Archives: 09/2009

‘We Don’t Put Our First Amendment Rights In the Hands of FEC Bureaucrats’

I (and several colleagues) have blogged before about Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the latest campaign finance case, which was argued this morning at the Supreme Court.  The case is about much more than whether a corporation can release a movie about a political candidate during an election campaign.  Indeed, it goes to the very heart of the First Amendment, which was specifically created to protect political speech—the kind most in danger of being censored by politicians looking to limit the appeal of threatening candidates and ideas.

After all, hard-hitting political speech is something the First Amendment’s authors experienced firsthand.  They knew very well what they were doing in choosing free and vigorous debate over government-filtered pablum.  Moreover, persons of modest means often pool their resources to speak through ideological associations like Citizens United.  That speech too should not be silenced because of nebulous concerns about “level playing fields” and speculation over the “appearance of corruption.”  The First Amendment simply does not permit the government to handicap speakers based on their wealth, or ration speech in a quixotic attempt to equalize public debate: Thankfully, we do not live in the world of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron!

A few surprises came out of today’s hearing, but not regarding the ultimate outcome of this case.  It is now starkly clear that the Court will rule 5-4 to strike down the FEC’s attempt to regulate the Hillary Clinton movie (and advertisements for it). Indeed, Solicitor General Elena Kagan – in her inaugural argument in any court – all but conceded that independent movies are not electioneering communications subject to campaign finance laws.  And she reversed the government’s earlier position that even books could be banned if they expressly supported or opposed a candidate!  (She went on to also reverse the government’s position on two other key points: whether nonprofit corporations (and perhaps small enterprises) could be treated differently than large for-profit business, and what the government’s compelling interest was in prohibiting corporations from using general treasury funds on independent political speech.)

Ted Olson, arguing for Citizens United, quickly recognized that he had his five votes, and so pushed for a broader opinion.  That is, the larger – and more interesting – question is whether the Court will throw out altogether its 16-year-old proscription on corporations and unions spending their general treasury funds on political speech.  Given the vehement opposition to campaign finance laws often expressed by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, all eyes were on Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, in whose jurisprudence some have seen signs of judicial “minimalism.”  The Chief Justice’s hostility to the government’s argument – “we don’t put our First Amendment rights in the hands of FEC bureaucrats” – and Justice Alito’s skepticism about the weight of the two precedents at issue leads me to believe that there’s a strong likelihood we’ll have a decision that sweeps aside yet another cornerstone of the speech-restricting campaign finance regime.

One other thing to note: Justice Sotomayor, participating in her first argument since joining the Court, indicated three things: 1) she has doubts that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as individuals; 2) she believes strongly in stare decisis, even when a constitutional decision might be wrong; and 3) she cares a lot about deferring to the “democratic process.”  While it is still much too early to be making generalizations about how she’ll behave now that she doesn’t answer to a higher Court, these three points suggest that she won’t be a big friend of liberty in the face of government “reform.”

Another (less serious) thing to note: My seat – in the last row of the Supreme Court bar members area – was almost directly in front of Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold (who were seated in the first row of the public gallery).  I didn’t notice this until everyone rose to leave, or I would’ve tried to gauge their reaction to certain parts of the argument.

Finally, you can find the briefs Cato has filed in the case here and here.

New Video: Assessing Obama’s Speech to Schoolkids

In this new video, Cato scholars Neal McCluskey and Gene Healy weigh in on President Obama’s speech to schoolchildren on their first day of class.

Overall message: It’s not about the speech.

Watch:

Cato education policy experts were very vocal about the whole ordeal, and the implications of Obama’s speech. Cato’s Education and Child Policy tagged posts have more details.

Thomas Friedman’s New Math of Democracy

52237408AW011_Meet_The_PresThomas Friedman’s New York Times column today would be astonishing in its incoherence if only Friedman hadn’t long ago sapped us of our ability to be astonished by his incoherence. Like many capital-‘d’ Democrats, Friedman has soured on democracy for failing to deliver on his policy wish list.

Watching both the health care and climate/energy debates in Congress, it is hard not to draw the following conclusion: There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today.

Why does Friedman say the United States has one-party democracy? Because the Republican Party is effectively opposing the Democratic Party’s agenda! Not even kidding. Get this:

The fact is, on both the energy/climate legislation and health care legislation, only the Democrats are really playing. With a few notable exceptions, the Republican Party is standing, arms folded and saying “no.” Many of them just want President Obama to fail. Such a waste. Mr. Obama is not a socialist; he’s a centrist. But if he’s forced to depend entirely on his own party to pass legislation, he will be whipsawed by its different factions.

Only the Democrats are really playing! You might think that would mean they can do whatever they darn well please. But no! The Democrats can’t do anything! Because the other party’s opposition is so effective! So it’s exactly as if there’s just one party: nothing gets done!

My hunch is that the Times’ editors see Friedman aiming the gun at his foot, but watching a man stupid enough to actually pull the trigger is so fun they hate to intervene. That or they’re trying to explode the myth of American meritocracy.

So where were we? Oh, yes: one-party democracy is aggravating because sometimes one party can’t do what it wants because the other party gets in the way. Sooo frustrating!!! Why have democracy at all when all you end up with is a single party stymied by the other one! And so it is that Friedman comes to wax romantic about communist central planning:

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power.

Nikita Kruschev, the enlightened leader of a now-defunct one-party autocracy, was also committed to overtaking the United States in technology and so much more. “We will bury you” is how he put it. At the time, more than a few left-leaning American opinionmakers suspected he was right. After all, how can inefficiently squabbling democracies possibly keep pace with undivided regimes wholly devoted to scientifically centrally planning their way into the brighter, better future? And that, children, is why we speak Russian today.

A Flat Tire for Low-Income Drivers?

Will the President raise taxes on new tires?

President Obama will need to decide any day now whether to impose tariffs on lower-end automobile tires imported from China. As my colleague Dan Ikenson has ably argued, the decision will tell us much about whether the president believes trade policy should serve the general interest of all Americans, or whether it is simply a political tool to satisfy key constituencies.
Neglected in the news coverage of the pending decision is the impact it could have on consumers. The imported tires targeted by this Section 421 case are of the cheaper variety, the kind that low-income Americans would buy to keep their cars on the road during a recession. If the president decides to impose tariffs, his union supporters will cheer, but “working families’ will find it more difficult to keep their cars running safely.
A central point of my new Cato book, Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization, is that import competition is a working family’s best friend, especially imports from China. As I write in an excerpt published in today’s Washington Examiner,
Imports from China have delivered lower prices on goods that matter most to the poor, helping to offset other forces in our economy that tend to widen income inequality. …
Imposing steep tariffs on imports from China would, of course, hurt producers and workers in China, but it would also punish millions of American consumers through higher prices for shoes, clothing, toys, sporting goods, bicycles, TVs, radios, stereos, and personal and laptop computers.
We will see shortly if President Obama will punish low-income Americans who drive.

President Obama will need to decide any day now whether to impose tariffs on lower-end automobile tires imported from China. As my colleague Dan Ikenson has ably argued, the decision will tell us much about whether the president believes trade policy should serve the general interest of all Americans, or whether it is simply a political tool to satisfy key constituencies.

Neglected in the news coverage of the pending decision is the impact it could have on consumers. The imported tires targeted by this Section 421 case are of the cheaper variety, the kind that low-income Americans would buy to keep their cars on the road during a recession. If the president decides to impose tariffs, his union supporters will cheer, but “working families’ will find it more difficult to keep their cars running safely.

A central theme of my new Cato book, Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization, is that import competition is a working family’s best friend, especially imports from China. As I write in an excerpt published in today’s Washington Examiner,

Imports from China have delivered lower prices on goods that matter most to the poor, helping to offset other forces in our economy that tend to widen income inequality. …

Imposing steep tariffs on imports from China would, of course, hurt producers and workers in China, but it would also punish millions of American consumers through higher prices for shoes, clothing, toys, sporting goods, bicycles, TVs, radios, stereos, and personal and laptop computers.

We will see shortly if President Obama will punish low-income Americans who drive.

No, the Fed Did Not Stabilize the Economy

Commenting on a recent article of mine in The Wall Street Journal, Peter Gartside claims that:

Prior to 1913, the U.S. annual gross domestic product changes oscillated between extremes of approximately plus or minus 15%.   After the establishment of the Federal Reserve Board, the limits of GDP oscillations narrowed to approximately plus or minus 6%.

You may well wonder where he got that idea, since there are no official estimates of gross domestic product (GDP) for years before 1929.  In the early 1960s, however, John Kendrick and Simon Kuznets bravely attempted to construct such estimates for gross national product (GNP).  That would be close enough to modern GDP data were it not for the primitive statistics and technology they had to work with.

The table (after the jump) shows these heroic old estimates for real GNP from 1889 to 1914.  In that period, there was only one year (1908) in which the drop in GNP exceeded 6% and none that remotely approaches the  “minus 15%” figure of Mr. Garstide’s imagination.

Real GNP
billions of 1958$

1889    49.1
1890    52.7
1891    55.1
1892    60.4
1893    57.5
1894    55.9
1895    62.6
1896    61.3
1897    67.1
1898    68.6
1899    74.8
1900    76.9
1901    85.7
1902    86.5
1903    90.8
1904    89.7
1905    96.3
1906    107.5
1907    109.2
1908    100.2
1909    116.8
1910    120.1
1911    123.2
1912    130.2
1913    131.4
1914    125.6

Historical Statistics of the U.S., Series F4

CEA chair Christina Romer’s research shows that these early estimates “exaggerate the size of cycles because they are based on the assumption that GNP moves approximately one for one with commodity output valued in producer prices.” If we tried to estimate recent GDP figures on the basis of commodity output and prices, then postwar cycles would look even wilder than they already do.  Consider, for example, using the recent gyrations in producer prices of oil and metals as a proxy for GNP.

Even if we relied on the ancient and flawed pre-Romer GNP estimates above, however, there were still no downturns before 1913 that were nearly as extreme as 1929-33 or even 1920-21.  And there was no recession between the 1870s and 1913 that lasted as long as the slump of 2008-2009.

Whether we’re talking about fiscal or monetary fine-tuning, all the technocrats efforts at taming the business cycle in the past 40 years appear no more successful than the pre-Fed policies of doing without a central bank and doing without deferred tax increases (debt-financed “fiscal stimulus” plans).

A Picture Is Worth $300 Billion

I blogged this morning that the research shows higher public school spending slows the economy, and explained that this is because spending more on public schools doesn’t increase students’ academic performance. Some readers no doubt find that hard to accept. With them in mind, I present the following chart:

Spending vs. AchievementSpending vs. Achievement

If public schools had merely maintained the level of productivity they exhibited in 1970, Americans would enjoy a permanent $300 billion annual tax cut. Now THAT would stimulate economic growth.

More Sense on the President’s Speech

I’m busy dealing with the fallout from the President’s address to students yesterday, especially the cheap-shot smearing as kooks or right-wing zealots anyone who dared question the propriety of the event. That has left me with little time to blog about the speech. Fortunately, I don’t have to: Over at Cafe Hayek, Cato Adjunct Scholar Donald Boudreaux has penned a terrific explanation of why very reasonable people could object to the president’s speech. Here’s the best part:

The idea that we should be ‘inspired’ by winners of political elections — the notion that successful politicians have some special wisdom to impart — the stupid consensus that high political office renders its holders unusually trustworthy when delivering clusters of cliches — is intolerable to men and women who value freedom and individuality.