Bankrupt And Bewildered

Sometime this week, the city of Stockton, California will file for bankruptcy.   I’m sure the people of Stockton — all 300,000 of them — are a bit bewildered by their current grim reality.

Not too long ago, Stockton was on the move.   It built a new marina and hotel and promenade to attract tourists.  It built vast tracts of housing in an effort to lure bargain-hunting workers from the Bay Area.  It offered generous pay and benefits to its workers, including allowing them to retire at age 55.

Then the crash came.  The vast tracts of housing sit largely vacant, and Stockton has the second-highest foreclosure rate in the country.  The hoped-for boom in tourism and convention traffic never materialized.  Stockton boasts the second-highest rate of violent crime in California and a 17.5 percent unemployment rate.  The city has been cutting payroll for years, including a 25 percent cut in the police force and a 30 percent cut in the fire department payroll.  Public employee pay and benefits have been reduced.  Yet still the city faces a $26 million budget deficit and $417 million in liability for retirees’ health care.  When mediation talks with public employee unions and creditors failed, bankruptcy became the only option.

If I lived in Stockton I’d have one question:  how did city government fail so colossally?  Stockton looks like one of those cities where bones were thrown to everyone:  big dream city projects for the pro-development crowd, big pay and health care benefits and pensions for the public employee unions, big promises of progress and better days ahead for voters, and pats on the back and big salaries for city leaders.  Now that it has turned to ashes, city residents are left in a crime-ridden, devastated city that has to do untenable things like totally eliminating healthcare benefits for city retirees.

I guess, therefore, I’d have a second question:  where is the accountability for the city leaders who allowed the city to stroll, dream-like, into this predicament?

A Story With No Good Answers

In Cleveland Heights, county workers have put an eight-year-old boy who weighs more than 200 pounds into foster care after concluding that the boy’s mother isn’t doing enough to control his weight.  The boy isn’t suffering from any medical conditions other than sleep apnea, but he is considered at risk of weight-related diseases such as hypertension and diabetes.  It’s the first time anyone in Ohio can recall a child being taken from his home purely because of a weight issue.

Childhood obesity is a problem in America — but when should the state intervene to deal with individual cases?  County workers say the boy’s weight is due to his environment and his mother’s failure to follow doctor’s orders; they consider the boy’s condition to be just another form of medical neglect.  The mother, and her lawyer, say the county overreached because the boy is in no immediate danger and the mother has been trying to control his weight.  They note that the boy is on the honor roll and participates in school activities, and add that removing a child from his home and family and putting him foster care can cause its own harms.

This case is an example of what can happen when less-than-perfect parenting and an activist government intersect.  I’m not in favor of officious government workers deciding what’s best for us, but I also question how an attentive parent could let a weight issue become so extreme.  If you conclude that the county acted correctly in this instance, where do you draw the line?  Could it have acted even sooner — when, say, the boy first tipped the scales at 175 pounds?  And if you think the county acted improperly, is there any point at which it should intervene short of the child developing medical problems that clearly are weight-related?

While we wrestle with these abstract issues of individual responsibility and government intrusion, however, I think of the kid at the center of this story.  It’s hard to envision an eight-year-old boy who weighs more than 200 pounds, and it’s even harder to imagine that boy having any kind of normal childhood — particularly now that he’s become the focal point of a much larger tug of war.

Your Tax Dollars At Work, Protecting Americans From Unlicensed Neighborhood Lemonade Stands

Does anyone in government stop and think about what they are really doing, anymore?

Here’s the latest story of some ridiculous lack of judgment by a government regulator.  A 7-year-old girl in a suburb of Portland, Oregon sets up a lemonade stand at a neighborhood festival and starts serving lemonade made from bottled water and Kool-Aid mix, at a price of 50 cents a cup.  Some county health inspector with a clipboard comes up and asks the kid to show her temporary restaurant license.  Not surprisingly, the child doesn’t have one — they cost $120, after all — and the health inspector tells the kid that she has to close up shop or face a $500 fine.  The child left in tears.  Of course, the county health inspectors defend the action, saying that they “need to put the public’s health first” and must “protect the public” no matter how small the business or how young the proprietor.

Didn’t anyone at the county health department ever have a lemonade stand?  Doesn’t anyone at the county health department have any common sense?  Is unlicensed lemonade sold by a 7-year-old really such an enormous risk to public health that the full weight of the country government must be brought to bear?

Whether a 7-year-old gets to run a lemonade stand without being harassed and reduced to tears by clipboard-waving bureaucrats doesn’t mean a lot in the grand scheme of things.  This story reveals a greater concern about how government works, however.  One reason why some people, at least, oppose the government making decisions about their health care is precisely because they are worried that those momentous decisions will be made by nameless bureaucrats who don’t have the sense to determine that a 7-year-old’s lemonade stand doesn’t pose a fundamental risk to public health.

Public Distrust Of Government Is Growing, And Dog Bites Man

The Pew Research Center released a study today that showed that Americans’ trust in government is nearing historic lows.  According to the study, the only time trust in government was lower than it is now was in the first few years of the Clinton presidency.  And some of the statistical changes shown in the study are pretty amazing.  For example, within just the last year favorable opinions of Congress have declined from 50 percent to 25 percent.

I heard a report on the study as I drove to work this morning.  I got the impression that the results were a bit of a surprise to the interviewer and the Pew Reseach Center person being interviewed.  I don’t know why these results would surprise anyone.  There clearly is a lot of brooding discontent among Americans, and anyone who hasn’t noticed it just isn’t paying attention.

As the Pew study indicates, when times are tough people are bound to lose faith in the government and other institutions.  I also think, however, that a number of other recent factors have contributed to the decline.  First, many people had high hopes that President Obama would change the way Washington, D.C. operates.  That hasn’t happened, obviously, and people who are disappointed are apt to be mistrustful.  Second, we are now getting more information about how politics works than ever before, and it is not a pretty picture.  When Americans learn about the corrupt political practices that were employed to get the “health care reform” legislation passed, it is bound to reduce public trust in government.  How can you trust government to make the right decision if it seems like every Member of Congress is basing their decision not on the merits of the proposal, but on whether they received a special deal sufficiently lucrative to buy their vote?  Third, there is a strong perception that the wishes of ordinary Americans are being ignored.  Congress enacted the “health care reform” legislation despite overwhelming opposition from the American public.  Although Americans clearly care most about jobs and the economy, that issue seems to have received short shrift from both the President and Members of Congress.  Why should you trust government if government seems completely clueless about the issues that are of paramount concern to average Americans?

Happy Tax Freedom Day (In Ohio, At Least)

Today is Tax Freedom Day in Ohio.  The Tax Foundation calculates Tax Freedom Day by taking the official government tally of all taxes collected in a particular year and dividing it by the official government tally of all income earned in that year.  That calculation yields a percentage, and that percentage, with some adjustments, is then applied against the calendar to determine how many days Americans need to work before they pay off their tax burden for the year.  This year, in Ohio, Tax Freedom Day arrives today.

Paying taxes is part of a citizen’s obligation in a free society.  Our federal, state, and local governments all provide services that must be paid for, and taxes are the mechanism for making that payment.  Many of these governmental services are essential to our country and our culture.  Local governments provide police and fire protection, public schools, and other services at the community level — stuff we don’t think much about, like trash pick-up and removing dead animals from roadways.  States provide additional necessary services, like highways, prisons, and institutions of higher education.  The federal government is responsible for our national defense, for foreign relations, and other activities that can only be logically addressed at the national level.

I’ve been known to complain about taxes from time to time, and I just want to say that I don’t object to the concept of taxes.  No modern American would want to live in a lawless society, or one without roads and bridges, or one where children go uneducated.  We all have a shared obligation to contribute to paying for what the government provides to us.  What I object to, rather, is the waste of tax dollars on inessential matters and the increasing inability of governmental entities at all levels to live within the “budget” established by tax receipts.

Americans pay a lot in taxes — according to the Tax Foundation, more than they spend on food, shelter, and clothing combined.  It takes more than three months to free Americans from that tax burden.  That seems like a significant work effort by the American people to me, and one that should be more than enough to pay for the essential services that we all support.  It is the job of our elected representatives to make the tough choices that make that happen.

The Mayflower Compact, 389 Years Later

In addition to being the day on which World War I ended and Veterans’ Day is celebrated, November 11 also is the anniversary of the “Mayflower Compact” signed by the handful of settlers at the New Plymouth Colony.  The Compact was signed on November 11, 1620.

According to the text available on the Yale Law Library website, the Compact was written like a legal document — a kind of combination of an affidavit and a contract.  It states, in pertinent part, that the signers “[d]o by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid: And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience.”

Why should we care (other than to note that legalese was as prevalent in those long-ago days as it is now)?  We should care because the underlying concept of the Compact was so striking and different for that day and age.  Government was to be established not by the fiat of some faraway, hereditary King, but by the consent and agreement of the governed, who signed their mutual contract in their individual capacities.  The signers, in  turn, recognized that by banding together they could create a society that would be better “ordered and preserved” than if they struck out on their own in the wilderness.  Moreover, they reserved for themselves the ability to decide which laws, Constitutions, and Officers should be deemed “most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony.”

The Mayflower Compact is one of those early American documents that we all learn about in fifth grade American History classes, but then fades into obscurity, overshadowed by the titanic significance of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Yet it is one of the precursor documents which helped to create the spirit and mindset that made the Declaration and the Constitution possible.  In short, American colonists were governed because they consented and agreed to be governed.  We should all celebrate, and remember, one of the days on which that concept was realized and put into effect.