Monday, September 27, 2010

Senatos McCain and Coburn Release List of Ridiculous Uses of Stimulus Money

Ever since President Obama and the Democratic Congress attempted to jump start the economy with their stimulus package early in 2009, Republicans have launched attack after attack on the measure. In doing so, they tend to overlook the fact that the majority of the stimulus consisted of tax cuts (long a Republican priority) and focus instead on the vast injection of federal money into the economy in the form of various infrastructure projects.

21st Century Jeffersonians are not Kenysians and generally distrust any government effort to guide the economy aside from enacting common sense regulations for certain economic activities. Whether the stimulus plan was successful or not depends on which economist you talk to, but there can be no denying the Republican point that a great deal of stimulus money went to projects whose utility is dubious at best and completely nonexistent at worst.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Senator John Coburn (R-OK), perhaps the two biggest enemies of pork barrel spending in the entire Senate, have recently released a fasctinating report entitled Summertime Blues: 100 Stimulus Projects That Give Taxpayers the Blues. As the title suggests, it details 100 individual projects funded by stimulus dollars and raises quite obvious questions as to their usefulness for the country or their positive impact in revitalizing the economy.

Among the projects highlighted by the report:
  • $340,000 to plant plam trees in Fresno, California. If Fresno wants palm trees, shouldn't it pay for them itself?

  • $174,000 for researchers at UCLA to study whether retirement helps or hurts marriages, as if this is any business of the federal government.

  • $435,000 for MIT to develop a smartphone application designed to teach high school kids basic biology. Isn't that what biology teachers are for?

  • $1 million for artwork to be displayed at Los Angeles bus stops. We love art as much as anyone, but think there are perhaps better uses for a million dollars worth of taxpayer money.

  • $293,000 for Cornell University to study "dog domestication".

  • $713,000 for scientists at Northwestern University to invent a machine that tells jokes. If only it were a joke.

  • $1.2 million to market video games for the elderly, which isn't exactly a serious government priority.

And the list goes on...

Some of the projects are, in and of themselves, quite worthwhile and interesting. One item involved funding historical research on the legal structure of the Spanish Empire, which is certainly deserving of support but not the sort of thing that in which the federal government needs to be involved. After all, where federal money goes, federal control inevitably follows, and we should be very wary of placing our nation's humanities scholars in positions where the federal government gets to choose which research projects will get funded and which shall not.

Other projects, including various upkeep efforts at national historical sites (such as President Roosevelt's home at Hyde Park in New York) are also quite worthy of support. But shouldn't the funding for such projects be done through the regular channel of the National Park Service? Why make things more complicated than they have to be by dumping money on them through the stimulus? Similarly, there are some interesting scientific projects on the list, including one involving the study of weather patterns on Neptune. 21st Century Jeffersonians support, with certain qualifications, some government funding for scientific research projects. But again, why were these projects not funded through NASA or the National Science Foundation?

Truth be told, all this money may not amount to much more than a few drops of water in the vast ocean that is the federal budget. But that's not really the point. When we're facing a fiscal crisis that poses a far greater threat to America than any foreign enemy, every penny counts. Plus, the fact that every penny spent on these projects was either taken from a hard-working American taxpayer or, in effect, stolen from our great-grandchildren, there certainly is a moral imperative to justify its need.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Presidential War Powers Must be Clarified and Curtailed

The 55 men who created the United States Constitution, for better or worse, left us with many provisions in the document that are ambiguous and therefore can be interpreted in a variety of different ways. In a few cases, however, there are rock solid declarations in the Constitution which are so clear and concise that they are not open for discussion. One such assertion is to be found in Article One, Section Eight: "Congress shall have the power. . . to declare war."

That's as clear as can be. Under the Constitution, Congress has the right to declare war. Not the President, not the Supreme Court, not the States, but Congress, and Congress alone. Of all the provisions of the Constitution, this one has been violated on the most systematic basis, and with the gravest consequences for the country.

Technically speaking, the United States has only declared war against other nations during five conflicts since the Constitution was ratified: the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II. Each of these, of course, were serious conflicts between the United States and either another nation or an alliance of other nations, and which were ended by the signing of a peace treaty with the state or states in question. These were wars that would have been recognizable by Napoleon.

Of course, between 1788 and 1945, there were literally hundreds of small-scale military actions, such as Jefferson's own naval campaign against the Barbary pirates in North Africa or the innumerable military operations (usually misguided and often entirely self-serving) to protect American "interests" in Latin American states. But none of these amounted to a full-scale war against another sovereign state, and Congress either voted their approval of the actions of the President or considered the actions to be generally beneath their notice. If an American warship sends a detachment of Marines ashore in a small country to protect the American consulate from a civil disturbance, it's not really something that Congress needs to get worked up over, provided that previously agreed-upon protocols are followed.

Since the end of the World War II, however, things have changed. On four occasions since 1945, the United States has fought full-scale wars against sovereign states: the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the 1991 Gulf War, and the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. The congressional resolutions authorizing military action in Vietnam in 1964 and Iraq in 2002 were based entirely on false pretenses (the alleged Gulf of Tonkin incident for Vietnam and the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction for Iraq). On two other occasions, in Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989, the President ordered the military to occupy small but independent nations. In 1999, a limited war was fought against Serbia. Each of these conflicts were initiated not by Congress, but by the President, with congressional approval only coming later and often only after a deceptive propaganda effort by the executive branch.

Since the end of World War II, the war powers of the federal government have steadily shifted away from the legislative branch and into the hands of the executive branch. We have entered an age when an American President has the power to launch the nation into a unilateral war. Such power effectively being in the hands of a single individual should chill the blood of all American citizens.

In the wake of the American defeat in the Vietnam War (which, lest we forget, cost the lives of 58,000 Americans), Congress passed the War Powers Resolution. This requires the President to notify Congress within two days of the beginning of any military action that such an action is taking place, and gives a 60 day window (with an additional 30 days for a withdrawal) for combat operations to last, after which Congress must approve of any further continuation o the operation. Most Presidents have paid little attention, and many scholars believe the resolution to be unconstitutional.

In the nuclear age, it may be that old-fashioned declarations of war have become obsolete. At the very least, however, we need a much more concise and comprehensive legislative clarification of Presidential war powers, by a constitutional amendment if necessary. Firstly, except in rare cases of responded to some sort of surprise attack, the President must be absolutely prohibited from ordering the military into action without congressional approval, even under the authority of United Nations resolutions (for although treaties are part of the supreme law of the land, as specified in Article Six of the Constitution, they cannot override the congressional authority to declare war, which is enshrined in the Constitution itself).

Secondly, any congressional authorization for the use of military force must have a set time limit, after which another congressional vote would be necessary for the President to continue the operation. The alternative is an open-ended resolution that would allow the President to continue military operations indefinitely. The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was ostensibly intended to allow the President to retaliate against North Vietnam for an attack on an American warship, but it eventually was twisted into authorization for the deployment of a massive American army of half a million men, fighting in Southeast Asia for years.

Congress must reclaim its constitutional role as the branch of government responsible for deciding whether or not America goes to war. Had it not abandoned its responsibilities after 1945, tens of thousands of Americans who died in the wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East might never have perished. While this issue has been swept under the carpet after President George W. Bush left office, it is still festering within the constitutional framework, and it must be attended to as soon as possible.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Reasonable Government Regulation Is a Necessary Evil

In Jefferson's time, the everyday lives of people more closely resembled that of the ancient Greeks and Romans that modern society. It didn't really occur to them that government, on any level, should regulate much activity aside from coordinating trade, handing relations with other nations, and making sure the postal system worked. But even in Jefferson's time, the advance of scientific knowledge was beginning to raise difficult questions which, on occasion, required government to intervene.

Between the time he wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and was elected Governor of Virginia in 1779, Jefferson served as a member of the state legislature. In this capacity, he found himself authoring a bill that regulated the activities of people who were carrying out smallpox inoculations, a new and wonderful procedure that helped to greatly reduce the scourge of the dreaded disease.

The problem was that there were no rules governing who could perform smallpox inoculations or how the procedures should be done. Literally anyone could show up in a town, claim to be a doctor, and start performing the procedures, even if they had not the slightest idea of what were doing. It might be a reputable physician, it might be a well-meaning idiot, or it might be a fraudulent scoundrel who couldn't care less that his activities actually caused become to die of smallpox, so long as he got his money and left town fast.

In order for this kind of problem to be solved, society needed some sort of judge to determine who could and couldn't carry out smallpox inoculations, and how they had to be done. Ideally, individual citizens should do this themselves, but in practice this wouldn't work, because the average Virginian had not the slightest clue as to what smallpox inoculation worked or what it involved. There was only one conceivable answer, and that for the Virginia state government to regulate the practice.

Jefferson, of course, didn't like the idea of government intruding into people's lives, but in such cases as this there simply was no alternative. Failing to have the state government regulate smallpox inoculations would have allowed incompetent and fraudulent practitioners to run amok all over Virginia and cause misery. While it is obvious that the activities of government must always be carefully monitored and strictly limited, it is equally obvious that there are cases in which government intervention is both necessary and desirable.

This fact is even more true for us, as we live in a world vastly more complex than that which Jefferson inhabited. In a time of rapidly advancing science and technology, of instantaneous communications and swift transportation, we must face the question of whether to allow government to intervene much more often than Jefferson did. As the power of humanity expands to heights that would have appeared magical to people of the late 18th Century, we now have the ability to solve human problems that would have astonished our forebears. But with this power come difficult questions regarding the role of government in our lives.

In December of 2003, within less than a week, two equally powerful earthquakes, measuring roughly 6.6 on the Ritcher scale, struck on opposite sides of the world. One hit in California, where it caused some property damage and killed two people. The other struck in southern Iran, where it completely obliterated the town of Bam and killed more than 25,000 people. A major part of the reason for the difference in damage and casualties was that government regulations regarding building codes were in place in California, but were not in Iran.

Since the beginning of 2010, two events in the United States have highlighted the need for reasonable government regulation: the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in West Virginia and the Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Both were tragedies that cost human lives, and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has left the region environmentally devastated. In both cases, the disasters could have been avoided had the regulatory standards already in place been properly enforced.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill also could have been rendered much less damaging had the United States adopted a common sense regulation used by our neighbors in Canada. By law, Canadian offshore oil drillers are required to simultaneously drill relief wells to a near-complete level as they drill their main well, so that in the event of a rupture of the main well, the relief well can quickly be used to stop the damage. Because there was no such regulation in the United States, BP didn't start drilling its relief well until after the leak had begun, resulting in months of uncontrolled erupting of oil into the ocean. Only the most dogmatic members of the Libertarian Party would sincerely assert that we would not be better off had the United States adopted the same rule as Canada before BP started drilling its well.

In a complex world, a reasonable level of government regulation is a necessary evil. The trick is to choose very carefully which areas should be open to government regulation, and then choose very carefully the level of government intervention to be allowed. Certain areas should be completely off-limits to government intervention altogether, and even when we make the decision to allow a role for goverment regulation, we should keep it to the absolute minimum necessary to achieve the required aims. Once the door to government regulation is open, it must citizens must monitor it like a hawk to ensure that the regulation in question does not expand past that point, and terminate it immediately when it is no longer necessary.

The current level of federal regulations is patently ridiculous and intrudes into far too much into the ordinary lives of citizens. In particular, it expands the power of the federal government into areas that are the proper responsibility of state and local governments. Rolling back this tide will be a major task for 21st Century Jeffersonians in the 21st Century.

It would be nice to go back to Jefferson's time in which there was so little need for government intervention that a person might live their entire life without encountering the federal government, or even the state government. But that's not possible, because we no longer live in Jefferson's world. Our task, therefore, is not to abolish government, but to make government the servant, rather than the master, of the people.