Opinion and Analysis

Independence Hall

By: Brian Sikma

As Americans gather with family and friends across our great nation to celebrate the greatest of our national holidays, it is a good time to reflect on where we as a people have come from, and where we are going. Nothing will stifle the possibility of our future success as a nation as much as a careless ignorance of our past. Similarly, a knowledge of our heroic and vivid history will inspire us to dream bigger dreams and tackle still greater challenges. History is not created in a vacuum.

Perhaps the greatest dream that we can have is to preserve this liberty that we enjoy so much today. The process of preserving and perpetuating liberty is not passive, but active. It demands a consistent series of actions on the part of individuals and local communities. It is a trust that should obligate every man, woman, and child in our country. It has been often said, and it cannot be said too often, that freedom is only one generation away from extinction. If anything, recent political and social developments remind us of just how fragile our experiment is.

When our founding fathers solemnly covenanted with one another and the millions of people looking to them to expend their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” in the defense of independence, they were standing for something far greater than themselves. Personal comfort and economic expedience all argued staunchly against independence. But deep in the soul of each man who, in effect, signed his own death warrant by signing the Declaration of Independence, was an unwavering commitment to a higher law. This higher law was referred to as “the laws of nature” and it declares that rights flow from the Creator, not a king, Parliament, or charter.

As Americans survey the landscape around them today, and see an ever expansive government attempting to become a social safety net for every individual, organization, and business, they should be skeptical about the direction of the country. Our present leaders have wondered from the path trod by our founders, and by the millions of everyday Americans who followed in their footsteps and forged our land. By simply returning to that path, that course of liberty lighted by freedom’s unfailing flame, we can once again return to a better day.

Just as our founders declared independence from England in 1776, we in our day must declare a new independence from the all-encompassing grasp of big government. This second declaration of independence must be preceded, or at least accompanied, by a great spiritual reawakening. Setting the stage for the political revolution of our founding was a nationwide awakening towards private virtue and deep spiritual values. A return to first principles in the public sphere must be paralleled by a return to individual virtue and personal responsibility.

Unless we understand the moral questions of what is right, what is wrong, why absolutes matter and why our rights are not universally true because an international body happens to say so, a return to first principles will be a futile exercise. We must commit now to building not a facade, but a strong structure with a sure moral foundation. The construction of this foundation is preeminently a personal, and not public, endeavor. To preserve liberty in our day, we must return to political first principles and personal responsibility coupled with individual virtue.


BP Execs Arrive at White House / AP Photo

By: Brian Sikma

When Congressman Joe Barton (R-Texas) used his position as ranking member of the House Energy Committee to apologize to the leadership of BP for the way they have been treated by the federal government, he quickly found himself in hot water from both sides of the aisle. The black oil spreading across the Gulf has created a toxic environment in Washington towards anyone attempting to excuse the actions of the company that lauds itself as being “Beyond Petroleum.”

Unquestionably, BP has not been treated right by the Obama Administration. Forcing BP to set up a $20 billion escrow account was yet another advance by this administration in an all-out assault on the free-market system that is the only thing that will power our economy back to prosperity. When the Administration demanded that BP give the federal government a lien on $20 billion worth of U.S. assets as collateral on the escrow account, we saw a brazen power-play that resembled Chicago-style politics more than legitimate Constitutional government. Make no mistake: BP had no choice in this matter, and it was not a voluntary action on their part.

The unacceptability of the Administration’s effort to hold BP accountable is not justified even by the magnitude of the disaster. Government should never leap beyond its Constitutional bounds and arbitrarily seize control of private enterprise and private resources. We are a nation of laws, not bureaucrats with good intentions and limitless powers to resolve catastrophes and crises however they see fit. Elected officials, citizens, and even private sector players must respectfully and ardently oppose the BP arm-twisting and a repeat of similar actions in the future.

This is not to say that BP should not be held responsible for the damage it has caused. The billions of dollars worth of damage to the states and people along the Gulf should be compensated to them by BP. BP should bear 100% of the disaster clean-up costs because this problem, whether caused by an accident or a purposeful and willful negligence towards safety and good operating standards, is BP’s responsibility.

Individuals, corporations, and organizations are free to sue BP for real damages that they suffered. Those who immediately covered the bill for the clean-up effort, primarily the federal government and state governments, should seek to be compensated by BP for the costs that they incurred. Small business owners who suffered actual and real damages, for which there are definite monetary figures available to measure the extent of harm, should be free to join together in class-action lawsuits against BP to recover what they lost. Larger corporations and other entities that lost money may find it more appropriate to sue BP singly for compensation.

The problem that has marked the Obama Administration’s response to the crisis is not that they want to hold BP to account for what happened and make sure that BP pays for the damage it has caused, but that they have done so in a way that violates core Constitutional principles and unnecessarily bypasses established legal procedures. President Obama and his team like to focus on action and it is not at all disconcerting to them to place action – any action – ahead of the careful pursuit of justice via well established channels that serve to protect our nation and the freedom that we enjoy.

Unless held in check, the greatest damage to the country that results from the Gulf disaster will be the Obama Administration’s sacrifice of the rule of law on the altar of expedient action. Eventually the oil will be cleaned up, and with much effort the lives of the people along the Gulf Coast will return to a level of normalcy, but our nation will be negatively impacted for a very long time by the precedents set up by the government’s response to the disaster. Right now, both BP and Big Government are to blame for the disaster in the Gulf.

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Thomas Sowell – Is the U.S. Now On Slippery Slope to Tryanny?

By: Brian Sikma

The recent, and ongoing, debate over the future of the Washington D.C. school voucher program has served as a high profile reminder that efforts must continue to be made to improve the quality of education provided by public schools.  Here in Indiana, the House has passed a bill that has the potential to lower the quality of education in this state and increase the administrative workload facing school districts.  The bill deals with creating “cultural competency” standards and protocols for schools around the state and has been sponsored by Rep. Greg Porter (D-Indianapolis).

Cultural competency is often defined as understanding the differences in action, behavior, and communication that span across various cultural and social groups.  If one is able to take this understanding and act in ways that are consistent with an increased awareness of these differences, they can be considered culturally competent.  To bring it to the practical level, if one is to be culturally competent they must be willing to adjust their actions based on the culture they are dealing with and, by extension, they emphasize the fact that differences between the two groups exist.

Cultural competency is good for diplomats.  It is not good for Indiana’s teachers and students.  By requiring school districts to develop programs to train teachers in cultural differences, set benchmarks for culturally competent behavior, and implement a system that monitors the cultural competency of teachers, we are shifting our focus away from the proper goal of classroom instruction: educating students in a way that stretches them academically and prepares them to become successful individuals and good citizens.  We should not turn the focus of classroom instruction into understanding the varying degrees of differences that we have with one another.

Teachers do need to be aware of the different socio-economic backgrounds that their students come from.  Yet this understanding should not be translated into a mandate that classroom education be reduced to a number of different individual standards with each student being held to his or her own level of accountability.  Our teachers should have the freedom to hold all students accountable for their actions and demand that each student do their very best in class.  Not all students will be at the top of the class, but by excusing lack of effort, inattention to instruction, or other behavioral issues by ascribing them to the cultural background of the student, we are sending the message that because of one’s background they will not be expected-or encouraged-to achieve great things.

Tailoring an educational program, whether in the individual classroom or throughout an entire school, to meet the needs of individual students is appropriate.  However, substantially altering the program to consciously emphasize the cultural differences between students or between student bodies across the state would not be the right thing to do.  Emphasizing, either explicitly or implicitly, what issues divide us does not make for an educational process that prepares students to be well equipped to join a society founded on a unity of beliefs and ideals with regard to responsibility and freedom.

Some have expressed concern that cultural competency will turn into a round about method of indoctrinating Hoosier school children with moral and social values that are not consistent with the values held by a majority of Hoosiers today.  This concern is a valid one because this result would occur if educators were required to not only acknowledge but also emphasize and encourage students to accept behaviors such as same-sex marriage and adoption. In the name of teaching students to accept diversity (which, when properly understood is a good thing), other states have had this very thing take place.

Indiana’s educators should not overlook or ignore the broad variety of cultures that have come together to make Indiana what it is today.  Yet as our state moves forward we must keep in mind that the secret to our past ability to assimilate various cultures into the fabric of our state’s society today is that we emphasized the ideas that united us as Americans and as Hoosiers.  Immigrants to our country have long recognized that it is not a common race or ethnicity, economic occupation, social status, or even intellectual ability that has brought us together as a people.  It has been our common commitment to a shared set of values, visions, and responsibilities that has created the rich tapestry of our history.

The future of the next generation of Hoosiers is too bright and too brimming with potential to waste in the shallow demands of the bureaucratic do-goodism known as cultural competency.  Young Hoosiers should be aware of the differences that they have with others, but they should be educated by teachers and an education system that focuses on what unites us and does not excuse a lack of effort in the name of a political correct form of condescension.

By: Brian Sikma

In order to be mainstream and successful, American political candidates and office holders must profess a strong faith in freedom and declare in resounding terms their belief in the idea and principle of liberty.  Yet often two very different understandings of freedom seem to be present when opposing sides, the right and left, offer their policy proposals to the American people.  Not every opposing, or competing, set of solutions or proposals find themselves rooted in two distinct understandings of freedom.  But often enough it is quite clear that although two very different policies are advocated for with the same language of freedom, it is not possible for the advocates to be sharing the same understanding of that principle.

As our nation continues to struggle economically, the economic and fiscal proposals outlined by President Obama and the Democrats in Congress on one hand, and House Republicans and conservative thinkers on the other hand, give us an insight into the ramifications of competing understandings of freedom.  Although both sides offer us their plans by saying that they are consistent with freedom, it could well be that each side is talking past the other by agreeing on the terminology but not sharing in the same definition.

It is not possible for a plan that involves stimulus plans that must be paid for either by debt or higher taxes, and arbitrary bailouts that are sometimes forced on companies and give the federal government the power to pick winners and losers in the private sector, to be consistent with freedom when freedom is understood to mean the liberty to pursue one’s own choices consistent with a moral order.  Freedom of opportunity and the freedom to rise to one’s full level of potential and meet one’s own destiny requires that government not interfere with and over regulate individuals as they pursue this goal.  Freedom is not a right to do whatever you want to do, it is a right to do what is right.

Those who advocate for stimulus plans, bailouts, and bigger government do not share this view that freedom means freedom of opportunity and the freedom to live up to one’s potential.  In their view, freedom means being free from certain pressures and restraints like individual responsibility and fiscal discipline.  It means an equality of outcomes regardless of the varying levels of investment put in by different people.  It means that we have a “freedom” to achieve the same level of subsistence, no less, and certainly no more.  Using your talents and work ethic to get ahead, to set goals for yourself, and to achieve great things and improve the lives of those around you is not allowed under this very narrow view of freedom.  Just as this view removes the pressures of risk and limits the level of responsibility one must assume, it also imposes a firm and unyielding ceiling on what individuals can do.

When government turns the right of opportunity into a “right to succeed” it must impose a basic floor that allows everyone to have equal, or nearly equal, resources and assets.  But whenever a floor is imposed, whenever a basic minimum of tangible assets is determined to be a right, there is also a cap and a limit imposed on how far one can rise above the mandated minimum.  If failure is unacceptable or even illegal, so is success.

To apply these two distinct understandings of freedom to an issue, let’s consider the matter of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. To the left, these entities were expanding freedom by making home ownership more accessible and more common by relaxing credit standards and encouraging-and in some cases mandating-that lenders make loans to individuals who would have normally been denied a loan. The program was a success at expanding “freedom” because it resulted in more Americans owning homes, never mind the fact that it did so by placing them in homes that they could not afford and put a tremendous amount of stress on the mortgage industry.

Conservatives viewed Fannie and Freddie as antithetical to freedom because they coerced banks and other lenders to make loans to people who’s financial standing was not yet strong enough to sustain a mortgage, even a modest one. They believe that lenders and their depositors should be free to decide how much risk they want their assets to assume as part of an investment.

If you work for your assets, then you should have some say in how those assets are maintained and invested. The theory of owning your own property actually means something to conservatives.

This does not mean that conservatives mean that people should not be able to obtain mortgages and start on the path of home ownership.  It does mean that conservatives want people to be responsible enough to work hard and earn the status of home ownership, not be handed the opportunity at the expense of someone else’s success.  People value what they earn, and they take care of what they work for.

To the left, freedom means helping people “get ahead” even when that means mandating that other people act against their own interest and against the best interest of the system (in the case of Fannie and Freddie, the loan and mortgage system). To the right, freedom means giving people the opportunity to actually own what they own, and have the ability to pursue upward mobility and set and achieve personal goals-be they educational, financial, or something else-without the government telling them what they can and can’t do.

As the American people sort through the speeches, proposals and actions that surround the debate over the economy and what to do about it, they should bear in mind these two very different interpretations of freedom.  One definition was realized in the founding of our country, with the seeds of this mature tree being planted long before 1776.  The other definition has been around for some time, too.  It has not always been labeled freedom, but well meaning and yet misguided individuals have often tried to persuade people that equal outcomes, and the comfortable chains of paternal government, are the highest form of liberty.  Philosophers can hold either view and harm few, government leaders can hold only one view and be serving the best interest of the people.

In order to survive this economic downturn and climb out of this economic morass and return to the upward leading road of economic prosperity, the American people will need to stand and let their leaders know that while some government action is necessary and warranted, a far reaching expansion of government’s role in business, finance, and personal economic choice will not be tolerated.

The freedom of our founding is not an easy freedom.  It is only worth something to vigorous, rugged, rough and tumble people.  It does not prevent failure, but it does allow for unparalleled  success and it does allow you to work hard, earn, save and invest and own your own property and prosperity.  It allows you to fulfill your own destiny and help your community as you see fit.  We are Americans, and we have chosen true freedom in the past and we must do so again today.

American Sunrise

American Sunrise

By: Brian Sikma

When President Barack Obama signed the $780 billion stimulus bill into law on February 17, he made official an economic policy that takes our nation further down the wrong path.  The billions of dollars in new government spending that the stimulus contains represent the wrong kind of response to our nation’s economic troubles.  With unemployment rising, home foreclosures increasing, businesses struggling, and banks faltering, we do not need an economic “recovery” plan that calls for policies that will increase inflation, penalize those who succeed and deal with the symptoms, and not the root, of our problems.

History does not often grant the actors in its drama the luxury of writing their own account of events and their response to them.  But sometimes the challenges of the day are of such magnitude and of such a nature as to demand a clear and unmistakable response.  It is during times like these that our answer defines us more than the challenge itself, and history is left to draw but one conclusion from our actions.  Such a time is before us now.

Although the economic challenges that we face are severe, they will not define us for generations to come.  Our generation will not be judged by history based on the magnitude of the problem we were required to face.  Our generation will be judged on its response to the problem and, in turn, its embrace of liberty or its embrace of a government controlled security that requires us to sacrifice our freedom.  The response of our government to the economic slowdown has, to date, been one of greater intrusion, intervention, regulation, and management.  It has not been one that respects freedom, advances the principles of our founding, and lays the groundwork for future economic prosperity.

If we chose to continue to allow our government to pass economic stimulus bills that we cannot pay for now, and that we may never be able to pay for in the future, and if we continue to stand by as our government takes our money and the money of future generations and bails out politically powerful companies, we will have chosen to abandon a future of freedom.  I do not believe that this is what the American people will do.  I do not believe that they will choose this ignoble course.

The choice that we face between choosing freedom and choosing slavery to our government is not a choice between action and inaction.  The question before us today is whether we will accept government-backed security or whether we will chose to embrace liberty and all of the exhilarating possibilities and boundless opportunities that it presents us.  To answer in either way we must act.  We must either act by allowing government to continue on its present course of expanding at the price of our freedom; or we must act by replacing outdated regulatory structures and tax systems with new structures and new systems that reward entrepreneurialism and hard work.

Among us today are some leaders who preach a gospel of greater security and a more equal distribution of success.  They urge us to set aside the freedom we have enjoyed in the past for the sake of a security guaranteed by a government that will have control over every aspect of our life.  The uncertainty of freedom is just not worth it, we are told.  Unless we accept their prescriptions for more spending, more government mandates, and less personal responsibility, we face an economic catastrophe on a scale greater than any in our history.  This is but one voice in the debate, however.

There is another voice, or perhaps a symphony of voices, urging us to pursue a different course.  A course that diverges from the path that we are presently on and our current leaders are intent on following.  This other voice urges us not to forsake freedom for the temporary safety that is found in government mandated mediocrity.  It is the voice of our founding fathers who endured the perils of independence, suffered the dangers of war, persevered through the miseries of economic hardship and worked to overcome petty political differences to create a new nation birthed in freedom and bought in blood.  It is the voice of a generation that fought to overcome the terrible evils of slavery.  It is the voice of a generation that, not all that long ago, found itself embroiled in a world war that was a global conflict between good and evil.  It is the voice of countless millions who endured the hardships of our history because they believed in the limitless potential of a free people.  It is the voice of future generations urging us to keep faith.

Freedom has never been an easy or free thing.  Nor should it be.  It costs something to earn and keep freedom.  For the citizen-soldier that price is sometimes the ultimate sacrifice.  For the citizen-statesmen that price is sometimes short-term expediency and popularity.  For the citizen like you and me that price is the security that a big government brings.  We could have security in an instant, we could have government mandated efficiency in a heart beat, if we are willing lay aside our hopes and dreams and aspirations for the future.

Government granted security brings a certainty that is unlike the sometimes unpredictable business of individual responsibility and personal economic choice.  With government in control, we can expect all the misery to be shared equally, for there is no such thing as success in a socialist state.  With government in control, we can all expect to achieve the same bland level of subsistence, with our futures undifferentiated by our dreams and our ability to find our personal calling and fulfill our God-given destiny as individuals.

Will we chose to follow the prophets of doom and gloom who predict calamity if we do not submit to a government that is growing more socialist by the day?  Or will we answer that other voice, the voice of the past and the voice of the future, that urges us not to give up on our heritage of freedom?  We are Americans and it is our history, our tradition, and our nature to chose freedom over bondage.  We will not sacrifice freedom for the sake of a temporary and fleeting moment of security.  Yes, we will be required to endure an economic downturn, but we will not do it by remaining inactive.

Instead of choosing a future defined by government and socialist policies, we will chose a future that rewards the virtues of responsibility, integrity, work, thrift, and saving.  We will chose a future where we fulfill our purpose in life without the government telling us what we can and can’t do.  Our dreams and our visions will not be bound and limited by the anemic thinking of bureaucrats.   We will stand tall and rugged in the face of this storm for we will chose to follow the path of freedom.  We will not falter now and we will carry ourselves forward with such character and bearing that future generations of Americans will look back and say that we stayed true to our principles, we kept the faith, we endured the struggle, we strove for higher things.

Small Town Parade

Small Town Parade

By: Brian Sikma

When the economy slows down it is appropriate for the government to take action to help solve the problem. Doing nothing is not the right response, just as doing the wrong thing is not the right response. The stimulus bill advanced by President Obama and crafted in a partisan fashion by Democrat leaders in Congress, is not the stimulus plan that we need. We need an economic policy that promotes job creation and rewards work and saving, not an economic policy that bails out irresponsible companies, discourages efficient work, and penalizes success.

Any attempt to help the economy must focus on helping the American people. That may sound self-evident to those of us here in the heartland of America, but it is a lesson that needs to be learned by our leaders in Washington. The proposed $825 billion stimulus bill contains massive amounts of new government spending that will not help Hoosiers rebuild their economy and move forward. The reason is because government spending spent on government priorities and directed towards projects that are supported by those who believe in a bigger and more complex government, will not meet the needs that we face.

The “stimulus” bill contains $600 million for new cars for government employees, $50 million for artistic endeavors, $400 million for climate change research, billions of dollars to remodel and redecorate government offices, and even a provision spending $200 million for new sod on the National Mall. It also doubles the size of the Department of Education and increases that agency’s involvement in our every day lives.

The passage of the stimulus bill would boost the size of our national debt to 95% of our country’s annual gross domestic product. This stimulus plan is supposed to cure an ailing economy, but it is on track to be worse than the ailment itself.

Instead of spending the money of hardworking Americans on frivolous and unnecessary projects, and forcing them to either pay higher taxes or further bury their children and grandchildren under a mountain of excessive national debt, Congress and the President should embrace an alternative plan. By focusing on tax cuts that lower our nation’s record high tax on employers, allow more individuals to keep their hard earned money, and that reward savings and investment, Washington can help the American people lift themselves out of an economic mess caused by government mismanagement.

The American economy is strong enough to sustain this slowdown, and the American people are resilient enough to weather this storm. If government is to help and not hinder the recovery, it should focus on a solution that benefits the American people, not a solution that benefits bureaucrats in Washington.

Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover signed the Smoot-Hawley tariff into law and turned an economic downturn into the Great Depression.

By: Brian Sikma

A British economic analyst and writer has made dire predictions for the global economy if the “Buy American” provision that was heavily backed by Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-IN 1) stays in the stimulus bill and is signed into law by President Obama. Comparing the provision to the “protectionism” of the 1930s (more specifically the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of the 1930s, which raised tariffs on over 20,000 different products) Financial Times writer Willem Buiter declared “if the Buy American provisions of the Economic Stimulus Package were to become law, this would amount to an economic declaration of war on the rest of the world.”

What one of Indiana’s own Congressmen has failed to learn from history and economics is nevertheless being picked up on by economists both here at home and abroad. Engaging in populist economic protectionism is risky when times are good and catastrophic when times are bad, as they are now. Even though in percentage terms the American economy, and thus most if not all of the global economy, is still stronger than it was during the Great Depression or even some of the bleak economic times of the 1970s and the start of the 1980s, it certainly will not be able to survive the shock of a massive limitation on trade policy.

There were many factors that contributed to the implosion of the housing market and the financial markets that relied so heavily on the easy lending and loose monetary policies that made the housing market expand like a California wildfire. But the single impact of suddenly clamping down on the global market and attempting to halt trade by limiting government purchasing contracts to only those products made here at home will be perhaps the single most important factor in taking us into a full blown depression.

It is true that the “Buy American” provision does not raise tariffs on any imports and that it is confined to only government spending as part of contracts provided for in the $825 billion stimulus bill-spending that I believe is not the best way to stimulate the economy-but when that government spending accounts for a significant portion of a nation’s GDP (the newly added debt would push the total amount of government debt obligations to 95% of GDP by 2010), it has reverberations throughout the non-government sectors of the trade markets.

As Mr. Buiter said in concluding his article “Yes we can. I hope we don’t.” America does not need to travel the road to serfdom to reach economic prosperity. Good intentions will not change the fact that the current path our government is on will have deeply unfortunate, and frustratingly avoidable, consequences.

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