Mistakes are human — and they’re dangerous when an entity aggregates too much power

erase_mistakeMistakes.  We all make them. Lord knows, anyone reading my blog knows that there are days when I can call myself the Mistake Queen. I’m a careless typist and a lousy proofreader, especially when rushed or stressed, two things that describe me most of the time.  I have a large fund of facts squirreled away in my brain, but I still get facts wrong and am always grateful when those more knowledgeable than I correct them.  I’m a savvy internet user, but not infrequently fall prey to false information on the internet (especially falsely attributed quotations that dovetail too perfectly with my beliefs).

Here’s the deal, though:  My mistakes have minimal impact.  They amuse some and offend others.  When I learn about them, I’ll correct them (unless they’re ancient typos).  I don’t want to make mistakes because my credibility and quality are at issue, but nobody’s going to die or go broke because I’ve made a typo.

The same holds true when individuals in government make mistakes.  For example, Earl tipped me off to a very funny one from the offices of Rep. Paul Cook (R., Cal. 8th Dist.).  I have no bone to pick with Cook.  He’s a retired Marine colonel and Vietnam Vet, and he deserves full honors for both those things.  He’s a Republican and I’ll happily assume for now that he’s not a RINO.  Without further information, therefore, Rep. Cook is all good things and I wish him much success.

But the stuff that comes out of his office!  Oy vey!!  His staff recently mailed out a flyer to his constituents.  The flyer had on its cover this stirring image:

Paul Cook flyer cover

So far so good. We like Congressmen who look first to the Constitution before passing laws. The problem comes with the survey included with the mailing:

Paul Cook survey

Please think long and hard about how you would answer Question No. 2.  If pressed, I would pick “unsure,” only because, of all the answers that make no sense, it’s most honestly acknowledges the inevitable bewilderment the question creates.

So it’s not just me messing up.  This kind of carelessness, thoughtlessness, illogical, foolishness, or whatever else you’d like to call it, is an inherent part of human nature.  The problems begin when we give these careless humans too much power.  The fact that Rep. Cook has silly people in his office says nothing about him and his agenda.  Likewise, although it was good for a laugh, you can’t fault every Democrat for some foolish drone’s reference to Reagan’s hitherto unknown years in Congress.

The contrary is true, though, when we’re looking at mistakes in an all- (or almost all-) powerful organization, such as a modern federal bureaucracy.  In that context, mistakes can be catastrophic.  And that’s precisely what Jim Geraghty touches upon in his National Review article about the fact that liberals cannot govern — they have put too much power into entities whose mistakes are devastating and whose self-correcting mechanisms non-existent:

In most professions, when you end up spending ten times what you budgeted, the consequences are swift and severe. Heads roll. Responsibilities are reassigned. Budgetary authority gets yanked. This, of course, is not how things work in the federal government.

[snip]

Liberals’ belief in the inherent goodness of a far-reaching federal government drives them to avert their eyes from its wildest abuses, even when they are occurring right in front of them. Waste and mismanagement are ignored, dismissed, downplayed, and excused, because confronting them too directly would undermine the central tenet of their worldview: that the federal government is an irreplaceable tool for making the world a better place.

I hope I’m not being too mean when I point to Rep. Paul Cook’s silly flyer as a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with big government, even if that government is not actively malevolent and partisan.  When careless error comes out of a single Congressman’s office, it’s inconsequential; when it comes out of an all-powerful, unconstrained bureaucracy, it ought to scare the Hell out of each one of us.

A story showing everything that’s wrong with bureaucracies: rules have replaced morals and human decency

Freezing temperature thermometerIf you want to know everything that’s wrong about a Big Government world (which also means a multi-rules, heavily bureaucratic world), you need look no further than a recent news report out of Minnesota.  It took place at Como Park High School and involved teachers who, because of their bureaucratic training, completely abandoned human decency.

It all started out on a very cold day in Minnesota, with the temperature ranging between -8 and +12 degrees Fahrenheit.  The high school has an indoor pool, and that’s where 14-year-old Kayona Hagen-Tietz was swimming when a school alarm went off.  Before she could get to the locker to get her clothes, the teacher rushed her out into the cold.  Let me rephrase that:  A teacher in thrall to rules sent a soaking wet 14-year-old girl out into sub-freezing temperatures, clad only in a swimsuit.  She didn’t even have flip-flops on her feet.

Let’s accept for the moment that the teacher behaved correctly, since she or he had no way of knowing whether there was an imminent hazard in the school buildings.  Once outside, though, you’d think that the faculty would take steps to warm Kayona.  It turned out, though, that warming her was against the rules:

In the meantime, teachers feared to violate openly a school policy that prohibits students from sitting in a faculty member’s car.

Even the lowest intelligence can figure out that the rule’s purpose is to prevent teachers from engaging sexually with children.  The likelihood of a covert sexual contact happening between Kayona and a teacher under the actual circumstances is ludicrous.  The faculty cars were in full view of the entire school.  There was no chance of illicit sexual congress.

Fortunately for Kayona, her fellow students hadn’t had human decency ground out of them by rules:

Hagen-Tietz fellow students, however, demonstrated a grasp of civilized behavior. Students huddled around her and some frigid classmates [sic], giving her a sweatshirt to put around her feet. A teacher coughed up a jacket.

As the children were keeping Kayona alive, the teachers were working their way through the bureaucracy.  After a freezing ten minutes, an administrator finally gave permission for the soaking wet, freezing Kayla to set in a car in full view of everybody:

After Hagen-Tietz had suffered for ten minutes in sub-zero weather, a teacher finally received administrative permission to let her sit inside her car until students were allowed back inside.

Kayla suffered frostbite from her appalling experience at the hands of a government bureaucracy.

In what is an indictment of Western society, Kayla’s experience is not unique.  Back in 2009, a lot of people were very upset when they heard a story out of England:  a man with a broken back lay in 6 inches of water, but paramedics refused to rescue him because they weren’t trained for water rescues.  One didn’t have to go as far as England to see this kind of bureaucratic disregard for human life.  In 2011, Alameda police and firefighters literally stood and watched a man drown because they too weren’t certified for water rescues.  The unknown in Alameda is how deep or dangerous the water was, something that could indeed have meant that a suicidal man drowned other people.  In England, though, the rescuers took a rule clearly meant to apply to dangerous water situations, and refused to help someone lying in water that wasn’t even knee-deep.

Fortunately for me, since I have to tidy the house today, I don’t have to summarize precisely what went wrong in Minnesota, England, and Alameda.  Dennis Prager did it for me in his latest video:

A feral bureaucracy will do anything it can to protect itself

Catherine Engelbrecht’s testimony should be heard far and wide throughout America.  A feral bureaucracy will do anything it can to protect itself.  Right now, Obama’s is the lawless government, but back in the early 1970s, it was Nixon who began to push the boundaries.  Right now, the bureaucracy owes its allegiance to the Democrats.  That can change.  But no matter who’s in charge, if Americans of all political stripes do not act now to stop the federal government’s unconstitutional activities, freedom of speech and freedom of association are over:

Government of the people, by the people, and for the people has perished in America

Sometimes distance provides perspective.  My travels meant that, rather than being enveloped by news as I usually am, I read it only intermittently, and often through the New York Times’ filter, since that was the only news to which I had access for many days at a time.  The few stories I was able to follow put me strongly in mind of the Gettysburg Address, and how far away from those principles our current government has come.  Some of this is directly attributable to the current Democrat presidency, and some is an unpleasant by-product of a bureaucracy that has taken on a life of its own, independent of its creators’ ideas and energies.

Lincoln’s genius was that he was able to reduce to the smallest number of words the revolutionary principles that drove the Founding Fathers, as expressed in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution:  “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Do we still have a government “of the people, by the people [and] for the people?”  No.  Our political and bureaucratic classes no longer believe that the people have anything to do with their continued existence (that is, they do not view themselves as parts of a government “by the people”); they do not believe that they have anything in common with the people whose lives they dictate (in other words, they are not part of a government “of the people”); and nothing they do benefits the people who are trapped in their web of laws and regulations (so that they are not part of a government “for the people”).

America has ceased to be a representative democracy and has, instead, become an oligarchy:  We, the People, are controlled by a proportionately small number of people who claim all entitlement to themselves and who, through laws, lawlessness, and unbridled bureaucracy (with a bureaucracy made up of people entirely beholden to the oligarchy for their continued well-being), control every aspect of our lives.  This oligarchy is separate from and unrelated to the constitutional, representative democracy Lincoln believed was the necessary underpinning for a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

A handful of stories upon my return forcefully brought home the vast chasm that has formed between “we, the People” and those who no longer represent us but who, instead, simply govern us.

1.  The people have long loathed ObamaCare, and by a significant and unchanging percentage too.  Even the President’s water carriers are getting nervous.  Those charged with enforcing it against us will not use it for themselves, nor will those who imposed it upon us.  It is a product of the oligarchy, with the benefits, but not the burdens, flowing solely to the oligarchy.  It was imposed upon the People, not through a true democratic process, but through dirty political dealing.  This is neither government by the people nor for the people.

2.  Despite the stagnant economy, the high unemployment, the rise of part-time jobs (i.e., no living wage), the number of young people stuck at home, and the continuing bankruptcy of our country’s business and economy, our President and his family continue to live like Nero or Marie Antoinette.  The Nero analogy was most recently demonstrated with the story that Obama is golfing while the world burns down around us.  The Marie Antoinette analogy can be seen in the endless round of A-list partying and multi-millionaire style vacations the Obamas enjoy, using our money (White House facilities for parties, taxpayer-funded air transport and security for offsite pleasures), even as ordinary citizens struggling to make ends meet.  Obama, however, is worse than either Nero or Marie Antoinette, or any other analogous political figures (both historic and present day) who rob from the people to fund their lavish personal lifestyles.  This is because Obama is the only one of these figures who is — in theory, at least, an elected representative who is supposed to be only first among equals.  Obama’s grandiosity, however, shows that he no longer considers himself one of the people.  Worse, he is abetted in this historic break from a constitutional presidency by a ruling political and media class that has a vested economic and social interest in breaking with a constitutional republican democracy.

3.  The current government has abandoned the notion that government belongs to the people (“of, by, and for”) and holds, instead, the belief that the people and everything that they possess belong to the government.  Rep. Keith Ellison, a black, Muslim convert who is a darling of the Left, articulated this sentiment with startling clarity:  “The bottom line is we’re not broke, there’s plenty of money, it’s just the government doesn’t have it. . . . The government has a right, the government and the people of the United States have a right to run the programs of the United States. Health, welfare, housing – all these things.”  Government unions are a subset of this mindset.  In private industries, both management and the unions are negotiating with real money, real products, and real labor.  In the government sector, they negotiate with other people’s money regarding intangible products and services that are of dubious value.  (Think about the fact that California alone has more than 500 different agencies, a spectacular percentage of which are duplicative, and an even larger number of which do not serve the California taxpayers, but instead are directed at steering special interest groups into the government fold.)

4.  The bureaucracy has become an entity of itself.  It is no longer a subset of American government.  It is its own special interest group, and it advances its own agenda.  This fact can be attributed in significant part to government unions which, as noted above, sever government employees from the Peoples’ economic and practical needs.  Moreover, as the IRS scandal shows, the government bureaucracies no longer need political guidance to go after citizens who have the potential to disrupt their bureaucratic livelihood.  With little or no prompting from the political class, the bureaucracies abandoned their obligation to impose the law impartially and, instead, attacked what they perceived as threats.  If this seems familiar to you, you have only to think of innumerable science fiction books or movies (e.g., Terminator III), in which robots become sentient and turn on their human creators.

5.  Our next election is already predetermined.  Sadly, Myrna Adams makes the best argument for why Hillary Clinton will win in 2016 — and you’ll notice that none of her points have anything whatsoever to do with the will of the people or the state of America and the world, either now or in 2016.  Instead, Adams points to the political machinery which has broken down, with the dial perpetually set to “Democrat.”  Neither Hillary’s and her teams’ lack of any accomplishments to speak of nor the fact that Hillary herself is an undistinguished and inspiring human being will matter.  The oligarchy, made up of politicians, monied interests, government bureaucracies, media players, and academics, has spoken.  It’s Hillary’s turn now. After all, in 2008 and again in 2012, Obama was a candidate without accomplishments or, when off the teleprompter, charisma.  The robots — er, oligarchs . . . er, political class . . . er, media — anointed him and he won.  “We, the People” — our needs, desires, and existence — have become entirely expendable.

In the next election, democracy will be just as meaningful as it was in the old Soviet Union when 100% of the voters “freely” cast their votes for the Communist party candidate.  The Soviet Union was a nominal democracy in that the people “voted,” but it totally by-passed Lincoln’s requirement that a government worth saving must be “of the people, by the people, [and] for the people” in order to ensure that a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” shall not “perish from the earth.”

 

People worry that rather than catching bad guys, the Obama administration will use the info it gathers to create bad guys

One of the things that characterizes the rule of law is that it applies equally to all citizens.  The rich man’s son who vandalizes a shop is prosecuted as vigorously as the poor man’s son who does the same.  That the rich man’s son can afford a good lawyer is the random luck of life.  America can provide equality of opportunity, but nothing, not even socialism, can guarantee equality of outcome.  The important thing for purposes of the rule of law is that the law doesn’t give the rich man’s son a pass.

The rule of law also has to be grounded in common sense and reality.  That’s why Anatole France was being nonsensical when he famously said “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.” The reality is that a rich man, unless crazy, does none of those things — but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the law is unfair if societal good demands that we value property or try to keep streets safe for all citizens. The law is what it is. In the case of theft, vagrancy, and begging, it isn’t the law that should change but, perhaps, the availability of opportunities and, as needed, charity.

Common sense has long-dictated, at least since 9/11, that the best way to stop terrorism directed at Americans is to keep a close eye on people, especially men, who practice a strict form of Islam and on disaffected young men who take psychotropic drugs.  These two categories of people have been responsible for almost all, or maybe all, of the mass killings against Americans over the last decade and more.

When it comes to the mentally ill, we keep talking about monitoring them, but we don’t do it.  Lack of political will, lack of political and social organization, civil rights issues, and the fact that it’s more fun to rail against guns than against insane people (poor things) means that this won’t change any time soon.

Even worse, our government has made the “politically correct” decision to refuse to monitor with extra focus those young men who embrace radical Islam (e.g., the Tsarnaevs or Nidal Hassan).  It’s not fair, we’re told.  Profiling will make law-abiding Muslims (and the vast majority of Muslims in America are law-abiding) uncomfortable.  It’s racist and mean to assume that, because someone is Arab-looking, and sweating, and smelling of rose water, and murmuring “Allahu Akbar” under his breath to think that he’s up to a bit of no good — never mind that, when the bomb goes off or the plane falls from the sky, any Muslims in the area will be just as dead as their non-Muslim compatriots.

Heck, we’ve allowed minority groups to prey on each other for decades for fear of causing offense.  The number one target of violent, young, black and Hispanic males is . . . violent, young, black and Hispanic males, followed closely by all the hapless black and Hispanic children, old people, mothers, and fathers who have to share communities with these monsters of violence.  Because it looks bad for white police to go after these monsters, their communities must suffer.  The Gods of Political Correctness delight in human sacrifices, and the younger, more innocent, and more tender the better.

Americans therefore fully understand that our government, for “diversity,” or “multicultural,” or “politically correct” reasons (all of those terms speak to the same end), absolutely refuses to look first at the obvious suspects (young, radical Muslim men) before casting its net wide to sweep in people who are trying to avoid capture by looking less obvious.  It’s not likely that the Minnesota granny has a bomb in her brassiere, but it’s possible.  A good national security system doesn’t assume that anyone is innocent, but it does concentrate its resources where they make they most sense.

So here’s the deal with the NSA spying:  We know with some certainty that, for Leftist political reasons, the NSA is not making an effort to scrutinize the population most likely to go all “Allahu Akbar” on us.  Instead, for politically correct reasons, it’s spying on everyone.  In essence, it’s creating a haystack of information, with extra paddings of politically correct, multiculturalist hay wrapped around any spot where a needle might hide.

If politics means that the system won’t look for the obvious bad guys, what is it looking for then?  Well, I suspect that what’s going to happen is that the system will be used to look for easy targets.  Things that are neither criminal nor suspicious, but that pop up nevertheless, will suddenly be scrutinized because they’re there.  It will be the surveillance equivalent of “If the mountain won’t come to Mohamed, then Mohamed must come to the mountain.”  Since the NSA can’t focus its efforts on finding real criminals, it will engage in some flexible thinking and criminalize whatever activity it sees.  And — voila! — it will therefore justify its bureaucratic existence and purpose.  That the country will lose its identity and the people their freedom is a small price to pay for bureaucratic immortality.

FTC v. POM — and POM’s fighting back *UPDATED*

I have no opinion whatsoever about POM’s pomegranate juice.  I do, however, have strong opinions about bullying government agencies that use threats, economic blackmail, and death by bureaucracy to further agendas that may be costly, counter intuitive, politically driven, or otherwise disturbing to someone who, as I do, has a conservative/libertarian bent.  I was therefore delighted to see that POM had a banner ad stretched across the top of today’s New York Times, inviting people to learn more about successful fight against the FTC.

When I was at law school, my Constitutional Law professor Phil Bobbitt (yes, this Phil Bobbitt) once asked the class why criminal defendants in America are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and why they have the right to counsel (this in response to a student’s observation that it just seemed wrong to work as a lawyer for criminal defendants).  After we waffled around for a while, Prof. Bobbitt provided the answer, one that I’ll never forget:  Nobody should have to stand alone when the great weight of the government is turned against him.  That imagery — of a pathetically small individual standing alone, bravely facing the might of the government — was compelling, and certainly fed my nascent libertarianism.

Sadly, in the world of administrative “law” (or, as often as not, administrative lawlessness), everything is bass ackwards.  There’s still the great weight of the government bearing down on the lone individual or corporation, but this unleashed government power is unaccompanied by the Constitutional protections that our criminal justice system extends to individuals and legal entities.  When agencies attack, they do so with bared teeth and claws.  Gibson Guitars knows thisMarylou’s knows thisMike and Chantell Sackett know this.  And now, of course, POM is learning this painful lesson.

With luck, what will happen is that the ever-expanding federal government overreaches itself while there’s still strength left in the Republic to prune it this unchecked power back to reasonable proportions.  Otherwise, God help us all!

UPDATE:  And just in today, another story of agency overreach, harassment, and intimidation.

America is buckling under the tyranny of bureaucracy *UPDATED*

When we think of tyranny, we tend to think of it in sharp, dramatic, bloody terms.  Tyranny is the stark economic divide between a corrupt leader and his starving people, or it’s the day to fear of citizens in a police state.  Few of us recognize, or are willing to acknowledge, that tyranny, at it’s most fundamental level, is the loss of individual freedoms, with a concurrent increase in state power.  When people must bow to the state’s dictates all day every day, without recourse, they are subject to tyranny, even if they’re neither starving nor physically brutalized.

The soft socialism that increasingly characterizes the United States sees us increasingly in thrall to a bureaucratic dictatorship.  A plethora of agencies at all levels of American life (local, state, and federal) ensure that every breath we take comes within a government function.  The Founders tried to balance the need for a functioning society with their fear of tyranny by making our federal government one of specifically enumerated powers, while leaving all other powers to state governments.  They understood that state governments, by virtue of their relatively smaller size compared to the federal government, are more responsive to their citizens needs and desires, and have less power.  In addition, it’s fairly easy to leave a state that is becoming oppressive, and very difficult to leave a country that is doing the same.

Today,  I reached critical mass in my email, with people apprising me of four separate posts and articles, three of which look at the dramatic increase in bureaucratic tyranny in the last few years (something prominent in, but not limited to, the Obama administration), and one of which offers some hope that there may be a way out of the soft socialism that is strangling America’s liberties:

To get a handle on the issue, begin with Wolf Howling’s magnum opus describing the way in which the federal government is stifling us with regulation sans representation.

After reading that, you’ll be able to appreciate Patrick O’Hannigan’s article detailing the way in which the Obama administration using its bureaucracy to avoid Congressional and judicial oversight, in order to carry out foreign policies and to target specific groups and ideologies at home.

Because those two articles are broad in scope, let me throw in here an article about local bureaucrats run amok, just so that you can appreciate that, once a bureaucracy takes hold, and when it becomes self-serving and corrupt, your life will be destroyed by something more than just a thousand bureaucratic-form paper cuts.

Finally, there is hope, although it’s only the smallest flicker of light at the end of a long bureaucratic tunnel.

UPDATED:  It turns out I’m not the only one with bureaucracy or, more precisely, concern about bureaucracy, on the brain.  Michael Phillips has written two delightful posts on the subject.

Penn State and the slow death of American self-reliance

In the wake of the horrific child abuse scandal roiling Penn State, many have been trying to understand how Sandusky’s predatory behavior could have continued unchecked for so long.  The focal point of this “how could this happen” question is the fact that Mike McQueary actually witnessed an assault.  Rather than rearranging Sandusky’s face, McQueary slipped out quietly, called his Daddy, and than made a chain-of-command report.  As far as he was concerned, he’d then done what he needed to do.  Paterno did exactly the same:  chain-of-command report.  And so on, up the ladder, with each person punting the problem higher, and each higher level official diluting the story so that it transformed from child rape into inappropriate behavior — and we all know that inappropriate behavior needs to be dealt with tactfully and in a way that doesn’t embarrass the institution.

So, again, we have to ask why?

Because — and this is not an idle boast — I have some of the smartest readers in the blogosphere, I can take a good stab at an answer.  In an open thread about Penn State, my readers chewed over the fact that in Pennsylvania, the law allows employees who witness a crime to go up the chain of command, whereas in Texas (for example) the law requires that every person has the responsibility to report to the authorities cases of suspected child abuse.  In other word, the culture is different in the two states, with one allowing people to pass the buck, and the other mandating that people take independent action.

There are already demands that Pennsylvania change its laws about reporting child abuse in order to bring them closer in line with the Texas standard.  While that wouldn’t be a bad idea, it would be a small bandage over a gaping wound in the American psyche:  the death of self-reliance.

Agrarian and frontier societies are, of necessity, self-reliant.  (Yes, even Europeans once knew how to make do.)  Right up until the 1960s, what separated America from other nations was that, until very recently in historic terms, it managed to be an amalgam of Western intellectualism and frontier self-reliance.  This meant that, even as increasing population density and industrialization made it unnecessary for an American family to be almost completely self-sustaining, our Judeo-Christian heritage was sophisticated enough that we nevertheless enshrines as a virtue that personal independence.

And, by gosh, if self-reliance is the standard, those pioneers were virtuous.  Here, from one of my favorite books, No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting, you can get a good thumb-nail sketch of how a family prepared to leave East Coast civilization to head for the Wild West:

Once a conveyance was determined, the woman cut and sewed the double-cloth wagon tops and sides . . . with muslin on the inside and heavy linen on the outside for extra warmth and protection . . . and attached pockets or “pouches” so that items such as knives, firearms, cooking pots, mother’s sewing and knitting basket and essential toilet articles could be tucked away safely.  [Snip]  Each item — all the food, tools, bedding, clothing, a veritable pharmacopoeia of medicinal roots and herbs, axle grease, spare wagon parts, furniture and so forth — was sharply scrutinized to make certain that it was critical to the survival of the family, the wagon and the animals both on the trail and for the first homestead.  (p. 73.)

After the pioneers finally reached their destination (and truly, only the strong survived the journey), Dad (and sons and neighbors) began the backbreaking work of hunting and farming so as to tease food out of the land, while Mom (and daughters and neighbors) kept the home fires burning.  In No Idle Hands, one can read in their own words how the children of these pioneers remembered their mothers’ accomplishments:

“Mother bore and cared for the babies, saw that the floor was white and clean, that the beds were made and cared for, the garden tended, the turkeys dressed, the deer flesh cured and the fat prepared for candles or culinary use, that the wild fruits were garnered and preserved or dried, that the spinning and knitting was done and the clothing made.  She did her part in all these tasks, made nearly all the clothing and did the thousands things for us a mother only finds to do.”

[snip]

Another mother, in addition to her regular routine of “water carrying, cooking, churning, sausage making, berry picking, vegetable drying, sugar and soap boiling, hominy hulling, medicine brewing, washing, nursing, weaving, sewing, straw plaiting, wool spinning, quilting, knitting, gardening and various other tasks,” found time to exchange work with other neighbors when they gathered together to spin and knit, skeining yarn for immediate use by simply winding it from hand to elbow and hanging it from her arm while she knit.  (p. 87-88.)

I am not advocating a return to that level of self-reliance.  My family and I would be dead within week if that were the case.  I am pointing out, however, that this was normative for large chunks of America only a century and a half ago, and that, even more importantly, this level of competence became part of America’s self-image.  We were the can-do generation.  While the Roosevelt administration, in the 1930s, jump-started the notion of a comprehensive welfare system, the generation that scrabbled through the Depression and World War II did not succumb to the cultural inertia of the socialist state.

It took the 1960s and beyond to change us into a don’t-do culture.  The “why” of that change would take a whole post (no, make that a whole book), but one can target lots of wealth, lots of youth, and a media and academic establishment that relentlessly propagandized both the virtues of socialism, while simultaneously denigrating traditional American culture and playing up the dangers of America’s home grown self-reliance ethos (“So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”).

Whatever the root causes (I can speak Marxist-speak just fine, myself) the end result is that Americans are slowly put surely slipping into the type of passivity that characterizes people living in an excessively bureaucratized, government-heavy society.   Some like this.  At a recent speech to financially powerful supporters, President Obama warned that, if he’s not re-elected, Americans might have to leave the comforts of government dependence and enter a dangerous era of self-reliance:

At a million-dollar San Francisco fundraiser today, President Obama warned his recession-battered supporters that if he loses the 2012 election it could herald a new, painful era of self-reliance in America.

“The one thing that we absolutely know for sure is that if we don’t work even harder than we did in 2008, then we’re going to have a government that tells the American people, ‘you are on your own,’” Obama told a crowd of 200 donors over lunch at the W Hotel.

“If you get sick, you’re on your own. If you can’t afford college, you’re on your own. If you don’t like that some corporation is polluting your air or the air that your child breathes, then you’re on your own,” he said. “That’s not the America I believe in. It’s not the America you believe in.”

Nothing could more neatly distill Obama’s hostility to the classic American dream, one that believed it was a virtue for people to make it on their own.  That the reality didn’t always match this cultural image, since many failed to make it at all, while others made it with substantial government help, is irrelevant.  What matters is that, for ordinary people, growing up, working, raising children, personal accomplishment was the cultural paradigm.  By contrast, Obama’s American dream, the one that he desires as the overarching cultural paradigm, is one that sees people utterly dependent on the government.  It’s impressive that Obama so resolutely clings to his dream, even as the Europeans actively prove that, during the waking hours, the dream is a nightmare.

As more and more people, with media and academic help, enthusiastically turn the government into their paterfamilias, and as more and more rules and regulations mandate that people abjure individual action, we get a rash of stories, culled from headlines in both England, where the dependency rot runs deep, and America. Watching people drown is getting to be an ordinary day’s work in dependency cultures. This story comes from the San Francisco Bay Area:

The Oakland Tribune (via Mercury News) reports on a tragic story of a 57-year-old man who drowned in the bay in Alameda on Monday after wading chest-high in the water fully clothed for nearly an hour before rescuers could reach him.

Witnesses told the Tribune that police and fire crews responded quickly to the scene, but because the Alameda Fire Department is not certified in land-based water rescues, they had to wait for the United States Coast Guard to arrive.

The Coast Guard reportedly responded within 20 minutes with a rescue boat, but because the man was in fairly shallow water, they had to wait for a helicopter instead. The helicopter took 65 minutes to arrive because it had been out on another mission and needed to refuel.

In the mean time, a woman in her late 20s who’s trained as a water rescue nurse, was able to pull the man out when he was about 50 yards from shore. Unfortunately, rescuers were unable to revive him, and he was later pronounced dead at Alameda Hospital.

One can argue, as a surprising number did at the time, that the guy in Alameda wanted to commit suicide, thereby justifying the fact that rescue work suddenly became a spectator sport.  That’s not always the case, though.  In a surprisingly similar story from England, the person wasn’t committing suicide, but rescuers again stood by, watching:

More than a dozen emergency workers refused to pull a man from a waist-deep boating lake because of ‘health and safety’ fears.

For half-an-hour charity shop worker Simon Burgess, 41, was left face down in the shallow water as they waited for a specialist rescue crew.

Mr Burgess, who had gone to the lake to feed the swans, was pronounced dead at the scene but friends claim that if rescuers had waded straight into the water he could have been saved.

The crews of two fire engines, two police cars, two ambulances and an air ambulance were told not to enter the lake, which is no more than three feet (one metre) at its deepest point, in case they ‘compromised their safety’.

That’s just two stories, right?  What if I add a third, again from England?

A jobsworth ambulance boss refused to allow his staff to enter six inches of water to treat a man with a broken back – because it breached heath and safety.

Stricken Brian Bendle, 45, suffered the agonising injuries as he stood in shallow water at a leisure lake in Somerset.

He was waiting to take his £10,000 jetski out onto the water when he was hit by another rider travelling at around 50mph.

Shocked onlookers immediately ran into the lake as Mr Bendle, from Bristol, lay face down in the water.

They floated the dad-of-three in the six inch ankle-deep water, where they supported him until an ambulance arrived amid fears moving him would aggravate his back injury.

But they were stunned when a paramedic arrived and refused his pleading staff to enter the water – because they weren’t trained to deal with water rescues.

They had to slide a spinal board under him themselves and carry him to ambulancemen, who were stood on the bank just 6ft away.

At least in the story above, onlookers weren’t so shocked that they became incapable of saving the man themselves.  It’s good to see that some initiative survives.

(I would be remiss at this point if I didn’t note that we here in America have a long and surprisingly honored history of an individual cavalierly walking away from a person trapped in water.)

Passively falling back on regulations when the situation demands immediate individual action isn’t just a water-related activity.  Here’s a recent story about someone who watched an atrocious act, did nothing at first, and then acted in the most passive way possible.  No doubt his superiors approved, as they engaged in behavior that was either just as passive or, worse, actively complicit:

[Mike] McQueary, according to his testimony in the grand jury report, witnessed Sandusky subjecting what McQueary estimated to be a 10-year-old boy to anal intercourse in the showers of a football building on campus in 2002. According to his grand jury testimony, McQueary, upset, went to his office and phoned his father, who advised him to go home, according to testimony. The next day, McQueary reported what he had seen to Paterno, according to the grand jury report. Paterno passed information that an incident of “a sexual nature” had occurred to athletic director Tim Curley and vice president of finance Gary Schultz. Curley and Schultz were charged with counts of perjury and failure to report.

I’d like to think that, had I been there, Sandusky would have received some immediate, albeit crude, facial reconstruction.  I’m small, but I’m game — and a child was involved.

Looking at these few examples, I can’t help but think of another culture that allowed itself to lapse into such a bureaucratic mindset that citizens either passively watched or actively engaged in the most heinous acts.  I’m thinking, of course, of the Nazis.  If one subordinates people completely to the state, can one be surprised if they lose both will power and moral strength?

As many of you know, I’m an enthusiastic amateur martial artist.  (If only my skills were equal to my enthusiasm….)  I do martial arts because I really like it — but I also do it so that I can act.  After a long hiatus to have children, and then to moan about how having children prevented me from exercising, I read a story in the papers that send me off like a rocket to the nearest dojo.  Back in 2008, a man stomped his child to death in front of myriad witnesses, none of whom intervened.  All of them fell prey to analysis paralysis, shock, denial (“this can’t be happening!”), etc.  I’m willing to bet, though, that a fair number of them were waiting for someone else to take care of the situation.  I go to martial arts so that I can be that someone else.

Fortunately, despite socialist government’s best efforts to mandate inaction (or, at least, to give people an excuse for failing to get involved), all is not lost.  There will always be decent people who do get involved.  As I pointed out above, in the case of the man hit by the jet ski, even though the bureaucratized aid workers refused to do anything, bystanders willingly rescued the injured man.

I doubt, too, that many of us have forgotten the story of the bridge crew that acted with incredible speed and ingenuity to rescue a drowning woman:

“They just harnessed me up and dipped me down in the water and I grabbed her and the crane drug her to the boat and that’s it,” Oglesbee said. “What are you going to do if she’s like that? It’s no big deal. The whole crew did it.”

So spoke Jason Oglesbee after being the last man in the chain that daringly rescued a woman who got swept into a dam. The story says so much about the ingenuity and courage that we like to see in the average American.

Recently, a motorcyclist trapped under a car was lucky enough to find himself in the presence of proactive people, unconstrained by analysis paralysis, government regulations, or career worries.  At great risk to themselves, these people acted:

Penn State is a tocsin, warning us what happens when our cultural paradigm encourages us to pass the buck.  The nation, as a whole, hasn’t yet reached the moral abyss that is the Penn State athletic department, but Barack Obama has stated clearly that his goal is to create precisely the bureaucratic, dependency culture that makes Penn State’s (and Nazi Germany) possible.  This is not to say that Barack Obama and his team have as their goal mass child rape, genocide, crime waves, etc.  It is to say, though, that once one creates a government system that turns people into mindless, amoral automatons, the possibilities are endless for mass evil, unconstrained by individual morals.

photo by: a

Bright line bureaucratic rules that make no sense

Some friends of mine have put together a clever blog.  (If you follow me on facebook, you’ve already seen me trying to help them out.)  It’s called “A Kid’s I View” and it offers travel posts that kids write.  As a mom, I see it as a good resource for kids’ writing exercises; and as a mom who travels, I see it as a helpful place to look for travel ideas.

The biggest hurdle for my friends right now is to get content at the site.  Unlike some bloggers we know, most kids are not spontaneous writers.  Even nagging parents seem to lack the power to push their kids into writing.  When you think about it, the only people with the real power to push kids to write are teachers.  With this in mind, my friends are approaching various school districts.  Their sales pitch is that, at no expense to the school or the students, children can become published authors and, with a little luck, win cash prizes for their writing.

So far, some private schools and some public school districts have been intrigued.  One school district, however, instantly slammed the door in my friends’ faces.  The reason?  That school district has a hard-and-fast rule that it will only work with non-profit web sites.

I can understand the thinking that drove this rule.  “We’re a big school district and, even though we’re kind of broke, there’s still a lot of money here.  If we started using for-profit websites, people would think that we were trying to channel public school funds to those sites, which would look terrible and might encourage corrupt behavior from our staff.  If we use only non-profit sites, nobody can accuse us of wrongdoing.”

The problem with that line of thinking, of course, is that it rests on two completely fallacious assumptions:  (1) that for-profit sites suck funds out of school districts and (2) that non-profit sites are always on the side of the angels.

As my friends’ site demonstrates, a for-profit site can provide a benefit to a school district without imposing any costs on the district.  From the school and student point of view, it’s a fun, safe, colorful place where kids can experience the thrill of being a published author.  More than that, it’s absolutely free.  No money at all flows from school and student to the site.  To the contrary.  If a kid does well, the site sends money to the student.  More than that, if a teacher is able to encourage enough students to write (and frequent writing is the only way for someone to become a good writer), the teacher can earn money for his or her classroom.  This site puts the lie to the notion that schools appear corrupt (or are actually corrupt) if they deal with for-profit sites.

There’s evidence that the district is equally wrong with its assumption that non-profit organizations have a purity that allows the school districts to deal with them with impunity.  The most stunning example of this is Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea empire.  Mortenson wrote a book — Three Cups of Tea — describing his transformative experience following a disastrous hike in the Himalayas.  Thanks to that Himalayan sojourn, he was inspired to start schools for girls in Afghanistan.  Oprah got wind of him.  His book climbed the NYT’s bestseller list and became so popular it is now part of many schools’ curricula.  Inspired by their classroom reading, thousands of children raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund those schools.

Except, if Jon Krakauer is to be believed in his book Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way, Mortenson is a con man.  His transformative Himalayan sojourn never happened.  He didn’t build most of the promised schools and, of the few he built, many stand empty.  Most egregiously, Mortenson used his organization (funded in significant part by school children) as his own personal ATM, siphoning off millions of dollars to fund his lavish lifestyle.  (As far as I’m concerned, the early tip-off that Mortenson wasn’t on the up-and-up Oprah’s embrace.  I acquit Oprah entirely of participating in the fraud.  I’ve just noticed that she has a knack for falling for scams.)

As the Mortenson con shows, the school district’s bright line rule allowing it to deal only with non-profit web organizations provides no assurance that it will be insulating its students from scams or other improper conduct.  Meanwhile, this same misguided policy shuts the door entirely on services that could, without cost, benefit the school and the students.

I wish my friends much luck.  They’re going to need it if that school district’s rules are the norm, rather than anomalies.

By the way, if you want to read an entire book devoted to foolish bureaucracy, I strongly recommend Philip K. Howard’s The Death of Common Sense: How Law Is Suffocating America.  Don’t let the book’s title fool you.  It’s not about lawyers.  It’s about bureaucracy, and the way in which its growth stifles initiative, innovation, flexibility and adaptability.  Keep in mind as you read it that government equals bureaucracy.  The bigger the government, the bigger the bureaucracy controlling our lives.

Dealing with government bureaucracies

I do not understand the liberal love affair with government.  Government is inefficient and it bullies people.  Had a business engaged in the same conduct as the City of San Francisco, it would have apologized profusely or found itself flamed to death.  A government, however, can act with impunity, because it holds the power.

I’m not advocating an anarchic system without government.  I’m just saying that people ought to think very carefully before they vest more and more power in government’s hands.  History shows repeatedly the truth behind Thoreau’s dictum that “That government is best which governs least.”

A microcosm of big government

My child participates in a youth swim league.  In a couple of weeks, all the regional swim teams are gathering together for the big meet of the season.  Each swim team has to pay a fee to participate.  Because I’m on the planning committee this year, I learned something interesting:  the private swim clubs pay their fees the moment they’re billed; the swim clubs that are run through the cities can take months to pay their bills.  Every bill has to wend its way through the city’s bureaucracy until it finally gets to the right desk and gets the right signature.  Meanwhile, the team that hosts the event is left out-of-pocket while awaiting payment.

Government is useful and important in the right places, but it is inefficient.  Very, very inefficient.