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08 October 2012

Pondering the Debates (Part 3)

If you're a real glutton for punishment, you can have a look at the previous installments too:
Part 1
Part 2

Otherwise, you can just read part 3 of my attempt at responsible citizenship. I'm looking at the debate and trying to measure the candidates' positions against the Constitution. I still consider myself a student of the Constitution, but even a student can make an effort! This is mine. I'm still working from page 3 of the transcript.

OK. So I'm still waiting for Mr. Obama to say something of substance, but in this section he's talking about Mr. Romney's plan, rather than his own. Much to Mr. Romney's frustration, since he feels like Mr. Obama is misrepresenting his position. But really, neither of them say anything new, and particularly not as it relates to the Constitution, for the rest of page 3. So. On to page 4. Aaaand the rest of the section on this first question is all back-and-forth. He's going to do this. No I'm not. Well, he's going to do this. Nope, that's not it. It's really not very interesting.

Obama: Bill Clinton tried the approach that I'm talking about. We created 23 million new jobs. We went from deficit to surplus. And businesses did very well.

I'm going back onto page 3, trying to figure out what this "approach" is that he's supposedly talking about. It's hard. Mostly he's talking about how Mr. Romney's plan won't work. There is this, from the bottom of page 3:

Obama: Now, Governor Romney and I do share a deep interest in encouraging small-business growth. So at the same time that my tax plan has already lowered taxes for 98 percent of families, I also lowered taxes for small businesses 18 times. And what I want to do is continue the tax rates — the tax cuts that we put into place for small businesses and families.

Here we have Mr. Obama taking credit for an act of Congress. It's a pretty typical way for Americans and their Presidents to speak; we credit the President with far more power than he should have- and in the process our language gives him more power than he should have, because it sets up expectations, and then over-reach feels very normal because it matches those expectations. Language matters. That's one of the reasons that one of the final steps in creating the Constitution was a committee on style, and one of the members was a very good with grammar. In any case, IF those taxes did come down (and I said in part 2 that I'm pretty skeptical about this), then that's something that he needs to share credit for. The President of the United States, Constitutionally speaking, does not have the power to wave a magic wand and make taxes lower. (Though they get away with murder in those executive orders.) He can suggest, and then if Congress passes his bill, he can sign, but he certainly does not do it all by himself. He is overstating his role here, at the very least. And, this claim makes me want a fact-checker. Quite frankly, I don't believe him. Can these tax cuts he refers to possibly be enough to make a net lowering of taxes after one factors in the tax increase that is Obamacaree? I find that unlikely.

Unfortunately, I don't know enough about Mr. Clinton's presidency to be able to tell if this is the approach that he says that he's talking about either. Mr. Clinton served prior to my interest in politics; I was still in high school when he took office. This reference is frustratingly vague.

But here comes the second question:

And the question is this, what are the differences between the two of you as to how you would go about tackling the deficit problem in this country?

This question is somewhat better than the first one (see part 1). But still, the question relies heavily on the President making recommendations to Congress that Congress actually acts upon. Or, he could veto bills that are too expensive. I don't hear about a whole lot of action for the veto pen. But it could probably be used pretty effectively to reduce our deficit. Make Congress pass by super-majority the stuff the President felt was going to run up the deficit. The problem that makes that not very practical is that they make these huge mega-bills that run to 1000 or 2000 pages have so much crammed into them that there's always something in there that the President can be crucified for vetoing. So. Still a flawed question, in my opinion. But better than the first. Let's see what the candidates have to say. Looks like Mr. Romney is first this time.

Romney: Good. I'm glad you raised that, and it's a — it's a critical issue. I think it's not just an economic issue, I think it's a moral issue. I think it's, frankly, not moral for my generation to keep spending massively more than we take in, knowing those burdens are going to be passed on to the next generation and they're going to be paying the interest and the principal all their lives.
And the amount of debt we're adding, at a trillion a year, is simply not moral.

I'm going to agree with what he says here. It's not moral to go into debt for someone else. That's slavery. The Founders, those "wise men, raised by the Lord," would not be impressed.

George Washington: Avoid occasions of expense. . . and avoid likewise the accumulation of debt not only by shunning occasions of expense but by vigorous exertions to discharge the debts, not throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear. 

Alexander Hamilton: Allow a government to decline paying its debts and you overthrow all public morality — you unhinge all the principles that preserve the limits of free constitutions.Nothing can more affect national prosperity than a constant and systematic attention to extinguish the present debt and to avoid as much as possibly the incurring of any new debt.

Benjamin Franklin: When you run in debt; you give to another power over your liberty.

It's that power over liberty that concerns me, both my own liberty, and that of my children and future grandchildren. The Founders knew that sometimes the nation would need to take on debts, but they are clear that they hoped it would always be short-term. The fact is, our debt should be telling us that, as a nation, we are living beyond our means. When other nations buy our debt, we are giving them power to dictate our actions - lest the stop buying, or require payment unexpectedly. It also places us over a barrel if they stop buying the debt. What does the household, behind in its credit, do when the creditors say, "That's enough?" It's never very pretty. What will happen when it's not a household, but our nation itself? These sorts of cuts are not fun, but they have to happen. So. Mr. Romney elaborates on his plan for reducing our debt:

Romney: So how do we deal with it? Well, mathematically, there are three ways that you can cut a deficit. One, of course, is to raise taxes. Number two is to cut spending. And number is to grow the economy, because if more people work in a growing economy, they're paying taxes, and you can get the job done that way.
The presidents would — president would prefer raising taxes. I understand. The problem with raising taxes is that it slows down the rate of growth. And you could never quite get the job done. I want to lower spending and encourage economic growth at the same time.
What things would I cut from spending? Well, first of all, I will eliminate all programs by this test, if they don't pass it: Is the program so critical it's worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And if not, I'll get rid of it. Obamacare's on my list. ...
I'm sorry, Jim, I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I'm going to stop other things. I like PBS, I love Big Bird. Actually like you, too. But I'm not going to — I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for. That's number one.
Number two, I'll take programs that are currently good programs but I think could be run more efficiently at the state level and send them to the state.

I think Mr. Romney's test makes a lot of sense: "Is the program so critical it's worth borrowing money from China to pay for it?" But I think there should be another one, even before this test: "Is it Constitutional?" We could save a ton by getting rid of unconstitutional stuff at the federal level. Both of the examples that he cites, Obamacare and PBS, are things that fail both of these tests. He also talks about sending stuff back to the States. Again, I like this. It's in line with the Tenth Amendment, though he doesn't actually cite that as part of his reasoning. In not doing that, he leaves some question in my mind: is this a purely practical move, or is it motivated by a desire to conform to the Constitution? I don't think he's going to answer that question here; that sort of question is not popular to ask, and it makes politicians very uncomfortable to talk about it. (It's amazing the number of "cite your Constitutional authority" letters that I send to Congress that never get answered.) They don't like it.

Tenth Amendment: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Romney: Number three, I'll make government more efficient and to cut back the number of employees, combine some agencies and departments. My cutbacks will be done through attrition, by the way.
This is the approach we have to take to get America to a balanced budget.

This is something that I think that he could actually do, without needing Congress. It'll cause a whole lot of kicking and screaming, because although nearly every single person I've ever talked to agrees that government is too large, when you start looking at what to cut the consensus seems to be, "Not in my backyard!" When it comes right down to making the actual cuts, people are inevitably happy with the specifics. This is short-sighted. Government produces nothing. People whose jobs in government are eliminated not only are contributing to a reduction of the tax burden (that's where their pay and benefits come from), but they are also returned to the private sector, where they can get a job, or start a business. Either one of those things will contribute to economic growth. If, along with cutting employees, Mr. Romney also reduced the regulatory burden of red tape and hoops that businesses have to jump through, he would ease the transition of these displaced workers back into the private sector.  Doing this thing by attrition isn't very efficient, but it would effectively reduce the backlash of the reductions. 

Next is Mr. Obama's turn. He starts with some mushy, "those increases aren't my fault" rhetoric. And, to a point, there's some legitimacy in that. It was Mr. Bush who started the bailouts. I was stunned at how seamless the hand-off was on those bailouts. The inauguration of Mr. Obama never caused a single hiccup in the process, near as I could tell. But he could have stopped them. There's been scandal after scandal come out of those bailouts. At the end of the day, making my neighbor pay to keep my failing business open isn't right. If I try to do that on my own authority, it's called theft or extortion or something similar, and I go to jail. But, those who support the bailouts want us to believe that it's somehow morally OK when the government makes my neighbors pay to prop up my business. I don't buy it.

Obama: When I walked into the Oval Office, I had more than a trillion-dollar deficit greeting me. And we know where it came from: two wars that were paid for on a credit card; two tax cuts that were not paid for; and a whole bunch of programs that were not paid for; and then a massive economic crisis.
And despite that, what we've said is, yes, we had to take some initial emergency measures to make sure we didn't slip into a Great Depression, but what we've also said is, let's make sure that we are cutting out those things that are not helping us grow.

Constitutionally, there's problems with these bailouts -the "initial emergency measures"- as well. The Constitution does not authorize that kind of expenditure. Article I Section 8 outlines the powers of Congress, sometimes called the Enumerated Powers. These include:

  • collect taxes, duties, imposts & excises, pay debts; provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States
  • borrowing money
  • regulating (as distinct from engaging in) commerce between the States
  • establishing uniform rules for naturalization and bankruptcies
  • to coin & regulate the value of money, and standardize weights and measures
  • punish counterfeiting
  • establish post offices and post-roads
  • establish copyright law
  • create inferior courts
  • define and punish felonies  on the seas and against the laws of nations
  • declare war, grant letters of marque & reprisal, and decide what to do with captures
  • raise & support armies, with a 2 year limit on appropriations
  • maintain a navy
  • create rules for military forces
  • organize & regulate the militia
  • all legislative powers for Washington DC and other federal properties
  • make laws needed to execute these powers

James Madison said this in Federalist 45, in response to fears that Congress would overstep its bounds:

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the Federal Government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State Governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will for the most part be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects, which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties and properties of the people; and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.

 In other words, if it ain't on the list, they're not supposed to do it. And, regarding the money they collected in taxes, the Constitution specifies that, "all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States." They can get away with the income tax being uneven because the scammed the people into approving the Fourteenth Amendment:

The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several states, and without regard to any census or enumeration.

It's my understanding that the income tax, when first approved, was to apply only to the top 1% or 5% or so, and the reasoning was that they could afford it, so they should "contribute." Funny how the tax has migrated down to where around 53% are paying now, and the language hasn't changed: "Let the rich pay their share!"

In any case, I'm not seeing any justification for the bailouts in the powers of Congress. I don't see a moral justification for it either. As I said before: we do not force our neighbors to pay for our failing businesses, which is exactly what happened with the bailouts. The companies just had a government middle-man doing the collecting of the money they used to prop up failed businesses. It's theft. Certainly, had Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama and the Congresses serving with them allowed the propped up companies to fail, things would have been unpleasant for a while. Likely very unpleasant. But I don't believe that it would have been the absolute disaster that they claim. There would have been people who would have stepped in to fill the vacuum. New companies, with business models that actually work would have appeared and, given the opportunity to behave like a free market, the market would have righted itself. And we would have avoided a whole lot of unconstitutional action by our government. Even had the President recommended a law authorizing the bailouts (and I don't know where the thing originated, but I'm looking specifically at the presidency here), the Congress should have checked him. They should have said, "This is beyond the scope of our Enumerated Powers; we cannot do this." Instead, the whole lot of them, including both presidents in question, violated their oaths of office to uphold the Constitution. And, in the process, we got a whole lot of bad investments and a huge increase in debt that we now have to pay off.

Obama: So 77 government programs, everything from aircrafts that the Air Force had ordered but weren't working very well, 18 government — 18 government programs for education that were well-intentioned, not weren't helping kids learn, we went after medical fraud in Medicare and Medicaid very aggressively, more aggressively than ever before, and have saved tens of billions of dollars, $50 billion of waste taken out of the system.
And I worked with Democrats and Republicans to cut a trillion dollars out of our discretionary domestic budget. That's the largest cut in the discretionary domestic budget since Dwight Eisenhower.
Now, we all know that we've got to do more. And so I've put forward a specific $4 trillion deficit reduction plan. It's on a website. You can look at all the numbers, what cuts we make and what revenue we raise.
And the way we do it is $2.50 for every cut, we ask for $1 of additional revenue, paid for, as I indicated earlier, by asking those of us who have done very well in this country to contribute a little bit more to reduce the deficit.

I'm not impressed when he talks about "saving tens of billions of dollars." According to the Debt Clock people, we're adding some 3.9 billion in debt per day. And, since we haven't had a budget passed in a couple years now, I'm not sure what he's talking about when he says that they've cut a trillion dollars from the "budget." There hasn't been one to cut or add to or anything. Our national finances are a dismal mess, and to make up the slack? They print more money. (Which is another thing that's probably unconstitutional; I don't see any authorization to delegate the making of money. But that's Congress's bust, and that's another post for another day.)

Mr. Obama's last line from this section could use some additional scrutiny:

Obama: You can look at all the numbers, what cuts we make and what revenue we raise.
And the way we do it is $2.50 for every cut, we ask for $1 of additional revenue, paid for, as I indicated earlier, by asking those of us who have done very well in this country to contribute a little bit more to reduce the deficit.

Now, when you look at the original text of the Constitution, they have a principle in there to govern the money collected: equality.

Article I Section 8: The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States. (Emphasis added)

This principle was abandoned with the Fourteenth Amendment, but the wisdom of the Founders was that we should be equal before the law, even when they came collecting. At least, that's the way I understand it. I admit to being a bit fuzzy on the specifics of all those different ways of raising money. Isn't it strange how often the people who say they champion "equal rights" do it only in specific cases? So very often, those are the same people who howl the loudest, a la Occupy Wall Street and other similar movements, for the rich to "pay their share." What happened to equal protection for the rich? And, what is the motivation for working hard to become rich (and employ people) when you know that you can't keep what you make?

One of the thinkers that the Founders looked to, and that Ezra Taft Benson quotes repeatedly in his essay, The Proper Role of Government, is Frederic Bastiat. He had a name for this sort of take-from-the-rich behavior: legalized plunder. I blogged about it in more detail here and here.  If it's a concept that you're not familiar with I highly recommend giving it some serious thought. The basic idea is that theft is theft, whether you do it yourself or you get the government to do it for you.

Bastiat: See if the law takes from persons what belongs to them and gives it other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.

Thomas Jefferson: “To take from one, because it is thought his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers, have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.”

In short, what Mr. Obama proposes may, in fact, be Constitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment, but it still violates the spirit of the original document. It's not just, and, according to the Preamble, establishing justice is one of the primary purposes of the document. It's not the way that honest, free men ought to behave. We can do better than that. We must do better than that. We can fix our finances without resorting to bullying and stealing from those who have done well for themselves.

That brings me to the end of page 4, and I think it's quite enough for one post.

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