Monthly Archives: March 2017

One Fish Two Fish…

Americans love numbers.heart  We especially love big numbers because big numbers means there can be no argument against whatever point we are using the big numbers for…because they are so BIG.

Here’s a big one—The National Debt clock at this very moment is $19,856,689,020,596.

It is higher right now as you read this from what it was when I wrote it down.  That is daunting.  No one can say, “What’s 19 trillion when you’re having fun?”

The number is often used to make the point that government cannot spend any more money, nor borrow any more, to spend on things we don’t need.  Things like welfare according to most of those sounding the spending alarm.

But we also love tiny numbers. “1’s” have great impact, primarily when we are talking about percentages.  1% of anything is next to nothing and that can make a very dramatic point.

There was a column in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier that was, more or less, a rebuttal of my column in the paper the previous week.  I had written (as I have here, there and everywhere) about how a “compassionate, just, and civilized society offers assistance to those who have fallen through the cracks.”  I wrote in defense of welfare spending, and the columnist centered his case on a report that roughly 47 million Americans are receiving food stamps.screen-shot-2011-12-13-at-23-10-08

He then whittled the math to illustrate how gigantic a number that is by pointing out that to equal it, every Iowan would have to take on 16 boarders.

The columnist was impressing upon us that we cannot, as a nation, afford to pay that kind of money.

Well….here’s where little numbers come in.  Food stamps are1% of the federal budget.  Personally, if I only get a 1% return or loss on something, I don’t think I even bother to write it down.

The problem with the use of numbers, large or small, is that they can actually take us farther from the truth, because they are so easy to manipulate.  Recently I saw a blog post that said that 44% of working age Americans aren’t working and most “don’t want to.”  That assumption is already insulting and ridiculous even before we consider that the percentage was arrived at by including young people from the age of 16 to 22.

I guess I was one of those lazy Americans once because I spent those years in school.

Big numbers scare us, little numbers give us pause, but numbers, on the whole, are just ways to fill in blanks.  We need to know how many seats are left on the airplane so we can know how many more tickets can be sold, but the plane will still take off whether it’s full or not.

The National Debt is much the same.

The big debt number is flaunted to scare people into believing that government programs must be cut, and if those programs are cut, taxes will go down and we will have more money to spend.  That’s not entirely illogical, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.  Many services our taxes pay for keep what we would pay out of our own pockets down.  Things like federal research in science and medicine, transportation infrastructure, and security, just to name a few.

What aggravates many people are welfare programs, but those critics do not seem interested in the number of people who have been helped by programs to become, or return to being, productive.  They are obsessed with the scammers, which evidence shows is a relatively small percentage.  Yet they do not seem concerned with 100 billion dollars annually in corporate welfare that only serves to line already well-to-do pockets.  That really takes a bite out of our paychecks.

But the frustrating double-standard is not the sycophantic admiration many Americans have for those who are the most successful, it is that at one time or another 96% of all us have used some sort of federal assistance (I have needed unemployment on a couple of occassions).  Perhaps we should be careful when chastising social spending.

federal budget as family budgetThe National Debt frightens people because they have been told that the Federal Budget is no different from their Household Budget.  That is logical to many people, however, it is one of the biggest misconceptions in the budget/deficit argument.

They aren’t the same.  At all.

The most obvious difference is that a household will borrow money (from a lender against future income) to purchase something that they don’t have enough money for today; a house, a car, etc.  In contrast, the federal government, since it is the sole issuer of our currency, is never without money.  Iprinting-moneyn reality when government spends in excess of tax receipts, it prints more money.

As much as I’d like to print my own money to pay bills, my household is not afforded that luxury.  At least that’s what the Secret Service has told me.

Printing money can cause inflation, but only when measured against stationary production.  A real world economic model indicates that more liquidity in the system will cause production to rise and offset inflationary trends.  ( http://www.forbes.com/sites/johntharvey/2011/05/14/money-growth-does-not-cause-inflation/ )

Furthermore, a household has a finite period of existence, and therefore, the debt is real, while our government, in theory, goes on in perpetuity.  So long as the US dollar remains the world’s primary currency and so long as we are the biggest consumer, there is no time limit for paying back our debt.

What is relevant is the interest that we pay on debt, but even that concern has been exaggerated.  Where it stands today, around one and a half percent of the GNP, is manageable.  To illustrate, suppose we issue $4 trillion in 30-year bonds at 2.75 percent interest.  The economy continues to recover and the interest rate is up around 6.0 percent in a few years.  The federal government would be able to buy back the $4 trillion in bonds it had issued for roughly $2 trillion, immediately eliminating $2 trillion of its debt.

The same is true with that food stamp number.  Sure 47,000,000 is a big number but any rational perspective will conclude, whether you agree or disagree with stimulus spending, bailouts, extending unemployment benefits, or tax cuts from either the Bush or Obama Administrations, that more people were going to qualify for assistance following an unprecedented recession.

Okay, I’m tossing around big and little numbers, too.  My goal is to show how panic, fanned by daunting numbers, is clouding the issues, stagnating progress, and challenging compassion.

I stand by my moral premise:  A compassionate and civilized society provides a safety net to everyone, as best as it can. 

The numbers, big or small, will support whatever it is you want to believe, and so it comes down to this:  What do you believe a great nation provides?

Do you believe that a great, powerful and wealthy nation should not set aside 1% of 3.5 trillion dollars to provide food for people who are making 0 to $15,000 a year?*

il_fullxfull_154307375And what is the alternative?  Better wages?  Better education?  More motivational posters?

I’m listening…

 

 

 

 

 

*This is per person and households will have higher combined incomes and receive more assistance due to more family members.  Each state has its own guidelines and my numbers are averages.

Good reading:  http://malincursive.blogspot.com/2013/04/truth-about-welfare-debunking-welfare.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/patrick-takahashi/how-serious-is-our-nation_b_366811.html

http://www.valuewalk.com/2012/03/the-big-bad-national-debt-who-is-afraid/

A Rosa by any other name

The immigration debate rages on.  I was sent a post attributed to Ben Stein who, allegedly, found it paradoxical that our government would require people to carry proof of insurance, but not proof of citizenship.  That circulated through the conservative blogosphere because it seemed like a slam dunk double standard.

A closer look shows that it doesnt hold water.

It is pretty commonplace, especially in today’s political arguments, to use two different concepts, but to combine their vague similarity to drive a point.  In this case, the point is that (Obama) government mandates have double standards.  But, Stein (allegedly) draws his clever juxtaposition from two concepts with vastly different purposes.

Compulsory insurance became a reality soon after America realized that drivers are prone to accidents.  As early as 1925 some states adopted compulsory insurance laws and by the 1970’s every state had complied.  The reasons are myriad and logical:

There is a risk of nonpayment in car accidents. Personal financial responsibility laws are inadequate to remedy the risk of nonpaying, at- fender-benderfault, drivers and the best way to ensure that at-fault drivers will pay for damage they cause is to require insurance before registration, and to penalize drivers if they fail to meet this requirement.

What it was not was a tyrannical conspiracy by government to control its citizenry.

So, this brings us to Proof of Citizenship.  If we carry the implied logic from the comment above a step further, Stein is saying, if we are to be consistent, that ALL citizens should be required to carry papers.

But, that’s not going to fly, is it?  Not in a free country.  Tell a farmer in Nebraska or a machinist in Michigan that he has to have his citizenship papers with him at allPeople-Standing-Up-to-the-Police times.  It wouldn’t take more than a Cliven Bundy minute before “real” citizens would revolt crying, “Fascism!”  And they’d be correct.

We are not a police state.  Our freedom extends to every citizen and that means that we are not required to carry our Citizenship Papers in order to pass freely.

Or…was Stein’s insinuation that only “suspect” citizens should have to carry papers?  What does that America look like?  Caucasians of European ancestry need not worry, but…if you’re a little too brown you best carry your papers?

Perhaps, we should add a clause to the 14th amendment, which defines citizenship, that also defines the physical characteristics of “true” Americans.

Absurd?  You bet, but that’s where this goes if you dig into the comment.

Perhaps, what those opposed to immigration reform are saying is that “if you are a LEGAL immigrant you shall, upon your acceptance, be required to carry your papers to prove your status.”

Well…that’s just as absurd.

Let’s say I was a legal German immigrant, living and working in America, raising my family, voting and paying my taxes.  Why should I have to carry papers while my neighbor from South Dakota does not?  Isn’t a citizen a citizen?  How can this be a nation founded on an unbiased ideal of freedom if some “citizens” have more freedom than others.

Again, it simply wouldn’t fly.

So, we are faced with:  “What’s the solution to the immigration problem?”

First of all, the question being asked is not asking for the correct solution because the problem being addressed is not the problem that needs to be solved.

Say wha-aat???

The immigration “PROBLEM” isn’t what we’re being told. Illegal immigrants are not taking our jobs and they are not exhausting our health services and welfare. The Associated Press reported that there were worker shortages in Alabama and Georgia after strict immigration laws and mandatory deportation were implemented in those states.  It turns out that “non-immigrants” didn’t like the grueling work of picking crops, and farmers stuck in a agricultural system struggled to find replacements.

When undocumented workers fled, farmers lost around 40% of their workers and $140 million worth of blueberries, melons, onions, and other crops due to labor shortages.

Also, life isn’t free.  For anybody. Even illegal immigrants are consumers, and if they’re not paying compulsory income taxes already, they are certainly paying regressive taxes.  They are not the burden on our country that many want us to believe.

Here’s a surprising statistic:  Illegal workers contribute 1% more to the US economy than the burden of their cost.

Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, stated before the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security:

“There is little doubt that unauthorized (illegal) immigration has made a significant contribution to the growth of our economy.  Between 2000 and 2007, for example, it accounted for more than a sixth of the increase in our total civilian labor force….Unauthorized immigrants serve as a flexible component of our workforce, often a safety valve when demand is pressing and among the first to be discharged when the economy falters.”

immigrantsMost immigrants did not come here to feed off of our welfare, to rob banks, or to inflict disease upon us (as recent conservative posts have implied) they came here to create a better life for their families (“Bring us your tired, your poor”….remember that invitation?).

They came here to work and to provide, and they would prefer to contribute.

So, the PROBLEM….

The problem is that immigration cannot be an open door; there is not an unlimited resource that is called America and so we must have immigration laws.  Breaking the law is breaking the law and there have to be consequences and usually that will beborder-fence deportation.

But the SOLUTION is to strengthen our borders; not with multi-billion dollar walls, but to put more officers on those borders, with more equipment.

We also need to examine our immigration laws.  Immigration processes should be amended to allow for better “legal” immigration.  Present immigration requirements are endless and virtually impossible.  There is no “waiting line” but rather processes of endless bureaucratic red tape.

There is a price to the freedom we embrace and defend.  Freedom is vulnerable and its realization can lead to consequences that are unfavorable even to a majority, but we have to accept some of those risks in order to maintain the integrity of that freedom.  That doesn’t mean that we don’t vigorously try and correct flaws, but we must do it judiciously, compassionately and legally.

germanOnce we begin to allow our fears to confine the reach of freedom and justice, we minimize what it means to be free, and then we really will be on a path toward a different kind of America.