I’ve been thinking about death again. I wrote previously how our culture has become separated from death, both of people and of food animals, and our separation is interesting when you consider the violence level of our computer games or the body count in popular movies. This time, I’m going to focus on subjects of mortality other than the death of President Reagan and the varied reactions to it.

On September 7, 2004, a milestone was reached in Iraq when three solders died in fighting around Baghdad, and a fourth soldier died from wounds received the previous day. This brought the total number of Americans who have died in Iraq past 1,000 — three-quarters of these deaths related to combat. Every death is a tragedy, even deaths of villains such as Odai and Qusai Hussein — more so with the deaths of these brave American husbands and fathers, mothers and wives. Each death is a tragedy because the opportunity to do good and benefit others is now gone. This is why, while I believe in and support the death penalty, I do not believe it should be rushed into, nor should it be something we exult in, even when it happens to such sorry excuses as the Hussein brothers.

StrategyPage.com has a large list of military-related images and articles. Most images are related to the current American activities in Iraq, and because the military’s primary job is to kill people and break things, there are many images of death and destruction. WARNING: The following three links show graphic scenes of death. There is a video of an F-16 dropping a bomb in the middle of hostile Iraqis in Fallujah, or an attack helicopter engaging three insurgents with 30mm cannon fire, or a lone Iraqi being shot before he could fire his RPG at American troops. The first two are black and white, but the last is in color. I would guess the camera was 50 feet away from the Iraqi as he was shot. The last clip must have been recorded off a Spanish-language news channel because the announcer says, “La muerte en directo se han convertido en un imagen por te vean allí. Esto ocurrido en el …” This translates approximately to, “This actual death has been caught in this live image. This occurred in the…” or that general idea.

This last clip is the most dramatic image of death, and the news station probably used it as an example of how evil the American troops are to slay this poor innocent Iraqi. As much as I am saddened when people die, I can’t blame the American troops for shooting at a man who was preparing to attack and kill them. Nor can I condemn the bombing or shooting of the people in the first two videos. If you rise up armed against U.S. troops, your overall life expectancy is dramatically shortened. Consider it a law of nature, if you will. Speaking of laws, Niven’s First Law states, “Never throw shit at an armed man.” This should be translated, printed up and dropped as leaflets all over Baghdad. The corollary to this law states, “Never stand next to someone who is throwing shit at an armed man.” This corollary should be handed out to every news agency which sends its people into a war zone. It could possibly save some lives, although it is too late for Mazen Tumeisi. Tumeisi, a Palestinian journalist, died as he was filming near a burning Bradley vehicle in Baghdad as an American helicopter fired rockets on the vehicle. It is pretty standard for the military to destroy a disabled vehicle if the enemy might loot it. The last thing the military needs is for its own ordnance to be used against the troops. I have heard various media people rage about how they are fired on and sometimes killed while reporting the news. News Flash: when reporting from a war zone, standing right next to the action is dumb.

Speaking of dumb, I come to my final topic of death: euthanasia. Wesley J. Smith wrote in the Daily Standard, “In the Netherlands, 31 percent of pediatricians have killed infants. A fifth of these killings were done without the “consent” of parents. Going Dutch has never been so horrible”:

First, Dutch euthanasia advocates said that patient killing will be limited to the competent, terminally ill who ask for it. Then, when doctors began euthanizing patients who clearly were not terminally ill, sweat not, they soothed: medicalized killing will be limited to competent people with incurable illnesses or disabilities. Then, when doctors began killing patients who were depressed but not physically ill, not to worry, they told us: only competent depressed people whose desire to commit suicide is “rational” will have their deaths facilitated. Then, when doctors began killing incompetent people, such as those with Alzheimer’s, it’s all under control, they crooned: non-voluntary killing will be limited to patients who would have asked for it if they were competent.

And now they want to euthanize children.

In the Netherlands, Groningen University Hospital has decided its doctors will euthanize children under the age of 12, if doctors believe their suffering is intolerable or if they have an incurable illness. But what does that mean? In many cases, as occurs now with adults, it will become an excuse not to provide proper pain control for children who are dying of potentially agonizing maladies such as cancer, and doing away with them instead. As for those deemed “incurable”–this term is merely a euphemism for killing babies and children who are seriously disabled.

Jim Quinn, a talk show host from Pittsburgh, sums up the attitude that leads to this sort of “euthanasia”:

I have identified the basic, fundamental difference between the liberal cultural Marxist and the conservative American, and the difference is this: for the liberal every new life is a burden, another person to be educated by the State, cared for by the State, fed by the State, clothed by the State, and housed by the State. For every conservative out there a new life is a gift, another source of potential genius, another possible solution to the human condition.

“Why didn’t you send us a cure for AIDS, God?!?”

“I DID, BUT YOU ABORTED HIM.”

I believe our culture has become separated from the reality of death. Not too long ago in history, we saw young and old pass away in our homes, and disease ravaged families. But with technological improvements to medicine and health care, people expect to live longer and better lives. Now when someone is sick, we rush him or her to the hospital; this is where the terminally ill most often die. Have we reached a point where people die more often in or en route to a hospital than in their own homes?

I cannot help noticing that we are raising a generation so separated from death that they think meat comes from a wrapped Styrofoam tray and not from the body of a dead animal. I have tried to explain to my niece the connection between the cute deer nibbling on my garden (get out of there, you $#@%ing deer!) and the venison I cook up in a stew or roast. So far she hasn’t been able (or willing) to link the two. How many people would lose their lunch if they had to watch a cow being butchered, but have no problem ordering a rare steak for lunch?

I remember watching a four-part documentary on PBS about five years ago called “Death: The Trip of a Lifetime.” The host, Greg Palmer, discussed death and the various ways in which human cultures react to it. I’ll have to visit my local libraries and see if they have a copy of this series. It is well worth finding and watching if you want to explore some of the ways human beings deal with death. I must confess that President Reagan’s funeral had the proper combination of religion and military pomp to be a proper funeral service in my eyes. But I am a product of my Christian and military upbringing, so this is only to be expected.

If you haven’t guessed from the tone of this article, I’ve been dwelling on death and our reaction to it this week. Ever since I heard of the death of President Reagan and later the death of singer Ray Charles, the whole subject of death was almost impossible to avoid if you followed the news. People die every day, and while this is often a sorrowful event for the loved ones who remain, the media doesn’t dwell on these deaths as they do when someone famous dies.

I was glad to see that President Reagan’s casket was kept closed. Having died at the age of 93 after years of Alzheimer’s disease ravaging his body, President Reagan no longer looked the way I remembered him as he left office, and I would rather remember him as the vibrant leader than the stricken invalid. I agree with my wife that there seems to be something barbaric about an open-casket viewing. Back when it was difficult for medical science to prove that a person was dead, it made sense to lay out the body and watch over it for a while. The fear of being buried alive would prompt people to give their dearly departed the opportunity to change their minds. This reminds me of the movie Charade with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, specifically the scene of them sitting at her dead husband’s viewing. Several unsavory strangers approach the body to satisfy themselves that he is indeed dead. I remember one holds up a mirror to see if Mr. Lampert is breathing, while a second sticks him with a pin. I can’t remember exactly what the third guy does, but I’m thinking he throttles the corpse for a bit. Since my life is not a movie, I see no reason to have my body lie in repose so that my family (or readers) can get in their last few hits.

I was at work and missed some of the pomp and pageantry that surrounded President Reagan’s funeral throughout the week, but I watched the final sunset ceremony in California. I was touched by the comments from his children and the crisp performance of the military. As a former military brat, I found the military aspects of the funeral both familiar and touching. Specifically, as an Air Force brat, the missing-man maneuver always affects me strongly and will often bring a tear to my eye. I was pleased to see the U.S. Navy perform this maneuver flawlessly with a four-man flight of F-18 Hornets. My father has requested burial with full military honors as befits his career as an Air Force officer, but while he is important in my eyes, something tells me that I won’t see quite the level of pageantry at his funeral as we saw at President Reagan’s.

Matt Drudge reported on his website that a top Clinton source said, “President Clinton really held out all hope the funeral would be a nonpartisan event, like Nixon’s was. He’s angry and disappointed neither he nor President Carter have been asked to speak, as of yet.” Clinton insiders murmured that Nancy Reagan was responsible for the service in which the two former Presidents were not invited to participate, but I cannot fault her. It was, after all, the burial of her husband, and the two of them were well within their rights to decide and declare how the service would be carried out. This is only to be expected.

What I didn’t expect was the very different tone of the memorial service for Senator Paul Wellstone. The Democrat Senator from Minnesota died unexpectedly in a plane crash only days before the 2002 election. Presidents Clinton and Carter were not specifically asked to participate in President Reagan’s memorial, but they were invited to attend the service. In contrast, Vice-President Richard Cheney was specifically instructed not to attend Senator Wellstone’s memorial. When Democrats gathered in what I believe should have been a solemn assembly to pay homage to a man’s life, somehow the memorial became a rowdy political rally, complete with chants and cheers and a call to arms to march to the ballot box and vote. When fellow mourner Senator Trent Lott was shown on the large screens, the hall erupted in boos. Not what I would really call appropriate for a solemn occasion, but I suppose this was what the family and Democrat leaders wanted.

Frankly, I’d choose the solemn over the vulgar any day.

President Ronald Reagan died today at the age of 93; when I heard, I lowered my flag to half staff. And there it will stay for a while as the nation mourns the death of its 40th president.

Addendum (6/7/2004): So now there has been enough time for people to start talking about Reagan. Some were favorable (here, here, here, and here), and some were not (here, here, and here).

You knew that his death would bring out the haters.

 

“I know in my heart that man is good. That what is right will always eventually triumph. And there’s purpose and worth to each and every life.”

President Ronald Wilson Reagan
1911-2004

There is a basic truth in life: you get more of what you subsidize, and less of what you punish. We have subsidized poverty by providing food stamps, WIC, and dozens of other programs to the poor in our decades-long war against poverty. The end result is more poor people. Granted, our poor are the richest poor in the world, but they are still here. On the other hand, if you punish people for an action, they will do it less often. This is the basic idea behind jail time and other just punishments for breaking the law. Taxes work in much the same way. The current progressive tax rates take an increasingly larger percentage of your money the more you earn. In effect, government punishes people for being successful. Is it no wonder that people work harder and make more money, and the economy soars, as the top tax rates are dropped? As the taxes are reduced, the government stops punishing those who produce.

Seems pretty common sense, doesn’t it? But you’d be surprised how many people fail to understand this. The state of Oregon has no sales tax, but Washington, its neighbor to the north, does. The Columbia River separates the city of Vancouver, Washington from the greater Portland area of Oregon. Businesses, especially large-item businesses, are not doing well in Vancouver. They operate at a handicap of over 9% because of sales tax. This means large goods are more expensive in Washington, and it is no wonder that people regularly cross the I-5 bridge into Portland to go shopping. The sales tax in Washington is a disincentive to shoppers. People living in Seattle, on the other hand, don’t have easy access to Portland. So if a family has budgeted $500 for purchases that month, they are only able to buy about $450 worth of actual goods. The extra $50 goes to the government, not to the businesses in the form of extra goods sold, or to the family as $50 worth of extra goods purchased for the home.

“But Captain! Government needs money to pay for the services they provide!” At this point, I’m not going to argue over the merit of any government programs. The merit (or lack thereof) of a government program doesn’t change the fact that taxing a good or service effectively discourages purchase of that good or service. Don’t believe me? Whenever the cost of gas goes up, people adjust their lifestyles accordingly. The last time gas broke the $2 per gallon mark, there were news stories about gas stations seeing a drop in sales (duh!), and people making plans to take vacations locally rather than driving long distances (duh!). These aren’t news stories; this is simply a common-sense reaction to rising prices. We saw exactly the same thing during the gas crisis of the late ’70s.

Let’s imagine a state with a flat income tax of 10%, and a nearby state with a flat income tax of 90%. Do you think people would move from the second state to the first just to keep more of their hard-earned money? You bet they would, faster than you could say “1040EZ!” Why? Because people want to keep more of their own money. So what happens when the entire nation adopts a flat tax of 90%? Some people will doubtless leave the country. But since not every American wants to leave the U.S., people will stop working so hard. Why should these hard-working people bust their butts every week just to see the government scrape 90 cents off every dollar they make? Oh, sure, some people will still make millions even with an income tax rate in the 90s, but a high tax rate does tend to suppress the natural incentive to work hard. Or if it doesn’t suppress the desire to work hard, it certainly inspires people to hide their money from the government as best they can through tax loopholes and shelters.

When taxes are high, lobbyists put greater pressure on the government to create special loopholes for their rich clients. But when tax rates are low, people don’t feel the need to hide their money as much. Why should they spend the time and money hiring tax lawyers and professionals to shelter their money when the rates are low? Each time the tax rates have dropped, the end result is an increase in government tax revenue.

This whole discussion of taxes can be confusing since people use the terms “tax cut” and “tax rate cut” interchangeably. In most of this comment I have been talking about a tax rate cut. This is what President Reagan did when he proposed dropping the top rate from 70% down to the 20s. When a tax rate is lowered, the actual amount of taxes received by the government goes up. This seems counterintuitive, but it has worked every time it has been tried. When the government lowers tax rates, this repressive weight is lifted, and the people are rewarded better for their work. Since people can keep more of what they make, they will be more inclined to work harder and increase their incomes. The government may be taking a smaller percentage of the economic pie, but since the overall pie has grown, the government’s slice is bigger than before. Additionally, the government will get more taxes from people who don’t mind paying a smaller percentage of their overall income. When the tax rates are low, you won’t hear radio ads like the one I heard this morning while driving to work. A tax preparation company claimed to reduce income tax as low as possible, and it signed off with the jingle, “When you care enough not to send your very best.” Can you imagine a world where it wouldn’t be necessary to hire people to do your taxes, and there were not entire industries centered around trying to pay the government as little as legally possible? Imagine what could be done if all these efforts could be harnessed to create something useful!

I find it ironic that the United States has a progressive tax similar to that recommended in the Communist Manifesto, and the former Soviet Union has adopted Steve Forbes’ flat tax.

A few weeks back, someone made a comment that boggled my wife. For convenience’s sake, let’s just call this speaker Ann. Ann and my wife were driving around town when they passed a tax preparation business. A guy in front was holding up a sign that read, “Honk for Tax Cuts.” Quite a few people were. This prompted Ann to comment, “Oh, yeah, that’s really smart. How is our economy ever going to get back on its feet if you take your tax cuts?

Ann is not alone in the idea that tax cuts are bad for the economy. While speaking to George Stephanopoulos on World News Tonight, Peter Jennings said of then Treasury Secretary-designate John Snow, “He is said to be in favor of further tax cuts but against deficits. Doesn’t one lead to the other?” No, Peter. Adjusting tax rates adjusts the income the government receives from taxes. Deficits are a result of spending. If I spend more than I earn, it doesn’t matter how much I earn; I am still spending too much. This is exactly what happened during the Reagan administration. About four months later, Matt Lauer said, “A lot of people say, ‘Why are you cutting taxes now when you’re increasing the deficit.’ Shouldn’t this be a time when you’re increasing taxes?” Matt, rasing taxes would only make sense if you honestly believed that it would increase the money the government brings in. But does it?

The Heritage Foundation has a clear write-up of just how the government and the rich are affected by tax rate cuts. Previous to our current administration, there have been three periods of large cuts in the federal tax rates. These happened during the 1920s, 1960s and 1980s.

In the 1920s, the top tax rate went from 70% to less than 25%. During this time, personal income tax revenues paid to the federal government rose 61%. Then-Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon summed it up this way:

The history of taxation shows that taxes which are inherently excessive are not paid. The high rates inevitably put pressure upon the taxpayer to withdraw his capital from productive business and invest it in tax-exempt securities or to find other lawful methods of avoiding the realization of taxable income. The result is that the sources of taxation are drying up; wealth is failing to carry its share of the tax burden; and capital is being diverted into channels which yield neither revenue to the Government nor profit to the people.

During the Depression, President Hoover increased tax rates, and President Roosevelt raised the top tax rate to more than 90%! It’s no wonder that the Roosevelt administration had no beneficial effect on the national economy. If it hadn’t been for World War II and its increased productivity, this nation would have suffered even longer from the massive hike in taxes. President Kennedy asked for a reduction in these rates, and the top rate went from 90% down to 70%. During the next seven years, the economy grew and federal tax revenues grew 62%. President Kennedy said of this tax cut:

Our true choice is not between tax reduction, on the one hand, and the avoidance of large Federal deficits on the other. It is increasingly clear that no matter what party is in power, so long as our national security needs keep rising, an economy hampered by restrictive tax rates will never produce enough revenues to balance our budget just as it will never produce enough jobs or enough profits… In short, it is a paradoxical truth that tax rates are too high today and tax revenues are too low and the soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut the rates now.

About 20 years later, President Reagan proposed dropping the top income tax rate from 70% down to near 20%. Contrary to what many revisionist historians say, taxes brought in by the government climbed an amazing 99% during the 1980s. The deficit grew during the 1980s not because the government failed to bring in taxes; rather it grew because the government proceeded to spend even more than it brought in. If you fail to live within your means, doubling your salary will not help if you continue to spend more than what you bring in. Then-U.S. Representative Jack Kemp spoke of the Reagan tax cuts:

At some point, additional taxes so discourage the activity being taxed, such as working or investing, that they yield less revenue rather than more. There are, after all, two rates that yield the same amount of revenue: high tax rates on low production, or low rates on high production.

So here we are, over a decade after the Reagan administration, and the people still have not realized that tax rate cuts are beneficial to both the government in the form of more tax revenue, and to the people in the form of a stronger economy. After the devastating attacks of September 11th, 2001, and the resulting losses in the airline industry and economic confidence, the tax cuts proposed by President Bush have started to have a good result for the nation. In the last six months of 2003, real GDP grew at an annual rate of 6.1%, the fastest 6-month growth rate in nearly 20 years. Isn’t it interesting that if we subtract 20 years from 2003, we get 1983? To compare the growth brought by this tax cut, we have to go back to the last major tax cut.

So you see, Ann, tax cuts will get our nation back on its feet faster than any other government program. And it has worked every time it has been tried. On the other hand, at no point in history has any nation taxed itself into prosperity.