Archives: 11/2010

Conservative Rift Widening over Military Spending

More and more figures on the right – especially some darlings of the all-important tea party movement – are coming forward to utter a conservative heresy: that the Pentagon budget cow perhaps should not be so sacred after all.

Senator-elect Rand Paul of Kentucky was the latest, declaring on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that military spending should not be exempt from the electorate’s clear
desire to reduce the massive federal deficit.

His comments follow similar musings by leading fiscal hawks Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, a presumptive contender for the GOP nomination in 2012.  Others who agree that military spending shouldn’t get a free pass as we search for savings include Sen. Johnny Isakson, Sen. Bob Corker, Sen.-elect Pat Toomey—the list goes on.

Will tea partiers extend their limited government principles to foreign policyI certainly hope so, although I caution that any move to bring down Pentagon spending must include a change in our foreign policy that currently commits our military to far too many missions abroad.  To cut spending without reducing overseas commitments merely places additional strains on the men and women serving in our military, which is no one’s desired outcome.

If tea partiers need the specifics they have been criticized for lacking in their drive for fiscal discipline, they need look no further than the Cato Institute’s DownSizingGovernment.org project.  As of today, that web site includes recommendations for over a trillion dollars in targeted cuts to the Pentagon budget over ten years.

Meanwhile, the hawkish elements of the right have been at pains to declare military spending off-limits in any moves toward fiscal austerity.  That perspective is best epitomized in a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Ed Feulner of the Heritage Foundation, Arthur Brooks of AEI and Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard published on Oct. 4—a month before the tea party fueled a GOP landslide.  (Ed Crane and I penned a letter responding to that piece.)  Thankfully, it looks like neoconservative attempts to forestall a debate over military spending have failed. That debate is already well along.

Government Cheese

Self-anointed elites have been relentless in prodding government planners to apply their enlightened solutions for the purported benefit of the ignorant masses. As a result, the federal government has become a Super Nanny monitoring and guiding the intimate activities of the nation’s 300 million inhabitants. However, the government is not altruistic and does not have the solutions for how people should live their lives.

The amalgamation of programs and regulations that constitute the federal government is basically a reflection of the myriad special interests that have won a seat at Uncle Sam’s table. Government consists of fallible men and women who are naturally susceptible to pursuing policies that have less to do with the “general welfare” and more to do with rewarding the privileged birds incessantly chirping in their ears.

One result is that government programs often work at cross purposes. A perfect illustration is the confused U.S. Department of Agriculture, which spends taxpayer money subsidizing fatty foods while at the same time setting nutritional guidelines with the purported aim of getting Americans to eat healthier.

The New York Times explains:

Domino’s Pizza was hurting early last year. Domestic sales had fallen, and a survey of big pizza chain customers left the company tied for the worst tasting pies.

Then help arrived from an organization called Dairy Management. It teamed up with Domino’s to develop a new line of pizzas with 40 percent more cheese, and proceeded to devise and pay for a $12 million marketing campaign.

Consumers devoured the cheesier pizza, and sales soared by double digits. “This partnership is clearly working,” Brandon Solano, the Domino’s vice president for brand innovation, said in a statement to The New York Times.

But as healthy as this pizza has been for Domino’s, one slice contains as much as two-thirds of a day’s maximum recommended amount of saturated fat, which has been linked to heart disease and is high in calories.

And Dairy Management, which has made cheese its cause, is not a private business consultant. It is a marketing creation of the United States Department of Agriculture — the same agency at the center of a federal anti-obesity drive that discourages over-consumption of some of the very foods Dairy Management is vigorously promoting.

Urged on by government warnings about saturated fat, Americans have been moving toward low-fat milk for decades, leaving a surplus of whole milk and milk fat. Yet the government, through Dairy Management, is engaged in an effort to find ways to get dairy back into Americans’ diets, primarily through cheese.

Your tax dollars are being used by the USDA to help Domino’s Pizza (and Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Wendy’s, and Burger King according to the article) sell its product. Of course, the government isn’t trying to help these fast food giants so much as it’s trying to help a particularly favored special interest: farmers.

While calls to get rid of subsidies for Dairy Management would obviously be on target, the better move would be to get rid of the entire USDA, which the New York Times comically refers to as “America’s nutrition police.” The USDA has been around for almost 150 years, and yet Americans have never been fatter. If there’s a solution to America’s obesity “problem,” it won’t be found in Washington. In a free society, the only solution is to make individuals responsible for the consequences of their own decision-making.

See these essays for more on downsizing the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Will the Federal Reserve’s Easy-Money Policy Turn the United States into a Global Laughingstock?

Early in the Obama Administration, there was an amusing/embarrassing incident when Chinese students laughed at Treasury Secretary Geithner when he claimed the United States had a strong-dollar policy.

I suspect that even Geithner would be smart enough to avoid such a claim today, not after the Fed’s announcement (with the full support of the White House and Treasury) that it would flood the economy with $600 billion of hot money. Here’s what my colleague Alan Reynolds wrote in the Wall Street Journal about Bernanke’s policy.

Mr. Bernanke…believes (contrary to our past experience with stagflation) that inflation is no danger thanks to economic slack (high unemployment). He reasons that if people can nonetheless be persuaded to expect higher inflation, regardless of the slack, that means interest rates will appear even lower in real terms. If that worked as planned, lower real interest rates would supposedly fix our hangover from the last Fed-financed borrowing binge by encouraging more borrowing. This whole scheme raises nagging questions. Why would domestic investors accept a lower yield on bonds if they expect higher inflation? And why would foreign investors accept a lower yield on U.S. bonds if they expect exchange rate losses on dollar-denominated securities? Why wouldn’t intelligent people shift their investments toward commodities or related stocks (such as mining and related machinery) and either shun, or sell short, long-term Treasurys? And if they did that, how could it possibly help the economy?

The rest of the world seems to share these concerns. The Germans are not big fans of America’s binge of borrowing and easy money. Here’s what Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble had to say in a recent interview.

The American growth model, on the other hand, is in a deep crisis. The United States lived on borrowed money for too long, inflating its financial sector unnecessarily and neglecting its small and mid-sized industrial companies. …I seriously doubt that it makes sense to pump unlimited amounts of money into the markets. There is no lack of liquidity in the US economy, which is why I don’t recognize the economic argument behind this measure. …The Fed’s decisions bring more uncertainty to the global economy. …It’s inconsistent for the Americans to accuse the Chinese of manipulating exchange rates and then to artificially depress the dollar exchange rate by printing money.

The comment about borrowed money has a bit of hypocrisy since German government debt is not much lower than it is in the United States, but the Finance Minister surely is correct about monetary policy. And speaking of China, we now have the odd situation of a Chinese rating agency downgrading U.S. government debt.

The United States has lost its double-A credit rating with Dagong Global Credit Rating Co., Ltd., the first domestic rating agency in China, due to its new round of quantitative easing policy. Dagong Global on Tuesday downgraded the local and foreign currency long-term sovereign credit rating of the US by one level to A+ from previous AA with “negative” outlook.

This development shold be taken with a giant grain of salt, as explained by a Wall Street Journal blogger. Nonetheless, the fact that the China-based agency thought this was a smart tactic must say something about how the rest of the world is beginning to perceive America.

Simply stated, Obama is following Jimmy Carter-style economic policy, so nobody should be surprised if the result is 1970s-style stagflation.

How the Teachers Union Was Tougher than Microsoft

Joel Klein was able to impose his will on the Microsoft Corporation, much to consumers’ detriment, but he made less headway against the Education Blob. Perhaps ironically for someone who had served as an antitrust enforcer, his first great accomplishment as chancellor of the New York City schools was to centralize control in his own office. Calculating test scores accurately revealed that they barely budged during his eight-year tenure. As for the “rubber rooms,” where teachers accused of gross misconduct sit around for months or years, drawing full pay – made famous in the documentaries “The Rubber Room” and “Waiting for ‘Superman’” – Klein got them formally eliminated. But teachers who can’t be fired are now making six figures for doing clerical work. Maybe, in the words of “Waiting for Superman,” Klein changed the system from “rubber rooms” to “dance of the lemons.”

End ED — From the Left!

It’s no secret that expelling the U.S. Department of Education is something that a lot of libertarians, and conservatives who haven’t lost their way, would love to do. What’s not nearly so well known is that there are also people on the left who dislike ED. Now, they don’t dislike it because it and the programs it administers clearly exist in contravention of the Constitution, or because its massive dollar-redistribution programs have done no discernable good. They dislike it because, especially since the advent of No Child Left Behind, it strong-arms schools into doing things left-wing educators often disagree with or resent, like pushing phonics over whole language, or imposing standardized testing. Many also truly believe in local control of schools, though often with power consolidated in the hands of teachers.

Case in point is a guest blog post over at the webpage of the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss. The entry is by George Wood, principal of Federal Hocking High School in Ohio and executive director of the Forum for Education and Democracy. He writes:

Everybody dislikes bureaucracies, but for different reasons. The “right” complains they are unresponsive, full of “feather-bedders,” and a waste of taxpayer money. The “left” complains they are unresponsive, full of people who are too busy pushing paper to see the real work, and too intrusive into local, democratic decision-making. Maybe we should unite all this new energy for making government more responsive and efficient around the idea of eliminating a bureaucracy that was probably a bad idea in the first place.

Remember that the Department of Education was a payoff by President Jimmy Carter to teacher unions for their support. Before that, education was part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

That’s where I propose returning it. Here are several reasons why:

First, the current structure of the national Department of Education gives it inordinate control over local schools. The federal government provides only about 8% of education funding. But through through NCLB, Race to the Top, and innovation grants, they are driving about 100% of the agenda. Clearly this is a case of a tail wagging a very big dog.

Second, by separating education from health and welfare, we have separated departments that should be working very closely together. We all know, even if some folks are loath to admit it, that in order for a child to take full advantage of educational opportunities he or she needs to come to school healthy, with a full stomach, and from a safe place to live.

But the federal initiatives around education seldom take such a holistic approach; instead, competing departments engage in bureaucratic turf wars that, while fun within the Beltway, are tragic for children in our neighborhoods.

Third, whenever you create a large bureaucracy, it will find something to do, even if that something is less than helpful. After years of an “activist” DOE, we do not see student achievement improving or school innovation taking hold widely. We have lived through Reading First, What Works, and an alphabet soup of changing programs with little to show for it.

In fact, DOE has often been one of the more ideological departments, engaging in the battles such as phonics vs. whole language. Who needs it?

Who needs it, indeed!

As I have touched upon repeatedly since last week’s election, now is the time to launch a serious offensive against the U.S. Department of Education. I have largely concluded that because of the wave of generally conservative and libertarian legislators heading toward Washington, as well as the powerful tea-party spirit powering the tide. But this is a battle I have always thought could be fought with a temporary alliance of the libertarian right and educators of the progressive left who truly despise top-down, one-size-fits-all, dictates from Washington. There are big sticking points, of course — for instance, many progressives love federal money “for the poor” — but this morning, I have a little greater hope that an alliance can be forged.

Overpaid Feds: Some Market Evidence

In a story titled, “Federal government upping pay, seniority to lure skilled workers from private sector,” the Washington Business Journal notes:

“Government contractors are losing their upper hand in hiring and retaining the best and brightest former feds, as several economic forces under way hint at a potential mass migration from the private sector to public service… .

 ’Government employment is growing more attractive during the economic downturn because it brings job security and the comprehensive benefits that a lot of private sector firms are doing away with,’ said Alan Balutis, director of Cisco Systems Inc.’s Internet Business Solutions Group.”

Aside from adding evidence to my overpaid federal worker thesis, the article suggests trouble for the broader economy if more high-skill workers are running to the government for safe refuge. Federal hiring of the best and brightest imposes an “opportunity cost” on the economy by drawing talented people away from higher-valued activities in the private sector.

It is true that the relative economic harm is less when we are comparing, for example, hiring in-house computer experts to support wasteful farm subsidy activities, or whether we contract-out farm subsidy computer support to, say, Cisco.

So first we should downsize the government to its proper areas of responsibility, thereby releasing hundreds of thousands of smart people to engage in market-based activities. Then we should contract out the remaining core government activities if it makes economic sense.  

Hat Tip: Bill Erickson

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s days as governor of California are almost over—so he made a stop at one of the late nite shows and made news by saying, “You want to smoke pot?  Who cares?”

Well, Mr. Governor, as you well know, it is a federal crime to smoke marijuana.  People get arrested and jailed for smoking marijuana.  And you, Mr. Governor, could have done something about the war against cannabis because there was this ballot initiative called Prop. 19 in your state that would have made it legal for adults to smoke marijuana in private.  Instead of fighting for Prop. 19, you opposed it!  Apparently, you have decided to place yourself on both sides of the marijuana question—preserve penalties for use, but proclaim your opposition to penalties.  Clever. 

For that and his other forgettable deeds as California governor, one can conclude that Schwarzennegger was a political wimp.  In sharp contrast, Governor Gary Johnson of New Mexico really fights for reform.