Do We Really Need That? Department of Agriculture

I talk to people almost on a daily basis, who just take it for granted that the government does what it does because it would not be convenient or profitable for that task, whatever that task is, to be done privately. Even small government types believe that much of our government is necessary and would not be able to be done privately. They might think that the government could spend less, do less of a particular task, but the thought of completely eliminating government programs does not cross the minds of many people very often.

The truth is nobody really knows how many government agencies there are in the US government. Some estimate that there are over 2000 different agencies, but the government disagrees with itself about what constitutes an agency so the true number may never be counted. It would take a very long time indeed to go through every agency to determine its value and necessity. There are 15 federal departments. I think I’ll go through them one at a time to see if we really need them. I’m sure we need some of them and not others, some may be partially necessary, but who knows. I’ll start with the Department of Agriculture and work my way down.

According to the Department of Agriculture, the reason for their existence is for the following:

Founded by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, when more than half of the Nation’s population lived and worked on farms, USDA’s role has evolved with the economy.  Today, the country looks to rural America to not only provide food and fiber, but also for crucial emerging economic opportunities in renewable energy, broadband and recreation.  People in rural areas operate in a technologically advanced, rapidly diversifying, and highly competitive business environment driven by increasingly sophisticated consumers.  To assist the country in addressing today’s challenges, USDA will: Assist rural communities to create prosperity so they are self-sustaining, re-populating, and economically thriving; Ensure our national forests and private working lands are conserved, restored, and made more resilient to climate change, while enhancing our water resources; Help America promote sustainable agricultural production and biotechnology exports as America works to increase food security; Ensure that all of America’s children have access to safe, nutritious, and balanced meals.

Let’s go through these goals one at a time. This department was founded at a time when over half the population were farmers, today only 2% of the people own farms and they employ about 15% of the workforce. It would seem to me that if you make the argument in 1862 that your department is necessary because there are so many farmers that it would stand to reason that as the number of farmers diminished that the Department of Agriculture should diminish in a similar fashion. Apparently that does not stand to reason because the Department of Agriculture employs well over 100,000 people and spends about $150 Billion dollars a year.

It is also of some interest to note that we as Americans look to the dwellers of our rural parts of the country to provide our renewable energy, broadband internet connection, and our recreation. I was unaware that farmers grew broadband internet connections as crops. I was also under the false assumption that I was in charge of my own recreation, but thank you, Department of Agriculture, for correcting me. I now understand that my recreation and internet connection are now provided by peoples of the backwoods. If by renewable energy, the Department of Agriculture means ethanol, I would just say that nobody, and I mean nobody but the boondogglers duping the government into a free handout because of the “renewable” label, was looking for that.

“People in rural areas operate in a technologically advanced, rapidly diversifying, and highly competitive business environment driven by increasingly sophisticated consumers.” Really? Rural areas are technologically advanced? This sentence just makes no sense. Rural generally means country, or unsophisticated. By nature, rural is not “rapidly diversifying”. If there is a “highly competitive business environment”, then it would no longer be rural. If this is how the Department of Agriculture describes rural, I wonder how they would describe urban? Jet packs and hover boards? But I digress.

Now we start to get into the meat of the issue, “To assist the country in addressing today’s challenges, USDA will: Assist rural communities to create prosperity so they are self-sustaining, re-populating, and economically thriving”. So the Department of Agriculture will give money to farmers so that they will become self-sustaining. Does this sound like an oxy-moron to anyone else? How can you pay someone to be self-sustaining? Government assistance with re-populating what? I hope they are not paying farmers to have sex in order to make more farmers. It can’t be re-populating crops, the farmers were doing that before 1862, but don’t quote me on that. If a business is economically thriving, do they really need assistance? I would say, based on its own criteria, that this first strategic goal has been a failure.

The second strategic goal says, “Ensure our national forests and private working lands are conserved, restored, and made more resilient to climate change, while enhancing our water resources”. Again, this seems to be setting very non-goalish goals. In the area of conserving land, they have been very successful, in 1903 there were about 60 million acres under government control, today there are over 193 million acres under government control. Even back then many people thought that this could be done better privately, but the government wanted this land as a way to make money through permitting and grazing fees, and mineral rights. It was hoped that the forestry service would be self-sustaining one day. It is still not. I cannot say one way or the other if our water supply is more watery or not, but I would tend to doubt it. Making every tree climate change resilient is absurd on its face. This strategic goal has been a partial failure, but the successful part, gaining more land, is success in the wrong direction.

Moving on, “Help America promote sustainable agricultural production and biotechnology exports as America works to increase food security”. This is a situation that does not need to be fixed. America has been “food secure” since the first thanksgiving. We don’t need a government agency for that. As far as biotechnology exports, US corn is being shut out of the European Union because of the ethanol subsidies that the government gives them to produce a fuel that is the worst fuel possible for cars. Another epic failure.

The last strategic goal of the Department of Agriculture is, “Ensure that all of America’s children have access to safe, nutritious, and balanced meals.” This is another one of those non-goalish goals. If all else fails, invoke “the children”. Let’s forget that 16 million kids don’t have regular access to safe, nutritious, and balanced meals. You can’t blame the Department of Agriculture for that. Our farmers make plenty of food. We not only feed America, we feed much of the world. This is another fail.

So let’s sum up then, shall we? This department has failed either epically or partially in every one of its strategic goals. I believe that the best thing we could do to “assist the country in addressing today’s challenges”, would be to eliminate the Department of Agriculture. The best way to conserve federal land would be to transfer it to private ownership. The best thing for our food would be to stop paying farmers to not grow it and to stop all ethanol subsidies. That is horrible gas and the rest of the world hates us for making it. This is in no way a reflection of rural people and farmers. Farmers are the backbone of this country. They make the food that feeds us and the rest of the world. My grandfather was among other things a farmer, and a finer man I have never met. When he farmed, he lived a country life. Slow paced, hard working, uncomplicated life that city dwellers just can’t understand. The best thing our government can do for our farmers is to get out of their way. One down, 14 to go.

They’re All the Same!

Nolan_chartI hear a lot of people talk about how there is no real difference between democrats and republicans. I’ve probably said it a few times myself. Most people have some sort of qualifier that tries to explain what they mean, “Sure, they talk very differently while campaigning, but when they get to Washington they do very similar things.” Guilty. On paper there is a good basis for this opinion, but that doesn’t change the fundamental differences between the two philosophies. This is, in fact, the very argument that drove me away from the Republican Party into the awaiting arms of the libertarian philosophy. I’m going to try to explain where the two parties are different and where they are the same and why it barely matters when it comes right down to it.

Before I begin let’s get this out of the way, there is a difference between being a liberal or conservative and being a democrat or republican. Liberalism and conservatism are philosophies, and democrat and republican are political parties. It just so happens that liberalism is currently associated with the Democratic Party, and conservatism is currently associated with the Republican Party. I say this because I may compare the philosophies, but in the end it’s the parties that really run things. So I apologize if I use the terms interchangeably sometimes. In a perfect world the philosophy would dictate the values of the party, but it doesn’t always seem to work out that way.

Political philosophies are a system of values and government that express the idea of the ideal world that the holder of those philosophies would like to live in. In this sense, both liberalism and conservatism have an economic and a social aspect to their way of thinking. Both use the government as a way to enforce those belief systems. Where they differ is in exactly what those beliefs are and in which areas of our lives that the government should be in control of.

In general, liberalism prefers a large central government where individuals have less economic freedom but more social freedom. This means the individual is less important than the collective group as a whole. Less economic freedom means more taxes so more of people money is taken from them so that it can be given to others who are in need. More social freedom means that there are fewer rules regarding personal behavior and people with less are given some of the money collected from others so that they may enjoy their lives a little more.

In general, conservatism prefers a smaller central government where individuals have more economic freedom but less social freedom. This means the individual is more important than the collective group as a whole. More economic freedom means fewer taxes going to the government giving the individual more control over what he or she earns. Less social freedom means that in order to have a well behaved society the behavior of people is regulated based on the moral values of the people elected.

So far this has been mostly academic, how about something a little more descriptive. I’m going to use the analogy of insurance to illustrate a basic difference between the two philosophies, and I apologize in advance that I couldn’t think of a better one, but this one fits so well I can’t help it. In the world of insurance, there are concepts called “all peril” and “named peril” as it relates to coverage. “All peril” means everything is covered unless it is specifically excluded from the policy. “Named peril”, means there is a specific list of things that are covered and everything else is excluded. This analogy relates to political philosophy in that if you take an action but are unsure if it is legal or not, a conservative would ask, “Is this illegal?”, and a liberal would ask, “Is this legal?” It seems like a small difference but it’s not.

Liberalism takes the “named peril” approach to life. This means that every action we take has to be approved by the government or it’s deemed illegal. Everything we buy, sell or do must adhere to guidelines set forth by the federal government. From the time you wake up in the morning on the mattress approved by the government, to your morning pee in your government approved toilet, to your government approved private sector job, to the government approved kitchen that makes your fast food drive-thru meal, to the government approved construction features of your government approved home. In this sense, it is plainly obvious that the greater social freedom you feel with the liberal philosophy is an illusion, because the behavior in question was just added to the approved list, it’s not really freedom at all. A kind dictator is still a dictator. You might be able to tell, but I’m not a fan.

Conservatism, then, takes the “all peril” approach to life. This philosophy opts to list things that are illegal and deems everything else legal. On the surface this seems to be conducive with a truly free society, and I believe it is. This is why I was a republican for most of my adult life. The problem arises when the list of what is illegal things gets longer and longer. For instance, very few people would not put murder on the “illegal” list, but I’m sure less would put buying beer on Sunday there. Having less social freedom means that other people dictate the morals of the individual and society as a whole.

So far I’ve spent a lot of time showing the differences, let’s look at why they are similar. Enter the parties. The Democratic Party is the organizational and enforcement tool for the liberal philosophy. They are there to make sure that everyone adheres to the laws voted on by the people we elect to represent us. The Republican Party does the same thing for the conservatives. What seems to happen when our elected officials get to Washington is that the list of illegal things for the republicans is long enough to match or exceed the list of legal things made by the democrats. For instance, it was the republicans under President Nixon who started OSHA. It was a republican administration under President Bush (43) that raised our national debt by over 5 trillion. These things would be normally thought of as liberal. It was a democratic administration under President Clinton that signed welfare reform into law which is seemingly more a conservative action. The truth is that there are far more examples of republicans acting like democrats than the other way around. It might be less accurate to say that there is no difference between the parties, and more accurate to say that republicans act more like democrats when they are elected.

In contrast to all this, let’s take a look at libertarianism. Libertarianism is strictly a political philosophy and not a social one. This differs from both liberals and conservatives while mirroring parts of both. First, most libertarians agree with the conservative notion of limited government, but to an even greater extent. It’s definitely an “all peril” philosophy. The “greater extent” comes into play because there is no social construct where the government acts as enforcer. This mimics the social freedom that liberals like. The difference is that it is actual freedom in the “all peril” sense. There is no list of legal behavior. This is true freedom. Those social decisions are made by the communities where people have to live and work. Liberals don’t like libertarians because there is no government control over our actions. Conservatives don’t like libertarians because there is no government control over our actions. They can bicker about which actions they hate, but in the end does it really matter? Food for thought.

Lessons from Charlie

Lessons from Charlie

In the aftermath of the shooting at the French satire magazine, Charlie Hebdo, I thought I would talk a little about the incident itself and the world’s reaction to it. The incident is being portrayed as an instance where Islamic extremists are attacking free speech. There was a march attended by almost 2 million people, (but conspicuously minus one American president), where world leaders and people from all over walked arm in arm in support of free speech and against terrorism. Still others, like Ron Paul, say that the shooting was not over free speech but rather blowback from meddling into Islamic affairs for the last century. Incredibly, other talking heads have even blamed George Bush for the shooting even though he is neither a French citizen, nor an editor at Charlie Hebdo. In my opinion, they are all wrong. Some more than others, obviously.

If you have been living under a rock for 2 weeks here’s a little background. Two masked men dressed in black carrying guns, walked into the office of a satire magazine called Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people while yelling “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad” and “God is Great” in Arabic. This particular magazine had a habit of making fun of religion with images of the prophet Muhammad kissing a man, or the pope or Jewish leaders in compromising positions on a fairly regular basis. Every religion is fair game as are politicians and other people of note. That’s what Charlie Hebdo does. To be honest, I had never heard of this magazine before the shooting and found a google search of their previous magazine covers fairly entertaining.

I think to call this an attack on free speech is wrong. I think this not because terrorists are ok with free speech, they most definitely are not. I say this because there is no free speech in France. It is against the law to speak freely about anyone’s religion in France or to make fun of anyone’s religion. That is classified as “hate speech”. An anti-Semitic French comedian is facing 7 years in jail and a fine for post he made on Facebook in favor of the terrorist act. For words…Jail. There is no free speech in France. These people who claim that, “they hate us for our freedom”, don’t understand that it’s not our freedom that they hate, it’s what we do with it.

The people like Ron Paul, who are blaming French and American imperialism and interference in Islamic affairs, “blowback”, are wrong too. The argument here goes something like, all the western imperialism has caused a lot of people to hate us and therefore created a deep pool of terror minded people and we shouldn’t be surprised when they attack us. This, I feel, misses a couple points. First, the attackers were French, born and raised. Second, the magazine they attacked was anti-war, anti-torture, pro-immigration, and pro-Palestinian. What this means is that the terrorists were attacking the specific message of this magazine, not general feelings of Ill will toward the French government. I assume these “Blame Bush” people would also follow some notion of “blowback”. Honestly, they sound so ridiculous that it’s not worth responding.

So what did cause this terror attack? Simply put, the direction modern Islam is going is just not compatible with civilized society. Sure there are peaceful Muslims, more than a billion of them. Peaceful Muslims are not controlling that religion. There is a worldwide jihad on our behavior. Right now 20-25% of Muslims identify with radical elements of the religion and are in firmly in the driver’s seat of Islam. If you look you will find that Charlie Hebdo insulted Christianity and Judaism with just as much abandon as Islam, yet no mass murder, no bombing of the building. There was a time in history when both of these religions might have acted in a similar manner as the terrorists, as per the Old Testament, but they have grown out of it as society moves forward. Islamic radicals have done both of those things to Charlie Hebdo, on separate occasions. These are people who subjugate their women, teach children to hate Jews, abide by medieval code of justice and think everyone else is evil. They don’t see things like freedom of speech and expression as noble, they see them as a license to blaspheme. In the Muslim world it is illegal to portray Muhammad in print, especially in a negative light and apparently the price is death for lawbreakers. This law is similar to one of the 10 commandments, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”, and there was a time when the church forbade images of God, but that time has long past.

It seems that Islam is a modern religion living 1000 years ago. The people most killed by the driving force behind Islam are moderate Muslims. Maybe that’s why they hide in the shadows when things like this happens. I think it is, however, a very good sign that countries like Egypt, Indonesia and Turkey with majority Islamic citizenry have condemned the attacks. Many Islamic organizations around the world have condemned the attacks which is another good sign. I want to make it clear that while I feel like Islam in not in a good place right now, I don’t think it has to be that way. The 75-80% of Muslims that are being marginalized can rise up and self-police. The bottom line is that eventually it will have to happen, one way or another. Moderate Muslims do not have to sink into the western lifestyle to get along, they just need to stop the radical elements from killing people who disagree.

The good news is that Charlie Hebdo went right back to its old tricks and put Muhammad right back on the cover of its magazine in a playfully distasteful way. The bad news is that France doubled down on “hate speech” crimes. It’s hard to believe the lesson France seemed to learn here. Instead of realizing that offensive speech is not a crime, and overblown gun laws are dangerous, France seems to be under the impression that strengthening “hate speech” laws are a way to keep the peace. What the world can learn is to protect speech, not inhibit it. Legally forcing people to candy coat their true opinions causes more problems than it solves and inhibits informed debate. It’s time that other countries learn the lessons that France won’t.

Nottingham or Mayberry, Which Police Do You Prefer

This week I thought I would write about law enforcement, and what is has become over the years. It seems like in the olden days, when I was small, the police were there to protect and serve the community. If you needed help changing a tire on the side of a busy road, or your cat was stuck in a tree, the police were there to come to the rescue. There were policemen patrolling a beat, who knew the people on his particular streets. If there were people causing trouble, the police were there to break it up. The police were very much viewed as the good guys. Maybe I just have a romantic notion of what it means to be a cop. Maybe I’ve been influenced by cop shows from the late 70’s and early 80’s. I am not ignoring stereotypical small town police forces in the south that turned dogs and fire hoses on black people, but that was a little before my time and not part of my personal experience growing up in a very integrated suburban town.

It seems to me as I have gotten older, the policemen we hear about in the news have gotten less like Sheriff Andy in Mayberry and more like the Disney version of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Cities and towns across the country are using the police less to protect and serve and more as a tax collector. As the budgets grow in these cities, the budget shortfalls also grow. Crap rolls downhill, so when the town leaders need more money from its citizens it falls more and more to the police to shore up the budget. Most interactions with the police nowadays ends with a fine. There are towns in Florida that are completely built around speeding tickets. Police seizure of property is getting out of hand. Many police forces, in my opinion, are militarizing to protect the town, not the citizens who live in the town. Protect the budget shortfall. Protect the pensions of the elected leaders.

I’m not sure when this all started. Possibly in the 80’s with the war on drugs? They created the seizure laws in order to destroy drug dealers and cartels. They seized millions of dollars in cars, boats and contraband, picture Don Johnson driving a Ferrari Testarossa. Maybe the towns began to see the income potential of the police force. Maybe since the rates of violent crimes in the country have been steadily declining for decades, the police are freer to add more to their job descriptions than just protect and serve. I don’t pretend to know the answer. What I do know is that governments are not satiable in their desire for our money. I know that once a program starts it is almost impossible to stop, even if it doesn’t work. Programs need money.

What seems to be happening in larger cities is an, “us vs. them”, type of mentality, not only among the citizens, but also the police force. This creates a vicious circle of mistrust between the police and the people they are supposed to protect. I sincerely believe that these incidents that have been in the news are driven less by racism and more from fear. There always seems to be some legitimate reason for the police to be there, but fear drives the interaction, not reason. It’s a hard job. When a policeman spends most of his or her time on non-violent interactions, it makes the violent ones that much more scary. This is by no means an excuse. There needs to be a transition back to the original job description. In this regard there may be some good news.

In New York City, the police are in the middle of a “work stoppage”. They are angry at the mayor for slighting them in the Eric Garner affair. What they are doing is the bare minimum to keep the city safe. The police are honorable people. They know that they can’t just stop protecting people. They decided to stop being revenue generators for the city. What is actually happening is that the police are not doing the things that the people didn’t want them to do in the first place. The police are limiting themselves to violent crime and leaving people alone for things like open containers and parking tickets. Of course, they are doing this to stick it to mayor DiBlasio, but it might ultimately be the solution to the problem police departments all over the country. If the police union would make this a permanent change, they would foster good will in the community that would eventually become trust. It’s funny that they see parking and speeding tickets as so integral to police work that the city would fall into anarchy without them.

I would urge police all over the country to follow the lead of the NYPD. I would urge the NYPD to make this a permanent change. Sure, more people might pee in the alley, but overall less people will die. More people would trust the police. Less people would be jailed for not paying the city enough. I still believe in the goodness of the vast majority of people who put on that uniform. It is a thankless job, especially when the elected officials force them to be a protector and tax collector. It is in the power of every chief of police to transition his men from being like the sheriff of Nottingham to the sheriff of Mayberry. Help us help you. If that goes well, maybe we can talk about the war on drugs.