The debt ceiling shouldn’t be a suicide pact…

The debt ceiling has been an evolving creature since 1917 and started life as something of a thought exercise. In handing over some of their spending power (a Legislative Branch function) to the Treasure (an Executive Branch department), long dead Members of Congress thought that if their future selves had to have their votes counted in order for the U.S. Government to continue taking on large tranches of debt, maybe it would restrain them from profligate borrowing. Some of the more wild-eyed optimists among them, I’m sure, thought that it might even usher in a new day of not constantly spending more money than the federal government takes in.

For most of the last hundred years, though, raising the debt ceiling became just a normal part of doing business. No serious person ever considered putting the United States Government in a position where it would default on its lawfully begotten debts. That’s changed in the last 20-30 years, of course. I suspect there’s now more than a few Members of Congress who would cheer on a default and smile for the cameras while they watched the resulting economic chaos.

Republican controlled Congresses have raised the debt ceiling. Democratic controlled Congresses have raised the debt ceiling. Divided Congresses have raised the debt ceiling. Presidents of both parties have presided over these increases while gnashing their teeth about runaway spending.

Can we please, then, just stop pretending that the debt ceiling is anything more than a bomb we’ve allowed to grow in the heart of the government? With the total federal debt now standing at $31 trillion dollars, let us admit that the debt ceiling is a work of fiction that has don’t nothing to stand between us and racking up unimaginable levels of indebtedness. The only thing it’s really done is create a mechanism by which it’s possible to decimate the global economy if the hands of the incompetents and ideologues now serving in Congress. Better that this failed experiment in limiting federal spending be put on the ash heap of history than allowing it to linger around like some kind of damned suicide pact.

He’s no Baron Baltimore…

I like having divided government in Maryland. For the last eight years it restrained the Democrats who perennially control both the House of Delegates and the Senate from relentlessly raising taxes unchecked and launching new programs for every wild do-good idea that someone in PG or Montgomery County pitches to them. Those moderating tendencies are also what kept the whackjob MAGA wing of the Republican Party from taking over the state and installing a treason apologist in the governor’s office.

But here we are now with the Democratic Party controlling both houses of the General Assembly and the governor’s office. It feels like a sure bet that it’ll once again be the season to tax everything under the sun – up to and including the rain that falls upon our golden shores. Those revenues will inevitably flow towards the urbanized counties while western and southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore will be politely told to sit down, shut up, and keep our checkbooks out.

I agree with almost none of Wes Moore’s political philosophy. From taxation, to guns, to his “social justice” initiatives, our new governor will be carefully calibrated to hit all of the Democratic Party’s sweet spots. That’s a strong departure from former Governor Hogan, who regularly annoyed the extreme right wing of his own party while holding moderate policy positions across his tenure in office.

On his inauguration as 63rd Governor of Maryland (not inclusive of our great and illustrious proprietary and royal governors prior to 1776), I wish Mr. Moore joy of the day. I hope he leaves the state better when his term ends than it was when he found it… but I suspect what we’ll see is a growing tax burden, excessive and onerous legislation and regulation, and governmental policy designed more around making people feel good than achieving any objective real world goals.

Bailing twine and happy thoughts…

It would be easy to sit here tonight and throw rocks at the FAA. Whether their computers were hacked, threw up a blue screen of death, or tried to run a patch at an inconvenient time, the resulting temporary collapse of air travel across the United States feels like something that should have been avoidable. 

It probably only feels that way, though. Being myself a daily victim of whatever cheap as hell IT solutions our wealthy Uncle Sam contracts for, all I was really thinking as the story unfolded this morning was “there but for the grace of God go I.” The number of times I’ve had the low-bidder piece of shit equipment I’m assigned completely crap out at the most inopportune times possible is pretty much beyond counting. If I’m facing a big day where my laptop absolutely, positively has to work flawlessly, I go into it just assuming that there will be an equipment failure at some point. The only real question is when during the day it’s going to happen. My expectations are rarely disappointed. 

I’m full of sympathy for the poor chowderheads at the FAA who struggled mightily this morning to unfuck their system. I’m equally full of rage at the bureaucracy and political leadership that allowed the free movement of people about this country to hang by such a precarious thread. There’s an inevitable price for, year upon year, holding everything together with bailing twine and happy thoughts.

It’s just not that hard…

The discovery of classified documents in an office used by the then former Vice President Biden, frankly, is no less troubling than the documents recovered from former President Trump’s home/resort in Florida. Some will point to the difference between the Biden documents being found and immediately turned over to representatives of the National Archives versus Trump’s tantruming fight to keep those he possessed as being a significant difference. I’m not at all sure I agree. 

The fact that the current president and his immediate predecessor are both caught up in a situation where classified documents were mishandled is, in a word, troubling. If a few more words were called for, I might wonder aloud what the actual fuck is wrong with these people we entrust with the highest levels of executive power?

Is it that they’ve been empowered so long that they believe rules simply no longer apply, or is it alternately that they’re too ragingly incompetent to keep up with basic procedures governing the care and use of classified materials? Is it malicious? Intentional? Is anyone working for them at least attempting to keep their shit squared away?

Maybe I only get incensed about this because I know what happens to people a lot further down the food chain than the Executive Office of the President when they misplace or otherwise fail to secure their red-edged paperwork.

I welcome a full and complete investigation into the circumstances surrounding the mishandling of classified information at the highest level and can only hope the guilty party receives the appropriate level of sanction for their abject fuckery. I promise you, it’s not that hard to keep information secured appropriately. Whoever cocked it up, whether president or peon should be roundly pummeled about the head and neck.

Say what you feel you need to about me, but one thing I can promise, is that my position on these issues is never, ever about the utter triviality of political party. I want to see the guilty hang regardless of what color tie they wear.

Should’ve known better… 

State and local officials in Florida are catching three kinds of hell for not issuing evacuation orders earlier last week in advance of Hurricane Ian. The buck has to stop somewhere, I suppose, but I’ve got a slightly different take on where that particular responsibility lies. As much as I want to jump aboard the smack Ron DeSantis around train, I’m just not there.

Let’s say for purposes of argument that I’m a resident of Sanibel Island. It’s late September and a large hurricane is gathering strength in in the Caribbean. About the time it has taken a bite out of Cuba and starts tracking towards the west coast of Florida, I’m paying very focused attention and going through my own checklist of what needs to happen before I get the hell out of Dodge. When I’ve completed my personal risk assessment, knowing full well that I’m on a barrier island, there’s limited accessibility under the best conditions, and that the big one could cut off communications, water, electricity, and access to pretty much all modern services. At some point in assessing that reality, I’m going to make the decision to flee or ride it out.

It’s the same thing I do on a different scale when there’s snow falling on a weekday. I know that both routes from the outside world to my little homestead here involve negotiating both up and down hills that tend to ice over and get treacherous after a few inches of snow. Even with 4-wheel drive getting in or out can get a little problematic – more often than not because of other area residents who have already tried and failed to negotiate those trouble spots. That’s why I make my own decision about whether it’s safe to go to the office, whether I need to leave early to head home, or whether it needs to be a working from home kind of day. Waiting around for the bureaucracy to make an official decision just means conditions will already be shit by the time I get on the road, so I take the decision into my own hands – because no one is more concerned about me than I am myself.

The problem we run into is a really an issue of what we mean by “mandatory” evacuation. It’s hard to imagine (or expect) that even in the face of an incredibly destructive hurricane your state or local government is going to walk into your house, physically restrain you, and haul you out of your home against your will. They’ll certainly advise. They’ll caution. They may even warn, but ultimately the go/no-go decision is on your own head. The “I didn’t know it was going to be so bad” excuse only goes so far. Even here in north eastern Maryland plenty of reports were cutting through the static about Ian and all the potential damage he carried along. Living on a barrier island in south Florida during hurricane seasons kind puts a lot of the onus on each individual to have a bit of heightened awareness.

Sure, you’ll tell me that some people had no choice. In every natural disaster there’s always some subset of the impacted population that can’t afford to evacuate, or don’t have a car, or have some other extenuating circumstance. Those don’t seem to be the ones raising three kinds of hell during television interviews or in the print media. Then again, there’s a world of difference between “can’t” evacuate and “won’t” evacuate. For the former, it’s a tragedy. For the latter, it feels a lot more like a case of should’ve known better.

Permitting…

I could go ahead and rant about everything what’s wrong with needing to get a permit to exercise a right specifically called out in the Bill of Rights, but the fact is it’s a restriction that exists and is unlikely to go away any time soon. Instead of focusing on that as the overarching issue, I’d like to comment on the absurdity of the permitting process itself. 

Let us assume for purposes of discussion that you are a holder of a permit to carry a concealed handgun in the state of Maryland. West Virginia does not require a permit, so there are no issues there. Your Maryland permit will cover you to walk into Virginia. The moment you walk into the other neighboring states of Delaware or Pennsylvania, though, you become an outlaw. Your Maryland permit does you no good there.

In order to get legal in Pennsylvania, you need to apply for a Pennsylvania non-resident permit, showing proof that your home state of Maryland has given you a permit, and then, of course, pay a fee. A few weeks later, if you’ve applied through a county that issues non-resident permits (not all of them do even though state law allows for it), they’ll call you to come pick up your card. It’s basically a cash grab by another name, but there’s no other way to get there from here. 

Delaware is a bit of a different animal. While they don’t recognize Maryland’s permit, they do recognize Utah’s permit. This means as a Maryland resident, what you’ll need to do to get legal in Delaware, is take a 4-hour class, send a picture, fingerprints, and (of course) another fee over to the great state of Utah and request that they issue a non-resident permit. As a Maryland resident who has never set foot in Utah, you’ll then be ok to carry your handgun into the great state of Delaware and a few other places not covered by Maryland’s permit.

If it seems like a logic defying patchwork arrangement, I suppose it is. And that’s likely by design. With three permits in your pocket – Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Utah – you can move about most of the country without running afoul of the law. I’ll just have to remember to stay out of New York, New Jersey, DC, Florida, parts of New England, and most of the west coast. That really shouldn’t be a problem. In the absence of adopting nationwide Constitutional carry, it really does feel like well past time there was some kind of national reciprocity to bring a degree of order to a decidedly disordered arrangement. As usual, I won’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen, so I’ll busy myself with satisfying the bureaucracy of at least three different states for the foreseeable future.

Congressional ineptitude…

It’s that magical time of year when thoughts turn inevitably to the non-zero percent likelihood of a government shutdown. This stems from the inability of the United States Congress to pass a basic federal budget any time in the last 15 years. Yes, for 75% of my career, your federal government has been funded through makeshift resolutions rather than via the actual federal budgeting process. It’s an arrangement that has led to a number of furloughs and government shutdowns while our beloved representatives in Congress attempt to find their asses with both hands and a flashlight.

Now personally, with all of the elected branches of government controlled by members of the Democratic Party, I find it hard to believe they’d shoot themselves in the foot by failing to even pass a continuing resolution to fund government operations for FY23. Although I find it hard, I don’t discount the possibility completely. Having “full control” of the Congress over the last two years has certainly highlighted the Democrat’s inability to get along among themselves. Having one or two of their members bolt during negotiation is certainly well within the realm of the possible. 

In the past, a government shutdown meant most of us went home and sat around wondering if there was going to be a provision for back pay when the doors eventually opened again. In my experience, the answer was always yes, but it was never a certainty until a special provision was passed allowing for it. Thanks to a new provision in law, the Government Employee Fair Treatment Act of 2019, the question has been permanently resolved. Uncle Sam is now required to pay his employees in full at the end of a shutdown, regardless of whether they were sent home or not.

With that delightful piece of legislation now enshrined in law, my level of concern at the potential for the U.S. Congress to become the world’s largest circular firing squad has been almost completely eliminated. Sure, it’s bad from a PR perspective, it holds up our representative democracy to all sorts of mockery, and it makes our most senior elective leaders look ragingly incompetent… but that’s pretty much the opinion I have of them already. At least this way I know I’ll be getting paid. Eventually. So, bring on the Congressional ineptitude. 

The road not taken…

Early this morning I watched the House of Lords and the House of Commons presenting their condolences to King Charles III. Later I watched the solemn pomp and ceremony that carried the mortal remains of Queen Elizabeth II from Holyroodhouse to St. Giles.

I’m struck, more than anything else, with a sense of regret – of the road not taken. When the American colonies careened towards independence in the 1760s and ’70s, there was something greater in our grasp. With negotiation, we could have had American Members of Parliament, American Peers, and unity of the English speaking peoples throughout an Imperial Commonwealth. In the fullness of time, I like to speculate that America could have emerged as a center of gravity to rival the mother country within the Empire. 

But we didn’t. A few men in Boston didn’t want to pay three pence a pound on their tea. The rabble roused, a minority of the population set us off inexorably on the road to independence.  More fool us.

We say Americans have no interest in royalty. Our rapt attention during their great occasions – their births, weddings, and now their funerals – says differently. We’re still very much invested in ebbs and flows of the family of King George III. 

We could have been part of that great stream of history stretching back beyond the Conqueror, beyond Alfred, but here we are, simple spectators despite our ongoing and profound interest. I’m not advocating we turn back the clock. That particular ship has, sadly, sailed. But, God did we miss an opportunity.

It’s not about your rights, it’s about their power…

Every time someone mentions requiring a formal system of voter identification, a hue and cry arises that it’s just people placing a structural and financial impediment in the way of someone exercising their rights under the Constitution. It’s all I can do not to laugh them out of the room when they roll out that old chestnut.

Let’s assume I’m a responsible adult with no criminal record who has never owned a firearm, but wants to purchase a handgun to protect my home and property. In order to exercise my rights under the Second Amendment, here’s a taste of the structural and financial hurdles the State of Maryland throws up between me and my rights.

To begin the process, I need to apply for the Maryland Handgun Qualification License (HQL). All told, the basic requirements involve paying a $50 application fee after completing a 4 hours course ($95) and submitting fingerprints ($65). Then I’ll wait for between 2-4 weeks while the state adjudicates my application. After that, I can go to a gun shop, purchase the handgun I want and wait an additional week or longer for that application to be reviewed by the state. This first hurdle involved a minimum of $210, 4 hours of class time, and 3-5 weeks of various waiting periods. Assuming everything is approved, I’ll then pay $20 every 10 years to renew my HQL. 

In order to take the next step and be approved to carry my handgun outside the home, I’d need to check off all the boxes to secure the Maryland Wear and Carry Permit. Submitting this application involves a $75 application fee, another set of fingerprints ($65), and a 16 hour class ($350). The state then has 90 days to review the application. The cost of meeting all the requirements for the wear and carry permit is $490, 16 hours of classroom time, and up to a 90 day wait. If successfully approved, the wear and carry permit in Maryland requires renewal after two years for the initial permit and three years for each subsequent renewal. There is a $50 renewal fee and 8 hour class ($125) for each renewal application. 

Without factoring in the additional costs of renewal or the cost of the actual gun, the all in cost to fully exercise your Second Amendment rights in Maryland involves $700 cash out of pocket, 20 hours in the classroom, and about 120 days of wait time. Talk about setting up financial and structural roadblocks.

So, you see, when they screech that the $24 fee for state issued photo identification that can be issued on the day it’s applied for is a roadblock to someone’s right to vote, I find that argument wildly unmoving… unless, of course, their argument really isn’t about helping people exercise their rights and more about maintaining institutionalized power among the political class. In that case, it makes perfect sense.

Seven months…

About a week ago, I surpassed the point where the total amount I’ve socked away towards my defined contribution retirement plan (think 401k) this year finally outstripped the amount of federal taxes I’ve paid over the same period of time. For seven full months of every year, there’s more deducted towards the maintenance and upkeep of the federal government than there is for my own maintenance and upkeep in old age. By the end of the year, I’ll have stashed away about $600 more in my 401k equivalent than will be deducted in federal income tax.

If you extend this mental exercise to include Social Security and Medicare, the numbers get even more egregious since the reasonable assumption is to expect the big-ticket entitlement programs to either see payouts reduced, be means tested, or go extinct between now and the time I’ll be eligible to tap them as a source of income / benefits. It takes an awfully big leap of faith for someone in my age bracket to think of either Social Security or Medicare as anything other than an additional tax drag for which we’ll never get back out what we put in.

Uncle Sugar knows his flagship entitlement program is running out of cash. Social Security was “saved” in the 80s using a combination of accounting gimmicks and changing the “terms of service.” It’ll have to be “saved” again sometime between now and 2035, when the most recent projections say it will no longer be able to pay out its full promised benefit. Coincidently that’s right about the time I’ll otherwise be eligible to walk out the door after a 33-year career, so I have more than a passing interest in what fuckery our alleged leaders will get up to in order to avoid grabbing the political third rail with both hands.

It seems to me that we have a system intentionally designed to encourage reliance on big government generosity rather than personal responsibility and savings. God knows I’d be in a far better position now if every nickel taxed away under the FICA withholding had been invested conservatively in a broad market index fund rather than converted into a Ponzi-esque promissory note. Encouraging people to invest their own money responsibly, though, doesn’t keep them beholden to Uncle for doling out a meager old age pension. It’s easier to tax their income at the state and federal level, tack on a bunch of various “withholdings,” and make it incredibly challenging to carve out enough income over and above day-to-day bills to generate a credible, independent nest egg. It’s a sure way to guarantee people will scream bloody murder if they’re told their entitlements are in danger.

However it’s “fixed” in the future, I operate from the assumption that none of the changes will be to my benefit no matter how much cash I’ve poured into the machine over my working life. Like most games, this one is rigged in favor of the house and at this point, I just take it as a given that the money taxed away is lost and gone forever. The only advice I’ve found that feels applicable is to shelter what you can, stash as much as you can of what you can’t shelter, and accept that in all likelihood you’re going to need to self-finance your last act. It’s annoying as all hell, but once I accepted it as reality, it got a whole lot easier to plan for that particular future instead of just being pissed off… but rest assured it’s going to chap my ass every single time I see a pay stub and the reminder what’s going where and how deeply the political class have their hands in our collective pocket.