Tag: nationalization

Waking Up at Last

Tony Blankley, former press secretary to Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, exults in the Washington Times that Americans are waking up “to our heritage of freedom” and to the abuse of the Constitution:

All the following acts have suddenly awakened Americans to their Constitution: (1) The nationalization of car companies and banks; (2) the subordination of the car companies’ legal bondholders to union bosses; (3) the creation of trillion-dollar slush funds (the stimulus package) used for, among other purposes, the corrupt purchase of congressional votes; (4) the mandating of individual health insurance purchase against the will of Americans; (5) the attempt to have Obamacare “deemed” to have been enacted, rather than actually publicly voted on by Congress.

Amazingly, spontaneously, Americans are educating themselves about the details of our Constitution.

He’s absolutely right. All those actions do raise serious questions about whether there are still any constitutional limitations on government, which is to say, whether the Constitution is still in effect, questions that Roger Pilon also raised this week in the Christian Science Monitor. But it would be even better if Americans had noticed the threats to constitutional government a bit earlier, if not during the New Deal or the Great Society, then perhaps during the past decade when, as Gene Healy and Tim Lynch wrote in 2006:

Unfortunately, far from defending the Constitution, President Bush has repeatedly sought to strip out the limits the document places on federal power. In its official legal briefs and public actions, the Bush administration has advanced a view of federal power that is astonishingly broad, a view that includes

  • a federal government empowered to regulate core political speech—and restrict it greatly when it counts the most: in the days before a federal election;
  • a president who cannot be restrained, through validly enacted statutes, from pursuing any tactic he believes to be effective in the war on terror;
  • a president who has the inherent constitutional authority to designate American citizens suspected of terrorist activity as “enemy combatants,” strip them of any constitutional protection, and lock them up without charges for the duration of the war on terror— in other words, perhaps forever; and
  • a federal government with the power to supervise virtually every aspect of American life, from kindergarten, to marriage, to the grave.

President Bush’s constitutional vision is, in short, sharply at odds with the text, history, and structure of our Constitution, which authorizes a government of limited powers.

But better late than never, and we join Tony Blankley in hoping that the Constitution’s limits on the powers of the federal government will once again be an issue in American politics and governance.

Slippery Standards Slope

The draft national curricular standards released yesterday, as I wrote earlier, will in all likelihood do little or no educational good if adopted. They’ll either be ignored or, if hard to meet, dumbed-down.

That said, the really troubling question is not whether the standards will do any good, but whether they will do much harm.

The answer: Oh, they’ll do harm. They’ll move us one step closer to complete centralization of education, which portends many potentially bad things, from total special-interest domination to even more wasteful spending.

Perhaps the most concerning possibility is that complete centralization – meaning, federalization – will lead to nationwide conflict over what the schools should teach, much as we are seeing in Texas right now and witnessed in the 1990s, the last time Washington tried to push “voluntary” national standards. Back then national standards in several subjects were proposed, and a national firestorm was set off over what they did, and did not, contain.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative folks clearly learned from the nineties experience, assiduously avoiding even the appearance of mandating the reading of specific literary works and focusing instead on skills. (The draft standards include a lot of reading exemplars but don’t require knowledge of any specific literary pieces). As a result, the response so far seems much less heated than occurred in the nineties, though critiques of the proposed standards certainly do exist. Once control over language arts skills and mathematics is fully centralized, however, can we really expect specific content standards in literature and other subjects to be left entirely to states and districts?

It seems unlikely: Once Washington connects receipt of federal funding to performance on national standards for some subjects, it is very likely to expand into others. After all, aren’t science, history, and other topics as important as reading and math?

“Promoting” science is a huge favorite of federal politicians, so it’s certainly hard to imagine science – and the freighted questions about human origins and climate change that go with it – not becoming a target for nationalization. Similarly, since many public schooling advocates argue that we must have government schools to create good citizens, it’s hard to envision the controversy-laden subjects of history and civics not entering the sites of federal politicians.  And when they do, we can either expect the sparks to fly, or the standards that are set to be so milquetoast as to be meaningless.

Wait. Am I being overly alarmist about this, trying to start a trumped-up slippery-slope scare to undermine the current national standards push?

Nope. National standards supporters are already talking about targeting science and history. For instance, in the forward to International Lessons about National Standards, a recent report from the national-standards-loving Thomas B. Fordham Institute, it is written about the CCSSI:

Our authors would prefer for science to be included in this first round, and we’d like to get to history sooner rather than later.

And Fordham is not alone. Indeed, the CCSSI folks have already been talking about creating national science and social studies standards!

When should all kids learn evolution, if at all? How much Hispanic history should students know? How many Founding Fathers should high school grads be able to identify? What caused the Civil War? Is global warming a major threat? Are we a Christian nation? How these and numerous other bitterly contested questions will officially be answered will suddenly have to be duked out by every American, and the winners will get to dictate to the entire nation.

So the language arts and math standards revealed yesterday are, almost certainly, just the camel’s nose under the tent.  Unfortunately, that means the whole destructive beast isn’t far behind.

A Nation of Lawlessness

The matter of Chrysler’s bankruptcy seems to have rendered quaint our system of checks and balances. President Obama is breaking the law and the other two branches are letting him get away with it. One can probably understand how a smitten public might casually allow this president a stipend of unconstitutional acts, since he doesn’t scowl like Nixon or stutter like Bush. But, even a popular president (in particular, a popular president) must be held in check by the legislative and judicial branches.

And that’s not happening.

On Tuesday at 4:00 pm, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg “stayed pending further order” the bankruptcy-related transactions of Chrysler, giving hope the Supreme Court might hear the appeal filed on behalf of certain Indiana state pension and construction funds, who claim that their property rights as secured creditors were violated by the forced sale and that the use of Troubled Asset Relief Program funds to support Chrysler and facilitate its restructuring was illegal. Only 28 hours later, the Supreme Court decided against taking the appeal, despite the seemingly compelling issues at hand.

Just as the Bush administration was telling Congress last September that there was no time to debate the merits of a financial bailout and that the only course was to give Treasury Secretary Paulson carte blanche immediately to spend $700 billion, the Obama administration was telling the Supreme Court this week that time was of the essence and that Fiat would walk away from the Chrysler deal if it wasn’t allowed to proceed right away. Was that the decisive factor in the Supreme Courts rejection of the appeal? It seems to me the appeal contains some serious constitutional issues worthy of judicial consideration (consideration that goes beyond merely rubber-stamping the Obama administration’s pre-packaged, politically-driven bankruptcy plan for Chrysler, which is what Judge Gonzalez appears to have done).

But it’s now a done deal, possibly facilitated by illegalities.

I’m struck by the relative quiet about this issue (in the mainstream media and the blogosphere). Maybe we’re all just too numb and shell shocked by the blitzkrieg of government interventions over the past 9 months that it’s no longer possible to feel alarmed or outraged by just another government act that would have been unthinkable this time last year.

Well wake up!

There is a compelling legal argument against using TARP funds to support automobile producers. (Obviously, there is a compelling economic argument, as well.) Convincing the courts to hear the argument and subsequently persuading judges (probably up to the Supreme Court) of its merits will likely be the last chance to spare us the nationalization of General Motors.

As you may recall, there wasn’t a whole lot of clarity about how the Treasury’s use of TARP funds would be limited or defined. Lots of discretion was granted the Treasury Secretary. However, Section 101(a)(1) of the law establishing the TARP stipulates:

“The Secretary is authorized to establish the Troubled Asset Relief Program (or ‘TARP’) to purchase, and to make and fund commitments to purchase, troubled assets from any financial institution, on such terms and conditions as are determined by the Secretary, and in accordance with this Act and the policies and procedures developed and published by the Secretary.” (My emphasis).

Neither Chrysler nor GM is a financial institution and therefore neither can receive TARP money.  There’s the argument, plain and simple.  Congress authorized funds for a defined use; the executive breached those boundaries, and thus acted illegally. Is it more complicated than that?

President Bush was the first to break the law by authorizing $17.4 billion in TARP funds for GM and Chrysler, circumventing the wishes of Congress, which had recently voted against an auto bailout.  And President Obama has followed suit, providing funding the Chrysler and GM during bankruptcy.

If there’s any doubt that TARP funds were not to be used for automobile companies, consider the fact that the same House of Representatives that passed the legislation creating the TARP in October also passed a bill specifically authorizing the use of TARP funds for automobile companies in December. (There was never a vote in the Senate so it never became law.)  Such legislation wouldn’t have been necessary if the intent of Congress was to allow TARP funds to be used for automakers originally.  Thus, there are two conclusions to draw here. First, the 110th Congress didn’t think the TARP legislation, which it had passed two months earlier, allowed TARP funds to be used for automakers; and second, Congress was too cowardly to bring the matter to the Supreme Court, thereby exercising its constitutional responsibility and allowing the judiciary an opportunity to exercise its.

Let’s hope the judiciary finds the opportunity to check the legality of the executive’s implementation of the legislature’s instructions, as far as the people’s money is concerned.

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.

GM’s Nationalization and China’s Capitalists

GM’s restructuring under Chapter 11 includes plans to sell off the Hummer, Saab, and Saturn brands. Well, just one day after GM’s bankruptcy filing, a Chinese firm has come forward with a $500 million offer to purchase Hummer. The prospective buyer is Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Co Ltd, a manufacturing company in western China, which hopes to become an automaker.

Not only is the Hummer offer the first bid for a GM asset in bankruptcy, but the bidder is foreign. Not only is the bidder foreign, but Chinese. And not only is the bidder Chinese, but the Hummer was first developed by the U.S. military. Thus, this is certain to be characterized as a national security matter, and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) will have to review the proposal. There should be little doubt that the economic nationalists will be out in full force, warning CFIUS against transferring sensitive technologies to Red China.

Let me offer two quick points, as the bulging veins in my temples pulsate with disdain for official Washington.

First, if this deal is rejected (even if the bidder is scared away by detractors), any remaining credibility to the proposition that the United States will once again become that beacon on a hill, exemplifying for the world the virtues of free markets and limited government, will vanish into the ether. There has been too much U.S. hypocrisy on free trade and cross-border investment and too much double talk about the impropriety of government subsidizing national champions, that another indiscretion in a high profile case will blow open the already-bowing flood gates to economic nationalism worldwide. Considering that U.S. companies sell five times as much stuff to foreigners through their foreign subsidiaries than by exporting from the United States, investment protectionism is as advisable as nationalizing car companies.

Second, the willingness of this Chinese company to purchase Hummer serves as a stark reminder of what could have been. Had George W. Bush not allocated TARP money to GM last December, in circumvention of Congress’s rejection of a bailout, then GM likely would have filed for bankruptcy on January 1. At that point, there would likely have been plenty of offers from foreign and domestic concerns for individual assets to spin off or for equity stakes in the New GM. There would have been plant closures, dealership terminations, and jobs losses, as there is under the nationalization plan anyway. But taxpayers wouldn’t be on the hook for $50+ billion, a sum that is much more likely to grow larger than it is to be repaid. It is also a sum that will serve as the rationalization for further government interventions on GM’s behalf.

“We Don’t Want Venezuela to Become a Totalitarian Communist State”

“We don’t want Venezuela to become a totalitarian communist state,” declared Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa yesterday in Caracas at the opening of a major conference organized by the market-liberal think tank, CEDICE. I’m in Venezuela this week with my Cato colleagues Juan Carlos Hidalgo and Gabriela Calderon to participate in the event and to run a seminar for 60 students and young leaders from Venezuela, which took place earlier this week.

Vargas Llosa’s concern is not about some remote possibility. Nor is it the opinion of an isolated intellectual detached from reality. His comments received sustained applause from the over-flow crowd of the 600 people in attendance and he has been mobbed by the press since he arrived here yesterday. Venezuela is not yet a full fledged dictatorship, evidenced by the fact that we are meeting here with leading liberal intellectuals from the region. But the environment of intolerance, arbitrary rule, and state vilification of anybody who disagrees with Hugo Chavez’s march toward socialism has worsened at an alarming rate in recent months.

Already, Chavez has centralized economic and political control to a degree unmatched anywhere in the hemisphere outside of Cuba. He controls the legislature, the supreme court, the military, the central bank, the national electoral council, much of the media, the state oil monopoly and thus virtually all government spending, and exerts tremendous influence over the private sector through regulatory measures, most especially capital controls.

Freedom of speech is coming under renewed attack. Wednesday was the two-year anniversary of the government’s decision to shut down the independent RCTV (by refusing to renew its license)—until then the country’s largest television station. It was the closing of RCTV that sparked mass protests led by the Venezuelan student movement that culminated in the defeat in December 2007 of Chavez’s proposed constitutional referendum that would have turned the country into a socialist state. Since then, the opposition has won major victories in leading cities and states and Chavez has had to deal with the steep drop in the price of oil, the source of his astronomical spending. Chavez´s response has included the marginalization of elected opposition politicians by depriving them of most of their funding and appointing parallel officials to carry out local government functions with full funding; the imposition by law of many of the measures rejected in the constitutional referendum; a rash of further nationalizations and land confiscations; and threats to close Globovision TV, the only remaining independent television station in the country.

The extent and technological sophistication of state propaganda here is impressive and chilling. Numerous state television stations operate 24 hours a day, relying on a diversity of formats (talk shows, music videos, interviews, “news” programs, congressional “debates,” etc.), praising the Chavez regime, and attacking the private sector. The programming is not just pro-government. It is explicitly Marxist through and through. There is endless talk about the effort to create a “new socialist man.” Those of us who have come to defend basic freedom in Venezuela have been individually and institutionally labeled on state television as imperialists and agents of the CIA. Currently and ironically, there is a government campaign against the “hegemony” of the private press and “media terrorism”—otherwise known in civilized countries as freedom of the press. The state intellectuals are discussing the lack of social responsibility of the private press and one channel carries congressional debates on the subject. The other day the government raided the house of the president of Globovision and accused him of violating the law in business dealings unrelated to the television station. This is being used as further proof of the existence of a vast “mafia” led by the “oligarchy.” Last night Mario Silva, the Goebbels of Venezuela, openly called on his television show for the closing of Globovision on the grounds that the station has misled and insulted the Venezuelan people for far too long and that enough is enough. I could go on but you get the picture. And this is only TV. The government finances marches, concerts and rallies, and pro-Chavez party propaganda on billboards, government buildings, public squares, etc. throughout the city and the country.

As was posted earlier, we co-sponsored a three-day Cato seminar on classical liberal thought for 60 Venezuelan students earlier this week with CEDICE that the national guard, an education ministry official and state TV interrupted in an effort to shut the event down. Their reasons for doing so were ludicrous—they accused us of setting up a university without permission. When we explained that it was a seminar that only uses the name university in the title, they then said we were engaging in false advertising and thus were still breaking the law. Fortunately, we had immediately called Globovision who immediately began reporting the incident as it occurred. I think Globovision’s role played no small part in pressuring government officials to leave. The government tried to intimidate us and provoke us into reacting aggressively, which we did not do. (Ironically, my Argentinean colleague, Professor Martin Krause, was giving a lecture at our seminar on the importance of civil society at the time of the government’s harassment.) For weeks, state media had been reporting that we were setting up a camp to train young Venezuelans in subversive tactics to overthrow the Chavez regime. This has then been discussed at length on state television by commentators, intellectuals, etc. Later I watched on Mario Silva’s program how they covered the incident showing footage that supposedly showed how we were openly flouting Venezuelan law in a number of ways. Later the same day, the authorities detained Peruvian intellectual Alvaro Vargas Llosa for three hours upon his arrival at the airport as he was headed to the Cato-CEDICE seminar, finally letting him go and informing him that he could not discuss political issues. Here again Globovision played a key role. It began reporting the events at airport as they happened, which were in turn immediately reported throughout the Latin American press.

This is an increasingly polarized and tense society. But it is also true that Chavez must rely extensively on force and deception to promote his socialist project. His personal popularity has sunk under 50 percent in recent weeks (support for his policies are even lower) and he is becoming more radical. The CEDICE conference has been filled with especially inspiring and moving speeches, particularly from the Venezuelans. Some of them–like RCTV president Marcel Granier or Oscar Garcia Mendoza, president of a leading bank that has never done business with government—are heroes of freedom, putting their own fortunes and personal liberty at risk in openly challenging the regime. They have the admiration of all freedom lovers here. They deserve all the support they can get in a battle that is only going to get tougher.

Getting Our Terminology Straight

Dave Hornstein takes Martha Gore to task for describing Barack Obama’s health care reform plan as “nationalized health care.” “Let’s get our terminology straight,” Hornstein argues. “Nationalized or socialized medicine is a health care system that is publicly financed and delivered, such as Great Britain’s National Health Service.  That is not part of Obama’s proposal or the Single Payer plan.”

Yes, let’s get our terminology straight. Socialized medicine exists to the extent that government controls medical resources and socializes the costs. What matters is who controls the money. Whether we nominally call doctors or hospitals private or public doesn’t matter. If they’re getting most of their checks from the government, that’s who’s in control.

If government controls the resources, it’s socialized medicine. The government can funnel the money through insurers and keep all the doctors and hospitals private and it would still be socialized medicine. If they have the money, they run the show. Everything else is just window dressing.

For more, see here.