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Point and counterpoint: Our system of government

I have a friend who is about as far away from me as he could be politically without being a Nazi. He sent me this list of his complaints about the way things are these days, and I thought I could use it as an opportunity to correct some errors, attack some talking points and just try and bring a little reason to the situation.

My friend’s identity will remain confidential, and all I will say is that if you guess, you will probably be wrong. After each number are his statements; following in italic are my responses:

1. Abolition of private property: The foundation of this nation was ownership of property. The settlers came here to insure private ownership of land and our Founding Fathers made it unlawful for government to own land except for the ten square miles of Washington D.C. and such as may be needed for erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, Dockyards and other needful buildings. Today you don’t OWN your home, car, farm or most property. You are just allowed to use it as long as you pay your property taxes, buy a car license, pay for building permits and get permission from the zoning commission. Individual OWNERSHIP is only by virtue of government. To use property we must be in accordance with law and subordinate to the powers of government.

The idea that having to pay property taxes, get permits or obey zoning laws means you don’t own your own property is about as anti-government a position as there is. I live in a planned community that has numerous rules about how we can remodel or decorate. Some of the rules are pretty stupid (like a ban on wind chimes), but that doesn’t mean we don’t own our property. As for property taxes, those don’t go to the federal government. They finance state and local governments.

As for what the feds own, things like national parks would be the biggest use of private land that wasn’t covered in the Constitution. It has been more than a hundred years since President Theodore Roosevelt decided natural beauty was worth protecting. Is there a consensus for eliminating national parks? My guess is there’s not.

Yes, there is a lot of land owned for weapons testing, including the places where we exploded atomic bombs in the ‘50s, but I think that falls under my friend’s list. When he says “we must be in accordance with law and subordinate to the powers of government,” well, we elect the people who make the laws and it is the power of government that enforces them.

2. Heavy Progressive Income Tax: I believe all Americans understand the IRS. What most of them don’t realize is that we didn’t have an Income Tax until 1913. Before that year Income Taxes were considered unconstitutional.

I contest the very term “heavy progressive income tax.” During the 1950s the top tax bracket was 90 percent. At present it’s less than half that. And while it is true that before 1913 income taxes were considered unconstitutional, there were times in history when women voting, slavery being illegal and presidents being limited to two terms were also unconstitutional at one point.

All those things were changed – as was the idea of an income tax – by amending the Constitution. The argument that something is unconstitutional because it wasn’t in the original document would surprise the Founders, who created a mechanism to amend it. They never considered themselves as Moses bringing the 10 commandments to the people. Their idea was that they did the best they could, and if things didn’t work out, the Constitution could be amended.

I have heard the complaints by conspiracy theorists that somehow the 16th Amendment was never legally ratified. I don’t put much weight on conspiracy theories. The 16th Amendment is part of the Constitution, so the income tax is by definition constitutional. I just wish it were more progressive.

3. Abolition of all rights of Inheritance: We now have Estate Taxes, Inheritance Taxes, also called the Death Tax. Many a farm and small business could not be passed on to the next generation, but had to be sold in order to pay the estate taxes. Many times the IRS forces the sale, as it did in the case of the Roy Rogers Museum sale.

Of course the term “Death Tax” is completely pejorative. No one is penalized for dying, and the claim that family farms and small businesses have to be sold to pay it are completely specious. With up to $5 million now exempted from federal estate taxes, anyone who does any sort of estate planning isn’t going to see their small business sold for taxes. As for the claim about family farms, the biggest enemies of family farms are massive corporate agricultural companies. Indeed, when someone checked with the lobbying group for family farms to see how often this happened, they were told they knew of no cases where a family farm had to be sold for taxation. When family farms are sold, it’s usually because the next generation either doesn’t want to farm or can’t make a profit at it.

An argument my friend doesn’t mention is folks claiming that the money in the estate has already been taxed, but the fact is that in large estates, much of the money is in stocks, bonds or securities and would not be taxed until they were sold.

In addition, the estate tax might actually be considered the most American of taxes in that when it is effective, it reduces the power of a hereditary aristocracy. Of course that’s why conservatives hate this tax worst of all.

4. Confiscation of property of all emigrants and rebels: Government seizures, tax liens, private land under Eminent Domain, the IRS taking property without due process and even taking “suspected” drug money from anyone carrying large amounts of cash is nothing but government confiscation of private property.

I’m not sure who these emigrants and rebels are, but this is actually the only one of the 10 points where I find some sympathy for my friend’s position. Under the aegis of the War on Drugs, ridiculous amounts of property are confiscated to deny drug dealers the profits of their crimes. The problem is that this is done in most instances without any sort of due process. This one needs to be addressed.

Eminent domain jumped the shark when the Supreme Court approved its use in Connecticut so that a private company could build a shopping mall. Hardly “government” taking land for its own benefit.

5. Central Bank: The Constitution called for Congress to “coin Money and regulate the Value thereof,” but since 1913 the Federal Reserve Bank has taken over that duty. The Federal Reserve is a “private” bank that sets interest rates and creates money out of thin air.

The Fed isn’t really a private bank. It has a sort of quasi-private component, but its board members are appointed by the president and confirmed by Congress. Saying all this started in 1913 is specious, because the Fed is actually the third time the U.S. had a “national” bank. The first was chartered by George Washington in 1791, the second by James Madison in 1816.

The present-day Fed was created during Woodrow Wilson’s first year in office to deal with the fact that the lack of a national bank made the system more prone to panics. It’s because of the system that we now have things like the FDIC and the FSLIC to insure people’s deposits.

Of course the Fed is one of the favorite targets of conspiracy theorists, but we have had national banks on and off for as long as we have been a country.

6. Government control of Communications & Transportation: Today we have the Federal Communications Commission, Department of Transportation, Interstate Commerce Commission and the Federal Aviation Administration. You are not allowed to drive your car without a license.

This is a bad thing?

7. Government control of factories and agriculture: Our government has gained control of the banking industry, finance, automobile production, energy and health care. Department of Commerce, Department of Interior and the Bureau of Land Management, Department of Agriculture; all of which control land use.

This of course is a favorite argument of the right. But saying the government is in “control” of automobile production because the auto companies got a bailout is specious. No one is checking with Washington about what cars to build. And the much-feared takeover of health care is ridiculous. The Affordable Care Act didn’t even have a public option. Telling people they need to buy health insurance from a private company is the same as making them buy auto insurance to operate their car.

As for land use, yes, we have zoning laws and other restrictions. Do you really want someone operating a toxic waste dump next door to your house?

8. Government control of Labor: The Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the minimum wage law control all aspects of American businesses.

During the First Gilded Age, when there were essentially no protections for working men and women, plutocrat Jay Gould once said, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” That was when there was no real Department of Labor. Labor became a cabinet-level department in 1913 as the last official act of President William Howard Taft.

Saying that OSHA, which ensures workplace safety, and the minimum wage law let the government control “all aspects of American business” is an exaggeration. What might be a better question to ask the right wing is what countries don’t control such things? What countries allow business to run amok? There aren’t any where people actually get to vote.

9. Corporate Farms, Regional Planning: Corporate Agriculture now controls markets and prices of farm production. We now have Planning and Reorganization and zoning all across the nation.

This is an odd one to me, because it isn’t about government at all, except for the zoning part, which as said before is done by local governments. Is “planning” a bad thing? And what exactly is “reorganization” and what is wrong with it?

It’s pretty clear that feeding more than 300 million people requires planning.

10. Government control of Education: State and Federal Departments of Education, National Education Association, Outcome Based Education, No Child Left Behind; all paid for with tax dollars.

Our education system has plenty of problems, but saying they are the government’s fault is missing the point. The biggest villain in this is simply the Industrial Revolution, when business owners realized that if they were going to ask people to do necessary but mindless jobs like working on assembly lines or in factories, they had better not educate them too well. Mostly they didn’t want them to learn critical thinking so that they would question authority.

If we don’t regulate education in some way, we get parents who say “My young ‘uns don’t need to learn ‘bout no evil-lution.”