Life, the Universe, and Baseball

I think my eight-year-old son figured out the meaning of life this week. A few days ago he asked me, “Dad, why are we here?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean what’s the point of life?”

“Hmm, that’s a very deep question, buddy. Philosophers have been asking themselves that for thousands of years, and they haven’t come up with a definitive answer yet,” I responded.

“What’s a philosopher?” he asked.

“A philosopher is someone who thinks very deeply about big questions just like the one you’re asking now,” I said.

“I think the point is to do what you like to do and to inspire other people. Like Babe Ruth did with baseball. He was really good at baseball, and he made a lot of people happy by doing that. That’s what I want to do by playing baseball, too.”

So that’s all there is to it. The meaning of life is: do what makes you happy and inspire others to do the same.

It’s as good an answer as I’ve ever heard.

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Our Men in Medellín

Another day, another scandal involving a federal police agency. The Washington Post reports agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration allegedly attended sex parties (plural) in some unspecified country (it was Colombia). Before anyone flies into a fit of rage over such reprehensible behavior on the part of our esteemed law enforcement officers, it should be noted that the DEA agents involved demonstrated a great deal of fiscal restraint and did not use taxpayer money to pay for the prostitutes in attendance.

They let the drug cartels pay for them instead.

Now I’ve been on overseas business trips where one of our vendors picked up the tab for dinner, but what’s going on in Colombia is a different kettle of fish entirely. If we’ve gotten to the point where drug dealers feel comfortable enough to supply hookers to the very DEA agents who are supposed to be putting them in jail, one can reasonably conclude the War on Drugs is well and truly lost. Not to worry, though – the hammer of justice came down hard on seven of the ten agents accused of attending the drug dealer-sponsored orgies, and they were severely punished with anywhere from two to ten days off work. You can bet they’ll think twice before doing that again!

This latest round of Colombian debauchery should not be confused with the previous round of Colombian debauchery back in 2012. That was the Secret Service – and why should those guys have all the fun? Besides, that was three whole years ago. Who can even remember that far back, anyway? At least the Secret Service learned its lesson – now their drunken benders take place right here in the good ol’ US of A where we don’t have to worry about the undue influence of drug cartels (we just have to worry about them getting hammered and plowing into active crime scenes instead).

Nor should this embarrassing incident be confused with other allegations of misconduct by FBI agents or U.S. Marshals Service agents. We’re just talking about a few bad apples here – no need to draw any broader conclusions about the overall rectitude of federal law enforcement, or about the apparent double-standard the government applies to private citizens who engage in similar behavior.

And lest anyone think the government doesn’t find these allegations very, very troubling or take them very, very seriously indeed, just read what Justice Department spokesperson Patrick Rodenbush said about the whole sordid affair:

“The Department of Justice takes the issues raised in the Inspector General report seriously and is taking steps to implement policies and procedures to help prevent them from happening in the future. The Department is already working with the law enforcement components to ensure a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment and misconduct is enforced and that incidents are properly reported. The department is also committed to ensuring the proper preservation and disclosure of electronic communications, including text messages and images.”

That sounds a lot like what the DHS spokesperson said back in 2012. And as reassuring as it is to hear the same thing repeated every so often by different government sock puppets, I do have a few follow-up questions:

I’ll look forward to hearing the answers when the next scandal breaks, which shouldn’t take long – I hear Medellín is lovely this time of year.

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Sunshine Week: Thank God It’s Friday!

In case you hadn’t heard, we’re about to wrap up Sunshine Week, which is “a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know.” At this point the organizers of Sunshine Week are probably saying to themselves, “Thank God it’s Friday!” because the Feds have demonstrated in no uncertain terms that they do not share the belief that “open government is good government.”

The week was already off to a rocky start on Monday (transparency-wise speaking) with the continuing uproar over Hillary Clinton’s e-mail. As readers are no doubt aware, while serving as Secretary of State, Clinton conducted her official business exclusively with her private (not government) e-mail address, off a personal server located far away from any Freedom of Information Act requests. Not to worry, though. She pinky-swears that she has provided all of the “official business” e-mails (as defined by Mrs. Clinton herself), and no one would be interested in the other stuff anyway. Even if they were interested, they’d have to pry that server from her cold, dead hands. (Of course if government officials really did want her e-mails they could always just ask the NSA for them – I hear those guys back up everything).

The e-mail story may be old news by now, but more fuel was added to the lack of transparency fire this week when Reuters revealed that Mrs. Clinton has yet to fulfill her 2008 campaign pledge to “publish all the [Clinton Foundation] donors on an annual basis to ease concerns that as secretary of state she could be vulnerable to accusations of foreign influence.” And if you can’t trust a candidate’s campaign pledge, what can you trust?

Hillary Clinton’s defense of her e-mail set-up was laughable enough, but then the Secret Service decided to get in on the act, too. Two of their agents were reported to have run into an active crime scene near the White House after a hard night of protecting themselves from sobriety (perhaps they were reminiscing about the good times back in Colombia). There were differing accounts about just how fast the agents were driving and the degree of recklessness they exhibited at the time. Sadly we may never know the full details of that evening, because security footage from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – one of the most heavily surveilled addresses on the planet – may or may not have been “accidentally” deleted. Hey, they don’t call it the Secret Service for nothing!

And to bring the week to a fitting close, the Most Transparent Administration in History (quietly) decided to exempt itself from FOIA requests. As is frequently the case, the Obama administration relied on a Bush-era precedent to justify its position. According to The Washington Post, “The Obama White House has not released any records from the office under FOIA.” Ever.

Although I fully respect the organizers of Sunshine Week and their dedication to open and honest government, I no longer believe such a thing is possible. Sunshine may be the best disinfectant, but cockroaches in D.C. prefer the dark.

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Public Sector Dating

The BBC reports the Japanese government is taking the nanny state to a creepy new level. In order to reverse the dwindling birthrate in Japan, “local authorities will get government support if they organise speed-dating or other forms of matchmaking.”

It is certainly true that Japan’s birthrate has been in steep decline for quite a while. As Cato’s Stephen Moore pointed out back in 1999, “If Japan’s catastrophically low birthrate is not raised at some point, in 500 years there will be only about 15 Japanese left on the planet.” One can only assume that the Japanese government is concerned that 15 taxpayers will not be nearly enough to sustain the lifestyle to which their bureaucrats have become accustomed, so they’re taking matters into their own hands before it’s too late. Forget roses and chocolates – to a government official, nothing says romance like red tape.

But what would public-sector dating even look like? I don’t know what the Japanese have in mind, but as an American I envision a candle-lit DMV office with CNN playing softly in the background. Speed daters would be summoned to appear sometime between the hours of 9:00am and 4:00pm, Monday through Thursday and alternating Fridays (excluding New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Day, Lincoln’s Birthday, Washington’s Birthday, Cesar Chavez Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, the day after Thanksgiving, and Christmas day). Upon entering the officially designated “free-dating zone” (denoted by OSHA-compliant signs) applicants would take a number and wait to be called to a window or desk, where they would fill out the appropriate documentation (in triplicate). Once any errors or omissions were corrected and the paperwork was resubmitted they would be provided an appointment sometime in the next three to six weeks, at which point they could begin the dating process with a government-approved pool of suitors. It should go without saying that the entire process would be governed by Executive Order 10925 and all other relevant equal opportunity regulations. Discrimination by applicants against any “duly qualified potential romantic partners” (as defined by statute) on the basis of age, race, religion, creed, national origin, or sexual orientation would be strictly prohibited.

If combining the sex appeal of the IRS with the convenience of the DMV isn’t enough to spark the next Baby Boom, I don’t know what will.

Let’s put aside for a moment the moral issues of taking money from taxpayers to subsidize the social lives of singles (if you’re reading this blog, that should be a given by now). Could anyone even attempt to make a public-goods defense of the plan? Is having children suddenly beyond the scope of what the private sector can provide? Have the Japanese people become so hopelessly dependent on government that they can’t even date each other without some form of state assistance? I’d like to say I’d be shocked if that were the case, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to feign surprise by anything statists propose these days.

Just one more reason I’m glad I’m married (seventeen years tomorrow, by the way). I’d sure hate to be single in a world where bureaucrats were no longer content just to be nannies, but felt compelled to play matchmaker as well.

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My Daughter’s Take on World Events

My daughter, a sixth grader, was recently given a current events assignment in her social sciences class. The topic she chose was the attack on the American ambassador to South Korea. Here’s her take on the matter:

The title of my article is, “U.S. ambassador slashed”, the website I got it from is CNNnews.com, and was posted Wednesday March 4th 2015. This article is about a U.S. ambassador. It took place in South Korea when the ambassador was about to give a speech. The main idea is that he was seriously injured by an angry man who did not agree with what the ambassador was saying. The man who injured the ambassador injured him with a razor just before he was about to perform his speech. The ambassador was being helped out of the building by many people attending the event. The ambassador got a 4″ gash in his face. He also had to get 8 stitches. The effects of this current event are negative because the man who injured the ambassador could have just written a friendly letter to the ambassador. Instead the man decided to show his feelings by giving many scratches in the ambassador’s face and limbs. North Korea calls this knife attack “the knife attack of justice.” This probably means that a lot of North Koreans did not agree with the ambassador either. This event changes the status quo because now ambassadors all over the world are probably scared to walk out of their house for fear they might get attacked. And people are going to have to spend more money on security for ambassadors. This might mean that there will be a money drop.
I haven’t gone into the history of the Korean War and U.S. interventionism with my daughter yet, so her analysis obviously lacks some important context. Nevertheless, I was encouraged that she not only objected to the use of violence to achieve political goals, but that she also recognized the dead-weight loss associated with public sector spending. Over time I will help her understand the futility of writing friendly letters to government officials, but that’s a lesson for another day.

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Lagniappe: February 2015

Update on 21st-Century Socialism
Venezuela has been in the news a lot lately, and it would appear that its descent into self-parody is now complete. Its state-sponsored tourism agency recently pulled an ad that used the tag line “We love Venezuela…for receiving foreigners as one of their own.” The tag line wasn’t the problem – the problem was the picture they used to accompany it. The ad included a picture of a very happy man. The ad was pulled when it came out that the reason the man (an American journalist based in Colombia) was so happy was that he had just been released after being detained for 48 hours by the Venezuelan government.

As I wrote in “Venezuela: Proving Mises Right,” the ridiculous economic controls imposed by the government have resulted (predictably) in shortages, scapegoating, and more government controls. The latest scapegoats are a group of store owners who were arrested recently by President Maduro for “annoying the Venezuelan people.” The long lines, shortages, and rampant inflation caused by the disastrous Chavista experiment have generated unrest in the country, but not to worry – the Maduro administration has authorized police to use deadly force against protesters.

21st-century socialism looks a lot like 20th-century totalitarianism.

Leave No Pocket Unpicked 
President Obama announced his budget proposal, and the starting price comes in at a whopping $4 trillion. It is chock full of tax hikes and spending programs designed to sink the government hook even deeper into the American people’s jaw. One such program is his scheme to make community college “free” (TANSTAAFCC) by forcing everyone to pay for it. Specifically, he had the bright idea to tax 529 college savings plans, effectively punishing the people who are responsible enough to save for college and using their hard-earned money to bribe reward the irresponsible. Progressives were referring to public education as “K-14″ almost before the ink was dry on the plan. Unfortunately for them (and fortunately for the rest of us), the backlash against Obama’s threat to renege on the deal the government made years ago when 529 accounts were created was so severe that he was soon forced to backpedal and drop the issue (once Nancy Pelosi convinced him it was “a distraction”).

That was just one proposal of many in the President’s plan to leave no pocket unpicked. Another is to raise taxes on companies’ foreign earnings. The President, who clearly does not care that the United States government already has one of the highest corporate income tax rates in the world, wants to hit them with a one-time 14% tax on accumulated overseas earnings, and a 19% minimum tax on future foreign profits. That’s where the money is, I guess.

The corporate tax rate is not the only record Obama wants to shatter. He’s also got his eyes on the death tax prize. If he gets his way, the effective estate tax (including state taxes) in the United States could go as high as 68%. Spouses would be exempt, but children would have to pay the tax (so he’s not stealing from widows, just orphans).

You Again?
The GOP still can’t seem to get out of its own way. Shortly after taking a swipe at Beyoncé, the odious Mike Huckabee made the news again this week by saying homosexuality was a lifestyle choice, like drinking or swearing. He did not offer an opinion as to whether stupidity was also a lifestyle choice. And though they have not officially declared their candidacy for 2016 yet, both Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum are looking like they will throw their moldy old hats into the ring one more time. That should make great material for this blog, but their participation in the presidential race can’t be good for their party, as they both represent the big-government social conservatism that will render the Republican Party obsolete if not quickly jettisoned.

Reconsidering Lance Armstrong
One of the early posts here at A Beginner’s Guide to Freedom was titled, “Athlete, Cancer Survivor, Politician (2 Out of 3 Ain’t Bad),” which discussed the prospect of a political career for Lance Armstrong. Before the persistent rumors of doping were confirmed, he leveraged his celebrity status to support passage of Proposition 15 in Texas. The ballot initiative was meant to force taypayers to fund the kind of medical research preferred by Mr. Armstrong, regardless of what other Texans may have preferred. Prop 15 passed easily, leading many in the state to suggest that Armstrong would make a great politician if he so desired. At the time I argued that Armstrong’s considerable talents would be better used in the productive sector rather than in the parasitic sector, but I may have to reconsider my original position now that it has been alleged Armstrong “hit two parked cars with an SUV after a night of partying in Aspen, Colorado, but agreed to let his longtime girlfriend take the blame to avoid national attention.”

Given his long history of destroying other people’s lives and property (while consistently attempting to avoid any responsibility for doing so), I must now conclude that politics is indeed the perfect arena for Lance Armstrong. He may not be suitable for anything else.

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50/50 Chance Government Will Let You Down 100% of the Time

As I have said many times before, sometimes it’s the little things that are the most telling. For example, today was the end of the semester in my children’s public school district. For some reason, that meant my middle-school daughter had the day off, but my elementary-school son did not. Having random school days off is certainly inconvenient for working parents who have to scramble to find care options, but no one expects government schools to worry about what’s convenient for parents.

No problem, my wife and I thought. We’ll take advantage of her time off school to renew her passport. My daughter has already traveled internationally a number of times so she already has a passport, but it expires later this year (children’s passports are only good for five years, whereas adult passports are valid for ten). Since she is under sixteen years old, both parents are required to present themselves in person with child in tow to the nearest potentate to beg for the opportunity to buy a document from the government, the sole purpose of which is to be allowed to pass through the artificial barriers to travel set up by that same government. There are no online renewal options for minors, no mailing-in of applications – just bring the whole famn damily down to City Hall between the hours of 8:00am and 5:30pm, Monday through Friday. No weekends, no evening appointments. 

So that’s what we did. My wife and I took time off doing productive things at work and drove our daughter to City Hall. Sadly, it turns out the passport desk is only open every other Friday from 8:00am to 5:30pm, and naturally today was one of the “off” Fridays. Office closed. No passport renewal for us – until maybe spring break, when my daughter is out of school again and my wife and I can take even more time off work.

It just goes to show there’s always a 50/50 chance government will let you down 100% of the time.

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