Monday, December 7, 2009

Good Government

I see the citizenry as being divided into two broad groups. One group is comprised of people who were taught to believe that it is the responsibility and duty of every American to support, with a portion of their funds, the government that is needed to guarantee our access to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" -- call them the contributing group. The second group contains those who appear to believe that the government is the very source from which flows funding and access to happiness -- call them the receiving group. The contributing group would like to limit the size and role of government to those items that actually are necessary, because it is their funding that the government is taking and spending, and frankly, they would like to see it wisely spent. The receiving group, by contrast, would like to expand the role of government into as many areas as possible, primarily because other people, namely the contributing group, are largely funding those programs, but they will be the primary beneficiaries. This arrangement seems fair to the receiving group because, after all, the contributing group being taxed have more money, so those taxed can better afford to pay for these programs.

This portrayal is overly simplistic, of course. And, not everyone falls cleanly into one group or the other (although quite a few actually do). But it illustrates that the fundamental emotion behind give-away programs is a negative one masquerading as a positive one: It is greedy and selfish to desire for oneself benefits that can only be obtained by taking money by force from someone else -- it smacks of envy, and also of theft. It masquerades as altruism -- to help and benefit those less well off than ourselves -- but altruism implies that the giver is not coerced. If coerced, it becomes not altruism, but robbery. One can argue that people pay taxes out of altruism, but more often than not, this is simply not true, and it is suspect in all cases because the tax rates are set by the government (heavier on the more wealthy, note) and are rigorously enforced. And when our representatives in Congress spend the money, that is not altruism either, because it is not their money that they are spending! If they want to be altruistic, they can spend their own money -- and I note in passing here that they are much more careful when spending their own money than they are when spending mine.

"Ah", you might say, "but you did agree, when you elected representatives to the Congress that passed the laws setting up such programs." There may be room for this argument when those doing the electing are from the contributing group, or even largely from that group. The argument is less convincing, though, when the receiving group, which has the same voting power as the contributing group (one person, one vote, after all) begins to outnumber the contributing group. Then representatives are elected that seek to solidify their base by constructing programs that benefit the receiving group that elected them at the expense of the contributing group that opposed them. (See former blogs on getting elected as the number one priority of elected representatives.)

Those who give are now at the mercy of those who take.

Worse yet, many of our representatives are willing to spend not only all the tax money there is, but also money that has not yet been collected. It is not their money; but they incur no penalty for spending it, and there is no operative force to act as a restraint. But the contributing group is appalled, because it is their money, and the unfunded expenditures will eventually have to be paid for with their future money. The receiving group sees no problem. It is not their money. They won't have to pay for it.

When my kids were in college, I seethed when my taxes went to fund scholarships for which my own children were not even eligible. I worked hard to pay for my children to go to college, and financially it was a difficult time, but not only did I have to pay college expenses for my own children out of my own pocket, but in addition, the government took even more so I could (altruistically, Congress no doubt thought) also pay for someone else. There was absolutely no benefit whatever to me, because my children were positively disbarred from these scholarships. It was a program that benefited a specific group of people at the expense of a different group of people.

This brings me to the subject of what is the proper role and scope of government. This is a subject that varies all over the map, so I will give only my own views. When the government takes money from taxpayers, it should expend those funds for projects that will benefit taxpayers as a whole, and rigorously restrict itself from projects that take money from one group of people and expend it for the benefit of a different group. Further, it should maintain a high degree of fiscal responsibility for those funds. When funds are expended, it should be, in general, to buy something -- either that the government needs, or that is used for the benefit of the general citizenry.

Examples of proper government funding include such items as roads, bridges, and infrastructure (benefits the expansion and maintenance of commerce, which benefits all people); defense (protects the whole country and ensures continuance of our way of life); law enforcement (protects all citizens -- even those not abiding by the law, most of the time); statecraft between us and other nations; treasury and fiscal policy; other needed government institutions that represent the citizenry as a whole.

Examples of improper government funding include such items as "entitlement" programs or any other "spread the wealth" programs (money taken from one group and given to a different group -- violates the benefit taxpayers as a whole test and violates the "buy something" test); social security (a tax, run as the most monumental Ponzi scheme in history, that is masquerading as a retirement fund -- violates the "buy something" test, and egregiously violates the fiscal responsibility test); lotteries (persecuted as illegal when run by the Mob, but was taken over by the government when it saw how much money could be made and now run as a "stupid tax" -- encourages bad habits, does not "promote the general welfare", preys on the ignorant and poor); schools at the federal level (this a responsibility of the states); bailouts (violates fiscal responsibility test).

There is a tendency for representatives elected by the receiver group to see tax money as a gold mine, limitless in scope, to be mined for the benefit of themselves and their supporters. And they are not alone: Every government agency also sees the tax revenue as a source for their own needs and tries to get as much of it as they can. The President sends a budget to congress each year that is full of items that are (in the view of the contributing group) unwise, unnecessary, unwarranted, and wasteful, and it is up to Congress to eliminated those that do not fall within the definition of good government. But instead, members of Congress hasten to add to the problem rather than the solution. They scheme and maneuver to carve out portions of the budget to favor their own specific groups or organizations. Each member believes that if others insert these "earmarks" into the budget, it should be called "pork", but if they do it, it must be good government -- after all, if it helps get them re-elected what could be better than that? It must be, by definition, good government.

But in my mind it is clear: If a program or law benefits one group at the expense of another, it is almost certainly bad government, and if it does not apply equally -- including to members of Congress -- then it is almost certain to be bad government. Congress should be ashamed.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Intelligent Dogs

At work there is a young woman – and by “younger”, I mean younger than me – who has a seeing eye dog. This is her second dog since I have known her. We held a retirement party for her first dog, “Penny”, and then she was gone for six weeks while she broke in her new one. This one is a yellow Labrador called “Randy”, and he is young and energetic. We all learned with Penny the do’s and don’t’s for seeing eye dogs and so everyone in the office knew how to relate to Randy. We are not to feed it unauthorized snacks. We are not to let it out of the office. If the dog is “working” we are to leave it alone. But there really isn’t much for the dog to do during the day, so often it appears to be bored out of its mind. The dog is free to wander around the office as long as he is within calling range if he is needed. There are a number of toys for the dog to play with in his owner’s office, but Randy keeps his place pretty clean so people don’t trip over his toys while walking by.

I have to walk past Randy’s office to go out to the soda machine, cafeteria, and at the end of the day as I go home, and I say hello to Randy, but I hadn’t actually spent any time with him. But yesterday I was bored, so I walked to one end of the office where there are windows that look out over the parking lot and the city. Then I thought I would go out to the soda machine and get something. I turned around and, looking down the path I would walk, I saw Randy, about 150 feet away, looking at me. He continued to look at me as I approached, and then when I got close to him, he picked up a rubber ring – one of his toys – and offered it to me. I took hold of it, and there ensued a tug of war for awhile. Then I said, “Do you want me to throw it?” and immediately he let go and got prepared to chase it. I tossed it down the way I had come and he bounded after it, catching it on the second bounce. He brought it back to me and wanted another little tug of war. I said, “Ready?” and he immediately let go and tensed for another run. I threw it and he chased it down. We continued for awhile as I threw the ring down the hall over and over. Each time I would say, “Ready?” and he would get set for another run. Finally he came back and did NOT offer the ring to me, but tossed down on the ground and flopped down next to it. I said, “OK, we’re done” and rubbed his ears. I started toward the door again, and his owner murmured in my ear, “Thanks.”

I got to thinking about other dogs I have played with. One of my daughter’s friends had a dog named “Seven”, a young golden retriever or perhaps yellow Labrador, who had more energy than anyone in their family could really deal with. I was visiting one day because we had been invited over for dinner, when Seven decided he wanted to play. I threw toys all over the house for Seven, until he was completely worn out. Later I heard my daughter’s friend mention to my daughter that I was the only person who had ever worn Seven out. She said Seven slept almost the entire next day.

Then there was Barney, a mixed rotweiller/retriever, who belonged to a friend of ours. Barney was a city dog who easily got car sick, but he liked to come out to the cabin, and after a few trips, began to get over his car sickness as soon as he figured out he was headed toward the cabin. Barney had a herding instinct, I guess, because he was very conscious of the whereabouts of everyone in the family. He would make the rounds of the house in the middle of the night to make sure that everyone was in their right place. I would wake up with a cold nose in my face and reach out to pet Barney and assure him that I was all right, and my wife would do the same. One night Barney came in to check on us when my wife had left the bed to go to the bathroom. People say that dogs don’t really have different expressions, but I tell you, Barney did the most astonishing double take when he looked in the bed for Carol and didn’t find her there. It was so human-like that I nearly laughed out loud. Then Barney put his front feet on the bed so he could get up to see better and looked up and then down the length of the bed for Carol. He was clearly just astounded that she wasn’t there. Finally I said, “She’s in the bathroom, Barney.” I believe he understood what I said because he immediately got down and walked over to where he could see the bathroom door and sat down to wait for her. He waited until she came out and escorted her back to bed where she belonged before leaving to check on the rest of the household.

Another time my daughter came out to the cabin with a new baby. Barney was extremely solicitous of both mother and child, and took it upon himself to monitor the health and welfare of the baby. If my daughter took the baby into the house, Barney would escort her to the door and would be at the door when she came out again. He followed the baby everywhere and sat next to whoever was holding the baby. From time to time he would move to where he could see the baby’s face to make sure it was all right. If the baby cried, Barney (his hearing was better than a human’s) would come right to the mother and move toward the house, looking back to see if she was coming yet. You could almost hear him saying, “Come on, come on, the baby needs you.”

Another friend came to the cabin one time and brought two German shepherds. One was quite old but the other was more frisky. She accompanied me out into the woods where I was working, but when I turned to go, she didn’t want to come. I discovered that she had found what looked like a dead limb that was mostly buried in the leaf thatch that covered the forest floor, and had gripped it in her jaws and was trying to pull it loose. She tugged and tugged at it, and each pull loosened it a little more. After a bit, she finally got it loose and triumphantly hauled it into the meadow – her every expression and body language just shouted “gleeful”. Well, it turned out to be a bit more than a “limb”. It was almost 20 feet long, but she waved it back and forth to show everyone what a great hunter she was. I tried to take it away from her, but only got into a tugging match. Between the two of us, we finally managed to break it up enough to have pieces that were small enough to throw and fetch, which we did for the rest of the day. Hmmm, she slept most of the next day too.

These dogs were all astonishingly smart, but unfortunately not all dogs are smart. When I was young, we had a Chihuahua named “Candi”. This dog was smart and I loved her. She slept in my bed with me at night. She had a litter of pups, all but one of which were sold. The one that didn’t sell was what I would call dumb – D. U. M. When food was put down for them, Candi would eat all of hers and then go to the sliding glass doors that looked out over the patio and bark. Chico (the dumb one) would come to see what she was barking at, and would also start barking, which he kept up for awhile. Meanwhile, Candi went back to the food and ate his too.

I think there is nothing so attractive as intelligence. Dogs – people – intelligence makes them come alive, and that is so very attractive.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Still Another Example

For a very apro pro column on politicians and their innate need to look out for their own interests first, see the column by Tony Blankley in the Washington Times of August 25, here. The subject is President Johnson and his turmoil over the Vietnam war, but the unintended point of the column is that politicians protect their own interests first and foremost.

Friday, August 28, 2009

And Still More

This from Newt Gingrich, in the context of how politicians bungled the Cash For Clunkers program:

"They're not concerned with the long-term, just the next election."

From his column:

Three Reasons Why Government Can't Run Health Care
Read his column here:

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

More on Election Scams

A reader sent me the following:

Liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias is apparently shocked that liberal politicians would rather maintain their own power than work for "the public good." George Mason University law professor (and Reason contributor) Ilya Somin patiently explains to Yglesias how the political world actually works:
A politician willing to do anything to take and hold on to power will have a crucial edge over an opponent who imperils his chances of getting elected in order to advance the public interest. The former type is likely to prevail over the latter far more often than not. This is especially true in a political environment where most voters are often ignorant and irrational about government and public policy. Candidates have strong incentives to pander to this ignorance and exploit it in order to win elections. Those unwilling to exploit public ignorance because they place the public interest above political success are likely to be at a serious disadvantage relative to their less scrupulous opponents. Thus, those who value power above other objectives are more likely to succeed politically. As economist Frank Knight wrote back in the 1930s, "[t]he probability of the people in power being individuals who would dislike the possession and exercise of power is on a level with the probability that an extremely tender-hearted person would get the job of whipping master in a slave plantation."

Monday, July 27, 2009

An Actual Election Scam!

With regard to election scams, a real example appeared in the New York Times on 27 July regarding the Iranian "election" of Mr. Ahmadinejad. I quote, "Mr. Ahmadinejad had won support from government pensioners prior to the election by significantly increasing their payments. Those payments have since been reduced ...". Notwithstanding any judgments regarding the honesty or dis-honesty of the Iranian election process itself, this example serves to support my previous contention that THE FIRST PRIORITY OF AN ELECTORAL CANDIDATE IS TO GET ELECTED. In the case of Mr. Ahmadinejad, apparently any scheme that enhances his chances is countenanced.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

On Elections and Other Scams

When my first child was born, we had an old black and white television that was given to me some years earlier. It was a vacuum tube affair, with knobs that wobbled loosely on their connecting rods. I used to have to lie in front of the TV, on my back, and continuously twiddle the knobs with my toes to keep a picture on the screen. I watched the first moon landing on this TV, and somewhere I have a picture of my son – barley old enough to stand by himself – standing in front of the set while on screen Neil Armstrong is taking his first step onto the moon’s surface.

As my children grew up, we had fascinating conversations around the dinner table, and one of the things we did was to dissect the television advertisements, and discuss the use of the English language through the prism of advertising propaganda. One of my favorite advertisements touted the ability to “… borrow up to $50,000 – OR EVEN MORE!” I would say, “Well, that about covers it, all right.” My children thought making fun of advertising was hilariously funny, and joined in enthusiastically; but early in their life, they learned to distinguish how language was used not jonly to inform, but also to sway opinion.

This tendency of mine to make fun of how our language is used and mis-used must be some hold-over from my own childhood because I can even to this day repeat verbatim, advertisements that I heard on the radio as a child – and can still sing those that came in the form of jingles, not to mention racy jokes shared with my friends about some of the products: “DUZ does EVERYTHING!”

Dissecting the techniques used and the motives that drive how language is mis-used in advertising is both serious and entertaining – sort of serio-comical – but the ability to determine both techniques and motives becomes a serious requirement when it comes to politics, where, in part at least, it is my money they are talking about spending.

In the United States, there are two broad views of government: There are those who have been raised to believe that supporting the government with their tax money is part of the responsibility of being a citizen; that the money spent by the government should go to buying something that benefits the citizenry as a whole; and that the government should otherwise keep out of their affairs. There is another view of government: That it is there to provide essential services to those citizens who should provide them for themselves, but don't, or can't; that the citizenry won’t provide this help unless they are coerced, hence the government needs to take the lead; and that other people than themselves – notably the “rich” who everyone knows have more money than they really NEED – should pay for them.

There are people with views, of course, that range all the way from the one end of the spectrum I have drawn, to the other end, but my point is, people have different views – sometimes radically different views – of what government should be and do. Candidates who run for office have their own views of government, and during their campaign for election they want to present those views in the most positive light. Their goal becomes not to inform, necessarily, but to get elected. What they do, in essence, is to form a business, of which they are the chief operating officer, the sole purpose of which is to present the candidate in the most positive light. In short, the candidate’s organization becomes a specialized advertising agency, with the candidate as its product. In this light, our childish game of critiquing television advertising becomes a much more serious tool for choosing among candidates for office.

The basis for advertising, whether for a commercial product or a political candidate, is information. But there is information – a neutral rendition of factual content without “spin” (e.g., adverbs and adjectives); there is mis-information – information that is designed to mislead, either intentionally (e.g., innuendo) or unintentionally, even when the information itself may be correct, although it not always is; and there is dis-information – information that is deliberately false and/or factually incorrect. From these categories of information an advertising campaign is constructed. Remember, for a candidate the primary goal is not to inform, but to sway opinion to get him elected to office.

The subject of the advertising campaign may be the candidate himself, or his views, for which usually information and mis-information is chosen, although dis-information may also be used: “I deny categorically that I ever said (or did) that!” Or, the information may be about his opponent, in which case the usage is almost always either mis-information or dis-information. “My opponent says … (mis-information) …, but I say … (information or more mis-information) …”. Or, “My opponent believes … (dis-information, always)”. These uses of information collectively form the techniques of propaganda.

Propaganda techniques have been studied for many years, but interestingly, they are not always recognized by the public. In addition, it is not only the candidates that employ these techniques, but the media as well, all the while telling the public what good watchdogs they are. “Yellow Journalism” is not new, it is just that none of the journals admit to it.

Here are some common techniques:

Assertion – an enthusiastic or energetic statement presented as a fact. It may or may not be true, but it is presented as if it were.

Bandwagon – “Hop on – EVERYONE is doing it!”

Stacking the Cards – Selective omission of information contrary to a position.

Glittering Generalities – Using words linked to highly valued concepts, whether they actually apply or not. “Change”, “good”, “honest”, “fair”, “best”, are examples.

Lesser of Two Evils – Presenting a proposal as the least offensive of the only two available options, denying that there are other options.

Ad Hominem – Rejecting an argument on the basis of derogatory facts (which may or may not be true) about a person. Attacking a person instead of his argument or views.

Name Calling – A form of Ad Hominem: The use of derogatory language or words when describing the opponent.

Straw Man – Ascribing a false position to a real or imaginary opponent, and then demolishing that false position.

Simplification – Reducing a complex issue to a choice between good and evil, or a “bumper-sticker” slogan.

Transfer – The attempt to link a negative (or positive) feeling about an object or word to the proposal at hand (e.g., presenting the proposal while standing in front of a flag to invoke patriotic feelings; having a spokesperson stand in front of a well-manicured bookshelf of important-looking books, to imply a scientific basis.

False Analogy – Portraying two things as similar, even though they are not.

Testimonial – Using well-known personalities to testify on your behalf.

Plain Folks – Using a folksy approach or people to obtain support.

Faulty Logic – There are many techniques that deliberately misuse the rules of logic to support a position.

Contradiction – Information that conflicts with other information within the same argument.

False Cause – Because one event follows another, it must be the cause of the other event.

Begging the Question – Circular reasoning: Constructing an argument in favor of a claim that amounts to making the claim in the first place.

Evading the Issue – Answer to a question that amounts to changing the subject.

Composition and Division – Arguing that because the claim is true for one, it is true for all, or vice versa.

Poisoning the Well – Blindly explaining away all arguments, no matter how absurd the explanations become.

Appealing to Emotion – Use of an emotionally-laden sob story or argument to help prove a claim.

Appeal to Fear – Unless you support my position, really bad things will happen. “We can no longer afford to wait …”, “We risk a long-lasting and deep depression …”.

Even with these techniques in mind, it sometimes takes time to recognize them in practice. Television commercials and political campaigns are two good places to find them and learn to recognize them because these two sources are so very rich in propaganda techniques.

When we elect a politician -- especially to national office -- we not only elect that official, but in effect we also elect all those people whom that candidate will be authorized to appoint to government positions, and depending on the political office, this may be a very large number indeed.

A final thought to keep in mind: The primary goal of advertising is not to inform. It is TO MAKE MONEY. The primary business of newspapers and television news organizations is TO MAKE MONEY. And similarly, the first and primary business of politicians is TO GET ELECTED. Keeping the primary motivation in mind will be a substantial assist to decoding the propaganda they promulgate.