Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Is This Any Way to Run a Country?

Is political civility gone for good? Apparently. It's a terrible trend and one that has greater ramifications than just hurt feelings. S&P's recent downgrade of the U.S. was necessitated by our national debt, but the trigger for the downgrade was not the agency's belief that we will be unable to pay our debts but rather  the inability of our elected officials to put aside their political differences long enough to do us all some good. Our Congress has become an adult kindergarten, full of tattlers and name callers. 

The debt ceiling talks were a national embarrassment. Leaders from both sides stood each day before the microphones and disparaged the other party, declaring that it was the other side's unwillingness to yield that was the problem. We citizens don't want our Congress to play the blame game, we just want results.  Like parents say a million times to their children, we don't care who started it, we just want it to stop.

What is the genesis of this national legislative gridlock? In my opinion, it is the negative campaigning that has become an entrenched part of the election process. The candidate who survives the electoral inquisition goes to Washington scarred, having had his/her reputation assaulted, his/her character demeaned, and his/her motives questioned. Who wouldn't take personally such personal attacks, especially when truth is secondary to tone? Negative campaigning is as old as campaigning itself, but our national fascination with scandal has spurred candidates to new levels of unethical behavior.

"According to a recent bipartisan survey commissioned by the Project on Campaign Conduct, voters are not overjoyed with today's political candidates and their campaign tactics."

Highlights from the Survey
Of those surveyed:
59% believe that all or most candidates deliberately twist the truth.
39% believe that all or most candidates deliberately lie to voters.
43% believe that most or all candidates deliberately make unfair attacks on their opponents. Another 45% believe that some candidates do.
67% say they can trust the government in Washington only some of the time or never.
87% are concerned about the level of personal attacks in today's political campaigns.
                                       ; "Do Negative Campaign Ads Work?"

Almost 90% of respondents "are concerned about the level of personal attacks in today's political campaigns."  Ninety percent!  There is almost no topic on which 90% of American can agree, so this result is meaningful.   Elections should not be about selecting the candidate who seems "less bad," but that's what they have become.

For more than two hundred years, political discourse within the House and Senate has been governed by certain rules first put down in the Manual of Parliamentary Practice for the Use of the Senate of the United States, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1801. Known as "Jefferson's Manual," it is prescribed reading for all incoming legislators. It describes not only the rules of parliamentary procedure but also the decorum that must accompany legislative debate. Jefferson wrote that "it is very material that order, decency and regularity, be preserved in a dignified public body."  I daresay that he would be very disappointed with our current Congress.

Ryan Rhodes gives President Obama an earful.
Earlier this week in a town hall meeting in Iowa, President Obama sparred with prominent Tea Party member Ryan Rhodes.  During their sometimes heated exchange "Rhodes shouted out that the president's calls for more civility in politics had little chance of coming to pass after 'your vice president is calling people like me, a Tea Party member, a 'terrorist.'"

A "terrorist"? What is wrong with people? Joe Biden shouldn't be so cavalier with that word, saving it instead to refer to this country's real enemies.  It's completely inappropriate. In a 2009 speech to Congress on his health care reform bill, Obama was interrupted by Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who shouted "You lie!"  It was an extraordinary breach of decorum and it horrified his fellow legislators. 

Is this any way to run a country?  Differing ideas should spur creative solutions, not animosity. Democracy cannot function without cooperation and mutual respect.   This breakdown in decorum has its genesis in the slanderous campaigning that is so prevalent today.  It should be outlawed. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

An Entitlements Primer

Today's word is "entitlements."  What exactly are we talking about when we throw this word around?  It is in the national interest for all of us to have an understanding of our federal government's entitlements program, so let's take a look.  Join me, won't you?
Entitlements are "the kind of government program that provides individuals with personal financial benefits (or sometimes special government-provided goods or services) to which an indefinite (but usually rather large) number of potential beneficiaries have a legal right (enforceable in court, if necessary) whenever they meet eligibility conditions that are specified by the standing law that authorizes the program. (emphasis mine) The beneficiaries of entitlement programs are normally individual citizens or residents, but sometimes organizations such as business corporations, local governments, or even political parties may have similar special "entitlements" under certain programs. The most important examples of entitlement programs at the federal level in the United States would include Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, most Veterans' Administration programs, federal employee and military retirement plans, unemployment compensation, food stamps, and agricultural price support programs."
– Paul M. Johnson, "A Glossary of Political Economy Terms"
The underlined section is meaningful because it illustrates the difficult job the government has in controlling spending or even in making budgetary forecasts. Entitlement programs are open to all who meet the eligibility criteria but since there is no way to know in advance how many people that will be in any given year, it is impossible to forecast precisely how much money will be needed. As open-ended programs, they also are exempted from the annual appropriations review to which all non-entitlement expenditures are subjected.

According to Johnson, a professor of Political History at Auburn University, "since the middle 1980s, entitlement programs have accounted for more than half of all federal spending. Taken together with such other almost uncontrollable (in the short run, that is) expenses as interest payments on the national debt and the payment obligations arising from long-term contracts already entered into by the government in past years, entitlement programs leave Congress with no more than about 25% of the annual budget to be scrutinized for possible cutbacks through the regular appropriations process. This very substantially reduces the practicality of trying to counteract the ups and downs of the overall economy through a "discretionary" fiscal policy because so very little of the budget is available for meaningful alteration by the Appropriations and Budget committees on short notice."

When the pie on the right is bigger than the pie on the left, that's a problem.

For 2011, Congress approved a Federal budget of slightly more that $3.8 trillion dollars.  About 65% of this year's budget will be spent funding entitlement programs and paying interest on our national debt. Social Security is the largest of the entitlement programs but there is debate as to whether it actually is an entitlement.  Workers pay into Social Security over the course of their careers, entrusting the government with a portion of their retirement savings.  Since the government merely holds those funds for our eventual benefit, many believe that the program should be stricken from the list of entitlement programs.   Medicare and Medicaid are the other two biggest entitlement programs. Together, these three programs currently account for more than 70% of all entitlement spending.  As the Boomer generation ages, these three programs' costs to the federal government will continue to rise.  

 Knowing this, one quickly sees the trouble Congress has in addressing the issue of ever-increasing entitlement spending.  The Social Security program was enacted in 1940 and the two health care programs have existed only since the 1960s but over time all three have become  the sacred cows of public policy. Any politician will tell you that endorsing the idea of cuts to the two health care programs or changes to Social Security is the surest way to get voted out of office. Yet changes to these three programs is exactly what has to happen in order for our country to have a chance at budgetary balance and deficit reduction.  Everyone has an opinion on the efficacy of the government's other social programs (Head Start, School Lunch, Welfare, Food Stamps, Pell Grants, Veterans Programs, etc.) but these programs are comparatively small.

Florida and Missouri recently enacted mandatory drug testing for all welfare recipients.  Florida Governor Rick Scott defended this action, stating that "It's not right for taxpayer money to be paying for somebody's drug addiction. On top of that, this is going to increase personal responsibility, personal accountability. We shouldn't be subsidizing people's addiction."  While I agree with this and find it hard to believe that this hasn't been law until just recently, I understand that the cost savings effected by kicking drug users out of the welfare program will provide only minor budgetary relief.    

Giving such people handouts is emblematic of our government's failure to be accountable for the money it spends, but drug use by welfare recipients is not the big problem.  President Obama's health care reform offers up some cost savings in the two plans, but opponents are dubious that such savings will ever be realized.  Americans–all Americans–have to face the fact that the sacred cows of entitlement spending are going to have to be sacrificed on the altar of budgetary reform in order for our country to regain and maintain its financial footing.  Kicking the dope smokers out of the welfare program is not enough.


Friday, August 5, 2011


My wife and I drove to North Carolina last week to pick up our ten-year-old from camp.  I spent a few years at Camp Sea Gull in the late 1970s and it was fantastic.  I even was invited to come back as a counselor and for some boneheaded reason did not.  Big mistake.  Unfortunately, Camp Sea Gull is just too far away for us to send our boys there, so we have found various camps for them—and my daughter—in the North Carolina mountains.  

Camp Sea Gull 1977
Alex, our ten-year-old, went for two weeks this year to Camp Rockmont just outside of Asheville. This was his longest time away from us but thankfully none of our children are prone to homesickness or separation anxiety.  If ever there was a prototypical camper, Alex is it.  We joked with him that he would love camp because he could go two weeks without brushing his teeth, taking a shower, or even changing his t-shirt.  We were kidding of course, but knew that if he could get away with this horrible hygiene trifecta, he would.
Your shirt is looking a little crusty, buddy.
Alex has a fascination with weapons. He has fashioned homemade slingshots, bows and arrows, and spears. With his ingenuity, I have no doubt that he would have survived the Alamo. He can turn any stick into a gun and can recite from memory all of the various guns that are available for use in "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare." It's a little frightening actually, but we figured that he could indulge himself in riflery and archery at camp and satisfy this curiosity of his.

Ready, Fire, Aim.
During his time at camp we got just two barely legible postcards from him. Clearly, Alex was not missing us too badly. By the penmanship, it appeared as though they were written while Alex was was in the middle of a bull riding lesson. From what we were able to decipher it seemed as though he and camp were getting along just fine. He made reference both times to his love of something called "the blob, a camp phenomenon that did not exist in my day. When I was a camper the Blob was a schlock horror film that we watched on Movie Night.
The Blob then.
The Blob now.

When we arrived at camp to pick him up, I got bitten by the camp bug.  Hard.  Seriously, is there anything as fun as camp?   If you are a kid, what's not to love?  Pancakes with a whole bottle of syrup every morning? Why not?  Twenty pieces of bacon?  Pass 'em over. Swimming, camping, ziplining, blobbing, sailing, hiking?  Yes please. Going to bed with filthy feet?  Who cares? For parents, camp now is something of a throwback,  a window into our own  more adventurous, less electronic, childhoods. Summer camp undoubtedly is one of childhood's best rites of passage.  

As I looked around, certain that I would see some parents I knew, I noticed that we all had that same wistful look that to me said, "Boy, I'd love to take a few weeks off from this adult life and go back to camp.  I hope these kids understand how great this is."  I think this nostalgic undercurrent has fueled the popularity of parent-child camps that are en vogue these days. Why not?   I, for one, am dying to try out the Blob.