Columnist: The case for incrementalism

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 12, 2016

By Sydney M. Williams

Contributing columnist

The case for incrementalism is based on the observation that extremism — whether from the right or the left — does not work in a country that prizes freedom.

A democracy, by definition, is not efficient. It is not meant to be. It cannot totally satisfy all people with their myriad opinions, but it should satisfy most and be representative of the people.

Unfortunately, extremism has characterized politics for the past seven years and perhaps longer. Mr. Obama came to the White House promising to heal the wounds caused by an election in 2000 that many Democrats felt was illegal and from two wars that had grown increasingly unpopular. Instead, rifts deepened.

Immediately following the election in 2008, compromise went the way of the dodo bird. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank – all passed with no — or minimal — support from the opposition.

This “my way, or the highway” attitude on the part of the imperious Barack Obama has also led to deteriorating relations with Israel, an aggressive Russia, a rogue North Korea and a confrontational China. It brought about a premature troop withdrawal from Iraq, “leading from behind” in Libya, the abandonment of principle in Syria and a nuclear deal with Iran — perhaps conceived with good intentions, but executed in such a manner that it could turn the Middle East into a nuclear maelstrom. And, it has led to re-establishing relations with the most repressive Communist regime in the Western Hemisphere, Cuba.

Mr. Obama’s executive orders last week to tighten rules regarding gun control is another example of extending executive power. As mentioned in prior pieces, I am no fan of guns; so I am not averse to registering all firearms and limiting sales through registered dealers.

My objection is not that his orders violate the Second Amendment; I suspect they do not. My objection is that he talks of gun control when he should be discussing means of tracking illegal guns and keeping them out of the hands of suspected terrorists, criminals and the mentally ill.

While he used Sandy Hook as a backdrop, even his supporters admit that nothing he said and did last Tuesday would have prevented Adam Lanza from killing 20 first-graders and six of their teachers at Sandy Hook elementary school, nor would it have stopped Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook from slaughtering fourteen innocents at a Christmas party in San Bernardino. Mr. Obama did mention enforcing existing laws more aggressively, but that is his job as President, a position he has held for seven years. Why has he not done so? For this sin of omission, he cannot blame the NRA, Congress, Republicans, or his predecessor.

Mr. Obama is only the latest example (though perhaps the most blatant since Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon) in a series of Presidents who have expanded the power of the Executive, at the expense of Congress. The fault lies with both branches, but it has been the Executive that has become the “Alpha dog.” Congress just rolled over. The separation of powers was not an idle codicil casually added to the Constitution. It is, in many respects, its essence. It was inserted to protect the people against another George III.

This tilt of power away from Congress toward the president has put the nation at risk in at least two ways. First from an economic perspective, and second from a political one.

In the aftermath of the credit crisis, Congress reneged on its responsibility to pass fiscal and regulatory reform legislation. In fact — which was not the fault of Congress — Mr. Obama refused to consider the findings of the Simpson-Bowles Commission, a Commission he had formed. The consequence was that the Fed became the only game in town.

Additionally, for the branch of government that controls the purse, Congress has acted irresponsibly. While current federal spending, relative to GDP, is close to the 40-year average of 20 percent, the composition of that spending has changed dramatically. For example, mandatory spending — outlays controlled by laws; i.e., entitlements — was 30 percent of the federal budget in 1962. Today, it is more than 60 percent.

Social Security spending, for example, has gone from 13 percent of the budget to about a third. Discretionary spending — which includes defense and the only part of the budget subject to annual appropriations — has declined from approximately 60 percent to about 34 percent. The other item in the federal budget not subject to annual appropriations is interest expense.

The principal beneficiary of low rates has been government. They mask the enormous increase in federal debt, now more that 100 percent of GDP. It was 90 percent at the end of 2010, a year and a half after the recovery began!

When interest rates return to some normal level, which they will, the discretionary part of the budget will shrink further. A safety net is needed, but fiscal irresponsibility has put us on a path that could undo our democratic system. Justice Louis Brandeis once noted: “Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficent.”

The second way in which the president and Congress are hurting our nation is in abandoning the notion of representative and limited government. While I have a philosophical objection to the notion of term limits — people should be able to vote for whomever they choose — Congress, in my opinion, has lost that right. They have effectively created a class of elite bureaucrats whose job security is only exceeded by their higher-than-average incomes.

The tax code today exempts almost half the people from paying federal income taxes. A declining tax base and an increasing number of people receiving entitlements — a situation in which more people feed at the trough than contribute to its contents — places the country at risk.

Perhaps, you might ask why – with a profligate yet emasculated Congress when it comes to its “separate but equal” powers — should we not have a more powerful executive who can better balance the needs of the people with the resources available? The answer is the loss of freedom that would ensue.

Democracies are fragile and inefficient, but they allow people to speak, write, assemble and pray as they choose. Their strength is in their collective people. What value should we put on freedom?

Over the years we have seen what happens when people lose freedom. What is freedom worth? It is priceless. Democracies are subject to manipulation by strong leaders, aided by a press that prefers propagandizing to reporting. The human condition is such that powerful men — and women — take advantage of weakness.

The spectrum of political options is not linear, as often perceived. It is circular, with each end reaching behind so that they come together in cruel and impoverishing ways.

We have only to study the first half of the 20th century to understand that Nazism, fascism and communism had more in common with one another than not. All three systems practiced discrimination on scales incomprehensible to us today. All three deprived their citizens of their basic rights. All three murdered millions of their own people. All three forced the vast majority of their people to live in extreme poverty. All three were a consequence of extremism.

While many may consider my warnings to be no more than the hyperbole of a biased observer, I look at the situation as similar to the driver of a car who lurches from right to left and then back again. As he attempts to correct back toward the middle, the tendency is to over-compensate.

Each change in direction exaggerates the swings, until the car loses control and crashes. We need to return to a government more respectful of the people — to a government that recognizes it is servant to the electorate. When charisma is valued more highly than character, we have begun the descent — whether toward the left or the right is immaterial — into the darkness of tyranny.

The best way to get back on track is through certain but incremental reform, an education system that makes mandatory the study and understanding of our Constitution, and the election of a president who cares more about the country he is serving than the legacy he leaves behind.

If those be the determinants, neither Trump nor Clinton need apply.

Sydney Williams, a retired stock broker, writes about politics, the economy, global affairs, education and climate, among other topics. He describes his political leanings as being based in the rapidly disappearing ideology of common sense.