Tag: Joe Biden

Spending Transparency Gets a Head of Steam

It has been a promising week for spending transparency.

On Monday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) introduced the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (the DATA Act), to promote spending transparency in the federal government. Among other things it would establish standardized reporting requirements for recipients of money from the federal government, with that data to be collected in and distributed from a central, independent database. It would collect all agency expenditure data, as well, and combine it with the recipient-reported data.

Think of it as double-entry bookkeeping: you collect spending data from agencies, you collect receipt data from recipients, and if the numbers don’t match up, you go look there. There’s a lot more complexity to it than that, of course, but this is a significant bill from a Republican House leader who is working to follow through on his caucus’s commitment to transparency.

Not to be outdone (but really I don’t know whether it was coincidental or inspired by Representative Issa’s bill), Vice President Biden issued a statement mid-week about spending transparency and the Recovery.gov Web site’s new “Recovery Explorer” feature, which allows users to create and customize charts and graphs with the recipient-reported data. The more information, the better, though raw data about government deliberations, management, and results is the ideal.

The DATA Act turned bicameral and bipartisan yesterday with its introduction in the other house by Senator Warner (D-VA). It simply makes sense that the government’s books should be legible to the public, and Senator Warner obviously recognizes that.

Kudos to Senator Warner, Vice President Biden, and Representative Issa for focusing the light on spending transparency this week.

Shining a light is one thing, of course. We’ll look forward to the follow-up to this promising week in transparency—the week when federal spending in transparency in once-and-for-all delivered.

HSR: Joe Biden Channels The Simpsons

In his customary salesman style, Vice President Joe Biden recently made a pitch to a Philadelphia crowd for a plan to spend $53 billion over the next six years on a national system of high-speed rail.

Biden’s performance brings to mind the classic Simpsons episode “Marge vs. the Monorail” in which con-man Lyle Lanley convinces the town’s residents to waste money on an exciting-sounding high-speed train that turns out to be a boondoggle.

The full episode can be viewed here, but here’s the scene in which Lanley whips the crowd into frenzied support of his plan:

There are some uncanny parallels between the two pitches.

Biden says that “If we don’t get a grip, folks, they’ll not only be teaching us, they’re gonna own our kids.” The VP is referring to other countries that have built or are building high-speed rail systems, such as China.

Lanley gains his audience’s attention by threatening to take his “greatest idea” to the next town over. Lanley then proceeds to point out other towns across the country that he has allegedly “put on the map” with a high-speed train. (Biden cites the city of Meridian, MS, which is a stop on Amtrak’s money-losing Crescent Line, as an example of the magic of federal rail subsidies.)

Biden promises what every politician promises when talking about the latest, greatest way to spend other people’s money: jobs! The VP says “We’re going to insist … that there be a strong ‘Buy America’ requirement which can help us create tens of thousands of middle-class jobs… These are real live jobs that pay real good money.”

Lanley makes the same promise. Barney, the town drunk, asks him, “What about us brain-dead slobs?” Lanley responds, “You’ll be given cushy jobs!”

Lanley’s promises never pan out, as he’s really a con-artist who suckered the town into buying a faulty train that doesn’t work. Joe Biden means well, but his train isn’t going to work either — not without wasting hundreds of billions, and perhaps a trillion, taxpayer dollars.

A Cato essay on high-speed rail explains why the Obama administration’s high-speed rail dreams make little practical and economic sense, especially when the government’s finances are already like a train headed off a cliff.

Fortunately, new House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) dismissed Biden’s announcement as being akin to “giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio.” Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), chairman of the House Railroads Subcommittee, labeled it “insanity.”

However, Shuster recently penned an op-ed in a Connecticut newspaper in which he supports the idea of a federally-funded high-speed New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line. That’s right, Springfield — the name of the fictional town in The Simpsons. Like Biden, Shuster expresses the same overblown concern that the United States is “behind the international curve” when it comes to government subsidy-dependent high-speed rail.

D’oh!

Obama’s Afghanistan War Plan

President Obama released his Afghanistan war review today. It highlights progress on the battlefield against insurgents, the success of Special Forces operations and drone strikes, and achievements in training the Afghan security forces.

I have four thoughts on the matter:

First, scattered throughout the document are passages such as “al-Qa’ida’s senior leadership in Pakistan is weaker,” “[a]l-Qa’ida’s senior leadership has been depleted,” and “al-Qa’ida’s leadership cadre have diminished.” However, can we deter more jihadists than our efforts help to inspire? After all, “fighting them over there so they don’t fight us here” did not deter Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad and his incompetently constructed bomb in Times Square. “Fighting them over there so they don’t fight us here” did not deter failed British “shoe-bomber” Richard Reid. “Fighting them over there so they don’t fight us here” did not deter Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called “underwear bomber,” who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.

Second, although there is a persuasive case to be made that the United States should disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the administration never clarifies explicitly how it will encourage Pakistan to do more to fight militants that frequently attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The review claims “improved understanding of Pakistan’s strategic priorities,” but policy considerations seem to fail to take into account that no amount of pressure or persuasion will affect Pakistan’s decision to tackle extremism, particularly when its strategic priorities are tied directly to reinforcing Islamist bonds across its borders as a buffer against Indian encirclement.

The third core reality ignored in the review is the importance of regional actors, namely Iran, India, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, and Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors (this list is not meant to preclude the inclusion of other countries). As long as the United States is at war, regional rivalries and insecurities will play out in Afghanistan at the expense of Afghan civilians and coalition forces.

Lastly, if the United States insists on pursuing the so far fruitless mission to create a viable Afghan government and economy, then U.S. officials should stop saying that the United States is not nation building in Afghanistan (and stop using the oft-repeated euphemism “capacity building”). After all, what is nation building? Perhaps in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton it is providing Afghanistan’s pervasively corrupt and predatory government with “economic, social and political development, as well as continued training of Afghan security forces.”

Overall, modest and ephemeral tactical gains have given the administration cause for optimism. It also gives the military a chance to buy more time, which means that the president will stick to his pledge to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011. But a residual U.S. troop presence will remain in the country long after that official date.

Any policy, including war, makes sense only insofar as the United States and its citizens receive significant benefits in exchange for that policy’s political and economic costs. The Afghan War’s current cost-benefit disparity would call for a scale-down in mission objectives and correspondingly in troop presence. But for now, the United States would rather fixate on pipe dreams and on asserting America’s permanent role in Central Asia.

VIDEO: Joe Biden’s Weak Case for Government Meddling

Vice President Joe Biden believes that human progress depends almost entirely on government vision and government incentive. Donald J. Boudreaux, Cato Institute adjunct scholar and George Mason University economics professor, details why Biden is wrong both generally and in the specific case he touts:



Produced by Caleb O. Brown. Shot and edited by Evan Banks.

Biden’s Fatal Conceit

The White House’s misbegotten “Summer of Recovery” continued today with the release of another administration “analysis” that purportedly demonstrates the stimulus’s success in “transforming” the economy.

Vice President Joe Biden unveiled the report alongside Energy secretary Steven Chu and numerous businesses officials willing to serve as political props in return for Uncle Sam’s free candy. Biden bemoaned the nefarious “special interests” that were coddled by the previous administration. What does the vice president think those subsidized business officials attending his speech are called?

The money the White House has lavished on these privileged businesses isn’t free. The money comes from taxpayers—including businesses that do not enjoy the favor of the White House—who consequently have $100 billion (plus interest) less to spend or invest. Therefore, the fundamental question is: Are Joe Biden — an individual who has spent his entire career in government— and the Washington political class better at directing economic activity than the private sector?

Biden repeatedly stated that the “government plants the seed and the private sector makes it grow.” Because the government possesses no “seeds” that it didn’t first confiscate from the private sector, what the vice president is advocating is the redistribution of capital according to the dictates of the Beltway. This mindset exemplifies the arrogance of the political class, which at its core believes that free individuals are incapable of making the “right” decision without the guiding hand of the state.

Unfortunately for Joe Biden, the state’s hand guided the private sector into the economic downturn that the administration and its apologists would have us believe was a consequence of imaginary laissez faire policies. From the housing market planners at HUD to the money planners at the Federal Reserve, government interventions led to the economic turmoil that the perpetrating political class now claims it can fix.

Enough already.

The following are Cato resources that challenge the vice president’s breezy rhetoric on the ability of the federal government to direct economic growth:

  • Energy Subsidies: The government has spent billions of dollars over the decades on dead-end schemes and dubious projects that have often had large cost overruns.
  • Energy Regulations: Most federal intrusions into energy markets have been serious mistakes. They have destabilized markets, reduced domestic output, and decreased consumer welfare.
  • Energy Interventions: The current arguments for energy intervention and energy subsidies fall short.
  • High-Speed Rail: Policymakers are dumping billions of dollars into high-speed rail, even though foreign systems are money losers and carry only a small share of intercity passengers.
  • Special-Interest Spending: Many federal programs deliver subsidies to particular groups of individuals and businesses while harming taxpayers and damaging the overall economy.

Pottery Barn Rule, Take 27

Last week, Iraq’s independent electoral commission disqualified 511 candidates – most of them Sunnis – from running in the parliamentary elections scheduled for March. Today’s Washington Post reports that Vice President Joe Biden is hurrying off to Baghdad to try to convince the Iraqis to change their minds. U.S. troop withdrawals were supposed to accelerate after the elections were held and a new government seated. But the elections have already been postponed at least once, and the administration is worried that the obvious bias against Sunnis could stoke sectarian tensions.

“U.S. officials are in a precarious position,” the Post story explains:

They are stuck between the government they created and bolstered – a coalition of mostly sect- and ethnic-based coalitions dominated by Shiite Arabs – and politicians who have been branded as loyalists to the dictator deposed during the U.S.-led invasion.

If that weren’t difficult enough, Biden doesn’t want to appear to be pressuring the Iraqis, and Prime Minister Maliki and his crew don’t want to appear to have been pressured. As a senior administration official told the Post:

“[N]o one wants to be perceived as defending the rights of Baathists” and no Iraqi decision-maker wants to be the first to publicly declare that the ruling must be reversed.

It is times like these when I am reminded of Colin Powell’s infamous Pottery Barn rule. Never mind that he never publicly invoked that precise metaphor. Never mind that Pottery Barn has no rule. The point is that the average person understands the simple premise: you break it, you own it.

But what Powell actually told President George W. Bush in August 2002, if Bob Woodward’s reconstruction of the event is to be trusted, is actually more insightful and telling than the shorthand version. And it is particularly a propos with respect to the most-recent election kerfuffle.

“You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people,” he told the president, “You will own all their hopes, aspirations, problems. You’ll own it all.”

We “own” the Iraqis without wanting to appear to own them. We are responsible for the behavior of the government that we put into power, but without the leverage (or inclination) to compel that government to do as we see fit. And we – all Americans, but especially the troops still stuck in that country – pay the price when they behave in ways harmful to our strategic interests. 

As the teenagers might say, “Good luck with that.”