Archives: December, 2010

Getting Beyond the Anti-Earmark Crusade

As a former adviser to one of Congress’s most ardent foes of earmarking, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), I’ve served time on the front-lines of the battle to end the corruptive practice. Yet, I never felt quite comfortable about the mission. At the same time I was assisting the senator in his floor battles against the likes of ex-Sen. Ted Stevens (Porker-AK), some of my other colleagues had been instructed to help Oklahomans get “their fair share” of subsidies from various federal grant programs.

There just isn’t much difference between the activities funded via earmarking and the activities funded by standard bureaucratic processes. The means are different, but the ends are typically the same: federal taxpayers paying for parochial benefits that are properly the domain of state and local governments, or preferably, the private sector. As a federal taxpayer, I’m no better off if the U.S. Dept. of Transportation decides to fund a bridge in Alaska or if Alaska’s congressional delegation instructs the DOT to fund the bridge.

Therefore, earmarking is a symptom of the problem. The problem is the existence of programs that enable the federal government to spend money on parochial activities. I recently made this point in an op-ed on earmarking:

Critics of the Republicans’ earmark ban have a point when they argue that it won’t save a lot of money. While the tawdry and often questionable uses of earmarked money draw a lot of attention, it represents less than half of 1% of total federal spending.

Yes, earmarking greases the skids for bigger spending and more intrusive government. Policymakers are more willing to support a particular piece of legislation if it contains goodies for their district or state. But earmarked money almost always comes from federal programs that are themselves constitutionally and practically dubious.

In the wake of the earmarking ban by Republicans, much of the debate has centered on the propriety of Congress abdicating its “power of the purse” to the executive branch. This argument is largely irrelevant considering that Congress long ago delegated much of its decision-making power to the executive branch. The delegation was necessitated by the explosion in the size and scope of the federal government: there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for Congress to divvy up the gigantic sack of loot.

As an instructive article in the New York Times explains, eliminating earmarks won’t even stop policymakers from using their pull to steer federal funds toward parochial interests. Policymakers will just send letters to federal agencies (“lettermarking”) requesting targeted funding or call agencies (“phonemarking”) with their requests. Agency officials have an incentive to comply because policymakers determine their budgets.

Congressional Republicans have finally figured out that opposing earmarks is good politics, which explains the magic change in heart by earmarking kingpins like incoming House Appropriations Committee chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.). But if Republicans are really serious about reining in the size and scope of the federal government, they’ll go after the parochial programs that make earmarking possible. Therefore, tea party types and others concerned with runaway federal spending would be wise to hold Republicans accountable for the federal spending ends rather than the means.

Update: Per a helpful note from my colleague Roger Pilon, I should clarify that the debate over the power of the executive versus that of the legislative branch to spend is constitutionally relevant – and important. Roger does a much better job of making my point in the following blog post:

To be sure, there’s enough mischief at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to go around, but it’s the growth of spending, most on matters unauthorized by the Constitution, that is far and away the larger problem. McConnell calls for congressional oversight “to monitor how the money taxpayers send to the administration is actually spent.” Far more important will be hearings to determine whether Congress has constitutional authority to appropriate money on any particular matter in the first place.

Thus, the new Congress needs to see through the false alternative the earmarks debate has engendered. At bottom, it’s not a question of whether Congress or the president shall decide. Rather, after administration input, all but ministerial spending decisions belong to Congress — as constrained by the Constitution. Thus, if the voice of the electorate is to be respected, new and old members alike need to attend first to their oath of office.

Are U.S. Multinationals to Blame for High Unemployment?

Many Americans believe the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high because U.S. multinational companies have been outsourcing and offshoring jobs to low-wage countries at the expense of jobs at home. And they believe this in part because politicians and the media tell them it’s so, even though it isn’t.

Consider this story today from the Associated Press under the provocative headline, “Where are the jobs? For many companies, overseas.”

Corporate profits are up. Stock prices are up. So why isn’t anyone hiring?

Actually, many American companies are–just maybe not in your town. They’re hiring overseas, where sales are surging and the pipeline of orders is fat.

More than half of the 15,000 people that Caterpillar Inc. has hired this year were outside the U.S. UPS is also hiring at a faster clip overseas. For both companies, sales in international markets are growing at least twice as fast as domestically.

The trend helps explain why unemployment remains high in the United States, edging up to 9.8 percent last month, even though companies are performing well: All but 4 percent of the top 500 U.S. corporations reported profits this year, and the stock market is close to its highest point since the 2008 financial meltdown.

But the jobs are going elsewhere. The Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, says American companies have created 1.4 million jobs overseas this year, compared with less than 1 million in the U.S. The additional 1.4 million jobs would have lowered the U.S. unemployment rate to 8.9 percent, says Robert Scott, the institute’s senior international economist.

Where to start? First, look back at the reference to Caterpillar, the quintessential U.S. multinational company. If more than half of the employees the company has hired this year are outside the United States, doesn’t that imply that the company also hired workers within the United States, perhaps several thousand?

In fact, as I noted on p. 101 of my Cato book Mad about Trade, Caterpillar and other U.S. multinationals tend to hire workers at home when they are hiring workers abroad. When global business is good, employment tends to ramp up throughout a multinational company’s operations, whether in the United States or abroad. (Earlier this month the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News ran a story about Caterpillar hiring 600 new workers at a local distribution center.)

It is simply false to argue that, if U.S. multinationals did not add jobs to their operations abroad, those jobs would be created at home. The opposite is much closer to the truth. Over the past 30 years, the change in employment of U.S. multinationals in their U.S. parent operations and in their affiliates abroad has been positively and strongly correlated. When hiring grows abroad, it grows at home, and when it lags at home, it lags abroad.

And when U.S. companies do hire abroad, their aim is not typically to cut wage costs but to reach new customers (as I explained in an earlier op-ed). That’s why U.S. multinationals employ far more workers in high-wage Europe than in low-wage countries such as India and China. In fact,  according to the most recent numbers from the U.S. Commerce Department, U.S. multinationals employed five times as many workers in Europe (4.82 million) in 2008 than they did in China (950,000).

If U.S. companies are forced to reduce their operations abroad in the name of fighting unemployment at home, they will be less able to compete in global markets and less able to expand production and employment in their domestic operations.

Wikileaks Cable: Martinelli Is a Threat to the Rule of Law in Panama

Last August I warned about the troubling signs coming from Panama’s president Ricardo Martinelli. Elected in 2009 on a free market platform, Martinelli has quickly embraced interventionist economic policies (particularly a sharp increase in public spending) that sooner or later will take a toll on Panama’s macroeconomic stability. More worryingly, I pointed at a disturbing pattern of cronyism, erosion of democratic checks and balances, and harassment of the media emanating from the Martinelli administration.

A cable released by Wikileaks this week seems to confirm many of these fears. Dated August 2009 and signed by then U.S. Ambassador to Panama Barbara Stephenson, it describes Martinelli’s “autocratic tendencies” such as asking the U.S. government for help to wiretap political opponents—a request that was promptly rejected by the U.S. embassy in Panama. Stephenson goes on to say that, after meeting the Panamanian president, she is under the impression that Martinelli “may be willing to set aside the rule of law in order to achieve his political and developmental goals.”

According to the cable, Martinelli has resorted to “bullying and blackmailing” of private businesses. Stephenson describes how the Panamanian president told her that “he had already met with the heads of Panama’s four mobile phone operators and discussed methods for obtaining call data.” A bill has also been introduced in the National Assembly (where Martinelli’s coalition enjoys a large majority) that would “require registry of prepaid cell phones and compel mobile operators to submit call data to the government for criminal investigations.” Martinelli also told Stephenson that “he had twisted the arms of casino operators and threatened to cancel their concessions if they did not pay their back taxes and cut their ties to the opposition political figures who had granted their generous concessions.”

The cable ends noticing how “[m]ost of [Martinelli’s] government appointments have favored loyalty over competence.” That is, the Martinelli administration is riddled with cronyism– as I wrote back in August.

There is new evidence outside of the Wikileaks cable which confirms Martinelli’s ominous autocratic inclinations. For instance, international media organizations have lambasted the Martinelli administration in recent months for its encroachment on independent media. Reporters Without Borders dropped Panama 30 spots in its latest Press Freedom Index, noticing that the country “has taken an opposite direction, in an atmosphere growing increasingly tense between the media and the authorities.” The Interamerican Press Association says in its most recent report on Panama that “[o]ver the past six months, freedom of the press has been threatened by actions by institutions belonging to the government of President Ricardo Martinelli, as well as from the Judicial Branch and the Prosecutors’ Office.” As I pointed out in my August op-ed, Martinelli has appointed loyal (and controversial) figures to both the Supreme Court and the Prosecutors’ Office.

The diplomatic cable leaked by Wikileaks as well as these reports by international organizations lend credibility to the argument that Ricardo Martinelli is a growing threat to Panama’s rule of law and democratic institutions. Panamanians have a lot to be worried about.

Is Chuck Hagel a Republican?

On Fox News’s Special Report tonight, discussing potential new Cabinet members for President Obama, Weekly Standard senior writer Stephen Hayes dismissed former senator Chuck Hagel as ”an anti-Republican Republican – somebody who’s officially a Republican but in fact isn’t all that Republican.”

Really?

It’s true that Hagel didn’t always march in lockstep with the Bush-Cheney administration, whose loyal amanuensis Hayes has been. But is this really an “anti-Republican” record?

  • Voted for the Iraq war
  • Voted for the Patriot Act
  • Voted for the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts
  • Voted against No Child Left Behind
  • Voted against Bush’s Medicare prescription drug bill
  • Voted against McCain-Feingold

That’s not a down-the-line Bush-McCain record. But would Hayes say it’s not a Republican voting record? Hagel had a lifetime rating of 84 percent from the American Conservative Union and consistent A and B grades from the National Taxpayers Union. He did emerge in 2006 as a critic of the Iraq war. And his wife endorsed Obama in 2008.

I never really bought the “epistemic closure” charge against movement conservatism. But if a leading conservative TV commentator can call Chuck Hagel an “anti-Republican Republican” when his actual record is more traditionally Republican than the policies of the Bush-Cheney administration, then there’s an odd sort of blacklisting going on.

Local Government Stupidity Contest

This post could be entitled, “So many bad decisions, so little time,” but let’s have some fun and turn it into a contest. Which bone-headed decision by a local government best exemplifies mindless bureaucracy, politically correct nonsense, and government waste?

Contestant Number One is an officer of the Baltimore County Natural Resources Police, who fined two men $90 each for the vicious, horrible, nasty crime of … (please don’t faint) … rescuing a deer. Yes, your eyes do not deceive you. Two hardened criminals used an inflatable raft to free a helpless animal, but they flouted the law by not wearing life jackets. Since I already did a blog post about a man being fined for rescuing a wounded deer, I guess the moral of the story is that bureaucrats don’t like Bambi.

Contestant Number Two is the Metro Police in Washington, DC, which has decided to harass random travelers by searching their bags before they board the subway. This is akin to the TSA’s mindless bureaucracy - but even worse. There surely are nut-jobs who would like to blow up Americans, but they could do that on a bus, on a crowded street during rush hour, or any other place where a large number of people are gathered. Heck, they can drive a car into a crowd. Good intelligence by the CIA and FBI is the way to stop these crackpots, not empty security theater that makes life more difficult for law-abiding people.

Contestant Number Three is the St. Paul School District in Minnesota, which has turned all schools into “sweet-free zones.” This ban also applies to salty foods, however that is defined, and deals “a blow to booster clubs and parent organizations, too, which won’t be able to sell hot chocolate, doughnuts, candy bars and cookies at school events.” I actually agree with Michelle Obama that American kids are overweight, but I also know that government intervention isn’t going to solve the problem unless we want a police state that bans video games, TVs, computers, and the other technological developments that are responsible for sedentary kids.

Contestant Number Four is Battlefield High School, in Haymarket, VA, which disciplined 10 unrepentant gang members. What did these thugs do to warrant detention? Brace yourself and make sure no children are looking over your shoulders, because these hoodlums belong to a particularly nasty group called the Christmas Sweater Club and they got in trouble for handing out miniature candy canes. One school administrator (Mrs. Grinch?)  explained that “not everyone wants Christmas cheer,” thus turning Jay Leno’s parody into reality.

So who wins the prize? The only thing we can really conclude is that governments do dumb things. That’s true at the national level, the state level, and the local level.

I just wish I could write like Dave Barry. He had a hilarious column many years ago that was based on various examples of government stupidity. This post is more likely to make you cry rather than laugh, which is not good at this time of year.

The Constitutional Vision of The New York Times

The editorialists at the The New York Times are out of sorts this morning over a Tea Party backed constitutional amendment that would give state legislatures the power to veto any federal law or regulation if two-thirds of the legislatures approved. Despite the backing of incoming House majority leader Eric Cantor and legislative leaders in 12 states, the proposal has little chance of succeeding, the Times avers, “but it helps explain further the anger-fueled, myth-based politics of the populist new right.” Indeed, it expresses “with bold simplicity the view of the Tea Party and others that the federal government’s influence is far too broad.”

Well? Isn’t that what the election last month was all about? But right there, for the Times, is the problem: “In past economic crises, populist fervor has been for expanding the power of the national government to address America’s pressing needs. Pleas for making good the nation’s commitment to equality and welfare have been as loud as those for liberty.” With the Tea Party, however, the tables have turned. What most troubles the Times, it seems, are Tea Party signs that say “We Want Less!”

And nowhere is that better captured than when the Times speaks of “the mistaken vision of federalism on which [this amendment] rests. Its foundation is that the United States defined in the Constitution are a set of decentralized sovereignties where personal responsibility, private property and a laissez-faire economy should reign. In this vision, the federal government is an intrusive parent.”

If that vision is “mistaken,” so too, apparently, were the Founders, because it was their vision as well. To be sure, the Constitution they crafted held “competing elements, some constraining the national government, others energizing it,” as the Times writes. And true also, the government they shaped was meant “to promote economic development that would lift the fortunes of the American people” – but mainly by securing the framework for liberty, the rule of law, not by pursuing prosperity through government programs. In particular, the Framers believed in personal, not government, responsibility; private, not collective, property; and a free, not a planned, economy. And they left most power with the states, where it would be exercised responsibly, or not – something to keep in mind as we watch our “failed states” asking Washington (read, the other states) to bail them out.

Privatize the FAA

Bloomberg is reporting more bad news for the nation’s air traffic control system, which is run by the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA is $500 million overbudget and six years behind schedule on a $2.1 billion technology upgrade project.

The FAA has a long history of mismanaged technology projects, and so the latest screw-ups are nothing new. Yet the nation needs high-tech advances in air traffic control more than ever to ease our increasingly congested airspaces.

There is a better way to run air traffic control—a private sector way, as Canada has been demonstrating. In 1996, Canada converted its government air traffic control system to a private nonprofit corporation. Nav Canada has been a smashing success, providing an excellent model for possible U.S. reforms.

A December 24 story in the Financial Post describes how Nav Canada is a world leader in efficiency, safety, and technology under private management. “A once troubled government asset, the country’s civil air traffic controller was privatized 14 years ago and is now a shining example of how to create a global technology leader out of a hulking government bureaucracy.” It really is an impressive story of pro-market reform.  

Canada’s system recently won an award from the International Air Transport Association. The IATA said that “Nav Canada is a global leader in the efficient implementation and reliable delivery of air traffic control procedures and technologies.”

We should have that type of efficient air traffic control system in this country. Privatizing the FAA should be a high priority for the next Congress.

See here for a discussion on privatizing air traffic control.