain as strong as they are now.

Ultimately, the problem lies in the fact that power creates its own incentives. The greatest restriction on the abuse of power is an informed and principled electorate. Or in other words, ideas matter. Politicians may act to maximize their own influence and power over time, but if such activities were more scorned than applauded, the risk of a politician over-reaching would lessen. (Witness the recent reaction to earmarking.) Public opinion and popular sentiment can and does change. Witness the abolition of slavery and the extension of suffrage to women.

In any event, this analysis only serves to underscore the inadequacy of the current candidates for President. Both Hillary and Obama endorse policies that would further erode what little restrictions currently serve to keep the growth of government in check. And so does McCain.

More Gradualism

Timothy Sandefur has another post up on gradualism, commenting on my response. Sandefur clarifies his point as a criticism of the impulse of some libertarians to invest Hayek’s view of spontaneous order with too much weight. He says,

“[The point of the post] is to point out what I think is a terrible habit among some libertarians and conservatives of abusing the concept of spontaneous order or social evolution, in ways that render the concept trivial, or that just totally ignore the actual ingredients of successful social reform.”

I wasn’t so much critiquing that point as attempting to clarify my understanding of Burke’s challenge to the French Revolution–and emphasizing that grand projects to forcibly remake the whole of society are usually doomed to failure. My point isn’t that constructivist rationalism is any worse than spontaneous order (or vice-versa), only that the institutions of society are abandoned at great peril. Partly it’s a difference between the Enlightenment and the Romantic period. If the American Revolution can be seen as a sort of culmination of Enlightenment thought, the French Revolution is the culmination of Romanticism. Where the enlightenment stressed reason and political liberty, the romantics emphasized emotion over reason and were consequently more concerned with material well-being and egalitarianism than with political liberty. The result was the very romantic notion that both social structures and human nature are mere plastic to be reformed at will by benevolent governors. The problem wasn’t that the French revolution elevated “constructivist rationalism” over “spontaneous order” it was that it destroyed any semblance of spontaneous order and submitted the general will to the constructivist rationalism of a few. It didn’t attempt to make men free, it wanted to make men better–and that’s always a dangerous prospect.

The French Revolution wasn’t bad because it was sudden, it was bad because it didn’t make anybody free. Sandefur says,

“the point is that it is dishonest for Burkeans/Hayekians to use it as an example of the alleged inevitable failure of constructivist rationalism, without also keeping in mind that if nothing had been done—if “gradualism” had been the word of the day—the result would have been more and more death, more and more poverty, more and more oppression.”

But all it resulted in was “more and more death, more and more poverty, more and more oppression.” It was the mere substitution of one tyranny for another. It wasn’t a failure of constructivist rationalism for having been planned, it was a failure of constructivist rationalism because it substituted the command of the tyrant for judgment of the individual. In contrast, the American Revolution, the American Civil War, and the Civil Rights movement represent projects that resulted in greater liberty–they were planned, they were organized, but their goal was to allow the kind of decentralized liberty that gives rise to spontaneous order.

I take Hayek and Burke to imply that social reform must be conducted with deep concern over the freedom of the individual to make his own decisions. Neither Hayek nor Burke suggest that we abandon conscious decision making or forsake deliberate efforts to reform society, rather they remind us that we cannot substitute our own desires and prejudices for the people we purport to set free. In this sense, the indictment against constructivist rationalism is the indictment of the tyrant.

A quick aside: Sandefur quotes my comment about the civil rights movement: “the civil rights movement, while violent, was conducted entirely within the constraints and confines of the law [which is definitely not true, but let’s put that to one side].” Just to clarify, I should not have said “entirely within the constraints and confines of the law.” Sandefur is correct in pointing out the absurdity of that claim. If I could amend my claim, I would say that the movement was conducted largely within the constraints and confines of the law. The movement was at heart a movement of reform, not revolution, it sought a change in the law not a complete destruction of the law.

Sandefur and Gradualism

Timothy Sandefur has an interesting piece up on the “Romance of Gradualism.” His thesis is essentially that while knowledge problems may make central planning more difficult, they do not, by themselves, invalidate the efficacy of central planning initiatives. Or more precisely, his point is that sudden radical, engineered change can accomplish a great deal despite the knowledge problems inherent in central planning.

As evidence of the success of radical change, he contrasts the American Civil War with Jim Crow and Reconstruction, and again with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The Civil War and The Civil Rights Movement, he argues, were engineered changes, brought about through sudden and violent means. They stand in contrast to the failed gradualism of the intervening period. To further illustrate the danger of gradualism, he contrasts the traditional Burkean view of the French Revolution against a quote from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Twain’s a great writer, and the quote deserves copying:

There were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror—that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.

The Burkean view has it that the French Revolution was a failure because it attempted to remake the entire fabric of society and ignored the accumulated wisdom of the ages. Rather than impose radical and sweeping change, it is better to approach the problem of social change gradually — by working within existing systems, especially the law. Twain’s point makes a different point. The Reign of Terror may have been bad, but it put to death the horror of the previous evil. While the cost of revolution may have been high, it was not as high as the price paid through centuries of oppression and failed attempts at gradual change. Or at least, that’s where Sandefur is going.

The problem is that you can’t really compare the insidious horror of the relatively brief Reign of Terror to centuries of Royal oppression. Had the Reign of Terror lasted as long, the cost would have far exceeded what had come before. But even that is really beside the point. The French Revolution wasn’t a failure simply because of Robespierre’s short and brutal rule. Had France endured that and then emerged free and whole and vibrant, the point–and the comparison to the American Civil War–might be valid. But the Reign of Terror gave birth to Napoleon, not freedom. The French Revolution failed utterly–not because of a madman and a few months of horror–but because it failed entirely to achieve the least of its ambitions. The French Revolution guillotined a king and crowned an emperor.

As for the American examples, the civil rights movement, while violent, was conducted entirely within the constraints and confines of the law. That, I think, makes it a “gradual” movement by the definition of the Burkeans. Rather than throw aside the corpus of the law as the French Revolution did, the movement worked within the law. The Civil War was a tad more…. disruptive. Although I think one could make an argument for the fact that the Civil War was a legal response to a radical and “revolutionary” rebellion and, in a sense, was still conducted within the confines of the law. (Burke’s point about the French revolution applies to the manner in which the revolutionaries abandoned the entire body of society–in a manner decidedly different than the American revolutionaries who went to great pains to preserve existing civic institutions and the English Common Law–including the entire body of precedent.)

Race and Democrats

Susan Estrich, writing for Fox News, tries to be courageously honest about the Democratic primary:

No one doubts, or at least no one who is honest does, that both racism and sexism come into play as people decide between Clinton and Obama, but could it be that people are more willing to admit that they won’t vote for the woman than that they won’t vote for the black?

If this is happening even among us good Democrats, what does that say about Obama’s strength in a general election? Not pretty questions. Not a fair world.


Is race/gender/shoe size the ONLY reason why a “good Democrat” would vote for a candidate? There couldn’t possibly be other reasons, right? Couldn’t it be that some people think that Obama might be a tad inexperienced (Hillary, after all, has been married to a president), or couldn’t it be that some voters actually trust Hillary more than Obama?

OK… maybe it is all about race. But what does that say about the Democratic party? Have they swallowed so much of their own identity politik that they are no longer able to see any other part of the world? Are race and gender the only issues that matter any more? Is the Democratic primary now nothing more than a race to the bottom to see who can claim to be the lowliest victim? It seems so… depressing.

Jonah Goldberg has a good article up addressing the same issue,

The Republican party is a mess, absolutely. Conservatives are sorting out what they believe, what heresies they can tolerate and on which principles they will not bend. At times this argument is loud, ugly and unfortunate. But you know what? At least it’s an argument about something. On the Democratic side, if you strip away the crass appeals to identity politics, the emotional pandering and the helium-infused rhetoric, you’re pretty much left with a campaign about nothing.

But put the race-baiting aside, and I find another insidious sentiment in Estrich’s column.

If this is happening even among us good Democrats…

“Then what hope do you troglodyte republicans have?” Democrats = Good. Everyone else = Racist Misogynist Pigs. Nice, that.

I don’t live in a perfect world, so I don’t expect much honesty or rationality from politicians. But I would dearly like it if more people approached politics as a competition between different ideas and not just a high-school charm competition. Ha. I know… silly me.

There’s this gem: Che posters in Obama offices. It would be like discovering a big David Duke poster in a McCain office. (For more on Che, check this out.) It says volumes about the kind of ideological support that Obama is generating. I’m not saying that Obama aspires to be a mass-murdering despot, or that, like Che, he wants to make homosexuality a capital crime, or that he believes that cultivating an all-consuming hatred of the enemy is a political virtue. But maybe his supporters do? You know, “us good Democrats?”

Or maybe not. Maybe, like Che, he’s dreamy… and that’s as much as thought as goes into it.

Taxes and the economy

I took a stab at our taxes the other day. For reasons not worth going into, doing our taxes is a little complicated. That’s in addition to the normal, everyday, absurd complexity of the US tax code mind you. Nothing illegal, just a lot of numbers to crunch.

Now, I know that doing taxes is never an enjoyable experience, but I found this year’s effort particularly infuriating. That sounds weak. I’m infuriated by a lot of things, customer service agents, the tone deaf idiots on American Idol, excessive elementary school testing…. But taxes anger me in ways that other otherwise ridiculous things don’t.

It’s not the cold, detached anger that I feel when I see an economic fallacy repeated as basic fact, and it’s not even the hot anger over a public policy that results in widespread poverty. It’s a different kind of anger. Doing my taxes generates the same kind of anger that I’d feel if I watched someone punch my mother.

I’m not roused to anger because the amount I have to pay is exorbitant and extortionist (it is), or because what I pay for is so absurd and pointless (that’s true too), but because I am so clearly targeted for excessive taxation. The government has decided that I, and others like me, should pay more than other people who make more than I do. In other words, the United States government has determined that my family must suffer a disproportionate burden of the collective load.

I’m not complaining here about “progressive” taxation (although that’s awful too), I’m complaining about outright discrimination. We don’t pay more because we’re rich, we pay more for two absurd reasons:

1) We’re married.
This is my first year doing taxes as a married man. It’s truly disgusting. By my calculations, we’ll pay at least 10% more (in federal taxes alone) than we would if we were able to file separately. That’s just absurd. Why the status of my marriage should make an ounce of difference to the government is beyond me. The penalty shows up in a number of places (child tax credits, deductions, etc…) and the cumulative effect is huge. We don’t wallow in excess cash and the added 10% that we’ll need to fork over to the feds will cost us dearly. This is becoming a popular issue, but I think it bears repeating that Bill Clinton vetoed a bill that would have ended this disgrace.

2) We don’t own a house.
That’s right. We rent. We don’t own because we can’t afford to buy. The fact that we rent means that we don’t benefit from the interest deduction available to homeowners. If our rent were a mortgage, we’d pay 20% less tax. I don’t want to hear about property taxes–we pay those too, in the form of higher rents. We have less capital, less money, and less wealth and yet we pay more.

And I see politicians (Clinton, Obama, McCain) pandering to rank populist sentiments and calling for a federal bailout of the sub-prime crisis. A policy that would raise my taxes to subsidize people who own houses they can’t afford. (but still enjoy the tax breaks that come with home ownership, of course.) To add insult to injury, a bailout will mean an increased tax burden, which would make it harder and harder for us to save for the increased down payment and higher rates that a bailout would inevitably induce.

Now, I’m not envious. I don’t want anyone else’s taxes raised, I just want a system that’s fair. When I look at the numbers and realize that as a married renter I’m paying 30% more tax than I otherwise would, I get angry. I don’t want to be penalized for getting married and I don’t think the government should be in the business of making it more difficult for people to become home-owners. I’m not jealous, I’m just angry…. Very, very angry.

Can someone explain to me why a flat tax is unworkable?