Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Constitution

So I was thinking about the Constitution as I drifted off to sleep last night. You might think it an odd thing to think of at bed time, but I find it to be comforting and somewhat reassuring. You hear a lot about it these days, about the Constitution.... the “Founding Fathers”. But who were those men, really? Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Franklin and many more. Names that you knew once but have long since forgotten. The men who produced the Constitution in the summer of 1778 differed in many ways, but they had two things in common: they all loved, and had fought for liberty, and they all feared the tyranny of a large and unchecked federal government. They all, to a man, believed that government was the enemy of freedom. But they understood too that some strong, but limited government was necessary to the survival of the nation. The idea was known then that a people are forced to trade some liberty and independence for the services and protections that a central government is uniquely able to provide: the common defense; commercial regulation; things whose necessity is hard to argue. They debated all that summer and were barely able to agree on what we call our Constitution. Fitting I suppose, and prescient somehow that a bare majority of delegates carried the day for the Federalists.

Since the beginning of the last century there have been efforts to progress beyond the Constitution, to build the government bigger, and away from the support provided by the foundation. The government began to be seen by many to be the solution to all of the problems of mankind. The economic cycles of feast and famine seemed to be within the control of government. This was a time of great social change around the world and many began to see value in a system where a benevolent, but all powerful government would direct resources and distribute the fruits of society’s labors equally amongst the citizens, providing a comfortable lifetime of shelter from the harsh reality of life on Earth. But this was not the intent of our founders. They had too much experience with a government that decided who was allowed to succeed and how high a station they could reach. Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it,”. These are beautiful words, and they were codified in the Constitution. The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, were added to specify some of those rights, and Article V provides a means to change the Constitution if desired. The method is clear and straight forward, but it’s difficult, amendments requiring the ratification by no fewer than three fourths of the state legislatures. That’s why it happens so infrequently. It’s hard. The majority of the people really have to want it.

Now what’s taking place is what I’ll call Constitutional creep. That is the making of laws that are farther and farther away from the foundational support of the Constitution. Laws get passed, signed into law and if no one is materially damaged or can afford to hire a team of lawyers the Supreme Court isn’t able to rule on the actual constitutionality of the legislation, and even in instances were cases do reach the Court, the Commerce Clause has been used frequently in recent years to allow all types of questionable legislation to stand. And so what was a strong foundation for a limited government has been covered and surrounded by un, or barely supported structure.

From time to time when you read of Supreme Court decisions you hear people mention “the intention of the Founders”. Justices know the Constitution, and parse the journals and correspondence of the principles, and they study past case law to tap the wisdom and thinking of great Americans passed to try and know what we should now do. One thing is clear. The men who debated, wrote, and finally ratified the Constitution feared an over powerful federal government. Can it be that it has now taken 210 years for their fears to be realized?

And that’s what an average guy thinks.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

One Trillion

I have some problems with the health care reform legislation that is currently being debated in the Senate. The fact that it’s meant to move the nation closer to Socialism is primary I suppose, and that it is intentionally over 2000 pages in length in order to keep people from being able to know and understand what’s in it. I don’t like the fact that it was designed to tear down and completely restructure a system that, while flawed and in need of reform, at least fits the national culture. I don’t like the fact that the new system is now being put together as if by a committee of tailors, each with a different sense of style and ideas about what the garment should look like. There is no pattern or plan, and what should be undertaken with all caution and an eye on the future is being rushed in order to take advantage of the political moment. But as much as all my other problems, I am troubled at the cost: over one Trillion dollars. And that’s a conservative estimate that relies on a whole slough of assumptions all converging to the same point at the same time. If past experience with Medicare is any indication, the costs could be off by as much as a factor of ten. But however educated that guess, it’s still just a guess. What is not a guess is the one Trillion dollar number now in front of us. People have grown used to hearing the numbers: Millions (Lottery); Billions (Oprah, Gates, Buffett), but the only place you hear the term Trillions of dollars is when you talk about the US economy. I think people would be well served it they knew just how big a number one Trillion is. So to that end I have compiled a list of references just to put a Trillion in context.

We begin with a simple unit of measure that everyone can appreciate: the Dollar bill. You’ve seen it before. It has George Washington on the obverse (face side) and a big ONE, the pyramid and the eagle on the reverse (other side). It’s 6 inches long, 2-1/2 inches wide, and 43/10,000 of an inch thick.

One Trillion of anything is one million piles of one million each.

One Million one dollar bills weigh 2,202 pounds. One Trillion Dollars collected all together would weigh over two Billion pounds and take a fleet of 55,065 semi tractor trailers to haul it.

Laid end to end One Trillion Dollars would stretch 94,696,969 miles. This is a distance three million miles farther away than the sun. So far that it would take light 8-1/2 minutes to make the trip.

That distance 94,696,969 miles would take you from the Earth to the moon and back 198 times. You could travel around the Earth 3,809 times.

If you were to neatly stack One Trillion new bills, it would make a stack 67,866 miles high. Carefully lie it down and it would wrap the Earth 8-1/2 times.

If you wanted to cover some of the Earth, you certainly could. One Trillion Dollars would cover a square area 61 miles by 61 miles. 3,736 square miles.

You would have to flood a regulation NFL football field (excluding end zones) to a depth of 30 feet and 8 inches to accumulate One Trillion Drops.

And finally:

If one day you turned your kitchen faucet on full flow and then got distracted........ you could leave the house, go to college, complete your degree, date, marry, start a family, get divorced, date, re-marry, start another family, and 9-1/2 years later when you went back to your house, you would be there in plenty of time to shut off the water before One Trillion drops had gone down the drain.

I’ve composed this blog to try and illustrate the magnitude of one small piece (one trillion) of what I consider to be the main problem that our nation faces today, and that is runaway entitlement spending. Our legislators, for as long as I can remember, have pandered, wheeled and dealt, and greased the ways for their own political ambitions without regard for the future. Sometimes the spending has been done with the best of intentions, but still with no regard for the true affordability of the “project”. And now my son and daughter along with you and I, and your sons and daughters, as citizens, owe over $39,000 to the national debt. In a few years when they begin their working lives that number will suddenly jump to the $111,000 the each tax “payer” now owes. It saddens me to know that in 5 years no matter what we do this number will be much higher.

We are living in a remarkable time. Depending on your point of view, it may be either transformative or catastrophic. Whatever your politics I beg of you to please pay attention to the numbers, to know just how astronomical they are. When you hear that the Senate has a One Trillion Dollar bill under consideration or that they plan to extend the national debt ceiling by One Trillion Eight Hundred Billion Dollars (increasing our credit limit) I beg of you to think of the numbers and ask yourself “can we afford this?” Ask yourself: “do I have the right to obligate my children and their children, and theirs to a lifetime of debt repayment?”.

And that’s what an average guy thinks.