Thursday, January 31, 2013

Ray Lewis, Banned Substances and Liberty

As the Super Bowl draws near, this week's revelation from New Orleans is that Ray Lewis, the soon-to-be retired linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, and certain NFL Hall of Famer, may have used some sort of extract from deer antlers to speed healing for the torn triceps muscle he suffered this season.
Lewis is now healthy enough to play - and has done so throughout the NFL playoffs.
According to the report, there is something in deer antler extract that is on the NFL's list of "banned substances" and, if the report is correct, Ray Lewis might be in trouble if he sought to continue playing next season.
Let me first say that I have no problem with an employer - in the case the Baltimore Ravens and the NFL - setting up rules that employees must follow.  It is pretty simple.  We all have an interest in doing whatever we want to do, but we do not have a right to do whatever we want to do.  This means our employers can say, "Look, pal, if you do these things, you will be in trouble and it might cost you your job."  That is fine.
What I have a problem with is the governmental pressure that has been brought to bear on the NFL, the rest of professional sports and society in general, that tells us what we can and cannot put into on on our bodies.
We are all emancipated, adult human beings living in a nation that was founded on the right to life, liberty and private property.  This means, simply put, that as long as we do not kill someone else, steal their property, or prevent them from doing something peaceful, we are supposed to be left alone to make our own choices.  Ray Lewis, in effect, owns his body.
Yet, our nation's four decade-old drug war - and by extension the "war" on steroids, human growth hormones and other "banned substances" is a direct violation of the principles of liberty.
It does not matter that these things are bad for us.  There are any number of things that we are allowed to do that are bad for us.  Ray Lewis would be allowed to drink two bottles of whiskey, smoke a carton of cigarettes and view pornography depicting consenting adults - all on the same day - and if he did not bother or harm anyone, no police officer would bother him.
Yet, if he rubs or injects some sort of substance that is designed to speed healing and help him do his job productively, he is in trouble.
This, folks, is insane.
It is high time that we stop supporting costly, inefficient and liberty-violating prohibitions of the things consenting adults want to use to make themselves feel better - or feel intoxicated.  Morality is not the basis for law when morality makes us pass laws that keep us from doing things to ourselves.
Imagine the tax dollars we would save, the prison space we would create, and the efficiencies that would flow from having a nation of laws where you only got in trouble if you violated someone else's rights.
In the meantime, I would argue that the dance Ray Lewis does at the beginning of the Super Bowl is far more harmful to society than how he went about curing his arm.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Are we a Nation of Takers?

The following is an Op-Ed published in the January 24, 2013 Wall Street Journal.  It is by Nicholas Eberstadt.


In President Obama's second inaugural address, he not only outlined an ambitious agenda for his second term but also seemed intent on shutting down debate about the social-welfare state and its impact on American life.

"The commitments we make to each other—through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security—these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us," Mr. Obama said. "They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great." In other words, the president is tired of listening to critics of America's entitlement programs, and as far as he is concerned, the discussion is now over.

It is not over—and won't be anytime soon, because the country's social-welfare spending is generating severe and mounting hazards for the nation. These hazards are not only fiscal but moral.

A growing body of empirical evidence points to increasing dependency on state largess. The evidence documents as well a number of perverse and disturbing changes that this entitlement state is imposing on society.

• Over the 50-plus years since 1960, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, entitlement transfers—government payments of cash, goods and services to citizens—have been growing twice as fast as overall personal income. Government transfers now account for nearly 18% of all personal income in America—up from 6% in 1960.

• According to the BEA, America's myriad social-welfare programs (the federal bureaucracy apparently cannot determine exactly how many of these there are) currently dispense entitlement benefits of more than $2.3 trillion annually. Since those entitlements must be paid for—either through taxes or borrowing—the burden of entitlement spending now amounts to over $7,400 per American man, woman and child.

• In 1960, according to the Office of Management and Budget, social-welfare programs accounted for less than a third of all federal spending. Today, entitlement programs account for nearly two-thirds of federal spending. In other words, welfare spending is nearly twice as much as defense, justice and everything else Washington does—combined. In effect, the federal government has become an entitlements machine.

• According to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly half (49%) of Americans today live in homes receiving one or more government transfer benefits. That percentage is up almost 20 points from the early 1980s. And contrary to what the Obama White House team suggested during the election campaign, this leap is not due to the aging of the population. In fact, only about one-tenth of the increase is due to upticks in old-age pensions and health-care programs for seniors.
Instead, the country has seen a long-term expansion in public reliance on "means-tested" programs—that is, benefits intended for the poor, such as Medicaid and food stamps. At this writing, about 35% of Americans (well over 100 million people) are accepting money, goods or services from "means-tested" government programs. This percentage is twice as high as in the early 1980s. Today, the overwhelming majority of Americans on entitlement programs are taking "means-tested" benefits. Only a third of all Americans receiving government entitlement transfers are seniors on Social Security and Medicare.

• As entitlement outlays have risen, there has been flight of men from the work force. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the proportion of adult men 20 and older working or seeking work dropped by 13 percentage points between 1948 and 2008.

The American male flight from work is so acute that more than 7% of men in their late 30s (the prime working age-group) had totally checked out of the workforce, even before the recent recession. This workforce opt-out, incidentally, was more than twice that of contemporary Greece, the poster child for modern welfare-state dysfunction. The share of 30-somethings neither working nor looking for work appears to be higher in America than in practically any Western European economy.
• Arithmetically speaking, the recent American flight from work has largely been a flight to government disability programs. According to the Social Security Administration, the number of working-age Americans relying on Social Security's disability programs has increased dramatically over the past two generations.

In December 2012, more than 8.8 million working-age men and women took such disability payments from the government—nearly three times as many as in December 1990. For every 17 people in the labor force, there is now one recipient of Social Security disability program payments.

But the pool of working-age government disability recipients may be even larger than those getting funds just from the Social Security disability programs alone. The Department of Health and Human Services reports that more than 12.4 million working-age Americans obtained disability income support from all government programs in 2011. That's more than the total number of employees in the manufacturing sector of the economy.

• In recent years, the biggest increases in disability claims have been for "musculoskeletal" problems and mental disorders (including mood disorders). But as a practical matter, it is impossible for a health professional to ascertain conclusively whether or not a patient is suffering from back pains or sad feelings. The government's disability-insurance programs were intended to address genuine need. On the current trajectory, the Social Security disability fund is projected to run out of money during Mr. Obama's second term.

• The president and others describe Social Security and Medicare as "social insurance" programs rather than transfer schemes. True, the eventual beneficiaries of these programs contribute payroll taxes to the Social Security and Medicare trust funds during their working lives. But "insurance" programs are meant to pay for themselves; Social Security and Medicare cannot do so.

According to the trustees for those two programs, Social Security and Medicare have already made tens of trillions of dollars in future promises that are not covered by their expected funding streams. If and when outside resources are required to honor their promises, these entitlements become transfer programs, not insurance programs.

The moral hazard embedded in the explosion of social-welfare programs is plain. Transfers funded by other people's money tend to foster a pernicious "something for nothing" mentality—especially when those transfers seem to be progressively and relentlessly growing, year by year. This "taker" mentality can only weaken civil society—even as it places ever-heavier burdens on taxpayers.

Generosity is a virtue, on that we can all agree with President Obama. But being generous with other people's money is not the same thing.

Mr. Eberstadt is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of "A Nation of Takers: America's Entitlement Epidemic" (Templeton, 2012).

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Some Thoughts on Guns and Schools

I thought you might enjoy this piece I wrote for the Orlando Sentinel (April 17, 2007) after the Virginia Tech shootings.

In the wake of the horrific massacre that took place at Virginia Tech, newspapers around the country wasted no time in reporting that Virginia has some of the most lenient gun laws in the United States. According to the International Herald Tribune, “Ownership requires only passing criminal background checks, which can be bypassed by buying from an unlicensed dealer. And unlicensed dealers can sell their wares at gun shows without requiring criminal checks. Guns need not be registered unless the owner wants to carry a concealed weapon.”

For the next several weeks we can expect more of this type of intellectual laziness as reporters, politicians, soccer-Moms and everyone else who is convinced that guns are bad lines up to offer up the latest “proof” that school shootings are “caused” by the lack of “gun control”.

As it turns out, the exact opposite is a fact. School shootings – and many other shootings for that matter – occur because we do not have enough law-abiding, armed citizens.

Let’s look at the evidence. John Lott, a University of Chicago economist, collected data from every one of the 3,054 counties in the United States over an 18-year period and examined changes in the rates of nine different types of crime. He also accounted for the effects of dozens of other variables, including variations in arrest rates, in the age and racial composition of a county’s population, in national crime rates, and in changes made to gun-control laws, including the adoption of waiting periods. Lott’s findings show that concealed weapons laws significantly reduce violent crime. On average, the murder rate fell by ten percent, rape by three percent, and aggravated assault by six percent.

By concealed weapons laws, we are talking of course about citizens who legally carry firearms to provide for their Constitutional protections before the police show up. Ask any law enforcement officer and they will tell you that it is far more common for the police to appear after someone is dead than a few seconds before the trigger is pulled. Society does not have the resources or the power of premonition to place our law officers in the right place at the right time. Therefore, the citizens, as our Founders believed, have the right and responsibility to prevent massacres like the one that has tragically occurred at Virginia Tech.

Every parent who cares about the long run safety of their children should actively pursue gun safety courses, gun training and a home environment that respects guns for what they are meant to do. If more parents did this, rather than listen to the histrionics of people who are ignorant about guns and our rights, then at some point during the Virginia Tech shootings the gunman would have faced the barrel of a gun being held by a responsible citizen. That could have been after one death or twenty, but it would have dramatically increased the probability of lives being saved.

It would have also given future gunmen that much needed moment of pause if more of them realized that there were many potential defenders of life out there among the citizenry.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

What Barack Obama can learn from Gerard DePardieu

Last year, a few months before we re-elected the man who is going to save us from prosperity, France elected Francois Hollande as her next president. 
President Hollande immediately passed a law that raised France's top marginal tax rate to 75% on all incomes over 1 million Euros ($1.3 million).
This week, French actor Gerard DePardieu renounced his French citizenship and became a citizen of the tax-friendly nation of......(wait for it).......
In the birthplace of Communism, if you have a job and make a great deal of money, the government charges you a flat 15% tax on the fruits of your labor.
Shockingly, Mr. DePardieu feels that for the year 2013 he would rather see 15% of his income taken away by force rather than 75%.  Quel choc! Quel outrage!
Here comes the math part and this is where I need you to pay real close attention, Mr. Obama.
By leaving, France will receive 75% of zero Euros from Mr. DePardieu.  Russia will get 15% of a lot of money.
President Obama, which is the greater total for the coffers of the French treasury?  Which will help pay for roads and welfare in France?  Which one suggests that people do, indeed, respond to incentives and pay attention to their after-tax income in making decisions?  Which one proves that people and money are mobile?  Which one proves that it is not true that higher tax rates leads to more revenue?

Back home in America, 2013 has given us all an increase in the payroll tax (my taxes will now be about $2,400 higher this year) and an increase in the income tax rates for those Americans making more than $400,000 per year.  This, of course, coming during a really slow economic recovery - the ideal time to raise taxes.

Mr. Obama tells us that this tax increase on the top 2% of the American people will promote "fairness" and help reduce the deficit.  Of course when John F. Kennedy - a smart Democrat - did the opposite and cut taxes the 1960s had a booming economy and more tax revenue.  No matter.  This is the 2010's and we need not let something like common sense get in the way of fairness.

Here is what will happen next.

First, rich people will find a way to shelter their income from these higher rates.  They will send more of their economic activity offshore, purchase tax-free investments, create more trusts and on and on and on.

Second, we will notice that the national debt is not going down as a result of taxing the rich.

Third, President Obama will announce that the tax hike was not enough and will push for even higher rates on income, estates, capital gains, diamond-studded poodle collars and whatever else our "never ran a business" President can come up with.

Fourth, more Americans will email or text Mr. DePardieu for a good real estate agent.