Tag: partisan

Will ‘the People’ Fall for It?

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

President Barack Obama is taking a cue from President Bill Clinton by pushing a series of bite-sized policies. Among them: a new fatherhood pledge, graphic tobacco warnings, updated sunscreen requirements, an anti-bullying summit and entertainment discounts for fathers to spend more time with their kids. Can he use this “school uniforms” approach to effectively appear above the daily partisan Washington sniping? And is this “small ball” approach a retreat from the grander “change we can believe in” vision candidate Obama touted in the 2008 campaign?

My response:

The president has two main responsibilities: internationally, to oversee the nation’s foreign policy; domestically, to see that the laws be faithfully executed. For Obama to devote his attention to trivia like this is not only to demean the office of the presidency – recall Clinton’s “boxers or briefs” incident – but to play to the basest instincts of the electorate.

Unfortunately, in a country in which nearly 60 percent of adults don’t know when we declared our independence and a quarter don’t know from what country, Obama’s “small ball” politics may work. This is a president who couldn’t get a budget passed for two years, despite having huge majorities in Congress, yet he’s got time for this. Perhaps H.L. Mencken put it best: “People deserve the government they get, and they deserve to get it good and hard.” I didn’t know Obama was a student of Mencken.

Campaign Finance: Don’t Confuse Me with the Evidence

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Is it worrisome that Americans spend on political advocacy – determining who should make and administer the laws – much less than they spend on potato chips, $7.1 billion a year?

My response:

For decades among modern liberals it has been an article of faith – devoid of evidence – that money corrupts politics and that there is too much money in politics – “unconscionable” amounts, we’ve been told, repeatedly. Thus the crusade to restrict and regulate in exquisite detail every aspect of campaign finance, beginning in earnest with the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 and culminating with the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (McCain-Feingold). Yet after every new restriction along that tortuous course, ever more money has flowed into our political campaigns. But for all that, they’re no more corrupt than they’ve ever been. In fact, the best evidence of the fool’s errand that campaign finance “reform” has been all along is found in comparisons between states with little and states with extensive campaign finance regulations: When it comes to corruption, there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the regulated and the unregulated states.

But all those regulations have accomplished two things that should give liberals pause. First, by virtue of their sheer complexity and cost, they pose a serious impediment to those who would challenge incumbents, who already have a major leg up on reelection. And second, because we cannot limit private campaign contributions and expenditures altogether, thanks to the First Amendment, the regulations have led to money being diverted away from candidates and parties and into other, often unknown, hands, over which the candidates and parties have no control – by design. As a result, we see candidates today having to disavow messages underwritten by people who would otherwise, but for the regulations, have given directly to the candidate or the party. But that outcome was absolutely predictable – and was predicted. Two good reasons to end this campaign finance regulation folly and let individuals and organizations contribute and spend as they wish. What are we afraid of, freedom?

A Post-Health Care Realignment?

From Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal to Joe Biden’s Big F-ing Deal, progressives have led a consistent and largely successful campaign to expand the size and scope of the federal government. Now, Matt Yglesias suggests, it’s time to take a victory lap and call it a day:

For the past 65-70 years—and especially for the past 30 years since the end of the civil rights argument—American politics has been dominated by controversy over the size and scope of the welfare state. Today, that argument is largely over with liberals having largely won. […] The crux of the matter is that progressive efforts to expand the size of the welfare state are basically done. There are big items still on the progressive agenda. But they don’t really involve substantial new expenditures. Instead, you’re looking at carbon pricing, financial regulatory reform, and immigration reform as the medium-term agenda. Most broadly, questions about how to boost growth, how to deliver public services effectively, and about the appropriate balance of social investment between children and the elderly will take center stage. This will probably lead to some realigning of political coalitions. Liberal proponents of reduced trade barriers and increased immigration flows will likely feel emboldened about pushing that agenda, since the policy environment is getting substantially more redistributive and does much more to mitigate risk. Advocates of things like more and better preschooling are going to find themselves competing for funds primarily with the claims made by seniors.

I’d like to believe this is true, though I can’t say I’m persuaded. It seems at least as likely that, consistent with the historical pattern, the new status quo will simply be redefined as the “center,” and proposals to further augment the welfare state will move from the fringe to the mainstream of opinion on the left.

That said, it’s hardly unheard of for a political victory to yield the kind of medium-term realignment Yglesias is talking about. The end of the Cold War destabilized the Reagan-era conservative coalition by essentially taking off the table a central—and in some cases the only—point of agreement among diverse interest groups. Less dramatically, the passage of welfare reform in the 90s substantially reduced the political salience of welfare policy. The experience of countries like Canada and the United Kingdom, moreover, suggests that if Obamacare isn’t substantially rolled back fairly soon, it’s likely to become a political “given” that both parties take for granted. Libertarians, of course, have long lamented this political dynamic: Government programs create constituencies, and become extraordinarily difficult to cut or eliminate, even if they were highly controversial at their inceptions.

We don’t have to be happy about this pattern, but it is worth thinking about how it might alter the political landscape a few years down the line.  One possibility, as I suggest above, is that it will just shift the mainstream of political discourse to the left. But as libertarians have also long been at pains to point out, the left-right model of politics, with its roots in the seating protocols of the 18th century French assembly, conceals the multidimensional complexity of politics. There’s no intrinsic commonality between, say, “left” positions on taxation, foreign policy, and reproductive rights—the label here doesn’t reflect an underlying ideological coherence so much as the contingent requirements of assembling a viable political coalition at a particular time and place.  If an issue that many members of one coalition considered especially morally urgent is, practically speaking, taken off the table, the shape of the coalitions going forward depends largely on the issues that rise to salience. Libertarians are perhaps especially conscious of this precisely because we tend to take turns being more disgusted with one or another party—usually whichever holds power at a given moment.

The $64,000 question, of course, is what comes next. As 9/11 and the War on Terror reminded us, the central political issues of an era are often dictated by fundamentally unpredictable events. But some of the obvious current candidates are notable for the way they cut across the current partisan divide. In my own wheelhouse—privacy and surveillance issues—Republicans have lately been univocal in their support of expanded powers for the intelligence community, with plenty of help from hawkish Democrats. Given their fondness for invoking the specter of soviet totalitarian states, I’ve hoped that the folks mobilizing under the banner of the Tea Party might begin pushing back on the burgeoning surveillance state. Thus far I’ve hoped in vain, but if that coalition outlasts our current disputes, one can imagine it becoming an issue for them in 2011 as parts of the Patriot Act once again come up for reauthorization, or in 2012 when the FISA Amendments Act is due to sunset. In the past, the same issues have made strange bedfellows of the ACLU and the ACU, of Ron Paul Republicans and FireDogLake Democrats.  Obama has pledged to take up comprehensive immigration reform during his term, and there too significant constituencies within each party fall on opposite sides of the issue.

Further out than that it’s hard to predict. But more generally, the possibility that I find interesting is that—against a background of technologies that have radically reduced the barriers to rapid, fluid, and distributed group formation and mobilization—the protracted health care fight, the economic crisis, and the explosion of federal spending have created an array of potent political communities outside the party-centered coalitions. They’ve already shown they’re capable of surprising alliances—think Jane Hamsher and Grover Norquist.  Suppose Yglesias is at least this far correct: The next set of political battles are likely to be fought along a different value dimension than was health care reform. Precisely because these groups formed outside the party-centered coalitions, and assuming they outlast the controversies that catalyzed their creation, it’s hard to predict which way they’ll move on tomorrow’s controversies. It’s entirely possible that there are latent and dispersed constituencies for policy change outside the bipartisan mainstream who have now, crucially, been connected: Any overlap on orthogonal value dimensions within or between the new groups won’t necessarily be evident until the relevant values are triggered by a high-visibility policy debate.  Still, it’s reason to expect that the next decade of American politics may be even more turbulent and surprising than the last one.

Questions for Thoughtful ObamaCare Supporters

What does it say that the American polity has consistently rejected a wholesale government takeover of health care for 100 years?

What does it say that public opinion has been consistently against the Democrats’ health care takeover since July 2009?

What does it say that Democrats are having this much difficulty enacting their health care legislation despite unified Democratic rule?  Despite large supermajorities in both chambers of Congress, including a once-filibuster-proof Senate majority (see more below)?  Despite an opportunistic change in Massachusetts law that provided that crucial 60th vote at a crucial moment?  Despite a popular and charismatic president?

What does it say that 38 House Democrats voted against the president’s health plan?

What does it say that Massachusetts voters elected, to fill the term of Ted Kennedy, a Republican who ran against the health care legislation that Kennedy helped to shape?

What does it say that the only thing bipartisan about that legislation is the opposition to it?

What does it say that 39 senators voted to declare that legislation’s centerpiece unconstitutional?

What does it say that health care researchers – a fairly left-wing lot – think the Senate bill is unconstitutional?

What does it say that the demands of pro-life and pro-choice House Democrats, each of which hold enough votes to determine the fate of this legislation, are irreconcilable?

What does it say that House Democrats are actually contemplating a legislative strategy that would deem the Senate bill to have passed the House – without the House ever actually voting on it?

Given that ours is a system of government where ambition is made to counteract ambition, what does it mean that the only way to pass this legislation is for the House to trust that the Senate will keep the House’s interests at heart?

Palmer and Cowen on Libertarianism

On Tuesday I hosted a Book Forum for Tom Palmer’s new book, Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and Practice. You can see the video here. I thought Tyler Cowen’s comments were very astute, so I reproduce an abridged version here:

The first question is, “What do I, as a reader, see as the essential unity or unities in the book?” And I see really two. The first is I see this as a construction and articulation of a vision of what I call reasonable libertarianism. I think we’re in a world right now that is growing very partisan and very rabid, and a lot of things which are called libertarian in the Libertarian Party, or what you might call the Lew Rockwell / Ron Paul camp, are to my eye not exactly where libertarianism should be, and I think Tom has been a very brave and articulate advocate of a reasonable libertarianism. And if I ask myself, “Does the book succeed in this endeavor?” I would say, “Yes.”

The second unity in the book, I think, has to do with the last thirty years of world history. I know in the United States now there is less liberty. But overall, the world as a whole, over the last thirty years, has seen more movement towards more liberty than perhaps in any other period of human history. And I suspect most of these movements toward liberty will last. So there have been these movements towards liberty, and they have been motivated, in part, by ideas. The question arises, which are the ideas that have been the important ones for this last thirty years? And I view Tom’s book, whether he intended it as such or not, as a kind of guide to which have been the important ideas driving the last thirty years. And a lot of the book goes back into history pretty far – the eighteenth century, the Levellers, debates over natural rights – and I think precisely because it takes this broader perspective it is one of the best guides – maybe the best guide – to what have been the most important ideas driving the last thirty years (as opposed to the misleading ideas or the dead-end ideas). So that’s my take on the essential unities.

Another question you might ask about a collection of essays is, “Which of them did I like best?” I thought about this for a while, and I have two nominations. The first one is “Twenty Myths about Markets,” which is the essay on economics. I don’t know any piece by an economist that does such a good job of poking holes in a lot of economic fallacies and just laying out what you hear so often. You would think an economist would have written this long ago, but to the best of my knowledge, not.

The other favorite little piece of mine is called “Six Facts about Iraq,” which  explains from Tom’s point of view – and Tom has been there a number of times – what’s going on in Iraq and why. It is only a few pages long, but I felt that I got a better sense of Iraq reading this short piece than almost anything else I’ve come across.

I’m not sure exactly what’s the common element between the two I liked best – they both start with a number – but I think the ones I liked best reminded me the most of Tom when he is talking. I had the sense of Tom being locked in a room, and forced to address a question, and not being allowed to leave until he had given his bottom line approach. And I think what he’s very good at through out the book is just getting directly to the point.

There’s more to Tyler’s comments, and lots more from both of them in response to questions, so check out the video.

Department of Bias

The Department of Justice just invalidated a move by the residents of Kinston, North Carolina, to have non-partisan local elections. Rationale?

The Justice Department’s ruling, which affects races for City Council and mayor, went so far as to say partisan elections are needed so that black voters can elect their “candidates of choice” - identified by the department as those who are Democrats and almost exclusively black.

The department ruled that white voters in Kinston will vote for blacks only if they are Democrats and that therefore the city cannot get rid of party affiliations for local elections because that would violate black voters’ right to elect the candidates they want.

This, coming from the same Department of Justice officials that wouldn’t know a civil rights violation if it picked up a club and barred them access to a polling place.

Democrats Favor Trade Sanctions on Americans

Scott Lincicome sharpens his pencil today and calculates that Congressional failure to ratify the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement–a deal that was signed almost three full years ago–has so far cost American exporters $2 billion.  That tally increases $1.9 million each and every day.

Since that time [the trade agreement signing], American exporters have paid approximately $1.9 million per day in Colombian tariffs that they wouldn’t have paid if the Democrat-controlled Congress had just passed the FTA back then and thus allowed it to enter into force. By my math, that means that Congress’ and (now) the President’s partisan stalling has resulted in a pointless tax on American businesses of almost $2 billion ($1.9798 billion = 1042 days times $1.9 million) and counting.

My colleague Dan Griswold explained yesterday how U.S. trade policy punishes poorer people abroad, and amounts to a regressive tax here at home:

America’s highest remaining trade barriers are aimed at products mostly grown and made by poor people abroad and disproportionately consumed by poor people at home.  While industrial goods and luxury products typically enter under low or zero tariffs, the U.S. government imposes duties of 30 pecent or more on food and lower-end clothing and shoes – staple goods that loom large in the budgets of poor families.

The Obama administration and Congress could easily remove the sanctions that burden America’s exporters and lower-income consumers.  But until they’re convinced that they can make up the revenues lost by crossing Big Labor, the Democratic Party playbook counsels more of the same disingenuous rhetoric of fraternity with the common man and more exaggerations about evil foreign labor practices.