Saturday, July 26, 2014

On Police Militarization, You've Got It All Wrong

Douglas Adams once made a joke about computer operating systems in the 'Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy' series:
"... it is easy to be blinded to the essential uselessness of them by the sense of achievement you get from getting them to work at all. In other words ... their fundamental design flaws are completely hidden by their superficial design flaws."

This bit of humor best describes my attitude toward the rhetoric made about 'police militarization' in the modern day. The superficial arguments- mostly having to do with the sort of equipment police officers are using more regularly, and the extensive use of SWAT team raids- totally overshadow the deeper, more conclusive arguments on the subject.

I should note, for those unfamiliar with my blog, that I was also an ardent advocate of Indiana's legislation to explicitly authorize the use of deadly force by private citizens against police officers ("Outrage In Indiana", Parts One, Two, Three, and Four). The reader should bear this in mind while reading my commentary.

Spend any time perusing Twitter or Facebook, and you will inevitably see pictures of police department armored vehicles, officers with AR-15s clad in equipment vests and helmets, with captions describing this 'new' 'domestic army'. I admit, such pictures can be shocking; and, as a friend recently described to me, "if I see a cop in a 'traditional' uniform on my street, I don't think twice; but if I see a cop on my street in military-style gear, I start to wonder if I ought to be concerned".

The fact is, some armored vehicles (aside from their usefulness in stopping bullets) also make excellent towing vehicles, which is a fairly common task to which they are put by police departments which have them. Police departments often get them for a bargain price, by buying them used from the military as surplus, or for free through federal grant programs (more on that subject later).

Equipment vests with pockets began in law enforcement as a way to relieve the lower back pain associated with a career spent wearing a heavy gun belt around the waist; lower back pain is the most-common medical complaint of retired police officers. On a related note, the increasing use of BDU-type fatigue uniforms reflects the need for police chiefs to cut costs: They are cheaper to replace regularly than "traditional" uniforms (and uniforms must be replaced often) and don't require dry-cleaning. It goes without saying, dry-cleaning several uniforms per week for several hundred police officers gets to be expensive.

AR-15 rifles in law enforcement have an interesting origin: Some of the earliest adopters of the AR-in-every-patrol-car practice were some college campus police departments, who convinced leftist college administrators to authorize their purchase with the fact that .223 ammunition penetrates walls and bodies less than most pistol ammunition, presenting the lowest possible risk to bystanders if deadly force were needed.

All of this, however, sidesteps the principal reasons law enforcement need and want these tools: Armed criminals are increasingly more belligerent and brazen toward the police, a trend which has grown since the 1960s (and which also spawned the "Officer Survival Movement" of improvements to weapons, training, and knowledge which has saved countless police officers' lives, and described by Massad Ayoob, an integral member of that movement, in this response to a letter to the editor of American Handgunner magazine). Patrol cars do a terrible job of stopping bullets; traditional police pistols and shotguns have limited range and ammunition capacity when confronting well-armed criminals; and so forth. As one police chief put it:
"Everything we've done has been in response to what the criminal element already has," he said. "We've been trying to keep up with the Joneses since I've been in law enforcement. This is just another tool in the tool box to assist police."
I would be remiss if I didn't point out that the same failure of logic which assigns foul motives to the police, based on the appearance of their tools, pervades the gun-control argument. "Assault Weapon" laws are based on the same cosmetics- banning guns because they "look dangerous", regardless of whether or not they really are "more dangerous".

In that spirit, using the sensible gun-rights belief that the offender, and not the inanimate object, should bear the brunt of the blame, let's discuss the real police militarization going on in America today: The change in the mentality of police officers.

Once upon a time, cops thought of themselves as comprising a "Thin Blue Line" separating the vast majority of the public from a relatively small criminal element. While the "Thin Blue Line" is still a common reference in law enforcement circles today (see photo at top, courtesy of Wikipedia), I don't see this as being the case anymore.

Today's police officer is surrounded on all sides by those who despise him (or her). He is made to enforce increasingly absurd and invasive laws, passed by legislatures which are attempting to interpret "the will of the people" (and that "will" is an increasingly schizophrenic one, at that). One set of the public demands officers be "TOUGH ON CRIME!" while another set sees even the most justified use of the most minimal force as "POLICE BRUTALITY!" (One Youtube video, which garnered international attention, depicts the latter perfectly: Two Hamilton, Ontario police constables use the most minimal force possible to arrest a screaming, flailing girl while surrounded by bystanders claiming "police brutality". Luckily, one officer had the presence of mind to (unnecessarily) explain himself to the bystanders). Officers are constrained in how to do their jobs by often-impractical regulations devised by local politicians who have no police experience, and second-guessed by self-serving administrators for even the most sensible actions while on duty. Private persons and business owners complain about police officers being seen in their neighborhoods, but then cry angrily when the police are late arriving to a call.

People complain about the taxes they pay (I am one of them), but also complain when the police department doesn't have the resources to combat every problem it faces. This, naturally, prompts police administrators to seek whatever money they can get in the form of federal grants- which are often grants for exactly the sort of equipment people use as proof of police militarization!

And then, of course, is the ever-present threat of absurd lawsuits by those seeking more money than they would otherwise ever see in their lifetimes.

So, who exactly would take this job? The answer, in the worst case, is a person of fundamentally weak character, who sees police authority as a way to gain instant respect. Typically, police agencies are good at spotting this type of individual and denying him employment; however, departments which have difficulty filling hiring needs often have no choice but to hire anyone who meets the minimum requirements of the job.

Add to this the modern trend of law enforcement agencies to place an absurdly high premium on physical fitness. While it's desirable to have some physical fitness standards (after all, nobody wants an overweight cop to suffer a heart attack on duty), some departments have set standards so high that only a narcissist who spends every waking hour thinking about improving his physique, or showing it off, could meet the standards. Likewise, the requirement by many agencies that candidates have a college degree or military service, thus selecting from two small-ish pools of applicants. Once upon a time, the principal qualifications for a career in law enforcement were good observation skills, good eyesight, common sense, and reliability. Today, it's pushups and (any, regardless of how worthless) college degree.

Is it any wonder, then, that a person who sees law enforcement as a stepping stone to immediate glorification, and sees himself as a smarter, better-bred Adonis (especially when surrounded by a bevy of willing "badge bunnies" to confirm this belief), when accepted into a job which, in many cases, is a very high-paying job with, perhaps, the best retirement security of any middle-class job today, considers himself superior to the public? Or that this individual, when confronted by the opposition on all sides I described above, takes on a (pardon my plain English) "fuck you, I'm better than you" mentality toward them?

Does this describe all police officers? NO. Not by a long shot. I've had the great fortune to know quite a few excellent police officers, both current and retired, and learned a great many things from them. It does, however, describe exactly the sort conditions which create the sort of cop we are concerned about: The officer who sees himself as a master of, rather than a servant of, the public.

Leave it to a science-fiction TV program (namely, the remade Battlestar Galactica) to sum up this mentality succinctly (in an allegory to Posse Comitatus):

"There's a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the people tend to become the enemies of the state."

That sentiment, that the people have become, in some way or another, "the enemies of the state", is at the heart of the police militarization debate. That, and not the tools of the trade, is where the debate ought to focus.

While I recognize that much of this change was spawned by the War on Drugs (and I am, at least partially, an advocate of some drug legalization), I don't think it wouldn't have happened without it. Stated differently: Had there been no War on Drugs, some other social "war"- on pedophiles, or on gangs, etc.- would have made an equal contribution. The court decisions chipping away at civil liberties, the overuse of SWAT team raids, and other factors, would still have been present.

So, what to do about all of this? At the risk of sounding trite, the public's demands on elected officials created this mess, and public apathy toward government affairs (to paraphrase Plato) has allowed it to worsen. Only a change in public demand and attention will fix it. Anything short of that would be mere window dressing- in other words, more of the superficiality I described above. Since the public "cleaning up its act" isn't likely to happen any time soon, I may consider moving to Indiana.


(As an aside, I really like this video, this one, and this one, of police officers dealing well with civil libertarian open carry "advocates". While I generally support open carry, some of these people really are an embarrassment to the gun rights movement, though the guys in the last video are doing it the right way.)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Tax Reform Act of 2013: The Deeper You Dig, The Worse It Gets

This week, Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, released a proposal for tax reform.

I want to make a plea to the reader, at this point: In any discussion of tax policy, there is an urge to gloss over the details of any proposal, in favor of one's own preferred tax concept; some thought to the effect, "It isn't (insert preferred tax plan), so who cares? It isn't real reform". Most readers of this blog are either supporters of a low-rate flat tax, or Fair Tax. I'm a flat-taxer; I'd love to see our tax code reduced to several hundred pages. That said, I ask the reader, for the moment, to banish any thought regarding the "optimal" tax code and focus solely on what is in front of us: this bill. Let's focus on what's 'on our plate'. Failure to do so will mean missing the important details in this legislation.

I can't possibly cover the entirety of the proposal in a blog post. The discussion draft of the bill (PDF) is roughly 1,000 pages. The summary (PDF), to which I will refer, is almost 200 pages. I encourage the reader, if interested, to read them and draw one's own conclusions.

To sum up this bill briefly: I'm shocked it's been introduced by a Republican, especially one like Dave Camp, who has been extensively involved in advocating against the IRS' attack on conservative groups. This reads like a Democrat tax bill. It accomplishes the liberal tax agenda, while using extensive doublespeak to call such changes 'reform'.

Let's pick through the important points, section by section.

First, the bill proposes to simplify the current seven tax brackets, ranging from 10% to 39.4%, to three brackets: 10%, 25%, and 35%. Anyone in the previous 15% bracket would have their rate reduced to 10%; the 28%, 33%, and 35% brackets would be consolidated into the new 25% bracket; and the 39.4% bracket would be reduced to 35%. Not nearly enough of a tax cut, I agree, but it's something.

Or is it?

Read further, and one discovers that the new 35% bracket would disqualify the taxpayer from claiming most deductions. Translation: The effective rate, or "real" rate of taxation, would go up for top-bracket taxpayers. It's a tax increase, disguised as a small tax cut. Additionally, it would phase out the lower bracket tax advantage for higher income earners; meaning, as one's income increases, one gets closer and closer to paying a 35% flat tax, effectively, since eventually all income, not just income in the top bracket, would be taxed at the top-bracket rate.

Additionally, it proposes to eliminate the capital gains tax rates, and substitute with a percentage reduction from marginal tax rates. Translation: Capital gains would be taxed as regular income, albeit at a discount. It's still an increase in tax on capital gains- a purely Democratic tax goal (remember the Warren Buffet "I pay less than my secretary does" fiasco?).

So, how would a Republican get away with proposing this? By overshadowing it with a NEW AND REVOLUTIONARY! tax provision: "Modified Adjusted Gross Income", or MAGI. What is MAGI? It's like the old adjusted gross income (AGI), except that it also deducts charitable contributions and "qualified domestic manufacturing income" (QDMI).

What is QDMI?

Domestic manufacturing gross receipts would include gross receipts derived from (1) any lease, rental, license, sale, exchange, or other disposition of tangible personal property that is manufactured, produced, grown, or extracted by the taxpayer in whole or in significant part within the United States, or (2) construction of real property in the United States as part of the active conduct of a construction trade or business.

Translation: Income from manufacturing, retail, home construction, and rental businesses would be taxed at the 25-percent rate and still be eligible for deductions. Some might argue that this "stimulus" of key sectors of the economy is good for the economy. I call it "central planning".

Income that either is net earnings from self-employment (...) would not qualify as QDMI.

In other words, if you're self-employed in manufacturing, retail, rental, or construction, you don't qualify. This provision is merely a giveaway to those whose incomes are derived from "key sector" businesses- and that group is littered with Democrat campaign donors.

How much effect will all of this have on revenue? Hard to say, since the summary lumps all of these changes together into one (totally meaningless) revenue calculation, instead of addressing them individually.


On the flip side- regarding lower-income earners- the bill is very generous. It proposes to 'reform' tax benefits for families by eliminating head of household filing status and additional standard deduction, and consolidating several incentives into three: a larger standard deduction, a tax credit for single parents, and a new "child and dependents" tax credit, as well as a modification of earned income tax credit (EITC).

The new standard deduction would be $11,000 for single tax payers and $22,000 for married filing jointly. Single parents could claim an additional deduction of $5,500 without having to itemize deductions. However, the single parent deduction phases out by $1 for every $1 of income over $30,000. Translation: No incentive if your income exceeds $35,500.

Three important points regarding the changes to tax benefits:

1) The new child tax credit contains the most obvious doublespeak in the whole bill:
To reduce waste, fraud, and abuse, a taxpayer would be required to provide his SSN, but not an SSN for the child or dependent, to claim the refundable portion of the credit.

Read that sentence again.

The proposal eliminates the one safeguard against fraudulent claiming of the credit- the requirement to provide a child's social security number. In other words, it claims to "reduce waste, fraud, and abuse" by eliminating the requirement to reduce "waste, fraud, and abuse". Doublespeak is an old Democrat standby.

2) This "reform" costs the taxpayers $1.22 TRILLION over ten years (combination of reduced revenues and increased outlays, excluding the changes to EITC). Another trillion dollars of spending on, essentially, a welfare program- another Democrat tax proposal.

How does the bill address this expenditure? By taxing the rich more, of course (another Democrat tax goal). Specifically, by phasing out personal deductions for income above $250,000 (part of the flattening of the top bracket I mentioned above). This phase-out would decrease outlays or enhance revenue by $987.2 Billion over ten years.

3) The proposed changes to EITC are thoroughly absurd. It proposes to convert EITC into a credit against payroll taxes (remember the Democrats' ill-conceived payroll tax holiday?), as well as a refundable credit against employers' payroll taxes. You read that right: The low-wage employee (with at least one child) can get a portion of the payroll taxes paid by the employer.

Consider the impact of this: If you are an employer struggling to make a profit (as so many employers are, these days), you can avoid the necessity of giving your low-wage employees a pay raise (which would increase your payroll taxes as well) because they'll get more money by claiming a credit against the payroll taxes you've paid. Translation: It's a subsidy for keeping wages low, giving Democrats an opportunity, down the road, to claim for the umpteenth time that employers are "greedy" for not paying "a living wage". Machiavellian- and a stock-standard Democrat scheme.


On retirement savings accounts: The bill proposes to eliminate certain kinds of retirement accounts to streamline tax-privileged retirement options. That, in itself, is a reasonable goal.

The problem? The changes proposed will increase revenues by an estimated $228.4 Billion over ten years. Translation: $228 Billion in new tax revenue from changes in retirement account rules. Taxing private retirement accounts will, naturally, increase dependence on government retirement- Social Security. This is another Democratic tax policy goal.


On corporate taxes: There's big news here: A top rate of 25%. This is good, in comparison to the current highest-in-the-world rate of 35%. This will get a lot of folks enthusiastic about tax reform.

This is, of course, another standard Democrat ploy: Give a big positive to conceal all the negatives.

In this case, greater tax burden on energy producers, which will cause energy rates to "necessarily skyrocket" (to quote then-Senator Barack Obama). Elimination of the 50-percent expense rule for refinery costs and advanced mine safety equipment. Translation: Instead of being able to deduct 50% of the cost immediately from taxes, these (enormous) expenses would be deducted from taxes over the service life of the equipment (a period of many years). This means a large additional tax burden on already-struggling coal mining and fuel refining businesses- another Democrat end-goal.

Farms, by Democrat design, are also struggling, and have been for decades. This bill would eliminate the immediate expense rule for fertilizer, adding to their tax burden.

Logging is also a severely-struggling business. Democrats hate logging, which is why this bill changes the rules on timber cutting to treat it as ordinary income instead of capital gains- meaning, a huge tax hike on the logging industry.

Also, "environmental remediation costs", such as asbestos removal, would have to be expensed over a period of 40 years. Until 2012, the costs could be deducted from taxes in the current year. We already know President Obama is using the EPA to target businesses. This "doubles-down" that power, by eliminating the immediate tax break for expenditures demanded by the EPA.

Democrats can't resist taking a swipe at the natural gas industry, either. Like the proposal to eliminate the percentage depletion rule for property where oil and natural gas are extracted, and repeal of the passive activity exception for oil and gas properties.


So, let's review: a "tax reform bill" which raises taxes on upper income earners while purporting to lower their taxes; which will likely push more low-income earners into the (currently 47%) pool who pay no taxes; more government 'stimulus' of certain sectors of the economy; a trillion-plus-dollar increase in welfare spending via the tax code; almost a quarter-trillion-dollar additional tax burden on individual retirements; and greater tax burdens on logging, mining, farming, and energy production.

It must be said, most of these deductions would be eliminated, if we were actually transitioning to a flat income tax code. But "flat income tax" denotes a very low, universal rate. Camp may call this bill "flattening" of the tax code, but it isn't, except for "flattening" the top bracket to generate more revenue.

I think Chairman Camp ought to change his party affiliation.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)