The federal budget is ballooning beyond sustainability. Laws are being added in quarter million word increments. At the current rate we will soon lose our collective credit rating and even our finest legal minds will be unable to load the law books into their brains. We are teetering on the edge of collapse. It’s time to take care of that “waste, fraud and abuse” that our lawmakers keep talking about.
Yeah right! Every time I hear that phrase I cringe. I know that trivial cuts in government are soon to follow. Then again, it’s better in practice than the alternative of “rethinking the role of government.” Sure, the latter can theoretically yield much bigger cuts — if we had enough semi-libertarian lawmakers holding office. We don’t. So we need to either get more people behind my campaign to become god-emperor of the U.S. or come up with a government-cutting framework which works with our existing lawmakers.
I think I have one: let’s get rid of the cruft.
I’m borrowing a term used mainly for software, but in a sense laws are a form of software — where lawyers, courts and regulators are the hardware which runs the software. I write software for my day job, and work on big code, code of size comparable to modern legislation. I am continuously adding functionality to the software, which makes it bigger and more complicated. To keep the process manageable, I have to do more than add new code. I have to rewrite and/or delete old code. These deletions are not about “reducing the role of the program” I work on, nor is it an admission that my old code was “wasteful, fraudulent, or abusive.” It is simply recognition that hacks made to get the code running quickly in the past were not meant to be scaled upward, that early designs taught me lessons which I can apply today, and yes, that some of the early requirements have been removed.
Let’s us appeal to our lawmakers to remove cruft. Let us assume for the purposes of argument that all the laws on the books had a valid reason for being enacted and the way they were enacted made sense at the time. We need not insult past lawmakers or today’s lawmakers’ pasts in order to recognize that the software that runs our nation needs periodic cleanup. Circumstances change. Requirements change. Some old crises have been solved.
As a trivial example, consider the Spanish American War. It’s over. Yet 108 years went by before the telephone excise tax left over from said war was removed in 2006. This was cruft. The telephone tax made sense when it was imposed. We didn’t have an income tax at the time and telephone service was a luxury item. At the time an excise tax on telephone service was a simple way to tax the rich in order to pay for a war. Later we added an income tax to tax the rich. Telephone service became practically a necessity today, so the telephone excise tax for years was a regressive tax.
That was trivial. Now let’s consider a bigger war: World War II. It too is over. Yet we still have troops in Japan and Germany as if they are about to go on another imperial rampage. Germany and Japan have learned their lessons. Today, they are among the most civilized and human rights respecting nations on earth. The world might be better off with a few German and Japanese troops occupying some of the world’s hot spots. But we still keep them under the overstretched U.S. defense umbrella which discourages them from building up their own military might.
Nowhere here do I resort to any call for isolationism, nor do I make any criticism of either war. Even if both wars were completely desirable and/or necessary, let us celebrate that they are over and move on to today’s challenges. If we are going to continue to have an activist foreign policy, it is critical to recognize successes and cultivate strong allies. Continuing to fight World War II violates both isolationism and neoconservatism. (This is not to say I endorse the Spanish American War; I merely note that no critique is required as part of a call to finish it.)
Let’s move on to domestic policy. Over half a century ago our government decided to do something for old people who had insufficient funds for retirement. This requirement still exists, but the compromises which went into the original legislation do not. At the time Social Security was enacted, simply giving free money to old people was politically unacceptable. So Social Security was set up to look like an annuity program, though in reality it was a Ponzi scheme. Today, the Ponzi scheme is collapsing. Social Security as constituted is a regressive tax on the working class.
Social Security is cruft. Since the 1930s we have moved leftward as a society in some ways. Though we are more market friendly than the Roosevelt Administration was, we are also more generous as a society. (Being richer helps.) We could simplify our tax system enormously by merging FICA taxes into the bottom tax brackets and simply paying an age-based old age benefit out of general revenues.
Those were relatively easy. Let me end with one which most people on the left are probably not ready for, but might be soon: affirmative action and anti discrimination laws for women. In these days of machines and safety laws, the muscular strength and expendability of men have lost a great deal of market value. The Atlantic magazine, hardly a conservative organ, reports in “The End of Men” that today woman are doing better than men on average in the workplace. Affirmative action and anti-discrimination laws for women are obsolete. These laws are cruft. We need to let men have their manly occupations back in the name of equality.
Not ready for that last one? Fair enough. So start with the easy ones. The Spanish-American War is definitely over. This shouldn’t be controversial.