Archives: 08/2006

Role Reversal?

Remember when the Republicans would advocate smaller government and less federal spending?  

Freshmen members were typically the most vocal proponents of limited government, as they often brought optimism and a strong ideology to Capitol Hill.  After time, some of these GOP ideologues tended to succumb to the culture of Washington and lose their moorings. But this process usually took years.

Lately this phenomenon appears to be happening much more rapidly. Speaking about the recent explosion of pork-barrel spending, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) noted, “We’ve developed a culture, unfortunately, over a number of years where incoming freshmen are conditioned to believe that this is the only way to get reelected.”

Now, it seems even candidates for Congress are talking like inside-the-Beltway porkers.  In a hotly contested race for an open congressional seat in Illinois, a “fiscally conservative” Republican is pledging to bring home the bacon if elected. 

The Daily Herald said of Pete Roskam, “The 6th Congressional District GOP nominee said he’d support continuing the so-called practice of “earmarks” if elected to Congress to make sure projects like fixing the dangerous railroad crossing at Irving Park and Wood Dale roads continue to get funded.”

Meanwhile, Tammy Duckworth, the Democratic nominee for the Illinois congressional seat, has taken a strong anti-pork stance. She notes, “One of the easiest steps Congress can take to reduce the deficit and reform ethics is to immediately end the practice of earmarking.” Duckworth has even created an “Outrageous Earmark of the Week” section on her campaign website.

It sounds a lot like Congressman Flake’s “Egregious Earmark of the Week.” That is to say, she sounds a lot more like a fiscal conservative than the Republican candidate.

Native Illinoisan Ronald Reagan, who once vetoed a highway bill because it contained too many earmarks, must be spinning in his grave.

Welfare for Wineries?

In researching government budgets, I come across dubious spending projects all the time, but one recent example struck me as particularly idiotic and unjust.

The title of a recent press release from New York governor George Pataki says it all: “GOVERNOR ANNOUNCES $500,000 IN GRANTS AVAILABLE FOR NEW YORK WINERIES TO IMPROVE THEIR WEBSITES.”

So, New York is taxing the hard-earned wages of truck drivers and retail clerks and giving it to well-heeled winery owners and web services companies?

Come on Americans, wake up. Far too much of what our federal, state, and local governments do these days is just pure theft.

Apocalypse Warning False Alarm; Diplomacy Continues Apace

Since the apocalypse (which Bernard Lewis darkly warned in the Wall Street Journal might be scheduled for today) seems not to be forthcoming, it may be better to focus on more workaday concerns, such as Iran’s decidedly non-apocalyptic response to the Western proposal over its nuclear program. 

Although the full details aren’t out yet, Reuters is reporting what most expected: the Iranians say they’re willing to talk, but not willing to accept American demands that Iran stop enriching uranium as a precondition for talking. Top Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani is quoted as saying that “Iran is prepared to hold serious talks from August 23.” 

The first thing to wonder about is what the European response to this will be. It’s fairly clear that hardliners in the Bush administration are hell-bent on pressing for a UN Security Council vote to impose sanctions, but it’s not at all clear what the more sanguine Europeans will do. The Bush administration would be well-advised to make sure that Iran stays marginalized, and America does not act rashly in a way that turns the tables and marginalizes us. 

Also, notice that the Iranians brought up the one issue that the Bush administration has assiduously avoided discussing as a part of talks: “security cooperation.” This is international politics-speak for “we’re afraid you’re going to attack us.” Until President Bush makes clear that regime change would come off the table in return for Iran’s cooperation on the nuclear issue, the Iranians are going to be scared to death that Washington has the contingency plans out and is looking at military options. 

But the real lesson is how much was lost as a result of the administration’s foolish decision to try to impose a precondition for talks in the first place. A lot of conspiratorial talk around Washington has insisted that the precondition was put in as a “poison pill” to ensure that the diplomacy could go nowhere. I’m not convinced — I think there’s a simpler answer, and that is that the administration thinks, even after the Iraq debacle, that it has a lot of diplomatic and military weight to throw around, and that it could, to coin a phrase, “create its own reality” on the Iran problem. 

Were it not for the unseemly pettiness of the administration’s approach to this aspect of the problem, we could have spent the last two months talking to the Iranians (admittedly they could have still been enriching uranium), instead of waiting for a response from the Iranians (during which time they have been enriching uranium). If the administration had put a grand bargain on the table back at the beginning of summer, we’d be well on our way to getting an answer from Tehran. Instead, we’ve set in motion a largely pointless round of diplomacy that has little prospect of resolving the issue.

Data Mining or the Fourth Amendment?

Boalt Hall Law Professor and Visiting AEI Scholar John Yoo writes in a short piece on the AEI website that we should consider using data mining to pursue terrorists. He makes at least two errors: one historical and one statistical.

Discussing the recent vogue for making U.S. law more like Britain’s, Yoo writes:

[I]ncreasing detention time or making warrants easier to come by merely extends an old-fashioned approach to catching terrorists. These tools require individualized suspicion and “probable cause”; police must have evidence of criminal activity in hand. Such methods did not prevent 9/11, and stopping terrorists, who may have no criminal record, requires something more.

It’s hard to put aside that the vogue for making U.S. law more like Britain’s would undo part of what the Revolutionary War was fought for. And Yoo’s placement of the phrase “probable cause” in quotes — I hope that’s not to suggest that the language of the Fourth Amendment is quaint.

But putting all that aside, Yoo’s first error has to do with more-recent history. He argues that traditional investigative methods “did not prevent 9/11.” But traditional investigative methods weren’t applied to the problem. 

Operatives like Khalid al Midhar — an individual with jihadist connections known to the United States — entered the country, left in June 2000, and returned July 4, 2001 on a visa the United States gave him. As the 9/11 Commission pithily noted, “No one was looking for him.” Traditional investigative methods can’t be said to have failed when they weren’t being used.

Yoo’s second error is to believe that data mining can help locate terrorists. Data mining cannot be made useful in counterterrorism: The absence of terrorism patterns means that it is impossible to develop useful algorithms. The corresponding statistical likelihood of false positives would cause the results of a data mining operation to waste the time and energy of investigators while threatening civil liberties. 

Data mining does give a “lift” to marketers’ attempts to find people with certain propensities and interests. But the ”failure rate” (if the goal is to find new, willing customers) is typically above 95%. This is with hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of patterns to work with. Data mining also helps ferret out credit card fraud — again, using the thousands of instances of this crime that happen each year to develop useful algorithms.

Probability theory teaches that the percentage of false positives a test produces will rise dramatically as the incidence of the sought-after condition drops. If you’re searching American society for left-handed people (8–15% of the population) a data mining operation might work pretty well.  If you’re searching for the 10, 12, or two terrorists in the United States, an imperfect test will be useless, time-wasting, and thus harmful to the national security mission.

No, the Fourth Amendment is good policy as well as a part of the not-old-fashioned Constitution. It is better to focus investigations, not broaden them. The best way to find wrongdoing is to look where there is probable cause to believe something is afoot.

Presidential Public Financing Failure

The push is on to revamp and re-fund the public financing of presidential campaigns. 

Brad Smith and Robert Bauer have raised a number of doubts about the presidential system. A while ago, I wrote a policy analysis examining the effects of the presidential system. My new book, The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform, extends that argument.

Here I focus on one question:

The 1976 campaign finance law provided generous subsidies to presidential candidates pursuing party nominations and running in the general election. You would think that the availability of public money would increase the absolute number of candidates for the presidency compared to elections prior to 1976. Has the presidential system led to more candidates for the presidency, more choices for voters, and more competition for the highest office?

Apart from the major party candidates, nine presidential candidates in the general elections since 1948 have received more than 1 percent of the total vote in an election. Five of those candidates ran after the presidential system was created in 1976. Not all five accepted public financing. Ross Perot did not accept taxpayer financing in 1992, preferring to spend $65 million of his own money on his candidacy. Ed Clark, the Libertarian candidate in 1980, also did not take taxpayer financing. 

In all, six of the nine non-major party candidates who have made a mark in presidential elections since 1948 ran their campaigns without the help of the taxpayer. Moreover, the two top vote-getters during the period — George Wallace in 1968 and Ross Perot in 1992 — made do without subsidies.

The presidential system might be credited with three additional presidential campaigns in seven general elections (Ralph Nader in 2000, Ross Perot in 1996, and John Anderson in 1980). Nader received 2.7 percent of the vote, Perot got 8.4 percent, and Anderson obtained 6.6 percent. None of those candidates received a single electoral vote.

I wrote that the system “might be credited.” We should not conclude that because those candidates did use public money, they would not have made their races if the presidential system had not given them money. The private system in place in the seven general elections prior to 1976 produced four serious candidates apart from the major party candidates. Had the system not been enacted, Nader, Perot, and Anderson might also have raised enough money to challenge the major party candidates.

What about the party nominations? Most of the money paid out by the presidential system has gone to fund the conventions of the two major political parties (10 percent of all funding) and the major parties’ candidates in the general election (61 percent of all funding).

Candidates running in the primaries have received a little over $506 million, or about 29 percent of all outlays by the presidential system. That money has funded 83 candidates in the primaries. Of those, 71 were candidates for the nominations of the two major political parties. Of those 71, 55 candidates received over 1 percent of the total number of votes cast in a party’s presidential primaries for a given year, an average of 7.8 candidates each presidential election.

How does that compare with the number of primary candidates prior to the presidential funding system? The seven elections prior to 1976 included an average of 10.7 candidates in the party primaries. If we measure competitiveness by entry into a race, the years prior to public subsidy of presidential campaigns seem somewhat more competitive than the years after 1974. 

What’s the verdict? U.S. taxpayers have given candidates almost $2 billion to campaign for the presidency. That money has not bought more choice in the party primaries or in general presidential elections.

Exporters as Hostage-takers?

I subscribe to a useful digest of farm policy news called FarmPolicy. It’s a great little news service for those interested in agricultural issues.

Today in FarmPolicy, my attention and pique were raised by an article that included a statement from Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Co), who said that farming should be an integral part of national security. According to Salazar:

I would hate to think of a day where the United States of America becomes hostage to other countries (that export food to the U.S.), in a way that we are held hostage over our energy needs

I know of only two other countries that pursue a policy of total self-sufficiency in food(which seems to be what the senator is advocating): North Korea and Zimbabwe.

And we all know how well that’s going…

If you are interested in agricultural policy, Cato will be holding a forum next week to discuss the new Farm Bill. The forum will feature the secretary of agriculture, Mike Johanns, as well as Cal Dooley of the Food Products Association and Robert Thompson, one of America’s most respected experts on U.S. farm policy. Please join us.

Happy Birthday, Welfare Reform

Ten years ago today, Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law. As we look back on the results of those 10 years, it’s worth reflecting on just how wrong the critics were.

At the time the bill was signed, the welfare rights lobby warned that “wages will go down, families will fracture, millions of children will be made more miserable than ever.” One frequently cited study predicted that more than a million children would be thrown into poverty. 

Rep. Jim McDermott wasn’t satisfied with that prediction — he raised the estimate to 2.5 million starving children. Welfare advocates painted vivid pictures of families sleeping on grates in our cities, widespread starvation, and worse.

The New York Times claimed “the effect on our cities will be devastating.” Sen. Frank Lautenberg  (D-NJ) predicted “Hungry and homeless children” would be walking our streets “begging for money, begging for food, even…engaging in prostitution.”  The Nation warned bluntly, “people will die, businesses will close, infant mortality will soar.”

If one listened to the welfare lobbies, you would have expected to be stepping over bodies in the streets every time you left your house.

Now, with 10 years of experience, we can see that those claims were about as correct as claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Welfare rolls are down. Roughly 2.5 million families have left the program, a 57 percent decline. Undoubtedly, some of this was due to a growing economy, especially in the late 1990s, but welfare rolls remain down despite the post-9/11 economic slowdown.

At the same time, poverty rates today are below the rates before welfare reform was enacted. Child poverty rates declined from more than 20 percent in 1996 to 17.8 percent today. Roughly 1.6 million children were lifted out of poverty. Perhaps even more impressively, the poverty rate among black children has fallen at the fastest rate since figures have been recorded. 

Dependent single mothers, the group most heavily affected by welfare reform, account heavily for this decline. Since the enactment of welfare reform, the poverty rate for female-headed families with children has fallen from 46 to 28.4 percent. The decline in poverty among female-headed households has been greater than for any other demographic group.

Most of those who left welfare found work, and the vast majority of them work full-time.  It is true that most first jobs found by those leaving welfare are entry-level positions — on average, they earn about $16,000 per year. That’s not much, but for many it leaves them better off than they were before. Moreover, studies show that as these former welfare recipients increase their work experience, their earnings and benefits increase. And, for better or worse, many continue to receive other forms of government assistance.

Surveys of former welfare recipients indicate that they believe their quality of life has improved since leaving welfare. And they are optimistic about the future. A majority of former welfare recipients believe that their lives will be even better in one to five years. Many of the former recipients actually praise welfare reform as a stimulus for their beginning to look for work and as an opportunity for a fresh start, and a chance to make things better for themselves and their children. Both the women and their children appear to benefit psychologically from the dignity of working.

Certainly, I’ve had my own criticisms of welfare reform. It didn’t go far enough toward making people truly independent of government. It is too prescriptive, setting too many detailed rules for states to follow. The recent reauthorization of the reform added a worthless $1.7 billion program to encourage marriage. And, Congress has failed to build on welfare reform to restructure other federal anti-poverty programs.

Still, by almost any measure you can think of, it is clear that the critics of welfare reform were quite simply wrong.

That’s worth keeping in mind when those same Chicken Littles raise similar scare stories about the proposed reform of other government programs, from Medicare and Medicaid to Social Security. Once again, we are hearing that any changes, reductions, or “privatization” of these programs will lead to widespread poverty, suffering, and other disasters. For example, they claim that allowing younger workers to privately invest a portion of their Social Security taxes through personal accounts will leave seniors eating cat food. But given their track record, maybe we should be a little bit skeptical the next time they predict the sky is falling.