Monday, November 28, 2011

A Goal For Occupiers: Down with regressive taxes!

Although the occupy movements have elicited widespread sympathy, they have been better at expressing general unhappiness than at suggesting specific reforms. One trouble with specific goals is that it is hard to find any that broad masses of people can agree on.

It would be wonderful if the energy, sincerity, and enthusiasm of the occupiers were focused on some concrete action that they could demand Congress take. I would like to suggest a goal which could unify the occupiers: getting rid of regressive taxes.

Republican presidential contenders have renewed old disputes about the merits of “progressive” taxes ( higher incomes pay a higher tax rate) and “flat” taxes (everyone pays the same percentage). There is something to be said for both sides of this issue. But nothing whatever can be said in favor of regressive taxes ( higher incomes pay a lower percentage in taxes).

Several federal taxes are highly regressive. The most obvious one is the FICA tax supporting Social Security and Medicare. This 15.3% tax applies to the first dollar earned, only applies to wages and salaries, and only applies to the first $106,800 this year. A person earning $106,680 this year pays $16,340.40 in FICA taxes, half directly and half indirectly as the so-called “employer’s share.” A person earning twice as much still pays the same $16,340.40, as does someone who makes $1,000,000, or about 1.6%.

Some but not all of the injustices in the FICA tax will be reduced beginning in 2013 unless Obamacare is repealed or declared unconstitutional.

The federal income tax also has regressive elements, with much lower tax rates on income from dividends and capital gains than on wages and salaries.

Supporters of these major loopholes claim that it is unfair “double taxation” to tax dividends, since the corporations paying them have already paid corporate income tax on their income. And they proclaim it unfair to tax capital gains, part of which is not really income because of inflation, at the same rate as wages.

The argument about double taxation is sheer sophistry, since money is always subject to taxation whenever it changes hands and no tax system can avoid this. The argument about inflation has merit but wouldn’t if capital gains were indexed to exempt the portion caused by inflation.

It is obviously unfair to tax hedge fund managers with billion dollar incomes at a much lower rate than that paid by the people who clean their offices. It is apparently impossible to eliminate this injustice without major and harmful side effects as long as capital gains are taxed at lower rates than earned income. The solution to this problem is therefore to eliminate the preferential rate for capital gains.

I therefore urge the Occupy movement to focus on one unifying and clearly meritorious reform: getting rid of all regressive taxes. The movement’s energy, enthusiasm and public attention could make this reform politically possible. A mobilized public opinion could force Congress to ignore the well-financed lobbyists, spin-doctors, and special pleaders who would rush to oppose such a reform.

Down with regressive taxes!


This piece has appeared in the Daily Telegram, Adrian, Michigan.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Unemployment not just a problem for returning veterans

It is hard to disagree with President Obama when he tells us it is wrong for returning veterans to be unable to find work. Even Senate Republicans went along with his proposal to give tax credits to companies that hire unemployed veterans.

Still, this kind of rhetoric and legislation should make us all very uneasy. Although it sounds good in Veteran’s Day oratory, it smacks too much of telling us that the wrong people are unemployed.

Government should not be in the business of deciding who should be employed and who should not be employed. Nor should anybody else be in that business. In a full-employment economy, veterans, like everyone else, would be able to find jobs.

We often hear laments that older people, young people, and members of racial minorities suffer from higher unemployment than do middle-aged non-minority people, which again takes the existence of unemployment as a given and suggests it should be distributed more equitably.

There is nothing in the structure of the physical or social universes that requires the existence of unemployment. During World War II the United States not only had no unemployment but it actually had a labor shortage. And the amazing results? Women (“Rosie the riveter”) and black people suddenly found themselves hired to do work that had previously been denied them. (The shortage of workers, aggravated because employers were not allowed to raise wages to attracted needed labor, led employers to offer fringe benefits like medical insurance, which the government did not count as wage increases.)

During the heyday of the Soviet Union, likewise, there was also a shortage of labor instead of unemployment, because state-run factories and farms (and that was all there was) were not allowed to raise wages to the point where the demand for labor would have fallen to be equal to the supply. The notorious Gulag Archipelago, or system of concentration camps, functioned as a kind of civilian draft to get needed labor for difficult projects in unpleasant parts of the U.S.S.R.

There are several ways the U.S. could assure full employment without the unpleasantness of a war or Soviet-style economy. Small decreases in average wages could bring the demand for labor into equilibrium with the number of people seeking work, as was the case in World War II America and in the Soviet Union. If measures need to accomplish this are politically unpalatable, the government could become the employer of last resort, guaranteeing everyone a job at the legal minimum wage, modified versions of the WPA/CCC programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but on a larger scale. The costs of doing this would not be out of line with what we have lately been spending on ineffective “stimulus” programs.

Whether we supported or opposed the wars they have been fighting, we can only wish returning veterans the best. But we can wish no less for all other Americans. It is time to stop talking about reducing unemployment and to start talking about eliminating it.


This piece has run on

Monday, October 24, 2011

Don't lay off government employees

The Wall Street Journal ran my following letter to the editor October 24, 2011:

Harry Reid's jobs math may be more politics than economics, but so is the Journal's retort that "State and local governments now have no choice but to cut workers."

Laying off people when there is work for them to do makes no sense, especially when unemployment is high. Government does have another choice; it can reduce pay and fringe benefits for its workers to save the needed money.

Government has a duty to drive the best possible bargain when it spends money extracted from taxpayers. Paying government workers more than is necessary to attract and retain enough qualified applicants—generosity with other people's money—may be politically safe in an age of public-employee unions, but it is a breach of that duty.

Paul deLespinasse

Corvallis, Ore.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


The Soviet Union suffered from totalitarianism, low living standards, and economic inefficiency. But it had one redeeming feature: there was no unemployment. As we flail around trying to reduce unemployment, we should study how the Soviets eliminated it. But we need to look at what they did, not what they said.

Communist explanations of unemployment were nonsense. They claimed unemployment was due to selfish capitalists, who wanted an “army” of surplus workers they could threaten to substitute for current employees demanding raises. The Party line was that the U.S.S.R., having destroyed capitalism, therefore had no unemployment.

But when the price of something is less than the “market-clearing” price, the price at which demand for it equals supply, a shortage occurs. If capitalists really underpaid workers—as Communists claimed--- there would be a labor shortage, not an army of surplus workers.

The actual reason for Soviet full employment was that the state monopolized the right to employ labor and to set wage levels. Although claiming to represent workers, the Soviet state lacked free elections where its claims could be tested, and it set wages far below the market-clearing level. People joked “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” But the upside was that a fired worker could always find another job, since –thanks to the low wages---there was a labor shortage.

Meanwhile American and European economies have multiple obstacles, legal and social, to reducing wages, and pressures, legal and social, to raise wages: minimum wage laws, labor unions, a climate of opinion where low wages are considered a sign of inferiority and paying them a sign of unscrupulousness. No wonder we had 5% unemployment even in the good old days!

Unemployment would disappear if all wages fell to the level at which the supply of labor is equal to the demand for it. There is no need to go below this point like the Soviets did. But wages in general will have to be somewhat lower than they are now.

Reduced wages would be resented by workers. But since one person’s wage is another’s cost of getting something done, as average wages fall so will the cost of living. And the security each worker feels, knowing that if a current job disappears another will not be hard to find, will be invaluable. Today even people with jobs hesitate to spend money, let alone borrow, since they don’t know whether they will be employed tomorrow. This would not be a problem in a full-employment economy.

Best of all, with market-clearing wages unemployment will go away without any need for expensive “stimulus” programs or for “growth.”

Economically, then, ending unemployment would be easy. The Soviet Union proved that it can be done. Politically, however, it may be impossible in democracies whose electorates have limited understanding of economics and whose leaders must cater to public opinion or lose their offices. If it is necessary to eliminate minimum wage laws, critics will correctly argue that lower paying jobs will not support a decent standard of living while ignoring the fact that being unemployed won’t support any standard of living at all. We need to remember that it is better to be employed, even for low wages, than to be unemployed.

If funds currently spent to “stimulate” the economy could be redirected to subsidizing people working for low wages, eliminating minimum wage laws might become politically possible.

Full employment requires wage flexibility, wages that can fall when necessary as well as rise. It remains to be seen if this is possible in a democratic society.


This article has run in the Daily Telegram, Adrian, Michigan, and in the Democrat-Herald (Albany-Corvallis, Oregon).

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A good idea in the New York Times?! Amazing!

Once in a while the New York Times prints a letter to the editor that actually makes sense. Today is one of those unfortunately rare days! Consider well the following suggestion:

To the Editor:

The single most effective remedy for our deficit problem would be a tax that tracks the national debt. It would be levied as a surtax on all income. The revenue from this “debt tax” would be dedicated solely to paying interest and principal on the national debt. Those interest payments are fast approaching a whopping $500 billion per year.

This surtax would gradually reduce itself to zero as the debt was paid off, or increase as the debt rose. Such a tax — especially if itemized on pay stubs — would be a constant irritant to taxpayers and politicians alike, providing an effective means of inhibiting future deficits.

Rochester, N.H., Aug. 7, 2011

Supreme Court Should Overturn State Establishment Clause Cases

Cross City Florida has the honor of being the latest victim of perverse judicial interpretations of the First Amendment’s establishment clause. A federal district court judge, responding to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, ordered the city to remove a monument in front of the Dixie County courthouse. The monument’s offense? It recites the Ten Commandments.

Thomas Jefferson, in a letter, famously called for a “wall of separation between church and state.” But Jefferson’s colorful words are a grossly inadequate generalization about the establishment clause, which contains no such language.

The clause reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . . .” The key words here are “Congress” and “respecting.” The establishment clause placed restriction only on what Congress (a federal body) could do, not on what state governments could do. And Congress could make no law “respecting,” which means “having to do with,” an establishment of religion. This awkward expression was used because the amendment’s drafters understood that it would do two things, not just one: 1) prevent Congress from establishing a religion, and 2) prevent Congress from interfering if state governments establish a religion. (Several states had established churches when the First Amendment was written; others had religious tests for public officials.)

Most establishment clause cases challenge actions by state governments (including school districts) rather than by the federal government. If the clause were interpreted as written all these cases, including the current one from Florida, would be thrown out of court. Most of them, including the Cross City case, involve actions which it is a stretch to consider “establishments” of religion. But, assuming that they are indeed establishments, the right of the states and school districts to engage in them would be protected by the establishment clause, not prohibited!

But the Supreme Court has been striking down state government actions under the establishment clause for more than half a century. It has held that although the original Bill of Rights (amendments 1-10) placed limits only on the federal government, the Fourteenth Amendment, added after the Civil War, was intended to place many of these same limits on the state governments.

There is convincing evidence that this was indeed intended when Congress wrote the Fourteenth Amendment. And for the most part this “incorporation” of the Bill of Rights made sense. It did not undermine our protection against federal censorship, for example, to hold that the First Amendment also protects us from state government censorship.

But “incorporating” the first dimension of the establishment clause to prevent state establishments as well as federal establishments totally contradicts the clause’s second dimension, protecting the right of states to establish a religion. The Fourteenth Amendment’s drafters intended no such result. Their report when the Amendment was submitted to Congress conspicuously omitted the establishment clause as one of the long list of provisions that would be “incorporated” against the states.

No doubt it would be a bad idea for a state to establish a religion today. But letting nine unelected justices twist a key clause of the Constitution so that it means the opposite of what it originally meant is an even worse idea.

There can be no doubt that the Supreme Court has pulled a fast one here, quite possibly without realizing what they were doing. The proper thing for them to do now would be to recognize their error, overturn all of the cases based on that error, and leave issues of church-state relations to the political and legal process at the state level as our Founders intended.


This article has run in the Gainesville (Florida) Sun.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Spotted Owls: Time to Amend the Endangered Species Act?

The Oregonian [“Shotgun conservation,” July 6, 2011] opines that “there’s no choice but to keep trying to save the spotted owl.” It notes that “The Endangered Species Act, thankfully, doesn’t allow Americans to get frustrated and walk away from trying to preserve a species.”

There is, however, no law prohibiting modification or repeal of legislation which turns out to have been unwise.

As the Oregonian itself notes, we have destroyed a major segment of the Oregon economy to save the owls, but they keep on disappearing. So now we’ll kill the barred owls (illegal immigrants who are displacing their spotted brethren), just as we are shooting salmon-eating sea lions in the Columbia.

Before spending scarce taxpayer dollars to shoot barred owls, officials should visit the Paleontology Center at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and consider its implications. It displays many animals that once lived in Oregon and now are extinct.

The climate and other characteristics of our planet are constantly changing. New species better suited to new conditions are evolving and old ones that can’t adapt are disappearing. We should not exaggerate our ability to stop nature from doing its thing.

Nor should we try to do so without taking the side effects and costs into account. No doubt survival of the spotted owl would be a good thing. But there are many other good things that these same tax dollars could be used for.

The most interesting argument in the “Shotgun conservation” editorial was in the next to last paragraph” “It is too soon to give up on the spotted owl. The Northwest has already sacrificed so much—thousands of jobs, entire rural communities---to create a survivable space in old growth forests for this species.” This sounds suspiciously like arguments that the U.S. should not pull out of Iraq or Afghanistan because it would render meaningless the thousands of American deaths incurred in these wars, no matter how badly the wars are going or the prospects for any kind of satisfactory outcome.

So perhaps we need to think again about the Endangered Species Act and at least amend it so we can give up on protecting species whose prospects are not good when the costs of doing so are excessive. A state whose people could tolerate policies destroying most jobs in logging should be able to handle disappearance of the spotted owls, if it comes to that.

Spotted owls or no spotted owls, there are excellent reasons why we might want to protect old growth forests. But regulations aimed directly at this goal could make more sense and be more efficient than the present approach.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Conditional offers of money do not coerce

I have sent the following letter to the editor to the Wall Street Journal, commenting on an article, ObamaCare's Next Constitutional Challenge, which can be read here.

To the editor:

Challenging the constitutionality of recent Medicaid legislation, Richard Epstein and Mario Loyola claim that it is coercive for “the federal government … [to] use its power to tax and spend to bludgeon all states into conformity.”

Their basic mistake is to lump together the very separate powers to tax and to spend and refer to them as a “power” in the singular. Taxes are always collected at the point of the sword; they are always based on coercion. If the coercive nature of the way the government gets it money is considered to render its expenditures coercive, all government expenditures would be coercive.

There is a fundamental difference between a conscripted army and an all volunteer army. A drafted army recruits by applying coercion (threats of fine, imprisonment, or—in some countries—execution) to the individuals being recruited. An all volunteer army offers inducements to serve, and those who do not serve do not receive these inducements. The inducements are financed with tax money extracted coercively from everybody, but this does not mean that the volunteer soldiers were coerced into serving.

Epstein and Loyola correctly note that “it is fundamentally wrong to think of coercion as a matter of degree.” Later courts have correctly ignored the Supreme Court’s unwise suggestions to the contrary in South Dakota v. Dole (1987), and District Court Judge Roger Vinson was correct to uphold the Medicaid provisions of the recent legislation.

Paul F. deLespinasse, Ph.D.
Corvallis, Oregon

Monday, June 6, 2011

Presidential disaster visits overdone

A disadvantage of the American form of government is that it combines in one person the ceremonial role of head of state plus the decision-making role of the head of government. In constitutional monarchies like England the monarch and other members of the royal family handle the ceremonial-symbolic duties while the prime minister takes care of running the government.

There is a danger in the United States that a leader will overdo on ceremonial duties, which leaves less time and energy for studying policy issues, making important decisions, and negotiating with legislators and with foreign governments.

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber has been catching a lot of flak because, unlike his predecessor, he has not been attending all the funerals for Oregon soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. But by staying away from funerals he may be serving Oregonians better than Ted Kulongoski did.

We have had many weather-related national disasters lately, and President Obama has been spending considerable time flying out to promise federal assistance, commiserate with victims, and generally represent the concerns of the nation about them. One wonders, however, if he should consider emulating Governor Kitzhaber instead.

The federal assistance the President promises would arrive anyhow, whether Obama came or not. Concerns could be expressed just as well from the White House as they could from Joplin, Missouri. Presidential visits present logistical problems wherever they occur, but these can be especially troublesome for areas where the problems of daily life have been exasperated by flooding, tornadoes, or earthquakes.

And then there is the matter of financial and ecological costs. The estimated costs of operating Air Force One vary all over the place, from a low of about $40,000 per hour of flight to a high of $180,000 per hour. At current aviation fuel prices of $5.47 per gallon of Jet-A, Air Force One costs about $23,000 per hour just for fuel , and burning this fuel puts a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

It might be better for the government to donate this money to the Red Cross and let the President stay in the White House and concentrate on governing the country.

Or if this seems too cold-blooded, such ceremonial visits could at least be delegated to the Vice President, whose time is under less pressure and whose smaller airplane would burn less fuel, cost less money, and make a smaller contribution to global warming.


This article has run in the Daily Telegram (Adrian, Michigan). A shortened version has appeared as a letter-to-the-editor in the (Corvallis, Oregon) Gazette-Times.

The curse of the golden egg

Some months ago I sent a letter to the editor of the Johns Hopkins Magazine, but apparently they have not published it, at least not in the most recent issue. So I thought I would post it here.


To the editor:

Re Dale Krieger’s fascinating article “The Curse of the Golden Egg”:

The article quotes Thomas Friedman about how oil-backed regimes “do not have to listen to their people,” can “buy off potential opposition,” and “can afford repressive security measures for those who won’t be bought.”

None of this would be possible in a world where all natural resources, including oil, were considered to be owned by the public, not by any government. Indeed, government claims to own such resources are inherently illegitimate, as are private claims to ownership. Assuming that at one time all resources were unowned, there is no mechanism by which any particular individual, group, or government could originally acquire ownership aside from (shades of Proudhon!) . . . theft. And of course no one who does not have ownership could legitimately transfer ownership to someone else.

The only non-arbitrary way to determine the ownership of natural resources is to deem them owned by the public (again, not to be confused with any government), defined as every man, woman, and child subject to the jurisdiction of a given government. Government could then act as a trustee for the public, auctioning time-limited rights to exploit particular resources to the highest bidder, and distributing the resulting income to the public in periodic social dividends, with equal amounts paid to every man, woman, and child in that public.

Financing the government would then have to be arranged on the basis of taxes, exactly as is the case in countries which are not resource rich.

The Alaskan oil dividend to all state residents is an approximate example of how such a system could work.

Ideally, the public in question would not be a parochial, national, public, but the world public, everybody on the planet. But it would be a step forward for such systems to be instituted at the national level.

This is unlikely, since the establishments in curse-of-the-golden-egg countries have strong personal interests in keeping things the way they are, and if they are overthrown their successors would have equally strong interests to maintain the current kleptocracies.

I have no idea how to get from “here” to “there,” but in theory it is crystal clear that “there” is where we need to get to.

For further analysis see my on-line discussion, The Metaconstitutional Manifesto: A Bourgeois Vision of the Classless Society at .

Paul F. deLespinasse, Ph.D. 1966

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The problem with "illegal" intentions

The NLRB is trying to prevent Boeing from opening a new factory in South Carolina. It claims that Boeing is retaliating against unions at its plants in Seattle, Washington.

Much has been said about possible economic consequences if this action against Boeing is successful. Nobody, however, is commenting on an even more disturbing aspect of this development. Even the NLRB does not claim that Boeing’s action of building a factory in South Carolina is illegal. Its decision rests instead on its claim that Boeing’s motivation or intent for doing this was illegal.

Personal liberty is extremely insecure if government can make an otherwise legal action illegal because of our motive for taking it. Intent is subjective and cannot be physically observed. If officials can decide what our intent was, and punish us if they decide our intent was bad, there is no limit to how highhandedly government can treat us.

By its very nature law must be general rules of action laid down in advance. Actions can be observed by people who can testify, thus minimizing subjectivity. And with genuine laws people can protect themselves from punishment by avoiding prohibited actions.

Rules punishing bad intent are pseudolaws, not laws.

The latest NLRB action represents another step in a trend to make an actor’s intent the key to whether it has acted illegally. This process got its start when the National Labor Relations Act was enacted in the 1930s. Employers were still free to fire employees, but if their motive was to discourage unionization firing was an “unfair labor practice” and was illegal. This unfortunate development, however, affected only a small part of American society at the time.

The big upswing in outlawing intentions came when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial discrimination in employment. Employers were still free to hire and to fire, to promote and demote, but if their intent in a particular case was based on race, it became illegal. Few people noticed that discrimination is not an action, but a reason for, motive, or intent in acting. As such, it suffers from all of the problems already noted.

It was easy to overlook the fact that a fundamental legal principle was being trashed—this time on a very broad scale-- because the intent or purpose of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was so clearly proper!

The idea that intent can determine legality has constitutional roots. Courts must determine whether the federal or state governments have jurisdiction to make various laws. The concept that the purpose of legislation can determine who has jurisdiction to enact it (and thus, whether it is constitutional or unconstitutional) offers a tempting analogy to make the legality of actions in general depend on their purpose.

But we jumped the rails in extending the use of purpose from mere determinations of governmental jurisdiction to decisions like today’s NLRB attack on Boeing. Things have now gone too far, and we need to step back.

This column has run in the Daily Telegram (Adrian, Michigan).

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Why "fix" Social Security?

For years we have been bombarded with claims that Social Security is going “bankrupt” and needs to be “fixed.” So far, though, no politically acceptable fixes have been found.

There are problems with Social Security, but the most prominent claim about it is nonsense: that its trust fund, holding 2.6 trillion dollars in federal bonds, is a “fiction,” that the government has “robbed” it and spent all the money. The government has indeed spent the money, but it didn’t steal it. It borrowed it and owes it back to the trust fund (plus interest) just as much as it owes money to other people from whom it has borrowed money.

For more than 25 years Social Security FICA payroll taxes have exceeded benefit payments. The resulting surplus has accumulated in the trust fund. We will now be drawing down the trust fund in order to pay benefits that are more than FICA taxes currently collected. This can be done until 2036 without reducing benefits, without increasing payroll taxes, without cutting government’s operating expenses, and without increasing the national debt. Bonds can be sold to the public (individuals, banks, China, etc.) to get the needed money. For every additional billion borrowed from the public, a billion will be paid back to Social Security. This will reduce the money owed to the trust fund by the treasury by the same amount. Since the national debt is the sum of money owed to the public and money owed to the trust funds, the total federal debt will not increase as a result of these paybacks.

Our government needs to cut operating expenses and raise taxes, but Social Security did not create the problems making this necessary.

The situation will change in 2036. In that year, the trustees project that the trust fund will be all used up. Under existing law Social Security payments would then be reduced so they could be covered by FICA taxes currently being collected. The trustees estimate that people would still receive about 77% of the benefits they would be receiving before the trust fund was exhausted.

Republican leaders would avoid this future decrease in benefits by reducing them right away. Well, maybe not so soon as to antagonize today’s politically active geezers, but a lot sooner than 2036. Democratic leaders favor increasing the FICA payroll tax enough to solve the problem, which according to the trustees would be about 2.15 percentage points. Either of these approaches would do the job if they could be enacted.

But Congress is better at doing nothing than at doing something, and this might be a case where inactivity would be acceptable. People would have a quarter century warning that benefits will decrease 23% starting in 2036. Younger folks would have ample time to save more to prepare for that (and improved means to do so, since they won’t be paying the higher FICA tax starting tomorrow), whereas people who are already retired and not in a position to save more are unlikely to live that long.

Regretfully, similar Congressional inactivity cannot solve other major problems, one of which is Medicare. But that’s another story.


This article has run in the (Adrian, Michigan) Daily Telegram.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Michael Scheuer: A man who speaks considerable sense about U.S. foreign policy

I just stumbled on to a talk on C-SPAN by one Michael Scheuer about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and found myself agreeing with a very high percentage of his statements. He has come to many of the same conclusions that I have come to about the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and (now) Libya, namely that they rest on hopelessly naive assumptions about government and have been terrible ideas from the get-go in terms of cold-blooded cost-benefit analysis.

The C-SPAN talk obviously had been taped before the recent killing of Osama bin Laden, and I checked Scheuer's website to see what his take on this was. I found myself agreeing right down the line with him. He felt it was good that bin Laden was gone, that it was good that he was not captured, that the "triumphalism of the pathetic young children and addled adults who were this week in the streets to celebrate bin Laden’s death" was unseemly, and that the conflicting stories being put out by the administration and Congress on what actually happened would give many people reasons to doubt what really happened. He noted that it was ironic than it took the al Qaeda confirmation of bin Laden's death to shut up most of the skeptics.

Scheuer has been accused of anti-semitism, a charge which he denies, because he argues that the U.S. should not make defense of Israel such a high national priority. I do not know enough about him to give an opinion on this matter.

At the end of the question period Scheuer commented that all of the presidents of both parties since Ronald Reagan have not been worth "a pitcher of warm spit." This is an allusion to a comment by Franklin D. Roosevelt's first vice president, who said something similar (but apparently used a strong term than "spit") about the office of the vice presidency!

While I think that Reagan was one of our best presidents, it seems to me that much of U.S. foreign policy under Reagan was grounded in similar assumptions to today's lamentable policies. But it is true that Reagan did not get us involved in all these unnecessary and counterproductive wars that I am afraid that all of his successors--Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama--- have done. I include Bush I because increasingly I am thinking that even the original Persian Gulf War under his leadership was a bad mistake. (At least, though, it was executed extremely well, with the crushing force advocated by the "Powell Doctrine," avoiding overreaching by marching on to Baghdad, and getting our "friends" to pay for a lot of it.)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Outstanding article by George F. Will

This morning's Oregonian includes an outstanding article by George F. Will about the death of Osama bin Laden and current U.S. foreign policy. The "conservative" George concludes with a withering analysis of our current misadventures in Libya and a suggestion we consider getting rid of NATO. There is hardly a word in this piece that I would change if I were writing it, and I think it needs to be widely read and thought about.

Read Will's article by clicking here.

I think I'll submit this to the "progressive" website CommonDreams, which has occasionally published my articles, even though they almost certainly will not use it since Will is a conservative. However I think there is hardly a word in this article that CDs editors wouldn't publish if it had been written by somebody else . . . . say Noam Chomsky!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Today's Cathedrals: Universities and Medical Buildings

In recent months my wife has been treated for a foot problem by some excellent doctors and therapists at the Slocum Center in Eugene. Walking up to the third floor one notices the large number of steps between each floor. The floors must be fifteen or twenty feet apart. The building is elegant, with high ceilings, wide halls, and expensive furnishings. But Slocum is not unusually extravagant when compared with other recently constructed medical facilities we have seen.

These buildings, of course, are financed with fees largely paid by insurance companies or Medicare. The enactment of Medicare may account for no small part of the huge increase (way beyond inflation) in the cost of medical treatment during the last 40 years.

When our daughter was born in 1969 our hospital bill in Adrian, Michigan (for six days due to some complications) was $471.22. We paid $47.50 and insurance paid the rest. The daily room rate back then was $33.64, which would be $202.42 in 2011 dollars. The daily rate at the Corvallis hospital, in 2009, was $1,357, about seven times as much.

Elegant facilities probably do little to improve the efficiency with which medical services are provided. Facilities in former strip malls vacated by stores which cannot compete with could probably work equally well at much lower cost. But we cannot blame medical administrators for opting for nicer, more expensive facilities when they know they can pay for it by raising their charges.

A similar situation can be found in universities. When I was an undergraduate at Willamette University in the late 1950s, annual tuition was about $600. This would be $4,529 in 2011 dollars, but today’s tuition at Willamette This is eight and a half times as much as I paid fifty years ago. is $38,800.

When I was at Willamette the facilities were adequate, but spartan. There was no student union, though there was a small, dark, and shabby coffee shop in the basement of Waller Hall. Facilities were even less extravagant when I joined the faculty at Adrian College in Michigan in 1964. Today the new buildings at Willamette are spectacular and the newest buildings at Adrian are also much nicer than in 1964. Students can get an excellent education at both of these colleges, but I am not sure they are learning more than we were 50 years ago. Certainly they are not learning 8.5 times as much!

As in the case of medicine, there is a lot more money available now for higher education than there was fifty years ago, and a good part of this may be due to the availability of Pell grants and loans for college students. Borrowing for college was unheard of fifty years ago and was just beginning to be discussed while I was in graduate school. (One of my undergraduate students at Johns Hopkins University feared in a paper that such loans would undermine the “martial attractiveness” of young women seeking husbands. I think he meant “marital” but reassured him that indebtedness would be no obstacle to women seeking to join the army.)

Experience in medicine and education suggests that throwing more money into worthy purposes may not always be a good idea. I have no idea how to deal with the problems this extra money has created, but we may be about to find out whether reducing the flow of such money, while painful, could have unexpected benefits.


This article has run in the Daily Telegram (Adrian, Michigan), CommonDreams, and the Gazette-Times (Corvallis, Oregon).

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Tidbits from my old files: Love and Pain

I don't know how to describe the following, which I wrote on April 19, 1985. Is it poetry?

Love and pain are one, in one direction only

You can't have love without
the possibility of pain;
but pain does not
reciprocate the favor.

The more you have,
the more you stand to lose;
but fear of loss is not
a reason for not having.

The more you love,
the more you can be hurt;
but fear of hurt must not
be reason for not loving.

The key to this dilemma in our lives
may lie in our "impossible" desires
that good things last forever;
but is love a "thing"?
are we a "thing"?

Our fingernails are things
our arms and legs are things
our brains are things,
but I am not my arm or my leg
or even my brain
nor even all these things combined.

Why, then, be downcast?
Why mourn prematurely for
losses that may be less by far
than meets the eye?

Have courage!
Be not afraid:
of departing daughters, in one direction,
or parents, in another direction
or physical universes in still another.

For why assume
that what lies ahead is
less than what we know today?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The school of hard knocks

Last night at the weekly rehearsal of the Corvallis Community Band I learned something, the hard way!

This band plays for Oregon State University graduation every June, much to my initial consternation when I found out about it when we moved to Corvallis in 2000. I had discovered this excellent band when we bumped into one of its weekly summer concerts while casing the city a year or two before moving here. Playing in it was clearly a "must." But after enduring 36 years of graduations as a faculty member at Adrian College, I was sick and tired of the whole business and looking forward to having nothing more to do with it. (Our kids had both already graduated from college.)

So now I get to attend a graduation every year, lucky me! While listening to the boring rhetoric, often from the same script as the year before .... and the year before ... and ..... however, sometimes I get ideas. One such idea came to me several years ago: how about writing some music incorporating the "Pomp and Circumstance" theme for pipe organ to be used at funerals and memorial services, implying a sort of ultimate "graduation." (I tended to find Adrian College graduations a bit traumatic, since students I had finally gotten to know pretty well were leaving and I would miss them. So I would come away from graduation with some of the same feelings with which one leaves a funeral.)

A couple of years ago I finally started trying to write this music, and this month I finally finished it. For the moment I am calling it "Mixed Emotions" though my working title (in French, for some inexplicable reason) was "Marche Funebre Academique." It incorporates three separate musical themes: Taps, Pomp and Circumstance, and Blesst Be The Tie That Binds.

For inclusion in printed programs for a memorial service I will recommend the following verses selected from the various verses from Taps and Blesst Be .... (The words written to go with Pomp and Circumstance, "Land of Hope and Glory," are political and are not appropriate for a memorial service):


Thanks and praise, for our days
'neith the sun, 'neith the stars, 'neith the sky;
As we go, this we know, God is nigh.

Blesst Be The Tie That Binds:

When we assunder part,
it gives us inward pain;
but we shall still be joined in heart,
and hope to meet again.

Now how did last night's rehearsal prove so educational? Well, shortly before leaving for it I got the idea it would be fun to hear how this piece sounds played by a brass ensemble rather than by a pipe organ (possibly with trumpet soloist). So I dashed in to my computer and printed out versions of the score for instruments in F (like French horns) and instruments in Bb, like trumpets. I already had a score for instruments in C (or concert key) which would take care of trombones and baritones. My software can transpose a piece in about 1 second, so this was no problem. But I was in a hurry and neglected to collate the two-page scores and connect each of them with scotch tape.

When enough people had arrived before the rehearsal I knocked together a group of two trumpets, a baritone, a trombone, and a French horn, gave everybody their music (with the two pages for each person not connected together). We started up, with me conducting, and at first it sounded quite good. But about half way through all hell broke out and I stopped the group assuming someone had gotten lost. We started up again right in the middle of the piece, and again it sounded perfectly dreadful! I had gotten a general idea of how it sounded so I stopped the rehearsal, thanked the players and went to gather up the music.

Then we found out what had happened. I had gotten the pages mixed up and given the trumpet players the correct first page but the second page intended for the French horn. Conversely, the horn player got the second page intended for the trumpets! I felt terrible for having suggested that someone had gotten lost, since they are all fine musicians and were just playing the wrong parts very accurately!

The moral of the story is: don't do something like this at the last minute, and be sure to tape all pages for each instrumentalist together before handing the music out!

Next week maybe we can try this piece out again with better results on the second page.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Social Security: Letter to the editor

Last Sunday I sent a letter on Social Security finances to the editor of the Democrat-Herald (Albany, Oregon). If it was to be published it would have been today. It wasn't. I hate to spend time on something and not have anyone read it, so here it is.


To the editor:

Thanks to Dale Coberly for explaining the economics of Social Security so lucidly (letters, April 17).

Of course Coberly’s analysis assumes that the Trust Fund is not a “fraud,” as Gordon Shadle’s letter in the same issue argues.

Shadle’s letter draws an analogy to someone who borrows money from himself, spends it all, and replaces it with I.O.Me’s, “backed by the full faith and credit of himself.” According to Shadle, “He’s too stupid to understand that once money is spent it doesn’t come back.”

There are two problems with Shadle’s analysis. “Full faith and credit” is a concept applicable only to governments, not to individuals or even private organizations. And “once money is spent it doesn’t come back” isn’t always true.

If I deposit money in a bank, it does not put that money in a “lockbox” to secure it until I want it back. It loans the money to someone and that person spends it. But if that person has an income (and if he doesn’t, the bank won’t loan him money) he will pay back the loan. So “spent money” can indeed “come back.”

Government has a constant flow of tax revenues. So if it sells bonds to me, to a bank, or to China, and spends the resulting money, it can pay interest and redeem bonds with those tax receipts. It guarantees to do so, promising the “full faith and credit” of the government to do so.

Because of money borrowed from the Social Security Trust Fund, our government has borrowed about 2.6 trillion dollars less from me, the Bank of American, and China. Its obligation to repay this money is no less than its duty to repay other bondholders. And paying this money back to Social Security will not increase the total national debt even if we do it with money borrowed from other lenders. Every billion paid back would increase money owed to other lenders by a billion, but it would also reduce the amount owed to Social Security by the same amount.(After you pay back money you owed, you don't owe it any more.) As Stephen Goss, Chief Actuary for the Social Security Administration points out, the net effect on the total national debt would be a “wash.”

Paul deLespinasse