Friday, May 05, 2017

Don't Just Do Something
The perennial desire of those in government, elected or not, is to just do something. People expect the government to act. They demand laws be passed. They want the regulatory state to work to their benefit. When the elected branches fail, people will run to the courts to just do something, or to unelected regulatory bureaucrats. Perhaps they should not.

Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States and also best president ever, had the philosophy all of us, particularly those in government, should take. “If you see 10 troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you,” he said. Just stand still and watch.

Instead, much of local and state government these days spend time fixing laws already passed to address the law of unintended consequences. Each tweak causes another chain of events that eventually will lead to another tweak. According to Jason Russell in the Washington Examiner, the tax code is now 74,608 pages, including both statutes and regulations. It was only 26,300 pages in 1984 — only. The United States Code, which is the body of laws passed by Congress, consists of 52 titles, bound into multiple volumes totaling more than 8,000 pages, weighing more than 25 pounds, and taking up a bookshelf. Add in the annotated version that is more commonly used and it takes up multiple bookshelves and costs over $18,000.00 to buy. The Code of Federal Regulations is even larger.

Ignorance is supposedly no defense of the law, but how anyone can be expected to keep up with so many laws and the regulations thereto is beyond me. Still, Congress passes more laws, as do states, counties and municipalities. Beyond the basic laws of public safety and the general welfare, the various legislative entities maintain archaic laws and criminalize business laws. It is, for example, against the law in Texas to carry an ice cream cone in one’s back pocket. Likewise, a Tennessee guitar manufacturer ran afoul of American criminal law by harvesting wood in Indonesia that violated a trade deal, though it was legal in Indonesia.

Perhaps the various legislative busy bodies should dedicate a few years to repealing laws instead of passing new ones. That leads me to the American Health Care Act, which the Republicans claim keeps a promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It does no such thing. Rather, it preserves Barack Obama’s signature initiative, but alters it enough that the Republicans will take ownership of all the ills of the law moving forward.

Conservatives shouldered all the blame for the American Health Care Act failing to pass Congress a month ago, but the reality is conservatives were right. The proposal broke more promises than it kept. Led by Mark Meadows, the House Freedom Caucus demanded changes to the legislation that steered it rightward and allowed states greater flexibility under Obamacare. That appears to be the best the GOP can do. They will not repeal the law, but will provide a way out of some of its major expenses.

While they contemplate that law, the Congress and president are considering a sweeping tax reform package. The United States’s tax code has not been comprehensively updated since 1986. As other nations have lowered their corporate tax rate to attract investment and fuel their economies, the United States has left its rate the same. The nation has further complicated matters by adding loopholes, regulations, and alterations through the advice and consent of paid lobbyists.

Corporate America has learned it is far better to carve out loopholes in statutes to protect themselves from competition than it is to actually innovate and compete. Why would any company spend the money to innovate when it can just hire a lobbyist to get a bureaucrat or congressman to tax and regulate the competition out of existence?

Our nation has grown far more complex than our founders probably ever imagined. But that complexity has provided excuses for inaction on reform as legislators in search of money and votes scratch the itch of “just do something.” Instead, Congress should stop doing anything. We would all be better off.



Continuities in Russia

The Cold War is back, but it is a different Cold War because it is a different Russia. It is important to know who the Russians are and what has shaped their worldview, including their sometimes justified suspicion and hostility toward the US.

Some features of Russian government go back to their beginnings as a country in the 10th century. Their geography places them very far north, which means that food, particularly grain harvests, are uncertain. The country has experienced more famine than feast. This is one reason for aggressively moving in on neighbors with better geography and better harvests (Ukraine and Belarus).

Their geography also places them amid several thousand miles of flat, open plains, leaving them vulnerable to attack from enemies. The only protection from this danger is to occupy neighbors and hold them as buffers against more distant invaders. This is how the Russian Empire grew, ultimately absorbing lands in 11 time zones.

Because of this geography and always imminent danger, they need stability in their governance, even when that stability is provided by a monster. Even under Ivan the Terrible or Stalin, better the devil they knew than the devil they didn't know. This explains their preference for dictators such as Assad or Ghadaffi than anarchy without them.

Unlike the way in which western Europe developed, with a basis in Roman and Church law, with charters of semi-independence given to cities and universities, with powerful guilds such as the merchants, Russia had none of these.

Because of Western Europe's geography, once Rome fell, no one country could conquer the rest. There were always multiple power centers that came and went among these countries. They warred among themselves, but one winner never prevailed.

Russia was converted in the 10th century from paganism to Byzantine Christianity (Russian Orthodox), and from the start, this religion and the Russian rulers (Tsars) functioned in unity. There was no Protestant Reformation in Russia. In the Kremlin museum, I recall seeing, side by side, the hundreds of jeweled dressed of Catherine the Great and the jeweled robes and treasures of the Orthodox Church, a troubling show of extravagance in a country where peasants froze and starved. During the Communist period, this reality was condemned and the first effort was made to create a more equal citizenry. At least, this was the theory that made Communism so appealing to idealists who never caught on until the USSR collapsed, that this was a cruel hoax.

What is perennial in today's Russia is an autocratic ruler (Vladimir Putin); seizure or domination of neighboring countries as buffers (Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus); a vicious security system that does not hesitate to use assassination; rabid propaganda system (fake news is not new; remember the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion"); and distaste for western democracy. Like the late Russian Empire, the USSR, and Putin today, there is paranoia about the press, about spies, and distrust of "intellectuals."

Russia actually had a brief taste of democracy upon the fall of the USSR, but it morphed into anarchy and criminal chaos. They want no more of that. There is little difference in the way Putin rules from the rule of the Communists before him and the Tsars before them. Although monarchy has not returned, the Orthodox Church, banned during the Marxist period, has returned and is promoted.

But Putin's Russia is not a revival of the USSR. For one thing, its population has shrunk in half since the beginning of World War II and shows no signs of reviving. The fertility rate is as low as that of Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, and Greece---all of them having experienced fascism or communism in the near past.

And Putin's Russia has only a poisonous nationalism going for it, not as persuasive an ideology as Marxist-Leninist Communism. Ideologies are ideas with teeth: ideas that people can live for, or willingly die for. Today's Russia does not have that, other than greed, corruption, and efforts to destabilize their enemies. Their tenure as a major power may well melt down before this century is out.



With This Budget Deal, The Swamp Wins

Big Government: You can tell whether a spending agreement is good or bad based on who is smiling: the swamp dwellers, or those who want to drain the swamp. This budget made the swamp dwellers very happy.

Shortly after announcing a $1.1 trillion — with a "t" — spending deal to fund the federal government's domestic and military programs for the next five months, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called it a "very good deal for the American people."

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said it "reflects Democrats' values to protect health care, environment and education."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that "we now have an agreement that both sides should support," praising the negotiations as "bipartisan and bicameral every step of the way."

The New York Times gushed that the bill "could serve as a template for putting together the next round of spending bills."

When you hear talk like that, grab on to your wallet, because it means big-spending business-as-usual reigns in Washington, which is precisely what voters sent Republicans and Donald Trump to Washington to end.

Shorn of the gloss being put on it by lawmakers, this bill does nothing whatsoever to point the government in a new direction. If anything, it was as step in the wrong direction, with both sides bragging about the spending hikes they won.

The National Institutes of Health got a $2 billion boost. Yeah! Now it can keep funding vital research like the importance of sighs and the benefits of senior citizens joining a choir.

The bill adds $1.5 billion for border security, but prevents the money from being used to build a wall or increase deportations — in other words, things that would help secure the border.

Trump also agreed to continue to fund ObamaCare's cost-sharing subsidies. Republicans sued the Obama administration to block these payments, since Congress had not appropriated the funds as required by the law.

Naturally, the only thing that got short-shrifted was defense. While it won a $12.5 billion boost, that was half what Trump had requested. Congress approved another $2.5 billion boost on the condition that Trump comes up with a plan to defeat ISIS.

(Why isn't all federal spending conditioned on agencies' first demonstrating an actual plan to succeed at their mission?)

Beyond that, nothing of note was cut.

Which is why there is so much celebrating going on in Washington. Lawmakers always celebrate when spending is increased, because they can brag about how they're "supporting" this and "helping" that.

And while the winners are discrete and easily identifiable, the losers — that is, taxpayers — are diffuse.

This is what's led the federal government to run huge annual deficits and pile up $14 trillion in debt. And it's what will take a truly herculean effort to change.

It was too much to hope for such a dramatic reversal in this short-term spending bill, the parameters of which had been set during the Obama administration.

For fiscal hawks, the real battle will be over the 2018 budget, which is the one that Trump has targeted for steep cuts in domestic spending to pay for rebuilding the military.

The goal for that budget should be to have denizens of the swamp squealing in agony.



For more blog postings from me, see  TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, GREENIE WATCH,  POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, and Paralipomena (Occasionally updated),  a Coral reef compendium and an IQ compendium. (Both updated as news items come in).  GUN WATCH is now mainly put together by Dean Weingarten. I also put up occasional updates on my Personal blog and each day I gather together my most substantial current writings on THE PSYCHOLOGIST.

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