Archives: May, 2009

Tough Words

In the Wall Street Journal, Mary Anastasia O’Grady got Dallas Fed president Richard Fisher to go on the record about current Fed policy. He talks tough about inflation. “Throughout history, what the political class has done is they have turned to the central bank to print their way out of an unfunded liability. We can’t let that happen.”

What is lacking is a plan to match the tough words with tough actions. Only when a tough and resolute U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, was matched with a tough and resolute Fed Chairman, Paul Volcker, did the Fed turn into an effective inflation fighter. There is no such match up now in the face of trillion dollar deficits forecast with no end in sight.

Ms. O’Grady describes Fisher as “the lead inflation worrywart” on the Federal Open Market Committee of the Fed. But Fed officials do not act in a political vacuum, and regional Fed presidents cannot on their own stop the Fed’s printing money in the face of the deficits. That requires leadership at the top from both the Fed chairman and the U.S president.

The Administration’s plan appears to be “to print their way out of an unfunded liability.” Thus far, despite tough words from some quarters, the Fed seems ready to accommodate “the political class.”

Iraq’s Refugee Crisis

George W. Bush’s misguided attack on Iraq has had catastrophic consequences for the Iraqi people.  Although the removal of Saddam Hussein was a blessing, the bloody chaos that resulted was not.  Estimates of the number of dead in the ensuing strife starts at about 100,000 and rises rapidly.  The number of injured is far greater.

Moreover, roughly four million people, about one-sixth of the population, have been driven from their homes.  The most vulnerable tended to be Iraq’s Christian community and Iraqis who aided U.S. personnel – acting as translators, for instance.  Yet the Bush administration resisted allowing any of these desperate people to come to America, since to resettle refugees would be to acknowledge that administration policy had failed to result in the promised paradise in Babylon.

This horrid neglect continues.  Reports Hanna Ingber Win:

Of the millions displaced, the United States will resettle about 17,000 new Iraqis this coming fiscal year. While that is a relatively small number of arrivals compared to the number displaced, about a third of them will end up in El Cajon and Greater San Diego. More than 5,000 new Iraqis will arrive in San Diego County during the fiscal year ending September 30, 2009, according to Catholic Charities in the San Diego Diocese. Getting jobs, homes and visas to reunite the families of the new arrivals — many of whom put their lives and their families’ lives at risk by helping the U.S. military — is a monumental task.

As the Iraq War played out, the Bush administration seemed to do everything in its power to ignore the refugee crisis. Former President Bush, reluctant to admit to a failed war policy, never mentioned the plight of the refugees and for years refused to allow Iraqis fleeing the war zone to resettle in the U.S. Only after significant political pressure from members of Congress and advocacy groups did the administration’s policy begin to change, and refugees began gaining access to the United States.

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama pledged to address the humanitarian crisis caused by the war. He vowed to increase the amount of aid given to countries like Syria and Jordan, which harbor most of the displaced people, as well as expedite the process of resettling refugees here.

“The Bush administration made every effort they could to try to minimize the issue [of Iraqi refugees] in the debate on the war,” Amelia Templeton, a refugee-policy analyst with Human Rights First, says not long after the presidential election. The Obama administration, on the other hand, she says, has made the issue an explicit policy priority. “Obama has said this is a major problem, that we are responsible for this problem and we will try to change this.”

Whether the Obama administration will live up to its rhetoric is still to be seen.

Immigration is an emotional issue at any time.  But there is no excuse for not accepting more persecuted peoples who are fleeing violence sparked by U.S. military action and attacks sparked by their aid for U.S. military forces.  If America refuses to act as a haven for these people, then yet another light will have gone out in what was once a shining city on a hill for the world.

Gingrich, Fear-Mongering, Failed Leadership

There’s a reason why Newt Gingrich is on the political sidelines, and there’s a reason why Vice President Dick Cheney does not have a Republican successor to carry on his preferred policies. On Sunday’s Meet the Press, the contrasts in terrorism and national security policy between President Obama and these leading Republicans were in high relief.

After discussing the personal investment in aggressive counterterrorism Dick Cheney and others in the Bush White House had after the “shock” of 9/11, Newt Gingrich said:

Let me just say, I think people should be afraid. I think the lesson of 1993 – the first time they bombed the World Trade Center – was: Fear is probably appropriate. I think the lesson of Khobar Towers – where American service men were killed in Saudi Arabia – was: Fear is probably appropriate. I think the lesson of the two embassy bombings in East Africa was: Fear is probably appropriate. I think the lesson of the Cole being bombed in Yemen was: Fear is probably appropriate.

I’ll tell you, if you aren’t a little bit afraid after 9/11 and 3,100 Americans killed inside the United States by an effort. If you aren’t worried about the second-wave attack that was designed to take out the biggest building in Los Angeles, I think that you are out of touch with reality.

Host David Gregory asked:

But, Speaker Gingrich, you make the point about how Vice President Cheney felt – personally, personal fear. And isn’t President Obama’s argument that fear as a basis of national security policy is not sustainable over time? How do you come up with a sustainable legal framework, a sustainable national security policy? Don’t we elect leaders to transcend fear for lasting policy?

Gingrich’s response was to cite the sustained American effort in the Cold War. There was, of course, background fear of nuclear war and communism during that time, but the policy that got us through the Cold War was the pragmatic and rational policy of containment – a far cry from policymaking based in fear.

For the time being, Republicans appear to be “on tilt” about terrorism, and seeking their footing in the politics of panic.

Wal-Mart: Health Food Store?

As someone who believes in liberty, my natural inclination is to defend a company like Wal-Mart from the usual attacks.  You know, the company should pay its employees more (sure, just like all other companies, including libertarian think tanks!).  Wal-Mart destroys local businesses (that is, enterprises which offer fewer choices but at higher prices, and whose customers cheerfully flee when given an alternative).  The people most likely to attack Wal-Mart are those who would never shop there and don’t know anyone who does shop there.

It’s always nice to find evidence to back my inclinations.  It turns out that Wal-Mart not only lowers prices for poor people, but improves their health.  Reporting on this improbable result is Radley Balko, formerly at Cato and now at Reason:

In the popular imagination, a big-box store such as Wal-Mart is more often seen as part of the problem than part of the solution: We associate Wal-Mart with large women in stretch pants, fat kids sucking down tubs of soda, and morbidly obese men inching down the snack-food aisle in motorized shopping carts. The store makes candy, chips, and soda ridiculously cheap—so wouldn’t Wal-Mart contribute to the obesity problem?

That’s what economists Art Carden of Rhodes College and Charles Courtemanche of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro suspected. So they conducted a study to find out. Carden and Courtemanche have done a number of studies on Wal-Mart. Carden insists they get no funding from the company, directly or indirectly. Rather, he says, the two free-market economists have been intrigued by the Wal-Mart debate and wanted to test some of the more common criticisms of the store. Generally, they’ve found that the worst fears about Wal-Mart are unfounded, and that the stores have a mostly positive impact on their communities.

But they thought this one might be different. “We expected the study to show an increase in obesity in communities with a Wal-Mart,” Carden says. “We know that Wal-Mart lowers the cost of food, but we figured it’s not always the best food for you.”

To their surprise, they found the opposite—there was a small but statistically significant reduction in obesity rates in communities with a Wal-Mart, perhaps because the store also sells fresh produce of good quality at a good price.

Broadening the study to big-box stores in general, the effect was even more pronounced. “People actually bought more produce, more fruits and vegetables,” Carden says. “Instead of just eating more, they ate a higher-quality diet—a lower-fat diet than the rest of the population.”

It appears that people aren’t as stupid as paternalistic politicians believe.  And markets ain’t half bad either.

More Politicization of the Department of Justice

At the last election, Democrats complained mightily of George Bush’s having politicized the Department of Justice: firing prosecutors, suborning legal memos justifying an expansion of executive power, etc., etc.  Well, it now seems at best that the pot was calling the kettle an abuser of power.

Early in the administration, when the DC Voting Rights Act last made the news cycle, it came out that newly confirmed AG Eric Holder sought a second opinion from the acting solicitor general when the Office of Legal Counsel affirmed its 45-year position that giving DC residents representation in Congress could not be done without amending the Constitution.  The bill is now stuck because of an amendment that was added to it relaxing the District’s strict – even after Heller – gun regulations, but this issue will resurface.

Now, in the most recent development in the “Is Hillary Clinton Constitutional?” saga the OLC reversed its own position from 1987 just in time for federal prosecutors to file a motion to dismiss a lawsuit challenging Clinton’s appointment that cites the new memo (see footnote 21).  Indeed, the motion was filed the same day Acting Assistant Attorney General David Barron – who had previously rebuffed Holder on the DC Voting Rights Act (though we still have to see what the next confirmed OLC head says, be that Dawn Johnsen or someone else) – signed the new OLC memo.

The issue is that Clinton’s appointment to the cabinet – as well as that of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar – violates the Emoluments (sometimes called Ineligibility) Clause of Article I, section 6 because both she and Salazar were sitting Senators when cabinet salaries were increased.  Congress later passed short laws reversing these raises for the duration of both officials’ tenures but, as I’ve argued previously – and as OLC head Chuck Cooper spelled out in the 1987 memo – there is no “net accounting” proviso which somehow erases the constitutional defect.  While the new memo relies heavily on historical practice – several presidents going back to William Howard Taft (most recently Bill Clinton in appointing Lloyd Bentsen to be Treasury Secretary) have proceeded in this manner – the fact that political branches have acted in a certain way doesn’t speak to the constitutionality of that action.

In short, again the Obama Justice Department has found a politically expedient way of dealing with pesky constitutional issues.  In this case, that way involved issuing a memo to buttress a motion being filed that very same day in federal court.

H/T: Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch, which is involved in the suit challenging Clinton’s appointment.

Obama’s Proposed IRS Rules Mean Trouble for Overseas Americans, Will Also Lead to Less Investment in America

The U.K.’s Daily Telegraph reports that British banks may turn away any America clients as a result of an Administration proposal to modify the already-onerous Qualified Intermediary rules and make them even worse. This makes life more difficult for overseas Americans, which will compromise the competitiveness of U.S. firms trying to win market share around the world. It also will discourage foreign financial institutions from investing in America since pulling out of the U.S. market is an easy way to get out from under the IRS’s unfair extraterritorial regulatory reach.

British banks and stockbrokers may refuse to take on American clients if new international tax proposals outlined by President Obama are passed. The decision, which would make it hard for Americans in London to open bank accounts and trade shares, is being discussed by executives at Britain’s banks and brokers who say it could become too expensive to service American clients. The proposals, which were unveiled as part of the president’s first budget, are designed to clamp-down on American tax evaders abroad. However bank bosses say they are being asked to take on the task of collecting American taxes at a cost and legal liability that are inexpedient. …One executive at a top UK bank who didn’t want to be named for fear of angering the IRS said: “It’s just about manageable under the current system - and that’s because we’re big. The danger to us is suddenly being hauled over the coals by the IRS for a client that hasn’t paid proper taxes. The audit costs will soar. We’ll have to pay it but I know plenty of smaller players won’t.” The British Bankers Association (BBA) and APCIMS had a meeting with European counterparts 10 days ago to discuss the crisis. A delegation is set to meet the US Treasury’s Internal Revenue Service on 16th June to demand they drop the reforms. …President Obama’s proposals are built on the so-called Qualified Intermediary system which was intended to ensure Americans paid the correct tax wherever they were domiciled. Foreign financial institutions that handle American money have to fill in a US tax form on behalf of the client that has to be audited too.