Optimally Compact (Non-Gerrymandered) Congressional Districts

“Republicans have been accused of abandoning the poor. It’s the other way around. They never vote for us.” – Dan Quayle

A good friend BLW passed along an article on a computer program that draws optimally compact congressional districts. The main point is this: it is not all that difficult to gin up a computer algorithm that draws optimally compact (and non-gerrymandered) districts. Perhaps we should demand that all congressional districts be drawn this way … but that seems like a big leap.

The dreaded gerrymander has become a rather ubiquitous tool used to sway Congressional control. Every 10 years there’s a new census. The outcome of that census determines the distribution of congressional seats. If a state gains or loses seats it must redraw its districts (to account for the change in total seats). That redistricting process is largely at the discretion of the state legislature, and gerrymandering is an amazingly effective tool at rigging seat distributions. Thus, whoever wins the biggest in local elections on years ending in zero can expect a boost.

So it was in 2010, when the national backlash against president Obama was in full force and Republicans cleaned up in local and state elections. After the census results were in, a number of states (now with Republican dominated legislatures) had to redistrict. Boy did they. This Mother Jones article and this NYT Article from 2012 rail against the injustices of Republican-dominated gerrymandering, noting that Democrats actually won the popular congressional vote, but still had a 33 seat deficit in the new House. (To be fair, the articles also noted that Democrat-run states do exactly the same thing … state’s like Maryland, my home state.)

The problem with mandating optimally compact districts is the same as self-enforced term limits or “popular vote winner take all” stipulations for the electoral college: nobody can do it unless everybody does, and not everybody will.

For those who don’t recall, there was a big kerfuffle after the 2000 election, where Al Gore won the popular vote but George W. Bush won the electoral college. At the time, a number of left-leaning states sought to amend their constitutions to mandate that their state’s votes always went to the popular vote winner. The problem is that this only makes sense if everybody does it. But what happens if a Republican wins the popular vote but a Democrat wins the electoral college? Any idea how quickly the legislatures would overturn the amendment to prevent the Republican from winning?

Same for self-enforced term limits. If one side puts term limits on themselves and the other doesn’t, it puts them at a meaningful disadvantage. (Fundraising, power of incumbency, understanding the inner workings of the congress.)

Unless there is a constitutional amendment mandating that all states adopt an optimally compact framework (or that all congressmen and senators have term limits) you can forget about it ever coming to pass.

There’s also another mild problem, as the article notes: the Voting Rights Act. The act actually mandates majority-minority districts in some cases. This helps to make sure that minorities get elected to congress, but it also helps to make sure that “the other party” has a general seat advantage. Gerrymandering a district of 95% African Americans (who vote 93% Democrat) is a great way for Republicans to maintain a majority. This pits two Democrat priorities against one another.

Now, I haven’t done any research, but my guess is that the vast majority of Americans would prefer non-gerrymandered districts, just as the vast majority would likely prefer term limits for Congress. It is curious how something that almost everybody supports just doesn’t come to pass. Perhaps we lack the willingness to vote the bums out (even “our” bums) when they don’t do what we want.


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Where Does the Money Go in New Orleans and Delaware?

“Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please” – Mark Twain

Does anybody remember hurricane Katrina, the massive storm that destroyed much of Mississippi’s gulf coast … oh, and also flooded New Orleans? (Don’t kid yourself – Mississippi took the brunt of the storm, but it’s coastal cities were not below sea level.) In the aftermath charges flew that Republicans had left New Orleans defenseless.  Alas, it came out afterwards that plenty of money had been sent by the Republican congress to strengthen the levees, but local politicians and bureaucrats diverted the funds to projects with better political payouts.

Why bring Katrina up now? I just came across an article over at yahoo titled “Crucial East Coast Highway Bridge Closed.” The bridge in question is on I-495 in Wilmington Delaware. Now, I have a question for the reader: have you ever traveled up I-95 from Maryland through Delaware on to New Jersey? The Delaware tolls are usurious. In a 15 mile stretch you’ll pay something like $11 (that’s round trip, if I recall). Where does all that money go?

One would presume that the money goes to maintaining the roadways … apparently not though. Apparently bridges can have support structures start “leaning” without any prior maintenance or warning from the presumably well-heeled state highway commission. Wonder just how big of a traffic headache this will be – and whether any Delawareans will start asking where all that toll money went?

Now, I grant you that preventative maintenance can’t catch any and every issue. Still, there is a rather interesting story somewhere in here when the most egregious toll-taking state has roadways that start to crumble.

It’s always the same story. “We need this new revenue stream to fund this important thing.” But the money never really goes to where it’s supposed to. Lotteries are always built on the basis of “education funding” – but they don’t seem to increase education funding at all. Sure, the lottery money all goes to education, but the general revenue money that had gone to education gets diverted to other, more politically-connected projects and programs. (Don’t take that as opposition to lotteries or support for more education funding. Those are arguments for a different post. What I care about here is simply truth in advertising from those lying politicians.)

And so the game goes on. Here’s hoping some over-eager investigative journalist picks up the story and runs with it.

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Jelani Cobb’s Odd Prediction and Rose Colored Glasses

“We must reinforce argument with results” – Booker T. Washington

I read an article earlier today by one Jelani Cobb titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Reparations.” As you can guess from the title, the article discusses the notion of reparations for slavery, specifically enslavement of Africans by white Americans in the early years of the country. Now, I have a number of thoughts about the reparations discussion (particularly after reading parts of Ta Nehisis Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” linked in the previous article) – but this post is not about reparations.

Instead, this post is about what can only be seen as a prediction by Cobb regarding the economic outcomes of the next 2.5 years:

We are discussing reparations at this moment because in two years Barack Obama will leave the White House, having repaired the economic collapse that greeted his inauguration, but with African-Americans still unemployed at a rate twice that of whites, and struggling to see how this world differs from the status quo ante.

That, my friends, is a prediction. Cobb is predicting that in a little over two years, when Barack Obama leaves the White House (a proposition certainly disputed by the tinfoil hatters, who expect him to set up martial law) that the economic collapse that greeted his inauguration will have been “repaired”.

Well, I suppose it’s possible. I suppose that the unrecovery of the past 5 years, that has seen a drop in unemployment rate attributable solely to people leaving the workforce and/or taking part time menial labor jobs will hold up for another 2.5 years and provide Obama “cover” to leave town as an economic success. I suppose the unrecovery that has been prodded along due to untold printing by the Federal Reserve, the consequences of which are so far outside of the normal operating space of monetary policy that we don’t even know how to measure their extent, will limp along for another 2.5 years (and perhaps another $2,000,000,000,000 or so in printed vapor) and leave Obama with an out. I suppose it’s possible.

Don’t misunderstand. This is not a defense of Bush-era economic policies. My question is simply back to Cobb and other traditional Obama supporters and acolytes: what if it all unwinds before then? What if the bubble in the bond market and bubble in the stock market don’t hold together, and we see another major “correction” in both, resulting in a collapse of baby-boomer retirement plans, collapse of home prices (again), and collapse of consumer confidence that effects a generation. What if the veil is lifted and we find out that nothing has actually been fixed, but troubles were papered over long enough for the wealthy elites to get their stolen goods together and make for the exits? What if? Will that be enough to say that Obama’s policies are not good? Will that be enough to say that Obama’s policies are no better than Bush’s? Will that be enough to abandon their defense? (Not defense of Obama in general, but just defense of his economic record.)

(Sidebar: Bush’s “problem” wasn’t bad economic policy. Sure, his policies were bad, but that was a given – he didn’t introduce massive structural reforms to unrig the game, so his policies were naturally going to be bad. The problem he faced was that he left office too late. Had he left a year sooner he could have pinned the collapse on someone after him … like Clinton did. I suspect Obama faces the same challenge. He won’t be out of office before the next unravel.)

And what about that unemployment rate, Dr. Cobb?  Why is it that unemployment amongst African Americans is twice that amongst whites (no better than it was when Obama took office … and had 2 years of filibuster proof majorities in both houses of congress).

OK. I’m rambling. You get the picture. It is presumptuous to think that the next 2.5 years will be on economic cruise control and that we will have “fixed” the misallocation of capital from the last bubble. Will it be Obama’s fault if things sour from here? No more or less than the “Great Recession” was Bush’s fault. The president has certain authority, certain ability to make changes to the system. If he chooses to take on the entrenched interests, then he can likely make a better place for you and me (yes, that’s a Michael Jackson lyric). If he stays true to his Wall Street benefactors (and all indications are that Obama has done just that), well, you can guess how it will end for the rest of us.

More on reparations as time allows.

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A “Modern” King James Bible? Yeah, We Have Lots of Those

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” And he said, “Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ 10 Make the heart of this people dull,and their ears heavy,and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes,and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,and turn and be healed.” – Isaiah 6:8-10

I was surfing around at “realclearreligion” just now and I ran across an article titled “Christian Publisher Unveils ‘Modern English Version’ of the Bible” – naturally I had to take a look. To be honest, what caught my eye was the RCR tagline: “King James Bible Goes Modern English.” My first thought – “Umm, the Bible has gone modern English quite a few times over … but how can an Old English translation be anything other than Old English?”

The article turns out to have been consistent with the RCR wording. The first paragraph reads:

A Christian publishing house has recently unveiled a new translation of the Holy Bible labeling itself “most modern King James translation in 30 years.”

Maybe I’m just thick. It seems that we have a number of original sources for the Bible. We have the Hebrew old testament (some actually written in Aramaic). We have its first translation into Greek – the Septuagint. And we have the various gospels and epistles written largely in Greek. These are Christianity’s historical connection to what was said and done in the origins of Judaism and then the Church.

The King James Bible (KJV) was translated from these (with references to the Latin Vulgate text) between 1604 and 1611. No doubt, it was a nice translation – but it was just a translation of the original writings. The KJV was not, itself, a new revelation.

Since then we have seen quite a few newer translations. I tend to prefer the English Standard Version (the version used in my Isaiah 6:8-10 reference above), or the New American Standard Version, though the most ubiquitous these days is the New International Version. Are these “better” translations? It depends on what we mean by “better”. If we mean that they more accurately reflect the true meaning of the original texts, then I have almost no basis to make such a declaration. If, however, we mean that they better reflect the original meaning of the text in a language that can be understood by modern readers, then the answer is undoubtedly (and emphatically) YES.

My point? When someone says they are producing a modern language version of the KJV, what they mean is that all of the other modern language translations are insufficient and do not accurately reflect the translational goodness of the KJV (I guess because it was “authorized”). Now, they may be right in this claim (I don’t know). But it is important to note firstly that the KJV is not the standard – the original writings are the standard. Secondly, that people who make such claims are rarely Biblical scholars who specialize in original languages – but rather backwoods Bible thumpers (and there’s nothing wrong with that) who don’t like the newer translations because they “lose” some traditional inferences drawn out of the 400-year-old language in the KJV filtered through modern vernacular … OK, perhaps I’m editorializing a bit.

To put things simply and bluntly, the further we get from 1611 the less understandable the KJV becomes. It is already quite beyond the understanding of many Americans (as is the language of Shakespeare, who wrote around the same time). To advocate its use now I think leads to dangerous places … like: “well, you may not understand what the words mean, so you have to just trust what the pastor says about it.” We’ve been down that road a number of times in Christendom – it never ends well.

This may well be the point of the “Modern English Version” – the modernized KJV in question. But why then relate it back to the KJV at all? One has to doubt that KJV-only types will go after the MEV … it’s newfangled after all.

Side note. I was reading my Bible (in the ESV) the other day and I got to Mark 4, where Jesus references the Isaiah 6 verse above. I had an odd mental connection at that point. What if all of this KJV-only business is simply a modern instantiation of Isaiah 6? What if there are people with their hands on a Bible, but are unable to read anything other than a 400-year-old language that they barely understand? Do they see and not perceive, hear and not understand?

Please recognize that I don’t ascribe any sort of special “revelation” to this notion – it was just a random and curious thought. Though, I will say that I’ve known more than one KJV-onlyist in my day, and have found them to hold some rather odd beliefs.

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George Eldon Ladd’s Gospel of the Kingdom, and Golden Rule Democracy

24 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” – Matt 13:24-30

I had occasion today to sit down and read some of George Eldon Ladd’s Gospel of the Kingdom, a wonderful book recommended to me by a good friend who I dub “OTS” (Old Testament Scholar) in these blogs. As I read Dr. Ladd’s exposition on the parable of the wheat and the tares I was struck by the similarity of his interpretation of the activity of the Kingdom in the world today and my views on Golden Rule Democracy. I’m going to quote at length from Dr. Ladd tonight, and hopefully I will not run afoul of “reasonable use” of his text:


This is the mystery of the Kingdom: that the Kingdom of God has come among men and yet men can reject it. The Kingdom will not experience uniform success. Not all will receive it. This was a staggering thing to one who knew only the Old Testament. When God’s Kingdom comes, it will come with power. Who can resist it? Who can withstand God? But precisely this is the mystery of the Kingdom. The Kingdom is here, but it can be rejected. One day God will indeed manifest His mighty power to purge the earth of wickedness, sin and evil; but not now. God’s Kingdom is working among men, but God will not compel them to bow before it. They must receive it; the response must come from a willing heart and a submissive will.

God is still dealing with us in this same way. God will not drive you into His Kingdom. It is not the business of those who are called to the ministry of the Word to speak with authoritarian compulsion. We speak as emissaries of God, but we plead and do not demand, we persuade and do not drive. We implore men to open their hearts that the Word of His Kingdom may have its fruitage in their lives. But man can reject it. They can spurn the Gospel of the Kingdom. They can scorn the preacher of the Word; and he is helpless.

The parable of the tares or weeds illustrates another facet of this same truth. A man sowed wheat in his field but his enemy sowed weeds. When the weeds were discovered the servants wanted to pull them out, but they were told to let both wheat and weeds grow until the harvest. Then the separation would take place. Until harvest time, weeds and wheat must grow together.

It is of utmost importance to note that “the field is the world” (v. 38). Where do we get the notion that the field is the Church? Jesus Himself said that the field is the world, not the Church. It is a misinterpretation of the Word of God to say that the parable teaches that in the Church the good and bad, the regenerate and the unregenerate, are to grow together until the harvest and that we cannot exercise church discipline since it would disrupt the order of things. Our Lord said no such thing. He was not talking about the mixed character of the Church but about the world.


And thus, Golden Rule Democracy. The Church may well exercise discipline within the Church – but to attempt to exercise discipline within the world runs expressly counter to the Lord’s teaching.

Thus, I contend, that whatever “enforcement of morals” arguments we construct for government intervention against sin are suspect, to say the least. The Church may well enforce benevolence, but to justify forced benevolence in the world (through democracy) is out of bounds. The Church may well enforce sexual morality, but to justify forced sexual morality in the world (through democracy) is out of bounds. The Church may well enforce a Biblical definition of marriage, but to justify forced marriage definition in the world (through democracy) is out of bounds. The Church may well enforce substance morality (though many disagree on what it means), but to justify forced substance morality (through democracy) is out of bounds.

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” – Matt 7:12

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Using a Hammer to Turn a Screw at the Federal Reserve

“The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Open Market Committee shall maintain long run growth of the monetary and credit aggregates commensurate with the economy’s long run potential to increase production, so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates.” – 1977 Amendment to the Federal Reserve Act

Above is the wording that gives us the so-called “dual mandate” of the Federal Reserve. The Fed has one tool at its disposal – money supply (a hammer). They can print money. They can pay interest to banks holding “excess reserves” at the Fed (printing money). They can buy and sell bonds so as to manipulate the yield curve (printing money … they almost never sell). According to congress, the Fed is to use this tool to promote maximum employment and stable prices. Alas, it is just a hammer though, and sometimes a screwdriver is needed.

“How,” you might ask, “does printing money promote stable prices and maximum employment?” It’s a valid question, but to ask it shows that you don’t understand the Federal Reserve system at all. Printing money promotes the effective transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to the already wealthy and the politically connected. Terms like “maximum employment” and “stable prices” are just the cover story. And yet, anybody who has read a good spy novel knows that a cover story has to be true.

So, here’s the cover story: “stable prices” means “2% inflation”. I’m not sure why prices doubling every 35 years is “stable” – but that’s the interpretation that the academics at the Fed have applied to Congress’s wording back in 1977 (when inflation was running at about 6.5%). Furthermore, “maximum employment” means “an unemployment rate lower than it is today”. So, whenever we are not at those levels the Fed must print up some more money to meet their goals.

The more the Fed prints, the more upward pressure is inherently placed on prices. (We’ll focus on price inflation for a bit – “full employment” is just too amorphous.)  But there are other factors that play as well. For instance, technology advancements inherently place downward pressure on prices by altering the supply side of the “supply vs demand” crossing. Similarly, things like disease, famine, natural disasters, and war place upward pressure on prices due to supply shortages. None of these are expressly the Fed’s concern. If the price inflation (calculated by whatever poor method is chosen today) is below 2%, the cover story is still intact.

But what if the cover story fails? What if there is a disease that drives up prices (e.g., the recent outbreak of Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus – PEDv – that has killed over 7,000,000 pigs in the US alone)? What if there were a drought in Oklahoma that hampered food production? What if annual food price inflation were really running at 22% as Breitbart claims (with numbers to back it up)?

At first the Fed will trot out some nonsensical argument as to why food prices don’t count in the “core” inflation numbers. But the Fed is ultimately a political organization (having a mandate from Congress), and the notion of angry villagers storming the barricades over rising prices doesn’t sit well with them.

As a last gasp they will also trot out some line about how “rising food prices aren’t caused by monetary inflation, but by extenuating circumstances like drought and viruses” – as if that matters. The questions at hand are these: (a) are food prices rising dramatically and (b) could the Fed slow that rise if it changed monetary policy? The answers on both counts are emphatically “YES”.

What to do? Dare we raise interest rates and halt asset purchases to strengthen the dollar and bring food price inflation under control? But that would violate the foundational goal of the Fed! (transfer of wealth from poor and middle class to wealthy and political class).

Time will tell, but time is also running short. The summer vacation months are upon us. Food prices are soaring. We’re one spike up to $4.00 or $4.25 a gallon at the pump before there is a serious outcry from the masses.

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The Technical Skills Tariff

“And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty; for liberty is an acknowledgment of faith in God and His works.” – Frederic Bastiat, The Law

About six weeks ago I stopped drinking soda. I’ve dropped 10 pounds in that time and have had far fewer problems with acid reflux. (I wasn’t obese before, but 6’3″ 200lbs feels better than 6’3″ 210lbs.) Before that I was a self-proclaimed soda aficionado, and I had a significant preference for soda made with real sugar – cane sugar – not high fructose corn syrup. Unfortunately, most soda in the US is made with corn syrup.

Beyond the taste benefits, cane sugar is both cheaper to produce and has fewer health detriments than corn syrup. Given that it is preferable in every way (taste, cost, health), one might wonder why we use corn syrup at all. The answer is policy. The “Sugar Program” limits the amount of foreign sugar that can be imported, puts a floor under the price of sugar in the US, and provides loans to domestic sugar producers. Why? Because if the program didn’t exist, US sugar producers would go out of business. The government has decided that this is not a good outcome, and thus we have the sugar program.

When it comes to the economics of free trade the situation is quite frustrating. I, a presumably free citizen of the US, want to make a trade with a foreign sugar cane grower. I’ll trade some dollars (simply an expression of stored value from my previous production) for some of his production. I’m better off (as I see it), he’s better off (as he sees it) – end of story, right? Wrong.

Somehow, my neighbors have decided that we’re all better off (collectively?) if I am not allowed to trade with that foreign sugar producer. In a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, the government is the people – and the people are my neighbors – and they have decided to  not allow me to engage in free trade with some poor Uruguayan who makes sugar.

The economic argument here is a flat-out failure. Further, any moralistic argument falls flat as well. In asking me to pay more to an American sugar producer I’m being told that it is right for me to pay extra, because the exchange partner is also a citizen. Or, put another way, I’m being told to pay market price and give some extra money to the American simply because he’s an American. This is silly.

(For the record, I hold a similar policy with Christians bookstores. I own plenty of Christian books – but I don’t buy them a Christian bookstores. Why? Because they’re cheaper on Amazon. “But you should support Christian businesses!” Why? That argument amounts to paying the Amazon price for a book and then giving the overage to the store owner because he’s a Christian. I can assure you, when I give money away to Christians, I generally do not choose wealthy bookstore owners, but rather poor indigent children in the third world.)

The Technical Skills Tariff …

A good friend passed along an article the other day regarding the nonexistent “lack” of skilled workers. The article I have is from Breitbart (a well-meaning, well-researched, yet otherwise conspiracy theorist though not quite tinfoil hat outfit). The article attacks the standard talking point that we need a large number of skilled-worker visas because we have a lack of skilled-worker citizenry to fill the jobs.

The gist is simply this: there is no innate shortage of “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) workers in the US. Thus, the constant harangue from both the legislature and the “pro-business” lobby that we have a massive shortfall is utter nonsense.

Now, I work in a technical field. In fact, I work in an “unbiased arbiter” field – people from the government pay me to (a) vet the technical merits of various proposals and (b) not take sides. That’s my job. Quite often this leads me to a debunking role. I pick apart proposals and claims and cry foul when indeed proposals and claims run afoul of a sound technical basis. (Again, that’s my job … and I’m actually pretty good at it.)

Thus, I am sympathetic with the first argument made in the Breitbart article. Governments and pro-business groups have used this “we have a STEM shortage” argument to bring in far more STEM workers than we actually need for years. In the process, they have damaged the employment outlook and compensation for citizen STEM workers (a group that includes me!). And sometimes we just have to call people out on their bad arguments (again, that’s my job … sometimes). So “good-on-you” Breitbart. It’s a junk argument and it needs to be abandoned by the powers that be.

And yet, there is a free trade argument in here as well that Breitbart completely misses. There is a technical company somewhere in America who wants to procure STEM services. There is a poor man in India (randomly chosen country for the sake of example) who can provide those services and is willing to do so for a paltry some (by American standards). Why shouldn’t they be able to get together and make a free trade? Why should the neighbors of the American businessman decide that we are all better off if he pays market price for STEM services and then gives a significant overage to somebody simple because they are a citizen of the US?

Now, I fully recognize that I, as a STEM worker, would benefit if all foreign STEM visas were curtailed immediately. I’d make more money. (And, having four kids, I can always stand to make more money.) But I can’t get away from the fact that such an outcome stands in stark contrast to my commitment to freedom. So far as I can tell it is the only form of human governance that innately acknowledges the supremacy of God and the equality of man.

So I say end the technical skills tariff – hand out as many STEM visas as you can. Of course, I also say end the non-technical skills tariff while you’re at it. Let’s take all the Mexicans (or other Latin and South Americans) who want to work here and issue them visas today. While we’re at it, let’s eliminate the minimum wage (free trade is free trade). Anybody want to guess how long the United Auto Workers union would last? I’ll tell you this, your next new car would be a lot less expensive.

While we’re at it, let’s end the “legitimate store of value tariff” placed on dollar-denominated earnings by the Federal Government and the Federal Reserve Bank. The banking cabal would falter overnight in the face of a free market.

Americans have a tendency to think they want freedom, to think that they actually support freedom. And yet what we really support is policies that provide the most benefit to us. Such policies almost always run counter to freedom. In a free country, government policies don’t directly benefit anybody at the expense of another.

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