Common Sense (With apologies to Tom Paine)
By Patrick F. Cannon
Common Sense is both the title of a pamphlet written by Thomas Paine in 1775 to make the case for independence of the American colonies from the control of the English king, and a concept that says that there can be a reasonable solution to any problem, one that sensible people can agree upon.
Well, since so many of our problems, both politically and socially, persist, it must mean that the number of reasonable and sensible people is insufficient. Or, to put it another way, one man’s common sense appears to be another’s nonsense. In my long life, I have been guilty of my share of arrogant intolerance, coupled with an absolute belief in the rightness and, yes, the wisdom of my opinions. Over the years, my wife, who is both tolerant and sensible, has suggested that not everyone might agree with me on every issue, and for legitimate reasons. Now, I find myself occupying what I could describe as a mellow middle.
It has become axiomatic that we live in a polarized society. In politics, the common-sense center has seemingly lost its place. The far left of the Democratic Party persists in its belief that only government, financed by heavily taxing the rich, can solve our problems (problems as defined by them). The far right of the Republican Party takes the view that the government is the problem, so that the less it involves itself in people’s activities, the better. It’s a kind of “every man for himself, survival of the fittest” idea.
Those who hold these extreme positions are now considered the “base” of their respective parties. Even a moderate politician feels he or she must pander to the extremes, at least on some issues, to get elected. And pander they usually do, because no sooner are they elected to office than they begin campaigning for reelection. Although they were sophisticated in most respects, the Founders did not foresee the emergence of the career politician. There are always happy exceptions, but most office seekers now tailor their opinions to encompass the largest number of voters. If the base says the rich don’t earn their money, but steal it from the poor, then let’s take it away from them without a qualm. Or conversely, why should we subsidize a lavish lifestyle for people too lazy to make it on their own?
Both the far left and right practice what I call “knee jerk” politics. This involves speaking before thinking, automatically opposing the president and programs of the other party. Currently, this involves Republications opposing every action of President Obama, no matter how benign, just as the Democrats could find nothing positive about the actions of George W. Bush. You have only to listen to the party mouthpieces that populate the “knee jerk” networks, MSNBC and Fox, to find proof of this.
Do you see yourself in these extremes? Then, my friend, you are indeed part of the problem. Gridlock is the result of your inability to believe there might be a middle way that would actually make some progress possible. What you see as bedrock principals are really only your opinions, aren’t they?
Views on tax policy help define the extremes. The left sees the so-called “one percent” as getting rich at the expense of the middle and working classes. If only we taxed them more, we could use their presumably ill-gotten gains to help the victims of their greed. The reality is that the top 10-percent of earners already pay 70 percent of the taxes, and that more than 40-percent of the rest pay no Federal income taxes at all. And the rate that the top 1-percent pay has consistently gone up over time. In 1980, they paid 19.29 percent of the total federal income taxes; by 2010, the percentage had risen to 37.38.
And because they own more property, and more expensive property at that, the top earners also pay a very high percentage of total real estate taxes (as do their evil corporations). And, of course, their lavish lifestyles fill sales tax coffers at a higher rate. The sales tax on that $200,000 Bentley you see tooling around Beverly Hills or Lake Forest would be about $20,000 in Illinois as opposed to $2,000 on our Ford Focus.
Nevertheless, a very small tax increase on the highest earners would not be a bad idea, as would an increase in the gas tax, which has not increased in decades. But this would be anathema to the far right of the Republican Party, most of whom have signed a pledge not to raise taxes. Hovering over them like a dark shadow is a curious personage named Grover Nordquist, who apparently wields some sort of mystical power. I won’t even hope for tax reform, which everyone says is needed, but which hasn’t actually happened for several decades.
This would be a good place to pause and wonder why so few politicians exhibit political courage, which I would define as doing the right thing even when you know it might have serious negative consequences come the next election. Not being reelected would be the most serious, but there are others. A famous case comes to mind from Illinois.
In 1893, Governor John Peter Altgeld pardoned the remaining prisoners convicted of complicity in the Haymarket bombings. He, and later historians, concluded that they had been wrongly convicted. He also opposed the use of Federal troops in the Pullman Strike. For his stands, he was defeated for reelection in 1896. But who now thinks he was wrong?
In our own time, most people believe that sensible gun control laws would benefit the country. At the very least, serious background checks to prevent felons and the mentally ill from obtaining guns seems a common sense approach. Yet, it doesn’t happen, presumably because the National Rifle Association (NRA) doesn’t want it to happen. If they vote for gun control, legislators fear that the NRA will work to defeat them at the next election. In this, they are perhaps correct. But what if the majority had the guts to do the right thing and actually pass a stricter background check law that included everyone who sells guns, not just licensed dealers? Would the NRA have the cash and resources to run candidates in all those districts? And with a public that supports the measure, what good would it do them? Isn’t it worth finding out?
You might also try an experiment. During the next election cycle, follow the candidates and determine how their stands on the issues compare with those of the majority of their constituents. For example, if the electorate over time has come to believe that gay marriage isn’t so bad after all, has the politician come to the same conclusion, even though in the last election cycle he or she adamantly opposed the idea? You can do this on any number of issues, but don’t be surprised if their bed rock principles now seem just a bit mushy, Hillary Clinton’s turnabout on the Asian trade agreement just one case in point.
The concept of religious freedom seems to be particularly confusing to a good many people. Let’s return to the ever-handy Founding Fathers to see what it’s supposed to mean. Most of them hailed from what is now called the United Kingdom, where whether you wanted to or not, you were required to financially support the established state religion, in this case the Anglican Church. This rankled, particularly if you happened to be a Methodist, Quaker, or, God forbid, a Roman Catholic or Jew. So, when they decided to free themselves from this and other depredations of the British crown, the Founders naturally were anxious to avoid establishing a state religion.
What they did instead was to tell religionists that they were free to practice their faith without interference from the government. Indeed, that non-interference has extended to a general freedom from taxation for most of their activities. That’s a pretty good deal, and common sense suggests that organized religions ought loudly to cheer the government and mind their own business.
Alas, as we know, large numbers of adherents really believe that governments at all levels should embrace the moral strictures of their particular religion. This belief seems strongest among the evangelical Christians, many of whom believe that “the word of God” as expressed in the Bible must be accepted at face value. Thus, for example, they can find support in it for rejecting homosexuality as a sin, just like murder or stealing.
Now, some of us may think this is ridiculous, but accept that such people are entitled to their beliefs. But when those beliefs spill over into the public arena, it goes beyond protecting “the establishment of religion” to the use of religion to discriminate against a class of citizens. The legalization of gay marriage has brought these attitudes to the fore. There have been many cases of business owners refusing to provide services related to same-sex marriages, and public servants refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.
Now, there exists a dwindling number or private clubs that have discriminatory policies. So long as they remain strictly private and do not offer their services and facilities to non-members, they are relatively safe from governmental interference. But a business that opens its doors to the public generally is deemed to be a public accommodation, and therefore cannot deny its services arbitrarily. (There are exceptions, of course. If a jurisdiction has a law against public nudity, for example, a business owner can justifiably refuse service to a naked lady, no matter how attractive). And, of course, no public official, regardless of their religious convictions, should be able to flout established law, however personally distasteful. Resignation is always an option for those who put religion above their public duties.
The country’s embrace of religion has made it virtually impossible for an admitted atheist, or even agnostic, to successfully run for public office at any level. More than 90 percent of Americans profess a belief in some kind of God; and a majority actually believes that a politician who does not cannot be trusted to make moral and ethical judgments. Thus, a politician who may be a non-believer is forced to profess belief, only one of many ethical compromises that he or she will sadly or gladly make to get elected. It might be instructive to study this diverse list of atheists to see how many have served time in prison for breaking one of the Commandments: Andrei Sakharov, Kevin Bacon, A. Philip Randolph, Dave Barry, Arthur C. Clarke, Katherine Hepburn, Sigmund Freud, Ira Glass, James Cameron, Steven Hawking, Niels Bohr, Joseph Conrad, and of course, Mark Twain. None perhaps can measure up to the moral stature of religionists like Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggert, Ted Haggard and Billy James Hargis.
Economics is Simple!
I took Economics 101 (I actually think that was the course title) at Northwestern University. I did whatever it took to pass the course, promptly forgot everything I learned, and went on with my life. And it was actually living that life day by day that provided the real education in economics. I can now define what I learned thusly: eventually you have to pay the bills. This applied to my personal life, and to the companies and organizations I worked for over the years. In my last job, I controlled a budget north of $15 million a year, money provided by dues-paying members. Our goal was to spend less than we had coming in, thus building a reserve for an uncertain future. When inflation and other factors suggested we could use more money, we asked the members to pay higher dues. Because they knew that we were careful with their money, they usually agreed.
It never occurred to us to borrow what we needed. Now, for-profit corporations do this all the time. If they’re well managed, the amount they borrow is in proportion to their sales and assets. If it gets out of whack, there’s a danger that when the economy heads south, all that’s left is bankruptcy and happy competitors. We need look no further back than 2007, when there were roughly 28,000 business bankruptcies, up from about 20,000 the year before. By 2009, the figure was over 60,000. As we know, these were not all mom and pop operations.
Then, of course, we have the government, or, rather, the governments. Let me posit a principal that would save everyone a lot of money over time. It’s this: vital services should be performed by the smallest unit of government that can actually provide them, vital being defined as those people can’t provide for themselves. Here’s a case in point. The State of Illinois passed legislation to provide park districts around the state with funds to do some good stuff. My own community, Oak Park, naturally applied for some of the dough and was awarded a grant. When Governor Bruce Rauner was elected, he put a hold on these grants, mentioning the obvious – the state was broke.
The fund should not have existed in the first place. If Oak Park wants to improve its parks, it should ask its citizens directly for the money. Why should everyone in the state send money to Springfield, then send it to Oak Park? If a community is too poor to provide adequate park facilities, why not have the county government take care of them? You get the idea.
The Federal government has been running a deficit for so long that we are entitled to ask a simple question: why? If you asked economists this question, you would get a variety of answers, proving, if it needed proving, that economics is anything but an exact science. Some would even argue that having annual deficits and a huge national debt is a good thing. While I have not named names in this essay, except for the mysterious Grover Nordquist and Hillary Clinton, one Nobel Prize winner of a liberal persuasion argued that the $800 billion stimulus passed to help end our last recession should have been double that amount. And, more recently, he even urged that Social Security benefits be increased, even though the fund would be insolvent with current benefits by 2033 (or whatever).
While this isn’t the place to explore the pros and cons of going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan (it’s too late for that), it is a place where we might reasonably ask why the country wasn’t asked to pay for them, instead of borrowing the money and going more deeply in debt? Why are our soldiers the only ones asked to show courage?
But let’s not get bogged down with these and other arguments. The reality is that the Federal government (and others as well) has for many years been operating on borrowed money. It does so because our politicians refuse to do either one of the two alternatives (or ideally a combination of the two) that could eliminate or at least stabilize the situation. One is to tailor the size of the government to its income; the other is to increase the income to match its size.
As mentioned, actual tax reform seems an impossible dream. In the short term, as already posited, a modest increase in rates, and the elimination of the more blatant deductions, would go a long way. And while it’s seemingly impossible to ever eliminate a program, the cost of their administration could be lowered. For example, the food stamp program has a large bureaucracy that decides who gets stamps, how many, and what they can buy with them. And there are several layers of government getting a piece of this action. Why not simply do away with the food stamp program altogether by deciding how much additional income a low income family might need in food assistance and make that amount part of the earned-income tax credit? The people who worry that the “poor” might spend the money on booze or potato chips should find something more important to worry about. Given the chance, most people, even poor people, would choose not to starve to death. It’s just common sense, right?
(Patrick F. Cannon writes about Chicago architecture and architects. His fifth book, The Space Within: Inside Great Chicago Buildings, will be out early next year.)