Topic: Government and Politics

Playing Tourist in Beijing: Communing with the Greatest Mass Murderer in History

It isn’t often that I get to spend time with mass murderers, let alone the greatest mass murderer in history.  But in playing tourist in Beijing I had a chance to hang out with the Great Helmsman himself, Mao Zedong.

His mausoleum sits at the center of Tiananmen Square, facing the Gate of Heavenly Peace with its famous Mao portrait.  The facility’s hours of operation are few and the number of visitors many.  When I joined the line mid-morning it began at the building’s side, headed to the rear, then reversed course back toward the front.  The line moved at a steady slow walk, with individuals and groups constantly attempting to push by and gain a couple feet. 

The lines split apart going through a security check-point—no doubt, al-Qaeda has placed the mausoleum high on its target list.  The line then reformed and moved forward again.  Vendors sold flowers which people deposited on entering the mausoleum, in front of a statue of a sitting Mao, backed by a painting of a peaceful mountain scene.  He looked thoughtful, as if plotting his next madcap scheme, a la the “Great Leap Forward,” actually into the abyss, and the Cultural Revolution, which consumed even the most dedicated communists. 

In the next room the Great Man—assuming it really is him—lies under glass beneath a blanket decorated by a hammer and sickle. Two soldiers stood guard behind him, while mausoleum staff urged onlookers to move along.  No time to look at the body of the greatest mass murderer in history, who caused decades of human carnage.

Raising Big Money to Fight Big Money?

In the latest of many enthusiastic National Public Radio reports on Professor Lawrence Lessig and his efforts to remove money from politics, Lessig outlines big plans:

In 2016, we want to raise a substantially larger amount of money - could be 200 million, could be 800 million - so that we can win a Congress committed to fundamental reform in the way campaigns are funded.

Well, if spending $800 million in billionaires’ contributions to “win a Congress” won’t knock out big money, what will?

But even if he does raise this kind of money, Lessig might find himself disappointed. You can’t always get what you want, even if you’ve got a lot of money to throw around. From John Connally’s “$13 million delegate” in 1980 to Ross Perot’s $65 million campaign in 1992 to Meg Whitman, Linda McMahon, and Jeff Greene in 2010, the candidates with the most money sometimes fail badly. Or take the billion dollars that Republican groups planned to spend in 2012 to take back the Senate and the White House. 

Given the consistently low priority Americans have placed on “campaign finance reform” for decades and up to the present – the lowest priority in this 2012 Pew poll, save for global warming – even $800 million may not be enough to sway the voters.

John Samples has raised many questions about the advisability of campaign spending restrictions in articles such as this one.

Second Verse, Same as the First

Twitter fight!

Yesterday morning, a line in a New York Times article by Nick Confessore offered me the opportunity for mirthful needling that turned into a full-blown, impossibly brief exchange of views on Twitter.

The article was on Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig’s plan to elect candidates who are committed to his version of campaign finance reform. It quoted Lessig saying, “Inside-the-Beltway people don’t think this issue matters, they don’t think voters vote on the basis of this issue, and they advise their politicians not to talk about it.”

So I tweeted: “I don’t think this issue matters.” Then I tweeted: “Voters don’t vote on the basis of this issue.” (I didn’t bother with the rest because I don’t advise politicians.)

I’m inside the beltway! I’m a people! How could I not?!

Responding to another NYT reporter’s question, I touted my own work as “speech-friendly reform,” linking to our upcoming event on congressional Wikipedia editing. Just think of the prospects if legislative staff—some of the foremost experts about the bills in Congress—contributed information about notable bills to Wikipedia for the public to peruse ahead of congressional debates.

Professor Lessig took the crumb of bait, asking me “how is more speech not speech friendly #Escapethe1990s.” (I still don’t know what the hashtag means.) Assuming he was still working on public/taxpayer funded campaigns—I’m not a follower of Lessig’s in the Twitter sense or any other—I tweeted about the wrong of forcing people to pay to money to support speech with which they disagree.

Lessig’s plan is not detailed on the website of his “Mayday PAC,” which only offers gauzy promises of “fundamental reform.” After some back and forth, I learned that Lessig’s reform plan is not direct public funding, in which taxpayer money goes from the Treasury to campaigns, but indirect. He would rebate $50 in taxes in the form of a “democracy voucher.” The taxpayer could give the voucher to any candidate who pledges only to take such vouchers, it could go to the political party of the taxpayer, or “if an independent, back to this public funding system.”

Tonight, “Penn & Teller: Fool Us”

Cato Mencken Fellows Penn Jillette and Teller launch a new hour-long show, “Penn & Teller: Fool Us,” tonight at 8 p.m. on the CW television network. Here’s an enthusiastic review from Slashfilm:

Magician duo Penn & Teller are finally set to bring one of my favorite UK TV series, Penn & Teller: Fool Us, to broadcast in the States….

One of my favorite UK television television series was a show called Penn & Teller: Fool Us. It was basically a competition series where the world’s best magicians would perform in hopes of fooling Penn & Teller. After the performance, the magic duo would try to vaguely explain how the trick was done (without fully exposing the magic). If they were fooled, the magicians would get a gig as their starting act in Vegas.

Each show would also have Penn & Teller do a trick or two for the television audience. I’m a magic geek and this is probably one of my favorite magic series to ever air. I’ve shown it to a lot of non-magic geek friends, and they all ended up loving it. 

Until 8 p.m., you can listen to Cato’s podcast with Penn Jillette recorded in 2011.

Budget Smackdown: Krugman vs. Portman and Epstein

In a recent column, Paul Krugman dismissed concerns about the federal debt as a “false alarm,” a “disaster that wasn’t,” and an “imaginary budget and debt crisis.”

Krugman thinks that new CBO projections don’t look too bad. He says, “debt in 2039 — a quarter-century from now! — is projected to be no higher, as a percentage of G.D.P., than the debt America had at the end of World War II.” He concludes that “we don’t have a debt crisis, and never did.”

Gene Epstein of Barron’s looked at CBO’s numbers and Krugman’s claims. He noted that Krugman only looked at CBO’s “baseline” projection, which shows federal debt held by the public rising from 74 percent of GDP today to 106 percent by 2039. Unlike Krugman, I find that increase alarming, especially because there is little political will right now to reverse course and bring down the debt—unlike after World War II.

Also, as I charted here, World War II debt was stunningly high, so I don’t know why Krugman would take comfort in the government becoming that indebted once again. The chart shows that aside from WWII, federal debt has never been anywhere near as high as it is now.

D.C. Circuit Rules that Obamacare Is a “Tax” but Not a “Bill for Raising Revenue”

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals today tossed out the latest constitutional challenge to Obamacare, which argues that if the individual mandate is a “tax,” as the Supreme Court said it is, it’s still unconstitutional because it did not originate in the House of Representatives, as the Constitution requires. I argued the case on behalf of entrepreneur Matt Sissel in May.

Today’s decision, written by Judge Judith Rogers and joined by Judges Cornelia Pillard and Robert Wilkins, holds that while the mandate may be a “tax,” it isn’t a “bill for raising revenue,” and is therefore exempt from the Origination Clause.

What’s the difference between a tax and a bill for raising revenue? Some court decisions have held that there are things that may appear to be taxes but are actually only penalties designed to enforce other kinds of laws. For example, in a 1943 case called Rodgers v. United States, the court of appeals said that a tax that was imposed on people for growing more wheat than the government allowed (that’s the same wheat law that was at issue in the infamous Wickard v. Filburn) wasn’t really a tax, but just an enforcement penalty or a fine. Such penalties aren’t “bills for raising revenue,” so they don’t have to start in the House.

The problem with that line of argument is that in NFIB v. Sebelius, the Supreme Court said that the individual mandate, whatever else it might be, is not a penalty or a fine. That’s just why Chief Justice Roberts concluded that it was a tax! And that means that no such exemption should apply.

Iraq: No Military Redo a Decade Later

Little more than a decade ago the U.S. invaded Iraq.  The promised cakewalk turned out far different than expected.  Today the government—and entire state—created by Washington are in crisis.  Yet the same voices again are being raised calling for military intervention.  With the promise that this time everything will turn out well.

Social engineers never seem to learn.  It is hard enough to redesign and remake individuals, families, and communities in America.  It is far harder to do so overseas.

As I point out in my latest Freeman column:  “Nation-building requires surmounting often vast differences in tradition, culture, history, religion, ethnicity, ideology, geography, and more.  Doing so also requires suppressing the natural desire of people to govern themselves.”

Yet these days Washington continues to try to fix the world’s problems.  However, reentering Iraq would be unique, an attempted redo barely a decade after the first go. 

The original Iraq operation was supposed to be a quick, bloodless war that destroyed dangerous weapons of mass destruction and “drained the swamp,” eliminating terrorism.  The U.S. would guarantee a friendly, compliant government by imposing as president an exile who hadn’t lived in the country for decades.  The new Iraq would implement democracy, eschew sectarian division, protect women’s rights, and even recognize Israel, while providing America bases for use in attacking neighboring states, including Iran.

This wonderful wish list was pure fantasy. 

The conflict killed thousands and wounded tens of thousands of Americans, and killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions of Iraqis.  The ancient Christian community was destroyed. 

The ultimate financial cost, including the expense of caring for those who sustained debilitating wounds, to America likely will run $3 trillion or more.  America’s reputation was stained, Iran was empowered, and terrorists were trained.  Finally, Baghdad’s sectarian misrule wrecked national institutions and fostered the rise of an ugly Islamic totalitarianism. 

The obvious—indeed, only—policy for Americans is to run, not walk, away from the mess.  Yet many of the architects of the original disaster are back, advocating a second shot.