Topic: General

Is Obama Really the Most Frugal President of the Past 50 Years?!?

Two years ago, there was a flurry of excitement because MarketWatch journalist Rex Nutting crunched annual budget numbers and proclaimed that Barack Obama was the most fiscally conservative president since at least 1980.

I looked at the data and found a few mistakes, such as a failure to adjust the numbers for inflation, but Nutting’s overall premise was reasonably accurate.

As you can see from the tables I prepared back in 2012, Obama was the third most frugal president based on the growth of total inflation-adjusted spending.

And he was in first place if you looked at primary spending, which is total spending after removing net interest payments (a reasonable step since presidents can’t really be blamed for interest payments on the debt accrued by their predecessors).

So does this mean Obama is a closet conservative, as my old—but misguided—buddy Bruce Bartlett asserted?

North Korean Purge Opportunity for America to Extricate Itself from Potential Conflict

It doesn’t pay to be number two in North Korea.  In December the young dictator Kim Jong-un executed his uncle, Jang Song-taek, supposedly Kim’s top advisor.  Now Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, who climbed atop Jang’s corpse, has been relieved of his important positions.

Choe’s fall is particularly important because, though he was an aide to Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, he rose rapidly under the younger Kim.  Dumping Choe reshapes the political environment of Kim’s making.

While Kim’s dominance in Pyongyang does not guarantee the regime’s survival, it dampens hope for any change outside of Kim.  Today’s Korean Winter isn’t likely to give way to a Korean Spring. 

Moreover, nothing suggests that the North’s communist monarchy is about to give way.  Many observers have waited a long time for regime collapse in the North.  They probably will have to wait a lot longer.

So far Kim Jong-un doesn’t appear to be much interested in reform.  If anything, he is more committed to his government’s nuclear weapons program and confrontational foreign policy than were his predecessors.

North Korea’s policy toward the South has oscillated wildly, but has headed mostly downward.   The North also appears to be preparing a fourth nuclear test.  The DPRK recently test-fired two medium-range missiles, predicting “next-stage steps, which the enemy can hardly imagine.”

The Obama administration obviously is frustrated, and reportedly is considering easing preconditions for resuming the long-stalled Six Party Talks.  However, it’s unlikely that renewed negotiations would lead anywhere.  Which has left the major U.S. response to tie itself closer to its South Korean ally, loudly reaffirming that America will defend the Republic of Korea if necessary.

Washington needs to reflect first on why the North is such a problem for America.  A small, impoverished, and distant state, even with a handful of nuclear weapons (but no delivery capacity), obviously is no match for the globe’s superpower.  Ordinarily the former wouldn’t be interested in the latter.   

The Politics of Personal Destruction—Campaign Finance Version

The Washington Post’s Radley Balko had a great tweet this morning—“Rich progressives hold secret meeting to discuss how we can ban rich conservatives from holding secret meetings.” He linked to a long morning POLITICO piece by Kenneth P. Vogel, “Big donor secrecy: ‘Irony, but it’s not hypocrisy,’” about a gathering in Chicago this week of major Democratic Party donors that’s raised more than $30 million for liberal groups—a meeting that included a bit of strong-arming to keep unwanted reporters at bay, Vogel reports.

Secrecy aside, one of the issues I found most interesting among the many interesting things in Vogel’s piece was his discussion about what motivates big political donors—and the different perceptions liberals and conservatives have about that question. Both sides argue, he writes, that “their donations are animated by a desire to right a country headed down the wrong path.” But,

New Frontiers in Regulatory Overreach

In most cases, excessive regulation doesn’t surprise me all that much.  It usually focuses on familiar industries, such as automobiles.  So, for example, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration came up with a rule mandating that all cars and light trucks sold in the United States have rearview cameras, it wasn’t a great shock.

But every now and then, regulators do something that catches me off guard.  This is from the Economist:

Vancouver’s ban on doorknobs in all new buildings, which went into effect last month, … has provoked a strong reaction from the door-opening public and set off a chain reaction across the country as other jurisdictions ponder whether to follow Vancouver’s lead. 

Wait, what?? They are banning doorknobs? I confess that this threw me when I first read it. Were they going to require some sort of Star Trek-like eyeball scanning device, along with an automatic door?

Turns out it wasn’t anything quite so techonoligcally advanced. They just want “levered doorhandles” instead. Here’s their rationale:

The war on doorknobs is part of a broader campaign to make buildings more accessible to the elderly and disabled, many of whom find levered doorhandles easier to operate than fiddly knobs. Vancouver’s code adds private homes to rules already in place in most of Canada for large buildings, stipulating wider entry doors, lower thresholds and lever-operated taps in bathrooms and kitchens.

I would have thought doorknobs were pretty easy to deal with, but OK, maybe levers are easier. But I’m not sure how you go from “some people find levers easier” to “everyone must use levers!”

Furthermore, perhaps levers are too easy:

True, elderly and disabled people find it easier to operate doors with handles. But so do bears. In British Columbia, bears have been known to scavenge for food inside cars—whose doors have handles, knob advocates point out. Pitkin County, Colorado, in the United States, has banned door levers on buildings for this very reason. One newspaper columnist in the pro-knob camp has noted that the velociraptors in “Jurassic Park” were able to open doors by their handles.

Obviously, bears don’t vote (nor do velociraptors), so we probably can’t attribute these developments to regulatory capture by the bear lobby, which wants easier access to people food (are campers getting more careful with their “pic-a-nic” baskets these days?). Nevertheless, something seems a little off in the regulatory process in Vancouver.

The Common Core Walks into a Bar…

Defenders of the Common Core national curriculum standards have long employed ridiculing Core opponents as a primary tactic to keep their effort from crumbling. Unlike, say, a circus, the pro-Core assault hasn’t been very entertaining or funny, but it’s been there. Now, though, the humor tide may be turning, with actual funny people – professional comedians – taking on the Common Core.

A first big laugh attack was launched a few weeks ago, when David-Letterman-in-waiting Stephen Colbert ripped into bizarre math questions stemming from the Common Core:

Yesterday, another comedian went after the Core. Louis C.K., of the show Louie, tweeted what actually sounded like a kinda serious distress call about his children:
https://twitter.com/louisck/status/460765469746929664

Now, nobody should make policy based on the jibes of comedians, professional or otherwise. But that pop culture is starting to mock the Core is yet another bad sign for the national standards effort, an effort proponents once thought in the bag when, under federal pressure, 45 states quietly signed on to the Core.

Funny thing is, Core stalwarts don’t seem to be laughing anymore.

The Progressive Income Tax Enriches the Envious and Greedy

Most Americans dislike the income tax, now more than a century old. The rates are too high. The provisions are unfair. The record-keeping is onerous. The revenues are wasted.

But there are fans, certainly, such as the politicians of both parties. What good would it do to serve in Congress if you didn’t have money to spend? 

The beneficiaries of the politicians’ largesse also share in the income tax lovefest. Uncle Sam needs money to write checks. He can borrow, but there’s a limit to the credulity of investors. Borrow too much and they might doubt Washington’s ability to repay. 

Then there are the fans of expensive and expansive government. Never mind the endless mess created by Uncle Sam. Something he does must work!

More dangerous may be the social engineers. For instance, Yale economic professor Robert J. Shiller suggested using the income tax to mitigate “some of the worst consequences of income inequality.” He proposed indexing taxes to income inequality.

It’s a genuinely nutty idea. Inequality measures are sensitive to data distortion. Moreover, they incorporate no moral judgment as to how the inequality arose. Were opportunities obstructed and systems manipulated, or did a generally free society operate naturally and deliver ever-changing income and wealth patterns? 

Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable: Borg Enablers

Remember the Borg? You know, the Star Trek cyborgs who would encounter a ship, tell its occupants “resistance is futile,” then turn them all into Borg? Of course the Enterprise always resisted, and always survived. But what if Captain Picard had instead ordered, “Surrender. Then they’ll leave us alone.”

The crew response to that would certainly have been, “ol’ Jean-Luc is losing it!” At least, it would have been for the few seconds before everyone was converted into mindless drones. Yet that is just the sort of order a group calling itself the “Higher State Standards Partnership” is trying to issue to conservatives and libertarians when it comes to the Common Core. Yesterday, the Partnership – a front for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable – wrote in the Daily Caller that opponents of the Core should stop resisting if they want to keep schools from being assimilated by the federal government.

You read that right: After blaming the Obama administration for using the Race to the Top to meddle “in a clearly state-led, locally controlled education initiative,” the Partnership counseled Core opponents to end their resistance. Defeating the Core, they wrote, “would only bolster the hand of the Administration and invite federal control into our schools.”