Archives: 08/2006

Hollywood for Ugly People

With the weather hotter than Hell here in Washington, and partisan warfare ramping up for the ‘06 elections, there are two pieces today that help remind us what a weird, perverse place Capitol Hill, in particular, has become.

First, in this morning’s New York Times, Mark Leibovich wedges his tongue firmly into his cheek and explores the phenomenon of the “Senators Only” elevators in the Senate.

The basic rule is this: nonsenators are allowed to ride only if asked by a senator. Such invitations typically occur when a reporter is in mid-interview with a senator walking off the Senate floor.

Lobbyists have been known to park themselves outside elevators with attractive young women, the better to win invitations. To be sure, such tactics took place only in earlier eras, when senators held a less enlightened view of women.

(In 1994, Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina was said to have engaged in excessive touching of his then-freshman colleague Patty Murray of Washington. Ms. Murray later asked for and received an apology from Mr. Thurmond, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported at the time. Through a spokeswoman, Ms. Murray declined to comment.)

[Former Louisiana senator John] Breaux concluded the matter with a nod to the public good: “I think the elevators are designed to keep members of the public from having to ride with senators,” he said.

Then, the New Republic runs a piece on the phenomenon of ostensibly pro-“traditional values” congresscritters jettisoning the ol’ ball and chain back home and taking up with nubile young Washington groupies. The piece could perhaps best be summed up by invoking

Susan LaTourette’s remarks in late 2003, after her husband of 21 years, Representative Steve LaTourette, revealed that he was having an affair with a lobbyist and wanted a divorce. “I think Washington corrupts people,” a furious Susan announced. “He was a wonderful husband and father, the best I ever saw, until he went there. … Now he’s one of them. All they care about is getting reelected. I hate them all.”

What can we do about the inflated egos, insularity, even cults of personality on the Hill? There’s a clear enough solution.

Feds Lock Up Blogger

The grand jury was created to check the government, but it has been turned into a prosecutorial bulldozer that now tramples over civil liberties.

Item: Josh Wolf, 24, is a freelance journalist and blogger. He wanted to be left alone, but the feds have locked him up because he will not help them investigate the crimes of other people. We generally have the freedom to help the police or to decline. It is up to us to decide. Not so with grand juries. Cooperate–or go to jail. As Mr. Wolf was escorted to his jail cell, the judge intoned that he was not being punished. Rather, the government was merely housing Mr. Wolf with suspected criminals so that he might “change his mind.” Mr. Wolf cannot even challenge the legality of this “procedure” before a real jury because he is not being “punished.” Mr. Wolf is in grandjuryland.

Item: Federal prosecutors are now perusing the phone records of reporters for the New York Times. There was no search warrant that was approved by a federal judge. The records were acquired by a grand jury subpoena, which does not require the approval of a judge. Indeed, prosecutors can issue such subpoenas without even notifying the grand jurors.

Few people appreciate the incredible powers of the grand jury–and it is safe to say that the government likes it that way.

New Higher Ed Think Tank in Town

There is a new group joining the national debate over higher education, and unlike many student advocates and higher education associations, its leader, economist Richard Vedder, knows that pouring more money into colleges and universities just expands the ivory tower, it doesn’t make the tower better.

Welcome, Center for College Affordability and Productivity! It’s nice to have you with us.

Hillary’s Rural Renaissance

Further to David Boaz’s post below on the Democratic Leadership Council’s recent spending plans, Senator Hillary Clinton has called for a “rural renaissance” to “restore the promise and prosperity to main streets and rural communities.” The full press release can be viewed here, but these are the main points:

  • A “national broadband strategy” to “coordinate and maximize federal resources” which would newly include a National Rural Broadband Innovation Fund and the creation of a single office run by an “administrator” that would provide a “one-stop shopping clearing house for innovators and businesses that want to expand broadband in rural areas.” Strange, but from where I’m standing, the Internet seems to have evolved pretty well without government interference so far.
  • A “Rural Regional Investment Program, which would provide equity investments to fund innovative opportunities and partnerships in rural areas” that would “provide rural communities with flexible resources to develop comprehensive, collaborative, locally-controlled planning and to foster innovative community and economic development strategies.” Senator Clinton’s proposal also includes more “help” in administering small private loans “pooling private capital and administering that capital through trusted intermediaries” (overseen by the Federal government, presumably). As the seemingly inexhaustible stream of money to ethanol production has shown, investment money to rural areas seems to flow quite nicely when investors see promising (if pork-induced) returns.
  • Speaking of ethanol, Senator Clinton would like to see the creation of a $1 billion Strategic Energy Fund to “support [the] rapid development of renewable energy, including biofuels.”
  • Then there are a host of other measures, including so-called “green” payments, a more reliable safety net that would “help manage risk” and include counter-cyclical payments (the most trade distorting and offensive kind to our trade partners), and more spending on health care and rural education.

The US Government has been lavishing subsidies on farmers since the New Deal in the 1930s, and has spent over $55 billion propping up the agricultural sector since the enactment of the 2002 Farm Bill. Far from giving away even more of taxpayers’ money, surely it is time for the government to stop giving agriculture special treatment and to allow farmers to carry the risks and reap the rewards of their investments, just like every other businessperson in America.

Prairie Pugilists Keep on Fighting

Were the creationism vs. evolution battle in Kansas a prize fight, no one who bought a ticket to it or purchased pay-per-view would be disappointed. It has gone on forever, with one combatant constantly getting the upper hand only to see his opponent reenergize and take it back. Yesterday, the momentum seemed to be changing once again, with supporters of evolution on the verge of regaining two seats on the state Board of Education, which would give it a 6 to 4 pro-evolution majority.

Of course, the creationism conflict in Kansas – and, indeed, across America – isn’t a prize fight. It’s a battle between the deeply held values of regular people, and unlike Mike Tyson or Evander Holyfield, Kansas children, parents, and other citizens aren’t being richly compensated for the punishment they’re taking. They’re fighting because they have to. They all have to support one system of public education, and they all, rightfully, want their beliefs and morals respected.

And so the fight goes on, into rounds we lost count of long ago.

Thankfully, there is a way to end this death match, but it will require that both combatants do something that so far they’ve seemed unwilling to consider. Rather than exchanging blows in perpetuity, they could agree to let each other have what they want. They could cease forcing all people to support a single system of government-created and government-run schools, and implement school choice, giving parents control over their children’s education by letting them pick schools that share their values.

It is, really, a simple way to end a seemingly endless brawl. Unfortunately, right now it seems that too many people would prefer to keep on fighting.

Getting to Government Transparency

There’s technology policy, and there’s how technology affects policy.

That’s why I found my colleague Chris Edwards’ recent Tax & Budget Bulletin so interesting.  He discusses a number of federal databases that bring some transparency to federal spending, including the Federal Assistance Award Data System and the Federal Audit Clearinghouse.  Between them, they reveal quite a bit of information about federal spending and the staggering number and amount of subsidies and grants handed out by the federal government each year.

Edwards also hails a proposal by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) to create a comprehensive Internet database of federal contracts, grants, and other payments.  It would be a great leap forward in terms of transparency about spending, like the Thomas system was for the legislative process.

Advocates from across the political spectrum want a government that “works.”  Most believe that their perspective would “win” if the politics and government worked.  Whatever the case, transparency is widely agreed to be good — the more the better.

Thomas was an improvement.  Yet it hasn’t transformed the legislative process the way some might have hoped.  Lawmaking remains murky and confusing to the vast majority of the public.  Even if it was done well, a federal spending database probably wouldn’t transform the politics of government spending either.

Information technology will surely help, but transparency isn’t enough.  The twin problems that must be overcome are rational ignorance and rational inaction.  It’s hard to learn about government, and hard to affect it, so people make better uses of their time.  Operating a lemonade stand would be far more lucrative and enjoyable for most people than campaigning for a tax reduction.  (The piece linked here is a good discussion of rational ignorance.)

There are some efforts to defeat the twin plagues of ignorance and inaction.  GovTrack.us, for example, attacks ignorance with more information presented more accessibly than Thomas.  Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales recently took after inaction with a wiki devoted to campaigns

My favorite — because I run it — is WashingtonWatch.com.  It displays pending legislation with its price-tag per person, per family, etc. and it gives visitors a chance to air their views.  A little run at ignorance, a little run at inaction.  Given time, it could blossom into transformed government.  In the meantime, the more transparency the better.

Details, Please

Here’s a snippet of a National Review editorial on the Middle East:

The fight has to be taken to Syria and Iran, which doesn’t mean imminent military action, but does mean more serious pressure on all fronts. Iran’s agents in Iraq currently don’t fear us — they should. And our patience with the current round of ineffective nuclear diplomacy should be wearing thin fast. As for Syria, there are still sanctions that can be levied against it, and Israel should make it clear that it considers Syria’s continued arming of Hezbollah a hostile act. The downward drift of events in the Middle East is eventually going to force the Bush administration either to tacitly admit defeat in the region or to accept the confrontation that its regional antagonists are forcing. And defeat is too awful to contemplate.

This sort of thing is fine for a stump speech, or for a Senator’s think tank address, but there’s precious little policy guidance here. Magazines criticizing policy should be able at least to describe their counter-proposals in clear language that indicates what, exactly, is being proposed. For example, what does “more serious pressure on all fronts” toward both Iran and Syria look like?  Or, if our patience with the nuclear negotiations with Tehran should be “wearing thin fast,” what should follow on once it’s worn through? It seems there’s only one stick left.  Is NR proposing we use it?  There is no mention of any carrots.

Then we get proposed sanctions against Syria.  Never mind the fact that they would almost certainly fail to gain international support, given the Bush administration’s total indifference to world opinion on the current crisis.  Beyond that, economic sanctions generally have a remarkably poor track record of success, in particular unilateral sanctions.  But then comes the follow-on proposal to whisper in Israel’s ear and advise it to tell Syria that it considers Syria’s continuing patronage of Hizbollah “a hostile act.” Does that mean we should promote and then support an Israeli attack against Syria?

National Review’s editors, and the Bush administration itself, have the look of a compulsive gambler who, after losing his life savings, takes out a line of credit in the mistaken belief that his luck is changing.  Yes, the Middle East was in turmoil before Bush came into office, and yes, it will be in turmoil after he’s gone.  But the current “downward drift of events” that NR laments is a direct result of the Bush administration’s failed policies.  And yet NR is advocating an escalation of the same policies as a remedy.