Topic: Government and Politics

Is Rand Paul Arnie Vinick?

Rand Paul might take some inspiration from the final season of NBC’s late, lamented The West Wing. In that final 2005 season, presidential candidates battled to succeed President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen). The eventual nominees were Democratic Rep. Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Republican Sen. Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda).

Peter Funt, son and heir of Candid Camera creator Allen Funt, wrote in 2008 that the West Wing writers were in touch with Obama strategist David Axelrod as they created the Santos character, who was sort of a “test market” to “soften up millions of Americans for the task of electing the first minority president.” And he noted that Obama’s staffers “especially like the ending” of the West Wing plot, in which Santos narrowly defeats Vinick.

But Funt left out the part that might make Paul supporters optimistic. After the libertarianish Vinick got the Republican nomination, former Democratic strategist Bruno Giannelli (Ron Silver) went to him and told him that with his image he could win a landslide victory: You, he said, “are exactly where 60 percent of the voters are: Pro-choice, anti-partial birth, pro-death penalty, anti-tax, pro-environment and pro-business, pro-balanced budget.”Now, that’s not exactly Rand Paul’s policy portfolio. But Paul’s positions similarly cut across partisan divides and just might appeal to that same 60 percent majority.

The high point of the West Wing campaign was a debate that broke the rules of both presidential debates and television drama: The “candidates” threw out the usual formal debate rules and just questioned each other, and the actors improvised their questions and answers on live television from a partially written script. They actually did two live performances that night, for the East Coast and the West Coast.

Baltimore Police Admit Thousands of Stingray Uses

It’s been a bad week for Stingray secrecy.  Following a court-ordered document dump in New York earlier this week, a Baltimore detective yesterday testified in court that he had personally used a Stingray between 600 and 800 times during two years as a member of the Baltimore Police Department’s Advanced Technical Team.  He also testified that the unit has used such devices 4,300 times since 2007.

Stingrays are handheld or vehicle-mounted surveillance devices that operate by mimicking cell towers.  They have the capability to force cell phones within their range to connect with the Stingray and transmit ID information from the phone.  Some models - the technology is constantly being upgraded to keep pace with advancing telecommunications infrastructure - are suspected of being able to intercept content, but the true extent of the capability is a closely-guarded secret. What is increasingly not a secret is that dozens of law enforcement agencies around the country have been using these devices for years to sweep up swaths of cell phone data, much of it from innocent people, with little to no transparency or oversight.

The Baltimore detective refused to produce the device in court, citing an FBI non-disclosure agreement. The FCC, which regulates radio-emitting devices like Stingrays, has delegated to the FBI the authority to set conditions on local use of cell site simulators.  The FBI, in turn, produced an agreement so restrictive that police and prosecutors can be obligated to withdraw evidence or even drop charges rather than disclose the use of the devices to the court.

As more and more information about these devices and their uses by law enforcement trickles out, it’s worth questioning what value exists in these secrecy agreements.  Despite repeated references to “terrorists” and “national security” as a means for maintaining secrecy about Stingray use, the data that has been released detailing the purposes of actual Stingray investigations - such as this breakdown from the Tallahassee Police Department that contains not a single terrorism reference - suggests that Stingrays are used virtually entirely for routine law enforcement investigations.  Meanwhile, the sacrifices being made in the name of defeating terror impose a real cost.

Paul Krugman Can’t Find Any Libertarians

Paul Krugman has a blog post at the New York Times that seems to be based on no research at all. But it has a snappy four-cell matrix so you’ll know it’s like real economics.

Krugman’s argument is that “there basically aren’t any libertarians.” And here’s the graph that proves it:

Krugman libertarians box

See how small the letters are in two of the boxes? That shows you that there aren’t any people in those boxes. “There ought in principle, you might think, be people who are pro-gay-marriage and civil rights in general, but opposed to government retirement and health care programs — that is, libertarians — but there are actually very few.” And there are also very few people who are “socially illiberal” and supportive of government social programs, he says.

But you know, there’s research on this. David Kirby and I have done some of it, in studies on “the libertarian vote.” But two political scientists examined a similar matrix back in 1984 and found roughly even numbers of people in each box.

Part of the trick here is that Krugman has used a vague term, “socially liberal,” for one of the dimensions of the matrix, and a radical policy position, “no social insurance,” for the other dimension. The logical way would be to use either common vague terms for both dimensions – say “socially liberal/conservative” and “fiscally liberal/conservative” – or specific and similarly radical terms for both dimensions, something like “no social insurance” and “repeal all drug laws.” Wonder how many people would be in the boxes then? 

“No social insurance” is a very radical position. Even many libertarians wouldn’t support it. Like Hayek. So to find the divisions in our society, we might choose a specific issue of personal freedom – gay marriage, say – along with an equally controversial economic policy such as school choice or a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.

IRS Budget Cuts and Tax Filing

For taxpayers needing IRS help, this year’s filing season could be a nightmare. The Washington Post today reports on the long lines at IRS offices. The newspaper suggests that five years of Republican budget cuts are to blame, even though Democrats control the White House and, until recently, the Senate. But, whoever is at fault, the IRS commissioner is correct that his agency’s service is “abysmal.”

Let’s take a closer look at those alleged budget cuts. Using data from the OMB budget database, I split total IRS outlays into two activities: administration and handouts. Administration includes tax return processing, taxpayer help, enforcement, and other bureaucratic functions. Handouts are mainly refundable tax credits, particularly the earned income tax credit, child credit, and Obamacare exchange subsidies, which began in 2014.

The chart shows that the IRS budget for handouts has skyrocketed (red line). The IRS has become a huge welfare agency. Handouts quadrupled from $30 billion in 2000 to an estimated $121 billion in 2015. Handouts have spiked the past two years because of Obamacare exchange subsidies of $13 billion in 2014 and an estimated $29 billion in 2015. (Data for 2015 are the president’s estimates).

How about IRS administration costs? They have been relatively flat (blue line). They grew from $8.4 billion in 2000 to a peak of $12.3 billion in 2011, and then they dipped to an estimated $11.3 billion in 2015.

Fed Ed, by Every Other Name, Still Smells Rank

With yesterday’s release of a new, Senate, No Child Left Behind revision, there certainly seems to be a serious effort to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, due since 2007. Perhaps the first thing they should do, though, is keep the name simply “Elementary and Secondary Education Act” so I don’t always have to explain that the ESEA is the same as NCLB.  But no: this is the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, in keeping with the political need to have names no one could possibly oppose. (You want to leave kids behind? You want some kids not to achieve?) That said, while the bill seems to be a step in the right direction, it would still keep us miles from our necessary destination: no federal education control.

The new bill, like the Student Success Act in the House (yup, another loaded name) gets rid of NCLB’s “adequate yearly progress” mandate and the cascade of punishments for schools that fail to meet it, and tries to curb the U.S. Secretary of Education’s ability to coerce states to use specific standards and tests such as the Common Core and related exams. But it would still require states to have uniform standards and tests – sorry, local control – and state accountability plans would have to be approved by the secretary. This approval provision is especially concerning because, despite NCLB giving the secretary no authority to attach conditions to waivers out of its requirements, the Obama administration attached conditions anyway. In other words, we already have concrete experience with an education secretary blatantly exceeding the authority given to him by law. To think a future administration wouldn’t do so again is wishful thinking. Yes, there is a “peer review” process for state plans, and some rules on what a secretary may not require a state to do, but never underestimate the power of regulation-writing to fill in gaps with unexpected power, or future administrations to interpret imprecise wording as expansively as possible.  And the bill calls for states to have “challenging” standards, which certainly seems to require that the feds define what, exactly, “challenging” means. So maybe the worst parts of NCLB are gone, but the biggest danger – rule by executive fiat – remains.

Economists Weigh-in on the TPP

In recent weeks, a number of prominent economists have expressed views on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).  David AutorDavid Dorn, and Gordon Hanson are for itTyler Cowen is for it, mainly for foreign policy reasons; Noah Smith is for it; Larry Summers is a maybe; Paul Krugman thinks it’s not a big deal and questions whether Obama should spend “political capital” pushing it; Brad DeLong is more positive than Krugman; Dean Baker is skepticaland Matt Yglesias is skeptical, noting that “[t]he political economy and public choice issues around what’s become of the mutlilateral trade process stink.”

Before jumping to any conclusons, though, I think DeLong makes an important point here: 

“It is foolish to debate whether a trade agreement that has not yet been negotiated is a good idea and should be ratified. Such a debate should properly begin only once there is something to analyze.”

That’s very true: We don’t have a negotiated agreement yet, so it’s difficult to judge its content.  If this were an old-school trade agreement whose main function was to get rid of tariffs, it would be easier to make an assessment in advance.  If we knew all or most tariffs would be brought to zero, and that’s all that would happen in the agreement, we would know just about everything we needed to know.   However, today’s trade agreements have lots of substantive policymaking in them, and the details are important.  

Rand Paul and the Future of Conservatism

Libertarians are by definition individualistic, and so the sorts of debates you often hear at their gatherings often revolve around questioning someone’s ideological bona fides or debating how much libertarians should get involved in the messy, compromise-filled world of politics. Rand Paul’s formal entry into the 2016 presidential campaign crystallizes both of these discussions – and David Boaz offers thoughtful perspectives on whether Paul is a real libertarian and whether a libertarian-leaning politician can win the GOP nomination.

But another way of framing that debate is to approach it from the perspective of those who are comfortably on “the Right” but without fully labeling themselves either conservative or libertarian. Frank Meyer, father of longtime Federalist Society president Eugene Meyer, launched such a “fusionist” project in the pages of National Review. Half a century later, another NR writer, Charlie Cooke, has issued a Conservatarian Manifesto (which I’ve reviewed for a forthcoming issue of the Cato Journal). 

So is Rand Paul that magical candidate who can finally “unite the right” in this manner? We’ve seen glimpses of that possibility, and two years ago, I penned an op-ed with my social-conservative friend Francisco Gonzalez of the James Madison Institute (Florida’s leading free-market think tank) that posited that Paul “can shape the future of conservatism”:

As a libertarian and a traditional conservative, we disagree with Paul on a number of issues. Yet we both see his constitutional conservatism as auguring a future in which social tolerance, fiscal temperance and a humbler role for government are pursued not as ends in themselves but because that’s the best path… .

1. Its social policy will focus primarily on protecting freedom of conscience in an increasingly pluralistic society, while undoing the excesses of the drug war and punitive sentencing for nonviolent crime… .

2. This new conservatism will align with the ideas of governors such as Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who are fighting battles for domestic policy reform… .