Archives: February, 2009

Biden’s Shock Doctrine

Vice President Biden is the latest member of the Obama administration to declare the administration’s intent to use shock and awe to ram through their statist agenda in a crisis atmosphere:

“Opportunity presents itself in the middle of a crisis,” Biden said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

HT: Johan Norberg, the author of a devastating critique of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.

The Bush administration used crisis tactics, too, of course, ramming through the Patriot Act, the nationalization of airport security personnel, the creation of the Homeland Security Department, and the war in Iraq after the shock of 9/11 and a bevy of bailouts during the economic crisis. As Steve Horwitz wrote:

Just as the Patriot Act was a bunch of laws waiting for a political “crisis,” so is much of the stimulus package a bunch of programs waiting for an economic “crisis.” 

Plenty of earlier administrations used the same tactics, from FDR’s first hundred days of frenetic legislation to LBJ’s forced march to the Great Society after the Kennedy assassination. The difference is, the Obama administration is the first one to publicly and proudly proclaim that they intend to use the crisis atmosphere to force through an agenda that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

Obama’s Lobbying Bonanza

The Bush administration was good to lobbyists, especially in its final year, when lobbyists earned $3.2 billion, the most ever. But the Obama administration promises to be even better, according to those who follow the field. Marketplace Radio reports:

Washington lobbyists earned a whopping $3.2 billion last year. That’s the highest amount in the decade tracked by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Executive Director Sheila Krumholz says interest groups spent $17.4 million on lobbying every day Congress was in session last year. And with Washington on a spending spree, companies are boosting their influence on Capitol Hill.

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: There was this unique opportunity that government was handing out money and anytime that happens, companies will spend what they must to get in line to get a piece of the pie.

And that’s expected to continue. Craig Holman is a governmental affairs lobbyist with the non-profit group Public Citizen.

CRAIG HOLMAN: The amount spent on lobbying is not related to the disclosure or the regulation of the lobbying profession. It is related entirely to how much the federal government intervenes in the private economy.

That’s right. Even the Naderite Public Citizen understands that “the amount spent on lobbying … is related entirely to how much the federal government intervenes in the private economy.”

Marketplace’s Ronni Radbill goes on, “In other words, the more active the government, the more the private sector will spend to have its say…. With the White House injecting billions of dollars into the economy, lobbyists say interest groups are paying a lot more attention to Washington than they have in a very long time.”

Or, as F. A. Hayek explained the process 65 years ago in his prophetic book The Road to Serfdom: “As the coercive power of the state will alone decide who is to have what, the only power worth having will be a share in the exercise of this directing power.”

And just who is doing all this lobbying? The Center for Responsive Politics says that health and pharmaceutical companies were the biggest spenders, which wouldn’t surprise lobby-watcher Tim Carney, followed by the finance, insurance, and real estate industry (even though many of those companies cut back their lobbying late in the year, after getting the moolah they came for). But, Marketplace also reports, “There’s a report out today from the Center for Public Integrity that says the number of green lobbyists has tripled in the last five years. There are nearly 2,500 people now employed trying to get their clients views heard on climate policy. Wall Street in particular sank a lot money into green.” With the economy slowing, banks were pulling back from investments in so-called renewable energy. “That is, until the stimulus package tossed it a lifeline.”

So the $3.2 billion bonanza for lobbyists in 2008 was just a precursor of the lollapalooza to come. Within three weeks of Obama’s inauguration, the Washington Post reported that more than 90 organizations had hired lobbyists specifically to influence the stimulus bill. Since President Obama has made clear that in his “blueprint for America,” the $800 billion stimulus bill is just the start of his money flow to and from Washington, we can expect lobbying expenditures to keep on rising. Federal spending will be directed by politicians to politically favored recipients. That’s just reality. If you want money flowing to the companies with good lobbyists and powerful congressmen, then all this spending may accomplish something. But we should all recognize that we’re taking money out of the competitive, individually directed part of society and turning it over to the politically controlled sector. Politicians rather than consumers will pick winners and losers. That’s not a recipe for recovery.

I’ll give the last word again to Craig Holman of Public Citizen: “the amount spent on lobbying … is related entirely to how much the federal government intervenes in the private economy.”

Time to Drop America’s Military Welfare Dependents

Matthew Yglesias takes me to task for sniping at poor little Iceland, which is thinking about closing its Defense Agency.  And I will grant that they are nice people who have just gone through an economic crisis worse than our own.  Still, there is something very tiresome about other countries being perfectly content to rely on the U.S. to pick up their defense tab.

The real problem comes with the big European states, which also rely on Washington, as well as all of the new additions to NATO, which are essentially military black holes, creating far greater obligations than assets for America.  Prospective new members, such as Georgia and Ukraine, would be even worse, bringing potential conflicts into the alliance.  Yglesias argues that “overall European defense spending is quite robust,” but that ignores output:  during Washington’s bizarre war against Serbia even the Europeans admitted that they had just 10-15 percent of America’s effective combat capability.  Few European states are capable of fielding significant units of combat personnel.  The largest states also are derelict.  German papers report that German soldiers in Afghanistan–stationed in the north, so they don’t actually have to fight–have been busy eating sausages and drinking beer, and aren’t particularly fit for combat service.  

None of that would matter if the U.S. wasn’t part of a trans-Atlantic alliance in which Americans are expected to do all of the heavy lifting if anything bad happens.  If war erupted with Russia over, say, Estonia or Poland, who do we think would send the bulk of the air wings and combat ships?  Who would be calling up battle-tested Army and Marine Corps units?  And who would be highlighting their strategic nuclear forces to deter any Russian resort to nuclear weapons.  Hint:  it isn’t likely to be the Germans or Italians.  And probably not even the British and French.  And certainly not the Icelanders. 

“Multilateral defense relationships” can be useful, but permanent security guarantees to populous and prosperous friends are not.  Especially when the U.S. is very busy elsewhere around the world, unlike the friends, who are far more interested in sustaining their domestic welfare states.

At a time of economic crisis, it would make sense for the U.S. to tell its rich international welfare dependents–Europe, South Korea, and Japan–that their defense will be their business.   The U.S. should retain a robust military, and be capable of cooperating with allied states if a hostile hegemonic power arose that actually threatened America, instead of a small client state half a world away.  But our “multilateral defense relationships” should become ones of genuine cooperation regarding shared interests, not ones of helpless dependency in which Washington guarantees the interests of others.  Which is what NATO has become.

It will be less painful if the U.S. voluntarily returns to a more normal role in the world.  America will long be influential, but the time is coming when it will be merely first among equals.  The American people will be far better off if Washington stops wasting their money and lives attempting to micro-manage global affairs.

You Just Gotta’ Love those Trial Attorneys

Lives likely would be saved if hotels stocked defibrillators.  Having even one might make a critical difference for a patient having a heart attack.  But hotels hesitate stocking the devices, which, while not cheap, are well within reach for most hotels. 

However, reports the Wall Street Journal:

Hotels worry that if they have the devices, which cost about $1,200 to $2,000 each, they could be sued for failing to have enough units, failing to put them in the right places, or failing to replace batteries or maintain them properly.

Great.  The American legal system is telling hoteliers that you’re probably safe if you don’t have any life-saving equipment on the premises.  (Though one can imagine a negligence suit eventually contending that you should have had defibrillators–and perhaps an entire operating room, too!)  But if you buy one and don’t adequately train your personnel, or let the batteries die down, or have it on the “wrong” floor, you could be sued.  This truly is legal insanity.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like lawyers.  After all, I picked up a J.D. many years ago, even if Cato rescued me so I don’t have to actually use those skills.  But surely it is ridiculous to have a legal system which actually discourages companies from buying equipment which could save lives.

Our new president, a Harvard Law School graduate, might want to add legal reform to his lengthy list of desired transformations of America.

Cato Scholars Address Obama’s First Speech to Congress

President Barack Obama’s first address to Congress laid out a laundry list of new spending contained within the stimulus legislation and provided hints as to what will be contained in the budget - a so-called “blueprint for America’s future” - he’ll submit to the legislature. Cato Institute scholars Chris Edwards, Jim Harper, Gene Healy, Neal McCluskey, David Rittgers, John Samples and Michael D. Tanner offer their analyses of the President’s non-State-of-the-Union Address.

Subscribe to Cato’s video podcast here and Cato’s YouTube channel here.

No Taxation Without Representation? OK, I’ll Take the No Taxation

The Senate is taking up, and looks ready to pass, legislation granting the District of Columbia full representation in the House of Representatives.  And the bill is co-sponsored by Utah’s Orrin Hatch, whose state would also get one additional House member – but only until 2012, when the new census will again reapportion representatives nationwide.

The problem (setting aside the cheap politics of adding one safe seat for each party) is that the DC Voting Rights Act is facially unconstitutional. The plain text of Article I limits representation in Congress to voters residing in “states” – a species of jurisdiction that the District of Columbia is not.

Now, this simple legal fact does not affect the moral argument that the voices of D.C. residents should resound in Congress no less than those of their fellow citizens of the several states. To remedy this historical accident – the Founders did not conceive that anyone would live permanently in the federal district, because the government was not supposed to grow this large – we have two constitutional options:

1) A constitutional amendment – like the 23rd Amendment, which in 1961 (yes, only that recently!) gave D.C. presidential electors, and without which it would be unconstitutional for D.C. residents to cast votes for president; or

2) Retrocession to Maryland – akin to the part of the original District that was returned to Virginia, all but the land under the Congress, White House, and certain other federal buildings could rejoin Maryland, and the people living there would then be counted toward that state’s congressional delegation (and be represented by Maryland’s two senators).

Better yet, if the political rallying cry for the D.C. Voting rights movement is “no taxation without representation,” then I suggest that we focus on the first part of the equation and cease federal taxation of D.C. residents. Regardless of the optimal solution, however, the course that Congress has chosen simply will not fly if we take the Constitution seriously.

Who Is Chucking Kids out of the DC Voucher Liferaft?

As I blogged yesterday, Congressional Democrats have incorporated language into the 2009 omnibus spending bill that would spell the beginning of the end of the DC voucher program.

According to Capitol Hill sources, the new language apparently flowed from the pen of Senator Dick Durbin (D - IL) . But if so, Durbin is not alone in looking to end the program. The DC Examiner is reporting today that House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey has urged DC Public Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee to prepare for the return of voucher students to DCPS.

How will they – and everyone who votes for this bill – justify their decision to the kids whose dreams they aim to destroy?