Civics 201: What Might Have Been

“Oh, Brad!  Brad, my darling, how could I have done this to you?  Oh, if only we hadn’t made this journey.  If only the car hadn’t broken down.  If only we were amongst friends . . . or sane persons.  Oh, Brad, what have they done with him?”

            —Susan Sarandon as Janet Weiss in The Rocky Horror Picture Show

 

God bless my junior Senator, Ted Cruz, for being one of the very few in the Senate GOP contingent with the stones to stand up and try.  I have no idea what John Cornyn—who is all over his website and social media saying he supports defunding Obamacare—is doing leading the effort to stop him.  Voting for cloture and ending Cruz’s filibuster—which requires 60 votes Harry Reid doesn’t have without Cornyn’s help—only allows the Democrats to get to a vote on an amendment adding the funding back in, where Cornyn knows full well Reid does have the 51 votes he needs even over Cornyn’s objection; Cornyn’s Nay at that point is a hollow gesture, and for my life I don’t understand why Cornyn and the GOP establishment in the Senate would be so willing to cast down the only weapon they have left and quit the field.

But looking at the split between my State’s two Senators got me thinking: but for a grossly unfortunate Constitutional turn a century ago, we might well be in a different position today.  So I wanted to backtrack and cover a little history and civics.

Recall that the attendees at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 were not sent as at-large representatives of the population.  They were sent as delegations selected by their respective State legislatures, and their specific task was to represent those States as independent sovereign entities.  Indeed, one of the primary sticking points in the Constitutional debates was how these States, particularly smaller ones, would be able to protect their sovereignty once power was ceded to a central federal government.

The Framers’ solution, in their wisdom, was to create a bicameral legislature; two houses, with the Senate being the chamber in which the States, as States, would be represented.  As James Madison explained in Federalist No. 10:

“The proposed Constitution, so far from implying an abolition of the State governments, makes them constituent parts of the national sovereignty, by allowing them a direct representation in the Senate[.]”

Thus, Article I as originally written provided that the Senate would be comprised of two Senators from each State, “chosen by the Legislature thereof.”   This gave each State as an independent sovereign equal representation within the federal government, embodied in members selected by, and ultimately responsible to, the governments of those States.  That was to be the safeguard of the States’ sovereignty and their retained powers under the 10th Amendment.  That, ultimately, is what federalism is.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Utopia.

Progressives recognized that this structure posed a barrier to the imposition of their agenda.  Wouldn’t it be simpler if they could bypass the buffer of the State legislatures so they could use their populist rhetoric to elect Senators directly by popular vote?  So in 1913 they pushed through the 17th Amendment, which substituted at-large elections in place of the selection of Senators by the State legislatures, and with it eliminated any responsiveness the Senate had to the States as sovereigns.  The entire point of a bicameral Congress was defeated.

So what does this have to do with Obamacare and Ted Cruz?

At 7:05 a.m. on Christmas Eve 2009, the Senate passed a 2,000+ page bill none of them had read by a vote of 60-39; that bill would become Obamacare.  That fact might seem of little importance by itself.  But shortly after the President signed the bill into law in 2010, several States sued the federal government to stop its implementation.  By January 2011, the number of States that had joined those lawsuits or filed their own had grown to 27.  Interestingly, of those 27 States suing the federal government to stop Obamacare, 15 of them had at least one of their Senators vote Aye back in 2009—seven had both Senators vote in favor—22 Ayes in all.  In other words, nearly a quarter of the entire Senate voted in favor of legislation that so upset their home State governments that those States joined in litigation to un-do it.

How different might that Christmas Eve vote have been had there been no 17th Amendment, such that those Senators were representative of, and responsible to, their home State governments?  I have no illusions that you would have seen a much different result for the delegations from Washington or Colorado, both of which have wholly lurched Leftward in recent years.  But consider the State-level environment in the remaining 13 States suing the government to un-do a vote by their own Senators.  Every one of those States—Alaska, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Virginia, and Wisconsin—have Republican governors, and legislatures controlled by the GOP. 

One has to think that under those conditions, a Senate with members subject to selection by those State governments would have yielded a very different vote.  Even if you indulge in the assumption that the Senate delegations for Michigan (2 Ayes), Nevada (1 Aye), and Pennsylvania (2 Ayes) would have voted the same way, you still get a flip of 13 votes, resulting in the bill being defeated 47-52.  You could further assume—although I think it unlikely—that both Virginia Senators would still have voted Aye, and the Democrats still would have come up one vote short.  And recall that the 2009 Senate vote was on strict party lines; the Democrats had no defections, meaning that in a closer or losing vote, they had no arms left to twist.  Meanwhile, Jim Bunning (R-KY) missed the vote, and one suspects if he were going to have been the difference-maker the GOP could have found a way to persuade him to come in from the bullpen.

But for a little-known alteration in the fundamental structure of the Republic, Senator Cruz might not have found himself in the well of the Senate, all-but alone on the front line of a fight he shouldn’t have had to be fighting.

Go get ‘em, Ted.  Some of us citizens are behind you all the way.

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Gun Control Irony

“This is gonna work.  It’s a movie, I’m a good guy, this has got to work . . . I’m a comedy sidekick . . . Oh, sh#t! I’m a comedy sidekick! IT’S NOT GONNA WORK!”

            —Austin O’Brien as Danny Madigan in Last Action Hero

 

Does the guy ever give the politicking a rest?  Is there anything he won’t try to exploit for his political agenda?

Last Monday a disgruntled and apparently disturbed Aaron Alexis entered the Navy Yard complex in Washington, D.C., and killed twelve people before being killed himself in a gun battle with police.  President Obama went ahead with a previously-scheduled press address set for the purpose of bashing Congressional Republicans over budget issues while the shooting was still in progress.  He did take a brief minute from his pre-prepared remarks to acknowledge the tragedy, but even then he couldn’t refrain from waxing political, lamenting “yet another mass shooting.”

The victims’ bodies weren’t yet cold, and Obama was already setting up to use their deaths to push for gun control.

On Sunday he was at it again, this time cynically using a memorial service with the victims’ familes as a political pulpit, saying that the need for gun control “ought to obsess us.”  He went on to call for correction of laws that fail “to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and dangerous people.” Clearly someone is obsessed with something.

This is beyond tasteless.  It is one thing to use the incident as anecdotal evidence in support of a political argument.  It is quite another to co-opt a funeral in order to make the point.  I mean, really?  Can’t you let these people grieve without turning their grieving into a political stage?  There is nothing about Obama’s gun control pitch that couldn’t have waited until Monday, and his insistence on using the families’ sorrow for gross political theatrics was at best callous and crass.

Same as it ever was.

It is more than a little ironic to hear cries for more laws to keep guns away from “criminals and dangerous people” coming from an administration responsible for Operation Fast & Furious, in which the Justice Department deliberately allowed thousands of guns, including .50 caliber sniper rifles and AK-47s, to flow into the hands of Mexican drug cartels, ultimately leading to the murder of U.S. Border Agent Brian Terry.  This is also the same administration that recently waived federal law so it could supply weapons to rebel forces in Syria that it has openly admitted include elements of al-Qaeda (of course, you won’t see anything about that in the mainstream media).

Apparently drug lords and terrorists are neither criminals, nor dangerous.  But you, American Citizen, are.

And that’s not the end of the irony.  The President wants to use the Navy Yard incident as the impetus for more gun control, and presumably the logic is that more stringent legislation in the form of bans or background check requirements (or both) would have prevented it (and thus enacting it now will prevent similar tragedies in the future).  But the Navy Yard incident is a curious gun control poster child indeed, because the shooting took place in the District of Columbia, where guns are already effectively banned.  All guns—handguns, rifles, shotguns—must be registered with the D.C. police, and possession requires a separate permit, training, and qualifying exam.  You can’t even transport legally-owned guns through the District; just ask Army Lieutenant Augustine Kim, who had his gun collection—secured in his trunk as required under federal law—confiscated by D.C. police when he stopped at Walter Reed Hospital for treatment of battle wounds. 

Moreover, contrary to initial reports from a media rabid to take the bait and link the shooting to the evils of “assault weapons,” the Navy Yard killer did not have an AR-15; he had a shotgun, the very weapon Genius Joe Biden told us last spring was all you legitimately needed to own. 

Just stand on the balcony and fire a couple of blasts from a double-barrel (of course, then you have to stop and reload).

The Navy Yard killer had also obviously passed the background checks necessary to join the U.S. Navy, and later to gain admittance to the Navy Yard as a civilian contractor.  So it is not clear to me what sort of additional “gun control” legislation we should be obsessed to enact in the wake of the Navy Yard shooting; guns were already banned in D.C., and the shooter’s background had already been looked into.  Neither measure prevented the tragedy.    

Furthering the irony, Obama’s comments Sunday came on the heels of an incident in Obama’s hometown of Chicago Thursday night in which gang members opened fire on a pickup basketball game, wounding thirteen—something he has curiously not mentioned at all.  The weapon of choice there appears to have been a “military grade” AK-47, a gun already requiring a federal class III permit to own—which virtually no one has—and already illegal to possess in Chicago even with the federal permit.  So like the Navy Yard shootings, the Chicago shootings took place in a locale that already has some of the most stringent gun restrictions in the country, and in the Chicago case including an outright ban of the specific weapon used.  And one suspects that gang members aren’t ones to stand on ceremony when it comes to submitting to registration and background check requirements.

The Navy Yard and recent Chicago shootings demonstrate that gun control laws won’t and can’t stop these sorts of tragedies.  Criminals—by definition (something oddly lost on the intellectuals on the Left)—do not abide by laws, so the idea that adding another law, whether in the form of a ban or a background check or registration requirement (all of which were already in place in both D.C. and Chicago), is going to stop them from what they intend to do is folly.  While I have some sympathy for the argument that we need more stringent vetting to ensure that the insane do not gain access to guns, I am very leery of a mechanism that ultimately puts peoples’ Constitutional rights at the mercy of someone else’s subjective judgment; what happens when an anti-gun zealot gets himself appointed head of the psychiatric review board and suddenly every applicant is ab initio found to be criminally insane precisely because they submitted a gun application?

It is worth keeping in mind—as Glenn Beck points out so well in his new book Control—despite media hysteria and sensationalism creating the impression of an epidemic of mass shootings, incidents of this nature are in fact extremely rare.  Nor are they unique to the “gun-crazed” culture of the U.S.; they can and do happen elsewhere, even in places that practice the strict gun control Obama and others advocate here.  Crazy people will always be with us, and sometimes they’re dangerous.  I’ve made this point before: Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people with $250 of fertilizer.  You simply can’t legislate away the dangers of insanity and evil.

Gun control laws do not stop bad guys with guns.  Good guys with guns do. 

Casting Stones

 

Saw another fella talking on the TV show

Trying to tell me how to live, and just how I should vote

He says he believes in the sanctity of life

A hundred thousand died, tell me are you sanctified

Now you without sin, pick up that stone

You without sin, pick up that stone

            —Hootie and the Blowfish, The Killing Stone

 

I will say this: at least he’s gone to Congress.

The Obama administration continues to press its case for Congressional authorization to launch some kind of strike against the Assad regime in Syria for its alleged use—now two weeks ago—of chemical weapons in the civil war there.  In an attempt to distance himself from the criticism that this is all about his saving face after painting himself into a corner by issuing his “red line” ultimatum last year, the President now swears up and down that this isn’t about his credibility, but about global credibility if the international community doesn’t enforce its own international norm:

“I didn’t set a red line.  The world set a red line.  The world set a red line when governments representing 98% of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war.  Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty.  Congress set a red line when it indicated that in a piece of legislation titled the Syria Accountability Act that some of the horrendous things that are happening on the ground there need to be answered for.  And so, when I said, in a press conference, that my calculus about what’s happening in Syria would be altered by the use of chemical weapons, which the overwhelming consensus of humanity says is wrong, that wasn’t something I just kind of made up.  There was a reason for it.  That’s point number one.  Point number two, my credibility is not on the line.  The international community’s credibility is on the line.  And America and Congress’ credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important.”

Oh, so this is all about standing up for international “norms” against this kind of behavior?  As an interesting aside, almost simultaneously with the President denying he had set any red lines himself, his Secretary of State was in front of the House Foreign Relations Committee attempting to deflect questions about why act now and not in response to earlier chemical weapon attacks by the Assad regime in part by saying the earlier attacks happened before Obama drew “his red line” [RDW Note:  sorry, I don’t have a link for that, just happened to catch him saying that live]

I guess Secretary Kerry didn’t get the talking points memo.

I’m not sure what “international norm” the President thinks is enforceable in Syria.  If he’s referring to the Chemical Weapons Convention signed in 1992, and which the U.S. ratified in 1997, Syria has never signed that.  If he’s referring to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, while Syria has acceded to it, there is considerable debate whether it applies to internal civil conflicts.  Neither situation poses a clear international mandate for unilateral U.S. action, and query why it’s taken them two weeks to come up with this explanation.

The President’s effort to shift responsibility for the “red line” drawing onto Congress by citing the Syria Accountability Act is a nice try at establishing a domestic mandate, but misses the mark.  The SAA was passed in 2003, seven years before the Syrian civil war began, and thus obviously was not meant to deal with Syria’s conduct in that conflict.  Moreover, it had little to do with Syria’s use of chemical weapons, but was instead was almost entirely directed at Syria’s support for Hezbollah as an exporter of terrorism, and getting Syria out of Lebanon.  The chemical weapons concerns cited in the Act were tied to Syria’s development of ballistic missile delivery systems—that was the WMD threat to American interests: the idea that Syria was developing the capability to deliver those weapons over some significant distance (read: Israel).   Moreover, the SAA did not authorize or even mention the use of military force in Syria; it talks about import/export embargoes and diplomatic restrictions, not F/A-18s and cruise missiles.

The President wants to wrap himself in the cloak of universally-recognized “international norms,” but it’s very difficult to claim that moral high ground when the international community is universally against you on the subject of making a retaliatory strike.  The UN is against it.  Obviously our rivals are against it.  Even our allies—to the extent we have any left—are either against it, or not willing to participate.  It is a strange champion of “international norms” indeed who goes on a violent crusade with the support of almost literally no one on the planet.

We’re rightly horrified at the indiscriminant killing of civilians; war is an ugly, ugly business.  But if we’re honest with ourselves, our own history over the last half century leaves us little moral currency with which to insist upon donning the Lone Ranger’s white hat on that count.  Chemical weapons?  How about the 20 million gallons of Agent Orange sprayed by the U.S. military in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, more than a little ironically as part of us injecting ourselves into someone else’s civil war.  Our use of Agent Orange resulted in an estimated half-million killed or maimed, as many as a million with permanent health problems, and up to 500,000 children born with birth defects.  True, Agent Orange was intended as a defoliant to get rid of jungle hiding places, but it was a chemical nonetheless.  And dead is dead; does it really matter whether we killed them with a nerve agent, herbicide, high-explosive, bullet, or a pointed stick?

You want something more recent?  How about drone strikes?  Since 2004, U.S. drones have killed between 286 and 1500 civilians in Pakistan alone, and we’re not even at war with (or in) Pakistan.  Add to those the tens of thousands of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we have a non-combatant body count over the last eight years that would rival anyone, and we’ve done it all in other peoples’ back yards.  How many civilians in other countries have the Russians killed in the last 8-10 years?  How many countries have they bombed?  How about the Chinese?  Hell, even the Iranians haven’t been doing that.

We can debate the national security necessity and unavoidability of these things; that’s not my point.  My point is if the issue is international outrage over the random and large-scale killing of innocents, however that is achieved, we don’t have clean hands.  Our presuming to lead the chorus of righteous indignation over Syria—particularly when there’s no choir backing us up—should raise more than an eyebrow or two.

Before we claim not only the right but the moral obligation to take unilateral violent action in another country to enforce an “international norm” on behalf of an international community that has neither asked us to do so nor supports us doing it, maybe—just maybe—we should consider the glass house in which we sleep. 

What goes around . . . 

Minimum Wage Whiners Have It Wrong

 

Tyler:              The question, Raymond, was: WHAT DID YOU WANT TO BE?!?

Raymond:      Veterinarian.  Veterinarian.

Tyler:              Animals.

Raymond:      Yeah.  Animals and ssstuff.

Tyler:              And stuff, yeah, I got that.  That means you have to get more schooling . . . I’m keeping your license.  I’m gonna check in on you.  I know where you live.  If you’re not on your way to becoming a veterinarian in six weeks, you will be dead.  Now run on home . . .  Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day of Raymond K. Hessel’s life.  His breakfast will taste better than any meal you and I have ever tasted.

                        —Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden and Joon Kim as Raymond K. Hessel in Fight Club

 

Happy Labor Day.

Those of you who tried to get a Big Mac last Thursday may have seen the impact of a wave of strikes by fast food workers demanding that the minimum wage be increased from $7.25 to $15 an hour.  At least one store in Detroit was forced to close, ironically demonstrating that Detroiters still haven’t connected the dots on the negative impacts of overreaching labor demands.

The argument, so it goes, is that these workers are simply worth more than $7.25 and it’s just not possible to raise a family and make ends meet on that wage.  And, of course, we all know the giant fast food corporations make too much money and can afford it; as one protester in Detroit put it:

“It’s a very uncomfortable lifestyle working for $7.40 at McDonald’s when McDonald’s made like $500 billion last year.”

You know it’s only a matter of time before the President and the Left seize on this as an emergency issue du jour in order to distract from Syria and the various other messes they have brought on themselves.  Washington Post resident nitwit E.J. Dionne was already gushing over the weekend about the need for more income “predistribution.” 

But let’s back up.

In point of fact, McDonald’s Corporation did not make $500 billion last year, or anything like it.  McDonald’s Corporation made $5 billion, not even good enough to crack the Fortune 100 (McDonald’s was #107), and yet that was still by far the largest profit in the food service industry that employs close to half of all those making the minimum wage. 

More importantly, however, if you’re a line cook at a McDonald’s restaurant, the chances are overwhelming that you don’t actually work for the McDonald’s Corporation that you’re complaining is so greedy.  Most likely you work at a franchise owned by someone more or less local, who’s trying to make his profit on a business model that has him selling hamburgers for between $3 and $4 apiece, out of which he has to pay not only his franchise fees, but also taxes, payroll, mandatory benefits contributions, rent, utilities, the cost of the raw materials that went into the burger, etc.  That doesn’t leave a ton of margin to play with on raising wages.

Let’s work through an example. 

Assume you have a Whataburger franchise that during the peak rush has a manager, an assistant manager, five employees working the registers and drive-thru, and five working the fryers and grill.  That’s ten employees and two managers.  Let’s further assume that all ten regular employees are at minimum wage (unlikely), and the managers are at an average of 20% above that (also unlikely).  At a minimum wage of $7.25, ten employees cost you $72.50 per hour, and the two managers cost $17.40, for a total hourly labor cost of $89.90.  If your gross margin on a $3.49 burger is 50% (and I submit that that’s likely generous), you have to sell 51.5 burgers every hour just to cover your labor costs.  Of course, you have all the other expenses on top of that, and bear in mind that when you’re open 24 hours rent and electricity cost the same even though you may go hours at a time in between sales in the middle of the night.  

When we jack up the minimum wage to $15, ten employees now cost $150 per hour.  Two managers now at $18 per hour add $36, for a total labor cost of $186/hour.  You now have to sell 106.5 of those $3.49 burgers per hour just to pay your employees.  But your rent, electricity, and other expenses didn’t decrease to offset your increased labor costs.  It becomes readily apparent that you will either have to cut back on the number of employees, raise your prices drastically, or both.  That $3.49 burger will become something more like a $7.49 burger (fries and a drink will add another $5 or so, and who’s going to be willing to pay $12-$13 for a fast food-level burger combo?) and some of those minimum wage earners will be out of a job.  That’s if the shop can survive at all.

As the President once said, that’s just math, and it doesn’t work.

Moreover, there isn’t a massive problem here making it necessary to jack up the minimum.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a total of about 3.5 million made at or below the federal minimum wage in 2012.  That figure represents all of 4.7% of the hourly wage population, and something like 2.4% of the working population as a whole.  These are not big numbers.  More to the point, however, fully half of those at or below minimum wage are between 16 and 24, and half of them are between 16 and 19.  The compression of this segment of the workforce into an extremely narrow age cohort indicates that for the relatively few earning minimum wage, that is generally not a permanent condition.  As workers gain experience, training, education, and seniority they tend to move to higher wage levels, either by moving up the ranks or by changing jobs.

And this shouldn’t surprise us, because contrary to the strikers’ verbal posturing, wages aren’t about their value as human beings, but about the value of the work they do.  It doesn’t require any education or any real skill to flip a burger; virtually anyone can do it.  If there is someone willing to do it for $7.25 an hour—and I promise you, there is—then that’s what that work is worth.  If you as an employee have in fact gained additional experience or skill such that your work is worth more, presumably your present employer or another one would be willing to pay you that.  That’s how the free market works: your work is worth exactly the wage you agree to accept and your employer agrees to pay.  If you are among the few chronically stuck at $7.25, the problem isn’t the minimum wage, the problem is you haven’t attained the education or increased skill level to make your services more valuable and thus move up the ladder.

But the minimum wage whiners don’t want to do it that way.  They don’t want to accept personal responsibility for their flat career trajectory, and they don’t want to work by mutual assent.  Instead they want to extract an artificially-inflated wage by substituting government force for the employer’s agreement.  Work is no longer worth what the laborer is willing to take and what the employer is willing to pay, but it is worth whatever the laborer says it is (enforced at the point of a federal bayonet), economic consequences be damned. 

If the “right” to a “living wage” vests someone with a claim upon a business owner wholly divorced from the actual economic value of the work that person performs—which is what a legally-mandated minimum wage does—it’s not much of a stretch then to say that that person is entitled to be paid that living wage—to take that money from the business owner—regardless of whether they in fact do any work at all.  After all, if you have a right to $15 per hour even though you only do $7.25/hour work, aren’t you equally entitled to that $15/hour for doing $5/hour work?  And if that’s so, doesn’t the same logic hold if you only do $3.50/hour work, $2/hour work, and so on all the way down to $0?

You cannot carry on an economy like this forever.  It is impossible to, in the name of “fairness” or whatever Progressive buzzword you want to use, continue to take by force from the productive and entrepreneurial and give to the unskilled and unproductive without regard for the actual economic value of their contribution.  The money to pay that artificial minimum wage doesn’t just fall from heaven.  It has to be generated in the marketplace, and if the labor costs are higher than their economic value, then sooner or later the employer is upside-down on the enterprise.

So strike if you want to.  But I submit your time would be better spent trying to acquire an education or skills that would in fact make your work worth more than you are currently making flipping burgers.