Tag: Progressives

Response to Matthew Yglesias re: Uncle Sam’s $4 Million Bike Rack

In response to my criticism of the new federally-financed $4 million bike center set to open at Union Station in Washington, DC, Think Progress blogger Matthew Yglesias says:

I look forward to the day when the Cato Institute does a blog post denouncing each and every publicly financed parking lot or garage in the United States of America.

I’ll take that bait…sort of…

I denounce each and every federally financed parking lot or garage in the United States of America on non-federal property.  I’m one of those quaint individuals who recognizes that the Constitution grants the federal government specific enumerated powers.  Using federal tax dollars to finance local parking garages, lots, bike centers and racks is not one of the powers granted to the federal government.  So let me rephrase my statement from yesterday: Look, I harbor no animosity against [car drivers], but under what authority — legal or moral — does the federal government tax me in order to build [parking garages or lots] for parochial, special interests?

By the way, for an excellent study on the problems with federal subsidies to state and local government, please see my colleague Chris Edwards’ “Federal Aid to the States: Historical Cause of Government Growth and Bureaucracy.”

Here are a few additional random thoughts…

I know so-called “progressives” like Yglesias don’t lose sleep over how much money the federal government spends, but $4 million to park a hundred or so bikes?  As Chris Moody noted to me today, if bike security is the major issue, why not pay a guard $12 an hour to stand watch?bike rack

Isn’t it possible, just possible, that a bike center with even more racks could have been built for a lot less?  Isn’t that the question that people like Yglesias, who want more people on bikes and less in cars, should be asking?

I don’t see anything inherently governmental about building and operating parking garages or bike centers.  The absolutely sorriest, most poorly run parking garage system I’ve ever experienced is the one managed by the State of Indiana where I used to work.  I recall an overcrowding situation – exacerbated by lousy management – in which the solution put forward was to just build another garage.  Hey, someone else is going to pay for it so who cares, right?  I often tell people that young libertarians should spend a couple years working in the bowels of government in order to reinforce their belief system with hands-on experience.  I’m starting to think “progressives” and other unwavering fans of all-things-government should do the same.

Pervasive Illiteracy in the Afghan National Army

Afghan_SigmaMatt Yglesias has a lot of smart things to say about the pervasive illiteracy plaguing the Afghan National Army. Upwards of 75 to 90 percent (according to varying estimates) of the ANA is illiterate.

As Ted Galen Carpenter and I argue in our recent Cato white paper Escaping the Graveyard of Empires: A Strategy to Exit Afghanistan, this lack of basic education prevents many officers from filling out arrest reports, equipment and supply requests, and arguing before a judge or prosecutor. And as Marine 1st Lt. Justin Greico argues, “Paperwork, evidence, processing—they don’t know how to do it…You can’t get a policeman to take a statement if he can’t read and write.”

Yglesias notes:

This strikes me as an object lesson in the importance of realistic goal-setting. The Afghan National Army is largely illiterate because Afghanistan is largely illiterate…we just need an ANA that’s not likely to be overrun by its adversaries. But if we have the more ambitious goal of created [sic] an effectively administered centralized state, then the lack of literacy becomes a huge problem. And a problem without an obvious solution on a realistic time frame [emphasis mine].

Such high levels of illiteracy serves to highlight the absurd idea that the United States has the resources (and the legitimacy) to “change entire societies,” in the words of retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel John Nagl. Eight years ago, Max Boot, fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, likened the Afghan mission to British colonial rule:

Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets…This was supposed to be ‘for the good of the natives,’ a phrase that once made progressives snort in derision, but may be taken more seriously after the left’s conversion (or, rather, reversion) in the 1990s to the cause of ‘humanitarian’ interventions. [emphasis mine]

But as I highlighted yesterday at the Cato event “Should the United States Withdraw from Afghanistan?” (which you can view in its entirety here), policymakers must start narrowing their objectives in Afghanistan, a point Yglesias stresses above. Heck, as I argued yesterday, rational people in the United States are having difficulty convincing delusional types here in America that Barack Obama is their legitimate president. I am baffled by people who think that we have the power to increase the legitimacy of the Afghan government. It’s also ironic that many conservatives (possibly brainwashed by neo-con ideology) who oppose government intervention at home believe the U.S. government can bring about liberty and peace worldwide. These self-identified “conservatives” essentially have a faith in government planning.

Yet these conservatives share a view common among the political and military elite, which is that if America pours enough time and resources—possibly hundreds of thousands of troops for another 12 to 14 years—Washington could really turn Afghanistan around.

However, there is a reason why the war in Afghanistan ranks at or near the bottom of polls tracking issues important to the American public, and why most Americans who do have an opinion about the war oppose it (57 percent in the latest CNN poll released on Sept. 1) and oppose sending more combat troops (56 percent in the McClatchy-Ipsos survey, also released on Sept. 1). It’s because Americans understand intuitively that the question about Afghanistan is not about whether it is winnable, but whether it constitutes a vital national security interest. An essential national debate about whether we really want to double down in Afghanistan has yet take place. America still does not have a clearly articulated goal. This is why the conventional wisdom surrounding the war—about whether we can build key institutions and create a legitimate political system—is not so much misguided as it is misplaced.

The issue is not about whether we can rebuild Afghanistan but whether we should. On both accounts the mission looks troubling, but this distinction is often times overlooked.

Don’t Leave Room for Desert

Duncan “Atrios” Black sums up and amplifies on a much longer post by Salon’s Glenn Greenwald as follows:

Just adding on to Glenn’s post, much opposition to the government actually doing anything decent for people comes from the idea that the government is going to take my tax money and give it to people who don’t deserve it. The problem is that for decades the Dems have tried to get around this by making sure policies and programs were relatively small and incremental, everything targeted and means tested. But doing that effectively confirmed the critics’ point. The big (giant) government programs which are most popular are the ones which are universal - Social Security and Medicare - and other less controversial government programs, like highway spending, are also perceived to benefit people across the board.

There’s a couple of interesting things going on here that seem worth unpacking.  The first is actually a legitimate point about how valid arguments against various kinds of redistribution tend, with unsettling ease, to shade into unsavory demonization of the folks on the receiving end of the transfer. Suppose someone suggests that the government should, either by regulation or direct subsidy, ensure that the indigent are provided with health care or that insolvent homeowners are protected from foreclosure. Now, there are a few types of objections people might raise. There’s an argument from efficiency and incentives: To the extent that the risks associated with individual financial or lifestyle choices are borne by the public, there’s a familiar problem of “moral hazard” reducing incentives for prudence. And there’s an argument from property and autonomy, to the effect that even if people ought to help others in need, each person is entitled to decide whether and how to do so without compulsion. Neither of these implies any blanket judgment about the folks who find themselves in need of aid. The first argument does suggest that redistributive policy will make it rational for people to take more risks at the margin, but it does not follow from either that people who are having trouble meeting their mortgage payments, or people who get sick and cannot afford care, are bad or foolish or irresponsible or otherwise deserving of their fate. And it is a good thing for these arguments that no such conclusion follows, because it’s clearly not true.

Yet in popular political rhetoric, it’s disturbingly easy to find just such a leap being made. Think of Rick Santelli’s jeremiad against “losers” under foreclosure getting bailed out by government. Is it just that people are inherently spiteful or unkind? In fact, the tendency to assume that people who are badly off must deserve it may be a result of what social psychologists call the Just World Hypothesis. In brief, faced with evidence that the world is often arbitrary and unfair, and that bad things often happen to good people, many of us prefer to preserve our faith in a basically fair and benevolent universe by assuming that the badly off must somehow deserve their fates—which is a stronger and (I think) rather morally uglier proposition than the more plausible notion that people are often significantly responsible for their fates.

There are at least three reasons to take some care to avoid this implication, given how easily human beings fall into it. The first is just that it’s an ugly and callous attitude to have toward people who will often deserve our compassion whether or not they ought to receive government aid. The second is that people will readily—and sometimes intentionally—misconstrue an argument about incentives as an argument about the moral worthiness or personal virtue of the proposed recipients, which does not make for a particularly fruitful conversation. Finally, there’s a paradoxically quite authoritarian implicit premise lurking behind this sort of argument—to wit, that it’s the job of the government  to determine who is or is not morally deserving of its largess, and that the central question is whether this or that particular class of prospective recipients qualifies. That’s a frame people across the spectrum ought to be uncomfortable with.

As Atrios points out, strategic response to this on the part of progressives has been to embed what are essentially welfare programs within an elaborate—and functionally, if not politically, superfluous—superstructure of universal social insurance. My colleague Will Wilkinson has pressed this point cogently in the context of Social Security. The rationale for the program is ultimately that we hope it will prevent people from being mired in poverty in old age. There is no sane reason, on this rationale, for cutting Bill Gates a check when he reaches the age of eligibility—but we do it this way because progressives believe, perhaps correctly, that a means-tested aid program for the indigent elderly would be more politically vulnerable to cuts. Which, I think, underscores the perverse effect of thinking in terms of the desert of the recipients, since there’s no actually-valid argument on which a universal need-blind benefit makes more sense than a narrow means-tested one. So one more reason to eschew desert-centered political discourse: It gives rise to policy that’s less intelligent whether your underlying commitments are progressive or libertarian.

We’re Terribly Czarry

My former colleague Dave Weigel makes the excellent point that the supposed explosion of “Czars” under this administration is, in significant part, a function of journalists trying to make the same old “deputy undersecretary” sound sexier. Which is a shame, since it means that the pernicious and the benign get lumped together under the same sensationalist label – one whose public effect is to normalize the idea of unaccountable individuals within the executive branch given sweeping powers to solve specific problems, whether or not that picture is accurate.

I don’t know how much it can be attributed to the Czarmania, but I’m especially puzzled by the apparent emergence of legal scholar and prospective OIRA Adminstrator Cass Sunstein as the new hot bogeyman for conservatives. The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which Sunstein’s been tapped to head, was created in 1980 and is precisely the sort of agency conservatives should love – tasked with catching inefficient and excessively burdensome regulations before they go into effect. It has, unsurprisingly, been most active under conservative presidents, and is one of the few offices where fans of limited government should want a vigorous, influential, and intellectually formidable director at the helm.

Now, Cass Sunstein is not somebody I agree with on a great number of things. On the day he’s tapped for a seat on the Supreme Court bench, I’ll break out in hives. But it’s awfully hard to imagine any realistic alternative – anyone Obama might actually have appointed – who would be better in the OIRA post from a limited government perspective. (I considered some of the specific concerns being raised about Sunstein back in the spring and found that they ranged from exaggerated to simply mendacious.) That’s one reason hardcore progressives have, in fact, been freaking out over his nomination. They must be pinching themselves  now that it seems Glenn Beck is out to do their work for them. Say what you will about the tenets of “libertarian paternalism,” but at least it’s an ethos that would demand a far lighter touch on markets than the unreconstructed technocracy of your average regulator.

Michael Lind’s Economic Philistinism

In a recently published article for the journal Democracy, Michael Lind of the New America Foundation lays out “The Case for Goliath” (registration required) – i.e., for returning to the good old days of price-and-entry regulation and cartelized industries. No, seriously.

I’ll give Lind credit for daring to go where his fellow devotees of “nostalgianomics” fear to tread.  Many on the left these days look back fondly at the ’50s and ’60s when activist government and strong unions coincided with a narrowing income distribution. What they fail to recognize, or at least admit, is that the political economy of that supposed golden age rested on a systematic muting of competition, both by circumstance and deliberate policy.  The devastation of Europe and Japan in World War II, price-and-entry controls, high trade barriers, and the threat of antitrust enforcement against industry leaders all combined to make heavy unionization and above-market wages for union workers economically viable.

This glaring oversight is understandable. There is, after all, overwhelming economic evidence that competition beats cartelization of industry hands down. When government restricts entry by new firms, the predictable result is a stifling of innovation. For example, consider this admission by former FCC chairman Michael Powell: “Because the history of the FCC is, when something happens that it doesn’t understand, kill it. We tried to kill cable. We tried to kill long-distance. When [MCI founder] Bill McGowan starting stringing out microwave towers that threatened AT&T, the FCC tried to stop him. The FCC tried to kill cable because it was going to threaten broadcasting.” (For more details on the the FCC’s lamentable track record, see here.)

The upshot is that progressive fantasies of a return to the good old days are just that – fantasies. Private-sector unions have withered and shrunk not because of changes in labor law, but because unionized firms haven’t been able to hack it in the new, more competitive marketplace (see “Auto industry, U.S.”). So the only way to get back to the days of Big Labor is by throttling the main engine of innovation and productivity: competition. And, well, that just doesn’t sound very progressive, does it?

Lind, though, grasps the nettle and chooses cartels and unions over economic progress. He does try to argue that we can have our cake and eat it too, but his case boils down to a crude post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy: the big move toward cartelization in the ’30s was followed by good times in the ’50s and ’60s (let’s not talk about the ’70s), so therefore cartelization was good for the economy!  Yes, and the Union won the Civil War with inferior generals, so perhaps poor military leadership is a key to victory. The fact is, the strong economic performance of the early postwar decades occurred in spite of, not because of, widespread restrictions on competition.

Though the anticompetitive nostrums Lind peddles are pure poison, he nonetheless deserves commendation. By identifying correctly the link between cartelization and strong unions, Lind highlights the essentially reactionary nature of progressives’ infatuation with Big Labor. He has therefore, however unwittingly, performed a public service.

How Progressive Are You?

I’m two weeks late coming to this, but the “Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party” Obama Administration Farm Team Center for American Progress has developed a quiz aiming to answer the question, “How Progressive Are You?“  The quiz asks you to rank, on a 10-point scale, how much you agree with 40 different statements.  Now, I won’t quibble here with the misuse of the word “progressive” – having debased the term “liberal” (which in any other country pretty much means what Cato supports), the Left moves on to its next target – but the quiz highlights the false dichotomy between “progressive” and “conservative.” 

The fallacy of this linear political spectrum forces people to wring their hands and call themselves “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” – does anyone call themselves “fiscally liberal” even if they are? – or “moderate” (no firm views on anything, huh?) or anything else that adds no descriptive meaning to a political discussion.  Where do you put a Jim Webb?  A Reagan Democrat?  A Ross Perot voter?  A gay Republican?  A deficit hawk versus a supply-sider?  Let alone Crunchy Cons, Purple Americans, Wal-Mart Republicans, South Park Conservatives, NASCAR dads, soccer moms, and, oh yes, libertarians. 

And the statements the quiz asks you to evaluate are just weird.  I mean, yes, “Lower taxes are generally a good thing” (I paraphrase) gets you somewhere, but what does “Talking with rogue nations such as Iran or with state-sponsored terrorist groups is naive and only gives them legitimacy” get you?  Or “America has taken too large a role in solving the world’s problems and should focus more at home”?  What is the “progressive” response to these statements?  The “conservative” one?  I think I know what the Bush response and the Obama response would be to the first one, but how does either fit into any particular ideology? 

The Institute for Humane Studies at least gives you a two-dimensional quiz, so you can see how much government intervention you want in economic and social affairs (the “progressive” view presumably being lots of intervention in the economy, none on social issues).  And IHS poses classical debates in political philosophy rather than thinly veiled leading questions relating to current affairs.  

In any event, when you finish the quiz, it tells you your score and that the average score for Americans is 209.5.  How do they get this number?  A selectively biased survey of people who frequent the CAP website would surely score much higher on the progressive scale.  No, it’s based on a “National Study of Values and Beliefs.”  Well, ok, but, again, if those are the types of questions you ask people – or, even worse, the quiz designers code the survey responses – I’m not sure how much I care about the result.   (Incidentally, the survey reveals that “the potential for true progressive governance is greater than at any point in decades.”  Great, that’s either a banal formulation of the fact that Democrats have retaken the political branches or a self-serving conclusion.  Or both.)

In case anyone cares, I scored 100 out of 400, which makes me “very conservative.”  I suppose that won’t come as a surprise to my “progressive” friends, but then I’m always talking to them about how bad the bailouts/stimuli are for the economy, how we should actually follow the Constitution, etc.  All the folks who over the years have called me a libertine or hedonist, however, will not be amused to learn that I’m actually one of them…

Nostalgianomics: If the Shoe Fits…

In a recent post commenting on my new Cato paper, Matt Yglesias just doesn’t get why I would accuse Paul Krugman of peddling nostalgia for the good old days of his boyhood. Indeed, Matt says my whole argument is “kind of silly.” Here’s the gist of Matt’s critique:

In his paper, Lindsey takes the unusual-for-a-libertarian tack of agreeing with Krugman (and others) that public policy changes have played an important role [in increasing inequality]. But he argues that the changes have mostly been changes that, on net, are positive. So it’s wrong of Krugman to espouse nostalgianomics and support a return to the policies of the 1950s. Which is fine, except I read almost every Krugman column and I’ve read Conscience of a Liberal (and, indeed, other works of Krugmanania such as Pop Internationalism and Peddling Prosperity) and it’s not as if the book ends with a call for the return of comprehensive regulation of airline fares or the re-establishment of the AT&T monopoly. To observe that the growth of inequality has policy roots isn’t to say that the right response to it is to methodically reverse every policy change of the past thirty years. It’s simply to deny the previous conventional wisdom – that it would be impossible to reverse the growing inequality of our society.

I think Matt misunderstands both my argument and what Krugman has been doing. I quite agree that Krugman doesn’t want a full-scale reinstatement of the corporatist, cartelistic policies of yesteryear. I say as much in the paper. What Krugman does want, however, is to portray the economic policies of the early postwar decades as an inspiration for progressives today – an example of how activist, interventionist government can simultaneously promote growth and reduce inequality. To quote Krugman’s Conscience of a Liberal: “During the thirties and forties, liberals managed to achieve a remarkable reduction in income inequality, with almost entirely positive effects on the economy as a whole. The men and women behind that achievement offer today’s liberals an object lesson in the difference leadership can make.”

To get to that ideologically convenient punch line, Krugman is forced to systematically misrepresent the policies and culture of the early postwar decades. He has to leave out all the things he doesn’t like, all the things that virtually all his fellow economists and fellow progressives don’t like, about the supposedly good old days – for example, the widespread cartelization efforts of the thirties, farm supports, price and entry controls on large sectors of the economy, restrictions on retail competition, high trade barriers, racist immigration laws, and the sexist confinement of working women to a pink collar ghetto. All of these contributed to the compression of incomes, yet they don’t serve Krugman’s ideological purposes. So he ignores them. That’s nostalgia-mongering, plain and simple: the selective recall of the past to make it seem better than it really was.

The relevance of all this to today’s situation is both real and important. Progressives have returned to power, and because of the current economic crisis the policymaking environment is incredibly fluid. Big changes are possible, indeed almost inevitable. In particular, proposals to substitute government control for market competition on a massive scale are now on the table: large-scale industrial policy in the name of creating “green” jobs, a full-court press to restore the power of private-sector unions, a qualitative increase in government’s role in health care, and “temporary” (such a dangerous word in Washington) government control of large parts of the financial system. We run the risk right now of making disastrous mistakes that will haunt us for many years to come. And that risk is exacerbated by the nostalgic fantasy, peddled by Krugman and others, that the record of the early postwar decades shows that Big Government and Big Labor are actually good for the economy.