Tag: media

Czar of All the Americans

Anger about Obama’s many “czars” is rising, reports the Washington Post:

On paper, they are special advisers, chairmen of White House boards, special envoys and Cabinet agency deputies, asked by the president to guide high-priority initiatives. But critics call them “czars” whose powers are not subject to congressional oversight, and their increasing numbers have become a flash point for conservative anger at President Obama.

Critics of the proliferation of czars say the White House uses the appointments to circumvent the normal vetting process required for Senate confirmation and to avoid congressional oversight.

I have tended not to take concern over “czars” very seriously. After all, advisers to the president can’t exercise any power that the president doesn’t have (or assume without response from Congress or the courts). And I figured the White House doesn’t call people “czars,” that’s just a media term, so it’s not really fair to blame the White House for what reporters say.

But then, thanks to crack Cato intern Miles Pope, I discovered that the White House does call its czars czars, at least informally. A few examples:

In an interview on April 15, 2009 Obama said, “The goal of the border czar is to help coordinate all the various agencies that fall under the Department of Homeland Security…”

In a March 11, 2009, briefing, press secretary Robert Gibbs turned to “address the czar question for a minute, because I think I’ve been asked in this room any number of times if the czars in our White House to deal with energy and health care had too much power.”

On March 11, 2009 Vice President Biden said, “Today I’m pleased to announce that President Obama has nominated as Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy – our nation’s drug czar – Gil Kerlikowske…”

More examples here.

So they do like czar imagery. So have at them, critics.

And while I said that the advisers have no real power, there’s at least one who does – a real czar – the “pay czar,” Kenneth Feinberg. He “has sole discretion to set compensation for the top 25 employees” of large companies receiving bailouts, and his “decisions won’t be subject to appeal.” Now that’s a czar.

Tuesday Links

  • Paul Krugman claims a victory for Big Government, which he says “saved” the economy from an economic depression. Alan Reynolds debunks his claim and shows why bigger government  produces only bigger and longer recessions.
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Obama to Seek Cap on Federal Pay Raises

USA Today reports that President Obama is seeking a cap on federal pay raises:

President Obama urged Congress Monday to limit cost-of-living pay raises to 2% for 1.3 million federal employees in 2010, extending an income squeeze that has hit private workers and threatens Social Security recipients and even 401(k) investors.

…The president’s action comes when consumer prices have fallen 2.1% in the 12 months ending in July, because of a massive drop in energy prices. The recession has taken an even tougher toll on private-sector wages, which rose only 1.5% for the year ended in June — the lowest increase since the government started keeping track in 1980. Private-sector workers also have been subject to widespread layoffs and furloughs.

Last week, economist Chris Edwards discussed data from the Bureau of Economic research that revealed the large gap between the average pay of federal employees and private workers. His call to freeze federal pay “for a year or two” received attention and criticism, (FedSmith, GovExec, Federal Times, Matt Yglesias, Conor Clarke) to which he has responded.

As explained on CNN earlier this year, the pay gap between federal and private workers has been widening for some time now:

Federal Pay: Response to the Critics

My post yesterday on federal worker pay generated a large and aggressive response from federal workers, both in my inbox and on websites such as Fedsmith.com. (See also Federal Times and Govexec). Here are four points raised in criticism:

First, people accuse me of producing distorted data somehow. Actually, it’s essentially just raw Bureau of Economic Analysis data, but the data is usually overlooked by the media because I don’t think the BEA puts out a press release on it. Anyway, the average wage data is from BEA Table 6.6D. The average compensation data is simply total compensation (Table 6.2D) divided by the number of workers (Table 6.5D).

Second, people argue that reporting overall averages for wages and compensation is somehow illegitimate. People email me comments like “my federal salary is only $50,000, yet you claim that federal workers make $79,000.” All I can say to folks like this is that there must be a federal worker out there making $108,000 who balances you off.

Third, people argue that a better analysis would be to compare similar jobs in the private and public sectors, rather than looking at overall averages. I agree that that would be very useful. Unfortunately, the BEA data is not broken down that way. At the same time, the BEA data provides the most comprehensive accounting for the value of employee benefits of any data source. Benefits are a very important part of federal compensation, and so that’s why I look to the BEA data.

Fourth, many people argue that the federal government has an elite workforce with many highly educated people. Certainly, that’s an important factor to consider. However, that is the reason why I focused on the pay trend over the last eight years. The federal worker compensation advantage rose from 66 percent in 2000 to 100 percent in 2008. Has the composition of the federal workforce really changed that much in just eight years to justify such a big relative gain? I doubt it.

A final consideration is to look at a “market test” of the adequacy of compensation in the public sector–the quit rate. The voluntary quit rate in the federal government is just one-third or less the quit rate in the private sector (Table 16 near the bottom here).

That is strongly suggestive of ”golden handcuffs” in federal employment. While many federal workers probably grumble about their jobs (as many private sector workers do), they know that the overall package of wages, benefits, and extreme job security (Table 18 here) is very hard to match in the competitive private market, and so they stay put.

Week in Review: A Speech in Cairo, an Anniversary in China and a U.S. Bankruptcy

Obama Speaks to the Muslim World

cairoIn Cairo on Thursday, President Obama asked for a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” and spoke at some length on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Cato scholar Christopher Preble comments, “At times, it sounded like a state of the union address, with a litany of promises intended to appeal to particular interest groups. …That said, I thought the president hit the essential points without overpromising.”

Preble goes on to say:

He did not ignore that which divides the United States from the world at large, and many Muslims in particular, nor was he afraid to address squarely the lies and distortions — including the implication that 9/11 never happened, or was not the product of al Qaeda — that have made the situation worse than it should be. He stressed the common interests that should draw people to support U.S. policies rather than oppose them: these include our opposition to the use of violence against innocents; our support for democracy and self-government; and our hostility toward racial, ethnic or religious intolerance. All good.

David Boaz contends that there are a number of other nations the president could have chosen to deliver his address:

Americans forget that the Muslim world and the Arab world are not synonymous. In fact, only 15 to 20 percent of Muslims live in Arab countries, barely more than the number in Indonesia alone and far fewer than the number in the Indian subcontinent. It seems to me that Obama would be better off delivering his message to the Muslim world somewhere closer to where most Muslims live. Perhaps even in his own childhood home of Indonesia.

Not only are there more Muslims in Asia than in the Middle East, the Muslim countries of south and southeast Asia have done a better job of integrating Islam and modern democratic capitalism…. Egypt is a fine place for a speech on the Arab-Israeli conflict. But in Indonesia, Malaysia, India, or Pakistan he could give a speech on America and the Muslim world surrounded by rival political leaders in a democratic country and by internationally recognized business leaders. It would be good for the president to draw attention to this more moderate version of Islam.

Tiananmen Square: 20 Years Later

tsquare1It has been 20 years since the tragic deaths of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, and 30 years since Deng Xiaoping embarked on economic reform in China. Cato scholar James A. Dorn comments, “After 20 years China has made substantial economic progress, but the ghosts of Tiananmen are restless and will continue to be so until the Goddess of Liberty is restored.”

In Thursday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Dorn discusses the perception of human rights in China since the Tiananmen Square massacre, saying that many young people are beginning to accept the existence of human rights independent of the state.

A few days before the anniversary, social media Web sites like Twitter and YouTube were blocked in China. Cato scholar Jim Harper says that it’s going to take a lot more than tanks to shut down the message of freedom in today’s online world:

In 1989, when a nascent pro-democracy movement wanted to communicate its vitality and prepare to take on the state, meeting en masse was vital. But that made it fairly easy for the CCP to roll in and crush the dream of democracy.

Twenty years later, the Internet is the place where mass movements for liberty can take root. While the CCP is attempting to use the electronic equivalent of an armored division to prevent change, reform today is a question of when, not if. Shutting down open dialogue will only slow the democratic transition to freedom, which the Chinese government cannot ultimately prevent.

Taxpayers Acquire Failing Auto Company

After billions of dollars were spent over the course of two presidential administrations to keep General Motors afloat, the American car company filed for bankruptcy this week anyway.

Last year Cato trade expert Daniel J. Ikenson appeared on dozens of radio and television programs and wrote op-eds in newspapers and magazines explaining why automakers should file for bankruptcy—before spending billions in taxpayer dollars.

Which leaves Ikenson asking one very important question: “What was the point of that?

In November, GM turned to the federal government for a bailout loan — the one final alternative to bankruptcy. After a lot of discussion and some rich debate, Congress voted against a bailout, seemingly foreclosing all options except bankruptcy. But before GM could avail itself of bankruptcy protection, President Bush took the fateful decision of circumventing Congress and diverting $15.4 billion from Troubled Asset Relief Program funds to GM (in the chummy spirit of avoiding tough news around the holidays).

That was the original sin. George W. Bush is very much complicit in the nationalization of GM and the cascade of similar interventions that may follow. Had Bush not funded GM in December (under questionable authority, no less), the company probably would have filed for bankruptcy on Jan. 1, at which point prospective buyers, both foreign and domestic, would have surfaced and made bids for spin-off assets or equity stakes in the “New GM,” just as is happening now.

Meanwhile, the government takeover of GM puts the fate of Ford Motors, a company that didn’t take any bailout money, into question:

Thus, what’s going to happen to Ford? With the public aware that the administration will go to bat for GM, who will want to own Ford stock? Who will lend Ford money (particularly in light of the way GM’s and Chrysler’s bondholders were treated). Who wants to compete against an entity backed by an unrestrained national treasury?

Ultimately, if I’m a member of Ford management or a large shareholder, I’m thinking that my biggest competitors, who’ve made terrible business decisions over the years, just got their debts erased and their downsides covered. Thus, even if my balance sheet is healthy enough to go it alone, why bother? And that calculation presents the specter of another taxpayer bailout to the tunes of tens of billions of dollars, and another government-run auto company.

The Quiet War against School Choice

First, the Democrats in Washington for all intents and purposes killed the District of Columbia’s proven voucher program, but did it with Ninja-like stealth. The weapons: Nearly impossible reauthorization requirements, late Friday announcements, and politically expedient promises to keep kids currently attending good schools from being very publicly booted.

Now it’s Milwaukee’s turn. The new Democratic majority in Madison is on its way to cutting the value of individual vouchers while raising public school per-pupil expenditures, and even worse, is larding new regulations on private schools participating in the choice program. Perhaps the most ridiculous proposed reg: Requiring all participating private schools with student bodies that are more than 10 percent limited English proficient to provide  a “bilingual-bicultural education program.” As if one of the major benefits of choice isn’t that parents can choose such programs if they think they are best for their kids, and can select something else if they don’t! But, of course, political decisions aren’t primarily about what parents want and kids need.

Thankfully, there is a resistance forming to the assault in Milwaukee, with choice advocates now refusing to remain quiet after naively doing so when they were told that fighting back would only make things worse. The choice-supporting national media is also speaking up. But one can’t help but fear that it may be too little, too late.

Responses to My Comments About Sotomayor

As might be expected, I have received much email responding to my CNN.com commentary about Obama’s Supreme Court pick. Some of it has been favorable, some less so (and some simply incoherent). One particular email covered most if not all concerns – and quite thoughtfully at that – so I thought I would share this exchange with a reader who emailed me his comments:

I read  your piece “Sotomayor Pick Not Based on Merit”, where you write, “in over 10 years on the Second Circuit, she has not issued any important decisions”.

Granted that I’m a layman, not a legal scholar or anything - this list seems quite impressive, and, as a whole, pretty non-ideological.

In reviewing this list, I found myself disagreeing with her here and there, but I couldn’t find something that really irked me. Can you?

According to the authors, “Since joining the Second Circuit in 1998, Sotomayor has authored over 150 opinions, addressing a wide range of issues, in civil cases.” And that “To date, two of these decisions have been overturned by the Supreme Court; a third is under review and likely to be reversed.” 2 out of over 150, is not a bad record at all.

You also write that she’s “far less qualified for a seat on the Supreme Court than Judges Diane Wood and Merrick Garland or Solicitor General Elena Kagan.”

I did a bit of research on them, and I’m not sure why you reached that conclusion. They are all qualified, in some respects Wood and Kagan are a bit more impressive, but you give the impression that she’s not highly qualified, and I don’t see evidence for that. On the contrary, she seems highly qualified - she has a long judicial and academic record, she has dealt with a myriad of issues, and has authored a vast amount of rulings, which, as far as I’ve seen, don’t appear to be ideological or particularly “activist.” She strikes me as someone balanced and sensible, with a slight tilt to the left.

You also write, “this does not a mean that Sotomayor is unqualified to be a judge — or less qualified to be a Supreme Court justice than, say, Harriet Miers” - but, c’mon, how can you even compare her to Miers? Miers was truly unqualified. She’s hardly intellectually impressive in any way, to put it mildly, and nothing about her record was impressive or even remotely suggesting she’s qualified to serve as a Justice. She was basically a manager of a law firm, with zero qualifications to serve as a SC justice. By even mentioning her name while discussing Sotomayor, you’re giving the impression there’s an analogy there, where there’s really none. Sotomayor is light-years ahead of Miers. You can’t be serious.

You also make a big issue over Ricci v. DeStefano. Well, I personally would side with the firemen, and it’s unfortunate that Sotomayor hasn’t, but to be fair, she hasn’t even written a decision about that.
We don’t know what her reasoning was. She merely signed, along with the rest of the panel, to uphold the lower court’s decision. It’s hard to build an entire case against her based on something like that. She has written over 150 other decisions, why not focus on them? Why pick one, that doesn’t even have any arguments in it, and make it the central issue, when there are over 150 reasoned decisions to analyze?
Why not review them, and give the public a deeper assessment, rather than focusing on ONE, which doesn’t even have any arguments or reasoning in it?

I’m generally a Cato fan, I get the mailings every day, I’m a moderate libertarian by philosophy, I’m just not sure why Cato is opposing her nomination. I like to think of Cato as non-partisan, just as I am, but on this issue your and Pilon’s opposition/criticism smacks from political partisanship and is not based on the evidence. So it seems to me.

Thanks for reading.

Here is my response:

Thanks for writing and for the thoughtful comments. A few points:

1. My argument is explicitly NOT that her opinions are disagreeable. I’ve waded through a fair number and read every public report on them produced thus far (including the very helpful SCOTUSblog summary you cite). Like you, some I agree with – most, actually, because most cases at this intermediate appellate level are not controversial (legally or politically), even if complex – some I don’t. But there’s just not much “there” there – intellectual depth, scholarly merit, etc. – at least by the elevated standards for elevation to the Supreme Court and in comparison to more accomplished jurists like Wood and Garland. She’s a competent judge, but we have 500 of those in the federal judiciary alone. (And none of this is to disparage her tremendous personal story; I write this from Princeton, where she had a truly impressive four years.)

2. Her reversal rate (I think there are six cases now) is a non-issue. The Supreme Court reverses over 60% of cases it hears and hears fewer than 2% of cases it is asked to review. So, statistically, we can say nothing about Sotomayor in that sense. A couple of her reversals are a bit strange, but on technical issues that, again, don’t lend much to the overall debate.

3. Yes, she’s much more qualified than Miers (though it’s a little unfair to say Miers was a mere “law firm manager” – she was White House counsel and apparently a decent lawyer in private practice).  I threw that line in there to show I can pick on Republican nominees too.

4. While Roger, whom I copy here, has discussed suspicions of Sotomayor’s activism or radicalness – and I think it’s clear she has more of those tendencies than Wood or Kagan – this is not the thrust of the my CNN commentary. We just can’t tell from her opinions, which are all over the map – other than the speeches at Berkely and Duke and then the Ricci case.

5. Ricci is important for two reasons: a) on the merits, the decision is blatant racial discrimination – and the Supreme Court looks likely to overturn Sotomayor’s panel; b) perhaps more importantly, the failure to grapple with the complex constitutional and statutory issues is a serious dereliction of judicial duty – as pointed out by Jose Cabranes in his dissent from denial of en banc rehearing. Regardless of the merits of the case, the way it was handled – as a per curiam summary affirmance released late on a Friday, meant to sweep the case under the rug – is outrageous. Sotomayor was 100% complicit in that.

6. In no way are my (or Roger’s) comments partisan. Cato’s interest here isn’t in any particular personality but rather: 1) that official appointments be made irrespective of racial/ethnic/identity politics, and 2) even more importantly, that the Supreme Court interpret the Constitution in a way that treats the judicial enterprise not as one of enforcing social justice or otherwise rewriting the law it when a result is inconvenient. The talk of “empathy” is disturbing precisely because it is the antithesis of the rule of law. And this is why Republican Judiciary Committee members must generate a public debate on judicial philosophy and not merely attempt to tear down this nominee. If they don’t demand substantive answers on serious constitutional questions, they will be complicit in the deterioration of our confirmation processes.

All the best,
Ilya

I look forward to following and commenting further as the confirmation process plays itself out.