Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Coercive Power of Government

(first published in the North State Journal 11/28/18)

I had the chance to speak with a brash hot-shot young political operative from another Southern state who had helped a Democrat win a big campaign recently.

As Southern political types are wont to do, there was a lot of bragging and embellishment. Even young ones.

I asked 2 simple questions: 1) ‘Why are you a Democrat instead of a Republican?’ and 2) 'Do you believe in the coercive power of government?'

The bragging stopped. The answer was tepid and trailed off into platitudes and vapors.

The. Questions. Could. Not. Be. Answered.

Most people want to use the coercive power of government to tell people what to do ‘under penalty of the law’ if they think it has some beneficial ameliorative effect on American society.

However, the same people bristle at any effort by others from the opposite political belief who want to use the same coercive power of government to make them do something that impinges on what they perceive to be their God-given freedom to do.

No one really likes to have other people tell them what to do. Let’s all admit that much at least.

Here’s an easy question to start with to see how much ‘coercive power’ of the federal government you prefer: ‘Do you think rich people should be forced to pay more in taxes?’

Most people will reflexively say yes. They want the government to extract as much tax revenue from rich people and ‘big bad corporations’ as possible.

Mainly because that means they won’t be forced by the same government to pay more in their personal income taxes each year.

Should you be forced to pay more in taxes for the things you say you want the government to do for the poor, for the children, for our collective national defense?

Most people will say no to that question. ‘I am barely making ends meet as it is today!’ people will say especially if they have children who want to go to college and a wife who wants to take those same children on a vacation or two during the year.

How about using the coercive power of government to take away the 300 million+ guns that are in the hands of 50-80 million legal gun owners? Do you support that?

What if the other political side wins an election promising they will overturn every marijuana law on the books in the states that have approved its use and then authorizes the police force of the federal government to come into every home to take previously legal marijuana away from its owners?

How does that coercive use of government look to you now?

Generally, the laws that work for us as a free society are those that enable things to be done that benefit us all whether we acknowledge it or not. National defense and domestic security are two areas where the coercive power of government through taxation benefits us all.

A sound national and state transportation system is another. Building ‘post roads’ actually has the additional benefit of being in the Constitution so it is ‘constitutional’ as well.

Is ‘public education’ something that your children should be ‘coercively forced’ into attending without any choice at all? Or should you have the freedom to decide on your own to send your child to a charter, religious or private school with tax money you have already paid?

Our political differences are binary stars rotating around this question of the extent of how much coercive force of government each of us thinks Washington, our state capitals and local governments should have to govern our daily lives.

Maybe if we could find some common agreement on the limits of such power on which everyone could agree, that would be the start of finding compromises and solutions all of us could support on everything else.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Top Ten People Who Wanted To Kill Alexander Hamilton But Aaron Burr Got To Him First

(first published in North State Journal 11/21/18)

Everyone knows Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton for a litany of reasons.

Aaron Burr was not the only person who wanted to kill Alexander Hamilton.

He just got to him first.

In the revival of interest in perhaps our most consequential Founder, it might be helpful to give thanks that despite the vitriol we see every day, we are far better off than the early days when political opponents shot each other over their differences, no matter how trivial or profound they may be.

There were plenty of people who deep down probably wanted to kill the pretentious, arrogant and preening Alexander Hamilton.

Thomas Jefferson placed a bust of himself across from one of Hamilton at his front entrance to Monticello. They would stare at each other for all eternity “opposed in death as in life.” Hamilton, to his defense, wrote: “If there be a man in the world I ought to hate, it is Jefferson’.

Then-VP John Adams called the pretentious Hamilton ‘the bastard son of a Scotch peddler’ for taking too much credit for George Washington’s military success in the Great War for Independence. Adams also resented Hamilton’s subversion of his own aspirations for the White House in 1796 and 1800.

General Charles Lee tried to replace George Washington as commander of the Continental Army in 1777. Washington’s loyal aide, John Laurens, challenged Lee to a duel and wounded Lee to the extent that Laurens’ second, none other than Alexander Hamilton, interceded to end the duel and save Lee’s life.

Lee resented Hamilton for his part in Lee being drummed out of the Continental Army for insubordination. Had Lee had 2 pistols, he surely would have shot at Hamilton after firing at Laurens.

Lee’s will stipulated that he not be buried in a church graveyard since “I have kept so much bad company when living that I do not choose to continue it when dead.” Including Hamilton.

James Reynolds should have wanted to shoot Alexander Hamilton after he discovered that his wife Maria was having an affair with the former Treasury Secretary. What Reynolds really wanted was money from Hamilton so he resorted to blackmail to keep it secret instead of shooting him dead.

Future President James Monroe, the fourth Virginian out of the first 5 US Presidents, challenged Hamilton to a duel in 1797 when Hamilton learned that Monroe knew of his affair with Maria Reynolds.

“Do you say I represented falsely; you are a Scoundrel,” Monroe wrote to Hamilton.

“I will meet you like a Gentleman” Hamilton replied.

“I am ready; get your pistols” Monroe responded.

James Callender was the champion muckraker of the early Republic. He threatened to reveal possible financial malfeasance by the Secretary while in office which would have ruined Hamilton financially after all he had done to escape the poverty of his youth. He hated Hamilton and the feeling was likewise.

Thomas Paine, author of ‘Common Sense’, called the party of Hamilton, the Federalists, "disguised traitors" who were "rushing as fast as they could venture, without awakening the jealousy of America, into all the vices and corruptions of the British Government“.  He hated Hamilton too and vice versa.

There were at least 12 other documented cases where Alexander Hamilton was challenged to a duel by other men offended by him in some fashion or who were challenged by perhaps the most consequential of all our Founders, Alexander Hamilton.

Perhaps the person who had every reason to shoot Alexander Hamilton was his wife Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton. She must have been the First Saint of The New American Democratic Republic.

Despite what you may feel about our politics today, give thanks tomorrow that it is as ‘clean’ as it is.

At least we are not witnessing daily duels between President Trump and Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi and everyone else.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2018

What's Next?

(first published in North State Journal 11/14/18)

Democrats take back Congress. Republicans add a couple of seats to their majority in the US Senate.

Donald Trump stays in the White House.

What happens next for 2019 and 2020?

We have seen divided government before. 15 of the past 37 Congresses since 1945 have been unified government with one party control of the White House, Congress and Senate.
22 have not. The American people intuitively understand precisely what the Framers of the Constitution, specifically James Madison, were worried about most which was the concentration of power in a few select hands.

Plus no matter who is in the White House, many voters just don’t like what they have seen for the first 2 years of any Presidency so they vote heavily against his party in control for Congress.

Will 2019-2020 be a period of total acrimony and 100% gridlock where nothing gets done? Or will we see adults in both parties in the Senate and Congress to come together and pass bipartisan legislation for the good of this country?

Aristotle said that legislation should not be passed unless it helps make each citizen ‘more virtuous’. He didn’t say ‘pass only legislation that is easy to do and won’t hurt you and your party in the next election’.

‘Gridlock’ is not all that bad. Speaker Joe Cannon, a crusty old guy from Illinois at the turn of the 19th century to the 20th, said the best Congress was one that didn’t pass any legislation.

What if, by some meteoric rise in maturity, statesmanship and leadership, adults in both chambers decide: ‘Why don’t we do something great for the country since we are elected to do that anyway?’

A lot of folks in both parties will have to buck their leadership and wingnut extremes and vote in the best interests of the nation first, not their party or even their re-election chances in the next election.

At the 1988 GOP Convention, then Vice-President George H.W. Bush 41 promised the delegates: ‘Read My Lips. No New Taxes!’

In 1990, because the annual budget deficits of $340 billion and $3 trillion national debt were considered ‘dangerous’, ‘intolerable’ and ‘unsustainable’, President Bush 41 signed the Budget Enforcement Act (BEA) passed by Congress and the Senate with heavy Democratic majorities. It included cigarette tax hikes of 4 cents/pack, excise taxes on yachts and elimination of the salary cap on Medicare payroll taxes.

No Republican likes higher taxes. However, budget spending hawks in 1990 got discretionary spending caps and the PAYGO budget enforcement mechanism in return for voting for BEA.

That single bill set the predicate for the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 which led to the only 4 balanced budgets we have seen in our lifetimes.

If enough brave members in each party in each house rise up and band together to get to 50%+1 and pass a comprehensive spending control bill that has at its core fundamental reforms to entitlement programs, we might one day look back at the 2018 elections and say: ‘Thank you to our great American leaders of 2019!’ as if they were George Washington, Henry Clay and Sam Rayburn of the past.

Even if the Democrats, as expected, unleash 2 years of hell for President Trump in terms of investigations and impeachment proceedings against him, his Cabinet, Brett Kavanaugh and his family, they all fall apart when they cross over to the Republican-controlled Senate chamber.

The only thing that could get done in Washington would be judicial confirmations and treaties. If Republicans hold 53 seats in the Senate, President Trump can nominate the next Supreme Court Justice and easily pass them on to the Court almost overnight. The House has nothing to do with that.

You can start holding your breath waiting for ‘The Grand Compromise of 2019’ bill right now. We will tell you when a deal is cut and you can exhale.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Time To Be A Rational Optimist

(first published in North State Journal 11/7/18)

Isn’t everyone tired of all the negativity around the country?

It comes from all sides. Don’t kid yourself that it doesn’t.

Wouldn’t it be nice on this day after the 2018 elections if someone, anyone, everyone started talking about what is right with America and the world instead of blaming the ‘other side’ for everything wrong with both?

David Gardner, who founded the stock market advisory firm, The Motley Fool, with his brother not long after graduating from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1988, gave a talk last week at the Wilberforce Conference sponsored by the North Carolina Study Center.

He spent a lot of time talking about a book, ‘The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves’ by Matt Ridley and how it influences his stock picking methods.

Ridley argues not from a philosophical or a political standpoint but from a science perspective that over the past 10,000 years, human beings have built not only wealth but trust across socio-economic and racial barriers by learning how to trade with each other.

As a result of trade and free enterprise, human development has accelerated at warp speed over the last 200 years. Mass epidemics have been wiped out or averted; 99% of the people on the planet today live in far better conditions than our Stone Age ancestors; global life expectancies have doubled since 1900 and billions of people worldwide have been lifted out of abject poverty once they have joined the international community of commerce and free enterprise.

These are all ‘great things’ everyone can and should celebrate together.

At a micro-level, two other things happened this past weekend which give at least older Boomers hope for the future from their Millennial offspring.

Our oldest son said he was working on a new board game because ‘people are tired of playing video games and being disengaged with each other. They want to interact more with their friends and neighbors and this new board game will help them do it’.

Our oldest nephew came to a birthday party for his 90-year old grandpa with short-cropped hair and announced he had gotten another raise at work and was now looking to buy an older used pickup truck simply because ‘it made more sense’ for him and his wife at this stage of his life.

He is now 35. Middle age in the strictest terms of life expectancy.

Despite all of our collective problems and doomsday predictions heard daily on cable tv and talk radio news marinated by vitriol and negativity by different political philosophies and worldviews, there is immense hope for the future regardless of what you hear daily.

Julian Robertson, founder of Tiger Management and benefactor of the prestigious Robertson Scholarship program at Duke and Carolina, closed a finals interview weekend with a very brief but on-target comment based on practical optimism: ‘There are people in this room tonight who are going to balance the federal budget; find a cure for cancer; and develop a solution to global warming. We hope you will come to Duke and Carolina to learn how to do it. Thank you and good night’

The driving force behind this rational optimism has to be a continued reliance on the freedom of people to think, innovate and act without outside constraints by governments often run by people who really do not know anything about technology, free enterprise or business in the first place. If we allow government to continue to expand their hegemony over millions of free people making mutually-agreed upon transactions daily, the rapid progression of conquering the world’s problems may slow to a crawl.

Buy ‘The Rational Optimist’ and read it this week. No matter what the outcome of any campaign was for you specifically, we all deserve a respite to dream big and hope massively for the future.

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