Tag: Washington Post

Overcommitted in Afghanistan

Saturday’s Washington Post ran a story titled “Lawmakers Push for a New Afghan Strategy.” Notably, the number of conservative policymakers looking for a change is growing significantly, as evidenced by the comments of the former governor of Utah (and possible presidential candidate), Republican John Huntsman and Rep. Charlie Bass (R-NH) on CNN yesterday.

If they would like a serious proposal that would bring our level of commitment in line with our interests in Afghanistan, they should have a look at this just-released paper [.pdf] by Joshua Rovner of the U.S. Naval War College and Austin Long of Columbia University. Rovner and Long take aim at the two central justifications for the present strategy–fear of “safe havens” and concerns over instability in Afghanistan putting Pakistan’s nuclear weapons up for grabs–and judge that the current strategy has little to do with those objectives. Instead, they propose a significant change in strategy that would secure our vital interests in that nation at a cost more commensurate with our interests.

One thing that policymakers should know about the issue is that public opinion is resoundingly in favor of withdrawal, not staying the current course indefinitely. As Rovner and Long point out, a March Washington Post poll showed that 73 percent of Americans thought that the United States should “withdraw a substantial number of U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan this summer” (although only 39 percent expected that Washington would do so).

Increasing numbers of Republicans seem to be recognizing that the mainstream neoconservative view that we need to stay in numbers in Afghanistan forever is out of step with both sound strategic judgment and public opinion. In a recent House vote on withdrawing from Afghanistan, the number of Republicans voting yes tripled from the last vote on the question (although still a low figure).

If policymakers want to know the responsible way to a more solvent strategy in Afghanistan, they should give the Rovner/Long paper a read. Or they can send staff to our event on the paper here at Cato June 29, featuring Rovner, my colleague Malou Innocent, Joshua Foust of the American Security Project, and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.

Fiscally Conservative, Socially Liberal Virginians

The Washington Post just did a major poll of Virginians and tantalizingly included this note in writing up the results:

In contrast to four years ago, about as many Virginians consider themselves to be liberal on social matters as call themselves conservative. Fiscal conservatism is on the rise, but on these social issues, it’s liberalism that’s ticked higher.

But those questions were not included in the published data. Thanks to the generosity of Post polling director Jon Cohen, I can report that the percentage of Virginians who said they were socially liberal or moderate and fiscally conservative went from 16 in 2007 to 23 in the latest poll. This reflects a small increase in the number of social liberals and a larger increase in the number of fiscal conservatives. And here are the tables on those questions:

We’ve written about fiscally conservative, socially liberal voters before, notably here and here, and in relation to Virginia and in the Republican party. Apparently when you ask people, “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal?”, you get a higher percentage than when you ask the questions separately, as the Post did. When the Zogby Poll asked that question to actual voters in 2006, fully 59 percent said yes. Broader background on the “libertarian vote” here.

The King’s Speech

His Royal Highness Prince Charles, who lives, well, like a king, off wealth that his ancestors stole, appears at a Washington Post conference to tell his still-recalcitrant former subjects to change their economic system. As befitting a hereditary aristocrat, coming from a long line of people used to issuing orders, with little interest in spontaneous order or actual economic growth, he finds an

urgent need for … the willingness of all aspects of society — the public, private and NGO [non-governmental organizations] sectors, large corporations and small organizations — to work together to build an economic model built upon resilience and diversity.

Sure thing, guv’nor, we’ll get right on that.

Journalism and Generality

The media makes it hard for ordinary people to be libertarians. In large part, this is because journalism is in the business of selling panic—panic about terrorism, panic about drugs, panic about food, panic about pornography, panic about our health care system. If it’s not an emergency, it’s not news. To the lazy journalist, everything becomes an emergency—and emergencies always—always—demand state action.

The media makes things hard for the would-be libertarian in other ways, too. Consider this story from today’s Washington Post, about… well, it’s hard to say, actually:

Senate Democrats unveiled a plan Tuesday to save $21 billion over the next decade by eliminating tax breaks for the nation’s five biggest oil companies, a move designed to counter Republican demands to control the soaring national debt without new taxes.

With the proposal, Democrats sought to reframe the debate over debt reduction to include fresh revenue as well as sharp cuts in spending. For the first time, Democratic leaders suggested an equal split between spending cuts and new taxes — “50-50,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.).

That represents a larger share for taxes than has been proposed by either President Obama or the bipartisan commission he appointed to recommend how to cut the national debt.

So far, the Democratic tax agenda is focused on ending subsidies for big oil companies, a hugely popular proposal involving what Democrats see as a prime example of wasteful giveaways in the tax code. By raising the issue, Democrats are trying to force Republicans either to drop their rigid stance against new taxes or to defend taxpayer subsidies for some of the world’s most profitable corporations, including Ex­xon Mobil, Shell, BP, Chevron and ConocoPhillips.

The proposal came in response to remarks Tuesday by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who said raising taxes is “off the table.” A day earlier, he gave a speech demanding more than $2 trillion in spending cuts in exchange for GOP support for an increase in the legal limit on government borrowing through the end of next year.

Where am I confused, you ask? On almost everything a libertarian ought to care about. I’ll explain.

One of the key aspects of any good law is generality—that is, equality before the law. As F. A. Hayek put it:

[T]hough government has to administer means which have been put at its disposal (including the services of all those whom it has hired to carry out its instructions), this does not mean that it should similarly administer the efforts of private citizens. What distinguishes a free from an unfree society is that in the former each individual has a recognized private sphere clearly distinct from the public sphere, and the private individual cannot be ordered about but is expected to obey only the rules which are equally applicable to all….

The general, abstract rules, which are laws in the substantive sense, are… essentially long-term measures, referring to yet unnkown cases and containing no references to particular persons, places, or objects. Such laws must always be prospective, never retrospective, in their effect (The Constitution of Liberty, chapter 14, section 2).

Now, with every passing day our government stomps all over this generality requirement again and again, chiefly in the economic sphere. But is it doing so on the front page of today’s Washington Post? That’s a good question.

I can think of lots of ways we might deny a tax break to a certain five oil corporations. Some are decidedly better than others in their generality. Consider the following, ranked from least general to most:

  1. “The corporations known as Ex­xon Mobil, Shell, BP, Chevron and ConocoPhillips are hereby denied tax break X. All others still qualify, or not, as they did before.”
  2. “Oil corporations with an annual revenue above $198 billion are denied tax break X.”
  3. “We find that tax break X itself is lacking in generality. It is hereby repealed, and the overall corporate tax rate is increased accordingly.”

Which one are they proposing? From the story’s first paragraph, we could easily conclude that it was (1). Many people on the left would be happy with (1), because big corporations are anathema to them, and everything they do is evil, and punishing them—generality be damned—is just great.

But then, it could also be (2), and this measure is somewhat more general, even if ConocoPhillips—the smallest company on the list—just so happens to have an annual revenue of $198.655 billion. As Hayek noted, “[C]lassification in abstract terms can always be carried to the point at which, in fact, the class singled out consists only of particular known persons or even a single individual” (ibid., section 4). Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

And finally, there’s (3), clearly the winner in terms of generality. Is that in fact the proposal being discussed by members of Congress? Or is it still more general than that—something perhaps as described by my colleagues Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren earlier this month?

Last week President Barack Obama responded to rising public anger over soaring gasoline prices by banging the drums for the elimination of various tax breaks enjoyed by the oil and gas industry…

[L]et the record show that President Obama is right… about these tax breaks. They make the economy less — not more — efficient and do nothing to reduce prices at the pump.

Rigging the tax code to make investments in manufacturing artificially more attractive than investments in something else is an enterprise designed to harm non-manufacturers for the benefit of … manufacturers. Conservatives who want government to leave markets alone have no business throwing their political bodies in front of this tax break. If their political rhetoric means anything, they would see the president’s bid and raise him by calling for total repeal of this tax break for everyone, not just for oil and gas companies.

If only we were so lucky! Getting back to the Post, we learn much later in the story—in the fifteenth paragraph —that the congressional proposal “would close several long-standing tax loopholes, yielding roughly $2 billion a year in savings to be applied to lowering the deficit. It would affect only the five largest oil companies, excluding smaller producers.”

This is confusing to the point of deception. Does it really “close” a loophole to take a few entities and exclude them from the prior exclusion from the tax? By my understanding, it makes the law less general, more convoluted and more arbitrary, than it was before. Close the loophole—or just don’t close it, I think a Hayek might say. Don’t make companies play human Tetris to figure out whether they aren’t not un-disincluded.

One day I think people will look back on our era—from roughly the civil rights movement to the present—and marvel. They will be amazed at how, while the law grew much more general regarding many non-economic matters, it became increasingly partial and favoritist when it came to running a business. At times our journalism and even our language seemed blind to this contradictory development, which only encouraged it. Even thinking about the generality of our laws is made difficult when it’s just not a topic on the national media’s radar.

But equality before the law should apply, well, equally. Shouldn’t it?

Political Trends and Gun Control Politics

From today’s Washington Post:

During his campaign, Obama supported reintroducing the lapsed assault weapon ban, promised to eliminate an amendment requiring the FBI to destroy records of gun buyers’ background checks and advocated closing the gun-show loophole. Since taking office, the president has done none of that, and before the midterm elections, he shelved a proposal requiring gun dealers to report bulk sales of high-powered semiautomatic rifles. In his State of the Union address, just weeks after the Giffords shooting in January, Obama made no mention of guns. … Other leading Democrats, even those traditionally willing to offer full-throated support for gun-control efforts, have grown surprisingly less vocal as they take on more of a national role.

The Dems have lost enthusiasm for gun control.  No question.  But seems to me that media interest is also a big factor here.  When the news media turned from Gabrielle Giffords to Libya, that’s where Obama went next.

For related Cato work, go here and here.

“The Largest Annual Spending Cut in Our History”?

In this week’s Britannica column, I look at the claims being made for the budget cuts in the weekend deal:

“The largest annual spending cut in our history,” President Obama said. Speaker of the House John Boehner called it the “largest real dollar spending cut in American history.” Saturday’s front-page, upper-right headline in the Washington Post proclaimed:


The story went on to say that Obama “said the cuts would be painful but necessary.”

NPR’s Andrea Seabrook reported, “The Republicans got big, big cuts.”

And are they?

Please. It’s a cut of $38 billion in a budget of $3,819 billion. That’s 1 percent. That’s a rounding error in federal budgeting….

That same budget table shows that federal spending fell from $92.7 billion in 1945 to $55.2 billion in 1946, to $34.5 billion in 1947, and to $29.8 billion in 1948 (and all without any of the job losses that we’re told would result from modest reductions today). Check out also the drop in spending from 1919 to 1922, even larger in percentage terms….

The fundamental point here is that federal spending rose by more than a trillion dollars during Bush’s first seven years, and then by almost another trillion in barely three fiscal years. And then we had a titanic battle over whether to trim $38 billion.

The idea that the Democrats “have shown that they heard the message that government spends too much” or that the Republicans—the party that increased federal spending by a trillion dollars while nobody was looking during the Bush years—have “imposed a small-government agenda on Washington” is ludicrous.

Read it all here.

One Step Forward, One Step Back

This weekend I opened The Washington Post to find the editors arguing that Congress should cut federal subsidies to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Institute of Peace, and the National Endowment of the Arts, and George F. Will arguing that Congress should preserve federal subsidies to Teach for America.