Tag: washington

The Constitutional Vision of The New York Times

The editorialists at the The New York Times are out of sorts this morning over a Tea Party backed constitutional amendment that would give state legislatures the power to veto any federal law or regulation if two-thirds of the legislatures approved. Despite the backing of incoming House majority leader Eric Cantor and legislative leaders in 12 states, the proposal has little chance of succeeding, the Times avers, “but it helps explain further the anger-fueled, myth-based politics of the populist new right.” Indeed, it expresses “with bold simplicity the view of the Tea Party and others that the federal government’s influence is far too broad.”

Well? Isn’t that what the election last month was all about? But right there, for the Times, is the problem: “In past economic crises, populist fervor has been for expanding the power of the national government to address America’s pressing needs. Pleas for making good the nation’s commitment to equality and welfare have been as loud as those for liberty.” With the Tea Party, however, the tables have turned. What most troubles the Times, it seems, are Tea Party signs that say “We Want Less!”

And nowhere is that better captured than when the Times speaks of “the mistaken vision of federalism on which [this amendment] rests. Its foundation is that the United States defined in the Constitution are a set of decentralized sovereignties where personal responsibility, private property and a laissez-faire economy should reign. In this vision, the federal government is an intrusive parent.”

If that vision is “mistaken,” so too, apparently, were the Founders, because it was their vision as well. To be sure, the Constitution they crafted held “competing elements, some constraining the national government, others energizing it,” as the Times writes. And true also, the government they shaped was meant “to promote economic development that would lift the fortunes of the American people” – but mainly by securing the framework for liberty, the rule of law, not by pursuing prosperity through government programs. In particular, the Framers believed in personal, not government, responsibility; private, not collective, property; and a free, not a planned, economy. And they left most power with the states, where it would be exercised responsibly, or not – something to keep in mind as we watch our “failed states” asking Washington (read, the other states) to bail them out.

Overwrought On START

It is unclear whether New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) will make it to the Senate floor this year or if there are 67 votes for it if it does. According to the White House and arms control boosters, that uncertainty endangers us all by leaving Russia’s nuclear arsenal unmonitored and undermining our non-proliferation agenda. According to pundits, New START’s failure to pass in the lame-duck would be a grievous political wound for Obama adminstration, which is struggling to buy enough Republican votes for ratification.

In an op-ed out today on the National Interest’s website, Owen Cote and I say this talk is mostly hot air. New START just isn’t that big a deal. We write:

[New START] would provide minor increases in intelligence and Russian goodwill. But passing it means handing taxpayers a substantial new tab on top of what we already pay for our bloated nuclear weapons complex. And rather than reducing the arsenal’s size and cost, the treaty props it up…. The real impact of New START is distraction. By faking a drawdown, the treaty keeps Americans from noticing that deterring our enemies requires nothing like the force structure we plan to retain.

Still Not Serious About Cutting Spending

The howls of outrage that have greeted the report of the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform shows two things:  1) most Democrats have no interest in reducing the size and cost of government; and 2) few Republicans are actually serious about it.

From the initial reaction, one would think that the Commission has slashed government to the bone, throwing the elderly, poor and sick into the street.  In reality, the Commission report is far from a radical document.  It proposes a reduction in government spending from 24.3 percent of GDP today to 21.8 percent over the next 15 years.  That’s a start.  But as recently as 2000 total federal spending was just 18.4 percent of GDP – and people were hardly dying in the streets during the Clinton years.  

In fact, the Commission doesn’t actually “cut” federal spending.  Under the Commission’s proposal, it would rise from roughly $3.5 trillion today to more than $5 trillion by 2020.  So, under the terrible “cuts” that the Commission is recommending, federal spending would still increase faster than inflation.  This is the old Washington game of calling a slower increase than previously projected a “cut.”

But Democrats appear unwilling to support even this modest slowing in the growth of government.  Instead they call for simply raising taxes to support a virtually unlimited amount of federal spending.  Republicans, meanwhile, talk about reducing government, but fall back on bromides about reducing waste, fraud, and abuse when faced with the need to make specific cuts.

If we were serious about reducing the size, cost and intrusiveness of government, we should roll back spending to Clinton-era levels.  (My colleague Chris Edwards has shown how that can be done.)  That would eliminate the need for the tax increases that the commission proposes. 

Alas, we still await political leadership with that amount of courage.

Beijing Key in Controlling North Korea’s Recklessness

Shortly after unveiling a new uranium enrichment facility, North Korea has shelled a disputed island held by the Republic of Korea.  A score of South Koreans reportedly were killed or wounded.

These two steps underscore the North’s reputation for recklessness.  Unfortunately, there is no easy solution: serious military retaliation risks full-scale war, while intensified sanctions will have no impact without China’s support.

Instead, the U.S. should join with the ROK in an intensive diplomatic offensive in Beijing.  So far China has assumed that the Korean status quo is to its advantage.  However, Washington and Seoul should point out that Beijing has much to lose if things go badly in North Korea.

The North is about to embark on a potentially uncertain leadership transition.  North Koreans remain impoverished; indeed, malnutrition reportedly is spreading.  With the regime apparently determined to press ahead with its nuclear program while committing regular acts of war against the South, the entire peninsula could go up in flames.  China would be burned, along with the rest of North Korea’s neighbors.

The U.S. also should inform Beijing that Washington might choose not to remain in the middle if the North continues its nuclear program.  Given the choice of forever guaranteeing South Korean and Japanese security against an irresponsible North Korea, or allowing those nations to decide on their own defense, including possible acquisition of nuclear weapons, the U.S. would seriously consider the latter.  Then China would have to deal with the consequences.

Beijing’s best option would be to join with the U.S. and South Korea in offering a package deal for denuclearization, backed by effective sanctions, meaning the cut-off of Chinese food and energy assistance.  Otherwise, Beijing might find itself sharing in a future North Korean nightmare.

The GM ‘Turnaround’ in Bastiat’s View

GM’s long-rumored initial public stock offering will take place Thursday and self-anointed savior of the U.S. auto industry, Steven Rattner, is pretty bullish about the prospect of investors turning out in droves. 

I’ve been saying for a while that I thought the government’s exposure [euphemism for taxpayer losses] in the auto bailout was in the $10-billion to $20-billion range.

But since investor interest has pushed the initial price up from the $26-to-$29 per share range to the $32-$33 range, Rattner now believes:

[T]his exposure is in the single-digit billion range, and arguably potentially better.

I won’t argue with Rattner’s numbers.  After all, they affirm one of my many criticisms of the bailout: that taxpayers would never recoup the value of their “investment.”  My bigger problem is with Rattner’s cavalier disregard for the other enduring—and arguably more significant—costs of the auto bailouts.

Rattner is like the foil in Frederic Bastiat’s excellent, but not-famous-enough, 1850 parable, That Which is Seen and That Which is Unseen.    Rattner touts what is seen, namely that GM and Chrysler still exist.  And they exist because of his and his colleagues’ commitment to a plan to ensure their survival, along with the hundreds of thousands (if not millions, as some “estimates” had it) of jobs that were imperiled had those companies vanished.  (For starters, I very much question even what is seen here. I am skeptical of the counterfactual that GM and Chrysler would have disappeared and that there would have been significantly more job loss in the industry than there actually was during the recession and restructuring.  But I’ll grant his view of what is seen because, frankly, the specifics are irrelevant in the final analysis).

For what is seen, Rattner admirably admits of a cost.  And that cost is not insignificant.  It is anywhere from $65 billion to $82 billion (the range of the cost of the bailout) minus what is being paid back and what investors are willing to pay for GM shares—in the “single-digit billion range,” as Rattner says.  But Rattner is willing to stand by that trade-off, claiming his efforts and the billions in “government exposure” were a small price to pay for saving the U.S. auto industry, as it were.  It’s merely a difference in philosophy or compassion that animates bailout critics, according to this position.

No.  Not so fast.  All along (quite contemptuously in this op-ed, which I criticized here) Rattner has been unwilling to acknowledge the costs that are unseen.  Those unseen costs include:

  • the added uncertainty that pervades the private sector and assigns higher risks and thus higher costs to investing and hiring (whom might government favor or punish next?);
  • the diversion of resources from productive to political purposes in the business community (instead of buying that machinery to churn out better or more lawn mower engines, better to hire lobbyists to keep Washington apprised of how important we are or how this or that policy might be beneficial to the national employment picture!);
  • excessive risk-taking and other uneconomic behavior that falls under the rubric of moral hazard from entities that might consider themselves too-big-to-fail (perhaps, even, the New GM!);
  • growing aversion to—and rising cost of—corporate debt (don’t forget what happened to Chrysler’s “preferred” bondholders in the bankruptcy process!);
  • the sales and market share that should have gone to Ford or Honda or VW as part of the evolutionary market process;
  • the fruitful R&D expenditures of those more disciplined companies;
  • the expansion of job opportunities at those companies and their suppliers;
  • productivity gains passed on to workers in the form of higher wages or to consumers as lower prices;
  • the diminution of the credibility needed to discourage foreign governments from meddling in markets, often to the detriment of U.S. enterprises.

 The list goes on.

 Yet, Rattner, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the economy remains stuck in the mire, speaks triumphantly of the successful auto bailout.  But nobody ever doubted that taxpayer resources in the hands of policymakers willing to push the bounds of legality could “rescue” GM from a fate it deserved.  The concern was that policymakers would do just that, leaving behind wreckage to our institutions not immediately discernible.  But anemic economic activity, 9.6 percent unemployment, and a private sector unwilling to invest is pretty darn discernible at this point.

Rattner should take off the tails, put down the champagne flute, and acknowledge what was originally unseen.

A Little More Support for Killing Fed Ed

Yesterday, I wrote that rather than counseling incoming Republican Congress members to bolster federal intrusions in education, now is the time to start dismantling Washington’s unconstitutional education apparatus.  Exit polling from yesterday’s election, while certainly not focused on education, offers some support for this.

Quite simply, voters want less government in their lives, not more. Support for the Tea Party was very high considering that many people consider it something of a fringe movement, with 41 percent of voters saying they either “strongly” or “somewhat support” the Tea Party. Only 31 percent expressed opposition to the movement. Just as telling, if not more so, 56 percent of respondents said they thought “government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.” Only 38 percent thought “government should do more to solve problems.”

It could be argued that the beginning of the end for the most recent Republican congressional majority was the No Child Left Behind Act, the party’s first major repudiation of what had been a core principle; in this case, that the federal government must stay out of education. Responding to voters now – not to mention following basic principles and the Constitution – by withdrawing federal tentacles from the nation’s classrooms would be a terrific way to start getting the party’s desperately needed credibility back.

Oh, and as I noted yesterday, it would also be the right thing to do for taxpayers and, most importantly, the children.

Rhee-buffeted?

We don’t know for certain that controversial DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee will depart DC when her boss’s term ends – and it will end soon – but it seems very likely. Assuming she does leave, there is a big education lesson to be learned from Adrian Fenty’s re-election loss: Relying on crusading politicians to successfully and permanently reform a government schooling monopoly is a recipe for crushed hopes. Politics is simply too volatile – and enacting tough reforms too politically risky – for even good reforms to be sustained. It’s just another reason that the key to truly sustainable reform is school choice, in which parents control education funds, educators have to compete and perform for business, and children are no longer buffeted back and forth by the ever-changing winds of politics.