Political Animal


SALES TAXES AND THE DEFICIT….Apparently some California legislators are proposing that in order to tackle our $35 billion budget deficit we should expand the state sales tax to cover services as well as goods. In today’s LA Times, professional tax fighter David Doerr says that’s a bad idea: it would be an administrative nightmare, it’s inflationary (!), it would harm the business climate, etc.

But out of 500 words and with six separate reasons for opposing this plan, he does not manage to breathe even one word about the worst aspect of the whole thing: sales taxes are regressive, so increases fall disproportionately on the poor.

Oh well, at least he doesn’t pretend there’s anything compassionate about his conservatism.

NATIONAL SERVICE….New York congressman Charles

NATIONAL SERVICE….New York congressman Charles Rangel decided to finish up 2002 by proposing that we reinstitute the draft:

“I’m going to introduce legislation to have universal military service to let everyone have an opportunity to defend the free world against the threats coming to us,” Rangel said on CNN’s “Late Edition.”

….”I think, if we went home and found out that there were families concerned about their kids going off to war, there would be more cautiousness and a more willingness to work with the international community than to say, ‘Our way or the highway.’ “

Rangel’s idea has been predictably savaged on both the left and the right, but it’s also gotten some support, most recently from Michigan congressman John Conyers.

Rangel’s idea is obviously not serious, just a piece of anti-war grandstanding. There’s nothing wrong with grandstanding, of course, especially from a congressman, but I have a better (and more serious) idea: mandatory national service.

This is not a new idea, but it’s the kind of thing that we should be seriously discussing these days. Patriotism, after all, does not come from reciting the pledge of alliegance every day or flying an American flag in front of your home. It comes from a deep seated notion that you live in a great country and that you share some of this greatness with your fellow citizens.

Mandatory national service would oblige everyone who lives here to give something back to their country. It would allow teenagers to see firsthand what other parts of America are like, and what their fellow Americans are like. It would allow blacks to work alongside whites, rich alongside poor, and natives alongside immigrants. It would provide a large workforce that could be deployed both domestically and internationally. It would provide manpower for our inner cities and ambassadors to the third world. Military service would count, of course, but no one would be forced to serve in the military, and the vast majority of teenagers would serve in non-military areas.

Yes, this is dorm-room-bull-session kind of stuff, never likely to happen, and that’s a pity. Too many Americans these days feel a sense of entitlement, somehow not realizing that a big part of their personal success is due strictly to their good luck in being born here. National service could give that illusion a salutary nudge.

This would, of course, be enormously difficult to manage and enormously expensive to implement. But it would be worth it. The last time anything like this happened was during World War II, and it provided a sense of national purpose that we have never since recovered.

This is all idealistic liberal fluff, but I think we could use more of that these days. If we’re all going to snipe endlessly at each other, why not do it over a grand dream like this instead of over minutiae like whether third trimester abortions should be legal?


GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL….Megan McArdle reviews Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel today. She likes it but has a couple of complaints.

I liked it too, and I don’t even have the complaints she does. It was, simply, a terrific book, with a truly eye-opening and compelling explanation for why Eurasian civilizations were the ones that took over the world, not Australian or African or North American ones. The short answer: they started first and managed to conquer the world before anyone else was able to catch up.

One word of warning: the subject of the book is strictly early development, so it does not try to explain why one particular Eurasian civilization (Western Christendom) has so far been the winner over the other three Eurasian civilizations (China, the Middle East, and India). Diamond actually does address this very briefly with a few guesses, but that’s all they are, and he makes no pretense otherwise. So don’t dive into it expecting a comprehensive history of the world.

This is a highly recommended book, one of my all-time favorites. You can read my longer review of it here.


DEPARTMENT OF UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES….A friend of mine tells me that some local residents where he lives complained about a dangerous stretch of road a few years ago. The city finally agreed to put in a light, which was installed two years ago. But it turned out that people didn’t know the light was there, so they just barreled on through, a situation even more dangerous than the original one. So the city installed a bunch of raised dots in the road to warn people that something was coming. This worked, but then everyone started complaining that the constant flow of cars over the dots made too much noise. So now they are building a 1000-foot sound wall to cut down the noise.

Exercise for the reader: what is the likely unintended consequence of the wall?

ANSWER: According to correspondent Ian D, the answer is: graffiti.