Saturday, April 9, 2011

Thank You for the Opportunity

In September 2007, I started an internet blog called Talk It Up America, and at that time I said, “I have created this blog——to post news consistent with Philippians 4:8.

For those of you who do not have a Bible handy, Philippians 4:8 says in the New King James Version, “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.”

In September 2008, the Farmville Herald began publishing my column every other week.

I have enjoyed writing these columns because I believe in the full discourse that must precede any thoughtful decision about the significant issues and challenges that face America today. Naturally, I wanted to present a conservative point of view. But, more than anything else, I strove to ensure that my readers understood that these are complex problems we are up against. Though many people want a simple solution, those are elusive at best and often just wrong. I tried to not just be a critic of others. I always attempted to not make any issue a personal one. I believe that we have an obligation to fully vet and debate policies, but not to carry out character assassinations. And, while I often presented the opposing view of a particular policy, I always would also strive to present an alternative approach to resolving the issue. I firmly believe that you are either part of the solution or you are part of the problem.

I clearly have a strong political point of view and I am not ashamed for having presented a conservative viewpoint of today’s issues. I, for one, do not believe “politics” should be a pejorative term. In fact, I have come to learn that everything in life is political, except politics, that is personal. I consider running for and holding public office to be the highest secular calling an individual may pursue. I hold those in political offices in high regard even when I disagree with their politics or policies. If we lose sight of the value of free and civil political discourse and respect for the elected office, we risk losing our democratic form of government.

Many of you know that I have also been politically active in the Prince Edward County Republican Party, among other local volunteer activities, and I headed up the Prince Edward County campaign to elect Robert Hurt as the Representative for Virginia’s 5th Congressional District.

Because of my political and public service experience, I was recently appointed by Representative Hurt be his Farmville Field Office Director. I am honored to be going to work for Robert Hurt. His thoughtful and considerate approach to the issues, his desire to serve all of the people of the 5th District, and his core beliefs in liberty, individual rights, and free-market solutions to problems make working for Congressman Hurt a natural and easy decision for me.

Quite naturally as well, this means that I will no longer be writing a column for the Farmville Herald or My new job is not to convey my ideas, but rather to listen to the people of the Southside, provide appropriate assistance whenever possible, and to communicate constituent views to Representative Hurt.

I have enjoyed writing these columns and it has been a rewarding experience. Many of you have taken the time to let me know how much you like my writing and agree with my positions on the issues. A few have challenged me on the issues and I have enjoyed those discourses as well. Thank you for reading my column and your support.

I also look forward to representing Robert Hurt and serving all of his constituents. I will be available to visit with anyone about issues pertaining to the federal government, whether it is a personal matter that requires the Congressman’s assistance or you want to communicate your views on a larger policy direction for the federal government.

As I have tried to do throughout my career and in this column for the past two years, I will perform my new duties consistent with Philippians 4:8 and my personal mission statement. “I believe that my gifts come from God and that I am called to use those gifts to serve people by helping them, listening to hear their needs, assimilating and distilling facts that relate to their needs and the issues, and advocating in the public forum to bring forth solutions that benefit the whole by applying the principles of honesty, concern, fair play, respect, discernment, integrity and trust.”

It is with some regret that I stop writing these periodic columns, but it is for good reason that I do so. In the mean time, thank you for the opportunity and I look forward to a different, but equally important, kind of service.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Up like a rocket; down like a parachute

There is something exciting about watching a Space Shuttle launch. The acceleration is incredible, especially when you consider the gross weight of the space craft to be about 4.5 million pounds. Within seconds of launch the shuttle is going 100 mph, 1,000 mph after one minute, and in a little over seven minutes, the craft is pushing 18,000 mph! But, have you noticed when it is landing, the Space Shuttle is going barely more than 200 mph. Going up is fast, but coming down is always slow.

Of course, the physics of putting large bodies into orbit around the earth requires nothing less than spectacular acceleration. The aerodynamics and physics of returning to earth safely demand that the vehicle slowly decelerate over a longer time to avoid burning up or breaking up upon touch down.

Even though economics is not a physical science per se, I have observed over the years that the same physical laws of space travel seem to apply to certain economic trends. Have you ever noticed how quickly interest rates rise during uncertain times only to slowly come back down long after the crisis is over? The stock market can “crash” in a day, but may take years to recover from that single event. In recent years, the price of gasoline has shot up like a rocket on news of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, or political upheaval in the Middle East. However, even though the hurricane may pass by with little or no impact on the supplies, or the interruption of oil deliveries in the Middle East may not be significant, the price of gasoline can take months to come back down to pre-event levels. It is as though the prices ride a rocket up and take a parachute back down.

The explanations for this phenomenon are plentiful and I am sure your email inbox has been inundated with plenty of speculation, castigation, and a few suggested remedies during the recent jump in gasoline prices. I believe some explanations and remedies have more merit than others.

There is one very important thing that makes gasoline at the pump unique among the thousands of products Americans buy on a daily basis. Retail gasoline is the only product that posts its price in one-foot-tall letters that can be read from one-half mile away or more. As a result everyone knows what a gallon of gas costs even though most people could not tell you what they last paid for a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread.

I suppose posting gasoline prices in big numbers keeps the stations competitive. After all, how many of us have driven until our tanks were nearly empty until we found that station that was two cents a gallon cheaper. Yep, we showed them; nearly running out of gas to save ourselves 30 to 40 cents on a single $45 to $60 tank full!

If displaying gasoline prices for all to see encourages competition, it could also be said that it makes collusion easier as well. Under anti-trust laws in the United States, collusion among suppliers or retailers to set prices for their products is expressly forbidden. But, if the gas-station operator doesn’t even have to leave his store to see what the competition is charging across the street, then it is difficult for any prosecutor to make the case that the station owners met in secret to set their prices.

Imagine for a moment you are a gasoline retailer. Your average gross profit on gasoline is about seven cents a gallon. If you put yourself in their position, you would probably understand that it is less likely to be a conspiracy and more often just a case of business survival. When one station sees another raise their price a couple of cents a gallon, they all quickly follow suit. And it is certainly not in any operator’s best interest to be the first to drop the price when supply costs go down. Consider this: if your local gas station operator is making so much money selling gasoline, why do gasoline retailers spend so much time trying to get you into their store to buy things you can get at a hundred other locations? Cheap gasoline is a pricing theory called a “loss leader” that is intended to get you in the store to buy other more profitable products. Many a gasoline retailer has gone bankrupt trying to use gasoline as a loss leader.

At the other end of the supply-line spectrum is the price of a barrel of crude oil. You get the price of crude oil reported in the media every evening along with the daily stock market results. However, what makes the news is not the cost of the oil being delivered to refineries today, but rather it is the price expected to be paid for oil at some point in the future. When events cause speculation to drive the future price of oil up, it inevitably results in journalists prognosticating that the price of gasoline at the pump will be going up soon. With the consumers psychologically prepared for the increase, it is now logical for suppliers and retailers to go ahead and raise the price of a gallon of gas.

The last and perhaps the most significant factor that affects the price of gasoline here in the United States is that we are grossly under capacity for refining oil into gasoline and other products. Many small refineries have shut down over the years as their processing capacity made it uneconomical to bring them up to current environmental standards. At the same time, stringent environmental standards and the not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY) syndrome has resulted is fewer new refineries coming online. Meanwhile, gasoline consumption has increased, and during the summer, many states and even some municipalities require specially blended fuels to reduce emissions. As refineries annually transition from making heating oil to ramping up to meet summer gasoline demand, they must stop production to retool their facilities. This leads to constrained supplies and the annual price increase that usually peaks around Memorial Day. The rest of the summer pricing remains relatively high because of increased driving and a constant cycle of shutting down refineries to adjust for the unique summer blends required by different cities and states. Add to that one or two hurricanes that may temporarily shut down gulf coast oil production and refineries and we can see a drop in supply with a corresponding increase in the price at the pump.

The reality is the supply and demand for energy, especially gasoline, is very volatile. There are many reasons why the price of gasoline at the pump may change—some are better explained than others. Nonetheless, the cost of gasoline does fluctuate often and can rise quickly. If you are frustrated about recent increases, and many of us are, don’t punish your neighbor who happens to be in the gasoline business. Don’t bother trying to boycott the big oil companies; they make just as much money selling cheaper products as they do selling expensive stuff. If you want to bring about real and positive change that will help the price situation at the pump, call your Representative and Senators. Tell them we need streamlined permitting for new refineries. We need more of every kind of energy. We should stop the ban on deepwater drilling and we should open more offshore areas to exploration. We should not let the EPA regulate green-house gases and implement a de facto energy tax. And, we need more oil, coal, natural gas, oil shale, tar sands, etc., developed in Alaska and the Mainland USA. Tell them we need to drill here, drill now, and pay less!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Most Common Side Effects

In the last decade, there has been an exponential increase in the amount of advertising for prescription pharmaceutical medicines and a corresponding increase in prescription drug consumption. This is partly the result of a significant change in the way drug companies are marketing their products. Back in the day, pharmaceutical companies sent drug reps out to visit doctors and hospitals. They generally came bearing gifts—radios, clocks, sometimes even television sets. But, more importantly, they provided technical information about what their drug could do for the patients and what side affects might occur. They answered questions and gave medical professionals all the information they needed to make qualified medical decisions about what, if any, drug would best address the illness the patient presented.

The new model for marketing drugs has the pharmaceutical companies skipping right over the medical professionals and going to the consumer directly. Often times, even after seeing an ad several times, the consumer may not know what illness the medicine is intended to treat. But, it sure sounds good. Maybe I better ask my doctor if that drug is right for me.

I remember watching NFL football with my 12 year old son years ago. One of these drug ads kept appearing that depicted a middle-aged man throwing a football through a tire swing. The audio message was intentionally vague, and being naïve, I missed all the phallic symbolism that was meant to convey the message that this was the newest of what a friend of mine called “giddy-up drugs.” Stupid me! I turned to my son and asked him what he thought that drug is supposed to do. His response was priceless, “I think it makes him throw the ball better.”

The point is these messages about sophisticated drugs are dumbed down and intended to make us all think we can’t live without these medicines. We are not sure what they do, but that person sure looks happier. And who doesn’t want more control over their health care decisions? I believe we should all assume more responsibility for our physical and emotional well being, but that does not make us trained and qualified medical diagnosticians.

Of course, to ensure that as an informed consumer we all make the right medical choices, we are told about all the possible side affects of the particular drug we are being sold at the moment. Have you listened closely to some of the contraindications of these wonder-working medicines? Here are a few snippets of the choicest “Most Common Side Effects”:
• “chest pain; confusion; fainting; fast or irregular heartbeat”
• “new or worsening mental or mood problems”
• “sudden, severe dizziness or vomiting; slurred speech; uncontrolled muscle movement; unusual weakness or tiredness”
• “suicidal thoughts or actions”
• “abnormal thinking; behavior changes”
• “hallucinations; memory loss; new or worsening agitation, panic attacks, aggressiveness, impulsiveness, irritability, hostility, exaggerated feeling of well-being”
• “decreased sexual desire or ability” (Don’t worry; there are plenty of other drugs that counteract this symptom)
• “red, swollen, blistered, or peeling skin; ringing in the ears; seizures”
• “sudden decrease or loss of hearing; sudden decrease or loss of vision in one or both eyes”
• and, my all time favorite, “sudden urges to gamble”

The pharmaceutical industry is big business, and to be fair, they have developed some really valuable medicines that treat previously untreatable conditions. Medical care has improved thanks in part due to research and development by drug companies. Research and development is expensive and the testing and application process to get Food and Drug Administration approvals cost a lot of money as well. As a result, some of the newest and best drugs are also very expensive as the industry prices their product to recover their investment before the patent runs out and cheaper generic versions of the drug come on the market.

Prescription drug use in America is up—way up. We cannot discount the impact this has had on the cost of delivering health care services in this country. Over the past ten years, the percentage of Americans who have taken at least one prescription drug in the past month has increased from 44% to 48%. The use of two or more drugs increased from 25% to 31%. The percentage of Americans using five or more drugs per month increased from 6% to 11%. In 2007-2008, 20% of children and 90% of older Americans reported using at least one prescription drug in the past month.

Prime time television ads rates vary widely from $40,000 to $400,000 per ad. Full-page color ads in a popular men’s magazine can cost more than $70,000, and by the time the drug company buys the extra page and a half to print all the disclaimers in fine print, a $175,000 per month per magazine budget is not out of the question. It doesn’t take rocket science to see that drug companies are spending a lot of money to get you to “ask your doctor” about their latest wonder pill.

If you have followed my columns over the last few years, you know that I am a free-enterprise advocate. I favor market solutions over government regulation. Although the government has historically banned alcohol and tobacco ads, I am not suggesting that prescription drug ads be banned. Besides, the government has no nexus that would empower it to ban advertising in the print media or on cable and satellite television.

However, I do wonder about the ethics of marketing prescription drugs directly to the consumer. I do believe it significantly contributes to the escalating use of prescription drugs and the spiraling cost of providing health care. And, perhaps I am old fashioned, but shouldn’t we all leave the decision to prescribe or not prescribe drugs to the medical professionals and not the consumers. There are certainly a number of circumstances that warrant prescription drug use and I am neither anti-medicine nor anti-drug industry. But, I wonder if it is really necessary or in our best interest to take “Mother’s little helper” for every perceived problem we have in life. Maybe we would all be better off if we took charge of our own physical and emotional well being. As consumers we can exert market changing power through our consumption patterns. We can all reconsider our prescription drug use, and through the free market, we can have a positive impact on our physical, emotional, and financial well being and help bring down the cost of health care in America. As Nancy Reagan said about illegal drug use, “Just say ‘No.’”

Monday, February 21, 2011

Whose Ox will get Gored?

President Obama established the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in February 2010. In December 2010, the Commission, co-chaired by former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former US Senator Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming, released its report. The report included a comprehensive set of recommendations all designed to help the United States address its growing deficit problems and the mounting national debt. But, most controversial of all recommendations, the Commission had the temerity to suggest that, unless they are fixed soon, entitlement programs such as the Social Security System are doomed to financial failure.

In his usual fire-brand style of down home wit and brazen Western honesty, Senator Alan Simpson has never dodged the tough issues and some of his recent comments regarding Americans and Social Security have touched off a firestorm. Without regard for his specific words, give Al credit for taking on the elephant in the room. But, while we’re on the subject, let’s address some of the myths associated with this elephant in the room.

One of the common misconceptions about the Social Security System is that Congress has raided the Social Security Trust Fund and spent the money funding the current budget deficits. This is over-simplified at best and in many respects just not true. However, as is usually the case, the matter of accounting for the Social Security Trust Fund is too complicated to be adequately explained in this column. But, it deserves a better explanation than typical news sound bite, so let me give it a try.

When passed and signed into law in 1935, the Social Security Act established a system for collecting payroll taxes, keeping the money in a trust fund, and providing retirement assistance for the elderly as well as disability insurance for all Americans. The key to understanding the trust fund is that the Social Security Act requires that all Social Security receipts be invested in United States Treasury Bills and that the interest accrue for the benefit of the trust fund. US Treasury Bills are the debt instruments that our government uses to finance government operations and deficits. The challenge here is that in this particular case the United States is both the lender (the Social Security Trust Fund) and the borrower (the US Treasury).

Certainly, in these times of record deficits and a national debt approaching $14 trillion, many people are wondering at what point is the United States Treasury in danger of defaulting on its debt? However, for now, what is important for every American to know is that the Social Security Trust Fund is fully accounted for within the federal budget and the fund is accruing interest for the benefit of present and future recipients.

The notion that Congress has raided the fund comes from a not well understood nuance of the federal budget process. When preparing and reporting federal budgets, both the President and Congress designate certain budgetary items, such as the U.S. Postal Service and the Social Security System, as “off-budget.” This means that the receipts and outlays associated with these programs are not part of the annual budget appropriations process and are accounted for separately. However, when reporting the total budget of the United States, the receipts and outlays for off-budget programs are included in the totals. During the past and even currently, Social Security Trust Fund receipts exceed outlays, thus including the Social Security System in the total budget has the net effect of making the deficit appear smaller. This is what leads some people to suggest that Congress has raided the trust fund, but that statement simply is not true.

Now, let us consider some of the actuarial facts about the Social Security System. Since inception in 1935 until today, receipts have exceeded outlays, and accordingly, the trust fund together with interest has grown. Based on current population numbers, the size of the work force now and in the future, and the expected increased life expectancy of Americans, analysts believe the Social Security Trust Fund will continue to grow until around the year 2025. At that point in time, outlays will begin to exceed receipts, including interest, and the trust fund has been estimated to become insolvent, bankrupt, broke by about 2042, with some more recent estimates as early as 2037.

We can say what we want about how much you and I have paid or will pay into the system. We can make all the platitudes we want about how we are entitled to our Social Security retirement. But, none of that will have any bearing on the fact that, as currently funded and allocated by law, the Social Security System will be broke within our children’s life times. We may not want to see the retirement age raised or our benefits reduced, but where is the equity for our children and grandchildren who will pay into the system for decades and see nothing in return.

We may not like it when the likes of Al Simpson tells us “Where the pigs eat the cabbage” with respect to Social Security, but turning a deaf ear and a blind eye to the inherent and systemic problems with the Social Security Trust Fund will not advance us one wit. When it comes to fixing the Social Security problem, I may not want to have my ox gored, but someone’s ox will certainly get gored sooner or later.

At the risk of exposing myself to ridicule and criticism, I would like to suggest that the sooner Americans get together and help Congress find a way to address the certain and catastrophic failure of the Social Security System the better. And, the least painful it will be for all of us. There have been a number of ideas floated over the years that would make the system solvent into the foreseeable future without gutting current or near-term benefits for recipients. The scared cow will soon be on life support and it will die unless we put our differences aside and make the adjustments necessary to ensure Social Security’s viability for the long term.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Gun Culture in America

With recent headlines, comes the inevitable deploring of the use of words associated with guns and shooting. While I believe in measured rhetoric and I am not a supporter of vitriolic speeches, I mourn for the loss of America’s culture when I hear the political correctness movement suggest that gun metaphors lead to violence.

American history is so intermeshed with weapons and the right to bears arms that gun terminology has become part of the vernacular. Moreover, the origins of our freedom and the establishment of democracy can be directly linked to an armed citizenry who took up their muskets to secure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for themselves and their posterity.

Let us consider the extent to which we use of gun metaphors in today’s modern-American English. To name a few: You’re “jumping the gun.” That’s like “shooting your self in the foot.” That person is a “straight shooter.” I need that like I need a “hole on the head.” He bought it “lock, stock, and barrel.” “Lock and load.” “Rock and fire.” That is “on target.” The goal is “within range.” Keep your “powder dry.” “Set your crosshairs” on that. They are “under the gun.” The final “shot” “beat the gun.” We are “going great guns.” You should “stick to your guns.” Bring in the “big guns.” That is the “smoking gun.” He is a “hired gun.” Why not “take a shot at it?” The idea was “shot down.” They are “shooting off” at the mouth. That person has a “hair trigger” temper. They are a little “slow on the draw.” Sometimes we have to “lower our sights.”

Some people suggest that when the 2nd Amendment refers to “a well armed militia,” it means only the National Guard or other state branch of law enforcement. Others make the case that the Amendment is only about protecting our hunting heritage. I believe the 2nd Amendment is about much more than a well armed militia and protecting opportunities for sport hunting. In fact, if you don’t think the Founding Fathers meant for you and I to have “the right to bears arms” of any kind for any lawful purpose then consider some of their writings.

Thomas Jefferson said, “Laws that forbid the carrying of arms...disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes...Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man.” Jefferson put the 2nd Amendment in perspective when he said, "Those who hammer their guns into plowshares will plow for those who do not."

Samuel Adams referenced the right of citizens to bear arms when he said, “Among the natural rights of the colonists are these: First, a right to life, secondly to liberty, and thirdly to property, together with the right to defend them in the best manner they can.” He went on to say, "And that the said Constitution be never construed to authorize Congress to infringe the just liberty of the Press, or the rights of Conscience; or to prevent the people of the United States, who are peaceable citizens, from keeping their own arms; …"

Consider George Mason, co-author of the 2nd Amendment, who said, "I ask, Sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people. To disarm the people is the best and most effectual way to enslave them."

George Washington made the importance of gun rights clear. "Firearms stand next in importance to the constitution itself. They are the American people's liberty teeth and keystone under independence…”

Patrick Henry added these two points. "The great object is that every man be armed. Everyone who is able may have a gun."

Alexander Hamilton complimented that when he said, "The best we can hope for concerning the people at large is that they be properly armed."

Beyond the 2nd Amendment issues, the manufacturing of firearms in the United States in the 1800’s was one of the prime drivers of the Industrial Revolution that established America as the most powerful and benevolent nation on earth. And it was guns that won the West and, notwithstanding the scrutiny of how American Indians were treated, the settlement of the West was also crucial to making the United States a world power for good and peace.

We owe the establishment of the world’s first democracy and beacon of freedom to guns for we surely could have never prevailed against the British Empire without a well armed citizenry. We can be thankful that gun manufacturing pioneered the Industrial Revolution and the manufacturing processes used by other industries making the United States the economic hope and benefactor of the world. And, we can be proud that Americans are free to use their gun lexicon in their daily lives as they see fit, at least for now.

As pundits line up to analyze every tragic shooting and suggest their remedy to what they perceive to be the problem, let us take stock in the fact that firearms, gun ownership, shooting sports, and even the use of weapons by law enforcement and our military is as American as apple pie. Moreover, firearms are so intertwined with our culture that even those who don’t own or use a weapon, likely utilize gun metaphors in their everyday life.

The next time someone in the news media suggests, as has been done recently, that gun metaphors should be the new “N-word,” I hope someone out there has the courage to tell them that they are way “off target.”

Friday, January 14, 2011

Let's Not Overreact

At the risk of being a reactionary, can we please stop overreacting to tragic events?

At the time of this writing, the horrific shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and nearly 20 others in Tucson, AZ, is barely 24 hours old. And this columnist is as concerned about these kinds of senseless killings as the next person. Moreover, my sympathy and condolences go out to everyone injured and killed in Tucson.

But, at the same time, it never ceases to amaze me how Americans have a penchant for quickly reacting to these events, leaping to wild and unsubstantiated conclusions, and suggesting knee-jerk remedies. In the case of the Tucson shooting, immediately some people tried to pin the rampage on the Tea Party Movement, or at a minimum, suggested that conservative rhetoric somehow caused the shooter to commit this crime.

For the record, the shooter has no ties with the Tea Party Movement. However, the speed with which some pundits tried to draw that correlation is at least as dangerous as any language used by conservatives and Tea Partiers.

My point is this. Why do Americans have this fixation on finding someone or something to blame for every tragic event? And worse yet, why do we often implement a solution to a perceived problem that is at times worse than the originating event?

Take the Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent oil spill. A horrible accident, but rather than accept that, the U.S. Government immediately started seeking someone to blame instead of cleaning up the mess. The Attorney General launched an investigation and promised to prosecute the law breakers, as if poor judgment is the same as willfully breaking the law. Deep water oil and gas exploration was stopped even though the U.S. needs the oil and we have the best safety and environmental record of any nation in the world. Oil has been seeping naturally into oceans for eons at volumes far greater than man-caused spills or leaks. Nonetheless, we overreacted to the Deepwater Horizon spill resulting in the loss of tens of thousands of good-paying jobs, increased cost of energy for all Americans, billions of dollars of decreased revenues to the U.S. Treasury, and equipment and exploration operation taken to riskier places in the world perhaps resulting in greater threats to the environment.

Take the gross overreaction to the marginal science that suggests human-caused carbon dioxide emissions may cause catastrophic global warming. One reaction was to create tax incentives for hybrid cars that rely heavily upon batteries that use lead and sulfuric acid. Did anyone ever stop to think about where lead comes from or what sulfuric acid spilled in a car wreck might do to the environment? And what happens to the old batteries when a hybrid quits running? There are very few places to dispose of old batteries because most facilities have been shut down in an overreaction to a few bad apples who did not handle battery waste properly.

Another equally wrong-headed response to global-warming fear mongering was to encourage more corn be used for ethanol fuel production. Notwithstanding the fact that corn uses more energy than it creates, this policy diverts corn from the food production chain. Less food means higher costs and more poverty. Poverty is the single greatest threat to the global environment. Just take a look at the environmental damage occurring in third-world countries. Progress and prosperity will be the only way we work through whatever environmental problems may exist in this planet we call home.

Next time there is a plane crash watch the new media flock to cover the story and spend days analyzing what went wrong or searching for someone to blame. Americans react to this news coverage. Every time an airplane crashes—despite the fact that air travel is statistically one of the safest modes of travel—Americans respond by flying less and driving more. Yet, your chances of dying in an automobile are about 24 times greater than the likelihood of dying in a plane crash!

It is not just the news media that overreacts to tragic events. There are those ambulance-chasing lawyers who never saw an accident that did not represent an opportunity. The anecdotal stories are endless. You have heard about the law suits and huge awards against service providers and manufacturers over things like hot coffee spilled in a lap or limbs cut off because someone tried to trim the hedge with a lawnmower. Please, must I suffer through yet another safety device that makes my tools harder to use and more expensive just because some idiot pulled a stupid stunt?

Everyone is talking about the new TSA procedures of groping and fondling people in a feckless effort to decrease terrorism on airplanes. I believe that terrorists long ago figured out that using airplanes as weapons is too hard. Now they are more likely looking at train stations, subways, and other places where a lot of people gather and the security is less rigorous. Yet, here we go again, overreacting instead of being forward thinking and proactive.

Americans tend to focus on “What” and “Where” of the tragedy instead of the “Why.” And sometimes the “Why” just defies explanation. Other times, the “Why” does not matter because nobody could have foreseen the event, or nothing could have prevented it. Whether a terrorist, or a crazed killer, uses an airplane, bomb, car, gun, or a pocket knife matters much less than the fact that in a free society we have to accept a certain level of risk. Out West there is a saying, “I’ll live ‘til I die, unless a tree falls on me.”

You can bet your boots that the Tucson shooting will once again invigorate the gun-control zealots. However, the reality is that guns are no more the cause of murders than pencils and pens are the reason for hate mail or books led Hitler to perpetrate the worst hate crime in history.

As Benjamin Franklin said, "Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both." It seems to me that every time we overreact, another liberty is sacrificed at the alter security. Let us mourn for the victims; care for the survivors; find, prosecute, and punish the perpetrators; but let’s avoid the temptation to overreact and apply more cures that are worse than the problems.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

No More Resolutions, Please

On this New Year’s Eve, I am sure many of you are making resolutions for 2011. Some are resolving to exercise more and lose weight—a perennial resolution after the bounty of the Christmas Season. Others are resolving to do things such as pay down debt, save more money, or start retirement planning.

Whatever your resolution is this year, I am sure it is well intended and honorable, but the odds are overwhelming that by the second week of January your resolution will have devolved to disillusion. It happens every year to millions of Americans. In fact, there is a cottage industry dedicated to helping you set your sights lower and providing advice on how to do better at sticking to your resolutions.

My advice is to resolve to make no resolutions. Don’t make promises you can’t or won’t keep. Jesus cautioned us to not swear by any oaths, but rather, “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’.” Good advice.

Many people are optimistic for 2011, because they believe the 112th Congress with a new Republican majority in the House and the Senate will resolve to balance the budget, end earmarks, shift the U.S. economic policy back toward free enterprise, and restore integrity to a Federal government. My advice at the national level is the same as my personal advice—don’t expect a whole lot of change. It is not that I don’t think change is necessary; it’s just that change is difficult. If it is hard for us to keep our personal resolutions after two weeks, how can we realistically expect dramatic change in an institution that, despite having a new Republican majority, is about 85% unchanged?

More to the point, our Constitution has built in dampers on radical change through a system of checks and balances. Gridlock is alive and well and the current Democrat in the White House has the same policy agenda even if Congress wants to go in a different direction. And then you have the steady hand on the tiller—a Supreme Court that rarely experiences any significant shift in ideology.

George Washington, at the Constitutional Convention, argued for a stronger Executive Branch and more power for the President, but the rest of the Founding Fathers, still feeling the sting of a dominant King George and the English monarchy, opted to vest more power in the Congress. Their belief was that the Legislative Branch, especially the House of Representatives with two-year terms of office, would be closer to the populace and better represent the will of the people.

Even if they believed the Legislative Branch would better represent the people, the Founding Fathers were not naïve about the trappings of powers and how the potential for greed and corruption was always a potential stumbling stone for our democracy. Not wanting any branch of government to dominate, they built in enough flexibility in the Constitution and some Presidents have exerted greater powers of the Executive Branch.

Historically, we have seen shifts between Congress and the President in the balance of power in the United States. Abraham Lincoln used Executive privilege to enact many of his anti-slavery policies and to prosecute the Civil War. So much so, that after his assassination, Congress reacted by putting a stranglehold on Andrew Johnson’s Presidency. That Congress even went so far as to impeach Johnson for charges that basically amounted to nothing more than daring to disagree with Congress. Fortunately, for the republic, the Senate failed to convict Johnson and we continue to have vigorous and healthy disagreements between Presidents and Congress.

Theodore Roosevelt used the bully pulpit to ram his policies through Congress and sometimes by Executive Order. Woodrow Wilson engaged the United States in World War I largely by Executive Power, a move that cost him dearly when he tried to get Congress to approve his life-long dream of establishing the League of Nations. Franklin D. Roosevelt took a note from his cousin’s playbook to implement some of the most sweeping legislative policies in history. Kennedy, and later Johnson, used the Executive Power as Commander in Chief to engage the U.S. in an undeclared war in Viet Nam. This led Congress to enact the War Powers Act and severely limit the President’s power to wage war.

Currently, we live in a time of unheard of Congressional power. There is virtually no matter that Congress does not deem itself fit to investigate or regulate. While budget deficits grow, Congress has annually failed to enact appropriation bills for the Federal government for nearly four years in a row. Instead they punt by passing Continuing Resolutions. Yet, Congress somehow finds the time to hold hearings on issues such as steroid use in baseball, or to castigate industry leaders for their policies because they don’t run their business the way Congress thinks they should.

In recent years, Congress has developed legislative gimmickry such as earmarks, or continuing resolutions, or pieces of legislation so large that only the dedicated few ever read them before they are passed. The current state of legislating in the United States is such that it is nearly impossible to hold a Member of Congress accountable for their vote and this is by design. Acts of Congress are like ornament-laden Christmas trees; there are so many babbles and bells that you are bound to like some of them. If you listen to campaign rhetoric, it is difficult to tell who is good and who is bad. There is always some vote that can be used to portray a candidate in a certain light, either good and bad.

And, what about Congressional Resolutions? Congress annually passes hundreds of resolutions, most of them non-binding. Many of these resolutions are of less consequence than you resolving to exercise more and lose weight in 2011. Congress recognizes things such 50th wedding anniversaries, community leaders, local heroes, and a variety of people groups—all good stuff and no doubt these people have done something special. But, if Congress cannot find time to pass the appropriations bills, a responsibility prescribed in the Constitution, do they have any business passing resolutions just so they can get their constituent’s name in the Congressional Record?

As for me and my hopes for 2011, I would like Congress to stop adopting meaningless resolutions and get on with the business of governing this nation.