Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA
In his 1831 book celebrating America, Alexis de Tocqueville warned, “In democratic societies, there exists an urge to do something even when the goal is not precise, a sort of permanent fever that turns to innovations…[which] are always costly.”
After a spate of traumatic tragedies that impact the gun and immigration debates, feverish politicians are rushing to innovate complex legislation without thoroughly and publicly examining the underlying problems and before “We the People” consent to their solutions. Lawmakers should Think Again considering only four percent of Americans currently “mention guns or immigration as the most important problems facing the nation,” according to Gallup. Americans’ top concerns are the economy, jobs and dissatisfaction with the way government works.
If irony is the hygiene of the mind, much about the Boston Marathon Massacre is clarifying, though boggling. Intent on massacring Bostonians on Patriots Day, the immigrant Brothers Tsarnaev received state welfare benefits funded by taxpayers they killed and maimed. Then they murdered a police officer en route to hijacking a car with a “Coexist” bumper sticker. Perhaps inspired by “Coexist” sentimentality, the fugitive sociopaths allowed the car’s owner to live “because he wasn’t American,” assuring their capture and “non-coexistence” in the American community they shunned.
Sadly, despite new laws since 9/11 and $50 billion spent annually on robust security precautions, there is little a free and open society can do to prevent Boston-style bombings or public mass shootings by law-breakers. While there are crime-prevention measures that could deter public attacks, civil libertarians and constitutionalists claim they encroach on Americans’ constitutionally protected natural rights to self-defense, due process and free speech.
The ACLU opposes measures that infringe on the First Amendment rights of violent video-game makers and background checks that could lead to the institutionalization of the mentally impaired and the infringement of their privacy rights; psychiatrists resist reporting patients fearing it would deter treatment-seekers; and the NRA opposes measures that inhibit the rights of responsible, law-abiding citizens -- often victims of gun or domestic violence -- to protect their person, family and property. They believe the best response to a criminal trying to kill civilians is a civilian equipped to deter him.
These are complex and challenging issues entailing important security versus liberty tradeoffs. Americans need and deserve thoughtful and informed deliberations to derive consensus-driven solutions, not hyper-partisan demagoguery that casts opponents as uncaring and evil. If politicians truly want to prevent the next Newtown, why do they push legislation that, by their own admission, fails this test -- unless they want to sow discord for political gain? If public safety were their paramount concern, why can’t they legislate enhanced school security measures, like those enacted in airplanes after 9/11?
The irony is that while politicians insist on expanded law enforcement capabilities to protect society from gun-wielding law-breakers, they resist enforcing immigration laws, as if we’re not a sovereign nation of laws and legal immigrants -- many with relatives who suffered tragic fates after being denied entry.
Imagine treating gun-law violators, insider-traders or thieves with the same kit gloves we treat those who violate our immigration laws. Would we care that they “live in the shadows” fearful their lawlessness might be exposed? Would we permit “city-sanctuaries” that protect law-breakers from law enforcement, or insist private employers be law-enforcers?
The truth is our immigration system is broken. Those we most want – the millions of law-abiders and entrepreneurial American Dreamers who, like our forefathers, want to come to America to adopt our way-of-life -- must wait years to earn an American visa. Meanwhile, according to official US immigration data since 1970, significantly larger percentages of immigrants possess lower skill levels, live in poverty and rely on public assistance, as compared to non-immigrant Americans. Consequently, low-skilled Americans suffer $402 billion in wage losses annually, according to Harvard economist George Borjas, while taxpayers bear the cost of welfare benefits.
These statistics belie the fact that, as the most multi-ethic nation on earth, America possesses unique cultural and economic strengths that underlie our unity and prosperity. Unfortunately, for the last 50 years, we’ve migrated away from the secret sauce that accounts for our success -- “e pluribus unum” (out of many one) -- toward a “separate but equal” hyphenated Americanism. As the Tsarnaev brothers demonstrate, it’s not in America’s interest to import foreigners who remain foreign and lost outsiders.
Tocqueville said “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” If we’re to avoid the “Balkanization” that triggers disaffection and ethic strife elsewhere, and preserve the vitality that’s historically attracted new Americans, we must resume acculturating immigrants to American values so they can integrate into American society.
Think Again – For this definition of “coexist” to prevail in America, our politicians must coexist better.
Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA
Last month world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon and up-from-nothing African-American idol Ben Carson expressed his contrarian opinion that marriage is between a man and a woman and no group could change this millennia-old social institution. Appalled medical students at Johns Hopkins University – allegedly a place of intellectual inquiry and diversity and “a forum for the free expression of ideas” -- circulated a petition to remove Carson as commencement speaker.
Having gained widespread media attention for his recent National Prayer Breakfast speech in which he critiqued political correctness, Carson apologized for his off-the-cuff, maladroit and incorrect political critique of same-sex marriage, reiterating his belief that gays must be assured equal civil and legal rights without changing the definition of marriage.
Were Johns Hopkins students more sage, they’d Think Again before dissing this distinguished man of character, accomplishment, and philanthropy for sharing Bill and Hillary Clinton’s marriage definition -- until “evolving” last month -- though not their political dexterity. Before exiting the ivory tower, students could learn from Jimi Hendrix who believed, “Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens,” and Benjamin Franklin who taught, “If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.”
Apparently they don’t think much at Johns Hopkins where the Student Government Association denied the pro-life group “Voices for Life” recognition as an approved organization. Without alternative voices on campus, how does the university assure the diversity it champions? Might ardent though free-thinking supporters of women’s reproductive rights want to know that a representative of Planned Parenthood (half of whose budget is taxpayer-funded) recently testified before the Florida legislature that the decision of what to do with a baby who survives a failed abortion be left up to the patient and her doctor, begging the question: who’s the patient?
Considering that abortionist Kermit Gosnell is currently on trial in Philadelphia for murdering late-term babies delivered alive by snipping their spines, these aren’t hypothetical questions. If “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” shouldn’t we encourage alternative voices – on and off-campus -- to assure an informed citizenry and a civil society?
Other instances of intolerance masquerading as tolerance are equally disquieting: At George Washington University, two gay students are seeking the removal of a chaplain for teaching Catholic doctrine regarding homosexuality (but apparently not pre-marital sex); the U.S. Army listed Evangelical Christianity, Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, and Catholicism as examples of religious extremism (along with Al Qaeda, Hamas and the Ku Klux Klan) in a Pennsylvania reserve unit training manual; and actor Jeremy Irons was labeled anti-gay for worrying that “lawyers are going to have a field day” if marriage is redefined and imagining estate-tax avoidance strategies involving father-son “marriages,” despite wishing “everybody who’s living with one other person the best of luck in the world, because it’s fantastic.”
Though distracted by ham-fisted arguments and irrespective of one’s view on same-sex marriage, abortion or any other hot-button issue, Americans must resist diversity-champions and tolerance-enforcers who dictate homogeneity -- as if there’s one cosmically correct policy that can be expressed without offending anyone. Name-calling and social ostracism not only destroy reputations and careers, they suffocate the debate a free, pluralistic and informed society needs to assure its government has the “consent of the governed.”
Throughout American history, we’ve navigated changes in cultural and legal landscapes while accommodating divergent views, values, and (lawful) practices. In America’s melting pot, prejudices dissolve through exposure to disparate voices and moral suasion, while legitimate differences are respected. America is the freest and most decent opportunity-giving society on earth because we’ve been a refuge for the persecuted since the Puritans left the Church of England to establish Plymouth Colony in 1620.
Embedded in our founding documents are uniquely American and revolutionary principles to protect our inalienable rights – including free speech and the free exercise of religion -- and “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” The barring of state-sponsored religion and the guaranteeing of religious liberty is what “the wall of separation between church and state” means – not a demand for the separation of religion and politics.
In his best-selling book “America the Beautiful,” Carson recounts how this “American Way” helped him overcame poverty, poor role models, racism and anger. Born in a land of opportunity, and cultivated morally by religion, intellectually by a solid public education, and behaviorally by a wise though functionally illiterate Mom who never made excuses (nor allowed him to), he reached the pinnacle of success.
Fearing America won’t bequeath the same opportunity-society to future generations, Carson entreats Americans to recover our founding values, “set aside political correctness…apply logic to solving our problems and add the godly principles of loving our fellow man, caring about our neighbors, and developing our God-given talents.” This will assure America remains “a pinnacle nation, … ‘one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’”
Think Again – for students whose heads need examining to assure they still think, a brain surgeon is the perfect commencement speaker.
Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA
Believing a free press to be a vital safeguard of liberty, Thomas Jefferson said, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” Many believe the inverse of Jefferson’s maxim – the people are uninformed, therefore the government can’t be trusted. After all, what well-informed American would knowingly allow politicians to lead us to the monumental economic and budgetary “cliffs” we face?
Despite a proliferation of new media, it’s increasingly difficult to separate fact from narrative. Combined with rancorous political discourse in which opponents are demonized in order to delegitimize competing arguments and render unnecessary the defense of one’s own, demoralized Americans struggle to discern the truth.
When invited by the Aspen Times to help diversify their opinion page, I proposed my Think Again column as a fact-based, issue-oriented commentary that would challenge conventional wisdom and remind readers of the values that made America the freest and most prosperous nation in world history. Like “Ripley’s Believe it Or Not,” I attempt to expose readers to easily certifiable facts and perspectives they may not otherwise consider (see columns at www.thinkagainusa.com). The goal of Think Again is not to change minds, but to open them; for civil discourse requires being informed and thoughtful, which is the essence of citizenship.
Last month, a community member targeted me in letters-to-the-editor with an unusual level of hostility and mean-spiritedness – he accused me of being an egregious, bald-faced liar and an embarrassment to Americans. Declaring me guilty without any possibility of innocence (or trial), my accuser and those who defended him from criticism believe their claims are objectively true and mine are lies.
Calling someone a liar is the ultimate character assassination. It means truth doesn’t matter to that person and that lying is not only habitual, it’s an indelible mark of a deceitful and immoral character. According to ethicist Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of “Words That Hurt, Words That Heal,” the most grievous violation of ethical speech is “giving another a bad name,” for words are like bullets whose damage is mortal. To fight fairly, he writes, “you have the right to state your case, express your opinion, explain why you think the other party is wrong, even make clear how passionately you feel…You do not have a moral right to undercut your adversary’s position by invalidating him personally.”
In my columns, I’ve made the case that our undisciplined, indebted and special interest-oriented government is a bipartisan problem that subverts everybody’s interests. I’ve quoted Senator Tom Coburn, member of the Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission, who said, “Our economy is on the brink of collapse not because politicians can’t agree, but because they have agreed for decades…to borrow and spend far beyond our means… to create or expand nearly forty entitlement programs, carve out tax advantages for special interests, build bridges to nowhere and earmark tens of thousands of other pork projects.”
I believe it is a moral travesty that we’ve mortgaged our children’s futures because we’re unable to live within our means and are more indebted than any other nation in world history. Mandatory spending on “entitlements” (like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) is the single biggest financial problem we face, consuming 60 percent of our annual budget -- up from 21 percent in 1955. As baby boomers retire and live longer, the current spending trajectory is unsustainable. Without reforms, it’s unlikely these vital programs will be available for people who need them in the future.
One fact in particular irritated my accusers: we’ve spent less cumulatively on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars plus the 2008 TARP bailouts than we spend annually on mandatory programs. In contending I’m a liar, and without citing sources, they claim the wars’ total costs will exceed $5.8 trillion and that TARP exposure exceeds $15 trillion.
It’s not my goal to disprove their claims, only certify mine. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) -- created by Congress in 1974 to “provide objective, impartial information about budgetary and economic issues” -- federal spending (excluding interest expense) totaled $3.3 trillion in FY2012, of which $2.1 trillion were mandatory expenditures for entitlements. Meanwhile, CBO reports that through October 2012, a total of $1.4 trillion was spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, while TARP has cost a net of $24 billion, after repayments.
My accusers argue that “true” costs must project a decade’s worth of related and longer-term expenses. Therefore, we’ll have spent $29 trillion on mandatory expenditures through 2022, according to the President’s FY2013 budget, while unfunded liabilities exceed $60 trillion, according to the Trustees of Social Security and Medicare. To put these numbers in perspective, consider that one trillion hours ago dinosaurs roamed the earth.
No doubt, fighting fairly is difficult, especially given the personal narratives that inform how we see the world. But as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Unfortunately, the one thing on which die-hard partisans seem to agree is that only one party is at fault - and it isn't theirs. Unable to hold competing facts simultaneously in mind, it’s not surprising that inconvenient truths are considered lies.
But embedded within our First Amendment’s right to free speech is a responsibility not merely to tolerate others’ perspectives, but to listen. Imagine if my accusers and I were to summon the mutual respect necessary to listen to each other’s concerns. I’m confident we’d discover that despite our differences, we’re equally committed to a “more perfect union.”
Think Again – instead of playing the Liar Card, we might each learn something new, informing us enough to elect leaders who can be "trusted with our government."
Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA
The French celebrated Bastille Day last week, 219 years after beheading Marie-Antoinette in the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. To this day, she’s the poster-child for upper-class excess, entitlement and insensitivity -- the ultimate “1 Percenter.”
However, Think Again before believing every demonization you hear, especially without factcheck.org. In truth, though a privileged aristocrat, Marie-Antoinette was not only a faithful Good Samaritan, she actually never uttered the notorious catchphrase “Let them eat cake.” Never mind those silly details -- social justice was at stake!
By portraying Marie-Anoinette as selfish and out-of-touch, the revolutionaries justified their bloodthirsty mob rule and indiscriminate savagery. Declaring “liberty, equality and fraternity,” they ushered in an anti-democratic period of unlimited governmental power, civil strife, and economic despair, though eventually Enlightenment principles transformed France into a vibrant democracy.
Today, France has Europe’s most state-directed economy, and among its most stagnant and indebted. Prioritizing “the collective interest,” the French prefer government to free market solutions spending more on social welfare than any other developed country. Recently, the anti-wealth rhetoric of newly elected President Hollande -- and his plans to hike taxes – made London the sixth largest French city, to its mayor’s delight.
Similarly Enlightenment-inspired, though resentful of strong government, American revolutionaries devised a system to protect individual liberties. James Madison wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men… controls on government would (not) be necessary. In framing a government… you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
While the French were sticking dissenters’ heads on bayonets, Americans enacted a Constitution designed to disperse authority in order to protect the moral promise in our Declaration of Independence: that every individual is born with equal and inalienable rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, the American Revolution facilitated the creation of the freest and most prosperous society on earth.
Over the last century, while America’s free economy boomed attracting immigrants to our opportunity society, politicians were busy encumbering it, à la française. They instituted the income tax, asserted extra-constitutional powers to regulate, dabbled in cronyism and created entitlement programs that now consume 65 percent of the federal budget. Once 3 percent of gross domestic product, government spending is now 25 percent, crowding out the private economy and producing daily deficits of $4 billion.
Consequently, we suffer French-size economic stagnation, unemployment, and debt (up 50 percent since January 2009). Poverty rates are the highest since tracking began in 1959; food stamp dependency is exploding; and the percentage of Americans with a job is the lowest in decades. Not surprisingly, two-thirds of Americans say we’re on the wrong track and that there’s too much government power and too little individual freedom.
Meanwhile, clueless that government policies influence economic decisions, politicians now propose increasing taxes. “Taxmageddon” -- the toxic mix of year-end tax increases – is causing businesses to defer hiring and investment. Even if limited to the top two-percent with incomes over $250,000 (which includes small businesses responsible for half of private sector jobs and $720 billion in earnings), tax increases would create serious recessionary headwinds while funding only 8.5 days of federal spending, per the Congressional Budget Office. This is a blueprint to cripple job creation, and 23 million job-seeking Americans.
Though they agreed it was economically injurious to hike taxes in 2010 when the economy was growing at twice its current rate, tax-hikers argue it’s now about fairness while referencing the “roaring 90’s” when rates were higher but before explosions in spending, debt, and stagnation. What's fair about increasing taxes knowing the vulnerable will suffer disproportionately?
What is fair considering 2009 IRS data shows the top one-percent and top five-percent paid 37 percent and 64 percent respectively of federal income taxes, while the bottom half paid two percent? If the richest aren’t yet paying their fair share, doesn’t that suggest they don’t merit their earned success? By denying some Americans their earned success, doesn’t that undermine our opportunity society and social cohesion?
Having migrated toward French values, practices and even their anti-wealth rhetoric, its hard to recall our Founders' belief that government’s role is to protect – not grant -- individual rights and property. To reinvigorate our free society and market economy, we need a true “fairness agenda”: a simpler tax code with fewer special interest loopholes, no more corporate welfare, and reforms that preserve entitlement programs for future generations.
Most importantly, we must recover the private initiative that French historian Alexis de Tocqueville found exceptional in 1830s America: ““In every case at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government ... in America you’re sure to find an association.”
By renewing our commitment to individual liberties and the ethic that each of us – not government -- is our brother’s keeper, Americans “have it in our power to begin the world all over again,” as American revolutionary Thomas Paine wrote.
Wouldn’t our Founders want us to Think Again?
Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA
Last month, the day before National Donut Day, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans to tackle obesity by banning the sale of sugary drinks larger than sixteen ounces. Eager for the newly nicknamed “Soda Jerk” to Think Again, comedian Jon Stewart joked that Bloomberg’s proposal “combines the draconian government overreach people love with the probable lack of results they expect.”
The website “Renegade Chicks” reflected citywide disapproval in asking, “aren’t there bigger issues at hand (like)…. say the declining economy and rising unemployment rates? If this soda ban is passed, what’s next?” Apparently, milk drinks and popcorn, which goes to show there’s nothing so bad that politicians can’t make worse. At least New Yorkers can move to a different city.
Not so for Americans wishing to escape the interventionist sweep of the Affordable Care Act whose constitutionality we’ll soon know. Perhaps more important than whether the law stands, is whether the Supreme Court decision will enable the steady mission and power creep of the federal government beyond the boundaries set by our constitutional framers.
Those who advocate such creep believe in a “living Constitution” that allows government to concentrate power in order to meet societal challenges, a noble goal. The ends justify the means for such advocates like UC-Irvine Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky who asserts, “Congress can force economic transactions” and “in theory…. use its commerce power to require people to buy cars. Power can be used in silly ways and the Constitution isn’t our protector against undesirable government actions.”
One needn’t be a constitutional scholar to know unlimited and unchecked federal government power was the evil our Founders wanted to prevent. They designed the government to limit federal authority to enumerated purposes, leaving remaining powers to sovereign states and individuals. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor explained, “The Constitution protects us from our own best intentions: It divides power among sovereigns and among branches of government precisely so that we may resist the temptation to concentrate power in one location as an expedient solution to the crisis of the day.”
Embedded in our founding documents is a uniquely American and revolutionary set of governing principles designed to protect our natural rights and liberties, not create man-made ones. This philosophy created the freest and most prosperous society on earth by proclaiming that every human being is born free, equal, and independent with inalienable rights that are permanent parts of our nature. Because we’re equal, no one – not a king, a neighbor or a mayor -- can be the ruler of any other human being, and each of us is equal in our natural rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.
Since a just government derives its power from the consent of the governed it must be, as Thomas Jefferson said, a “wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”
Nevertheless, the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, which empowers Congress to regulate interstate trade, has been used to justify dramatic federal government expansion. Congress wants to stretch this power further to include the regulation of individual choices never before considered commercial or interstate -- like deciding not to purchase health insurance. If Congress can mandate Americans to purchase health insurance simply because we’re alive, what Constitutional principle prevents government from forcing individuals into other purchases?
The debates surrounding this question, and other constitutional issues like executive privileges and orders, are instructive. Not only have Americans learned more about the Constitution, we’ve discovered that many lawmakers neither understand nor respect the document they’re sworn to uphold. Even worse, we have leaders intent on fundamentally transforming the relationship between the citizen and government in a manner the Constitution doesn’t allow.
By allowing these politicians to create and impose solutions better left to sovereign states and individuals, we permit their government-driven agenda to trump our liberties and their Leviathan government to limit our choices and make our decisions. This is not the fulfillment of our Founder’s dream – it’s their nightmare.
Americans must ask: Do we want a government whose role is limited by the sovereign people to certain designated purposes, or an amorphous and unlimited one that can do to us whatever it wants? How long before the federal government deems a 32-ounce soda oversized or worse, a $320,000 salary excessive?
On July 4th, Americans celebrate the liberty and natural rights for which our Founders fought. They gave us a brilliant political system which, to paraphrase William Gladstone, was the most perfect ever devised in the history of mankind. Now, it’s up to us to reclaim it.
Think Again – your liberty depends on it.