Saturday, December 31, 2005

A Glimmer of Hope

It’s a tough old world out there, and the older you get, the easier it is to occasionally get discouraged. But then, every once in awhile, a glimmer of hope appears and gives us strength to carry on. Like when your daughter brings home a boy that actually has a chance of finding a job. Or like when your heart doctor tells you "See you next year".

I received one of those glimmers Saturday morning when I picked up my Indianapolis Star and read the editorial, "Bailout mustn’t drown us in debt". I’ve grown accustomed to newspapers clamoring for more funding for sports stadiums, convention centers, libraries and hiking trails, and any other project that a portion of their readership might deem desirable. And I realize that the Star didn’t come right out and say that the federal government isn’t authorized to take $700.00 from every man, woman and child in the United States and give it to some questionably accountable agency in Louisiana. But it did question whether the federal government should be sending $12.5 million to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum. And it did state that the rest of the $23 billion in pork projects from the recent highway bill "can no longer be justified in light of the massive and extensive emergency on the Gulf Coast." It’s not a great leap to think that at some time in the near future they might decide that pork barrel projects are never justified

The editorial did at least raise the possibility that the feds might be able to reduce some of their spending. That’s more than we heard from Tom DeLay, the Republican Majority Leader in the House of Representatives, who stated, "there is simply no fat to cut in the federal budget." But then I stopped hoping for much out of our current politicians a long time ago.

I cut the editorial out and taped it to my office wall among varied Sheldon Richman and Joe Sobran articles. For times when I need a little hope.

Now, I know that the Indianapolis Star didn’t come right out and endorse the libertarian idea of a limited government. And I know that Dan Carpenter and Sheila Suess-Kennedy will continue to assail those ideas with columns that will cause me to unleash unsolicited diatribes upon anybody in my vicinity of my reading room, usually my poor wife.

I also know we have our work cut out for us, trying to convince a majority of voters that a multi-trillion dollar debt really does matter, that people are better equipped than the government to make their own personal decisions, and that the free-market is more efficient than government regulation.

I know all of that. But Saturday, I had a good day.


Friday, December 30, 2005

New taxes won't solve the real problem.

IACT, the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns, recently announced that its members could solve their financial problems if they were allowed to impose and raise more taxes. In the words of my slightly past teen-age son, "Well, Duh-uh". Couldn’t we all. Unfortunately, this is the same plan shared by politicians across the state and nation. The thought of reducing spending to ease the problem, while discussed occasionally, especially during campaigns, is never really honestly considered.

While Hoosier politicians play "pass the blame" with property taxes, food and beverage taxes, income taxes, the ever-popular local option income taxes, etc., the citizens of Indiana are left facing one glaring truth. There is only one place for any arm of the government to go for money, and the more money that government spends, the more money we as taxpayers will have to fork over. The latest round of property tax haggling between the state and local entities has produced forecasts by some lawmakers that those taxes will increase by 10% per year for the next three years. The main argument consists of who will collect the bounty and distribute the spoils. When you reach the point that you can no longer afford to pay the taxes on your home, will it really matter whether the state legislature or the county council sent you the bill?

When the federal budget was passed in Washington recently, the Republicans claimed a victory for fiscal conservatism, and the Democrats were upset that too many programs had been cut. Their reactions might make the casual observer think that spending had actually been reduced. (Our congressmen must have believed that too, because they felt so good about it they voted themselves a raise!) In reality, the only thing that was reduced was the rate of growth, and even then only by a minuscule amount. The Medicare prescription plan added more to the budget than all of the so-called reductions removed, and the federal budget, which has doubled in the last 15 years, continues to grow at a rate that will double it again in the next 10.

Politicians and economists will continue to argue about whether the actual federal debt is $5 trillion or $8 trillion, or $44 trillion as the Congressional Budget Office estimates, but the cold hard facts remain that working Americans will pay higher taxes in some form today, next year and 10 years from now as we pay $40 billion per month just for the interest on that debt. With the current attitude towards uncontrolled spending in congress today, the principle will not be addressed without, yes, you guessed it, raising taxes.

As taxpayers, we continue to bear the brunt of errant spending decisions from officials at all levels of government. From school boards spending millions on programs and buildings that have nothing to do with education, and city and county officials that use our tax dollars to provide special favors for special businesses. From state officials that spend millions on football stadiums for multi-millionaire team owners and players, and national officials that spend billions on bridges to nowhere in particular and breast enlargements for our soldiers. All funded by your ever increasing taxes.

Our current crop of politicians, top to bottom, have proven time and time again that they are either unable or unwilling to control their spending binges. Sooner or later, we are going to have to send in someone who can and will.


Stinky Wilmont and the Secret Spy Ring

Back in 1961, lunch at Millville Grade School was 27 cents. They would throw in a half-pint of Best Ever milk for an extra 3 cents. White, of course. Chocolate was a nickel. Every Monday, Mom would issue each of us $1.50, our share of the milk check, and we were set for the week.

Things worked out pretty well like that, except for the time that Stinky Wilmont talked me into buying that spy ring with the secret compartment. I mostly wound up with an empty belly and a green finger. It did, however, teach me a valuable lesson about the proper utilization of funds.

The Indiana Department of Transportation has announced that it will be canceling or postponing many road projects because of a $2.1 billion shortfall over the next ten years. When you watch the numbers spin on the pump while filling your vehicle, you have to wonder how they could run out of money. But if you look at how that tax money is being spent, it’s a little more understandable.

It seems reasonable to expect that road use taxes should be used for the construction and maintenance of public roads. At least it seems reasonable to me. Apparently it doesn’t seem reasonable to the people we send to Washington. When Congress passed its’ $284 billion highway bill, it managed to slip in some items that might not be considered road worthy. I’m not sure why $3 million of the taxes we pay on gasoline should support the Packard Museum in Warren, Ohio. Or why $4 million should be used to remove graffiti in Brooklyn (I thought people in Brooklyn liked graffiti). Or why $1.5 million should be used on horse trails in Virginia. In all, the highway bill spends billions of dollars on 4000 projects that have nothing to do with roads.

Not that Indiana was left out in the cold. The Children’s’ Museum in Indianapolis received $14million. Even locally, we find gas and wheel tax money being spent on the Cardinal Greenway and the Red Tail Conservancy. No doubt worthy and commendable projects, but certainly not falling under the category of roads.

More and more, our elected officials in Washington seem to be losing their grip on fiscal responsibility, which is why I was happy to hear there is a movement in the works to reduce the federal highway tax from 18 cents per gallon to 2 cents per gallon, and allow the states to collect and spend the money where it belongs, on the roads.

It seems we stand a better chance of holding our state and local officials accountable for errant spending. That, or we could send Stinky Wilmont to Washington to give them a lesson or two on how to spend our money.


Thursday, December 29, 2005

Old Blue and the ICLU

Some of my most vivid memories about growing up on our farm in Henry County involve the old family hounddog, Blue. In reality, he belonged to my older brother, Charles, but somehow through the course of time, the family adopted Blue or he adopted us. I’m not sure which it was. One of the things I remember most about Blue was his inability to discern between legitimate threats to the order of things on the farm, and events that really didn’t require his attention. Blue had a passion for barking at the neighbor’s cows, the Jewel Tea man, cats that had the audacity to stray from the safety of the barn, and just about every other object, animate or inanimate, that he discovered in the vicinity of his territory.

I can’t recall how many times Mom was ready to call the county dog catcher and have Blue hauled to the pound, or how often Dad wanted to take him on a one way hunting trip to the woods. I do know that Blue spent a lot of days on the fine line between life and death, without much support or sympathy from the majority of the family. But then, once in awhile, some varmint would try to get into the chicken house and Blue would throw one of his fits, and we were all just awful proud to have him around.

I told that story so I could tell this story. Currently the Indiana Civil Liberties Union is suing the General Assembly to prevent them from opening their sessions with prayers that the ICLU considers unconstitutional. Now, the United States Constitution plainly states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;" and the Indiana Constitution plainly states "No law shall, in any case whatever, control the free exercise and enjoyment of religious opinions, or interfere with the rights of conscience."

I’m not sure why the ICLU thinks that a voluntary prayer offered up anywhere would violate either Constitution, but I suppose they have the right to raise the question. I also suppose that any judge that has taken an oath to uphold one or both of these Constitutions would easily rule that the ICLU is way out of line on this one, and maybe even smack them with a rolled-up newspaper while giving them a good scolding.

It’s not that I would like to see the ICLU neutered or put down. Heaven knows we need as many people as we can get to keep an eye on a government that hasn’t always had a good track record for policing itself. But they sure would be a lot easier to put up with if they would figure out if that ruckus they’re hearing is a weasel in the hen house, or just Uncle Hobert’s milk truck, before they started carrying on so.


Stinky Wilmont rides again

Several years ago, the poker club I belonged to needed a substitute player for the evening. Although I had a few reservations about it, we invited my old nemesis, Stinky Wilmont, to sit in for the evening. Years before, Stinky had a knack for swindling me out of my lunch money back at Millville Grade School, but I was little older and feeling a little smarter by this time, so I figured it was time to forgive and forget, and maybe get some of my lunch money back.

We played ‘dealers choice’, which meant that the dealer chose the game for that hand. That worked out pretty well most of the time, since the dealer normally chose 5 or 7 card stud, or a simple variation of one of those games. On this particular evening, however, when the deal came around to Stinky, he called out "Oklahoma 7 card no peek, high card up and low card down wild".

He then dealt the cards as he explained the rules, as the rest of us anted and bet and hoped for the best. When the dealing and the betting ended, I was grinning like a possum as I showed my four aces and prepared to rake in the pot. That’s when Stinky informed us that red fours were also wild, and since he had two of them, he had a straight flush and that I had finished second. We voted not to invite Stinky to our game again.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about today. In 1987, the Indiana General Assembly created the County Economic Development Income Tax (CEDIT), which county councils could adopt, if they so desired. The rules for the use of the money collected by this tax were spelled out in the Indiana Code. In simple terms, CEDIT funds could be used for "economic development projects or for capitol construction of most publicly owned facilities."

Whether or not tax money should be used on privately owned projects is still a point of contention even among many non-libertarians, but until we get the law changed, those are the rules.
But sometimes, our government doesn’t play by the rules. In Wayne County, the Economic Development Commission used $75,000.00 of CEDIT funds just to find someone to serve as their president, and pay for his move to Richmond. And another $8000.00 to buy him a desk. In Union County, the county commissioners are using CEDIT funds, $125,000.00 worth, to pay for housing prisoners in other counties. Now, I’m sure a president needs a desk, and I know prisoners need a place to stay, but you can’t pay for it with CEDIT funds. Not unless you change the rules.

We run into the same dilemma when the politicians collect our road use taxes, then change the rules and spend them on the Erie Canal Museum.

Or when they set the federal debt limit at $7 trillion, and when the debt reaches that limit, then raising the debt limit to $8 trillion.

Or when they swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States when they are elected, but then decide that the first ten amendments of that Constitution might be a little to restrictive to suit their needs, and might need to be more loosely interpreted.

A lot people would have a hard time keeping their taxes paid and believing politicians even if the government played fair. It gets even harder when they keep changing the rules.
I haven’t seen Stinky Wilmont for a long time, and I’m not sure what he’s doing now. But I suspect he might be working for the government.