They’re After Your 401(k)

Hold on!  It’s never enough

It’s never enough until your heart stops beating

The deeper you get, the sweeter the pain

Don’t give up the game until your heart stops beating

            —New Order, Shellshock

Do you ever feel like that prehistoric squirrel at the beginning of Ice Age trying desperately to protect against all manner of calamity the one meager acorn he’s managed to save?

I’ve warned before that the Beast was hungry, and it was coming for your 401(k).

Last April I predicted that if Obama were re-elected, one of the things we’d see is the government eliminating the tax deduction for your 401K (at least for higher wage earners), if not retroactively collecting the deferred tax or confiscating your account outright.  Back in August I reported that more and more in the District were starting to pay attention to a proposal by a Dr. Teresa Ghilarducci suggesting the creation of a mandatory federal retirement program to supplement Social Security, which would essentially establish a mandatory replacement for your 401(k)

Well, they’re at it again.

The Brookings Institute has released a report recommending cutting back or eliminating 401(k) tax deductions for higher-income earners.  The concern, apparently, is two-fold.  On the one hand, the 401(k) program is too “costly” an “expense.”  On the other hand, it isn’t achieving its goal of encouraging savings, particularly among lower income workers.  As the report’s author Karen Dynan said:

“We really need to think hard about whether the dollars we are spending are effective at achieving the goals.”

This is juvenile.

To begin with, it’s not an expense.  It’s not.  Allowing you to deduct your 401(k) contribution from your taxable wages is not an expenditure by the federal government; it’s allowing you to keep an added portion of money that’s yours to begin with.  We have to get out of this positively sick mindset that every dollar in existence actually belongs to the Beast, and that to the extent you get to keep anything at all that’s only due to the sacrificial generosity of a government that otherwise has an absolute right to consume it.  Your money is yours, and taxes are the government’s means of confiscating that money from you.  The only “expenditure” in a tax transaction is by the taxpayer.

Second, the 401(k) program and its deduction aren’t really even letting you keep that money.  What they’re letting you do is defer the taxes on that money to a later date—the Beast will still get its slice.  But there’s a significant catch: you can’t touch that money until you turn 59 ½.  And you can’t just hoard it and pass it down to your kids, either; you must start withdrawing it (and paying the taxes on those withdrawals) when you turn 70 ½.  If you violate either rule, there are substantial penalties (and the government still taxes you).  So it’s not like you have free use of that money.

And what’s really silly here is the stated rationale being that low and middle-income earners are still not saving enough, even with the tax deduction incentive.  The proposed solution to this is to eliminate the deduction—for upper-income people.  That’s right: poor people don’t save enough, so we’re going to increase taxes on rich people.

Perhaps I missed something, but how is eliminating 401(k) deductions for the wealthy supposed to increase savings rates among lower-income groups?

No, eliminating 401(k) deductions for the wealthy won’t impact savings by others.  Which is why Senator Dan Harkin (D-IA) plans to introduce legislation this year requiring businesses that don’t offer a 401(k) to enroll workers (with a mandatory company match) in a USA Retirement Fund.  Presumably that would be some sort of federally-managed—you know, because the District is sooooo good at making investments and managing money—retirement account, not unlike the proposal advanced by Professor Ghilarducci.  According to Harkin:

“The dream of a secure retirement is getting fainter and fainter . . . Savings rates are low and there’s no simple way for people to convert their savings into a stream of retirement income they can’t outlive.”

Well, sure there is, Senator: they can save and invest their money—there are oodles of no-load, no-fee, no-minimum-investment mutual funds out there that literally anybody could invest in if they were so inclined—which they’d be in a much better position to do if the District weren’t taking so much of it in the form of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and income taxes.  And, not to put too fine a point on it, wasn’t the solution to this people can’t adequately prepare for a secure retirement problem supposed to have been Social Security, which was a federally-managed retirement account with mandatory participation and employer contributions . . . in other words, exactly what you’re proposing?

If Social Security isn’t solving this problem now, what makes anyone think that a second iteration of it will do any different?

And, as we’re already seeing with Obamacare, this kind of federal effort to force businesses to provide benefits to lower-income employees will end up backfiring.  Businesses that don’t offer 401(k) plans don’t do that because the market doesn’t require it; they are able to maintain an adequate workforce without it.  But once the government compels them to offer the federal plan and make matching contributions, many will conclude that their business economics won’t support that, and they will either begin trimming their workforce or closing their doors altogether; either way, the very people supposedly being helped by this effort end up not only without a retirement savings plan—which they already didn’t have—but also without a job.

Stop helping me already!

But you and I both know at the end of the day this isn’t about trying to ensure everyone has an adequate nest egg.  It’s about trying to find yet another way to generate revenue because the Beast is simply incapable of dealing with its spending problem.  It might be different if these things would make a significant dent in the deficit, but they won’t.  Just like Social Security, Harkin’s proposed program will ultimately become a net drain, between administrative costs and the simple fact that entitlement programs always end up owing more in “benefits” than they bring in.  And eliminating 401(k) deductions will only add an additional $85.8 billion in revenue per year, which is a whopping 9.5% of the projected $900 billion deficit—not the budget, but the budget shortfall—for fiscal 2013.  Put another way, an additional $86 billion covers the Beast’s consumption for about nine days.

The problem isn’t retirement savings; somebody needs to push Miss Piggy away from the buffet table.

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What’s The Big Deal?

 

“The government wants you to be scared.  They want everybody to be scared to speak out.  They count on it.”

            —Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison in JFK

 

Once again I see Obama and the Democrats have managed to set up yet another straw man “crisis” over which to cry panic and threaten to blame Republicans if they don’t capitulate.

First it was the 30 million—no, 40 million—no, 50 million—“Americans” who were without health insurance and therefore would surely die in the streets if we didn’t pass Obamacare immediately.  Of course, as we’re now finding out what’s really in it, it turns out a lot of people aren’t going to be covered, and a lot more people are going to lose their jobs (and still not be covered).  Premiums under the “Affordable Care Act” are likely to become less affordable, and the plan that the President swore he wouldn’t sign if it added “one dime to the deficit” we’re learning will in fact add hundreds of billions of dollars.  You’ll be able to keep your coverage if you like it—except when you won’t.  And in the most ironic twist of all, people in uber-blue California are now finding out that not only may they well not be able to keep their doctor, in some instances they may not get a doctor at all.

Then there were the series of debt ceiling scares and the “fiscal cliff,” where we all would surely die in the streets if we didn’t immediately raise the District’s ability to borrow yet trillions more, and raise taxes (only on “millionaires and billionaires,” of course).  As a result, the debt limit (predictably followed soon thereafter by the debt itself) has risen from $14.3 trillion in 2011, to $14.7 trillion, then $15.4 trillion, to its current level of $16.2 trillion.

There’s a reason blitzing is effective in football.  Human beings forced to make snap decisions under duress make mistakes.  That’s Obama’s and the Democrats’ gambit with the never-ending series of “crises”:  it allows them to force through under the guise of necessary emergency action measures they could never get under the crucible of sober debate and reflection.

The latest iteration of these self-made imminent catastrophies is the budget “sequestration” that is to kick in automatically under the Budget Control Act of 2011 if the Congress doesn’t reach a deal to identify $1.2 trillion in spending cuts by March 1.  Recall that this was just another chapter of the illusory give-us-a-revenue-increase-now-and-we’ll-(snicker)-agree-on-spending-cuts-later game the Democrats have been playing for decades.  In this particular instance, the idea was to permit an increase in the debt ceiling, and use this threat of a very dire sounding “automatic” sanction to provide an incentive for both sides to reach an agreement.

The problem, however, is Obama and the Democrats never intended to agree on any spending cuts; what they wanted was a stick that sounded drastic that they could then pound on the table and scream about all the horribles that would happen unless the Republicans stopped their “rigid ideology and partisan politics” (read: give in to everything the Democrats demand).  And, right on cue, the President is out there today signing chapter and verse on how terrible and unfair it’s going to be if the sequestration cuts come to pass:

“These cuts are not smart.  They are not fair.  They will hurt our economy.  They will add hundreds of thousands of Americans to the unemployment rolls.  This is not an abstraction; people will lose their jobs.”

Never mind that the whole sequestration concept actually came from the White House in the first place.  Once the crisis is upon us, it’s forgotten who is actually its source.

Now, I must admit the idea of cutting the budget by $1.2 trillion sounds drastic to John Q. Public, and thus Obama’s prophesy seems dire indeed.  But here’s the dirty little secret:

They’re not cutting one thin dime from federal spending, even if sequestration comes to pass.

The automatic sequestration doesn’t cut $1.2 trillion right now.  It cuts that sum over ten years, meaning it averages a reduction of $120 billion in a given year.  For 2013, the cut is $85 billion, but let’s assume for a second it was a straight-line $120 billion.  Federal spending for 2012 was $3.6 trillion.  For 2013, it is anticipated to run $3.8 trillion.  That’s a $200 billion increase from 2012 to 2013.  If the sequestration took effect and imposed a $120 billion cut, that’s still less than the anticipated increase in federal spending.  In other words, even with sequestration, federal spending in 2013 will still be $80 billion more than it was in 2012.  They’re not cutting spending, they’re just increasing spending at a slower rate.

Further, as you listen to the President’s shrill warnings of impending disaster, let’s look at what the relative magnitude of sequestration really is.  Even if we give the President the benefit of the doubt and accept that sequestration represents an actual cut in spending—which it doesn’t, as I’ve just demonstrated—consider that a $120 billion cut in a $3.8 trillion budget represents a total reduction of just 3.2%.  If we use the actual $85 billion in cuts that sequestration would trigger for 2013, it’s a 2.2% reduction.

Are you kidding me?  Are you telling me we can’t survive even a 2-3% reduction in federal spending without inciting an economic catastrophe?

Bovine defecation.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is running around claiming that the federal government doesn’t have a spending problem.  Respectfully, Ms. Pelosi, denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.  The fact of the matter is that the 2013 projected spending in constant 2005 dollars is about $3.2 trillion.  With the exceptions of 2010 and 1993, that spending level—again, in constant dollars, meaning this isn’t simply the effect of inflation—has risen every single year since 1988.  During that time, federal spending has doubled.  To put that in perspective, the U.S. population in 1988 was 244 million; at 313 million today, it has increased by a little more than 25% over the same period.  Since 1972, federal spending in constant 2005 dollars has tripled, while the population increased less than 50%.

This is the problem.  It’s not priorities, and it’s not that we don’t tax ourselves enough.  When all you do is tax, tax, tax, and borrow, borrow, borrow without ever doing something meaningful to scale back your outlays, you’re not addressing the problem.  And we can’t continue like this indefinitely.

I submit that sequestration is a false boogeyman.  There’s nothing to be afraid of, except that it doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.

Dereliction Of Duty

“This national security stuff boring you?”

            —Tom Arnold as Albert Gibson in True Lies

 

This is unbelievable, and I can’t fathom why it’s not getting more coverage than it is.

Last week Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee regarding the September 11 attacks on the U.S. consulate compounds in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, dead.  And I have to tell you, the story they told was simply shocking.

Panetta told the committee that he met with President Obama and Vice President Biden in person at the White House at 5:00 p.m. the afternoon of the 11th.  This was a previously-scheduled security briefing, but Panetta confirmed that in the course of that meeting he informed the President of the attack, which had begun a little over an hour earlier.  This in itself raises an interesting issue.

Panetta testified that he knew “immediately” that the Benghazi raid was a terrorist assault, and presumably he so informed the President.  This echoes earlier statements by then-CIA Director General David Petraeus, who has said that CIA likewise knew and told the White House that the incident was a terrorist attack (contrast that with complaints from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice that CIA gave them bad intelligence in this regard).  So we have both the head of the Defense Department and the head of Central Intelligence now both saying they knew that the assault was a terrorist attack, and that they told the President so.  Why, then, would the Obama Administration—including the President himself, the Secretary of State, the Ambassador to the U.N., and the White House Press Secretary—repeatedly and for weeks afterward have been publicly so garbled and confused about the attacks simply being a protest over an internet movie?

With all due respect to Hillary Clinton and her disingenuous indignation when asked about this very issue, this matters a great deal once you overlay the Administration’s messaging against the timeline and what we now know about what the President actually did (or, more aptly, didn’t do).

The first attack began around 3:45 p.m. Washington time.  At that time, according to the published White House schedule, the President was at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, visiting injured troops.  By 5:00, Obama was meeting in person with his Secretary of Defense and learning of the attack.  According to Panetta—there has been no comment from the White House to rebut this—Obama gave him no instructions other than to “do whatever you need to do to be able to protect our people there,” which I suppose is fine so far as it goes.  But according to Panetta, Obama didn’t ask how long it would take to deploy any assets, or even what assets and options were available.  Basically, the inquisitive professor asked nothing about any details, and punted to Panetta.

Panetta, armed with the vague directive to do “whatever,” spent the next two hours debating options, and ordering anti-terrorist teams to “prepare” to head to the region.  A six-man security team from Tripoli arrived at Benghazi around 7:30 p.m. Washington time.  A second attack was launched at 11:15, some 7 ½ hours after the first attack began, and more than six hours after Panetta met with President Obama.  Yet during that period, other than an unarmed surveillance drone (which arrived in about an hour), and a single six-man security team, Panetta confirmed that not a single armed aircraft nor a single military unit left the ground to come to Benghazi’s aid.

Six hours.  You can fly from New York to London (about 3400 miles) in that time.  Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany is less than half that distance from Benghazi.  Military assets in Spain, Italy, Greece, and Turkey are closer still.  And there is always at least one Navy carrier strike group in the Mediterranean.  But although nobody knew how long the first attack would last or how many additional assaults there might be, not a single unit was even ordered to attempt to get there.

But here’s where it gets really disturbing.

During the seven or so hours between the time he met with the President and the end of the second attack, while Panetta was wringing his hands but taking no action, he also never called the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Nor did he call the Secretary of State.  And neither of them called him.  Not once.

Worse, the White House has now confirmed what Panetta told us last week, that while the President’s security staff periodically checked in with Panetta, the President himself never once contacted him to follow up on the status on the ground in Benghazi.  Although his calendar shows no official events for the remainder of the evening, the President couldn’t be bothered to pick up the phone and see if Panetta was doing what he had instructed him to do.

Nor did he call Secretary Clinton.

Nor did he call the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

In fact, according to the White House itself, President Obama didn’t call anybody all night.

No one.

To sum it up, the consulate came under attack at 3:45 p.m. Washington time, and for the next eight hours the Secretary of Defense, charged by the President to do “whatever you need to do,” in fact did essentially nothing.  The heads of the Defense Department, the Joint Chiefs, and the State Department weren’t talking with each other.  Meanwhile the Commander-in-Chief of the United States, with sovereign U.S. soil under armed siege and Americans being killed, went to sleep without talking to any of his senior defense leadership the rest of the night.

Now, I understand the concept of delegating, and frankly I’d just as soon Obama leave to the experts the nuts and bolts of, well, anything.  But delegation doesn’t mean you hand it off and wash your hands of it completely; we’re not talking about a Ronco rotisserie toaster oven where you can just set it and forget it.  The President is ultimately responsible for national defense, which means he’s ultimately responsible for defending you.  Yet Benghazi demonstrates that Obama simply can’t be bothered with these things.  For the Commander-in-Chief not to have enough passing curiosity to ask what the plan was, when it would be implemented, or even whether the situation was under control is terrifying.  Whether it’s a lack of spine or interest, faced with a situation in which immediate action needed to be taken to defend Americans on American soil, he was utterly and in every way absent.

And now he’s running from it.  It’s 158 days and counting, and Obama still hasn’t addressed the nation about what happened in Benghazi, or explained where he was and what he was doing (or not), nor accepted any responsibility whatsoever.  Contrast that with the killing of Osama Bin Laden.  Obama went on national TV within hours to announce—and claim credit for—the success of that mission, and the White House was quick to release photos from the situation room depicting Obama and Clinton in a very hands-on, real time role.  But, of course, that’s one that went well.  With Benghazi, he’s nowhere to be seen; he lets Secretary Clinton and Ambassador Rice face the questions and throw Petraeus under the bus.

This was just a mob-sized attack on a small consulate.  What’s he going to do if a very belligerent Iran becomes nuclear?  What’s he going to do if an even more belligerent North Korea actually figures out how to get a missile from the Korean peninsula to Seattle or San Francisco?

He won’t be able to hide behind a drone or a teleprompter then.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

 

Bond:  She died of skin suffocation.  It’s been known to happen to cabaret dancers.  It’s all right as long as you leave a small bare patch at the base of the spine to allow the skin to breathe.

M:       Someone obviously didn’t.

Bond:  And I know who.

M:       This isn’t a personal vendetta, 007.  It’s an assignment, like any other.  And if you can’t treat it as such, coldly and objectively, 008 can replace you.

            —Sean Connery as James Bond, and Bernard Lee as “M” in Goldfinger

 

I don’t mean to belittle the experience of people like Gabrielle Giffords, who use their personal examples as a platform to argue for gun control.  But let me share with you my own experience.

A year ago yesterday, I received a phone call from my sister telling me my Dad—a patrolman with the Dallas Police Department—had been hurt on duty and was heading to a hospital via ambulance.  Her initial information was sketchy, but apparently he had been cut by broken glass in the course of wrecking his patrol car.  When she called back a half hour later, her information was more solid, and more terrifying:

He had been shot, and—we would later learn—very nearly killed.

Dad was answering a domestic violence call at an apartment complex.  The call turned out to be ambush bait, and as he was rounding a corner in the parking lot, the shooter was waiting for him, and shot him through the driver’s side window.  But for Dad’s shoulder mic, the bullet would have hit him in the upper left chest in a place the body armor doesn’t cover.  As it was, the bullet ricocheted off the mic and lodged behind his jaw; an inch in any direction, and he would have been hit in the brain, spinal cord, or carotid artery, all likely fatal.

Even though I spoke with him and knew he was OK, I was largely dysfunctional for a week.  I’m told the audio from his radio transmissions was on the internet after being released by a local radio station; I’ve never listened to it, and won’t.  He’s offered to show me the video from his patrol car camera; I’ve declined.

We were very, very lucky, and I’m happy to report that Dad is fine and back on his beat.  So my experience is not quite as dire as that of Ms. Giffords, or those who have lost loved ones to gun violence.  But it’s close enough to give me some sense of their perspective.  And yet my response to that incident was not to seek tighter gun control, but to begin acquiring my own guns (and learn to use them), and regular readers of this space know I have been loudly opposed to unilateral federal gun control measures.  While I don’t purport to speak for my Dad, he has done nothing but voice support for both my actions and position in this regard.

The reason I can take the position I do despite this experience is I don’t allow my emotional response to override my rational judgment, or to blind me to the practical realities or the larger overriding constitutional issue.  I understand that no amount of gun control would have prevented my Dad from being shot.  Ban “assault weapons” (whatever those are)?  Dad wasn’t shot with an AR-15 or AK-47; he was shot with a .40 S&W caliber semi-automatic pistol.  Ban large-capacity magazines?  Most .40 S&Ws are already limited to 10 round magazines; and in any event he was shot with the first round, so 17 rounds, 15 rounds, 10 rounds, 6—wouldn’t have made any difference.  Increase background checks?  The overwhelming likelihood is that the shooter obtained the gun legally after passing a background check; if he didn’t, that demonstrates a willingness and ability to get around the process.   Nothing currently being proposed in the way of gun control would have stopped what happened to my Dad.

Now, I recognize that my Dad’s incident is a little different from mass-shooting episodes like the Connecticut massacre.  But consider the common thread that runs through incidents of that nature.  Here are some examples:

  • 1966, Austin, Texas—Charles Whitman killed 15 and wounded 32 from an observation tower at the University of Texas before being shot by police.
  • 1974, New Orleans, Louisiana—Mark Essex killed 9 and wounded 13, mostly from a hotel across the street from City Hall before being shot by police.
  • 1982, Miami, Florida—Carl Brown killed 8 and wounded 3 at a Miami welding shop before being shot and run down by witnesses as he attempted to escape.
  • 1984, San Ysidro, California—James Huberty killed 21 and wounded 19 at a McDonald’s before being shot by a police sniper.
  • 1984, Fairbanks, Alaska—Michael Silka killed 9 and wounded 1 before being shot by a police sniper.
  • 1988, New York City—Cho Mun Chu killed 2 and wounded 14 in an apartment building before being shot by police.
  • 1994, Spokane, Washington—Dean Mellberg killed 4 and wounded 23 at Fairchild Air Force Base before being shot by police.
  • 2008, Kirkwood, Missouri—Charles Thornton killed 6 and wounded 1 at a City Council meeting before being shot by police.
  • 2009, Carthage, North Carolina—Robert Stewart killed 8 and wounded 3 at a nursing home before being wounded and disarmed by an off-duty police officer.
  • 2009, Killeen, Texas—Nidal Hassan allegedly killed 13 and wounded 30 at Fort Hood before being wounded and disarmed by police.

Certainly this list isn’t exhaustive, and there are other examples and exceptions, but it is instructive.  With the exceptions of Huberty (Uzi) and Mellberg (AK-47 clone), none of these shooters employed an “assault weapon” that would be captured by the proposed ban (Whitman had a sawed-off shotgun and Brown used a pistol grip shotgun, but there is nothing to suggest that a ban on those features would have stopped either one).  Most did not have “high-capacity” magazines, and at least four (Whitman, Brown, Huberty, and Hassan) managed to reload without being stopped.  Background checks and registration requirements don’t seem to have stopped any of them.

The common thread here is that mass shootings of the sort driving the current gun control discussion almost invariably don’t stop until the perpetrator himself gets shot, whether by his others or (as is often the case) by his own hand.  The only real variable is how quickly that end is brought about, and this is Wayne LaPierre’s and the NRA’s point when they advocate armed guards at schools.

Mass shooters aren’t stopped by “assault weapon” bans, or large magazine bans, or background checks and registration requirements.  They’re stopped by someone with a gun.  How much more quickly could some of these episodes have been brought to their inevitable conclusion had there been one or two armed citizens on hand instead of having to wait for the police?

How many more people would be alive today?

Just asking.

You Can’t Fix Stupid

Dunning:        You do know there’s a “surcharge” for any arms deliveries to countries that are embargoed by the United Nations?

Matheson:      For every problem, Monsieur, there is a solution.

            —Richard Dreyfus as Alexander Dunning, and Morgan Freeman as Joe Matheson in RED

Last week my local Sugar Land Sun ran an interesting op-ed piece by Roy Kent dealing with the intersection of sports and government.  Apparently the scourge of head injuries in football has gotten the attention of Texas legislators, and Representative Eddie Lucio (D-Harlingen) has filed a bill to limit high school and middle school programs to one full contact practice per week.  I’m guessing Representative Lucio wouldn’t have made it as one of Bear Bryant’s “Junction Boys.”  While I appreciate the sentiment of wanting to protect kids, Representative Lucio’s proposal raises several concerns.

As an initial point, it seems that, like so many things that spur legislative cries for urgent action, the football head injury issue isn’t the catastrophic epidemic you might think from Lucio’s bill.  A study by the American Football Coaches’ Committee on Football Injuries, NCAA, and National Federation of State High School Associations indicates that the rate of fatalities directly related to participation in football (invariably associated with head/neck injuries) was 0.18 per 100,000 participants at the high school level in 2011 (roughly the same incident rate as being struck by lightning in the U.S.).  And that rate has dropped steadily since the mid-1960s.  I understand that Representative Lucio is concerned with the cumulative impact of repeated concussions and the like, but using fatalities as a kind of proxy statistic the data suggests that the “problem” isn’t as widespread as he might lead you to believe.

Moreover, the sense of urgency may be misplaced.  Consider that automobile crashes are consistently the leading cause of death for 13-19 year olds.  In 2010 there were approximately 3115 such fatalities, a rate of about 10 per 100,000, or some fifty times that of football.  Why, if we’re going to look at urgent action to protect kids, are we focusing on football instead of cars?

Lucio’s proposal also has practical problems.  How on earth are you going to enforce a limitation on full contact practices?  Just defining what constitutes “full contact” is problematic; policing it is worse.  This is Texas, home of Friday Night Lights, where football is unquestionably king.  High school programs here are already notorious for skirting limitations on the number and duration of practices, either through “voluntary” supplemental workouts, if not just outright ignoring them.  We scarcely have the resources to monitor and address the very real problems of truancy and dropouts.  Adding to the oversight burden only makes that worse.

In fact, you could make a case that Representative Lucio’s proposal would actually be counter-productive.  One of the contributing factors to head injuries in football is blocking and tackling technique, which cannot be adequately taught and practiced outside of a full-speed, full-contact environment.  Further, the ability to withstand contact in games without injury—what the players call being in “football shape”—only comes with regular contact in practice.  Coaches have every incentive to minimize injuries in practice, and they manage their practice routines with that in mind.  But they also have an incentive and a responsibility to ensure that their players are physically prepared to participate, and that requires contact.

The fact of the matter is that football is a rough collision sport.  Injuries will happen.  Now, I’m no doctor or physicist, but it seems pretty obvious that the main variables affecting the occurrence of head and other injuries are the speed of the collisions and the mass (size) of the bodies colliding.  You want to reduce injuries?  Slow the players down by returning to leather helmets or at least taking away their face masks; a player is going to be much less enthusiastic about launching himself head-first at maximum speed when he’s no longer so protected that his head is effectively a weapon.  And shrink the players themselves.  It’s not that long ago that Chicago Bears offensive lineman William Perry was nicknamed the “Refrigerator” because of the relative novelty of an NFL player weighing 300 pounds; today, my alma mater Allen High School won the Texas AAAAA Division I state championship with a roster that featured one 300 pounder and seven others weighing in at over 270, and that’s not uncommon.  Pare the players down by instituting maximum weights by position; say, 240 pounds for linemen, 190 for backs and linebackers, and 175 for everyone else.

But here’s the thing.  You can do all of that through rule-making by the sport’s governing body.  It doesn’t require legislation, and this is really the rub of the matter.  Lucio’s proposal is yet another example of a chronic pathology in Congress and statehouses: legislators who feel compelled to legislate something, anything, in order to justify their existence.  But rather than doing the dirty work of making difficult and responsible choices on issues that matter—because those things carry political risk—they instead search for feel-good issues that pose little risk and solve little in the real world, but create the impression that they are taking action like a true leader.  The result is nonsense that accomplishes nothing but increasing government intrusion in the interest of protecting us from ourselves:

  • forced posting of calorie information on restaurant menus;
  • banning of large sodas;
  • regulation of school lunch contents even when packed from home (yet curiously virtually no nutritional regulation over the diets of those on food stamps, so apparently we are more concerned about what food you spend your own money on than on what food other people spend your money on);
  • mandatory “dead man” switches on lawnmowers;
  • child-proof (read: adult-proof) caps on medicines, vitamins, and even mouthwash;
  • mandatory warnings on cigarettes, alcohol, etc.

Instead of passing a damn budget, Congress spends its time threatening to investigate college football’s bowl/ranking system.  Or boxing scoring.  Or steroids in baseball.

You cannot legislate common sense, and this was Kent’s central point in his Sun op-ed.  Yes, there are problems out there; some are very real and urgent, and others not so much.  And the world has its dangers and risks, whether they be to life and limb, to financial security, or to happiness and mental health.  Those risks can never be eliminated—and many cannot even be mitigated—by passing yet another law or regulation.  We could make a lot of progress by actually focusing on the bigger-ticket items, and leaving the minutia of day-to-day living and managing its risks to those of us who actually do that living and have to deal with those risks.  That, friends, is what “liberty” is.

The answer isn’t always legislation.

Fantasy Island

“What’s bullsh*t, Mr. Quaid?  That you’re having a paranoid episode triggered by acute neuro-chemical trauma?  Or that you’re really an invincible secret agent from Mars who’s the victim of an interplanetary conspiracy to make him think he’s a lowly construction worker?  Stop punishing yourself, Doug.  You’re a fine, upstanding man.  You have a beautiful wife who loves you.  Your whole life is ahead of you.  But you’ve got to want to return to reality.”

            —Roy Brocksmith as Dr. Edgemar in Total Recall

 

What is with the government and its fascination for phantom markets?

I have a number of times in this space covered the Obama administration’s “green energy” fetish, in particular its use of taxpayer money as venture capital for startup businesses to produce things like solar panels and electric car batteries for which there is no market.  Unfortunately, you can’t run a business on a build-it-and-the-market-will-come basis, and the green energy venture capital program has had predictably disastrous results.  A123, Abound Solar, Solar Trust of America, Ener1, Beacon Power, Evergreen Solar, Solyndra, and Spectrawatt have all gone bankrupt.  Nevada Geothermal and Sunpower are insolvent.  Several firms have either instituted significant layoffs, and/or been taken over by foreign parent companies (most recently A123 taken over by the Chinese).  There remains no real market for these products, and virtually no jobs have been “created.”  Meanwhile hundreds of billions in taxpayer money has been flushed down the toilet.

We have also on many occasions discussed Obamacare, which is in essence a government program to compel consumer participation in a market that exists, but whose product the consumer may or may not wish to purchase.  Commerce clause limitations be damned, you no longer have a say in it (unless you’re too poor for the individual mandate to apply to you): you’re going to buy that product or the government is going to fine you.  Like the green energy loans fiasco, this is also beginning to yield the predictable results of layoffs, work hours reductions (another form of layoffs), closures, and increasingly we’re learning that more and more will in fact still be left without insurance or will be forced into the joy that is Medicaid.  Over a trillion more in taxpayer money spent.  Gone.

So what we’ve seen here is your government interfering with both the supply and demand sides of the economic equation to push for trade in products nobody wants to buy; in other words, insisting on (or creating by force) commerce where no market exists.  But if you think those exercises in governmental fantasy are funny, wait until you see what’s next.

We now have the EPA issuing regulations requiring gasoline refiners to purchase minimum quantities of what’s called “cellulosic biofuel”—ethanol made from grass, cornstalks, and other non-food items.  This is an extension of the decade-old “renewable fuels” mandate that requires refiners to purchase minimum quantities of ethanol—for 2013 that requirement is 16.55 billion gallons, up from 15.2 billion in 2012.  The generic mandate has problems in itself in that ethanol isn’t competitive as a fuel additive, and depends on heavy government subsidies in order to make it economically viable.  So you’re already talking about a product that essentially can’t be sold without government compulsion of the buyers, and government contribution to the purchase price.

But the generic ethanol mandate also encountered criticism for diverting corn food stocks to ethanol production, thus raising food prices and prompting ethical questions about using food for fuel.  Thus EPA came up with the cellulosic biofuel requirement, which meant that of the minimum amount of ethanol refiners were required to purchase, a certain minimum percentage had to be sourced from non-food base stock.  For 2012 that quota was 8.65 million gallons.  There’s just one tiny little catch:  for all of 2012, according to EPA itself, there were only a grand total of 20,069 gallons of cellulosic biofuel available for purchase; that’s 0.2% of the amount EPA required.  And every bit of that was produced in April.

That’s right, kids.  EPA issued a regulation requiring gasoline refiners to purchase a product that the refiners not only did not want, but that for all intents and purposes did not even exist.

So we’ve gone from the government trying to subsidize the production of products for a non-existent market, to compelling consumers to purchase a product that exists but that they do not want, to compelling the purchase of a non-existent product.  One supposes that next they’ll make us engage in this artificial commerce in non-existent things that we don’t want to buy using imaginary money (oh, wait, we already do that).  Of course, you’ll be shocked to learn that on the cellulosic biofuel front, your alternative as a refiner, since the product the government ordered you to buy didn’t exist, was to purchase “credits” (read: pay a fine) from EPA at the rate of $0.78 per gallon in order to be in compliance.

Recognizing the patent stupidity of this arrangement, a federal appeals court—in an increasingly rare display of sanity—last week told EPA that its mandate scheme was unenforceable.  You’d think that would be the end of that, right?

You’d be wrong.

Here’s just how lawless and out of control your government—particularly the unelected and unaccountable bureaucracy—has become.  Having just had its mandate stricken down by a federal appeals court, EPA didn’t withdraw the mandate or even at least revise it downward to reflect the reality that the product simply isn’t there.  Instead, on Thursday EPA released a new mandate for 2013 that increased the requirement for the purchase of this non-existent product from 8.65 million gallons to 14 million gallons.  Thus, a court told EPA its biofuel mandate was unreasonable, and EPA’s response was almost literally to double down on it.

Yes, I know the finger, Goose.

Predictably, the ethanol lobby organization Renewable Fuels Association swears that new production is coming on line and they expect 2013 to be a “breakthrough year.”  But let’s be clear: to make enough cellulosic biofuel to meet the 2013 EPA requirement, the ethanol industry would have to increase production by nearly 700% over what it put out in 2012.  With the ethanol group Fuels America making the more circumspect prediction that “millions” (they didn’t say how many) of gallons would be coming on line “in the next two years,” one seriously has to question whether the product will exist in sufficient quantities to allow refiners to comply with the law this year.  Meanwhile, gasoline refiners are stuck with a regulation with which it is literally impossible to comply, and face fines when they fail to do so.

Nothing matters to these people on the Left but their agenda.  Certainly reality doesn’t seem to enter into it.  The fact that the market doesn’t exist or that the product doesn’t exist is no obstacle to them compelling trade anyway.  And it doesn’t matter what the policy of forcing involuntary commerce in a non-existent market or non-existent product costs, whether in terms of wasted taxpayer money, needlessly increased gasoline prices, or lost alternative opportunities.  Nor do the legitimate checks-and-balances structure of government or the rule of law matter.  The Left is happy to use the courts to rewrite the law when they can’t do it at the ballot box, but they ignore the courts when it doesn’t go their way (witness the Obama administration doing precisely that in response to a federal court ruling that his NLRB appointments while the Senate was in session were unconstitutional).

With what are we left if neither reality nor law matter?  If reality is irrelevant, then we live in a fantasy world where anything and everything comes to be for nothing more than the price of wishing it so; never mind that it doesn’t work.  And if law is irrelevant, then we live in state of anarchy where only the ruling thug-of-the-day’s vision of that fantasy world matters.