Tag Archives: America

“Taxed Enough Already”

I hardly ever drive. At the tail end of today’s biannual foray into the District I found myself predictably lost somewhere in Whitehurst territory, my personal Birnam Wood. Today my wanderings quickly turned serendipitous. I happened across the Sept. 12 TEA party, which was nothing like what I’d expected.

I found myself at the corner of Constitution and 16th — ironic, because #16 is the Amendment that permits taxing income at all — and witnessed the power of hordes of people jointly, massively frustrated with their Government.

I’d assumed the tea parties were a fun way for college kids to engage in some loud, creative destruction. It’s not that I snub college events. I’ve had the fortune to encounter some exceptionally good mentors and I love paying forward that mentoring favor by getting involved with students. But when the activity struck me as reactionary and took place on a rainy February afternoon in the middle of Moot Court season, the opportunity cost just skyrocketed.

Living in DC provides an almost-constant opportunity to Get Involved. I’m a pretty discerning joiner. Law school presents such a steep opportunity cost! Why get involved in something reactionary (rather than plain “action”) when if I just study hard soon I’ll be able to file an official complaint replete with a time stamp and the promise of judge’s attention?

I was blown away. It was pretty powerful stuff. A five-year-old waving a “Taxed Enough Already” poster confronted me from the street. Was it a commentary on perverse incentives against school choice? It didn’t matter. The point was that here were thousands of people (reportedly well over a million) who recognize that their elected representatives have become so full of sound and fury, signifying none of their constituents’ needs.

The Declaration of Independence compels citizens to take an active role in their government. Government is nothing more than a contract among many people to give up some degree of freedom for requited and more permanent stability. When one party begins to breach that contract, i.e., when Big G establishes a pattern of infringing upon the freedom we the people never offered up at the negotiation table, we’re not merely permitted but required to make some noise.

It was inspiring, to say the least, to see an organized group addressing their Government. Many of us have found ourselves behind a nonfilibusterable veil. This is not a statement against our structure of government, but rather an objective observation that all organized things tend towards chaos. Majorities speak pretty loudly, unfortunately cultural evolution behaves like all things to which chaos theory applies. James Madison anticipated “factions” in the form of organizing protections like the Food and Drug Administration and the Americans w/ Disabilities Act. None of the framers imagined that our country would devolve to a two-party system. None thought the sugar industry would develop an organized “faction” w/ a discrete lobby in the Congress.

Through some combination of appeal and personality, the “right” has simply ceded America to an indoctrinated voting supermajority between the ages of 18 and 35. There’s no question these masses have spoken. I personally would rather any potential first family stripped of pride in their country vote with their feet and go see their ideal policies already in place in a country like France than mess with my country, but c’est la vie. As my spectacular sister-in-law frequently reminds me: The masses are asses.

I take back any disparaging remarks I may have made about the tea parties. I thought I was too cool for school. Today my complacent, beltway-Scrooge-ish exterior was shattered by seeing hordes of Americans gathered for the first time in a long time to demonstrate something with which I agree. Reminding Big G that gov’t is a contract is our wont, and, as the descendants of those who penned and signed the Declaration of Independence, this is our duty.

It was incredibly inspiring to see Americans recall that contracts require that both parties adhere to their terms. It’s nice to be knocked out of complacency when, if I won’t leave the District, the mountains will come to DC. Above all, it’s tremendous to see Americans doing what we do best, acting on our heritage, and taking matters into our own hands.

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Filed under Furthering the Debate, Government, Liberty

How the Crash Will Reshape America

This article (Atlantic, March 2009) is so, so good.

Excerpts:

Whither New York?
“A crucial contributory factor in the financial centres’ development over the last two centuries, and even longer,” writes Cassis, “is the arrival of new talent to replenish their energy and their capacity to innovate.” All in all, most places in Asia and the Middle East are still not as inviting to foreign professionals as New York or London. Tokyo is a wonderful city, but Japan remains among the least open of the advanced economies, and admits fewer immigrants than any other member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of 30 market-oriented democracies. Singapore remains for the time being a top-down, socially engineered society. Dubai placed 44th in a recent ranking of global financial centers, near Edinburgh, Bangkok, Lisbon, and Prague. New York’s openness to talent and its critical mass of it—in and outside of finance and banking—will ensure that it remains a global financial center…

New York is much, much more than a financial center. It has been the nation’s largest city for roughly two centuries, and today sits in America’s largest metropolitan area, as the hub of the country’s largest mega-region. It is home to a diverse and innovative economy built around a broad range of creative industries, from media to design to arts and entertainment. It is home to high-tech companies like Bloomberg, and boasts a thriving Google outpost in its Chelsea neighborhood. Elizabeth Currid’s book, The Warhol Economy, provides detailed evidence of New York’s diversity. Currid measured the concentration of different types of jobs in New York relative to their incidence in the U.S. economy as a whole. By this measure, New York is more of a mecca for fashion designers, musicians, film directors, artists, and—yes—psychiatrists than for financial professionals.

The great urbanist Jane Jacobs was among the first to identify cities’ diverse economic and social structures as the true engines of growth. Although the specialization identified by Adam Smith creates powerful efficiency gains, Jacobs argued that the jostling of many different professions and different types of people, all in a dense environment, is an essential spur to innovation—to the creation of things that are truly new. And innovation, in the long run, is what keeps cities vital and relevant.

This reminds me of this trustafarian first cities concept. Growth requires that people are inspired, which requires that they’re not living to the very Nth degree of their ability. Simply put: If we all have to work 80 hours a week to eke out room and board, there’s no way we’re going to produce art, smarts, or business plans. So in DC, where a huge percent of folks are lawyers (of all things!) we’re just a hare’s breath away from a fight at all times, but not producing anything. It makes sense that growth requires some divine spark, which requires in turn the vitality and relevance Florida extracts from Jane Jacobs, all stemming–as vital, relevant economics is wont to do–from Adam Smith.

And on Suburbanization:

Suburbanization—and the sprawling growth it propelled—made sense for a time. The cities of the early and mid-20th century were dirty, sooty, smelly, and crowded, and commuting from the first, close-in suburbs was fast and easy. And as manufacturing became more technologically stable and product lines matured during the postwar boom, suburban growth dovetailed nicely with the pattern of industrial growth. Businesses began opening new plants in green-field locations that featured cheaper land and labor; management saw no reason to continue making now-standardized products in the expensive urban locations where they’d first been developed and sold. Work was outsourced to then-new suburbs and the emerging areas of the Sun Belt, whose connections to bigger cities by the highway system afforded rapid, low-cost distribution. This process brought the Sun Belt economies (which had lagged since the Civil War) into modern times, and sustained a long boom for the United States as a whole.

But that was then; the economy is different now. It no longer revolves around simply making and moving things. Instead, it depends on generating and transporting ideas. The places that thrive today are those with the highest velocity of ideas, the highest density of talented and creative people, the highest rate of metabolism. Velocity and density are not words that many people use when describing the suburbs. The economy is driven by key urban areas; a different geography is required.

Image from The Atlantic

Image from The Atlantic

And finally one of Florida’s brilliant suggestions:

As homeownership rates have risen, our society has become less nimble: in the 1950s and 1960s, Americans were nearly twice as likely to move in a given year as they are today. Last year fewer Americans moved, as a percentage of the population, than in any year since the Census Bureau started tracking address changes, in the late 1940s. This sort of creeping rigidity in the labor market is a bad sign for the economy, particularly in a time when businesses, industries, and regions are rising and falling quickly.

The foreclosure crisis creates a real opportunity here. Instead of resisting foreclosures, the government should seek to facilitate them in ways that can minimize pain and disruption. Banks that take back homes, for instance, could be required to offer to rent each home to the previous homeowner, at market rates—which are typically lower than mortgage payments—for some number of years. (At the end of that period, the former homeowner could be given the option to repurchase the home at the prevailing market price.) A bigger, healthier rental market, with more choices, would make renting a more attractive option for many people; it would also make the economy as a whole more flexible and responsive.

I will save my full comments until post distraction period, but I love Florida’s suggestion to change foreclosure procedures. It seems so obvious for the banks to keep raising capital through rental rather than hold empty, rapidly em-blight-ing homes empty just to spite the now-homeless previous owners. This would help the banks stay in business, and it would help homeowners pushed from the more-urban-than-the-next-marginal-alternative areas that the author stresses are key to economic (and social! and technological!) growth and expansion.

And let me take this opportunity to note that I’m doing my part to keep Americans nimble; I’ve single-handedly ratcheted up the “moves per year” average among my friends — to the extent, in fact, that I have been accused of having sand in my shoes.

Such a brilliant article!

NB: Omigawd, I didn’t realize that this was the same guy who wrote about the Creative Class…AND he taught at Mason!

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American Exceptionalism

Link, and part of a journal for my Ethics class:

The Europe Syndrome and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism

The advent of the Obama administration brings this question before the nation: Do we want the United States to be like Europe? President Obama and his leading intellectual heroes are the American equivalent of Europe’s social democrats. There’s nothing sinister about that. They share an intellectually respectable view that Europe’s regulatory and social welfare systems are more progressive than America’s and advocate reforms that would make the American system more like the European system.

I read a great article this week (Charles Murray, “The Europe Syndrome and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism,” in The Atlantic) that I’d like to address. I summarize the critical points below, but please find the full text hyperlinked here.

The article argues against adopting the European mentality; not for economic or even demographic reasons, but because the European model does not play to men’s strengths. The author begins by defining the purpose of government as seeking the people’s happiness, then defining happiness as transcendence, i.e., fulfillment and deep satisfaction. Murray goes so far as to say that only four institutions can lend life this transcendence: family, community, vocation, and faith.

Murray argues that social democrats’ agenda mirrors the European method, where the government meddles with human affairs. Murray categorizes democrats’ twin premises as the “Equality Premise” and the “New Man,” adapted from communism’s New Man, an infinitely malleable model of human nature. These premises simply don’t comport with biology. Women react differently to babies than do men. Changing institutions requires changing parts of our nature that biologically are often simply not malleable.

Maybe (hopefully) it’s obvious why this ties in to Ethics, but perhaps less obvious why it’s a personal journal entry. The reason is that a few days ago in my Evidence notes, I wrote: Be Smarter. Be Smarter, Kat. Let me just add that on my To Do list. I had done the reading, and was following in class, but I was struggling with a particularly counterintuitive concept. So c’mon, just be smarter.
Murray concludes by stating that when the government meddles in individuals’ affairs, it makes everything slightly easier to come by, and cheapens these institutions slightly. We are less able to own those things for which we have worked. My writing “Be Smarter” in my notes is like a vote for someone else to implement change. It reeks of fatalism, helplessness, a blurring of the lines drawn in the Serenity Prayer.

For me, that’s the difference between the European model and the American model. The latter I find almost holy in its attention to human nature, its deference to those parts of human nature that are not malleable. Even Alexander Hamilton, my least preferred founding father, argued at the Constitutional Convention that government must pit “ambition against ambition.”

I spent my last year of business school in Toulouse, in southern France, studying economics and finance. Students came from all over, so I found myself one of two Americans in a very small school, where half of my group of about 40 close friends were French, the rest from South America and the rest of Europe. My French friends teased me that the key characteristic to Americans is that we always want more. More education, more sleep, more time with friends, more wine, more cheese.

By contrast, Murray characterizes the European model as viewing humans as a collection of dust and atoms, here one day and gone the next. If life is short and pointless, we might as well enjoy ourselves while we’re here. Cigarette? Yes, please. But some belief in a higher power? What’s the point?

Comparing these two models feels a little like that age when boys and girls have been dating just long enough to understand each other. Boys are always totally, painfully straightforward. Girls are always so full of metaphor and deeper meaning as to border on duplicity. But these two groups do compromise on a wavelength sufficient to communicate. So do the European and American (“More, please!”) models both speak to the same entity, humans, with the same biological structure across the pond as here.

I realize that characterizing politics as ethics is a category error, but certainly there is some articulation between these groups. This note, “Be Smarter,” is exactly the kind of appeal from perceived helplessness that bothers me about those individuals who will not donate an hour of their time to their community, but still vote for mandatory community reform. Murray’s article is tremendous because it speaks precisely to that. If we remove individuals’ choice from the equation (do I prefer to buy stock, or invest in my children’s education? Oh thank you Government, for this gift of GM stock!) then everything is that much more easily achieved, but means that much less.

Murray’s four fulfillment institutions are effectively subject to emotional inflation. Yes, outsourcing personal ethos to politicians is an easy fix and may make us feel virtuous, but it only raises the bar for what we need to feel fulfilled.

Personally, my conclusion is that the crux of ethics requires taking responsibility for our destinies. This conclusion may seem obvious, but I really don’t think that it is. Stephen, my once and future love, is struggling with this concept now as he prepares to leave the Army. For eight years (having gone through ROTC) he has been a soldier. Colleagues salute him because of his rank (Captain) and his bronze medal for valor. America has been the end and the means are just…orders. He is really struggling with leaving all of that, and suddenly having to find his own satisfaction in his own personal choices, absent rank and salutes.

As long as I allow myself to wallow in the things I can’t change, rather than read more or further or better, my admonitions to Stephen to seek personal responsibility for his own fulfillment (rather than through the respect of his peers) are disingenuous. There is a story where a mother asks Gandhi to tell her daughter to stop eating sweets. Gandhi asks them to return in two weeks, and, after telling the daughter two weeks later to stop eating sweets, Gandhi reveals that two weeks prior he was addicted to sweets, and could not earnestly advise anyone against it.

To that end, I’ve embarked on a concerted effort in the interest of being the change I’d like to see, rather than merely outsourcing the change via vote. I’ve started running, to sharpen my brain and “be smarter,” i.e., more efficient at reading, thinking, etc. I’ve been sleeping more, so I’m better equipped to work with my peers—read, more patient in general. Many lawyers find themselves unhappy throughout their careers, and discover too late that they never got it; they never understood that their moral relativism was just wrong.

Coming out of this winter into blessed, welcome Spring, I’m feeling brittle. At some point in the last few months (maybe Election Day), I started growing negative, and gave up faith in a lot of ways. I don’t think my brittle state comes from having missed the point of Ethics, but rather from trying to control so many things that are simply out of my hands. Trying to control politics or other people’s attitudes is like waiting for someone to come endow me with “smarts.” It’s simply not going to happen. As long as my hands are stretched wide trying to grasp the entire world, my fingers are like a sieve and everything important slips through. In other words, if it is “turtles all the way down,” I feel like I’ve reached a new, satisfying, albeit possibly obvious ethical height by addressing one turtle at a time, rather than the totem pole at large.

One last quote saying effectively the same thing:
One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two “wolves” inside us all.
One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

And, since you asked, my once and future love:

Baby blues

Baby blues

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My favorite photo of myself from Toulouse

I’m posting this photo totally gratuitously, for the sole purpose of enjoying the memory of that cheesy speech in Atlas Shrugged when Francisco D’Anconia reveals his big pimp-bling dollar sign and describes America’s blessed gall and using her initials to represent the currency.

dollas

When I was in Toulouse the French elected Sarkozy over Senegolene Royal as President. The election made for many great opportunities to discuss politics with my friends. Granted, I was in business school with a bunch of young twenty-somethings, so it makes sense that my demographic frame of reference was more focused on fiscal policies than social.

Most interesting was the criticism Sarkozy received for acting too “American.” He smoked less than your average French, and touted the health benefits of foregoing constant cigarettes. He ran for exercise, rather than walking. This garnered by far the most aggressive criticism. People were offended that Sarkozy would partake in such “individualistic” activities, as “ungraceful” as running, rather than fall back on the more graceful, contemplative strolls preferred by the French.

At the same time, a French boy I rather liked accused me of always wanting “more.” “This is the American thing,” he said: “the thing that Americans want is always more.”

I spent an inordinate amount of time considering these two things. Is it better to be an individualist, to forego thoughtful chats and graceful promenades, in favor of raucous, head-clearing, efficient runs? And the notion of “more” is no where more prominent than in my own family. Why would you stop at one piece of cheese if the second will be equally delicious? Why work only one job, when holding two will bolster your purse and keep you out of trouble longer?

The thing I loved so much about France was that people tended to be satisfied. There is something *so elegant* about not wanting more. Money, sex, chocolate…there are reasons why I’ll occasionally *choose* against more but I always, always want more.

In most of Europe a glass ceiling looms, chilling effort past a certain point. There aren’t viable suburbs like in the States, so it’s not as though you can expand indefinitely and enjoy ever-more space to breathe. There’s also a hefty tax policy disincentivizing real ambition. In Europe you work to be able to afford your wine and cigarettes. Fashion is cheap and current and fewer people yearn for a fat Cadillac than is US status quo.

Ultimately, people came to the US. We are a culture of self-starters. No one is here by default; we came because we were dissatisfied with what we had. We wanted more for our families, for ourselves.

There is something quite noble about the wanting more, but consider the elegance of being satisfied. I have never, not for a second in my life, felt “satisfied.” I have levied stern punishment on myself for not working to satisfaction: I move nearly every semester; I allow myself to fall into less-than-thrilling relationships; I allow contentment to get dragged down the track like a carrot, maintained by me always just out of reach. Is this American? I don’t think so. The thing I hope I learned in Toulouse is to be happy, even if not still.

The American Dream has always inspired me the most. I love this country so much that it puts tears in my eyes. We may well be the last free Republic in the world. But we have not put in the requisite intellectual exercise and political acrobatics necessary to maintain that. Freedom is intact (somewhat; ask those victims of racial profiling in the airport whether they believe civil liberties are alive and well), but our infrastructure is — physically and metaphorically — crumbling.

I don’t know what the solution is, but I know that continuing down this Boumediene-esque road is not an option. The baseline must be that we want more for ourselves. If 300 million Americans each jealously guards his own baseline, we will maintain what More we have so enjoyed til now. If, instead, we treat noncitizens — no, terrorists! — as citizens then it is clear we’ve forgotten what it means to be here.

I am afraid that we are staring down the barrel of rapidly-recoiling rights. The Golden Age of the Internet is already yellowing at the corners and it’s becoming perfectly clear that Americans have traded in the Sarkozy-esque head-clearing, individualist run for a thoughtful, consider-your-neighbors stroll. I am terrified that what many politicians are considering is how best to restrict our liberty — to conduct strip searches and maintain records of what we’ve learned — without provoking us to react. This is like the threatened-stick flip side to my proverbial carrot. This is not what more we came to find.

To those who forget why we are here, I ask that they remember and cherish the American Dream. But to those who believe that the very next step is to trample the civil rights of entire demographics of Americans, I ask that you remember that if first they come for the gypsies, and you say nothing, then when they come for you there will be nothing more to say.

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