Archives: 12/2008

Obama Transition Transparency: A Good Start

The President-elect’s Change.gov Web site announced a new feature on Friday, called Your Seat at the Table: “The Obama-Biden Transition Team will be hearing from many groups over the next several weeks. On this page, you can track these meetings, view documents provided to the Transition, and leave comments for the team.”

Says a memo from transition head John Podesta, itself posted online, “[A]ny documents from official meetings with outside organizations will be posted on our website for people to review and comment on.”

This is a very good start at transparency. John Wonderlich at the Sunlight Foundation wonders what this might look like across the entire executive branch. If the default rule were online disclosure of documents submitted to government agencies, that would make a big change in the conduct of the public’s business.

There are many dimensions of transparency, of course. Along with openness in political and regulatory processes, we should also have openness in functional information, and in results. Where is the money going? What are we getting in return? Answers to these questions can validate or invalidate government programs in ways never before thought possible.

Wednesday at noon, we’ll be having a policy forum here at Cato entitled: Just Give Us the Data! Prospects for Putting Government Information to Revolutionary New Uses. Ed Felten, Gary Bass, and Jerry Brito will discuss how access to government data in useful formats might revolutionize public oversight.

Register here now.

Concealed Carry in National Parks

The Department of the Interior has concluded its rulemaking and will allow those with state-issued concealed handgun permits to carry in national parks and wildlife refuges.  This is a victory for self-defense nationwide.  People find themselves victims of predators in state and national parks, of both the two-legged and four-legged varieties.  The new rule should take effect in mid-January. 

In addition to providing for lawful self-defense, this new rule will prevent citizens from unknowingly breaking the law.  Driving with a valid concealed carry permit becomes illegal if you turn on to a road on federal property such as the Blue Ridge Parkway.  No notice that your state permit is invalid on this particular road?  Too bad, you’re a criminal.  Good riddance to bad law and bad policy. 

This comes in the wake of the invalidation of the District of Columbia’s gun ban with the Heller decision, detailed in Brian Doherty’s new book Gun Control on Trial: Inside the Supreme Court Battle over the Second Amendment.  The Cato book forum is available in video and podcast formats here.

What Color Is the Sky on Kristol’s Planet?

Bill Kristol points out the difference between small-government conservatives and big-government conservatives like him.  Among other things:

  • If you’re a small-government conservative, you’ll tend to oppose the bailouts, period. If you more or less accept big government, you’ll be open to the government’s stepping in to save the financial system, or the auto industry.
  • Similarly, if you’re against big government, you’ll oppose a huge public works stimulus package. If you think some government action is inevitable, you might instead point out that the most unambiguous public good is national defense. You might then suggest spending a good chunk of the stimulus on national security.

Kristol goes on to claim that the Republican Revolution collapsed because the GOP tried to cut government (notably some minor Medicare cuts).  President Bush, on the other hand, “seemed to learn the lesson.”  Among his other successes, ”he proposed and signed into law popular (and, it turned out, successful) legislation, opposed by small-government conservatives, adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.”

Undoubtedly, in Kristol’s world, it is President Bush’s commitment to bigger, more expensive, and more intrusive government that has brought about his soaring approval ratings.  Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress were losing because they cut spending to the bone, abolished pork, turned down earmarks, and generally behaved like Barry Goldwater reincarnated. 

Those wondering what actually happened on planet earth, might check out my book, Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.

Hyperinflation?

Half a century ago, Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen is supposed to have summed up the Federal government’s profligate ways with the comment that “a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” These days it’s “a trillion here, trillion there.” Unfortunately, many don’t believe it’s real money any more. And they may be right, which might explain the eagerness in Congress to shovel some of it to failing enterprises such as the Big 3. How long before it’s “a quadrillion here, a quadrillion there?” At the rate we are going, it will be a lot sooner than another half century.

Convergence at Last?

Back in the days of the Cold War, pundits used to talk about how the conflict between capitalism and communism would end with the “convergence” of the two systems, “blending the personal freedom and profit motive of Western democracies with the Communist system’s government control of the economy.” Well, it didn’t happen, right? Instead, communism failed, and the communist countries moved rapidly toward capitalism.

And then came the Bush-Obama era, and today we read in the New York Times that “the Kremlin seems to be capitalizing on the economic crisis, exploiting the opportunity to establish more control over financially weakened industries that it has long coveted.” Ouch. That’s a little too close for comfort.

Obama’s Vast New Deal

Conservatives and libertarians seem to be reeling, as economic freedom takes another blow from both the outgoing and incoming administrations every day. Remember the good old days of the $1.5 billion Chrysler bailout? Heck, remember the good old days of the $700 billion financial market bailout? Barack Obama used to call for fiscal discipline and denounce “the runaway spending and the record deficits.” Now it seems the sky’s the limit. Pundits talk about whether Obama’s first deficit will come in closer to $1 trillion or $1.5 trillion, and Republican opponents are nowhere to be seen.

Throwing fiscal discipline to the winds, in his radio address Saturday Obama proposed the biggest expansion of government spending in history, ranging from roads and bridges to “a range of programs to expand broadband Internet access, to make government buildings more energy efficient, to improve information technology at hospitals and doctors’ offices, and to upgrade computers in schools.” I just hope Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats were reading the New York Times on Sunday, which actually explained the argument against such programs in its front-page news story:

Mr. Obama’s plan, if enacted, would be in part a government-directed industrial policy, with lawmakers and administration officials picking winners and losers among private projects and raining large amounts of taxpayer money on them….

President Bush and many conservative economists have opposed such large-scale government intervention in the economy because it supports enterprises that might not survive in a free market. That is the crux of the argument against a government bailout of the auto industry….

Mr. Bush and other Republicans have resisted such an approach in part out of concern for the already soaring federal budget deficit, which could easily hit $1 trillion this year. Borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars today to try to fix the economy, they argue, will leave a huge bill for the next generation.

Conservative economists have also long derided public works spending as a poor response to tough economic times, saying it has not been a reliable catalyst for short-term growth and instead is more about politicians gaining points with constituents.

Alan D. Viard, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, told the House Ways and Means Committee recently that public works spending should not be authorized out of the “illusory hope of job gains or economic stabilization.”

“If more money is spent on infrastructure, more workers will be employed in that sector,” Mr. Viard added. “In the long run, however, an increase in infrastructure spending requires a reduction in public or private spending for other goods and services. As a result, fewer workers are employed in other sectors of the economy.”

Such warnings don’t carry much weight when they come from President Bush, the trillion-dollar man. But fiscally responsible Republicans and Democrats would do well to read the Times article and start actually making these points. And kudos to Times reporters Peter Baker and John Broder for including such balance in their story.