Apr 19 2010

Average Jim

Jim is a regular American guy. He works for a living, has a family and a home, and doesn’t think about government too much. Mostly he leaves it alone and hopes it’ll leave him alone. He prides himself on being moderate enough to vote for both parties, but he mostly votes for incumbents—his life is pretty good, so why rock the boat? So now that we’ve gotten to know Jim a little, let’s spend a day with him, shall we?

Jim wakes up when his alarm clock starts playing a local radio station which has its frequency, power output, and programming regulated by the FCC. He flips on the light, drawing electricity from a power plan across wires and substations, all regulated by the Department of Energy, the EPA, and a number of other federal agencies. He showers in water treated to federal specifications set out in the Clean Water Act, and flushes a toilet built to the federal limit of 1.6 gallons per flush. He’s got a bit of a headache, so he takes a pill that was tested and approved and its packaging and instructions controlled by the FDA.

He wanders into the kitchen to make breakfast and gets out some bacon that was processed at a federally-inspected packing plant, plus some eggs and bread that (like the bacon) have federally-mandated nutrition labels on the side. Then he decides, based on federal diet and nutrition recommendations from the USDA and the Surgeon General, to put the bacon back and have granola instead. He flips on the weather radio for a few minutes to catch the latest from the National Weather Service, while he “enjoys” his granola with skim milk.

On the way to work, Jim drops his kids off at the local government school, where they will participate in a variety of federally mandated and funded activities, from P.E. to drug education. While the school is mostly funded with local property taxes and nominally run by the local school board, it is wrapped in so many federal regulations and grants that the school board is really a middle-manager working for the state and the US Dept. of Education, with little room for local innovation. Though Jim is reasonably well-off, he’s not a billionaire, so his kids partake of the federally-funded reduced-price lunch while at school, and if they’re the right age, they will take federally-mandated tests to determine whether their school is meeting the federal requirements of No Child Left Behind.

Continuing down the road in his car that was built according to federal mileage and safety requirements, wearing his federally-required seatbelt[1.  I may have included some things which are technically state regulations, but which were ultimately created by federal force. Seatbelts, for example, are required by state law, but federal road funds were used to bribe the states into passing that law.], Jim passes a crew fixing potholes, a field that’s being grown with native grasses to test their anti-erosion capabilities, a library that is building on a new wing, a stretch of road where experimental surfaces are being tested, and a national cemetery—all partly or wholly funded by federal programs.

At work, Jim takes his federally-mandated coffee breaks, and goes for lunch at a restaurant that complies with a variety of federal food safety and labor requirements. Back at his company, which is regulated by OSHA, EEOC, and a variety of other federal agencies, Jim picks up his paycheck, which shows the deductions his employer was required to make for Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, on top of taxes. Heading home, he drops his check off at his bank, regulated by the FDIC and others.

On the way home, Jim stops to see his grandmother in the hospital, which, like the school, is technically a private corporation but is highly regulated and dependent on government money. The bills of fifty percent of the patients are paid for by Medicare or some other government agency, and most of the rest have insurance policies which are regulated by the federal government. Nearly everything the workers do, from the gloves they wear to the food they serve to the security and safety measures they use, is regulated by federal agencies.

Finally Jim arrives back at his home, which he purchased with a low-rate mortgage through the FHA. He goes through the day’s mail, delivered by the federally-run US Postal Service, and is excited to see that one of his farm subsidy checks has arrived. You see, Jim inherited some farm ground from his uncle, so he rents part of it out for crops, part is in a set-aside program, and a really wet spot is in a special wetlands program. He gets checks from different federal agencies for each of these. On the ground he rents out, he gets a Loan Deficiency Payment for each acre that gets planted to crops, and on the set-aside ground, he gets a Conservation Reserve Program check for each acre that doesn’t get planted.

Jim has a hunting trip with the guys coming up in a few weeks, so he hops on the Internet (mostly funded and run by the federal National Science Foundation until the Republican Congress that took over in 1994 sold it off) to make sure all his licenses and registrations for his guns and ammo are in order. He’s thinking of picking up a new rifle for the trip, so he needs to make sure he leaves enough time for background checks and red tape.

After this long day of life in the private sector, Jim settles down in front of the (FCC-regulated) TV, and some guy is ranting on about how national health care is unconstitutional.

Well, of course it is; a 14-year-old could read the Constitution and tell you that. But in the context of Jim’s life, what does “unconstitutional” even mean? The federal government does dozens of unconstitutional things to/for him every day. Every single federal activity I mentioned above is unconstitutional, except for one. (Can you guess which it is? Answer and notes below.[2. The one constitutional act I mentioned was the US Postal Service. The Constitution requires Congress to make sure there is mail delivery throughout the nation. It doesn’t have to run it; it only has to establish post offices and make sure there are roads between them, and could let the service be provided by private companies. But it ultimately does have responsibility for postal service.]) Unconstitutional acts by the federal government help or hinder nearly every aspect of Jim’s life, from dawn to dusk, from cradle to grave. His mostly likely reactions are, “Eh, what’s one more?” and, “Hmm, maybe I’ll be on the receiving end of this one, like the subsidy checks.” If Jim is a normal American, he thinks like most politicians have for over a century, like Phil Hare accidentally said out loud recently: I don’t worry about the Constitution; I worry about people — especially people named Jim who live in my house.

That’s why I can’t get too excited about political arguments any more, and why I don’t get into that stuff very much on this blog. The argument has already shifted so far to one side that the core issues I find interesting have already been decided and taken off the table. I’d be glad to discuss whether we’d be better off with socialized health care or a free market, but that’s not the question today. The question is whether to stay with a system where 50% of the people have socialized medicine and the others choose whether to buy into a quasi-socialist insurance system, or to switch to a system where 50% of the people keep having socialized medicine and the other 50% are forced to buy into the quasi-socialized insurance system. Just writing that sentence made me tired, let alone trying to fight that battle.

Say the opponents of ObamaCare had won, and it had gone down in flames entirely. We’d still have a system where 50% of the people have socialized medicine and the rest have to choose between highly regulated (and thus expensive) quasi-private insurance or taking their chances and going on the dole if they get seriously sick. That’s not gonna make for a very fun victory party.  Real reforms were never on the table, let alone anything resembling a free market, so the best-case scenario was that the government that is already making a mess of health care wouldn’t make a bigger mess of it. Yay. It’s hard to dig in and play tough defense at the goal line in the last minute of the game when you know that even if you stop the other team, they’re already ahead 99-0.

The same thing is true in so many areas of politics: I’ll gladly discuss whether we should be free to own firearms, but I won’t discuss whether the latest semi-automatic rifle to be targeted by the gun control side should be classified as an assault rifle or not. Again, that concedes the basic argument that I find worth talking about. I’ll talk your ear off about whether we should have public schools at all, but I’m not going to argue whether they should have classes four days or five (or six), or whether kids should be allowed to pray or say the Pledge of Allegiance. I’m interested in core issues, but if society has already decided a core issue against me, I’m not interested in pretending that the latest squabble over the details has become the core issue.

(All this isn’t to say that I think less of people who do fight those battles over the details. I admire all the Dagny Taggarts for their determination to keep fighting to save the people from dangers they don’t want to be saved from; but most of the time I feel more affinity for Francisco D’Anconia.)

Back to Jim: to convince Jim that an unconstitutional law is a bad thing, first I’d have to convince him that A) constitutionality matters, and the Constitution shouldn’t be treated like the Book of Genesis, as an allegory that can teach us things but that shouldn’t be taken completely literally; and B) that if the federal government stopped doing all the other unconstitutional things it does, life wouldn’t degenerate into chaos, starvation, shootings, disease, and death.  For Jim, it might seem pretty scary to have all those little ways that the federal government coaxes and shepherds him through life removed. He’d certainly have to think for himself more, and thinking is work. Without federal safety mandates on cars, he’d have to ask around and check online opinion databases to make sure he wasn’t buying a lemon (which happens sometimes anyway, even with all the regulations). Without the federal government mandating a minimum wage and safety regulations at work, he might have to stand up for himself—even start a union and go on strike—to keep a good wage and a safe workplace.

So before Jim will fight against a law because it’s unconstitutional, I’ve got to change his entire viewpoint. I have to convince him he would be better off in a completely unfamiliar, almost sci-fi world where the federal government concerns itself only with defending the borders and a few other remote tasks, and everything else is left up to the states, localities, and individual families to decide for themsleves. That’s a pretty tall order, and I don’t even know where to start.

I guess I’m lucky I work in the field that I do, in the way that I do. Computer programming is entirely unregulated by government. A barber has to have a license to give an $8 haircut; I can dig into the guts of a million-dollar computer network or website without any license other than the permission of the person who hired me.  Working for myself from home with no employees, I don’t have to deal with workplace regulations, racial quotas, HR paperwork, sensitivity training, or any of that nonsense. The Internet—my road to the office, in a sense—is still pretty open too; Congress keeps looking for ways to control and tax it, but it was designed to prevent that, and so far that design is working pretty well.

That’s not to say I’m completely disengaged; I still drive on federal funded roads and get books from the library that’s getting a grant for construction, and so on. But short of moving into a shack in the woods and growing an awesome beard, I’m a lot less engaged than Jim is; and I can tell him it’s not that scary. But I don’t know how to convince Jim of that. When people are comfortable with their federally-provided bread and circuses, how do you convince them that they could afford tastier bread and bigger circuses, if they were just willing to make their own decisions about a lot more things? How do you convince them that’s a good trade, when they’re already comfortable as they are?

I don’t know the answer to that, which is why I don’t try most of the time. This article only happened because I thought of the “Jim” method for telling the story, which I thought was kind of cool and worth using. But in the end, I don’t know the answer. I know how you make countries more centralized and governments more powerful; that’s easy—give people the vote and wait. But I don’t know how you go the other way, short of revolution, which makes things worse far more often than better. As far as I can tell, we’ll gradually slip further toward centralization until it becomes totalitarian or the whole thing collapses of its own weight, whichever comes first. Along the way, we’ll have some minor victories for freedom, like the repeal of the 55-mph speed limit, but they’ll be the exception that proves the rule.

There’s no happy ending, sorry.


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  • Andy Flachs says:

    I hate to think what might happen if some of these things were not there. Inspections of eating places for one?

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    • Aaron says:

      I never said we should get rid of all these things entirely; states and municipalities can still inspect restaurants. Some things, like public education, are in some state constitutions. I’m just saying the federal government has no responsibility or right to do it (and is particularly bad and inefficient at it anyway).

      You kind of made my point: it seems like people have gotten the idea that if the federal government doesn’t do something, it can’t get done. If we shut down the US Department of Education (which didn’t exist before 1980), feral kids will be wandering around the streets naked and hungry in the middle of the day. If we don’t have federal inspection of slaughterhouses, your next Big Mac will be made of horse meat and e-coli. If the feds stop giving out road money, we’ll all have to start driving 4x4s so we can off-road around the missing parts of the highways.

      It’s all a little silly, but that’s the way people react now any time someone recommends cutting any federal budget item 1%.

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  • Andy Flachs says:

    Interesting thoughts but I still think the there needs to be some control. Whether it be state, local, or federal. I like many people have not thought much about it. I guess Jefferson would like this thinking but you know not all framers thought the same. Some wanted a strong central government.

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    • Aaron says:

      That’s true, but the battle then was between the ones who wanted some federal government and the ones who didn’t think we needed a central authority above the states at all. That’s very different from today’s argument, which is whether the federal government should run everyone’s health care or just that of the poor and elderly.

      I’m a conservative, not a libertarian, so like I said, I don’t necessarily have a problem with a certain amount of government oversight over things like food safety; I just don’t want it being run from Washington D.C. I do think it’s mostly a waste of time and gives us a false sense of security; but if we’re going to have it, it’d be better done at the local level where it can be most responsive to local needs and spend the least money paying for buildings and bureaucrats a thousand miles away.

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  • Yes, it’s frustrating, overwhelming, and at times seems to be an impossible task. Get rid of the Department of Education? Why, how would teachers know what to teach without guidance from D.C.? After all, before the Dept. of Education was established, schools were teaching how to whittle and cook a squirrel.

    Funny, with all that federal oversight, we should have the best education possible, right? Nope, the fed botches this one just like it does all the others. Some light reading: Comparative Indicators of
    Education in the United States
    and Other G-8 Countries: 2009

    I especially like this excerpt:
    results from TIMSS indicate that in 2007, the percentage of
    eighth-graders in schools whose principals reported at least
    a weekly occurrence of a classroom disturbance ranged from
    8 percent in Japan to 60 percent in Scotland, with the United States
    at 55 percent. The percentage of eighth-graders in schools whose
    principals reported at least a weekly occurrence of intimidation
    or verbal abuse of other students ranged from 1 percent in the
    russian Federation to 39 percent in the United States, with the
    U.S. percentage higher than in all other participating G-8 countries
    (indicator 21).

    All we can do is keep trying.

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  • Andy says:

    If we could burn up their backside that might cause some changes. It also goes to show parents are not being parents. It starts at home.

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