Not only larger government … complex, too

I don’t much care for it for so many reasons, but even I’m becoming a little concerned about Virginia’s Republican Party. They’re clearly mental, as shown by this tax oddity from the General Assembly:

State senators in Virginia have come up with an unusual new tax increase. People who don’t like it don’t have to pay it.

But here’s the catch: They must be especially well organized.

The Senate, which hopes to raise about a billion dollars a year to spend on transportation, is seeking a 5 percent increase in the wholesale gas tax to help raise the revenue.

Even though the tax is on wholesalers, it could well be passed along to motorists as they pump their gas.

So many points pop out, but I’ll hit the most obvious. The tax could be passed along? What version of free-market economics states otherwise, other than the version politicians believe? Every penny of the tax would get passed along and the Senate knows this. Otherwise, what’s the point of having consumers being able to “opt-out” of the tax? Of course, when reading further into the details it becomes clear what’s really going on:

So under a bill that the Senate Finance Committee passed this week, they could get some money back. That is, they could get it back if they saved all those flimsy little gas purchase receipts littering their car floors and spilling from their glove compartments and sent them in to the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

Twice a year, motorists could ship off a bundle of receipts and, weeks later, receive a check in the mail representing a rebate of the new gasoline tax. Based on today’s gas price, the refund would amount to about 8 cents a gallon.

“No one would have to pay this tax if they didn’t want to,” said Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), whom colleagues credit with coming up with the idea.

I can only imagine Sen. Stolle’s colleagues credit him with the idea because they don’t want it’s stink permeating their offices. More importantly, no state’s DMV is competent enough to handle processing driver’s license applications, much less a detailed, paper-trail heavy tax rebate program. It’ll do little more than create jobs for vindictive paper-pushers.

Obviously, though, the real purpose behind this tax plan is to generate revenue from those who won’t be bothered by potentially trivial savings recouped from an investment in record keeping and paperwork. I also doubt the program would be advertised too well if it passes. That would create rebate requests from those less likely to pay attention to the news. Much like product manufacturers and retailers who now offer rebates instead of sales, the state would be offering something it doesn’t want anyone to participate in. Of course, we can all be reasonably assured that “glitches” will never occur and everyone legitimately asking will get the appropriate refund. Uh-huh.

Did I mention that motorists aren’t eligible for gas purchased for business use of cars and trucks? That seems like a significant little exemption to the opt out provision.

Also, notice how conveniently similar this is to the concept of income tax refunds. Offer the government money throughout the year, at zero percent interest, and get exactly 100% of your tax refunded. In the best case scenario, the General Assembly is demanding an interest-free loan from motorists every time their car needs gas. Applaud this innovation only if you have no idea what the time value of money is and don’t care to learn.

The correct policy is not complicated: tax me honestly or tell me I can’t have what you think I want.

Or Not To Think?

Like most other circumcision news stories I let fade away without comment, Emily Bazelon’s follow-up article that I analyzed yesterday shouldn’t be worth discussing further. However, the accompanying podcast interview with Ms. Bazelon is worth disecting because it holds the proof that she incorrectly equates adult and infant circumcision, as well as offering conclusive parental recommendations unsupported by her inconclusive study. The interview begins by reiterating the basic point of Ms. Bazelon’s concluding article (I’ve transcribed the audio excerpts):

Andy Bowers: What were the results? Is it better to have sex if you’re circumcised or uncircumcised?

Emily Bazelon: Well, I think that actually there’s no answer to the question. That was what all my research yielded.

Again, I expected that outcome because no two men are the same. I also suspect that there’s bias on both sides of the spectrum to reporting a conclusion that matches a preconceived conclusion going into the process. That wouldn’t necessarily apply to those males circumcised as infants, because they’re more likely to be conditioned by society’s views. In the United States, that means circumcision gets a favorable review, without much thought. Ms. Bazelon addressed adult circumcision, I expect those offering an opinion to be biased by individual experience. And that’s ultimately what I’m driving at with challenging routine infant circumcision. Pushing the decision to the individual affected is the reasonable approach.

Next, this exchange is interesting because it reveals how this practice continues without much thought.

A.B. What about the ones who missed having a fore.sp… *garbles the word foreskin*
E.B. Can you believe you’re saying these words? *Says something as Mr. Bowers speaks*
A.B. I love this, this is what’s so great about podcasting, is that I can, I can talk about this, no censorship, no FCC.
E.B. Even when I was writing it, I was like “Oh, my God” *laughter*

Infant circumcision involves surgically amputating a portion of a male’s genitalia. How can anyone pretend that we’re dealing with this topic thoroughly and objectively if we can’t even mention the word foreskin (or glans, penis, and shaft) without be shocked by the sound of the word? That’s a poor indication that parents’ are making the decision for the right reason. Forget the censorship aspect mentioned, because that was a throwaway comment reasonable within the context of the moment. What are the odds that parents afraid of these words will seek as much information as possible when discussing circumcision with a doctor? I’m assuming they discuss it beyond instinctively signing the consent form, of course, which is a gigantic assumption.

Finally, the interview ends with this:

A.B.: Well, any final thoughts for Valentine’s Day on whether circumcision late in life is a good idea?

Pardon the interruption, but I want to highlight this before the answer. Mr. Bowers kept his question focused on the topic of Ms. Bazelon work, which was adult circumcision. Hence, the phrase “late in life”. It’s an important point.

E.B.: Well, I think that if you’re worrying about whether to circumcise your baby, and it’s something you want to do, for whatever reason, you shouldn’t worry that you’re depriving the baby of some pinnacle of the sexual experience. The baby will be fine. And on the other hand, if you don’t want to circumcise your baby, you shouldn’t worry too much that that’s going to be a big problem later in life, unless you think that baby might be at serious risk of AIDS, in which case you might want to reconsider. But generally my feeling is that sex is a really good and happy thing and people enjoy it in many different states.

On what evidence is she basing her conclusion that parents who make the decision aren’t depriving their babies sons of “some pinnacle of the sexual experience”? Every man she included in her story was circumcised as an adult, making it an intellectual leap to offer broad advice with no evidence. She couldn’t draw a definitive conclusion about adult circumcision, other than it was important why the man was circumcised as an adult. Yet, there’s a proclamation that parents who decide to have their sons circumcised shouldn’t worry, because the baby will be fine. I repeat: how does she know? It’s significant and it’s one reason why any potential harm from infant circumcision is dismissed.

Do not forget that Ms. Bazelon never addressed whether or not parents have the right to make a surgical decision, for whatever reason, because she’s drawing every conclusion from men who chose circumcision for themselves. It’s not acceptable for parents to alter their child’s son’s genitalia because it’s something they want to do.

As unproven as the first statement was, the second statement is just absurd. An intact penis will not harm the boy when he becomes a man. It should be obvious, but it’s not. Stating as much is admirable. But how is a parent supposed to reasonably know that the baby boy might be at serious risk of AIDS? What? I don’t get it. It takes a pretty prescient individual to know fifteen or more years in advance that the boy will engage in unprotected sex with many random people who also engage in unprotected sex. Again, what? That is beyond ridiculous.

It’s also worth mentioning that the studies involving circumcision as a preventive measure against HIV do not state that circumcision is 100% effective, only that it potentially reduces the risk of infection. The authors, although they fail to broadcast this point as widely, still recommend that circumcised men practice safe sex. Any marketing of circumcision as anything other than an additional measure to stop the spread of HIV. Of course, it’s also worth noting that the studies were conducted in Africa on adult men. The effect may be the same or better when infants are circumcised instead of waiting until adulthood, but to draw that conclusion from the data is irresponsible.

But so is conflating an inconclusive, unscientific study on men circumcised as adults with males circumcised as infants without their consent and without medical indication.

A Tax Holiday but no Baseball Holiday? Shameful.

I don’t have an opinion either way on this proposal, although that’s mostly because I haven’t given it a lot of thought yet:

Virginians are likely to enjoy the state’s first sales tax holiday on clothes and school supplies as students ready for class this August.

A key Senate committee and the House of Delegates have passed bills that would give taxpayers a break from the state’s 5 percent sales tax for many purchases made the first weekend of each August, starting this year.

Supporters of the tax break say Virginia businesses lose money to stores across state borders in North Carolina, Maryland and the District, each of which lifts the sales tax for certain days each year.

Competition among states should be a good scenario, but since I have little doubt that states will act responsibly with spending cuts, I’m ambivalent. Given that Virginia has a budget surplus from recent tax increases, I suspect the harm will be minor and the benefit will be slightly less minor. All-in-all, this earns more of a “whatever” response. After all, for those in the Northern Virginia suburbs who would drive to Maryland or D.C. to save the sales tax probably aren’t saving as much as they think, since transportation costs (i.e. gas) matter. Saving sales tax on $200 in back-to-school spending would let shoppers keep $10. Two gallons of gas used to shop further away, as well as the extra hassle, seems mostly pointless to me.

What I think is significant about this idea is how well it illustrates the primary problems we’d face with a national sales tax, currently marketed as the Fair Tax. For instance:

Pat Wirth, whose son is a junior at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax County, said she has considered going into the District to take advantage of the exemption but never was able to fit it into her calendar. But if it’s offered in Virginia, she’ll be there.

“I will definitely target those days,” Wirth said.

She never fit it into her schedule. In other words, she didn’t deem the tax-free shopping offered by neighboring states to be a sufficient enticement to not shop in Virginia. Legislative bodies, in this case the General Assembly, offer solutions in search of a problem. No justification is too inaccurate (was any cost-benefit analysis performed?) to not warrant some meddling with the tax structure. While it may be good, this is the next logical step:

The exemption also would be welcomed by teachers who stock their classrooms with extra supplies for students. And while most families in Northern Virginia can easily afford school supplies, the once-a-year expense is a significant burden for others.

If reporters are offering the qualification that “most families can easily afford” the tax bill, some face a significant burden. It’s good to address that burden, which means more meddling. Meddling means more complexity, with new, and likely hidden, taxes to boost tax revenue receipts. That meddling will inevitably mirror today’s progressive tax structure, which is not “fair”. No one should believe that we’ll implement a national sales tax and not exempt food, clothing, medicine, and whatever else gets deemed essential. Remember, changing the tax code would not mean that lobbyists suddenly move out of Washington.

For what it’s worth, I’m not too worried about that scenario because I have no faith that Congress has the leadership characteristics necessary to fix the tax structure.

Today isn’t a national holiday?

No long explanation needed. Today, in Clearwater, Florida, pitchers and catchers for the Phillies report to Spring Training. It’s going to be a balmy 64 degrees today. Short of winning the lottery, I’m not sure how this day could be better.

That’s not to say that all will still be good as September turns to October. Last season replicated 2001 for me, as I now have two sets of souvenirs of what might have been. 2001:

And 2005:

This year I’d like the opportunity to purchase playoffs tickets AND to use them. And the same for World Series tickets would be appreciated. Spring Training is proof that dreams never die.

The tobacco fields are weeping in Virginia

I’ve written about smoking bans in the past, but I suspected the push to enact them in Virginia would take longer. Not so:

The Virginia Senate voted Monday to ban smoking in restaurants and virtually all other public places, an extraordinary sign of cultural change in a state that is home to the worldwide headquarters of Philip Morris and whose agricultural economy has been rooted in tobacco farming for almost 400 years.

The bill is unlikely to survive review in the House of Delegates. Yet its passage on the floor of the Senate — where smoking has never been formally banned and lawmakers lit up openly even until the late 1990s — signaled mounting popular support for smoking restrictions.

The second paragraph is the key support for my original conclusion. The House won’t pass this, and Governor Tim Kaine (D) opposes it, but I’m still amazed that it passed the Senate. Just as interesting, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. J. Brandon Bell II, is a Republican. First came tax increases (pushed by Democrat Mark Warner/passed by Republican General Assembly) and now anti-property rights anti-smoking legislation? Remind me again how Virginia is a bastion of limited government conservatives?

That should be enough lunacy surrounding one bill, but we’ve abandoned all hope of reason, so there’s more:

“This is not about whether I prefer or do not prefer the smell of smoke,” said Sen. J. Brandon Bell II, the sponsor. “This is about public health. . . . The research has come forward over the years, and it’s shown us that secondhand cigarette smoke is a very insidious health problem.”

It’s not about whether or not Sen. Bell prefers the smell of smoke. It’s about whether or not he prefers property rights. That shouldn’t be a hard distinction. But with arguments like this next one, who’s surprised:

“This shows that Virginia is ready to move its way to where the mainstream is on health issues,” said Keenan Caldwell, director of government relations for the [American Cancer Society]’s regional office. “People are starting to see, even in Virginia and other tobacco-growing states, that there is proven science about the harmful effects of secondhand smoke.”

There’s proven science about the harmful effects. So what? There’s also a previously-accepted principle that property rights trump everything. I win the intellectual fight. But this isn’t about who is right. Clearly that’s not getting anything for those of us with principles, especially when this is a justification:

“It makes you really pay attention,” Bell said. “I may have reservations about increased regulations [on businesses], but this is something that people seem to want to be regulated.”

When we come to the conclusion that regulation is good and appropriate because people want it, with no further consideration necessary, what are we left fighting over? Which television programs and books my neighbors think it’s acceptable for me to consume? Smashing.

Some sanity remains, of course:

… opposition has been spearheaded by the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association, which represents restaurants. The group lobbied vigorously against an early version of the bill that would have given localities the ability to regulate indoor smoking, complaining that the option would lead to a patchwork of regulations and pit businesses in neighboring counties against one another.

So Bell moved forward with the statewide smoking ban and picked up enough support to pass the bill, 21 to 18.

Those who voted against the measure said the marketplace is already pushing many restaurants to ban smoking, without government regulation. They said businesses should have the right to cater to their customers.

“We’re talking about a legal product that’s licensed and sold in Virginia — that’s taxed and taxed and taxed,” said Sen. Charles R. Hawkins (R-Pittsylvania), who represents tobacco growers. “Now we’re saying we know better than people who operate their own businesses what they can do.”

Count me among those not amazed that market forces have the ability to solve the problem.

Failed socio-economic policies redux

Sebastian Mallaby’s column in today’s Washington Post is interesting more for the assumptions it proposes than for its specific content regarding President Bush’s looming marketing push for Health Savings Accounts. While mocking President Bush’s term “ownership society”, presumably because he prefers the “social contract” and all it entails, Mr. Mallaby declares these flaws:

A rerun of last year’s [Social Security] debate would show that health savings accounts are harder to defend than personal retirement ones. They are shockingly regressive: Furman’s study shows how a poor family might get a subsidy of $150 while a rich one might get more than $4,000. They have not just a transition cost but a real cost: The tax breaks could widen the deficit by at least $132 billion over 10 years and a lot more after that. And health savings accounts pose a more formidable threat to traditional corporate health plans than personal accounts posed to Social Security. Market forces are already dislodging company health plans; an extra shove could cause an avalanche.

The limited consumer discipline that would come from health savings accounts could not justify these disadvantages. But when you talk to administration officials, they express remarkably few doubts. They believed in the ownership society last year; they still believe in it this year. They believe in individual choice; they distrust collective programs. They don’t worry too much about the risks to the budget. Or to distributional justice. Or to existing safety nets.

Simple administration. Straightforward administration. The Clinton team would never have proposed such a clunker of a policy.

Three paragraphs and I lost count of the intellectual disasters. It’s feasible to argue that Health Savings Accounts aren’t the solution. I won’t argue that they’re perfect, only that something must be done. That doesn’t mean action for the sake of action, of course, which is what I think Mr. Mallaby is partially offering as the Bush Administration’s motive. Anything that fits the ownership society storyline, or something along those lines. To his credit, he challenges the logic of HSAs and offers a suggestion in return. I disagree, but that’s reasonable in such a change with unknown consequences. Unfortunately, his conclusion relies on the assumptions I marked in bold. In order:

  • Income differences matter only in tax liability. Receiving benefits, if tied to income and the resulting spending differences, must be quantitatively equal or they’re unfair and regressive.
  • Market forces are dislodging company health plans, violating the social contract. That’s Bad. The central planners know better, so we must halt that trend, not encourage it.
  • Individual choice is bad. We’re all in this together, so everyone should pay the same (unless he’s poor) and receive the same benefits (unless he’s rich), because the collective nature of government health care is important.
  • Liberals worry a lot about the budget. That’s why raising taxes to meet Dubya’s irresponsible budget is necessary.
  • “Distributional justice” is important above all else. If you don’t have enough, however that’s defined, and however much you do to earn it, you should be given what must be taken from others. Progressive taxes are good. Progressive benefits are bad. Regressive benefits are good. Regressive taxes are bad. Lather, rinse, repeat.
  • Existing safety nets are good. Reform must keep those. Remember, that’s why raising taxes is important. Cutting spending would destroy safety nets. Government is the best provider of safety nets.
  • The Clinton team would never have proposed such a clunker of a policy. They would’ve introduced a better clunker. It’s important to focus on better, not clunker. That’s why we need national health care, not individual choice. Everyone will like one-size-fits-all coverage. It doesn’t matter if the rich get worse health care. It’s a fixed pie. You don’t want others to be without. Do you? You’re selfish.

I hope it’s clear that I disagree with Mr. Mallaby’s assumptions. In the future, I hope he’ll put his assumptions in the first three paragraphs instead of the last three so that I may decide whether or not to bother reading his suggestions before I read them. That way, I’ll avoid the socialistic noise and read whatever’s left.

American Political Philosophy, circa 2006

Pot. Meet kettle.

Citing troubling behavior by the Kremlin, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed skepticism yesterday about the future of democracy in Russia.

“We are very concerned, particularly about some of the elements of democratization that seem to be going in the wrong direction,” Rice said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, while on good terms with President Bush, has been criticized for centralizing political power and rolling back democratic gains.

And, no, I’m not just pointing my finger at Republicans.

Next up, prosecuting all forms of fun

I haven’t been following the alleged gambling ring “scandal” surrounding Phoenix Coyotes (NHL) assistant coach Rick Tocchet and Janet Jones, Wayne Gretzky’s wife, among others. Frankly, I don’t see the big deal. It’s against the law, I get it. But the states involved run lotteries. With such hypocrisy, I don’t need to go further and rely on principles. But since I happen to enjoy principles, why not? Where’s the victim? Without a victim, where’s the crime? I haven’t heard of anything resembling broken kneecaps or even threats resulting from the alleged gambling ring. Perhaps I’ve missed them, but without a victim, and violating someone else’s moral code doesn’t count, the sin police need to get over it. State and federal legislatures need to decriminalize it and move on to real issues.

Now that I’ve finished ranting, this aspect of the case reveals how myopic some folks are:

A handful of NHL players have been implicated in the ring, authorities say, but none has been identified or charged. Strictly speaking, it is not a crime to place a bet, but NHL players would be violating league rules if they wagered on hockey games. There is no evidence of wagering on hockey, according to the federal prosecutor investigating the allegations on behalf of the NHL.

The only people who’ve committed a crime are the people running the ring. Where’s the reasoning in that? He who sucks another into “immoral, destructive” behavior is guilty? Ridiculous. Gambling will happen with or without state approval, as evidenced by the allegations, should they be true. It would make more sense to let that happen in a business that pays taxes than in a business that wastes police resources. Legalize and increase tax receipts. Criminalize and increase expenditures.

Public service may be noble, but it’s far from intelligent, apparently.

Give us your money

There was a time among conservatives when tax cuts were intended to let people keep more of their money. Starve the beast and the government will necessarily do less damage. Vice President Cheney is no conservative:

“It’s time to reexamine our assumptions and to consider using more dynamic analysis to measure the true impact of tax cuts on the American economy,” Cheney said, explaining why Bush has proposed the new Treasury Department division. “The evidence is in, it’s time for everyone to admit that sensible tax cuts increase economic growth and add to the federal treasury.”

It’s useful to know that adding to the treasury is now more worthy of a public statement than adding to personal bank accounts for conservatives. Where Tom Delay pounded the last nail, Vice President Cheney is throwing roses on the coffin.

Self-ownership begins at birth

Sunday’s New York Times Magazine included a piece by Jeffrey Rosen considering the question of whether or not ritual circumcision constitutes religious expression. He begins:

Americans pride themselves on their commitment to freedom of religion, but how much religious freedom is too much religious freedom?

Fortunately, I can answer this without reading any further into the article. Religious freedom ends where another’s body begins. In the topic Mr. Rosen is addressing, that means at the tip of an infant male’s penis. This concept should be obvious by now, since it’s clear that ritual (and non-ritual) circumcisions are not done for health reasons. Why bother going further than that in the debate, since removing healthy tissue from a child without his consent would be classified as assault in any other circumstance?

Mr. Rosen continues beyond what is necessary to answer his question, so I will do the same.

Within the right to freedom of religion is also the right to freedom from religion. It’s reasonable to accept that parents may teach their child specific religious views, and raise him or her accordingly. We can’t police thought, and the Constitution indirectly prohibits such a course. But, just as reasonable is the assumption that the child may reject his or her parents’ religious philosophy. While a childhood spent studying a religious text he or she may eventually abandon could be considered wasted, the time spent surely contributes to the child’s understanding of the world. Not in any specific religious context, for that has been and will continue to be debated as long as humans exist. Instead, the child learns by dissecting information, forming an opinion, and thinking independently. This may not be optimal for the child, but he or she can accept or reject everything. Ultimately, despite his or her parents’ best intentions, the child controls his or her mind and thoughts. No amount of forced religion can overcome that if the child so chooses.

Altering a child’s anatomy without clear medical indication can never meet such a standard of freedom. A male child circumcised for religious purposes can’t consent to the decision. His physical body is forever altered, and potentially diminished, by circumcision. If he accepts the imposed faith when he becomes capable of deciding for himself, the presumption may be that the circumcision caused no conflict. If the adult male feels as such, that’s wonderful for him. The point of separating ritual infant circumcision from any notion of parental religious freedom is not to challenge the happiness of those who’ve been circumcised for that purpose. Its goal must be to protect the self-ownership rights of the child to decide for himself if he wishes to alter his physical body. The child who later determines that his preferred religion requires no such action, or indeed commands that he remain intact, will face the ramifications of an inappropriate decision made by another.

Ritual (and non-ritual) infant circumcision necessarily violates a boy’s right to an intact body. The parents’ right to religious freedom may not trump the boy’s right. By extension, that he also retains his right to be free from religion implies that no procedure with invasive, permanent results can be condoned by a free society, absent any legitimate physical indication. He has a right to freedom from harm, regardless of how noble his parents’ intention may be. Any religious practice contrary to that is unacceptable. Ritual circumcision does not indict any religion that continues to practice it, but as every robust, honest religion has done with other facets of its teachings incompatible with modern liberty, the practice must stop.