Monday, March 29, 2004

The politics of class envy

Mark Dorroh

When we're very young, envy plays an enormous role in our perception of justice. Any small child who thinks his sibling was given a bigger slice of dessert pie is liable to make a large production out of it.

"No fair, his is more than mine!"

As we grow older and begin earning our own slices of pie, we're expected to learn that not everybody gets exactly the same rewards out of life. Sometimes this is due to accidents of birth, but to the extent that we live in a free enterprise system of merit-based remuneration, acquisition of wealth in America is most often based in ability and commitment, plus the invisible hand of market forces.

That is to say, it's not fair that Michael Jordan has reflexes three times as good as mine, plus a higher IQ, a powerful physique and a degree in economics from a prestigious university. But the fact of the matter is, Jordan worked unimaginably hard to hone his physical and mental abilities. The same is true of Meryl Streep's acting talent and Bill Gates' software savvy. We don't all get dealt the same hand in the big game of life, but as any poker player can tell you, in the long run, it's how you play what you're dealt that determines whether you win or lose.

Sadly, many of today's political paradigms are built not on assumption of personal responsibility so much as the childish politics of envy. Take the campaign catchphrase, "tax breaks for the richest Americans."


Set aside the rhetoric for a minute, and let's see what's really going on here. In the most recent rounds of federal tax cuts, everybody in a given tax bracket got the same rate reduction. That's what "marginal rate reductions" mean. When you think about it, it's really quite similar to what happens with your city or county real estate taxes. At the local government level, everybody understands that if the real estate rate declines by a few cents per hundred dollars valuation, people with $500,000 houses will save more on their tax bill than people with $50,000 houses. That's how marginal tax rate reductions work. Those who pay more than I do will save more than I will when rates are reduced for everybody. That's also elemental fairness, unless you subscribe to the politics of envy.

Interestingly, at the federal level, even after all President Bush's tax cuts were enacted, the top 10 percent of wage-earners still wound up paying something in excess of 60 percent of what the government collects in personal income tax revenues. So in fact, all those "tax breaks for the rich" somehow managed to leave that despised economic class holding most of the bag regarding our shared liability for paying America's public bills.

The people who advance the modest proposal that we "eat the rich" are doing us, the citizens of average means, no big favors. They'll try to make us believe we're getting some sort of advantage out of the deal, but analyzing it in macroeconomic terms proves otherwise.

In the big picture, the fact about rich folks is, the money they save on taxes has to be put somewhere, and where it mostly goes is into investments. If one's income is high enough, it's nearly impossible to spend it all, and anyone with an ounce of sense is going to take the leftover money and lend it out at interest.

Because of supply and demand, more private-sector money available for investment means lower consumer interest rates. Most of the money the government does not take from a rich taxpayer goes into the massive American capital-lending pool through one financial instrument or another.

Then, when we need a home mortgage or a student loan or a business loan, the more private-sector cash not locked up in government programs, the cheaper our money will be to borrow.

These are inconvenient facts, facts which should now compel us to ask the inconvenient question, "It worth cutting down on our own access to affordable capital, just to get even with people who have more of it than we?"

Class warfare and collateral damage

Class warfare is like any other kind of warfare. It hurts not only its intended targets; there's always some collateral damage to the general population. That is the nature of warfare, economic or military.

To put it another way, "no one wins a war, one side just loses more than the other."

Confiscatory rates of taxation bleed money out of private investment markets and put it into government programs, some highly necessary, others of dubious worth. Unless you believe a huge institution like government is more efficient at making investment decisions than individuals with hopes and dreams and the willingness to work incredibly long hours to succeed, there's no way higher tax rates on the rich ever benefit anyone but politicians who make careers out of spending "O.P.M." (Other People's Money) to buy votes from credulous constituencies who possess an insufficient grasp of basic economic theory.

When we allow government to take in taxes money that should go into investment markets, we're really allowing our own future loan rates to be artificially inflated. The reason most of us don't understand this principle is that the money pours into government coffers in large identifiable chunks, whereas the money we save through lower interest rates dribbles back to us in small, regular increments. The resulting gap between economic perception and reality makes it pretty hard for most non-economists to see the benefit of reasonable tax rates on the rich.

There are far too many politicians who regularly pimp us out through the crafty use of class envy, denying our families lower rates on borrowed money, at the same time (and not coincidentally) making us all more reliant on government than we would be if we were to get, instead of government largess, cheaper interest rates.

It's a mug's game. It's also a fitting punishment for a nation of voters cunningly manipulated through the politics of envy.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

News you can abuse: fun with The New York Times

Mark Dorroh

There are all kinds of ways news can be abused. Sometimes it's intentional, sometimes not. Reporters and editors try to keep media manipulation and mistakes to a minimum and their professional objectivity to a maximum, but it's a constant battle.

According to some New York media wallas, the latest examples of intentional media manipulation by powerful interests are the "video news releases" sent to television news departments by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

The New York Times, which broke the story, claims that the videos look and sound like news stories prepared by reporters and editors, but they're actually informational puff pieces touting the Medicare drug benefit bill enacted last year while simultaneously explaining to senior citizens how to use it. In one "video news release," actors pretending to be reporters give President Bush a standing ovation. In another, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson stresses the voluntary nature of the program.

But the "reporter" who filed the stories and did the stand-up announcing job in front of the cameras is an actress, not a reporter. She didn't work for a broadcast news department and the script she read was prepared by a public information officer of the Department of HHS. Was this an attempt to fool news departments?

By way of explanation, I should stipulate that I spent most of a dozen years as a radio news director, and in my opinion, any editor who couldn't tell these were puff pieces should be fired, yesterday.

Such packages land on the desks of news directors every day, sent over the transom by the government, from unscrupulous companies trying to get free advertising and from advocacy groups who will tart up a position statement and present it as a news release.

Any news professional who was not asleep at the switch would find it pretty hard to mistake these puff pieces for anything but what they are. Only a terminally stupid or extremely lazy editor could confuse them with unbiased news reports.

Back in the '90s, when I was running the WHAP news department in Hopewell, Virginia, I saw this stuff all the time. If it had an interesting slant, I'd put it into a newscast, making sure to identify the source so the listener could decide on the credibility of the story for himself. I knew the "reporters" were really public information officers, paid flaks, so I would just edit out their voices, rewrite the scripts for our staff to announce, and use only the tape "actuality" of whoever was the subject of the report or the supposedly expert commentator on the subject. Then, if it was a controversial enough issue, I'd call up someone on the other side for a comment, just for balance.

From what I've read, the video news releases for the Medicare drug benefit were essentially government-created versions of this sort of faux news release. A smart editor who wanted to use the story would have simply called up one of the Medicare drug benefit bill's many opponents and gotten the other side of the story, which is what I suspect most editors did.

An HHS spokesman points out that such video news packages are sent out regularly for public information purposes, but the Times piece claims the packages were not labeled to identify them as government agency handouts. The paper contends that omission could possibly have led some to believe they were actual, unbiased news reports. So now there's an investigation over whether or not a federal law was broken. Apparently there's a rule in federal code against the government paying for propaganda ... that is, propaganda not approved by Congress.

The flap over whether or not the video news releases were aimed at fooling anyone is a tempest in a teapot; it's news you can abuse.


Thursday, March 11, 2004

The blood curse of the Passion: anti-Semitism or anti-dogmatism?

Mark Dorroh

I haven't yet seen Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, and won't until I can rent it and watch it at home. I'm not a fan of extra-bloody movies, and from the reviews I've read, the only way I think I could stand to watch this one is via DVD on a small television screen.

But even without seeing the Passion, it's hard to ignore the concern being vented over Gibson's supposedly anti-Semitic depiction of the blood curse some Jews called down on themselves when Pilate offered them a choice of whom was to be spared crucifixion, Barabbas or Jesus. With the new anti-Semitism (thinly disguised, especially in Europe, as anti-Zionism) rearing its ugly head once again, that concern is not misplaced. I think it would be profitable to ask what exactly was the nature of the Passion's blood curse. Was it a curse upon Jews and their children, or is there more to it?

I believe that whatever the initial nature of the curse, it has become, over the years, a racist manifestation of the ancient practice of using selected groups of persons, usually defined by race, ethnicity, class or religion, as scapegoats. Also, those who called the curse down upon themselves are amazingly similar to today's believers who still don't quite understand what Christ was trying to accomplish in his 33 years on Earth.

The practice of scapegoating - irrationally blaming the unavoidable problems of life on an innocent individual or group - is among humanity's most primitive reactions to misfortune. Its definition may be an Old Testament invention, but plenty of non-Jewish cultures have their own versions.

Of course, for theological purposes (with which I profoundly disagree, but plenty of others endorse), Christ was here to be our universal scapegoat, to take the sins of humanity upon His own shoulders, thereby creating the possibility of salvation for we, the sinners. But a secondary use of the role of the scapegoat was also in play at Golgotha. At an early age, Christ began arguing with the Scribes and Pharisees about God's Law, and He pretty much never quit arguing with them for the rest of His career as an itinerant rabbi.

Down throughout history, whenever times get tough, it's the anti-dogmatist freethinkers who are most often chosen as scapegoats. So it was with Jesus; His heavenly wisdom challenged earthly dogma, threatened the authorities and made of Him a natural scapegoat for political reasons quite unconnected to His spiritual mission.

For modern context, let us consider for a moment the body of modern conservative Christian dogma regarding the relationship between church and state. In the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly told us His mission was not creation of Heaven on Earth (i.e. - an Israeli revolt against their Roman masters), but rather was one of preparing the way for us to enter into the presence of the Lord after death.

The Romans killed Christ because they thought he might be the King of the Jews who would lead a revolt to throw off their colonial yoke, while the Pharisees handed Him over to the Romans to get rid of a noisy troublemaker.

Christ said quite clearly that we should render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto the Lord what is the Lord's. But that message was lost in the muddle of dogma and politics at Calvary, as it is even today, with otherwise perfectly intelligent Americans trying to inject more religion into government.

Then as now, the Christian division of God's business from affairs of state was misunderstood, mostly because the high-church dogmatists chose to misunderstand it.

So, if indeed some Jews did call down a curse upon themselves, the real curse devolves upon authoritarian spiritual leaders blinded by dogma, rather than persons of a particular bloodline. That multi-generational curse is upon those who ignore God's truth because it threatens precious dogma and Earthly power.

And Jews certainly don't hold any kind of monopoly on that sort of spiritual blindness. Look at some of today's headlines, and you'll see plenty of Gentiles being willfully ignorant of Christ's injunctions to keep separate our duties to God and Caesar. The Scribes and Pharisees didn't get it 2000 years ago … and they still don't get it today.

If Jesus came back tomorrow morning, the modern-day Scribes and Pharisees, the Fallwells and Robertsons and Swaggerts, the Judge Roy Moores and Anthony Scalias would run for the crucifix and nails with an alacrity which would make a drowning man clutching at a life preserver appear hesitant in the extreme.

Considering the ways in which these guys selectively ignore huge, essential portions of His 2,000 year old teachings, imagine how much their authority would be challenged by His return today. Their attempts to remove the dividing line between citizen duties to church and state would be denied by the Author of their own religion.

Their temporal power and spiritual authority would vanish, even as their Lord returned.

The curse called down upon humanity just before Pilate washed his hands was not on Jews alone. It was upon any supposed believer whose mind is so clouded by Earthly dogma that he can't see, hear or allow into his heart the Heavenly truth.

Friday, March 05, 2004

God Bless the House GOP: "Referendum or gridlock" forever!

Mark Dorroh

I'm the type of Republican who probably spends more time getting mad at my party as I do supporting it, but every so often, elements of the Grand Old Party get it right. This week, I was frankly thrilled to see the Republican Virginia House of Delegates majority put its foot down on the question of tax hikes. The "referendum or gridlock" stand taken by House Speaker William Howell and his supporters may or may not still be alive by the time this column is published, but it is an idea whose time has come.

I agree with our own Delegate Riley Ingram, who says the House plan to raise taxes by half-a-billion dollars for absolute necessities is the way to go.

In this correspondent's opinion, anything beyond that should be decided by the people. To the argument, "We don't want to become California," I can only say anyone who can't tell the difference between Virginia and California, with or without a one-time referendum on tax rates, isn't paying close attention. Unlike California, Virginia citizens can't get a referendum question on the ballot merely with a serious petition drive; here, our elected leaders must make the call.

And what ever happened to the love of referenda evinced by our governor when he ran for office? Did the dual defeat of local option tax hikes in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads suddenly change everything he believed about the wisdom of voters? When a bedrock principle gets wiped out by situational reality, it implies to the casual observer that the principle wasn't very solidly held to begin with. Such apparent cynicism bodes not well the next time a candidate professes to deeply believe in something during an election cycle.

The other argument against a tax referendum is that "leaders are abdicating their responsibility to govern" by turning selected decisions over to the electorate. Well, maybe. But in a Democratic Republic such as ours, the dynamic between leaders and constituents has always been a subtle and ever-changing one. The Constitution recognizes referendum and recall as essential voter rights; even the founding fathers recognized that sometimes elected officials don't know it all.

Senate Republicans, whose tax hike package exceeds even that of the governor, need to dial it down a bit and quit casting aspersions on their brothers and sisters in the House. There's no dereliction of responsibility here, just recognition of unusual budget times which call for an unusual budget fix.

And what, precisely, is the problem with asking the opinion of the people who pay the tab and have to live with the consequences? We have a very well-educated state here; most Virginians are perfectly competent to deal with complex issues. Do the governor and Senate Republicans think they'll suddenly turn stupid when confronted with a hard choice?

There's a fine line between executing one's duty as an elected leader and being an elitist who thinks voters are unqualified to set their own priorities. Sure, elected officials have the benefit of devoting their full attention to the issues during General Assembly sessions. But that shouldn't exclude the rest of us from the process, especially in weird budget times such as the one we're living in now. It would seem to this correspondent the best bet would be a vigorous public education campaign with both sides presenting their best case to voters, followed by a referendum.

Having said all that, let me say this: As stated before in this space, my distaste for state tax rate increases is based in a couple of understandings, both of them historically verifiable. First, no matter how much money government spends on perceived public needs, it will never be enough to satisfy every citizen. And then there's the small matter of the extra billion dollars in projected revenues left over after all state budget needs were funded in 2000. If General Assembly had left that money in the fund balance, it would have been earning interest and would have been available to patch revenue shortfalls caused by the bubble bursting and the post-9/11 expenses of homeland security. But, sadly, that's not what happened. What happened was (drum roll), every blessed dime was spent by a General Assembly which had already covered 100 percent of legitimate state needs.

Just for fun, let's analyze that occurrence in familial microcosm: If your son or daughter had a sudden windfall of $1,000, went out and blew it all, then came to you a year or two later whining about not having enough money, what would you say? A responsible parent would call attention to the $1,000 and hope the kid learned a valuable lesson about saving and spending.

We, the voters, are in the position of parents to the General Assembly. Unless we force members to face the consequences of their profligacy, we have no one to blame but ourselves as taxes steadily rise, workers are bled white by taxation approaching confiscatory levels, and the almighty state exerts progressively more influence over our family budgets and private lives.

Let's not blow the chance to make our childish legislators learn from their mistakes. I say, "Referendum or gridlock forever!"

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Fighting demons; the twisted role of the political shaman

Mark Dorroh

One of the silliest aspects of election rhetoric is the oft-repeated promise that candidates, if elected, will "fight" for us. Elected officials who spend all their time fighting are not what I want. What I want from my leaders is competent governance.

Unfortunately, it's not particularly exciting to declare, in a stump speech, "I'm going to Washington and competently govern for you!" Such a declaration would be truthful, even refreshing, but a guaranteed applause line it's not.

As anyone who has spent time observing career politicians knows, fighters seldom accomplish much beyond making inflammatory headlines. The leaders who get useful things done are the pragmatic idealists, driven by core beliefs but also aware that in a policy debate, neither side can (or should) get 100 percent of what it wants. Today's fighting politicians and their blinkered constituencies tend to ignore principles of rational discourse, instead wallowing in visceral reactions to real or perceived injustice. They burn with an outraged sense of entitlement and are contemptuous of mutually-respectful dialogue.

Combative, ultra partisan politicians feed upon the arrogant assumption, cherished by too many voters, that the folks on the other side of the issue have nothing of value to contribute to the discussion, so we must fight them, triumph over them and leave the field of battle with trumpets playing and ideologues braying.

Fighting, as a method of governance, is also distressingly devoid of ethical considerations. Fighters substitute rage for reason; their means of debate are the expression of righteous indignation, not compelling argument. Thus, "fighting politicians" have become the shamans of modern republican democaracy.

Shamans - the witch doctors indigenous to all primitive cultures - fight demons while currying favor with friendly spirits. A shaman whose tribe is in trouble has two basic missions: he must first identify the demon who is the source of the trouble, then engage it in battle and, hopefully, carry the day. He may enlist friendly spirits to assist him, but his first job is to name the demon.

The role of the shaman is so pervasive in human history precisely because primitive people don't understand that bad things happen to good people because reality is indifferent to the welfare of any single organism, even when that organism is one's own precious, irreplaceable self. When the rain doesn't fall and the crops wither, the primitive mind assumes the tribe has either lost favor with its gods or has engaged the attention of malignant spirits. That's when the shaman earns his bread and butter by naming and fighting the evil spirit or spirits who are to blame.

Modern shamans have modern demons to name and fight. Today's widespread and largely unchallenged belief that "special interests" are at the root of all evil in America is one prime example of the modern demon. Special interests have become the all-purpose scapegoat of contemporary American politics.

Special interests are (if the conventional wisdom of the doctrinaire Left and Right can be believed) out to rip you off, ship your sons and daughters off to be slaughtered in unjust wars, marginalize public expression of your religious beliefs, make every nation on earth hate America, discriminate against you and yours, murder your "pre-born" babies, export your jobs to other countries, destroy the institution of holy matrimony, poison your environment, impoverish your grandparents and entice your children into a life of vice and degradation.

So what is a special interest, and what makes it so scary? Upon closer investigation, we discover that all a "special interest" actually amounts to is a group of people with shared beliefs and/or means of earning a living who hire a spokesman to tell our leaders what effects new laws, regulations or tax code changes will have on them. The politicians I've talked to over the years say they use lobbyists primarily as a source of free research. The officeholder called to vote on a tricky and complex bill first acquires a position paper from the lobbyist of each interested group of citizens, then makes up his/her mind based on all available information - plus the values and principles he/she articulated to get elected in the first place.

This seems, at least to me, to hardly to qualify as anything approaching an intrinsically evil process.

The real problem with special interests is not fundamental to that process. Rather, the real problem occurs when government alters its mission from enforcing reasonable laws to legislating personal morality and/or redistributing honestly-earned wealth.

A government which has embraced those dubious missions is a government which will regularly be manipulated by the angriest minority or the most ruthless majority. That's when special interests morph from their role as rational adviser/advocates into smug, self-righteous petitioners seeking to use the power of government to bully fellow citizens into their version of utopia.

If we, the voters, would all get together and conspire to exclude government from the business of taking wealth from Citizen Group A and handing it over to Citizen Group B, or of trying to dictate matters of personal conscience (especially in regard to religious belief systems and human sexuality), the scary special interest groups would instantly lose their evil aspects and be blessedly returned to performance of their original missions; providing our leaders with vital, advocacy-based information.

Let's implore our politicians to give up their shaman's robes and masks, quit trying to name the demons and return government to the carefully limited role the Framers envisioned. Or, to put it another way, the next time a candidate promises to go to the halls of power and "fight for you," run, do not walk, to the ballot box and vote for his/her opponent, no matter what flavor of idology he/she may espouse. Do this often enough, and our twisted political shamans will finally begin to comprehend that what we want is not serial ideological dustups, but rather competent governance.

Then and only then will America be able to leave the "fighting" to our excellent professional military.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Sex, lies, video tape, "Nunn's Nickel" and weapons of mass destruction

Mark Dorroh

Arms Inspector David Kay has spent the past week talking about his search for WMD in Iraq, but only selected portions of his remarks are being repeatedly cited in most news reports. Kay's belief that Saddam probably didn't have stockpiles of WMD immediately prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom is something one reads and hears often. Also mentioned frequently is Kay's belief that was a failure among U.S. intelligence agencies and the information they gave President Bush.

What doesn't get mentioned nearly so often is Kay's assertion that his post-war inspections have uncovered plenty of evidence that Saddam had WMD-related projects in the works and possessed a number of missiles with ranges in excess of Desert Storm armistice/Security Council resolution limitations.

The WMD research-and-development projects and illegal missiles are significant because, according to the language of Resolution 1441, Saddam had an obligation to report them (which he failed to do) and allow unfettered access to their sites (which he also failed to do). Violation of either of those provisions of 1441 was enough to trigger serious consequences for noncompliance, up to and including armed intervention.

Also, many news reports ignore the fact that Kay has repeatedly said it wasn't just American intelligence that miscalculated the presence of Saddam's WMD stockpiles. While the Russians were publicly skeptical on the matter, they were nearly alone in their skepticism. Intelligence services of the French, the Germans and the Brits all thought the same thing as President Bush: that Iraqis probably had WMD stockpiles. The argument preceding the invasion wasn't over whether or not Iraq had them, it was over what should be done about it, another factoid seriously underreported by the media.

Heavy (and heavy-handed) media emphasis on selected portions of Kay's remarks reminds one of the way in which the infamous Rodney King beating was handled by American media. We all saw, dozens of times, the portion of the videotape in which the helpless King lay on the ground as deputies wailed away on his prostrate form with truncheons. What I saw exactly once on television was the portion of the tape in which the six-foot-something, 230-pound Rodney King lunges at a deputy, nearly knocking him down.

Apparently, network news editors didn't think that part of the tape was as sexy (or as useful for ratings) as the helpless-on-the-ground video images. That left many with the impression that the beating was utterly arbitrary and unprovoked. And while King's actions did not justify the savagery of his beating, the underreported lunge was essentially censored by members of the 4th Estate whose professional and ethical obligation is to tell the whole truth, not just the bloody, exciting bits that make police look like monsters and criminals look like victims (lest we forget, King's extreme drunkenness behind the wheel initiated a police chase with speeds approaching 100 mph, and King was so loaded when they finally apprehended him, the cops thought he was dusted on animal tranquilizer).

Another interesting feature of the reporting done on Kay's WMD conclusions is the criterion by which reflexive Bush-bashers define a "lie." By any reasonable standard, relying on (nearly everyone's) flawed intelligence - intelligence which assumes the worst of someone with a history as bloodstained as Saddam's - does not rise to the definition of a lie.

On the other hand, a few years back, chronic Clinton-bashers did in fact catch a president in a lie when he testified that he'd not done what DNA evidence later proved he had.

Unlike George W. Bush, William J. Clinton was not relying on anyone else's flawed intelligence. He knew the truth, and chose not to tell it.

Yet many who defended Clinton then accuse Bush of lying now. And the classic Clinton defense, that the flawed testimony was all "just about sex" ignores the fact that, no matter what the underlying issue, the president intentionally lied about it in a deposition to a federal court investigating an alleged civil rights violation.

Compared to accepting possibly flawed intelligence - with which three out of four major national intelligence services agreed at the time - the chant, "Bush lied, people died" becomes a curiously empty and misguided mantra … sort of like that of the sheep in Animal Farm who would lie around in the pasture for hours, chanting "Four legs good! Two legs bad!" ad infinitum.

It should be noted at this point that Eric Arthur Blair, a former socialist who saw the light after serial depredations of human rights and dignity at the hands of his coreligionists in the 1930s, darn well knew the definition of a lie … and of an empty chant as well.

In a larger sense, our treatment of presidents Clinton and Bush shows how crazy we can get when we allow gut reactions to influence our higher-order mental processes. Even when Clinton did things Republicans loved (his support for meaningful welfare reform, NAFTA, GATT) many choked on giving credit of any sort to "Slick Willie." Similarly, "Cowboy George" gets precious little credit from the other side of the aisle for his support of No Child Left Behind and the Medicare drug benefit program.

Partisanship can get ugly, and seldom respects the truth. That was sadly illustrated by this week's funeral, in Kentucky, of former Governor Louie B. Nunn. I lived in Kentucky when Nunn won the race for governor in 1967. If memory serves, it was about a week after the vote was certified that the lame-duck, 100-year-old, opposition party administration announced a state budget shortfall of something in excess of $10 million. The week before Nunn took office, there was a second audit that put the total deficit at $20 million. When Nunn took office and did his own audit, the deficit turned out to be more like $24 million. A hundred-year reign of any single political party (in the case of Kentucky in 1967, the Democrats) will nealy always engender such monkey business … as will a 12-year reign, as Republicans in Congress are so busy proving in 2006.

Faced with the prospect of, among other things, being forced to throw mentally retarded adults out of state homes for lack of budgetary ability to continue caring for them, Nunn supported a two-cent increase in the existing three percent sales tax. It came to be known, in the bumper-sticker wisdom of the day, as "Nunn's Nickel."

So, just for grins, let's review the circumstances behind the promulgation of the "Nunn's Nickel" sales tax hike.

Former one-party administrations caused the deficit that made the tax increase necessary; 3/5 of the final "Nunn's Nickel" state sales tax existed long before Nunn ever even ran for office; a legislature controlled by the loyal opposition approved the two-cent increase.

But Louie Nunn, because of "Nunn's Nickel," never won another election. Once again, the hoary and cynical adage that "in the Real World, no good deed goes unpunished" has been certified Q.E.D.

The common denominator in these stories is that perception does not equal reality. Lamentably, truth becomes a dispensable luxury when partisan rhetoric and editorial agendas taint the delivery of information to the public.

We'd do well to remember those sorry facts when trying to wring the truth from stories about sex, lies and weapons of mass destruction.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Constitutionality, lifestyle choices and the sex police

Mark Dorroh

I've discovered doctrinaire liberals believe two things:

1. Most people aren't very smart, and

2. They, the clever liberals, must make certain decisions for us, lest we injure society through our stupidity.

That's the main reason the average American worker pays out in taxes 40 cents of each dollar earned. The assumption is that we would not make wise choices on how to spend our money, so the government has to do it for us.

But before we condemn liberals too harshly, we must recognize the unfortunate fact that these days, many supposed conservatives are every bit as willing to use the power of government to tell citizens what to do with their property, up to and including their own bodies. Since one's body is one's most fundamental possession, anyone who believes in property rights must find such strictures offensive. It's bad enough to be told what you must do with nearly half your income, how much more ridiculous and wrong is it to be told what you may not do with 100 percent of your own body?

Court decisions decriminalizing sexual activity between consenting adults have been derided as "judicial activism," but they're really just recognition of the fact that government has never possessed any Constitutionally-derived power to regulate what goes on between consenting adults behind closed doors. The reason the rulings are happening now is, legal awareness is finally catching up with the outrage of gay and lesbian citizens, who are justly sick of government usurpation of unwarranted control over their private lives.

There are those who say the court rulings open the door to legal child molestation, bestiality and incest. But anyone who claims they can't see the difference between adults having sex with each other and adults preying on children, animals or their own siblings is being deliberately obtuse.

Children are not mature enough to make decisions about with whom they will engage in sexual activity: They are also not old enough to sign binding contracts or vote, so a clear precedent is established in regard to what adults can and cannot do with kids.

Bestiality violates laws against cruelty to animals.

And a quick study of the egregious genetic mistakes birthed in the final generations in ancient Egyptian royal dynasties will make evident the biological necessity of leaving in place our laws against incest.

There are no such reality-based reasons to forbid homosexual or lesbian romance, or even marriage. If the members of a given church decide they want to honor marriages between same-sex partners, isn't their right to do so protected by First Amendment guarantees against government interference with free exercise of religion?

Yeah, I know, Mormons had to give up polygamy before Utah could join the Union, but there have been precious few polygamous, polyandrous, homosexual or lesbian unions that have done anything like the damage to society as that done by one man/one woman couples having out-of-wedlock babies.

Letting government remain in the business of prohibiting homosexual and lesbian behavior makes about as much less sense as the welfare state practice of paying heterosexual parents to sit home, unemployed, having baby after baby for us to support. Charity should be voluntary, neither mandated nor prohibited by government. So should love, sex and marriage.

Finally, there's a fairness issue here. It flies in the face of everything we know about human nature to think sexual orientation could be the result of a "lifestyle choice." Ask a gay guy when he first became aware of his proclivities; he'll tell you between the ages of about eight and eighteen. The same thing goes for his lesbian gal pal. And honestly, can anyone make a lifestyle choice at that age? Even if they could, kids and adolescents are notorious conformists, wanting nothing more than to be exactly like all their friends. The last thing one of them would ever choose to do would be to act different in such a basic and despised way.

No, our gay and lesbian fellow citizens are that way because that's how God made them. And unlike some folks who apparently know more than I do, I don't make a habit of criticizing God's work.

On the other hand, if you're put off by freakshow gay pride parades, welcome to the club. They are held mostly to freak out the straights … and they'll disappear when the straight community quits being freaked out by them.

All this yadda-yadda will eventually sort itself out, as the elder generation dies off and is replaced with people who have had openly gay and lesbian family members and friends for years. Their parents (and grandparents) knew plenty of gay and lesbian people too, but in the old days, they used to stay in the closet, if possible, their entire lives. Strangely, this was regarded as honorable. It was also terribly dishonest.

Traditional American values are and always have been those of honesty and forthrightness, not the furtive hiding of one's genuine nature to satisfy someone else's expectations. The only thing these anti-gay bashing rulings of federal and state courts have recognized is the fact that our Constitution does not now and never has had provisions for sex police.

Mandates, pledges and honesty in government

Mark Dorroh

Prince George County District 2 Supervisor Henry Parker wants localities to consider just saying "no" to partially-funded federal and state mandates. "Just tell them we're not going to fund them," he said recently. "Look at all the good things our minority citizens have achieved that way."

Parker's right. Nonviolent resistance has a proud and successful history in the American civil rights struggle. Could it be used to put an end to this sorry game of Pin-The-Costs-On-The-Locality?

Of course, as Parker is well aware, unless nearly every city and county in the country participated, it wouldn't work. Those that did would lose their share of state/federal funding, money their own taxpayers have sent in and wouldn't get back. That would provide a powerful incentive for other localities, especially less affluent ones, to not join the resistance.

But even if that idea wouldn't work, Parker's got another one that would. Unlike nonviolent mandate resistance, it wouldn't rely on any level of governmental participation. It would be done at the ballot box by individual voters.

Want more honest government? Then begin demanding of legislators a pledge to raise taxes as much as necessary to fully pay for any program implemented by subordinate levels of government.

Honoring such a pledge would force state and federal lawmakers to start being brutally honest about what new programs and services really cost. No longer would they reap the glory for supporting bills to authorize popular measures while passing the buck (or, more accurately, the lack of bucks) down the line.

Any candidate who won't take the no-unfunded-mandates pledge should be rejected by voters on grounds of essential dishonesty. Those who take the pledge then don't honor it should be recalled.

And as long as we're on the subject of honesty in government, here's an idea of my own; isn't it time to end the blatant dishonesty about who pays corporate and business taxes? I think it would be very refreshing, not to mention truthful, to quit pretending taxes on corporations and small businesses come from some magical pool of money. That seems to be the primary assumption of those who say, "tax the businesses, not the people."

Taxing businesses is a sneaky, fundamentally dishonest way of taxing individuals and families while telling them you're getting the money from someone else. That's because tax bills paid by businesses and corporations can come from only three sources; customer product/service prices, worker wages and benefits and/or investors' interest and dividends. Last time I checked, customers, workers and investors were all "people." "Aha," I hear you cry, "why not take the money from fat-cat investors?"

There are a several excellent reasons to not take more money from investors. First, American investors already pay a higher capital gains tax rate than investors in most other industrialized nations. Also, it has yet to be demonstrated that government is any better at spending money than businesses. Putting aside the minority of high-profile exceptions like Enron, the opposite seems to be true. Businesses are constrained by market competition to reduce waste and deliver quality. Government is under no such strictures. Sure, most government employees are conscientious and competent. But the bad ones (bureaucrats who spend most of their work time fighting internecine turf wars, rude and careless public service types, etc.) are nearly impossible to fire. In the business world, unless you treat your good workers well and get rid of your bad workers, you'll lose market share to those competitors who do.

Another good reason to not take even more investors' money through taxes has been illustrated by the woes of investment markets over the past few years. Have you noticed how many pension funds and 401 (k) accounts have been hurt? That's because pension funds, retirement accounts and lots of other financial instruments used by working-class Americans are dependent on investment markets.

Ironically, it is American capitalists who have made the Marxist ends (workers owning their means of production) achievable. Meanwhile, corporate money managers who invest our insurance premiums and loan payments give us all an interest in (and benefits from) capital investment markets.

The tax-the-businesses crowd has used a classic Marxist means (getting people to believe mammoth, counterintuitive lies) to achieve their ends (redistribution of wealth based on subjectively-defined "social justice"). It's the same game state and federal leaders have been playing for decades, pretending, through semi-funded mandates passed down the levels of government that tax-supported programs and services cost less than they really do.

It's time to stop the serial lying. Send this column to your state and federal legislators. Tell them the game's up; they can be honest about who pays corporate taxes, take the no-unfunded-mandates pledge, or pack it in.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Imposing freedom on foreigners

Mark Dorroh

There is a body of foreign affairs theory which questions the wisdom of imposing western-style institutions on other nations. Their argument against our (armed) encouragement of representative republics in places like Iraq is that these are cultures historically ill-equipped to handle all the choices afforded individual citizens by republican democracy.

One interesting thing about such arguments is their historical resonance, especially here in the American south. It wasn't so long ago that voting rights were being denied American citizens of color because a lot of white folks thought Negroes had a culture which had not equipped them to handle the choices afforded individual citizens in the voting booth.

The idea that only certain kinds of people can "handle" freedom has, at its heart, the racist notion that only we of European descent have sufficient historical ties to representative governmental institutions to be able to hire our own leaders and run our own economies.

While it is true that cultures go through stages of development, start small, grow great, then eventually become querulous old geezers, whining about the Good Old Days That Never Were (i.e. - modern France, Germany, Belgium, etc.), free enterprise economies and democratic government serve human needs that transcend geography, history and race.

Or to put it another way, people are people, and we all want basically the same things. Beyond food, clothing and shelter, we all desire a reasonable degree of comfort and security and a better life for our kids. No matter what your cultural tradition or ethnic derivation, those are your primary goals, shared with every other person on the planet.

Still, there are those who would discourage free economies and universal suffrage in some parts of the world, on the theory that some cultures don't adapt well to "western values."

The same people who make this argument usually also believe government is a more equitable distributor of wealth than the natural process of individuals making choices about where they'll work and where they'll spend the money they earn.

Historically speaking, the reverse is true. Governments devoted to income redistribution have never truly served the people they were set up to serve.

The worker's paradise of the U.S.S.R. was a mug's game by which a small number of party members took what they wanted from everyone else, then doled out what was left to the workers who actually produced it. Ranking party members got Black Sea dachas, everybody else got to stand in line for shoes.

The reason socialist economies have been so unsuccessful is that properly-functioning political and economic systems must be based on recognition of how individuals actually behave.

Capitalism and its political equivalent, democracy, recognize that people are, by their nature, self-interested. Rather than try to deny or change that, the democratic capitalist revels in it. Our nation accordingly has a system that protects the right to accumulate capital, lend it, tend it, and grow wealthy while helping finance everybody else's hopes and dreams.

The reason America is so rich and powerful is because free enterprise encourages each of us to perform to the best work we can do in exchange for the best wage we can get someone to pay us. It makes the companies we work for compete for our labor by offering better wages and benefits than alternative employers. And all that self-interested encouragement to do good work, plus market competition, helps customers get the best products and services for their money.

Compare the relative lack of poverty in America to the near-universal poverty in Cuba. There, some of the world's hardest-working people are trapped in a basket-case socialist economy. Back in the 1990s, Fidel Castro's own grandson was spotted by a reporter, playing in a rock band with an American dollar bill glued to the front of his guitar.

Some cynics think greedy corporations are exporting all our jobs to Mexico and China, but if that's so, why are there thousands of people, every single day, bending heaven and earth to get into America, legally or otherwise, just for the opportunity to work at whatever jobs remain?

There's an old Cuban joke about the Castro regime. It goes, "The revolution has had three great successes; health care, race relations and sports. And three great failures; breakfast, lunch and dinner."

Soviet workers used to say, "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us." May such jokes never apply to the U.S.A. So long as government's control over our economy remains minimal, they never will.

And yes, Virginia, people from other cultures, even those with no indigenous traditions of self-rule or market-driven economics, can prosper from our example. Because people are people, no matter where you go. We all crave freedom and wealth, and regardless of what you might have heard, that's a good thing.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

Little bitty thoughts from my little bitty mind

Here are some Christmas/New Year musings from (I hope) everybody's favorite noisy white male.

John Ashcroft is not my favorite U.S. Attorney General ever, and I'm not totally enamored of every single feature of the PATRIOT Act. But it's been two years and three months since the atrocities of 9/11, and because no attack even vaguely approaching that scale has been inflicted upon the homeland since, I must concede he got something right.

Some of us think the capture of Saddam does not make America safer, but consider; just a week after Saddam was shown to the world as a bearded, exhausted old man being inspected for head lice, Libya's megalomaniac Col. Kadaffi announced he will allow unfettered, unannounced inspections of all his suspected facilities for the manufacture, research and storage of weapons of mass destruction.

Coincidence? Somehow, I doubt it. Colonel Kadaffi may be a little nutty, but he's far from stupid.

1972 Revisited? Unless the Democrats get their act together, we're going to get treated to a rerun of the presidential elections of 1972. That's when a much-despised, moderate Republican incumbent routed a decent, slightly left-of-center Democrat who was a perfectly competent U.S. Senator but who would have been a lousy president.

Howard Dean calls himself "the candidate from the Democratic wing of the Democratic party." OK, but he's also the guy who, had he been president in 2002-2003, would have left Saddam Hussein in his numerous presidential palaces while the UN arms inspectors would have been either still kicked out of Iraq ... or still waiting outside the gates of suspected WMD facilities while some Ba'ath party bureaucrat gave them a song-and-dance about why they weren't allowed to go inside just yet.

Then again, President Dean might have been able to keep the French on our side. Whether that's more important than forcibly ending one of the bloodiest dictatorships in human history is something for future generations to determine.

Modern Graven Images and the Weird Judge Who Wants More of Them

Judge Roy Moore knew he was going to lose in his battle to keep on display, in a taxpayer-supported building, his ugly little graven image of some artist's impression of what the 10 Commandments might have looked like - had they been written in English instead of Hebrew. He's now launching an appeal which he knows he will lose.

His media-savvy grandstanding and utter contempt for both the First Amendment and Second Commandment remind me of two other famous southern demagogues: George Wallace and Huey Long. His object is not to win legal battles so much as to stir up enough anger and confusion to get himself elected to higher federal office.

His stated position, "Idolatry today, idolatry tomorrow, idolatry forever!" is curiously familiar to a lot of Alabamans ... not to mention in direct opposition to one of the 10 Heavenly Laws he says he seeks to honor. I can't imagine why no one else has noticed this, or at least not talked or written about it anywhere I've been lately. I just hope the people of Alabama eventually see through this particular false prophet. We were warned about guys like Moore in the Bible, and the U.S. Constitution gives us the power to stop them. Thank God (literally) and the federal judges who enforce the law, no matter how unpopular it makes them.

The (Wrong) Reason for the Season

Speaking of the Deity, while I certainly enjoy giving and getting gifts, I really do wish we could break Christmas into two holidays, one for the hoopla, the other for a quiet, dignified religious observance. The December occasion would be the loud and festive one; it comes at the traditional time of Saturnalia, the Roman feast days which celebrate the shortest days of the year. That's when it would be appropriate to have a big material deal of a celebration, give everybody presents, gobble figgy pudding and guzzle eggnog. When the days are shortest, what you're celebrating is the beginning of the end of the cold months, the preparation for the rebirth of spring.

Then, sometime in March or April, we could have the religious Christmas observance. It would be much more historically accurate, since spring is when the shepherds would actually have been out watching their flocks and looking for extra-bright stars. Look it up: most Biblical scholars and certainly any sheep herder know that spring, not midwinter, is when the ewes are lambing. In winter, the flocks are sheltered near home, munching fodder, not out in the predator-filled fields under the close watch of shepherds. For the Spring Christmas, we could have the religious holiday, the midnight services, the quiet gatherings of family and friends, the symbolic renewal of faith in the first months of the New Year.

My plan would put the Spring Christmas pretty close to Easter, but what's really wrong with that? It would be far less distressing than our current confusion and endless arguments over whether it's a good thing to combine a spiritual holiday with materialistic fun and games. The combination of Saturnalia with Christmas was a marketing scam aimed at converting Romans, just as allowing graven images into our temples was done to get gentiles with their Hellenistic beliefs and their love of fleshy art to convert to a better religion.

Isn't it time for modern Christians to correct those two specific abominations? But if we do, please don't tell Judge Moore. He's already darn near terminally confused. The overload of all that truth at once might literally kill the poor fellow.