Sunday, July 26, 2009

Consequences are always 'unintended'

I just heard someone complaining about 'insurance lobbyists' and suggesting they should all be tarred and feathered and ridden out of town  (i.e.: D.C.)  on rails.  It occurred to me that he wanted the benefits of a huge government bureaucracy without any of the (unintended) consequences.

Nope.  Not very likely.

As Barry Goldwater used to say 'way back there in '64:  "A government big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take away everything you've got."  That is almost precisely the situation we are in today.  Government has expanded with such breathtaking speed since the mid-20th century that today it intrudes into nearly every aspect of modern life.

Travelling out-of-state for business or pleasure?  There's TSA at the airports, AmTrak at the train station, and the Interstate Highway System if you're going by car or bus.  The  'security screening'  at the airport is intense;  that at the train station is  (so far)  less intense, but give it time;  if you get within 75 miles of the border  (and in Florida, that's almost the entire state)  CBP claims the right to stop you for any reason  (or none at all)  to search you, your car, and all your passengers for contraband and to verify that you all have the right to be where you are.  If you complain, you will be tazed and possibly killed.  Talk about 'taking everything you've got'...

Are you in business?  Did you get the proper license(s)?  Have you applied for a taxpayer ID number so that you can be identified on your employees' W-2s?  Even if you don't have employees, you'll still need it to file your business tax returns.  And then there's OSHA and the NLRB to protect your employees, and ICE and CBP to lock them up.

Recently there was talk of something called  "Real ID".  The federal government was going to force states to modify their drivers' licenses to comply with federal security directives.  The rule was that you would not be permitted to board an airplane or an AmTrak train  (and soon intercity buses)  without a federally-approved form of identification.  The cost was phenomenal and the benefits illusory.  Many states dug their heels in -- it was the beginning of the current 10th amendment revolt we're hearing more about each day.  The federal government postponed implementation.

Well, heck, why are they being so all-fired difficult?  Isn't  "protecting the people"  one of the fundamental purposes of our government?

Ummm...  actually, no.  According to the Declaration of Independence, governments  (all of them)  exist to protect the rights of the people.  When the Constitution was written, the writers wanted to be a little more...  uh...  precise.  They wrote:  "We the People of the United States,  in Order to form a more perfect Union,  establish Justice,  insure domestic Tranquility,  provide for the common defence,  promote the general Welfare,  and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,  do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Still with me?  It was the people's intent to do all these things  (for themselves)  and so they created...  constituted...  the federal government to handle all the 'details'.  Silly peasants!  Did they not understand that the meanings of words change over time so that, eventually,  'promote the general Welfare'  would have an entirely different meaning than it did when the ink was wet, and that phrases like  'regulate Commerce ... among the several States'  would become a grant of near-dictatorial power?

The people granted to Congress certain powers  (in Article I, section 8)  and it was James Madison's view that those were the only ways Congress could  'promote the general Welfare'.  Among these powers was that of  'regulat[ing interstate] Commerce'  which was then understood to be a sort of  'negative power'.  Congress' duty as regards interstate commerce was to keep New York and Pennsylvania from  'ganging up'  on New Jersey and Maryland.  As it turns out, that's one of the powers Congress never actually needed  (just as we've never needed the protection of the 3rd amendment).  The states were too busy trading amongst each other and making money hand-over-fist to ever think about entering collusive agreements against other states.

Doesn't matter.  Over time,  'regulate [interstate] Commerce'  has morphed into a Frankenstein monster, all because of that damned little verb:  'regulate'.  It used to mean  'regulate the air pressure from my SCUBA tank so my lungs don't burst and I don't asphyxiate, either'  and  'regulate the militia so they all understand what "about face" means and they know how to clean their rifles and can all shoot reasonably well'.  Today it means  'bury under a mountain of words'.

In this way, Congress can do lots of things they ordinarily wouldn't be able to do:

The 2nd amendment prevents government from infringing the right to keep and bear arms, but if those  'arms'  or any part of them ever crossed a state line  (or ever might cross a state line in the foreseeable future)  they're  'interstate commerce'  and they can be  'regulated'  (i.e.: taxed and restricted so heavily that no one would ever think to 'infringe' them more).

In 1919 Congress knew they had no power to outlaw alcohol and needed the 18th amendment  (The Volstead Act)  to give them the power  (which lasted until the 21st amendment repealed it).  However, by the time Nixon was President, Congress merely relied on its power to  'regulate [interstate] Commerce'  to enable Nixon's 'War On Drugs'.

Almost everything Congress has done since FDR has been justified as either  'providing for the general welfare'  or  'regulating interstate commerce',  and almost everything Congress has done since FDR would be viewed with sheer horror by anyone who was present at the Constitutional Convention in 1791.

The laws of the United States  (that is: federal laws)  are compiled in a series of volumes called the Code of Federal Regulations, or 'CFR'.  It is so large that it is fair to say that no one knows what's in it.  There are 50 major volumes divided into 'titles' that cover every aspect of modern American life.  Were you to buy a printed CFR, it would cost you over $2,000 and when it was delivered you would have to have twenty feet of  (sturdy)  shelf space to store it.  The index volume alone weighs 2 pounds, 10 ounces or 1.2Kg for the metrically inclined.  Parts of your copy would be obsolete in three months;  all of it would be obsolete in a year.

The CFR regulates everything including insurance companies.  It is so arcane that it is not possible to go through life without violating at least one federal regulation.  Since doing so would make any insurance company executive a federal criminal, and since every one of them has certainly done so, even if they can't say precisely which regulation they violated, it is incumbent upon those insurance company executives to stay 'friendly' with Congress lest they find themselves on the wrong end of a Congressional investigatory committee.  Thus the presence of lobbyists.

My naïve little friend from the first paragraph wants the impossible:  a huge government that works for his benefit.

He's going to have to give up one of those...

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Grass Rainbow

It's Sunday and since I don't have to go to work, the dog gets an extra-long walk. A few months back, I realized I was being followed on those early-morning walks... by a rainbow on the grass which matched my pace the way the moon sometimes seems to follow you at night.

Investigating, I discovered a few surprising things:Justify Full
  1. The Sun has to be relatively low in the sky -- it has to be early in the day.

  2. The grass has to be wet with dew, and the wetter the better, although there must be such a thing as ' too wet'. This also requires 'early' because after the Sun has been up for a while, the dew will evaporate. The droplet size also appears to affect the visibility -- the smaller, the better. This seems a reasonable assumption: the best rainbows are those seen at a distance when apparent droplet size is very small.

  3. The viewer has to be walking West, that is: away from the Sun, with the Sun at the viewer's back.

  4. The viewer has to be looking through polarized lenses. I have polaroid clip-on sunglasses, but probably any polarization will do the trick. I know this is true because when I flip up the lenses to get a better look at the colors, they vanish.
When all these things are true, you may find yourself seeing two rainbows, one on each side, emanating from about where your feet are, and arcing away at (Wikipedia says) 42 degrees, although most times I can see it only on one side, if at all. The shape of the grass rainbow is not circular as we're used to seeing with rainbows in the sky. Instead, it's parabolic or possibly hyperbolic.

They're very hard to see, even under the best conditions. I find it's easiest if I'm moving because then the rainbow itself moves against the grass and it's easier to pick out. If you go looking for a grass rainbow, I hope you find a good one.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Ask the wrong question; get the wrong answer

There's a revolt of sorts brewing in several of the States that make up The United States of America (you've never thought of them in those terms, have you?). Something in excess of 20 states have passed 'sovereignty memoranda' (or memorials). These memorials remind the federal government that it is a government of limited power and a creature of the states and caution it (the fedgov) to cease and desist overstepping the bounds of its lawful authority.

Nothing wrong with that, I hear you say.

Well, as a matter of fact there is. All of these memorials concentrate solely (or nearly so) on the topic of 'regulation of interstate commerce'. In the past century or so, the federal government has gradually expanded the scope of its power to 'regulate interstate commerce' from its original very limited scope to the point that the federal government now claims authority over anything that might conceivably one day be involved in interstate commerce. The states protesting have, furthermore, cast their objections almost exclusively as protections of the 2nd amendment -- the right to keep and bear arms -- by announcing that henceforth firearms made entirely within the borders of (state) and which do not leave the confines of (state) are not subject to federal infringements such as the 1934 National Firearms Act (NFA) or the 1968 Gun Control Act (GCA68).

Sounds quite reasonable on the suface, doesn't it? In fact, until you start asking 'the right questions', it certainly does. The moment you begin asking the right questions, however, you realize what a bunch of nincompoops we have elected to represent us.

The Constitution grants to the federal government (Sect.8 clause.3) the power "To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;". Today 'regulate' means 'bury under a mountain of legislation', but it didn't mean that when section 8, clause 3 was written. Then 'regulate' meant 'to make uniform or regular'. It is the same 'regulate' which appears in the 2nd amendment's 'well-regulated militia', where it means 'a militia which speaks a common language, has practiced operating as a unit, and can hit what they aim at'. It is the same word which today gives us the 'regulator' on a SCUBA tank, the device which makes sure you get air at the correct pressure whether you're two feet underwater or two hundred feet.

'Regulate commerce ... among the several states' doesn't mean that Congress gets to micromanage all transactions which cross a border. It means that Congress is authorized to put a stop to states colluding with each other to the detriment of other states. The goal of the writers of those words was The Free-Trade Zone of The United States of America. If they knew what was going to happen to their grandiose ideas, they would have stayed a colony of Great Britain.

So passing a "hands off our intrastate commerce" memorandum is the wrong answer you get when you ask the wrong question. Had they asked the right question, the answer would have been "none of our merchants are any longer required to follow your rules regarding (e.g.:) selling firearms to those who don't live in this state and if you send your federal agents in here to enforce your non-laws, they'll be arrested, tried, convicted, and hung by the neck until they are dead; have a nice day".

If that, or anything even vaguely like it, were to happen, a large portion of the federal bureaucracy would cease to exist, people in the affected states would suddenly notice that they are a damn sight freer than they were yesterday, and it might generate calls for more of the same.

No, I'm not holding my breath, either.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Thoughts on the Declaration of Independence

It's just past the 4th of July and I'm meditating on one of the most significant documents in our culture:  the Declaration of Independence.  The Declaration was not simply an astounding piece of prose, it was a breath-taking attack on everything that was then contained in the word 'government'.

At the time of the Declaration there was virtually no place on earth one could go to be FREE.  Except for 'the wilderness' the world was controlled by kings and emperors;  everyone else was 'a subject'.  In England, the Magna Carta provided something by way of protection for the common man against the king, but not much.  Your life was pretty much not your own to do with as you pleased.  Yes, of course, there were political philosophers of the liberal persuasion (John Locke among others) who held that man was not simply capable of self-government but entitled to it, owing allegiance to no one.  They, however, weren't in charge of things;  the kings and emperors were.

So the sentiments in the Declaration truly were 'revolutionary', espousing some very out-of-the-mainstream ideas.  Our Founding Fathers wanted to start a fire and they did.  Consider:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident:  That all men are created equal;  that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights;  that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;  that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed;  that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it..."  This is political arson:  the sole function of government is to secure the rights held by common men as their heritage from God  (or Nature or whatever externality doesn't offend your sensibilities);  these rights can't be taken away by any earthly power.  The king is employed by the people who consent to his governance!  When the government stops performing its function the people have the right to dump it.  In fact, it's a duty:  " is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government...".

The practical problem is:  how does one 'dump' a government the size of ours?  That's not a rhetorical question;  it needs an answer.  You can't simply vote the rascals out because the rascals count the votes.  Think:  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad;  the Iranians are just now discovering that it's a bad idea to leave control of the elections in the hands of the incumbents.

The revolutionaries knew how to dump a government;  they were just too gentlemanly to say it in blunt terms, possibly reasoning that if people couldn't figure it out for themselves it was probably too late anyway.  Besides, there was the example of the Revolutionary War itself.  You dump a government, in the extreme, by taking up arms.  You overthrow the government by force.  (Where is that House Un-American Activities Committee when you really need them?)

That, in effect, is what the Second Amendment is all about.  Why is the right of the people to keep and bear arms not to be infringed?  In the end it is so that we, the people, may overthrow the government we created...  by force when/if we need to.  That we can resort to force if things get really bad may be the reason we have not yet had to resort to force.  If we allow ourselves to be disarmed...  'for the children' or any other reason...  that option disappears and if things then get really bad, the only option left will be to 'grin and bear it'.

Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in his dissent in Silveira v Lockyer (2003):  "The prospect of tyranny may not grab the headlines the way vivid stories of gun crime routinely do.  But few saw the Third Reich coming until it was too late.  The Second Amendment is a doomsday provision, one designed for those exceptionally rare circumstances where all other rights have failed—where the government refuses to stand for reelection and silences those who protest; where courts have lost the courage to oppose, or can find no one to enforce their decrees.  However improbable these contingencies may seem today, facing them unprepared is a mistake a free people get to make only once."

The Constitution is the User's Manual for our government.  The specification document is the Declaration of Independence.  If something in the Constitution is unclear or hard to interpret, you go back to the 'spec' to find out what was intended.  When you start to fully appreciate the incendiary nature of our founding document, it gives you a funny feeling...  it gives me a funny feeling like looking over the edge of a very deep canyon.  Yeah, you know what I mean.