Sunday, January 20, 2008

Don't Call the Cops

I have a neighbor who's dog tends to bark a lot. Sometimes they let him out at night and he barks for long periods of time. It hasn't bothered me too much, I can close the windows on the back side of the house in the summer which usually blocks out the noise. I suppose if I got sufficiently annoyed I would go over and knock on their door and tell them that their dog was barking too much and ask them if they could try to keep him in at night. So far it has not aggravated me enough to do much more than complain about it to my wife. Some people would call the police and complain but I don't like to do that. I don't believe in involving the authorities in my life unless it is really necessary.

I ran across this article linked on The Agitator. The story leaves out a lot of details but apparently this 13 year old girl was reported to have touched two male students inappropriately. As a result the police were called and the girl was arrested. We don't know what the exact nature of the touching was and it is difficult to judge the seriousness of the situation from the article. Still, I don't understand why the police were called in. As a parent, my first response would have been to talk to the school about what happened. If I were a school administrator I think I would want to talk to the girl and her parents to find out what was going on and how to put a stop to it. If the girls behavior could not be stopped then for the well being of the other students I would bar the girl from riding the bus and if necessary try to have her expelled from school. Also I think I would be talking with the girl's parents to try to determine if she needed some help and I would be generally concerned for her well being in addition to the well being of the boys involved. In this case, apparently the best option was to call the cops have her thrown in jail.

In my view, police are not here to handle every problem that can occur in our dealings with other people. In general, police can only provide police solutions (arresting people, writing citations, using deadly force against those who are endangering others) so you should not call them if you are not willing to accept a police solution. Police are necessary and do a job most of us are not willing to do. They spend their days dealing with people on the worst days of their lives getting grief for enforcing ridiculous laws we allow to get passed. They should not be called on to settle problems outside the normal scope of police work. If you call the police you should do so realizing that certain things like arrests are within the realm of possibility. If this is not something you are willing to accept, maybe you need to deal with the problem another way. If someone is breaking into your house, call the cops. If two kids get into a fight on the playground don't. That is a job for parents and teachers, not cops.

Most of the time, people can come up with better solutions than government on their own. Government has to treat all individuals and situations equally when they are not all equal. Government prevents the use of discretion. Government's solutions tend to say that problem x always requires solution y. Look at this case. A 10 year old girl brought a steak knife to school, the police were called and a police solution was the result. The girl was arrested. This is an extreme case and one wonders if the police could not have used some discretion but none the less, arresting people carrying "deadly weapons" is a potential police solution to a problem. School administrators should know this is a potential outcome and should question if this is a desirable outcome in this situation. Several years ago, one of my kids drew a picture of a gun at school. Thankfully his teacher had been teaching students since I was in kindergarten and new a little bit about what normal behavior is for little boys. A simple "do not do this again" was sufficient. If this had been the wrong sort of teacher, we might have been bailing him out of jail as a result of some zero tolerance policy nonsense.

And zero tolerance policies are nonsense. We should expect school administrators, principals and teachers to use discretion and good judgement on a case by case basis. It should be part of their job, what we pay them for. Anyone can read the rules and apply them exactly as written. A professional is paid to do more than that, they are expected to use their experience and training to make decisions.

The less we are willing to manage our own affairs and dealings with other people, the more government will be willing to step in and do so for us. Chances are we will not like the outcome or solutions provided any better than if we solved the problem on our own. The difference is, what government does is much harder to undo.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Ghoulishly Greedy Government

This last weekend I was helping my mother roll her 401K into an IRA when I learned something rather disgusting. Many people of retirement age probably already know this but I am a young guy at 38 so I don't think too much about retirement yet. Anyway, when you reach age 70.5 you have to start drawing money out of your retirement accounts. This I knew. What I did not know was the method the government uses to determine how much you need to draw out. They estimate when you are going to die and create a schedule of withdrawals so your account balance will be 0 on that magic date. Is it me, or is there is something wrong with a government estimating how long you will live in order to extract as much tax money as possible before you die.

I used to think 401Ks were great. Stick with me, this is not going to be a finance column. I have been putting money into mine since I was in my twenties. I used to think it was wonderful, I get to save this money, reduce my income taxes, and I don't have to pay any taxes on it until I withdraw it. The last few years however, I have come to view it as a trap, a prison for my money. I put money in because the company I work for matches contributions so not doing so is like leaving money on the table. But that money is then held hostage. I can't take it out without paying penalties or borrowing my own money and paying interest. Worse yet, I have no idea what the income tax rate will be when I do take it out but I bet it will be higher than it is now, much higher. According to the Social Security Administration the "trust fund" will only be able to cover 75% of its benefits by 2041. Add to that Medicare possibly running out of money in 2020 and you would have to believe the government is going to be pretty desperate for cash long before I can start making withdrawals from my 401k. The government is going to be looking at my big fat 401k like a hungry lion looking at a juicy steak.

Now, you can argue that the Roth 401k addresses the concerns about income tax on withdrawal and it does. The problem is that it is still the government telling you what to do with your money. You can draw out the principle after 5 years I believe but there are restrictions on withdrawing the capital gains until 59.5 as I understand it. Also you have to invest post tax dollars which many people will have a harder time doing.

Lately, all I hear is scaremongering about the economy. The housing bubble, the prime rate crisis, the weak dollar. A number of financial "experts" are predicting a recession, or a depression. I don't buy into it but what if? What if I lost my job? What if there were no jobs and things got real tight? I mean real tight as in selling things to buy food? I've got a decent (by my standards) chunk of change sitting there that I can't tap into without losing a significant portion of it. Most people have money in retirement accounts and very little liquid savings and you know why? Liquid savings is EXPENSIVE. You have to pay income tax on that money just so you can have it in your savings account. That means social security tax, federal income tax, state tax and in my case city tax and 15% a year in capital gains on any investment returns. So the savings people do have is tied up in retirement accounts that are difficult to get at. I am not saying its a good idea to tap into your retirement willy nilly but if a depression were to hit along the lines of 1929 where are the reserves going to come from to keep people afloat?

And don't get me started on the taxing the rich nonsense. The rich don't get taxed the way the people trying to get rich are taxed. The rich don't have income for the most part, they have capital gains. You don't pay social security tax on capital gains and the current long term capital gains rate is 15%. In many cases there are no capital gains if you invest in tax free instruments such as municipal bonds. The really rich don't have to jump through the hoops that we do trying to become rich. They don't care what the income tax rate is, and they have access to their money while the rest of us have to lock our money up so we can't get to it even if we need to. The highest income tax bracket is 35% in addition to 6.2% in social security tax on the first 100K (actually 12.4% counting the employers portion) so if you are upper middle class working your ass off making say 250K a year you get soaked. If you are Warren Buffet, not so much. The rich people in this country put up roadblocks to becoming rich and tell lies about taxing the rich to help the poor. If you want to help everyone, eliminate capital gains and decrease the income tax so people can save for retirement in a way that allows them to control and access their money as needed.

And Uncle Sam wants to make sure I pay all the tax they can squeeze out of me before I shuffle off this mortal coil. So when I turn 70.5 they will send me a letter telling me when they expect me to die. At least when I reach 70.5 the age should be higher than it is now. I wonder, will they consider me irresponsible if I don't oblige and drop dead on time? I mean, I will no longer be paying income tax on my 401k withdrawals and God help us if we have universal health care where the state will view me as a drain on their resources at that point.

The point of all this is that we don't have the freedom to manage our own money. Taxes have become so predatory that we have to protect ourselves from them and in doing so we put our finances in a straight jacket. Imagine what this country would be like if capital could flow freely. We could invest for retirement and have access to our money for real emergencies. There would be a buffer for economic downturns.

Its my money, my life and when I will die is none of the government's business.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Surveillance no substitute for responsibility

A couple days ago I saw this article on breathalyzer tests being mandatory for all students at a New Jersey high school. A few days later I saw this about speed cameras being installed on mountains in Switzerland to catch people skiing to fast. It occurred to me that people are no longer expected to act responsibly because it is the right thing to do. They are expected to act responsibly because they are under surveillance and they might get caught.

Question. Does providing 24 hour surveillance of your children make you a good parent? Well, if your criteria for being a good parent is that your kids never get into major trouble and you deliver them to adulthood without the chance to ever screw up then yeah, I guess so. If you want to make sure your child never takes a sip of alcohol before they are 21 and you breathalyze them everyday I guess you could in theory make sure that this does not happen. But what have you accomplished really? Have you taught them how to use alcohol responsibly or have you just avoided having to deal with the issue on your watch? You can pat yourself on the back and say my kid never drank in my home meanwhile that kid is suddenly an adult learning about alcohol without any helpful guidance from you.

This isn't really about alcohol or people speeding on snow, but these stories are good illustrations of how people are no longer expected to act responsibly. As surveillance becomes more common, people think less about right and wrong. The focus becomes not getting caught. The difference seems small but is huge in terms of attitude and outlook. An individual looking to do what is right has a positive goal. They are using their moral framework to make a decision that will benefit first themselves and, as a result, society. Trying not to get caught results in decisions made out of expediency and any morality is coincidental. Worse it does nothing help develop one's moral framework. Society has little expectation for people to do the right thing anymore.

As parents we should be raising our kids to be adults and finding ways to trust them more, not less. People rise or fall to the expectations that you have for them. When I say trust, I don't mean blind trust. I don't mean saying "here's the keys to the car, see you in the morning". Trust takes work, it has to be built and it requires parents to take risks. It is simpler and becoming easier all the time to monitor our kids. If you don't believe me, here is an article about devices to monitor your kids when they start driving. Here is an article about parents buying breathalyzers to test their kids. You can monitor their location with GPS enabled cell phones. You can give them credit cards a monitor their purchases. In short we as parents have the ability to monitor our children far greater than our parents ever could and this will only increase as technology advances. Pretty soon there will be few decisions our kids can make without our knowledge. If we are relying on surveillance alone in raising our kids, we are only doing part of the job.

The real problem is we are raising a generation that is accustomed to being watched, to having guardrails in place to protect them. Individuals with morals, with a motivation to go out and build a life for themselves will make the right decisions out of a desire to do what is right. And when they are in situations where the guardrails don't exist they will be better equipped to handle it. It is part of our job as parents to help our children develop the tools to make the right decisions. This has to be done through experiencing life, not hiding life from them. Our goal as parents should be to produce an adult who does not need to be breathalyzed to see if they have been drinking, who does not need 24 hour surveillance, in short an adult who is responsible.

Our civilization has only two paths it can take as I see it. The first path, the one we are on now will gradually diminish our individual responsibilities to the point where we will have few or no decisions to make in life. What you eat, drink, think and do will be determined for you. This is not hyperbole. The guardrails will gradually become fences. As our decision making decreases and technology increasingly has the ability to make its own decisions, the value of humanity will diminish. The second path, the one we need to be on involves increasing individual responsibility and control over our own lives. Individuals are responsible for their own survival. As much decision making as possible is put back on the individual as well as the consequences of those decisions. Ultimately we will become more responsible for our individual existence or we will cease to be individuals and become a nameless faceless mass of humanity for whom the decisions are made.

Monday, January 7, 2008

There's no crying in baseball

There's no crying in baseball. Someone needs to tell Hillary there is no crying in elections either. Its self indulgent, narcissistic and weak. In this case it is probably calculated too. Undoubtedly the result of a focus group polling saying Hillary needs to be more human. There is so much wrong in this video.

"I have so many opportunities for this country" what does this even mean? Its gibberish that loosely translated means that Hillary when elected will be like your fairy god mother who will use her wand (the power of the government) to grant you magic wishes and take credit for whatever good happens because you are too stupid to do anything on your own without her. The fact that people are choosing Obama over her obviously means that they are too stupid to know this undeniable truth.

"Some of us put ourselves out there against incredible odds because we love our country." And some of us do it because we are power hungry, controlling, manipulative control freaks who want to rule the world and everyone in it.

How Hillary sees herself as president:
1. If you got up this morning and went to work you need to thank President Hillary because she is the reason you have a job.
2. If you were able to buy food and feed it to your kids, you need to thank President Hillary because she made sure the food was safe and not too expensive.
3. If you were able to buy clothes for your kids yadayadayada... thank President Hillary.
4. If you are lucky enough to have a house, it is only through the grace of President Hillary and her hard work against the evil mortgage lenders.
5. If you have a car and can put gas in it, see number 4. but substitute oil companies.
6. If you have healthcare, see number 5, substitute HMOs, doctors, drug companies.

The country succeeds because of the people doing the actual work, not because of who the president is. The best a president can do is get the government out of the way so people can go about the business of making things work. The worst a president can do is be a glory hound who thinks they alone are responsible for the sun rising every morning.

"This is one of the most important elections America has ever faced". This always irritates me no matter who says it. Every election I hear this. I guess this election is more important than the elections of 1788, 1860, 1932, and 1960 just to name a few. If it is more important than most elections, it has a lot to more do with the welfare state and the nanny state than anything else. Immigration, weak dollar, education issues, budget concerns all can be tied to the rise of the welfare state.

If our country's success is wholly dependent on the right person being elected president every 4 years lest the whole thing fall apart then we are toast anyway. Its not going to happen. There are going to be good presidents and bad ones. Its the people who keep things together and work to keep government in its place.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Conflicted on Ron Paul

I just saw Ron Paul speaking on CNN and man do I want to vote for the guy. The man is passionate, and he has a vision! Not sure I completely agree with him but hearing him speak there is no question in my mind what he believes what he is saying and knows what his vision for the country is. That is hard to ignore.

I have supported republicans in the past but honestly republicans and democrats are headed in the same direction, the democrats just want to waste less time in getting there. Ron Paul is the only one offering something truly different. Smaller government, less interference in peoples lives, music to my ears. I am going to try and read up more on what he wants to do as president.

What has me conflicted is his ideas about national defense. I think he wants to bring the troops home immediately from Iraq and from other spots around the world. Even that has some appeal, letting other nations run their own lives, but is that just a naive fantasy? Could we stay out of the middle east and leave them to their own designs? What about the oil supply? I don't see us being able to drill our own oil here anytime soon. What about nuclear proliferation? Then again I don't think it is possible to stop nuclear proliferation anymore. I doubt we will stop Iran from going nuclear. We can probably slow Iran down with air strikes on key facilities but are we going to go in with ground troops the way we did in Iraq? I don't think so. Then there is the issue that our intelligence agencies appear to be so severely crippled that I doubt anyone has a clear picture of Iran's capabilities are.

Would Ron Paul have removed a Saddam Hussein from power? I am starting to wonder if rebuilding Iraq is in our interest but would we have been better off leaving him in power? I don't think so. At the very least we have forced terrorist to commit resources to fighting our troops in Iraq. A Saddam controlled Iraq might have gained enough strength by now to threaten Iran and provide more motivation for them to acquire nuclear weapons. Last but not least, the intimidation factor. Kicking the crap out of Saddam instilled fear in some regimes. Khadafi in Libya suddenly saw the light and handed over his nuclear program. Anyone attempting to pull a 911 type stunt would have to be concerned that a provoked US would be willing to act again. Yes, I know Saddam was not behind 911 but taking him out has caused problems for Al Qaeda in many ways.

So what would national security policy look like under Ron Paul. Would we draw back our troops within our borders and tell our enemies this far and no further? Would we abandon trying to build a functional democracy in the middle east? What would be the response to a future 911? Would it be a more limited kick the crap of whoever did it and let someone else worry about picking up the pieces? I don't know, maybe that is how we need to act. Perhaps nation building is not enough in our nation's interest to justify it or perhaps it is not a realistic goal.

So much else about Ron Paul appeals to me. His interest in following the constitution, smaller government that is not there to solve everyone's problems, genuine concern with government spending instead of lip service that every other candidate gives it.

Oh well, my conflict will probably be short lived. I doubt he has a chance in hell of winning, you have to be able to pander to do that.
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