Archives: 06/2011

“Weinergate”: It’s Entertaining—and Edifying!

I guess I should blush to admit that my Washington Examiner column this week focuses on “Weinergate.”  But who among us can resist snickering at a scandal this hilarious—who so sober and serious that they could ignore the crotch pic that launched a thousand puns?

As I argue in the column, among all the horselaughs to be had, there are also lessons to be learned:

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a good old-fashioned political sex scandal. They’re entertaining, and they may even be edifying – reminding us that self-styled “public servants” are often less responsible, more venal, and just plain dumber than those they seek to rule.

Some writers with whom I’m normally simpatico disagree. Doug Mataconis of Outside the Beltway deplores “the odd American obsession with political sex scandals.” The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf also condemns the attention given the Weiner kerfuffle:

there is a significant cost to obsessing over these things. The opportunity cost, for the media, is covering lots of other matters that are actually of greater import to the public, whatever one thinks of sex scandals.

I just don’t see it. Sure, in a better world, the news cycle might consist of a dignified 24/7 seminar on debt limits, insurance exchanges, the War Powers Resolution, and the like. But here on earth, Weinergate’s mainly crowding out more coverage of Sarah Palin’s bus tour.

“And for the politician in question,” Friedersdorf continues, “scandal consumes all the time he’d otherwise be dedicating to his official duties.”

I confess, I have a hard time not seeing this as win-win.

Both Mataconis and Friedersdorf argue that “private” sexual behavior tells us little about how politicians do their jobs. And I see their point, to a point. I sometimes joke, lamely, that one of my favorite presidents was a draft-dodging, womanizing Democrat elected in ‘92 (wait for it)… Grover Cleveland.

But whether or not we should care about congressional “sexting”—in the context of the modern media Panopticon, isn’t someone, like Weiner, who engages in it (especially after GOP Rep. Christopher Lee’s downfall) at least a reckless idiot? And isn’t that relevant to his job?

In a recent hand-wringing editorial, the New York Times fretted about disgraced former Senator and VP candidate John Edwards.

What the Times found unfortunate wasn’t the runaway prosecution–a legitimate complaint–but the fact that it would draw attention to yet another giant political phony. It’s “the last thing the nation needs: another cautionary tale of hubris,” says the Grey Lady, 
”the woeful courtroom coda to [Edwards’] once flourishing political career can only invite a further slide toward wariness and cynicism for American voters.”

Oh no! Not more “wariness and cynicism”! Surely, that’s the “last thing the nation needs” in an era of promiscuous warmaking and reckless spending!

There’s a story (perhaps apocryphal) where F. Scott Fitzgerald says to Ernest Hemingway, “the rich are different from you and me,” and Hemingway supposedly replies, “yes, they have more money.” I don’t know about the rich, but the political class is, by and large, different from the rest of us–and not just because they have more power.

By reminding us of how untrustworthy and reckless these people can be–how little control they often exhibit in their own lives–political sex scandals may even serve an important social purpose: they remind us that we should think twice before granting them more control over ours.

The Constitutional Case for Marriage Equality

On June 12, 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down bans on interracial marriage in more than a dozen states in the case of Loving v. Virginia. Today, the highest court in the United States may soon take on the issue of marriage equality for gay and lesbian relationships. Attorneys David Boies and Theodore B. Olson are hoping the case of Perry v. Schwarzenegger will further establish marriage as a fundamental right of citizenship. Also featured are John Podesta, President of the Center for American Progress, Cato Institute Chairman Robert A. Levy and Cato Executive Vice President David Boaz.

Watch the full event from which many clips were pulled here and Robert A. Levy’s presentation here.

Peru’s Election

The last 10 years have probably been the best decade in Peruvian history in terms of economic growth and social progress. As I’ve described before, Peru has become an increasingly successful market democracy. Growth averaged a yearly 5.5 percent since 2001 and the poverty rate fell from 54 to 30 percent in the same period. And yet, Peruvians elected leftist Ollanta Humala as president on Sunday in a contentious, polarizing and very tight race.

Humala narrowly beat Keiko Fujimori, daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori, now serving a 25-year prison term for corruption and human rights abuses conducted during 10 years in power (1990-2000) that also saw the defeat of the Shining Path guerrillas and the liberalization of the Peruvian economy. Fujimori had trouble condemning violations committed under her father’s rule. Humala is a nationalist, former army officer and coup leader who for years advocated populist, anti-market policies of the kind practiced by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez or Bolivia’s Evo Morales.

Though the election pitted two aspirants with questionable democratic credentials against each other, it would be a mistake to interpret it as a rejection of Peru’s market-liberal path. The two candidates got to the second round of elections because the various other presidential contenders broadly supportive of democratic capitalism carved up almost half the popular vote among themselves in the first round of elections. Humala’s initial vote was still high (32 percent), but it is doubtful he could have been elected president had only one market democrat run.

Compared to other Latin American countries, Peruvians’ support for a liberal society should not be surprising. The country set itself apart by introducing perhaps the most far-reaching market reforms of the early 1990s, sticking to those reforms, deepening some of them after the return of democracy last decade, and avoiding major public policy mistakes that led to economic crises in other countries. The result has been a transformation of large parts of the economy and society. Non-traditional exports and industries have flourished; wages have increased; economic growth has spread throughout the coast and much of the interior traditionally little affected by economic progress; successful Peruvian multinational corporations have emerged from humble roots; and poverty reduction has meant both the rise of a middle class and a narrowing gap between the rich and the poor.

According to Peruvian journalist and anthropologist Jaime de Althaus, “What we are seeing, in essence, is the birth of the free and autonomous citizen and his incorporation to the national dialogue of the market.” Bourgeois values are spreading. 

That is why so many Peruvians found the second round of voting unfortunate and agonizing. In the face of that dilemma, Peruvian Nobel laureate in literature and renowned classical liberal Mario Vargas Llosa exhorted his compatriots to vote for Humala in Sunday’s election on the idea that it was the lesser of two evils. My friend and colleague Alvaro Vargas Llosa (Mario’s well-known son) then vigorously campaigned for Humala, arguing constantly, articulately and forcefully that Humala no longer believed in his previous, extremist views. Thus he convinced at least a small portion of the electorate that Humala represented the modern Latin American left committed to civil liberties, economic stability and democracy along the lines of former President Lula of Brazil. It is probably fair to say that Alvaro made all the difference in the final weeks of this election, delivering the vote to Humala.

For many of us, though, the argument that Humala was now Lula and not Chavez was too hard to swallow. Why should we believe in the new democratic credentials of a politician who led a failed coup attempt in 2000, praised another failed coup attempt by his brother in 2005, and allied himself with Hugo Chavez in the previous elections (with credible indications that he received funds from the Venezuelan regime at that time)? After all, Humala’s campaign platform released in December 2010 called for nationalizing strategic industries, renegotiating free trade agreements, re-writitng the constitution, reviewing the legitimacy of radio and TV broadcast licenses, guaranteeing that the media “are at the service of democracy,” and it blamed “neoliberalism” for Peruvian poverty and advocated a general expansion of the state in society. Humala then changed his campaign platform considerably several times and professed to be ever more moderate. (I rarely believe U.S. politicians when they make much more credible claims of policy moderation.)

If instead you believed that the chances that Humala was just following a pattern of deception that we’ve seen elsewhere in Latin America where elected populists went on to destroy democracy and violate rights, then it was fully rational to oppose Humala. I hope Alvaro is right about his assessment. For the time being, uncertainty about Peru’s future will prevail. Those of us skeptical of Humala should now do everything we can to hold the new government to account and to steer it away from Chavismo, as I think is the intention of Humala’s liberal supporters.

Trade Agreements Promote U.S. Manufacturing Exports

Do trade agreements promote trade? The answer appears to be yes. In a new Cato Free Trade Bulletin released today, I examine the record of trade agreements the United States has signed with 14 other nations during the past decade.

The impact of those agreements on U.S. trade is a timely subject because Congress may soon consider pending free-trade agreements (FTAs) with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama. Opponents of such deals often argue that they open the U.S. economy to unfair competition from low-wage countries, displacing U.S. manufacturing. Advocates argue the agreements do open the U.S. market further to imports, but they open markets abroad even wider for U.S. exports.

Based on actual post-agreement trade flows, I found that both total imports and exports with the 14 countries grew faster than overall U.S. trade since each agreement went into effect. For politicians obsessed with manufacturing exports, the study should be especially encouraging. Here is a key finding:

Politically sensitive manufacturing trade with the 14 FTA partners has expanded more rapidly than overall U.S. manufacturing trade, especially on the export side. U.S. manufacturing exports to the recent FTA partners were 10.5 percent higher in 2010 compared to our overall export growth since each agreement was signed. That represents an additional $8 billion in manufacturing exports.

I’ll be discussing the three pending trade agreements alongside William Lane of Caterpillar Inc. at a Cato Hill Briefing on Wednesday of this week. Along with the new study on the past FTAs, I’ll be talking about our recent studies on the Columbia and Korea agreements.

Don’t Tread on My Plate

Last week First Lady Michelle Obama and the U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled “ChooseMyPlate.gov,” an updating of the federal government’s ongoing efforts to lecture us on how to eat. While the idea of nutrition recommendations from Washington, D.C. isn’t itself new, the past couple of years have seen a lurch toward a more coercive approach, especially under the Obama administration, under pressure from a burgeoning “food policy” movement, as I explain in a new Daily Caller op-ed:

All sorts of nannyish and coercive ideas are emerging from that [movement] nowadays: proposals at the FDA to limit salt content in processed foods; mandatory calorie labeling, which poses a significant burden on many smaller food vendors and restaurants; new mandates on food served in local schools; advertising bans; and on a local level efforts to ban things like Happy Meals at McDonald’s. No wonder many parents, local officials and skeptics in Congress are beginning to say: Back off, guv. It’s my plate.

The fact is that the federal government’s dietary advice has changed often through the years—the Washington Post had a great feature on past federal dietary guidelines, under which sweets and even butter held their place as food groups—and that government’s recommendations have regularly proved wrong and even damaging, a point that Steve Malanga elaborates on in this City Journal piece (“Following the government’s nutritional advice can make you fat and sick.”)

Yesterday, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal had me on opposite Maya Rockeymoore of the group Leadership for Healthy Communities to discuss issues that ranged from the school lunch program to whether Washington should serve as an “arbiter” of contending dietary claims, an idea I didn’t much care for. You can watch here.

A Debate About Troops

The United States will begin drawing down troops in Afghanistan this July. The White House is desperately trying to seize the narrative of the withdrawal claiming that the cuts will be “real” even as Defense Secretary Robert Gates is arguing for the opposite.

This week, the New York Times revealed that some in President Obama’s national security team are seeking steeper reductions, particularly after the death of Osama bin Laden and the increasing costs of the war.

Steeper reductions are certainly warranted. A limited counterrorism mission must be on the table.

The president will try to claim credit for keeping his pledge to reduce the U.S. troop presence, but when we consider that there are three times as many troops in Afghanistan today compared to when Obama took office, a reduction of 3,000-5,000 (out of the roughly 100,000 U.S. troops there) won’t mean much.

Another fold in the Times story is that Secretary Gates and top military commanders in the field are arguing for gradual cuts—not steep reductions. Let’s remember last summer’s Rolling Stone article that profiled the now retired four-star U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal. He was asked to leave because he made comments that undermined civilian control of the military. Today, albeit in a far less severe manner, military commanders are walking the line of advocating a direction in policy that is at odds with civilians officials.

This underscores a far deeper problem with military policymaking: who controls what exactly?

What Obama decides on for reduction in groundtroops—a token withdrawal or steeper cuts—will partly reflect how confused the Constitutional roles and chain of command has become in the conduct of war.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

What Do Peter Diamond and Paul Pate Have in Common?

You might have heard of Peter Diamond, he recently won the Nobel Prize in Economics and earlier this week withdrew his nomination to the Federal Reserve Board. But maybe you have not heard of Paul Pate.

Mr. Pate, former Republican mayor of Cedar Rapids, Iowa was nominated by President Bush in 2003 to fill a seat on the board of the National Institute of Building Sciences. I remember it well, as I handled that nomination as staff for the Senate Banking Committee.

So what exactly do Mr. Diamond and Mr. Pate have in common? They were both nominated for positions they could not legally hold. I’ve written elsewhere about Mr. Diamond’s situation. Mr. Pate was barred from serving on the NIBS board due to an ownership interest he had in an asphalt company.

Bush’s Office of Presidential Personnel didn’t catch that problem because they, like Obama’s same Office, don’t appear to actually read the statutory qualifications for nominations. I will admit, I didn’t catch this problem either. It was brought to my attention by the staff of former senator Paul Sarbanes (D-MD). When I verified Sarbanes’s objection, we immediately told Mr. Pate and the Bush White House that then Committee Chair Richard Shelby would not move Mr. Pate’s nomination (despite Mr. Pate’s personal friendship with Sen. Grassley (R-IA)).

Both Mr. Diamond and Mr. Pate were, in part, the victim of circumstances beyond their control. They had done nothing wrong. Yet the law was the law. While I don’t equate NIBS with the Fed, that shouldn’t matter. We should respect the law regardless of the viewed relative importance of the position. In fact, I believe the more important the position, the greater need for respecting the law.

Unfortunately there is a lot Mr. Diamond and Mr. Pate do not have in common. Rather than accept his bad luck, Mr. Diamond offers in the New York Times the rant of a spoiled brat. Mr. Pate, in contrast, accepted his bad luck with integrity and grace.