Tag: The Corner

Dueling Earmark Op-Eds

With a key vote on earmarks slated for next Tuesday in the Senate Republican Conference, Republican leaders are having it out on whether their party should eschew earmarking or continue the practice. The debate centers on the division of power between Congress and the executive branch.

On NRO’s “The Corner” blog, Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) calls earmarks a “phony issue.” Doing away with earmarks doesn’t reduce spending. It simply transfers authority for spending decisions to the executive:

Earmarks have been part of the congressional process since the founding of our country. As James Madison, the father of the Constitution viewed it, appropriating funds is the job of the legislature. Writing in the Federalist, he noted that Congress holds the power of the purse for the very reason that it is closer to the people. The words of Madison and Article 1 Section 9 of the Constitution say that authorization and appropriations are exclusively the responsibility of the legislative branch. Congress should not cede this authority to the executive branch.

And he criticizes the anti-earmark movement as “pseudo” fiscal responsibility:

While anti-earmarkers bloviate about the billions spent through earmarks, many of them supported the trillions of dollars in extra spending for bailouts, stimulus, and foreign aid. Talk about specks versus planks! Over the course of the last several years, the overall number and dollar amount of earmarks has steadily decreased. During that same time, overall spending has ballooned by over $1.3 trillion. In reality, ballyhooing about earmarks has been used as a ruse by some to seem more fiscally responsible than they really are.

Taking the other side, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) writes in the Washington Post that earmarks are part and parcel of Congress’s abdication:

Those who view earmarking as an expression of the “congressional prerogative” sell Congress short of its preeminent role as the first branch of government. As the defenders of earmarking are fond of saying, earmarks represent less than 2 percent of all federal spending. Precisely! By focusing on a measly 2 percent of spending, we have given up effective oversight on the remaining 98 percent.

This lopsided exchange can be examined empirically. As the number of earmarks has risen significantly over the past two decades, the amount of oversight exercised by the House Appropriations Committee — as measured by the number of hearings held, witnesses called, etc. — has declined substantially. It is as if Congress has called a truce with the executive branch: Don’t hassle us about our 2 percent, and we’ll offer only token interference with your 98 percent.

Senator Inhofe misuses Federalist #58. The “power of the purse” refers to the fact that revenue measures must originate in the popularly elected House, strengthening its hand against the Senate, whose membership was to be selected by state legislatures. But he is right to castigate the earmark opponents who have thrown buckets of taxpayer money into the wind when Washington, D.C., has lately spun itself into a whirl.

Inhofe’s static view of earmarking produces the weaker of the two arguments, though. Rep. Flake is right to recognize earmarking’s dynamic effects. The fiscal weaklings—majorities in both parties—decline oversight and go along with spending bills they might otherwise oppose because of goodies for their home states or districts.

Earmarker comity may even cause fiscal conservatives to go wobbly. Try counting the number of amendments Senator Inhofe has offered seeking to strike earmarks in 23 years of debating spending bills on the Senate floor, and you may not need to raise a finger on either of your hands.

The right answer is to take what both of these debaters has to offer. Earmarks should go, and Congress should withdraw spending discretion from the executive branch while it reduces spending overall.

I’ll be speaking Monday at a Hill event on earmark transparency. Should be a barn burner!

Studying Confirmation Bias Tends to Convince People of the Existence of Confirmation Bias

If you were a federal contractor with millions of dollars in federal business, would you ever say that federal regulations are too burdensome? Would you tell a newspaper that you violated federal rules by turning away workers because a federal database reported a discrepancy between the information you submitted and the information the government holds?

I don’t think so.

But on National Review’s “The Corner” blog, Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies takes a federal contractor’s self-serving statements about E-Verify as evidence that it’s “working fine.”

Of course it is! If you carefully consider the evidence you want to!

Just Say No to Public Option Health Care

In today’s New York Times, Paul Krugman writes about the necessity of a public option in health care. Why is a public plan such a bad idea? I explain in my post over at The Corner:

A public plan, regardless of how it was structured or administered, would have an inherent advantage in the marketplace over private insurance companies because it would ultimately be subsidized by American taxpayers. It would also have an advantage since its enormous market presence would allow it to impose much lower reimbursement rates on doctors and hospitals, similar to current reimbursement practice under Medicare and Medicaid. It is estimated that privately insured patients presently pay $89 billion annually in additional insurance costs because of cost-shifting from government programs. Assuming the new public option would have similar reimbursement policies, it would result in additional cost-shifting as much as $36.4 billion annually. This would force insurers to raise their premiums, making them even less competitive with the taxpayer-subsidized public plan.

With the public option squeezing private insurers from the sides, and expanded eligibility for Medicare and Medicaid pushing from the top and bottom, it is unlikely that any significant private insurance market could continue to exist. America would be firmly on the road to a single-payer health care system with all the dangers that presents.

The Closing of the Conservative Mind

If you’re unclear what’s wrong with conservatism these days, I urge you to check out the tragicomic dustup accidentally provoked last week by my colleague Jerry Taylor at National Review Online’s “The Corner” blog.

I don’t want to give a blow-by-blow recount of the fracas, but happily a convenient compendium of the relevant links is provided here. Go read the whole thing; you’ll be entertained, that’s for sure. For present purposes, suffice it to say that Jerry made two basic points: (1) talk radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are not popular outside the conservative movement; and (2) the two have a habit of making “dodgy” arguments even when their positions are sound. He might have added that the sky is blue and A comes before Z. For his effrontery Jerry was verbally beaten to a pulp by his fellow Cornerites.

The whole thing seems like an updated version of the Emperor’s New Clothes, except this time the crowd turns on the truth-telling kid and gives him the Rodney King treatment. And that response to Jerry’s innocent and obvious points captures the essence of what has gone wrong with the conservative movement. That the flagship publication of the movement will brook no criticism of demagogic blowhards like Limbaugh and Hannity says it all:  A movement founded on the premise that “ideas have consequences” has suffered a calamitous decline in intellectual standards.

Richard Posner agrees. In a recent blog post, he offered this withering assessment of the state of the conservative mind:

My theme is the intellectual decline of conservatism, and it is notable that the policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. That the policies are weak in conception, have largely failed in execution, and are political flops is therefore unsurprising. The major blows to conservatism, culminating in the election and programs of Obama, have been fourfold: the failure of military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives; the inanity of trying to substitute will for intellect, as in the denial of global warming, the use of religious criteria in the selection of public officials, the neglect of managment and expertise in government; a continued preoccupation with abortion; and fiscal incontinence in the form of massive budget deficits, the Medicare drug plan, excessive foreign borrowing, and asset-price inflation.

By the fall of 2008, the face of the Republican Party had become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Conservative intellectuals had no party.

I don’t endorse every detail of Posner’s bill of indictment, but the broad thrust is correct. Movement conservatism has regressed to something like the days before National Review was founded – back when Lionel Trilling could say that conservatism consisted of nothing but “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” And as Jerry’s trip to the woodshed demonstrates, those gestures can be very irritable indeed! Conservatism today has degenerated into a species of especially unattractive populism, pandering to the pro-torture-and-wiretapping, anti-gay-and-Mexican prejudices of a dwindling, increasingly sectarian, increasingly regional “base.”

Some who sympathize with libertarian and free-market causes are cheered by the anti-government rhetoric and Tea Party theatrics now increasingly in evidence on the right. Perhaps, they think, the old Goldwater-Reagan conservatism is making a comeback. Sorry, but I seriously doubt it. On the contrary, I worry that good free-market ideas are going to get tainted by association with an increasingly brutish identity politics for angry white guys and the women who love them.

In order to make gains for the cause of limited government, we need to convince smart people that we are right. We need to win the battle of ideas in the intellectual realm by making better arguments than our opponents, and we need to educate the public so that it is less susceptible over time to “rational irrationality.” None of this can be accomplished by consorting with and apologizing for merchants of intellectual junk food, or by making common cause with some of the ugliest cultural attitudes in contemporary America. Greater economic freedom will not come with pitchforks and torches; it will come, as it has in the past, by reshaping the elite consensus.

Galling Security Ignorance

In a post on Saturday at NRO’s the Corner blog, former Bush speech writer Marc Theissen exhibits ignorance of basic security concepts too galling to let pass without comment.

Attempting to refute the idea that hijacking planes and flying them into buildings was “off the table” as a terrorist tactic after 9/11, Theissen says:

Really? Planes were off the table after 9/11? That would come as a surprise to every passenger in the past three years who had their liquids confiscated in an airport security line. Those security measures were instituted because in 2006 we foiled an al-Qaeda plot to hijack airplanes leaving London’s Heathrow airport and blow them up over the Atlantic (a plot our intelligence community says was just weeks from execution).

(First, put aside some issues - “what the government says about its security measures must be true” and both the immediacy and viability of the liquid bomb plot in London.)

The difference between “hijacking” and “bombing” shouldn’t need explaining. The former is taking over the controls of a thing, enabling an attacker to direct it into other things. The latter is exploding something in it or on it so as to render it inoperable.

Americans ritually donate their toothpaste to sanitation departments in the cities they visit not because a liquid bomb could enable the commandeering of a plane, but because the alleged liquid bomb could take a plane out of the sky.

The bombing of a plane is a serious concern, but not as serious or potentially damaging as the commandeering of an aircraft. And commandeering is essentially off the table. The hardening of cockpit doors, new procedures at the fronts of planes, and newfound resolve of passengers and crews against commandeering have reduced the likelihood of future commandeerings to near zero. That was what the plane going down in Pennsylvania was all about.

If it weren’t made in debate about such serious issues, Theissen’s error would be quite comical. In his jumbled version of events, the liquid bomb plotters were going to go to the trouble of capturing the controls of an airplane, then fly it around for a while, and finally blow it up over the Atlantic. It’s reminiscent of the Seinfeld episode in which Elaine attacks the theory that an elderly couple running a nearby cobbler shop had shut it down just to abscond with Jerry’s shoes:

ELAINE (amused): So. Mom and Pop’s plan was to move into the neighborhood…establish trust…for 48 years. And then, run off with Jerry’s sneakers.

KRAMER: Apparently.

ELAINE: Alright, that’s enough of this.

Who’s Blogging about Cato

Here’s a round-up of bloggers who are writing about Cato research and commentary:

  • QandO’s Michael Wade offered his own thoughts on the New York Times blogger who said Cato’s voice against bailouts has not met her “expectations of adequate noise.”
  • The Atlantic’s Clive Crook reviewed the new Cato book, The Beautiful Tree, which explains how private education efforts are empowering children in Third World nations.
  • Blogging on Tax Day, Jacob Grier cited Charlotte Twight’s essay in Cato Journal on the history of income tax withholding in the United States.
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