In addition to his blogging, occassionally we run across columns or articles by others who make what Curt thinks are very insightful points about the political or cultural situation in our country, and likes to share them here. We don’t necessarily endorse every word, nor know enough about the writers to give our blessing to their personal life or other columns! But we hope you enjoy these, and we plan to update this periodically.
"[T]he Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is no more popular now than when it was passed, as Americans have come to realize that it will neither protect patients nor provide for affordable care. While full repeal of the law is not within the realm of short-term political reality ... repeal should nonetheless remain the end goal, either one piece at a time for now or root and branch. The price tag for Obamacare has gone from shocking to preposterous. In March 2010, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the ten-year cost of the law at $898 billion; by February 2013, that number had climbed to $1.6 trillion, and it is likely that further revisions will be in the upward direction. ...
As mind-boggling as its price tag is, expense is not the main reason to repeal Obamacare. What is not sufficiently understood is that Obamacare does not reform or regulate health insurance: It effectively abolishes health insurance. ... In short, the system created by this ill-advised law would prevent the emergence of normally functioning markets in medical services and health insurance. Instead, it establishes a top-down system of price controls and subsidies that will discourage healthy people from buying insurance in the first place, reward those who exploit the system's defects, and discourage doctors and other health-care providers from extending their care to those who most need it. ... Republicans made a critical error during the debate over Obamacare when they left the impression that they approved of the U.S. health-care system. In truth, that system was deeply defective before Obamacare was passed.... With a functioning market in place, offering assistance through tax benefits or direct subsidies becomes a much simpler set of challenges, as does enacting targeted, narrow regulation to curb the abusive practices toward which the health-insurance industry is occasionally inclined. ... Republicans can and should begin taking it apart and building something better on the ruins." --National Review
by Russell Nieli
January 2nd, 2013
Any honest analysis of the Newtown tragedy must address the social problems caused by divorce, absent fathers, and the burdens of single motherhood.
Last month's massacre of twenty young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, prompted much public debate and soul-searching. The results were predictable. The left-liberal position went something like this:
There are too many guns in America, too many crazy people who should not have guns, and too few restrictions on the kinds of firearms that civilians may own. It's ridiculous to allow civilians to possess military-style assault rifles with large capacity magazines that can kill dozens of innocent human beings in minutes. We need to end our national love affair with firearms and firearm violence and should learn from the Europeans and Japanese, who severely restrict gun ownership for anyone not in the military or government police forces. We also need laws mandating that privately-owned firearms be stored securely so that criminals or unlicensed users can't get them.
Our mental health system also needs a thorough overhaul. Troubled, at-risk youth are too often left to fend for themselves because their families cannot pay for or access the professional care they need. We need to provide them this care through more outreach programs in schools and community centers that identify children and teens at high risk for self-destructive or socially destructive behavior.
While many found this view compelling, the conservative take on the Newtown horror couldn't have differed more. It went like this:
Guns will always fall into hands that they shouldn't, no matter how extensive our gun control laws are. These laws don't prevent criminals from getting guns, but they disarm law-abiding citizens and render them helpless against deadly criminal attacks. Look at what happened in Norway. A country with very strict gun laws still saw one of the worst gun massacres of all time when the deranged Nordic supremacist Anders Breivik systematically shot and killed over five dozen helpless adolescents on an offshore island where only he possessed a firearm. Only a heavily armed Norwegian SWAT team stopped his attack. The bad guys prey on helpless victims who they know will never shoot back. Only good guys with guns can stop bad guys with guns. To protect our school children we need more armed guards--policemen and suitably trained civilians--who know how to use firearms responsibly and how to defend the helpless and defenseless against homicidal crazies.
We also need to stop the poisonous influence of violent video games and Hollywood movies on developing young minds. Teenage youth can become desensitized to violence through an addiction to games like Grand Theft Auto, Thrill Kill, Postal, and Mortal Kombat. These games reduce people's sense of empathy and increase their appetite for sadism and aggression. If we really want to tackle the problem of youth violence in America, we should critically examine the perverse messages that our media-saturated culture often sends to young people.
Other claims and arguments were made to bolster both positions. The Supreme Court, for instance, came under attack from both sides--from the right for prohibiting prayer in public schools, from the left for interpreting the Second Amendment to include a right of private gun ownership. The two contrasting views were fleshed out in countless op-ed pieces and news broadcasts with the usual low quality we expect of such media treatment.
The Elephant in the Living Room
Though both sides in this dispute have something sensible to say, they've missed an elephant in the room either because of willful blindness to anything politically incorrect or because of a lack of real-world experience. I speak of the problems associated with divorce, family breakup, father absence, and the enormous burdens placed on a single mom who must rear a troubled male child alone.
Adam Lanza was not normal. He suffered from morbid shyness and an inability to connect with his student peers and anyone else--a cold, withdrawn, hollow shell of a person to his classmates, an Asperger's patient to professional psychologists. Even under the best of circumstances--with a loving, caring, two-parent family consisting of a husband and wife who complemented each other's strengths and worked together as a team--raising someone like Adam Lanza would be a real challenge.
One can't say how he might have turned out under different circumstances, but statistics show that having divorced parents, as Lanza did, plus a father who moves out of the household, remarries, and has little contact with his son for long stretches of time, is not the ideal formula for successful childrearing. Yet what sociologists call "family structure issues" were rarely discussed in the media, not even on conservative talk radio where one might have expected them to have a preeminent place. Most Americans, it seems, have so many divorced or single-parent neighbors, friends, and relatives (if they are not themselves divorced or living as single parents) that discussing family structure is simply too painful and too sensitive to be taken up in any honest or candid manner.
While we may never be able to explain fully what caused Lanza's murderous rampage, the best speculation to date involves, besides mental health problems and gun availability, the challenges faced by a single mom trying to raise a deeply troubled youth. A Fox News reporter gathered from the Lanzas' neighbors and others who knew the family situation that Lanza likely killed his mother because he thought that she loved the students and teachers of Sandy Hook School more than she loved him. Lanza knew that his mother planned to have him committed to conservatorship, and perceived her court petition as an effort to send him away. This enraged him to the extent that he killed first-graders who may have worked with his mother in the past year, and the school's principal and psychologist, who were his mother's good friends.
It's hard to read such an account without feeling great sadness for someone like Nancy Lanza--a single mother with a deeply disturbed male adolescent on her hands and no man in the house to turn to for help or advice. Those who knew her said that she was at her wit's end and thought she could no longer care for her son by herself. In a saner age, when people understood the palpable harms of "broken homes" and "fatherless boys" (the terms themselves have become quaint if not archaic), the "family structure issue" would have guided reflection on the Lanza killings. But now, since any such discussion of divorce's harms, especially the harm of not having a father present in the home, would step on too many toes, we focus instead on the safer territory of gun control and our mental health system.
A preview of the current non-discussion was provided almost fifty years ago when Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote his famous report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. As Moynihan learned, however important the "family structure issue" may be to an understanding of an acute social problem, for many it strikes a raw nerve, the pain of which shuts down all serious discussion. A preoccupation with "racism" and "de-industrialization" were the equivalents in Moynihan's day of guns and the mental health system today, as topics to raise to avoid the salient but hypersensitive issue of family breakdown.
In his book Fatherless America, David Blankenhorn writes that "across societies, married fatherhood is the single most reliable, and relied upon, prescription for socializing males. As marriage weakens, more and more men become isolated and estranged from their children and from the mother of their children. One result, in turn, is the spread of male violence." Though we can't ignore the other contributing factors to the Lanza massacre, this simple truth must be acknowledged in any honest assessment of the Newtown tragedy.
Russell Nieli is a lecturer in politics at Princeton University.
Too Big to Maintain?
By George Will
Wednesday, October 14, 2012
DALLAS -- If in four weeks a president-elect Mitt Romney is seeking a Treasury secretary, he should look here, to Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Candidate Romney can enhance his chance of having this choice to make by embracing a simple proposition from Fisher: Systemically important financial institutions (SIFIs), meaning too-big-to-fail (TBTF) banks, are "too dangerous to permit."
Romney almost did this in the first debate when he said Dodd-Frank's designation of TBTF banks makes them "effectively guaranteed by the federal government" and constitutes "the biggest kiss that's been given to -- to New York banks I've ever seen." Fisher, who has a flair for rhetorical pungency, is more crisp:
There are 6,000 American banks but "half of the entire banking industry's assets" are concentrated in five institutions whose combined assets equate to almost 60 percent of GDP. And "the top 10 banks now account for 61 percent of commercial banking assets, substantially more than the 26 percent of only 20 years ago." The problems posed by "supersized and hypercomplex banks" may, Fisher says, require anti-obesity policies equivalent to "irreversible lap-band or gastric bypass surgery." The land of TBTFs is "a perverse financial Lake Wobegon" where all crises are "exceptional," justifying "unique" solutions that are the same, meaning bailouts. This incurs "the wrath of ordinary citizens and smaller entities that resent this favorable treatment, and we plant the seeds of social unrest."
Fisher cites Andrew Haldane of the Bank of England who calculates this: The assumption that certain banks have implicit TBTF status gives them preferential access to investment capital. In 2009, these silent subsidies enjoyed by TBTFs worldwide approached $2.3 trillion in value. Haldane notes a parallel between financial systems and epidemiological networks: Normal epidemiology involves "focusing preventive action on 'super-spreaders' within the network to limit the potential for systemwide spread."
Endorsing the axiom (attributed to Napoleon) that one should "never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence," Fisher says TBTF banks "are sprawling and complex -- so vast that their own management teams may not fully understand their own risk exposures, providing fertile ground for unintended 'incompetence.'" Fisher's rejoinder to those who impute "economies of scale" to such banks is that there also are "diseconomies of scale." Fisher, among many others, believes the component parts of the biggest banks would be "worth more broken up than as a whole."
Furthermore, the economy suffers as indefensible preferences multiply. In an essay, "Choosing the Road to Prosperity: Why We Must End Too Big To Fail -- Now," Harvey Rosenblum of the Dallas Fed's Research Department notes that "people disillusioned with capitalism aren't as eager to engage in productive activities." The desire to strive is inversely proportional to the suspicion that the game is rigged. Rosenblum adds:
"For all its bluster, Dodd-Frank leaves TBTF entrenched. ... In fact, the financial crisis increased concentration because some TBTF institutions acquired the assets of other troubled TBTF institutions. The TBTF survivors of the financial crisis look a lot like they did in 2008. They maintain corporate cultures based on the short-term incentives of fees and bonuses derived from increased oligopoly power."
At bottom, the TBTF phenomenon raises questions not merely about the financial system but about the nature of the American regime. These are Jacksonian questions, implicating issues Old Hickory raised in 1832 when vetoing the Second Bank of the United States: Should the government be complicit in protecting -- and by doing so, enlarging -- huge economic interests?
Capitalism -- which is, as Milton Friedman tirelessly insisted, a profit and loss system -- is subverted by TBTF, which socializes losses while leaving profits private. And which enhances the profits of those whose losses it socializes. TBTF is a double moral disaster: It creates moral hazard by encouraging risky behavior, and it delegitimizes capitalism by validating public cynicism about its risk-reward ratios.
It is inexplicable politics and regrettable policy that Romney has, so far, flinched from a forthright endorsement of breaking up the biggest banks. This stance by him would be credible because of his background and would be intelligible to voters because of its clarity. As the campaign reaches what should be a satisfying culmination, they would be astonished by, and grateful for, the infusion of a fresh thought into the deluge of painfully familiar boilerplate. Having tiptoed close to where Fisher stands, Romney still has time to remember Gen. Douglas MacArthur's axiom that in war all disasters can be explained by two words: "Too late."
(c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group
The Prosperity Drug
Margaret Manning is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington·
July 24, 2012
The catchy beat was disarming. Driving down the highway with my hands tapping out the rhythm on my steering wheel, I thought this was just another clever pop tune with bubblegum lyrics. Then the words to the chorus caught my attention:
"I don't know what's right and what's real anymore
I don't know how I'm meant to feel anymore
When we think it will all become clear
I'm being taken over by The Fear."(1)
This song sung by the young British pop star, Lily Allen, was not just another slickly produced tune without substanc. Allen sings of the destructive impact of materialism:
"I want to be rich and I want lots of money
I want loads of clothes and loads of diamonds
I heard people die while they are trying to find them
Life's about film stars and less about mothers
It's all about fast cars and passing each other
But it doesn't matter because I'm packing plastic
and that's what makes my life so fantastic
And I am a weapon
of massive consumption
and it's not my fault it's how I'm programmed to function
I don't know what's right and what's real anymore
I don't know how I'm meant to feel anymore
Cause I'm being taken over by fear."
Among other things, the song laments the vacuity of mindless consumption and its pervasiveness in our society. Consumption, as Allen points out, can be like any other form of addiction, providing an initial high that hooks us, but never again delivers what it promises. Instead, it leads us down the path toward diminishing returns and never ultimately calms our fear.
Over 200 years before Ms. Allen stepped onto the pop music scene in the United Kingdom, John Wesley articulated the dangers of materialism. "I fear, wherever riches have increased," he wrote, "the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore, I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of religion to continue long....[A]s riches increase, so will pride, anger and love of the world in all its branches."(2) Even as thousands and thousands were joining his ranks, he spoke prophetically about the inevitable decline and dissolution of this revival as a result of the increase of wealth arising from Christian diligence and frugality.
Indeed, it is well known to students of human societies that an increase in prosperity often brings with it a precipitous decline in religious involvement. After all, why would anyone need God when there is Master Card and Visa? The declining numbers in churches in the Western World seem to affirm that Wesley's fears were warranted. Christian leaders speculate that if current trends continue in England, for example, Methodists will cease to exist in that country in thirty years.(3) Of course, long before Wesley uttered his fears, Jesus warned his disciples: "No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other, or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and riches" (Luke 16:13). Jesus warns of the idolatry that so easily entraps us, luring us away from faithful allegiance.
We might be tempted to disregard any such warning in times of economic "slow down." How can people be tempted to serve "the master" of money, after all, when there is so much less of it? Yet even in its absence, we can find our hearts soothed more by money than by God and behold the signs of a dangerous dependence. When our hearts find salvation and security in having more and more material gain—whether we actually hold it or not—we are reminded of "the deceitfulness of riches" and the narcotic effects of material success.
Thus clearly, the abolition of wealth or production is not the answer to materialism! Rather, the answer Jesus suggests lies in the proper use of wealth in our world: as a blessing for others and not just for our own use. Jesus instructed disciples to "sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves purses which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven....For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Luke 12:33-34).
John Wesley understood this, too, and in the spirit of Jesus reiterates the same idea: "We ought not to forbid people to be diligent and frugal: we must exhort all Christians, to gain all they can, and to save all they can... What way then (I ask again) can we take that our money may not sink us to the nethermost hell? There is one way, and there is no other under heaven. If those who gain all they can, and save all they can, will likewise give all they can, then the more they gain, the more they will grow in grace, and the more treasure they will lay up in heaven."(4)
In difficult economic times, this is far from unnecessary counsel. It may be, in fact, the very idea that finally breaks the chains of addiction and reveals a far better treasure.
A Short History of Congress's Power to Tax
By Paul Moreno·
July 6, 2012
In 1935, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins was fretting about finding a constitutional basis for the Social Security Act. Supreme Court Justice Harlan Fiske Stone advised her, "The taxing power, my dear, the taxing power. You can do anything under the taxing power."
Last week, in his ObamaCare opinion, NFIB v. Sebelius, Chief Justice John Roberts gave Congress the same advice—just enact regulatory legislation and tack on a financial penalty, as in failure to comply with the individual insurance mandate. So how did the power to tax under the Constitution become unbounded?
The first enumerated power that the Constitution grants to Congress is the "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." The text indicates that the taxing power is not plenary, but can be used only for defined ends and objects—since a comma, not a semicolon, separated the clauses on means (taxes) and ends (debts, defense, welfare).
This punctuation was no small matter. In 1798, Pennsylvania Rep. Albert Gallatin said that fellow Pennsylvania Rep. Gouverneur Morris, chairman of the Committee on Style at the Constitutional Convention, had smuggled in the semicolon in order to make Congress's taxing power limitless, but that the alert Roger Sherman had the comma restored. The altered punctuation, Gallatin said, would have turned "words [that] had originally been inserted in the Constitution as a limitation to the power of levying taxes" into "a distinct power." Thirty years later, Virginia Rep. Mark Alexander accused Secretary of State John Quincy Adams of doing the same thing after Congress instructed the administration to print copies of the Constitution.
The punctuation debate simply reinforced James Madison's point in Federalist No. 41 that Congress could tax and spend only for those objects enumerated, primarily in Article I, Section 8.
Congress enacted very few taxes up to the end of the Civil War, and none that was a pretext for regulating things that the Constitution gave it no power to regulate. True, the purpose of tariffs was to protect domestic industry from foreign competition, not raise revenue. But the Constitution grants Congress a plenary power to regulate commerce with other nations.
Congress also enacted a tax to destroy state bank notes in 1866, but this could be seen as a "necessary and proper" means to stop the states from usurping Congress's monetary or currency power. It was upheld in Veazie Bank v. Fenno (1869).
The first unabashed use of the taxing power for regulatory purposes came when Congress enacted a tax on "oleomargarine" in 1886. Dairy farmers tried to drive this cheaper butter substitute from the market but could only get Congress to adopt a mild tax, based on the claim that margarine was often artificially colored and fraudulently sold as butter. President Grover Cleveland reluctantly signed the bill, saying that if he were convinced the revenue aspect was simply a pretext "to destroy . . . one industry of our people for the protection and benefit of another," he would have vetoed it.
Congress imposed another tax on margarine in 1902, which the Supreme Court upheld (U.S. v. McCray, 1904). Three justices dissented, but without writing an opinion.
Then, in 1914, Congress imposed taxes on druggists' sales of opiates as a way to regulate their use. Five years later, in U.S. v. Doremus , the Supreme Court upheld the levy under Congress's express power to impose excise taxes.
Then, in 1922, the court rejected Congress's attempt to prohibit child labor by imposing a tax on companies that employed children. An earlier attempt to accomplish this, by prohibiting the interstate shipment of goods made by child labor, was struck down as unconstitutional—since it was understood since the earliest days of the republic that Congress had the power to regulate commerce but not manufacturing. "A Court must be blind not to see that the so-called tax is imposed to stop the employment of children within the age limits prescribed," Chief Justice William Howard Taft wrote in Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Co. "Its prohibitory and regulatory effect and purpose are palpable." Even liberal justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis D. Brandeis concurred in Taft's opinion.
Things came to a head in the New Deal, when Congress imposed a tax on food and fiber processors and used those tax dollars to provide benefits to farmers. Though in U.S. v. Butler (1936) the court adopted a more expansive view of the taxing power—allowing Congress to tax and spend for the "general welfare" beyond the powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution—it still held the ends had to be "general" and not transfer payments from one group to another. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt threatened to "pack" the Supreme Court in 1937, it accepted such transfer payments in Mulford v. Smith (1939), so long as the taxes were paid into the general treasury and not earmarked for farmers.
And now, in 2012, Justice Roberts has confirmed that there are no limits to regulatory taxation as long as the revenue is deposited in the U.S. Treasury.
Are there any other limits? Article I, Section 2 says that "direct taxes shall be apportioned among the states" according to population. This is repeated in Article I, Section 9, which says that "no capitation, or other direct tax, shall be laid," unless apportioned.
The Supreme Court struck down income taxes in 1895 (Pollock v. Farmers' Loan & Trust Co.), on the ground that they were "direct" taxes but not apportioned by population. Apportioning an income tax would defeat the purpose of the relatively poorer Southern and Western states, who wanted the relatively richer states of the Northeast to pay the bulk of the tax. The 16th Amendment gave Congress the power to tax incomes without apportionment.
Other direct taxes should presumably have to be apportioned according to the Constitution. Justice Roberts quickly dismissed the notion that the individual mandate penalty-tax is not a direct tax "under this Court's precedents." To any sentient adult, it looks like a "capitation" or head tax, imposed upon individuals directly. Unfortunately, having plenty of other reasons to object to ObamaCare, the four dissenting justices in NFIB v. Sebelius did not explore this point.
Some conservatives have cheered that part of Justice Roberts's decision that limits Congress's Commerce Clause power. But an unlimited taxing power is equally dangerous to constitutional government.
Mr. Moreno is a professor of history at Hillsdale College and the author of "The American State from the Civil War to the New Deal," forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.
A version of this article appeared July 7, 2012, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Short History of Congress's Power to Tax.