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01/27/08
“ARE WE HAVING A DISCUSSION?”
Filed under: General
Posted by: Jim Gray @ 1:36 pm

                                    “ARE WE HAVING A DISCUSSION?”

            I am not a fan of politics.  Often politicians engage in appeals to our fears and other emotions and our more base instincts.  But I am a fan of addressing the issues of our day.  So on two occasions in the last eleven years I took an unpaid leave of absence from my duties as a trial judge and ran for partisan offices.  The first time was as a Republican running for Congress against Bob Dornan and Loretta Sanchez, and the second was as a Libertarian running for U.S. Senate against Bill Jones and Barbara Boxer.  The first time I ran to win; the second I was so concerned about the direction our country was headed, I ran just to be a part of the discussion about the issues. 

In neither election was I successful in my goals.  So now I tell my friends that “I am not a politician, and I have the votes to prove it.”

            Among other things, I learned from my experiences that most people do not really involve themselves in the election process.  I also learned that money is much too important in that process, and, of course, most of the money is provided by special interests.  And they want something in return for their “investment.”  I also learned that in politics, reality is completely irrelevant – it is only the voters’ perception of reality that matters. 

            But I still continue to have a desire to discuss issues.  So I approached the editors of this newspaper and volunteered to write a weekly column for a year to discuss different problems, and propose resolutions to them.  They agreed, and now we are half-way through the year – this is the 26th edition of our weekly column. 

            So how are we doing?  The response and feedback to the columns have been okay, but not overwhelming.  I certainly do not have all of the answers, but I have thought quite a bit about these various subjects, and want to stimulate others to think about them as well.  Because when it comes down to it, simply voting is not a victory.  What we need is people who are voting after familiarizing themselves with the issues.  So are we having a discussion? 

The two columns that generated the most responses were my recommendation that we convert to the Metric System, and that the 11-99 Foundation that supports dependents for fallen CHP officers eliminate the practice of providing license plate frames and wallet identification cards to its donors, with the implication that the donors will be given favorable treatment from the CHP on traffic citations.

Concerning the Metric System, most people were in favor, except one person who saw it as a conspiracy to take away our individuality.  Representative comments were that “Are Americans too ignorant or lazy to embrace new ideas?  I say let’s get on with it,” and “The success of the US is often to be found in its willingness to upgrade existing conditions.”  One person even recommended we go “hard metric” right away, that is not to have a transition period, because it would be less expensive.  One even (humorously?) recommended we also utilize a ten-hour clock.  But I was also gently chastised by one reader who said that the “term ‘centigrade’ has been obsolete for almost 60 years.  The official term is ‘Celsius.’”  (That means that I have been in error about this since I was three years old.)

The 11-99 Foundation column received some of the expected responses, such as “Shame on this judge for writing such an editorial without a shred of evidence proving any kind of favoritism,” and telling me to “get your facts straight before insulting all CHP officers.”  There were others from current or retired CHP officers who wrote in support, such as one that said “I wrote tickets to several drivers racing one time together with their Lambo’s with 11-99 license plate frames and badges, and the corrupt leadership at my office had all of them voided.” 

One of those officers was unintentionally supportive when he said “The 11-99 Foundation frowns upon its donors from seeking favoritism. I have seen them revoke membership from individuals who recklessly use this charities’ good intentions just to avoid a citation.  Does it ever happen?  Sure.  Is it a guaranty?  No.” Another officer provided the sobering comment that “I have stopped a number of judges and every single one made it a point to tell me they were a judge.”  (I am forwarding that comment on to the California Judges Association for its information and possible action.)

There was even a local police officer that discussed the law of unintended consequences when he said that he and some of his fellow officers did not particularly like the CHP, so sometimes they tended to give more citations to cars that had the 11-99 Foundation license plate frames. 

This last comment from a current CHP officer closely matches my own experience: “On almost all of my traffic stops I was looking for a reason to not give a citation.  It’s amazing how often people made this difficult.  (But) I do think the license plate frames are a little much and should be discontinued.”

Finally, I sent a personal letter to Commissioner Mike Brown of the CHP, along with a copy of my original column and requested his thoughts.  So far there has been no response of any kind, which, unfortunately, says more than he would probably want.  But I will give him another chance to defend the practice by sending him a copy of today’s column.

The column about Restorative Justice received comments that can be divided into two categories.  The first is from people who see that prisons do not rehabilitate anybody, but some rehabilitative programs actually do work.  Some of those people provided first-hand experience.  So they agreed with the quote in my column that “We should reserve prison space for people we are afraid of, and not for people we are mad at.”  The second group was deeply concerned about having drug rehabilitation facilities in their own neighborhoods.  (This is a genuine issue that, in my view, requires a balance.  People who have drug problems but are trying to return to mainstream life need to live in mainstream environments.  On the other hand, too much can be too much.)

The column about trying to revitalize tourism in the United States similarly drew two types of comments.  One group was concise and said things like “It’s the Threat, Stupid!”  The other group called the threat of terrorism “baloney,” and told me not to pull my punches.  (I never said and I do not feel that the threat from terrorists is not significant.  I simply would respond to that threat differently than our government is.)

Concerning my critique upon the failure of our welfare system and our minimum wage laws, many people said that my “logic was severely flawed,” and that “Everyone should have the right and opportunity to earn a living wage. In reality, such laws are a major positive force in every Western society.”  (Not surprisingly because it is such an emotional issue, none of the critics of my suggestions even addressed the fact that every time we raise the minimum wage, lots of people lose their jobs.  And that is probably true in every Western society.  Nor did they address my conclusion that these programs actually contribute to the increase of poverty, instead of its reduction.)  But everyone appreciated my attack on the welfare system for the wealthy. 

The most notable comment about the Happy New Year column about prosperity and choice, which centered upon the federal government relinquishing much of its accumulated power back to local governments and individuals, was “We do have federalism in this country.  Local governments do what the feds don’t control.”  (That’s the point, it should be the other way around!)

After discussing the increasing problem of childhood obesity, one man suggested we follow the lead of Brazil by planting public areas with fruit and nut trees, which, he said, would provide “a delicious way to fight obesity.”  And the column about resolving our nation’s healthcare problem by encouraging Medical Savings Accounts drew the discouraging but accurate comment from a medical doctor that “We are often forced to opt for a less optimal treatment in favor of the insurer’s profit margin.” 

The column about illegal immigration drew numbers of responses like: “Take off your rose-colored glasses.  People come here and learn quickly how to get free services and food stamps,”  (I agree, but they mostly do come here originally to work.) and “No amnesty.  Legal immigrants first!”  (I only mentioned that we would discuss amnesty after we installed a system that utilized fool-proof identification cards, which drew this comment:) “You’re not naïve enough to actually believe that a ‘tamper-proof’ ID card is possible, are you?”  (Yes, I think it can be done based upon the iris in a person’s eye.) 

In response to the column that government impedes business, one man responded that he agreed that beauticians and barbers should not be required to get a license, but went on to ask “why should lawyers be protected with licenses from the competition of others who want to lawyer?”  (I agree, and there is actually a movement in that direction.) The column about citizens’ rights and responsibilities, and the lack of support for our Veterans generated no comments to speak of.  That was discouraging.

One response I am sure many of you agreed with was “Shorter please!  Be honest, how many of you actually read the judge’s comments?”  I acknowledge many of the columns were longer than I originally intended (including this one), but it is difficult to address and give suggestions about how to resolve complex and multifaceted problems in only 800 words.  So I appreciate your sticking with me!

In the weeks of the scheduled year that remain, this column will address issues about how we can improve our public schools through competition; that the biggest threat to our national security is our dependence upon foreign oil, and what we can and must do about it; a suggestion to scrap the Internal Revenue Service and instigate either a national sales tax or what is called the FAIR tax; how we should address mental illness; the critical importance of the Separation of Church and State; why we should revitalize the Hemp industry; and numbers of others. 

Throughout this time, I again ask everyone to remember that none of these issues has a “solution.”  Life cannot be made to be perfect, and neither are any of my proposals – or anybody else’s.  The problems only have “resolutions,” which attempt to do what is best for the maximum number of people, while still protecting minority interests.

The fact remains that this is OUR government.  That means that the things that are not going well today are our responsibility.  And what we need is leadership.  In my view, we still have the Jeffersons, Washingtons, Lincolns and Martin Luther Kings living in our society today.  But we must find them and support them. 

Unfortunately, people can be manipulated and misled.  I know that is not a popular thing to say, but it is true.  That means that we must rely upon our democratic institutions, and upon dedicated and public-spirited leaders, who need our active support and guidance.

So please contemplate these and the other issues of our day, and join our discussion.  This can be done either publicly at DailyPilot.com, or privately with me at the e-mail address given below.  I will respond to all e-mail messages.  Good government begins with our active involvement.

 

James P. Gray is a judge of the Orange County Superior Court, and can be reached at JimPGray@sbcglobal.net or at his blog at JudgeJimGray.JudgeJimGray.com.

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01/20/08
“STAYING IN SCHOOL IS THE RIGHT CHOICE!”
Filed under: General
Posted by: Jim Gray @ 1:18 pm

                                    “STAYING IN SCHOOL IS THE RIGHT CHOICE!” (25)

            Frequently in my discussions with junior high and high school-age children I tell them that right at this moment each one of them has a job.  What is it, I ask?  They mostly stumble and stammer in their responses, but with time they come up with what I view to be the correct answer: their job is to get an education.  And it is probably the most important job they will ever have.  I recommend you have similar conversations with young people that you know.

            Remind those who are not concentrating on their studies that there are literally millions of young people their age all over the world that would give anything for the opportunity to get a good education in this country.  And they are simply throwing away this enormous opportunity.  So ask them why they are doing that.

            And who is rooting for them to get a good education?  Again, after some false starts, they correctly answer with their parents, family and friends.  I am rooting for them too, and I don’t really know them.  Nevertheless, I also want them to get a good education.  So do you. 

            But there are more people who are rooting for them as well.  Talking with a boy, I say that there is a girl out there somewhere who may not even know you yet, but she is genuinely hoping that you get a good education.  Why?  Because it will make an important difference in her life.  Who might that be?  Of course, his future wife is the answer, and for the girls it is the same thing as to their future husbands.  And what about some people who are not even born yet?  Their future children also are deeply hoping that they get a good education because of the critical impact it will have upon their lives.

            Then give them the numbers that were published several years ago by the Santa Ana Unified School District.  On the average, people that graduate only from elementary school earn about $595,700 during their entire lifetime.  But if those people stay in school and get just a high school degree they can almost double those lifetime earnings to about $1,105,000.  And then if they go on to college, on the average they will much more than double that amount again to about $2,846,300. 

            Now if we figure that students will be in high school for four years, that means they will be paying themselves over the course of their lifetimes about an extra $127,300 for each of those four years.  Dividing that by 180 school days per year, that means they will pay themselves about $707.00 for every day they go to high school, which comes out to be about $117.89 for each of their six class-hours per day of high school.

            So ask the young people, where can you get a job and earn $117.89 per hour?  The bottom line message is that they are economic fools to drop out of high school!  And that is often true all over again if they do not go on to either a college or some form of trade school to obtain a marketable skill. 

            So dropping out of school is a choice, and that choice will have a big effect upon these young people and their eventual family for the rest of their lives.  Confront them: Would you like to have that better-paying job?  Stay in School – an education is your key.  Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to support your future family well?  Have some financial security, retirement benefits, take a few nice vacations and eventually send your children to college?  If that is what you want, Stay in School!

In addition, there is certainly nothing wrong with being a school custodian, but would they rather be a custodian that rakes the leaves on the school grounds and sweeps out the classrooms in the evenings, or be a teacher at the school?  Which would be a more interesting way to live their lives? 

Furthermore, understand that people without job skills are usually the last to be hired, and the first to be fired when the economy slows down.  So once again, for their own future, stay in school, get an education, and obtain some job skills.  They will always be grateful that they did so.

But there is more to life than economics.  Help these young people focus upon one of the biggest truisms in the world.  And that is that “It is Fun to Learn.”  And the more you learn, the more you see that everything in life is interconnected.  So there is an interest and excitement factor that an education will bring that cannot often be obtained in any other way.

As an example, one of the countless things to marvel about is the human body, which is the most amazing machine in existence.  There are reasons why our bodies do things involuntarily for our protection, that is, without our conscious effort. 

With an education, we will get an exposure to questions like why do we cough?  Well, if something is caught in our throats, a cough will help to dislodge it.  And our bodies vomit to get rid of poisons or things that are harming our stomachs.  If you think about it, our bodies are fascinating, but we are much less likely to share in those wonders without an education!

Other simple but brilliant adaptations are for us to have toes for extra balance, and more nerves in our toes and fingertips to provide more precise information to our brains about what we are encountering. 

And why do we shiver?  By moving our muscles when we are cold we generate heat, and that results in our bodies being warmer.  And pain sometimes really can be a good thing, because it tells our brains when our bodies are being hurt so we can attempt to take it away from the source of harm.  The same thing is true with fear, which can be the body’s alarm system to warn us of danger.

We automatically yawn when we are getting too tired to breathe sufficiently, so our body does that to bring in more oxygen.  The same thing happens when we exercise hard, because our body makes us pant in order to meet its increased demand for oxygen.  And why do we hiccup?  Well, that is something for the future, because to my knowledge no one has ever figured out a reason for that to occur. 

But without exposing oneself to an education, areas of interest and fascination like these in physiology, as well as countless others in astronomy, history, art, chemistry, world travel and so many more are likely to be lost to them.  We are only on this earth for a short period of time, it is a tragedy not to make the most of it!

So let’s all try to spread the word that is apparent to some of our young people, but lost to many others.  Stay in School!  That choice to obtain an education will make one of the most important differences in a person’s life, both in tangible results, and in making that life much more pleasant and interesting along the way.

James P. Gray is a judge of the Orange County Superior Court.  Some of the examples in this column were taken from his musical entitled “Americans All,” which is to be distributed by Heuer Publishing LLC. He can be reached at JimPGray@sbcglobal.net, or at his blog at JudgeJimGray.JudgeJimGray.com

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01/13/08
“IS OUR COUNTRY AT WAR”
Filed under: General
Posted by: Jim Gray @ 8:42 pm

                                   “IS OUR COUNTRY AT WAR?”  (24)

Is our country at war?  That is a question that must be asked, because there are many important consequences for being at war.  So are we?  Well, the answer is no, we are not at war. 

The reason for that answer is actually quite simple and straightforward: Congress has not declared war.  Article I Section 8 of the United States Constitution decrees that only Congress can declare war, and it has indisputably not done so.  Passing resolutions is not the same thing as declaring war.  So in the first place, our country is not at war in Iraq, and secondly, since one simply cannot effectively be at “war” against a thing, an idea or a group of people that is not a nation, we are also not involved in a so-called “War on Terrorism” either.

Some have argued that this is a naïve approach to today’s life, and that as a practical matter Congress has not declared war since the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.  So, they argue, the declaration requirement in the Constitution is just an unnecessary formality.  While it is true that there were no declarations of war before we fought in Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Serbia, the Persian Gulf or anywhere else since 1941, this is not at all a naïve distinction. 

The Drafters of the Constitution not only were not naïve, they were brilliant.  They knew that the decision about whether to go to war or not is one of the most critical decisions that a country can make.  That is why they required the protections of a specific procedure to be followed before that event could occur. 

Of course, every war will always have its dissenters, and that certainly included World War II.  But regardless of where each person may stand on the issue of our military intervention in Iraq, had we followed the mandates of the Constitution and placed the issue of whether or not actually to declare war upon the regime of Saddam Hussein directly before Congress, our country and the world would clearly be in a better position today. And that would be true no matter what Congress’ decision had been.

A request to Congress from the President for a Declaration of War would certainly have been followed by a fuller debate than the ones we had both in Congress and around the country.  Questions would have been asked, and reasons and alternatives explored.  For example, is the regime of Saddam Hussein a serious threat to the security and well being of the United States?  If so, is actual war the best way to combat that threat, or are there other viable alternatives?  If we go to war, what are our goals, and how will we know when those goals have been achieved?  Once we have succeeded militarily, what should we do to keep the peace?  What are the important areas to protect right after the fall of the Hussein regime, such as ammunition depots, museum artifacts, electric power generating facilities, etc.  Also, is it more important as well as less costly to put the people of Iraq back to work building and rebuilding their country themselves, instead of awarding those contracts to large American companies?

Another clear benefit had we followed the dictates of the Constitution would be that the people of our country would quite likely have been much more united behind the effort had Congress decided to declare war after a full debate.  This reality cannot be understated.

Now it is certainly true that Congress has passed some resolutions since World War II allowing military force to be used in different places at the discretion of the president.  One of the most famous was the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that allowed President Johnson directly to commit troops to fight in Vietnam without a Declaration of War.  Others were when Congress affirmed the 1991 War Resolution passed by the United Nations and thereby allowed the first President Bush to commit troops in the liberation of Kuwait; the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 under President Clinton that stated it was the policy of the United States to seek a regime change in Iraq and to promote a democratic government in its place; and the Iraq Resolution in 2002 that allowed the second President Bush to send military troops to fight in Iraq.  And it is also true that these were preceded by some debates.

But we cannot and must not go to war on the sly.  Passing resolutions does not take nearly the courage that passing a Declaration of War does.  In fact, today a post office bill seems to get more congressional deliberation than passing a resolution to send American troops into armed conflict. 

And make no mistake about it, this situation is not the fault of a president.  The pressure for our nation’s presidents to keep us safe is overwhelming.  No, it is the members of Congress that have failed in their constitutional duty.  Basically Congress wants to have the power without the responsibility for their actions.  Shame on them all! 

In a similar fashion, we must understand that neither our country nor anyone else can effectively be at “war” against a thing, an idea or a group of people that are not a nation.  For example, just as there can not be and is not a “War on Drugs” or a “War on Poverty,” there is no such thing as a “War on Terrorism.”  Such a concept is a great thing for politicians to rally against, but otherwise it serves no practical or positive purpose except to scare people and to concentrate more power in the hands of the politicians.  And, of course, to serve as a vehicle to get politicians elected and re-elected. 

As an example, how possibly can the “color-coding” of our degree of fear for the moment possibly be productive?  Are you aware that since it was initiated, we have never been below a “stage yellow,” which is an elevated state of preparedness?  Can you imagine that our politicians will ever declare that our alert stage has reverted to green?  Accordingly, this so-called “war” will never be over.  The dangers that we face are certainly real, but they are better thought of in a different fashion.

Does this distinction matter?  Yes it does, it actually makes a critical difference.  Why?  Once again the Drafters of our Constitution were brilliant.  Today many people, even citizens of our country, are being imprisoned for indefinite periods of time without charges being filed against them and without them having access to attorneys or our courts.  We have also seen the interception of telephone calls of our citizens from here to other countries, and we have all heard allegations of kidnappings and torture at the hands of some agents of our government.  And all of these actions have been justified because “we are at war.” 

Of course some of the people in our custody are dangerous.  But our response should take into consideration a saying we used back in the days that I was a federal prosecutor in the United States Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles: “If you lie down in the gutter with dogs, you will get up with fleas.”  If we lower ourselves to the level of those radical people who would do us ill, we will get up in the morning with the same fleas that have infested them.

In addition, by pursuing these actions we are actually accomplishing some of Osama bin Laden’s goals for him.  Because by our government engaging in these acts, we are abandoning what is America.  The soul of the United States of America is in our freedoms and constitutional protections.  If we do not uphold these safeguards to liberty, we will no longer be a beacon for a better world.  And this will result in our country of Jefferson, Washington and Ben Franklin being just like every other country, which is exactly what bin Laden wants people to believe. 

Is there a threat by Al-Queda and other similar organizations to our country and to our safety and well being?  Undeniably, the answer is yes.  But as a fact of life, we simply cannot protect ourselves from every threat that the zealots and cowards of this world might be able to concoct.  Yes, we can attempt to control bombings on our commercial airliners, and we should try to do so, but what about in every train station?  Does anyone really think that even if we give up all of our constitutional protections that we can possibly protect every highway bridge or tunnel in our country from a terrorist act, or every theater, stadium, school or shopping mall?  The Soviet Union tried to do this in Afghanistan and Chechnya, and failed. 

The answer is to treat these threats and even attacks as the critically important police matters that they are.  The primary protection against them is good intelligence, and we have been derelict in reducing the capabilities of our nation’s intelligence-gathering community.  Additional protections come from all of us being vigilant, and training and equipping our law enforcement officers in the best manner possible.  But otherwise, we must be mature and sophisticated in understanding that there are some threats in life from which there are no protections, and we should go on about our normal lives.

Furthermore, by saying this is a matter for the police does not at all mean that we are minimizing the potential threats.  Even though criminal gangs like those of Al Capone, the Crips and the Bloods have presented definite and even severe threats to public safety, Congress did not declare war on them.  It is a police matter.  The same is true for groups of people like Al Queda that are basically non-nation states.  Of course, if Al Queda had the protection of the government of a country like Afghanistan on September 11, 2001 when it committed an act of war upon the people of our country on our soil, in my opinion we had every right to respond as we did.  But Congress should first have declared war before we did so.

In addition, just because these are matters for the police does not mean they will only be handled by the local sheriff.  The FBI and CIA are police and law enforcement agencies, just as I am as a judge, and we will all be called upon to enforce our nation’s laws and hold people accountable for their actions.  So the matters will still be taken seriously, but without all of the clammer for reducing our liberties because “we are at war.”

So what can each of us do to protect our values, our laws and our Constitution from the attack it is under today?  We can refuse to use the term or even the concept of a “War on Terrorism,” with the understanding that there is no such thing.  And we can refuse to abandon our cherished liberties under the Bill of Rights.

Don’t give in to politics.  Understand that if politicians really wanted to reduce the ability of those radical people to harm us, they would do the one thing that would most cripple them: repeal Drug Prohibition.  The primary funding for terrorists all around the world is the money received from the sale of illegal drugs.  In fact, Drug Prohibition is literally the “Golden Goose” of terrorism.  There will always be radical people in the world who want for whatever reason to harm us and others, but they will be a great deal less dangerous if we take away their funding.  But politicians still refuse even to discuss this fact of life. 

So we must follow the procedures brilliantly and forthrightly set forth by our Founding Fathers.  Demand full disclosure, full debate and then a vote from Congress before we go to war.  Then we will be justly committed as a country to the result, and God help those who stand in our way.

So no, for the reasons discussed above we are not at war.  But without a constitutional Declaration of War, we will also never be at peace, because these undeclared conflicts will politically never be allowed to end.

James P. Gray is a judge of the Orange County Superior Court, and the author of Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed, and What We Can Do About It – A Judicial Indictment of the War on Drugs (Temple University Press, 2001), and can be reached at JimPGray@sbcglobal.net or at his blog at JudgeJimGray.JudgeJimGray.com.

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01/06/08
WELFARE PROGRAMS ARE A BAD DEAL
Filed under: General
Posted by: Jim Gray @ 11:46 am

            WELFARE PROGRAMS ARE A BAD DEAL (22)

            Government minimum wage laws and welfare programs were designed to do good things.  But like so many other well-intended efforts, they are a bad deal for almost everyone concerned.  They are unhealthy for the poor, inappropriate for the wealthy, and conceptually flawed.

Let’s first address the poor.  The great thinker Dr. Milton Friedman once said that “You very seldom find poor people testifying in favor of the minimum wage.  The people who do are those who receive or pay wages much higher than the minimum.” 

One of the people Dr. Friedman was referring to was John F. Kennedy who, when he was still in Congress, testified that he wanted to pass minimum wage laws to protect the textile workers in his district from competition from the “cheap labor” in the South.  Kennedy candidly acknowledged that “the effect of minimum wage law is to produce unemployment among people with low skills.  And who are (they)?  In the main, they tend to be teenagers and blacks, and women who have no special skills, or have been out of the labor force and are coming back.”

And Kennedy was right.  Face it, there are some people who are actually not worth the $7.50 per hour that California now requires be paid for a minimum wage.  So what happens when these laws are passed?  Employers go to great lengths to reduce the numbers of the unprofitable employees that they hire or retain.  Think “automatic check-out machines” at Home Depot and other similar stores.  These machines are more cost effective than the minimum wage employees, even if you consider their purchase price and upkeep expenses.  Consequently those people lose their jobs.

So ask yourself, is it better for society to have fewer people paid a slightly higher wage, or is it more productive to have many more people actually employed?

In my view the answer is that society critically needs more entry-level jobs.  That would beneficially address the needs of most teenagers, and also many people currently without job skills.  It would also give them the opportunity to learn and demonstrate a work ethic.  And when that happens, many of them will either quickly show their employers that they are worth more than they are being paid and get a raise, or they will move on to a different and higher-paying job. 

In that regard I am reminded of a bumper sticker I once saw that proudly proclaimed: “Broken English, Spoken Perfectly.”  These are people who can get ahead if they are afforded the chance to pursue the American Dream.  But under the welfare system that opportunity is mostly squandered.

Of course, there will always be people who cannot support themselves, so what is to happen with them?  Well, for decades we have been putting those people on welfare programs.  And what has been the result?  Decades of poverty.  In fact, since the beginning of the so-called “War on Poverty” in 1965, our country has spent more than $5 trillion trying to reduce the burdens of the poor.  But what have we received for this enormous expenditure of resources?  Mostly more poverty.

So these government welfare programs should not be abandoned because we are pinching taxpayer pennies or because we are uncaring about the poor.  They should be abandoned because they do not work, and are actually a vicious trap for the poor.

What does work?  America has become great because of what I call the four pillars that are guaranteed in our Constitution, which are Liberty, Property Rights, Free Markets and Free Minds, and a fair and foreseeable Administration of Justice.  We should do everything we reasonably can to bring everyone in our country into the mainstream of those four pillars.

But that certainly does not end the inquiry.  What about those people who obtain jobs for $6 or so per hour?  Certainly people cannot live in today’s world while earning $48 gross for a full working day.  What happens with them, or the people who are unemployed?

Well, the first thing to do after we end the welfare programs is to establish a dollar-for-dollar tax credit up to a certain maximum amount for donations to private charities that address the needs of the poor.  Private charities will do this work far more productively than the government.   

The second thing to do, as was addressed in an earlier column, is to appreciably reduce the obstacles for people to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities.  Today huge numbers of people work illegally “off the books” in areas like hairstyling, tailoring, auto repair, “gypsy” taxi cabs, and ad hoc catering and child care services.  We should change the system so that they can do this work legally and above-board.  Then their customers can decide if their work is worth the money or not.

And thirdly, we simply must improve our government-run school system.  Stay tuned for that one, because it will be addressed here in a future column.

Finally, for those people who still “fall through the cracks,” we should provide them with dormitory-style living and two or three hot and nutritious meals per day under a system of government contracts.  Everyone in our society should have somewhere to go that is safe, warm and dry.  But our tax money should actually be spent for food, clothing and shelter, and not for non-necessities, administration and fraud. 

Of course those who are able should be required to work at chores around the premises in partial payment for the benefits received.  But overall this approach would at the same time provide a secure and safe environment for the poor, while also providing them with an important incentive “to earn the extra dollar” and improve their position.

Probably the best approach to effect this system would be for all cities in our country to be required to provide a certain number of beds based upon their population.  That way no city would have to support more people than its fair share.

 

But now let’s also address the welfare system for the wealthy.  Are there such programs?  Absolutely!  One of them is the system of subsidies to our country’s farmers.  For example, between 1995 and 2002 our government paid a whopping $114 billion in farm subsidies, and the payments have actually increased since that time.  What is the rationale for this largesse?  The stated purpose is to help our country’s small farmers. 

But it does not work that way.  In actuality, a full 77 percent of the money goes to the top 10 percent of the beneficiaries, and most of those are large farming enterprises.  For example, between the years 2003 and 2005, $9.4 billion went to people who claimed entitlements through partnerships, joint ventures, corporations or other business entities.  That does not sound like helping small farmers to me.  As further proof, people who lived in downtown New York City actually received payments of $4.2 million during this same period of time. 

Of course, the lower 80 percent of the beneficiaries, who actually are the small farmers, received an average of only about $846 per year.  So in summary and contrary to the stated purpose, these subsidies actually make it much harder for small farmers to compete!

The second rationale for the so-called farm support system is to stabilize food prices.  As the argument goes, if there is a surplus of crops, prices will fall too much and farmers will lose money.  So supposedly to more stabilize this market, between 1995 and 2002 some farmers were actually paid $14 billion by the taxpayers not to grow anything!  Of course, this interference in the free market only really creates mischief.  In addition these government subsidies have actually and appropriately resulted in sanctions against our country from the World Trade Organization for interfering in the world market.

Why is the system not more closely monitored to help it to achieve its stated goals?  For two reasons.  First, the federal laws are much too vague to allow the proper monitoring of the hundreds of thousands of farm-subsidy payments that are made each year.  And second, the government employees are not well enough trained and funded to be able to monitor the recipients’ eligibilities any better.  As a result, the government only is able to run fact-checks on about 1,000 applications each year.

So why is this system perpetuated?  The answer to that question, like so many others addressed in this column, is politics.  Wealthy farmers have a powerful political lobby.  Of course they are quite anxious for these payments to continue, and will politically punish any member of Congress that jeopardizes their entitlements.  In my view this situation is living proof of the old saying that “If you want to rob Peter to pay Paul, you can always count on the support of Paul.”

So that’s the way it is.  I thought that you would be interested in hearing where a lot of your tax money is going, and the poor results that are being gathered from it.  And I also thought that maybe in this election year you might want to talk to your members of Congress about this situation and see what they propose to do about it.  If anything.

James P. Gray is a judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of the upcoming book Wearing the Robe: the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press), and can be reached at JimPGray@sbcglobal.net or his blog at JudgeJimGray.JudgeJimGray.com.

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“FREE TO CHOOSE” IS THE SLOGAN FOR PROSPERITY
Filed under: General
Posted by: Jim Gray @ 11:07 am

“FREE TO CHOOSE” IS THE SLOGAN FOR PROSPERITY (24)

            We are about to enter another New Year.  May it meet your (reasonable) expectations, and may you prosper.

            Okay, that is the formality, but I actually hope it comes to pass.  Nevertheless, for us to maximize everyone’s chances of fulfilling those desires for prosperity, we must listen better to that great thinker and Nobel Prize-winning economist Dr. Milton Friedman and his equally brilliant wife Rose.

            Yes, we as citizens and voters actually have to consider economics, because this is the “invisible hand” that in so many ways drives our decision-making process and also that of our great nation as well.  And the basis for our prosperity is simple: the basis is “choice,” or as the Friedmans put it in the title of the economic bible they wrote, we must be “Free to Choose.”

            What does that mean?  It means that the foundations of prosperity based upon our free choice are private property rights, a fair and foreseeable system of justice, and entrepreneurship and all of the calculated economic risk-taking that this entails. 

This sounds like intellectual egg-head talk, but it really is not.  It simply means that we must set up a system that maximizes ways people can choose for themselves how to work and spend their money, instead of having the government make those choices for them.  This necessarily means that people will benefit from the good choices they make and be responsible for poor ones.  But that is the way to prosperity.  Therefore, every time the government substitutes its “wisdom” for ours, it is taking us farther away from prosperity. 

For example, if you feel you get good value for your money by having a particular person cut your hair, why should the government require a license before that person can do that work?  Remember, if the work is not worth the money charged, the would-be barber will go out of business regardless of what the government license says.

Of course we will still need things like protections against environmental pollution and recourse for defective or even harmful products.  But fortunately in most ways the justice system can handle those issues.

            So how do property rights fit into this discussion?  Let me give you an example.  Consider that there was a grove of apple trees growing wild somewhere along the Oregon Trail during the covered wagon days.  So when a wagon train would come upon it, the travelers would pick more of the ripe apples than they needed – why not, they’re free? 

            Then the people in the next train would probably pick all of the remaining ripe apples, and most of the green ones as well.  Why not, they’re free, and the travelers can always feed the unripe apples to their oxen.  So soon there would be no more apples at all on the trees.  But the people in the next train would cut down the branches and even the trunks of the trees to use as firewood.  Why not?  They can use the wood, and if they do not cut it down, someone else behind them will.

            Therefore, in this situation not only would no one plant, feed and prune the trees and harvest the apples for maximum benefit, the trees would actually be plundered and soon destroyed.  But if a private person had enforceable ownership rights to the apple grove, enforced by a fair and foreseeable system of justice, there would very likely be an abundance of apples for all.

            In other words, with enforceable property rights, people have the incentive to work hard and plan for the long run future because they will profit from their efforts.  But without those property rights, the incentives instead are for people to plunder the resources in the short run before someone else does so.

            Now to take this discussion one step farther, who has more incentive to plant, organize and develop a better apple grove, private people working for their own self-interest, or the government?  For the answer to that question, ask the people of Poland, the Czech Republic or Cuba.  Or compare the productivity level of South as opposed to North Korea, or previously West Germany as opposed to East Germany.  Furthermore, what is a better way to decide how many washing machines to manufacture, or how many black cars to produce instead of red cars?  To have a government bureaucrat make the decision, or a private company that is sensitive to the free market choices of its customers? 

To have a system of government decisions in the marketplace leads to what the Friedmans call the “tyranny of control.”  And bureaucrats always have a natural tendency to increase their power and their area of influence.  That is a major explanation for our government being so large and controlling today.  But to have the decisions made privately brings the most rational decisions in manufacturing and distribution.  And that brings prosperity!

            So let us keep in mind and adhere to the teachings of the Friedmans.  The free market actually works!  All a country needs to be prosperous is a vigorous system of entrepreneurship – not natural resources (Look at Japan!) or even access to the latest technology (Look at Botswana!). 

            And if you still disagree with this statement, let me clinch it by asking you a few of Milton Friedman’s questions: “Why do you believe that political self-interest works better than economic self-interest?  Or why do you believe that government bureaucrats can make more rational choices for you than you can?  (And by the way, if the government accumulates more power, the industrialists and other private interests will simply take it over and control it anyway.) 

So when will we find these governmental “angels of the public good” to better organize our society?  And why haven’t we found them yet?  The plain reality is, as stated by the Friedmans, that all societies run on greed, but the prosperous societies run on individuals that run on their personal interests.  Competition under a fair and foreseeable justice system pushes us to advance and, once again this brings prosperity.

            Look at the recent experiences in Ireland and New Zealand, where large cuts in taxes and government spending directly resulted in substantial increases in investment and entrepreneurship.  This has also been seen in Botswana, which has in a short time progressed from one of Africa’s poorest nations into one of middle-range income.  The truth is that no peoples have broken away from poverty except under a system of capitalism and free trade, and that means free economic choice.  (Today’s China is another case in point.)  The big problems come when foreign aid and government interference undercut the local entrepreneurship.

            As a result, our efforts at foreign aid would be ever much more successful in non-emergency situations if we would make small business loans of money or even farm animals to the people at the bottom of the economic ladder, instead of providing loans of money and products directly to foreign governments.  The former are used by the people to set up and expand local businesses, which create prosperity; the latter are most often used by politicians to purchase expensive automobiles and end up in Swiss bank accounts.

            So I believe the Friedmans would conclude this discussion by saying that there are four ways to spend money.  The first is that you will spend your own money on yourself.  That will be done carefully, and you probably will get your money’s worth.  The second is you will spend your money on someone else.  Then you will mostly get your money’s worth, but you will be careful not to spend too much.  The third is you can spend someone else’s money on yourself.  There you will probably get fairly good deals on things you mostly do not need.  And fourth, you can spend someone else’s money on someone else.  There you will get our nation’s public school system, which we will discuss in a future column.

There certainly is a need for a federal government, but that need is generally just for a strong military, national court system and police network, system of currency, and matters of foreign relations.  For other government roles we should go back to the concept of Federalism – which made our country great!  That means that the most local government that is able effectively to address a particular issue would have the authority and power to do so.  Finally, as it states in both the 9th and 10th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the rest of the powers should be reserved for the people themselves.  And, as the Friedmans would quickly say, that would allow the people to be Free to Choose.

            So as the New Year is upon us, let us come together and decide to change away from a bigger and ever more encroaching government.  And we can do it simply by asking ourselves when it comes time to vote which candidates or propositions would more encourage free choice for the most people and responsibility for the choices made?             

So now armed with the slogan “Free to Choose,” I sincerely wish you all a Prosperous New Year!

James P. Gray is a judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the composer of the high school musical “Americans All,” and can be contacted at JudgeJimGray.com or at his blog at JudgeJimGray.JudgeJimGray.com.

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