Topic: Government and Politics

Land Use and Local Government: The Facts On the Ground Are Libertarian

Prof. Kenneth Stahl, who directs the Environmental Land Use and Real Estate Law Program at Chapman University School of Law, has a post at Concurring Opinions asking why libertarians aren’t more numerous among academic specialists in local government and land use law. Stahl describes his own views as siding with “leftists rather than libertarians,” that is to say, those who “have some confidence in the ability of government to solve social problems”: 

Nevertheless, were you to pick up a randomly selected piece of left-leaning land use or local government scholarship (including my own) you would likely witness a searing indictment of the way local governments operate. You would read that the land use decisionmaking process is usually a conflict between deep-pocketed developers who use campaign contributions to elect pro-growth politicians and affluent homeowners who use their ample resources to resist change that might negatively affect their property values. Land use “planning”—never a great success to begin with—has largely been displaced by the “fiscalization” of land use, in which land use decisions are based primarily on a proposed land use’s anticipated contribution to (or drain upon) a municipality’s revenues. Public schools in suburban areas have essentially been privatized due to exclusionary zoning practices, and thus placed off limits to the urban poor, whereas public schools in cities have been plundered by ravenous teachers’ unions.

… It hardly paints a pretty picture of local government. Yet, most leftists’ prescription is more government. 

To put it differently, libertarian analysis better explains what actually goes on in local government than does the standard progressive faith in the competence of government to correct supposed market failure. The post (read it in full!) goes on to discuss specifics such as annexation, incorporation, and economic stratification-by-jurisdiction; the relative success of lightly governed Houston in achieving low housing costs and attracting newcomers and economic growth; and the transference of progressives’ unmet hopes to regionalization, so memorably summed up by Jane Jacobs years ago: “A region is an area safely larger than the last one to whose problem we found no solution.”

Stahl: 

So why would left-leaning scholars, who have seen so clearly the failures of local government, place so much faith in a largely untested restructuring of governmental institutions, rather than looking to less government as the solution?

Great question.

Use Education to Transform China From Within

BEIJING—China’s university system is growing.  However, the People’s Republic of China still lags behind the U.S. and other Western nations.  Chinese students increasingly are heading to America for higher education. 

While recently playing tourist in Beijing I spoke to a number of young Chinese.  They were bright and inquisitive, ambitious and nationalistic.  They worried about finding good jobs and were irritated by government restrictions on their freedom. 

Beijing’s global influence depends upon domestic economic growth and political stability.  And that ultimately depends upon China’s young. 

The PRC’s university students today are most likely to become the country’s leaders tomorrow.  The number of college graduates has increased to seven million, a four-fold jump over the last decade. 

While the number of universities in China is growing, few have national, let alone international, reputations.  Undoubtedly that will change over time.  Today, however, competition for the few available spots at top schools is extraordinary. 

For instance, Peking and Tsinghua Universities are the only Chinese universities among the world’s top 100.  They have space only for 6000 new students a year. 

Obviously, far more Chinese students could succeed, indeed thrive, at fine universities.  So more than 400,000 young Chinese are heading abroad every year. 

We Shall Not Be Moved. Unless There’s a Democrat in the White House.

Dana Milbank reports in the Washington Post:

The anti-Obama left was out in force. All 22 of them.

As the president stood on the South Lawn to announce the bombing campaign in Syria, liberal demonstrators gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue on the other side of the White House to protest the man they thought was their ally….

“If George W. Bush were launching wars with Congress out of town, oh, it would be flooded,” longtime liberal activist David Swanson said, looking across mostly empty Pennsylvania Avenue “They would be screaming.”

My thoughts from 2011 on the disappearance of the antiwar movement. Buzzfeed worries that antiwar celebrities may have been kidnapped.

Air Traffic Criticism

Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, and Germany appear to be doing a better job than America at embracing new technologies for air traffic control (ATC). Those countries have restructured their ATC systems as self-supporting entities outside of their government bureaucracies while we still run ours as part of the civil service in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

More evidence that Congress should restructure our ATC system comes from today’s Wall Street Journal:

An effort to modernize the U.S. air-traffic-control system is seeing such a bumpy rollout that costs associated with some of the core technology outweigh potential benefits, according to a report soon to be released by a federal watchdog.

An audit report by the Transportation Department’s inspector general, slated to be released in the next few days, raises new questions about the design, deployment and projected benefits of one of the Federal Aviation Administration’s futuristic ways to enhance monitoring and management of aircraft.

The document is sharply critical about early implementation of ground-based radio towers that are part of a proposed $4.5 billion network designed to track the locations of planes more precisely than current radar. The new system, dubbed ADS-B, eventually aims to rely primarily on satellite-based navigation and tracking.

Some of the general criticism mirrors reports and comments by the inspector general and his staff over the past few years directed at the FAA’s overall air-traffic-modernization initiative, which it calls NextGen.

The federal bureaucracy would not be very good at running a high-tech firm, such as Apple, so it is no surprise that FAA has major problems running the high-tech ATC business. Our ATC system needs better management, higher efficiency, and more rapid innovation. We are more likely to achieve those goals if we privatized the system, as Canada did successfully almost two decades ago.

Targeting the Constitution

[Cross-posted from The Volokh Conspiracy]

It is now well known that the IRS targeted tea party organizations. What is less well known, but perhaps even more scandalous, is that the IRS also targeted those who would educate their fellow citizens about the United States Constitution.

According to the inspector general’s report (pp. 30 & 38), this particular IRS targeting commenced on Jan. 25, 2012 — the beginning of the election year for President Obama’s second campaign. On that date: “the BOLO [‘be on the lookout’] criteria were again updated.” The revised criteria included “political action type organizations involved in … educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights.”

Grass-roots organizations around the country, such as the Linchpins of Liberty (Tennessee), the Spirit of Freedom Institute (Wyoming), and the Constitutional Organization of Liberty (Pennsylvania), allege that they were singled out for special scrutiny at least in part for their work in constitutional education. There may have been many more.

The tea party is viewed with general suspicion in some quarters, and it is not difficult, alas, to imagine the mindset of the officials who decided to target tea party organizations for special scrutiny. But federal officers swear an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” It is chilling to think that these same officials who are suspicious of the tea party are equally suspicious of the Constitution itself.

What is most corrosive about this IRS tripwire is that it is triggered by a particular point of view; it is not, as First Amendment scholars say, viewpoint-neutral. It does not include obfuscating or denigrating the Constitution; only those “involved in … educating on the Constitution” are captured by this criterion. This viewpoint targeting potentially skews every national debate about politics or government. And the skew in not strictly liberal; indeed, it should trouble liberals as much as conservatives. The ultimate checks on executive power are to be found in the United States Constitution. Insidiously, then, suppressing those “involved in … educating on the Constitution” actually skews national debate in favor of unchecked executive power.

Secret Service Spending

Another federal agency has screwed up. This time it is the Secret Service, which almost allowed an intruder to make a surprise visit on the Obamas. The Washington Post reports:

The Secret Service on Saturday launched a security review to learn how a man carrying a knife was able to get inside the front door of the White House on Friday night after jumping a fence and sprinting more than 70 yards across the North Lawn.

In response to the failure, Rep. Jason Chaffetz observed that “the Secret Service has a serious management problem.” According to the Post:

The service, which once enjoyed a sterling reputation as an elite law enforcement agency, has struggled with some embarrassing episodes recently and the perception that its leadership is lagging in the best security strategies. In spring 2012, the service faced a humiliating moment when a dozen agents were shipped home from a presidential trip in Cartagena, Colombia, where they were implicated in a night of carousing and boozing with prostitutes.

The latest fence-jumping incident is no laughing matter, but this line from the Post did make me chuckle: “Former agents said they fear the breach may be related to a severe staffing shortage the agency has struggled with in the last year in its Uniform Division.”

Staffing shortage? How is that possible when the Secret Service budget has doubled in real (inflation-adjusted) terms since 1998—from $0.9 billion to more than $1.8 billion? The chart shows the particularly strong growth during the George W. Bush years.  

The Constitutional Dimension of Your Morning Commute

Over the last few years, D.C.-area drivers may have noticed the continual increases in toll fares on the Dulles Toll Road, the highway going through the Northern Virginia suburbs past Dulles Airport.  Indeed, since 2005, the toll for the typical round-trip commuter has more than quadrupled from $1.50 to $7.00, with more increases coming. These extra toll dollars haven’t been going for upkeep or expansion of the highway, however, but instead have been funding the over-budget and under-performing construction of the Metro’s Silver Line extension.

While originally slated to fund only 25% of that cost, commuters are now looking at paying more than half of the $5.6 billion (and counting) total cost, with years of construction still to come. The entity in charge of the construction project (and of gouging the toll road’s commuters) is the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, a public body established to govern Dulles and Reagan National airports at the behest of the Department of Transportation. But who’s actually in charge of the MWAA, and to whom can beleaguered commuters turn for relief? Although created by an interstate compact between D.C. and Virginia, the MWAA was granted all of its authority by an act of Congress, and the highways and airports that it oversees are federal property.

In many ways, the MWAA acts like a federal agency—in nearly all ways, in fact, except one important aspect: oversight. If federal assets and lawmaking power are being delegated to the MWAA, then there must be a means for the executive branch to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” The MWAA, however, is governed by a board of individuals whom the president has no meaningful ability to appoint, oversee, or control. This means that the MWAA has no political accountability for its decisions.

Having no other meaningful recourse, a group of Dulles Toll Road users sued the MWAA, arguing that its decrees violate the separation of powers. (Full disclosure: my wife and I just bought a house in Falls Church and will likely be using the road every now and again, though not on my commute to Cato.) The federal district and appeals courts—two of them, in an unusual development whereby the Federal Circuit transferred the case to the Fourth Circuit—decided that the MWAA’s nature as a state-created entity required the case to be dismissed. Moreover—get this—because the MWAA has no meaningful executive-branch control, there is no separation-of-powers issue. (This despite the federal government’s appearance as an amicus to argue that the MWAA exercises federal power and is subject to separation-of-powers scrutiny.)

Undeterred, the plaintiffs have petitioned the Supreme Court to hear their case. Cato has joined the American Highway Users Alliance and the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association on a brief supporting their petition. We argue that the Court should take the case because (1) there is a critical violation of the separation of powers, (2) there are already manifest harms resulting precisely from that violation, and (3) the federal government sees and treats the MWAA as a federal agency—but one without any meaningful accountability whatsoever.

It isn’t every day that a separation-of-powers case is as squarely presented as it is here, where commuters are being railroaded, so to speak, by a runaway agency whose conductor is absent. The executive branch has to take the blame not only for the MWAA’s policies, but its corruption, incompetence, and mismanagement.

The Supreme Court will decide whether to take Corr v. Metro. Washington Airports Authority later this fall.