Creeping centralization

As Olympic flags fly over Russia, Russians know a secret they are not telling:  Russia is quickly drifting back toward centralized control. 

A thousand little dreams are being crushed under the weight of one comrade’s big one.  Under Putin, the number of “bureaucrats” has doubled.  People “dependent” on the State jumped to 40 percent.  Growth slowed to 1.5 percent last year, while Putin stepped up public spending by 40 percent in 2009.  The Economist recently put Putin’s motivation in a sound bite: “To preserve a paternalistic model, where the State – and those who identify themselves with it – are the only source of money and power.”

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Compounding Russia’s woes is lack of accountability and high-level corruption.  Credible reports confirm that friends of Putin’s managed the roll-out of the Sochi Olympic construction contracts, while opponents were being targeted for prosecution.  Today, half the Russian economy is reportedly controlled by the State.

So, what should we care?  Russia is not America.  If new Russia falls into the old Soviet spiral, what concern is that of ours?  False start, bad fall.  Iced by centralization, their people begin to feel the political chill. Private sector jobs disappearing, freedom takes a hit.  Centralized control is sad – and even frightening.  But we are not they.  We are a free, capitalist, accountable, decentralized society, right?

In principle, yes, but “all that glitters is not gold.”  Put differently, words are cheap.  Under President Obama, we hear regular pleas for private businesses to hire more.  We are told the president has elicited a “pledge” from 300 companies to hire “the long term unemployed,” most of whom lost their jobs during his tenure.  We want to believe him, but there are now 3.9 million “long-term unemployed,” that is, people out of work for more than 12 months.  There have been five consecutive 12-month periods since Obama took office.  His economy has driven most of these desperate Americans into that cue, so what is the truth?

For starters, while not doubling under Obama’s reign, federal employees have risen to 2.7 million, and with one stroke of his “pen,” Obama just raised the minimum wage by 28 percent for another two million federal contractors in January.  You can see forwards coming down the ice, can’t you – especially that left wing?  This raise is a mandate for higher taxes in to pay for the same work.  No consultation with Congress granted or sought. 

Even before this executive order, wages and benefits flowing to federal employees totaled $248 billion in 2013.  Federal workers earned a higher average salary than private sector workers in four out of five measured occupations, and that does not count pensions or health care.  Many federal workers are essential, and should be so paid.  But bulking up federal pay with more private sector taxes is the wrong direction.    

Then, this discontinuity:   While 67 percent of Americans think “too many Americans are dependent on the government” in a 2013 Rasmussen poll, more Americans are dependent than ever.  In 1969, after the Johnson Administration’s “War on Poverty,” only 12.6 percent of Americans paid no taxes, instead drawing benefits.  By 2000, the number was 34.1 percent.  Today, that percentage is 44.7 percent, not far from the Putin number.  Congressional efforts to halt to runaway entitlements are meanwhile ignored.

Enter the Internal Revenue Service – maybe less villain than agent.  In May of last year, America learned that the IRS had systematically interrogated conservative groups applying for non-profit status, using the power of law to pry loose membership lists, donors, and employees.  Targeted groups included “patriots,” “tea party” educators and "political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding government, educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, social economic reform/movement," says the public timeline. After spluttering words like “outrageous,” “inexcusable” and “angry,” Obama yawned.  Collective forgetting set in.  He joined the collective forgetters.  No independent prosecutor, nothing.

Nixon was like that, and Putin is too, forgetful.  Except Nixon remembered when Articles of Impeachment appeared, especially Article 2, section 1, saying:  He “personally or through his subordinates and agents, endeavored to obtain from the Internal Revenue Service, in violation of constitutional rights of citizens, confidential information contained in income tax returns for purposes not authorized by law … in a discriminatory manner.”  That jogged his memory.

Centralization of power can look Soviet, or not.  The creep of it is insidious.  We hear from the Congressional Budget Office that Obamacare will not only accelerate dependence, but now produce a loss of 2.3 million more private sector jobs.  And then there is this oddity:  The very company that rolled out Obamacare’s inoperable website, at a cost of $600 million to you and me, got six other Federal contracts – worth $37 million.  The company counts on its payroll a college classmate of Mrs. Obama’s and a holiday guest of the Obama White House.

So where does that leave us?  In Sochi or Moscow?  No, not yet.  But there are times when all that glitters is not gold.  Russians are beginning to doubt their top comrade. Here, the Stars and Stripes still flap freely in the breeze, symbol of ornery independence and the satisfaction of sweaty self-reliance.  That’s as it should be.  The fifty gold stars are enough for me.

Charles, former assistant secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement for Secretary of State Colin Powell, has worked for more than 20 years on drug prevention, addiction treatment and criminal justice issues.  He now heads The Charles Group LLC in Washington DC.