Thursday, June 22, 2017

More on the Minimum Wage

(For an earlier piece on minimum wage, see my post from 2013 titled "Minimum Wage")

It’s certainly noble to wish for everyone to have a “living wage”. The unfortunate reality, however, is that with the sheer size of our country, and the disparity of cultures, resources, and costs of living, a federally mandated, minimum “living wage” is an unrealistic goal - at least from a national perspective.

Putting aside the racist origins of “The Minimum Wage,” the argument from the far left has always been “it’s not fair that you can’t feed and house a family of four on minimum wage.” Which, like the flintlock argument the left like to employ when talking about gun control, is silly. “Minimum” means exactly that. It’s not intended to be a “living wage”, whatever that actually means. Maybe you have to work two jobs. And why is someone working for minimum wage trying to support a family of four? If this is a regular occurrence, we have larger problems.

In this instance, the more laissez-faire, fiscal conservatives are correct. If you increase the minimum wage, you increase all costs across the board. And since companies don’t actually pay for anything, this will necessarily increase the cost of living, putting it once again out of reach of minimum wage, leading to more calls to increase it again. It’s a vicious cycle, and simple economics.

The answer, then, is to peg the federal minimum wage to the lowest “living wage” in the country and automatically increase it with inflation, then leave it up to individual states and municipalities and other jurisdictions to manage it at the local level. The recent calls by many for a $15 / hour minimum wage don’t make sense, as it would put undue burdens on small businesses in areas with low costs of living, while not having any impact at all in places like New York and San Francisco. In this case, one size does NOT fit all.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Softening Our Philosophy on Criminal Justice

The United States of America, arguably one of the wealthiest and freest nations to ever exist, also has a prison problem. At 724 people per 100,000, we have, by far, the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. Fully one quarter of those prisoners are in for minor drug offenses. So assuming we take the path toward the legalization of drugs, let’s forget about them for a moment and focus on the “real” criminals.

The recidivism rate for all prisoners, adjusted to omit those in for minor drug offenses, is more than 60%. Clearly we are not doing a very good job of rehabilitation. And if you know anything about the criminal justice system, you know that we aren’t really putting much of an effort into rehabilitation. This is an expensive and dangerous proposition. By warehousing criminals, instead of working to rehabilitate them, we are creating more dangerous criminals, instead of better citizens.

We, as Americans, must make a choice about the goals of our criminal justice system. If our goals are vengeance and punishment, along with protecting innocent civilians, then our system is on the right track but not going far enough. Since we’re already incarcerating violent criminals and making them more dangerous, with no thought toward rehabilitation, then we are wasting a lot of money and effort. We should change “3 strikes” to “2 strikes” and just lock them all up for life, with no possibility of parole. And we shouldn’t bother worrying about overcrowding. The term “cruel and unusual punishment” can really be interpreted in whatever way a good lawyer can make. It sounds harsh, but it will definitely make the rest of us safer, while wasting no resources on repeat offenders.

However, if our goals are protecting innocent civilians, while providing opportunities for rehabilitation, reparations, and a small modicum of punishment, then we need to overhaul the system. It goes against our human nature for vengeance, but if we can get past that, to our other human nature for self-preservation, then we might realize we’re far better off taking non-violent criminals (and even first-time violent offenders, depending on the nature of the offense) and offering them counseling, education, job-training - in a word, dignity. In our current system, these new and non-violent criminals are warehoused in giant, brightly lit, concrete boxes, with a host of other, older, violent criminals. After a time of sitting and doing nothing but being a prisoner, they are turned violent and dangerous themselves. It should come as no surprise that nearly ⅔ of them return to prison in short order.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Solving Our Drugs Crisis

Prohibition doesn’t work. This is not news. Or at least it shouldn’t be news. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution lasted just 12 years before it was repealed by the 21st. It was an abysmal failure. It was an attempt to legislate morality - and this is always a recipe for disaster. So knowing what we know about prohibiting mind-altering, recreational substances, why do we insist on keeping draconian laws on the books that carry harsh penalties for merely possessing something as innocuous as a dried weed?

Conspiracy theories abound (and they may well be true) that the government, and specifically the CIA, doesn’t want legal drugs because they make too much money off prohibition - from government funding of overseas adventures to fight cartels, to selling drugs in sting operations. If that is indeed the case, it’s a highly cynical, immoral and unethical reason to continue the prohibition.

What is also probably true is that the private corporations who run prisons don’t want to end prohibition because it would result in a precipitous drop in incarceration rates. More than 25% of the prisoners in the US are there for minor drug offenses. That’s indefensible. And never mind the pharmaceutical companies who OF COURSE don’t want people to buy effective, non-chemical, grown in the back yard pain relievers that easily.

It’s been said that war cannot be fought against ideas or inanimate objects but only against people. And this is being born out by the “war on drugs.” Countless lives have been ruined and lost as a result of this war. Yet, to date, there has been little, if any success, in curbing the American appetite for mind-altering substances. In fact, new ones surface all the time.

The solution, of course, is to legalize and regulate drugs, and then collect the VAT from the purchase of those drugs. There is no reason one shouldn’t be able to buy a pack of joints in a drug store or liquor store, just like the purchase of cigarettes or alcohol. If you’re of legal age, we have no reason to stop you doing what you want to do.

The arguments against the legalization of drugs are little more than scare tactics; we’ll have an epidemic of drugged out zombies, or kids will die in huge numbers, or what about our eternal souls... The first two items can be answered by looking at other countries that have decriminalized drugs (as well as California, Colorado, and Washington) and the last one is, well it’s just silly. Not surprisingly, no place that has legalized drugs has turned into a wasteland of stoners. In fact, abuse of drugs has actually ebbed since legalization. Imagine that.

There is no good reason, in a free society, to prevent people from doing whatever they want to do for recreation, provided they are not infringing on the rights of others. If someone gets whacked out of his mind and commits a crime, well, he’ll be prosecuted for that crime - whether his substance of choice is alcohol or meth. If someone wants to spend his Saturday night with an 8-ball and a hooker, I have no problem with that - so long as the 8-ball was purchased legally (i.e., not stolen) and the hooker is of legal age and has entered into the arrangement willingly.

There was an allusion to this essay in an earlier essay I wrote on immigration. Here’s where they relate. Most of our illegal drugs are crossing our southern border with illegal immigrants. It is entirely plausible that we could take care of both of these problems with one solution. By legalizing and regulating drugs on this side of the border, and working with our neighbors to the south to enact practical, legal ways to produce and ship drugs to this country, we force all the players to operate above ground. If the drug cartels don’t have to operate like militias any more, but have to operate like corporations, we’ll see more job opportunities and less violence on both sides of the border. The tax man is far scarier than the cops. He always gets what he’s after. So instead of spending a fortune on illegal weapons and soldiers, guys like “El Chapo” will have to invest in accountants and lawyers - as well as market researchers, web developers, salesmen, logistics specialists, government lobbyists, etc.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Immigration Reform

Our immigration policies have been a political hot potato for some time. The left has taken to calling illegal aliens by the meaningless, but politically correct moniker “undocumented immigrant.” The fact is, if someone came here by means other than what is legal, and if that person is not from here, then that person is, by definition, an illegal alien. Nothing more, nothing less. Like so many other things we get so caught up in the semantics of the debate, we lose sight of the actual meaning of it.

Here’s the problem. Illegal immigration DOES push down wages, but it also accomplishes the task of doing the jobs others won’t or don’t want to do, in places where there aren’t enough people to do those jobs anyway. So what do you do to keep the economy chugging along, keep the legal population working, keep wages up as much as is realistic, and keep illegal immigration down?

There are a few solutions - one of which will be outlined later in a piece I'll be publishing on drug policy. Suffice it to say, if drug laws were dealt with on both sides of the border, the number of illegal crossings would drop precipitously. However, barring that, a good solution would be to offer short term work visas and make them relatively easy to get. Agriculture businesses, construction businesses, landscaping businesses, restaurant businesses, etc. who heavily use illegal immigrants would probably jump at the opportunity to help administer the visas and bring people in to help with their projects. These organizations would be required to pay whatever the minimum wage in their local jurisdictions might be, and would be required to pay all necessary taxes, including social security. The immigrants, on the other hand, would also be required to pay taxes (unless of course we get rid of income taxes) but would NOT be required to pay Social Security, since they would not be eligible to collect it. They MAY, however, apply for permanent residence and eventually citizenship, should they so desire.

The penalty to companies for hiring immigrants without going through the proper channels would be severe. Immigrants caught taking illegal jobs would be deported immediately.

But here’s the core of this whole situation. When our economy is great, immigration increases. When our economy slows, immigration decreases. That’s all immigration - legal and illegal. When our economy is good and we have surplus jobs, that’s when we need the immigrants and we have a place for them. When it’s not good, and we don’t have surplus jobs, they stop coming anyway. If we make legal, temporary visas relatively easy to receive, it will be easier to track who, and how many, are coming, when they’re coming, what they’re doing, when they’re leaving and we’ll know when they stop coming - and that could be the most important thing to know.

As for what to do with the millions of immigrants already here illegally, we should offer some type of limited amnesty. A 4 year stint in the military in exchange for a green card for those physically capable. Perhaps 4 years of some other type of community service - like teaching foreign languages, or planting flowers in parks on the weekends, or something else that makes the world a better place. Offer a dignified and respectable way to become legal. And it would work like criminal probation. If you break the law, any law, and are convicted, you’ll be deported.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Tax Man Cometh

Our tax system is out of control. We have a quasi-governmental, quasi-legitimate body with the power to destroy lives seemingly on a whim but really because of the monumental cluster that is our tax code. Our income tax system has so many rules and loopholes and contradictions that even the simplest filing requires a trained professional to complete. And even they often get it wrong. The Affordable Care Act certainly didn’t help by adding another layer of red tape to the mix.

The 16th Amendment, ratified in 1913, gave congress the ability to confiscate money from the people. Rather than providing an efficient way to generate revenue to run the government, this only served to enable Senators and Representatives to enrich themselves by playing Peter Pan. Since the 16th Amendment, Congress has largely ignored actual needs of the country, in favor of incessantly working toward re-election by promising the “little guy” that he’ll “stick it to the man” to pay for your [local ball park, roads, schools, community centers, etc.]. Meanwhile, out the other side of their faces, they’re selling favors to special interest groups and corporations. All on our dime.

The fix should be simple. Scrap income tax altogether and replace it with a VAT, or consumption tax. (Unfortunately, this will require a Constitutional Amendment). There will need to be serious negotiations and studies completed to determine what items and services are taxable and what are exempt, and what individual exemptions may be allowed, but at its core, this is a progressive, rather than regressive tax because it doesn’t touch anyone’s income. And certain things like food, pharmaceuticals, and housing will not be taxed, or will be taxed after a certain dollar amount so that everyone may file for a standard refund every year, based on criteria like dependents, head of household status, etc. This will be a boon to those who only spend money on what they need. Those who like to have the new toys and expensive clothes and fancy cars will be paying more taxes. And that makes sense.

All this said, the reality is that we’re probably stuck with income tax. But even with income tax, there’s a way to ensure reform, and save taxpayers and their employers a lot of money, while creating accountability for politicians - which is something they sorely need. The automatically deducted income tax remittances are problematic for a few reasons:

  • Out of sight, out of mind. Most people have no idea how much they pay in taxes. They count on their net pay. That is just wrong. Employees should be paid everything they’ve earned, and then should file their own taxes.
  • Most employers aren’t actually in the business of tax accounting, but this forces them to provide that service. If you remove this responsibility from the companies, they would save a tremendous amount of money administering something that has nothing to do with their core business.
  • It hides the theft in plain sight. Because the money is gone before the employee ever receives it, and most employees are fine with that, the government can steal as much as they want.
  • The government is the beneficiary of a free loan from millions of taxpayers. The taxpayers who have too much withheld are, in essence, giving a free loan to the government every year. If they put that money in even a simple passbook account, they would earn at least a modicum of interest. But the government just returns it, interest free, after forcing you to prove they took too much in the first place. 

If taxpayers had to stroke a check every quarter, or even just once a year, for the taxes they owe, there WOULD be tax reform.

To pay for highways and bridges, and other infrastructure items, we should be allocating gasoline (or whatever fuel is purchased to run motorized vehicles) taxes and auto registration fees. This is what the gasoline tax was intended to do in the first place, but like so many other things, politicians have robbed that bank to pay for their pet projects. And if fuel taxes and registrations aren’t enough, we can implement tolls for upgrade and new construction projects. Those would be tightly regulated to generate a specific amount of money and when that goal is reached, the tolls would be removed.

Finally, much noise is often made about corporate taxes and how corporations are able to get away with not paying their fair share - whatever that is supposed to be. This wrongly assumes that corporations pay taxes. They do not. Corporations may be responsible for actually stroking a check to the IRS for taxes, but it is, in fact, their customers who pay the taxes. Why we even bother with the charade is anyone’s guess. That’s not to say that corporations (and by extension, their customers) shouldn’t help defray the costs of public goods and services that help them operate - like roads and sewers and environmental damage mitigation and the like. But taxes, qua taxes, should be eliminated from the corporate lexicon.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Foreign Affairs / Military Entanglements

For far too long, our government has been in the business of entangling itself in the affairs of other sovereign nations. While sometimes things happen abroad that may affect our national security, most of our foreign affairs seem to be from a position of meddling and adventurism.

The events of September 11, 2001 provide a good example of what can happen when you take the wrong reaction to a devastating event. When 19 hijackers from Egypt and Saudi Arabia flew our own planes into the World Trade Center, our government took the very illogical actions of invading Iraq, based on faulty or manufactured intelligence, and Afghanistan, based on the probably mistaken notion that our prime suspect (Osama Bin Laden) was there. And while the Taliban were no friends of ours, it still remains unclear (and in my opinion, improbable) that he was ever in Afghanistan for any significant time after our invasion.

These two adventure wars might have involved deeper strategies. Our ally, Saudi Arabia, is at political and philosophical odds with our enemy, Iran. By taking out two of Iran’s neighbors - Afghanistan and Iraq, it might make it easier to eventually invade Iran, overthrow the government and install some sort of puppet “democracy”. However, our next move as a people was to elect a president much more sympathetic to Iran and other Shia Muslims than the previous administration. Which means all the blood we spilled and treasure we spent was in vain. And now we’re left with a middle east in tatters, a raging civil war in Syria (which has probably more to do with a proxy war between the east and west over a natural gas pipeline, than it does with ideology and human rights) and fewer and fewer friends in the region.

Our only stalwart friend - Israel - has been the target of the Obama administration in numerous ways. The most recent are the end-around regarding the UNSC resolution condemning settlements in the West Bank, and on his last day in office a $221 Million “aid” package given to the Palestinian Authority. That is a Palestinian Authority that has no legitimacy because it is ruled by two different, competing factions, one of which is a terror organization whose explicit goal is to destroy the nation of Israel. Additionally, this is the same Palestinian Authority that has shown, time and again, it has no problem spending aid money on weapons and tunnel construction for the sole purpose of conducting terror operations on Israeli civilians.

Where does all this rambling lead? We have prosecuted unprovoked wars on sovereign nations ostensibly to bring about order and democracy. We have achieved neither. What has been wrought from these actions is millions of lost lives, trillions of wasted dollars, and an entire region of the planet on the brink of a disastrous collapse.

Our overriding policy should be similar to the fictional “Prime Directive” from the Star Trek universe. Unless we are engaged, we should not engage. We have long-standing treaties with allies - and those should be honored. If our ally is attacked, we are attacked and should therefore respond. But unless we or one of our allies is attacked, we should simply observe and keep our military grounded.

The other part of this equation is financial. Or as I call it “Aid and Trade”.

In our (at least recent) history, the United States has used aid in kind of a “carrot and stick” scheme. The carrot being aid and the stick being our war machine. The problem is that the protocols dictating how we use the carrot and the stick have become very muddied. Sometimes we’re giving the carrot, while at the same time applying the stick. That’s an expensive proposition, especially when you have few clear objectives and any objectives you might have could change with the next election.

Aid after WWII made sense. The places where we planted our dollar were absolutely devastated and needed a hand to rebuild. They have all become modern, liberal, western-style democracies. But we had to beat them down in a bloody war first. Now it seems we play at war then give some aid, then play a little more war, then give some more aid. The aid we provide now seems more like an extortion payment or a bribe than true aid.

Rather than just providing free money to other nations with no real plan, our aid dollars should be more judiciously distributed. There are places in the world where there is real poverty and real need and those should be the places we offer aid, but even there, the aid should come with restrictions and strings. But to provide aid just to curry temporary favor is a bad idea and should be gone.

But an even better idea than giving financial aid to other nations, would be to help them by providing the means for them to earn our dollars through trade. If you make something that we (collectively) want or need, we will buy it from you. If we make something that you (collectively) want or need, we will sell it to you. We’ll need to work out some rules to keep it fair - like restrictions on tariffs and currency manipulation, and moratoria on military goods, but for the most part, we should have a free market - buyers and sellers. That’s better for the economy, it’s better for relations and it’s better for people - most especially working class people who suffer the most in times of war and stifled trade.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Happy First Birthday Asher

(Okay, so I'm publishing this about 5 months late. I've been busy. I have a one-year-old.)

What a year! You showed up early and we were almost ready, but you presented me with the best birthday present I’ve ever received. You were little, and healthy, and perfect, and in that respect, not a lot has changed.

Oh you’ve grown, boy have you grown. At times, we’ve been quite surprised by your growth. Your 1 month appointment showed you were in the 2nd percentile for weight, but 90th for length. By your 3 month appointment you were up to the 3rd percentile for weight and 85th for length. At 6 months you were up to 6th percentile for weight and down to 75th for length. Normalizing. By the time 9 months rolled around you were stable at the 75th percentile for length but had jumped up to the 16th percentile for weight. Woo hoo!

All the while you developed at an astonishing rate. For the last year we’ve watched you eat your feet at 4 months, and the doc told us “that’s a 6 month trick.” Before you were 4 months old, you were already holding your bottle and feeding yourself. You were standing up at 4 months and by 6 months you were a crawling demon.

It wasn’t till you were almost 9 months old that you began clapping your hands and giggling every time we sang “If you’re happy and you know it” to you. And banging toys together, and sitting down without plopping. You started climbing the stairs at 7 months and by 9 months it was one of your favorite activities - climb the stairs and explore all the bedrooms. Down was still a problem, but at 9 months, you were determined to figure that out.

Teeth have come in too. It started on the 4th of July weekend with your 2 front bottom teeth. You were not happy that weekend. That was it for another month and a half before you started growing top teeth. They didn’t seem to bother you as much, although you chewed on everything you could get in your mouth. And boy did you drool a lot.

You’ve always been a hairy little bugger. You were born with wispy blond hair and then a couple of months in, you looked like you were growing a mullet. Eventually your head grew into your hair and the mullet went away. Only to be replaced by frat bangs and peyot. Your mom trimmed your peyot so we wouldn’t have to start dressing you in black wool. But we did wonder if we would have to invest in Oakleys, Croakies, a golf visor and plaid Duckhead shorts to go with your frat bangs.

For your first 6 months of life, we didn’t sleep much. You never napped well, and you didn’t sleep at night for more than an hour or 2. But when we figured out you were playing us - we started letting you cry at night. After about 2 nights of temper tantrums, you figured out what bedtime was and started sleeping all through the night. After that, you seemed to grow a lot more and always wake up happy - and hungry.

Which leads me to the next thing that has amazed us. You love food. All food. At 6 months old, when the doctor told us we could feed you whatever we eat, we took it to heart. In fact, that very evening, we went to a restaurant for dinner and I shared my cold potato leek soup with you. It was your first grown-up food, and you loved it. And after that, if we went out or cooked something for ourselves that you were still awake for, we shared it - scallops, lamb, risotto, pasta, peanut butter, yorkshire pudding, french toast (that became your breakfast staple), all manner of cheeses, every fruit or vegetable that came into the house, eggs, sausage, hamburgers… You loved it all. Except the tandoori chicken. That was maybe a little too spicy for you. I hope you always keep your love of food, but don’t let it rule your life.

The one thing we’ve found most entertaining is how easy you have been in restaurants. We would roll you right into the place in your stroller and park it next to the table. In smaller venues, we’d fold it up and leave it at the host station and just carry you in your car seat. I think it must have been at nine or ten months old that we finally bought you a booster seat and started just leaving the car seat and stroller in the car and carry you into the restaurant. You loved that. Always so happy and engaged, and you ate everything that came close to your mouth. If we were lucky and the weather was nice, and the restaurant had outside seating, you could sit and watch the cars, trucks, and buses passing on the street, and the pedestrians walking by. You loved to flirt with the waiters and waitresses, and they thought you were so cute.

By ten months, you became a real chatty Cathy. We’re not sure what you were talking about, but it sure did seem important. You tried to mimic things we said, with mixed results. You figured out “cat” pretty early on. Or maybe it was “cow”. Or “car”. I’m not quite sure. You used that word to describe your little foam car toys, your book with a cow on the cover, and the print in my office with three cats. Maybe they all sounded different to you. Or looked the same.

Walking seemed to come late for you, but I think that was just us projecting. We figured it’s because you could crawl so fast, and were always in such a hurry to get places, you figured walking would slow you down. If you’re like me, that won’t change. I’d rather get on a bicycle and get there already. I can slow down when I arrive.

Your first Halloween was a special treat. With no cultural context for creepy things like skeletons and ghosts and goblins and zombies, you showed no fear of all our neighbors’ decorations. In fact you loved the ones that moved and made sounds and talked to you. You generally loved being outside anyway. Cars, and people, and dogs, and squirrels, and the wind blowing the trees, and the leaves falling down, and cicadas all captivated you. For a chatty Cathy, you sure got quiet and pensive every time we went riding on your tricycle or in your stroller.

All of this doesn’t really mean much. They’re just details. We have so much hope and love for you. Who knew a little wiggly potato could turn two people’s lives upside down so completely? And that they would be completely happy about it? That’s a rhetorical question, of course; everyone with kids - especially your grandparents - knows this.

This letter won’t mean anything to you for many years, but I wanted to write it down while it was all still fresh in my mind. Apart from all the details and all the late nights, and all the wondering “why’s he crying”, you have brought more unabashed joy into our lives than we could have ever imagined.

Your squeaky giggle is the best sound ever. Your fascination with the dogs, and your perseverance at getting to things we don’t want you getting to is mesmerizing. Your awe at all the new things - from the sound of cicadas, to your reflection in the mirror, to the noise the vacuum cleaner makes, to the splash in the face you get at the pool when kids do cannonballs nearby - it has entertained us immensely. We can see you learning and engaging with the world. Curious. Happy. Healthy.

Your personality is starting to really develop and you’re becoming quite the little character. You’ve never been shy or shown fear. You’re gregarious. You love being in the presence of others and laughing and participating. Don’t change. Always be friendly. And when it’s time, be kind and courteous.

Your next year will be as big as the last. And we can hardly wait. You’ll be talking in real words and sentences soon enough, and walking and running and playing with other kids. For me, I can’t wait to have a conversation with you.

Happy Birthday son. We love you.