Archives: 02/2012

Barack Obama, Leninist?

In his much-discussed New Yorker article on the strategy memos that have shaped the Obama administration, Ryan Lizza writes:

Most of Obama’s conservative dinner companions from his evening at George Will’s home now describe him and his Administration in the most caricatured terms. Will declared Obama a “floundering naïf” and someone advancing “Lenin-Socialism.”

Really? Mild-mannered George Will compared President Obama to Lenin? That set off my skepticism meter. So I summoned the vast fact-checking resources of the Cato Institute and Googled the phrase. Which quickly turned up this video:

And as you can clearly hear at 1:30, Will isn’t saying “Lenin socialism.” He’s making the much milder and entirely valid charge of “lemon socialism,” which he described as “transferring wealth from the successful to the unsuccessful.” That’s an old term for the government takeover or bailout of failing firms. On the left it’s often described in terms such as “socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor” or “privatizing profits and socializing losses.” People on the right deplore the practice of bailing out unsuccessful firms with taxpayers’ dollars.

That’s a point that Will also made in his column, first when the Bush administration started bailing out failing banks and auto companies. And it’s also been made by Charles Krauthammer on the auto bailout and again on the Solyndra deal. And by Cato adjunct scholar Lawrence H. White. And by lots of Cato-at-Liberty bloggers. Even Paul Krugman and Robert Reich.

Where was the skepticism of a New Yorker reporter when he thought he’d found the prudent, mild-mannered George Will comparing the president to Lenin? Where were the famous New Yorker fact-checkers? Some things, I guess, are just too good to check. So to answer the question in the title, Is Barack Obama a Leninist? No, just a lemonist.

This Month’s Cato Unbound: What Is Due Process?

What is due process?

Virtually everyone would agree that “due process” refers to a set of judicial procedures that create at least a strong tendency toward fair results.

But why do we have these procedures and not some others? Why do we have trial by jury, and not trial by fire? Why not just flip a coin? In this month’s Cato Unbound, our lead essayist, Timothy Sandefur, says that we have the procedures we do for one very simple reason: We recognize them as fair.

In other words, “due process” ultimately points back at a larger – and much thornier – legal and philosophical issue, that of fair treatment itself. If it didn’t, “due process” would just guarantee some empty (or possibly harmful) rituals.

So far, so good. Sandefur doesn’t stop there, however. He adds that the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments’ guarantees of due process mean “not only that government must take certain procedural steps (hearings, trials, and so forth) when it imposes a deprivation, but also that some acts are off limits for government, “regardless of the fairness of the procedures used to implement them.”

In other words, due process is a check both on the procedure of the judiciary and on the substance of legislation. Some kinds of laws, Sandefur argues, cannot be implemented by any fair process – there’s no good reason for them, and there’s no lipstick enough for pigs like these. In such cases, the guarantee of due process is either a mockery of itself – or it’s enough to strike down the law. Sandefur picks the latter.

Is he right? Professor Lawrence Rosenthal of Chapman University disagrees, writing:

Deciding whether a law is supported by “good reason” is the essence of policymaking. Our Constitution guarantees a republican form of government, and in a republic, policy is made by those who are politically accountable for their decisions. Sandefur’s conception of due process of law, however, creates a judicial platonic guardianship that must approve every policy decision.

One side risks judicial overreach. The other side risks the tyranny of the majority. Which one is right? Stay tuned for the rest of this month’s Cato Unbound, which will also feature commentary by legal scholars Ryan Williams of the University of Pennsylvania and Gary Lawson of Boston University. Legal scholars will also want to review Sandefur’s paper in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy (pdf), which develops the argument in fuller detail.

Three Blind Senators Defend ObamaCare

The Wall Street Journal often publishes op-eds from “the other side,” perhaps out of a sense of fairness, perhaps to show how bad the other side’s reasoning sometimes is – “Don’t take our word for it; see for yourself.” That rationale must have been at play in the decision to publish in this morning’s edition a truly remarkable piece from the pens of three Senate women, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Barbara Boxer of California, and Patty Murray of Washington.

In “Why the Birth-Control Mandate Makes Sense,” such sense as emerges from the senators’ effort to defend the Obama administration’s decision to force religious institutions to pay for health insurance that covers sterilization, contraceptives, and abortifacients comes from a simple claim, repeated in several variations: doing so would be good – for women, for children, for families, for businesses and consumers. Indeed, “our nation will be better for it.”

Say no more! Who could be against it? We don’t have to look far for the answer:

Sadly, there is an aggressive and misleading campaign to deny this benefit to women. It is being waged in the name of religious liberty. But the real forces behind it are the same ones that sought to shut down the federal government last year over funding for women’s health care. They are the same forces that just tried to pressure the Susan G. Komen Foundation into cutting off funding to Planned Parenthood for breast-cancer screenings. Once again, they are trying to force their politics on women’s personal health-care decisions.

There we have it: it’s women and the rest of us, up against these sinister “real forces,” hiding behind religious liberty. In sketching this little morality play, it seems not to have occurred to the good senators that there might be people of good will on the other side. That blind spot emerges nicely in a single paragraph:

Those now attacking the new health-coverage requirement claim it is an assault on religious liberty, but the opposite is true. Religious freedom means that Catholic women who want to follow their church’s doctrine can do so, avoiding the use of contraception in any form.

At this point in the argument, if the policy is not an assault on religious liberty, one would expect the senators to show how it protects the religious rights of those Catholic (and other) institutional administrators who are forced to take actions their religious doctrines prohibit. But the rights of those people don’t even arise in the senators’ argument – as if they didn’t even exist. Instead, the focus continues to be exclusively on women, for in the very next sentence they say: “But the millions of American women who choose to use contraception should not be forced to follow religious doctrine, whether Catholic or non-Catholic.”

Who is “forcing” such women “to follow religious doctrine”? They’re perfectly free to use contraceptives, to seek abortions, and to do whatever else their beliefs permit. They just can’t expect others who object to such practices to pay for them. Nor do religious charitable organizations that receive public funds lose their rights either, not if the doctrine of unconstitutional conditions still has weight.

And so we come to the heart of the matter. ObamaCare is just the latest example of the perils of collectivization. When we’re forced to be “all in this together,” we’re forced to fight for every “carve-out” of liberty. Those progressive Catholics who supported ObamaCare should have thought of that before they worked to throw us all in the common pot. This incident is simply an early example of the many battles to come if ObamaCare survives the litigation and the elections ahead.

Unemployment Insurance Fraud: Chile Has Solution

Like other government hand-out programs, the unemployment insurance system suffers from a substantial fraud problem. The Washington Post reports that 90 D.C. city employees and 40 former employees are being investigated for grabbing UI benefits to which they were not entitled. The cost of this fraud has been about $800,000 since 2009.

It’s not hard to rip-off federal subsidy programs, and UI is no exception. The Post reports that “the alleged fraud is not complicated, nor is it uncommon in unemployment insurance programs: Workers apply for checks and receive them legitimately for a time but fail to inform authorities when they go back to work.”

Other sources of UI fraud include the misreporting of earnings, the provision of false ID to gain benefits, and falsifying reasons for employment termination. Nationwide, the Department of Labor estimates that the improper payment rate for UI is about 11 percent, which amounted to $17 billion of wasted taxpayer money in 2010.

What’s the solution? The nation of Chile appears to have found it. In 2002 it created a system of UI personal savings accounts to replace the traditional government hand-out system. The new system built on the success of Chile’s Social Security personal account system. UI personal accounts help solve the fraud problem because workers would only be stealing from their own accounts if they took unjustified benefits.

There are other benefits to the Chilean system. A detailed study in 2010 found that the nation’s savings-based UI system helped improve work incentives and reduced unemployment. Such accounts can also add to the long-term retirement savings of workers.

For a full analysis of the failures of our UI system and possible reforms, see my co-authored essay on DG here.

Another Log for the Government Spending Multiplier Fire

At the center of the debate over efforts by policymakers to “stimulate” the economy with government spending is the issue of fiscal multipliers. Some economists argue that government spending can be a free lunch: an additional dollar of government spending increases GDP by more than one dollar. Other economists say that government spending is not so free: an additional dollar of government spending increases GDP by less than one dollar or even reduces it.

My non-empirically based view is that the mainstream media tends to treat the free lunch position as gospel. Why that appears to be the case I’ll leave to others to speculate, but it is decidedly irritating. Back in 2010, my colleague Alan Reynolds noted that a survey conducted by an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco counted several studies that concluded that the multiplier effect of government spending is less than one.

We can now add to the list another study that found a multiplier of less than one.

From a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by economist Valerie Ramey:

For the most part, it appears that a rise in government spending does not stimulate private spending; most estimates suggest that it significantly lowers private spending. These results imply that the government spending multiplier is below unity. Adjusting the implied multiplier for increases in tax rates has only a small effect. The results imply a multiplier on total GDP of around 0.5.

Note: For readers who are interested in real world examples of how government spending hinders economic growth, check out DownsizingGovernment.org.

Is the U.S. Trade Representative a Closet Free Trader?

Not to get him in trouble with his boss, but U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk has been sounding like a free trader lately. I’m beginning to think Ambassador Kirk consumes the analyses we produce over here at the Cato Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies. Well, let me rephrase: that he consumes the meat of our analyses, but still hides the vegetables under the picked-over potatoes.

Still, that’s pretty commendable for a Washington policymaker.

Just the other day, Ambassador Kirk lamented how policymakers do a poor job selling trade agreements to a skeptical public. Inside U.S. Trade [$] paraphrased Kirk as saying:

[P]oliticians must ‘talk about trade differently’ and demonstrate how trade policy is directly responsible for sustaining economic growth and creating jobs. If the focus is only on how trade deals will improve supply chains for businesses, for instance, that is not enough to build the base for support for trade deals.

That is a sound criticism. The typical, mercantilist arguments that tout the benefits of exports and rationalize imports as necessary evils are foolish and self-defeating—particularly in a country that will run trade deficits into the distant future as its economy continues to grow and attract greater amounts of foreign investment. The freedom to engage in commerce with whom and how one chooses, and the impact of import competition are the real benefits of freer trade.

Like some others in town, we at Cato advocate free trade. But unlike most, we advocate free trade here in the United States—not just over there in foreign countries. Free trade requires more than getting other governments to eliminate their barriers to U.S. exports; it requires getting the U.S. government to eliminate its barriers to U.S. imports from abroad. The latter is the real objective of free trade advocacy and the well-spring of most of its benefits.

But the economic benefits of imports rarely make the Washington “free trade advocate’s” Top-10 list of talking points, nor do they officially register in the minds of trade negotiators, whose chief aims are to secure for their exporters the greatest possible access to foreign markets, while simultaneously conceding to foreigners as little access as possible to the domestic market. “Import” is a four-letter word in the Washington trade policy community.

That’s why Ambassador Kirk’s recent comments have me thinking: epiphany?

In a statement responding to the WTO Appellate Body ruling last week that China’s export restrictions on nine raw materials were not in conformity with that country’s WTO commitments, Ambassador Kirk made the point that U.S. firms that use those raw materials will be better able to compete once those restrictions are lifted.

Today’s decision ensures that core manufacturing industries in this country can get the materials they need to produce and compete on a level playing field.

The USTR had previously made the following point:

These raw material inputs are used to make many processed products in a number of primary manufacturing industries, including steel, aluminum and various chemical industries. These products, in turn become essential components in even more numerous downstream products.

Technically, Ambassador Kirk is not engaging in profanity—he doesn’t use the word import. But his argument against Chinese export restrictions is just as applicable to U.S. import restrictions. Removing restrictions—whether the export variety imposed by foreign governments or the import variety imposed by our own—reduces input prices, lowers domestic production costs, enables more competitive final-goods pricing and, thus, greater profits for U.S.-based producers.

So let’s take Ambassador Kirk’s sound logic and see if it might apply elsewhere in the realm of U.S. trade policy. If the U.S. government thought it worthwhile to take China to the WTO over the restrictions it imposes on raw material exports because those restrictions hurt U.S. producers, then why does the same U.S. government impose its own restrictions on imports of some of the very same raw materials? That’s right. The United States maintains antidumping duties on magnesium, silicon metal, and coke (all raw materials subject to Chinese export restrictions).

If Ambassador Kirk ate the vegetables as well as the meat of Cato’s trade policy analyses, he would recognize that his logic provides a compelling case for antidumping reforms, such as one requiring the administering authorities to consider the economic impact of antidumping measures on producers in downstream industries, such as magnesium-cast automobile parts producers, manufacturers of silicones used in solar panels, and even steel producers, who require coke for their blast furnaces.

We will know that the ambassador has eaten his free-trade vegetables when he starts sounding like former USTR Robert Zoellick who once hoped for the Doha Round of trade negotiations that it would “[T]urn every corner store in America into a duty-free shop.”

Gay Marriage Still Has an Uphill Climb

The right answer to the same-sex marriage question is to remove government from the marriage business altogether.  That’s a legislative matter, however, and not something the courts should decree. Until then, because state and federal laws confer benefits based on marital status, the equal protection provisions of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments require that same-sex couples not be subject to discrimination in receipt of those benefits. But that issue was not addressed by the U.S. Court of Appeals in California—a state that permits gay unions and does not discriminate against such unions in conferring “marital” benefits. The specific issue the court decided was whether the label “marriage” could attach to heterosexual but not homosexual partnerships. Quite properly, the court ruled that it could not. That’s a narrow but important step in the right direction. But it does not settle the more significant question whether states may grant benefits to heterosexual couples while granting less or no benefits to homosexual couples.

In fact, there’s a negative aspect of the court’s ruling, which essentially declared Prop 8 unconstitutional because California went further than other states in allowing civil unions. The court held there’s no rational basis for allowing such unions but requiring that they carry a different label. That’s quite different from invoking the Equal Protection Clause to forbid a state from denying gays a right to the benefits of marriage. That issue didn’t arise because California grants such benefits to gays. Regrettably, other states may be dissuaded from following the California civil union model because their voters wish to limit the definition of “marriage” to exclude gays. In this instance, the better may become the enemy of the good.