Along the Tracks

Thursday, May 22, 2003

Blackwell speech

I’ve finally had a chance to put some thoughts in order (thanks to a good discussion with Jason Rockey) and in digiform concerning Ken Blackwell’s Tuesday night speech to the Williams County GOP.

There’s a line you may see in a future column that I wish to use here: Thunder and rain. The Blackwell speech a month ago to the Church Women’s banquet was thunder - powerful, expansive, booming, confident and at times loud. He stuck to the moral and religious nature of the event, and you could tell it ignited his passion as well. The speech had a rhythm, kept through subject and story, building to a crack crystallization of the particular point concerned, then rumbling through with a logical, supported base. It was masterful, and the audience left determined to advance the cause of a moral, caring America.

Tuesday’s address was very different. Blackwell spoke as among friends (which he was - most people who were in that room want him to be the next Ohio governor). The tone was soft, personal, touched with some simple humor - more like a conversation on the back porch on a summer evening, where you and a pal have been discussing a problem and you ask, “What would you do?”

Blackwell told his friends what he would do.

And the substance was superb. Blackwell referred to his service with Jack Kemp and an all-star commission on tax reform. The present system is itself perhaps the biggest drag on the U.S. economy - bigger even than the amount of money being collected. The hurdles and loopholes and minimums and maximums and credits and debits and exceptions and exemptions and paperwork - heaven’s yes, the paperwork - combine in a taxation scheme which selects for deviousness. All the shelters and loopholes chased by American taxpayers are entirely legal, but the money and time spent hunting them out is a grinding friction on our economic wheels. And the complexity encourages political grandstanding and class warfare.

Blackwell pointed out that the personal exemption was first enacted in the early 1940s. If that exemption had kept up with inflation, it would today stand at about $20,000. One reform plan his commission proposed was to put the exemption at half that: $10,000. For a family of four, that would mean no taxes paid on any income up to $40,000. Any income above that would be taxed at a flat rate of 20 percent - no ifs, ands or buts. There’s your tax code.

The freedom such a change would allow to families - what Blackwell called “kitchen table choices” - would ripple throughout the economy. Health care costs, education choices, career directions, family division of responsibilities - all these important areas of concern today would be positively influenced by both greater earned wealth remaining in the hands of families, and by the elimination of the special-interests spoils system embedded in the tax code.

Interestingly, that was Blackwell’s focus in the speech - greater freedoms for families and individuals, not the bald economic effects of a “tax cut.” To a freedom-loving conservative such as myself, this was the water that makes the crops grow.

If Blackwell does indeed pursue a gubernatorial nod from the GOP, he will need to answer many questions in greater detail. Recent questions about the government’s enforcement role in morality in particular make me wonder where the Secretary stands on issues like privacy, media consolidation, and gun rights. On the one hand, Blackwell is clearly a deeply religious man who strongly advocates a loud and honest voice for the religious in the public square. I couldn’t agree more - free speech, our most basic liberty, requires open debate, not a cordoned off zone of silence.

However, I do not wish to see that freedom twisted into an excuse to legislate morality for those whom we may disagree, but are nevertheless hurting no one by their words or behavior. I couldn’t be more against the message of the Ku Klux Klan, yet I believe that group has the right to associate, demonstrate and speak, just like every other group, from NARAL to the Family Research Council, from the John Birch Society to the Workers’ World Party.

But our freedoms do not stop at Amendment One. Gun rights and self-protection go hand in hand. The right to be secure in one’s person and with one’s property is intertwined here as well. Any action which injures another (again, in person or property) must be considered for legislative recourse, to the degree of the damage caused. But what of those ephemeral “crimes against society”? Invariably, their definition has little to do with any particular injured party, and much to do with morality. Count me as against people engaging in immoral behavior. But where from here? Why does enforcement fall upon the state, and not the church or synagogue or mosque, not the community’s moral leaders, not organizations of devoted civic activists, all through the human art of persuasion? And the largest questions: Which moral codes are to be enforced, who decides, and what happens when opinions change?

Yes, Mr. Blackwell will have questions to answer. Yet his focus on liberty, on choice, on freedom, and his long history of exemplary service, give me confidence that the answers will be positive. Blackwell seems to have a vision for Ohio, and the nation - a real, powerful vision of the future, where liberty is expanded, opportunity is blossoming and Americans are united in a neighborly morality which engages debate and solves problems in the realm of ideas.

I hope Ken Blackwell gets his chance to implement his dreams.

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