Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Question for the Readership

The last couple of posts have discussed our government and its economic policy. Based on the comments, there seems to be considerable disagreement about the details but a general understanding that the U.S. government seems to be doing something wrong; the GOP and their blue enemies both at fault, more or less.


We've talked about what the U.S. seems to be doing. I would like to hear from the group what they think we SHOULD do. My questions would be these:

1. What would you say are the fundamental functions of a national government - specifically, what should it pay for? Certainly things too big for individuals to do; build harbors, airports, bridges, armies, submarines...but which? And is there a real need for subsidiary governments - provinces, states, regions...and how do they fit into this scheme?

Is medical care for its citizens a good idea for a national government to provide? A state government? How about pensions for the elderly or infirm? Support for science, or the arts? Subsidies for fishermen or farmers?

Is there a sort of Maslow's Hierarchy of governing? Where would you rank these things? If you had to throw something or things overboard to right the Ship of State, which would you recommend?

2. How do you pay for these things? What sort of taxes would you recommend, and how would you apply, administer and collect them? Who should collect more, the nation, or the state/region?

3. And last, to what degree should all of this taxing and spending impinge on the private economy of the nation?

I'm not asking for "perfect" solutions - just ideas. And, I would also ask - to what degree would you consider your ideas practical? Given the state of the nation today, is there any hope, in your opinion, that your ideas could ever be adopted?


  1. Chief,

    Great topic for discussion! You've framed some excellent questions and areas for discussion. It's late here and I need to mull things over a bit before going into detail, but in general I believe in the principal of subsidiarity.

  2. I won't try to reinvent the wheel of government functions. I think we cover the most important things or at least we try to do so - some of us anyway.

    Although there are two things that we as a country do wrong that jump out at me:

    #1 - Healthcare! The bill in congress will not help. And it seems like pie in the sky to have a true public option for all. It would certainly assist American industry to compete with products made in countries where they have universal health care. But the politics make it seem unreachable. My solution would be to give children access to the same Medicare benefits that the elderly currently get, no means testing, all American children.

    #2 - Manufacturing! We regulate our manufacturers for workplace safety and products that are free from harm, we also ban child labor, slave and prisoner labor, and exploitation of the environment; then shouldn't we should protect our industry from imports that are unregulated. Cheaper be damned. Is anyone out there getting fed up with toxins in foreign-made products? Every week there is a new scandal of toxic toys, flammable baby clothes, poisonous toothpaste, exploding tires, tainted seafood, hazardous heaters that burst into flame, lead-based chilld jewelry, lamps that shock, etc ad nauseam. I try not to buy goods manufactured overseas, but it is a losing battle as over 95% of American manufacturers have been outsourced. Why not? Why should they manufacture here and put up with regulation when they can import unregulated crap for half the cost? Change it. Keep all imports in quarantine until the safety and environmental testing is complete. And make the importer pay for the cost of testing.

  3. This truly is a brilliant question, Chief, but I think it's too big. First I'd like to address some smaller topics before moving on to my main thesis.

    I like Andy's suggestion of subsidiarity except I'd go even further and suggest that Congress can't enact a law unless all other lower levels of government have PROVEN unable to meet the challenge.

    I'd even go so far as to suggest that Congress can only add amendments to a bill if it directly applies to the intent of the bill. It would be very hard to enforce but would go a long way towards cleaning up the current mess if we could achieve it.

    I like sustainable living practices, why chop down a tree, turn it into newspapers, read them briefly, and throw them into a landfill where they'll last forever? That's just plain wasteful on such an epic degree I can't even begin to imagine the consequences.

    Now to my main point:
    I have to admit that I don't have an overarching theory of what should be because I'm too hung up on what HAS to happen to get us out of the current mess. I suspect that whatever crisis is large enough to force a major change on the US government will have a major impact on the nature of the change. A military coup brings about very different solutions than a financial collapse.

    Each small incident (the destruction of the Democratic filibuster-proof majority by the Massachusetts election, for example) seems to us like we've hit bottom and something's going to have to change. But that isn't necessarily so, we can keep going on in the current form, wasting increasing amounts of time, capital (political and financial), and lives for a very long time until something happens that decisively changes the balance. The only guide we have in predicting these things is that the longer our government is unable to meet the challenges of the moment the easier it will be for a single small event to combine with other small existing issues to become a major crisis.

    How close are we to a major crisis? Impossible to say at this time.

    Obama certainly looks like Herbert Hoover right now and the Republicans are determined to make him look far worse. It seems likely that if they succeed we will hit a major tipping point and go into crisis. I wonder if they've thought about how they will survive the consequences of their success? That in itself might cause the collapse if handled poorly.

    In a strange way it seems to me that we should probably be looking around for the best way to cause a collapse that brings about the least pain and increases the likelihood of a successful change to a more productive model.

    I'd better stop now, otherwise I'll be blurting out such wisdoms as "We had to destroy the village to save it."

  4. 1. Remove the blatant corruption at the highest levels of government. This means fixing the canker that is the current Justice Department and then getting them to honestly enforce the law. Also, improve the method of appointing judges, perhaps by only picking them from a list generated by some bar-type association. This should reduce making partisan choices for the courts.

    2. Make sure that every child gets an equivalent amount of money for public schooling. This means destroying the power of local school boards (cause *all* the money comes from either the state or feds). Once the money gets concentrated, so does the power.

    3. meaningful campaign finance reform.

  5. Chief,

    Ok, here is a more detailed response:

    On point #1, I’ll stick with my general philosophy of subsidiarity. So I do think subsidiary governments are necessary because they are closer to the people. For example, I like that I can go before my local school board if I have an issue and the chances are that they will at least listen to me. If, for example, my local school system was run by the Department of Education in Washington managed by a large bureaucracy then I would have much less access and ability to change and influence my local school system. In general, I think local problems are best solved by local solutions.

    Is medical care for its citizens a good idea for a national government to provide? A state government?

    I think the feds should cover part, but not all of medical care. What I would like to see (assuming the medical care cost problem is fixed, which is priority #1 IMO) is catastrophic insurance coverage at the federal level. What this means is that medical costs which rise over a certain amount of money would be covered by a federal program. I’m not exactly sure where that limit should be, but for the sake of argument we can set it at $100k a year which seems reasonable. Anything over that amount would be paid by the feds. That kind of system solves a lot of problems at lower levels of government. It allows states to institute their own plans knowing there is an upper limit on how much they would have to pay which would bring lower costs and more stability. It would help private and employer-based insurance for the same reason. As it stands, there is no cost ceiling for what an insurance company or employer-provided coverage may have to pay and a few sick people who might cost millions per year for a long time could financially gut the system. With a cap that can’t happen and I think it promotes my notion of what federal government should do – which is provide a safety net.

    Over time I would like to get employers out of the insurance business altogether. It creates tremendous problems for businesses and employees alike and makes America less competitive. It’s also incredibly unfair to smaller businesses. With a $100k cap on health liability, a state-wide government plan should be affordable and individual insurance would also be more affordable.

    I don’t think the feds should enforce an insurance mandate (and I don’t think the feds have the Constitutional authority to force one by fiat), but individual states certainly could and probably should.

    How about pensions for the elderly or infirm?

    We need to make social security solvent and I think it needs to provide modest benefits – essentially enough to put a decent roof over a head and food on the table. It should be a safety net, not a retirement program. Like all federal programs, I think it should be means-tested (it currently isn’t). Retirement beyond a safety net should not be the responsibility of the federal government, but, again, I have no problem if the feds want provide incentives to encourage lower levels of government to do more. I think medicare is similar, but reform there requires reforming the medical system as a whole which, as I’ve said before, I don’t think will happen until the system is near or at the point of collapse.


  6. part 2:

    Support for science, or the arts?

    Yes, but I think there obviously needs to be a balance between public and private spending. The problem with public spending, particularly with science, is that the money is too often spent for science that is politically popular or has special interest support. I think more should be done to separate government science and arts funding from politics to limit that kind of negative influence.

    Subsidies for fishermen or farmers?

    This is a tough one. On one hand, the problem with subsidies is that they’ve become institutionalized and become impossible to get rid of once they’re no longer necessary. And people have received them for so long, they are a “normal” and expected part of compensation. On the other hand, there may be times when they are necessary, particularly in a globalized world. As it stands, I think there are too many subsidies and that government would be better off providing incentives and support services rather than direct cash subsidies.

    2. How do you pay for these things? What sort of taxes would you recommend, and how would you apply, administer and collect them? Who should collect more, the nation, or the state/region?

    I think tax increases are needed across the board. I know it’s unpopular, but as it stands almost 40% of people pay no federal income tax at all. I think pretty much everyone except the destitute need to have some skin in the game. I also think the tax code needs to be greatly simplified. It’s telling when the head of the IRS says that he has to hire a pro to do his taxes because he can’t understand the system or his own agency’s rules.

    I think we should consider, at the federal level at least, taxing wealth instead of or in concert with income and profits. I’m not completely sold on the idea, but I think it’s something to look at.

    Taxes need to be collected at or near the level of government where the money is spent. I think most taxes should probably be collected at the state level except for federal programs, of course. We also need to end “unfunded mandates,” particularly from the feds. IOW, if you demand that something needs doing, then you’d better provide the funding for it.

    I don’t think local taxes are working too well with regard to education – it’s too easy to game them and undesirable disparities between neighborhoods and districts are a problem. As a guy with a family and young school-age children that moves frequently, I understand this problem well. We go where the good schools are, period. I’m certainly not alone. That makes it extremely difficult to make struggling neighborhoods better. So I think k-12 education funding needs to move to the state level. The rest can stay at the local level - obviously, something like city government will need to tax in order to provide city services.

    3. And last, to what degree should all of this taxing and spending impinge on the private economy of the nation?

    As little as possible. The private economy is what ultimately funds the public sector and government needs to tread carefully when considering tax and spending policy with the intent to limit any negative impact the private sector. This is mostly about incentives again. For example, there are several ways government can extract necessary tax money from individuals and businesses and each method creates incentives, some good, some bad. For instance, individuals and business will react differently if income is taxed than they would if assets, net worth or profits were taxed. Tax and spending policies create very powerful incentives which need to be carefully considered. We need to really look at those incentives to see if there is a better way to collect revenue and spend it so that the private sector is not incentivized to do dumb things or would hurt their competitiveness.

  7. The questions are wrong and misleading.

    It's not about what a state does - it's about how efficiently it does so.

    There are fiscally and economically more healthier nations with a much bigger (in % GNP) government.

    Have a look at Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark or Germany; states that provide much more services to their population. They have problems as well, but not on such a scale - and especially not the same problems.

    In short: The questions have a smell of typical U.S. big government skepticism when the real problem is that many governments in the U.S. simply suck - no matter what size or level.

    Let me provide one example (I think I mentioend it before):
    Consumer protection in Germany (and EU in general) is much stronger than in the U.S..
    (All or most?) American butchers are allowed to give colouring additives into their ground pork. They're allowed to sell ti for days.
    We would send our butchers to jail for along time if they either coloured the meat or sold it on a second day. It's unhygienic and strictly illegal.

    Well, is the U.S. government too big? I'd say it does the wrong things, it's inefficient and ill-guided.
    It doesn't do enough regulation, but it has more full-time government employees for agricultural matters than there are full-time farmers in the U.S..

    All countries have their problems (Germany has a long list of own problems), but these are rarely related to a too large government. The most common reason is rather qualitatively poor governance.

  8. Sven,

    Yes, we are not like Sweden or Germany. Our system of government was specifically built to guard against tyranny - efficiency and effective governance at the national level wasn't much of a consideration. It was specifically designed to make it hard to "get things done" and increase power at that national level. Those are features, not bugs, of our system, for better or worse. For more differences, see here.

  9. Andy,
    I must disagree with your position.With all friendship.
    The entire idea behind the US of A was that the states were the key players and the Fed Govt was a amalgum of these units formed for the greater welfare.
    That's why the Constitution outlines the stated powers -the states were to do everything else. Nobody envisioned Fed law enforcement or agents except for revenue purposes, and these were seldon law enforcement paradyms but rather collectors. Of course Treasury agents would come into being but look at what we have today.
    How did the fed get into education? Health? Housing?

  10. Sven: So let's turn your comments towards the questions at the top.

    If the problem isn't that the U.S. governments are doign too much, or too little, or the wrong things, but that they just "suck", what should we be doing to "un-suck" them?

    I'll give you some ideas re: your specifics about agricultural regulation.

    You will note that we have a "Department of Agriculture" rather than a "Department of Food Purity, Health and Safety". Both the political appointees and the civil servants in this department often come out of the farming, food processing and food distribution industries.

    So the reason our butchers get away with the stuff you mention is that the USDA is run largely for the benefit of the butcher...and the farmer, rancher, Smithfield Hams, and so on.

    So for these people, the "problems" you mention aren't "qualitatively poor governance", they're government accomodations with their intent to maximize their profit.

    Pork-eaters don't have a seat at the table, so there's no organized lobby or constituentcy to force the butcher to sell better meat (and the farmer to raise it, the distributor to vend it) and thereby reduce his profit.

    Changing the way the USDA works would mean changing the way the USDA is staffed and administered. I tend to agree with you that one of our real problems with our government is that so many of our agencies are staffed with "political appointees" - people chosen for their ideological hook to the Chief Executive rather than their technical competence.

    But my question was a "bigger picture" one:

    Whose job is it to regulate the purity of meat?

    Andy might tell you that the city should inspect the butchers, and have regulations in the city code to enforce those rules.

    I would tend to want my state to do it, and, say, have the authority to prevent an out-of-state farmer, vendor or retailer from selling a product made out of state that doesn't meet our standard of wholesomeness. It has the benefits of maximizing our local oversight of farming and meat products while encouraging local land use for food production rather than office parks - something I like.

    But someone else might say "Fuck purity, I want cheap Jimmy Dean sausage made from cheap, nasty antibiotic-stuffed pigs raised in a factory farm in Chihuahua. I want the state to keep its hands off and the feds to regulate meat products and lightly at that - I LIKE the present system".

    That's the sort of thing I'm asking people to think about.

    Whether or not our government as presently constituted "sucks"...that's a question of social attitude rather than organization and administration. A good question, but one for a different post.

  11. Jim,

    I actually agree with you, but the country is different now and those government functions you mentioned have become institutionalized at the federal level. I don't see how it's possible to roll it all back.

    And actually one of the concerns I've raised here before is the fecklessness of the States and their willingness to become financially dependent on the federal government. So while the states theoretically have substantially more power than the federal government, in reality they really don't. As the saying goes, once you take the King's penny, you become the King's man.


    I agree with you that things like meat inspection should be mainly done at the state level, but if a locality wants to impose stricter standards, then I'm good with that.

    Agriculture is interesting, particularly now that I'm currently living in Ohio. I'm afforded the opportunity to buy locally and buy fresh which bypasses some of the problems of large-scale commercial farming. There's a market not far from my house where I can get veggies (in season, of course) and I have a relationship with them and know where the stuff is actually grown. A few months ago we also got a "meat man" who delivers to our house - the price isn't too much more than the megamart's "quality" meat, but the quality is much better and it's produced regionally.

    One of my very best friends comes from a farming family and his dad still runs a farm in Washington State. We've had steak from his cows and it's simply amazing how much of a difference there is between fresh, local, well-cared for and fed beef and the factory-farm stuff. It's pretty sad that our agriculture productivity has massively improved yet the quality and safety has gone down. I guess that is what happens when price rules everything.

  12. "I would tend to want my state to do it, and, say, have the authority to prevent an out-of-state farmer, vendor or retailer from selling a product made out of state that doesn't meet our standard of wholesomeness."

    That's the way Europe did it for decades, but it turned out to ignore egoism.

    I'll use a Japanese example: The Japanese authorities don't want foreign rice. they want all Japanese to eat if possible only Japanese rice; for autarchy and to keep the price artificially high enough so the non-mechanized farmers can earn their living.

    They used food purity regulation (amongst other regulation) to come close enough to that goal. One charge of Malaysian rice with impurities? Ban all Malaysian rice!
    The Russians do the same with meat from Poland...

    You may want to have your government regional, but be prepared for the quite inevitable disadvantages.

    There are two millennia of documented human society history on three to six continents. It would be foolish to attempt to re-invent the wheel in presence of that many lessons learned.

  13. Jim: "How did the fed get into education? Health? Housing?"

    My understanding is that it was primarily driven by responses to legal challenges to problems in the states and municipalities that were doing (or not doing) these things.

    Here's a good example: Education.

    I personally think that the feds have no business getting involved in education. It's clearly something that CAN be done locally, or regionally, so why should the Fed have skin in the game?

    But then you think...OK, so I have a federal Army. I want - it's both socially and politically desireable - to have the nation as a whole take part in the armed defense of our nation. (I'd add that I suspect that the only truly equitable way to do this is with a national draft, but that's a whole 'nother nutroll). So I need the nation as a whole to be physically and mentally fit as possible at the age of 18, right?

    So what is "mentally fit"? Should my hypothetical draftee be able to read and write? Sure. How about math? How much? How good? Does he or she need algebra, enough to figure out how to calculate "Angle T" if they're going to be an FO, or angle of site if they're an artillaryman?

    How about writing? How well do they need to write? Do I want everyone to be able to draft a position paper or is it enough to knock out a SITREP or write an op order?

    The law - should they understand the background of the Laws of War? The Geneva and Hague Conventions? Or is it enough that they can uderstand the UCMJ?

    So...should I at least mandate to my states a level of education, including the subjects and depth of understanding, that my citizens should know?

    And that's just from the "what should a citizen-soldier know"? side. There's all kinds of people with all kinds of agendas trying to get the feds to step into this...and the result is that the fed gets sucked into education...

    Again - I think that we should be smart enough to come up with some sort of comprehensive goals for our students at the state level, enough so the fed can stay out. But I can see how the fed - especially since WW2 and our increased acceptance of a federal role in every-damn-thing - gets involved in this stuff.

  14. "You may want to have your government regional, but be prepared for the quite inevitable disadvantages."

    Absolutely - ther's a tradeoff for everything. I would argue that in my example above we trade the price of the meat for the purity. In order that people can afford to eat more meat - and we DO eat a lot of meat, both historically and in comparison to a lot of other places - we give priority to cheap, often unwholesome, means of raising, butchering and selling animal parts.

    But there's both risk and opportunity in the example you cite. Will you pay more for your food? Possibly, even probably. But how secure is your food supply when you - as I see every day here in the Willamette Valley of Oregon - pave over your farmland because you're eating produce imported from other regions or other countries and your tax setup encourages offices rather than farms?

    I don't as much as see this as reinventing the wheel as making choices about which is greater, the risk or the reward.

  15. Andy - I apologize for stepping on you - you pretty much covered the "price vs. quality" issue in your comment; I didn't look up the page before posting.

  16. Chief,

    No apology necessary! Someone told me once that great minds think alike!

  17. Chief,

    Also, since you asked for "ideas" I'll give you something that's really outside the box: Bleeding Heart Libertarianism.

  18. We don't hear much about subsidiarity (good catch, Andy) any more, and that's a shame. I agree with the principle and in application, I'm basically coming from where Ranger Jim stands. Why indeed do we have a federal Department of Education. Or some of the others?

    What we're talking about here in our American context is federalism. I used to take pains to correct people when they talk about our "democracy." I'd tell 'em, "Nope. Ain't what we're supposed to have. We're supposed to have a republic." And of course, key to a republic is federalism. Well, shit, man, the Republic is dead, and so is federalism.

    Anybody recall the ninth and tenth Amendments? The amendments reserving powers to the people and to the states, the ones that are about limiting the Fed to specifically enumerated powers, those spelled out in the Constitution? We don't hear too much about these amendments any more, do we?

    You can thank the 14th Amendment for a lot of what's gone wrong with this nation. That well-meaning amendment opened the door to federal intrusion into areas never believed possible by the Founders. A great depression and two world wars then sealed the deal. We really no longer have a republic, nor do we have a parliamentary democracy. We also don't have a direct democracy. So what do we have?

    The United States has now proven to be effectively ungovernable and I don't see that state of affairs changing. We abandoned a system of specified powers long ago in favor of a model assuming all power rests with the federal government. This has led to enormous confusion and inefficiency in government at all levels. It is Sven's "government sucks" thesis and he's absolutely right.

    We can't do what Sven suggests, i.e., fix it, because it's beyond us. The people we've charged with managing our system have failed; in fact, many of them don't even want to fix it. We've also failed as a people by not maintaining constant surveillance on political activities at all levels. Factionalism now reigns supreme, with "good government" being a will-o'-the-wisp.

    A nation of disparate factions leveraging an incoherent system of government to their own benefit stands little chance of solving problems of governance.

    Read Tocqueville.

  19. Hard to follow Publius' sweeping denunciation of the collision of factional incompetence and governmental incoherence, but since I started this magilla I should step up to the plate and state my own opinions.

    Let's break this down by the federal executive departments:

    Foreign Policy (State): Definately the business of the federal government. And one which, I would add, has been badly neglected. Too often our "diplomacy" consists of stating our desiered outcome - and when the foreign power presents its objections, bargaining points or suggestions, restating our demands.

    My suspicion is that a big part of the problem is the number of political appointees in DoS. Asst. Secretaries, Ambassadors and below should really be professionals. I've read that the massive purge at State after WW2 did a lot to destroy the old area specialist system that had developed since the inception of the professional civil service.

    As an observation, it seems ridiculous that DoS has a third the staff that the Department of the Interior does.

    Finance (Treasury): My problem with Treasury is that while I agree that a nation needs a monetary and fiscal policy, I would say that over the past 30 years Treasury has been perhaps the greatest exemplar of Sven's Theory of Governmental Suckage. Is it because so many folks at Treasury come from the financial industry - so the foxes are guarding the henhouse? Is it because the very principle of government tinkering with the economy is unsound? Or is it because the WAY we're intervening?

    Some modicum of financial regulation - seperating the commercial and investment sides of banking...deposit insurance, to prevent the unscrupulous liquidation of people's savings in bank failures...and a serious scrutiny of accounting firms - seems prudent. But it concerns me the degree to which Greenspan was such a playa in the financial markets when he was Chairman of the Fed.

    So I'd argue that the federal role in monetary policy is currently either excessive or poorly executed, or both.

    War (Defense): Probably the original function of governments.

    If I was king I'd:

    1. Reinstitute a national draft. I know all the arguments for a professional military, but IMO the past forty years should have proved that it's expensive, liable to misuse, and highly prone to the diseases of insular societies like groupthink and hubris.

    2. Revoke the War Powers Act. I know, I know, it ties the President's hands, makes the use of the military difficult...frankly, after the last bunch of wars, difficulty and tied hands sound like a good idea.

    I have more on Defense, but my son wants to play Star Wars. I'll be back in a bit with Part 2...

  20. Defense (con't): Sadly, I think both a return to the draft and the declaration-of-war are past hoping for in our lifetimes. I would be willing to settle for a clearer seperation between the defense contractors and the defense department. Right now we're sinking under the weight of the procurement process and the need for contractors to do the work our undermanned uniformed forces can't do.

    Law Enforcement (Justice): Publius has a good point about the degree to which the inclusion of various individuals and groups in the equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment has caused a metastacism of the Federal Justice apparatus. Hell, we had an Attorney General that worked for almost 100 years without anything but a personal staff, while the DoJ is among the largest of the federal departments today.

    I can see the need for some sort of apparatus for investigating and prosecuting federal crimes as well as a sort of interstate Interpol, seems like there's a hell of a lot of things that have become federal crimes and we spend a hell of a lot of time and money chasing, prosecuting and imprisoning people for them.

    Treason, espionage, crimes involving federal officers or interstate commerce...I'm having a hard time deciding what else is naturally the preserve of the feds.

    I think thay we may be doing to much federal law enforcement...

    Domestic Land Management (Interior): Here's a real good question - why does the federal government need to own land that is NOT government offices, parks or military installations?

    I mean, I love me some BLM land, National Forests, National Wildlife Preserves...but it seems like making the federal goverment a landowner is pretty fraught. Why shouldn't these lands, if they are to be held in common, be held by states or counties?

    But my ideas about common land are wrapped up in my thoughts about human beings in general and how much space we take up.

    I think the Feds need to get out of the land biz.

    More in Part 3...

  21. Agriculture: The common good requires that someone be responsible for the safe production of food - in other words, we need an agency that oversees the production, preparation and sale of food products.

    The USDA is NOT that agency.

    First, outside the inspection of food products moving interstate, there really is no need for this at the federal level anymore. We're not an agrarian nation anymore. And second, if there was a federal agency I would completely pitch out and reconstitute from the ground up, this would be it. The USDA is primarily a Skinnerbox for the food industries and their shills, particularly under the Bushies, who saw it as the means to enrich their farming and ranching cronies through subsidies.

    So my federal government would have a Food Products Inspection Division under the Surgeon General. Bye-bye, Agriculture.

    Commerce Again, one of the Constitutional requirements. I would fold international commerce in here, too - I'm not sure that the current enthusiasm for "free trade" hasn't cuased us to lose out appreciation for tariffs as an economic tool. And occupational health and safety rules - this is a good place for the OHSA, too.

    Labor: What the hell does the federal government have doing getting involved in "labor"? I agree that organized labor has been getting shafted since the Sixties, but how has the DoL helped with that? Move OSHA and MSHA to Commerce and shut 'er down.

    The Damn Welfare (HHS, HUD): Now I think we're really getting into some questionable areas. I like helping the poor and the sick and the elderly...but is this REALLY the federal government's job?


    Plus these areas are also ones where the scope for "suckage" is pretty vast. I'm not sure what you do with these...but ISTM that transferring them (and their various sources of revenue) to an entity as local as possible is a damn good idea.

    IMO you take the NIH/CDC and put them under a cabinet level Surgeon General whose primary responsibility is public health, particularly control of epidemic diseases. The FDA can go to Food Products Inspection Division there, too.

    Distribute the rest to the states.

    Part 4 coming up...

  22. Transportation: Really, isn't this a sort of subset of interstate commerce? Still, you have some things here that really have to be done by the feds. FAA? I don't want private industries deciding how often to pull maintenence on their airliner engines. FHWA? Same-same with bridges - although look at the state of our bridges, most of the repair of which lies within the state DOTs and you wonder... Motor Carrier Safety. Sure.

    FTA? Mmmm...not so much.

    Energy: I've always thought that this was a problematic subject for federal activity.

    Nuclear weapons? No question - job for the feds (whether DoE is the fight place...not so sure). But what do you do with stuff like the FERC (the Federal Energy Reguatory Commission)? My feeling is that power generation is really a natural monopoly, and as such should be heavily regulated. This runs absolutely counter to the deregulation gurus who came in with the Goldwater Republicans. I'll agree there's gray area here.

    Education: Personally, I see no role for the federal government here. I hate it that I'm arguing alongside Ronnie Reagan and Ron Paul, but, really...

    At most, I'd argue that you could have a Federal Board of Regents who could provide a federal standard for educational content. But even that seems well beyond something the national government needs to be doing.

    Veteran's Affairs: Really, part of the nation's requirement to make war in times of invasion or threat. The care of those wounded in its service is to be expected.

    I would have placed the VA under the War Department, though. I'm not sure why this needs to be a stand-alone Department.

    Homeland Security: Aside from the awful name, my issue with this function of the federal government is how it symbolizes the haphazard way the fed has swollen. Look at it; everything from airport crotch-feelers to Secret Service agents, Coasties, Customs screeners and Border Patrolmen chasing coyotes in the south and drunken hockey fans up north.

    And look at the Secret Service - why do these guys have the brief to chase counterfieters? Why not the FBI? Why here, under DHS rather than with the other law-enforcement types in DoJ? Why are they both bodyguards and funny-money chasers???

    I'd make you think that the U.S. Government really had no plan, that it was assembled over time by a committee of idiots...

    I honestly have no idea what the hell to say about's a mess, but where do you put all the things it does? How do you arrange it to reduce the "suckyness"?

    I have no fucking idea.

    But I do want to talk about how we should find the money for all this stiff. That's for tomorrow.

  23. You guys are going about this backwards.

    Power rests with the money.

    In Canada, the feds have more money than the provinces. Healthcare is clearly mandated to the provinces, but the feds demand "national standards" and give money to the provinces to enforce these standards.

    It tends to "flatten" the country and the voters tend to like it (even those in the richer provinces who are being gored to pay for poorer provinces healthcare).

    If the feds get the tax revenue, then they will have bigger mandate from heaven, no matter what the laws say.

    And speaking of laws, the deep problem is the existing corrupt justice system. Law enforcement is controlled by political interests. Can you say "banana republic"?

    No amount of tinkering with "who should do what" will be meaningful until you separate foxes from chicken coops.

  24. Publius and Andy,
    My all time favorite is hate crime legislation.
    Maybe hate is an interstate commerce thing.
    Where does the Constitution authorize Congress to legislate against hate?

  25. He'll of a time for this thread! We are in Buenos Aires with only an IPod for access. Maybe Monday, after we get settled on the ship?

  26. Ael: Patience, my friend. I'm getting there - notice the little tag at the end of the last comment?

  27. Jim: More to the point, since when is assault/murder/rape etc a federal crime?

    Unless it's committed on federal land, I don't understand how the feds get to do this. OK, well, I do, and it has to do with starting with the (mostly) Southern and Midwestern states winking at lynching and it's now grown like Topsy.

    Ael has a good point about the problems of the proliferation of federal laws covering what should really be state and local jurisdiction. WTF are the feds doing getting involved in drug possession?

  28. My apologies for going totally off-topic but TomDispatch has just released a really hard-hitting article. It's going to be political dynamite if the MSM can be persuaded to get off their lazy butts and can verify it.,_afraid_of_the_dark_in_afghanistan/

  29. Chief,
    Maybe rape/murder etc are intersate commerce.

  30. FDC,

    Assault, rape, and murder are all crimes in federal law. See Title 18 United States Code (USC), Part I (Crimes)

    Some examples...

    18 USC § 113 - Assault within special maritime and territorial jurisdiction

    18 USC § 1111 - Murder

    18 USC §§ 2241-2248 (Title 18 USC, Chapter 109A - Sexual Abuse)

    See also 18 USC § 113 - Power of courts and magistrates.

    The question of who prosecutes what when is one of those things that's simple conceptually, but complicated in practice.

    The simple answer is that the highest jurisdiction that wants to prosecute gets to do it: the Feds trump the States, and the State trumps Counties or Municipalities. In principle, any statue only applies within the jurisdiction that legislates it. In the US, basic criminal laws are legislated by the states, and local laws normally cover offenses that can only occur in that jurisdiction (zoning violations, drunk and disorderly, spitting on the sidewalks, etc). The locals are generally authorized by statute to prosecute any offense under state law, and the State will only step in where the locals decline or there is some other compelling reason to step in. Likewise the Feds. For example, the DC Sniper case was tried under Virgina law because the Feds figured it would be easier to execute the guy that way. I don't know how they plan to handle the Fort Hood massacre, but the guy is a serving officer so you also have military jurisdiction under the punitive articles of the UCMJ.

    The thing to understand is that trials take resources, time, and money, hence the basic impulse is to let things be resolved as locally as possible. Sometime the locals don't have the resources. California and Texas have counties that are bigger than many states yet have populations smaller than many small towns. Something that a lot of folks don't seem to understand is that prosecutors and courts are all about resolving cases as expeditiously and efficiently as possible, PERIOD, absent political or corrupt influences. The law is complex because life, ethics, and morality are complex (and because legislatures aren't nearly as interested in efficiency as courts are... well actually they are, they just don't always have the same priorities because the political parties don't, and neither do compromises).

  31. I would offer that the Feds have typically stepped in where the states have failed to provide for the general well being of the full population within their borders. I doubt that the murder of Mickey Schwerner, for example, would have been given attention by any Mississippi official.

    As I have posted before, one really has to ask if it is possible to govern a country as large, complex, diverse and promenent in world affairs using a construct designed for 13 agrarian colonies. The Chief has raised a good discussion, and I would ask at what level is the "common good" defined? The children of poorest working stiff in my home town were provided a much better public education than 80 per cent of the residents of the South at the time. Was that OK, simply because we had a better tax base & higher average income?

    I would offer that we are in the mess we are in particularly because some and/or all of the states have failed, and the Feds have reacted accordingly. Reactive governance will never perform as well as proactive.

  32. Charles,

    Thanks for that - it was very informative.


    This is going to get sorted out one way or another. We are looking at federal deficits as far as the eye can see and in ten years, the CBO estimates that interest on the national debt will be between 700 billion - 1 trillion annually - the third largest spending item in the budget behind social security and medicare. What the dinosaurs in the the GoP and the Democratic party don't - or won't - realize is that their tired programmatic solutions can't work. If we are to avoid a national government bankruptcy, then it's going to require significant tax increases and deep cuts in government spending.

  33. Charles,
    Why is it called a massacre when it happens at Ft Hood and when US forces kill 13 innocent civilians by mistake it's called a mistake or regrettable incident?

  34. Good discussion all - and thank you for the information, Charles. The maze of local, state and Federal statutes still strikes me as odd and Byzantine. It would seem to me that making murder as Federal crime lacking any special circumstances (a federal official acting on federal property, etc.) seems strange.

    And one hasto wonder that part of the problem is the relative weakness of the state revenue collection power vis-a-vis the federal. I'd like to touch on that but I'm slammed with work and feeling poorly, as well. Andy makes the point about deficits...what about the poor states, who can't even RUN a deficit?