Archives: January, 2007

Worse Than Hillary?

The airwaves are abuzz today with the least surprising news since Lindsay Lohan entered rehab. Hillary Clinton is running for president. “I’m in. And I’m in to win,” she says, after months of saying she hadn’t given a presidential race any thought. Just my little pet peeve, though, that politicians could try harder to evade rather than actually lying.

For more than 15 years now, Hillary has been the incarnation of Big Government. She votes with taxpayers only 9 percent of the time, according to the National Taxpayers Union. She calls herself a “government junkie.” She says, “There is no such thing as other people’s children” and calls for ”a consensus of values and a common vision” for 300 million people.  She was best known in her White House years for heading a team of 500 bureaucrats organized into 15 committees and 34 working groups to recreate in 100 days one-seventh of the American economy. After health care, she told the New York Times, her next project would be “redefining who we are as human beings in the post-modern age.” Or, as the Times put it, “She wants to make things right.”

She just might be the scariest collectivist this side of Al Gore.

And yet…. And yet, she may end up running for the Democratic nomination against a gaggle of candidates who criticize her for being insufficiently devoted to bigger and more powerful government.

All the candidates who might have offered a more libertarian direction seem to have dropped out. Mark Warner and Evan Bayh might have campaigned on more sensible and centrist economic ideas. Russ Feingold would have run as a critic of the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act (and its extension in 2006), all of which he opposed and Hillary supported.

But who’s left in the race? Barack Obama, whose only stated campaign position so far is that he is in favor of hope but who votes for even more spending than Hillary. As does John Kerry, who is turning his hearing aid up higher and higher, listening for the clamor for him to run again. And John Edwards, who in his second campaign is embracing more crank economic nostrums than Huey Long. And maybe the aforementioned Al Gore, the Lord Voldemort of liberty.

The Republicans are offering independent, centrist, and libertarian voters to the Democrats on a silver platter. And Democrats are about to compete to see who can do the most effective job of driving them away.

The Czechs (Finally) Have a New Government

The 7-months-long political stalemate in the Czech Republic ended this morning. The Czech Parliament approved a coalition government consisting of the liberal Civic Democrats, conservative Christian Democrats and centrist Greens. The new government is committed to a flat individual and corporate tax rate of between 17 percent and 19 percent (to be determined during pre-budget negotiations), and slashing regulation and state expenditure.

A last-minute desertion of two MPs from the socialist opposition enabled the government to squeak through, but the government remains in a precarious position. With only a 100 seats in a 200 seat Parliament, the government’s reform program will be difficult to push through.

Ideological Battles and GOP Politics: Will 2008 Mirror 1964?

I recently read William Middendorf’s A Glorious Disaster: Goldwater’s Presidential Campaign and the Origins of the Conservative Movement, which provides an interesting behind-the-scenes look at Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential run. While the book focuses primarily on campaign strategy, it is impossible to ignore the bigger picture — that is, the many parallels that exist between Goldwater’s era and today.
For instance, the Republican Party of the early 1960s faced an ideological struggle between small-government and big-government conservatives that closely mirrors the GOP infighting we have witnessed in the past few years.

Middendorf’s book notes a 1965 newspaper column by Goldwater in which he lashes out at a newly formed liberal Republican group that “is roughly dedicated to the proposition that the best way to be a Republican is to be a frugal or efficient Democrat, to follow the same philosophy, advocate the same bureaucratic solutions, but promise to do it better or for a few cents less.”

Similarly, in his forthcoming book, Leviathan on the Right, Michael Tanner notes how roughly four decades later, the GOP is embroiled in essentially the same fight:  

Goldwater and Reagan-style conservatism is increasingly being supplanted by a new trend in conservative thought, which might loosely be termed big-government conservatism. This type of conservatism believes in a strong and activist government that intervenes in many areas of our lives, from dealing with issues such as poverty or health care to protecting the cultural institutions of our society. Increasingly it has come to resemble contemporary liberalism in its means, if not its ends.

While Middendorf does not really address current politics in his book, the 1964 election appears to share some odd similarities with the 2008 race. In ’64, the frontrunners for the GOP nomination included a maverick senator from Arizona (Goldwater), a governor named Romney (George of Michigan) and a moderate executive from New York (Nelson Rockefeller).  The early front runners in 2008 are once again a maverick senator from Arizona (John McCain), a governor named Romney (George’s son, Mitt of Massachusetts) and a moderate executive from New York (Rudy Giuliani). Of course, in 1964 Goldwater won the nomination and was trounced in the general election by President Lyndon B. Johnson.   

While I’m not sure he’s a proper heir to the limited government legacy of Goldwater, McCain is arguably the frontrunner for the ’08 GOP nomination. And it might well be time for the senator from Arizona to take note of the failures of his predecessor’s campaign. Goldwater made his fair share of blunders during the campaign, but in the end he was beaten handily primarily because the general public believed his foreign policy views were too hawkish and could lead America into World War III — not because he espoused a reduction in the size and scope of the federal government. If McCain fails to learn from history, his success in the general election may mirror that of Goldwater.

Venezuela: Plus ça Change, Plus C’est la Même Chose

Hugo Chavez came one step closer to becoming a full-fledged dictator last night, as “Venezuelan lawmakers gave initial approval to a bill granting … [him] the power to rule by decree for 18 months so that he can impose sweeping economic, social and political change.” The vote in the National Assembly was unanimous — as befits a budding communist country.

Not that Chavez’s powers were much constrained prior to yesterday, but his soon-to-be official recognition as Venezuela’s dictator serves as an important reminder that state control of the economy and dictatorship go hand in hand.

Since the collapse of the Soviet empire, many defenders of socialism have argued that dictators, including Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot, were aberrations; they took Marx’s ideas in the wrong direction. They claim that nationalization of the means of production (call it communism, socialism, or Marxism) and democracy can be compatible. In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek showed that it cannot. Some 50 years later, Hayek’s argument holds. Every socialist regime tends toward authoritarianism of some sort.

Chavez reminds us of the anti-democratic nature of socialism. As such, he is turning into a major embarrassment for many on the Left who supported him. Unfortunately, what the proponents of socialism again and again fail to realize is that it is the message, not the messenger, that is embarrassing.

Irony, in the Alanis Morissette Sense

Here’s a nice book-end to Chris Edwards’ recent post — and the flurry of controversy — about federal compensation reaching precisely double the national average: 

Tax Prof Blog (via Volokh) notes that federal employees owe $2.8 billion in taxes. Tax Prof lists and compares the “scofflaw” rates of different agencies and departments, with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights coming in just shy of 10 percent.

But Tell Us What You Really Think of the NCLB, Matt

Matt Ladner, VP for research at the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute, has some harsh words for the No Child Left Behind Act:

The latest incarnation, in fact, represents yet another step in the long sad history of ineffectually throwing money at public schools. NCLB is headed for the ash-heap of failed education reforms. The only question at this point is how expensive of a failure it will become.

Is Charles Murray’s Ceiling Their Fate?

Writing in this week’s Wall Street Journal, IQ expert Charles Murray argues that “Our ability to improve the academic accomplishment of students in the lower half of the distribution of intelligence is severely limited.”

In one sense, he is almost certainly correct. No matter how much we improve the quality of schooling, there will always be intellectual pursuits that are beyond the reach of not just half the population, but beyond the overwhelming majority of us. He gives the example that he himself cannot follow proofs in the American Journal of Mathematics — not because he knows too little, but because he is not smart enough. Charles, I’m with you. After perusing this paper on “The Equivalence Problem and Rigidity for Hypersurfaces Embedded into Hyperquadrics,” I am prepared to agree with the now-discontinued Teen-Talk Barbie: ”[Abstract] math is hard.”

But in another sense, I suggest that Charles is mistaken. It is likely that a significantly improved education system could raise the academic achievement of all students substantially above their current levels. There are numerous examples of this happening, both anecdotally and in the research literature.

On the anecdotal front, recall star calculus teacher Jaime Escalante, and how he put LA’s Garfield High School on the map in the 1980s by constructing a math department that was truly top notch. So many of Escalante’s low-income Hispanic students started taking and passing AP calculus courses (more, at one point, than at Beverly Hills High School) that the program’s overseers insisted on a re-test (his students did remarkably well once again).

Are we to believe that the only children whose grasp of mathematics was greatly improved by Escalante’s instruction were those with above-average IQs? That seems unlikely. It would be hard to argue that calculus is as prohibitively difficult, when well taught, as “hypersurfaces embedded into hyperquadrics.”

On the empirical research front, consider the wealth of international studies comparing student achievement in parent-driven, competitive market schools with the achievement of similar students in bureaucratically-run, non-competitive schools. Are these academic advantages, which are sometimes substantial, concentrated only among those with 100+ IQs? Again, there is no reason to think so.

The problem, as I see it, with Murray’s argument is simply that he is assuming the “ceiling” on academic achievement is lower that it is actually likely to be. This may be due to the fact that, at present, the education system through which 90 percent of American students pass is badly designed, and consistently fails to raise students up to their full potential.

It is also worth noting that Charles makes no mention in this particular piece about the benefits of an improved K-12 education system for brighter students. Surely they deserve the opportunity to fulfill their intellectual potentials just as much as children on the left side of the bell curve.

In short, a better school system could do a lot of kids an awful lot of good.