Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Change We Can Believe In?

My daughter, who's in high school and will be old enough to vote in less than a year, came home yesterday and said, "We had to watch that inaguration stuff in all my classes! It was so boring!!"

Her momma replied something like, "You should be interested in government, because you're almost an adult and you'll get to vote soon."

"But Mom, it just doesn't matter, no matter who gets elected!"

Although I have admiration for the "Obama Youth" who energetically supported his campaign, as a firm believer that "small government is good government," I can certainly appreciate my daughter's sentiments. And I can understand why so many of my fellow citizens are apathetic and cynical about government.

The size and scope of government grew exponentially during the 8 George W. Bush years. And I'm not seeing much to give me hope that it will soon change.

President Obama gave a stirring inaguration speech. I listened to his every word, and was truly moved by some of the things he said.

To our enemies, he said, "We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." Fantastic. But he also cited "... the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint" as part of our arsenal in the war on terror. Some people, unfortunately, don't recognize such ideological weapons; in fact they perceive them as weakness.

But... back to fiscal policy and the size/scope of government.

More of President Obama:

"Greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey ... has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work..."

"Those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government."

"As much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate."

All of that sounds great.

But my small-government mind sounds the alarm when I hear something like, "We have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship."

Is that a new and difficult government task he's referring to, that we should all be loyal to as good Americans?

"... there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage."

Is that "purpose" defined by new government mandates?

48 years ago (!), on January 20, 1961, another newly-elected president said, "Ask not what your country can do for you."

How times have changed!

Unfortunately, there seems to be a huge group of citizens and voters who are asking precisely, "What can our government do for us??" And I didn't hear much in President Obama's eloquent speech to refute it.

Obama: "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end."

To be replaced by different programs and initiatives? Most likely.

We have evolved to the point where many feel entitled to cradle-to-grave financial security, free health care, free prescription drugs, free internet. If a bank fails due to incompetence or greed... bail it out! (Give 'em more taxpayer money.) If a company is failing because its customers have abandoned its obsolete product... bail it out! If unwise consumers move in to a house that is way more expensive than they can afford, and fill it with installment-plan furnishings that they can't make payments on... no problem! The taxpayers will pick up the tab! (It'll help the economy!)

Back in JFK's day, government spending was measured, and debated, in the millions. Nowadays they can spend HUNDREDS OF BILLIONS without batting an eye! And if there is no positive result, the answer is "We didn't spend enough - let's spend hundreds of billions more!"

What would George Washington, or Ben Franklin, or Alexander Hamilton, say about how government is conducted in the 21st Century?

And why, oh why, didn't they put something in the Constitution about spending all those billions that haven't been collected yet? That's a heavy burden to put on our kids and grandkids, along with Social Security, Medicare, and all the other ongoing programs. President Bush obviously has tremendous confidence in his daughter's earning power and ability to pay the installments. I suspect Obama will have the same confidence in his two beautiful little daughters.

President Obama's critics say he's a socialist at heart, who will grow government even more than his predecessor. He insists he's a moderate. And the thing about his speech is... it was quite ambiguous, albeit eloquent. And a speech can be delivered by anybody, once it's in the teleprompter. That speech could've been delivered, perhaps without Obama's considerable delivery skills, by Nancy Pelosi or Ron Paul... know what I mean?

Time will tell.

Meanwhile, by nature I'm cautiously optimistic... tempered by a large dose of learned cynicism. "Small government" seems as old-fashioned and quaint as JFK's speech, nowadays.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Let Them Eat Asphalt!

In his 2009 State of the State speech, Governor Butch Otter discussed at length the economic conditions that will surely force a pullback in government services this year.

There's no getting around it. Aside from raising taxes, or spending money we don't have (which is prohibited by the State Constitution... THANK GOODNESS!), the only alternative is some significant belt tightening.

Otter continues to push for more money for roads. This an ongoing theme; he claims we need $240/million more per year, just to maintain the existing infrastructure. (He wants to raise the money with a combination of gas tax and increased registration fees. I've commented previously on that topic, HERE.)

Of course, the "loyal opposition" jumped all over Otter's plan to scale back the budget.

Women, children, and the poor, will be hardest hit! (Same old story.)

"My senator" (Werk) even came up with a catch sound-bite, condemning Otter's "Pavement over People" priorities.

Criminy! You'd think only the aristocrats were allowed to drive on the roads! (And if that were the case, I bet maintenance costs would go WAY down!)

Here's some Harsh Reality... at least as I see it.

Reality: We've had a string of decent years, economy-wise, and we've seen government budgets at every level (federal, state, county, city) grow faster than inflation, or population, or any other indicator. New programs have been added, and old programs have been shored up with increased funding. But alas... the party is over. The Feds can continue to spend like there's no tomorrow, and even add new programs, bailouts, incentives, with impunity. (Our grandkids will have to pay it back.) But everybody else is facing some uncomfortable budgeting decisions. (Kinda like responsible families and businesses, when funds are cut back.)

Reality: This is NOT a good time to ask taxpayers to dig a little deeper. A significant number have joined the unemployment lines, for cryin' out loud! (Of course, a more astute economic genius might be able to explain to me, "We are giving you a $1000 stimulus payment... paid by you the taxpayer sometime in the future... why can't you give $500 back to the government?")

Reality: It makes sense that those who will suffer most from significant budget cuts are... the people who use the most government services. (You don't have to be Einstein or that wheelchair guy to understand that!)

Reality: There are people who truly have heavy burdens to bear. But there are also people whose main focus in life seems to be finding every government program they can take advantage of, to lighten their personal load. I know both kinds of people; I bet you do, too. Perhaps Roger Miller said it best - they "know every handout in every town, and every lock that ain't locked when no one's around." Not only that - they quickly develop a sense of entitlement - taxpayers OWE those services to them from that point forward, for some reason.

Reality: It is WAY easier to add a new government program, than to eliminate one. In fact, it's almost impossible to eliminate a program, because it will negatively impact some constituency. I guess we'll find out this year if programs can be scaled back, or maybe even eliminated.

These statements from Otter resonated with THIS taxpayer/citizen:

"... those of us in state government are facing the same kinds of painful, gutwrenching choices that individuals and families all over Idaho are making with their personal finances. And the decisions you and I make will bear on the ability of every Idahoan to fulfill their own responsibilities."

"The question that you and I must honestly answer on every occasion is whether meeting those [real peoples'] real needs falls within the sphere of the necessary and proper role of taxpayer-funded government services."

Frankly, those questions should be asked in the "feast" years as well as the "famine" years, seems to me.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Who's funnier - Liberals or Conservatives?

If you're a News Junkie, like me, you probably saw the recent flap about a parody song called "Barak, the Magic Negro."

I have never heard the song; from what I understand it's sung to the tune of "Puff, the Magic Dragon," by a guy who's impersonating the Reverend Al Sharpton. And the jist of the song is apparently about how President-elect Obama has succeeded because he doesn't have a "ghetto" background (as perceived by other African-Americans).

Defenders of the song say it's a sarcastic indictment of the mainstream media and their unwavering embrace of Obama throughout the recent campaign and election. Detractors say it is racist.

I doubt most of those detractors know any more about the song than I do. But since it has the word "negro" in it, it's obviously racist.

(The song has been out there in the public for quite some time; evidently Rush Limbaugh used it regularly, much to the delight of his loyal fan base. The reason it recently was thrust back into the news is because a guy who wants to be Chairman of the Republican Party sent out CDs to Republican colleagues, that contained the "Magic Negro" song.)

The whole episode causes me to ask myself, who's funnier, the liberals or the conservatives?

The liberals confidently declare that they are MUCH funnier than those stuffed-shirt conservatives. And they point to their celebrity champions, like John Stewart and Stephen Colbert. And of course, since they see themselves as much more tolerant than the conservatives, they dismiss the feeble comedic efforts by various conservative voices as being driven by racism, or hatred, or some other form of bigotry.

I'm not so sure.

Maybe I'm wrong, but liberals seem WAY less likely to laugh at themselves. Sure, they guffaw it up when the fun is being poked at George W. Bush (who's certainly not a FISCAL conservative, but he's no liberal, either!) or Sarah Palin or Charlton Heston or Proposition 8 supporters. But you better not make fun of them or their champions, or you're a racist bigoted hate-monger!

There is a small segment of the population whose self-determined mission in life is to be offended by everything. Their ranks are made up of mostly liberals, seems to me.

Most of us fall somewhere in between. Although I don't perceive George W. Bush as being a bumbling idiot, I certainly laugh at some of the stuff that comes out of his mouth! (Funny that the people who make fun of Bush-the-moron also seem to think the same guy is somehow a scheming manipulative evil genius.) Bubba Clinton was (and is!) a laugh-a-minute! Tina Fey's Palin impression is pretty impressive... but there's not enough material there to bring it back, week after week after week. (Perhaps if she had been elected VP, it would be different.) But I'm also a little anxious. Will we all be walking on pins and needles for at least the next 4 years, because we don't want to be branded racists if we laugh at Obama?

As Obama takes office, it will be interesting to see how the "mainest" of mainstream media - Leno and Letterman - handle him. So far, they seem to be treading pretty lightly.

I'm not much of a "broadcast media" follower; when I think about it, most of my news comes through "reading" sources. But here are some (non-expert!) personal opinions and observations on some people in the limelight:

John Stewart - I don't have cable and only see him very occasionally, but his material seems to be directed toward an audience with a superficial, "drive-by" comprehension of current events. Some of it's pretty funny; some of it not so much.

Stephen Colbert - ditto on not being very familiar with him, but when I've seen him, I always get the impression he's mostly playing to himself. And he thinks he's hilarious! (Obviously people must agree, or he'd be off the air.)

Dennis Miller seems to fancy himself as a conservative counterpoint to those guys. The few times I've seen him (typically as a guest on one of the late-night network shows), he comes across as pretty funny.

Rush Limbaugh - I used to listen to Rush all the time. And I think the guy's a comic genius! Much of his stuff is serious, but first and foremost Rush is an entertainer and he's the first to declare that. A lot of his material is hilarious... either intentionally or otherwise.

(Most of those conservative-leaning talkers, like O'Reilly and Sean Hannity and Glen Beck, don't seem to be TRYING to be funny most the time, from what little I hear of them. People who listen to them regularly might have a totally different viewpoint.)

The funniest conservative stuff I'm personally aware of is the Iowahawk - click HERE to link. (The guy is a Comedic Genius! I urge EVERYBODY to "favorite" it and check back at least weekly.)

Another website that is consistently funny is the "Blame Bush!" website - click HERE. (I'm not sure if it has a future, with that specific content. I say that by 10 years from now, everything will no longer be Bush's fault!)

(BE ADVISED... as with everything on the WorldWide Web, it's a wasteland of freedom of expression out there. Pretty much EVERYBODY is offended by something; both liberals and conservatives have widely-varying tolerance levels. There's a good chance that both of those sites have some content intended for mature audiences.)