Our “Godfather” Government

During the early 1950s, Americans were transfixed by hearings and investigations conducted by U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee.  Senator Kefauver laid bare the power and profits of organized crime in America, which generated massive income for mobsters through gambling, drugs, and pornography/prostitution operations that spanned our nation.  As a result, Americans supported a renewed crackdown on organized crime operations that sent many top mobsters to prison.

The scourge of organized crime still exists today, but what is truly odd is how many of the profit centers for the criminals of the past have been transformed into government-run agencies that generate jobs, grant political power, and allow states and the federal government to skim their cutin the form of taxes.  Even more oddly, more and more law enforcement resources are today devoted to destroying illegaloperations so that government can protect its growing monopoly on the profits to be made from human sin and weakness.  Woe to that misguided fool who tries to deal a little marijuana without first purchasing a state license to do so!

Government has, of course, always enacted sin taxesin order to finance its operations.  Taxes on whiskey helped to fund our new nation.  Revenue from the sale of tobacco and tobacco products have been mainstays of state and federal coffers.  Prior to the creation of the national income tax in 1913, roughly 1/3 of all federal revenues came from taxes on liquor, and when income tax revenues evaporated at the height of The Great Depression in 1933, Prohibition was rapidly repealed so that federal liquor taxes could again slosh into the U.S. Treasury.

This last exampleProhibition being repealed to fund a dead broke governmentis perhaps the most pertinent regarding where we are today.  Bedeviled by crumbling infrastructure, crushed by legacy retirement expenses, and faced with a shrinking population of active workers, government entities at all levels are desperate for whatever tax dollars they can find.  Therefore, virtually any human activity and enterprise now finds itself subject to more taxes, fees, and surcharges meant to fund local, state, and federal budgets that are awash in red ink.

It should, therefore, surprise few that government has increasingly legalized that which was once illegal in order to generate the dollars it needs to stay afloat.  As a result, the numbers racket of the 1950s is now the state lottery agency.  The demon weed dealer of the 1950s is now the licensedand tax payingmarijuana dispensary providing service with a smile.  The shady pornographer snapping photos in the seedier parts of town is now a web conglomerate with an army of attorneys watching out for its best interests.  What all now have in common is that what was once the illicit business of the criminal class has now become the revenue generator of the political classand each day new ideas for better marketing that will help to milk them for more taxes are considered.  I can only imagine the chagrin of a numbers runner of the 1950s if he could only see the ads blaring from televisions today regarding the size of this weeks Powerball prize.  State lottery revenues alone are now over $70 billion nationally each yearnot exactly chump change.

Many wouldand haveargued that is is better for government rather than gangsters to profit from vice.  Those who, for example, tout state lotteries as a way to (sort of) support public education see nothing but advantage from putting the neighborhood numbers runner on the sidelines.  Watching video slot machines sprout like daffodils after an April rain in my ownvery brokestate of Illinois, it is clear that looming bankruptcy is the mother of all moral compromise.  Politicians and civic leaders who are eager to increase funding for government programs and services they deem essential in the face of yawning budget deficits have no compunctions about taking whatever money they can by any means necessary.  A 2009 article entitled Paying With Our Sinsperhaps expressed this notion more unashamedly that most:

Here’s a better ideaand one that will help the federal and state governments fill their coffers: Legalize drugs and then tax sales of them. And while we’re at it, welcome all forms of gambling (rather than just the few currently and arbitrarily allowed) and let prostitution go legit too. All of these vices, involving billions of dollars and consenting adults, already take place. They just take place beyond the taxman’s reach.

This is the basic and succinct argument for turning dysfunctional and damaging behaviors into lovely tax dollars, and assessed upon its ruthlessly practical merits it makes perfect sense.  Is there, however, a hidden cost to all the money that might rain from the sky if we were take the governments propensity for profiting from human weakness, addiction, and desire to its logical and utterly amoral extreme?  Is turning human misery into tax money by legitimizing that from which government wasat one time long agoconstituted to protect us delegitimizing the very purpose of government and exposing millions to untold risk, danger, and death?

Politicians often seem befuddled about the publics low opinion of them.  Why should this not be the case?  Do we admire the player, pusher, or pimp?  Are we supposed to sing the praises of those who instead of wanting a chicken in every pot propose a prostitute on every street cornertax identification numbers ready in hand?  Given that so many of our leaders seem just fine with throwing any shred of morality out the window in pursuit of a tax dollarand the campaign contribution sure to shortly follow hard uponit should be little wonder that a sense of absolute betrayal and disgust aimed at our elected officials seems so baked into the very fabric of our society at the current time.  

Over the course of a single human lifespan, we have descended from aspiring to raise individuals higher so they can escape the clutches of human frailty to pushing them lower so that we can turn a profit for the government from their flaws.  To hear a contemporary American politician speak of honor and integrity when they are complicit in a system as damaging to individuals, families, and communities as ours is today is learn what the meaning of mendacity truly is.  We need changeand soonbefore we finally choke on the bile of so many official lies.

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Is Free College Really The Best Idea?

One of the pillars of Democratic Party orthodoxy today is the push for free college for all.  At the state level, one of the most ambitious programs is to be found in New York, where the Excelsior Scholarship program has rendered tuition-free both 2 and 4 year public colleges throughout the state for students whose family income is under $125,000 per year.  Approximately 17 states now offer some form of free college to their residents, and it seems likely that more states will develop these sorts of programs in the years ahead.

These free college programs are not, of course, without their critics.

Many have pointed out that these programs many times actually function as a massive subsidy offered to middle class families that previously did not qualify for income-based scholarships; poor students have long paid nominalor zerotuition costs due to existing federal and state aid programs targeted to low-income students and their families.  Moreover, these free college programs are typically available only to those who attend full-time, which locks out those who need to work while attending school in order to cover their daily living expenses.  Although the college tuition might be free, students still need food in their stomachs, clothes on their backs, and a roof over their heads, which may greatly restrict the use of many these free college programs.

In addition, freeis a deceptive term to use because these programs are certainly not free for taxpayers.  The New York State program, although much more limited in actual scope than advertised because of the many restrictions attached, still carries a price tag of $87 million this year alonewith costs estimated to rise to at least $163 million annually when fully implemented.

However, the fundamental problem with free college is simple and direct: Access does not equal success.  The scandalous and continuing national crisis of inadequate college preparedness at the K-12 levelwhich decades of incredibly expensive education reformhas yet to addresstranslates into a great many students starting college but failing to complete.  

How widespread is this problem?  Tennessee has for many years offered free tuition to the states community colleges at a taxpayer cost of only $45 million annuallykeeping the outlay lower by covering only that portion of tuition not already picked up by federal Pell Grants.  

However, although the costs might be relatively low for Tennessees taxpayers, there is still ample reason to question whether this is a wise investment of state funds.  Data shows that during the 2016-2017 school year nearly half of the states high school graduates required remedial coursework during their first year of collegeand nearly half had dropped out after two years.  No matter how much educators might want to try to talk their way around it by desperately pointing to other factors that sometimes affect college completion, it is plain that the promised economic and individual benefits of free college are colliding headlong with the disappointing academic preparation that is the daily reality of Americas public schools.

Therefore, looking at the soaring promises of the politicians and educators who advocate putting taxpayers even further on the hook for the costs of free college, a reasonable person might be prompted to ask if the reality is somewhat different from the rhetoricand whether the estimated $70 billion needed to fund the College For Allplans supported by many Democrats is a good use of scarce tax dollars when our national debt now tops $22 trillion.

The many well-meaning promises attached to college that is freestill will be hampered by the vast number of American high school graduates who are academically unprepared to succeed in collegefree or otherwise.  If we want these taxpayer dollars to have the impact we hope that they will, we need to be smart enoughand brave enoughto ask whether college for allactually means failure for many.  Rather than asking taxpayers to pay for college students to again try to learn material that should have been mastered in high school, perhaps a more impactful program would tie taxpayer support to documented student academic preparedness for college-level coursework.

However annoying this discussion might be for those politicians who are anxious to create yet another endlessly expensive entitlement funded by already beleaguered taxpayers, it seems sensible to ask a few difficult questions now about this hazy dream in order to prevent a great deal of money from being pointlessly wasted in the years ahead.

Higher education is important, and we now knowall too wellthat our burdensome and outrageous student loan programs have been an unmitigated disaster that has both enabled obscene increases in college costs and created a gigantic debtor class of Americans whose financial futures are terribly hobbled.  Perhaps it could be persuasively argued that any college experience is beneficial, so free college would be a worthwhile taxpayer expenseregardless of the outcomes.  This is a viewpoint deserving of careful considerationas is the idea that money spent on education can never truly be wastedin the manner that other tax dollars often are.

Nonetheless, it might be worth stopping and thinking before we rush to pay for many students to make a pit stop on a college campusonly to later leave with little learning and no credential.  College is a great experience for many, but it may be the case that we still have thinking to do about how we pay for itand whether freeis the best path forward.  Perhaps some combination of grants and merit-based scholarships will be the mix that provides the magic.  Before any further decisions are made to create a new line in the federal financial ledger, we need to carefully study the long-term experiences of state-level programsparticularly regarding the impacts on student success.

However, whatever direction we ultimately take from here, we also need to give immediate consideration to the question of how we can relieve the frightening burden of the student loans that are now ruining the lives of many.  We cannot continue to ask so many to pay for a grievous past error in government policy that became a trap for so many Americans and their families, and I believe this is the step we must first take before we decide how to help those who will attend college in the future.

America’s “Mommy And Daddy” Problem

Roughly thirty years ago the late New York Governor Mario Cuomo neatly summed up the maddening truth of politics in America today: “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” The disappointment the electorate so often feels after an election when the soaring rhetoric of campaigning crashes into real world limitations is today as a common as the birds in the trees.

However, the desire of politicians to not disappoint one’s ardent supporters has led to a significant economic problem over the past several decades—government borrowing and spending on a scale never before seen in our nation’s history to pay for unaffordable promises. Our skyrocketing national debt has been the signal disaster of our country’s recent existence, and this irresponsible march toward insolvency has placed an unconscionable burden upon future generations of taxpayers.

The unfortunate refusal of our recent crop of over-promising politicians to recognize the difference between poetry and prose has now led to a most unfortunate side effect: Many voters now firmly believe that money is a limitless resource that allows government to provide for all their wants and needs—unless politicians are “heartless” and want them to needlessly suffer.

Therefore, the debates about policies are no longer about determining priorities and balancing them against available resources. We instead are asked to choose between the wonderful plans of “compassionate” visionaries who want to provide unending benefits and the “cruel” politicians who actually mastered sixth grade arithmetic. The parade of programs and services many voters expect to be provided at no cost—now with the added burden a basic income for all—is a worrisome sign that many truly consider government to be the indulgent parent they never actually had.

That price tags attached to many of these proposals—universal health care, free college education, job guarantees—run into the tens of trillions of dollars. The mythology pushed by those leaders making the promises—that all of this can be funded by taxing “the rich”—makes the costs seem not only manageable but also an opportunity to wreak vengeance upon those who live lives of comparative ease. Not realizing that the affluent pay the lion’s share of the taxes already, many voters are encouraged to labor under the impression that comfort is just a painless tax increase—for somebody else—away.

Why are so many voters oblivious to basic fiscal reality, and what (if anything) can be done about it?

I sometimes wonder whether the desire of so many voters for a parental style of government that provides every need and want—while also imposing all sorts of equally parental restrictions on thought and behavior—is an outcome of the breakdown of family stability and traditional institutions in America over the past several decades. Having been denied any sense of security in their youths, perhaps many are susceptible to the notion that government can be the mommy and daddy of their dreams— by ensuring that every day is Christmas.

Moreover, aside from providing for all material wants, government can also—according to many who should know better—somehow be empowered to provide emotional security as well by shielding those who find the complexities and ambiguities of adult life overwhelming from all thoughts and viewpoints that they might find distressing. Seen for what it is—terror disguised as virtue—this widespread and worrisome support for all types of speech codes and censorship in our schools, at the workplace, and on the internet becomes eminently understandable. Frantic for the type of parental protectiveness they never had as children, a great many young (and not so young) adults are desperate to be infantilized so that the mommies and daddies of Big Government can save them from the inconvenience of disagreements.

In addition to being a disaster for a democracy that can thrive only when ideas and viewpoints can be freely and openly exchanged, this absurd overprotectiveness is not conducive to developing any adult abilities to engage in reasoned discussion. It should not be a surprise that we are saddled with many young adults who can do little but wail about their hurt feelings before crumpling into a weeping heap. The ability to deal with the inevitable bumps and bruises of a harsh world is severely lacking for many as they attempt to begin lives away from parental supervision, which results in a deficiency of adult efficacy, a crushing lack of self-confidence, and lives that are often defined by ongoing crises and crashes.

We want our lives to be poetry, but in reality they are dominated by the prosaic. Pay your bills. Do your laundry. Change the oil on your car. Meet your deadlines. Stay organized. Plan for problems. Wash the dishes. Floss. Successful adults figure this out rather quickly, and their expectations are tempered by a connection to real life responsibilities and an understanding of the consequences of failure.

Rather than promising people a life filled with freebies and do-overs provided by a mythical pot of tax money extracted from the wealthy, our governmental leaders should instead emphasize personal responsibility and the plain fact that adult life is many times an exercise in pain and perseverance—with no guarantees of success. We would all be a lot better off with less high-flown rhetoric and more tough-minded reality. Rather that campaigning in poetry, our politicians should engage in adult prose with voters about the world as it is—not as we might wish it to be. It might be a shock to many, but it also might be exactly what many need to hear and understand.

Harming By Helping

To seek to help others is, for the vast majority of individuals, a basic human instinct.  We want to comfort the afflicted, aid the helpless, protect the vulnerable, shelter the homeless, and feed the hungry whenever this is humanly possible.  This laudable aspect of our humanity combines with our simple desire for self-preservation to produce many of our governmental structures and policies, and we have typically—but not always—demanded some degree of self-reliance and personal responsibility in exchange for all manner of aid and protection.

However, as much as some might fervently wish it to be otherwise, no government yet devised can protect us against the consequences of every tragedy, personal mistake, fear, or plain discomfort. We cannot outlaw natural disasters or man-made stupidity, although we can—and should—always try to lessen their impacts upon both individuals and communities.

Therefore, the many catastrophes caused in American today by all the “help” our government provides are truly a Greek tragedy of mind-boggling proportions.  Our prideful efforts to provide the most perfect forms of government possible have instead produced family dysfunction, community chaos, state fiscal crises, and national gridlock—all with the added “benefits” of punishing personal initiative and rewarding irresponsibility.  Sophocles would be proud.

Over the past half-century of liberal hubris, we have watched as government in all its glory has pursued a variety of well-meaning but ultimately misguided policies.  These have caused the costs of housing, education, and medical care to spiral out of control while supposedly improving affordability, simultaneously increased both taxes and public debt, and screwed up capitalism so badly that now young people somehow now find socialism an attractive alternative to our present punitively expensive system.  In addition, half of our nation seems to be angry at the other half, our public schools fail to adequately educate the majority of our children, and the legacy costs of big and bigger government—retiree pensions and healthcare—are bankrupting many of our cities and states.

The problems are basic.  Compassion exercised by individuals, private charities, and faith communities is compelled to live within dollars and cents realities that government can easily circumvent by continually raising taxes or taking on more public debt.  In addition, the heavy hand of government tends to alter the cost/benefit ratios of a whole range of human behaviors, which later requires yet more government interventions to “fix” the problems its own programs created in the first place.  The old adage that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” has never been more true than when the wonders of government goodness are involved.

In American we see this cycle most vividly within the four walls of our own homes—and the brunt of the problems are borne by our children.

The U.S. Census has amply quantified the astonishing increase in single parent households (most of which are headed by women) over the past fifty years, and this has repeatedly been correlated with worsened educational, emotional, and economic outcomes for children who grow up with only one parent.  This trend has been accelerated by all manner of public aid that has served to allow one of the parents—typically the man—to shirk financial and parental responsibilities owed to their children by forcing the taxpayers to raise the offspring whom those parentsconveniently forget.  By decoupling reproduction from responsibility, government “help” has perversely only helped generations of families to deal with yet more of the dysfunctions that are typically—but not always—inherent in single parent households.

The net outcome of the startling increase in the number of single parent households—enabled and accelerated by the government assistance that makes this living arrangement possible for parent and child—has been the equally startling growth of government programs and bureaucracies set up to battle the many problems caused by those other government programs and bureaucracies that initially supported the maintenance of single parent households.  Got that?  This self-reinforcing loop of government “help” has now destroyed families and communities on a scale that would make even the cruelest tyrant proud, and the perpetuation of single parent households across generations continues to wreak havoc and compels taxpayers to subsidize an ever-widening circle of personal injury and societal harm.  Now that roughly 1/3 of American children live with either a single parent or an unmarried couple—a separate arrangement that provides its own unique blend of issues and insecurities—we should not be overly surprised by the many problems afflicting our nation’s young and their overwhelmed parents.

As the number of single parent households has risen, we have seen the inexorable march of the pathologies associated with the poverty, instability, and trauma that often impacts both parent and child.  Rates of anxiety, depression, suicide, drug use, physical and sexual abuse, hunger, homelessness, self-harm, and sexually-transmitted diseases have reached epidemic levels for both children and adults.  Although many times these problems can be attributed to unique personal circumstances or local economic conditions, their sheer number speaks to the rot within the foundation of our society—the family unit.  If families fail to thrive, it is impossible to for a community to flourish.  The most expensive home in the world will collapse if it is built upon sand.

The defenders of our expansive social welfare state will, of course, assert that they are doing God’s work by helping those who cannot otherwise help themselves.  It is an interesting “chicken or egg” argument: Has government helped to create dependency or merely helped those who must depend upon the government?  

One could use the pernicious persistence of generational poverty, for example, to argue either side of the issue.  Those who support the programs that provide food, healthcare, and housing to the poor will whistle up all manner of learned experts who will confidently proclaim that entrenched and pervasive inequality condemns many to lives filled with desperation, and it is the role of government to relieve their suffering.  However, others might point out that programs that provide for all the needs and wants of the poor without the bother of work are a disincentive to developing the self-reliance and self-discipline necessary to provide for oneself and one’s family.  In specific circumstances both viewpoints likely have some validity, and the endless haggling over the shape and scope of welfare reform that has consumed so much attention over the decades points to the near-impossibility of both discontinuing government programs once they are started and convincing people that work is better than sloth when there is little or no price to pay for living life on the couch.

I sometimes see the broad outlines of this debate when I listen to educators bewailing the many difficulties of teaching children and adolescents raised in our nation’s many troubled homes.  Many of these students walk into the classroom completely uninterested in the curriculum being offered because they cannot connect with the idea that education is the key to a better future for reasons that are obvious to them—“we’re doing just fine right now with the checks my family has been getting from the government since before I was born.”  Therefore, why should they bother reading a book, writing an essay, or solving a math problem?  Having had few—if any—examples in their lives of adults engaged with the real world of work and taking pride in their own accomplishments, school is at best an opportunity to hang out with friends and at worst an incredible irritant.  

To this extent, those who blame families for the failures of their children are correct.  As much as many may denigrate the notion of role models, we can unfortunately predict much—but not all—from observing the adults who influence a child’s daily life.  For this reason, teachers can play a key part in changing the lives of these children by opening their eyes to a world of possibilities that have heretofore been closed to them—but this is too often a sad struggle against a host of familial and parental influences that are pulling in exactly the opposite direction.

Government can protect the public in a variety of ways that provide a bulwark against disasters that can be neither foreseen nor readily prevented.  However, government and its representatives must be keenly aware that the more they help—and the longer the duration of this help—the more likely it is that harm will be the final outcome of their best efforts.  Worse yet, this harm will continue throughout the generations yet to come.