Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Total Anarchy

Over the course of my posts, I have done a lot of government bashing.  Really, the government is so big that it is almost hard not to miss all of the stinking globs of terrible being thrown out by our honorable representatives.  A lot of comments I get regarding my posts that seem to indicate the reader believes I am anti-government.  This makes me question the reader's comprehension of my ideas.  I talk a lot about the Constitution and its amendments.  I'd say I spend more time talking about the Constitution than I do government.  So lets be clear.

I am absolutely against anarchy.

The government serves as an authority regulated by the people which is capable of using force to protect the rights of its population.  The most important part of that statement is the capability of using force.  The government can only accomplish tasks through the use of force.  When ever I say this, people immediately have a negative reaction to my choice to use the word force, but I believe that it is absolutely accurate.  The government is the only entity that has the ability to punish you by removing personal rights and in some states your right to life for not complying with its rules.  Once you begin to understand the concept that the government can only use force, you begin to see some government actions in a different light.

Since health care is still in the lime light, I'll keep with that topic for this example.  My biggest problem with the government health care debate is that the Constitution prohibits the federal government from taking any action in this arena.  In Obama's address, he mentioned that his plan would mandate minimum health care coverage just like many states mandate minimum auto insurance.  If auto insurance is such a good idea - why doesn't the federal government mandate a minimum auto insurance coverage?  The same reason there can't be a federally mandated minimum health care coverage: Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution covers the Legislative branch (which is where the current health care debate resides), Article 2 Section 2 covers the powers of the President, and Article 3 Section 1 covers the Judicial Branch.  I talked about this earlier in my post about the real issue with health care.  The government's powers are limited to protect us, the citizens of the United States, from those in power.  I'm sure you have heard Lord Acton's saying that ultimate power corrupts absolutely... that is essentially what the Constitution was drafted to protect against.

This is a slight tangent from the main topic, but I feel it is an important point that most people overlook.  When I argue that most of the current powers maintained by the federal government should be transferred to private corporations or organizations (like the FDA, Post Office, FTA, and everyone mentioned in my posts about the Government Machine), I am immediately bombarded by messages from people that say they wouldn't trust a corporation with these tasks because of the fear of corruption.  Since my post about the FDA received the harshest feedback, I'll visit that a little more.   In this post, I mentioned that 70% of the panels which approve prescription drugs had at least one member on the panel that had received money from the corporation that made the drug being reviewed.  This information was revealed in a highly respected scientific journal, Nature, in 2005.  The problem is that this sort of thing didn't change the way the FDA operated.  There are still independent articles being written regarding corruption with the FDA approval process.  This is because the federal government has decided that the FDA will be the governing authority in this regard and whatever decisions it makes are considered law.  Now let's look at some private industry corruption... off the top of my head, I think of Enron.  In 2001 Governor Gary Davis of California calls Enron an out-of-state profiteer, alleging fraudulent activities.  By the beginning of 2002, Enron's profits had plummeted, its stocks were worthless, and its top executive board was undergoing criminal proceedings.  Today there are still some trials taking place against non-Enron conspirators but, for the most part, it is gone.  In a little over a year the company was destroyed.  Understandably, a business' primary objective is to make profit... everyone knows this from economics class.  The way a company does this is by having a product or service that is of use to its customers, but if a company becomes corrupt (like Enron) it will be destroyed quickly allowing its competitors to fill in its place.

Now back to the topic at hand: where the government is useful.  Let's say that you and your neighbor are having a terrible argument.  Maybe this neighbor stole something from you - it isn't important for this exercise.  Anarchists, like Stefan Molyneux over here, is in favor of having corporations called Dispute Resolution Organizations (DROs).  These corporations would operate like E-Bay... each of its customers would have a rating that is essentially equal to your credit score plus a lot of other things like how people score your interactions (you paid on time or you delivered your product on time, etc).  I could see this working for small debts, but if there is a really crazy argument - there needs to be some supreme authority.  When these arguments occur across state lines, the Federal Government steps in and resolves the situation (otherwise it is left to individual states).

When you look at the government and its finely described list of powers, hopefully you begin to see where I am coming from.  The government is overextended and just like anything else (corporation, private organization, family, friends, etc) it gets sloppy, inefficient, and wasteful.  Unfortunately with the government: its waste is our waste and its power comes at the expense of our freedoms.  Whenever it makes a decision for us, that is one more option taken away.  I believe the government serves a purpose and has a place.  I believe it has grown uncontrolled and now needs to be pruned.  I believe the path towards a healthier government is through the education of the American People.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Government Machine (Part 2)

Last time I looked at the National School Lunch Program, the Peace Corps, Delivery of Social Security and Government Retirement benefits, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology for waste, inefficiencies, and ways that the free market can easily step in and handle these initiatives without the need of federal government regulation.  Indeed, these programs could operate more effectively and respond to problems more quickly than the bloated government bureaucracies.  The one thing that these programs all have in common is the morality behind them.  No one is arguing if these programs are fulfilling a need - my argument is simply that it can be done better without the need for force from the government.

Food and Drug Administration
The FDA is the government agency in the Department of Health and Human Services tasked with regulating and supervising the safety of things that go into your body: food, diet supplements, drugs, vaccines, medical products, and cosmetics to name a few.  It also enforces sanitation requirements for interstate travel and rules for the control of disease in pets and other biological products.  The fun part is that there is only one regulatory agency responsible for these regulations.  Just like you wouldn't want a single commercial company in charge of important things like your credit score.  In an effort to combat this single point of regulation, there are several government and non-government organizations watching the FDA.  Unfortunately since there is only one regulating body, and that regulating body has the authority of the Federal Government behind any of its decisions, it isn't obligated by anything other than the level of public outcry to change its policies or regulations.

The American Red Cross is obligated to abide by FDA regulations.  The FDA has mandated that in order to reduce the risk of HIV-contaminated blood samples, any male who has had sexual contact with another male, even once, since 1977 is not eligible to donate blood.  If we look at the government's research, we can see their verification data.  In 2007, 57% of those involved in this study reported that they had been infected through sexual contact involving two males.  That sounds like a strong statistical basis for prohibiting gay men from donating blood.  This got me thinking: what percentage of gay men in the US are HIV positive?  I found this interesting source that did some number crunching for me.  Since there are still lots of people that aren't comfortable reviling their sexual preference, it is very difficult to get a real number, so most if it is still mostly done through analysis.  This analysis reviled that only about 12% of gay males in the US have HIV.  With this revaluation, the statistical case for banning gay males from donating blood goes out the window.  Unfortunately, this government agency doesn't see any reason to change their regulations... the FDA revisits this policy once a year, by the way.  They have chosen to do nothing for the past 32 years.

With a single regulatory agency there is also the chance of corruption.  In a 2005 article in the scientific journal Nature, a study reviled that in 70% of all FDA prescription drug panels writing clinical guidelines had at least one member on the panel that has direct financial ties to the pharmaceutical company that manufactures the drug being evaluated.  In one case, every single member on the panel evaluating epoeitin alfa for use in HIV positive patients had received money from the drug's manufacturer.

In the corporate world, a regulatory agency that continued these practices would loose credibility and be run out of business as member organizations withdrew from this agency's regulations.  What makes the FDA immune to this type of action?  They are the only regulatory agency in the US and they are backed by the US Government.

Global Positioning System
Oh, the Department of Defence:  how we both love and hate thee.  It is funny that when people think of frivolous government spending, the DOD is one of the first government agencies that is fingered because of their enormous budget ($612.4 Billion identified as "Discretionary Spending: Defense" in 2008 according to the congressional budget office - that is about 4.9% of all Federal Government Spending in 2008) and its infamous "black budget" for secret projects and yet GPS is one of the projects that is identified as a federal government success story.

The Global Positioning System began its life in 1960 under a NAVY program called Transit.  It was a constellation of five satellites that would float around the globe together allowing for a navigational fix once about every hour.  In 1983 President Ronald Reagan issued the National Security Defense Directive NSDD-102 (Previously classified document, released in part) in response to Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (which happened to be carrying a seated member of the US Congress) being shot down by the Soviet Union because the aircraft strayed into Soviet airspace while on autopilot.  This directive allowed GPS technology to be available to the public as a service to benefit the common good once it was fully operational.  The modern constellation of satellites was completed in 1994, but there are still a few launches to upgrade the system and replace failed satellites.

Nearly everyone has a GPS receiver now, but do you know its limits?  Because it is a government-controlled device, each manufacturer is held to strict FCC regulations that can change at the whim of the government.  One such restriction is that your GPS receiver won't operate above 18km (about 60,000 feet) or while moving faster than 515m/s (about 1100mph).  The government thinks that if your receiver is doing one of these things, then clearly it is a ballistic missile and should be denied GPS capability.  That sounds reasonable, but what if I want to make an amateur weather balloon to take pictures of the curvature of the earth and track the balloon's progress because it is cool?  These types of experiments will commonly exceed 40km (about 130,000 feet) and thus will be denied the ability to use GPS.  There are several other similar systems created by other countries, but all of them are forbidden in the US due to import restrictions.  Alternatively, what if I wanted to build a cruise missile in the US - it would fly at about the same height and speed of a private plane, so I could use GPS for that... not to mention that it is much easier to build a cruise missile than a ballistic missile.

Finally, what about those people that choose not to use GPS for whatever reason (maybe they don't like that the US military is using it to bomb civilians in Afghanistan or something).  They are still forced to pay (through their taxes) for the maintenance of the system.  This, like several other government problems, boils down to freedom.  You don't have the freedom to choose what your money supports: be it a sophisticated map to get you from A-to-B or the ability to "reach out and touch someone" with a 3000lb JDAM.

Postal Service
Postal services on US Territory actually pre-dates the United States, but the United States Postal Service was headed up by Benjamin Franklin in 1775 and backed by the Second Continental Congress.  There were a couple of government changes that eventually led to the creation of today's postal service after the 1970 Postal Reorganization Act.  The current USPS is legally identified as an " independent establishment of the executive branch..." as opposed to a Government-owned corporation (like Amtrak).  As an Independent establishment it has not received tax money since the early 1980's, but it does receive several perks of a government entity.  Among them are sovereign immunity (it cannot commit a legal wrong and is immune from civil suit or criminal prosecution), eminent domain powers (the ability to seize private property or rights without consent), powers to negotiate postal treaties with foreign nations, and the exclusive right to deliver 1st and 3rd class mail.

Do any of those powers strike you as shocking?  The nice little nook it has created in the government also protect it from anti-trust regulations as decreed by the supreme court in 2004 .  Additionally, it is a federal offense for anyone other than an employee or agent of the USPS to deliver anything to that box you paid for on your property labeled "U.S. Mail".  Would the USPS be as successful without these protections?  FedEx and UPS alone have dominated the package delivery service for several years causing the USPS to increase their rates on their protected products (have you ever seen the price of a stamp go down?).  What benefit does the Post Office provide in today's world?  The US Constitution allows the government to create and maintain Post Roads, but it did not mandate a US Postal Service.  It was created during a time when communication between cities was so poor that companies like FedEx and UPS weren't viable, but in today's world it is the USPS that can't keep up.  It has out-lived its usefulness as is evident through the success of its competition even in the face of government handicaps.

Federal Highway Administration
With the broad hand-waving flying around regarding a US Highway Department and its efficiency, I believe the closest actual government entity to be the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) which is a division of the United States Department of Transportation.  The administration has a complicated history that you can read about here, but the current form was created in 1967.  The largest push for the creation of the US Highway System was the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 signed into law by President Dwight D Eisenhower.  Eisenhower argued that in the interest of national defense, the highway system would allow the Army to quickly move around the country to fend off invasion by a foreign power.  Upon the completion of the highway system the cross-country trip of an Army convoy was reduced from two months to two weeks.  All hail the Department of Defense and its public works programs!

The major thing this administration has going for it is that most of its responsibility is maintenance.  Approximately 98% of the roads identified in the National Highway System have been built already.  Road maintenance doesn't experience a lot of fluctuation in cost or procedures, so there isn't really a lot to screw up.  Except when it comes to bridges, apparently.  Remember the bridge collapse in Minnesota?  An investigation into US bridges came up with 26.2% of all bridges in the US are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete (by the way: watch out, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Washington DC, and Hawaii - more than 42% of your bridges are bad!).  I'll grant that not all of these bridges fall under direct control of the FHWA, but that agency is responsible for the quality of work for which federal funds support... which is another area where the FHWA is lacking: regulations.

The FHWA is also responsible for generating highway safety standards.  How many of you follow the speed limit?  According to various studies, anywhere from 60% to 80% (depending on where the speed was measured: rural, suburban, or urban highways) of all drivers do not comply with the posted speed limits.  Remember when highway speeds were limited to 55 mph for safety and fuel economy?  According to the Cato Institute, safety on the highways actually worsened for the first several months after the passage of the 55pmh law.  As for fuel economy - various independent studies assembled by the Heritage Foundation have shown that limiting highway speeds to 55 mph only has a 0.5% fuel economy saving.  With this in mind, how much is the FHWA actually helping highway safety?  Of course you remember my gripe from Part 1 about government regulations when private regulation agencies are quicker to adapt to new technologies and better at world-wide implementation.

Finally, what about making the highways pay for themselves?  have you ever had that though when you are driving down the highway that just made sense?  One example I can think of is: why isn't there some sort of wind turbine embedded in the median the take advantage of the wind all of those cars driving by creates.  Any privately operated road system that wanted to remain free to its users would need to come up with some way of making that roadway generate revenue.  Why shouldn't a road be able to generate enough revenue to support itself?  Toll roads were emerging around the country as a highly successful venture before the national highway system monopolized everything into a government-run institution.  From my experience in Massachusetts, it angers me to no end that the tolls I pay on the Mass Pike (I-90) are mostly going to pay for the Big Dig around Boston which I don't even drive on.  If the Big Dig was such a necessity, why doesn't it become tolled until its debts are paid off?

I haven't made my arguments as strong as I typically like through the use of more examples mostly because I wanted to keep the length of these posts to a readable limit.  My intent is to get you to break from the normal thinking of, "well it has been working for this long - it must be good."  The status quo may be functioning now, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a better way to do things and it definitely doesn't meant that just because the government can run a program for a long time that it is running it well.  Did I miss something or get my facts wrong?  What do you think about my compilation?  Let me know in the comments.

Friday, September 11, 2009

From a Certain Point of View

Don't worry, I'm still working on my analysis for the government programs in high standing - something just came up that I want to talk about.  In a discussion I had recently, someone said to me that I was presenting information to favor my point of view.  Someone's point of view is derived from opinion.  Sure - I'll take that my conclusions are my points of view, but lets take for example my major complaint about the current health care reform bill going through the house: It is not constitutional for the congress to proceed with the creation of a health reform law unless it first passes an amendment to the constitution that specifically allows it.

Right now according to the US Constitution, the Bill or Rights, and the associated amendments; it is not legal for congress to pass a law forcing you to have health care.  That is a fact - not a point of view.  My main reason for creating this blog is for the clarification of facts to lead to a more intelligent decision regarding my voting decisions and to present them in a clear, well-formed argument so that others may base their decisions from facts rather than banter from talking heads on the idiot box.

I have tried to separate my feelings from these arguments because that is how the Constitution was written.  It was a document designed to guide the decision making of our leaders regardless of their personal opinions so that they could make the best decisions possible for the benefit of every American citizen.  Some people seem to believe that because I am advocating against the health care reform bill that I do not think everyone should have health care.  This couldn't be farther from the truth.  I think everyone should have health care, I think you should have the flexibility to choose your own plan, and I think that everyone that approaches an emergency room should receive service regardless of their citizenship or ability to pay.  While digging up facts for my posts, I have come across lots of information to support my opinion that government programs are not well run or efficient - especially as the length of the program increases.

Finally, I am not trying to prove someone right or wrong and I'm not having an argument to win.  Everywhere I look from comments under news articles online to interviewed people on TV to conversations I have with close friends leads be to believe that people don't know the whole truth behind their positions.  There are plenty of people that want to be included in intelligent-sounding discussions, so they'll repeat the talking head they listened to last night just because they don't know any better. 
News now days has become more a delivery of opinion rather than facts.  The conservatives have their media outlets (Fox News jumps out in my mind immediately as I am typing this) and the liberals have their favorite (NPR, anyone?).  I'm trying to dig deeper behind these stories to find the unbiased truth - the raw data - so that I can make my own decisions and then share my findings with others.

I've checked emotion at the door.  I'm driving my arguments with supported information derived from raw data rather than stipulation.  If I have misinterpreted or missed something, that is what the comments section is for - tell me what you have found.  Challenge my point of views - this is how we learn and grow.  If you aren't even willing to think about other options, then do you even make up your own mind?  Is it simply that you follow the first idea that pops into your head like some sort of lemming?

It seems to me that the most frightening thing people experience in their life time is the realization that something they have been doing all of their life could possibly be wrong.  What does one do at this crucial point?  Has everything that occurred in the past invalidated?  Are you suddenly an evil person for doing the wrong thing all of this time?  Of course not.  No one is perfect.  Then why are new ideas treated with such hostility?

The Government Machine (Part 1)

In an effort to identify where my own thoughts of the government's ability to successfully operate programs differed from the norm, I asked for some help from my friends.  I wanted to know what federal government programs they thought were well-run, efficient, and to the benefit of the common good.  Some I were expecting and some caught me off guard.  Below is my analysis of each program or office mentioned to me prior to publishing this article.  Since I got a lot of good feedback, I'm going to break this into multiple pieces.

The National School Lunch Program
The NSLP was officially enacted with the passage of the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act under President Harry S. Truman in 1946.  This program evolved out of the common problem that a lot of politicians have: the desire to remain in office over the desire for a prosperous country.  People were looking for help from rough times, so the politicians sought to make them happy with promises of free lunch.  I won't dwell on the development of the program because it is a rather convoluted story.  Sufficed to say that the programs leading up to the current NSLP involved price fixing and legislative language to punish schools that did not choose to participate in the program.

The program today offers free or reduced price meals to qualified individuals and qualified public, nonprofit, and residential educational agencies.  Sounds like a great program to get behind - it appeals to all of your moral values and beliefs.  Did you ever stop to think about the problems with this program?  First off, all meals prepared at an institution receiving NSLP must adhere to FDA guidelines (be sure to check the next post which will include the FDA).  Secondly, the government is using farm subsidies to provide fixed-priced goods.  What is wrong with farm subsidies, you ask?  Do you know where high fructose corn syrup comes from?  When the US sugar farmers couldn't keep up with foreign competition, US Farm Subsidies effectively increased the price of all foreign sugar imports so the US sugar farmers wouldn't lose their market share.  Then when other sweetened products (like coke) were competing to get their prices down, HFCS stepped in to become the new low-cost sweetener made by the US corn farmers (under another subsidy program).  Price fixing also has another impact that isn't always apparent: stifled competition.  In a free market, someone comes out with a good or service and prices it to make a profit.  The price is basically determined by supply and demand: the higher the demand, the higher the price.  Someone else sees the product and the selling prices, decides that they can make it in a way that selling it for less would still turn a profit, and enters the market at the lower price.  At this point, each manufacturer is trying to get the price down or increase the value of their product through development and marketing.  When the government is involved, not only does a competitor have to beat the government price, but it also has to beat the taxes taken away from people in order to be competitive.  Additionally, there are usually stipulations tied to the purchase of government goods that would further hurt the buyer if they stopped using the government product.  The stipulation from the government in the NSLP is that if a school opts out of the program, they lose additional federal food support in the way of excess farm goods (a by-product of a different farm subsidy) and additional monetary support for unsubsidized meals.

So what could be done better with the National School Lunch Program?  I can imagine a grocery store, restaurant, or local charities teaming together to create school lunch kitchens for entire districts.  Currently, part of the NSLP restrictions is that all lunches must be made on-sight in order to qualify for aid.  Everyone knows that mass production helps reduce costs and in meal preparation, it is no different.  These large kitchens could be located such that they could deliver hot meals to several schools on a rotating basis to coincide with the school's lunch periods.  The low-cost or free meals could be covered through the cost of other student's meals - like any other business that offers discounts (when that loan company offers you 0% financing, you know they are still getting their money somewhere else).  This may not be the only solution - there may not be any one single solution.  The point is that government aid comes at a higher cost than is initially identified by any single program.

US Peace Corps
The Peace Corps was started by Executive Order under President John F Kennedy and later authorized by congress with the passage of the Peace Corps Act.  The goal is to send able-bodied Americans out into the world to help other countries with needed training, improve the image of Americans abroad, and to increase the understanding of other cultures among Americans.  Since its inception, there have been nearly 200,000 volunteers that have served 139 countries around the world with a budget of $340 Million in FY2009.  So what is the problem?  I say it doesn't do enough.  The US Government decides who deserves to be helped and who must go on suffering.  Not only this, but it is hopelessly inefficient and redundant.  Check out the International Volunteer Programs Association (only one example of many) which sets up international volunteerism through any number of different programs.  Private overseas aid was three times more than government programs.  The message here is that the government bureaucracy is slowing down our ability to help others.  Furthermore, when you donate your time and money to a private charity, you can more specifically target your donations as you wish.

Delivery of Social Security and Government Retirement Checks
I am a little relieved that Social Security and Government Retirement programs weren't targeted directly - it makes me think you have some common sense.  This is a little specific in my mind.  Distribution of mailers is an automated system (most likely developed by the private sector, I might add) and should be efficient.  Now try fixing a problem that may occur with the delivery of your check - THAT takes forever.  I'll also cover the actual delivery of items when I talk about the Post Office next time.

National Institute of Standards and Technology
This one is in response to a comment that the service (the government service that keeps everyone's clock synchronized).  I have chosen to cover all of NIST in this section because is only a very small part its mission.  NIST is responsible for determining industry standards, validating new measurement standards, and pushing new technology.  As with the Peace Corps, NIST is disconnected from industry and redundant.  Currently the most widely used set of standards in industry is organized through an international organization called the International Organization for Standards (ISO).  ISO has member companies in 158 countries around the world and as such is the largest international standards organization.  Standards set by this organization are agreed upon though agreements by technical experts in their field.  Industry has always been the most successful at pushing technology, so the ISO standards are also the most up-to-date and relevant to their fields.  ISO isn't the only standards organization, either - nearly every professional society has a list of standards such as ASME and IEEE (ex: IEEE 802.11 - more commonly referred to as wi-fi).

Be sure to tune in next time for a look at the Food and Drug Administration, The Department of Defense's Global Positioning System, the Postal Service, and most people's golden egg: The US Highway Department.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Our Best Interest

It has come up several times in debates I have had that, regardless of what the constitution says, people are willing to let the government force universal health care reform onto the US citizens because they see the government as acting in our own best interest.  This assumes of course that the government knows exactly what is right for its citizens and how best to enact the correct actions.  I would like to challenge whomever is willing to provide me with three federal government programs that act in the best interest of the entire US population and that have been enacted so efficiently that you can not think of a non-government alternative.  Leave me comments - contact me through AIM or Facebook - talk to me face-to-face - WHATEVER.  I am interested to see what pops up.  You also have plenty of room in the comments section to validate your selection.