Debt

I didn’t watch Obama last night. I wasn’t protesting per se; it’s just that I knew what he was going to say, and I knew what everyone’s reaction was going to be. He bolstered his support; he made no new converts, and he changed very little. These kinds of speeches have become something of a Kabuki ritual – everyone knows what part to play, and the whole thing is stylized to the point where there’s no room for spontaneity. The lefties are ebullient; the conservatives are panic-stricken, and the media mock the right with barely-concealed contempt.

So, in commenting on this, rather than rehash the same old lines, I thought I’d try to find a position that you might not expect me to have. And here it is:

The national debt is not as big a deal as you think it is.

Understand what I’m saying, please. I’m not saying it’s not a big deal. I’m saying it’s not as big a deal as you think it is. To illustrate, I take you back in time to the summer of 1990, just a few short months after I had self-righteously arrived home from Scotland and ended my service as a full-time missionary. I was traveling with my family through Mesquite, Nevada, and we were staying at the Peppermill Resort and Casino, an oasis of decadence in the middle of nowhere.

My cousin Norm invited me to accompany him to the craps tables to watch him gamble. I consented, mainly so I could look down my nose at him for his evilry. But I got caught up in the excitement, especially when Norm started winning. After a few rolls of the dice, Norm tossed me a five-dollar casino chip.

“Here,” he said. “Do what you want with it.”

Well, I was too righteous to actually gamble with my own money, but this was Norm’s money. In fact, it was a chip, not really money at all. What would be the harm in using this to have a few laughs? With that chip, I started mirroring Norm’s bets, and I found myself up about twenty dollars! So I stepped away from the craps table and over to a blackjack dealer, where I proceeded to lose a hundred and forty bucks of my own money over the course of an hour or so. (That doesn’t count the huge ATM fees charged by my bank as I feverishly withdrew twenty after twenty so I could keep playing “just until I broke even.”)

I learned something that night, which is that I’m a lousy gambler with an addictive personality, and I need to steer clear of the games of chance at all costs. To this day, I have the urge to gamble every time I pass through Nevada, and I’ve resisted the urge for fifteen years or so, but it hasn’t gone away completely.

But as nice and Ensigny as that lesson is, I learned something else, too – a hundred and forty bucks can be a lot of money.

I say “can be” because in my current life, a loss of a hundred and forty bucks would be annoying but hardly devastating. But back then, it felt like the equivalent of my annual salary. I was working part-time in the warehouse of the company that is now FranklinCovey, and I was making about five bucks an hour. I was living at home, so my expenses were minimal, but that hundred and forty bucks was practically a full paycheck. If I lost a full paycheck now, which, thankfully, is much more than $140, I’d probably feel now what I felt back then. Thankfully, I’m in a much, much stronger financial position now.

Yet consider this. My financial debt in 1990 was $0. My debt almost twenty years later is over $200,000. My debt has skyrocketed! So why am I not panicking?

It’s not rocket science.

I owe no credit card or student loan debt; my wife’s car is paid for, and my car will be paid off within the next few months. That will leave me with only one debt – my mortgage, which we just refinanced to be able to pay it off in 15 years instead of 30. That mortgage is collateralized by a house that, even in this depressed market, just appraised at a value much, much higher than I paid for it.

Debt doesn’t operate in a vacuum. It has to be considered against assets.

So what does this mean for the country? It means that the highest our national debt has ever been was in 1946, at the end of World War II. How is that possible? Even adjusted for inflation, the debt was nowhere near the trillions of dollars we’re looking at today.

But in comparison to our gross domestic product – our national income, if you will – the 1946 debt was close to 150% of GDP. Even as the dollars grew, the debt/GDP ratio fell dramatically until the Carter years, when it started to creep back up again. But even at the end of George W. Bush, we were only up to about 75% of GDP – half of where we were in 1946.

Post-WWII America, then, was an awful lot like post-mission Stallion. $140 was a lot of money.

So, yes, Obama’s massive spending is growing the debt at a ridiculous rate – we’ll easily hit 100% of GDP in his first term, and if the spending doesn’t slow down, we could start getting close to WWII levels. But if the economy starts growing again, we’re going to get through it. In addition, our national debt is rolled over on a daily basis. The idea that our children or grandchildren are going to wake up one morning and find a multi-trillion-dollar bill in their mailbox is alarmist nonsense. As long as the economy keeps pace with the debt, which, historically, has always been the case, then future generations will be just fine.

That’s not to say it’s not a big deal. And, indeed, with the retiring of the Baby Boomers, our entitlement programs are expanding far more rapidly than out shrinking economy, and we could be in serious trouble.

So, yes, it’s bad. But perspective is a wonderful thing. Which, to come full circle, is why I didn’t bother watching the president’s speech last night.

Remembering Larry H. Miller

To anyone reading this blog outside of Utah, the name Larry H. Miller probably means nothing to you. But that’s not the case if you’ve spent any time in the Beehive State, where Larry Miller’s car dealership empire floods the airwaves with commercials using the slogan “You know this guy!”

Well, in point of fact, I did know this guy and was very saddened to learn of his passing on Friday of last week. Larry was an entrepreneur with his finger in all sorts of pies – he owned car dealerships, the Jordan Commons complex in Sandy, a TV station, and, of course, the Utah Jazz and its ancillary sports franchises. What you may not know, however, is that for three hours a week, Larry also taught a class to BYU MBA students entitled “Entrepreneurial Perspectives.” I took the class back in ’99, and because of a scheduling glitch, there were only three of us in the class. Consequently, we got to spend three hours a week, practically one-on-one, with the most successful entrepreneur in the state.

When I signed up for the class, I expected to hear all kinds of wild, inside stories about the Utah Jazz and the world of professional sports. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that Larry would use most of the class to regale us with tales of – car parts. Seriously. The guy began working in the parts department of a Toyota dealership, and car parts were his passion. He knew more about car parts than any person who has ever lived, and it was stunning to see just how important they were to him, even after all his success. I can’t imagine anything I’d rather do less than work in the parts department of an auto dealership, but, given his druthers, Larry Miller could likely have lived his life behind one of those counters and be happy for all of his days. Circumstances combined, however, to push him out of his comfortable situation and out on his own. That led him to start his own dealership, and his competitive nature demanded that his dealership be more successful than the one he left, and the rest is history.

Larry was the most competitive person I’ve ever met. He did not like to lose.

He told the stories of being a marble champion and practicing marbles, day in and day out, for three solid years. He told stories of his twenty-seven years as a pitcher for a professional softball team, pitching for so long and so hard that his elbow was distended for the rest of his life. But most of all, he told stories about car parts, and how he parlayed a passion for such into a multi-billion dollar empire. He told us about a time when one of his competitors called him to ask how it was that he was able to outperform him time and time again. Larry answered by saying, “I can do that because I get up every morning and think of new ways to kick your ass.”

As I said, Larry did not like to lose. And he didn’t lose all that often.

His competitive streak came with a steep pricetag. He was too busy winning to spend any time with his children, and as of 1999, his wife, Gail, still resented it. At one point in the class, Larry asked us to bring our wives to listen to Gail teach a session about what it’s like to be married to an entrepreneur. Gail likened it to riding down the side of a mountain in the passenger’s seat of a car – it’s fast, bumpy, and dangerous, and you have absolutely no control over where you’re going. Mrs. Cornell and I kept waiting for the happy ending, for the “but it’s all better now” moment, and it never came. She was in tears for much of the class session, and it made for several awkward moments. I read in the paper later that Larry ended up raising one of his grandchildren as his own, giving him a second chance at childrearing to make up for what he’d lost the first time around. You could tell, from all of Larry’s stories, that this was the one thing he regretted more than anything else. His teaching our class was, I think, part of his penance. In the last decade or so of his life, he tried very hard to connect with all of the people who may not have had the stamina to keep up with him.

But don’t misunderstand; Larry was driven, sure, but he was no ogre. He was quick to laughter; he was generous to a fault, and he may have been one of the brightest people I’ve ever met, even if he was also one of the least bookish. He dropped out of college after a few weeks, citing his “short attention span and lousy study habits,” but he could tell you, in detail, the name and number of any Toyota car part produced over the past fifty years. He pursued the things that interested him with feverish intensity; he ignored the things that didn’t. He was straightforward, honest, and incapable of being anything but candid.

Yes, I knew that guy. And I will miss him.

Chris Buttars is a Languatronic Embarrassment

If you don’t know the story of Languatron, then my opening analogy will be lost on you. To summarize, Languatron is a lunatic in Chicago who thinks I am Glen A. Larson, the creator of Battlestar Galactica. We have never met, nor shall we ever meet, but he hates me more than life itself.

To further summarize, Languatron is a big, big fan of Battlestar Galactica, and so am I. Yet Languatron is louder than I am. And dumber than I am. And he opens his big yap every chance he gets to articulate loopy conspiracy theories and hurl insults. It has reached the point, among my tiny, pathetic world of online Battlestar Galactica devotees, that many have come to believe that Languatron represents the entirety of Galactica fandom, and I don’t like that one bit. Languatron does not represent me, nor does he speak for me.

Utah State Senator Chris Buttars is giving me Languatronic-style hives.

I’ve beaten up on Chris Buttars in this blog before, and I’ve met Senator Buttars on several occasions. I have no desire to pile on, as he’s going through quite the rough patch these past few days, but I feel it necessary to disassociate myself from his imbecility. He’s a Utah Republican; I’m a Utah Republican. That’s where the similarity ends.

He does not speak for me.

If you haven’t followed this story and you’re wondering why he doesn’t speak for me, allow me to give you some of the money quotes:

Speaking of homosexuals, who make him “sick,” he said the following: “They’re mean. They want to talk about being nice. They’re the meanest buggers I have ever seen… They’re probably the greatest threat to America going down I know of.”

What utter crap.

I’ve been a very vocal proponent of traditional marriage even in the face of accusations that I’m a hate-filled bigot, that, secretly, when I’m alone with my fellow evil Republicans, I say Buttars-like things, and in my heart of hearts, I’m filled with Buttars-like thoughts. Many on the other side of this issue will sieze on these kinds of remarks and say, “See? THIS is who they really are! THIS is what they really believe!”

I want it stated for the record that this is categorically untrue.

I can’t speak for Chris Buttars. I can’t even speak for the Republican Party. I can only speak for me. And from my perspective, we face many grave challenges in this country – economic, military, and all the rest. Using that hierarchy, the private sexual behavior of consenting adults doesn’t come close to making the list. At all. I’ve spoken to a number of Republicans who have been forced to deal with this firsthand, and, to a person, each of them is equally aghast at Buttars’ remarks. The Legislature has wisely stripped him of some leadership assignments, and they’re trying to figure out what to do next.

Chris Buttars is an embarrassment. I don’t know that the Senate has grounds to remove him for this kind of idiocy, but the state, the GOP, and the world at large would be in a much better place if the man had the decency to resign.

Now if I could only get Languatron to do the same…

Other Perspectives

I’m just about done with the Gitmo thing. I think I’ll let POUNDS have the last word on yesterday’s discussion, at least from my point of view. However, I did want to offer this e-mail, which I received over the past two days. It comes from the wife of a serviceman, and I think it provides a valuable perspective.

I post it here with permission of the author, with some edits to keep her identity confidential:

I have been reading your blog and have found it refreshing to find some of my same questions being raised. It’s hard at times living here to have non-liberal beliefs. I just wanted to say thanks for taking the time to put stuff out there and stimulate thought and conversation. I tend to stay on the “quiet” side of things and not draw attention – hard to believe I know. But, with a husband in the military I don’t have a lot of common ground with the parents picking up their kids in Range Rovers slapped with Obama stickers.

Your Gitmo piece was interesting. There was a time when hubby was going to be deployed there for a year and went through some of the prep stuff for it. He shared just a few examples of what he could with me and it was enough. Most guards have no weapons, just a radio to call for help. The guard who was pulled into a call and repeatedly bashed between the wall and the cell door until he actually used the radio to defend himself and get free would surely have something to say on the subject. The inmates who threaten the families of the guards are routine.

The rights of US Citizens being extended to Gitmo detainees is beyond me. I don’t know what the answer is, wish I did, but blindly closing the facility and turning the infidel haters loose doesn’t seem to be it.

Anyhow, just wanted to give you a thumbs up and if we could keep this discussion off the blog I’d appreciate it… we’re still trying to blend in and lay low here in liberal land. It’s sad really we can’t be more open about it but we’d rather be careful and protect the kids. Years ago someone had drawn with pen on our front door jamb a small swastika – don’t know why but it still bothers hubby. He presumes it was a military thing as he would come and go to work in uniform.

Anyhow, Hubby is heading off to Afghanistan this summer so keep us in your thoughts.

Moving beyond Gitmo, I think one of the pertinent take-aways from this letter is that too many good people feel they need to avoid saying what they really believe because they’re afraid of ad hominem responses. On so many issues of the day, people shut down discussion by questioning the motives of their ideological opponents. (People on both the right and left are guilty of this, although, from my end, it feels like conservatives are called on the carpet for it a whole lot more often than liberals are.)

In any case, one of the reasons I enjoy these exchanges with POUNDS is that he’s always willing to engage the argument without insulting the person on the other side. If everyone in elected office were willing to do the same, I’d feel a whole lot more confident about our country’s future, regardless of which party holds power.

As it stands, I think we’ve got a long way to go. What’s more, it’d be nice if we actually started to go in that direction.

Gitmo II

Interesting and provocative issues raised by yesterday’s post demand a sequel. I’m not interested in repeating myself, but there’s much more in this issue to explore, and many of the comments to yesterday’s essay raise excellent questions.

I’ll skip past the anonymous guy who tells me I’ve “lost my marbles” and start with POUNDS, who asks the following questions:

1) To guarantee that a 9/11 attack would never happen to us again, would you abolish Habeus Corpus? (just yes or no… please don’t tell me about Lincoln.).

I’ll skip Lincoln, as the situation here is not analogous to the Civil War, in which Habeas Corpus was denied to American citizens. A simple “yes” or a “no,” however, requires context. The question assumes that unlawful enemy combatants have the right to Habeas Corpus, which, thanks to Tony Kennedy’s weaselry, is now the position of the United States Supreme Court, in contradiction to Congress’ determination otherwise in 2006.

I don’t think these unlawful combatants, who are neither American citizens nor uniformed soldiers representing an enemy state, have the right to Habeus Corpus, no. So, yes, I would suspend that right in this case, particularly if it would save American lives. Yet the use of the word “abolish” suggests scope and permanence – i.e. would I eliminate forever Habeus Corpus for American citizens and everyone else if it would guarantee no other 9/11-style attacks in perpetuity? No, I would not.

POUNDS’ second question:

2) To guarantee that a 9/11 attack would never happen to us again, would you abolish the first amendment?

Again, applying similar considerations with regard to scope and permanence, absolutely not.

Derek/Polchinello then worries that Guantanamo has become something of a grey area legally, and he’s probably right, although I don’t think this happened as a result of negligence. The Bush Administration sought legal clarification of the status of prisoners on several occasions, and they met with mixed results. The most recent Supreme Court decision ignores precedent in favor of “human rights,” which, while probably well-intentioned, does a disservice to the nation as a whole. In my estimation, Guantanamo is the worst possible option except for all the others. Those who seek to dismantle it offer no viable alternative in its place.

POUNDS later cites this website for review, and I recommend it to you while having only perused a few of these testimonials myself. What I found in my brief perusal were complaints about disruption techniques – waking prisoners up at all hours of the day or night – and stories of cells that were either too hot or too cold. Other prisoners complained of being shackled in ways that didn’t allow them to stand up straight or sleep comfortably. Some prisoners complained of being humiliated by being forced to submit to the authority of a woman, having their beards shaved, or, as one prisoner maintained, being “wrapped in the flag of Israel.” Some tell wild tales of prostitutes being brought in on a regular basis to taunt them. Surprisingly, I found no mention of waterboarding, which Bush/Cheney critics often suggest is rampant at Guantanamo, nor did I find any suggestion of things that often come to mind when people use the word “torture,” i.e. mutilation of body parts and the like.

These testimonials concern me less than they do POUNDS.

To begin with, most, but not all, of these stories come directly from the prisoners themselves, not from firsthand observations. The only leverage these prisoners have left to them is the ability to provoke international outrage at their treatment at the hands of the Americans, and they’ve often been successful without being truthful. Anyone else remember the Newsweek article about the Koran at Gitmo that was supposedly flushed down the toilet? The incident provoked riots across the globe, despite the fact that it didn’t happen. If Gitmo were engaged in systemic torture and mistreatment of its prisoners, documented instances of such would provoke similar international condemnation. As it stands, we’re usually forced to take the prisoner’s word for it. I find it telling that even these prisoners most outrageous stories don’t include hands being cut off or eyes being sliced out, which is how many of the detainee’s home countries would deal with these guys. It’s not because they don’t want people to believe that; it’s that they know nobody will.

POUNDS questions the veracity of the Cocktail story because it’s essentially a fourth-hand account. Point taken. Can we, then, apply at least as high a level of skepticism to the word of a suspected terrorist? POUNDS refuses to consider the guilt or innocence of these people, yet I confess that I consider their word to be exponentially less trustworthy than the word of an American soldier.

POUNDS sums up his position thusly:

NOW…. IF I HAD TO MAKE A DECISION IMMEDIATELY ON WHAT TO DO WITH THE PRISONERS:

Nothing is more un-American (in my opinion) than the thought of the United States government locking people away without even affording them trials.So, if forced to make a decision, without the the benefit of all the information that has been withheld by the government, I would say:

PUT THEM ON TRIAL RIGHT NOW…. OR LET THEM GO!!!!(As for the place of location pending their immediate trial: I would hold them in the nearest available local jail…. just as other defendants are held.)

That would be an unmitigated disaster. These people were not arrested and charged with a crime; they were captured on the field of battle. None of them were read their Miranda rights. Given the standards of domestic criminal courts, that’s grounds for release right there. And even Obama has admitted that these are some pretty bad dudes, and their release would endanger American lives.

Closing Guantanamo would be a huge step toward returning terrorism to the realm of domestic law enforcement, which is where it was throughout the Clinton Administration. The folly of that approach became apparent on 9/11. No, I don’t want to dismantle the Bill of Rights. Instead, I want the nation to recognize that arresting crooks is very different from fighting a war. By closing Guantanamo, we will ignore that reality and once again bury our heads in the sand.

Guantanamo

I spent the evening with someone who recently came back from a visit to Guantanamo Bay.

The first thing he said was that the biggest health problem facing the detainees at Guantanamo is obesity. They are better fed, better cared for, and better treated than most have them have been at any time in their lives. Contrary to being the center of the torture universe, Guantanamo has very strict regulations that guide their actions. “It’s the carrot and the stick thing, and I have nothing but carrots,” said one of the guards. “I have no sticks.”

Many of the prisoners have been known to prepare something known as “the Cocktail.” The Cocktail is made up of whatever loathsome materials are accessible to these guys. Given their limited resources, that means whatever their own bodies can produce. The Cocktail consists of various parts blood, urine, feces, and semen. One of the female guards, on her first night on duty, was hit in the face with a Cocktail, which was thrown through the wire mesh laid over the bars of the cells. This guard went out, showered up, and went right back on duty to demonstrate her unwillingness to be intimidated.

New detainees are kept in isolation with nothing but a bare cell and a Koran. As they demonstrate their capacity to avoid trouble, they’re brought into contact with other prisoners and given extended privileges – more time outdoors, for instance. During interrogations, prisoners are seated in large, overstuffed chairs, with their ankles chained to the table so that they can’t lunge forward and injure the guards. The detainees begin by talking about how they were innocent goat herders who were gathered up by mistake. So the interrogators then begin talking about seemingly innocuous things, like their family and their hometowns. These conversations extend over periods of weeks and months, allowing the military to piece together details and use them in conversations with other inmates to leverage more information. It’s not that difficult to recognize the al-Qaeda hierarchy, as it manifests itself within Guantanamo in ways identical to how these people operated outside of Guantanamo. They operate according to the command structure within the Guantanamo walls.

Case in point: On one occasion, the guards were concerned that one of the detainees was blocking the surveillance camera in their cell. Someone was sent to investigate, and he ended up slipping on the floor in the cell on a sticky, smelly sea of Cocktail ingredients, after which he was battered within an inch of his life. The prisoners had unscrewed several long, fluorescent light bulbs over the course of several months, and they were using them as clubs to assault their captors. This operation took weeks, if not months, to plan in advance. The goal was not escape or even humiliation of the guards. It was to goad the Americans into finally killing one of the inmates, which would provoke an international incident. So far, the detainees have not been able to convince an American to execute one of them. It’s not for lack of trying.

The question remains unanswered: what do we do with these people? No prison in the United States wants them. Even Fort Leavenworth, the military detention center, has said it is not equipped to handle prisoners like this.

We can’t send them back to their own countries, either. Even the Amnesty International types recognize that Middle Eastern countries are far less forgiving than we are. If handed back to their home governments, these people will be genuinely tortured and killed, usually as part of the same gruesome process. If they’re released into the wild, so to speak, they return to their natural habitat. The number two al-Qaeda operative in Yemen was once a resident at Guantanamo Bay.

President Obama has decided to close Guantanamo. It will make all the Bush-bashers happy, but it creates more problems than it solves. It also puts American lives at risk.

This may prove to be the single most ill-advised decision he will make in his presidency.

Freedom v Fairness II: This time, it’s personal!

A sequel to yesterday’s post, framed around comments by Abbot of Arbroath, who begins thusly:

 
I can grasp the freedom = equality issue is a challenge. There rest is debatable.



Then let’s debate it! Although I’m not sure what the “rest” is.

“Let’s begin with the basic assumption at the root of our nation’s founding”

This is inaccurate. Freedom was for white males and don’t you dare forget that when you propagate a mythical history.

Agreed that freedom for white males was indeed the practice, but it was never the ideal. Jefferson recognized the disconnect between a slave-owning state and the concept that all men are created equal and tried to put language in the Declaration decrying slavery. Over 600,000 Americans died in a civil war for this idea. I think it’s mythical history to suggest that the founders cynically ignored the universal implications of the Jeffersonian language.

“All over the world, people have made the exchange, and the standard of living for everyone has gone down as a result.”

This is contestable. Check out the GDP per capita listings even from the CIA. Unsurprisingly, the top 10 – the US is ranked 10th. Small countries with banking backgrounds hiding money are the competition. The others are small European countries with redistributive systems. 

In fact looking at the listing – there is little difference, about 3000 USD, between most European countries which embrace mixed economy and higher tax burden (a bit like the current mixed economy which is presented as a bail-out in the US) but provide health care, schooling, university, pensions and employment protection.

I’m not convinced that GDP is the best way to measure freedom. These stats show Qatar with a per capita GDP almost twice that of the US, yet that’s because the oil-soaked Emir of Qatar has a personal GDP of approximately a gazillion dollars, which tends to skew the numbers a little bit. Qatar is home to the equivalent of modern-day slavery, even though its GDP can’t be beat.

In addition, 3000 USD is a 6.7% difference, which is not insignificant. Imagine a country with a 6.7% growth rate, and you’ll see what I mean.

It all depends on what you see the function of the state to be – to make money or to ensure equitable society with high levels of social cohesion and low levels of violence. 


I hope those aren’t the only two options available, as I don’t like either of them. The state shouldn’t exist “to make money;” taxation should only be a necessary evil to maintain the state’s basic and enumerated functions. That’s one of the reasons, incidentally, why Obama lost my vote early on. When it was pointed out to him that the state would make MORE money with a lower capital gains tax rate, he said he would still raise the tax because it was “a question of fairness.” So even if it means less money, he’s going to screw over the rich.

I’m all about “high levels of social cohesion” and “low levels of violence.” I get hives when you start talking about “equitable society.” Do you mean equal opportunity or equal outcomes? Because they are very, very different things.

You cannot afford to neglect the link between the creation of government as an entity to ensure autonomy and low levels of violence in societies that do redistribute. Murder rates for European countries average 1k per annum for around 60m compared to the US with 17k murders for 300m.

Correlation isn’t causation. I don’t see how you make the case that the reason people in the US shoot each other more often because the welfare state isn’t as bulky. I think this is a separate issue entirely.

There is an obvious concern. Also the UN reporting rates is of interest as the US only reports assaults crime which involve a firearm or end in serious bodily injury; other countries classify emotional or abusive assaults ( shouting in the street) as an assault. This is an “apple and pears” comparison but the intent behind the logic of report compilation is telling. 


Maybe it is, but I don’t know what it tells.

Is economic freedom the be all and end all of all of government?



Is that supposed to be a rhetorical question?

I suppose there’s more to it, but I don’t think you can separate economic freedom from, say, freedom. When the Declaration was first written, the three unalienable rights Jefferson cited were life, liberty, and property. The idea that economic freedom is somehow tangential to the overall freedom equation ignores the founding principles of the nation.

As for the be all and end all of government, it would be nice if government had an “end all.” It seems to define its role according to its whims, and the result is an expansion of government’s role and a diminishment of personal freedom. As Ronald Reagan once said, “no government has ever voluntarily reduced itself in size.”

Government exists not to grant freedom but rather to protect it. And, as Jefferson wrote, “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” That’s nice to know in theory, but I don’t see an economically intrusive government going away any time soon. 

Freedom vs. Fairness

Stress has been high these last few days – I’m preparing a PR event for work, and I was stupid enough to give out my own cell number as the RSVP line. Which means I’ve been inundated with phone calls, and I haven’t been able to breathe. The event is on Friday, which means the calls end on Friday, too, hopefully.

I anxiously await the arrival of freedom.

Which leads me to our topic today, boys and girls, which is the aforementioned freedom thingie. Whereas tolerance is overrated, freedom is vastly underrated. And a large chunk of the electorate neither knows nor cares what it is.

Let’s begin with the basic assumption at the root of our nation’s founding. Freedom is an inherent right, one granted by God, not government. When government gets in the way, it’s time to get a new government. I’m not as poetic as Thomas Jefferson, but I think the paraphrase is accurate.

Every minute of every day, you have the freedom to make choices. For instance, right now I’m choosing to write a blog entry instead of ANSWERING THAT DAMN PHONE… which is, of course, ringing even as we speak. However, by choosing to do this, I have also chosen the consequences – I’m going to have to clear out my voicemail again – I only have eighteen messages before it fills up – and this will likely add to the stress of my day. Of course, I could blow off the phone calls entirely, which would likely mean I lose my job. But I chose those consequences when I took the job. I also like the consequence of getting paid, and this seemed to be the best course of action I was free to take to get the big bucks.

So as much as I moan and whine about how much things suck at the moment – STOP RINGING, PHONE! – I chose this. I was free to do so, and I did it. I would like to be starring on American Idol instead, or playing James Bond in the next 007 movie, or collecting endorsement deals for my eight Olympic gold medals, but those choices aren’t available to me. I’m too old and too lousy to be on American Idol; too ugly and unknown to be James Bond; too flabby and bong free to be Michael Phelps. Freedom and opportunity are not necessarily the same thing.

Or, to put it another way, freedom doesn’t make life fair.

As a nation, we keep thinking fairness and freedom are the same thing. They’re not. They’re antithetical. In order to make your life just as nifty as someone else’s, government yanks away some of their freedom to provide you with fairness. So Obama’s stimulus plan gives “tax rebates” to people who don’t pay taxes. He’s putting us a trillion more dollars in debt to “stimulate the economy” at the expense of your freedom. Every resource the government confiscates to fuel its activity is a resource you’re no longer free to manage.

Nobody seems to think of it in these terms anymore.

Instead, they point out all the great things the government is doing with your money. And how unfair it is that rich people make so much and poor people get so little, and what are you, heartless? Many even invoke religious principles to justify the encroachment of government on your liberty. After all, Christ gave to the poor, didn’t he? Aren’t we supposed to do what Christ does?

I read a letter to the editor to this effect in the Deseret News yesterday. “As an LDS member who often votes Democratic,” the guy says, “I do so because I believe those with much have a mandate to help those with little.” As a guy who never votes Democratic, I can’t agree with this more. Yet the Democrats – and way too many Republicans – refuse to allow me the freedom to help others. They take my resources and distribute them as they see fit, and they do so at the point of a gun. I am not free to resist, unless I want to go to jail for tax evasion. I don’t get to choose how the money is spent, and I have less money of my own to direct to the people and programs I believe in. How is that fulfilling Christ’s mission? When did Christ confiscate someone else’s property against their will?

People prefer fairness because fairness is tidy and neat. Freedom is messy. Freedom means people can be jerks and spend their money on season tickets to minor league hockey games instead of giving it to the food bank. Freedom means people who look like Brad Pitt will get Oscar nominations and people who look like Stallion Cornell can only write catty, jealous blog comments about it. Freedom means disappointment and frustration when things don’t go as you planned, which is more often than not. It’s no wonder, then, that people want to trade in freedom for fairness.

Folks, I’m telling you, it’s not a good deal.

All over the world, people have made the exchange, and the standard of living for everyone has gone down as a result. I’d rather make fifty grand a year and have my neighbor make a hundred than have both of us make twenty-five. I don’t think someone else’s success limits my freedom. I do think that a government that piles on the debt is putting me in bondage with the best of intentions. That’s something it has no right to do.

In the course of writing this, I’ve gotten twelve new voicemail messages. Shoot me now.

Tolerance is Overrated

I went to my second Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable last night.

I wrote about much of this the first time around, and my basic opinion hasn’t changed. Bringing a lot of people together of different faiths to find ways to be inoffensive strikes me as a waste of time. It comes from a posture of fear – rather than state what you believe and then leave the matter with God, these kind of events offer up the lowest common denominator, the pieces of faith that are so innocuous that not only do they fail to offend, they fail to inspire. But since no blood is shed, everyone pats themselves on the back for being so “tolerant.”

Well, what’s so great about tolerance?

A good deal of my life is lived tolerantly, and that doesn’t make me a great person, or even a good one. I tolerate speed limits that I think are lousy; I tolerate alarm clocks that go off earlier than they ought to. I tolerate freezing cold mornings and icy windows. I tolerate junk mail and bad radio ads and Internet popups. I tolerate clients and customers and coworkers who are ignoramuses and weasels. I tolerate long hours and screaming children and the necessity of doing the dishes every damn day of the week.

There are things, every day, that I like to do, and there are things, every day, that I refuse to do. Everything else, I tolerate.

And that’s the same with everyone, isn’t it? How many of us, when taking out the garbage for the billionth time, finally throw the bin into the middle of the road and scream “Enough! I refuse to tolerate this!” and then run screaming into the night? Do you hang up on a friend who’s probably been talking a little too long, or do you listen tolerantly, albeit hoping that something comes along to rescue you?

Tolerance is a fact of life, and it’s one of the least exciting ones, at that.

It’s sad, then, that there are so many people who have such a low tolerance threshold. Tolerance itself is a pretty measly standard in and of itself. If too many human beings are so reprehensible that you can’t even tolerate them, then maybe there’s something wrong with you, not them. And that something is not something that can be cured by a namby pamby interfaith gathering, which is, itself, pretty intolerable. If you’re willing to injure or kill someone else because of how or what they worship, I’m doubting that watching a choir of Muslim children sing the Five Pillars of Islam to the tune of Yankee Doodle is going to dissuade you. (That was very weird, but I tolerated it just the same.)

Still, it was nice to see a group of Jewish children and a group of Muslim children singing together. I liked that. And I really liked the bagpiper who played “Amazing Grace.” That transported me back to Edinburgh Castle in 1988 at the Edinburgh Tattoo, with a lone bagpiper standing atop the ramparts of the castle, illuminated by a single spotlight.

Everything else I tolerated. Until I finally had to get up and go to the bathroom.

Obama’s Flop Sweat

Nothing is more frightening than the sinking feeling that you know you’re in over your head.

I vividly recall when I took over the Pink Garter Theatre in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and had to pretend that I had the first clue about what I was doing. I didn’t. And it didn’t take very long for people to find out that I didn’t. The result was that that first theatre season was a steady stream of misfires and mistakes, accompanied by sleepless nights and moments of wild panic. Flop sweat sucks.

Anyone else see where I’m going with this?

Barack Obama couldn’t possibly have lived up to the expectations placed upon him, which makes the fact that he’s in over his head all that much worse. His lashing out over resistance to his wretched stimulus bill is childish and silly. According to him, we will never recover economically unless this bill passes. Never! That’s an absurd statement on its face, and it also ignores the fact that there is next to nothing in this bill that is stimulative.

Recessions end. Even depressions end. The question isn’t if, it’s when. It’s a lot harder to shorten them than it is to prolong them, and a trillion dollars worth of pork isn’t going to shorten anything. Amity Shlaes’ masterwork The Forgotten Man demonstrates just how much the expansion of government did to kill business incentives and deepen the Great Depression. For four elections, FDR was able to blame Herbert Hoover for the nation’s woes, even during the “Depression within the Depression” of the late 1930s. How long will Obama be able to blame George W. Bush for everything? I don’t know. It depends how bad things get, as well as how many times Obama falls short of fixing things.

The one component of this that is startling to me is just how broadly Obama misread his mandate. He rejected calls from House Republicans to cut taxes, on the grounds that the American people rejected that idea at the polls this November. Really? Obama promised to cut taxes for 95% of all Americans. Now he’s only cutting taxes for people who don’t pay taxes. That’s a boon to his Treasury secretary, I guess, but it demonstrates the fact that he never believed his own bullcrap.

Obama, for all his post partisan blather, is proving to be a remarkably leftist president. This is not a remarkably leftist nation. As the incongruity between Obama’s rhetoric and his results continues to grow, as I believe it will, a lot of people are going to realize that no matter how much the Emperor works out, he still looks silly without any clothes on.

The flop sweat is beading up on his forehead even as we speak.