Author Archives: Brad Warbiany

Threat of Teachers Unions

Neal Boortz made a bold statement on his show the other day. He said “the teachers unions are a greater long-term threat to freedom and prosperity than Islamic terrorists”. I’m guessing he came under some fire for that one, because the very next day, he was talking about it again. He said he’d given it a lot of thought, really examined the implications of his statement, and stood behind what he said.

Now, that’s a pretty strong statement, and one that I agree with. Before you all think I’m crazy, I point out the words “long-term”. In the short term, conflict with Islamic terrorists is a direct threat to our freedom and prosperity, and one that needs to be taken very seriously. On the bright side, however, it is one that we’re taking very seriously. We understand the stakes in the conflict, and we are determined to defeat the terrorists. Furthermore, as the Islamic world begins to liberalize and democratize, the threat will diminish significantly on its own.

But the threat of the teachers unions is considerably different. Only a minority of people consider them to be a threat in the first place. Most people in this country think that the unions have education of students as their primary goal, when it is obvious to anybody paying attention that they act in the interest of teachers, often to the detriment of students.

They fight any implementation of standards or testing, because they wish to resist accountability. They fight every program that will increase educational choice for families, because it will lead to a reduction of their bargaining power. They wish education to be handled at the government level, because the government is much easier to lobby and fight than a distributed network of privately-managed schools.

They push endlessly for two specific goals, higher funding and lower class sizes. Higher funding will directly increase teacher salaries. Lower class sizes create a need for higher and higher numbers of teachers, essentially forcing shortages. Hence: higher teacher salaries. It keeps going. They push for a requirement of a “teaching credential” before they push for a requirement that teachers are experts in their subjects. They want to make sure that bright, knowledgeable folks with teaching talent are not allowed to teach unless they have a teaching “credential”. What does all this amount to? Like any cartel, they seek one thing above all: to remove competition. Lower class sizes and credentialing requirements ensure that existing teachers have a strong bargaining position when the union fights for more benefits.

But the biggest problem eclipses all of the above. Their threat to our freedom is not that of newsworthy attacks on human life, but the incremental destruction of human individualism. Boortz explains it much better than I do, when he points out the fact that the government is the actor in our world that we give a monopoly on the power to initiate force. That is an awesome power, and its application must be feared and curtailed whenever possible. But the people we ask to teach our children feed at the trough of government! You will never teach children to fear the application of government power by sending them to government schools. When the teachers unions are helped by a greater concentration of power– as that gives their lobbying much more effect– they will by design support greater government power. And where government power increases, human individualism recedes.

The teachers unions benefit greatly from a public that believes in the idea of collective action, be it union action, government welfare, or simply the “world community”. They benefit greatly from the idea that kids fit into cookie-cutter molds, and if one dares to exhibit individuality, they should be immediately muted with high doses of ritalin. The teachers who benefit from power in government, from keeping children from growing up to question teachers unions, and who prefer the orderly medicated classroom to one that they must keep orderly by inspiring and motivating students, are doing damage to the very fabric of this country. They are creating a nation of citizens who don’t question authority and who don’t have a love of truth and learning. Even worse, they’re creating a nation of citizens without the tools (i.e. logic) to understand the very forces pulling on the levers of their psyche. A nation filled with that sort of citizen is doomed to rot from within.

What will happen if the current situation is continued to exist? What will happen if teachers unions, who have the public on their side (after all, everyone loves and reveres teachers!) continue to stifle competition and standards? Well, I would argue that we’re already seeing the effect, in the inability of schools in much of the country to turn out graduates with a meaningful diploma. I’ve said before that I moved to Georgia partially for the schools, but that is because I moved to an area of Georgia populated by concerned parents who demand accountability from the local schools. Where I moved is somewhere that I might not be ashamed to send my future children to public schools. But my community is an exception in this state, where the schools lag behind the rest of the dullard states in this nation. The situation is bad here and across the country, and it is getting worse.

The teachers unions are not in the slightest bit interested in fixing the problem, except to the extent that it keeps their necks off the chopping block another year. Much like politicians, the status quo is more than suitable for them as long as they don’t awaken the sleeping giant that is the American public. To beat them, we will need to shine a light not only on the results of their actions– the absolutely atrocious education that children in our schools are receiving– but on the fact that the teachers unions are the root cause behind those results. Unions in this country have long received unjustly favorable media treatment, and everyone loves to be on the side of teachers. But unless we can point out the specific ways that teachers unions are harming our children, we won’t stand a chance of beating them.

I’ll be frank. Terrorists setting off a nuclear device in a major American city are a more pressing concern for me over the next 10 years than the actions of teachers unions. But assuming that we can avoid that nightmare scenario, I worry greatly about the world my children will grow up in if we can’t find a way to fix the problem those unions have caused.

Update: Welcome to readers joining us from Neal’s Nuze. The Liberty Papers is a not for profit news and opinion blog that focuses on topics dealing with individual liberty and freedom. If you enjoyed this article, poke around the site. I’m sure you will find more to interest you.

Who Benefits Most From AMT Reform?

In the news recently, and in Congress, discussion has focused upon how the AMT’s net is widening, and the looming “crisis” when it spreads. There’s expected to be an enormous (4x or more) increase in the numbers of taxpayers subject to the AMT in the next year, and the ramifications of this will be brutal if nothing is done. How brutal? Instead of the current 3-4% of households subject to the AMT, we’ll be looking at about 15%:

This parallel tax system was created two generations ago to take away tax breaks from about 150 wealthy taxpayers who had piled up write-offs to erase their tax bills. Chances are, it seems irrelevant if you aren’t among the 4 million taxpayers who owe it for 2005.

But give it time – a year, to be exact. These days you don’t have to be rich for the AMT to wipe out your write-offs.

Though most of them are unaware of it, 21 million Americans are on the hook to pay the AMT next tax season barring intervention from Congress. Some experts predict lawmakers will restore an expired tax provision that had slowed the AMT’s spread through 2005. If they don’t, however, it will unleash a fivefold increase in the number of taxpayers who will owe what one prominent U.S. senator calls the “Darth Vader of the tax code.”

The AMT will strike 35 percent of all taxpayers with $50,000 to $100,000 of adjusted gross income in 2006 – up from 1 percent in 2005, according to the CBO. Two out of three will owe it in 2010.

The AMT will hit 81 percent of taxpayers with $100,000 to $200,000 of adjusted income in 2006, nearly five times the 17 percent share in 2005. It will net more than 95 percent in 2010.

To understand the problem, a little bit of history is in order. The AMT was started in 1969 after it was found that a few very wealthy Americans managed to completely evade paying income taxes. The idea behind the AMT is a brute-force solution to a complex tax code, telling individuals that despite the fact that lawmakers have written thousands of deductions, exemptions, and special rules into the tax code, there is a certain minimum that must be paid. Rather than fix the root problem, which is the carving out of deductions and rules to please special interests, they said that all those rules apply, but only to a certain point.

All the AMT was designed to do is to reduce the impact of all the loopholes and deductions in the tax code, and ensure that those with the means to direct their assets to reduce their taxable income still pay “their fair share”. I personally believe that if we want to look at the problems correctly, we should solve the source (special interest loopholes and deductions), but I’m also an engineer. I know as well as anyone that at times, solving the root problem is simply too difficult. I’ve worked with customers who are running into a technical problem, and it is simply more effective, less costly, and quicker to brute-force a solution than to go fix to the root cause. Given that fixing Congress is probably not going to happen any time soon, the AMT is good legislation– in theory.

In theory, Congress is trying to blunt the tax implications of a few very rich people who are able to shuffle assets and income to reduce tax liability. It is designed for those people who have much more economic freedom than the “average” taxpayer. But therein lies the problem. Congress didn’t design this legislation well, and it’s increasingly affecting the “average” taxpayer (quotes added as it is still restricted to the upper-income taxpayers, but increasingly affecting people who do not employ the sort of advanced tax strategies this legislation was targeting).

It’s somewhat likely that I will be feeling the effect of the AMT next spring, and I can tell you I’m not happy about that. I, like many other people, have to plan my finances based upon certain information. One aspect of that information is the level of mortgage interest I pay, which is deductable. Given that I’ve only owned this home for a year, I’m still at a point where the bulk of my monthly payments are interest, and thus get a fairly substantial deduction. I don’t yet have kids, so perhaps I may be spared. I know lots of young professionals with kids, though, living in places like California or the Northeast, who will run into the AMT next year because their deductions are just “too large”. Especially with the larger mortgages they carry, the interest deduction and exemptions for kids will quickly put them in the AMT’s clutches. For people like me, who base certain financial decisions on what we know of the tax code, getting snared in the AMT net could be tremendously painful.

Congress have their backs against a wall. Budget and revenue projections depend upon the income of the AMT to continue as if there is no reform. Our legislators are expecting to spend the money raised by ensnaring millions of people in this net. When the President’s tax panel gave their recommendations, the reason they had to cut so many personal deductions was to offset the cost of fixing the AMT. They know that to fix the AMT will be incredibly painful, because they either have to reduce their spending plans (not likely!) or find revenue elsewhere– raising other taxes or eliminating deductions.

Congress does not want to fix the AMT. In fact, given that Congress really doesn’t care very much about the “average” taxpayer– as evidenced by their spending habits rewarding people who contribute to campaigns and screwing the rest of us– I don’t think they even care about the financial implications of the AMT upon us. After all, what we earn is legitimately the government’s money, and we should all be grateful they let us keep so much of it. They do care, however, about the political implications. If the AMT ensnares 21 million people this year, the backlash will be enormous. While Congresspeople don’t regularly pay attention to the worries and concerns of us plebes, they saw after Kelo that we can be a sleeping giant. They know that 21 million people feeling the pinch of the AMT may result in them losing their seat of power, which is their greatest and only fear.

Congress is starting to realize that they must reform the AMT or they’ll be in serious political jeopardy. For those of us who pay taxes, however, we know they’re not going to cut spending, so they’ll find another place to squeeze money from us. They’ll distribute the pain the AMT would have caused, in small changes to deductions and exemptions that cause just as much pain for taxpayers, but are harder to spot. We’ll still be screwed, but they’ll be safe. And then they’ll trumpet how wonderful they are for saving 21 million Americans from the AMT, when all they’ve done is to hide that taxation elsewhere.

So who benefits the most from reforming the AMT? Congress. Not that anyone should be surprised by this, of course. The only reason Congress does most things is to increase their own power, and shore up their own safety in office, as we saw from the Bipartisan Incumbent Protection Act of 2002. Remember who’s running this shell game, and you’ll realize that despite how close you’re watching, the shell you pick will be empty.

The Ever-Widening Smoking Ban

The concept of public smoking bans, in my opinion, really gives you an insight into the psyche of a person. This is one of those issues that really separates those who believe in smaller-government-enforcing-their-own-biases from those who truly believe in smaller government and private property rights. I see a true protector of private property rights in a guy like Doug, of Below the Beltway. Doug doesn’t like smoke, to the point where being around it even makes him ill. But he doesn’t accept the idea of government forcing businesses to change the terms of business on their own property. Despite what the Virginia Senate has to say about it:

Nonetheless, this is the closest Virginia has come to banning smoking in any form and it does not bode well for the future. One or two elections more, and the fate of a bill like this in the House of Delegates could be quite different. And the breadth and scope of the proposed ban is really quite extraordinary:

The Virginia ban would include banks, bars, educational facilities, health care facilities, hotel and motel lobbies, laundromats, public transportation, reception areas, retail food production and marketing establishments, retail services establishments, retail stores, shopping malls, sports arenas, theaters and waiting rooms. Hotels could also set aside no more than 25 percent of their rooms for smokers.

Outside of an ocassional cigar, I am not, and never have been, a smoker. Cigarette smoke in particular makes me ill and, in a restaurant, I generally prefer to sit in the non-smoking section. That doesn’t mean, though, that I believe that I or anyone else in the Commonwealth has the right to tell a restaurant or bar owner that they shouldn’t be permitted to make a choice to allow or ban smoking in their establishment. If there really is increasing support for smoking restrictions, then restaurants and bars that don’t allow it should do just fine. At the same time, though, a business owner who chooses to have a smoking section in their restaurant or allow smoking at their bar should be permitted to do so.

But not everyone takes this view. Oddly, many who oppose government restriction in other areas are just loving this. After all, for many non-smokers, it is a constant annoyance to be in a restaurant or bar filled with smoke. For me, actually, as an ex-smoker, I’m always surprised now when I enter a smoke-filled bar at just how much I hate it. But I contrast Doug’s reaction, and my own, with this thread at beeradvocate.com.

Beeradvocate.com is the first place where I heard about freethehops.org, the web site devoted to ending Alabama’s prohibition on beers above 6% ABV. And I’d say, to a person, that the members of beeradvocate.com would reject the notion that it is the government’s place to determine what percentage alcohol should be in the beer an individual buys. Of course, they don’t say they’d like to force liquor stores to carry high-alcohol beers. But they want them to have the option, if the purveyor of the establishment so chooses.

But a large portion of them don’t offer bar owners the same choice. They’re more than happy to decree what a bar owner must allow and not allow in his bar, because smoking offends their personal sensibilities. The government stepping in to do something they don’t like (restricting beer sales) is offensive. But the government stepping in, doing the same basic thing, to restrict a behavior they disapprove of is no problem.

There is a dividing line between conservatives and libertarians, and this is one of the markers between the two. Non-smoking conservatives are usually quick to denounce smokers, and love the idea of smoking bans, because it stops people from engaging in behavior they disagree with. Non-smoking libertarians, on the other hand, may hate walking into smoke-filled bars, but understand that it is the decision of the bar owner to make. We don’t always like the results of freedom, but to a libertarian, the alternative of oppression– even well-meaning oppression– is unacceptable.

Microsoft & the Market Monopoly

I got in a nice email debate today, and I’ll post below the email exchange between myself and a friend. Of all my friends, she is one of the two that I truly enjoy debating. She’s a lawyer, and did her undergrad as an in economics & poli sci (I think poli sci) dual major. She was also very close to libertarianism back in her younger days, so she understands where I’m arguing from. She’s left our fold to become a pretty strong liberal, but her knowledge of economics and general pragmatic attitude generally make our debates quite productive.

I sent out an email today to alert friends & acquantances of my email address change. I’m changing for no other reason than Microsoft’s deliberate efforts to annoy FireFox users, and as a former Hotmail user, I was feeling the brunt of those efforts. In past debates, we’ve often sparred about Microsoft’s monopoly power, and monopolies in general, so she used my email as a reason to start a sparring match. Not being one to back down, I took the bait, and I think the exchange was pretty strong on both sides. When I asked her approval to post the exchange, I offered her the ability to have the last word (and unlike Bill O’Reilly, I will stand by that offer). So I don’t plan to address her final points in my post, although if my commenters would like to have a go, I may play along.

Below is the exchange. I’ve tried to clean up some of the spelling errors and typos along the way, as this was intended as an email exchange and not proofread during the debate. If I missed anything, my apologies. My comments will be in italics, and prefaced with a “B:”. Her comments will be blockquoted, bolded, and prefaced with an “R:”. The exchange is placed below the fold, as it’s quite lengthy.
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Rights of the Government to Impose Air Security Measures

In response to my piece, Common Sense Offends ACLU, addressing the ACLU’s opposition towards the behavioral screening procedures imposed by the TSA in certain airports, commenter John Newman brought up some questions. John believes that federalizing aviation security matters is Unconstitutional. He advances two particular arguments.

His first argument discusses the Constitution’s “fundamental right to travel”. It mainly consists of picking quotes from Supreme Court cases upholding the fundamental right of travel. I will first mention that the fundamental right of travel is not once mentioned in the Constitution, but may be built from penumbras emanating from some such or the like. But that’s not the crux of the argument. See the following quotes from John’s own selections of court cases (emphasis added below in italics):

require that all citizens be free to travel throughout the length and breadth of our land uninhibited by statutes, rules or regulations which unreasonably burden or restrict this movement

‘any classification which serves to penalize the exercise of that right unless shown to be necessary to promote a compelling governmental interest, is unconstitutional’

The right to travel, to go from place to place as the means of transportation permit, is a natural right subject to the rights of others and to reasonable regulation under law

fundamental personal right that can be impinged only if to do so is necessary to promote a compelling governmental interest

a ‘fundamental’ one, requiring the showing of a ‘compelling state or local interest to warrant its limitation

At the minimum, governmental restrictions upon freedom to travel are to be weighed against the necessity advanced to justify them, and a restriction that burdens the right to travel ‘too broadly and indiscriminately’ cannot be sustained

is basically the right to travel unrestricted by unreasonable government interference or regulation

Note the words used, for they are important. “Compelling government interest.” “Unreasonable burden.” These are phrases which, in Constitutional jurisprudence, have very specific meanings. Another particular phrase that must be added is “strict scrutiny”. A Congressional Research Service paper on Constitutional objections to the showing of ID on airline flights (warning: pdf) covers the defense of the “right to travel” objection quite well:

The Court has declared that the constitutional right to travel consists of three different components: first, it protects the right of a citizen of one state to enter and to leave another state; second, it protects the right to be treated as a welcome visitor rather than an unfriendly alien when temporarily present in the second state; and third, for those travelers who elect to become permanent residents, it protects the right to be treated like other citizens of that state. In the context of transportation security, however, only the first prong of the right to travel appears to be relevant.

Consistent with its status as a fundamental right is the requirement that the government’s action satisfy the constitutional standard of review often referred to as strict scrutiny, or heightened scrutiny. Under strict scrutiny the government must provide a compelling state interest for the burden and show that the means utilized are narrowly tailored to the achievement of the goal or, phrased another way, the least restrictive means available.

Given that the airlines are seemingly authorized to refuse service to anyone who fails to present proper identification, it appears that a strong argument can be made that there is an additional burden imposed on citizens who wish to travel by airplane. Thus, the inquiry should focus on the standard of review that should be applied. It appears difficult to argue that passenger safety and transportation facility security are something other than compelling governmental interests. Thus, it seems that, regardless of which standard of review is applied, the government may be in a strong position to argue that not only are the current security restrictions justifiable, but also that their burden on the right to travel is minimal and given the present conditions entirely reasonable.

From the look of it, to claim that the requirement that one shows ID in order to engage in air travel is unconstitutional appears to be– at the least– unsupported by Constitutional precedent. According to the court cases cited, regulations can legitimately be placed upon travel if there is a compelling state interest to uphold. One would think that stopping passengers from blowing up planes or hijacking them and flying them into buildings would meet even the “strict scrutiny” test.

So we must move on to John’s second argument, which is much shorter and yet at the same time, more difficult to answer. He asks where it is enumerated that airline security is a federal matter to begin with?

If the airlines want to impose security practises and procedures, I have no problem with that. Where is it enumerated in the Constitution that it is a matter for the federal government?

There are a lot of ways to answer this question. The first answer, although some creativity can change it, is that it simply isn’t in there. Article I, Section 8 has no provisions for regulation of airline security, nor does it ever claim that police power is the realm of the federal government. But two particular provisions might at least be able to be shown to have relevance:

To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations;

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

This is, of course, a stretch up there with those who might envision a “living Constitution”. But if we’re going to allow a “fundamental right to travel”, I’m asking for a little bit of leeway. As I said above, nothing in the Constitution gives the federal government police powers over the states. But here’s where you can find a bit of an AHA! moment. The bits in Article I, Section 8 regarding Piracies and Felonies on the High Seas are quite analogous to those of hijackings and bombings of commercial aircraft. Both involve non-government-owned vessels (i.e. the government did protect private merchant ships from piracy); and both involve territory separate from that of land under the jurisdiction of the several states.

Second, the whole bit about “repel invasions”. We are in a war against foreign and quite possibly partly domestic enemies who will use commercial airlines to attack our nation. I don’t like using the “national security” defense in most circumstances, but there is a certain point at which one might allow that protecting our buildings and populace from terrorists who will (and have) hijack aircraft with the purpose of using them as guided missiles to attack civilian targets is a reason for which we might want to take on government-ordained security procedures.

Last, John had suggested that perhaps if the airlines wanted to enact security procedures, that might be enough for him (although I don’t understand how he does not similarly support private hiring and firing practices). And if the airlines had secure cockpits and could not be hijacked, I might agree. But once the airplane becomes a guided missile filled with fuel aimed at a building, the equation changes. Just as states and municipalities have laws regarding drunk driving or speeding, which can turn an automobile into a 3,000 lb missile, the feds have airline security regulations to keep an airplane from doing the same thing. The only thing that gives the feds jurisdiction, though, is that the particular exigencies of airline travel require it.

Simply put, there are a lot of things about federal power that highly disturb me. This is one of the few that does not. I’m not one to suggest that we should federalize the airport screeners, following in Daschle’s footsteps; because I suspect the procurement of security is better handled by the private sector, while the requirements of security are best handled by the government.

Either way, John, I thank you for the good-natured and challenging debate. As always, when debating a formidable opponent such as yourself, I only learn more and improve my own understanding in the process. And, of course, I’m sure this won’t quite be the end of it :-)

(cross-posted at The Unrepentant Individual)

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