Saturday, August 30, 2008

Laboring For Truth

The Iowa Policy Project (IPP) has just released it’s annual “The State of Working Iowa” report and things don’t look good. The report warns: “Stagnation in Iowa jobs and a continued decline in job quality have combined with high gasoline and food prices, flooding and housing pressures to present daunting challenges for Iowa’s working families on Labor Day 2008.” Colin Gordon, senior research consultant for IPP and co-author of the report said, “The numbers and some of the circumstances are new — but our basic Labor Day story remains: Iowans on balance are becoming less economically secure and having a tougher time getting by.”

Things needn’t be so bleak for working class Iowans, Gordon assures, “To get a new story line for Labor Days to come, our policy makers must grasp these realities and address them.” Policy makers apparently should “address these realities” by implementing IPP’s included recommendations. This assurance is not comforting considering IPP’s past policy recommendations that have been implemented and apparently are ineffective.

Last year the Democrat-controlled Iowa legislature and governor raised Iowa’s minimum wage to a rate higher than the current federal minimum wage and higher than most of Iowa’s neighbors. At that time IPP executive director David Osterberg crowed, “It’s nice to be ahead of the curve for a change. […] This will be good for low-income families, and will be good for Iowa businesses that depend on local purchases. It is a bright spot in an economy that is offering few such signs for low-income folks.”

“More income in the hands of lower-income families means they will have more to spend with local businesses. This is good for the Iowa economy,” Osterberg said in 2007. “A pizza shop owner should understand that better-paid pizza delivery people can more easily afford pizzas for themselves.” Given the glumness of the new report, apparently the pizza scenario prophesized by Osterberg must have broken down somewhere. Perhaps, since the pizza shop owner had to raise his prices to reflect the reality of his increased payroll expense, the pizza delivery guy couldn’t buy any more pizzas than he could before the minimum wage was raised. (There were plenty of factors driving prices up in 2008, but the minimum wage hike was definitely one of them.)

It’s not surprising that the minimum wage hike was not the promised panacea, given the mountains of research showing that minimum wage requirements don’t reduce poverty. For instance a 2002 study by David Neumark, professor of economics at Michigan State University, and William Wascher, a researcher with the Federal Reserve, found “no compelling evidence supporting the view that minimum wages help in the fight against poverty. Rather, because not only the wage gains but also the disemployment effects of minimum wage increases are concentrated among low-income families, the various tradeoffs created by minimum wage increases more closely resemble income redistribution among low-income families than income redistribution from high- to low-income families.”

Since increasing government regulation and fiats didn’t seem to help, the 2008 IPP report recommends increasing government regulation and fiats. The minimum wage should be indexed for inflation, the report suggests, since it is already too low after less than a year at it’s current rate. IPP also recommends increased nanny-state meddling in childcare and healthcare. In short, more of the same.

If we truly want “a new story line for Labor Days to come,” we must close IPP’s report and turn to a recent policy study by Public Interest Institute, a non-partisan, market-oriented public policy research organization located at Iowa Wesleyan College. The title of the study explains it’s own findings, “No Income Tax: The Key to Economic Growth.”

Iowa taxes money when it is earned, through the state income tax. With the state sales tax it taxes the money again when it is spent. If you bought real property with that money, you are taxed again yearly to keep it, via property taxes. Essentially, Iowa taxes you coming, going and staying. No wonder the Tax Foundation ranks Iowa near the bottom of the heap on tax issues. Eliminating the income tax would help change that.

The Public Interest Institute study concludes, “States with low or no income tax are more attractive to individuals looking for a place to live and for businesses looking for a place to locate. Studies show that states with no income tax have higher rates of economic growth, have greater domestic in-migration, and are rated higher in the qualities that businesses look for when considering location.

“Iowa has an income tax, while our neighbor to the northwest — South Dakota — does not. South Dakota ranks better than Iowa in growth in total and per capita personal income, growth in state population, and growth in employment. South Dakota also has greater growth in the number of housing units, more hospital beds per capita, and lower rates of crime.”

The IPP and Public Interest Institute reports offer opposing roadmaps to a happier, more affluent and productive workforce in Iowa: the proven failure of government by fiat or the general success of free markets. Let’s hope Iowa makes the right choice.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Should the Drinking Age Be Re-Examined?

On August 19th the Associated Press reported that University of Iowa President Sally Mason announced that “she won't support an initiative to study lowering the drinking age.” This plan, called the Amethyst Initiative, already has the support of 129 chancellors and presidents of universities and colleges from across the country, who hope to stem binge drinking by young adults.

According to the Amethyst Initiative’s website the group “supports informed and unimpeded debate on the 21 year-old drinking age. Amethyst Initiative presidents and chancellors call upon elected officials to weigh all the consequences of current alcohol policies and to invite new ideas on how best to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol use.”

One of the “current alcohol policies” referred to is the 1984 “National Minimum Drinking Age Act” which withholds 10% of federal highway funds from any state that sets its drinking age lower than 21. This flies in the face of 10th Amendment federalism, the idea that jobs not specifically assigned to the U.S. government by the Constitution belong to the individual states and to the people themselves. Regardless of what the drinking age should be, it’s really not the federal government’s call. [Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr addresses this very issue in his August 22 press release, which I read after I finished writing this post.]

It should be noted that signatories of the Amethyst Initiative don’t necessarily support lowering the drinking age, just “informed and unimpeded debate” about it. That makes President Mason’s refusal to sign even more puzzling. What head of a research university dedicated to the pursuit of intellectual truth could be opposed to THAT?

According to the AP article, President Mason says that she wouldn’t support the initiative because 19- and 20-year-olds can enter Iowa City bars and many underage patrons are drinking alcohol and getting drunk. What head of an institution with the previously mentioned attributes would use anecdotal evidence like that to justify unquestioning acceptance of an arbitrary (and arguably unconstitutional) national law. Even if her evidence wasn’t anecdotal, I can’t follow her logic that noncompliance with the current law is proof positive of its effectiveness and necessity. Of course I’m not as well educated as she is.

With or without President Mason, there seems to be growing interest in revisiting the drinking age debate. This is probably partially fueled by the ongoing war in Iraq. Most people see the inherent unfairness of sending legal-adults away to fight in dangerous foreign lands but denying them the ability to enjoy a cold beer if they make it home alive.

This has led several states to discuss allowing young adults serving in the military to drink before they turn 21. Another novel idea that’s been proposed would allow 18 year-olds to apply for a state-issued “drinking permit.” Any infraction by the permit holder would result in the permit immediately being revoked, leaving the young adult high and dry until he or she becomes 21. That would seem to be a good compromise between those who support lowering the drinking age and those who don’t. I know that if I’d have had a “license to drink” when I was 18, I would have jumped through all kinds of hoops to keep it.

Would it work? I don’t know. The point is, new and inventive ideas like these will never even be explored so long as the federal government tries to maintain its chokehold on the innovation of our nation’s 50 laboratories of democracy, the states. As long as leaders like President Mason unthinkingly support the status quo, the federal government has little incentive to release its death grip.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Iowans Should Support Bob Barr For President

With their respective candidates for president the Democrats and Republicans have given the American electorate a clear and meaningful choice to make: Vanilla or French vanilla? But before you flip a coin and enter the voting booth, you should know that there IS a third choice. Former U.S. Representative Bob Barr is running for president for the Libertarian Party.

Bob Barr was born in Iowa City in 1948 and spent much of his youth in places like Malaysia, Panama, and pre-revolution Iran where his father took civil engineering jobs. He earned a degree in International Affairs from George Washington University in 1972 and a law degree from Georgetown University in 1977.

From 1970 to 1978 Barr worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. He was a U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia from 1986 to 1990. He then served as president of the Southeastern Legal Foundation which supports “the principles of limited government and individual freedom.” Barr has worked with groups as seemingly divergent as the American Conservative Union and the ACLU.

In 1994 Barr was elected to the U.S. House of Representative for Georgia’s 7th District during the “Republican Revolution.” He served on the Judicial Committee, Committee on Financial Services, Committee on Veteran’s Affairs and as Vice-Chairman of the Government Reform Committee. He led the charge to impeach Bill Clinton for committing perjury and later became a vocal critic of President Bush’s erosion of due process protections, showing that Bob Barr doesn’t like Executive excesses regardless of party.

In 2006 Barr officially joined the Libertarian Party. In May of 2008 he became the Libertarian Presidential Nominee. This may be a banner year for Bob Barr and the Libertarian Party as there seems to be growing frustration with the present mess created by the two ruling parties.

The young people now arriving on the political scene (who grew up with their choice of hundreds of TV channels, soda pop, etc…) are particularly dismayed with the lack of choice that the two-party duopoly offers them. They are also disgusted that they are already being saddled with the yoke of a crushing public debt that they didn’t create. Bob Barr offers them at least one more choice and he wants to cut government spending before Congress can completely destroy their future.

Goldwater/Reagan/Ron Paul Republicans who believe in smaller, Constitutional government are also frustrated with their current choices. While in charge of the federal government’s purse strings the GOP increased non-defense and non-security spending by so much that they made the Democrats look like penny-pinchers (which is no small feat). The Republican presidential candidate John McCain voted against the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts and supports a “cap-and-trade” (tax) on American industry. At a time when the overtaxed and overregulated U.S. economy is barely keeping its head above water, cap-and-trade would be like throwing it an anchor.

Bob Barr not only supports cutting taxes, he wants to completely overhaul the tax system and abolish the 16th Amendment (which authorizes the income tax). He would drastically cut federal spending and work for freer markets, not more regulations.

Many Democrats are disgusted with their party as well. Their candidates talk a good game about civil liberties and ending the war in Iraq while they’re at fundraisers and rallies, but don’t actually do anything about it when they get back to DC and even collaborate with the Bush administration on things like domestic spying.

Bob Barr would remove our troops from Iraq. While maintaining a strong military, he would reorient it toward its original mission: Defend America. And Barr’s fight against the increasingly Orwellian surveillance-state has earned him a reputation as one of the nation’s leading advocates of privacy rights.

Gun owners also face an odious choice with the two major parties. Despite his rhetoric, Barack Obama is clearly an anti-gun zealot. Unfortunately, John McCain isn’t much better.

The McCain-Feingold Act specifically sought to muzzle groups like the NRA from criticizing anti-gun candidates. NRA’s Wayne LaPierre called it "the most significant change in the First Amendment since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which tried to make it a crime to criticize a member of Congress." The earlier McCain-Lieberman Gun Show bill supposedly sought to close the imaginary “gun show loophole,” but Second Amendment scholar Dave Kopel pointed out that the bill was “loaded with poison pills which would allow a single appointed official to prevent any gun show, anywhere in the United States from operating."

McCain supported Bill Clinton’s Supreme Court nominees, who both recently voted AGAINST the Second Amendment in the case of DC v. Heller. McCain even did TV commercials for an anti-gun group. These and other actions earned McCain a grade of “F minus” from Gun Owners of America and the NRA’s official journal called him “one of the premier flag carriers for the enemies of the Second Amendment.”

Bob Barr is a committed supporter of the Second Amendment. The Libertarian Party was the only political party to file a legal brief in the Heller case, urging the Supreme Court to strike down the DC gun ban and uphold the Second Amendment. This brief was written by… Bob Barr. Rather than trying to torpedo the NRA, Bob Barr serves on its board of directors. Barr states his position succinctly, “I oppose any law requiring registration of, or restricting the ownership, manufacture, or transfer or sale of firearms or ammunition to law-abiding citizens.”

On these and other issues, you DO have a choice. When offered only vanilla or French vanilla, it’s time for a new ice cream shop. If you’re one of the many people disaffected by the “lesser of two evils” two-party system, please check out the Libertarian Party at and visit Bob Barr at

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Less Smoke, Less Freedom In Iowa

On July 1st a statewide smoking ban went into effect here in Iowa. All so-called "public" places such as bars and restaurants are affected. The state's casinos remain exempt from the ban proving that, even when the government does something as supposedly noble as protecting our health, special favors will go to those with the best political connections. The Iowa Bar Owners Coalition has sued to block the law. Their core argument is that the ban is bad for business.

It may indeed be bad for business, but Libertarians realize that there is another issue at stake. This ban (like most bans) is bad for freedom. It limits the freedom of business owners and patrons alike. Business owners should be free to run their businesses as they like and patrons should be free to light up, so long as it's with the property owner's blessing.

The argument that employees don't enjoy the same choice as patrons on whether or not to enter a smoking establishment is invalid, unless the owner is utilizing slave labor. Employees must weigh the potential health risks of working around smoke against their economic circumstances, but the choice is indeed theirs to make. Life is a constant cost-benefit analysis.

The right to NOT enter smoking facilities was one that my wife and I exercised often when deciding where to dine with our young son. Apparently we aren't the only ones who prefer smoke-free environments. One public poll showed that 70% of Iowans approved of some type of smoking ban. That is a significant share of the market. If more of these consumers had voted with their wallets, rather than seeking the coercive force of government to impose their will on others, then smoke-free bars and restaurants would already abound and a blanket smoking ban would be unnecessary.

Unfortunately, that's not the situation we find ourselves in now. Some Libertarians choose to smoke. Some Libertarians choose not to. But all Libertarians want to live where everyone can breathe free.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Reflections On The Floods of 2008

A winter of near-record snowfalls here in Iowa, gave way to a spring in which we had our biggest tornado since 1976, wiping one town off the map and killing 7 people. Then, in July, Iowa saw its worst flooding since the Genesis deluge. This year's immoderate weather has given me ample reminder of why I hate Iowa. The response of Iowans has reminded me why I love it.

Flood waters on the Cedar River first hit the cities of Waterloo and Cedar Falls, knocking down bridges and flooding downtown areas. It then hit smaller towns like Vinton and Palo, flooding nearly the entire town, and lumbered onward toward the population center of Cedar Rapids.

Not to be outdone by rising flood waters, an Iowa twister suddenly lashed out, tearing through a Boy Scout camp, killing 4 young scouts and sending many more to the hospital.

Flood waters crept up on downtown Cedar Rapids engulfing first the "100 year flood plain," then the "500 year flood plain." Sandbagging the downtown area quickly proved to be futile and it was surrendered to the river. More than 3,900 homes had to be evacuated, creating over 24,000 homeless evacuees. Over 1300 city blocks were submerged under a river crest of 31.8 feet. (Flood stage is 12 feet.)

Damage to Iowa's lifeblood of crops was estimated at $2.7 billion. Property damages in Cedar Rapids alone were estimated at $736 million. Many talking heads on TV compared the Iowa floods to Hurricane Katrina.

There is one big difference between the two disasters though: Unlike New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and their ilk, our local officials didn't stand there wringing their hands, wondering what George Bush was going to do about it. When the flood waters came, local officials, non-profit organizations and private citizens alike all rolled up their sleeves and did what they could.

When Cedar Rapids' last remaining fresh-water pumping station was in danger of being engulfed the city asked for volunteer sandbaggers through the local media. 600 to 1000 volunteers arrived en-mass, so many that most had to be turned away. (Actually they were sent to help evacuate the hospital.) On the news, I saw people being rescued from flood waters in private bassboats and motorized duck blinds. People were so busy helping their neighbors that they plumb forgot to loot.

In my own small town, the municipal water-treatment plant was nearly swamped. City leaders asked for help sandbagging. I took off work early and when I arrived at the fire station at 1 p.m. the work was already done and the numerous volunteers had been sent home.

Many of the small towns affected called out their biggest asset: unpaid, volunteer firefighters, who quickly changed their job description to floodfighters. Local police and county emergency personnel served admirably, as did the Iowa National Guard. Churches and non-profit groups like the Salvation Army sprang into action, setting up shelters for evacuees and feeding the masses.

FEMA was on hand, to be sure, offering whatever assistance it could, and U.S. Coast Guard rescue crews helped survivors. But it was clear that LOCAL officials were running the show. It's called federalism, Mayor Nagin. Look into it.

All in all I'm pretty proud of how my fellow Iowans handled the worst of times. Iowa may not have mountains or oceans, we may not have celebrity or diversity, we may not have Broadway lights or the Vegas Strip, and we may not have the French Quarter, but we've got good folks in these parts. That's good enough.

[Anyone who would like to donate to the continuing recovery can go to Embrace Iowa - 2008 Iowa Disaster Fund.]

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