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Looking Out For Number 1

This is going to be one of those rare politically-themed entries, so be forewarned.

As we Americans prepare for the inauguration of our newly-elected president, I’d like for everyone to take a few deep, calming breaths. Because you’re not going to have time to stop and collect yourselves when the new Congress gets in session and starts trying to legislate from the bully pulpit, which — mark my words — is exactly what’s coming. The primarily Democrat Congress that We The People™ have assembled by way of our votes over the last couple of years has earned its utterly miserable track record, and I think we’d all be fools to expect them to display anything other than continued failure blanketed in self-aggrandizement, regardless of the integrity of the man at the top.

The point is this: Just because we have a changing of the guard, we are not exempt from our collective responsibility to monitor our elected representatives’ performance and deliver a response in kind. In fact, we need to be mindful of what our government will try to do to us, now more than ever — because it is a government whose revenue stream is eroding, thanks to the escalating recession.

Case in point: The report in various news outlets over the last few weeks that claim the federal government would like to raise the national gasoline tax to Europe-like levels — that’s a nearly 50% increase — and is also looking at new means of collecting revenue from drivers, in the form of GPS transponders. In layman’s terms, the government would like to keep track of how many miles you drive, where you go and when, so they can bill you accordingly. A pilot program for exactly this sort of thing is slated to begin this fall in the state of Oregon. In Great Britain, they’re considering a tax rate of US $2.44 per mile.

And why are the governments of the Western World attempting to foist this on us, at a time of economic catastrophe when many of us can least afford it? Because they’re upset and frightened at the loss of gasoline tax revenue brought about by — wait for it — the new driving habits of their constituents. In other words, because Americans got spooked by $4 and $5 gasoline, started driving less and buying more fuel efficient cars, the end result is that we’re collectively buying less gas, so the gas tax revenues are going down. The federal government uses that money to finance the upkeep and expansion of public roads and infrastructure, and that fund is running in the red.

So after bitching and moaning for months about how Americans need to stop wasting fuel and buy hybrids; after imposing a “gas guzzler” tax and creating incentives to buy more efficient cars; after setting chokingly strict new CAFE restrictions on the automakers; the federal government is now whining that they’re not getting enough money back from our sins, so they need to find some other sin to make money from.

Abso-fucking-lutely genius.

Now, this underscores something about the nature of modern government which I have been aware of for some time, but which I believe all too many citizens are blissfully ignorant of: The government, in its collective “wisdom,” is not looking out for your interests. They are only looking out for Number 1.

When the government pays for Public Service Announcements telling you that smoking is bad for you, they don’t care if you smoke or not. In fact, they would prefer that you did, because the government makes an absolute fortune from cigarette taxes. Likewise for drinking, gambling and all those other bad habits that government takes a bite out of. They spend millions and millions of dollars advocating that you don’t do something, while behind the scenes they’re making a killing off you for doing it. Then when you finally listen to them and stop, they get all upset and find some other way to extract dollars from you, all while telling you it’s your fault because you stopped doing whatever-it-was that made them money before.

This kind of “lifestyle legislation” is only going to get worse as overall tax revenue continues to suffer the effects of the recession. In fact, in some areas, it’s already started. Governor David Paterson of New York just implemented an 18% surtax on the purchase of all non-diet soda. If everyone followed advice and drank tap water instead, do you honestly think that the New York state government would not immediately have a panic attack and try to tax water, or sidewalk use, or maybe the consumption of oxygen instead?

Don’t worry, though, New Yorkers, because your governor already has a variety of those other avenues covered. You’ll enjoy the new 4% tax on downloaded music and other “digitally delivered entertainment services, ” higher fees on gasoline, taxi rides, cable TV, visits to health spas, and no less than 83 additional new or increased charges. Remember, it’s all for a good cause! Columnist Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, for one, is absolutely enthralled with the new soda tax in particular — calling it a “breakthrough” that could “make us all healthier.” Personally, I think he must exist in a perpetual altered state (which is pretty typical of New York Times columnists, IMO) if he believes that people, particularly from the poor and lower-class, aren’t going to go right on buying soda anyway. If anyone thought they weren’t, why would the state bother taxing it? Half of them probably don’t even know about the new taxes anyway, given that most people can’t even tell you the name of the Speaker of the House.

But returning to my central point, it seems that some folks actually believe that the government has the welfare and best interests of society in mind when it hands down this advice to eat healthier, stop smoking and use less energy. Far more frightening, there are those who actually think that government should be in the business of shaping good social behavior, primarily by outlawing the bad. When I told Apple about the the new GPS-assisted driving tax idea, she seemed appalled, especially when it’s viewed as a punishment for doing the “right thing” and using less gasoline (an all-too-easy perspective to take, given the circumstances). It is appalling, sure, but only if you forget that modern government’s sole function has become to take as much of its constituents’ money as possible, so that its individual members can use it to boost their own value in the eyes of special interests and fund their own re-election.

Of course, now I can imagine a whole spate of readers telling me that I’m just another freewheeling Libertarian complainer who has no real solutions. The American transportation infrastructure is crumbling, you tell me, as evidenced primarily by that bridge collapse on I-35W in Minnesota. I don’t dispute that. But here’s an idea that government never seems to consider until the last moment, if ever: How about cutting back on expenditures and cleaning up the waste? In times of economic hardship, every working family must sacrifice to make ends meet. Why shouldn’t our government do likewise, instead of putting even more weights on the back of the Average Joe?

But no. Government can never, ever contract — it is only allowed to expand. Millions and millions are spent, and continue to be spent, on what any working family would call “nice-to-haves.” And in almost anything the government does, at the state or federal level, there’s waste. A 2005 report from the Heritage Foundation reports that only about 50% of the money collected from the federal gas tax is spent to maintain our transportation infrastructure. The rest goes to things like museums and local projects — “nice-to-haves.” While having that kind of culture is important, private business and individuals can lead that charge. It shouldn’t be the job of the government, unless there’s money left over. And right now, there’s no surplus to be found anywhere.

And I haven’t even begun to address the “Big Brother” issues of the proposed government GPS tracking system. The governor of Oregon, the state that expects to start its mileage tax pilot program this fall, assures his constituents that the privacy issues have been “dealt with.” Sure; in the initial version of the program, perhaps the software won’t retain any information about where you go, your rate of travel or any other metrics. But after they’ve gotten their foot in the door, they can quietly deliver a firmware upgrade to your device that will keep tabs on how fast you drive and send you a speeding ticket in the mail. Or they can catalog the destinations you visit and charge you a “fat tax” if you stop at Taco Bell too often, or a “rush hour surcharge” if you use the roads during peak time. Trust me: There will be no end to it.

My favorite high school government class teacher once told us: “Don’t make rules you can’t enforce.” (Ironic, considering the institution he worked for had a penchant for doing just that.) After all the other arguments I’ve laid out here, if anyone even thinks that the idea of a GPS-based mileage tax is enforceable, you are out of your mind. If every new car comes with one from the factory, it won’t be long before the enthusiast community has learned how to defeat it. (On the off chance that it’s undefeatable, the used car market will take off like a rocket.) If nothing else, a simple metal shield will prevent positioning signals from getting through to the transponder, just as it would prevent you from receiving XM or Sirius radio reception. I have a feeling that the government is about to find out just how creative its own citizenry can be when it comes to dodging a perceived “persecutorial tax” such as this. But it wouldn’t surprise me if the feds weren’t prepared for such a response, because with every move they make, it appears that they take us all for babbling fools who haven’t the slightest idea how to look after ourselves.

One of the commenters on the Albany Democrat Herald’s article on Orgeon’s mileage tax summed it up quite succinctly when he said: “The problem with a free society is that you have to assume some risks. If you want no risks then you want no freedom.” Through its increasingly draconian laws, through insurance companies and through the legal system, American society seems hellbent on purging any semblance of risk from our culture. If it were up to the attorneys and the regulators, you wouldn’t be able to catch a cold without somebody paying the price for it.

The problem is, we’re purging the last vestiges of freedom from our society with each risk we remove and with every shred of responsibility we relieve our citizens of. Believe it or not, while the government of Thailand is essentially broken down in a whole host of ways, there is an equally large variety of ways in which life here is far more free than life in America. No one needs car insurance — you pay to fix your car out of your own pocket. You can pay for your own medical care, too, although there is a national program that provides baseline coverage. And the nitpicky “Condo Nazi” rules that pervade America? Forget it. Buildings are dirty, roofs are different colors, and there are sometimes holes in the shoulder of the road that you could fall into if you’re not watching where you’re going. But consider: What makes your life harder to deal with? The existence of these things, or a mile-long list of laws you must be careful not to violate with every step you take? The lack of government programs for cleanliness, order and safety, or an ever-increasing bevy of fees, taxes and surcharges that conspire to keep your standard of living immobile for all eternity?

Americans at all levels — federal government, state government and private sector alike — had better wake up to reality that the United States is rapidly losing its title as the “unsurpassed utopia” that so many have considered it to be for so many years. Ironically, it’s all happening in the name of making America an even better place to live. But it won’t be. All it’s going to do is turn it into a facade.

And if the U.S. government thinks it has a tax revenue crisis now, they’re really in for a shock. When immigration starts going down, and more and more businesses start relocating to other countries, that’s when they’re going to wake up and smell what they’ve been shoveling. We’re sowing the seeds of that eventuality even as we speak.

So bear all this in mind, and don’t be afraid to voice your opinion to your representatives at all levels of government this coming year. If they think, by virtue of your silence, that you don’t care about your own life, they’ll happily define your life for you. And I know it’ll be a cold day in Hell before I let Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid or any of the other self-appointed Mavens of Conventional Propriety tell me how to live.

Dame Grundy, get the hell out of my house.