Tom McLaughlin

A former history teacher, Tom is a columnist who lives in Lovell, Maine. His column is published in Maine and New Hampshire newspapers and on numerous web sites. Email: tommclaughlin@fairpoint.net

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

More of Maine's Abandoned Neighborhoods

I. Saunders cellar hole

Soft, white-and-yellow flowers poked up through last fall’s leaves and contrasted with hard, gray granite. Whoever lived there had been very good with stone, and with flowers. The people who positioned each were long dead. Their house had fallen in and rotted away, but I knew I would have liked them if only for where and how they chose to live. The cellar hole still perched beside the steep dirt road. Holes don’t usually perch but this one did. Through deep woods, I pulled my ATV into what would have been their dooryard on the uphill side. From there, I could oversee what would have been the view from the house when it stood. Hardwoods across the road were bare of leaves and a mountainous horizon was visible to the west. The view would have been unobstructed when the farm operated back in the nineteenth century and sunsets must have been stunning. That was my second indication of how much intelligence and planning went into laying out that farmstead. Getting off my machine, I was careful not to step on more beds of flowers the like of which I’d never seen before. Next, I noticed a dug well covered with an old piece of galvanized steel roofing. Then I walked down to the cellar hole for a closer look. It was impressive. Massive chimney bases told me the house had probably been a cape with large fireplaces on the gable ends. From one uphill corner a galvanized, steel pipe stuck out - a gravity feed from the uphill well still trickled after all these years.

When I got home I pulled out my maps. One old Oxford County map told me that someone named “I. Saunders” lived there in 1858. Another showed him still there in 1880.

It was spring vacation and I’d finally found time to renew one of my favorite pastimes - exploring abandoned neighborhoods. I had focused on Albany Township, Maine. It’s not a municipality anymore, but it was once. Judging from the 1858 map, it had almost as many people as Lovell did, but seems to have lost many more in the post-Civil War outmigration to the west - so many that it ceased being a town and gave over control to the State of Maine. I’d looked it over from my pickup truck over the past ten years when I felt like driving around on Friday-night dates with my wife, and noticed some building going on. Some of the old neighborhoods are being repopulated. I saw homes going up next to or behind two-hundred-year-old cellar holes. People today obviously agree with 19th century pioneers about the best places to site a house.
1858 Map

Nobody built near the Saunders cellar hole though - too steep for them I’d guess. There are ledges on the hillside above and it looks like Mr. I. Saunders pulled some large flat stone down for his house foundation. He used two massive 5X5-foot slabs to form one corner and a few others to form parts of the cellar walls. Don’t know exactly how long they’ve been in place, but they haven’t moved after at least a century-and-a-half of freezing and thawing. As I said, he was good with stone. He might have been assisted by relatives as the 1858 map shows other Saunders farmsteads above and below his. Brothers perhaps? The Saunders farm above had disappeared on the 1880 map. Did that brother seek his fortune in America’s west as so many others from western Maine did?1880 Map

Looking at a 1915 USGS map to be found online on a University of New Hampshire web site, I could see there was still a house there where I. Saunders had built it and quite a few acres were still clear on both sides of the steep dirt road.1915 USGS map

On the 1943 map, some of the land was still clear but the house was gone. The 1963 map shows the forest having overtaken everything.1941 USGS map

As of last week, a few trees left from his apple orchard stood here and there between stone walls, and those delicate, white-and-yellow flowers were still blooming.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Obama's Nuclear Policy


“President Obama has announced a new policy on America’s use of nuclear weapons,” I told the class. “He won’t be the first to use them in a conflict with another nation, he said. And, he won’t retaliate with nuclear weapons if we’re attacked by a country which is using other WMD, or ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction,’ such as chemical or biological weapons against us.”

I waited for that to sink in.

After a pause, a boy raised his hand and asked, “What would be the point of that?”

“Yeah,” said another boy. “Why have them if we’re not going to use them?”

“President Obama says America won’t retaliate with nuclear weapons against a country that has signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty - countries that have pledged not to make nuclear weapons. I think he’s trying to encourage more countries to sign it and that’s a big reason for his new policy,” I suggested.

“Who agrees with Obama’s new policy?” I asked.

A couple of girls didn’t stick their hands up, but turned their palms around to me while their elbows stayed on the desk. They smiled meekly.

“Who disagrees?”

Most of the students raised their hands. We had been studying WMD and the arms race following World War II. Students had seen “Hiroshima,” a made-for-TV docudrama focusing on President Truman’s decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japanese Emperor Hirohito’s decision to surrender. They learned what a nuclear weapon can do - how it kills with a blast, with heat, and with radiation. They learned about kilotons and megatons. They learned what countries have nuclear weapons and when each obtained them between 1945 and today. They knew that North Korea has tested one and that Iran is trying to develop one. They knew that Iran is threatening to “wipe Israel off the map.”

A couple of days later I said to the class: “Sarah Palin criticized President Obama’s new nuclear policy saying, ‘It's kinda like getting out there on a playground, a bunch of kids, getting ready to fight, and one of the kids saying, “Go ahead, punch me in the face and I'm not going to retaliate. Go ahead and do what you want to with me,”’”

“Good for her,” said a boy. “Is she going to run for president?”

“Maybe,” I said. “I’m sure she’s thinking about it. Who agrees with Sarah Palin on this?” I asked.

A scattering of hands.

“Who disagrees?”

Another scattering. Most did not to have an opinion one way or the other.

The next day, I told the class that President Obama responded to Sarah Palin’s criticism. “He said, ‘Last I checked, Sarah Palin's not much of an expert on nuclear issues.’” I paused and let them chew on that.

“And he is?” suggested a girl skeptically.

“Well, he does have experts advising him,” I said, “and he would have access to much more information than you or me or Sarah Palin would. He also said, ‘[I]f the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff are comfortable with it, I'm probably going to take my advice from them and not from Sarah Palin.’”

“But he hasn’t been president very long and he wasn’t an expert before that,” she said.

“Okay,” I answered.

The next day, I told them, “Sarah Palin has another response to President Obama. She mocked his criticism saying, ‘all the vast nuclear experience that he acquired as a community organizer . . .’ The president was a community organizer in Chicago for fifteen years or so before becoming a state senator and a US senator. Today, he’s in Prague, Czech Republic signing a treaty declaring that the United States would further reduce the number of nuclear weapons we have. He made a speech there last year saying he wants a world without nuclear weapons.”

“Can we do that?” asked a boy. “Can we get rid of our nuclear weapons? What would we do with them”

“We can disassemble them down to the enriched uranium or plutonium that is turned into energy according to the equation E=mc2, but we cannot unmake that material. We can only store it somewhere and guard it. Also, directions for constructing a nuclear weapon can be downloaded from the internet, so a world without nuclear weapons doesn’t seem like a real possibility.”

“How many weapons would it take to destroy the whole world?” asked another boy.

“Nobody knows for sure,” I said, “and I hope we never find out. Some speculate that it would be around 3000 or so.”

“And how many are we going to get down to?”

“Around 1600 in our arsenal, I think, assuming the Senate ratifies this treaty.”

“Hmm,” he said.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Taxing Situation


My wife is ticked off. She finished preparing her taxes and I haven’t. Our dining room table has been covered with my papers for weeks. The printing calculator sits in the midst of slips and invoices for deductible things I paid for in 2009 and I’ve been working on it all when I can find a few hours between jobs. I’ve always hated paperwork, but it’s particularly hard to motivate myself with government paperwork. She did all that for her private counseling practice weeks ago, but I’m still at it for my writing and property-management business and she can’t file until I’m ready.

“Make sure you tell the accountant it’s your fault and not mine,” she said. I filed for an extension and wrote checks for the amount we paid last year - about $11,000 for state and and federal taxes. That’s in addition to what is taken out of my teacher salary for which I claim zero deductions - and I have them take out an additional $150 per pay period. The tax code is much too complicated to figure out, so we pay $3-4 hundred each year to have a CPA do help us with it. Sometime over the next six months, we’ll sit down with her and hope she can show us ways to avoid paying so much.

Half of all Americans, however, do not go through this because they pay no federal income tax. And, according to Derek Thompson at The Atlantic, because of college tuition credits, child credits, and something called the “Earned Income Tax Credit,” rather than write a check to the government, government writes them a check! These are not refunds I’m talking about here. They get more back from the government than was ever deducted from their paychecks - assuming they actually work. They don’t dread April 15th like I do. They look forward to it because it’s a payday. This time every year, money goes out of my account and into theirs.

During the first few years of my 35-year teaching career, government had me under the poverty line because I made less than $10,000 per year with a wife and four children. I cut firewood. We grew a garden, raised animals, drove clunkers, shopped at Goodwill, and ate a lot of soup. We got by and we even look back on those times as among our happiest. The kids are grown now and my wife works. I’m still a teacher but with a little business on the side, so now we’re “rich.” The left moans that “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Maybe it’s time to coin another phrase, such as “The ‘poor’ are getting richer while the ‘rich’ are getting poorer” because of the confiscatory power of government.
The Earned Income Tax Credit alone costs $50 billion a year. For months, I’ve been hearing radio ads in which a Spanish-accented woman tells us how fulfilling it is to work for the United Way telling more and more people about the EITC so they can get money from government too. In his latest column, Mark Steyn cited Congressman Paul Ryan’s claim that 20% of US households get about 75% or their income from the federal government. Another 20% get 40% of their income from federal programs. That’s four out of ten households. Throw in another 11% who are guilt-ridden, trust-funded, limousine liberals and you have a solid voting majority in any national election.

To keep this gravy train on the tracks, government goes further into debt by $1.5 trillion each year. We’re $12 trillion in the hole now, but with Obamacare, we’re frantically digging deeper. The McClatchey Newspapers write that since it passed, “Questions . . . have flooded insurance companies, doctors' offices, human resources departments and business groups. ‘They're saying, “Where do we get the free Obama care, and how do I sign up for that?” ’ said Carrie McLean, a licensed agent for eHealthInsurance.com.”

During the week before election day in 2008, a supporter at one of Obama’s rallies named Peggy Joseph said, “[When he’s elected] I won’t have to worry about putting gas in my car. I won’t have to worry about paying my mortgage.”
The top 25% of earners pay 85% of federal income taxes, while the bottom 50% pay only 3% - and that’s after those tax cuts for the “rich” they whine about so much. No wonder they vote for Democrats.

Next on the Democrat agenda is amnesty for about 20 million illegal aliens. That will make voters who don’t pay income tax an even more solid majority. Mark Steyn asks: “If 51 percent can vote themselves government lollipops from the other 49 percent, soon 60 percent will be shaking down the remaining 40 percent, and then 70 percent will be sticking it to the remaining 30 percent. How low can it go?”

Good question.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Government of Anointed Intellectuals


The more government tries to fix something, the worse it gets. New England yankees used to say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Government, however, goes by the aphorism “If it ain’t broke, we’ll keep on fixing it ’til it is.”

In his most recent book Intellectuals and Society, economist Thomas Sowell dichotomizes Americans into those who view the world with a “tragic vision” and those who look at it with the “vision of the anointed.” The former believe the world will always be less than perfect, but people have the liberty to pursue happiness - and whether they succeed or fail is up to them. The “anointed,” though, believe they have superior wisdom, and with it, they can perfect the world if people will just do what they say. They would use government to impose their vision on everyone else, like it or not.Thomas Sowell

Those of us with a tragic vision see the Constitution as limiting government, which is a necessary evil. The anointed see the Constitution as something to get around so they can use government to “fix” everything. They see human nature as evolving and perfectible. They see no limit to what legislation can accomplish, and see nothing as immutable because they are anointed with superior wisdom. They believe, for example, that the law of supply and demand can be repealed if they will it. But the supply and demand dynamic isn’t the result of legislation; it just exists - always has and always will - independent of the anointed’s ability to discover it or define it. Government can outlaw drugs, prostitution or child pornography, but if there’s a demand, a supply will emerge. In spite of massive expenditures of money and manpower, the best government can do is reduce the supply somewhat and drive up prices. We learned that between the 18th and 21st Amendments to the Constitution, which were monuments to government overreach. The anointed thought they could ban alcohol and found out they couldn’t. Government could outlaw it, but if people wanted it, and they did, they’d find a way to get it. Smugglers got rich supplying it whether they were moonshiners or mafioso.

Maine’s government can increase taxes on cigarettes, but as local merchants try to tell them over and over, people will  continue to smoke and buy their cigarettes in New Hampshire or elsewhere. Government won’t get more revenue from the increased tax, but less. The same is true of income taxes and mandatory workmen’s compensation insurance. Make them too high and people will find a way to get around them. The underground economy will grow, not government coffers.

Our Founding Fathers rule of thumb was: “That government is best that governs least.” This kernel of wisdom is variously attributed to Thomas Jefferson and Henry David Thoreau and, until progressives started  using government to “fix” things in the 20th century, it was the American way. It’s the polar opposite of the anointed progressive mantra, which is: “That government is best that governs most.” In the early days of the century, anointed progressives at least had the decency to abide by the Constitution. To expand government power, they passed four amendments. Two were okay, including the 17th - allowing the direct election of US Senators, and the 19th - giving women the vote. The other two, however, were disastrous. The 16th created the income tax, and the 18th prohibited alcohol. Prohibition was repealed after sixteen years by the 21st Amendment and should have been a lesson on the limits of government for all time, but it wasn’t of course.

Progressives lost power in the 1920s. Then, when faced with economic slowdown, conseervative presidents Harding and Coolidge cut taxes and shrunk government. As a result, the economy thrived. Progressives regained control in the thirties however, and tried to “fix” another economic slowdown by creating a huge government bureaucracy. As a result, they prolonged it and turned it into The Great Depression. It might have gone on even longer if World War II hadn’t started. Nonetheless, progressives were able to give us our first major, unsustainable entitlement - social security - which is now bankrupt.

After an 8-year respite under Eisenhower, progressives came back with Johnson’s Great Society which gave us another major, unsustainable, bankrupt entitlement: Medicare. If conservatives hadn’t taken over Congress in 1994, progressives in the Clinton Administration would have given us still another major, unsustainable entitlement: socialized medicine for everyone. Now, in spite of a $12 trillion federal debt and a projected $100 trillion deficit in Social Security and Medicare entitlements, government is about to “fix” a medical system which is the envy of the world. How long will it take before it resembles the department of motor vehicles and the public schools?

Naturally, the president and the anointed progressives in Congress who imposed this upon the rest of us, have exempted themselves.

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