Lessons From George Washington: Part 1

I am not sure why, but George Washington (GW) has been on my mind a lot recently.  Our nation’s first Commander-in-Chief was far from perfect, but the more I look into his history, and the more I read his writings, the more I am convinced we could learn a lot from him right now.  While we could talk about his time in command of the Continental Army, or his time as the first President of the United States, I believe his greatest teaching came out of his farewell address when he declined to run for a third term.

The letter (originally written with James Madison in 1792, and then revised with Alexander Hamilton in 1796) acted as a somewhat prophetic warning against partisan politics and international alliances, along with discussions of patriotism, aversion to debt, and the role of religion and morality in government.  More than two centuries later, it is easy to see that we, as a nation, ignored his warnings at our own peril.  For the purposes of this post, we are going to focus on the warning against partisanship.

GW begins his farewell letter by announcing his decision to retire from public service and not seek reelection.  He thanks the people for their support and defends his decision to retire against those who might think he is abandoning his post.  He acknowledges that he he should probably stop there, but he is compelled to go further and warn his fellow citizens about possible dangers lurking ahead.

Here, perhaps, I ought to stop. But a solicitude for your welfare, which cannot end but with my life, and the apprehension of danger, natural to that solicitude, urge me on an occasion like the present, to offer to your solemn contemplation, and to recommend to your frequent review, some sentiments which are the result of much reflection, of no inconsiderable observation, and which appear to me all important to the permanency of your felicity as a people.

He then goes into a bit of a defense of the U.S. Constitution and the institutions of government it creates, before talking about the American people as a single Union.

With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together. The independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint councils and joint efforts—of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.

He then begins to acknowledge that, despite these similarities, there are differences that may unite certain individuals against others.  He talks about geographical differences (North vs. South; East vs. West) but makes a point of bringing up how these different groups can grow and learn from one another.  The benefit of working together outweighs the small benefits of fighting one another.

In this sense it is, that your Union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty, and that the love of the one ought to endear to you the preservation of the other.

This is where he really starts to warn against political factions and parties, and the damage they can have on the Union as a whole.

One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heart burnings which spring from these misrepresentations. They tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.

In other words, the main way parties tend to win support is by highlighting the divisions between us and using those divisions to bolster their own support.  Human nature then takes this and blows it out of proportion.  It becomes less about supporting your own faction, and more about tearing down others.  At this point, we are no longer Americans working on common goals, but we are conservatives or liberals, Democrats or Republicans working to undermine the opposition.  Under this political scheme, the parties win while the public loses.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.

But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and  miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.

So, being so focused on party vs. party, we will eventually turn to an individual that uses this division to increase his own power at the expense of liberty?  Sound familiar?  We have seen it before, in Europe, just before World War II.  There are many who would argue we are seeing it now in our own country.  While I think the scales are dramatically different, there is an undeniable similarity in the way certain individuals have used the divisions among us to increase their own power.  But where is the harm?

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public  administration. It agitates the community with ill founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

Ok…its starting to get a little spooky.  “It opens the door to foreign influence.”  Where I have I heard that before?

This is what it boils down to: fighting amongst ourselves leaves us vulnerable to threats, both foreign and domestic.  So what are we supposed to do about it?

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight) the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and the duty of a wise people to discourage and
restrain it.

So step one is keeping an eye out for it.  Sadly, it seems we may have missed the signs, but that takes up to step 2, which is to “discourage and restrain it.”

It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism.

So if we seem to have one branch of government asserting itself over others, encroaching authority beyond its scope, we must strengthen the others (to discourage and restrain it) and maintain a balanced system.  The primary branch of opposition in this case seems even more broken due to partisan politics.  If only we had an opportunity to do something to bolster that branch.

Oh…right…its a midterm election year.

The entire House of Representatives and one third of the Senate are up for reelection.  So if you are concerned about one branch of the government overstepping its authority, go out and vote for members of another branch to try and bring balance back to the system.  I know its only March, but it is never too early to start informing yourself about your choices in November (and make sure you are properly registered).

Please understand, I am not advocating for any party here (and I don’t think GW would either).  Both parties are to blame for our current circumstances (not to mention our own willful ignorance).  What I am advocating for is going out and voting your conscience.  Vote for someone who embodies your ideal of a leader.  Vote for someone who shares at least some of our your convictions and your beliefs.  Vote for someone who will stand up for American ideals, and more importantly, the people those ideals represent.

If you find a person or a cause you believe it, don’t just vote.  Volunteer.  Campaign.  Talk to others.

Take a cue from GW.  Be a patriot.  Fight for liberty.  Stand up.  Be heard. Get involved.  Vote.  DO SOMETHING!

Here ends the lesson.

 

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Annoyed and Disappointed

As I come back from a four-year hiatus from blogging, I can’t help but feel utterly lost and perplexed at the current state of American politics.  Now, anyone who read my blog in years past knows that I have always been somewhat cynical, but this is bad even by my standards.  And no, I do no think we are on the brink of societal collapse or annihilation, but there is no denying that we are certainly at a crossroads.

While some of you may think this is going to be a post about President Trump (I still can’t get used to saying that), I believe he is merely one of many symptoms of a larger problem.  That is not to say that he can’t still do some serious harm, but even if he disappears in three and a half years, our troubles will be far from over.  Even if we start treating the symptoms, we will eventually have to root out the disease at its core.

The disease: Us.  Specifically, I am referring to the majority of Americans that find themselves somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum.  The silent majority, as it were.  That silence is what is keeping us from trying to fix a broken system.  Most of us get so disheartened by the constant noise from the Left and the Right, that we tend to just sit back and let the current take us where it will.  Then we blame the “lib-tards” or the “alt-right” racists for putting us in the position we are currently in.  They aren’t the problem.  We are.  They are at least passionate about what they believe in.  They are the ones standing up and making noise.  But if we all started showing some passion, and making some noise, we could drown them all out in spades.

Say what you want about rigged political systems, the wealthy elite, and corrupt politicians, the fact remains that we could flip the whole things on its head within a few election cycles.  The only problem is that it would require a great deal of time, research, elevated thinking, and effort on the part of the electorate.  And THAT is something I just don’t see happening any time soon.

Let me be perfectly clear, I consider myself part of the problem.  The point of this post is not to point fingers at the lazy, uninformed citizens of my country.  The point is to acknowledge that until we, as a country, decide to put the work in, things will never change.

How do we do that…honestly, I have no idea.  I have some general ideas, but it is not a road map for fixing the country.  That is a job that is TOO big for any one of us.

I feel that a majority of Americans find themselves in the same state of disappointing apathy that I am dealing with.  We don’t like the President, we don’t like Congress, and we don’t trust most of the “main street media.”  We see our Commander-in-Chief tweeting about reporters and opposing politicians like a jilted high school “mean girl.”  We see our elected legislators squabble over ineffective legislation that has more to do with touting party rhetoric than actually helping its citizens.  And we have once beloved and trusted news sources focusing more on pushing their own narrative (or trying to attack individuals they feel have declared war on their industry) than actually trying to inform the public of important issues that demand our attention.

What are we supposed to do in the face of all that?

I wish I could point to some great movement or initiative that we could all get behind.  Instead, I think the answer is fairly simple, though it will be different for each of us.

Accountability.

Before we talk about holding the media and our elected officials accountable, we need to hold ourselves accountable.  We have to figure out what we want, what we expect, from the media and our government.  We can’t really do that until we decide what we want for ourselves and our country.

The first step is deciding what we believe.  That sounds simple, but it is going to require some introspective analysis by each of us.  We can’t keep jumping on whatever popular bandwagon comes along each election cycle.  We have to decide what we believe and which issues are truly important to us. Many of us won’t agree on what is important, or how we feel on every issue, but once we know where we stand and why we stand there, things will become much more clear.

The next step is to decide how our beliefs impact the various issues that face the nation.  This is where things get complicated.  You have to take your views on government, taxation, foreign policy, and other areas and decide how it translates to actual policy.  What are your views on gay marriage, abortion, military spending, religious liberty, civil rights, taxation, etc…  This is more than just figuring out how you feel.    Until we do this for the issues that matter most to us, we can never get to step three.

Once we know what we believe, how those beliefs translate to the issues, and which issues are most important to us, we can decide which candidates we should really be supporting.  Most Americans end up supporting the candidates they think support their ideas, without really drilling down on that candidates own beliefs, or they simply vote along party lines, or worse…they don’t vote at all.  As long we continue to sit back, take no initiative, and fail to educate ourselves on the issues and the candidates, our country is going to continue its march to the political extremes.  If we educate ourselves and make informed decisions, it will directly impact those we elect to govern our nations, as well as the way the media approaches the big issues.  If we become accountable, it makes it that much easier to hold others accountable.

There is my two cents on the subject.  Do what you will.

On another note, I am hopping to get this blog going again.  Too early to tell if I will successfully stick to a posting schedule, but we can always hope, right?

Time To Shut It Down

It has been almost 6 months since I posted on this blog.  I could say I just don’t have time to blog, but that is not entirely accurate.  I believe people will make time for the things that are important to them.  My inactivity on this blog is evidence that it is not particularly important to me at this time.  I would, eventually, like to get back to writing on a weekly basis, but this is simply not high enough on my list of priorities right now.  As such, I am officially declaring an end to DC Spill Man.  To those of you who followed my blog, thank you for letting me share my thoughts on various issues.  I hope it wasn’t too painful of a read.  Although it is both cliche and corny, I leave you with the following Irish blessing:

May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face.
And rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the hollow of His hand.

Stop Hating on My Generation

A friend recently brought this opinion piece by cartoonist Matt Bors to my attention.  Mr. Bors is member of Generation Y (as am I) and has apparently had his fill of media coverage of “lazy millennials.”  I encourage you to view the entire piece, but the gist of the message is that perhaps my contemporaries’ choices to “delay adulthood” has a lot to do with the circumstances created by Generation X.

Millenials aren’t marrying, buying houses, and having kids later than previous generations because they’re sitting around trying to beat a video game.  They’re “delaying adulthood” because the job market is the worst it’s been since the Great Depression.

Boom.  While I do believe there is rampant laziness affecting a large number of Americans, I agree with the idea that many members of my generation are also hindered by the circumstances they grew up in.  Some 20 (or early 30) somethings really are just ill equipped to live on their own two feet.  Others, however, are victims of the current economic situation (the economy, stupid).

We were raised to believe college was necessary for success (which is mostly true).  We then went into massive amounts of debt to earn our degrees.  To pay off the debt, we either need well-paying jobs or very low expenses.  Expenses can’t get much lower than moving back in with Mom and Dad.  I was lucky enough to find gainful employment after college (enough so that I was able to go to law school at night) and actually make it on my own.  Other are not always so lucky.  Bors makes this point with a witty nod to one of the ridiculous things our generation truly is guilty of.

Stop hating on millenials.  We didn’t create this mess.  We came late to the banquet and were served up crumbs…which we will Instagram before we eat.

Well played Matt…well played.

Simplifying the Tax Code Isn’t So Simple

Tax-is-Robbery

One of the first big news stories in Washington this week is that Congress called for Apple CEO Tim Cook to testify before the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to discuss his company’s tax practices.  Specifically, the Senators wanted some explanation for  Apple’s use of technicalities in Irish and U.S. law to pay little or no corporate taxes on $74 billion over the past four years.  While an earlier Senate report shows that Apple has done nothing illegal, the issue brings up important questions regarding U.S. tax policy.

Unlike many other countries, the U.S. taxes companies for profits made in other countries, if and when those profits come back to the United States.  This has led many U.S. corporations to park those international profits in shell companies overseas, to avoid getting taxed twice on the same profits.  While this isn’t illegal, it certainly upsets a number of lawmakers.

“Apple has sought the Holy Grail of tax avoidance,” said Senator Levin (D-MI). “Apple is exploiting an absurdity, one that we have not seen other companies use.”  

While the Senate doesn’t have any legal grounds to compel Apple to change its policies, the hearing highlights just one of the many needs for reform in our nation’s tax code.  Just as with entitlement reform and government spending, both Republicans and Democrats see a need for change but are unable to agree on the type of change that is needed.  Both parties want a simplified tax code, but they have different end results in mind.  Democrats want to ensure that any tax reform includes increased revenues from corporations and the wealthiest Americans while Republicans want a tax policy that encourages businesses to stay in the U.S. and spur economic growth.

“Everyone hates the IRS and corporations not paying taxes,” said Stan Collender, a budget expert at Qorvis Communications, a Washington consulting firm. “That may gin up a little bit of the intensity level. But I don’t think it changes the politics of this at all. I’m still telling clients that tax reform is still three years away.”

Personally, I think Stan’s three-year estimate is too generous.  Reforming the tax code is an incredibly daunting task.  How do you balance the different issues in the most efficient way?  We want to make sure that people and corporations are paying the appropriate amount of taxes, but we also do not want a tax code that scares away more businesses and ships more jobs overseas.  I am neither an economist or a tax expert, so I don’t claim to have any answers here.  Sadly, the various economists and tax experts out there can’t seem to agree on the proper solutions either.

There is no shortage of ideas on simplifying the tax code.  The Sunlight Foundation issued a report that looks at how 2,221 organizations in 336 sectors spend an estimated combined $773 million to hire 6,503 different lobbyists to advocate on 1,454 bills in a single two-year Congress.  Wow.  But which proposal is best?  The CATO institute issued a report that favors a consumption-based tax base that taxes income but excludes investment.

Consumption-based taxation would be far superior to the current income tax for both growth and simplification reasons. A consumption-based tax—such as the Hall-Rabushka flat tax—would get rid of two of the most complex parts of the current code—capital gains and the capitalization of investment (which involves depreciation and amortization).

The Hall-Rabushka flat tax is an interesting place to start, but it doesn’t address the specific rate at which individuals are taxed, and it does not specifically address its applicability to corporate taxation.  Just thinking about all of the different proposals that could be debated gives me a migraine.  Of the few proposals I have reviewed, I am still not sure which one is the most efficient.  What about you?  What do you think is the best option for tax reform?

Is There Any Hope For Congress?

April 2013 Gallup Poll

April 2013 Gallup Poll

Last week, the law firm I work for hosted our annual Spring Forum with over 400 school administrators in attendance.  While a majority of our conference focuses on specific federal grants management concerns, we also offer a legislative update that covers Congressional issues as well as federal agency matters.  To open the session, our Legislative Director spoke for a few minutes about the current Congressional approval rating.

The most recent Congress (112th) passed the fewest laws of  any Congress before it, looking back as far as 1948.  Unsurprisingly, this inability to get anything done has earned Congress an abysmal approval rating of 15% as of April 2013.  Public Policy Polling released a poll earlier this year detailing how Congress is less popular than cockroaches, Nickelback, colonoscopies, and root canals.  Congress is even less popular than the NFL replacement refs from the 2012 season.  Ouch.

Its not that previous Congresses were so productive, its just that since 2011, Congress has been especially unproductive.  Lawmakers came so close to allowing government loans to default in the Summer of 2011 that our nation’s credit rating was lowered.  After that near miss, Congress gave itself the opportunity to bounce back by creating the Deficit Super Committee.  This super committee was intended to craft a bipartisan deficit reduction plan.  It ultimately failed.  This failure prompted automatic spending cuts, known as “sequestration.”

Meanwhile, annual spending bills are consistently passed well after the start of each new fiscal year, the two parties cannot come to terms on a fix to sequestration, and there are countless reauthorizations that remain unfinished.  I work in an area of law that focuses on federal education and job training programs.  In this field, some major pieces of legislation have been waiting at least 10 years to be reauthorized, but Congress cannot agree on the terms of those reauthorizations.

Because I live and work in the DC metro area, many friends and family members back in the Midwest always ask me why Congress can’t get it together (as if I have some inside scoop).  The sad truth is that the most useful tool for an elected official to get reelected is to convince voters that the opposition party is either wrong or unwilling to compromise.  This is effective mainly because it is the extreme right and/or left members of the voting public that are most involved in the political process.  As such, there is little motivation to reach agreements on any legislative issue.  It is easier to blame the other side for logjam than it is to defend legislation that compromises between two (or more) different sets of ideas.

Will things ever get any better?  Not unless we have another national tragedy/emergency.  Looking at the last 12 years, the only times the two parties have come together is after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and the economic downturn in the Fall of 2008.  In both cases, the unity between the parties only lasted as long as it was convenient.  As sad as it sounds, our national leaders are only willing to compromise when circumstances dictate that they have no other viable options.  So who is at fault?

Democrats believe Republicans are to blame.  Republicans believe Democrats are to blame.  While both parties are culpable, the real blame lies with the voters.  If the voting public was truly informed and involved, it would be nearly impossible to have a Congress with a 15% approval rating.  Instead, American citizens either fail to exercise their Constitutional right to vote or cast their vote without really understanding the candidates they vote for or the issues those candidates will face.

Unfortunately, there is no external cure for this.  Many non-profit and other groups exist with the sole purpose of informing voters on the issues.  I believe the old adage is “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”  Until the moderate majority of the country decides to educate themselves and get involved, the current hyper-partisan environment will remain unchanged.  If anyone has intelligent solutions, I am all ears.

Newtown Debate: Losing Perspective

Associated Press

Associated Press

Last week, a crazed gunman killed 27 people, including children, teachers, and his own mother.  The only word to accurately describe this is tragic.  Amid the overly depressing media coverage, we have also seen vigils and memorials held in honor of the Newtown victims all across the country.  Unfortunately, we have also seen the 24 hour news networks, online new sources, and social media sites bombarded with statements and statistics related to gun control in the Unites States.  I do not mean to say that gun control is not an important issue, but I would rather spend my time praying for those families that are going to ring in the new year without their son/daughter/brother/sister/friend/parent.

I usually encourage political discourse, so long as people keep things in perspective.  The important thing to realize here is that life is fragile and it is short.  People should take this time to take stock of their own lives.  Let your friends and family know how much they mean to you.  Call that old college buddy that you haven’t spoken to in awhile.  Tell your parents you appreciate all the sacrifices they made to help you have the life you have now.  And if you have them, for the love of God, hug your children.

Once you have done that, take a breath and approach the gun control debate with an open mind and a desire to make your country better.  As with most political issues, people on both sides of this argument are convinced of their side’s infallibility.  Instead of coming together to debate an important topic at a time when the country needs unity, we get into pissing contests on Facebook with friends and family who happen to think differently than we do on this subject.

I hate to break it to you, but this is one of those gray areas in life where there is no absolute right or wrong opinion.  Would stricter gun control laws have prevented a disturbed individual from attacking a school?  Not likely.  Would a ban on assault weapons have kept the body count lower if the man had attacked without his Bushmaster rifle?  Maybe.  Would the lunatic have been able to kill fewer people if teachers had been armed?  Maybe.  Notice a pattern?

My point is that regardless of the gun control laws in this country, no one can say with absolute certainty what might have happened at Sandy Hook Elementary last week.  Both sides have valid arguments, and the debate would be much more productive if people would acknowledge that.  As an attorney, I make it a point to try and understand the opposition’s argument.  Knowing what the other side believes and why they believe it often helps me to understand and refine my own argument.  Instead, it seems that we would rather boil things down to either “guns are evil” or “don’t touch my 2nd Amendment rights.”  This will get us nowhere and it distracts from the underlying question.  How can we try and make our country safer?

Until people are willing to try and find an honest answer to that question, I will try and ignore the background noise while I continue praying for the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings.  In the meantime, I encourage all of you to take time this holiday season to show your friends and family how much you care, help those less fortunate than you, and decide what you can do to make your world a better place.

At the risk of being politically incorrect, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and, in case I am not back before then, a Happy New Year.