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.