Friday, January 7, 2011

why I am not thrilled with government

As a libertarian, I am often asked, "But why don't you like the government? Why do you want less government regulation - wouldn't that just allow the big corporations and Wall Street to screw people even more?" Yes, it would. But that is not the kind of libertarianism I am advocating (see my last post, "Republicans have hijacked libertarianism"). The Big Boys have demonstrated that they do indeed need to be regulated, or some would say, be kept on a much shorter leash. Rather, I am talking about less government intrusion in the lives of ordinary citizens. Not the CEOs of big corporations, not the top 2% who own the majority of the wealth - just the rest of us "commoners," who are trying to make a decent living either as employees (wage slaves), or as independent contractors (wage slaves without benefits), or trying to run our own small businesses. How does government regulation affect us? Isn't government supposed to help us and protect us?

Well, whether it's "supposed to" or not, is debatable. But I'm not going to go into a deep theoretical analysis. Rather, I would like to share with you my own personal experiences of how government has affected me as an ordinary American citizen and how this colored my political view over time.

In high school I belonged to a program called "Junior Achievement," sponsored by private businesses, which allowed students to create and run their own little "business." I belonged to a "business" which made little boogie boards which strapped onto your hand to allow you to body surf better. It was kind of fun. The JA program was intended to encourage young people to become entrepreneurs and pursue the American Dream of success which, they assured us, was achievable by anybody who could dream and was willing to work hard. At that time I think I actually believed them. Also, I didn't yet hate politics or politicians; in fact, I worked as an intern for Neil Abercrombie, the "Hippie Senator from Manoa" while attending Punahou School in Hawaii (where future president Barry Obama was one of my classmates) and I had a fairly positive attitude towards politicians as "public servants," probably because the only politician I personally knew well, was indeed a "public servant," a good, caring man who put in long hours helping people. At the time I did not realize how rare that was in politics.

In my youth I was very independent and freedom was extremely valuable to me, as was peace, so the potential renewal of the military draft - clearly involuntary servitude - was a big deal. I became interested in libertarianism, did a lot of reading and attended some lectures and study groups. At some point during college I wrote an essay and was granted a scholarship to attend a sort of libertarian "summer camp" sponsored by The Institute for Humane Studies. It was held at a beautiful campus near Boston, where I met other students interested in libertarian thought and we read things like, "Kinds of Order in Society" and "The Rule of Law" by F.A. Hayek, "Violence as a Product of Imposed Order" by Butler Shaffer, and "Liberty and Law" by Giovanni Sartori, and attended lectures and discussions. I had a wonderful time and I'm sure it was very edifying, although I must admit that because I was horribly allergic to a tree which was blossoming there, could barely breathe and therefore experienced the entire thing through a haze of antihistamines, decongestants and lack of oxygen, not to mentioned the fabulous parties, my recollection of exactly what I learned is rather vague. I do recall it reinforced my basic feeling about the importance of liberty, and also there was some emphasis on the "free market" (which at that time I did not realize does not actually exist in America) and the idea, as promoted by JA, that anyone can achieve their goals and fulfill the American Dream.

After obtaining my B.A. in Philosophy I did not, unfortunately, become a successful paid writer, contrary to my professors' predictions; oh, I was "published" numerous times, just never paid. So I ended up doing various boring secretarial-type jobs in an attempt to make a living while hoping some day to escape from the 8-to-5 drudgery and do something really fulfilling and meaningful. To that end I went back to school (with my parents' help) and got my M.A. in Psychology, with the intent of becoming a counselor. My first experience with government regulation was when the private college I was attending (Sierra University - a University Without Walls) lost its accreditation for providing the MFCC (Marriage, Family and Child Counseling) license, which was the primary credential for counselors in California. I did not despair, however, because in California the law would allow me to practice psychology with my M.A. provided that I also became a licensed minister, which I proceeded to do. I had already studied a lot of theology and it was not difficult to obtain the ministerial license. Without the MFCC I could not bill insurance for my patients, and I would have to charge less, but I could still legally practice counseling. However, as it turned out, since I couldn't accept insurance, my client base was very limited, and I could not afford to rent an office for my private practice. So I counseled on the side while continuing to work 8-to-5 at soul-sucking office jobs.

My next encounter with government helpfulness was when, after having been healthy my entire life, essentially a poster girl for a healthy lifestyle - a vegetarian, yogini, athlete - I suddenly came down with a strange flu-like illness which knocked me on my ass and I never fully recovered. My immune system was destroyed and I caught every cold or flu that went around the office and it would settle in my chest and become pneumonia. I was weak as a kitten and in constant pain. When I had used up all my sick days, which I think were only maybe 7 per year, the company was going to fire me. They could legally do that - fire a person for being sick. I thought it was a little unfair in that one of my coworkers was given 3 months off for voluntarily having a baby, whereas I was being fired for missing 7 days for involuntarily having pneumonia. But when my boss called me in, I had just returned from the doctor's office that same day, where I had been diagnosed with CFIDS (Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome) and had in my hand a piece of paper from the doctor placing me on Long-Term Disability, and since they could not legally "fire" a person on Disability, I was spared the insult, but was out of a job all the same.

California actually took good care of me in providing the State Disability payments. That was the one instance where "the system" actually worked for me. It's the only time that I have felt I truly benefited in return for the taxes that I was paying. I did study medical transcription while on Disability in hopes of being able to work again. I was able to get a job as a medical transcriptionist which paid so well that I only had to work 4 hours a day to make ends meet. However, I was not even able to keep up with this, and my health soon deteriorated further. I went back on CA State Disability, which only lasted a limited amount of time, and when it ran out the doctors told me: "You have an incurable disease and you will never work again. You need to go on SSDI. We will file the paperwork for you. You will certainly be approved." My SSDI was in the preliminary stages of being approved and processed when my parents encouraged me to move to Florida to be near them.

Upon moving to Florida I had a huge shock: My SSDI was denied! How could this be? It was already approved in California. I got a lawyer and subsequently learned that although SSDI is a Federal program, each State is allowed to decide who they will cover, and CFIDS was "not a covered illness" under SSDI in Florida. But I was too sick to work, so what could I do? I went to the local "welfare" office, HRS, "Health and Rehabilitative Services," although in my condition, the ordeal of just bathing and dressing and making myself halfway presentable and driving over there was exhausting. I stood in line for a very long time behind some ladies who were wearing the most beautiful designer clothes and jewelry, their nails done and their hair perfectly styled, to pick up their welfare checks. I was encouraged by this, thinking, "These ladies are doing o.k., apparently Florida is very generous with welfare!" When I finally got to the window and explained my situation, the clerk told me there was nothing they could do to help me. "But my SSDI was turned down and I am too sick to work. Can't you put me on welfare, or even food stamps?" The clerk asked, "Do you have any children?" "No," I said. "Well I'm sorry, but there is no welfare for individual adults - only for people with children; that's why it is called Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Next." So, once again I noted that "the system" would have rewarded me, had I done my womanly duty by producing offspring. But instead I was left sick and penniless.

It was only the generosity of my parents, who were by no means wealthy, that prevented me from becoming a bag lady. With their help and financial support I was able to spend the next few years resting and recuperating while studying alternative medicine - precisely the kind of medicine that our government, in cahoots with Big Pharma, is currently trying to outlaw. I learned about very effective herbs and supplements and was thereby able to somewhat heal myself from this illness which, according to mainstream medicine, was "incurable." The people who taught and healed me included non-M.D.s such as a midwife/herbalist, one of the best healers I have ever met, who technically could be jailed for "practicing medicine without a license," and a well-known M.D. who has since been threatened with losing his license simply for stating on t.v. that certain herbs boost immunity against the flu (which had been shown in clinical trials). The mainstream doctors were amazed at my recovery although they still insisted that "alternative medicine does not work," in accordance with the AMA mandate, so as not to risk losing their medical license.

I thought I might go back into counseling, only to discover that my California psychology credentials were completely useless in Florida; not only was a licensed ministerial counselor not recognized, it was indeed illegal for ministers to practice counseling in Florida! In addition, Florida would not recognize my California school nor transfer credits, so that I would have to go back to school and get a whole new psychology M.A. starting from scratch, followed by a 2-year unpaid internship, to practice counseling in this State, which was not even remotely possible. Fortunately I had the opportunity to be a spiritual counselor over the telephone for Psychic Friends Network, and thereby avoid the Florida licensing requirements. When Psychic Friends went out of business a few years later I went back to work in medical transcription, but now on an "independent contractor" basis and at much lower pay, like all my subsequent "jobs" from that point on.

To this day, my partner and I are both independent contractors, because nobody is hiring "employees" in our fields. Many people are surprised to learn that the various labor regulations designed to protect employees - minimum wage, overtime, health insurance, retirement benefits, etc. - do not apply to contractors. Needless to say, this is very convenient for the employer ("contractee"?) who also does not have to pay their half of the employment taxes and Social Security, since the employee, excuse me, "contractor" is legally responsible for paying everything. Republicans would argue that this new trend towards hiring "contractors" instead of "employees" is a direct result of government regulations which make it too expensive for companies to hire employees. This may be true, at least in regard to small businesses. In any case, we are essentially "employees" without any of the benefits, and paying double taxes. I don't notice the government rushing in to do anything about this situation.

My partner started his own small business, flooring installation, back in 2006. He has had to do it all by himself as a sole proprietor. He could not hire any employees due to State laws which either were not well thought out, or else were intentionally designed to prevent entrepreneurs from succeeding: e.g., any company with 1 or more employees is required to have Workers' Compensation Insurance; however, no insurer in Florida will provide Workers' Compensation Insurance to any company having fewer than 5 employees. You don't have to be a math whiz to see that this law effectively prevents a small business from growing! And since my partner cannot obtain Workers' Compensation Insurance for himself, he is required by the State to pay a yearly fee to declare himself "Workers' Comp Exempt." What this means is that if he gets hurt while working, his employer (excuse me, "contractee") is under no obligation to pay for his medical care. Since he also cannot obtain health insurance, I hate to think what would happen, if he got hurt. He also has to provide his own liability insurance, just in order to get any contract work at all.

As for me, in 2009, after 33 years of study and experience in yoga, and having used alternative medicine to maintain my health to be able to do this, I opened my own yoga studio. Maybe the American Dream is truly attainable after all! In this troubled economy it is difficult to get enough students, since fitness/yoga is a "luxury" when people can't pay their mortgages and electric bills, but I remain hopeful that things will improve and some day I will be able to make a living teaching yoga full-time. Meanwhile I continue doing medical transcription and also working as a Psychic (both on a contract basis and at 1/3 to 1/2 of what they paid 15 years ago) in attempt to make ends meet.

However, there is now a lobby for a law requiring yoga teachers to complete a 200-hour certification program in order to legally teach yoga - regardless of how many years of past training and experience they may already have. The certification program would involve traveling out of town and missing work and would cost in total around $5000 or more, which I could not possibly afford. If this law passes I will no longer be able to teach yoga, despite my extensive experience and the fact that I am already "certified" under a different program (one which would not be recognized under the new law); while any person having $5000, with no previous yoga training whatsoever, would be able to attend the approved 10-weekend program and, in about 3 months, become a Certified Yoga Instructor and take my job.

If, however, the pharmaceutical lobby succeeds in getting the FDA to outlaw herbal supplements, the yoga certification will be a moot point because in all likelihood my health would deteriorate so that I would be physically unable to work.

So, in summary, my own experience with government regulation has been overwhelmingly negative in terms of my and my partner's ability to make a living. There is no "free market" in America, as far as individuals being able to freely trade goods and services, because regulations hinder us at every turn. And our tax burden is quite substantial despite the fact that our income is just barely above poverty level. I suspect that if we were wealthy CEOs, our situation would be quite different, as we could buy whatever kind of certification might be required; and if success at the American Dream somehow managed to elude us, we could depend on the government using the peons' tax money to bail us out - corporate welfare.

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