By Chic Hollis – Philosophical Musings
Nearly everyone I know who cares to speak his or her mind about our decadent democratic society acts as if he or she deserves to wear this mantle of power and tell everyone else what should be done. This prevalent and arrogant attitude seems to be the consequence of having been born in a very prosperous country where its leaders promote and brag about the freedoms its citizens have been granted by a savvy Constitution.
Young and old adults complain about how badly our state and our country are being governed. The media “experts” endorse radical and controversial solutions to every social problem. They try to induce the common man and woman to embrace conflictive opinions about what can be done. The polarized hubbub is growing so loud, that it appears that no practical or corrective action by our legislatures will ever happen.
The extremely difficult problem of ruling a proud democracy with a diverse and politically active public is unacknowledged by the media. It is obviously overlooked also by the leaders of the U.S. because they are on a mission to convince the leaders of other countries on this globe that democracy is the only solution to their social problems.
Unfortunately, the harsh lessons that U.S. citizens have experienced over the years of trying to govern themselves and help the populace improve their average standard of living are ignored. Several of these lessons I would like to discuss in this open letter to honest and pro-active readers.
The first and most important lesson of all is that handing a thorny problem to some government entity to solve is not the best way to proceed. The government has proven time and again that it does things poorly at best, is slow to respond in dealing with any problem, helps the favored parties, writes legislation without considering all the consequences, wastes the taxpayers’ money, and never admits to its own incompetency! Not a pretty picture, but worse when you add to it the mucky business of lobbying, the ever present temptation of receiving indirect bribes, and the messy procedure of campaigning for office with other people’s donated money.
Second, we ought to know by now that the official audit and regulatory agencies of our various governments are inadequately staffed and underpaid, their recommendations frequently ignored or partially responded to, their independence compromised by political pressure from both parties, their ethics questionable, and their autonomy legally challengeable.
Third, we have seen no evidence supporting the assumption that the federal government should spend its way out of a recession, despite what influential economists like John Maynard Keynes have strongly suggested.
Fourth, anyone who has ever paid attention to what’s going on around him should have learned that only a serious dedication to teamwork accomplishes tough objectives, and that divisiveness is counterproductive. There can be no inharmony in an outstanding orchestra. There can be no internal arguing on a successful sports team. There can be no on-going, unresolved disputes in making progress in any human endeavor.
Last, we pay very little lip service to the lesson that freedom to function without morality spells disaster sooner or later as we have witnessed with the latest round of mortgage shenanigans.
The government does not handle the role of the friendly neighborhood handy man or Mr. Fix-it very well. Observe closely the results of some of the major activities that our governments are responsible for: redistribution of income, controlling immigration, determining and eliminating the use of illegal substances, and supervising the education of our youth. Is there anything exemplary that our governments are doing today to deal with these contentious issues? Anything that would recommend to an informed citizenry that government should be entrusted with additional tough problems to solve? “Well, who else could handle them?” you might ask. Certainly not a political entity who has proven its incompetency!
Any organization needed to deal with local problems should be local. Nevertheless, because local government has frequently demonstrated its ineptness, the unsatisfied citizenry has often demanded higher levels of government to intervene and participate. Big mistake. Bigger is not better. Being farther away from the problem is not helpful. Individuals fix problems not groups of politicians. Governments procrastinate, spend money making studies, argue forever about unimportant details, have lawyers and lobbyists compose the ambiguous legislation, and go home frequently without doing anything helpful, often leaving the unresolved problem to the next elected group of legislators to handle.
Regardless of this experience, our aroused partisan society will emphatically urge their elected representatives to “take up arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing” – complicate everything. Shakespeare was not contemplating passing Hamlet’s troubles to any government entity as we would now.
“Give our problems to some government to fix,” says the impatient mob of citizens. (Someone without a face, someone without the requisite individual power, someone who is quite unfamiliar with the local circumstances!) “After a brief objective evaluation of the ‘facts,’ ask them to implement an adequate solution ASAP. Come up with a cheap shoe that fits all feet comfortably!”
“Right on, Dummies!” I answer sadly. “And where will the money come from?”
“Let the government pay the cost out of the giant coffers that are overflowing from the current revenue being collecting – all those taxes that we are joyously submitting without one devious thought of avoiding our citizen’s obligation to support our government!”
Yes, from the borrowed money that Keynes says is available to prime the pump of prosperity. Has anyone read that tedious economic tome of his? I have. Keynes is dead, but his proposed recession cure is long-lived unfortunately. It was predicated on a situation that enabled a government to borrow from the future with the understanding that it would pay back the money borrowed with interest, not inflation. What a joke! Governments borrow money with little hope of paying back their debt. Only inflation has made this debt bearable for us in America. That scheme doesn’t work in poor countries who can’t borrow enough hard currency. But that’s a minor detail for a future economic discussion that I’m sure you rather avoid now.
The money for new fixes is hardly ever available. Surplus tax revenue is spent one way or another, it is seldom used to pay down government debt. The lack of tax revenue doesn’t dissuade our leaders from borrowing to stimulate the economy as Keynes recommended. Our government’s operating funds are from current revenue which is already committed to cover programs authorized under legislation in effect and pay interest on a huge debt. So, if we want brand new programs which require new government expenditures, we taxpayers have to acquiesce to increased taxes or fees.
Today, nobody wants to increase taxes, except perhaps on the rich (however you define them.) New solutions, yes! New taxes, no! More government, yes! More taxpayer support, of course not! So, where do we get the money for more schools, fair salaries for teachers and the military, new initiatives? From our own pockets, not just from our rich neighbors’ pockets. But who wants to change the complicated tax measures to generate more revenue for these “urgent” new programs? No one I know, that’s for sure.
And this brings me to another costly, stupid invention of the governments we love so much: our unnecessarily complex tax codes. Why must there be so many “justified” exceptions and weird deviations to the shared responsibility of paying for all the wonderful services rendered by government agencies? Why not a simple graduated tax on all income including corporate income? Isn’t that fair? We would reduce the time of preparing our tax forms, eliminate the lawyers and auditors who waste our money making sure that the minimum tax is paid, cut out the need for IRS staff to assist in filing, and free us all from the anxiety of an IRS computer rejection of the amount paid!
Only untrustworthy humans could make up the present Federal Tax Code with its phony political rationalization of all the nuances that permit some of us to pay less tax on our income than others. The stupidity of tolerating this inordinately complicated tax code goes along with our foolish belief that our government will act intelligently, efficiently, and expeditiously in our behalf some day. We must change our thinking and demand simpler tax codes, easier methods for raising necessary funds and less government activity when funds aren’t available.
Still, there remain two important changes to be accomplished. Changes in our thinking that will be harder to implement than the ones I have stated above. The political polarization must be reduced, since it cannot be eliminated. Teamwork must be stressed in whatever we try to do, and cooperation demanded in making improvements to the government’s guidelines, legislation, and regulations. Continued feuding will yield poor results and increase party animosity. That kind of political ambience is fruitless. It results in temporary legislation, sunsets on laws, and a costly way of “doing business.” Recommended term limits will contribute to the inaction of legislatures as we have seen here in California.
The last change I am recommending should probably have been the first. It was first discussed in Plato’s Republic over two thousand years ago. Plato contends that a virtuous Republic and its government are derived from all the virtuous acts of all the members of that society. These acts are based on the understanding that a government doesn’t handle certain things very well, can’t spend money it doesn’t have, must be free of lobby pressure and the temptation to accept favors and bribes, must try to respond to the will of an honest and virtuous people, and must address the citizenry with honesty and straightforwardness. Leadership with such ideals will motivate teamwork and weed out of the system those politicians who merely want to enrich themselves and benefit their friends.
Today we are stumbling along contemplating minor adjustments to our complex tax code and small changes to our inadequate ambient legislation, our broad social agenda, and our selfish political programs. We are not studying the “big” picture, just batting around fringe problems and paying attention to the “hottest” issues. We have no commitment to an overall mission statement which lists the essential priorities that are negotiated with the people. We have a government that cannot possibly fulfill the desires of the people, who want quick, intelligent responses to the numerous issues facing our society without spending another dollar.
Many desires have an inestimable or prohibitive cost like healthcare. However, since the public never sees the “big” picture, much less understands it; they continue to press unreasonable demands upon their elected representatives. The naive or wily candidates promise to take prompt action without the slightest idea how to do so or how much changes will actually cost.
The circle of tax and spend, then borrow if necessary to provide unacceptable results must be addressed. It won’t be, though, if we continue to think, as we have, that our over-extended government can do what obviously has been impossible for them to do with the limited funds at their disposal. The “hiring” of less-than-virtuous leaders chosen with an election process that has turned off 50% of the voters on California and is ineffective due to negative, dishonest, and shallow campaigning.
Reviewing what needs to be done is long overdue. What is a certainty, however, is that it won’t be done in the near future with the prevalent political attitudes and ambitions. A deteriorating democracy is better than what? The worse one that comes tomorrow? Adding another almost $900 billion to the federal government’s deficit with the latest tax moratorium and reduction in Social Security taxes is counterproductive and unwise!