Monday, August 31, 2009

Excise Tax on Wine Should Be Reduced

In addition to being a brilliant statesman, scientist, farmer and a myriad other things, Thomas Jefferson was the greatest wine connoisseur of the 18th Century, not just in America but in the entire world. While serving as Minister to France in the 1780s, Jefferson toured all the important French wine regions, as well as some of most significant wine producing regions in Germany and Italy. The careful notes he kept on this trip reveal his astonishing knowledge and skill as a wine-taster.

During his years in the White House, President Jefferson famously invited members of Congress to the White House for weekly dinners. The wines he served at these gatherings, along with the wonderful food prepared by his French chef, kept both Republican friends and Federalist enemies coming coming back to his table. While talk of political matters was apparently discouraged at these meals, we can imagine the positive effect they had on achieving Jefferson's political goals simply be building goodwill between erstwhile adversaries. And although he drank wine every day, he claims never to have been intoxicated in his life.

Contrary to prevailing opinion, then and now, Jefferson did not think that wine was a drink for the upper class. Indeed, he thought the high cost of wine as compared to beer or liquor was a major social problem, because it contributed to drunkenness and therefore violence among the lower classes. He therefore called for a reduction of excise taxes on wine and an increase in excise taxes on gin, so as to make wine relatively less expensive and therefore less expensive to common people.

As Jefferson put it: "No nation is drunken where wine is cheap, and none sober where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage."

One thing Jefferson would love about the modern world is the widespread consumption of wine by members of the middle class, and the easy availability of wine to all members of society. Truth be told, the cheapest bottle of wine available in a typical grocery store is possibly superior in quality to the best wine Jefferson himself ever consumed. American consumption of wine still lags behind European countries, but it is increasing every year. This would please Jefferson and he would be calling on us to do what we can to further this social trend.

For a standard bottle of wine, with an alcohol level of 14% or less, the federal excise tax is $0.21. For a "naturally sparkling" bottle of wine, the federal excise tax is $0.67. These taxes should be reduced or eliminated. As Jefferson realized so long ago, there are clear social benefits to encouraging the consumption of wine over other alcoholic beverages, and we should do whatever we can to do so.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Current System of Foreign Aid Does More Harm Than Good

Every day, over 20,000 people around the world die from causes stemming from extreme poverty. Infectious diseases continue to ravage Africa and many other parts of the planet, long after they have become mere memories in the West. Half the world's population lives in conditions that affluent people in America, Europe and Japan can scarcely imagine.

Although their exposure to the suffering is mostly limited to images on television, many people in the West are moved by the plight of the developing world and want to help. In 2008, the United States spent about $25 billion in foreign aid to countries in the Third World. The European Union spent even more than that. By some estimates, Western nations have given $2.3 trillion in foreign aid over the last five decades. Entire government agencies and international organizations have been created to focus on the problem of raising the people of the developing world out of poverty, employing armies of well-paid technocrats.

But despite the gargantuan amount of money the West has poured into the developing world since 1945, the people of the recipient nations seems more impoverished today than ever. Why the lack of progress? The sad fact is that the massive amount of foreign aid from the West does nothing to help the people of the developing world. Indeed, it makes the problem worse.

For the people of any nation to be free and prosperous, they obviously have to be able to stand on their own and not be dependent upon the largess of others. Ostensibly, the purpose of foreign aid to to help the people of the developing world become self-sufficient, but in truth it cruelly traps them into a cycle of dependence from which they cannot escape.

Consider the case of a random farmer in Tanzania. In order for him to prosper, he has to deal able to sell his produce at a reasonable rate, so as to provide for his own needs while incidentally helping to feed the nation. But when a development agency from a Western country shows up in his town and starts unloading bags of flour for free, it's quite clear that no one is going to buy the farmer's wheat. Why pay for something you can get for free? Consequently, the farmer is driven out of business and becomes an impoverished person dependent on the very aid that destroyed him. Expand this logic from a single farmer to an entire country, and you have one of the key problems with foreign aid.

Making the problem worse is the blatant corruption that pervades most of governments in the developing world. A huge portion, perhaps the majority, of the foreign aid money from the West ends up in the pockets of well-to-do corrupt officials, with little and sometimes none at all filtering down to the ordinary people who are the intended recipients. It might well be said that one outcome of foreign aid has been providing economic stimulus to the Swiss banking industry.

Another root of the problem is the inefficiency inherent in large governmental agencies being endowed with vast resources, but being given open-ended and effectively permanent mandates. If a government creates a very specific objective, such as getting a man on the Moon or eradicating smallpox, it can often achieve great results. But if it creates an agency and tells it to make the world better, without any real benchmarks or responsibility, the inevitable result is a bloated bureaucracy and a lot of wasted taxpayer money.

Aid agencies also fixate on top-down efforts, when they should be looking at bottom-up solutions. Economists and bureaucrats in New York or London, who may have little or no knowledge of the conditions in the country in question, devise elaborate and complicated plans that look good on paper but which almost always fail in practice. In the meantime, talented entrepreneurs in the impoverished countries themselves, who are undertaking their own efforts to improve their societies, are usually ignored by international aid agencies.

Proponents of foreign aid seem remarkably blind to the utter failure of their policies. Usually, they claim that any shortcomings in their work can be overcome by more massive infusions of cash. Entertainment celebrities (particularly U2 front man Bono, who has become the global face of the effort) are deployed in public relations efforts that largely disguise the inability of foreign aid to raise the quality of life for anyone. Their hearts are clearly in the right place, but their levels of self-deception are so high that they don't see how their efforts are actually harming those they are trying to help.

A few people are beginning to cry out that the emperor has no clothes. The man who has done the most to reveal the failure of foreign aid programs is William Easterly, who wrote two books on the subject, The Elusive Quest for Growth and The White Man's Burden. But considering the appeal of the underlying message of foreign aid proponents and their sophisticated public relations efforts, it will be some time before people come to understand the problems with foreign aid.

Frankly, the people of Africa and other impoverished regions would probably be better off if Western nations simply ceased providing foreign aid money. If Western citizens want to help the people of Africa, they would be well-advised to work through institutions other than the government. One particularly interesting method of assisting the developing is microfinance, which provides small loans to people to help them set up economically self-perpetuating means of supporting themselves.

Thomas Jefferson would have felt his heart be moved by the plight of the impoverished people of the developing world in the early 21st Century. But he would have also insisted that any effort to alleviate it be guided by rationality and common sense. Looking at the failure of big government action on this front, we can easily see that the prevailing approach hasn't worked. Therefore, we should do something else.

Monday, August 17, 2009

We Need a Balanced Budget Amendment

When Thomas Jefferson became President in 1801, he inherited a national debt of several tens of millions of dollars, an immense sum for the time. This was a legacy of the large standing army created by Alexander Hamilton during the Adams administration. Over the next eight years, despite paying Napoleon $15 million for the Louisiana Territory in 1803, Jefferson succeeded in maintaining balanced budgets and significantly paying down the debt.

Jefferson believed that governments debt was something to be avoided at all costs. He stated specifically that whenever a government was compelled by some emergency to borrow money, it should implement a tax to ensure that the debt was paid off within twenty years at most. Failure to do so, in his mind, constituted an act of theft against a generation that hadn't even been born yet. It was not only bad fiscal policy, but was a crime.

Today, the national debt is obscene: roughly $11.7 trillion. That's roughly $38,000 per citizen. And the debt is increasing by nearly $4 billion every day. In 2008, the federal government spent $249 billion, 8% of the total budget, just to pay the interest on the debt. Jefferson would be shocked and dismayed, and would tell us that we should be ashamed of ourselves.

The nation's disastrous fiscal situation is one of the great issues of our time. Neither of the two major parties are willing to address the issue, and both act as though the problem doesn't exist. Since they would rather pass the buck on to unborn generations than face the wrath of living voters, members of Congress are always more willing to go more deeply into debt than they are to either raise taxes or decrease spending.

The last time the country saw a balanced budget was in the last years of the Clinton Administration. During the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush advocated using the surplus to cut taxes, whereas Al Gore called for using it to secure various government programs. The idea of actually using the surplus to pay down the debt never seems to have occurred to either of them.

If things continue down this path, the troubled fiscal structure of the United States will completely collapse, taking the country with it. But there is a solution to this problem: a Balanced Budget Amendment.

The gist of such an amendment would be very simple: the federal government cannot spend more than it earns in any fiscal year. Obviously, emergencies such as war or economic depression may occasionally require deficit spending, so the amendment would have to include a provision allowing Congress to engage in deficit spending if a supermajority (three-fourths would seem appropriate) declares such an emergency to be in effect, or Congress declares war against a foreign power. To avoid misuse of this provision, the amendment would have to require such emergency deficit spending to be strictly temporary, requiring another two-thirds vote to be renewed for an additional fiscal year.

Under the provisions of Article V of the Constitution, the federal government must convene a convention to discuss possible amendments to the Constitution if two-thirds of the states request it. In the early 1990s, this very nearly happened when 32 states (just two short of the required 34) had filed requests with Congress for a convention specifically to discuss a Balanced Budget Amendment. Some states subsequently rescinded their request, but this pressure from the states was partially responsible for the more responsible behavior of the federal government on budget issues in the 1990s, when we actually had a surplus for a few years. Since then, unfortunately, any semblance of fiscal responsibility has been thrown away.

Next year is a congressional election year, and some jockeying in the primaries has already begun. 21st Century Jeffersonians should take every opportunity to meet with congressional and state legislative candidates of all parties and ask them whether or not they support a Balanced Budget Amendment. Their response to that question should go a long way in determining who you end up voting for.

Monday, August 10, 2009

21st Century Jeffersonianism in Action: The Black Star Co-Op

The essence of Jeffersonianism, whether in the 18th Century or the 21st, is liberty. Most of the time, we are talking about ensuring freedom from governmental or corporate power. But an individual's true liberty is measured by the extent to which he or she is free from any interference from entities which can infringe on their own freedom of action, even inadvertently. Therefore, we must guard against restrictions on our liberty which come from our own laziness, as well as those which come from people with sinister motives.

Self-sufficiency is the key. The more self-sufficient an individual or a community is, the greater its liberty is. If an individual has a vegetable garden in their backyard that can provide a significant portion of their food, they are that much less dependent on others, and hence that much freer. If a community can achieve a desirable goal on their own, without recourse to the government, they are that much more free.

As a single example, consider the case of the Black Star Co-Op, a collective effort by citizens to create a member-owned brew pub in Austin, Texas. Having made a decision that a member-owner brew pub was a desirable goal, ordinary citizens came together and are making it happen on their own.

Watch this five-minute video to see what we're talking about:

Jefferson probably wouldn't have known what to make of the Halloween costumes, and he personally preferred wine to beer. But he certainly would have understood and approved of the spirit of independence and self-reliance of the citizens behind this project. Whether they know it or not, they are helping to bring America closer to the Jeffersonian ideal.

(NOTE: Since the time the video was made, the Black Star Co-Op has expanded to more than 1,000 members.)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Sotomayor Confirmation Expected Today

Unless something truly unexpected happens, Judge Sonia Sotomayor will today be confirmed as the next Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. While a significant political victory for President Obama, it does not represent a serious shakeup in the court's composition, as we have a moderately liberal justice replacing a moderately liberal justice.

21st Century Jeffersonians can easily be of two minds about this. On the one hand, President Obama won the election with a significant mandate from the nation and, therefore, has a certain right to appoint whomever he wishes to the court, so long as the Senate gives its approval. And it must be frankly admitted that Judge Sotomayor is a highly-qualified candidate, having been a federal judge for fifteen years.

Still, there are some concerns. In terms of constitutional law, America has wandered too far from solid grounding in the Constitution. 21st Century Jeffersonians are, by and large, strict constructionists when it comes to interpreting the Constitution, tempered by their desire for far more frequent amendments to the document, and new constitutional conventions once every generation to rewrite it completely.

The first fight over an Obama nomination to the Supreme Court generated far fewer fireworks than we might have expected, but it is clear that Republicans missed a tremendous opportunity in the debate over the confirmation of Judge Sotomayor. Rather than examine her judicial philosophy and use the hearings as a platform to debate the sound interpretation of the Constitution by the Supreme Court, Republicans instead engaged in childish attacks on a few obscure comments Judge Sotomayor made in the past, including some attacks with had a clear racial tinge to them.

Had the Republicans made their stand in the debate on such foundations as actually matter- namely, how the Constitution is to be properly interpreted by the Supreme Court- and had they conducted the debate in a civil manner, then the country would have benefited greatly. Let's hope this happens the next time President Obama has to appoint a new member to the highest court in our land.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Mars: A Worthy Jeffersonian Goal

Thomas Jefferson was a believer in the exploration and colonization of new lands. Indeed, he did more to explore and settle the American West than any other president. He engineered the Louisiana Purchase, sent the Corps of Discovery and other exploratory missions to map and chart the land, and laid down the principles for future legislation (such as the Homestead Act of 1862) that made the settlement of the American West possible.

Jefferson believed that the existence of vast amounts of land to the west of the original 13 colonies was the greatest blessing America possessed. It allowed future generations the chance to recreate America over and over again, starting afresh in new lands. Jefferson called it the "Empire of Liberty" and believed it would lead to "the age of experiments in government." Innumerable communities would be able to decide for themselves how they would be governed, and the great diffusion of humanity across the continent would, Jefferson hoped, ensure that no powerful central government would be able to control the entirety of them.

While much of what Jefferson foresaw did come to pass, as can be seen in the Jeffersonian spirit that still pervades small towns throughout the Midwest, it must be admitted that the continent is all filled up now. In Jefferson's time, a person dissatisfied with his life in Boston or Philadelphia could head west to start his life over again. In our time, with no open frontier, this option no longer exists. As Jefferson understood very well, societies have no open frontier will eventually stagnant and decay.

This is why space exploration should be an important priority for 21st Century Jeffersonians. A Jeffersonian society can only exist if there is a frontier to act as a social steam valve, and with the Age of Exploration long since relegated to the history books, there are no open frontiers on Earth any longer. If 21st Century Jeffersonians want to find a new frontier, they must look to the stars.

Of all the planets in the Solar System, Mars is certain to be the first which is explored and settled by human beings. Even now, three robotic spacecraft (two American, one European) are orbiting the Red Planet, while the plucky robotic rovers Spirit and Opportunity wander its landscapes as they conduct geological studies. NASA has declared that human expeditions to Mars are its long-term goal, and we will hopefully see the first men and women exploring the Red Planet within the next twenty years.

Some visionaries are looking forward to the day when permanent human settlements will be established on Mars, an event which would reopen the frontier to humankind and mightily advance Jeffersonian ideals. One such man is Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society. More than just about anyone, he has put the exploration and colonization of Mars on the map as an achievable goal.

Watch this documentary (in five parts) about Zubrin and his work. It is certainly a vision of which Jefferson would have strongly approved.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Liberty Continues to Vanish in Venezuela

President Hugo Chavez continues his long slide from elected leader to outright dictator of Venezuela, as CNN is reporting that his government is systematically shutting down dozens of independently-controlled radio stations, with hundreds of other potentially being targeted, too. At the same time, a "Special Bill Against Media Crimes" is making its way through the Venezuelan legislature, as if there can be such a thing as a "media crime" under natural law.

At the same time, a new election law has just passed in Venezuela which will allow the government to redraw legislative district lines. The measure is clearly intended to benefit the Chavez ruling party ahead of next year's National Assembly elections. People who think that Venezuela remains a representative democracy are deluding themselves.

President Chavez was once the darling of the world's radical leftists. After he won election in 1998, he implemented popular educational and health programs that seemed to raise the quality of life for many of his country's disadvantaged population. Today, these same programs are mired in corruption and inefficiency, with lucrative contracts going only to Chavez loyalists. And all of Chavez's anti-capitalistic rhetoric cannot hide the utter failure of his particular brand of socialism to bring prosperity to his people, as inflation goes through the roof and shortages of basic goods begins to be felt.

Whether or not Chavez started out as an idealist and gradually morphed into a dictator or whether he was interested only in his own power from the beginning is irrelevant, for the man clearly is a dictator now. Thomas Jefferson would have understood him perfectly well, and would have cast him into the same class as King George III as a tyrant who deserved to be overthrown. His governance of Venezuela is a violation of natural law; the sooner it ends, the better.